Monday, September 7, 2009

DS look: Etrian Odyssey 2

While the first-person dungeon-crawler genre has never truly died there hasn't been a game to cause any sort of resurgence until Etrian Odyssey. Sure the character design looks innnocent enough but the game itself was a pretty brutal affair thanks to elements like the powerful FOEs that stalked the hallways, the all-powerful bosses, and even the chance of an unlucky encounter. The success of this game spawned not only a sequel but it also caused a number of other developers to pursue similar titles. It's still a drop in the water compared to the numbers the average FPS does but all in all it's still impressive.

Concerning myself however I didn't really get anywhere in Etrian Odyssey 1. I guess I didn't have an eye for party building, my tactics weren't sound, or I simply didn't have the patience for it. Whatever the case my time with EO1 was short but I was left with the knowledge that sooner or later I'd eventually have to rectify that. In the end I settled on the sequel despite the fact that it would probably be more difficult and more complicated. It helps that EO2 is still fairly easy to find while the original is apparently only available on ebay for almost twice as much as it originally retailed for.

EO2 involves something regarding Yggdrasil or the World Tree. A town has sprung up around this massive tree and adventurers from all over the world come to solve the mysteries and test their mettle. These adventures are organized by guilds and the name of mine is guild ABBA. Guild ABBA can be composed of up to thirty members from up to 13 different classes. From there five members can be organized into a party of three in the front & two in the back(or vice versa). 

The 13 classes in EO2 represent possibly every character archetype you can imagine. Though the names change the concept remains the same. Party-building is one of the most important aspects to success in EO2 as this game rewards the committed. Unlike some games you simply don't pick a class, give them a few minutes of training, and suddenly they're killing bosses in one hit. Putting together a strong party member requires a lot of patience and getting similar results with an entire party isn't just multiplying the effort by 5. Each party member must have strengths to cover for the other member's weaknesses and it's not as simple as putting three fighters in the front and a mage & a healer in the back. Experimentation is key at times and when faced with a tough boss it may be wise to try new classes.

Each of the classes is governed by their skills. Initially each class is given three points to distribute as they see fit. A number of skills just raise stats but others are tied to numerous abilities. With each levelup a single point is doled out. Using these abilities effectively requires commitment. Most skills have up to ten levels and making them effective will require sacrificing access to other skills. No matter the class there's little benefit to raising up a bunch of skills at once. It's important to distribute these points properly since the only way they can be re-distributed is if the player makes the party-member rest(which costs 5 levels of experience).

Equipment is another very important factor to consider. EO2 uses a crafting system of sorts where the shopkeeper adds new items when the player brings back certain materials and sells them. These materials are found off of the corpses of defeated foes and is for the most part the only way to upgrade equipment. This is good though since defeating monsters also means experience, which ties into everything quite nicely.

The sole dungeon is divided into five Stratums with five levels apiece. Progress is usually tied to finding the stairs that move the party onwards and upwards but bosses and special tasks can crop up. While the game offers a temporary save the only way to protect against party death(which is game over) is by saving in town or via special portals. Thankfully shortcuts can be found which helps make exploration much easier. The levels are usually organized in a maze with all manner of traps, special properties(like ice that causes the player to slide from one point to the next), and dead-ends with treasure or something not nearly as good. There are also harvest points where the player can collect materials(several of which can not be found from monsters) though that's limited by the number of points put into harvesting skills. There's also the risk that harvesting will trigger an ambush by monsters(though it's more likely there to keep low-level adventurers from abusing harvest with no chance for repercussion). The map is especially handy in that it keeps track of every space the player walks in but also allows them to draw in walls and indicate certain objects as they see fit. If the party is killed off map data can still be saved which can be useful.

The dreaded FOEs make their return in EO2. While most encounters are of the random variety the FOEs stalk the halls and running into them will trigger a battle. The first one you'll run into will likely just be sitting around. Others will wander around in set patterns, still others will suddenly appear and chase the party down. Since most of them move one space for every space the player moves it's in the player's best interest to outmanuever these monsters and avoid getting into random encounters when FOEs are following them(since FOEs will move one space for every turn in battle). While these creatures offer some unique materials they are for the most part optional and unless the player manages to defeat them early on the rewards aren't really notable.

In battle utilizing skills properly will make all the difference. Most battles in EO2 will end in just a couple rounds with the right skills. While there are quite a few defensive skills(especially for classes like the Protector) it's obvious that skills that either do tons of damage or prevent the enemy from attacking are more useful. Despite that the game does a fair job at making every class viable and offers a lot of options for players interesting in trying a variety of tactics.

While in town the player can accept quests. These quests typically involve retrieving items, defeating certain enemies, or possibly something different like making a map. The only problem with these quests is that the rewards stink. Most of the time the reward is a one-time use item and little else. Some extra money would have gone a long ways towards making these quests worth the trouble of completing. It's possible there's a special reward for completing every quest but I lost patience with them long before.

EO2 also has a schedule which effects the time, months, and days. For the most part however time doesn't mean anything aside from finishing a few quests. Whenever a month passes all defeated FOEs and bosses will respawn in their respective places. After a certain point this opens up the best option for gaining experience at a rapid pace. Although resting at the inn is the only quick way to move the days along it's still far easier to do than sit in a dungeon and grind out the levels slowly. Bosses are worth a lot of experience and late in the game most can be taken out in a couple rounds. To add to that some of them drop special materials that are worth a ton of money. This is especially useful when the player has retired their party members. This causes the party member to be replaced by another one with half the level but with more skill points and another level of experience to attain before hitting max..provided the party member was max level when they retired. 

Sadly with the way this system is organized there's no real benefit to exploring the dungeons. Since all of the equipment is based off of monsters and harvest points the player can ignore everything else and rush through the bosses. While the open-nature of the game can also provide for players who wish to challenge the FOEs at all times it still doesn't do much for the dungeons themselves. Some players like myself will opt for the path of least resistance and rush through the dungeons only worrying about equipment upgrades and experience when the boss is being troublesome. The treasure lying around the dungeon tends to not be very useful and there's no reason to challenge the FOEs after a certain point as they don't give experience and the materials they give out are for equipment that's probably much weaker than the stuff gotten from some random encounter on a higher floor. 

Due to the short battles there's really not much in the way of round-to-round tactics. In fact winning is more about applying a formula than decision making. With the right combination of party members, the right skills, and the equipment and experience to back it up there's nothing to worry about. Even the battles that manage to last for more than are due to a number of abilities that prevent the enemy from either attacking or damaging a party. I guess maybe this isn't a bad thing but it's just not for me. If I reach the final boss of an RPG I expect an epic encounter that relies on adapting to situations properly as they come up and using every last resource in order to get that win. In EO2 the final boss can fall just as easily to abilities that bind its attacks as any regular encounter. I expected the rules to be bent slightly with the supposedly all-powerful but I guess with a game that rewards commitment it would be unfair to the player if the boss was immune to the skills they put the most effort towards. 

In a way EO2 manages to come off as repetitive. Though each of the levels in the dungeon have their own quirks and ideas the battles are just the same on the 23rd level as they were in the 1st level. This is not an uncommon trait in RPGs I'm well aware but when I'm still using the same skills on the same types of enemies it quickly becomes apparent that I'm wasting my time. If I want to efficiently play EO2 I should focus on collecting money/exp from bosses, materials from random encounters/harvest points, and just ignore the rest. While the dungeon levels strive for variety once I got past them I found no good reason to ever go back. They might as well have just been gimmicks because in the long run they don't make up enough of the game to mean anything(especially since there's a major shortcut for practically every level). 

Etrian Odyssey 2 is a good game. In fact in many respects it is a truly great game. However I simply didn't find it compelling. The main reason I even stuck it out despite the boredom is to make up for the fact that I didn't make any progress in the first game. At first it was fun exploring the dungeons and discovering hidden treasures but when I realized I should be taking a more hands-off approach to focus on party building that's when it fell apart to me. The way I see it dungeon-crawlers should emphasize the dungeon first and foremost. It shouldn't be the monsters wandering the halls or the big bad guys at the end. The dungeon should be the reason why the player's will is broken. The monsters can certainly add to that but it can't be an immediate effect. Through enough monsters, puzzles, mazes, and the constant fear of death the dungeon will eventually overcome them. The dungeon in EO2 never beats the player, it's usually the FOE, the boss, or an unlucky ambush. Even then unless they're not saving they'll never lose much progress as there are so many convenient ways to get back it's simply not an issue. 

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