Games like Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City can be polarizing, especially on a system that draws casual gamers like a Very Bradley sale draws soccer moms. On one hand, you’ve got a hand console that’s found new gaming niches among AARP members, Rachael Ray viewers, and Bejeweled fans; on the other, you’ve got a genre that demands an unshakable attention span and a long-term interest in video games that only devoted players possess. Keep that in mind with The Drowned City, a strategy-RPG that promises days upon days of dungeon exploration that leaves much of the control in the player’s hands.
The story tells of a far-off town called Armoroad, located near a mythic, underground dungeon that everybody calls the “Labyrinth.” If you can displace any mental associations of David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King, you’ll learn that the Labyrinth is a treasure-brimming hotspot for adventurers—many of whom went into the Labyrinth and never came back. And while Armoroad has gained a reputation as tourist’s tropical paradise, it’s got a shadowy past. All people know is that it was completely demolished by a catastrophic flood ages ago. What does this mean? How did the town make such a comeback, and how does it affect you? These answers—not Jennifer Connelly, unfortunately—await you in the Labyrinth, along with a bonanza of treasure and man-eating beasts.
Your game begins at the town’s guild headquarters, where you assemble a legion of adventurers that you’ll take down to the Labyrinth. Five people can occupy your party at a time, and you can store around 30 total in the reserves. Choose from 10 classes (with two unlockable bonus classes) that each have their strengths and weaknesses. Farmers, while milquetoast warriors, have the ability to harvest special plant items in the Labyrinth, while gladiators have killer offense but pitiful defense. Party members are pretty customizable, too, since they gain skill points with each level gained. The skill points can be assigned to learn around 20 abilities in any order you see fit.
The Labyrinth certainly is labyrinthian, as it sprawls and twists in every direction for 25 levels into the earth. And you have no map. That means tapping into your inner Vespucci and assembling your own guide. Use the DS stylus and touch screen to draw walls, designate terrain, assign landmark locations, or mark hidden passageways, among other things. Back in the day, graph paper and a pencil were your best friends while playing these kinds of games, so if you’re a fan of dungeon crawlers or exploration-heavy RPGs, this one will whet your whistle.
The Drowned City is an unusual subtitle that makes me think of rescue choppers and supermarkets filled with stagnant water and silt. However, the game presents a gorgeously detailed, colorful berg that’s reminiscent of a Miyazaki film, and is situated on a lush island in a sparkling ocean. The city itself serves as the hub during your adventures. There’s the standard inn and equipment supplier, as well as a tavern hosted by the token, voluptuous, anime chick. Like any good bar wench, she’s got pink hair, is charmingly ditsy with malapropisms, and has a chest that rivals most Galilean moons. Seriously—like, they’re spilling out. An art book I received with the game even features her character’s drawing, with an arrow pointing to her chest that says, “huge.” With such fun fun bags, it’s no surprise she reels in a bread line of townspeople and transient adventurers. These patrons are happy to supply you with information to aid you in your explorations, as well as side quests that promise fabulous rewards. The side quests usually involve finding hidden items or defeating certain enemies in the Labyrinth. It’s a nice add-on that enriches the game further than simply crawling through dungeons. You’ll also nab bonus experience points upon each successful completion, which is more valuable than any item.
There’s also a pier that allows you to take your adventuring to the high seas. Like the Labyrinth, the ocean is laid out on a grid and you’re able to design a map of the environs during your travels. The catch? You can only move a finite amount of spaces before your rations run dry and you have to head back to the mainland. In various locations throughout the game, you’ll acquire dry biscuits, dehydrated peas, and other munchies of the astronaut meal ilk that’ll allow you to travel farther out to sea. You’ll also encounter pirates to battle or fish to catch and sell. It costs money each time you set sail, though, so use discretion.
Graphics-wise, actual animation is limited (in fact, it’s practically nonexistent), but the images themselves are beautiful. There’s not a whole lot offered in the way of customization of your character’s appearance, as seen in recent games like Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, in which you build your party members from scratch. In this game, you choose from two pairs of slightly different but very similar still illustrations. Granted, they’re detailed and beautiful. But don’t expect to be building any Sims here. If you wanted to add birthmarks and beer guts to your characters, then sorry.
Another potential con, depending on how you look at it, is the potential for tedium. This kind of game is not for everyone. With at least 25 levels in the Labyrinth, all of which must be mapped on your own, and with a fairly high level of difficulty, The Drowned City isn’t for the fair-weather player. You also do all of the work: creating your characters, documenting the dungeons, even scoring cash. You’re not automatically granted money after defeating an enemy. They’ll drop scales or assorted body parts you’ll have to sell at the town armory. Life’s rough, but them’s the breaks of the biz. Dungeon explorers aren’t lazy people.
This game’s appeal hinges on the unknown and charting uncharted territory after territory. It offers a massive dungeon that’s yours to survey and map, and also includes traditional RPG battles and elements. It’s eye candy that spoon-feeds you nothing, including in-game money. If you’re willing to assume a lot the responsibility and are uninterested in a passive gaming experience, Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City is far from a wash-up.