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Review – Etrian Odyssey

posted on November 14th, 2007 by jay

There is nothing more depressing than wasted potential, and, somewhat ironically, nothing more pleasurable than wasting potential. As I lay on my couch playing Etrian Odyssey instead of washing the dishes, helping the homeless or learning to read, my mind struggled to cope with conflicting emotions. I was enjoying that I was wasting my time, but not enjoying the time wasted. Is it hypocritical to be upset that Atlus squandered this game’s potential?

F.O.E.s are rendered in stunningly accurate orange blobs.

Etrian Odyssey starts off nice and difficult. I died on the first level and there’s a good chance you will, too. This high difficulty forces the player to engage in some old school level grinding, but I’ve always welcomed work in my time wasting, as long as society doesn’t benefit in any way. Besides being difficult, the first boss required some actual strategy to beat. I tried simply launching every offensive spell and skill at him, entirely ignoring the typically useless status augmentation abilities, only to die before his mighty tendril (note: boss may or may not have actually had a tendril; if he did, it may or may not have actually been mighty). This ferocious F.O.E. – which is what mid-bosses are called in Etrian Odyssey – forced me to use a skill that – get this – increased my defensive capabilities rather than take health from him.

My Protector, at first utterly confused that his general did not command him to beat his enemy with his huge sword, and even more deeply perplexed about his title of Protector and how incongruous the moniker is for someone who generally does nothing but beats people with a huge sword, leaped into the line of danger, shielding his teammates from the mighty tendril and absorbed the damage himself. By making use of his superior armor and constitution, I was able to keep other party members alive long enough to sever the mighty tendril and forge forward to fight more fearsome F.O.E.s.

Then the game got easier. And easier. This diminished the importance of strategy. Then strategy completely stopped mattering. Somehow, this actually happened in the reverse order – the difficulty hung on longer than the demand for strategy. The game required less thought even before it got easier. Now and then I’d run into a F.O.E. that caused me some heartache, but besides the first battle I just described, I never again used any skill that didn’t simply injure the enemy. Mid game, possibly because of difficulty and possibly because I was still playing the game as if it hadn’t become a cartographer simulation, I at least tried using a handful of varying attack abilities. Poisoning an enemy appeared to appear deceptively impotent before it became clear that it was actually just impotent. Firing a cluster of arrows that would rain hell on an enemy a few short turns later became part of a funeral ceremony – arrows would simply rain down on the grave of a monster I had slain minutes ago. In the name of efficiency, the battle menu should have included a “Heal with Healer, hit as hard as possible with everyone else” selection.

Still, other aspects of Etrian Odyssey had the potential to make it a game worth playing. The first map offers a scripted little scene that makes the game feel alive – “these aren’t simply empty dungeons you’re exploring, an exciting maze of twists and turns await adventurers here and you never know when to expect something out of the ordinary,” the scene seems to say. Never is about the rate you should expect these little one-offs to appear. Out of 40 floors of dungeon crawling, there were something like six of these mini-events. There are quests to choose from at the local tavern, but they are essentially all fetch based and simply do not add the feeling of existing in a living, breathing world that the one-offs connected to simple exploration and furthering of the main quest do. In other words, the plot sucks and making us do legwork in order to get fetch quests is Atlus’ way of peeing in an open wound.

Elton John guest stars as the leader of the Etrian Guild.

One of the game’s highly touted features is the requirement that the player draw his own map. Many people found this task to be laborious rather than entertaining, but as I mentioned, I have an aversion towards work while I’m working, not while playing. To be fair, drawing maps is probably even better than working; hell, it may border on fun. There is an inescapable sense of adventure created in charting unknown territories that mostly overshadows the tedium of drawing every individual line, placing each chest, door, and F.O.E. marker. At least there is for the first ten hours or so of the game. The sheer repetition and blandness of the map design combine to make even the most hardened RPG nut (though perhaps not cartographers) tire of the cartography. After playing Phantom Hourglass, another title that allowed you to draw on and sketch your own maps, the missed opportunity to do something creative with the level design seems even more obvious. The maps themselves could have contained puzzles – a level that clearly forms an arrow pointing to the hidden exit or a recognizable shape missing a key component that signals there is a secret passage to be found.

Despite having wasted my own potential, I will pass on these able genes to a child, whom I will then expect marvelous things from. Whether or not I will actually do anything to ensure my child reaches his full potential is unclear – it depends what’s on TV that decade. Luckily for gamers, my unwillingness to change has no effect on Atlus. They are free to learn from all of the mistakes they made with Etrian Odyssey and provide us with a sequel that blows the first game away. Still, I’m willing to bet the producer of Etrian Odyssey 2 is a man after my own heart.

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3 Comments

  1. christian said on November 14, 2007:

    You comments on the game’s difficulty dropping as it progressed is something that has soured at least one RPG for me in the past; the brilliance of Grandia 2’s combat became greatly diminished once I realized I was strong enough to ignore it completely and just go for my strongest attacks every fight.

  2. TrueTallus said on November 15, 2007:

    Damn it, Jay, you need to start playing your portable games the way they were designed to be played- in short bursts!:) Just like Harvest Moon, Etrian Oddysey remains much more compeling if you give it a rest between dungeon forrays. That really does make each outing with your collection of harvesting slaves and their begrudging protecter a fun (and dangerous) stroll through the unknown.

    I’m interested to know what you thought of the whole roleplaying element at work in the game. My experience with actual roleplaying in videogames is almost entirely stunted (a diet of JRPGs will do that to you), so perhaps my sense of wonder at actually filling in the personalities and decisions of my squadmates isn’t really justified, but I found that part of the game fascinating. The way the narrative let you create everyone in your guild and party, and how that sort of promoted making every action a part of the story was an entirely new and involving experience. I have backstory and personalities for everyone in the glorious guild of “Slurpy!”, information that sort of suggests itself from the skeleton framwork of their abilities, portrait and field performance. There is just an undeniable thrill in the idea of taking my upity protector Elise and that dumbass Bard who lays around the guild dead most of the time to babysit a new recruit on her first day in the dungeon, even if all I’m “actually” doing is powerleveling a new guild member.

    Somehow the amibiguity in the game allows for a really strong connection to the characters, to the point where it starts to affect gameplay. I don’t usually put that Bard I mentioned in the party because I can’t really see him wanting to leave guild headquarters that often (seeing as how he has a knack for dropping dead two battles into every dungeon), and I can’t bring myself to spend skill points on any element but lightning for a particular Alchemist, because I decided when I built her that she scoffs and raises her eyebrows at all that burning and freezing nonsense.

    This may all just sound like the ramblings of someone who’s experienceing actual roleplaying first love, but regardless, I think Etrian Oddessey should be given some props on that particular front. It’s been a while since a game made me interested in characters beyond the passive role of wondering what they were going to do in the next cutscene or dialog and into why they would hang out in the guild-hall all the time or what they do when they rest a night at the inn (I’m convinced a certain survivalist spends most of his nights off practicing his best Squall-esqe disaffected looks in the mirror).

  3. jay said on November 15, 2007:

    The Lamers guild did not have any back story. Let me go off on a tangent. There are two types of D&D players. Those who love acting, characters, stories, and drama and those who hoard the players manual, pouring over it looking for the next spell to learn based on how much damage it does. I was clearly the latter. That’s if I ever played D&D, which I will staunchly deny in the presence of women.

    Oddly enough, a series like Shining Force or Fire Emblem that gives you control over many different looking characters who have as little as one line of background does evoke those sort of emotional attachments from me. I think I need more than nothing at all, though. My imagination needs somewhere to start.

    I kind of like that you are getting a feel for my taste in games even if it often doesn’t overlap with yours. Part of the grand lecture I always give on game reviews is that I want them to be more like movie reviews – you find critics you trust and understand and then based on that process what in the review is relevant to you.

    As for playing a little bit at a time, I have two issues. I tend to pick up a game and try to finish it before picking up the next, at least when it comes to the DS. I went through the first 10 hours of Etrian Odyssey so quickly I did it in 8. Like Rune Factory, I really enjoyed it at first. The other issue I have with putting a game like this down is I have the maps, enemies, and next task all memorized and putting it down for too long would likely give me time to forget all this info.

    The idea that someone can play a game the wrong way is interesting and possibly valid. Someone trying to play hours of Seaman or Animal Crossing a day is obviously a fool. Perhaps in my push to play more games more quickly in order to write more reviews I have become the reviewer I always rail against. The irony.

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