I’ve talked about Etrian Odyssey before. It’s a dungeon crawler, which isn’t my favorite genre, but it also has the gimmick that, as you play, you have to draw the map of the dungeon on the bottom screen of your DS with your stylus. And I love (and miss) drawing maps while playing games, so I figured I had to pick it up and give it a try.

And the mapping was a lot of fun! No big surprise there, and I’m sure there are lots of people who would give it a try and wonder how anybody could possibly consider doing that sort of basic mapping to be entertaining; those people are not me.

What was more of a surprise was that I enjoyed the dungeon crawling as well. The difficulty progression was well done, the levels were acceptably varied, there were some at least somewhat interesting choices to be made in the character classes that you use and how you level them up. Each time you level up you get to either unlock a new skill – a spell or a new attack or something – or improve an existing skill. (Which may, in turn, make more new skills available for unlocking.) So you have a good amount of choice in how you develop your characters, instead of being forced along a single path by the choice of character classes.

Often, when playing games like this, I actually get frustrated at the number of choices, because I want to explore them all; here, though, I was okay with only focusing on four of the classes, and with exploring one way of developing each of those. (Except for Alchemists: I had two of them, which I initially leveled up along different lines.) And, actually, I enjoyed the dungeon wandering enough to keep a second party around, representing the classes that weren’t in my primary party.

As to difficulty: the monsters normally get gradually harder but not in any threatening way. There’s a big boss at the end of every fifth level that’s quite a bit harder as well. And occasionally there’s a tough boss elsewhere, most notably at the start of level three. Which worked out well: I was rarely bored during my normal progression through the game, I was rarely frustrated when I got to the tough bosses, and on those few tough bosses that I couldn’t beat on the first couple of tries (levels 3 and 12 – hmm, I guess the really toughest bosses aren’t on the multiple of five levels, are they?), I didn’t have to do too much wandering around and leveling up (combined with intelligent upgrade selection) to get to beat them.

So all was fine and dandy through the first ten or fifteen levels. At that point, though, problems developed. For one thing, two character classes aren’t unlocked at the start, leaving hope for interesting new opportunities going forward. The first one, Ronin, was okay; after suitable leveling up, I swapped out my previous fighter type for one, and was happy enough with that choice. But I didn’t feel that I got anything great from the new class, either: I’m fairly sure I would have been just as happy with my previous class.

The second new class, though, was an active disappointment. As mentioned above, I’d been with a party of two Alchemists, the stock magic user type. (The rest of my party was a Landsknecht (= generic fighter), later to be swapped with a Ronin; a Medic; and a Dark Hunter, a rather fun fighter type who also has paralyzing whip attacks that are extremely useful against boss monsters.) The last class to unlock is a Hexer; I’d been hoping that would be an interesting twist on an Alchemist, allowing me to vary my party a little more. In fact, though, a Hexer wasn’t very much like an Alchemist; the result was that I kept my party the same (I like my elemental spells!), and was unhappy.

Also, at about this time, the plot took a turn for the worse. All along, the plot was, to put it gently, threadbare. Which is okay: that’s really not what this sort of game is about. At around level 15 or level 16, though, they introduce what seems to be an interesting turn of events. I expected here that I’d be able to choose between a good way of proceeding and an evil way of proceeding. Which has been done a zillion times recently, so it’s no great shakes, but would at least have been a sign that they were taking some small amount of care of the plot.

In fact, however, there was only one way to proceed, and that one way involved proceeding in a banally evil fashion. This left me with a bad taste in my mouth for two reasons. One is that it drove home the lack of quality in the plot. And the other is that I don’t particularly enjoy slaughtering people, even random cardboard enemies, just to proceed through a game, if I’ve been given active reason to believe that they have more right to be in that part of the game world than I do.

And then I reached level 20. The level started off as an interesting twist: there were no random encounters, but instead the level was full of mini-bosses. Which I couldn’t all kill, so I assumed the level was about mapping it out properly and picking my way through them to find a stairs somewhere. Eventually I had the whole level mapped, though, with no stairs; on to theory B, that the boss in the center was special, and once I beat him I would find some stairs.

And indeed the boss in the center was different from the other monsters in several ways, but beating him didn’t turn up anything. After a bit of scratching my head, I looked on gamefaqs: it turns out that you have to beat all of the mini bosses plus the central boss in the level without dying.

Which, for me, crossed the line from a pleasantly tough challenge to actively disrespectful. I could have done it after a bit more leveling up, I’m fairly sure. But each attempt would have involved an hour or two of battles, with no guarantee at the end that I’d succeed, and with monsters respawning if I left in the middle to save. I probably would have soldiered through it if I’d had a more favorable impression of the game by then, but my two recent disappointments had already left me with a bad taste in my mouth; at that point, the game had spent too much of my goodwill towards it to leave me willing to invest further potentially unproductive hours to make it past that barrier.

So I stopped. Lest I end this on a depressing note, however, I want to emphasize that this was a quite pleasant game through the first 15 levels or so. I’m glad I played it, and it did a lovely job of helping me through the summer game doldrums.

But I’m also confident that I stopped at the right time. For one thing, there were a few other games that I wanted to give a try in the second half of the summer. And, right now, all hell is about to break loose: as far as I can tell, if I want to spend all of the next nine months playing video games that are better than this one, I will be able to do so. Metroid drops next week, the DS Zelda and Zack and Wiki in October, Mario in November, Professor Layton (for single-player fun) and Smash Brothers (for multi-player fun; Miranda has recently discovered the Gamecube version and quite enjoys it) in December. And hopefully by the time I’m done with those I’ll be confident enough about the quality of Xbox 360’s that I’ll be able to buy one of those, at which point Bioshock, Eternal Odyssey, Rock Band, and Mass Effect will keep me quite busy. The rest of this year looks like it will be the best four months of games that I can remember; maybe I should just burn my vacation time and hole up in front of the TV for a few weeks…

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