Something new in familiar wrapping.
On the tail end of the successful Persona/Etrian mash-up that was Persona Q, Atlus and Spike Chunsoft combined efforts are bringing Etrian Mystery Dungeon into the 3DS RPG line-up. Although Etrian has known success thus far in the west, Spike’s Mystery Dungeon has mostly become known outside Japan through their collaborative titles like Pokemon Mystery Dungeon. RPG fans can sate their Etrian cravings and get to know a more distant acquaintance at the same time with this enjoyable marriage of familiar dungeon crawl with randomization and tactical switch-ups.
This time, prospective adventurers find themselves in the town of Aslarga, whose famed shifting ‘mystery dungeons’ are raking in a host of competent warriors with the allure of treasure and glory. But the charming town has a problem—namely, impending doom. The only remedy? A brave, selfless RPG protagonist who happens to arrive and gather a guild of rather proficient companions with a thirst for doing exactly what everyone needs.
The story itself is basic, but it never pretends to be more than a straightforward direction in a game with a different focus. While competition in the genre grows increasingly complex, Etrian Mystery Dungeon relishes in this simplicity. It’s one driving goal after another that keeps your guild delving further into the mystery dungeons, but there are many other motivations such as loot, experience, and fulfilling quests that keep you going back and expanding your exploration further. While there is still a little story to be had, the game never strays far from the dungeon-crawling core.
Most of the player’s time is spent in a recurring cycle surrounding the exploration of each new dungeon. True to Etrian titles, players create their own guild roster from traditional classes and three new ones thrown in a little later. Once you’re done selecting your party, updating their gear and managing your item storage in town, a Skyship will transport your party to your choice of dungeon out of those unlocked. Inside, every single step taken factors in to the tactical approach this title brings to the table.
Mystery Dungeon’s contribution to this game comes most prominently in dungeon exploration, which has largely been revamped from the Etrian style to feel more interactive than the old turn-based staple. 3D chibi character sprites are controlled from a top-down perspective and move around each randomized floor of a dungeon, encountering enemies and loot as they continue. Players will always control only one character in the party, although the leader can be swapped at any time with a single click, while the rest of the party is controlled by AI. Fortunately these AIs are mostly intelligent in their choice of skills and attack and are usually more helpful than hindering when they are not locked on to a fleeing monster like a dog after a squirrel or spamming skills and squeezing their TP for all its worth. Control freaks might have problems with this system and find themselves constantly flipping between leaders in an attempt to balance their members as much as possible. The game attempts to alleviate the issue some by allowing an automatic switch to an AI when there is a crucial decision to be made, such as which enemy to target when multiple are in range or whether to heal someone whose health has fallen dangerously low. This system cuts down on wasted time in simple enemy battles, but can be extremely stressful when players pop into a horde of six or seven enemies. Boss fights do thankfully change however, allowing for full control of each character’s action like a more traditional RPG.
Switching between party leaders also proves useful when trying to extend your time in the labyrinth as much as possible. A new mechanic introduced requires the use of FP (food points) to move, but each character has their own set of 100 FP to exhaust that are not used while they are not party leader. You do run the risk of throwing a healer or caster into a sticky situation when using them as leader, but it can be just the thing you need to make it through the last floor or two as opposed to leaving the dungeon and having to fight through the upper floors all over again. Items can also be carried in to restore FP, but the trade off is eliminating space in your already very limited inventory.
Inside the dungeon, each step taken, skill used or attack launched counts as a turn. While it doesn’t matter much until enemy encounters, it becomes important to get a handle on very early because fatal mistakes can be made in a single turn. This sensitivity can really work against you at times. Even trying to change the direction a character is facing can lead to accidentally wasting a turn. Running from battle is also made nearly impossible, so items can become your best friend when trying to save your loot and experience from wipe.
Battle flow can be very hit or miss. Because enemies and three of your characters run on AI, turns swap faster than you can often keep track of and it can be disorienting when it finally arrives back at your party leader’s turn, and taking care to glance over everything each turn is really the only way to bounce back. Even though movement keeps everything up with an almost real-time feel, skill and item drag it right back down. There are shortcuts to utilize, but these slots quickly cannot keep up with the growing skill tree and flipping between menus in battle becomes more common. The only battles with reliably comfortable pacing are boss battles, even if they are a little slower thanks to more control in the player’s hands.
But just in case this dungeon crawl was feeling too different for comfort, Etrian Mystery Dungeon sees the return of FOEs in the form of new DOEs. These super-monsters will put an early end to your entire adventure if left to their own instead of wandering aimlessly in a labyrinth waiting to ruin your day. DOEs crawl up through the dungeon toward the town and can only be stopped by building a fort to stand in its way. Forts have many other uses, such as leveling unused guild members, but this is the big one. If your fort is manned, a battle with this enemy will ensue, but if not, the fort will just be destroyed before the monster skulks back to the depths. Naturally, loot provides incentive to battle and some quests require it for completion.
There is no shortage of appeal to this game for those who can appreciate a classic dungeon crawler. Unfortunately for non-fans, there isn’t much else on the table. Story is simplistic and most of the game focuses on time spent exploring and clearing your way through these randomized labyrinths, with only small details like side quests and weapons forging to take up your time outside. While a spinoff title, it still finds its home in the same niche that Etrian has dug for itself already. But added elements from Mystery Dungeon give us just enough variation to change up the formula while holding tight to what we love from Etrian, and their marriage is beautiful. The game does not polish perfectly and has its share of pitfalls, but it is a more than worthwhile addition to the 3DS RPG library.