Who knew a dungeon could be so dangerous? Or mysterious?
Anybody who might confuse this with the main Etrian Odyssey series won’t be disappointed by Mystery Dungeon, but they’ll likely be confused, much in the same way I imagine fans of Pokemon were thrown off by their own Mystery Dungeon titles. These are completely side-story titles, but that’s not to say they should be skipped by any means. If you like roguelikes, this one will be right up your alley. And if you’re new or mostly new to the genre, Etrian Mystery Dungeon is easy enough to figure out and will stick its hooks into you.
Etrian Mystery Dungeon takes place in a village that’s under siege from the surrounding mystery dungeons filled with monsters. Normally, the monsters themselves aren’t much of a problem, but there are also “D.O.E.” monsters—badass beasts, mutated and much more dangerous than the average scramble—that have completely wrecked the town before and have been spotted again. As the player, you need to recruit a team not only to fight the menace, but to gather information on just what the hell is causing the D.O.E.s to spawn.
The character models are all 3D and colorful, just like the distinct environments. Every character and dungeon has a unique look and color scheme; if you create the characters instead of recruiting them when you find them, you can choose the colors. There’s also a nice assortment of monsters, though many are duplicated in various colors depending on their difficulty. It’s that touch of the old-school that simply doesn’t go away. Thankfully, they look great in their various color schemes, and with the number of baddies to fight on a given floor and in a given environment, they never grow stale.
But the real highlight of digging into the depths of dungeons is the number of enemies onscreen at the same time, all without a hint of slowdown. Depending on if you’re fighting just a roomful of baddies or a D.O.E., which usually has an attack to summon a butt-load of allies to do its damage for it, I’ve seen as many as 20 characters at once crawling and attacking. They are all arranged in a generated order by their stats and placement on the battlefield, and while you have three allies, most fights will be automatic and players will only control the lead of their four-character team.
The only downside to that is that there isn’t a way to speed up their attacks, or have every enemy speed up when performing their attacks, which can lead to some dragging one-at-a-time situations when the screen gets particularly crowded. It fits the genre, but I wish there was a way to speed up the process. It’s only a second or so for most attacks, unless it’s one that deals damage to everyone in the room (which many enemies will do on loop), which brings the fight from a slugfest to a slog.
Unlocking new skills and leveling up characters is easy, with a basic skill tree layout that powers up existing abilities and unlocks new possibilities once certain criteria are met. One easy example being, if you level up a healer’s “Revive” spell to a certain degree, you can unlock and start leveling up the ability to use it automatically, which can be the difference between “wiped out at the bottom level” and “ultimate victory in the the new home of Fort Kickass." The whole thing only made my fondness for my regular team of Sanjuro (named for the greatest samurai film of all time) greater, and made me work harder for the one time they all fell and I had to go recover them.
That’s right: When everybody falls, you can go fighting after them to try and recover them, or just leave them to die. But if you let them die (or fail to save them), you’ll lose all of their equipment and any loose cash you’ve found along their merry way. Trust me, you’ll want a more-than-decent B-squad just in case, because if you don’t, you’ll lose more than your best… you’ll lose hours to re-building a varsity squad worth commanding.
It’s difficult to see too many downsides with a game like this, except for maybe any truly interesting character development. The story is enough to keep the dungeons coming, but it isn’t very interesting, though it more than does the trick of telling you why you’re fighting and where you’re fighting next, which is plenty with a game this bent on spelunking. Inventories are clean, beefing up characters is open to nearly any play style and easy to figure out, and the D.O.E.s are fulfilling mini-bosses in their own right especially when you fight more than one at a time (I might have exhausted my characters and certain supplies, but damn I felt good).
If you’re the type that wants to find and fight everything, Etrian Mystery Dungeon will keep you occupied for days and days. If you just need a quick fix here and there, it’s a great five-minute excursion (or a few hours of digging down per trip). And if you like on-your-toes strategy, this will do you good. Really, if you like a deep experience with plenty of replay value in portable dungeon-crawling, this is about as good as it gets.