The idea of an Etrian Odyssey crossover is a strange one. Its previous crossover game with the Persona series saw it lending its exploration and combat system to another franchise. This time, however, it has left its characters and world at the mercy of the equally ruthless Mystery Dungeon series, coming together to form Etrian Mystery Dungeon.
It gave me pause when I first heard about these two series teaming up. Both being renowned for their difficulty aside, Etrian Odyssey isn’t exactly known for having a strong cast of characters. In fact, it doesn’t have a “cast” at all, since you customize your team in every game from the ground up. There are no personalities to speak of (unless you are playing the Untold games, which added a story mode), and the townspeople are new faces every installation. What characterization could Etrian Odyssey offer to the Mystery Dungeon formula, then?
For starters, the character creation system is intact. The game starts off with you flying into the land of Aslarga as a prospective adventurer, and before you step into your first dungeon, you have the opportunity to create your character. You can choose from the fairly diverse roster of 8 classes, ranging from the familiar Landsknecht class to the Runemaster class, and 3 classes are added later (including the Mystery Dungeon tribute, the Wanderer). As far as I am aware, the exact roster of classes available in each Etrian game varies, but it appears that the classic jobs have all been included. My only nitpick is that there aren’t any character designs to choose from, so you will be playing with multiple Gunners who look the same save their color palettes.
The skill tree character growth system is back as well, with each character being allotted a certain number of points you can distribute between skills as you like. In Etrian Mystery Dungeon, you can set the distribution to happen automatically as well, so you can focus on the more Mystery Dungeon aspects of the game. This can be customized to focus more on balance or on different sets of skills. For example, you can have the game put all your points into the Link attacks first for a Landsknecht, or you can have it put them into Stab skills.
At this point, one may feel that this game is more Mystery Dungeon than Etrian Odyssey, and I would agree. After all, the bulk of the gameplay—the exploration through the eponymous mystery dungeons—has nothing to do with Etrian Odyssey and indeed feels nothing like it at all. With there being no strong story or characters to carry over, I had been hoping that the atmosphere of adventure and exploration would somehow pervade into this crossover game. The question was, how was that to happen when each floor in the dungeon were a randomized mix of large blocky rooms and narrow bottleneck hallways? The randomization may make me unsure what was at the end of the path, but it was more a question of “Which way will the path turn?” or “Where are the stairs?” and “Is there a trap in front of me?” than of “What will I see in the next room?” I never felt like I was discovering something new when playing Etrian Mystery Dungeon, and that was perhaps the greatest disappointment for me.
However, there was another aspect of Etrian Odyssey that I had completely forgotten about until the game reminded me of it before the fourth dungeon. As I emphasized earlier, the series is also known for its difficulty, and the first three dungeons of the game, though challenging because of your limited item bag, enemies dealing heavy damage and gargantuan bosses, had been a cinch. There was some minor grinding that had to be done, but completing all the quests handled that well enough. At the fourth one, though, the townspeople started talking about a D.O.E. that appeared in the dungeon. F.O.E.s were one of the most frightening group of creatures in the Etrian Odyssey series, and I was not looking forward to the Etrian Mystery Dungeon version of them at all. They were bound to be worse than the bosses at the end of every dungeon, especially with all the hints about how handling them with “just” four people would be difficult… And then the game proceeded to tell me about all the ways I can get a game over (which in Mystery Dungeon terms means you get sent back to the town without your items and money) if I made a mistake, and at this point I was getting really wary about setting foot into the next dungeon.
The magic of adding D.O.E.s into a Mystery Dungeon game is that it complements the style of the game really well. While there was probably no way any of Etrian Odyssey’s atmosphere of discovery could be carried over because of contradicting mechanics, D.O.E.s only served to heighten the stakes that were already present within the structure of Mystery Dungeon while also adding its own twist, giving them a new sense of danger. D.O.E.s are essentially extremely tough monsters that will climb up from the depths of the dungeon, floor by floor. It takes them approximately the time it takes you to descend two floors to climb up one, so as you watch the map, you can see the big red dot slowly move closer and closer to the surface. You are also given a D.O.E. radar, and you can see how close the monster is to you, since your map doesn’t cover any floors beyond what you’ve explored.
Eventually, your party and the D.O.E. will cross paths, and when this happens, the music ramps up, the screen glows red, and your bottom screen’s floor map will show the location of the D.O.E. Though at high enough levels, you can probably take a D.O.E. on easily, they are still enormous hurdles. They will also call monsters from the entire floor together, leading to a mob attack that can easily overwhelm your party. In addition, a badly formed party can spell death for you since D.O.E.s require a very specific strategy before you can even damage them.
Even if you manage to quietly slip past the D.O.E., though, the danger isn’t over. While your main party is in the clear, the goal of the D.O.E. is actually to reach the top floor of the dungeon unimpeded, where it can then rampage through the town and destroy one of your facilities, hindering your gameplay and possibly costing a fortune before the building can be repaired. In addition, when this happens, it counts as a game over and you are nonetheless pulled straight from the dungeon, losing your items and money in the process.
There are a few ways to stop this, which leads to some amount of strategy being added to your exploration. You can build forts that can scout ahead a few floors, allowing you to see the D.O.E. approaching. You can also camp four characters at each fort, which is a good way to gain experience. When a D.O.E. reaches the fort, though, it will be these four characters who are facing the monster, so you will have to keep a fairly high level team if you want to preserve your forts. With a bit of strategizing, you can also trap the D.O.E. such that your standby party and current party are ganging up against the beast.
On the other hand, if you don’t mind spending a few thousand on every D.O.E., you can just build forts willy-nilly and leave them unmanned. When the D.O.E.s destroy the forts, they’ll head straight back into the dungeon and you’ve succeeded in protecting the town against one more attack.
Encountering and fighting off D.O.E.s is high-risk business, and I love how the risks and rewards work so seamlessly with the existing Mystery Dungeon mechanics. For example, some forts will also offer stat boosts, giving you an edge over the beast. These, of course, cost more. In a game that forces you to keep a tight budget and where one of the major penalties for a game over is financial loss, this makes losing these forts all the more painful. The way the floors are laid out in a mystery dungeon allows you to keep track of them floor by floor, room by room, both heightening the sense of impending danger as well as giving you the edge in avoiding them should you choose. Leaving D.O.E.s unchecked isn’t an option, while defeating them nets you a large number of EXP and a rare item, as well as prevents you from losing the fort.
Though Etrian Mystery Dungeon isn’t the perfect crossover, the aspects it takes from Etrian Odyssey greatly enhance the Mystery Dungeon system. I believe its two halves work together and play off each other’s strengths surprisingly well, considering how crossover games generally have a bad name, and make the trek through the many dungeons a unique experience rather than just a Mystery Dungeon game in a different skin.
Food for thought:
1. The town makes a return as well. You have the inn where you can save and store items, the shop where you can sell materials for equipment and forging, the restaurant where you can accept quests, the Explorers Guild where you can manage your party, and the mayor’s house where you can accept story quests. There is nothing surprising here, but the game does a good job of interesting each facility to you piecemeal. You can also throw in a few thousand to each facility to upgrade them, which makes it all the more infuriating when a D.O.E. destroys one of them.
2. The bright palette from Etrian Odyssey makes a return in the portrait art, though the dungeons themselves are a little blandly colored.
3. You can also use the party camped at a fort to rescue your main party if they are incapacitated in battle. If they fail, though, that’s another game over for you. Yet another incentive to keep a large number of party members well-trained.
4. If Etrian Odyssey is about exploration and discovering new things, then I’d say that Mystery Dungeon is probably about overcoming the dangers that lie around every corner. There’s a slightly different nuance, but I believe Etrian Mystery Dungeon embodies the latter’s theme extremely well.