To the untrained eye, the many flavors of role-playing games might look the same. Since the genre’s inception, role-playing games have featured a strong emphasis on character building, inventory management, and more often than not take place in a fantasy setting. Once you start to look closer, though, the differences appear: some feature a more action-focused approach to loot gathering such as Diablo, others have more cinematic and story-based aspirations like Mass Effect or the more recent Final Fantasy titles. One subset of the RPG that has always carried with it something of a cult following is the first-person dungeon crawler, ranging all the way back from Ultima Underworld (which can lay claim to being one of the earliest games from a first-person perspective, period) to more recent examples like Legend of Grimrock. The Japanese-made Etrian Odyssey series, adds their own spin to the formula, and the new Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl (which is an update to the original title with some enhancements.)
Like many games of a similar bent, the Etrian Odyssey games present something of a stripped-down approach to RPGs. While there is something of a plot (and the occasional well-done anime cutscene, strangely reminiscent of the Saturn/PS1 era), the focus in Etrian Odyssey is on working your way through a labyrinthine forest, battling monsters, gaining experience points, and finding money and items along the way. And believe me when I say this focus is pretty heavy; anything other than walking through the forest (such as getting additional quests and talking to other townsfolk) is handled strictly through menus and sparsely-voiced dialogue box conversations. Etrian Odyssey doesn’t have time for you to wander around the village looking for sidequests or NPCs to talk to; quests are always given at the same location (under the pretense of a royal summons), there’s an inn for saving and healing, a pub for local gossip, a shop for buying and selling, and…that’s it, other than the oppressive expanse of the forest.
While exploring said forest will pose its challenges, the game provides a helpful in-game mapping system to help you find your way. The map system is surprisingly robust, allowing you to mark different areas with the colors of your choosing, and providing a variety of icons you can select from to indicate areas such as healing springs, unlockable gates, and what the game refers to as ‘chop points’ that allow you to stop and harvest materials from the local flora to aid in crafting items once you’re back in town (or selling them outright, as inventory space is always at a premium). The map system proves handy, and is certainly more flexible than the graph paper many old-school dungeon explorers are used to, and you’ll find yourself relying on it often; the game places such an emphasis on it that the first mission revolves around ensuring you know how to use the map while a pair of high-level companions worry about the dangerous stuff for you.
Etrian Odyssey’s sparse presentation falls in line with its highly-focused gameplay. All interaction with the game outside of exploring the labyrinth takes place through a series of menus, and the other environments you visit (like the hall to get quests, or the inn to save) are presented as static backgrounds with one or two NPCs, all of whom communicate using a handful of recycled sound clips and large, easy-to-read text boxes (including your party members which makes the fights sound a little repetitive after a while), and there’s really no overworld or anything to speak of. Not that this is a mark against the game, as exploring a vast landscape isn’t the point. The spartan interface may prove off-putting to some players, but it would be a shame to let that talk you out of giving Etrian Odyssey a try. The occasional anime-style cutscenes are well-animated and competently voice-acted, and the lush score is exactly the sort of music you’d want accompanying you on a trek through uncharted forests.
All in all, I can’t say that Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl is exactly for everyone. While the difficulty isn’t as punishing as other games of its ilk (at least, not at first), the minimal presentation and reliance on mapping (a skill no gamer born after, say, 1992 has ever had to develop) might dissuade some from trying it. Fans of previous games in the series, or at least anyone familiar with the tropes of the genre, will have a lot to like here, even if they’ve already sunk plenty of time into the first one. And who knows? Newcomers might find something to like amongst the deep character customization, traditional-but-fun combat, or maybe just the fact you’re constantly referred to as Highlander. Speaking as a newbie to the series, it certainly won me over.