Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City Review

By Kat Bailey - Posted Sep 01, 2010

After a slightly disappointing encore, Etrian Odyssey is back in fine form with new classes and interesting ocean exploration mechanic. And while it's as tough as ever, a number of refinements also help make it the most accessible entry to date.

The Pros
  • Easier to access
  • New classes are better balanced
  • Features a variety of worthwhile tweaks in areas like boss rematches
The Cons
  • Shorter stratums means a slightly smaller labyrinth
  • Ocean exploration is intriguing, but could be a bit more fleshed out

To the extent that it’s known at all by the general gaming public, Etrian Odyssey tends to be referred to as the “mapping RPG." At a basic level, it's an accurate description -- much of the franchise's appeal is tied up in discovering new floors and mapping them.

But being able to map out a floor with the Nintendo DS stylus isn't an end in itself; it's more of an explicit expression of Etrian Odyssey's main goal, which is exploration. In that sense, the third game in the series is yet another "mapping RPG" in that the need to plumb the depths of Ygdrassil's is as compelling as ever; and thankfully, it's also a bit more welcoming for newcomers.

Enter the Labyrinth

Etrian Odyssey is about as pure an RPG as you're ever going to find. It hearkens back to golden oldies like Wizardry in that the story is almost non-existent, which puts the focus squarely on the dungeon crawling. As such, the overall lack of pyrotechnics -- there's certainly nothing in Etrian Odyssey approaching the level of Final Fantasy -- and the fearsome difficulty can be off-putting for all but the most dedicated grognards (who in turn would probably say that Etrian Odyssey is a walk in the park).

Etrian Odyssey III is every bit as dense as before, but thankfully it's a tiny bit easier to get into the swing of things thanks to the introduction of several new character classes. It's relatively easy to figure out the role of each new class in the party, and most of them handle their duties with applomb. The shield-bearing Hoplite and the Prince/Princess classes are particularly powerful from the get-go, making it that much easier for new players to gain a foothold on the game.

The Prince/Princess class is mostly useful because they make it possible to stay in the labyrinth for much longer due to their HP restoration skills, which saves on precious magic points. Despite that though, Etrian Odyssey III seems to be better balanced than its predecessor, which could be easily abused by players in the know. There doesn't seem to be anything on the order of the Hexer or the Dark Hunter from the second game, both of whom had skills that could trivialize the exploration when used properly.

Etrian Odyssey III refines many elements from the first two games, such the ability to easily fight rematches against bosses for loot and experience, but remains quite challenging. For instance, the new Prince class is powerful in the early going, but it doesn't feature a silver bullet like the second game's Dominate ability. So while there are plenty of powerful combinations to choose from -- the Warrior and the Bucaneer for example -- the cheese is surprisingly limited.

There are more tools than ever thanks to the addition of streamlined boss rematches and the powerful new limit abilities, but there aren't really any easy answers either. It really is impressively well-designed.

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The Seven Seas

Tinkering aside though, the labyrinth exploration remains much the same as the previous games. However, now its also possible to take a break from the forest and chart the ocean instead. It's not a trivial departure for the series, but it would be wrong to say that it's anything more than an accessory to labyrinth; an extended sidequest, really.

As with the labyrinth, the goal is to chart the ocean. There are islands, ocean currents and the occasional boss battle, but there's a limit to how many squares can be explored. Extending the ship's range means finding additional items and equipping them to the ship.

It isn't The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker -- it's not possible to disembark and explore the islands. There aren't any random encounters either outside of pirate ships, which can be dealt with by a cannon. Instead, it plays more like a puzzle game, with the goal being to collect items to sell on the market and chart new territory as efficiently as possible.

There's actually a lot to explore, but it's more a spot to farm new experience and loot than anything else. It's great for what it is though, especially since it's even easier to rematch ocean bosses. More importantly, it adds a new dimension to the game's exploration. There's certainly room to develop some of the core concepts -- the ship customization is good, but it could be much deeper -- but it's certainly a worthwhile distraction from the grind of the labyrinth.

The Gateway to the Sea

Etrian Odyssey III is every bit as dense as its predecessors, which surely makes it one of the deepest RPGs on the market today. It's not for the impatient or the fainthearted, and even veteran dungeon crawlers will inevitably hit a brick wall or two.

This time around though, it feels just a bit more accessible. The new classes make it easier to gain a toehold on the experience; and once settled, the challenges ahead don't seem quite so daunting. It won't convert everyone, yet it may be just enough to grab the people who have always found Etrian Odyssey intriguing, but could never quite get into it.

That feat, and the fact that it's still every bit as challenging as before, may make this entry the most impressive Etrian Odyssey to date.