Friday, May 6, 2011

Odyssey in the Truest Sense: Etrian Odyssey

A funny thing happened on the way to the Nocturne.

I haven't forgotten about the reader poll which voted Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne the next game for me to remove from my Backlog. It's just that since that poll went up, several things have happened which stymied my progress. A few were legitimate - planning out my second anniversary, preparing for an upcoming move - a few others - replaying Tales of the Abyss, watching every episode of House starting from Season One - maybe less so.

But I have to find out if it's lupus.

However, just because I wasn't playing the games I wanted to play doesn't mean there wasn't some backlogging going on. Following Ayn's post on the concept of Bridge Games it felt only appropriate to bring up this little-title-that-could which has been kicking around in my DS for the past few months.

Like most of my handheld games, this one alternated between sitting idle on my shelf or idle in the DS itself. Unlike the others, there was a little more story to how I obtained it than "saw it on the shelf, bought it on a whim." Late last year, a member of the  BlueGartr community with a veritable warehouse of video games to choose from decided he wanted a little extra spending money. So from his great throne, he deigned to let a few of us mere collectors bid on items from the vast trove in his personal arcade.

An arcade which actually exists and has this painting in it.
I ended up getting about a dozen games from him, but when I ordered the first two Etrian Odyssey games, he told me that his assistant - because he owns so many games he needs an assistant to keep track of them - had already sold off one of them. No big deal, I figured, since my local GameStop had the one he had sold. I told him to just switch my order for another game on his list, only to find out he'd made a mistake - the one I'd just bought was the one he still had available, the other was the one he'd just shipped out. Well, now I was determined. Three GameStops later and one 18-mile walk later, I'd gotten my hands on the original Etrian Odyssey.

I went through a lot worse to get Luminous Arc.

You may be aware of the original Odyssey; the story of Odysseus as he struggled for 10 years to return to the shores of Ithaca following the Trojan War. The word "Odyssey" has become synonymous with long, treacherous journeys fraught with peril, frustration, and tests of will. It makes me think someone at Atlus looked up the word, decided he wanted a game with it in the title, and told his developers to work backwards from there.

I became interested in Etrian Odyssey after the third entry in the series came out and I heard some pretty positive remarks about it. After I began playing, it became the very definition of a bridge game for me. I'd still be playing something on a console, but when I was at work or laying awake at night, I knew I could pass some time by getting some good dungeon crawling in. There's really no better way to make a few hours pass by.

What the heck are these things?

Like I said though, this game is light in the Etrian and thick on the Odyssey, and it takes a long time to get through. Playing only a couple of hours a day, and letting my DS sit idle the whole time I was playing Valkyrie Profile, means that this one took months to see the end of. Sometimes it was enjoyable, sometimes I'd play for five minutes, shake my head in disgust, and leave it alone for another week. It was my bridge, to help cover the gaps between the games I wanted to be playing, and after a harrowing trek through horrors of the sea, horny witches, and incompetent sailors, I have reached its end.

Etrian Odyssey is about as old school a dungeon crawler as you can get. You start of with a party of generic characters in the town of Etria, where the local economy is completely adventurer-based. There's a vast and incomprehensible labyrinth, the Yggdrasil Labyrinth, just outside the city. Etria survives by attracting explorers to come and conquer the maze and uncover its secrets. No one has succeeded in delving very far into it, which is where your party comes in. Etria's out of fodder, so it's your turn to step up to the plate.

Etria's second major industry.

You enter the maze and right away discover the unique gameplay element which makes the series stand out. Unlike other maze-based games where you can gradually uncover the map as you travel, or find maps along the way, every one of the 30 floors of the labyrinth have to be mapped by you, as you go, using the DS touch pad and stylus. Every corner, pitfall, treasure chest, and other landmarks have to be drawn by you. The game lets you take notes of special areas, denote where powerful monsters appear, and cycle through maps of different floors to try and see where hidden sections might be accessed.

The maze-mapping aspect of the game is interesting at first, but of course in later levels the maps become more difficult to navigate. You can never be sure where a corner is going to lead you, or whether or not a wall has a secret passage. There are many opportunities to miss things, and that's where the other element of the labyrinth makes things even harder. The Yggdrasil Labyrinth is not a place to casually explore and chart at your leisure. It is a heinous, inhumane, murder-maze filled with beasts who know only hate and subsist by drinking fear.

You have to fight for practically every step in the labyrinth. The typical pattern I discovered is first going down to the maze, then fighting to try and reveal a little more of the map than you did the previous time, and then returning to town at the brink of death, resting up, and going back to try again. This is true for the entire game, step by blood-drenched step, as you try to unravel the mysteries of the Yggdrasil Labyrinth. The task of creating an accurate map is already arduous, the difficulty of the battles brings it dangerously close to the line between challenging and tedious.

The key to success is balancing your party. Like I mentioned earlier, you're given a cast of generics; i.e; no actual personalities, just a bunch of default character models assigned to each of 9 classes you can choose from. Traditionally, this hasn't worked out well for me. I've seen it come up multiple times in Dragon Quest titles, and it's never held my interest to have characters thrust into a story without any hint as to their motivations or backstories, and no dialogue given to help define them.

Okay, maybe that's not totally true.

Etrian Odyssey actually succeeds in this area by eliminating almost all of the story aspect. There's no real great cause or terrible threat which needs explaining - you're adventurers, there's a big-ass maze, this isn't rocket science. Most of the "story" elements are either quests you receive in Etria's tavern or missions from the city hall, and they all equate to "go explore the labyrinth some more." Given that mindset, it's actually pretty easy to ignore the lack of character development. It's a dungeon. Go crawl.

Chop chop.

So like I said, you've got 9 classes to work with, each with a unique skill tree. Every time you level up, you gain one point to increase the effectiveness of one of your skills. You can make your Alchemist stronger with magic, give your Protector better defense, unlock offensive skills for melee classes like Hunter or Ronin, etc, etc. This means finding a balanced team means not only choosing classes which supplement one another, but then choosing wisely each time you go up a level. One point per level, and sometimes as many as 20 skills in each character's repertoire. This would be great if you could get to level 200, but you can't. You stop getting EXP at level 70. At that point your only option for more skill points is to retire your character, which allows you to create an "apprentice" to the departing warrior with a glut of bonus skill points to start with. Try as you may, however, you'll never be able to master everything.

This was particularly troubling for me for two reasons. One, I love getting everything, and two, I didn't realize the game stopped at 70 until I got there. By the time I reached the bottom of the labyrinth I'd been making a strategy focused around the idea that each character would get at least 29 more points than they actually did. Where this really stung is after I beat the game and unlocked the 5 bonus floors of dungeon and extra quests - and it quickly became apparent that conquering them would mean having characters with access to skills I could no longer put points towards. I let the bonus content go unplayed.

By the time you get to the final floors, while some fights can be pretty irritating, in general the combat has become fun. I used a combination of Landsknect (or "guy with an axe"), Protector, Dark Hunter, Alchemist, and Medic. The first three were my front line, absorbing and dealing the most damage, and the latter two were my spell support. I'd worked out a pretty reliable method of dealing with regular enemies, whom I'd just melee to death in a turn or two, and the more powerful bosses based on my team's abilities. I'm not sure how it would work out for every combination, but mine gave me a pretty solid offensive and defensive mix to rely on.

As you can see from the picture, combat is pretty standard classic Dragon Quest/Phantasy Star fare. Your stats are displayed on screen along with a non-moving picture of the monster, and you select skills or attacks from a menu. While the frequency of the battles can be off-putting, especially towards the end, they are fast-paced enough to keep this from getting tedious. Also, if you're facing something really powerful or just in a hurry, your characters can occasionally use the "Boost" skill, which will double the power of their next action. Knowing when to use a Boost can dramatically impact the difficulty of some of the later enemies in the game.

Killing monsters also nets you the loot you need to beef up your team. Bring those monster toenails and eyeballs back to the weapon shop and sell them. Sell enough of the right stuff, and more weapons and armor will become available to you. The game is actually pretty well-designed in the sense of which items unlock what equipment, and generally there's no problem in getting enough if you spend enough time on each floor. And you will. The idea that Etria's economy runs on the labyrinth is heavily reinforced once you discover that the drug store, the weapon shop, and even the pub are all reliant on you slaughtering everything you find in the forest and dragging the carcasses back up to be picked over.

Those cobblestones are pure white rhino horn.
So I did eventually reach the end of Etrian Odyssey's little story, and up until I realized doing the extra quests would mean raising new characters up from scratch, I played some of the bonus content, too. It wasn't a five-star game, but it was above-average to be sure. Anytime a first-person dungeon crawler with Sega Genesis-era graphics can hold my attention in today's world, you know there must be something to the formula. If you're going to try it out, I recommend playing to the second stratum - the layers which divide the labyrinth - and seeing what you think. If you can make it that far - and believe me, getting past the first five floors is a big accomplishment - and you don't want to toss the game out of a moving vehicle, then this might just be a good bridge game for you, too.

I'm off to keep working on Nocturne. Until next time, be it the games you want to play, or just the one that's filling the hours between them, keep playing.

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