Gaming is quite a divisive hobby. For just about any aspect of it, you can find two groups of people that have fiercely different opinions. Call of Duty vs Battlefield. PCs vs consoles (and by extension, keyboard & mouse vs controllers). WRPG vs JRPG. Console wars. Perhaps its due to the natural competitiveness games offer that has caused such a strongly-opinionated fanbase. Maybe it’s because gaming has become more common, so more people with more opinions are becoming heard. Or, perhaps, we just like to argue.
One argument I find myself in occasionally is that of story vs gameplay. On one hand, gameplay has the word “game” right in it. Many, if not most, people play games because they want to actively be in control of something. It makes sense; if you’re not playing, you may as well be watching a movie. On the other hand, for many people, a story can give reason to the gameplay. Stories can give a better emotional attachment to a game and enhance the experience. I believe a game should strike a good balance, while others definitely lean heavily toward one or the other.
Some genres of video game can prefer one of the above aspects over another. The genre we are looking at today lies heavily on the gameplay side of the duel: the dungeon crawler. One of the oldest gaming genres, and going through a renaissance in recent years, dungeon crawlers typically focus on one thing and one thing only…crawling through dungeons. Some may have a light sprinkling of story, but the meat of the content and the reason to load one up is the gameplay.
While many series have been born from the aforementioned modern renaissance of dungeon crawlers in the West, one series in the genre has taken a tight hold in Japan. That series would be Etrian Odyssey. Presented as a title for the “hardcore” gaming demographic, Etrian Odyssey is a straight-up dungeon crawling JRPG series. Almost no story to speak up, just load up and start exploring.
At least, that held true until 2013, when Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl was released. A remake of the first game for the 3DS, Millennium Girl took the frame of the first game and, for the first time in the series, added a story. Now, a couple of years later, the series is doing the same thing to the second entry.
Developed and published by Atlus, Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold: The Fafnir Knight is due for release on August 4th, 2015 for the 3DS.
Past and Present
High Lagaard is a town many explorers know. After all, there is a huge labyrinth on its outskirts, and adventurers come from all over the world to venture within and see what secrets it holds. Also nearby stands the Ginnungagap, an ancient ruin believed to once be a holy temple of sorts.
High Lagaard is the destination of our nameless and silent protagonist and his friend Flavio. They have been selected to escort Arianna, the princess of the nearby kingdom of Caledonia to the Ginnungagap. Once each century, a member of the Caledonian royal family must travel to the Ginnungagap to perform a ritual, and that time has arrived. So, with the help of two other adventurers, our protagonist must help Arianna reach the center of the Ginnungagap to perform the ritual, while simultaneously exploring the labyrinth to assist in his journey and help the townspeople of High Lagaard.
However, while exploring the Ginnungagap, the protagonist comes upon some kind of power that allows him to transform, and is told in a vision that he is the next “Fafnir Knight.”
Most of the above story is dumped rather early in the game, the majority of it in the first ten minutes or so. There’s not all that much in the way of development in the rest of the game. Despite the addition of a story mode being a selling point of The Fafnir Knight, the story remains relatively bare bones. Although, I guess, “bare bones” is quite a change from “non-existant” in the original game that this entry is remaking.
When you begin the game, you have the option to play in story mode or classic mode. If you chose to play in classic mode, you can ignore this entire section of the review.
As mentioned earlier, the Etrian Odyssey series is a dungeon crawler at its core, and The Fafnir Knight is no different. The vast majority of gameplay is presented as a first-person dungeon crawl. You will be exploring numerous expansive floors through a multitude of areas, known as “stratums.” Throughout the floors, you will find all kinds of hidden paths, treasures, and monstrous enemies.
Ever since the start of the series, Etrian Odyssey has always taken advantage of the DS systems with it’s draw-your-own-map gimmick. A throwback to the days of classic dungeon crawlers, where you needed graph paper and a pencil to keep track of where you are, Etrian Odyssey requires you to map out each floor of the dungeon on the system’s touch screen. The Fafnir Knight, of course, keeps the tradition going. In its default mode, the game will automap the areas you walk, but you are required to draw in everything else: floors, walls, chests, gathering point markers, etc. There is quite a number of items and obstacles you can run across in a dungeon, and the map system is expansive enough to allow you to keep track of all of it.
Of course, while exploring, you are going to run across monsters, and they must be defeated! Battles are also handled in first-person, in a turn-based RPG style. The system is quite basic: you select actions for each member of your party, and then the actions play out according to turn order. The fights in The Fafnir Knight are rather difficult right from the outset, making the use of buffs and debuffs essential to survival.
The makeup of your party and, in turn, available skills and play styles depend on which game mode you select. In story mode, you have a locked-in party, and the game plays more like a traditional JRPG. Every member has their own class and specific role to play. While you can change each character’s class and skills, it comes at the cost of the character’s levels. In classic mode, you are able to create your own party from a selection of different classes, and can tailor your party more to your play style.
Allowing a bit more customization is the “grimoire system.” Throughout the game, and occasionally earned from battle, are items known as grimoires. Each one carries a specific skill at a specific level, and any of your characters can carry them. As long as the character is carrying the grimoire, they are able to use the skill, whether it is one they can naturally learn or not. Some skills even allow a member of a class to equip a weapon they can’t normally use. This can be especially useful in story mode with its more locked-in characters.
The series’ other tradition, of course, makes an appearance in this game. The massive, hard-hitting enemies known as F.O.E.s. Showing up relatively early, F.O.E.s are enemies that you can see moving around in the map, usually in some kind of pattern. These enemies are magnitudes more powerful than other enemies on their respective floors, and typically much more powerful than your party when you first encounter them. These enemies provide a major obstacle when moving around the dungeon, along with a satisfying challenge when you do decide to fight them.
Lastly, when outside of the dungeons, you are able to spend time in the city of High Lagaard. Activities in the city are managed completely through menus. Typical functions are available, from healing to shopping. A few other unique activities are available as well, such as spending money to build up the city, unlocking more items and weapons, and cooking food, unlocking buffs for your party.
Although it is not the type of game to push the limits of the 3DS, The Fafnir Knight offers an attractive graphical style and some well-designed characters. The sprite art of the characters follows series tradition, remaining as bright, colorful, and varied as ever. As mentioned in my Etrian Mystery Dungeon review, they have a somewhat refined feel to them as well: kind of realistic, despite the obvious anime aesthetics.
The dungeon design is attractive to the eye as well, although it can get repetitive within stratums. Exploration and scrolling is smooth, even with the fact that movement is tile-based. F.O.E.s moving around the dungeon are smoothly animated and blend in well. In battle, enemies are presented in 3D and are well-animated, despite some occasional repetitive animations.
The Fafnir Knight offers two different soundtracks: the original soundtrack from Etrian Odyssey 2, and a newly arranged soundtrack. The new tracks are, put simply, a delight to listen to. They are fully orchestrated and fit the moods of the many environments and situations quite well. The audio quality is surprisingly good as well. The original tracks are synth-based and a of a lower quality. While they may appeal to players of the original game, I’d highly recommend sticking with the new arrangement.
This game adds in some occasional voice acting which is, honestly, unremarkable. The acting jobs aren’t bad, but they aren’t stand-out either. However, so few lines are voiced that it doesn’t really become an issue. Battle voice clips, though, become repetitive to the point of occasional annoyance.
A Grand Surprise
Now that we’ve reached the finale of the review, I would like to fully disclose one fact: I have never been much of a fan of the Etrian Odyssey series. As I mentioned at the beginning, I prefer a good balance of story to gameplay in games, and the series hasn’t ever provided that balance for me. In the case of The Fafnir Knight, though, the addition of a story, as bare bones as it is, kept me interested and playing. Having a reason to care about the characters I’m playing as brought me more enjoyment in this entry than I’ve ever had with the rest of the series.
Despite the addition of the story, though, the game can’t escape the natural repetitiveness that comes with the dungeon crawler genre. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it kind of game. However, unlike past entries, I would recommend 3DS owners to give The Fafnir Knight a shot. If you’re a fan of the series or dungeon crawlers in general, you will find a lot to love here. If you’re not, you may still like what this entry brings to the table.
~ Final Score: 7/10 ~
Review copy provided by Atlus for 3DS. Screenshots courtesy of Atlus.