Don't Knock the Farmer
High Wiping the floor with enemies who wiped the floor with you earlier.
Low Adding a new class mid-game can mean a lot of painful leveling-up.
WTF Would it really kill the game to have the experience accrue just a bit faster?
When I originally reviewed Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard, I had no idea what to expect. I had heard it was old-school and really difficult, but beyond that I didn't have a lot of information. I had braced myself for a painful experience, but was quite surprised to find a very superb game which took a classic formula and updated it in all the right ways. It was hardcore to be sure, but ended up an extremely fair and satisfying play.
Frankly, I was doubtful that Atlus could top that experience with Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City, but top it they did. While the core game is relatively unchanged from the previous two titles, there are enough improvements and additions to make it the most well-rounded and pleasantly polished Etrian so far.
For those new to the series, expect a first-person dungeon crawl that features tons of grinding for experience, frequently going broke buying equipment that only increases a character's strength by two points, drawing a map by hand through floor after floor of twisting labyrinth, and being crushed by random encounters in the first round of battle.
Still here? Good.
Set inside a giant, multi-story labyrinth, The Drowned City features a thin plot (basically: go explore!) and asks players to put together a party of five characters before sallying forth into the salivating, open, and all-too-hungry jaws of danger. It's a rough start that places much emphasis on player experimentation, but what helps this experience avoid feeling like punishing drudgery is that despite all the deaths and difficulties to come (and they will come) the game begins to open up once a player learns the rules and understands what's being asked of them. It may take a while, but the rules of play are simple to learn and the feeling of achievement is much more substantial when it's earned after so many hard knocks.
However, the developers have tossed in a few bones to make things easier for first-timers—believe it or not, The Drowned City is by far the easiest of the Etrian titles.
The biggest changes that benefit the player are the addition of two new character classes: the Prince and the Farmer. While the positive sides of these classes may initially seem less appealing than the straightforward damage-dealing of the Gladiator or the traditional healing spells of the Monk, I can't recommend them enough.
The Prince is relatively weak in combat, but more than makes up for it by employing "royal" powers. For example, at the end of each round of battle, he can heal every member in the party with no expenditure of magic points. Anyone who's got any experience playing RPGs is sure to see the incredible value in such an ability. Throw in low-cost elemental buffs and a few other interesting status-altering effects, and the Prince quickly becomes the backbone of any group.
The Farmer's offense is even weaker than the Prince's, but proves to be instrumental in building a strong team. Thanks to supplemental fortifications like multiplying experience earned, proficiency at gathering rare and valuable resources, and enhancing the restorative effects of mid-dungeon resting points, he's a must-have. The Farmer may not be incredibly useful in the late game, but he is a godsend at the beginning, and for a great while afterwards.
Besides these fantastic new classes (and two more hidden away) Etrian Odyssey III also sports an overworld where players can board a ship and sail the ocean in search of rare items and other bonuses for use in the main dungeon. This little bit of oceangoing provides a nice break for when subterranean punishment is coming on a little strong, and the different mechanics of ship travel mean that the player's brain is being tested in different ways.
It's also possible to partake of some co-op in the ocean area, although the function is quite limited. So much so, in fact, that I debated whether to even mention it in this review. The thought of having a partner to adventure with certainly seems like it would be an incredible addition to such a difficult title, but the reality is that friends are only able to join together to fight very specific, non-campaign boss battles. When the battle is over, so is the co-op. I'm sad to say that this mode comes off as poorly-thought-out and not very balanced, and after taking on a few fights with a partner, we each expressed our mutual disappointment and never came back to it.
Aside from the misstep of the stunted co-op mode, every other aspect of Etrian Odyssey III has been vetted and manicured to ensure that the game provides the highest quality dungeon-crawling conceivable. Once accustomed to the steep difficulty of the encounters, I suspect that most players with a discerning eye will find that (like its predecessors) Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City is a shining example of old-school design infused with new-school wisdom.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the DS. Approximately 35 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed at the time this review was written, though the Critic is still playing. Two hours of play were spent in multiplayer mode.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains alcohol and tobacco references, mild fantasy violence, language, and suggestive themes. Despite all those warnings, there really isn't have anything to worry about. Suggestive Themes? Mild Language? I don't have the faintest clue what these labels are referring to. The Alcohol Reference is (I assume) since one of the areas in the game takes place in a bar. The Mild Fantasy Violence amounts to seeing a "whoosh!" visual effect as an invisible weapon strikes a monster who shows absolutely no reaction. This isn't violence, it's the faint suggestion of violence... against fantasy monsters... with no animation. I'd be quite comfortable letting my nine-year-old play this game, assuming he could get over the difficulty curve.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: You will have no problems whatsoever. I played about 50% of the game without any sound, and encountered no barriers. All dialogue in the game is presented through text, and since it's a turn-based combat engine, there is no need to rely on sound cues or anything aural. All important information is presented on-screen, and the experience is completely accessible from start to finish.