Over the years, the DS has garnered a reputation as being the system for RPGs. By the same token, Atlus has made a name for themselves by delivering arguably some of the best (and most varied) series in the genre.
Their handheld games have never slouched, either, and the latest in the Etrian Odyssey series doesn’t look like it bucks that trend. In this day and age, you might find it hard to swallow that a run-of-the-mill dungeon crawler series like Etrian could be that interesting (and for that particular brand of skepticism, I strongly recommend you check out the PS One’s Vagrant Story, primed either for a sequel or a PSN re-release), but the mechanics here are pretty solid. Yeah, it’s a classically-styled experience, but if you were expecting anything else from a game that categorizes itself through exploring labyrinthine game maps while fending off monsters, you probably shouldn’t be playing RPGs in the first place.
Still, there’s no doubt that Etrian Odyssey III is old-school. The game is set up around a fabled underwater ruin called the Yggdrasil Labyrinthe, the game’s titular sunken city, which explorers from far around have flocked to in order to unlock whatever mysteries may be held therein. As luck (or fate, or whatever) would have it, no one’s been able to do so, but that’s not going to stop your plucky team of typically-styled anime adventures from trying, making exploration and combat the tried-and-true cornerstones of the game’s design. With its story not exactly drawn-out (you get little more than what I just outlined) and the gameplay as aged as the original Dragon Warrior, how can Etrian III still be compelling? As it turns out, much like many Atlus RPGs, it has character.
Aside from the company’s usual bang-up job crafting a thorough, polished localization, there’s the matter of job classes. Variations on many old standards are here, including mages, warriors, and thief-types, but alongside them are less common classes like prince (royal lineage serves to rally the rest of the troops); hoplite (whose “golden armor gives unequalled defense”); buccaneer (a self-explanatory pirate class); and arbalist (which is basically a munitions and projectiles expert). You can even recruit farmers to fight in your five-man party; although not particularly effective in battle, this peasant class can harvest materials from resource rich areas of a dungeon, in addition to providing some more standard support spells. It may seem a minor point, but variances in job classes in any RPG is a welcome and refreshing change of pace.
On the other hand, the dungeon crawling, which ostensibly makes up the bulk of the gameplay, is traditional. If you’re a fan of the original Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, or Atlus’ own DS Persona handhelds, you’ll feel right at home here. Dungeons are presented in first-person and navigated one square at a time. Now, let me clear: this is not a roguelike. Like the aforementioned Vagrant Story, the dungeons aren’t randomized, though they still have to be uncovered inch-by-inch. In fact, the game even handily allows you to save whatever progress you made exploring should your party meet their untimely demise in the dungeon. Leveling up, character abilities, and combat are presented in a standard way, with enemy encounters set-up like DQ or Persona (you see the monsters but nothing else), having characters assembled in the front or back rows for applicable offensive or defensive moves and maneuvers. Fans of the new-school won’t be interested in this one, needless to say.
Unlike almost every other RPG series on the market that still uses random battles, Etrian III actually lets you gauge when you’re going to have a “random encounter” thanks to a color-based gauge at the bottom of the touchscreen. The closer the orb gets to red, the more likely it is that you’re going to have a fight on your hands in the next square. This lets you plan accordingly, in the inevitable event that you have to flee to the exit to escape certain death in the face of dwindling HP and supplies. That being said, you can expect a fair amount of challenge here; even the “resting” room I came across in the game’s first dungeon only recovered energy spent on special battle skills.
Another element that Etrian III has over many other dungeon crawlers is the ability (and really, the necessity) to draw your own maps. As you uncover uncharted territory, you can outline the pathways and rooms you discover, as well as mark any treasure chests, secret passages, doors, traps, notable items, or events you find. The map takes up the entire touchscreen, letting you zoom in on particular sections in order to highlight, add to, or edit your cartographic endeavors. This is what you’ll be doing at the start of the game, after the local governance issues an explorer’s challenge to your party, which translates into drafting a complete map of the first B1 floor of the game’s legendary dungeon. The mechanics work well, though it was a little concerning that the mission was relatively vague. Still, there’s more to do than just explore and battle.
Even as a handheld title, Etrian III likewise shows off that the DS can be a very capable system in the hands of the right developers. Armoroad, the town that serves as the hub you’ll frequent between dungeon bouts, is gorgeous, at least from the little you actually see of it. A bustling seaside town, you can engage with the locals at the bar, buy or sell goods, use the inn, and all the usual stuff you’d expect to see in a hub town. However, you can also try your hand at sailing, which is essentially like dungeon crawling but with more powerful monsters (you can also fish while at sea). Though I wasn’t able to investigate much, the ship’s source of power, usable items that determine how far the vessel can go per expedition, could turn into an interesting mechanic as you progress further into what’s shaping up to be a deep, engaging, and lush RPG. In any case, we’ll find out when the game ships late September.