The 3DS is quickly becoming a must own system for fans of JRPGs. With great titles like Bravely Default, Pokemon, and Shin Megami Tensei IV, along with many others, there’s no shortage of games to occupy people who love turn based battles and leveling up their team. Etrian Odyssey Untold is another game that can be added to that list. It is impressive in many ways, even if it stumbles a bit in a few areas.
Untold is a remake of the first Etrian Odyssey game and some of the new features are a full-fledged story mode, an adjustable difficulty and revamped graphics and audio. I have not played any of the EO games before this one, so I can’t really comment on how much of an improvement it is over other games in the series, but I can say that it makes me want to play the others.
I opted to play the Story Mode, which gives you five characters with pre-determined classes to play as. There’s the character that you name, a Highlander who is a master with the spear, Raquna, a knight who’s expertise is defending her allies, Simon, a book smart medic, Arthur, a youthful Alchemist (think Black Mage from Final Fantasy) and Frederica, an amnesiac girl who wields guns. The cast of characters should feel familiar to anyone who has played a JRPG before, but, somehow, the writers managed to make them all very likeable and charming despite their generic personalities. Additionally, the story is a tad generic as well, but, like the characters, it has moments of spark that make it really interesting and compelling.
Part of this is due to the graphic and sound design. The well-illustrated character models are very expressive in each situation, and the music sets the mood very well. There are very well animated cut scenes sprinkled throughout the game (including a really awesome opening) and the monster designs are all in full 3D instead of 2D illustrations like in Shin Megami Tensei IV. The music, however, is arguably the star of the show. There are a good number of tracks in the game, and the majority of them are really quite awesome. From the calm, peaceful tone of the music in the town, to the absolutely epic battle music in a certain dungeon, every track is pleasing to the ears.
I’ve done a bit of research on the series and I’ve found that Atlus always wanted to make this a series that harkens back to really old RPGs where you had to draw your own map on a piece of paper if you hoped to make any progress. These old RPGs were often in first person, and, rather than having the player explore many different dungeons, often made the player explore one huge continuous dungeon you needed to return to again and again. Along the way, you’d fight very tough monsters and develop your party in the way you see fit.
Because of this, many people might write any of the Etrian Odyssey games off as incredibly dated RPGs that don’t really provide much entertainment to anybody but the most masochistic among us. I can’t speak for the rest of the series, but with this game, Atlus has managed to make it feel old school without ever making it feel old or dated. This is thanks to many modern conveniences and tweaks.
The story of this game has your party exploring a massive labyrinth underneath the city of Etria. There are thirty floors in total, and each one is teeming with wildlife waiting to kill you and your party. The catch here is that, since no one has ever been able to make it to the bottom, you are required to map out every floor. This sounds like it might be tedious, but I found it very fun. When you first enter a floor, there’s nothing on the grid based map that sits on the 3DS’s bottom screen. But, as you walk, tiles on the grid turn green to indicate places you can go. It’s up to you to draw in the walls and note objects of importance (such as places where you can find materials to sell, or a recovery spring). It’s very satisfying to finally complete your exploration of a floor and see the floor in its entirety. There is the option to map in everything but the points of interest automatically, though.
Drawing the map also gives the game a terrific atmosphere. On the first play through, it really feels like you’re truly exploring, which is something a lot of games these days can’t really say. You never know what kind of danger lurks around the next corner or whether or not it’s not a danger at all but a treasure. Add this to talking with locals when you’re in the hub town, and hearing about how your exploits are helping the town gain fame, and the game has a surprisingly good atmosphere of adventure.
Of course, there’s more to the game than just exploring. As you walk about the labyrinth, you’ll occasionally run into a randomly encountered monster. Combat plays out much like any other JRPG. You input commands for your party to do, then watch as the battle unfolds and your characters and enemies take turns swiping at each other. In this game, on the standard difficulty, most battles aren’t too tough. Granted, when you get to a new floor, the enemies will be tougher than they will be after gaining a few levels, but for the most part, battles are manageable if you assume the right strategy.
There is a catch though, and in a very cool move, the game integrates the map into enemy encounters. Starting very early in the game, enemies known as FOEs will be roaming around every level. Whenever you take a step, they move, too. How the move all depends on what species of monster they are. One of the early deer FOEs will walk in a predetermined path and never deviate until it sees you, at which point it will give chase. However, another early FOE is disguised as a rock and will charge when it sees you (it will become alert and then you must step out of the way, otherwise combat will be inevitable). Each one can be considered a mini boss of sorts and are usually quite tough when you first encounter them. Of course, as the game goes on and your party becomes stronger, you can easily beat FOEs that gave you trouble early in the game. This feature manages to keep exploration interesting since you will have to avoid (or confront) the danger according to how your party is doing at the time.
I’ve read in many places that the EO series is a grind heavy one, but I never found that to be the case. This is because of the various quests you can take. In the game, there’s a pub that will give you problems people have. These range from killing a certain number of enemies to finding a certain number of items. Even though the objectives aren’t entirely original, the stories behind them are often cool. An interesting aspect of it is that not all of them have entirely happy endings, either, which gives it an air of unpredictability. But, upon completion of a quest, you receive a large number of experience points. If you keep up with the quests, you shouldn’t ever find yourself needing to grind.
Upon leveling up, characters get a skill point they can spend on many different abilities. Each character class has plenty of options for customization. For instance, the Highlander has many moves that eat his HP in exchange for dealing heavy damage. You can get around this by giving him more HP or by giving him a move that drains the life of enemies and gives it back to the party. Or, if you want, you can rely on the medic to take care of HP problems. There’s a lot of room for experimentation with the classes, and since there are so many choices, no two characters in the same class will be exactly the same.
Another wrinkle in the customization is with Grimoire Stones. These are items that you can equip on any character that hold special skills they wouldn’t normally be able to learn. You receive them randomly from battle during Grimoire Chances, which seem to appear in uneven intervals. While it’s cool to give your medic that ability to fire a gun, or you Highlander a boss’s ability to curse an enemy party, this system feels a bit too random and complex to be very effective. I mostly just stuck with certain skills and applied them to each character, only changing their equipped stone when I came across a better version of a skill. It sounds confusing, and is fairly confusing until you try it out yourself.
There are a few flaws in the game, though. For one, there is some tedious backtracking involved. Expect to return to Etria a lot, especially near the beginning of the game, in order to heal up and resupply. This is alleviated a bit by the Floor Jump feature, which allows you to instantly teleport to any previously visited floor, but in this game, backtracking is almost inevitable, especially since you can only carry so many items. I liked that you had to sell items you found in the Labyrinth to the weapon maker, since doing so gives you access to more weapons and equipment, but there were times where I’d go into the Labyrinth, wander and fight enemies and get items for five minutes, then have to leave since my inventory was full. It makes inventory management a necessity, and the menu for storing and retrieving items is a bit more redundant than I’d like it to be. Additionally, the game has some pretty significant difficulty spikes later in the game. For instance, the boss of the Fourth Stratum (a stratum is made up of five floors) was surrounded by FOEs that would instantly aggro the moment the boss saw you. It makes an already challenging fight much harder since you have to deal with the party wide attacks of the boss on top of all the attacks from the FOEs.
Despite that, Etrian Odyssey Untold is a very meaty and fun JRPG (it took me around 55 hours to beat). It has great customization, awesome exploration, a surprisingly charming story and cast and a good atmosphere. There is some inherent tediousness due to the way the game is structured, and some of the modern conveniences don’t do much to counter it. That shouldn’t stop any fan of old school RPGs from playing it, though. While it won’t appeal to everyone due to tis fairly slow paced nature, anybody who can appreciate taking their time to develop their party and explore will find that Untold is a truly fun and rewarding adventure.