"I played Mystery Dungeon games before," I told myself, "how different could this one possibly be from Pokemon Mystery Dungeon or Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon?" I was eating those words not only a half hour into the game. Holy sh*t is Etrian Mystery Dungeon hard! Yet, despite its crazy high difficulty, I kept persevering. Not just because I was obligated to, you know, in order to review the game, but because each time I made progress in the game, it gave me an immense sense of accomplishment.
The comparison might be cringe worthy, but it's similar to Souls games where you're not sure what you're doing at first, but gradually learn the intricacies of the game's systems, and overcome increasingly difficult obstacles. And like Souls games, if you're coming into this game completely fresh, it'll kick your ass from the very first mission you go on.
This latest game from Atlus, is once again an Etrian mash-up. Though unlike Persona Q, which combined characters and lore of Persona with the gameplay of Etrian games, Etrian Mystery Dungeon takes classes and locations from Etrian games, but combines it with the Mystery Dungeon gameplay. In essence, it's not very different from standard Etrian gameplay, as it still heavily focuses on exploration, but this time from an overhead perspective.
Etrian Mystery Dungeon's pattern of gameplay isn't overly complicated; Choose a mission, pick a dungeon, explore, survive*, level up and repeat. Don't worry, the asterisk next to survive is purely intentional. See, Etrian Mystery Dungeon prides itself on kicking your ass, but not before it puts you in a false sense of security. Hell, the very first dungeon you go into seems to be a cakewalk, until you delve multiple floors in, only to be surrounded by six or so monsters, who are clearly overpowered and can take you and the rest of your party down in a single swipe. That, ladies and gentlemen, is Etrian Mystery Dungeon in a nutshell.
So why is it fun you ask? Being punished by overpowered monsters doesn't normally sound like a good time. Etrian Mystery Dungeon (EMD) punishes you early on for good reason. You're supposed to play the game carefully, and never simply rush down into a new floor simply because you found an exit. This might sound like common sense, but leveling up your characters and unlocking new skills can mean the difference between life and death, literally. Coming back to that floor with improved weapon skills allowed me to get a leg up on those tough monsters that were kicking my ass before, only to find out that the next dungeon kicked my ass some more again.
A large part of that also has to do with your party composition. Those familiar with Etrian games will already know all about the customizable party compositions, however the rest will need to experiment a bit. There are quite a few classes unlocked from the start though more will unlock as you progress, giving you more specialized abilities. The Landsknecht and Gunner are your standard vanilla classes, one focusing on melee skill while the other on ranged. However, specialized classes like the Hexer focuses on debuffing enemies and applying negative status effects. The Wanderer for example is more of a utility class, allowing you to create shortcuts that can provide your team with an escape route.
While some may want to take a straight DPS team into a dungeon, you'll find that the lack of a ranged character will make you unable to pick off enemies in a distance, and a healer won't be able to sustain your characters as they take damage up close. Likewise, taking two or more healers won't be as effective since you'll then lose out on damage. A good team comp, once again, will be the difference between life and death in a dungeon.
A lot of this game revolves around trial and error. While there may be a select few of you that will walk into this game and be masterful at all of its mechanics, the fact of the matter is that a lot of the times, you'll be flat out murdered to prove a point. And the point it's proving is that you need to grind a bit. Oh yes, this game is all about the grind. One of the advice given to us reviewers was that before we go on to the next dungeon, go and run the previous dungeon a few extra times. A few extra times. This might also be the breaking point for some players. While they might not mind the high difficulty curve, the prospect of grinding in order to be viable for the next dungeon might be a turn off. For me, personally, it wasn't a big deal. I like beefing my characters up so that they're basically overleveled for the next difficult task at hand. Just know that grinding in EMD isn't just an option that's there, it's pretty much a necessity.
What makes this matter slightly more difficult, though infinitely more interesting, is that coming back to the dungeons always randomizes their layout. That means you can't simply memorize the layout and enemy locations, as they'll be different each time you step back. Sure, there are ways to lock-in a layout if you build a fort for example, but you won't be doing that very often, as it mostly revolves around one gameplay mechanic which I'll get to in a bit.
The combat should be familiar to anyone who has previously played a true Roguelike. You assume the role as one of your party members, while the others will follow and act on their own. The game is entirely turn based, meaning every action you take, whether it's a single step or an attack, will allow the enemy to take an action as well. It doesn't sound complicated in theory, but things can go wrong rather quick. While the party AI isn't bad by any means, there isn't a really good way to customize their behavior or their tactics. That means you can't tell a certain AI party member to only focus on a particular skill, while forgoing others. It's either option A: Don't use any skills or option B: Use all skills. Granted, the AI is pretty good for the most part, but there have been times where I had a complete party wipe due to them not firing off a certain skill that would have otherwise saved their life. You do have the option to manually switch between leaders, giving you full control of the battlefield, if you so choose, but it makes the fights a lot longer than they should be. Again, this will purely come down to preference.
Remember those forts I was talking about? They'll actually become crucial once the game decides to through DOE.s at you, which is EMD's equivalent to FOEs. For the uninitiated, those are extremely tough enemies you generally want to stay away from, at least until you've progressed much rurther into the game. However, unlike FOEs, which simply patrol a certain area and can for the most part be ignored, DOEs are much more teriffying. Their main goal is to progress upward through the dungeon, eventually making their way to the town, and destroying one of your buildings. This is a huge deal, as it makes that building useless until it's fixed again, which can cost crazy amountf of money. However, building forts is one way to make sure the DOEs never actually reach the town. The fort, like mentioned previously, will lock-in a dungeon layout, but it can also be used defensively. You can set some characters to stay at the fort, and either have them scout ahead a few floors to see where the DOE is, or have them stay at the fort and fend off the DOE on their own. However, the safest choice, at least in the beginning, is to simply build a fort and leave it be. The DOE will focus its attention on destroying it, rather than your town.
You could always take on a DOE if you feel like your party is well equipped and sufficiently leveled. However, these encounters come with their own set of surprises. For one, you can't simply damage the DOE without doing something first. Secondly, if you ignored fighting enemies on that current floor, be prepared for an even tougher fight, since the DOE can call all the enemies to its location. If that doesn't sound like a good time, I don't know what will.
When you're not delving, you'll be in your home town which is relegated to a simple menu, giving you quick and easy access to everything from weapon upgrading, depositing items, taking new quests, selling materials, and more. While you won't be spending a bulk of your time here, it's easily the most important aspect of the game, since this is where your party gets stronger and more effective. Not doing enough damage? Forge yourself a weapon upgrade. Want new weapons to buy? Sell off all your materials to unlock them. Want more quests to partake in? Visit Amber Restaurant.
It seems like Atlus is trying to gain slightly better exposure to the Etrian series. Combining it with Persona was a genius tactic, as it opened my eyes to the Etrian games, and subsequently made me actually buy Etrian Odyssey IV and Untold on the 3DS. However, the Mystery Dungeon games are a bit more niche, which makes this collaboration seem even more strange. Nevertheless, it's still a wonderfully sadistic game that rewards you just as much as it punishes you. Where Persona Q was already a game that was for a very specific niche of gamers, Etrian Mystery Dungeon fills an even smaller niche.