Game Reviewby Dave Riley, Oct 1st 2013
Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl
Etrian Odyssey Untold is a remake of the original Etrian Odyssey with refined mechanics in the style of Etrian Odyssey IV and a significantly expanded plot.
It seems brazen, putting out two Etrian Odyssey games barely six months apart. The dungeon crawler is not a format with particularly widespread appeal, and Etrian Odyssey Untold has not only its predecessor to contend with, but also Shin Megami Tensei IV, released in July, and Shin Megami Tensei: Soul Hackers, released in April. 2013 has been an eventful year for dungeon crawlers.
Etrian Odyssey Untold is a remake of the first game in the series using the sensibilities of the fourth. Like EOIV, it has fully 3D monsters (many of them snatched directly from IV) and dungeons, and a dramatically higher fidelity soundtrack. There's an easier mode to ease the burden of Etrian Odyssey's trademark unrelenting difficulty. Even on normal difficulty players are allowed to continue, but only once. RPG players are known for hoarding their consumables, and that single do-over becomes like the hyperelixir to end all hyperelixirs. It's likely you'll deny the option to continue a half a dozen times or more, waiting for the exact right moment, the exact right wipe where you know you could've turned it around, if only you'd had another chance.
Mapmaking has been softened a bit too. There are now options to not only automatically draw the floor of the dungeon as it's explored, but also the walls. This streamlines the cartography such that an apathetic explorer could get away with only a few doodles per floor, but still leaves the committed explorer with a full array of icons to denote damaging floors, hidden treasure chests, and healing flora. Sidequests have returned, though, frustratingly, without Etrian Odyssey IV's defense mechanism against accidentally selling quest materials to the item shop.
Also missing is Etrian Odyssey IV's (and III's) wide world to explore. That's fitting, given the first game's strict focus on the dungeon crawling. In place of the world map, a large dungeon (part story dump, part puzzle) called the Gladsheim breaks up the labyrinth mapping every few floors. Instead of exploring the outside world, time spent outside the dungeon is mostly consumed by the new Grimoire system, which allows the combination and equipping of crystals imbued with character or monster abilities. In some ways this is fantastic, especially in how it allows for healing or tanking characters to equip utility skills, like buffs and debuffs, to use during lull times in the battle, without wasting their few skill points on abilities outside of their main role.
However, the system is cumbersome, really the one misstep in a game whose mechanics are clean and easily defined. Combining grimoires is not difficult, but it is time-consuming and ill explained. What's more, acquiring new grimoires is based almost entirely on luck, so there's no guarantee that you'll have what you want when you want it, and there's no guarantee you'll actually be able to combine it into something useful when you do. Rejiggering your grimoire setup isn't required in every town visit, but each time you sit down and do it the game's pace grinds to a halt and you spend twenty minutes sifting through poorly sorted menus. Grimoires are somewhat optional, but the results can be satisfying, for those willing to put in the time. The Highlander's Bloodlust, a counter attack ability, is a natural fit for your tank, so obvious a combination it's barely worth mentioning. But if you take a grimoire with Bloodlust and combine it with a one containing the Gunner's Vulcan Stance, then each of your tank's counter attacks will hit every enemy on the battlefield. These high-powered combinations make the time spent cobbling together grimoires feel worthwhile, despite the finicky nature of the system.
The game is better balanced -- Immunize no longer converts 300 damage hits to 30 damage hits -- and there are other little changes, here and there. It also gives you a maid. She brews you tea that restores hit points or mana at the end of every turn and go on shopping expeditions, returning with healing items. For the most part, however, things are here as they were in Etrian Odyssey, with one major exception: Untold has a story.
To be fair, these games have always had stories, relayed three or four lines of dialogue at a time by talking heads (more experienced adventurers, state officials) to your party of generics, who only came close to speaking a word when the medic identified a healing plant in a random dungeon tile. No, this is different. This game's story is "story," which means story as we've come to accept it from anime, and videogames, and especially videogames with obvious anime influences. Your character, the mostly-mute Highlander, has been called to Etria by its ruling body, the Radha, and will eventually explore an ancient ruin, the Gladsheim, in which he will awaken a sleeping girl (the "Millennium Girl" of the game's subtitle), Frederica, from a bygone era, who wields ancient technology of heretofore unknown power.
As if these stereotypes were not stereotypical enough, The Highlander and Frederica are joined by a taciturn doctor, a spastic teenage wizard, and an alcohol-prone knight, who is Canadian for some reason (which may be, plainly, "because it's adorable"). Through their adventure the doctor will examine things with detached interest while the wizard will encourage rushing headlong into danger, each according to their wonts. These archetypes are serviceable, occasionally fun -- especially when you use your dialogue options to willfully contradict their opinions -- but don't do much to justify the insertion of a long-form plot in a series that has been fine without large scale characterization for four games, now. Etrian Odyssey has always been content to tell its story passively, letting the major events for the player be toppling a difficult boss, or finding a secret passage, and a way back to town, while chugging on the fumes of the healer's MP.
It shouldn't be a surprise that the first game was the one they chose to remake. Not because it's the first, but because it's the one with the most-out there mid-game revelation, a revelation Untold spoils in, basically, its opening cutscene, and simply by putting Gladsheim and Frederica at the forefront. Even with the twist ruined, some of the key themes still come off as strong, such as the inexorable press of the adventurers into the unknown labyrinth, and the cultural clash that comes of it. But still, one wonders why they went out of their way to obliterate a twist that was, if not unique (it is basically Atlus's bread and butter, at this point), at least a little fun. And it's doubly frustrating to see the surprise ruined in service of installing an anime Sleeping Beauty plot, as if someone didn't get the message that the "girl with a mysterious power and destiny" thing was played out before they released the original game, let alone this one.
There is a Classic mode, which offers the usual bevy of mute party members, if you don't prefer the story's Chatty Cathys and their set-in-stone character classes. If you want a Dark Hunter or a Landsknecht, choose Classic. You could blaze through story mode to see the cutscenes and then start a hard playthrough on Classic to get the "true" Etrian Odyssey experience, but there's only one save slot, so you're locked in to whichever you choose until the credits roll.
In some ways this game proves it's never too soon for a remake. It's only been six years since the original, but the polygonal badguys charm, and thrill, and scare here just as much as they did in Etrian Odyssey IV, their artwork leaps and bounds ahead of the original game's sprites. Same too with the music, which is available both in orchestrated and synthesized formats, and without the nasty audio compression almost inherent to the original DS.
Etrian Odyssey Untold is a stellar mechanical and technical update of its source material. There's an easy case for why they've released two EO games this year: they're both excellent. And yet… here is Etrian Odyssey Untold, near perfect, but that it whispers "Rosebud is the sleigh" into your ear just as you've sat down to watch the movie. Etrian Odyssey's really never been about the narrative, sure, but something stings about the strongest story moment in the series being taken away by the people who made it in the first place.
Overall : A-
Graphics : A
Sound/Music : A-
Gameplay : A
Presentation : B
+ Skillful remake of an already excellent game
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