Etrian Odyssey is, if nothing else, an appreciably singular experience in RPG gaming. Well, scratch that – it’s a singular experience amongst games you’ve actually heard of. Though not the original architect of first-person dungeon crawling, Etrian Odyssey has done a whole lot since its debut in 2007 to elevate its unique brand of exploration from niche-beyond-belief to– well, its actually still pretty targeted, but less so. As a result, Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl is a game that has a lot to offer if you’re willing to sink your time and attention into it. And for better or worse, what you get back is probably unlike anything else you’ve played recently, thanks to the game’s unique mechanisms of delivering player satisfaction.
Untold is a remake-slash-reimagining of 2007’s original Etrian Odyssey, and though the game may not be a visual or technical marvel, the improvements to overall presentation are no doubt substantial. The most obvious and front-facing addition to this new version, and the one most heavily-touted by Atlus for as long as I’ve followed it, is the game’s glossy new story mode. The inclusion of plot and narrative is much appreciated, but perhaps it’s a bit too sheened-up. Though the game’s art assets and general presentation all look great, the actual events of the story have a hard time not falling very, very flat. This is largely due to a plot arc that has been used time and time again in not just RPGs, or just JRPGs, but really all of fantasy for dozens of years. Tropes aren’t inherently bad – in fact, when used correctly, they comprise some of the best stories ever told. But the ‘forgotten, slumbering evil force suddenly renewed’ act is a tough one to pull off, and Untold does little to integrate a new or creative spin.
Luckily, this is all of little consequence for a few resounding reasons. I’ll come back to story and looks later, but Etrian Odyssey’s main and most intriguing hook, without a doubt, is traversal of its remote, unexplored grid-maze dungeons. Within the first fifteen minutes of the game, you’re assigned the task of traveling to the ground level of a harrowing forest maze and mapping its topography. “Oh, mapping! That sounds fun!” you might think. No. Just no. If new to the series, then you really have no idea. The game essentially dumps you into a massive, unexplored, unmarked, and uncharted grid, and your task is to literally draw a map of your surroundings as you see them. It’s very possible that you read the last sentence and were horrified, and equally as possible that you read it and got very, very excited. And that’s the beauty of what Atlus has done. The conspicuous lack of handholding or extensive tutorial associated with something as challenging as inputting a real-world, physical task through to the game via the stylus and touchscreen is, in a way, what the series is all about – and it’s entirely up to you to embrace it. In my case, embrace led to a type of immersion I find immensely satisfying. That said, your mileage may vary.
The game isn’t all just fun and cartography, though, and as you traverse these elaborate and seemingly random mazes you’ll encounter all sorts of foul creatures, from butterflies, to killer crabs, to creepy camel-esque bipeds. Though random battles with lesser (though often still challenging) foes are commonplace, the real foes come when you encounter FOEs. What, you don’t know about FOEs? Formido Oppugnatura Exsequens? Essentially an amusingly overwrought name for wandering mini-bosses, FOEs slither and slink around the game’s various labyrinths waiting to devastate your party and bring your adventure to a short and swift conclusion. Luckily, FOEs won’t just appear randomly like other enemies – you can strategically avoid and move around them via the map and other indicators, and taking on FOEs at the right time becomes a crucial part of your party’s strategy. Too soon, and you’ll suffer a humiliating defeat as a powered-up FOE annihilates you with ease. Too late, and– well, I guess there’s no real downside to grinding a bunch and taking on a FOE too late. But the point is, they add strategy and raise the stakes, as well as making the sometimes-dull dungeon crawling and mapping a fair bit more exciting, and for that their inclusion is much welcomed.
So how does one actually fight in Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl? It’s a bit complicated, but you’re essentially dealing with classes and skills, just like dozens of other RPGs. Over time new skills become available to you, and the predetermined nature of your party in the story mode means you’ll have to strategize in advance and consider which characters will be most adept at which duties. Sometimes this is obvious and sometimes it’s less clear, particularly with your own Highlander-class character, but it’s all part of the fun. The only downside I can think of is that you likely won’t experience all the classes in one story playthrough, and there’s only a single save slot to record your adventures with. There’s a classic mode that ditches the narrative frills and lets you craft a party of adventurers from scratch, but it’ll overwrite the story mode in your measly single save file if you do. Basically, choose wisely unless you don’t mind parting ways with a lot of work.
And that brings us back to the story. Though thematically a bit dry, Untold is able to cover its bottom a bit via very pretty art assets and a healthy dose of anime to tie things together. Though the anime won’t be winning awards anytime soon, it’s surprisingly high quality, and that includes the voice acting that goes with it. As with most 3DS games, the 3D effect does wonders for immersion; the commonplace three-layered collage of dialogue box, character, and background looks lovely, and the drawn backgrounds — particularly in shops and other Etrian locales — look especially striking, with palpable visual depth. This is all lovely, and I wish I could say that it’s topped off with a stellar musical score, but I can’t quite go that far. The music, to me, is one of the oddest things I’ve heard in a while relative to what I actually see onscreen when it plays. There’s a bizarre amount of saxophone and smooth jazz-esque material. Sometimes it mixes with more traditional JRPG-like stuff, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s like Kenny G and Motoi Sakuraba got drunk and swapped Pro Tools sessions, and it kind of freaks me out. There are times when it works, like in Shilleka’s shop, and not everything fits the description I’ve just given, but the point is that I found the soundtrack to be a mixed bag.
So who should play Etrian Odyssey? It’s a tough question, and despite my efforts to acknowledge and appreciate its finer points, I’m still not entirely sure whether I really do or whether I just know what they are on paper. If you’re coming for story alone, you may as well turn back – though fun at times, it’s nothing more than a nice complement to the real meat and potatoes of mapping the game’s sprawling dungeons and fighting your way out alive. But it will only feel like that if you have a good imagination – if you’re the type of gamer who needs to actually see the action happening onscreen to be immersed (which there’s absolutely nothing wrong with, by the way), then this series may not be your bag. I fall somewhere in the middle, and I think my end assessment reflects that.
It’s hard to recommend Etrian Odyssey to somebody who doesn’t already knowingly love the series, but at the same time, if people never took risks on it originally it wouldn’t have garnered such a fervent following. Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl brings the series’ original 2007 entry up to the quality and presentation standards of Etrian Odyssey IV, while tacking on a fun story and some splendid visuals to boot. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll throw your 3DS, and you’ll bounce to sexy saxophones, but one thing you won’t do is get bored. If all this sounds like something you can get behind, then I encourage anyone interested to give the game a go. It’s a remake of the original, so what better starting point is there? Just know that the payoff will depend entirely upon the initial investment, and even then you may not necessarily get what you were expecting. But that certainly doesn’t mean that what you do get won’t be worthwhile.
This review is based on the 3DS exclusive, which we were provided with.
Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl is a genuinely unique experience, and that may or may not make you fall in love with it. The less conventional map-drawing and dungeon-cruising portions are both the most challenging and the most interesting parts of the game, and while the story offers a safe and familiar tale that comes off as fun, its familiar tropes are getting a bit tired. If either one of those two components appeal to you, then definitely take the plunge. But if neither do, then maybe this odyssey is one better left untold.