Sekaiju no Keikyuu – coming to the states later this year as “Etrian Odyssey” – is not an innovative title, but it is pretty far removed from the current RPG climate. After a short introductory text scroll, the first thing you do is enter the adventurer’s guild and create your characters. These characters never talk to each other, the only real NPCs so far have been shopkeepers, and the plot is practically nonexistant.
But that’s okay, because Sekaiju no Keikyuu isn’t trying to be the next Final Fantasy – it’s a throwback to the days of first person dungeon crawlers, similar to PC classics like Wizardry and Dungeon Master. Most of these originated from the 80s, and it’s rare that anything like them are still released today. Even the Shin Megami Tensei series, which held onto these roots until the 32-bit era, have ditched them in favor of the standard third person view. This aspect alone makes the game more interesting than any other RPG on the DS.
However, people with a negative predisposition towards this type of game won’t be convinced otherwise. Sekaiju no Keikyuu almost never holds your hand. And sometimes, you almost wish it would, because it can get really, really nasty. Every time to you get to a new floor, you’ll need to spend your time tip-toeing around, trying to gain enough experience without getting slaughtered. The bad guys are brutal – it’s perfectly possible to get wiped out in two hits by many guys, especially ones that like to poison you. Most of the battles are random (and their upcoming presence is indicated by a colored orb in the corner of the screen) although you’ll also find mini-bosses that roam around the map. You’ll also be spending lots of time trekking back to town to resurrect dead characters, heal, and save your game. There’s also a crushing shortage of currency found in the dungeon. The only real way to make any cash is by either running quests, or selling some of the junk you obtain from slain monsters. The latter is not always prosperous, and if you don’t manage your resources properly, it’s all too easy to end up without enough cash to properly resupply your crew. There is an item to easily escape the dungeon, but it’s so expensive that you’ll only want to use them sparingly.
Combat is fought using a typical turn-based system. You can have up to five characters in your party at a time, and can position them in different rows – front or back – to affect their strength or defense. There are several character classes to choose from, including Swordsman (fighter), Ranger (archer), Paladin (strong defense and healing capabilities), Dark Hunter (can inflict status ailments), Medic (healer), Alchemist (magician), and Bard (gives status boosts to your party). Two other classes are opened up later, the Chaos Maker and Bushido. Each character has different stat boosts and skill trees, which are unlocked by distributing points to various areas after leveling up. However, you only get one point when you gain a level, so building your character feels pretty slow.
The first person view of the dungeon takes place on the top screen in 3D. The draw distance isn’t great, but these are the smoothest polygonal graphics I’ve seen on the DS. The bottom is the map screen, which is tremendously important. While the game will automatically keep track of your movements, it’s up to you to draw in the details, like walls, treasure locations, and other points of interest. This might not sound fun in theory, but it brings to mind the olden days when you’d have to draw out your own maps on paper – and it’s not nearly as confusing either.
The soundtrack, contributed by Yuzo Koshiro, also attempts to emulate the same old school feel. All of the music resembles FM synth, making it sound a lot like a PC98. While this might be lost on anyone not familiar with the system (it sounds kinda of like a higher quality Genesis without the scratchy PCM samples), it’s still very well composed. However, there are very few songs so far, so they grow old rather quickly.
Don’t let the cute characters on the cover fool you – Sekaiju no Keikyuu is a tough, tough game aimed at a very specific audience. But it=s a very polished entry in a genre that’s practically nonexistent. The portable nature makes the dungeon crawling even more addictive, which is probably why it’s already an underground success in Japan. It’s confirmed for an American release by Atlus for release around summer, and given the huge amount of skills and subquests, non-Japanese readers may just want to wait until then.