by Andrew Skelton (Outfoxed)
I’ve been a long time fan of the Etrian Odyssey series, starting when a friend introduced me to an “old-school, super difficult dungeon crawler.” I was reminded heavily of games like the Might and Magic series, or the original Bard’s Tale games, amongst others. First person dungeon crawlers were a childhood favorite, even if I was horrible at keeping the meticulous notes and maps they required. The Etrian Odyssey series saw its first three iterations on the Nintendo DS, and remakes of the first two on the 3DS, along with the fourth and fifth in the series. With the lifespan of the handheld nearing a close, Atlus decided to close with a bang, releasing Etrian Odyssey Nexus as a love letter to fans of the series. An all new adventure awaits players venturing into the unknown, but does it hold up to the lofty expectations presented from no less than seven prior entries (plus a spinoff)?
There are How Many World Trees, Again?
As you start a new game, you’re given a critical choice. There are four difficulty modes in Etrian Odyssey Nexus: Picnic, Standard, Expert, and Heroic. Picnic mode is definitely for people that want to plow through the game for fun with little challenge. Enemies deal substantially less damage, your party gets a massive increase in damage, and you earn more experience throughout the game. Standard is a more, well, standard Etrian Odyssey experience, designed for newer players to the series, giving them slightly increased capabilities while maintaining a challenge throughout the adventure. Fundamentally, Expert and Heroic difficulties are the same, both offering no bonuses. The difference, however, is Heroic mode can only be selected on a brand new game, and you can never adjust the difficulty down in game. Note: Picnic mode also locks the difficulty setting, so your choice is very important.
I went with Expert difficulty for my first run through, having played plenty (read: all) of Etrian Odyssey games in the past. You’re then thrust onto the observation deck of a gigantic floating airship city called Maginia. You then have to face your second trial, the dreaded name-your-guild boss. You see, the basic premise of the series is that you’re the head of a guild responsible for recruiting adventurers to explore the World Tree (Lemuria in Nexus) and its various strata. It’s up to you whether you create a character based on yourself or if you’re simply the one responsible for guiding these adventurers throughout the dungeon. Through the prologue you’ll also get to met the various members of town, whom I’ll speak about soon enough.
Everyone Wants To be a Hero, Not a Farmer
Etrian Odyssey Nexus is ambitious with its character creation. There is only one new class when compared to previous installations in the franchise, however, the game brings in 18 additional classes from the prior five main Etrian Odyssey games. Most of these classes were chosen via a poll of the fans, ensuring people’s favorites were included. From Etrian Odyssey, we have the Protector, Medic, Survivalist, and Ronin. Its remake Etrian Odyssey Untold gives us the Highlander class. The second in the series provides us with the War Magus and Gunner (the first two games shared most of the same classes mind). The third game grants Sovereign, Ninja, Zodiac, Farmer, and Shogun. Number four? That game’s version of a class from the original two: the Landsknecht. It also provides the Nightseeker, Arcanist, and Imperial classes. Finally, we have the Pugilist and the Harbinger from game number five. Nexus’s class is called the Hero, which gives us our 19th. There is a secret pseudo-class you can unlock later in the game, though that’s something best figured out on one’s own.
Each class has at least one role they can fulfill amongst tanking, healing, front row damage, back row damage, and support. Some classes fulfill multiple roles. For example, a Sovereign functions primarily as buff support, but with the right skills will also function as a healer. A gunner is a back-line damage class, but provides support in abilities known as binds. For most people, a balance of all of these is key to a solid, optimal party. My own main party was a Hero for tanking and damage, a Harbinger for debuff support, a Nightseeker for damage and ailments, a Gunner for damage and binds, and a Sovereign for buff support and healing. The beauty of the game, however, comes with the fact you can put together whatever party you want. They may not always function the best in every encounter, but generally you can make most groups work.
Pigs Don’t Fly; This Town Does Though
The town area of Maginia is the hub for adventure into the dungeons of Lemuria. You have the Lady of the Lake inn, which allows you to rest and recover all your health, including any dead characters you might be lugging around. Additionally, the inn is where you save your game, and can store items you don’t need to carry around with you — yes, you have limited inventory space in Etrian Odyssey Nexus. It’s run by Vivian and the best cathat ever, Merlin. Next up is Napier’s Firm. Fans of Etrian Odyssey III will recognize this profit obsessed shopkeep. The shop, as expected, is where you purchase weapons, armor, accessories, and items for your dungeon exploring needs. The shop’s stock is fueled by the drops you receive from monsters, so collecting as much as possible is key to getting better stuff.
Kvasir’s Tavern is run by the selfsame Kvasir. The bar is used to get helpful tips from NPCs on how to handle encounters, or other perils of the labyrinths you’ll be traveling in. You’ve also access to quests, which give you various rewards for completion, and a good amount of experience to boot. You should already be familiar with the Explorer’s Guild, since you created your party there, but you can use it to register new characters, change your party around, and other assorted party management functions like setting up squads for easy setup as well as more advanced party planning like resting, retiring, and more. All of those advanced options I’ll talk about later, since they’re very important to developing your party. Lastly, you have the Expedition HQ, which is like the seat of government for Maginia. Story critical missions are accepted here, and you can report on the monsters and items you’ve found in the dungeons for some assorted prizes too.
Cartography 101: This Place Will Kill You
If you’ve never played an Etrian Odyssey game before, it’s essentially a first person dungeon crawler. Nexus is obviously no exception. In these games, you use the lower screen of the Nintendo DS to draw the maps of the floor you’re currently exploring. The game gives you access to several tools to assist your cartography. Drawing lines represent walls, and painting tiles represent the floor. You have a whole host of icons to indicate doors, treasure chests gathering points, stairs, secret passages, and more. If it all sounds like too much hassle or work, though, there is an option to auto-map the entirety of your exploration, but I’m one of those people who thoroughly enjoys the map-making facet of the game, so I strive to make my maps in my own style.
As you explore the dungeon, you will undoubtedly encounter several random events here and there. They almost all start innocuous enough — you find water dripping into a pool, someone’s discarded backpack lies nearby, you spot some fruits growing from a tree, etc. Remember how I mentioned the series is known for sometimes punishing difficulty? Yeah, these events sometimes are a reminder not to get too comfortable. In one particularly nasty event early on, three of my party members were dealt a severe drain in their health and tech points because I investigated the water, and were then forced to remove their gear for relief. The end result? Ambushed by monsters. Needless to say that was not an easy battle. Thankfully, no matter the outcome of these events, you’re always rewarded with a bit of experience for your troubles. They’re not all bad events either!
We Didn’t Start the Fire
I’ll be the first to admit the story in the Etrian Odyssey titles isn’t its focus. Sure, it’s there, but the game is about conquering the dungeons more than anything. In Etrian Odyssey Nexus you’re tasked with discovering the mysteries of Lemuria, and why it seems to contain copies of the lands of previous Etrian Odyssey titles. As you progress, you learn something far more sinister is at work in Lemuria, and you become the go-to guild to try and solve it. It’s cliche, I admit, and story segments are also few and far between, but it works in a game like this. The story is about the adventures your party has, with the game’s story acting more as an overarching plot that keeps your group together.
Some of the more interesting tidbits of story, though, come from the sidequests at the bar. While most of them end up being simple fetch quests, others tell some pretty interesting stories themselves. Talking to the major town NPCs gives quite a bit of background on their motivations too. Kvasir, for instance, plays the role of goofy bartender, but it’s pretty obvious his sense of humor is necessary for someone who posts requests only to see guilds that accept them never return. There’s some necessary reading between the lines, sure, but it’s an interesting world for a game whose story is secondary.
Looking to Protect Yourself …
With exploration comes combat, right? I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but like all previous Etrian Odyssey games, as you explore you’ll engage in random encounters. The game even gives you a handy indicator to let you know when you’re about to be attacked. Combat itself is turn based. You choose your party’s actions (basic attack, skills, items, fleeing, etc), and they play out based on each character’s speed. Enemy attacks occur during this same execution phase. Action speed is based off of several factors such as their agility, what equipment they’re using, and any modifiers on any skills they might be using. You can change your party layout in battle at the start of your own turn, too, in case you need to shuffle around characters — particularly useful for buffing certain characters or to shift around glass cannon type damagers to the front when they’re ready to unleash their fury.
There are also very powerful monsters in each dungeon known as FOEs. The acronym itself has had various meanings across the games (some colorful iterations amongst the fans, too), but these monsters tend to be much, much stronger than any normal enemy found in the labyrinth floors. Most of the time, they’re positioned in such a way where it becomes a puzzle on how to avoid them, since most of the time you won’t be strong enough to handle them on your first encounter. FOEs add just another difficulty check in an already challenging game.
… or Deal Some Damage?
Keep in mind, combat isn’t just auto attack normal monsters until they die. Monsters in Etrian Odyssey hit hard. They use debilitating status effects and debuffs. They will attempt to bind your characters limbs; in the Etrian Odyssey series, there are three binds: head, arms, and legs. These binds restrict what skills you can use, and have additional effects. Head bind increases the elemental damage you take, arm bind reduces your physical damage, and leg bind disables your ability to evade attacks and flee. Thankfully, with a well balanced party, anything the enemy can do, you can do too! In fact, locking down tougher enemies via ailments like blind or paralysis, or inflicting your own binds upon them will give you an extreme advantage.
Your characters also have access to powerful abilities called Force moves. These abilities are unique to each class, and can greatly change the pace of battles; Sovereigns can buff their entire party, Nightseekers have increased chance to land ailments, etc. After the Force boost ends, it will slowly fill back up. Alternatively, once you’ve activated a character’s boost, you can use an even more powerful version called a Break. Using a Force Break prevents your Force gauge from increasing until you return to town, however, so you’ll want to save it for extreme circumstances.
How to Train Your Guildmates
Every class has access to their own set of skills. At first level, you have three skill points, and gain an additional skill point every level afterwards. Every skill a class has can be upgraded using more skill points — some have a single point, others can have up to 10. At the beginning of the game, you’ll only have access to a limited amount of your abilities, but you’ll unlock more for everyone once they reach level 20 for intermediate skills, and level 40 for advanced skills. Later in the game, you’ll unlock the ability to add a subclass to your characters. You’ll gain an additional five skill points to use, and can access any of the second class’ abilities, though you’ll only be able to allocate half the maximum values. Their Force Boost and Break abilities are likewise unavailable to the primary class. Subclassing can turn an average character into a true beast, so it’s important to synergize them well. Later on you can even retire a character to create a new one in its stead. Retiring halves the level of the character, but will gain a bonus to their stats and additional skill points, depending on what level you retire at.
In addition to skills and subclassing, equipment plays a big role in your success. As I mentioned before, as you defeat monsters, you have a chance to receive monster parts as drops. You can also forage various items in the labyrinths from specific gathering nodes once per day. Selling these to the shop unlocks new items, from weapons and armor, to helpful items, and beneficial accessories. Each character has four equipment slots to use. One must be used by a weapon, the rest any combination of armor and accessories you choose. Keep in mind some skills require certain weapons to be equipped, and further some classes also require a shield equipped in one of their armor slots to utilize skills. Other classes also unlock the ability to equip two weapons at once. This makes them offensively more powerful, but severely hinders their defense since they lose one of their equipment slots. Weapons have both physical and elemental attack values, and generally the higher these numbers, the more damage said character will deal. Likewise, armor possesses physical and magical defense, reducing damage from either source respectively. Accessories have a wide range of effects, all of which are beneficial. Some weapons and accessories can even grant special abilities to whomever has them equipped.
Bringing Others Along for the Ride
While Etrian Odyssey Nexus is a single player game, it does have a little unique multiplayer aspect. Utilizing the 3DS Streetpass feature, whenever you pass by someone that also has it active, you’ll gain a guild card from said person. You can use said guild card to summon one of their party members to assist you in the labyrinth. Keep in mind, you can still only take five characters in with you, so you’ll need to leave one of your own behind. You can also export your guild card to a QR code, and post it for others. Scanning people’s codes using the 3DS cameras will also unlock their guild card for you to use. I mentioned a bit about the secret pseudo-class before, and these guild cards play a part in unlocking it.
I’ve also neglected to mention the world map of the game, though it’s less a world map and more a graphical location selector. That being said, given the amount of dungeons the game possesses over its predecessor, this is probably for the best, as the game is already longer than any prior Etrian Odyssey title. FOEs and gather points can also appear on this map. There’s also a significant amount of post-game content to do, once you’ve defeated the final boss of the story. These encounters are all designed to severely test your party, and your ability as the player to understand their patterns. Having more content after the end fits right into the Etrian Odyssey universe, after all, complete with superbosses.
Final Verdict: Great (4/5)
My biggest complaint with Etrian Odyssey Nexus is how much feels the same, at least early on. There’s only a single new class. Most of the areas are copied from previous Etrian Odyssey titles. There’s only a singular magical attacking class in the game (and it was weakened substantially). That being said, when you follow the story, it all begins to make sense. After all, this was a love letter to the series, combining plenty of aspects of past games into one gigantic passage. It’s nice for veterans to see old faces across their travels, and to help new allies in the same vein. The monsters, the bosses, and the FOEs we’ve come to adore (and despise) across the years are brought back one final time. The game itself may not do any one thing exceptionally, but it does a lot of things very well. Best of all, it’s accessible to veterans and newcomers alike. While I’m a bit grieved that this will be the final DS entry of the series, I’m certainly glad for its development.
Find out more about the game at the official website.
Note: A game key was provided for review purposes.