If you have played Pokemon Mystery Dungeon then Etrian Mystery Dungeon will be familiar territory. It is part roguelike with randomly generated dungeons minus the perma-death, mixing Etrian Odyssey’s vast RPG party and skill customization aspects, and Mystery Dungeon’s infinitely random dungeon adventures.
You are an adventurer who enjoys taking long walks with their pals into dungeons looking for money, equipment and monster body parts. These monster bits can then traded at the local retail store for cash and item unlocks. Kill more of a specific monster e.g. grasshoppers and you will unlock the relevant items in the shop. You can also upgrade the town by spending money on the various districts, complete missions to slay monsters and save the innocent. That is as much narrative you are going to get out of Etrian Mystery Dungeon. The bulk of the game is spent leveling up your guild of adventurers and exploring dungeons, which is fine. It is just a shame that the game isn’t excellent.
Etrian Mystery Dungeon is close to being a superb game, but it falls short for a few major reasons. First off, is the pacing. I don’t necessarily think that all games need a sweeping story of love and betrayal, but I do think that this one needed a hook beyond the town, exploring dungeons and gaining levels. There are lots of classes to play, but you are given the bulk of them from the start and the rest soon after. Unlocking things is fun and if Etrian Mystery Dungeon had let me explore terrifying dungeons to gain access to some of the classes instead of just going “oh, here you go” I would have been more hooked. The RPG genre generally demands that you spend upwards of 20 hours playing them and they need something that is going to carry you to that mark. Unfortunately, Etrian Mystery Dungeon doesn’t have any such hook. As an example Bravely Default had lots of classes, but staggers when you can unlock them and makes each unlock interesting. Trying each class becomes nearly as important as the story and just as fun. Obtaining a ninja should be an achievement, but instead it is given after the second mission.
Fights in Etrian Mystery Dungeon involve your chosen team of 4 adventurers casting spells, swinging swords and shooting guns, all of which sound very cool. Each of these actions takes a turn and your enemies are bound by the same turn order. Move and the enemy moves and so on. This brings us to the second issue with Etrian Mystery Dungeon. The problem is that you don’t always have complete control over all the members of your team. You control the leader at all times. You dish out orders directly to them and can issue specific commands like retreat by using up power in a gauge that builds from dealing and taking damage. The only time you have full control over your team is during a boss fight and the are wholly underwhelming. Giant monsters that serve as mission progression, but offer little challenge. All you end up doing is playing the sword and shield character who tanks all the monsters while the AI does the rest. Which is boring and you will inevitably have moments when you healer stands there getting bashed instead of moving out-of-the-way.
The third and final reason is that it doesn’t punish the player for making bad decisions. The threat of permadeath in roguelike games is part of the hook. It makes you more cautious when in a dungeon and it makes your victories that much more astounding. It’s not very hard in Etrian Mystery Dungeon to train up a party and while I like the whole ‘rescue’ mechanic that allows you to recover your fallen team there carried items, it is not enough.
This is my proposal for Etrian Mystery Dungeon 2: If you fail to rescue your fallen team in a certain number of moves then they die, permanently. When a team member dies they should get 2 chances (with maybe some way of healing them), but then that’s it they are gone. With how straightforward the leveling and combat is a permanent death mechanic could have really breathed new life into an otherwise copy of any other Mystery Dungeon game, but with an Etrain jacket on.
Finally, a couple of things that have been niggling at me. Why on earth can you not spend the money stored in the inn at the shop. Having to swap between them all the time is really annoying. Protecting my money is excellent, I like that. What I don’t like is having the swap between screens just to buy a helmet or two. And my final gripe with Etrian Mystery Dungeon (potentially my biggest one) is that it gets rid the main thing that made the Etrian series unique, drawing your own maps. Each dungeon is randomised each time you enter it with the option of creating forts to lock the position, so I really don’t understand the designers dropping this excellent part of the main Etrian series. It is disappointing.
Etrian Mystery Dungeon isn’t a bad game, but it is a disappointing one. There are better JRPGs out there and unfortunately this one just left me wanting more.
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