Review: Etrian Mystery Dungeon

An RPG as deep and treasure filled as its eponymous dungeons.

By Andy Hoover. Posted 04/07/2015 07:00 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
Editor's Choice
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
Many layers of incredibly deep and rewarding gameplay; amazingly smooth learning curve; challenge that manages to be significant yet fair; great soundtrack
Poison Mushroom for...
Visuals and story are really just serviceable; complex menus; party AI has brief moments of stupidity

Given the number of entries released on both DS and 3DS, plenty of gamers will be familiar with both the Etrian Odyssey and Mystery Dungeon franchises, even if the latter is best known for its Pokémon crossovers. While the core mechanics of each series greatly differ, they both draw inspiration from old-school takes on the RPG genre that placed their emphasis on dungeon diving, strategic planning, and a high level of difficulty. Both franchises have earned respectable fanbases who appreciate this approach to game design. Now, Atlus has taken these two series and put them in a blender to create Etrian Mystery Dungeon.

Whenever you combine two franchises with differing mechanics, you have to toss aside some ideas while piecing together the final product. From the Etrian Odyssey games, the developers at Spike Chunsoft took the ability to build and customize your own party of adventurers from a roster of varied classes with unique skill sets, strengths, and weaknesses. The Mystery Dungeon series contributes its unique, third person, turn based, randomized dungeon crawling, something that will undoubtedly take some getting used to for newcomers; every move you make counts as a turn, and while this makes little difference while simply moving about dungeons, it becomes an vital component during combat. This combination really emphasizes strategy both inside and outside of the dungeons, as you have to carefully consider your options while building your party and then ponder each and every move once you delve into the game’s eponymous dungeons. In other words, this game is not for people who want to turn their brains off for some mindless fun.

All things considered, Etrian Mystery Dungeon is a phenomenally complex and deep game with so many facets that any attempt to cover everything in this review would result in an incredibly long and dry read. In the interest of simplification, the core gameplay is best defined by a loop that consists of diving into a dungeon to explore, fight enemies for experience, and collect items before returning to town to upgrade your party before heading back into the depths. While this might sound repetitive and possibly even boring, the truth is the developers have managed to make this process rewarding and addictive. The key to this success is how interwoven your progress in the dungeons is with your progress in building up your party. Leveling up your character makes them stronger and lets you further customize their skill set. The many items found throughout the dungeon can be sold to not just earn gold, but also to access new gear that adds yet another level of customization, as the varying stat bonuses make upgrading your equipment more of a branching tree than a linear progression. Your money can also be spent to upgrade the various parts of town, which unlocks even more gear, expands your inventory, lets you recruit more party members into your guild, and opens up more side quests. Every time you come back from the dungeon, you feel a legitimate sense of progression, and that feeling is fantastic.

You might have noticed a lot of talk about customization, so it should come as little surprise that building up your party is a key part of Etrian Mystery Dungeon. While the ten classes fall into basic archetypes like fighters, tanks, buffers, debuffers, mages, and healers, each also has branching skill trees that allow for further personalization. Though your active party is limited to four members, you will need to keep more in fighting shape to post at forts you build in dungeons to fight back against exceptionally powerful enemies, known as D.O.E. that keep moving up from the depths, even when you are many floors away from them. Having a balanced party with a varied skill set is handy against normal enemies, but against a D.O.E. it is an absolute necessity as hurting them is all but impossible without a constant barrage of status effects and debuffs. The only real problem with dungeon diving and exploration is that under most circumstances you only control your lead character and the rest of your party is handled by the AI, which doesn’t always make the choice you would prefer. Thankfully, the big boss battles give you total control and there is a skill that gives you the ability during normal combat, but its use is limited.

Etrian Mystery Dungeon is really a marvel of game design as it manages to introduce and build upon its varied systems and ideas in a natural way that results in a surprisingly smooth difficulty curve. Once all the pieces are in place, the game can be difficult, but by the time you get there it feels fair because you are properly equipped with the knowledge needed to overcome its challenges; you just have to use that knowledge properly. This complexity of mechanics does have one negative effect: an equally complex menu system. Given enough time, you will learn the game’s many layers of menus, but I imagine there could have been a more graceful way to arrange the exceptional amount of information you’ll have to dig through.

Beyond the mechanics of Etrian Mystery Dungeon is a decently appealing audio-visual experience. While each dungeon has its own unique look, the randomized nature keeps variation within each dungeon relatively restrained, and while the character models look decent enough, environmental detail is somewhat lacking, as is the effect of cranking up the 3D. Outside the dungeons, moving about town is restricted to menus and pretty pictures. Characters and locations are restricted to static images, and while they are very well drawn and full of detail, it would have been nice to have something more dynamic. That can also be said of the story as well. Townsfolk lean more toward the stock side of things, but they are likeable enough to make you go along with the story, which really does little more than move you along from dungeon to dungeon. Your party members are non-characters, but that’s really to be expected with this genre. The music, on the other hand, is exceptional throughout. The soundtrack features plenty of great tracks, thanks largely to each dungeon having its own fitting theme.

Now, I have a confession; I have never played a single Etrian Odyssey or Mystery Dungeon game and actually went into this game expecting to find an imposingly dense and challenging experience. After putting many, many hours into it, though, I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, Etrian Mystery Dungeon is dense, and it’s most certainly challenging, but the pace with which it introduces its mechanics results in a very approachable game that constantly rewards you for taking the time to master those mechanics. All that being said, this isn’t a game for everybody. If you demand a compelling story, super streamlined gameplay, and top notch presentation, then you might want to look elsewhere. Etrian Mystery Dungeon can’t help but be a little unwieldy considering its sheer density and complex menus, and the story and graphics are really just serviceable, but those are the only real issues with the game. For those willing to invest the effort and time, Etrian Mystery Dungeon is a phenomenal game that will challenge and reward you in equal measure.

Nintendojo was provided a copy of this game for review by a third party, though that does not affect our recommendation. For every review, Nintendojo uses a standard criteria.

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