Etrian Odyssey is not your typical Japanese RPG, though the cute anime artwork might mislead you at first. It’s much more akin to the dungeon-crawlers of yesteryear. Instead of a pre-determined cast of characters that leave and join throughout, you craft your own party from several classes of adventurer. Rather than “Go to Town A, see event B, slog through Dungeon C, wind up in Town D, repeat” gameplay progression, how far you’ve managed to make it into the game is determined simply by how deep you’ve burrowed into the massive labyrinth. There are no gimmick-laden battle systems here, just turn-based combat that’s been the root of RPGs since time immemorial. And, of course, there’s the difficulty, which can only be described as “merciless.”
Etrian Odyssey takes place in the titular kingdom of Etria, where adventurers gather to attempt to brave the depths of the nearby labyrinth. Your goal is to form a guild of adventurers, then take a party of 5 into the maze to see just how much of it you can explore. The game’s backstory does get more complicated than this later on, but for a good while, it’s simply “explore the dungeon and perform odd tasks while in there.” Clearly, an intricate story isn't really the game's focus.
The labyrinth is massive, spanning well over 25 floors. You’re able to map the dungeon on the DS’s touch screen, making note of doors, traps, and other points of interest as you go along. There are also a few particularly nasty beasts called FOEs that roam the labyrinth. Some need to be beaten, some are optional, and still others are dangerous enough that you’ll need to avoid them altogether. Even the regular enemies in EO can pack a punch, and if you carelessly waste resources fighting them, you’ll be mincemeat for a powerful FOE. Making things more perilous is the lack of save points, or even a quicksave feature. When your party is hurting and low on supplies, you’ll want to come up to the surface ASAP, since town is the only place to save the game. There’s nothing as nerve-wracking as trying to hightail it back to the inn with 3 dead party members and a FOE in pursuit.
Graphically, the labyrinth looks great. The field graphics consist of lush, well-rendered vegetation that doesn’t become tiresome on the eyes, even after long stretches of dungeon romping. Combat isn’t quite as visually appealing - while the enemies are well drawn and designed, the lack of any animation during combat comes as a disappointment. Etrian Odyssey also impresses in the music department, with songs ranging from old-school sounding combat anthems to soft, ambient exploration songs. Further establishing the game’s mood is its wealth of text. The dialogue is written like there’s a Dungeon Master sitting next to you, vividly describing your surroundings and encounters as you go. It all adds up to create a distinct gameplay setting that’s a refreshing change of pace from the modern RPG norm.
Some people, of course, will love all of this. Players who have grown up with the likes of Final Fantasy, however, will be unimpressed with Etrian Odyssey. They had best stay away from this title, as it’s designed with a specific type of gamer in mind. If you’re not in this group, you’re probably not going to like this game, plain and simple - but if you long to go back to the very basics of what RPGs are about, without fancy modern window dressing, you’ll find a lot to love about Etrian Odyssey.