Today's role-playing epic is often a journey through a brilliant village of cinematics. You get to tour Main Street and perhaps the odd side path, but care is taken to parade you along with a minimum of wandering afield. Etrian Odyssey III is not that sort of role-playing game. It's of an old breed of adventure, where you muscle your way into the great unknown while leaving monster corpses and detailed maps in your wake, and dangers are always looming around the next corner. While certain additions and gameplay tweaks help make this installment a little more varied, this is still a rough land where you never know when you might get kicked in the teeth. Its unabashed difficulty and lengthy learning curve mean that you have to possess the drive to conquer all that is before you without being spurred on by a grand narrative. But if you have a love of exploration, of mapping secret recesses, and of taking on a steady stream of imposing enemies and carving your way to loot and glory, Etrian Odyssey III supplies you with rich opportunity.
The adventure begins in the port city of Armoroad, whose claim to fame is that it sits atop a ridiculously huge labyrinth. Travelers from far and wide come to try their luck at plundering the considerable depths, and many fail. Now you arrive to form a guild of adventurers and take the test yourself. Your party consists of five characters, assembled from an initial assortment of 10 classes that you can mix and match to your satisfaction. These are different classes than in previous Etrian Odyssey games, though there are similarities in the roles they fill. The hoplites make stalwart defenders, monks perform the vital task of keeping your group healed, and the mystical zodiacs control all manner of strong elemental magic. Whether you choose to form a well-balanced team with strong gladiators at the front and ranged arbalests at the rear or head out into the world with a tribe of only ninjas is up to you. Give them a name and a character portrait, and you're on your way. Each character class has its own special brand of abilities that you purchase with skill points, which are earned as you gather experience and claw your way up the levels. After a certain point in the game you have access to subclasses, which allow your characters to use the skills of another class. This is a great customization feature that lets you fine-tune your assortment of skills and combine them in useful ways. If you make choices that you later regret, you can visit your guild house and restore all your skill points at the cost of a few levels. You need as much firepower and defense as you can muster, because the labyrinth is crawling with deadly creatures. If you don't want your exploits ended by a rabid platypus, you need to make some careful preparations.
The labyrinth consists of a number of realms called strata, which are themselves split into multiple floors. Each stratum needs to be explored thoroughly, and here's where the important mapping feature comes in. While your surroundings are displayed on the top screen, the touch screen allows you to chart your course as you explore. You sketch out the walls along the grid lines, place icons to denote traps or treasure, and mark each secret crevice. In order to not miss anything, you need to turn and face each wall to search for people to speak to, items to interact with, or new passages to explore. It can be a tedious and exacting process and is at many points a reminder of why modern games tend to map your progress for you. Still, there's something satisfying about drawing your own map, and once you've thoroughly explored a given level, you can zoom out to view your complex, annotated work and give yourself a pat on the back. In some ways, the basic map is a bigger visual focus than the environment graphics themselves, which are moderately detailed and brightly colored but form identical endless hallways. It's the grid map you'll be staring at, trying to figure out how to avoid deadly traps and enemies on your way to a much-needed camping spot or other objective.
You can't roam freely, because monsters of every size and shape lie in wait. That's in addition to FOEs, ridiculously powerful opponents that patrol the map as gigantic glowing orbs and serve as sub-bosses. Initially, working your way into the labyrinth is very tough going. Money for items and gear upgrades comes slowly, and experience points to gain levels do as well, but enemies are everywhere and are very powerful. That's while you're trying to place your valuable skill points in the most efficient places to ramp up your offensive and defensive power, so it takes time to get your party up to speed. This is not a game that lets you rush headlong into danger and figure things out later. You need to be cautious in your explorations and deliberate in your choice of skills and to know when to cut your losses and run back to town for a well-deserved rest. It's a hard road, but that makes every victory that much sweeter and each achievement memorable. Last-minute escapes and battles won by the skin of your teeth are common occurrences. Items dropped from monsters can be sold in town, and these materials are used to make more powerful weapons and armor, which you can then purchase. There are also other materials that you can gather, if you have the proper skill or bring a farmer class character along with you. It all adds up to a certain amount of grinding for scales, frog legs, and ore, which can become tiresome. But if you need a break, you can always head out to sea.
Ocean voyages are a new addition to Etrian Odyssey, letting you chart the seas around Armoroad in search of pirates and plunder. How far you can sail and where you can sail depend on upgrades to your vessel, but unlike in the dungeons, you don't have to worry about running into monsters constantly, so you can take time out to explore. You can fish the waters and sell your catch back at the port, as well as locate valuable trade resources and discover new shipping lanes and lost villages. When you make a discovery of a new landmark, this opens up a set of sea quests that you can tackle alone or cooperatively with up to four friends over a wireless session. Quests provide substantial rewards of experience, items, and currency, so they're a good way to get a leg up on your progress. You usually end up fighting a boss or multiple waves of monsters at a variety of difficulty levels. It's a nice change of pace from what can be a depressing grind of the same dungeon floor over and over again to do battle or pick the same node of flowers. There's a fair amount of backtracking necessary through the many floors of the dungeon, though you get items and spells that will help make the travel a little less onerous. The music helps smooth the way as well, pairing soothing tunes while you're exploring with rousing battle tunes that become especially strident when you meet a strong FOE.
You can also pick up quests in towns for the labyrinth itself. While storytelling isn't exactly a major focus, the game does a decent job of tossing you enough side quests to keep things interesting. There are a few important choices you can make over the course of the game that determine which bonus character classes you can unlock and that change some boss fights and the ultimate ending. There's enough content to take you through more than 35 hours of dungeon crawling and ocean trawling, and if you decide you'd like to go through it all over again, you can start a new game with a boost.
New character classes and ocean exploration serve to augment the standard formula, while keeping the soul of the experience intact. There's a lot of honest challenge here, and while the grinding and gathering can wear thin, there are enough moments of gratifying triumph to compel you onward. If you relish difficulty, thrive on exploration, and are a true graph-paper cartographer, Etrian Odyssey III delivers what you expect and love about the series. It gives no quarter and asks for none. Surmounting its challenges is a worthy pursuit for those who have the spirit to soldier on.