Languishing well of creativity be damned – remakes and remasters have been good to us this year. Despite all the obvious choices, Japanese outfit Atlus has reached deep into its catalogue closet to bring us a trilogy of no-frills, gruellingly old-school, grid-based dungeon crawlers originally made for the Nintendo DS back in 2007.
Etrian Odyssey Origins Collection includes the first three games of this cult classic series but faces the hurdle of compressing the Nintendo DS’ dual-screen functionality into a single panel. Players are expected to map out their expeditions into a hazardous labyrinth on virtual grid paper via touch input. This is a tricky proposition due to the Nintendo Switch’s wider and heavier frame. Navigating a five-person team of fragile adventurers in first person on the left half of your screen, with manual cartography of every inch explored on the right half is a balancing act I soon tired of. A meticulous joy for the right gamer when you’ve got that second screen of the DS, but an inelegant chore on the single panel. Luckily, the Origins Collection has come beefed up with plenty of quality-of-life additions, such as auto-mapping your floors and walls so you can focus on exploring and notation.
Why have you thrown together a party of five archetypal adventurers to explore a labyrinth? Apparently, the only thing worth doing in this world is exploring the towering tree or sinking city just outside the hub town of the given title. The thinnest of set dressing is applied to give the player a semblance of motivation, but really, this plot is in service to cold, hard gameplay mechanics and little else. In saying this, Etrian Odyssey III has a consistent drip-feed of twists, turns, and semi-interesting characters and is certainly the best starting point for curious newcomers looking for a little story behind their exploring.
Character interactions and few and far between but likely to command your attention
Light on plot but rich in thematic decision-making and reward, these games demand your thinking cap and enough curiosity to overlook that most of this game is simply charting the uncharted. You immediately realise that there are fatal dangers around every corner, including a bloody dinosaur on the first floor of the one game! Random encounters dog your every step into the next undiscovered space on the map grid that players primarily navigate.
The necessity of mapping and notation is what makes these roleplaying games so obscure by today’s standards. Intuitive user interfaces and guided player onboarding have become commonplace and brought with them a flourish of modern presentation. In stark contrast to this, Etrian Odyssey features menus in place of hub locations, still images instead of character animations, and little more than text and a slim rotation of special effects to resolve combat. There is so much imagination required on behalf of the player. If you are willing to allow the burden of this creativity to fall upon your own shoulders, these three games will whisk you away on an adventure no less rewarding than a good book.
Ironically, in spite of that last line, Etrian Odyssey has another challenge working against it. The moment-to-moment story just isn’t that good. There is no hero’s journey here. These games are exhausting, marathon endeavours that offer a harsh world that rewards great riches for the savvy player. No good victories come cheap, and death means progress, time, and rewards down the drain.
Leave notes everywhere. Visually empty spaces may contain all manner of traps or mysteries
Etrian Odyssey gives away nothing for free. Except for fresh-faced level-one adventurers with whom to replace your dead crew when you simply cannot afford to revive them. Money is tight, but selling the monster limbs and scavenged materials from a successful expedition means showering the player with exciting new equipment choices for your scrupulous accounting to consider. Figuring out how to survive in the tight-arse adventuring economy will take new players dozens of hours, but Etrian Odyssey Origins eventually reveals itself to be a pure and ultimately rewarding old-school dungeon crawl with enough of a modern presentation so as not to immediately turn off all potential newcomers
If this is your first hardcore first-person dungeon crawler, be warned. Back in the day, the cute box art girls were inlaid with a chunky little instruction manual. Not only do we lack that in this release, there appears to be little-to-no added tutorials, meaning that a sizeable chunk of the onboarding experience is missing for new players. You might be a hardened JRPG nut and shrug that off, but remember that basic oversights while adventuring will mean quick and costly deaths. There are no checkpoints and you are expected to push your luck and make it out of each title’s sole labyrinth alive.
Respect even the silliest-looking enemy. Death can come quick and mercilessly
But sometimes surviving isn’t an option and hours can be lost in the cheapest of ways. Early in the second game, I was constantly teased with dangling carrots that all turned out to be traps. In a game where progress can be minimal and first steps feel cruel, any faint glimmer of hope can be weaponised against the player. An olive branch such as a healing fruit hidden in a dead end deep in a dungeon might actually be guarded by a monstrous tangle of sentient vines that tear your novice adventures to shreds in mere seconds. The naive newcomer who hoped for a helping hand after inching deeper into the dungeon on battered legs can be hogtied under mysterious means and dumped on another level with enemies too powerful to fight. This happened to me twice in the early hours of the second game. Me, somebody who is well acquainted with the series. Pour one out for the newbies.
So it’s a mixed bag, yeah? But I encourage you, if the idea of peppering a bit of bookkeeping into a back-to-basics dungeon crawler tickles something nostalgic then there may be a magic here for you. With a no-frills barrier of entry that may take a newcomer a dozen hours to grok, Etrian Odyssey is a tricky proposition. The first game is merely a blueprint for the series and does not find a balance in its high difficulty ceiling. The second game plays as an improved redux of the ideas in the first game, with a slightly lower barrier of entry. For my money, anybody reading this yet to indulge the series is best skipping the Origin Collection (for now), and diving headfirst into the third game in this package (available as an individual download). The third game offers light tutorials, hints and tips in the hub town, and a more diverse and experimental range of classes, weapons, and heroes to build your party around. Heck, the $59 asking price for the HD edition of The Drowned City makes much more sense for Switch-owning newcomers. While the first two titles of the $119 trilogy collection boast well over 100 hours between them, their respective steps back in iterative refinement make them delicious curios to series’ stalwarts alone.
Characters may get a single, compromising frame for the entire game
The mechanical role-playing engine of Etrian Odyssey is impeccable in its ability to meet victory with elating rewards. Atlus does so much with so very little, ensuring that every new piece of equipment or skill point is a fundamental demonstration of executable growth in your heroes. This game achieves the beating heart that dungeon crawlers left behind in the early 90s.
Do you push into the next corridor, not knowing the peril that awaits, or make for home and revel in the riches of small victories? If you wish to dip a trepidatious toe into this pool of mystery, consider adjusting the difficulty. Forget the one-size-fits-all difficulty of these games, they change so much between titles. Manage this yourself with the addition of a new three-tiered difficulty slider that can be switched whenever you’re in town. This is perhaps the best new feature for anyone who has wanted to try out the series but was immediately turned off by the unforgiving initial challenge.
This is push-your-luck adventuring distilled into its rawest form, where every stone unturned out of self-preservation and a quick exit to safety is a tantalising question mark to uncover for the next venture into the wilds. How immersive that experience becomes depends on how prepared you are to induct yourself with little direction and a lot of imagination in lieu of the set dressing.
Menu-diving is the sole, elating activity between expeditions
There is a high that many players chase in roleplaying games. It is the sensation of power earned and exerted. This collection of the first three Etrian Odyssey titles contains a treadmill of that challenge as you sketch each step of an uncharted labyrinth.
A specific nerdy ecstasy comes with smacking down those monsters that spelled out endless peril in the entry layers. The satisfaction to have made them but mere ants under your feet is distilled in these games. But newcomers be warned, unmoveable patience is a must.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch // Review code supplied by publisher
- Switch / PC
- June 1, 2023