Where Etrian Odyssey III truly succeeds is in giving the player something to do amidst all of its "grinding". It's still grinding, really, but it's disguised better.
Format: Nintendo DS
Game Title: Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+
Release Date: 2010-09-21
In a sense, Etrian Odyssey III (or, really, any of the games in the Etrian Odyssey series) is Dragon Quest -- the original one, mind you -- given the expanse of the modern standard of role-playing video gaming. Dragon Quest was infamous for giving you boundaries. The king wanted you to find Princess Gwaelin and take down the Dragonlord, and so off you went with your sharp stick of a sword and paper-thin shield to do just that. For many players, the slime was their first experience of combat.
Easy. No sweat. Slimes are the quintessential Dragon Quest punching bags, and any player who would suffer the indignity of death at the hands of a plain old slime would be subject to the relentless mocks and jeers of those nearby. Much like The Legend of Zelda, the player is given very little guidance as to the direction of travel, so random walking around for the sake of exploration is seemingly encouraged. This facade of easy exploration is kept up until right around the time the player elects to cross a bridge. Suddenly, the player is thrust into battle... and near instantaneous death results.
Etrian Odyssey III offers similar boundaries, though it's notable that it's not immediately clear what exactly you can do from the outset. The structure of Etrian Odyssey is such that you get a fairly threadbare bit of background information -- town used to be great, town isn't great anymore but there's this labyrinth, maybe we'd better explore the labyrinth to see if those things are related -- and are told to go. Explore. And then, once you do, well, you start dying.
Maybe you forgot to bring a healer. Maybe you forgot to buy some medicine. Maybe your party is made up of five level 1 zodiacs (elemental wizards) who are basically incapable of doing any significant damage to even the slime-caliber fish on the first floor. Or, maybe you spent some serious time thinking out the makeup of your party, you stocked up on medicine, you had plenty of technique points, and you carefully mapped out every step you took through the first level. Chances are, you found one of these:
That scary-looking, red-eyed beast on the left? That's a Great Lynx. You can run into them on the very first level of the labyrinth.
They will kill you.
Once you find a Great Lynx, you realize that pretty much the entirety of Etrian Odyssey III is a boundary. It is a game designed to do almost anything to keep you from progressing, and it will. It is a game in which a "permadeath" playthrough (à la Shiren the Wanderer) is not an option because you will die, and the sooner that you come to terms with that, the more that you will enjoy your time with it.
Where Etrian Odyssey III truly succeeds, however, is in giving the player something to do amidst all of this "grinding". It's still grinding, really, but it's disguised better, and for someone trying to play a game like this, that makes a huge difference. There are side quests. There's manual map making, which all but forces you to explore every inch of a floor of the labyrinth before you move on. There's even the option of going out on the high seas, where you battle pirates, do some fishing, and pick up even more subquests, which can optionally be tackled via cooperative multiplayer -- if you happen to know anyone else who's been crazy enough to buy this little game. The presence of all of this peripheral activity constantly allows the player to have goals, to work toward something other than simply getting stronger so he can move on. The game is structured such that once you have completed every sidequest, mapped an entire level, and explored the sea until you run out of money for voyages, that's about the time that you should be moving on to the next level of the labyrinth (and, in turn, the next round of sidequests). If you're still not strong enough to do so, maybe it's time to reconfigure your party.
There are few, if any, games in recent memory that have navigated this line between grinding and questing so skillfully as Etrian Odyssey III; rarely are so many battles won and lost by the skin of the party's teeth. So many RPGs and adventure games either force the random battle grind or come off as almost insulting exercises in walking from checkpoint to checkpoint. While Etrian Odyssey III doesn't make you grind, the danger of death is constant, making the successes all the more fulfilling.
This is where a game like Etrian Odyssey III separates itself from something as purely "old school" as Dragon Quest. When you finally get strong enough to take on that Golem in Dragon Quest, you feel a sense of almost exasperated relief: "Finally, I can go on." Etrian Odyssey III, on the other hand, keeps rewarding you. It feels like constant progress, rather than an endless cycle of starts and stops.
Just in case this wasn't enough to keep you moving throughout the seemingly endless dungeon, Etrian Odyssey III is simply a beautiful game. It almost has to be -- when you're looking at the same environment for ten hours at a time, it had better be nice to look at. Of particular note are the subtle touches that give you that all important sense of immersion so rare in hand-held games: the little visual hint that you're looking at a wall with a secret passage behind it, the slight sparkle in the distance that means that you're about to stumble upon a piece of “mineable” land, the glowing fireballs that represent enemies, and the visual cues that scream "DANGER!" even before you know what it's like to fight them. Even the weakest of enemies are carefully drawn, and every last one of the character classes has beautiful character models that readily invite identification. For a dungeon-crawling RPG, it sure is an effective refutation of the assertion that "graphics don't matter" because it's hard to imagine spending as much time as Etrian Odyssey III demands with an ugly game.
It should be obvious that Etrian Odyssey III is not for everyone. It is a game to be played at a deliberate pace that requires careful exploration and the ability to tolerate heaps of semi-random enemy encounters. If these things sound utterly unappealing to you, this game will only reinforce your disdain for the genre. There is certainly an audience for this game, however, and for that audience, Etrian Odyssey III is flawless.