The Inescapable Allure of Etrian Mystery Dungeon
Dungeon crawlers have been one of the biggest surprises for me in all my years of gaming. The idea of rigorously treading through a seemingly endless dungeon full of ridiculously challenging enemies and assured failure around nay every corner just didn’t seem all that fun. When I had the opportunity to play Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan on Nintendo 3DS, all my perceptions shifted. Suddenly the idea of immense challenge and discovery was fun, fresh, and exciting. Exploring a dungeon for the first time was unlike any other RPG before, and I found myself bleeding countless hours into the game only to progress forward a small bit. Being able to map out the dungeon floor, marking the location of items and major enemies gave myself a grand sense of security, like I had an advantage over the once threatening world which spelled my doom numerous times before.
So then why is Etrian Mystery Dungeon, a game which strips away that safety blanket of knowing the coordinates of each dungeon and replaces it with randomly generated floors while still maintaining the degree of difficulty of past Etrian games, still incredibly fun, fresh, and exciting?
It comes down to Etrian Mystery Dungeon doing two things right: exploration and development.
Having never played a prior Mystery Dungeon game before this crossover I can’t speak to how the game handles that part of gameplay. Perhaps it is better this way, since it means I’ll have a clean perspective on the genre and franchise. Regardless, I always felt one of the key components of the Etrain Odyssey games was mapmaking. I would venture to guess I’m not alone in this assumption as well: even the game’s developers make a big deal of cartography, giving you thorough explanations on the process in-game, and divulging the importance of the task time and time again. At first, I thought removing this feature in place of random dungeon layouts commonly seen in the Mystery Dungeon series would make for a wholly non-Etrain feel, but this new crossover game maintains the classic Etrain Odyssey feel and in some ways improves on the formula.
Exploration is huge in this game. Each time you jump into a dungeon, you are given a small map on the bottom screen that fills in automatically as you explore. With several branching and interlocking paths, it is easy to get caught up in simple exploration instead of tackling your actual goal. Where Etrian Mystery Dungeon shines is rewarding you for doing so. Each new path you go down might lead to a room full of monsters or a room flowing with treasure. Most of the time it leads to both! No matter where you go you’re constantly bombarded with rewards: enemies drop materials you can use to forge new equipment or imbue weapons with magical properties, treasure chests hold valuable items to enhance your adventuring party, and you might even run into another adventurer willing to join your guild and fight by your side! It is insanely addictive. The amount of feedback you receive from exploring each dungeon’s floor is incredible and gives you a sense of accomplishment for the most meaningless of tasks.
Games that give the player plenty of outlets to spend their times are usually the games I play the longest and remember fondest. Accompanying the exploration of dungeons is the city which acts as your HUB. Much like the towns of past Etrian Odyssey games, the city gives you access to an Inn to save your game and heal, a shop to sell items and forge new gear, and a guild hall to recruit new members and manage your party. What’s great about this carryover from the Etrain games is how well it works with actual gameplay. You can spend your hard earned money buying new weapons, or you can spend it upgrading each building to improve their capabilities, or you can save it for a rainy day when your party wipes and you need to buy new gears for a rescue party. There are a number of equally valuable options on what to do with your cash, items, and enhancements you might be scratching your head deciding on the best route of action. As you progress further in the game more and more options become available to you as well, adding to the assortment of options.
Speaking of routes, the skill trees from Etrain Odyssey IV are back in Etrain Mystery Dungeon to develop your team. Leveling up each character grants you skill points to spend to learn and improve abilities to help fend of enemies and explore each dungeon. A dozen or so classes are available, each with a certain expertise on the battlefield. Creating your team in and of itself is a challenge, because every class has huge advantages and massive drawbacks depending on the situation. A lot of fun comes from trying out these new classes, playing around with their skills, and seeing what fits your playstyle. I thought I’d like the versatile Landsknecht, but found myself playing more of the Gunner class before hopping over to controlling my Ninja more often than not. Some classes excel in exploration skills like the Wanderer, almost completely bypassing all combat related advantages, but even these professions have their uses. You’ll have a lot of fun just discovering what party is best for you.
A cool feature that might be from the Mystery Dungeon franchise are forts. These can be purchased and built on any floor of a dungeon. Once built, a fort will not only lock in the layout and orientation of the dungeon, but it will also act as a barricade from the dreaded DOE monsters: huge, powerful enemies, representative of the Etrain series. You can send your other guild members not in your currently exploration party to tend to these forts, which actually earns them experience points and levels them up! Also, and perhaps more notably, any party members guarding a fort when a DOE attacks will have a chance to fend off the foe before it has the chance to destroy your building. This adds a huge new layer of strategy to the mix, as building your guild is no longer meaningless and keeping your guild members fully equipped is a huge task as well to insure they’re prepared for the impending assault. What’s really cool too is the ability to have your exploration party join with the defending party when a DOE attacks, thus giving you an 8-on-1 “advantage” over the big bad: don’t get me wrong, it’ll still be a challenge, but it’s pretty cool commanding 8 warriors at once!
Etrian Mystery Dungeon has a top-down camera perspective, completely unlike past Etrain Odyssey games. This game is also a combination of action and turn-based RPG, which seems like a contradiction but if you’ve played past Etrain games (and presumably Mystery Dungeon games) you’ll know what I mean. You only actively control one member of your four-person party, the others being handled by AI. Each player and monster gets a turn as designated by an order bar on the bottom screen. Essentially, each time you move, your opponent gets to move, but since you work in a 3D field and have to physically line up to land your attacks and spells, the game takes on the dual personalities of action/turn-based RPGs. It works incredibly well. Though it handles differently from past games it still feels like incredibly familiar territory for Etrain Odyssey fans.If this is how all Mystery Dungeon games play then I need to seek out these games and play more of them myself, because this has been one of the best takes on the genre I’ve played in a long while.
Exploration and reward. It is such a simple concept yet it works so well here. Whether you’re delving into a dungeon to take on a deadly DOE boss monster or gathering herbs and minerals to create even deadlier weapons, Etrain Mystery Dungeon consistently rewards your exploration. Danger is still present everywhere you go and you’ll need to be prepared for any situation, but that doesn’t stop the need/want to go even further and find just one more rare monster, just one more treasure chest, or just one more level before returning to town. The game lends itself well to short bursts of gameplay, or long sessions of playing. With so many options for how to play the game, there’s really no right way or wrong way, there’s only the way you want to play. And that is awesome.
If you’re a fan of past Etrain Odyssey’s you’ll feel right at home with Etrain Mystery Dungeon. The blending of these two franchises works beautifully and adds a whole new way to experience this excellent RPG series that some will undoubtedly like more than the original. With so much to do and having a hell of a good time doing it, Etrain Mystery Dungeon will be a game I won’t put down for some time, and one I definitely won’t soon forget.