Etrian Mystery Dungeon is the latest entry/spinoff in the Etrian series that changes up what long-time fans know while reformatting a handful of systems for the new style of gameplay. Making use of the classic Mystery Dungeon style of game, this game adds some harsh difficulty and interesting twists to the formula.
Let’s address the elephant in the room; this game came out a whole two months earlier in the US, published by Atlus, and well before that in Japan. Meanwhile here in the UK, we’ve been sitting about like utter tools waiting for NIS America to be able to localise it. Nonetheless, it’s here now and oh it’s everything we could’ve hoped for. Combining the intense dungeon-crawling experience with the top-down mystery dungeon gameplay could be likened to finding a loose tenner on the floor – JACKPOT!
If you’re unfamiliar with what mystery dungeons are, it’s basically a top down tile-based dungeon crawler, usually combined with harsh difficulty and tons of RPG elements. As you progress through each floor of a dungeon, the enemies get tougher but the rewards increase. You may remember previous games that have taken up the genre, such as Pokémon Mystery Dungeon Red/Blue, Shiren the Wanderer or the lesser known Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon. The Pokémon one was my first experience in the genre (a great starting point if the game type seems a bit daunting).
Goddamn, 3DS screenshots are tiny huh?
Etrian Mystery Dungeon is pretty easy to pick up though. The game has a very minimalistic plot which honestly could just not be there and the game would achieve the same effect, but at least it’s not completely intrusive and introduces certain gameplay elements bit by bit. You start off forming your guild and selecting your first member. The first member is always the generic warrior class, in the Etrian series they’re usually called landsknechts, but at least you get to select their gender and one of four colour palettes they can use. So I created a female warrior named Katrina with a purple design and formed the mightiest guild – Ragnarok. I wish I could say I name guilds after y’know the end of days, but I actually call them Ragnarok because of the airship in Final Fantasy VIII…
From here you’re given an excuse to delve into a simple starter dungeon and get to grips with the core gameplay. There’s minimal tutorials at the start of each floor, but you’re mostly expected to learn how to play by experimenting (or asking the guildmaster in town for some tips – no one reads manuals anymore). You’ll be shown a variety of systems available while some aren’t really talked about and are left for your own experimentation – such as the different kinds of throwable items and how to effectively use them. Some shoot lightning or act as bombs, others can be thrown and heal teammates at range without the use of a healer class character.
After this quick trek into the first dungeon you’ll unlock a bunch of new classes and be allowed to fill your party with up to four of them. Initially you’ll have access to Landsknecht, Protector, Gunner, Runemaster, Medic, Dancer and Hexer. If you’ve played Etrian games you’ll recognise these instantly. In this game they all come complete with a similar skill system to the previous games, allowing you to fully customize each skill point your character has or just let the AI go wild by selecting one of the automatic settings. Each automatic skill point setting is set to gear that character towards a certain playstyle, but if you want every skill there’s also a balanced option. A mission or two later in the game you’ll also unlock three more classes – Ninja, Sovereign and Wanderer. Each class is pretty unique and play totally differently, so it’s hard to figure out which ones work well together and which skills to focus on. Your party leader’s skills can be hotkeyed to L + another button for ease of access, reducing the number of menus you have to trawl through in battle. Some classes are also limited by the type of weapons they can use – Medics can use maces and wands, Ninjas stick to daggers and swords while dancers use rapiers. Weapon types are given a pseudo-elemental properties too – Etrian Mystery Dungeon’s seven attributes are fire, ice, volt, untyped, cut, stab and bash with the latter three being part of the physical type tree and the former four being elemental. Weapon types are assigned one of the physical elements, such as swords being cut type, rifles being stab type and maces being bash – some rare weapons can also have an elemental type alongside their physical attribute. To avoid repeating myself, armour works in pretty much the same way.
My initial party consisted of my first character the landsknecht, a gunner, a medic and a runemaster. The later unlockable classes unlock some very unique and odd methods of playing that I can only assume are designed for the hardcores. You know who you are, you crazy bastards. Anyway, this is where the game truly opens up. The town in which the game is set, Aslarga, can be upgrades by pumping your own money into the four key facilities – the hotel, for resting, storing equipment and saving the game, the market for buying, selling and upgrading items, the restaurant (or eatery as the game calls it. Yo, we have a word for that already!) for accepting quests and getting buff effects from eating meals, and the guild for managing your guild and party members. Upgrading them increases things such as storage and inventory space, available quests, meals available at the inn and empty slots in your guild, so the upgrades can be pretty vital.
I love how different the classes actually are. Gunners and magic users have such interesting ranged mechanics that fit in with the “easy to learn, tough to master” ideology. Their abilities are all ranged but can have a variety of effects from stunning, paralyzing or locking a monster’s skills to dishing out insane area-of-effect elemental damage. Meanwhile protectors are basically human shields that tank hits and provoke enemies to keep the rest of the party safe, often following a classic strategy by being paired with a medic to keep them alive. It’s all a no brainer really but these classes have to be designed to fit the method and function properly, like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s just a shame that customization of how each guild member looks is purely limited to their colour palette and the weapons they’ve got equipped.
As you explore dungeons you’ll also eventually be able to build forts and place some of your guild members on guard there. Your team will level up naturally just by being in the guild, but placing them in forts enhances the effects. I’ve found you can actually level up characters quicker through this than by actually taking them into dungeons with you. A little broken, maybe, but it helps keep party members at a similar level when they’re not being used. The coolest thing about these forts is that after building one in a dungeon the area map is locked in – layouts of each area will change, but you will be able to see where your fort is on the map and the route to take to it. You can also actually visit the fort and utilise the fort’s properties to help you progress, be it the traps hidden around that can snare monsters or the safer travel to the next lair of the dungeon. The story segment before the fourth dungeon implies that it’s beneficial to build forts and place units there to stop an oncoming monster threat from reaching the town, but I don’t know if that’s just the game encouraging the player to mess with the fort system or if they’re actually all that useful. There’s several different fort types that can be unlocked, each with their own benefits.
At this point I’ve dragged on a little bit, but it’s such a complex game that I have to describe each system. To narrow some of it down, I’ve devised a handful of handy rules for Etrian Mystery Dungeon that highlight some key points;
- The game is HARD! But it’s a risk=reward system. If your party is low on health you can head back to the surface (through use of an item or trekking back to the top of the dungeon) or you can risk travelling further down in the hopes of finding healing items or a way out. In this game, the way out is usually after a boss. If your party die, you’ll either lose a lot of items and equipment they have, or if you’ve got spare party members you’ll be able to launch a rescue party to go in and save the other team. This mechanic is brilliant and allows you a second chance to protect your precious gear. Trust me, you’ll end up having to do this at least once so make sure you have a team that are capable on standby.
- Party selection can be crucial – especially on bosses. Having the right classes to compliment and support each other can really help, though often picking your strongest character and going for a bit of solo dungeoneering can be beneficial since the exp you earn is split between party members. Again, the risk of fighting solo rewards you with a ton of levels and skill points
- The maps are random and the items there get reset even if you’ve built a fort there, so don’t get used to them and don’t leave behind anything you want to keep. You have limited inventory space (though you can upgrade this eventually) so travel lightly. Materials gained from fighting monsters don’t take up inventory space, but useful items for healing and battling or equipment will begin to pile up and clog your inventory. On some floors, a mysterious girl and her shop can pop up which is really handy. You can sell items to her to clear inventory space and get some of that sweet moolah.
- Don’t get attached to just one character. Make an army and swap between a few favourites. Sure, your initial character is a pretty solid leader for most of the game, but you’ve got ninjas, wanderers, protectors and more to play with. Don’t knock ’em ’til you try ’em eh?
- Challenge yourself! Make a party of four ninjas, name them after Tenchu characters and try run through the game with them! I found myself setting my own challenges and having much more fun with that than actually focusing on the quests. In fact here’s the ultimate challenge – a party of just medics. Sure you can heal for a while, but when you’ve got no magic left you’ll be left with a group of squishy mace wielders with a couple redeeming melee skills.
Etrian Mystery Dungeon’s presentation is fantastic. Beautiful music that honestly doesn’t get dull despite it repeating a lot during dungeons, fantastic character portraits and a beautifully animated art-style that has colours pop, especially with the 3D function of the 3DS. It’s one of the few 3DS games that actually look good in 3D.
God I’ve gushed about this game for 2000 words, if you’re still reading then I commend your appetite for Etrian Mystery Dungeon info.
When I try to summarise it, I keep coming back to the same conclusion. Etrian Mystery Dungeon is a game stuck between modern and classic styles of the same genre. The game has ball squashing difficulty that requires you learn the system, yet with an hour or so of grinding you’re pretty much good to just smash through whatever tough boss was keeping you from progressing thanks to the fort system levelling your unused guild members. It’s a refreshing experience in an age full of RPGs that look exactly the same, yet has repetitive quests that ask for ridiculous items. An early quest asks the player to go find a wing or some other body part from an enemy called a demon hopper. You might think that’s fine, until you realise the insanely low drop rate this item has. I’ve mashed up hordes of insect monsters in search of it and still haven’t found one. Despite this, it’ll hook you if you let it… after the first hour or so. In terms of new RPGs on the 3DS it might not be at the top, but you could definitely do much worse right now.