Etrian Mystery Dungeon: Relax in the wake of danger

April 6, 2015


Sometimes, Etrian Mystery Dungeon likes you a lot. You’re its pal, and it wants you to have a nice time. You’re gonna be buddies for dozens of hours, after all. Other times, Etrian Mystery Dungeon misses out on its morning coffee or something, and takes its frustrations out on you with a targeted viciousness. In sum, surprise! It’s a Mystery Dungeon game!

In case you’re unaware: Mystery Dungeon is a series of distinctly Japanese dungeon crawlers, in which every floor is randomly generated and each movement takes a “turn.” Depending on how mean each game wants to be, losing or even exiting the dungeon can incur severe penalties.

Etrian Odyssey is the name of a bunch of old-school, Wizardry-style RPGs from Atlus, known for tons of customization and map-drawing. You may be more familiar with Persona Q, built on the same engine, featuring most of the same gimmicks. But also Persona stuff.

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Etrian Mystery Dungeon generally does a good job attempting a bridge between the gimmicks. It certainly captures the aesthetic. The character art looks as sharp as ever, the earthy environments are gorgeous and the music does everything it can to help you relax and smile in the face of inevitable defeat.

Where it fumbles is in a few technical issues and lots of unnecessary convolution. This game has menus on menus on menus. There’s so much stuff to worry about that I forgot a few functions after the tutorial and had a rough time figuring them out on my own, so I spent even more time cycling through menus. There are also options like building forts and other minutia I had zero desire to interact with more than needed, because there was already so much going on.

A lot of the extra padding feels like complication added to the Mystery Dungeon formula to make it feel more like Etrian Odyssey. But the streams get crossed between the laid-back challenge of the former and the more calculated depth of the latter. On top of that, the game sometimes suffers from slowdown (even on New 3DS hardware), and the usual murky partner A.I. making fights more difficult than they should be.

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Your party members can often get stuck in hallways or go careening off in another direction. It’s a Mystery Dungeon thing that hasn’t changed in ages. Since the party dynamic is specifically crucial here, you will be in a world of hurt when, say, your healer or tank decides to… not help you. You can change party leaders on the fly, but it isn’t intuitive and as is usually the case in Mystery Dungeon, you’re probably already far enough into a bad situation once you’re in it to do much about it.

With the bad stuff out of the way, Etrian Mystery Dungeon is still a Mystery Dungeon game, and I love those. The above problems aren’t quite enough to damage the whole experience, and what it does do well is very cool.

For one, the customization fans come to expect from an Etrian Odyssey is out in full force here. The game oddly corrals you into the Landschneckt class at first, but it cuts you loose soon enough and lets you play with every class. You can even juggle multiple parties if you’re crazy enough, and in turn mitigate the usual death penalty via rescue missions. Despite the mess, this game absolutely awards you for diving deep into the rabbit hole.

The boss fights are also a blast, and they sure better be considering the source material. They’re huge, they change the rules and they’re tough. They don’t murder you outright, as they serve as dungeon bosses instead of avoidable super-challenges, but they make the genre-bending journey quite smoothly.

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There’s also a weird little mechanic I love a lot. You can find puddles of amber on the ground in most rooms, and walking over it restores some TP and hunger. Most of the time, enough shows up to keep you going, even if it’s just enough to get you to the next floor. You can also manage your party members through it to give your medic or whoever a nice boost in a pinch. It’s a tiny little concession, but one that makes diegetic sense and helps you out more than these games are often willing.

On the other side of that, the lengths Etrian Mystery Dungeon goes to toy with you are creative and funny. One example: In a new gimmick, dungeon rooms can have multiple exits. Trying them all will undoubtedly lead to more treasure, but more often than not you’ll hit a dead end. If you aren’t prepared, you can easily find yourself taking what seems like the right path to the end, only to be fatally mistaken. Overextend yourself into a wall and you starve to death. Want to go back? If you didn’t spend the coin to build a fort (or a boss monster smashes your fort), the earlier rooms will all reset. That’s genius.

Basically, if you’re a fan of Mystery Dungeon, and the idea of one with the ludicrous depth of an Etrian Odyssey sounds like a good time, Etrian Mystery Dungeon is a dream come true. Personally, the appeal of a Mystery Dungeon lies in the relative simplicity compared to other hardcore dungeon-crawlers, but the conceit here is largely a success. You may find yourself drowning in menus. You might fight your idiot tank to get his idiot butt out of a hallway so he can come draw monsters off of your carcass. But once you kill that huge boss and get a bunch of skill points, you’ll feel pretty good about yourself.

Pros: Pleasant Etrian Odyssey aesthetic, trademark FOE boss fight intensity, so much customization!
Cons: Minor technical issues, more minutia than the average Mystery Dungeon, menu overload

Score: 4/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.