The Nintendo DS was a system with a lot a great games. More importantly, and more relevant to this post, it had a lot of great RPGs. From remakes to ports to brand new games, it’s an understatement to say that the DS has an impressive library of fantastic niche titles (and no shortage of trash either). Nonetheless, for me, Etrian Odyssey was the first quintessentially “DS RPG.” It was the first RPG that felt like it could have been nowhere else. The main reason for this is the mapping system, which while perhaps outwardly gimmicky solidified the old-school pencil and graph-paper experience so often associated with the PC RPGs of yore, in a manner notably more tactile than the old school SMT/Persona experience. I mean Wizardry and the first person dungeon crawlers that followed it, the game that most obviously influenced the birth of the Japanese RPG along with Ultima.
But it was more than that. The mapping system wasn’t just some fleeting mechanical flourish incorporated to make the touch screen suddenly useful or a clever reference to the shared experience of certain older gamers that remember, perhaps fondly, the “good ol’ days” of PC RPGs. Ok. Sure. It may have been those things, but it was also your most important tool in a harsh and relentless labyrinth. It was how you kept track of the many dangers between you and the beautiful, but deadly depths of the twisting labyrinth and its many strata. It was how you remembered where that pool of healing water was to keep your party in fighting shape. It appealed to that irrational annoyance I have with auto-mapping systems that leave empty grid spaces, because I didn’t need to walk into that particular corner. It was the first ever present reminder that the dungeon space is always there. It was that small bit of control, that small way in which the player could touch the world that truly sparked the imagination, as they sketched the outline of a world on their virtual graph paper.
And imagination is a big part of the Etrian Odyssey experience, because you won’t find any cut scenes here. You won’t find paragraphs of exposition, exaggerated character archetypes vying for your attention and trying their best to make you believe they have depth and some meaningful emotional conflict that you should definitely care about. There is no overarching plot by some ridiculous villain to destroy the world so he can actually save it. There is no melodrama. The sole town and the NPCs in it are static hand-drawn images, with a simple interactive menu overlay. You get requests. You get missions. You complete them. And along the way, many small events add up to a memorable experience. Something hidden in a bush, a fruit plucked from a tree, a spring filled with healing water. A wild animal. It might be friendly; it might just eat your face.
There is so much that the game shows you and very little it feels obligated to outright tell you. For me, that made the story very personal, because I was the one who pieced all of those small moments together into a story. Each member of your guild is someone you gave a name, a face, and a job. Maybe you came up with a back-story for them from the beginning. Maybe one developed as you played the game. Maybe you named them after your real life friends. Maybe they remained a mystery, but they are YOUR characters. They represent YOUR agency in this mysterious place.
It’s the synergy between these characters and their skills that will keep them alive as you venture deeper (something that has been expanded and re-balanced as their series continues). Because of this, the bond between your guild members has a very practical foundation. The integrity of your five person team is essential to surviving the tougher parts of the game to a greater degree than most RPGs, regardless of your combination of character types. The loss of any of them, even with Revive spell or a nectar handy is a serious blow to the party’s fighting strength and something that can mean the swift end of a harder fight (and sometimes seemingly easier ones). For me, that simply served to further reinforce the importance of these characters to my experience as the game continued. Even though they never anything more than a series of portraits within a nest of menus, they feel like a close nit group of comrades, bonded by the dungeoneering experience they all share.
True to its roots, Etrian Odyssey is structured around repeated trips back to the labyrinth and slow, measured progress deeper and deeper into its twisted depths. It’s an unforgiving experience, entirely unafraid to decimate your party with a simple random encounter. Your support classes hide in the back row. Status effects are a VERY serious danger that you have to prepare for. You send your party in, explore until your resources run low (HP being one of the big ones) or your bag becomes stuffed to the bursting point with plant and animal parts, and then you return to the town.
You probably drop by Shilleka’s to offload your loot, the plant and animal parts you’ve harvested, restock on healing items and whatever new equipment can be hacked together from the latest hide you found, and you head to the Inn lick to your wounds (and save, of course). Maybe you’ll drop by the Golden Deer Pub that evening to relax, check with Valerie for any more jobs, and talk to some fellow adventurers, ex-adventures, and whoever else is carving out a life in the bustling town of Etria. These interactions aren’t in-depth, but they add just the right amount of detail to the place. The town theme quickly becomes a sound both familiar and safe, as it accents the peaceful beauty of that small settlement.
The next morning, you head back in, hoping you can make it further down this time and that those Venomflies you ran into on the second floor don’t decimate your party with their surprisingly potent poison. You fight your way through the various animals inhabiting the area, including some oddly dangerous rabbits that don’t seem to like you very much. There is a certain comfort in this routine and the satisfaction of making it just a little bit further into its depths, as punctuated by the new areas that you’ve mapped out yourself, is immense…
Then you meet your first FOE (Formido Oppugnatura Exsequens). Well, to be fair, this happens pretty much immediately on the second floor. I delayed it in this narrative for the sake of the dramatic twist. That’s just quality storytelling. You don’t have to tell me. I know you’re shocked and surprised.
FOE’s are basically bad-ass mini bosses that wander around the same space your party does. If you run into one, they will attack you and in all likelihood brutalize your woefully unprepared group of adventurers. The necessity of awareness and avoidance, which only becomes more complex deeper in, takes the tension of exploration up notch in a manner somewhat less psychologically distressing than a reflex-based game like Demon’s Souls or perhaps more appropriately, its first person predecessor: the King’s Field games. Things get more interesting a bit later, when you meet aggressive FOEs that will give chase if they spot you. It’s important that you always watch your map, because turns that pass in battle pass in the dungeon as well. If you get into a fight and you’re in the path of a FOE, they WILL join the battle and make your life a hell of a lot more difficult.
The major bosses are an extension of this, from Fenrir and its pack of wolf minions with no sense of fairness, to a dragon spewing its fiery breath around an entire dungeon floor. The sense of place, that they are moving through and interacting with the same area as your band of 5 intrepid adventurers, gives these towering beasts a presence they often lack in other similar experiences, despite the decidedly retro presentation. They loom over the battlefield even before the 3DS titles that put them in their fully rendered glory in the dungeon view. I can’t think of a more threatening videogame abstraction than that glowing orange ball, plodding towards you with every step you take, threatening to corner you if you make the wrong move. You can practically feel the ground rumble with every movement.
And, honestly, that’s pretty much the EO experience, without spoiling much. Things get hairier further down, with more environmental hazards and meaner monsters. The locale changes every 5 floors along with the excellent backing track, courtesy of Yuzo Koshiro. There might be a couple of unexpected narrative twists down the line. All told, it’s a pretty pure dungeon-crawling experience, but Etrian Odyssey never lets you forget that you are always in the dungeon. You aren’t in a mystical, abstract random encounter dimension and battles feel unusually immediate because of this, despite their turn-based foundations. The inter-play between the “real world” of the labyrinth and the pseudo-cyberspace of combat is a central theme. You are in Yggdrasil and it’s never truly safe until you’re out of it… But I always want to come back, because it’s such a curious place with so much to see and it doesn’t take hours of melodrama or a plethora of convoluted and ultimately irrelevant lore to make it engaging. That’s the magic of Etrian Odyssey and it’s why I love the series as a whole, but the first one is a special experience for me (the 3DS remake is great too).