Etrian Odyssey Nexus

In a fitting farewell to the DS family of consoles, Atlus has released Etrian Odyssey Nexus. The handheld consoles most consistent series essentially finishes off the console with a greatest hits version of the series. It isn’t the best game in the series, I still waffle between Etrian Odyssey III or Etrian Odyssey IV, but Nexus is a solid summation of the series.

Etrian Odyssey Nexus is essentially the same as the previous Etrian Odyssey games. It is a first person dungeon crawler where the player has a fully customizable party. The player builds their team out of the offered classes to traverse a couple dozen dungeon floors. The concept, as ever, is simple. The execution is generally elegant.

Nexus’s collection of classes is a lot of fun, even if some of them very watered down. Nexus attempts to take the most memorable classes from each game in the series to give the player options that represent all the options they’ve had before. But all of the classes have gone through some revisions to remove the idiosyncrasies from each title. Most made it through pretty well, but some, like EOV’s Pugilist, are shadow’s of their former self. Still, it is hard to not make a really fun party here.

Something is off with the ratio here, though. The game attempts to give you take you through a tour of the previous 5 (or 7, counting remakes) games, so you need to visit all the areas you’ve seen before. But if it did that with full strata, the game would be a hundred floors long. So instead it makes a lot of the early strata only 3 floors long instead of 5 and confines a few of them to one floor mini-dungeons. The problem with this is that each still has a boss at the end of it. So instead of hitting a boss every five floors, it works out to a boss every other floor for the first half of the game. The Etrian Odyssey series has some excellent bosses (all of which get featured in this game), the bosses force a different focus on the player’s party. It isn’t a case, generally, of there being one correct way to beat a boss, but the options for tackling a boss are more constrained than those for exploring the dungeon.

The player is free to craft whatever party they like to get through the dungeons. Not every strategy will work, but there is a ton of freedom in finding a strategy that works for you. I tend to focus on offence, hitting enemies with overwhelming force and beating them before they can do much damage. But it is genuinely just as effect to build a defense heavy team that prevent enemies from doing much damage or a team focused on status effect or binds to shut enemies down. Bosses, though, significantly cut down on viable strategies. And each boss cuts off different strategy. With a handful of floors between bosses, it is possible to make adjustments, where when you fight a boss every other level it is really hard to find space to make those adjustments.

It makes the game more of a slog than it needs to be. Personally, I’ve always preferred exploring the dungeons to fighting the bosses. The bosses were the roadblocks that kept me from the parts of the game I really liked. The somber solitude of exploring the unknown depths of the dungeon is soothing to me. Bosses, while frequently really interesting, get in the way of that. Fighting bosses as often as Nexus puts them in front of the player really mess up the rhythm.

That is a pretty big complaint, and keeps me from even considering this game among the best in the series, but it doesn’t sink the game completely. There is a lot of great exploratory goodness here and the game isn’t quite hard enough to make the bosses that much of a hurdle. And giving every game in the series representation really does make it feel all encompassing for the series. The only thing missing is the Shiren the Wanderer class from Etrian Mystery Dungeon.

There is only one more 3DS game on the horizon. (The Etrian Odyssey/Persona mash-up Persona Q2) Etrian Odyssey Nexus makes for a fitting farewell for the system. Etrian Odyssey has been one of the most consistent series on the DS family of systems. It is up there with Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton in my mind as the games that really made the system. Both of those series have moved on. There have been a lot of other great games on the DS, but there is no series that has been as consistent, good, present as the Etrian Odyssey series. Etrian Odyssey did not make the most innovative use of the secondary touch screen, but it’s use made the most sense. A lot of games put a map on the bottom screen. Etrian Odyssey let the player draw that map. It seems like a small thing, but it really added to the sense of exploration. It is both simple and essential to the appeal. That really showed off the genius of the DS, more so than games that tried to use the touch screen for controls or random tapping.

I am sure the Etrian Odyssey series will continue. Probably on the Switch, maybe on mobile. I am sure I will keep playing the series for the foreseeable future. But this really feels like the end of era. While Etrian Odyssey Nexus is a middling game in the series, it is a worthy way to wrap up this series and the 3DS.

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Etrian Odyssey V

The Etrian Odyssey series is one of my favorites of the last ten years. I have spent a lot of time with my 3DS methodically mapping out dungeons while trekking ever deeper in the their dangerous unknown. I was greatly anticipating Etrian Odyssey V last fall. Then I played it for a handful of hours and put it aside. As I picked it back up and played through it recently, I realized my lack of enthusiasm was because this is a lesser entry in the series.

Most Etrian Odyssey games have a moment when it all clicks; when the party fits together and you have a strategy for taking on a dungeon. I put this down just before I hit that point, when I realized that I was going to get the bulk of my damage out of my Pugilist and the synergy between the Fencer and Warlock, while my Botanist was going for pure healing instead of status effects. But even at that point, the game didn’t really click. I pushed through and enjoyed it, but nothing about this game really stood out. The classes are interesting. Pugilist is one of my favorite classes I’ve encountered, but none of the rest really did much for me. It seemed to take a lot of set up to get most of them going and I don’t really like fiddly classes. Pugilist, a hand to hand fighter class that powers up based on HP shenanigans, is really easy to use and has a great risk/reward mechanic. Otherwise, they classes left no impact. The same is true of the different dungeon stratums, which were either nothing new, all but the third stratum, or new but not especially interesting, like the third strata’s graveyard. It is the motions of the series, but nothing to really make it interesting.

Etrian Odyssey V’s big innovation are its races, but while they add quite bit if customization to the characters, it ends up being largely unnecessary and I honestly forgot about it for much of the game. There are Earthian, Celestrian, Therian and Brouni. They roughly translate to traditional fantasy races, humans, elves, and dwarves, with the Therian’s being the only ones who don’t. They are rabbit people. The Celestrians make good mages, Therians deal a lot of damage, Earthian’s are good all around. There is a lot to consider, but the game doesn’t require it at all. At first the races are restricted to specific classes, but eventually you get the ability to reclass. It rarely makes sense to do so, because a race’s stats are generally closely aligned with their initial classes. Its neat, but unnecessary.

For the most part, the game just feels kind of rote. It doesn’t do anything memorable or interesting. EOIV had the world map, with multiple little dungeons instead of one big one. EO3 had story choice and the sailing mini-game. The first game had originality going for it, and the Untold games had the novelty of a set party. This game is just fine. It doesn’t do anything necessarily wrong, but it doesn’t really do anything interesting either. I enjoyed this outing well enough, but it is one of the last entries in the series I would turn to for a fix in the future.

I thought this was going to be the last Etrian Odyssey on the 3DS, but Atlus has announced Etrian Odyssey Nexus, which is likely to be the series swan song, at least in it current incarnation. While the first Etrian Odyssey hit a little further into the DS’s life than I remembered, (it came out in 2007, more than two and half years after the DS) this series was always one that seemed like a backbone of the system. Etrian Odyssey was certainly never a big seller, but when I think of the DS, it comes to mind, along with Phoenix Wright and Trauma Center. While Trauma Center has kind of disappeared and Phoenix Wright comes and goes, Etrian Odyssey has been there all along. A new game every other year or so, no big changes to the formula, just new classes and new dungeons and new adventures. I am glad I get that one more time and I hope it is more inspired than this one was.

Now Playing in August ‘15

The new job is really putting the squeeze on my gaming time. For what I think is the first time since I started doing this monthly post I managed to not beat a single game. Still, I did spend some considerable time with a pretty solid trio of games.

Beaten

None.  I beat no games in August.  I didn’t have a ton of time to play games and I sunk that time into games that never end.  

Ongoing

Etrian Odyssey Untold 2 – I am close to the end here and I’ve really enjoyed. I just couldn’t punch it through before the end of the month.  I will have a full review coming soon.

Pokemon Alpha Sapphire – This got sidelined for Etrian Odyssey, but there is no chance that I don’t get back to it sooner rather than later. There is something about this generation of Pokemon that  just doesn’t click with me.  I never beat Sapphire or Ruby back in the day and I am not really loving this one, despite all of its very real improvements on X & Y.  I think it is the Pokemon selection.  I can’t really find monsters that I really want to use.

Dragon Age Origins – This game finally wore me down and I just couldn’t keep going.  It really is very well made.  I like the game; I just wasn’t currently enjoying playing it.  Some day, though.

Star Wars KotOR – I gave up on this because I wasn’t enjoying trudging through the portion of the game I’ve already beaten and because my laptop is limping and gasping like it is about to collapse.  I will beat this game one day, but it likely won’t be this year.

Elliot Quest – I’ve made some small progress on this game.  It is a mostly delightful little 8-bit throw back, with shades of Zelda 2 and Kid Icarus, but honestly more fun than either of those.

Upcoming

Super Mario Maker – I’ll get this next week and likely lose my life to it.  It looks so great.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – Another new game the looks incredibly good.  I am a fan, but not a super fan, of this series.  For some reason, though, I can’t imagine not playing this game right as it comes out. It is one of my last connections to so called “hardcore gamers.”  It feels like the last game of a dying age and I need to witness it.

Ace Attorney Trilogy – I’ve played these games before, but I picked this up on its slight sale the other week and with the announcement of AA6 the time felt right to give these another look.

LBX – Some friends sold me on this tiny robot Pokemon game.  I hope my money was well spent.

Once More I Walk this Dangerous Path

Arrgh! Etrian Odyssey! Again!

Don’t get me wrong, I love Etrian Odyssey. However, I would guess that even the series’ most ardent fans (a group I generally consider myself a part of) would agree that frustration is a large part of the series’ charm. Etrian Odyssey is never easy but it is rarely unfair. It gives the player a set of tools, a goal and an obstacle then leaves them alone. Continue reading

Musings on Death (in video games)

It is the 25th Anniversary of Dragon Quest—in Japan, the first game took three more years to get to America—and since I’m currently playing Dragon Quest VI, I thought it might be a good ides to celebrate one of the series best features. Dragon Quest is the bread and butter of the JRPG genre, with nearly every other game using it at as a starting point or inspiration. For as much as the series is copied, too few other games use Dragon Quest’s no game over strategy.

In most RPGs, as well as most other types of games, if you die you get a blood red “Game Over” screen and it kicks you back out to the title. However, Dragon Quest, even as far back as the first game in the series, just tosses the player back to the last—or only in the case of DQ1—church. All experience and items gained stay with the player, though the gold the player was carrying is cut in half. It doesn’t quite take all the penalty out of dying, but it does severely lessen the blow. Most importantly, it assures the player that they are never wasting their time. In the normal death model, being wiped by a boss means that all the progress through the dungeon has been lost, where in Dragon Quest all is means is you have to fight the boss again. It allows the game to up the difficulty of fights without frustrating the player since progress is never lost.

How do games like Final Fantasy get around to loss of progress problem? By adding more save points, an imperfect resolution at best. With more save points, frequently one just before boss rooms, there is less loss of progress, but it still wastes time. It takes the player out of the game. Sure, you’ll just reload your save and try again; nothing has changed from the last time other than any knowledge of the boss gleaned from the failed attempt. Instead of distressingly punitive consequences, there are none. Why games refuse to adopt Dragon Quest’s elegant death mechanic is puzzling.

Many ill-informed critics don’t seem to grasp the Dragon Quest system and instead deride the series for its draconian saving policy (i.e. at churches, only at churches). That is a feature, not a bug. Though a quick save feature like the DS games have is a welcome feature. By restricting permanent saves to town, it encourages players to reevaluate their approach after a death.

Playing Dragon Quest just really makes me wish more RPGs considered what they are penalizing on death. I love Persona 3, but its death mechanics are unfriendly for the sake of being unfriendly. In the game, there are two separate battle situations. There are the full moon story segments, usually a boss and maybe a small dungeon with a few random battles, where a game over makes sense. There is little progress lost and the fate of the world rests specifically on that time. However, Tartarus, the randomly generated grinding pit, is the opposite. A game over loses all progress on the long trek to the next safe floor. Everything is stacked against the player. If the main character dies game over, many enemies like to spam instant death magic. The battles are not really random, but the enemies in each are.

Very little challenge would be lost if instead of losing everything upon death the player was instead forced out of the dungeon for that day. The floors a randomly generated, so there is no memorizing the layout. The player would still have to start from the last safe/boss floor and make it to the next safe/boss floor in one go. All the player would keep are the levels from the battle that they already won. There is no loss of challenge, just a loss of time wasting bullshit.

I’m not sure the same could be said of the Etrian Odyssey series, where the challenge is to survive in the maze-like dungeon. If dying merely sent the player back to town, with say the loss of all items being carried, most of the challenge would be lost, turning the game into one long tedious, toothless grind. Of course, Etrian Odyssey is much less dependant on gotcha deaths than Persona, at least after the first couple of floors. Instead of no penalty, it could use a rescue system, where the player uses other characters from the guild to go get the ones who fell, but as it is I think it works. While Etrian Odyssey could undoubtedly be friendlier, it at least seems well considered in its hostility.