Etrian Mystery Dungeon is an appalling Etrian Odyssey game. We will get into why that is the case in a moment. And, more importantly, why that doesn't actually matter, but to be straight up it needs to be said that this game offers very little of what people actually love about the Etrian Odyssey franchise.
Related reading: If you're interested in playing a "real" Etrian Odyssey title, check out the remake of the original, also on the 3DS. Matt's full review.
But once you get over the fact that Etrian Mystery Dungeon is a terribly Etrian Odyssey game, you'll come to realise that sitting underneath that title is a really quite spectacular roguelike, and represents one of the better traditional examples of that genre in recent memory.
But first, the Etrian Odyssey part. What people love about Etrian Odyssey (and other recent Wizardry-style dungeon crawlers such as Persona Q), is the deeply intricate approach to level design. When a dungeon crawler such as that series is done right, then every step that players take within its labyrinths is filled with a sense of awe and wonder. Paths would carefully wind around each other, so that players constantly feel the urge to push on, with a shortcut back to safety a reward into itself. Intricate spatial puzzles keep players focused on what's going on as they progress, while difficult random encounters slowly sap the party's resources. All of this is okay though, because there is always a treasure box filled with loot just around the corner to reward the slow but inevitable progress that you do make.
It's not an easy formula to get right. Without the most careful of level design, traps become irritating beyond belief, areas become a chore to explore, and with no other context keeping players interest the dungeon crawler gets quickly put away, never to be played again. Thankfully for fans of the genre, the Etrian Odyssey series has consistently provided some of the highest quality level design you will ever see.
Related reading: Game Theory: On the roguelike and the absurd, and what the genre tells us about the human condition.
But a roguelike, such as what we see in the long-running series of mystery dungeon games, has no level design whatsoever. It's the polar opposite of a good dungeon crawler. Players explore randomly generated environments, which is exciting because it means that every time the play they will have something new to look at, but it also means that the game creators can exercise no control over the layouts. See where I'm going with this? The odd thing about Etrian Mystery Dungeon is that it's calling itself an Etrian game, even as the developers had no capacity to engage with the Etrian franchise's greatest strength.
Further to that, the randomised dungeon layouts means that Etrian Mystery Dungeon does away with the franchise's other distinctive feature; the mapping. A key part of Etrian Odyssey's appeal is the it provides players with some virtual grid paper on the bottom screen of the Nintendo DS or 3DS, and then asks the player to fill it in with a map as they explore. This feature was especially appealing and nostalgic to those of us who grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons pen-and-paper game, where mapping would be a big part of the experience. With a roguelike, that mapping feature was never going to be workable, so it has been done away with completely.
So I do think that anyone coming into this title specifically as a fan of the Etrian franchise will be disappointed. And that's a pity, because as a roguelike I think Etrian Mystery Dungeon is really wonderful. The environments are beautiful to wander around, and the music that accompanies each dungeon is serene. As it's a very grind-heavy adventure, it helps that there is nothing in the presentation that will make you dread heading into a dungeon.
Related reading: For another excellent of a modern, traditional, roguelike, check out The Guided Fate Paradox on the PlayStation 3.
But it's the balance and execution of the RPG elements that are Etrian Mystery Dungeon's greatest asset. You'll form a team of a handful of heroes from a very large range of classes, and send them into one of a number of dungeons to either complete small quests for valuable rewards, or attempt to delve deeply in order to achieve missions and progress a plot which, while basic in the extreme, keeps things moving forward at a pleasant pace.
There are a very large range of classes available to choose between, and there are large skill trees that make developing each character a genuine strategic challenge. Finding the right combination of classes and skills is something that will require experimentation and practice for newcomers to the genre, but is consistent enough with the standard of the JRPG genre that genre veterans will be able to slip into their standard habits quickly enough.
Even for those veterans, however, the level of difficulty will prove to be a surprise at first. Etrian Mystery Dungeon pulls no punches, almost right from the start, and is happy to punish players who are ill prepared for each venture into a dungeon. If all the characters in a group are knocked out during a delve, it doesn't mean a game over but rather a return to town with everything they were carrying taken away from them. This is almost worse than a game over screen, as it means the loss of hours of work in extreme cases, and that can be devastating. If there's one area where Etrian Odyssey and the roguelike pair well, it's in the expectation that both will be difficult.
Related reading: And for one of the best examples of a re-worked roguelike, check out FTL on the Apple iPad/ PC. Matt's full review.
Etrian Mystery Dungeon doesn't do much else to change the formula of the roguelike; it plays very traditional to the genre. Players move their team of heroes around an environment that is broken into squares. They take a turn to move one square or launch an attack or an ability, and then the enemies take a turn. It's a simple structure, but the high health and hitting ability of enemies means that you'll need to be very strategic about how you move around the levels, and make good use of the resources you'll pick up along the way.
Outside of the dungeon delving, there's not much to Etrian Mystery Dungeon. The town that functions as your base of operations is little more than a menu, and while it's possible to spend money on 'levelling up' facilities, there's no sense of character in the town. But then that's not unusual either for Etrian Odyssey or roguelike titles.
Again I want to emphasise; Etrian Mystery Dungeon is a terrible Etrian Odyssey game, missing the point entirely in what an Etrian Odyssey game is meant to offer. But as a roguelike, it is such a clean, traditional example of the genre that I found it very difficult to put down. As a fan of the roguelike it is rare that we get games that stick to the mystery dungeon formula so carefully, while offering some genuinely appealing aesthetics and production values. And so, while I think this would have been served better with a different name, I can't recommend it enough anyway.
- Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld