I spent an entire weekend exploring a demo dungeon from The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall. It was created by developers who thought the best way to showcase their efforts was to start underwater, surrounded by monsters. Video game dungeons are dark, perilous places, generally designed by sociopaths. Ladies and gentlemen, Etrian Odyssey 2: Untold.
Atlas’s RPG might open with sun dappled forest avenues, full of cute pastel hued beasts – but you can’t fool me. If I’m moving around one grid square at a time in the four cardinal compass directions fighting turn based random encounters then I know what the deal is.
For the uninitiated, Etrian Odyssey is a franchise rooted in 80s nostalgia. A series of retro RPGs with a reputation for merciless difficulty levels. The “Untold” games are remixes of the earlier Etrian Odyssey titles, tarted up since their original DS releases with added story modes and tweaked to be less intimidating for newcomers. If the idea of tuning an old school dungeon crawl for player comfort seems alien and/or offensive, hear me out.
The full-fat, brutal experience that long term fans expect is still there. You can ramp the difficulty level up and jump into classic mode. The joy of experimenting with party builds and the myriad character classes remains intact. Even the most basic random combat encounter can put you in jeopardy if handled poorly.
Story mode presents you with a cast of anime trope riddled heroes and non-playable characters spout cliched dialogue at every opportunity. It’s pleasant fluff but the frequent interruptions started to wear after a while. It’s worth noting that the dungeon layouts are identical to classic mode, for players who want to try both modes. What the story offers is structure and a ready made party for players who want a meat and potatoes JRPG experience without the deep dive into party management. Both modes allow you to change difficulty mid game.
This is a game of simple pleasures. Even with story mode I soon fell into the familiar rhythm of exploration and retreats back to town. The act of filling in every detail on the map and leaving annotations was so satisfying I couldn’t bring myself to try the automapping settings.
There’s a great contradiction in a game that can steamroll you in minutes, but remains a restful experience even while it’s knocking off your party members one by one. There are moments of tension provided by Etrian Odyssey’s trademark unique selling point; the foes. Wandering monsters show up on your map and serve as boss encounters for the reckless. Or, if you’re feeling cautious, increasingly complex navigation puzzles.
Tricking the FOE into environmental hazards can weaken them. Most are avoidable, but they continue to move around the map like clockwork while combat encounters plays out. If a FOE stumbles into you mid-scrap they’ll join in. This is something that the level design seeks to exploit, leading to situations involving many FOEs that cascade out of control if not dealt with swiftly.
Ever since it’s 2007 debut on the original Nintendo DS, the series has boasted impressive production values. This entry is no exception; dungeon environments and their denizens are full of character and minor detail. The moe character art stays on the right side of the cute / creepy divide for the most part. It is beautifully executed and there’s some impressive anime movie cut-scenes at key points in the story mode. The whole package oozes quality and a cheerful disposition. It feels like technological witchcraft compared to the 80s classics that inspired it.
Like most handheld RPGs Etrian Odyssey 2: Untold is designed to be a massive time-sink. It’s an experience to chip away at bit by bit over a long period of time, but one I was more than willing to spend the occasional lengthy session with. Although there’s few surprises to be had for franchise devotees and genre diehards, there’s a comforting familiarity and sense of depth to everything it does.