Friday, August 23, 2019

Etrian Odyssey Nexus

Etrian Odyssey Nexus Box Front

The Final Odyssey

Known as Sekaiju no MeiQ in Japan (“World Tree Labyrinth,” MeiQ a stylized form of Meikyuu), Atlus’s Etrian Odyssey series, beginning with its inaugural installment on the Nintendo DS in 2006, combined first-person dungeon navigation with cartography taking advantage of the system’s touchscreen capability. The franchise would continue on the 3DS, which would see its lifespan end due to the Big N’s move to games for its home console/portable system hybrid Switch. Thus, since making a main installment without touchscreen mapping would in the developer’s eyes be pointless, they made an entry to mark the series’ end, Etrian Odyssey Nexus, which combines the gameplay elements of its precursors into an enjoyable package.

The final game opens with Princess Persephone of Lemuria summoning explorers from across the Lemurian archipelago, surrounding the Yggdrasil Tree, to the floating city of Maginia, tasking them with exploring the labyrinths in her lands. The party the player creates is blank-slate like in previous Etrian games, although the cast of characters has a degree of memorability, and the storyline actually connects the settings of prior games in the series, chiefly the first three Nintendo DS entries. Aside from a late-game narrative cliché, the plotline of Nexus definitely helps more than hurts.

Perhaps the weakest link of the last Etrian game is its localization, which has many indications that Atlus’s North American branch rushed it. Foremost is the decision to leave the voice acting completely in Japanese, although one can see this as a mixed blessing, given the questionable quality of that in Etrian Odyssey V. Regardless, there are occasional inconsistencies with character names including the bartender Kvasir’s name spelled Kvashir during the closing credits, and there are other odd identities such as Blót. Even so, the translation is certain coherent, and otherwise doesn’t hurt the game.

Fortunately, the gameplay is significantly better, the player initially tasked with creating a party of up to five playable characters from nineteen different classes taken from prior Etrian titles, including the new class of Hero. Each vocation has its share of good and bad points, not to mention effectiveness on either the front or back rows of combat (or even both), and afterward, it’s off Maginia’s shop to outfit them with whatever equipment they can afford through the meager finances the player initially receives. As in previous installments, each character has four slots, one for a weapon (though the Shogun class allows two equippable katanas), and three for armor and/or accessories.

Once the player delves into one of many first-person labyrinths, a colored indicator gradually turns from blue to red to note how close they are to encountering enemies, as always alleviating the frustration affiliated with traditional random encounters. Battles themselves are turn-based affairs, the player able to input commands for their party, including attacking with equipped weapons, using TP-consuming abilities, defending to reduce damage, using consumable items, using abilities granted from full Force Gauges, or attempting to escape, with this opinion naturally not always working, although if all the player’s characters attempt to do so, there’s a decent chance they’ll get away.

When the player inputs all commands and gives their party the go-ahead to proceed, they and the enemy exchange commands depending upon the ability stat, and while there’s no turn-order meter a la other turn-based titles with the feature such as Final Fantasy X and the Nintendo DS remake of SaGa 3, it usually isn’t a big mystery as to who will go when, and turn order generally remains consistent. However, a turn order meter would nonetheless have been welcome since the sequence of commands might be critical on more challenging difficulty settings.

Fights tend to flow at a quick pace, with an option in the game menus allowing for adjustable battle speed, making even the most daunting encounters breezes. Speaking of daunting, as with prior Etrian games, more powerful antagonists known as FOEs wander dungeons, typically taking notice when the player draws near and pursuing them. Contact results in an encounter, and if other FOEs are nearby, they may take notice as well and join the fray. FOEs tend to be more difficult than the enemies in standard encounters, but are mercifully beatable at least on the Picnic difficulty (the easiest setting).

The difficulty setting dictates how the game handles death, with easier settings reviving the player’s party in the hub town, and harder ones resulting in a Game Over screen, with the option to preserve the mapped dungeon before reloading a previous save. Victory, on the other hand, nets experience for all participants still alive, with occasional level-ups and consequential stat increases. Winning also nets monster appendages the player can sell at the shop in town to diversify the inventory, necessary for the purchase and equipment of more powerful gear, and fortunately, money isn’t too big an issue.

Level-ups also acquire a skill point the player can invest into each class’s skill tree to unlock new abilities, more advanced skills necessitating lower-level ones having a certain number of points and being at a certain experience level. Skills range from passive abilities that allow for things such as recovery of some health after battle (which can actually make the need to use healing magic rare, especially on the Picnic difficulty), to active skills that increase or decrease stats or assault one or more encountered enemies. Late in the game, each character can choose a subclass that allows them to obtain abilities from other vocations’ skill trees, but odds are most players will want to stick with their characters’ current jobs.

Overall, the gameplay helps Nexus far more than hurts, the battle system avoiding the negative tropes affiliated with traditional turn-based combat engines such as unpredictable turn order, long ability animations, and, on lower difficulty settings, wasted time in losing battles. The aforementioned issue with the absence of an indicator of turn order is pretty much the only real issue in the game, and is only of great concern should more masochistic players choose to quest on higher difficulty settings. On the whole, the final Etrian installment takes the franchise’s signature gameplay to new heights.

The use of the touchscreen to graph maps is another part of the series’ signature gameplay, with the availability of options that automatically map encounters walls and tiles in dungeons, significantly reducing the time needed to cartograph labyrinths, with only the need to mark doors, treasure chests, and shortcuts that reduce time when revisiting floors. Also reducing the need to revisit parts of dungeons is that if a player has mapped a floor enough and report it, they can outright skip to the lowest visited floor in a maze, significantly reducing superfluous playtime.

Given the general linearity of Nexus, it’s usually not a big problem to figure out where to go next, and while some quests available from the town tavern may be hard to complete without a guide, there are fortunately more than enough to max the levels of the player’s party. The game menus aren’t terribly intrusive, and dungeon navigation is no chore, with the only major issues being that shopping for new equipment only shows the stats after equipping an item instead of them alongside those of their current equipment, and playtime is only visible on saved files. Regardless, the last Etrian entry is one of the far-more user-friendly Japanese RPGs.

Composer Yuzo Koshiro returns to provide the soundtrack for the final game, which from the track that plays during the introductory backstory, one can tell will be a good one. There are plenty of original tracks such as the various themes played in the hub town and its facilities, which sound superb, and one original dungeon theme that has a choral remix in the final labyrinth of the main game. Given its connection to prior Etrian games, there are also a number of returning themes, including new remixes of tracks from the third title, which very much evoke nostalgia.

As mentioned, the localization team left the voicework in Japanese, with none of it every sounding miscast, and the player can customize the voices of their playable party. In this regard, the player should probably pick at least one voice, given the occasional vocal cues of points of interest within dungeons. There are, however, some rare annoyances such as Kvasir’s “Dahahahaha!” during his dialogues. The sound effects, moving on, are as one would expect from a title of the current generation, with different step sounds depending upon the territory encountered in dungeons, and things such as gunfire when using the Gunner class in battle. Overall, an excellent-sounding game.

Like its precursors, the game features great art direction, with customizable character portraits for the player’s party and portraits for the other characters with whom the player interacts throughout the game, which show eye-blinking and alternate emotions. The colors are realistic, the labyrinth environments have nice, unique appearances, and the final Etrian Odyssey uses the Nintendo 3DS’s three-dimensional capabilities well. Enemies in battle contain great designs as well, in spite of occasional reskins, and have alternate looks when low on health or inflicted with status ailments. The only real issues are the pop-up of distant walls during dungeon navigation, the pixilation and blurriness of some environs, and the strict first-person perspective of battles, but otherwise, Nexus looks good.

Finally, Nexus features thirteen story-driven labyrinths and several optional ones, making it one of the biggest games in the series, although one can complete a straightforward playthrough somewhere from one to two days total, with several sidequests such as the bar quests, item and monster compendia, post-game content, and a New Game+ enhancing lasting appeal, although there are no in-game achievements akin to other systems’ games such as the PlayStation Vita’s.

In the end, Etrian Odyssey Nexus is a fitting end to the franchise worth celebrating, given its positive aspects such as its fast and tight battle engine with plentiful customization, engaging mapping system, the storyline connections to previous games in the series, the superb aural presentation, the good art direction, and plentiful reasons to come back for more. Perhaps the only major issues are its rushed localization, somewhat inexcusable given Atlus’s general good track record in that area, not to mention the visual blemishes, but the game is sure to appeal to veterans and newcomers to the franchise of all skill levels.

This review is based on a playthrough of a copy purchased by the reviewer.

The Good:
+Quick, tight battle system with tons of customization.
+Engaging mapping system.
+Connection to prior Etrian games.
+Superb soundtrack and voicework.
+Good visual direction.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Rushed localization.
-Some visual blemishes.

The Bottom Line:
A fitting swan song for the Etrian Odyssey series.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Game Mechanics: 9.5/10
Controls: 9.0/10
Story: 8.0/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.0/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 8.5/10

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