One of the unfortunate casualties of the end of DS and 3DS eras was the death of games that were uniquely suited to the quirky dual-screened devices. The Etrian Odyssey series, the first three games of which are represented in the new Etrian Odyssey Origins Collection (also available separately) was a good example of this bespoke design, as you were presented with dungeon-crawling RPG adventures that required you to actively make maps using their stylus on the touch screen. So, how do these games play now on the Switch, a console that they clearly were designed made for? Pretty well, believe it or not! Though we would have liked Atlus to give these games a little more love for this re-release, all three games in the Etrian Odyssey Origins Collection hold up quite well today.
In a rare subversion of typical RPG tropes, the story in each of these games is something that mostly takes a backseat. None of your characters individually ‘exist’ in the plot because each of them is custom-made and named by you, so the narratives mostly deal with broad ideas that could fit any party and character type. For example, the second game is about a legendary treasure held within a flying sky castle that can only be reached by entering the Yggdrasil labyrinth, while the third game is about a highly advanced city that sank into the ocean which can also only be accessed by delving into another maze. These games hardly feature dynamic plots packed with all kinds of twists and interesting characters, just basic premises and a whole lot of dungeon-crawling.
That said, narrative still plays an important role here in the sense that much of it is emergent and player-driven. You’ll occasionally come across events while in a dungeon that’ll prompt you with making a choice or string of choices resulting in either good or bad effects for the party. For example, we encountered an instance early on in the third game where a monster was caught in a trap, and we were given the opportunity to free it. We chose to do so in the hopes it would give a reward of some kind, but the encounter directly led us into a brutal fight with its friends. The narrative across any of these games is thus very contingent upon the decisions and actions you make with your specific party—it’s like a choose-your-own-adventure in the sense that it’ll be personal to the battles and incidents that your handmade party prevailed over.
Gameplay in each Etrian Odyssey title follows a classic DRPG framework in which you navigate tile-based dungeons via a first-person viewpoint, solving basic puzzles and killing monsters along the way. Each floor of each dungeon features a meandering labyrinth full of traps and treasures, and usually you won’t be able to clear the entirety of a floor before resources grow scarce, leading you to pull out and return to town. The gameplay loop thus consists of leveling and collecting what loot you can in the dungeon, returning to town to regroup, restock, and buy better equipment, then diving back in to go a little further with a team that’s that extra bit more empowered.
Every floor of every dungeon is a complete mystery at first, and you have to draw up your own maps as you go. There’s an extensive system of icons, drawing tools, and colored tiles you can use to map out each floor, and these can be utilized via either the touch screen or traditional controls. Though the touchscreen feels much more natural and intuitive for mapmaking, the traditional controls still offer a decent alternative for when you’re playing on the TV, even if they feel a bit awkward. And if you don’t want to be bothered stopping every now and then to update your progress on the map, you can always just set up an automap feature in the settings to do the majority of the work for you as you walk.
Combat follows a very simple turn-based structure, but there’s lots of technical depth here to navigate. Enemy encounters are sorta random—a small gem in the corner of the screen will gradually change from green to red while exploring, and enemies can attack you at any time once it goes red. Once you’ve been attacked, you typically command a team of five members—three on the frontline and two on the backline, or vice versa—each of which has a selection of skills and abilities at their disposal. If you’re playing on the default difficulty, enemies hit pretty hard and take no prisoners, which means you have to carefully make use of buffs and debuffs, elemental weaknesses, and turn order optimization to prevail.
Such nuance naturally begins to matter a little less as you begin to out-level the enemies on a floor, but we still encountered a few instances where our cockiness led to some devastating defeats when foes landed some well-placed crits that rapidly dismantled our crew. And that’s to say nothing of the boss fights, each of which acts as a hard and uncompromising check on your teambuilding and tactical abilities—which can’t be viably made up for by grinding. The easiest difficulty level is helpful in making these games more approachable, but we’d still suggest that newcomers and casual fans of the RPG genre may want to steer clear; these games are certainly rewarding and worth the effort. But they’re not going to show you much mercy as you learn them.
Though puzzles are relatively lightly featured in dungeon designs, the most notable recurring kind of ‘puzzle’ is the FOE system. Most floors in most dungeons will feature at least one FOE, which is an extremely powerful enemy that patrols on a set path, which usually also happens to be one that you have to traverse. Even if your team is at the appropriate level for a floor, you stand no chance against these enemies, so you have to carefully plan out your steps in advance to ensure that you don’t get their attention and find yourself dragged into a horrifying battle that will see your team getting spanked. Not only does this make for some nicely tense sequences as you try to plan a route and tiptoe through a dangerous area, but it later creates a euphoric feeling when you can come back to that floor with a highly leveled and equipped team capable of felling FOEs and netting some rare goodies.
Character progression is handled manually by distributing stat points along a unique skill tree every time you level up a party member, with many skills requiring quite a bit of planning and investment before they come into their own. Active skills can be individually leveled up to enhance their effectiveness, and more powerful skills are usually gated by prerequisites that mandate you raise certain skills to specific thresholds. Being mindful of the niche you want each character to fill is extremely important here, as it is possible to build your team ‘wrong’ and find yourself backed into a corner hours later when you get to a floor with enemies that your team can’t handle. It is possible to start over with a respec, but this requires you to give up five levels for that character, necessitating a hefty amount of grinding to get back to where you started.
Even if it seems a bit daunting, teambuilding feels extremely satisfying in the long run due to the sheer variety of options at your disposal. Not only are there tons of classes to explore, but each one can be taken in different directions that span various offensive and defensive techniques. For example, the Dark Hunter in the first game can be built to specialize in whips, swords, or a varying combination of the two. If you go with whips, you’ll gradually unlock debuffs that let you bind enemy limbs. If you go with swords, you’ll get debuffs that inflict status ailments on enemies. This adds a lot of replayability to each game, as it feels like there’s a nearly endless amount of combinations you can run with for your five-member setup. And while there are clearly some class combinations and skill loadouts that synergize better than others, experimentation can still lead to some creative and surprisingly effective strategies.
While each game plays quite similarly to the next, there are also some key gimmicks and features in each that help differentiate them from each other. For example, Etrian Odyssey III introduces sailing, which is similar to dungeon crawling but without random encounters and with the limitation that you can only explore the ‘labyrinth’ of the open sea until your dwindling supplies run out. If dungeon crawling isn’t your thing, then none of these three games are going to change your mind, but we appreciated how the developers put in the effort to improve the core formula and explore new ideas across the trilogy. It does feel like the third game is the most fleshed-out and ‘mature’ adventure out of the three, but all of them nonetheless offer up a captivating and quality experience.
The value proposition on offer here is a little dubious, to say the least. Each game in this trilogy is sold for $40 apiece at launch, and you can buy the whole collection (digitally, there’s no physical release in the West, although importing is an option) in one shot for $80. Believe it or not, this is still cheaper than buying any of the original DS games, which can go for comfortably over $100 just for a loose cartridge, yet this collection still feels overpriced for what’s being included.
These are effectively straight, up-rezzed ports of the DS games with little in the way of enhancements or additional features, which feels especially bizarre given that both the first and second game received remakes on the 3DS featuring extra content and upgrades that aren’t present in this release. Make no mistake, the core gameplay here is still solid and you could easily get a couple hundred hours out of the whole package if you get really invested in it. There’s value for money to be had, sure, and having these games available on a current console is a boon, but there’s a lingering sense that the minimum level of effort went into these ports.
Though we wish more could’ve gone into them, one area where Etrian Odyssey Origins Collection notably does not falter is in its visuals. These games’ origins as portable releases may be evident in the short draw distances and repetitive textures, but you’re still presented with a variety of richly detailed environments and sharply drawn character artwork from Yuji Himukai. There’s something wonderful about getting lost in the gameplay loop where the artwork washes over you in an immersive wave as you find yourself delving deeper into strange territory. The dungeons you encounter may be hostile at every turn, but they are certainly beautiful.
Meanwhile, Yuzo Koshiro’s legendary music is present and correct here, with a playlist of relaxing, somewhat jazzy tracks that do a great job of adding to that immersion factor. Even if your party is at death’s door, crawling around corners as they limp their way back to the exit, the calming music somehow doesn’t feel out of place or incongruent with your experience. And, of course, things speed up a bit more for the battle themes, which feel like they adequately match the difficulty of the combat. Our only real complaint here is that the ‘remastered’ soundtracks don’t actually sound all that remastered—there’s still a somewhat tinny quality to many of the tracks that feels rather odd given that they’ve supposedly been polished up.