-Review by Paul Ewbank-
(This game doesn’t have much of a plot, but that isn’t gonna stop me spoiling it in this review. I’m just a jerk like that.)
So Ablogalypse has been doing well recently thanks to timely reviews of some recently released high profile movies. So now I’m going to totally ruin that momentum with a review of a totally obscure, insanely niche DS game released 7 years ago that’ll probably get like 6 views before forever disappearing into the empty black void of obscurity that is the internet.
Right, let’s do this! Etrian Odyssey is a retro dungeon crawler made by Atlus that’s notorious for being insanely and unfairly difficult. Even by Altus standards. As a game it’s a pretty singular, love it or hate it kind of affair, but as a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction it’s rather interesting in that for most of the game you aren’t even aware that it IS one.
But I’ll get to that. First, the gameplay. When I say that this thing is retro I don’t mean it harkens back to the classic SNES 16-bit era like most self-proclaimed “old-school” titles. I’m talking several generations before that. I’m talking the era of gaming in the early 80s where you spent 20 minutes loading up your games on a frikkin cassette tape and basked in their polygony, text-based brilliance. If you were alive when things like Wizardry and all the other D&D style adventure games were around then you’ll know exactly what Etrian Odyssey is about. I wasn’t, so this was my first experience of this truly antiquated style of game. And it doesn’t get much more basic- you are a party of five adventurers who arrive fresh faced and level 1 in the town of Etria, famous for housing a huge, multi floored forest labyrinth full of unimaginable horror and wonder for those brave enough to plumb it’s depths. You explore one square at a time, moving in a first-person faux 3D environment, fighting random battles with monsters, doing quests and raising your stats one precious point at a time. Etrian Odyssey is a love letter to a style of gaming that had its peak before even such modern concessions as a MAP were commonplace in games- back then you would have to draw out your progress by hand. Here you use the bottom screen of the DS, drawing out each corridor and hoping you don’t draw a wrong turn and end up lost when your last guy is down to 5hp. It might sound tedious but there’s actually a huge amount of satisfaction in slowly, methodically exploring the labyrinth and recording your progress manually, though I will admit it’s hardly thrill a minute. Within 5 minutes of starting you’ll be doing the thing that you’ll spend the rest of the 40+ hours of the game doing: wandering around getting your ass kicked.
Etrian Odyssey’s reputation for brutal difficulty is well founded, and it acts as a reminder how much easier gaming has become since this kind of thing had its heyday back when penny arcades and dinosaurs roamed the earth. As soon as you set foot in the maze the enemies are more than tough enough to KO your whole squad in a few turns if you aren’t playing properly, and don’t expect recovering and trying again to be easy- healing and stocking up on items is extremely expensive and early on it’s very possible t dig yourself into an unwinnable hole. The first time you get game over’d by a mole and two butterflies is a truly humbling experience. The tenth is just sad. This game starts out difficult and then manages to ratchet up the pain exponentially each time you make it to a new floor. You do sort of hit a groove after a while but this thing never lets up. One of the nastiest elements is the FOEs- furry orange blobs of pure hate which wander round the labyrinth taking one step for each of yours. If they catch you, you are almost certain to get totally slaughtered. I’ve never known a game to fill its floors with such obviously un-beatable enemies and then still expect you to sneak your way past them. And don’t even get me started on the boss monsters. Make no mistake, my friends, this is a hard game.
If you can stomach that, there’s a lot of depth to it, too. You have complete control over how your characters grow and learn new skills, and each of the classes has a vast array of skills and strengths to master, leading to some very deep, very tactical battles if you do it right and some utter ass-whoopings if you do it wrong. And to Atlus’ credit there are a few innovations to be found- the graphics are pretty decent for a DS game and there’s a fair variety of classes to choose from beyond the obvious warrior-mage-healer trinity of old, including fragile but deadly samurai, curse wielding Hexcasters, and the Dark Hunters, who hands down win the award for most overtly bondage themed class in gaming.
Given how straightforward it is to play it’s pretty easy to decide whether Etrian Odyssey is a game you will enjoy. Though presumably aimed at people wanting a throwback to the hallowed games of yesteryear, I still enjoyed it as its own little thing. And if it sounds like your cup of tea you’ll be pleased to hear there are currently four more games in the series (2 on DS, 2 on 3DS) which keep the basic idea the same but add in some more options and features. If you’re into hard-as-nails, no frills fantasy RPGs then I’m happy to recommend this. If not, stay away.
All well and good, but what is this doing on an apocalypse blog? Ah. Well. So like I said at the beginning there isn’t a whole lot of plot to this thing- you explore the labyrinth just cos it’s there and because you can and that’s that. But as you progress you start to uncover some hints that the huge maze isn’t exactly what it seems. Furthermore as you get further down the officials in Etria who originally charged you with exploration suddenly start telling you to turn back and leave it well alone. And then you reach the final few floors which appear to resemble crumbled old buildings, with ruined skyscrapers looming in the distance. Anyway, long story short, turns out this was OUR version of earth all along. Due to pollution and stuff the world became uninhabitable and so the last remaining scientists created the “Yggdrasil project”, a plan to cover the world in forest for 1000 years to heal the barren and polluted earth. Etria and the medieval civilisation you know is actually descended from modern day Tokyo, which is still buried beneath layer after layer of vegetation.
How about that. They totally did a Planet of the Apes on us.
So aside from the sneak-attack post apocalyptic setting Etrian Odyssey throws at you, the plot is also interesting in the way it uses its antique style of storytelling to hit you with some serious curveballs. In modern games multiple pathways and endings are common, and some level of player choice in how stuff goes down is expected. But back in the 80s games were a straight line that you played from start to finish uninterrupted. You might get asked your opinion once in a while but ultimately it affected bugger all- you were on a conveyor belt and you would ride it till the end, like it or not. Etrian Odyssey uses this linear, no-choice-about-it style to get you to do some rather questionable things. Midway through the labyrinth you find a race of forest people who tell you to sod off and leave the forest immediately, lest the ancient pact be broken and all hell unleashed. Seems reasonable enough. Alas, the mayor of Etria promptly charges you with going back into the forest and exterminating every last one of them. Were this a modern game you might have a choice about whether to obey him or not, but here you don’t- even though most of the characters-and your conscience- are telling you that this isn’t a good idea, there’s literally no alternative. You either kill all the peaceful forest folk who never did you any harm or you don’t progress any further in the game. And it gets better- once you reach the final floor and the truth of the labyrinth is revealed to you, you are told that if you progress any further you will undo all the healing the Yggdrasil project has been doing and leave the world to rot. So, do you do it? Well, if you want to finish the game, you have to! The only alternative is NOT TO FINISH IT. Talk about Atlus trying their hardest to stop you beating their game. I mean I’ve played tough games before but never ones where every enemy and level was so ruthlessly difficult to conquer and where every character and aspect of the plot was screaming at you to STOP PLAYING.
Beating Etrian Odyssey is a momentous task that should probably go on your CV. There’s also a bonus area and some truly unholy bonus bosses even I couldn’t beat. There aren’t really any meaningful criticisms to make of it- it is what it is. And what it is is pure evil. Sometimes I wonder why I do this to myself.