Posted By Gabriel B. about 6 months ago
With less than a month away from Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl being released, I think it’s prudent we look back at the cult franchise and talk about what make the games great… and what makes them not-so-great. What? Can’t I be a little contrarian?
This is, of course, a list spawned from my own opinions and thoughts about the Etrian Odyssey franchise. I do not declare myself an expert, just someone who’s spent far too much time cursing my decision go traipsing through a dungeon without a Warp Wire. I encourage anyone who reads this to share his or her own thoughts on the franchise or even share an anecdote about your successes and failings in exploring the series’ many, many labyrinths.
There’s nothing like going through a labyrinth, traveling through lush forests and forgotten caves, and knowing your characters are touching virgin soil and finding undiscovered land to explore while documenting new kinds of flora and fauna. That’s one of my favorite parts of the Etriatn Odyssey series: finding new things. There’s a real thrill when you make it one more floor or document a new kind of event. Unlike some RPGS where it feels like you’re trapped within set boundaries and even the newest monster feels like a simple retread, you feel like you’re exploring a world and undertaking a grand adventure. Probably the best game in the franchise for this was Etrian Odyssey IV, where the ability to see FOEs allowed for the dungeons to take on a more natural feel, like you had come across a hunting ground, and the skyship segments let you see the true enormity of the lands you explored.
On the other hand, it’s not like you’ll be looking at the top screen much while playing, except to see if there’s anything that needs to be added to your map. Dungeons in the same stratum look the same since they’re built from the same tile-set, so why not just look at the bottom screen? That way you can keep track of the map, watch FOEs travel, and work your way towards the item-points. The only thing you’ll miss is if you find a hidden passage or item-point and even then there is usually a hint by the way the map is designed. It sort of takes away from the feeling of exploration when you realize you’re just filling out a map.
Speaking of maps….
This is one of the big selling points for Etrian Odyssey. Other role-playing games just give you a map or fill it out for you as you explore a dungeon, but not Etrian Odyssey. No, those cartography skills you picked up in third-grade Social Studies get put to the test as you mark the map on the bottom-screen. The way you draw your map is crucial to your survival in the many labyrinths you’ll traverse. Without a proper map, you’ll have no idea where the item-spots, traps, hidden passages, and pitfalls are in your quest. A good map allows you to make a more efficient run in the labyrinth so you can get the most materials while avoiding the dangers of the dungeon you are currently exploring.
On the other hand, the map is really just busy work. The game will already fill in where you’ve walked (unless you’re really hardcore) and FOEs so you don’t have to worry about those two factors. Additionally, while there are special things you need to mark, like item-points, you’re mostly just drawing the boundaries of the map. It’s not like you can be that detailed on the map either. It took a while before the series even allowed you to have special symbols that specified WHAT you would get at an item-point (mining, lumber, or gathering) and you can’t include descriptions for event-points (for example, it would be nice if you could make a pop-up note that read: Beehive here, make sure a fast character is in lead). If there was a true auto-map that just detailed things as you explored, would it really take that much away from the experience?
An RPG’s story is usually a make-or-break factor. If an RPG has a good story, with well-developed characters, proper world-building, and a well-written plot, it will likely become a classic, even if the gameplay is shaky. On the other hand, if the story is bad, the characters unlikable, and has a plot with more holes than Swiss cheese, even the best gameplay can only make it a tolerable experience. Etrian Odyssey does not have this issue, because it barely has a story.
Now, let me make something clear: there is a story in each Etrian Odyssey game (in fact, III had a pretty interesting plot about competing factions who wanted control of the city you were exploring) but it really is just setting details, quest details, and boss dialogue. The general plot is basically, “There are unexplored lands, go explore them and reach the final floor, where there will be a giant boss monster to fight.” Sure, there are details that get revealed about the world as you explore (details that The Millennium Girl will elaborate on when it gets released) but for the most part it’s just your party going through a labyrinth, fighting monsters, occasionally interacting with NPCs, and gathering materials to sell back at town.
However, this allows for something interesting to happen: you start playing pretend. You name your guild, populate it with colorful characters, and then you invent backstories and character interactions as you explore the labyrinths. For example, in Etrian Odyssey IV, my Dancer was a former assassin who had turned her back on her past to embrace a life of bringing people joy, stat-boosts, and insurmountable pain to monsters (she still had to get past the urge to kill). My Landsknecht had a brother back home who was sick and she was best friends with my party’s Tower (though those classes being friends is pretty much canon), who was also a big fan of sweets and collecting hammers. Then when I made my B-team, I had a whole ‘nother set of backstories, including a Runemaster with leukemia and a Nightseeker who was trying to get over her leather addiction.
On the other hand, this form of roleplaying is almost out of necessity. You need to create character interaction and backstory so the guild members you’re managing aren’t just numbers and stats. Let’s be honest, going through the same labyrinths over and over again gets tedious, so you need to add a little imagination at times to keep things interesting. Your characters have no real character. There’s no voice-acting or end-battle quotes to even give a feel of personality for any of your party members, so their character portraits are the only indicator of how they might behave. Since portraits create no difference in how characters level up, you have to depend on your imagination to make your party members anything other than a list of stats.
Still, even if you don’t want to play pretend, you have to admit, Etrian Odyssey gives a lot of options for building your parties, both in the classes you can select from, and how you customize each member. This is a series that lets you control princesses, pirates, alchemists, ninjas, furries, martial artists, BDSM enthusiasts, farmers, and loads more of hopeful adventurers and each class has wildly divisive tech trees which can make you develop dozens of the same members of a class and have none of them play quite the same. If you consider your role as more of a guild manager than an adventurer, you can get even more enjoyment out of the system, as you create parties who can tackle different situations and deploy them to take down a monster or recover loot.
However, if you look at end-game teams other players have, you’ll note they look very similar. This isn’t the old school Final Fantasies where you can take four Black belts into a fight with the final boss and expect to win; you need to have teams that are built a certain way to take down the final areas, or even specific bosses. While you have tons of options, you only have a little wiggle room for some situations (for example, just try going for more than a minute into a dungeon without a medic). If you try to create a party of jack-of-all trades, you won’t get very far. This game requires you to have characters who fill certain niches, meaning you’ll be specializing characters. So you’ll be constantly grinding out new characters who fill certain roles.
Like Dark Souls, the Etrian Odyssey games provide a rewarding challenge for those players who dare take it on. Every floor you map, every FOE you defeat, and every new weapon you unlock in the shop is a testament to your progress. You might have to put hundreds of hours into one of the games to be capable of defeating an ultra-secret, ultra tough boss, but you’ll feel like a champion when you finally reach the end. There’s nothing more thrilling than watching as you reach the end of your journey or completely fill out your compendiums.
You better feel good, because you just spent days’ worth of time grinding and switching out party members just to get a third of the way through the game. In the time it takes to beat even one Etrian Odyssey title, you could have beaten several other RPGs, every Ace Attorney and Professor Layton game, or about 30 first-person Shooters. You grind to get materials to make an item and then you grind to get the money to buy those items. You grind to fully map a floor out and then you grind to kill the FOEs on the floor so you can get their materials. You will probably put less work into your actual job than beating one of these games.
So as you can see, even though I am a fan of the series, I’m willing to admit the series has some flaws. Yet, I still eagerly await any news of a new title for the franchise. In addition to the above reasons as to why I like the series, I also love its unique monster designs (this is probably the only game that has ever made me run from a deer and the Lovecraftian bosses are fantastic), its masterful soundtracks, and the fun I get from comparing notes with other players. I also love how much the series has grown and improved its core gameplay, streamlining party management while incorporating new features (like the boat and Skyship segments) that add value to the gameplay experience. In fact, the announcement that The Millennium Girl would feature Etrian Odyssey IV’s refined gameplay while adding an entirely new dungeon and other features has me excited to go back to the land of Etria once again.
Please share your thoughts below, although, even on this list… FOE!