Best of Both Worlds

User Rating: 9 | Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl 3DS

Two Etrian Odyssey installments in one year. Wow… For a series that is undoubtedly niche, fans certainly aren’t being ignored. And it’s a most welcome addition, no doubt. Though reviewers seem to be downplaying the relevance of Untold’s Story Mode, it’s a surprisingly impactful feature.

So, with The Millennium Girl you get both the good ‘ole Dungeons & Dragons-style Classic Mode, which consists of blank-slate characters you create from a pool of interesting classes, and you also get the new Story Mode, which follows the journey of The Highlander and his companions. The story isn’t Shakespeare, but it’s delightfully entertaining, with ample touches of anime-inspired prose that never go fully over the top.

If you play the Story Mode first, you can then carry the two exclusive classes (highlander and gunner) over into your Classic Mode playthrough, and I recommend you do that. It is unfortunate many longtime fans have opted to completely bypass the Story Mode, as both the premise and storytelling are topnotch. Untold isn’t Final Fantasy Tactics, but it’s obvious a solid effort went into the crafting of its tale. Popular belief is the Story Mode doesn’t fit into what a “true” Etrian Odyssey experience should be, though it only adds to the value of the game, as far as I’m concerned.

That aside, this is still very much an Etrian Odyssey. The focus remains sharply on exploration and character building, and though the skill trees and character classes aren’t terribly exciting in Story Mode, the level design is every bit as fun as past games in the series. You’ll continuously edge your way a little further into each part of the labyrinth (and Gladsheim), discovering tons of interesting tidbits as you progress.

Balancing was a bit more enjoyable for me this time around. Quests offer significant amounts of experience, and the grind is almost nonexistent. Of all the RPG makers around today, Atlus have truly mastered their craft.

But they aren’t perfect, as is evident in almost every game they create. With Untold, my biggest gripe is the lack of multiple save slots. Sure, it’s par for the series, but that doesn’t make it okay. The single slot is even more of a downer here, given the game introduces an all-new mode, which begs for additional experimentation.

It’s also a pain to have to guess about certain elements of the game’s mechanics. Like the recent SMTIV release (which was also excellent by the way – my personal GotY), Untold lacks basic descriptions of various stat elements and such.

And for the love of all things holy, stop with the adjustable difficulty settings. I’m totally on board with giving players options in terms of difficulty, but they shouldn’t be able to change it on the fly – that’s ridiculous. It makes the challenge feel artificial, which in turn can dampen the feeling of reward. Give players difficulty options, and then lock them in. Like I said with SMTIV and Soul Hackers before this, there should be incentives for players to challenge themselves with the higher difficulties, rather than simply being able to flip-flop around.

Last of my complaints is the grimoire system. To be clear, I love the addition of the grimoires in this game, but the system could have been designed a little better. Grimoire stones add skills and abilities to your party members, skills and abilities that can be acquired even from the monsters you battle, and that’s really cool. But synthesizing them is a hassle when you’re wanting to include a stone that’s already equipped to a party member, and there’s no clear information regarding what stacks and what doesn’t. Players shouldn’t have to sift through translations of obscure Japanese wikis for this stuff.

There, I’m done…

Those are relatively few and minor complaints. The rest of the package is completely engrossing. The gameplay is challenging, addicting, and oddly fresh for a dungeon crawler based on mechanisms born from the very first role-playing games. It’s not just the presentational coat of paint, either. In addition to balancing that is inviting enough for newcomers yet rewarding enough for longtime fans, the systems are polished finely and the dungeons are a joy to explore. Full auto-mapping streamlines things while still leaving room for you to notate areas of particular interest.

Building characters is probably my favorite aspect of the game, and experimentation is made easy with the ability to completely re-roll your skills at the cost of two skill levels. I think if Story Mode has one true weak point it’s the classes and skill trees. A lot of skills have been significantly nerfed, and others simply aren’t that compelling to me personally. So, having the ability to break down a character and basically start from scratch is a tremendous boon.

Etrian Odyssey might not have the budget of, say, Shin Megami Tensei or Persona, but Atlus has made more than effective use of the resources at their disposal. The visuals are crisp and colorful, with beautiful animations, and the music, sound effects, and voice work (as is an Atlus stamp by now) lend incredible weight to the overall experience.

There are, of course, some standout themes, such as the cutscene music in the Gladsheim, but there’s also the acquired tastes, like the disco-esque music that plays at the pub. Every tune might not suit every taste, but the orchestrations and performances are stellar.

As pretty as the game is, it does its share of recycling, both in terms of palette swaps for enemies, as well as reusing assets from EOIV. Also, a little more musical variety in battles would have been nice.

It’s kind of becoming the norm these days – don’t expect a printed manual. I’ll be honest and admit I miss it, but I also appreciate the convenience of being able to press the Home button on my 3DS mid-game and quickly look something up without having to put down my system and search for my game box. I only wish the developers had done a better job covering all bases in terms of stat descriptions, mechanics, etc.

In lieu of a printed manual, however, we do get an adorable booklet and CD, along with commentary from key members of the team. The artwork isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea (some folks see lolis, others see chibis), but I really dig it. It’s also worth mentioning that players can choose to play through the game with either the updated soundtrack or the original from the DS game. Classy!

If you’re not a fan of first-person dungeon crawlers and have tried Etrian Odyssey before, Untold might not be for you. That being said, I think the changes and additions here really do open up the series’ appeal. I recommend folks on the fence at least give it a rent and opt in for the Story Mode first. The game still has something of a learning curve, but the barrier of entry isn’t quite as intimidating now.

Veterans of Etrian Odyssey shouldn’t write off the game’s Story Mode. It still feels very much like a dungeon master is leading your adventure, only now your characters come alive. If you’ve recently come off EOIV, I can absolutely see the need for a break. The presentation isn’t all that different from what you’re probably used to. But when you’re ready for more, you can take stock in knowing The Millennium Girl is a very fun and respectable retelling of the very first game in the series.

Score: 8.5