Saturday, June 1, 2013

Why Etrian Odyssey III is One of the Nintendo DS's Must-Play RPGs

I've been re-playing Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City, lately, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else, and I thought I'd try to get down some thoughts about why I find the game so compelling.

Quick basics: Etrian 3 is a first-person dungeon crawler in the style of old school PC games like Wizardry and the early Ultimas - a brutally hard, story-lite descent into a dungeon full of traps and monsters. The genre saw a resurgence in the latter

half of the Nintendo DS's lifespan, mostly thanks to Atlus realizing that the handheld was a perfect platform for graphically light, gameplay-deep games. The Etrian series' primary 'gimmick' is that you use the DS's touchscreen to draw your own map - a throwback to the old days when players were expected to keep books of graph paper next to the computer or risk getting miserably lost.

There are several FPRPGs on the DS (besides the Etrian games, the most prominent is probably the excellent Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey). So why does The Drowned City command so much of my attention?

1) Pick up and put down

One reason I've been giving The Drowned City so much of my time is that it's remarkably considerate of it. Previous games in the series had a nasty tendency to stretch dungeon crawls out to unpleasant lengths in the interest of challenge - you had to keep pushing forward or you'd essentially lose your progress. But TDC's map designers sprinkle shortcuts throughout their levels which can only be accessed for the first time from their more difficult side. This leaves the initial pushes into dungeon floors pleasantly challenging, while making progress easy to resume if you're forced back to town, and bypassing a dungeon floor you've already cleared a snap. And since these shortcuts are invisible, they give a nice bonus to the diligent cartographer, since careful notation is the only way to keep track of where they are.

The Drowned City also encourages variation in the gameplay experience through the use of the Ocean Exploration metagame. For a small fee, the player can load their party on a boat and explore the oceans around the titular city of Armoroad. Diligent maritime explorers can make money, discover hidden items and equipment, and unlock a series of challenging bonus bosses. Ocean Exploration is light on combat, acting more as a puzzle game, and it works wonderfully to clear the palate after a tricky boss fight or arduous bout of exploration. The only annoyance is that progress in the metagame is staggered by progress in the main game, which can feel stifling at times. But it also makes sense - if the Ocean's primary purpose is distraction, you can't let players burn through it in a single sitting.

2) Class

The level progression system in The Drowned City is fairly simple - for every level a character gains, they gain a single point that can be invested in their class skills. The innovation comes in the variety of those skills, and the classes that they make up.

The first Etrian game's classes were vanilla - a melee fighter, a tank, a wizard, a healer, etc. Their roles in the party were clearly defined, with the only tactical ambiguity being that, while the front and back party rows each have 3 slots, the games limit you to 5 characters in a battle party, meaning there will always be gaps that need to be covered with savvy strategy.

The Drowned City keeps the five-character limit, but mixes the classes in interesting ways. The tank can be optimized to be a massive damage dealer. The primary mezzer (a role that applies status effects to enemies, vital in Etrian's combat) does so by summoning companion animals into the party's sixth slot who then fight as NPC helpers (the sixth slot is also employed by ninjas, melee fighters who can create clones of themselves. The conflict over who gets to USE the sixth slot is one of the interesting ways the game's classes interact).

The most intriguing of these hybrid classes is the Prince, a kind of passive healer/buffer. The Prince's base abilities are a set of buffs which can increase attack power, protect from status effects, etc. But the rest of his skill tree is devoted to a sort of powerful but slow passive healing. Characters he buffs can regain health. If he removes a debuff placed on a character by an enemy, they regain MP (or, to be technical, TP). And, most usefully, if the Prince is at full health at the end of a round, he emits a party-wide regen effect, perfect for keeping the party in top form but devastating if the Prince takes a hit. The 5-person-party means the Prince will almost certainly be filling the healer role (instead of the Monk, an unarmed combat expert with several direct-healing spells but few buffs), meaning that the entire focus of the party shifts to keeping him (or her, as a Princess) at full health.

The whole system becomes even more fascinating/complicated when, 10 hours in, the option to subclass becomes available. Each character gets access to the almost-complete skill tree of one other class, allowing you to develop synergies between skills and shore up weaknesses in the build. A Prince can be subclassed to a Monk, to be able to heal himself back up to full so that the party can benefit, or to a Ninja to boost his evade so that he's never hit. The complexities of the skill trees and the subclass system lead to a lot of my time away from the game thinking about what builds and what skills would work together to create an optimal party (or, in  some cases, apparently pointless skills make me wonder why they were included at all, leading to excitement when I stumble on a powerful synergy that makes these 'useless' skills incredibly powerful - a late game unlockable class, for instance, relies entirely on inflicting status effects on itself to increases its combat power).

And you need an optimal party. Or, near-optimal at least. Because:

3) Challenge

The Drowned City is, as I said, a brutally hard game, something it inherits from its PC forebears. That difficulty comes in two flavors - exploration, and bosses.

Exploration covers tackling the mazes themselves - solving puzzles, fighting enemies, keeping your characters healthy. The star here is the player's own mapmaking. I know this sounds dumb - like a chore the game designers force upon you - but there is a real thrill in navigating via a map you created yourself. Working out how to best notate traps and dungeon features, leaving notes for yourself - it's just plain fun, and it gives me a real sense of ownership over my exploration.

Exploration also plays heavily in the game's crafting system. Monsters drop items that you sell in town to get better equipment to kill more monsters to get items to etc., etc., etc. But many monsters have 'conditional' drops - only gained when the monster is, say, killed on the first turn of battle, or killed while their head is bound, or with fire damage. The myriad requirements (most of which are hinted at in the game, although some must be puzzled out on one's own) force the player to keep a diverse set of skills on hand lest they lose access to the most powerful equipment.

And you'll need that equipment to take down the bosses on display in this game. These are more-or-less perfectly tuned to the level the player should be at to face them (one of the best things about The Drowned City is that, until you reach the endgame, there is almost no reason for a smart player to grind at all). They use powerful moves (that can often be effectively countered if you have the right characters and a proper observation of patterns), status effects (which can be negated if you have the right build), and huge health bars (many of which can be whittled down more quickly if you take advantage of elemental weaknesses). The best thing I can say of the boss designs in The Drowned City is that, after having my ass handed to me by them, my response is never 'That was unfair. I'd better grind some more levels," but "I need to adjust my strategy and pay more attention next time."

Closing thoughts:

The genesis for this little(?) piece was a brief Twitter conversation Michael Peterson (aka @patchworkearth), author of the reliably fantastic web comic Project: Ballad, about his difficulties in trying to get into the games. The common point of comparison for us was SMT: Strange Journey, The Drowned City's stiffest competition for the title of best first-person dungeon crawl on the DS (a much prized trophy, no doubt). Strange Journey wins, easily, on the basis of being a game 'about' something - it has loads to say about religion, humanity, environmentalism... But from a strictly gameplay point of view, I find The Drowned City's class-system to be significantly more engaging, and less time-consuming, than Strange Journey's demon summoning/fusion system for gaining access to power and skills. A lot of that has to do with transparency - Strange Journey's system involves a lot of futzing around with fusion guides and skill inheritance rules, while Etrian lets you see every skill a class can get from the moment you create a character. That transparency lets you start planning out strategies from the moment you start, and that planning, for me, is the true heart of the game's appeal.

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