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Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City (DS) artwork

Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City (DS) review

"As you venture through the unknown environments, you'll find points where it's possible to harvest, mine or just snatch up items that you can take back with you to town and possibly turn into new armor and weapons at the local city's single shop. So there's that element prodding you to actually explore (instead of simply walking circles in close proximity to a staircase) and there's the realization that at some point, you're going to have to actually plot your way into the darkness or you'll never find the next staircase and the next boss. The likelihood that said boss will summarily demolish you upon contact is really beside the point."

What Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City has going for it is difficult to put into words that mean a whole lot to anyone who hasn't already played a previous installment in the DS-exclusive series. The bare-bones plot certainly wasn't designed to win over new fans, though it's by no means a disappointment compared to the stuff that the series has provided in the past. The ability to draw your own dungeon maps as you work through the environments, always a hook for the franchise and certainly a fine one this third time around, also shouldn't be credited with too much. Gamers only care about mapping out the places they're exploring if they like those places and enjoy the process, so that's probably the answer right there: dungeon exploration is what makes Etrian Odyssey worth playing. Again.

Some things don't need to change. As in the previous games, the massive labyrinth that you must explore in a piecemeal fashion is divided into stratas, which a newcomer might instead call "regions." They're connected along a descending column that leads, as one can easily infer from the game's title, deep underwater. Enemies in that first strata are typical for the franchise. You'll have to deal with malicious mushrooms and bobcats and other beasts that aren't terribly imposing, yet if you misjudge them for a second you'll see the "Game Over" screen so fast it could set your head to spinning. Individual stratas are divided by floors that depict distinct settings (foliage around a waterfall's basin, submerged canals, etc.) and the monsters that you face grow steadily stronger with each new floor that you reach. Stepping away from the base of a staircase that you've just descended or even heading down a new hallway is a thrill because you're stepping into a foreboding place that past experiences inform you is quite likely to kick your butt.

Your most obvious defense against repeated thrashings at the hand of your powerful enemies is the long-time RPG player's oldest weapon: the level grind. Yet in The Drowned City, you needn't grind without purpose. As you venture through the unknown environments, you'll find points where it's possible to harvest, mine or just snatch up items that you can take back with you to town and possibly turn into new armor and weapons at the local city's single shop. So there's that element prodding you to actually explore (instead of simply walking circles in close proximity to a staircase) and there's the realization that at some point, you're going to have to actually plot your way into the darkness or you'll never find the next staircase and the next boss. The likelihood that said boss will summarily demolish you upon contact is really beside the point.

While there are slight enhancements throughout the game (birds flying across the lower screen when you enter a dungeon and the girl's charming dialect at the bistro where you accept side quests, for instance), the first obvious example that something has definitively improved for this third installment is the updated mapping system. For the most part, the system functions in the same competent manner that it always has, only now you can take things further and plant arrows across the mapped corridors. Those arrows' effects can be toggled on and off with a quick tap of the stylus. So if you venture into a dungeon and you're just anxious to take the quickest route through one floor on your way to the next one, you step onto an arrow and proceed automatically along a route that takes you past sweeping gales or fearsome F.O.E. enemies and lava, all without having to remember your preferred approach each time. It's the convenient equivalent to drawing a line with pencil if you were actually using graphing paper.

If you were paying attention and you have experience with the previous games, you no doubt noticed the reference to "F.O.E. enemies" as if they meant nothing in particular. Returning veterans may well consider that a lie by omission. Yes, the F.O.E. enemies are back and yes, they still give you hell. Those who haven't yet enjoyed that particular breed of smackdown need to know that a F.O.E. is an enemy whose immense strength means that he has absolutely no business--none at all--wandering around where he does. So for example, you might step into a new area with your characters at level 5 and find yourself forced to avoid the movements of a fellow who is 15 levels your senior. Guess how that fight is going to go.

As always, F.O.E. enemies serve the very practical purpose (from a game design standpoint) of forcing the player to adapt actual strategy as he traverses a given dungeon floor. When you turn a corner and see the unwelcome sight of the familiar orange orb that signifies a tough encounter, words like "unnerving" don't begin to cover the resulting feeling. Yet there's always a way around the beasts, or through them. You just have to give the encounter time and thought. Maybe you'll lead the fiend in a circle around a nearby pillar. Maybe you'll duck through a secret opening that you've discovered in a wall. Or maybe you'll simply come back with a much better sword and more potent magic. Might beats all, sometimes.

And here's a pleasant surprise: character strength can also prove useful outside of dungeons. The Drowned City mixes things up with the introduction of naval exploration. Between your trips into the deep unknown, you can also leave port in a ship. At first you can't sail far because you don't possess the right supplies, but as you map your way to the nearest islands, you'll meet with residents who offer you new items and occasionally request your help with certain tasks. Then the next time you set sail, you can plan to venture around some nasty shoals that perhaps stopped you short in the past, or you can look for a mighty fish to slay, or you can try to outsmart those stupid pirate ships that seem so skilled at ramming you to oblivion. Exploration isn't just an extension of the dungeons; it's an actual puzzle to solve, one that serves as a nice diversion from the level grinding.

As you find new locations in your journeys, you also unlock new side missions. These can be enjoyed with help from up to four friends, if you each have a copy of the game. All participants can bring along one character, though the size of your party will always be limited to five and some quests feature set characters (who may or may not be particularly useful). If you don't have friends to bring along, you can attempt the missions with your own party members while a computer-controlled chum provides assistance. Side missions tend to be grueling battles. The rewards are significant, though, so you'll likely find yourself attempting to complete quests regularly in hopes that this will be the time you finally show that ghostly pirate ship who's boss.

Whether you're in a dungeon or helping villagers on a remote island, boss encounters can prove quite memorable. Your foes often employ unexpected strategies, like the mud-dwelling fish at the end of the first strata that flees from battle and calls forth F.O.E. minions so that it can retreat to lick its wounds. You can emerge the victor by being a sneak, but the only way to win other bouts with any certainty is to build a powerful party from the start, then outfit each warrior with the very best gear while teaching him or her the most ridiculously useful skills and then putting all of that knowledge and weaponry together to form the perfect marriage of tactics and determination. Don't worry that some of the skills you learn might not be half as useful as you thought they would. Turning your unassuming guild members into military behemoths and making a few errors along the way is part of the fun.

The Drowned City is a fantastic experience, then, but not one that arrives without flaws. The most intimidating of those is the repetition. Though working through the new dungeons is an enjoyable experience overall, the grinding that you must occasionally perform along the way can be tedious even when you're loving the new abilities that you unlock or enhance. The problem is exacerbated if you happen to have chosen the wrong characters for your party, and it worsens further still if you find yourself in a situation where the only solution is to try building up a new member from scratch. Still, the game wouldn't have been nearly the thrill that it so often is without those brutal dungeons that make level grinding so necessary. Partway through the game, you can also start assigning skills from a second class to each of your characters, which means that a warrior who once was weak now can be a total badass. There's a lot of room to play around with customization. It's just a shame that level progression doesn't happen more quickly.

The developers obviously realized what they were up against as they designed this excellent third installment. By taking the same risks as they did the last two times around while also spending the time required to polish up and supplement some of the finer points so wonderfully established in those previous efforts, they've achieved something truly fantastic. Etrian Odyssey III is easily the best installment in what was already a consistently excellent series. The developers' triumph begs the question, though: where can the series possibly go from here?


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (September 19, 2010)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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CoarseDragon posted September 22, 2010:

Nice review. A bit direct and to the point but that is not a bad thing when there is so much to talk about. Very enjoyable read and you covered pretty much everything.

One thing that makes grinding easier is using the map to automatically walk in a circle, find monsters to fight, and occasionally press the "A" button to finish battles. Auto-walking is great for grinding.

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