Version tested: DS
Etrian Odyssey (US Import)
Cartography is a profession woefully under-represented in videogames. We're used to having our in-game maps fully charted and available right from the start of a level (or, in the case of Zelda at least implausibly awaiting discovery in some remote treasure chest). As a result, few modern gamers will have experienced the antiquated and inimitable enjoyment that comes from painstakingly mapping a level, square by square on school maths paper.
Etrain Odyssey takes this ancient RPG hobbyist practice and boots it into the present by offering a turn-based first person perspective RPG on the top screen and a fully-featured mapping tool on the bottom.
Your fist task in the game is to assemble a team of fighters and healers (by naming and choosing their avatars and skills) into a guild before setting off into a lush green forest charged with the task of fully charting its corridors and depths. As you walk through these tight pathways you fill in the squares on the bottom screen taking care to note with numerous types of helpful icons where you find treasure or trigger key events. Essentially the game consists of you clearing a floor or area of the forest before moving on to the next one, mapping areas and disposing of enemies as you progress, which is actually a lot more engaging than it sounds in summary.
Your party of five can be created from the usual character classes. Skill points, earned when you level up, must be assigned in order to improve your squad's abilities. Unlike traditional RPGs you must actually specify and pay for an increase in a character's HP or Attack power. As each character class has 21 skills, which can be levelled up a total of ten times each, you quickly nurture a very personal team.
This is a tough game requiring frequent trips back out of the forest to resuscitate team members back at the town when you've run out of healing items or your mage is out of magic points (TP). Nevertheless, this is usually down to poor planning on your part so it's rarely infuriating and, with so many options and tools at your disposal there's always incentive to go back and take on enemies again - albeit now with a better plan.
Despite the fact there's little variation to the locations, the graphics are pretty and detailed. Atlus, as you might expect, has done an excellent job translating the flowery text and this, combined with the delightful soundtrack, conspires to create a distinctive and compelling atmosphere. Indeed, Etrian Odyssey succeeds in making some aged and usually uncomfortable RPG conventions feel fresh, thoughtful and engaging and is thoroughly recommended to DS owners with even a passing interest in the genre.
7 / 10