How the Etrian Odyssey series compels and confounds in equal measure.
The golden age of exploration was also the golden age of cartography. Alongside the plunder of resources, the subjugation of new lands, and the raw thrill of scurvy, part of the primary appeal of far-flung horizons was the maddening urge to fill out the rest of the map, those eddies and edges illustrated by compasses, tradewinds and sea beasts. To ink and stamp dominion in the blank spaces on vellum that screamed of mystery.
Hundreds of years later, with most of the physical world having long since been plotted, diced and bound, this strangely primal urge experienced something of a renaissance during the golden age of early Computer Role Playing Games. Titles such as Akalabeth, Wizardry, and Colossal Cave Adventure had spotty teens and bearded shut-ins reaching for their graph paper and 2B pencils in a valiant effort to tame a land and find coherence and reason amidst a disorienting maze of primitive wireframe and text. It took a keen mind, a hint of obsession, and a steady hand. And when completed, these homespun guides could often resemble a thing of beauty. There is a real sense of satisfaction in plotting your path through the unknown, slowly gaining mastery of the terrain with each scribbled passageway, plotted x and shaded square.
My first experience of this maddening niche was with the titles ‘Dungeon Master’ and ‘DragonFlight’ on the mighty Atari ST (still the best ‘games console’ I’ve ever owned). Lost school nights would bleed into the dawn as I filled my math book with winding passageways and arcane symbols denoting traps, treasure, hidden passageways, resurrection shrines and all manner of labyrinthine tunnels. Ultimately I never bested either title; the mechanics of the day were too unforgiving, the RNG too brutal and the narratives too cryptic, but these self-penned tomes I accumulated were akin to a kind of shorthand Gulliver’s Travels, one boy’s attempts to fathom and communicate the complexity of a strange and hostile world. I wish I still had them.
So it was with a shiver of anticipation and no small hint of nostalgia that when many years later as a grown(ish) man, I first spotted ‘Etrian Odyssey’ on the Nintendo DS and I kinda knew I’d be smitten. In the early days of the DS, (as with most new Nintendo hardware) developers were struggling to find a compelling use of the inbuilt gimmick, (in this case the second screen/stylus combo). Eventually, after some initial fumbles, these tacked on mechanics gave way to some inspired titles that could only have been possible on the hit clamshell. Games like ‘Trauma Centre’, ‘Elite Beat Agents’ and ‘Henry Hatsworth’ made inventive use of the hardware in creative ways that rendered the DS the premium portable experience.
And then came ‘Etrian Odyssey’.
Like all the best ideas, it’s amazing no-one had thought of it before. A perfect symbiosis of software and hardware. A hardcore turn-based dungeon crawler with the second screen devoted entirely to our old friend cartography. Stylus gripped between tense fingers, we were invited once again to take ownership of a brave new world, one tile at a time, as we inked our way slowly towards comprehension over hill and under dale. No pencils required.
And holy shit, that first title was brutal as hell. Hearkening back to the days when ‘grinding’ was less of a burden and more of a ‘feature’ it played heavy-handed as it stomped you into the soil. Light on story but big on atmosphere, and with an irresistible hook that whispered ‘one more go’ until once again the wee hours were upon you and you felt twelve years old again, lights dimmed, a nearby bowl of crisps long since diminished and a fierce urge to ‘press on’ girding your loins.
I never completed it. Somewhere around the 4th stratum I hit a wall I simply no longer had the will to chip away at. My resources, along with my patience, were utterly depleted by the sheer obstinance of the task at hand.
Nevertheless It struck a chord, and as the sequels followed, so did I. The second take refined and expanded on the original, adding more classes and abilities while keeping the oblique minimalism and punishing difficulty. A cult was beginning to emerge, with players sharing builds, maps, tips and mathematical minutiae online in forums dedicated to this Etrian obsession. I was oblivious to all this as I once again stalled out two-thirds of the way towards completion. 50 hours of my life I poured upon the roots of Yggdrasil only to come up short. But again it wasn’t done with me.
I skipped the third title, (much to my chagrin, as it commands hefty prices these days) but when it came time to justify purchasing a 3DS, Etrian Odyssey IV was there. I bought it the same day I succumbed to the upgrade and promptly disappeared for days. The hand-drawn sprites of old were missed, but the new animations enabled by the 3D models softened the blow. A world map traversable by hot air balloon linked various smaller dungeons as opposed to the mammoth singular behemoths of old, and on the whole, it felt fresh enough to justify another masochistic slog into the depths.
‘Etrian Odyssey Untold’ a retelling of the first title with a minimal story, anime cutscenes, extra dungeon and - praise the sun - an easy mode followed. It wasn’t much easier mind you, but it was the chink in the armour that finally allowed a ray of sunlight into the endgame. I threw myself against that beast with vigour. Scrawling floor upon floor of dingy passageways, puzzles and pathfinding on the way towards the most protracted final boss battle I think I’ve ever encountered.
But when that fucker fell? Elation. And I’d made it there via the grist of my own mill. Each step marked by my own hand. It’s a remarkable feeling.
Last month saw the release of the latest (and perhaps final) entry in the series ‘Etrian Odyssey 5: Beyond the Myth’, a return to the simplicity of earlier titles, but refined and polished to a buffed chrome gleam.
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As I write this I have just scraped through the first boss battle on route to the second stratum, with mere shreds left of the skin of my teeth, and even after so many visits, that sense of exhilaration has not diminished. It perhaps takes a certain kind of mindset to succumb to the charms of this series. It probably helps if you got the D&D ‘Red Box’ basic set for your tenth birthday and pored over the maps detailing the lair of Bargle the wizard (I knew you were good people - Ed). It certainly helps if you remember the days of old, where tutorials most certainly weren’t a thing and without a glut of titles at your disposal you poured months into a single game, wringing it dry and slurping from its mealy marrow.
But I believe there’s something universal in the code that constructs this world, it speaks to an urge that lies in all of us, perhaps dormant, perhaps persistent. The urge to make sense of our surroundings, to forge a path through the unknown, and to leave our stamp on the space around us, telling our own story as we stumble towards understanding. It speaks to the inner cartographer in us all.
I wish you Godspeed on your journey.
Don’t forget your stylus.