Etrian Mystery Dungeon Review (Nintendo 3DS)

I haven’t picked up a Mystery Dungeon game since the first Pokémon Mystery Dungeon for DS, so it’s admittedly been a while. Oof, like 9 years, even. Yeesh. Truth be told, I was only interested in it for the Pokémon personality quiz, and I so totally didn’t fabricate that just to get Charmander despite the game insisting that, alas, I am Cubone. I also recall recruiting Pokémon didn’t feel quite right and why evolution had to be so convoluted is still beyond me, but hey, there was some good stuff too, like stat-enhancing jelly beans and jerkface Gengars and…? Yeah, like I said, it’s been too long, so it’s about time that I rediscovered the magic of the Mystery Dungeon series.

Etrian Mystery Dungeon is unsurprisingly a Mystery Dungeon-style spin on the throwback RPG series Etrian Odyssey. As such, the game begins as you, an up-and-coming adventurer, come upon the amber-tinged hillsides of Aslarga. And in true EO spirit, you’re tasked with establishing a guild to protect the wooded village from encroaching monstrous hordes and unravel the mystery of…well, the dungeon. Along the way you’ll meet the buoyant townsfolk who serve as purveyors of goods and services as well as outlets for narrative. The people of Aslarga are a likable sort with plenty of wit and personality to spare, though I am still looking for someone to say something as quotable as this racy knee-slapper from EOIV. And unlike that other recent EO crossover, the cast is chatty within reason — just enough to leave a good impression, but never so much that you consider whipping out the trusty rag and chloroform.

Mechanically, EMD presents itself much like a lite Etrian Odyssey, which is more to say that the designers synthesized that series’ interface to make sense within a Mystery Dungeon context. A team of four classed characters enter an ever-changing dungeon and explore to their heart’s content, duking it out with enemies in turn-based combat and salvaging resources along the way. Players select a leader to control while the other three units are semi-automated, though the leader can be swapped at any time. From there, skills can picked via a menu like one would in any turn-based RPG or — and this is really neat — assign these skills to certain button inputs as shortcuts. Again, the designers did a pretty snazzy job figuring out how the text-ladened menus of EO could comfortably fit within a Mystery Dungeon.

When I say comfortably, however, I mean it’s cozy. Too cozy. Often times there’s just too much text or too many menus hogging both screens of the 3DS, which unfortunately obscures more than it should, especially since the game is all about surveying your immediate surroundings before making a move. Button shortcuts try to alleviate all this menu surfing, but even those can prove to be cumbersome in the heat of battle when switching between units of vastly different skill sets. Sure, the designers did their best to preserve the integrity of both series’ combat and arguably they managed just that, and while the system functions, it could have been further streamlined for the sake of accessibility. If EMD ever yields a sequel (and it should), I’d hope its UI would adopt a “less is more” design philosophy because it would help both fans and newcomers alike cherish the great dungeon crawling here without all these tiresome inhibitors.

Dungeoning in EMD plays out as you would expect from a Mystery Dungeon with some EO twists here and there to keep things fresh. Scavenge for materials, smack around baddies, stabilize your units, rinse, wash, and repeat until you can safely exit the dungeon — that’s the basic flow of EMD. That sounds simple enough, but embedded within all this is an absolutely punishing risk-reward system. If you don’t exit a dungeon on your own terms (AKA you died), you’ll lose all your inventory, half your funds, and your most precious pieces of equipment. Not only are you learning the tough life lesson that possessions are but ephemeral pleasures, the game is reminding you that preparedness is next to godliness. Calculated risks are the only ones worth taking because reckless dungeon crawling will spit you back up so fast it’ll make your head spin — empty-handed, no less.

I, for one, appreciate this system since it entrusts the player with a lot of agency, which just means that your decisions have a significant weight to them. You’ll be held entirely accountable for every action you take whether that be taking a single step or waltzing on into the final floor of a dungeon with no items — makes the stakes feel real. It’s similar to how permadeath functions in Fire Emblem, just don’t try cheating the system in EMD by restarting because it’ll penalize you. How bad? Like lose-all-your-equipment-and-items-and-money bad. Just like dying — imagine that! But even though all your actions have potentially dire consequences, EMD is an engrossing experience because the game puts you to control of your own fate more than you might realize.

In most RPGs, you’ll become so overpowered that common enemies eventually pose no threat, but EMD always keeps you on your toes and it’s not afraid to throw you a curveball when you’re least expecting it. Don’t be surprised when you revisit earlier dungeons — thinking you got it in the bag — only to then find yourself in a room loaded with a dozen souped-up baddies chomping at the bit to tear into your squad. But that’s how it should be. As such, there’s a thrilling sense of spontaneity as you delve deeper and deeper, which builds tension since every move could very well be your last. This reality forces the player to approach the game differently than say a Pokémon or a Final Fantasy-style RPG and it’s this sort of mindset that really sets EMD apart from its contemporaries.

On the other hand, there’s one thing that bothers me about EMD and it’s something that plagues lots of RPGs both new and old: the grind. Now, maybe I’m just bad at the game or perhaps naive, but expertise alone won’t get you very far in EMD. You have to grind a lot before toppling bosses even if you can breeze through their respective dungeons with relative ease. Failure to do so will result in you being severely underleveled come boss time, which never ceases to be a total drag. There are quests players that can accept in town that’ll help diversify the grind whether that be collecting certain materials or targeting specific enemies, so the variation is certainly appreciated at the very least. The rewards for completing quests are pretty generous too, so there’s definitely an incentive to root around a dungeon to meet those conditions while bumping off any nearby enemies. Again, basically grinding in disguise, but raking in the fruits of your labor definitely helps when it comes to prolonging subsequent expeditions or taking on inevitable bigger game.

Bosses aren’t the only ones that necessitate grinding since the same goes for the FOE-inspired DOEs. Luckily, these DOEs can be shooed off by building forts within dungeons, meaning players can avoid confrontations until they’re of an appropriate level. It’s just a shame that these forts are expensive necessities that’ll rob you of several grand a pop, and because they only last for one DOE skirmish, you’ll need to constantly wire your funds to what I’m calling the DOE Abolishment & Nullification Group, or the D.A.N.G. for short. Don’t get me wrong, dealing with FOEs is a quintessential part of the EO package, so DOEs certainly have a place within EMD, but FOE encounters aren’t the routinely pricey endeavors like their Mystery Dungeon counterparts tend to be.

Despite some reservations, I like EMD a lot. There’s something about the orangey autumn vibe and Aslarga’s quaint East meets West architecture that invokes a sense of nostalgia I haven’t felt since I last played Pokémon Gold. I’ll be the first to admit that the two games couldn’t be more different on the surface, but what they do share is a wonderful accommodating quality that sprouts from their creators’ attention to worldbuilding. In EMD‘s case, the title undoubtedly owes a debt of gratitude to the masterful stylings of long-time Etrian Odyssey contributors Yuji Himukai and Yuzo Koshiro who ensured that this crossover looks and sounds the part of a proper mainline entry while still being its own thing entirely.

I don’t know if I would go as far as to say that EMD proves Etrian Odyssey and Mystery Dungeon are a match made in heaven, but nevertheless the two series do compliment one another quite nicely. Overall, it’s one seriously sleek package, though not for those non-committal types out there. Be prepared to sink over a hundred hours into this bad boy if you’re a first time Mystery Dungeoner and even veterans will most likely clock in at around 80ish hours when everything is said and done. But fear not, adventurers, for EMD is well worth your time as it stands tall even amongst the ever-expanding Pantheon of notable 3DS RPGs.

Etrian Mystery Dungeon storms North America on April 7th and will be available digitally and at retailers for $39.99 (CA $49.99). First-print copies will come bundled with a six-track soundtrack CD and 28-page artbook.

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Etrian Mystery Dungeon Review (Nintendo 3DS)
A stalwart challenge coated in a stylish Etrian Odyssey veneer, but don't let that fool you: this is a Mystery Dungeon top to bottom. The gameplay attempts to blend elements from both series, which mostly pans out aside from a few small hiccups. Players brave enough to tackle Etrian Mystery Dungeon will come to love the game's adventurous world teeming with irresistible RPG goodness.
Gameplay8.4
Presentation9
Lasting Appeal8.6
Suave Jack Frost Headwear10
Pros
  • Meaty challenge and length
  • Slick blend of EO and MD gameplay
  • Vibrant setting
Cons
  • Occasionally obtrusive menus
  • Grinding required
8.7Overall Score
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About The Author

Former Co-Editor

Trace Wysaske lives somewhere in Washington, and when he isn't compulsively hunting Green Stars or felling the Lagiacrus, he's writing about everything from forlorn Japanese teachers to well-mannered crows. He still needs to play Ghost Trick.