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Etrian Odyssey (DS)

Rated: 12+ because it contains violence but, to be honest, it's not as graphic as a typical episode of Pokémon, let alone the scrum that breaks out if all my children try to get their shoes from the shoe rack at the same time.

Story: An enormous forest labyrinth has sprung up next to a fantasy town full of cute people. You must guide a group of five adventurers through the traps and monsters in search of bigger traps and monsters.

Gameplay: The top screen shows the maze in 3D but you can't move around freely - it's laid out on a grid and you can move forwards or backwards one square at a time or turn 90 degrees. The bottom screen is used to map your progress. You draw in the walls of the maze and position icons to mark places of interest.

A few of the monsters can be seen approaching (although they only appear as glowing orbs). These are very tough creatures (FOEs) that are liable to kill you without raising a sweat. They move in a set pattern so you can avoid them.

Other fights start randomly. A group of monsters suddenly appear on the top screen. Combat takes place in turns. You choose actions (attack, cast a spell, defend, etc) for all your team members for a turn and then sit back and watch what happens. The actions of your adventurers and the monsters are played out in order according to luck, their level of agility and goodness knows what. Once everyone's had a shot, the turn is over and you get to choose actions for the next turn.

Killing monsters brings experience points. Get enough of these and your adventurers become stronger and can choose new spells and abilities.

Every so often you have to return to town to heal up and buy new equipment.

Save System: Saving is only possible in the town or at incredibly widely spaced save points. It can be hours in between saves. To play Etrian Odyssey, you need to be able to leave the DS in sleep mode for days without danger of a child coming along and swapping the cartridge to Mario Party.


Worse, if your adventurers die on an expedition, all progress is lost apart from any maps you've drawn.

Comments: Some games try to pull you in with amazing graphics, impressive stunts and new ideas. With only the press of a couple of buttons, you're a ninja space-assassin cartwheeling through an earthquake while lobbing exploding monkeys at tanks, marines and giant lizards. These games are brash and gaudy and shout, 'Buy me!'

Other games are much rougher. Enthralling gameplay is hidden beneath a stupid level of difficulty or awkward controls or a colour palette which consists of nothing but different shades of brown. These games quietly beg, 'Get to know me better...'

Some games are just cheap and rubbish, pumping out explosions and promises and heavy metal music, hoping to distract you with an hour or two of mild diversion before their lack of substance shows through. 'What are you complaining about?' they scream. 'Could be worse!'

All games vie for affection somehow.

Er, almost all...

Etrian Odyssey sits on the shelf and mutters, 'Yeah, I'm a barely tarted up version of a twenty-year-old game. I'm slow, ugly, obtuse and difficult. Want to make something of it? Come on if you think you're hard enough.'

Essentially it's The Bard's Tale all over again. I don't mean the relatively recent Xbox outing; I mean the original 8-bit offering from 1985. The main difference is that it provides its own graph paper. If you don't know what I'm talking about, then you might want to move along now. This game is from before your time. Go play Phantom Hourglass or something.

Maybe that's going a little far but if you don't have some history of fairly hard-core role-playing games then Etrian Odyssey will eat you for breakfast. There's little explanation of what's going on, almost no story and a frightening difficulty curve. The game goes out of its way to make the player's life awkward. The prohibitive cost of resting and healing, for instance, frequently means trips into the dungeon don't turn a profit, so buying new equipment is impossible. This leads to a greater need for healing and so on. The first few encounters with FOEs are bound to end in disaster. Working out which skills to upgrade is highly confusing.

After a few hours, things become clearer, however. There's a sneaky way to make some cash, the need to avoid FOEs until later becomes obvious and the game develops a rhythm. Each descent into the maze reveals a little more territory before it's time to teleport out, heal up and work your way down again. Meanwhile, your characters develop and grow. Just getting that little bit further becomes addictive. Even the random battles cease to grate eventually - they're mercifully widely spaced and you have an indication of when they're imminent.

Without some nostalgia for The Bard's Tale or a similar game, it's hard to imagine anyone persevering with this, though. Games have moved on. Even a portable version of Dungeon Master would be vastly more attractive.

At least there isn't four minutes of loading from tape between each level of the maze these days, I suppose...

Conclusion: If you're a fan of random turn-based battles and cartography, you'll love this. If you have fond memories of The Bard's Tale, you might get sucked in. If you don't know your ATK from your VIT, then run away.

Graphics: Drab and almost static. If it weren't for the touchscreen use, you'd think it was a GBA game.

Length: Very long.

Rating: 3/5. (As usual, this translates as 'all right, if you like this kind of thing' but 'this kind of thing' has a much narrower definition than normal.)

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