Whenever two powerhouse franchises cross-over, the ultimate hope is that you can draw on the strengths of both, while appealing to two sets of fans. Spike Chunsoft’s Mystery Dungeon series itself began life as a spin-off from the hugely popular Dragon Quest franchise, and since then has married its roguelike gameplay with characters and creatures from rich sources such as Final Fantasy and Pokemon.
This time out Mystery Dungeon is pairing with Atlus’ popular Etrian Odyssey franchise, taking the Etrian character classes and customisation into Mystery Dungeon’s randomly generated areas in search of enemies and loot. While some of the previous collaborations have overstretched their fiction across the Mystery Dungeon framework, in theory this latest entry should be much more symbiotic, with both offering elements that compliment each other.
The game casts you as an explorer of labyrinths and you arrive in the kingdom of Aslarga ready to join the Explorers Guild and make your mark. From the outset you only have one choice of character class – a Landsknecht, or melee fighter if you prefer – and you’re able to loosely personalise them with a choice of sex, clothing colour and name before immediately taking them into your first dungeon. Upon completing this introduction you’re then joined by a cast of characters from an array of different classes who you can use to fill out your own newly formed guild.
The Skyship Port serves as your transport hub, with each available dungeon appearing in a list of destinations. The aim is to reach the lowest level of any dungeon in order to clear it, and at the outset you’re given a dungeon map showing the floor layout. Your Zone Map appears on the touchscreen, filling out for each floor of the dungeon as you explore. Later in the game you’re able to build forts which set the layout of a particular floor in place, allowing you to fully explore it, as well as return at a later point, rather than it randomly generating another version within the dungeon.
One of the nicest additions to the formula that Etrian Odyssey’s involvement brings is full RPG style levelling, which, alongside a meaningful loot system, makes for a far more involving experience than some of the previous Mystery Dungeon games. You earn Skill Points as you level up, and you can then spend these unlocking and upgrading various different skills for each character.
As with many RPGs your character’s health is represented by a HP counter, while your skills use up TP. A more unusual feature is the FP meter, which measures your satiety, with your characters growing hungrier the longer that they’ve spent roaming the dungeon. If you don’t feed them regularly, or travel across special amber panels, when their FP reaches 0% they’ll start to lose health. It’s actually something you’ll really have to keep an eye on, and adds an extra aspect for players to pay attention to the further you explore into a dungeon. It isn’t uncommon to be reaching the bottom of a dungeon on edge, as your character becomes increasingly hungry and liable to start losing health at any point, just as you’re about to enter into one of the highly enjoyable boss battles.
Though the movement and action appears real-time it’s actually all turn-based, with a single movement across a square or a single action counting as a turn. Largely you rely on the computer to control the actions of your teammates unless you use a special ability which enables you to fully take charge, though this only really serves to emphasise that you’re much better off leaving it to the AI given how much it slows proceedings down. Overall the whole system works well, though occasionally I struggled to target creatures on a diagonal which added some unnecessary frustration.
The game’s music is a highlight, which should come as no surprise seeing as the composer is Yuzo Koshiro, whose works not only cover the Etrian Odyssey series, but also SEGA’s Shenmue and some of the most iconic games of the last thirty years, including Revenge Of Shinobi and Streets Of Rage. His compositions here range from subdued and dreamlike to militaristic and energetic, and compliment the action perfectly. The game’s visuals meanwhile are bright and colourful, and while they don’t push the system in any meaningful way they’re attractive and clear.
As in previous Mystery Dungeon games, having been randomly generated you’re sometimes left with a dungeon full of boring corridors that don’t lead anywhere, and this is amplified by the repetitious nature of the backgrounds for each location. There are also a few returning issues with the controls, with the dash skill being an particular annoyance; it’s designed to speed you around each dungeon but instead you have continually re-engage it every time you turn a corner, leave an area, or enter a room.
Etrian Mystery Dungeon is an enjoyable and fully featured dungeon crawler, with some great touches to keep you coming back time and time again. Though there are a few occasional niggles it combines the two franchises very successfully and that should see it find fans in both camps.