Saturday, December 14, 2013

Etrian Odyssey

EO Golem by Jehudy

I've been on an Etrian Odyssey Binge so I've decided to finish up an old draft from a ways back.

All this talk of Combat as Sport (CaS) or Combat as War (CaW) has got me thinking of one of my favorite games, an old school dungeon crawler with modern day influences, a cult favorite and continuously improving game series.  I speak of course of the hand-held joy Etrian Odyssey

Etrian Odyssey is a first person dungeon crawler similar in vein to Eye of the Beholder or Wizardry that many greybeards may be more familiar with.  You create a guild, recruit people from various classes and stunning hand-drawn portraits then you assemble a party of up to five adventurers and journey into the labyrinth.  Each game in the series has one main goal at its core, to explore the world-spanning labyrinth Yggdrasil, going deep beneath its depths or high amongst its branches to seek mystery, fame, fortune, and answers.  There is a new Yggdrasil or equivalent in each game, it is at the end of the first game you learn the true purpose of this tree in what is often a very bright and cheerful post-apocalyptic world.

Your first foray into the Labyrinth usually at the behest of the local ruler has you learn the ropes of mapping your progress, setting up notes and getting an idea of just how dangerous this world is.  Enemies don't wear kiddie gloves, and as the first Etrian Odyssey will show, do not be deceived and do not drop your guard.  As you rest in the peaceful meadow with butterflies all about you are ambushed by a pack of three venomflies.  These creatures are typically found on a lower level and are each individually capable of poisoning your entire party.  Poison of course is enough to bring even your most stalwart fighter to his knees, taking out most if not all of their HP within the first round.  Better hope you make your Save vs Poison; at the very least learn from this lesson.  Despite the cute visuals this game is lethal and beautifully difficult.
Etrian Odyssey 2 by mellapants

Now back to the Combat as Sport (CaS) or Combat as War (CaW) divide.  The crux of the issue here is that in Combat vs Sport you are expecting fair encounters whereas in Combat as War you are assembling advantages for your next combat with the goal of steamrolling the competition.  In Etrian Odyssey the goal of the player is to assemble a party that can dispatch monsters as quickly as possible to avoid any lasting repercussions such as damage, status effects, bindings etc. Given how a monster can often hit as hard as you can, each round spent dithering away or setting up a maneuver in combat is another opportunity for one of your beloved party members to take a dirt nap.  EO handles this in two ways, consumables or player skills.  Consumables can heal you a set amount, remove certain status conditions, even revive KO'd allies while you are within the dungeon.  However, you're inventory space is limited and the more restorative consumables you bring with you means the less material drops you can carry back with you.  The economy of Etrian Odyssey requires you to bring back remains of enemies as well as the contents of various harvesting points to acquire money and unlock new equipment pieces.  Few things fetch a high value so overstocking and overusing restorative consumables comes with two drawbacks.  The first being you can carry less back which will mean less cash for you, secondly using those consumables which are not especially cheap cuts into the amount of money you bring back from each expedition when you restock.  Plus those consumables are created from materials you bring back, so if you use too many and don't bring enough base ingredients back you're healing has suddenly hit a drought.  Never thought the economy would play such a huge role in your adventuring days eh?

On the other side of things are class skills.  There are many classes in the game and that warrants its own post.  Each level you gain an additional skill point to invest in the classes skill tree, either improving currently held skills or acquiring new ones.  When you improve a skill the vast majority of the time its effectiveness increases but as does its Technical Point (TP) cost.  So the stronger your heal or fireball, the more resources it uses up.  Again you must strike a careful balance such that your healing is powerful enough to be useful in a fight but not so much that you can only use it a scant few times.  In this game of constant attrition you must be wary of how you use your healing, whether or not you can get by without fully healing someone because you never know when the next encounter will be packed full of deadly enemies and even deadlier status effects.  Certain accessories which detract from your combat effectiveness can make you much more resilient to some of these gruesome status conditions so they are worthy of a look but should only be worn when necessary.  This game of constant attrition well represents the Combat as War gameplay, and you as the player are encouraged to create a party that quickly dispatches enemies before they have a chance to annihilate you.
VS Hellion by ayyk92

On the sports side of things your characters can pack a mean punch.  You get full control over their development and you may reset their entire skill choices at the cost of a few levels so that your characters are specialized into ass-kicking the denizens of the current dungeon level/stratum.  In this way you are allowed to experiment, find a niche for each party member within the group and determine which abilities synergistic towards each other.  Not to mention getting an idea of what skills individually will be useful in the long run.  When it comes time to face the final boss of the stratum, whether it is the wolf Fenrir, the water witch Scylla or the great Colossus your party on even footing must take down this overly powerful enemy using only the skills you brought with you and the weapons manufactured from fallen foes.  These battles are invariably tough, and the slow leveling progression means you cannot overlevel your way out of this easily, so it is up to smart tactics, good planning and a bit of luck to carry you through the day.

A wonderful game that does a good job of balancing the needs of Combat as War and Combat as Sport.  A strong recommend for anyone who enjoys difficult yet challenging oldschool/retro gameplay.  I'll be looking more into the design decisions as I did in Dark Souls in coming weeks.

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