When Etrian Odyssey arrived on the DS in 2007, it was something of a revelation. A dungeon-crawler that traded in dusty catacombs for organic, open-air environments and prized cartography and character customization over narrative, it combined the best of pen-and-paper RPGs with Nintendo's new touch-screen hardware to create something truly special. Six years and three successful sequels later, Atlus has decided to revisit Etria's origins with Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl, a remake of the first game with an expanded, character-driven narrative and updated graphics and gameplay. If you have fond memories of the original, this massive upgrade is the perfect reason to revisit the game — and if you're at all interested in RPGs and managed to pass this one up the first time, don't let it slip by you again; Untold is a polished, absorbing, and wonderfully unique experience.
Like all the Etrian Odyssey games, Untold is a first-person dungeon-crawler. You'll make your way through dozens of massive floors of the Yggdrasil Labyrinth, and multiple levels of a mysterious ruin known as Gladsheim, battling monsters and heading as far as you can into the maze before returning to Etria — the game's single, menu-based town — to regroup and rest up for more. In that sense, it's fairly traditional for the genre, but The Millennium Girl takes this series in a brand new direction by framing your exploration with a prominent story and persistent characters.
As stories go, Untold's tale tramps through relatively well-trod territory: you play as a highland warrior summoned to Etria to investigate earthquakes and vaguely-worded "abnormalities" in the area. Before too long, you'll join forces with a ragtag team of explorers (Simon the Medic, Arthur the Alchemist, and Raquna the Protector) from the far-off Midgard Library, and awaken the enigmatic, amnesic Gunner Frederica, whose lost memories seem to be connected to the mysterious happenings in both Yggdrasil and Gladsheim.
It's full of anime and RPG clichés, but in truth that doesn't make it any less fun. And while your party of five initially appears full of characters you've met before — an amnesiac heroine, a borderline-alcoholic mercenary, an erudite healer and a brash young mage — there's actually quite a lot of charm to the cast that takes them beyond simple tropes. Shield-wielding Raquna is not only steadfast in battle, for instance — she's also steadfastly, stereotypically Canadian, hailing from the Kingdom of Ontario and receiving care-packages of maple syrup from home. The story sequences feature dialogue reminiscent of the Tales series, with frequent vignettes of everyday, often humorous interactions between the characters steering the story well clear of any doom and gloom, and there are lots of conversational choices for your character.
Veteran explorers scoffing at the very idea of an Etrian Odyssey with pre-set characters needn't worry, however — Untold's story can be left just that thanks to Classic Mode, which provides a more traditional Etrian experience with characters of your own creation. Here, you'll assemble your own party from the nine available classes: the sword-swinging Landsknecht, the agile, arrow-slinging Survivalist, the defense-heavy Protector, the whip-wielding Dark Hunter, the merciful Medic, the elemental Alchemist, the supportive, singing Troubadour, the self-sacrificing Ronin, and the darkly magical Hexer.
Customizing the perfect team is as fun and involving here as in the other Etrian Odyssey titles, but it's worth noting that by playing in Classic Mode, you'll miss out on Untold's substantial Story Mode-exclusive dungeon. Sadly, there's only one save file shared across both modes, so you won't be able to play both Story and Classic modes concurrently; it's a choice you'll have to make from the beginning.
Whether you choose to play in Story or Classic mode, the core of the Etrian Odyssey experience remains exploration, and mapping out the journey as you go. The series' signature hook is that - just like in pencil-and-paper RPGs of old - you'll navigate by drawing your own map on the touch-screen, using an empty grid and a full complement of digital cartographic tools. Untold's labyrinths are sprawling, complex mazes filled with traps, secrets, and hidden passageways, so drawing up a good guide is absolutely essential; happily, it's also incredibly fun. Mapmaking scratches a special itch in both the meticulous and the creative sides of the brain — most things you'll plot on your chart have an accompanying symbol in your toolkit, but you're always free to use them however you like — and the satisfaction of progressing from a blank slate to a lovingly detailed, personalized plan is immense.
Of course, not everything living in the labyrinths will be happy to let you go poking about as you like, and random battles with enemies, bosses, and FOEs will constantly keep you on your toes. A FOE — apparently short for "Formido Oppugnatura Exsequens" — is an enormous enemy that's visible on the map, is usually much, much stronger than your party, and moves around in a distinct and regular pattern, taking one step for each move you make. The first time you encounter any FOE it will be able to knock your entire team flat in a few turns, so survival hinges on learning their movement patterns and avoiding them until you're strong enough to take them on. Returning to face a once-omnipotent FOE and finally besting it is as satisfying as it sounds, and the tense, lengthy battles with these giant beasts are some of the best moments in the game.
Even if you manage to avoid the dreaded FOEs, battles with normal enemies occur quite frequently, so it's a good job that combat in Etrian Odyssey Untold is strategic, engaging, and fun. Along with normal attacks from several different weapon types, each member of your party has access to a wide range of class-specific skills that allow for a huge range of tactics. You could choose to lure a powerful enemy into attacking a hardy (and heavily-armored) Protector using Provoke, leaving the other members free to attack without fear, for instance. When facing a group of foes, you might put your Gunner into a Vulcan Stance, allowing her shots to hit multiple enemies at once for three or more turns. And in an all-out assault, you could command your Highlander to use Bloody Offense, sacrificing his own hit points to raise the offensive power of the entire line.
These techniques are just scratching the surface, and even though the characters themselves are ready-made in this instalment (in Story Mode, at least), their skills can be customized extensively in the branching Skill Trees. Each time you level up, you'll earn a Skill Point, and you can spend these unlocking and leveling up individual skills to create a character tailor-made for your play style. Certain skills need to be learned - or leveled up to a certain degree - before other ones become available, so planning out a character's move-set becomes a labour of love where every level counts. And if you end up changing your play style, you can easily re-allocate all of a character's Skill Points for a two-level penalty.
Regardless of which direction you take your characters' Skill Trees in, you can always branch out with Grimoire Stones. These equippable new additions let your character use weapons and skills from different classes — or even from defeated enemies. It's not a perfect system though; Grimoire Stones can only be swapped out with the help of the Guildmaster at your party's home base, and it's tough to tell exactly what each Stone's skills do before you equip them. You can also synthesize two or three Grimoire Stones to create newer, more powerful ones, but unfortunately this process sounds more compelling than it actually is. It's poorly explained in-game, and though the manual fares slightly better, it still feels needlessly obtuse.
The Grimoire Stones are fun to play around with, but if you're ready to fully commit your characters to a new walk of life, you can head to the Explorers Guild to change them to an entirely different class once they reach level thirty. Class changing works in Story Mode too, so if you decide that young, impressionable Arthur would be better off as a Hexer, or that you'd like to try out a Troubadour instead of a Gunner, you can easily make it happen.
Between battle, exploration, and customization, all of Untold's elements come together to create a game with a fantastic rhythm: you'll head out to explore and chart your new discoveries, battle monsters and gather materials from enemy drops and mining points, then head back to Etria to sell your gains and unlock new equipment in the shop, outfit your team with the latest gear, distribute Skill Points, report completed quests and accept a few new ones, heal, save, and hop back into the maze. On paper it sounds repetitive, but the constant discovery of new items, quests, monsters, and areas gives the game an addictive sense of momentum.
It's also commendably adaptable to different skill levels; there are three difficulty levels to choose from — Picnic, Normal, and Expert — and players can switch between them at any time outside of the labyrinth. Normal and Picnic both forego the dreaded Game Over screen by letting you restart from directly before the battle if your party is wiped out, but the aptly-named Expert setting offers no such quarter.
There's also a Full Auto-Map option that will fill in floors and adjacent walls as you walk, leaving you free to chart out the interesting bits as you see fit, as well as a new Floor Jump feature that lets you warp to the staircase at the end of any floor in the labyrinth you've mapped out completely. It's a welcome option that feels long overdue — Floor Jump takes out a ton of backtracking, and makes quests requiring materials from specific floors much less arduous and more fun.
For first-timers looking to comb Etria's labyrinths, one potential consideration is the fact that Untold's release comes so close to Etrian Odyssey IV. Both are excellent games and well worthy of the considerable time you can easily sink into them, but it's worth noting some important differences between the two for players who only have room for one adventure in their lives at a time.
First, Untold's prominent story and consistent characters make it both unique among Etrian Odyssey games, and the more immediately accessible of the two 3DS titles. You're guaranteed to start with a well-rounded party, for one thing, and you'll have access to helpful skills — including techniques which regenerate HP or TP after each turn in battle — from the very beginning. The dialogue and character-driven narrative also means you'll always know where to head next, so while you might get lost in the labyrinths, you definitely won't get lost in the game.
On the other hand, playing Untold in Story Mode means you'll miss out on the deeply satisfying character creation that's at the heart of the series, and while Classic Mode is always an option, a single save slot means you're essentially stuck with one or the other. As a remake of the first Etrian Odyssey game, Untold is also missing some of the fantastic new features from Etrian Odyssey IV, like the overworld airship exploration that adds variety and a massive sense of adventure to the maze-combing formula.
Untold is also potentially the easier of the two, depending on how you choose to play — Etrian Odyssey IV's Casual option relaxes some of the game's more punishing mechanics (like the map-erasing Game Over screen) but leaves the difficulty of combat largely intact, while Untold's Picnic difficulty makes battles significantly easier, to the point where most standard enemies can be defeated on auto-battle with little trouble.
Like Etrian Odyssey IV, Untold is a great looking game — it's stylish, soft, and absolutely lush. The interface is drenched in deep blues, and the natural imagery of the labyrinths is completely enchanting. There are some blurry textures to be found, and not everything in Yggdrasil holds up to close visual scrutiny, but the whole package is so disarmingly pleasant that it's easy to forgive any flaws. The three-dimensional enemy models look great, and their designs are nearly always appealing, with colourful, alternate-reality animals making up the majority of the bestiary. They're also lovingly animated; even without checking their HP bars, you can tell if an enemy is close to defeat by the way it's moving. Excellent character art rounds out the package for your party, and several different portraits for each member of the main cast gives the story sequences the feel of a visual novel, while milestone moments are told through crisp anime cutscenes.
A poorly-implemented 3D effect was one of our few gripes with Etrian Odyssey IV's graphics, and we're happy to report that it's much improved in Untold. Menus and user interface elements float cleanly in front of the action, the three-dimensional labyrinth sequences now feature several different layers of depth, and even the two-dimensional town backgrounds have pop-out elements that make them well worth seeing in 3D.
One small issue with Untold's presentation is that the narration and dialogue text are nearly indistinguishable. They're both blue, while the system text is in red, and it's easy to misread narration as a character quote, or vice-versa; the only indication besides context is the sporadic appearance of quotation marks. It's not a huge problem, but it did lead to a lot of confused rereading in the opening hours.
Etrian Odyssey has always excelled in atmosphere, thanks in large part to Yuzo Koshiro's soaring soundtracks, and the first game's music is among the series' best. The original's soundtrack has been remixed, expanded, and fully orchestrated for Untold, and it sounds absolutely fantastic. The background themes for exploration are beautiful, varied, and surprisingly soothing, the battle theme is catchy and high-energy, and the jazzy shop tunes show off Etria's funky side. Everything is undoubtedly enhanced by the new instrumentation, with soothing strings, punchy horns, lilting lutes and electric guitars all coming together to craft Etria's unique aural ambiance. As a great bonus, you can switch between the newly arranged music and the FM synth soundtrack of the DS original at any time; the first is a perfect match for the sweeping, sylvan settings, and the second a wonderful nostalgia trip that gives the game an instant old-school RPG feel.
There's lots of quality voice acting (and a convincingly Canadian cadence for Raquna) to help bring the story to life, with short spoken clips ala Fire Emblem: Awakening that relate to but don't directly correspond to the written dialogue. The voice work isn't confined solely to the story sequences, either; teammates will chime in to tell you when to expect monsters in the field, keep up a string of background commentary during battles, and even let you know when you're near a wall with a secret passage, all of which adds a lot of personality.
Finally, personalized Guild Cards let you swap data, gameplay statistics, and an encouraging word with other explorers over StreetPass or via QR codes. If you're playing in Classic Mode, you can attach your favourite character for players you pass to recruit, and in both game modes you'll earn decorative badges for your Guild Card by checking off certain achievements.
Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl is not only a great example of how to remake a classic, it's also a fantastic game in its own right. Fans of the original will be thrilled with the updated graphics, sound, and gameplay — whether playing with the newly added story or keeping it simple in Classic Mode — and new players are in for a real treat: this is one of the most engrossing RPGs available on the 3DS, and the beginner-friendly Picnic difficulty and character-driven narrative make it the most accessible Etrian Odyssey yet. It lacks some of the refinements and innovations of the recently released Etrian Odyssey IV, but it makes up the difference with plenty of heart and charm.
If an atmospheric mix of cartography, character customization, deep combat, and exploration sounds at all up your alley, Untold is a story well worth telling.