Title: Etrian Odyssey Untold II: The Fafnir Knight
Publisher: Atlus USA
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
The publisher provided a product code for the purposes of this review.
It is no secret that I love JRPGs. My past reviews of them on this very site can attest to that. There is a particular sub-genre of JRPGs that scratches an itch I can’t quite get anywhere else: the dungeon crawler. It’s something that is universal and timeless, yet as niche as can be. Enter the Etrian Odyssey series. It has done more for the first-person dungeon crawler genre than perhaps any other aside from the progenitors Wizardry and the sort. Japan loves them some strolls through a big dangerous dungeon, and so do I. One of the biggest components of these games, and of course the EO series, is the key mechanic of mapping out where you’ve been in dungeons. The dual-screen setup of the Nintendo DS was perfect for this, and to this day, is still one of the better handheld design choices for an RPG series. The first Etrian Odyssey, hitting the scene back in 2007, was a startling revelation of old-school-brutality-meets-modern-handheld-compulsiveness. It was this unique amalgam of all the things that make JRPGs unforgettable mixed with the wettest of dreams that Gary Gygax ever had.
The Old Ways
If you’re not familiar with the series or the sort of game under the microscope: the Etrian Odyssey games bring together the classic ideas of RPG design with the idea that the adventure is the journey itself. The mysteries that await players are found within the dungeons that make up the bulk of the game. There are multiple floors and, the true magic of the series is the reliance on mapping. The original DS cartridge could scarcely handle the terrain, much less the various tools players could employ to make their maps as detailed or sparse as possible. It is a whole other reality compared to the usual JRPG that Western audiences know and love. This game essentially gave the player lots of graph paper, 20 character possibilities, and a friendly pat on the shoulder with a hearty “Good luck!” to follow. It forced players to not only dive into the customization of those precious character slots, forming their guild of adventurers along the way, but to also approach combat differently than what most have grown used to. What awaits players who wish to embark upon the journey is an arduous trek that does not seek to artificially bar the way, but neither does it offer much of a tutorial. It is the distilled essence of what came from the greats of the genre so many years ago, with needed improvements along the way.
One of those improvements? The return of the first-person dungeon crawl’s most necessary mechanic: cartography. You needed to plot out your course, marking down each nuance of the journey as knowing the way was critical to success. The intimacy promoted between player and game — the necessity of knowing the way and giving the player the tools to make those maps as complex or as simple as possible — made victory all the sweeter after the work put in to get there. It was one of those things that gets dismissed instead of auto-mapping dungeons but, sometimes, the old ways are best.
Character development came via the mechanical progression of leveling, gaining status, attaining equipment, and the like. The narrative didn’t matter as this was all about the dungeon crawl, baby. There are various types of RPG fans out there. Those that rely on captivating story, organic character development, and a plot that truly goes places can overlook spotty mechanics here and there. Then there are those who need the grind. They define themselves by that next set of numbers getting higher. It also explains my weird obsession as of late with clickers. Some of us need those bars to be filled, need those armor stats to be better and crave, somewhere down in the depths of their soul, just another set of tiles to conquer in this land of lost time and androgynous warriors. The dungeon crawl is decidedly the smaller (in terms of popularity) of the two types of RPGs, for sure, though Etrian Odyssey has a made a strong case over the last eight years that maybe the old ways are not lost. It has been a long road but it is in Etrian Odyssey Untold 2: The Fafnir Knight that the absolute best game of the series has come forth.
Revisited and Redefined
It is best to really think of this game as a two-in-one. One is an updated version of the original tile-by-tile slog known as Etrian Odyssey II while the other takes those base mechanics and ties them to an actual cohesive narrative, complete with animated cutscenes and characters that are more than just a sum of their class traits. The “Untold” part of the game can be found here and, thanks to all those delicious save slots on the 3DS now available, one would best rotate those saved games like there is no tomorrow! There is something for both types of JRPG fans here in one package. The original has been remixed in such a way that dungeons feel fresh, enemy placement is interesting, and F.O.E.s (large enemies visible on-screen as opposed to the smaller random battles) are now more akin to puzzling encounters than just straight “Can you outlast?” affairs. The appeal to veterans of the series can be easily seen, but it is the Untold mode where such wondrous delights can be found. Oh yes! Players will find a story that, while nothing to sing from the mountaintops about, actually gives a purpose to the tireless grind of dungeoneering while delivering two of the most interesting support characters seen in a roleplaying games released in years.
Stealing The Show
The main cast, cut from the same cloth as past heroes and heroines before them, have their moments but don’t organically grow as one would hope. It is in two of the ancillary cast members, Bertrand and Chloe, that things get interesting. JRPGs in particular are guilty of broadly painted archetypes, anime tropes galore and not much more. It is interesting to see the honest-to-goodness development of both characters, though. They fill out the player’s five character roster a few hours in, and both seem distant and detached at first.
Bertrand, the party’s de facto tank despite his penchant for avoiding a fight, has Chloe within his protection. He’s even referred to as the character class moniker of “Protector”. He cares deeply for his ward yet avoids combat at any cost. First impressions would lead one to believe Bertand is just another disposable RPG hero, yet each conversation at the Inn or interaction between party members unraveled a much more defined persona as the hours rolled away. It became clear not far into the adventure that Bertrand’s pursuit of skirting the fray was not born of cowardice but an intense need to keep Chloe as far away from danger as possible. He is the paternal figure that will do whatever it takes to make sure the girl in his charge is safe and sound. It won’t take long before those broad brush strokes become far more detailed shades and hues which mesh well with the even better portrayal of Chloe.
The young girl Chloe, complete with her bitchin’ witch hat, has a habit of completely speaking her mind. She could have easily fallen into that hole of being the know-it-all girl who comes off more annoying than deep. One would expect the broad caricature of the bratty little sister type to win out, yet the frank nature of her demeanor and willingness to say exactly what she thinks never wears thin. Other characters, such as Flavio, are far more guarded whereas conversations with Chloe bring some of the most interesting banter I’d seen in a game of this sort in a very long time.
It is a testament to the strength of the game’s Story Mode that assigning a narrative to a traditionally sparsely connected dungeon tale can rise above the status quo for most Japanese roleplaying games. Arianna, Flavio and the Fafnir Knight (the game’s main protragonist) have already faded from my memory while Chloe and Bertrand will stick around in your brain long after the credits roll as standout characters of a genre crowded with forgettable faces. It doesn’t hurt that amongst the character design (which is uniformly strong overall) they happen to have some of the very best.
One of the truly trope-y traits of Chloe can be found in her bordering-on-insane need to eat. It isn’t new for a truly “anime” character in one of these games to constantly want to stuff their face. It speaks volumes that this undying need to consume helps introduce one of the very best new mechanics in Fafnir Knight. Items found from dungeons, monster kills, and so on still drop the usual sort of vendor trash, weapons, armor, etc. but they also drop ingredients.
The town chef will be a NPC that players visit often as the recipes they drop clues that relate to those ingredients acquired in dungeons. The food cooked can result to great buffs, better drop rates, and much more. The system is far more complex than one might anticipate and it offers another layer of mechanical execution that not only offers incentive to chase down ingredients for superlative buffs, but also gives players newer to these notoriously difficult games a way to lessen the blows dealt by a dungeon crawler like Untold II. One can also cook dishes that increase monster spawn rate, and make the road even more perilous than before. It’s the perfect difficulty adjustment for the old pros out there that gives one’s adventure that extra bite they crave.
The cooking side of things also opens up a rather unexpected detour: a town-building simulation. It is an entirely optional mechanic that has no real effect on the final outcome of the game nor does it detract from a player’s experience if it is ignored. It does offer a way to generate cash flow as the dungeons rumble, by making new dishes to advertise and sell around the town of High Lagaard.
The journey along the World Tree is a long one and the time-sink of a game such as Fafnir Knight can be honestly overwhelming. One of the better things Atlus did in their approach to remaking and re-imagining Etrian Odyssey II was to tweak difficulty levels a whole lot. The original was punishing and served as Exhibit A of the sort of emotional masochism that folks who dive deep into these games indulge in. It is a strange thing to willingly sink 60 or 70 hours into a game where the only draw is what awaits around the next corner, requires you to map it all out via the 3DS touch screen, and will show zero mercy if mistakes are made. And as good as the games can be, there is an accessibility issue that the series has flirted with for a while now. It is here, in Etrian Odyssey Untold II: The Fafnir Knight that the right balance has been struck.
The renaissance of dungeon crawling RPGs is still in full swing, but one of the heaviest of hitters, Etrian Odyssey, has raised the bar once more. The predecessors laid a solid foundation for what is the strongest entry in the series yet considering how diluted a franchise might become by this point. This is the sixth Etrian release since 2007, yet Fafnir Knight delivers an experience that not only caters to the hardcore set but appeals to RPG fans in general with a strong array of core mechanics, well-crafted characters, and cutscenes in Story Mode, along with plenty of new features to dive into. The game that helped to revitalize an entire sub-genre has somehow redefined it yet again. It doesn’t quite hit perfection, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t get close. It is an addictive and well-crafted RPG from Atlus that continues to impress even hours into New Game Plus mode. This is a must-buy for the Nintendo 3DS.