JRPGs walk a thin line, balancing the hardcore appeal of difficult grinding with a newfound push towards accessibility. Satiate the long-term fans by omitting a tutorial and anyone not au fait with JRPG mechanics will be instantly put off. Add a lengthy explanation every few minutes and the hardcore will see their favourite franchise dumbed down to appeal to the masses. Etrian Odyssey looks and plays a lot like its predecessors but has had to tread lightly in a move to open up to new and curious players. Blending old school dungeon combing with a side of cartography, Legends of the Titan has a wider audience it wants to reach, but does it do enough?
The PlayStation 3 has been beset by JRPGs this year, from the terrific Ni No Kuni to the rather lacking Time and Eternity and the 3DS happily joins the JRPG party. Atlus – friend to fans of Japanese games and culture – brings Etrian Odyssey to the 3DS, joining the remarkable Fire Emblem: Awakening in an ever-growing stable of quality games. Fire Emblem’s tactics were focused around unit positioning, Etrian Odyssey leans more towards squad management. The first task sees you create a squad, naming each character and choosing from the traditional classes such as warrior, medic, mage and so forth. Once your squad is ready it falls to choose their position within the force – front or back rows adding a further layer of depth to tactics.
Etrian Odyssey then wraps mazes within mazes, blanketed by the usual trappings of the genre. The main starting city has the ever-present inn, atelier and guild wherein you can rest, recuperate and restock. After a few introductory quests you soon acquire an airship and it’s here that the game opens up a wondrously dense and dangerous world. There was a time when there would be no tutorial and the game would delight in placing you at death’s doorstep with little more than a nudge of encouragement towards learning where to go and what to do. Not so here; the guiding force of Etrian Odyssey IV towers over the landscape – Yggdrasil, the life tree, always visible from the main world maps. Quests point you towards specific locations, their placement noted both in the log and by your own hand. What story there happens to be amounts to reaching this tree, but this is a JRPG that relies more on the pull of its addictive mechanics than its riveting plotline.
Pootling around the world map in the airship is a liberating experience, even when scaled against the power of the 3DS. The pastel colours and lush palette serve to mask some of the simplicity of both the world map and individual mazes. The world map allows your airship to collect food and supplies – sellable back at the city – as well as discover dungeons, all the while avoiding massive, powerful enemies that will happily turn your vessel into kindling. Its simplistic depiction belies a complex, sizeable world with plenty to discover.
Journey into your first dungeon and your 3DS is turned into an adventurer’s notebook of sorts. First-person dungeoneering occupies the top screen as you navigate maze-like corridors that harbour secrets, collectables and enemies to battle. The lower screen becomes a blank grid, there for you to sketch out each wall and secret door as you map the maze. You can mark everything that might come in handy later on – exceptionally useful given quests that are time-sensitive as well as the limited graphical power of the 3DS. Only a few particular points of interest are actually displayed within the top-screen’s depiction of the maze – more often than not you’ll stumble upon a secret path or character thanks to a prompt to ‘talk’ or ‘explore’. This makes charting necessary and there’s a nostalgic buzz to scribbling pathways, recalling days of yore before the Internet came along and spoiled that sense of gradual discovery.
Only the largest – and, by default, most dangerous – enemies actually appear in the top display. They have prescribed routes, pushing the player away from direct conflict and instead using escape as a means for more exploration. Random battles are frequent, pitting the player against enemies of scaling difficulty. The standard turn-based battle system seen in so many JRPGs applies, introducing skills and burst attacks as the game progresses. It’s very straightforward but retains a biting edge – there is an autopilot option that works but only to a point. Tactics are all – even the smallest of foes can whittle away health, thereby diminishing your chances as you delve deeper into each maze. Battles end with excess loot, again sellable at the atelier but also vital in unlocking new equipment.
Some of the sharper points of the franchise have been rounded off; a new Casual mode sends you back to the city, health replenished, rather than laugh at your failure mid-maze. Battles also become significantly easier in this mode, allowing players who want to zip through with minimal fuss to retry without the crippling punishment of perma-death. That said, Etrian Odyssey is no pushover even in Casual mode. There’s a great deal of grinding to amass funds for new weaponry and armour, while traversing the mazes can be time-consuming even with the addition of autopilot routes and the ability to teleport back to the nearest entry point.
There are also social aspects to Etrian Odyssey, thanks to the arcane magic that is Streetpass. Waft your DS past someone else with the game and a member of your guild can jump across to their game and vice versa, similar to Fire Emblem’s Streetpass functionality. It’s a nice touch, but unless you live in Tokyo or have a group of friends with the game it’s highly unlikely you’ll find it sees much use.
It’s great to see that a handheld JRPG can bring such deep mechanics, appealing exploration and the geeky thrill of note-making to a handheld. Etrian Odyssey achieves more on a smaller screen than some JRPGs can on a console with far more processing power. Some might say there’s a leniency when reviewing JRPGs on handhelds, allowing for underwhelming graphics but even here Atlus triumphs, hiding the blocky environments under beautiful art design. It won’t appeal to everyone; it’s still rooted in the JRPG tradition so unlikely to change the mind of those who find the grind to be interminable. For those who are happy to dip in and out it’s worth spending time in the city of Tharsis; for fans it is an excellent companion on long road journeys. ‘Car-Tharsis’ you might even call it, if you wanted to offend the Language Police. It all comes down to your affinity for JRPGs, but credit falls to Atlus for offering curious newbies that helping hand, a hand that has the strength and power to pull you into the world and become entranced.