When the 3DS family hardware was officially discontinued in September 2020, fans of the Etrian Odyssey series questioned what this meant for the dungeon-crawling RPG. With the release of Etrian Odyssey Nexus in 2018, the franchise had gone silent for quite a while, with some fans even fearing that Nexus was meant to be the farewell title to the series as a whole.
Atlus broke this silence in February this year with the announcement of the Etrian Odyssey Origins Collection. The remaster collection compiles the series’ first three games over to the PC and Nintendo Switch. The title was created to replicate the feeling of retro games in the genre like 1981’s Wizardry, albeit with more modern sensibilities.
With a game relatively light on storytelling and full of challenging encounters, Etrian Odyssey stays faithful to its inspiration, most notably recognized for its bubbly aesthetics, paired with deceptive difficulty. With the power of the Nintendo DS and the 3DS afterward, the game also thrived on the handheld consoles with features such as the mapping system replicating the pen-and-paper style navigation that set itself apart from other first-person dungeon crawlers in the market.
As someone who has experienced four out of the available ten games in the series, here’s a look at the Etrian Odyssey Origins Collection as a whole, looking into the ins and outs of what was changed in this celebratory revival of the beloved dungeon crawler, and ultimately gauge how it fairs as a potential viewpoint into the series’ future.
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▍A Gamebook-like Approach to Storytelling
As a series of first-person dungeon crawler titles otherwise known as Sekaiju no Meikyuu (Labyrinth of the World Tree) in Japan, the goal of the games is kept remarkably simple; As an adventurer, you come to town in search of riches, revelations, or maybe just the thrill of it all. New to the town, you form an adventurer’s guild and set off on an adventure that takes you deep into the many strata of the labyrinth that sprawls within the Yggdrasil world tree.
…And that’s about it for all three games. Though some story parts are sprinkled sporadically, Etrian Odyssey asks you to fill in the blanks as the player. Eschewing conventional devices such as overbearing storylines and pre-determined characters, it instead grants players the freedom to build their characters and fill them with their own stories.
Etrian Odyssey offers no voice acting, and most story snippets are presented in text narration form, with character interactions kept at a bare minimum. While the story in all three titles offers context and some backstory for your characters, the narrative won’t be what players will be captivated by until reaching the latter half of the games. This is especially true for the first two entries in the series, as they aim to replicate the more open-ended choose-your-adventure style storytelling method.
Etrian Odyssey III loosens up on this dogma, adds a branching narrative, and even culminates in a story with multiple ending paths depending on your choice. Side quests also open up a lot more, with the thematic ocean expedition mini-game that adds an extra layer to the exploration while adding worldbuilding and side characters with whom your adventurers will interact.
While Etrian Odyssey’s bare-bones storytelling approach may leave some simply wanting more, if you can get around to the open mindset of creating your characters and stories just like its analogous inspiration, there is much to appreciate from the small moments within the labyrinth that read like flavor texts of tabletop RPG. Not to mention, overcoming the challenges in the dungeons might bring you more attached to your homebrew cast of adventurers as you venture forth.
▍Build your own Adventurer Guild
Character creation in Etrian Odyssey is relatively simple on the surface but runs deep and granular when getting into defined character builds. Each of the three games offers a set of 10+ classes for each game, with five character portraits to choose from. And from there, you’re left to your own devices. From naming them to forming a team of five, the game asks you to come up with your own set of characters.
Surprisingly, the character customization aspects found in the later 3DS Etrian Odyssey titles, such as custom voices and custom color portraits, are absent in the HD remaster. As a sort of halfway measure, you get to choose any character portrait for any given class this time around, much like how Etrian Odyssey V did it albeit without the prerequisites found in that title.
Regardless, the new character sprites are an excellent addition as they allow players to fill out a party entirely made up of a particular class if they so wished. While the character customization aspects from the future titles not being present feel like a step backward for 3DS players, it’s also understandable that as a remaster, Atlus wanted to keep the integrity of each title, strictly keeping in line with what was available in each of the three titles.
Tangentially, character building is an entirely different matter that makes each of the three titles available in the Etrian Odyssey Origins Collection unique and enjoyable in their own right. While I won’t regale readers with EVERY intricate way they function in the different games, each character class from Landsknechts to Hexers to Androids all have unique roles they can serve in a party of five, allowing for infinite amounts of player expression in terms of strategies. Etrian Odyssey III even goes a step further adding sub-classes to the mix later in the game, adding a new level of granularity.
Skill points are scarce as you gain one per level. You’ll have to be mindful of the fact that each character won’t be able to hit every available ability on their skill tree, essentially meaning some level of min-maxing is required. If you ever find yourself making a mistake or simply feel like a party member is lacking in staying power, the games offer a re-spec option at the cost of 5 levels off that character too.
▍Punishing Combat Encounters that Reward Preparation
Suppose you have any experience with the later entry of the franchise in its 3DS iterations. In that case, you will immediately feel at home with the often punishing, sometimes brutal encounters found in the labyrinth of Etria, High Lagaard, and Armoroad.
The battle screen in Etrian Odyssey Origins Collection retains the first-person view with a simple turn-based combat system that has you commanding up to five party members squaring off the enemy in a front-row back-row formation. Because of this, finding good team comps and formations is paramount to overcoming the many creatures found within the labyrinth. Powering your way through fights with basic attacks is a good strategy early on, but later floors will demand that you learn what each class excels at and how best to overcome different situations.
Enemies have a tough AI for the most part, being able to correctly attack and exploit openings in your team, such as party members with low health. Status ailments and stat-lowering abilities are incredibly deadly in most encounters and must be prepared accordingly. Something as simple as being poisoned can be life-threatening when the damage tick is sapping half of your tank equivalent’s HP every turn. An honorable mention goes to sleep, which causes the next hit to double damage, turning otherwise survivable blows fatal.
“Binds” are a unique negative status effect introduced into the mix in Etrian Odyssey, where they apply and restrict any actions related to the head, hands, or legs. For example, a head bind makes you unable to cast magic properly, and a leg bind will make you unable to dodge or escape from a fight. These powerful debuffs work both ways and are just as deadly when wielded by the adventurers.
Certain character classes, such as the Hexer, Dark Hunter, and Ninja possess skills focused entirely on applying binds and ailments as a way to shut down the enemies before they have a chance to strike. Binds are always a viable option for the players and offer an interesting, more technical playstyle than the more conventional sword and board tactics found elsewhere.
While every major encounter can feel absurdly difficult initially, the game always offers some form of opening in the enemy’s offensive. This is where the HD remasters shine, as opening up the monster codex to remind yourself what your opponents are weak to can be done during battles instead of having to go back to town to check. While you’ll have to beat the monster once, like in the original release, being able to pull up their specific weakness can be handy when going after rare drops or simply taking down tougher adversaries for EXP grinding.
While the combat can be punishing and outright cruel on some occasions, they are never out of reach, and with trial-and-error experimentations, careful planning, and team compositions can be cleared. Just don’t expect any foe, large or small, to go down without a proper fight.
▍Deadly Enemies That Prowl the Labyrinth
Speaking of challenging encounters, the Etrian Odyssey presents enemies known as the F.O.E.s (Field-On Enemy), who prowl the many floors of the dungeon. Depicted as a glowing, menacing ball of orange (or red) light, these enemies act as mini-bosses. Generally speaking, these entities are primarily out of the players’ league when first encountered and spell a quick death should you pick a fight willingly or not.
Because of their threat level, F.O.E.s are meant to be ‘puzzle-like’ encounters where the player must study their movement pattern and navigate a path around them without causing a stir that might aggravate them. For an added kick in the head, F.O.E.s can join battles in progress as a turn in battle is equivalent to a move on the map.
F.O.E.s only take a step when you do, but getting backed into a corner and forced into a fight can still be too easy if you aren’t aware of your surroundings. If you can take them down, there are some incredible rewards, and coming back to a dungeon once you’ve leveled up more can lead to extremely cathartic victories against enemies that would have decimated your party before. In short, the F.O.E. system makes every run through a dungeon special by introducing tangibly serious stakes to every step you take. For what’s an adventure without some life-threatening encounters?
▍Carving a Path One Stroke at a Time
One thing players uninitiated with the Etrian Odyssey series must understand is that map drawing is very much a necessity. Viewed in first-person at all times, players must do their part to survive and navigate the labyrinth, as it twists and turns.
Since everything looks the same on each floor, paying attention to your surroundings and noting down points of interest go a long way in all aspects of exploration. The DS/3DS’ form factor was perfect for this as the stylus and touch screen perfectly emulate the pen-and-paper RPG cartography methods of yore.
Notably, different floors have shortcuts that allow you to phase through an otherwise unassuming wall in the labyrinth. These have minimal, or at worst no visible indicators when looked at, meaning plopping down markers on the map is essential in navigating the dungeon while mitigating enemy encounters.
So what happens when you try to do touch controls designed for a handheld on the PC/Switch?
You end up with a control scheme that feels more like a compromise than a solution. Using Controllers on map navigation requires you to hold/let go of multiple buttons simultaneously, often leading to you unintentionally moving into squares or F.O.E.s that could cost precious resources, or at worse, a trip back to the title screen.
The mouse controls on PC do a far better job at approximating the feeling of the original, so going with a mouse & keyboard or even using a mouse & controller setup is recommended.
As a bonus, the remaster also features an auto-mapping mode that will automatically fill out the lines and floors you’ve stood on. While this alleviates some of the drawing necessary for map drawing, it certainly won’t hold your hands as any other icons and notes must be placed yourself.
Although this DIY approach could be considered tedious to some, the map-marking system makes Etrian Odyssey’s dungeon exploration involved, as players won’t be able to look at a conventional map to navigate their way. Finishing up a floor and looking at the complete map you’ve made for yourself feels rewarding in a unique way.
Ultimately, Etrian Odyssey implores more doubtful newcomers to give the map-making aspects of the game a shot but does not shy away from making the feature a necessity when the going gets tough. After all, the extent to which you detail your map is up to you alone, and the labyrinth will more often than not punish you for not paying attention to your surroundings.
▍QoL Features New to Etrian Odyssey Origins Collection
Etrian Odyssey Origins Collection titles also offer a much-refined experience that brings the NDS trilogy in line with the games that came afterward. UI functions have been modernized, with the ability to check enemy and ally status being a nice touch, as before, you were left keeping counts of your turns and buff durations. Information clarity goes a long way in these titles, as they relieve the need for players to flip through a chart to check for weaknesses and status by pulling up a guide somewhere during a fight.
While the three titles included in the collection are a single-player experience for the most part, Etrian Odyssey III is unique in this regard as the exclusive ocean quest game mode (which acts as replayable boss fights) can be done through online coop if you so wish. While I never dabbled in the function myself on the original NDS version, players getting in now can expect to partake in some jolly cooperation for some battles, as well as enjoy some minor social aspects such as item/guild card trading that can be done online on both PC and Switch versions of the HD remaster.
On the other hand, the newly introduced difficulty system is a mixed bag, as the default settings are a bit deceptive on the video game’s part.
Players will want to set the game to ‘Expert’ instead of the default ‘Basic’ for the actual NDS original difficulty settings. This also means that the Picnic difficulty serves as the game’s Very-Easy mode, where damage numbers are ludicrously adjusted in favor of the player. While it’s strange that the game’s default difficulty isn’t accurate to the original, the new Picnic mode can be helpful when grinding EXP or item drops, serving as a make-shift skip encounter button.
The music found throughout the first three Etrian Odyssey series should also be praised in the remaster, as the compositions of Yuzo Koshiro done on the FM-synthesis sound chip of the PC-8801 can be heard in their original form without the compression and samplings used for the original Nintendo DS. Popular soundtracks like “The End of the Raging Waves” and “Raise Thy Sword in Pride” that would later be remixed in the later games can be heard here, the way Koshiro intended. As a bonus, Etrian Odyssey III’s 6th Stratum, which previously used the generic battle soundtrack, now has a newly recorded battle theme.
While the jump to the 3DS platform from IV onward would go on to employ real instruments in its composition, the soundtracks of the first three Etrian Odysseys have a unique quality to them being played on the FM sound chip, in all of its crispy, snappy goodness akin to the soundscape of the Sega Genesis.
The Etrian Odyssey Origins Collection falls short in the places where the remaster stays accurate to its source material. Draw distance and repeating textures make it painfully noticeable that the game originated on old hardware, with graphical upgrades found on the later 3DS games, for example, visible F.O.E. models and wider FOV in the dungeon missing. This feels doubly puzzling, especially considering how I and II both received remakes that featured extra content alongside QoL features not present in this HD remaster.
While the three games are solid and engaging dungeon crawlers on their own, some players who have already experienced the aforementioned remake titles (Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl and Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold: The Fafnir Knight) may find the price tag and limited visual upgrades to be slightly dubious, given the USD$40 price tag placed on each title.
▍Etrian Odyssey Origins Collection Delivers a Distilled yet Hardcore Dungeon-Crawler Experience
Even today, the design decisions presented in the Etrian Odyssey Origins Collection offer players a more compelling and satisfying gameplay loop than many of its contemporaries. The game makes you invested and attached to your characters strictly through the trials and hardships you undergo. Though some sensibilities can feel archaic to on-lookers, the game at its core is rock solid. It delivers a challenging but rewarding dungeon-crawling experience that puts a unique emphasis on navigation and equal parts imagination.
Given that the Etrian Odyssey series depended so heavily on the dual-screen form factor of Nintendo’s now-forgone family of handhelds, it wasn’t entirely clear what form (if any) the series would take. The Origins Collection represents the possibility of a new Etrian Odyssey game outside of its natural habitat. While aspects like map drawing controls and balancing feel rough around the edges, one can see the developers trying to find their footing in this new single-screen layout the remaster presents.
As a series fan, I can personally say that the Etrian Odyssey Origins Collection is a fantastic way for new sprout adventurers to experience the first three entries of the beloved dungeon crawler RPG in a brand new way without the need of dusting off decade-old hardware.
This review is based on a Steam code provided by the publisher. Etrian Odyssey Origins Collection is now available on Nintendo Switch, and PC (Steam).
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Etrian Odyssey Origins Collection Review – Legendary Dungeon-Crawler Revitalized - QooApp Review
Even today, Etrian Odyssey offers a compelling and satisfying gameplay loop more than many of its contemporaries. The game makes you invested and attached to your characters strictly through the trials and hardships you undergo.
Application Category: Switch and PC (via Steam)