Etrian Odyssey Untold is handily the best game in the series, though it probably shouldn't be.
In fact, I shouldn't be able to recommend it at all. Following a heartbreaking European delay (still, at least we got Bravely Default a few months before the US - not that we're bitter or anything), it arrives on our shores as a remake of the 2008 DS original that borrows Etrian Odyssey IV's engine, right down to plundering plenty of assets. The fantastic old-school dungeon crawling is present and correct, the brutally tough yet rewarding exploration and combat that requires us to make our own maps on the lower screen, yet years of improvements have left it behind.
Etrian Odyssey IV introduced overworld airship exploration and other new features when it released last summer, so even with the delay, Untold ought to be obsolete. Lest we forget the cheekily ambitious Demon Gaze, which beat Untold to the punch on Vita.
And yet Etrian Odyssey IV feels like a prototype, a beta test, for something truly remarkable. A game that knows how tough an on-paper sell it is, and boldly flies in the face of the established franchise formula by adding something simple yet devastatingly effective.
Character. Real, genuine, vintage character. Or should that be characters?
We're getting ahead of ourselves now, so let's start at the beginning (where else?). Upon arriving at the fantasy frontier town of Etria, you and your party are tasked with exploring a staggeringly vast multi-level dungeon from a first person perspective, moving around the grid-based labyrinths in cardinal directions as a modern-day homage to Ultima, Dungeon Master and the like. Each floor is painstakingly detailed and brilliantly designed, festooned with secret areas, challenging layouts and roving monsters -- FOEs -- who force you to watch your movement and plan your advance. Each gruelling trip into the depths rewards you with experience and items that unlock new gear, gradually allowing you to venture deeper and deeper each time, emerging more powerful while unlocking new abilities, shortcuts and fulfilling quests for the townsfolk.
The thrill of constant improvement against serious odds is fantastic, especially when you return to cleared floors to defeat enemies that flummoxed you the first time around. Grinding is a necessary part of the experience, as is imposing a tight budget on your limited resources (mana, HP and gold), yet it always feels rewarding.
It's a refined and luxurious affair from the deep azure menus to the rich backdrops and remixed perfectly-paced soundtrack, a cut above your usual dungeon crawler that packs a notably more genteel (yet seriously brutal) challenge curve than its successors, alongside retooled optional difficulty levels. Character and creature designs are top-notch, expressive, but never overstated. If Demon Gaze was a gaudy Lamborghini festooned with semi-nude models, Untold is a vintage Rolls Royce with a brand new engine and freshly-detailed interior.
Etrian Odyssey harks back to the days when we had to draw our own maps and take notes with pen and paper - putting a cartography suite on the 3DS' lower screen. Untold is no exception and it still feels terrific, granting unique satisfaction as you literally chart uncharted territory and make it your own. Now, however, mapping has an extra reward in that successfully drawing most of a floor will unlock teleportation points -- Floor Jumps -- which makes grinding an optional pleasure as opposed to forcing us to slog back to town. Veterans may hate it, but you don't have to use it.
The series prides itself on its turn-based combat, so naturally Untold continues the tradition of providing the most nuanced, balanced and interesting turn-based engagements you'll encounter on any platform, excluding some of the better MegaTen or Persona games. Even regular enemies can cripple your team with ruinous afflictions, while bosses and FOEs feature numerous stances, strengths and weaknesses to circumvent through patience, careful observation and perfect timing. Your resources may be limited, but they're also versatile, putting a range of debuffs, status effects, taunts, passives, procs, items and balanced skills at your fingertips. Usually battles are won through cleverly debilitating foes and closing for the kill, not just smashing through with brute force. Sensational stuff; a puzzle in and of itself.
Previous Etrian Odyssey games hinged around creating your own party from a selection of nuanced classes and portraits, making a bespoke killteam who were uniquely yours down to their names and gender. From powerful Landsknechts to razor-sharp Ronin and cunning Hexers, our heroes were unique - but with total choice came a necessary sacrifice in that your party were effectively just blank slates. Portraits, stats and names without a voice or real identity, save that you gave them in your mind's eye. This is fine in the grand scheme of things, especially if you're experienced with the likes of Icewind Dale, since a rich imagination is more than enough to fill in the gaps. Untold also adds a new Grimoire Stone feature that lets you assign new skills and passives by collecting bonuses, which is deep but arguably too fussy and randomised to make much of an impact.
You're still free to assemble your own dream team in Etrian Odyssey Untold's Classic Mode, and should definitely do so in your second playthrough. But Etrian Odyssey Untold has a secret weapon: an edge that seemingly goes against everything the series stands for. The new story mode introduces preset characters locked into specific classes, all of whom have their own personalities and voice acting, while beefing up the story with anime cutscenes and narration. This shouldn't work. It almost never works. And yet, thanks to a light touch, this extra context totally transforms Etrian Odyssey Untold into a superior RPG.
The expanded storyline is effectively a retelling of Etrian Odyssey's original tale, but it's newly thoughtful and keeps things as simple as possible, dealing with an amnesiac girl out of time and the meaning behind her ancient civilization. Delivered in tight delectable chunks that never overstay their welcome, these fascinating breadcrumbs give you a real reason to keep on grinding - and better still, serve to introduce some truly excellent characters.
Our protagonist is a Highlander, a mute spear-wielding clansman obsessed with justice, who we can still imbue with personality via branching text dialogue and read ourselves into. In battle our taciturn cipher becomes a truly unique combatant, who fuels his attacks with the party's own HP. A little like Final Fantasy's Dark Knight, perhaps, only hefting a weapon that rarely gets much play in JRPGs and demanding clever sacrifice in combat to use effectively. Death wears tartan. A cooly-assured Healer and rambunctious young Alchemist round out the male heroes, both boasting their own unique personalities and back-and-forth banter.
As someone who's sick to death of JRPGs killing immersion by running roughshod over female characters with exploitative designs and personality clichés, though, Etrian Odyssey Untold's women steal the show for me. Leading lady Frederica may be a damsel in distress, but she's no demure wallflower. Packing a high-caliber anachronistic handgun and practical garb, she's driven, thoughtful and focused, a real person with relateable motivations as opposed to a helpless hyper-sexual figurehead.
She pales in comparison to Raquna, however. Flying in the face of traditional JRPG wisdom, this tall redhead is the team's tank and point man, a tough-as-nails Paladin clad in steel plate and absorbing ruinous punishment with an enormous shield. She's a hard-drinking hard-fighting no-nonsense powerhouse, dressed practically yet stylishly for the occasion, yet boasts a bubbly and friendly personality that befits her warm Canadian twang. Doubly appropriate since she hails from exotic land of... Ontario?! This fun little joke is often rolled out for laughs, yet factors into the overarching storyline remarkably well, while rounding her out as a companion who's impossible to dislike.
Sadly the voice acting does hit some snags -- usually in battle stingers or courtesy of the dubious racial stereotype who runs the item store -- but works well enough in the main.
Balance is the key. Too much exposition and over-characterisation would have drowned the core gameplay in unnecessary bumf. Too little would have felt like an afterthought. But Etrian Odyssey Untold gets it just right, delivering enough context to make the grinding feel relevant and personal, enough well-rounded and likeable characters to relate to and engage with, while still letting us focus on the dungeon crawling first and foremost. Much of the campaign still takes place in our mind's eye, but you'll keep on plugging away with the promise of another juicy little nugget of story progression and character building, spending time with friends - not portraits.
It's the deftly-handed restraint that so many developers -- notably Square Enix -- simply can't pull off. Adding personality and character without compromising gameplay flow or the series' core ideals.
Or you can just play in Classic Mode and ignore the lot. Veterans may be fuming, but Etrian Odyssey IV has already done you proud. And even then, Etrian Odyssey Untold's new content, characters and classes make the experience feel newly fresh and reinvigorated.
- Superbly-retooled dungeon crawling and combat...
- ...bolstered by tactful storytelling and great - yet not obtrusive - characters
- Great new classes and excellent balance
- Tough and punishing, yet newly lenient in all the right ways
- Classy and restrained, clearly designed with attention to fine detail
- Fiddly Grimoire Stone system
- Voice acting is inconsistent
- You must embrace the grind
The Short Version: Etrian Odyssey Untold is a class act. The sensational vintage exploration, manual mapping and gruelling combat of the DS original has been granted a new lease of life, reinvigorated by strong characters and a superb story that's engaging enough to satisfy yet never outstays its welcome. Atlus approached their remake with subtlety and restraint, resulting in a uniquely lovely package.
A rare treat for genre newcomers and turn-based connoisseurs alike, so long as you're partial to a little grind.