Etrian Mystery Dungeon (Nintendo 3DS) Review

By Thomas Wrobel 14.11.2015

Review for Etrian Mystery Dungeon on Nintendo 3DS

Strip away the skin of a game, remove its metaphors and graphics, look deep into its core, and, in many cases, there is a loop: the same actions repeated over and over with just some slight changes each time. Maybe it is aligning blocks to make them disappear, with the blocks falling down the screen faster and faster. Maybe it is constantly shooting upwards, dodging ever-changing patterns of enemies. Maybe it is like this game - Etrian Mystery Dungeon - diving into dungeons and battling enemies that get progressively harder the further that is ventured into its depths.

Such a gameplay loop isn't a bad thing in itself, but when the player becomes aware they're doing the same things over and over, the less enjoyable the game becomes. This is especially true of dungeon crawlers, which have, arguably, the most common loop in gaming: fighting hordes of creatures to improve a party's stats, which, in turn, allows them to fight even bigger and badder creatures. Too much of this loop without significant changes or progress elsewhere, and it tends to be considered "grinding."

In order to make such a game interesting, it takes a bit more. It takes well executed or unexpected divergences from the loop, while not damaging any of the core appeal of the loop itself. It takes enough changes throughout the game for the player not to get too content, so that they feel genuinely skilful, and not just a robot repeating the same actions over and over.

Does Etrian Mystery Dungeon pull it off? Well, sort of.

Being a title based on two other games, it benefits from a cross-fertilisation of ideas. Mystery Dungeon gives it its overhead 3D perspective, layout and a lot of its style. Etrian Odyssey, meanwhile, gives it some of its more interesting features, like the DOEs - dangerously powerful enemies that can wander around all the floors of a dungeon as freely as the player does.

Screenshot for Etrian Mystery Dungeon on Nintendo 3DS

The majority of the game, however, could actually be said to come from both of its "parent games." The dungeons are randomly generated, the battles and movements are turn-based, and the enemies wander around each floor like the party does - all features present throughout both series. A considered and careful player could almost look at these games as board games. For each move made, the enemies make a move, too. In principle, it makes it all turn-based, but it never feels turn-based - every move is instant and seamless, so it gives the appearance of exploring in real time.

This is a very solid foundation for a dungeon crawler, giving the opportunity for players to think as long as they like about their actions, while never actually having to wait for a response. It means when the party of adventurers is doing well, they can hack and slash their way through the wandering hordes of wildlife - yet when they aren't doing well, they can do a move-by-move carefully planned retreat. In fact, being overwhelmed and having to run away is, in some ways, more entertaining than battling, as abilities to stun the enemy or accelerate movement have more obvious effects on survival chances than in battle.

Control is done via the party's leader, who is moved and ordered directly. The other three party members are controlled by a semi-competent AI that mostly does what isn't suicidal. They will follow the leader around until a battle, whereupon they will unleash skills and attacks that the AI sees fit. The leader can be switched at any time, even during battle, which is useful when a particular skill is needed that only one party member has.

The leader does not have absolute power, however. In fact, the slightest separation results in members of the party wandering off on their own, requiring either the use of a limited callback skill, or a flurry of leader switching and careful manoeuvring, not unlike trying to herd highly aggressive, yet overly optimistic, cats.

Screenshot for Etrian Mystery Dungeon on Nintendo 3DS

Making it to the bottom of a dungeon results, as expected, in a boss battle. Defeat the boss and a shortcut appears back to town. Dungeon. Boss. Town. Repeat. That's the basic loop of the game. Each dungeon is procedurally generated, and it's always the same town returned to, so if that was all there was, Etrian Mystery Dungeon might feel far too simplistic. Thankfully, though, there are a few more elements in play.

In the town, there are side-quests to take on, an armoury to forge new weapons, and the ability to invest into the town's development. Sadly, however, this town just exists as menus and people popping up - nothing to explore, no secrets to find, and no environment to speak of other than a picture on the lower screen. While this is regrettable, it does, somehow, still work fairly well to be more than just the normal resupply between mass slaughters of wildlife.

The most significant thing the town adds is the extra quests at the restaurant. While these almost all fall into the very standard, "Go kill this amount of this thing for me because of reasons," the reasons given normally have a little bit more thought and story to it, adding to the visual novel-esque feel the game gives between dungeoning. There is a genuine sense of a community and a variety of characters - even if only a handful is ever actually seen. The only real problem with these quests is, at times, a lack of clarity - they might ask for something from the "fourth dungeon," even though they are not numbered that way on the menu.

The town also features the Explorers Guild, giving a large selection of characters that can be swapped in and out for dungeon exploring. Switching characters occasionally is recommended, as the various different skill trees add significantly more interest than just sticking with one set the whole time. The control over the town's development, meanwhile, is a fairly lightweight affair, simply letting various buildings be upgraded by spending gold. These upgrades might give access to new missions, quests, or even fundamental abilities for the party.

Screenshot for Etrian Mystery Dungeon on Nintendo 3DS

Aside from the town, the second major element of Etrian Mystery Dungeon is the ability to build forts within dungeons. These act as defence points against the wondering DOEs, as well as quick teleport points to allow travel back to previously reached areas faster. The DOEs themselves are powerful creatures that roam around and between the floors of the dungeons - even when the party isn't there. They are a constant threat to the town, and one of the tasks of the game is keeping these creatures at bay - either by knocking them back down to the lower levels, or by eliminating them completely. The forts assist in this task by acting as permanent watchdogs to detect the DEOs, as well as allow posting of troops in them to help stop the DEOs escaping up to the surface. Additionally, these troops stationed slowly get levelled up on their own without supervision needed - so when they are called upon to be in a party, they will still be at an appropriate level for the current challenges.

Both the forts and the town element add a lot to the game - mixing up the standard dungeon-crawling gameplay just enough to stop it feeling like a minor variation of every other dungeon crawler out there.

The music is worthy of note, as it really adds to the experience, drawing the player into the environment and feeling more part of an adventure - rather than merely slashing marginally different things till they fade from existence.

The main negatives - aside from the very nature of its loop, for some players - are the poorly unintuitive or unexplained elements; for example: important items that trigger automatically get consumed with no result if activated by hand. In other cases, stats or abilities aren't well enough explained. Mostly, these are just minor nit-picks - unless it happens to get the well-equipped party killed, in which case they become the biggest issues in the world.

Screenshot for Etrian Mystery Dungeon on Nintendo 3DS

Cubed3 Rating

7/10
Rated 7 out of 10

Very Good - Bronze Award

Rated 7 out of 10

The enjoyment of Etrian Mystery Dungeon will be very much dependant on how much a player enjoys the core experience of repeated dungeon excursions. While every other aspect added to the game is well thought out, nothing else is particularly substantial. The city management aspect is very lightweight, the story is fairly simple, and there are little other elements beyond item and weapon management. In essence, it's a very pure experience, which might be very appealing to some players, while being far too repetitive for others.

Developer

Atlus

Publisher

NIS America

Genre

Real Time RPG

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  7/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   

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