Etrian Mystery Dungeon Review (Nintendo 3DS)
Mix two servings of Chunsoft's Mystery Dungeon series with a heaping helping of Atlus' Etrian Odyssey series and you get Etrian Mystery Dungeon, a dungeon crawler offering deep dungeons and shallow gameplay.
As the head of your guild of adventurers, it's up to you to protect a popular tourist town from its many neighboring dungeons' occupants. To do so you'll create a custom party of four and dive into these monster-laden labyrinths, duking it out with the beasts in turn-based strategy battles. Both the dungeons and the battles themselves are one-dimensional slices of the kind of JRPG gameplay we've seen repeated for nearly thirty years. There's very little strategy to most battles— if you've got bigger numbers, you're going to win. Different classes have a few area-of-effect attacks, buffs, and debuffs, providing small tactical advantages during certain situations, but there's nothing so complex as the limit breaks, paradigm shifts, or triple techs we've seen in RPGs past. Even though you receive skill points, which you can allot into a skill tree, the various abilities are all so basic and obvious you won't feel like you're speccing your character so much as putting your points exactly where the developers are telling you.
You can also only control a single character during normal battles, so the bulk of the slaughtering will be performed by your overzealous AI companions. During the rare times you get to control the entire party (like during boss fights or by using a limited-use ability), battles flow with greater strategy and satisfaction. Should you suffer the grave misfortune to fall in battle, you'll have to send in a team of second-stringer characters to rescue your original party and retrieve their items. Since this back-up team is going to inevitably be weaker and more poorly-armed than your A-listers, it can be tough to get your characters back, leading to players digging themselves into an inescapable pit.
The dungeons themselves are randomly generated, and in theory, the randomization help adds replayability and mystery to each outing. However, the layouts are so unremarkable it all ends up feeling very homogenized and poorly planned. Plus, some levels have multiple exits, so it's easy to wander around side floors feeling lost or accidentally skip important objectives, forcing you to unnecessarily replay a dungeon. You can build forts in dungeons to help level up side characters and help deal with a few super-powered foes, but the forts are so prohibitively expensive for much of the game you probably won't bother. You'll also run into the occasional wandering adventurer looking for a guild to join, dangerous enemies called D.O.E.s which must be quickly slain lest they wreck your town, or random rooms like the illustrious Red Lion Shoppe which boasts hard to find items. These small events add some nice variety to what are otherwise drab treks through endlessly similar corridors.
Outside of dungeons, you'll be zipping around the nearby town, buying equipment, snagging quests, gossiping with the locals, and spending money to improve the town itself. The town's a nice reprieve from the dullness of the dungeons, with some decently memorable characters and plenty of upgrade options for minmax-minded gamers to sift through.
Etrian Mystery Dungeon's soundtrack, crafted by renowned composer Yuzo Koshiro, is a beautiful assortment of orchestral pieces which will lull you off into dreamland... which is great if you're trying to nap, but not so much when you're trying to get your game on. Etrian Mystery Dungeon's songs are pretty, but they're also pretty sleepy outside of the boss themes, and when you combine that with the repetitive dungeons it's easy to feel sedated. The graphics are nothing to write home about, with basic-looking characters, standard anime-style portraits, and unimpressive spell effects. The controls, on the other hand, are deftly organized to allow you to quickly fly through various menus and gear up your characters with ease.
Etrian Mystery Dungeon isn't entirely without merit; it's approachable, replayable, and provides loads of content for your dollar. Unfortunately, its approachable to the point of simplicity, replayable due to shallow randomization, and the loads of content are often uninspired fetch quests and repeat trips to the same locations. The team behind Etrian Mystery Dungeon should have spent a little more time making its gameplay deeper than its labyrinths.
This review was based on a purchased, physical copy of Etrian Mystery Dungeon for the Nintendo 3DS.