Enter the Dungeon:
I was expecting Etrian Mystery Dungeon to be absolutely evil. This very classic dungeon crawler is the lovechild of two series bent on sadism, so I went in sweating bullets. Luckily, these two famous roguelikes decided against the design ethos of ‘two times the rougelike, two times the pain’ and have created something that is really enjoyable despite its overly mean parents.
As a crossover between two Japanese studios mashing their creations together I was surprised to find the story of EMD fairly tame and straightforward. Your faceless wanderer has come to a town that’s bursting with activity, surrounded by multi-level dungeons just itching to be explored. You – and a whole slew of other adventurers – have travelled to this town solely for the reason of exploring these dungeons and defeating the monsters within.
That’s pretty much it – and I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, both Etrian and Mystery Dungeon usually put very little emphasis on their story. Instead, the game speaks for itself as a horribly addictive dungeon crawler that doesn’t bother with narrative in its endless search for better loot and bigger monsters.
Don’t be fooled: whilst this game is definitely Etrian flavoured, it’s a Mystery Dungeon game through and through – and that’s a great thing. Whilst I personally prefer Etrian’s first person exploring and map charting (criminally unused in this crossover), Mystery Dungeon’s top down dungeon crawling with its unique active-turn-based-battle-system is a fine alternative. The two titles really complement each other as well, with some great systems, classes and skill trees pulled directly from Etrian Odyssey’s most recent iterations.
As you descend into dungeons – and the game doesn’t hesitate at throwing you into them as early as possible – you move about a grid based map looking for enemies, loot and stairs (to delve even deeper). Get to the end of the dungeon and – should you beat the boss – you’re done, free to head back up to town, cash in and divvy up your loot, level your characters and prepare for the next great adventure.
Combat is an odd affair for the uninitiated. As you move, all enemies nearby move directly afterwards, and the same goes for attacks. Whilst it’s a simple twist on the classic turn based formula, newcomers may have a little trouble getting their approaches right. Knowing the movement and attack patterns of your enemies is tantamount to your success: if you reach an enemy first, they get a free attack on you. Whilst this normally isn’t a problem, I made some very silly mistakes early on that cost me an adventurer simply because I let one too many enemies take a couple of free hits.
Once you work out its systems though EMD quickly becomes a devilishly addictive dungeon crawler. It’s punishing, with death stripping you of money and items, but there are systems in place (like rescue parties made up of your reserve team members) that add forgiving wrinkles to the otherwise standard roguelike formula. Considering I have spent much of my adult life screaming at Etrian Odyssey games for its slightly unfair instadeaths and crushing game overs, I was pleased to see Mystery Dungeon’s penalties won out when these two giants clashed.
EMD looks great, with Etrian’s distinct and familiar art style giving this title huge amounts of colour and personality. The dungeons themselves, and the enemies within them, can feel a bit samey at times, with reused assets hurting the aesthetics, but the core look and feel of the game is an overall success. I was never bored by what I saw, with some of the boss monsters being particularly brilliant.
Also of note are the fantastic menus and the town itself: this game offers a lot of customization, deep inventory management and character levelling systems that could have easily muddied a great game. Thankfully clean and concise menu design saves EMD from this classic pitfall and everything remains a simple treat.
“Etrian Mystery Dungeon” sounds like a recipe for sadistic disaster. Two contemporary roguelikes, both equally formidable, could have made a much meaner game than this. Luckily, EMD knows how much is too much, and its difficulty curve toes the right side of the line when it comes to challenge. I really enjoyed my time spent dungeon-diving in EMD, and I look forward to many more hours with the game.
There’s still so much here to see and do, so if you’ll excuse me…