One of the quirks about Etrian Odyssey I had trouble grasping was that you, as the player, play more as a “party” rather than a single character. None of the people have personalities, so when you switch from person to person, it’s as though you’re jumping into another body. Not only that, you’re under no obligation to keep your “main character” in your party, although I do so anyway out of some misplaced sense of loyalty.
Really, I’m playing Etrian Mystery Dungeon, but the opening cutscene and the aesthetics were all so colorful and, well, “Etrian,” that I couldn’t but help make the comparison as I started creating my first character. I decided to start off with the usual Landsknecht, a basic swordsman, and began my journey with him.
The first dungeon was fairly easy. All I had to do was go through the dungeon, and with the experience I had racked up from Pokemon Mystery Dungeon under my belt, I felt I was more than ready to handle the trek—and I was right. For those unfamiliar with this series, Mystery Dungeon is essentially a turn-based adventure where you venture through randomly generated dungeon floors. Each floor is comprised of a number large rooms and hallways with items, money, traps, and monsters littered everywhere. Monsters move approximately one space every time you move, so though fighting against just one is a simple affair, facing a large group requires some strategizing. The goal of every dungeon is to descend to the very last floor.
After making it back to the town, I was given a tour of all the facilities and introduced to the various characters residing there. One particular place of note was the inn, which has been converted from a place of rest to a warehouse where I can store items and money. This may just seem like a way to clean out your admittedly tiny inventory space, but I quickly found myself immensely grateful for this function. With my confidence bolstered by my excellent experience through the first dungeon, and with all the townspeople’s warnings about taking care of items and being well-equipped in the back of my mind, I was ready for the second dungeon.
…Or so I thought. There were a few hurdles to bypass first.
In the first dungeon, I only controlled one character. However, during the tour through Aslarga, I was prompted to create a team by the Guildmaster. He was kind enough to give me pre-made characters, though the concept was a bit ridiculous since creating a character involves nothing more than choosing a character class, a color palette, and a name. It got me off to a quick start, though, and I was able to jump straight into the adventure.
There are pros and cons to fighting in a team, just like in real life. You’re stronger as a whole, but the others don’t always do what you want them to do. I personally had trouble with the AI, and at times I would have to constantly switch control between party members to stop them from standing idly in a passage. Often I would find my Gunner standing in a direct line from the enemy; however, because she was in the hallway and outside of the battle zone, she refused to contribute to the battle until I took control of her. Luckily, the normal enemies are spread thinly through the rooms, so being forced to fight something one-on-one isn’t too much of an inconvenience.
You can also assume control of your party through Blast Skills. This is another Etrian Odyssey carryover, although its role has greatly changed in the transition. As you move through the dungeon, the Blast Gauge will fill, at which point you can issue commands to your entire party such as “Full Retreat” or “Disperse.” I didn’t like these uses of the Blast Gauge since it always felt like they should have been free of cost. After all, you’re basically just giving simple commands to your party, and sometimes they will scatter away from you anyways. However, there are also other types of skills, such as ones that unleash powerful attacks through an entire room, and these felt more worthy of having a meter assigned to them.
In addition, Etrian Mystery Dungeon has the strange quirk of asking me for input halfway through a battle. If one of my characters had low HP, it would ask me if I wanted to use a Medica or if I wanted my medic to use Healing. The answer, more than 90% of the time, would be “Yes”. In fact, the game does give me the option of setting the AI to do this automatically every time. However, I simply couldn’t risk it because the other 10% of the time, one of my characters would try to use a powerful healing item when the situation didn’t call for such drastic measures; not to mention, my medic was going to move next anyways! However, more than once I’ve accidentally pressed “Yes” too quickly, thinking it was my medic, and then I’d have to say a swift goodbye to that wasted Healing Scroll.
This was precisely what happened in the second dungeon, and I, my fingers moving quicker than my brain, decided to press the Power button for a soft reset.
This was a very, very bad idea, considering the game considers resetting the game halfway through a failed expedition (or, as I like to call it, a “game over”). This means I was sent straight out of the dungeon without my items and money, and since money is very tight here, losing both your items and the means to repurchase them is absolutely devastating. In the end, because I was so close to the start of the game, I decided to cut my losses and restart.
This sounds like a horrible experience to have, and it really was! But at least I learned early, and I really should have listened to the many warnings from the game about soft resets scattered throughout. However, this does bring to mind how often I relied on soft resets to get out of a jam if I made some minor mistake. Most of the time it was because of a minor inconvenience (such as using a fairly uncommon but not rare healing item unintentionally), but it had become second nature to me since no game has ever punished me for it. Etrian Mystery Dungeon punishes you for it, and will punish you heavily. Thankfully, the game does provide a quick save option in dungeons, so you don’t have to keep the 3DS on constantly. In addition, the inn is one of the most useful facilities in the town. When you die, you lose almost all of your inventory and cash. However, everything in the warehouse is still perfectly fine. This also means that every foray into a dungeon is an exercise of balancing what you need with what you can leave behind.
This actually affected my gameplay style quite a bit. As I worked up to where I left off again, I started keeping a tighter eye on my inventory. I faithfully deposited all of my money, and I kept only the bare minimum inventory necessary, never taking more than what was necessary. After all, I didn’t want to lose it again.
However, in the fourth dungeon, they introduced D.O.E.s, and yet again, the difficulty jumped another level and I had to formulate new strategies. These super-powerful monsters are entirely capable of killing your team quickly, but taking them on requires proper items and/or classes in your party. In addition, you need to bring money to build forts that will stop these monsters from charging into Aslarga. This meant that the bare minimum was no longer enough, and I had to start taking more risks in order to continue with the game. For example, with a Runemaster in the party, I never packed too many spell items since my Landsknecht was fairly powerful. However, against a D.O.E. I found myself needing Confuse Scrolls and Sleep Scrolls I didn’t have.
Usually, in this scenario, I would play until I met the monster, find out what I needed to defeat it, and then restart the game with my newfound knowledge. However, I couldn’t do that here, and this, I felt, was what made Etrian Mystery Dungeon one of the more nerve-wracking games I’ve played. The penalties for losing are only what you are willing to risk, but you must risk a lot to be able to go far in any of the later dungeons, which are both longer and filled with tougher monsters.
Despite me having the rockiest start I possibly could have had, Etrian Mystery Dungeon amazes me with how little tolerance it has for mistakes, and I enjoy it all the more for it. Thankfully, I feel that the difficulty curve is pretty gradual, with just few new elements being introduced in every dungeon, and I like that the game provides ample warning to potentially devastating scenarios. It will even give hints to strategies, such as how to counter said D.O.E.s and how to avoid bottlenecks in the passageways. I don’t feel some of the workarounds are as efficient as others, but I like that there is the option of, for example, a Spread Panel that will move your party from the passageway into the room without costing a turn.