A cross between old-school first person dungeon crawlers and more modern fare, Etrian Odyssey is a beautiful journey into the deep.

Ever since I was young, I have enjoyed first-person dungeon crawlers.  From the Wizardry series, to Arcana on the SNES, to more modern fare such as Arx Fatalis (hmm…I should play that again) and The Dark Spire, they have always held a certain power over me; I tend to be consumed by these types of games, and Etrian Odyssey is no exception.

Unlike most first-person dungeon crawlers, Etrian Odyssey doesn’t take place in your typical, dank dungeon.  Rather, its environments are organic and colorful, ranging from a green garden, to a lush jungle, and beyond.  The enemies in the Labyrinth are equally impressive, with each of them having a cohesive art style that helps set the mood.  Despite their slightly cartoony presentation, some of them get downright vicious looking.  As you go further down into the Labyrinth of Yggdrasill, you begin to encounter truly strange creatures; some of them are abominations of normal creatures, and others are wholly fictional entities.  Make no mistake though, when you encounter something that is going to give you serious trouble, you know it.

In a great retro throwback, the auto-map only completes itself halfway; as you walk, floor tiles are automatically filled in, however you have to draw in things such as walls, objects, treasure boxes, etc all on your own.  While I was expecting this to get annoying, it has revealed itself as being one of the best parts of the game.  Completing the map of a ”floor” provides a great sense of accomplishment, and while drawing on the DS screen isn’t quite the same as writing on graph paper, it still elicits nostalgic feelings from yesteryear.  The fact that it’s only as accurate as you make it also adds to the exploration that permeates the experience; if you get lost and can’t tell where to go, you only have yourself to blame for not keeping track of where you have been.  When your party dies (and make no mistake, full-party wipes will happen), you don’t keep any of the items or experience gained since you last saved…however, in an excellent design choice, you do get a chance to save any changes you have made to maps since you last saved.  This helps prevent you from having to explore areas multiple times, and is a welcome addition.

Speaking of time, prepare to spend a lot of time with Etrian Odyssey; this is not a short game, by any definition.  Luckily, due to the turn-based nature of the genre, Etrian Odyssey lends itself very well to being played while watching TV/movies (I myself have logged many of my hours with it while watching Darker than Black and A Fine Romance with Brittnie…both excellent series, by the way, even though they are entirely different genres.)  While Etrian Odyssey is a bit easier than other dungeon crawlers, it is still quite a challenge; just as you find yourself able to rip through enemies with impunity, you go down one more floor and are suddenly “weak” again.  Pacing is quite good, and despite the grinding nature of the gameplay, I have yet to feel even remotely bored.

It’s a shame that the story isn’t fleshed out further, but in this case I can let it slide; Etrian Odyssey is such an entertaining and challenging game that I don’t care all that much.  Like most Atlus games, it is worth playing the whole way through (although most people don’t usually finish them).  If you have a DS and enjoy first-person dungeon crawlers, I very highly recommend you check this one out.