Role-playing games as we know them started with dungeons. Well, technically they started from tabletop baseball and Civil War games, but they REALLY started with dungeons. Games like Rogue and Wizardry made the dungeon the most important part of the game, and that's a focus that Atlus' upcoming Etrian Odyssey aims to reestablish.
"No monsters pouring out and attacking Etria, no score that needs settling, no fated prophecy that's been foretold. Just simple dungeon exploration."
The story is simple enough. There's a small, peaceful village named Etria, surrounded by a vast forest and general calmness. One day a crack opened up in the forest which led down into a deep labyrinth. Each day more and more people show up to explore the labyrinth, to claim the treasures and fame that comes with success in the labyrinth, as well as the true, unbridled feeling of adventure and exploration. When players start the game, they are but one more band of questers heading into the depths. No monsters pouring out and attacking Etria, no score that needs settling, no fated prophecy that's been foretold. Just simple dungeon exploration.
And that exploration, as anyone who grew up with the early Ultima and Might and Magic games can attest, is the biggest part of the adventure. The game is played from a persistent first-person point of view to really draw players into the game and let the maze consume them. And it will consume them. Any hopeful adventurers will need to make a map of each floor, regardless of how great their sense of direction is.
Luckily for them, Etrian Odyssey is on top of it. The touch screen is a dedicated dungeon map that records the characters' every step. Atlus seems to see the auto-map as a crutch that keeps gamers from truly immersing themselves, but they've included an optional "auto-draw" feature for a little added convince. While the touchscreen is divided into a gargantuan gridded map that records the characters' position, even with auto-draw on it's still up to the players to fill the map out. They'll use the stylus to paint in rooms and a pencil to mark walls, or special erasers to fix mistakes. There's also a number of icons and markers that can be placed as reminders.
Due to the unfocused nature of the story, which doesn't have main characters or love interests or anything as cliché as that, the party system itself is very different. There are nine distinct classes, each with four avatars, to use when creating characters. Up to 20 different characters can be created, of which five can be put into your party and taken into the labyrinth. The extra amount of character slots aren't for show, either. The game encourages players to make specialized characters to help with acquisition of items and money, or dealing with certain types of enemies, or for fighting bosses. For example, a party that included three Survivalists trained to collect items would be good for gaining money for new equipment, but wouldn't be well suited to deal with a Fire-elemental boss. An Alchemist geared toward Ice magic, on the other hand, would be.
The music is being headed up by Yuzo Koshiro, the same composer for Ys, Streets of Rage, and Actraiser, and the game is loaded with fantastic character art by Yuji Himukai which make for a treat for the eyes and the ears. Gamers can start getting ready to take a step into Etria's 30 level dungeon on May 16.