Review – Etrian Odyssey III HD
I’ve come to realize that I may never see eye-to-eye with the Etrian Odyssey fanbase as a whole. First and foremost, I didn’t get nearly as into the series, as I passed on a majority of the 3DS titles with the exception of Millenium Girl. Secondly, I love my dungeon crawlers to be relatively gritty when it comes down to it, and that’s because of the influence that I had with TSR titles back in the day. But, at the core of it, I’m just not totally over the moon on the entire layout, and that’s totally okay. When pressed, first person dungeon crawlers aren’t even in my top five genres, though I would still say I’m a fan. It’s just not what I want and need to come home to every few months, in comparison to roguelites or JRPGs.
With Etrian Odyssey III HD, the trilogy of the Switch re-releases ends with a rather startling bang, and it almost makes me wish that Atlus had taken a bit more time and effort to bring over additional titles. You see, the first and second games are solid experiences unto themselves, but it’s almost like two halves of a whole that make up a meal that you get very different notes from. The initial half, Etrian Odyssey I, gives you a taste of what’s to come with some excellent exploration, decent enemies, amazing storytelling, awful mapping and half-assed attempts at balancing teams. Etrian Odyssey II has significantly better maps, a less exciting plot, braindead mechanic changes (like having SOE enemies give zero experience) and in-dungeon events that lead to your healer constantly dying. It’s why people like the remakes: they address all the issues while also crafting a better JRPG outline.
This third game looks and thinks: “We went underground. We went into the sky. Screw it: DIVE.” The city of Armoroad has a sinkhole and a mystery at the bottom, and who are we to avoid clear and present danger? Thus we have some of the most beautiful dungeon areas yet in an Etrian Odyssey title as the fine crew of WTMGuild decides to see how far you can go to reach not-Atlantis. It takes exactly zero seconds for you to become embroiled in some really high conspiracy nonsense involving another guild with ninjas, some kind of ocean people, and an Ominous VoiceTM that definitely isn’t going to reveal something gnarly by the time you get to the third strata. At this point, if you’re jumping into the third without playing the first two, you’re doing yourself a disservice on both identification and comparison points.
For example, Etrian Odyssey III HD throws the baby out with the bathwater and completely restructures the character classes. Did you get comfortable using Landsknecht, Ronin and Medics, who all had an amazing balance of power and ideas to get through the dungeon? Well scrap all that knowledge, because now things are wildly different! I mean, yes, Monks are just Medics who can punch, and Zodiacs are just Alchemists with different haircuts, but there’s plenty of actual separation. Arbalists are doomed to die in combat and almost seem to enjoy it. Wildings are the Etrian answer to Pokemon because summoning creatures is more fun than actually fighting. And there’s Ninja, who can learn how to one hit kill any enemy. Making Ninja clones in battle? Screw that, BEHEAD IS KING.
If that wasn’t enough, there’s now also Farmer, because there’s nothing like a game developer daring you to do something stupid and you taking the bait. Farmers are bad at everything except collecting crops and wasting time, very literally. The only class to have an ability that a.) uses TP and b.) just passes an hour, Farmers are great to keep yourself humble and to get rid of that pesky Ariadne Thread. Carry one item to get out of a dungeon? No thank you, I’ll put a blonde haybale with a deathwish in my party instead because she can teleport us out IF I didn’t waste all my TP trying to see if I can spend five days in one spot.
Etrian Odyssey III feels like a title where someone yelled “no bad ideas!” and then everyone took it to heart. There’s so much happening at once and it’s impossible to sort it all in a cohesive manner., which is a big reason why the game feels incredibly polarizing for fans. Hell, just looking at the list of things seems to turn the entirety of the previous games on their collective heads. Forget skill tree, here’s everything you need to keep in mind as you move forward.
Limit Skills: class specific skills that charge up over long battles and either do something cool (significant damage, slight healing) or something absurdly overpowered (turns all damage into healing this turn). Forging: you can add extra stuff to your weapons as long as you collect the materials and you don’t mind that the weapon will be obsolete six seconds after you do it. Seafaring: why go down into the dungeon? Sail on the ocean to a bunch of places and discover stuff to help you go back down into the dungeon! Multiple endings: people love grinding a game over and over to get the “whole story,” so let’s really make them work for it. Spoilers, the real winner is Atlus for getting you to put eighty hours into a thirty hour game!
As a result, when things work, they truly and sincerely work and make Etrian Odyssey III my favorite in the trilogy of Switch releases. The graphics and music both feel especially polished, and I was pleasantly surprised to find the soundtrack is essentially intact from the DS version. There’s finally a bit of tonal shift between strata, giving actual gravity to what happens as you continue forth and make headway into the dungeon. The sprites abandon some of the same old fantasy archetypes for monsters and really make some amazing decisions with sealife and oceanic parallels, which is something Japan does especially well. There’s just such a better variety of water-based biology in and around Japan for inspiration that you end up with things like Abyssal Death instead of something boring, like “Angry Shark.”
Additionally, the pacing allowed the storyline to unfold in a natural way that felt in stark contrast to the previous titles. With Etrian Odyssey I & II, it, ironically, felt like I had to constantly come up for air in order to move things along. If I didn’t check in with the leader of the town, then I was just diddling myself in the dungeon (which is the title to my Everquest inspired banjo album). Here, with III, you run into multiple NPCs who both further along the main quest and even provide side quests that have checkpoints and completion moments without needing to interact with anyone else. Why should I trudge back upstairs to tell the barmaid that I finished finding three Poisonous Tails or whatever? I can just bring a medal from the corpse of a young soldier directly to his commanding officer!
The seafaring, which isn’t totally optional but doesn’t feel as pressing, does create a bit of stark comparison for the Yggdrasil Labyrinth here in Etrian Odyssey III. The sea is an open and bountiful area with jetstreams, islands, hidden dangers, people to trade with and a better look at the world of our characters instead of being crammed into the dungeon. It’s the first attempt to pull back the curtain and give the player a better sense of “the world at large,” which is really important for such an ambitious game. If I didn’t have an idea that there’s more than just this town at stake, I wouldn’t give a warm spit about what side I was on when the story splits. The sea lets you know that there’s more to life than the dungeon!
So then to be thrust back into an underground that is, hands down, the most confusing one so far in the series, it really throws you off your game. I have done well in the first and second game to get myself oriented and move on with regular progression. With this third game, I quickly went from “These mazes are twisty, how fun!” to “I’m going to beat my head against the next dead end until I forget my name.” I had never had to look up a maze map until this game, and, even then, it still took me far too long to figure out how to get past certain event based pathways opening up. This can really take the gusto out of exploration when you’re chucking items out of your inventory every step because you don’t want to teleport home and begin this thorough dungeon exam from square one.
Having said all that, I’m now in a terribly strange position. Etrian Odyssey III HD is, hands down, the best one on the Switch. There’s a massive amount of variety in character customization via skill tree, different party groupings, multiple endings and exciting combat. Things look fantastic, the score is stellar and, all issues of getting lost aside, the grind is sufficiently fun and rewarding. Great spread of quests both optional and story driven, and I do love lowering the difficulty to Picnic, picking off some unfairly hard mobs on auto battle, reaping some quick EXP and then returning to normal like I didn’t just cheat on myself.
But I think players can and should enjoy this without touching the first two. Those both have remakes that are waiting in the wings to see if this DS collection sells well on the Switch. If the 3DS titles ever come to the Switch, then two thirds of this initial trilogy are redundant and not nearly as good. So my advice is this: if you must be a diehard Etrian Odyssey supporter, grab the trilogy and have a blast. However, if you really want to just rock out a solid dungeon crawler with excellent aspects from front to back, just pick up this third one and have a good time. It’s phenomenal enough on its own to not need the previous two.
Some of the cleanest and strongest improvements from the games, Etrian Odyssey III manages to capture the charm and appeal of the first while also smoothing things over in a proper and fitting way.
So many fantastic improvements in combat, exploration and skill trees, plus fantastic balancing of materials, weapons and prices. The convolution of the dungeons, however, is frustrating to the point of walking away entirely.
While the sound effects remain as jarring and retro as ever, the ambience and crafting of the soundtrack feels like it sucks you in as you move from forest to ocean, magma to Atlantis and beyond.
Knowing that there are multiple endings, more classes and even more weapons and armor to unlock, I will be returning to see how far I can get with a party of five Farmers.
Final Verdict: 8.5
Etrian Odyssey III HD is available now on Nintendo Switch and Steam.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Etrian Odyssey III HD was provided by the publisher.