Does old-school, first-person, RPG goodness sound appealing to you? If so, read on.
When you power up the DS with Etrian Odyssey (EO) on board, you're greeted with a rather nice looking rendering of a tree in a clearing spanning both screens. As the game starts out, the excellent art, music and production values immediately indicate that EO is a work of significant quality. Then you step into the forest and spend an hour drawing a map of the first floor on the touch screen, after which you may be annihilated by a few poisonous butterflies. Yes, Etrian Odyssey is the very definition of old-school gaming. Even so, after about 10 hours (only 20% of the game) I had gotten the hang of things and was quite impressed and rather hooked. I thought, "If they keep the fresh gameplay coming and don't recycle too much of the excellent art, this will be a great game for a certain kind of gamer." While EO does falter just a tad, it keeps things quite entertaining given its considerable length.
Before you can take on the verdant dungeons of EO, you'll have to create a party. The character development system is relatively well designed despite being very detailed (8 classes, 21 skills per class, 10 levels per skill and 2 hidden classes). You can have 16 characters in reserve and venture forth with any 5 of them at a time. However, a single, balanced party is capable of finishing the game with no swapping.
Character development takes place via skill selection. Placing points in an advanced skill often requires you to put a few points in lesser skills. This encourages you to develop some important, foundational skills that you might otherwise be tempted to ignore. You get 3 skill points to start, and 1 per level up (you also get automatic stat increases per level). If you do manage to build a weak or deeply flawed character, you can sacrifice 10 levels to have all of your skill points unassigned, letting you rebuild from the ground up. I ended up using this on all my characters about 80% into the game because I had wasted a lot of points in skills that are only helpful early on. I had to spend a little time leveling up after this, but the improved skill allocation kept it to a minimum.
The game has a very satisfying challenge level. Early on, my party of five frequently lost members and I was annihilated entirely a few times. When you die, EO offers to save your map changes, but item acquisitions, quest progress, and experience are lost. This is brutal, but it keeps you on your toes. It would be slightly more satisfying to just barely escape death, but that's a difficult line to straddle, and coming up too short fails to invoke the necessary tension. After gaining some key skills, a relatively steady supply of gold, and a sense of caution, getting back to town without being completely wiped out becomes much more reliable (although by no means certain).
The draw-your-own map feature may sound annoying, but it is well implemented and supplemented by a partial auto-map feature (it marks the squares as you walk on them, leaving you to draw the walls as you see fit). You can draw on the map while moving or fighting. Having the game completely manage the map for you would have reduced the level of immersion significantly, particularly because you can examine your surroundings and draw ahead of where you're standing. Still, some will get annoyed by the frequent map drawing. In addition to drawing walls and floors, you can place icons and notes. Only on one floor (16) did I find the map system inadequate to map out the features of the floor. I used an excessive number of icons and ended up hitting the limit (40ish). Color options for the floor tiles would have helped.
Speaking of maps, the level design is consistently fresh. You'll encounter many different layouts and features as you descend through the 25 floors (divided into five stratums), and there are a lot of hidden areas if you know where to look. At the end of most floors, a convenient short-cut can be discovered that makes back-tracking a breeze (usually).
One of the really interesting things about the fighting is that, in addition to typical random encounters, so-called FOEs start to appear on the second floor. These are enemies who are much more powerful than the normal ones in the area. They move when you take a step, and they also move while you're fighting (once per combat round; you can see them on the map, which is always present on the lower screen). Certain ones are aggressive and will break their normal patrol zone and give chase if they see you. They can interrupt regular fights, killing the weakling enemies and taking their place, or interrupt another FOE, in which case you have to fight two (or more) at once. This little wrinkle affords numerous interesting gameplay possibilities and is well used. My only complaint is that in the 3D view, FOEs appear as giant glowing orbs rather than being represented by the artwork of the creature itself. So you don't know what monster type the FOE is until you get into a fight with it. On a good note, you can usually escape from a FOE after starting a fight with one.
The story seems relatively transparent at first. You can take on optional quests for money and items, and every now and then a mission that is required to progress through the game will be forced on you. About half-way through the game, the story starts to pick up steam, and by the end an interesting twist is thrown in (there is some foreshadowing, but you'll still be surprised). EO is mostly about exploring, fighting and developing your characters, but the story is a welcome addition.
The 2D artwork remains excellent throughout the game, although the 3D engine and graphics have their limitations. The dungeons look good, but they become visually repetitive (drastic scenery changes occur only every five levels). The engine never allows you to see more than four squares ahead, either, and the stuff beyond that tends to pop-in. These failures are somewhat mitigated by the fact that you'll spend a lot of time navigating previously traversed territory by looking at the map rather than the 3D view. The only serious knock on the 2D work is that there is very little animation; only spells and other attacks are animated. Check out the EO website for a taste of the game's art.
The music in EO is exceptional, taking into account that it's 16 channel MIDI rather than recorded music. It does a great job of complementing the mood set by the artwork in each of the stratums. Additionally, I think there are at least four different battle themes, if not five or six and all of them are good. The sound effects are mostly stock, but there's nothing wrong with them.
Etrian Odyssey definitely isn't for everyone, but that's due to its genre rather than lack of quality. If you have a taste for brutal difficulty and don't mind a touch of level grinding now and then, you'll want to savor this game like a fine wine. Games like this don't come around often these days.