Monthly Archives: February 2024

Sekaiju no Meikyuu / Etrian Odyssey (DS)

Sekaiju no Meikyuu (世界樹の迷宮), released 1/18/2007, developed by Atlus

My next randomly chosen game came up as Elminage, which is a first-person dungeon crawler. It seems to be a nearly exact copy of Wizardry, and since I had already played a Wizardry game recently I decided instead to play Sekaiju no Meikyuu. The title means “Labyrinth of the World Tree,” but it was localized as Etrian Odyssey. I had heard about this game for a long time but never played it before.

Since it uses the stylus, I pulled out my actual DS to play it — this is the first time I’ve played a game on the actual console in years. Of course this meant I could not take screenshots so all the pictures will be borrowed from Atlus’ official site, Wikipedia, and other review sites (I took them from IGN and Ars Technica).

According to the JP Wikipedia article, the designers were also heavily inspired by Wizardry, which is not surprising — they were trying to make a new kind of “hardcore” game that would be more appealing in 2007 while also capturing the nostalgia for old dungeon crawler games.

The most striking aspect of the system is that you have to make your own map, which surely was done to recapture the nostalgia of the graph paper pads in the 1980s. The map is always on the bottom screen of the DS, even when you are in town. You can set it to automatically mark the squares you have traveled over, but you have to use the stylus to draw the walls yourself. The screenshot above has the map zoomed out to show the whole floor, but if you zoom in you can then draw the walls and drag symbols to the map.

I found this pretty well implemented and entertaining; it did capture that mapping nostalgia without being too annoying or tedious.

You begin the game by creating characters. You assign a class and distribute skill points. I went with a Swordman (“Landsknecht” in the localization), Dark Hunter, Paladin (“Protector”), Medic, and Alchemist. I’m not sure why they changed the names of some of the classes. You also assign points to skills — you begin with 3 and get 1 more every time you level up. You can take a 10 level penalty to reassign your skill points, and it’s also possible to change class.

The skills work on a kind of tree system — for instance, if the Medic gets Healer level 1 skill, that unlocks Cure (the weakest heal spell). The skills all take MP, which are pretty limited in the game.

The battles are exactly what you would expect from a game trying to emulate Wizardry — you fight a group of monsters and have the usual choices. “Boost” is the only new thing, it’s basically an overlimit/super power mode that you can use when your boost gauge hits 100 (it increases when you get hit).

In town, you have the normal services you would expect. You can also take Missions from the guild (which are major quests), and Quests from the pub (which are more minor quests). The first thing you have to do is map a large portion of the first floor for your first Mission. This unlocks some of the basic town services and also lets you proceed to the next floors.

The 1st floor has relatively easy monsters and a few small events, treasures, and item farming points (where you can use skills like Mine and Gather to get items).

When you get items, you go back and sell them to the item store. This is the main way to get money, and also if you sell certain items or combination of items it will unlock new equipment and items in the shop.

After mapping that first part, there were no more missions available, so I went down to the second floor. There was a huge difficulty jump in the monsters and I found my characters getting killed from full HP in one hit by the elk enemies. There are also “F.O.E.” monsters that are much harder enemies that wander around on the map (you can see them).

I made several forays into the 2nd floor because it was going to take way too long to grind levels on the 1st floor without emulator speedup. But I kept getting killed and having to go back. Ultimately I hit a point where 3 of my 5 guys were dead and I had no more money left to revive them or use the inn, and this is where I quit playing.

The Japanese wikipedia article notes the high difficulty of the early game, and apparently this was intentional (again, to capture the classic Wizardry feel). The article also says the developers didn’t think the game would sell very well but they misjudged and it very quickly sold out.

But for me it’s too tedious, slow, and difficult to keep playing. However, I think the series has a lot of promise and I would like to try one of the later entries — I have a DS and 3DS (but not a switch). If you are familiar with the series, please tell me if there’s a later entry that is particularly good and I will try it.

SRPG Game 88 – Farland Saga (SAT)

Farland Saga (ファーランドサーガ), released 1/29/1998, developed and released by TGL

I gave a basic introduction to TGL’s Farland Series in a previous post, and I have played the first two Farland Story games. This game was released very soon after the eight Farland Story games, and ported to the Saturn two years later.

This game is essentially the same as the previous ones but it makes two changes that address some of the biggest problems I had with the first games. The maps are a bit smaller but more importantly you don’t start so far away from the enemies, so you don’t waste half the playing time just moving your characters. Second, characters now do get new spells and powers when they level up, and the differences between characters are more than just “do they have a 1 or 2 attack range”.

Despite that, this is still a relatively bad game. One of the biggest problems that is probably unique to the Saturn port is how slowly the game plays. The load times are very long, and the enemy turns take forever. Possibly because of the limitations of the laptop I use to play these games, it’s basically impossible to use emulation speedup so this is a much bigger concern than when I play the Playstation games.

One other major problem with the game is that it’s now done in this 3/4 view, but you cannot rotate the camera. You can see from above that there are a lot of obstacles on the map, and it’s very easy to lose track of units or monsters that are behind obstacles, especially since there is no way to see who has not moved yet. More than once I figured out that I had forgotten about one of my characters because I couldn’t see them behind a tree, or forgot that a monster was on the screen. The only reason it works at all is that you can bring up an overhead map to see everyone’s positions.

Beyond the characters getting lost behind things, it’s also often very difficult to see where you can actually walk, or where the enemy units are in relation to your own guys. I often had to bring up the overhead map just to see what move I needed to make or to figure out why I wasn’t able to attack an enemy I thought I should be able to. The fact that you can’t move past your own allies is another annoyance.

The interface is another lazy annoyance. There is no between-stages part, so all equipment transferring, equipping, etc has to be done in battles. It probably won’t come as a surprise that there is no way to see whether one piece of equipment is better than the one you already have without manually checking.

The shop is another travesty — after every few stages you just get taken to a shop with no story reason for it, and you have only that one chance to buy things (if you accidentally press X you move on to the next stage). It also will probably not come as a surprise that it doesn’t show who can equip what or what the stats are, and all the equipment and items are in one long list that scrolls very slowly. Often when a shop came up I took that as a sign to quit for that session because I couldn’t face doing the equipment buying.

The system involves height and facing this time. The height part is a little bit half-assed though because it doesn’t affect missile weapons or spells at all. The obstacles also don’t block them at all — the sticks and spears that hit multiple targets can go through walls and trees.

Spellcasters recover a bit of MP per round so this allows for more spellcasting, although the most expensive spells will require some MP restore items to be able to use them well. They also grow in effectiveness as you level, which is nice.

Another big problem about the system is that the effect of a difference in levels, so that lower leveled characters are often ineffective in battle. This is coupled with the annoying system that grants XP based on how much damage you did, which makes it very hard for the behind characters to catch up.

The game has 25 main stages, and then after the credits roll you can load your save to play another 25 stages. While there is some story in that part, 20 of the 25 stages are just different floors of a tower, and I considered the game beaten when I had just done the first part.

The story is the best part of the game — it’s not great, but it’s entertaining enough and all the dialogue is voiced by well known (at least in 1998) voice actors.

The game takes place on a (large) island where there are two different kingdoms, Yohk and Barth. The two kingdoms have been in a long war that has recently concluded with peace. In addition, there is a land across the mountains called Thulk, which is home to the “mazoku” (demon/vampire/etc) species that is distrusted by both human kingdoms. Recently someone named Avi has appeared in Thulk and pushed for Thulk to be an actual recognized country, and he has worked to make peace with both Yohk and Barth. The game begins in southern Barth with a young man Leon and his friend Ralf, who have both lost their parents and are in the care of Brian, who used to be a knight in the service of the court.

They head to the capital, and there Avi is murdered, with the blame being put on the princess of Barth, named Fam. The mazoku use this as justification to destroy the capital, killing the king and queen, and sending Fam and the other characters into exile. The party then heads north to Yohk to inform them of the impending mazoku attack.

The story develops decently and has some interesting twists, but on the whole it’s not worth suffering through the bad gameplay and sluggishness to experience it. I can’t recommend this game at all. Unfortunately we have one more Farland game (later in 1998) but then the series will be over (at least as far as the console ports).

I chose randomly for the next game, and it landed on Elminage Original for the PSP. This is a port of a DS game that was ported from PS2. It’s a “blobber” first-person dungeon explorer, but it seems very close to Wizardry in its whole style and gameplay. Since I recently played a Wizardry game (Gaiden 4), I decided instead to try out Sekaiju no Meikyuu (Etrian Odyssey) for the DS — a game in the same genre that I’ve wanted to try for a while. So that will be next week’s post.

Dragon Quest II (FC)

Dragon Quest II (ドラゴンクエストII 悪霊の神々), released on Famicom 1/26/1987, developed by Chunsoft, published by ENIX

This is the first “random selection” game. The random draw gave me a strategy RPG, so I played the oldest game instead. Dragon Quest II is the second in the long-running Dragon Quest series, coming out only 6 months after the first one. As with the first one, it was released in the US several years later with a few changes (an added opening sequence and changing the passwords to battery save are the main ones).

There’s one thing I didn’t mention in my Dragon Quest review that I later noticed on the Japanese Wikipedia page, and that’s how friendly the game is in comparison to other RPGs and RPG-adjacent games at the time. If you look at every other game I’ve done for this early JRPGs segment of the blog, nearly all of them just start off by plopping you down in a starting screen with no indication of what you should do. The games are often full of incomprehensible secrets with no hints, and start you off with enemies that can kill you in a few hits if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Apparently this is how a pre-released version of DQ1 started, but when they tested the game out on some kids they didn’t figure out that they could enter the towns and had no idea what to do. So they modified the game to start you in the king’s chamber and force you to use some of the basic game mechanics just to leave the castle. On the whole, the game is much easier to finish without consulting outside hint guides/etc than any of the other games released at the time.

I think this represents the RPG genre’s slow emergence from the way that other games worked at the time. When you played a typical game in an arcade (or the first few years of Famicom releases), it was not that unusual to die quickly and get a game over in a few minutes. The idea that you might need to play the first screen a few times before you can even get much of a start was not that unusual. And few games could be “finished”, so the designers didn’t necessarily feel the need to provide fair hints and an easy way to complete the game.

Also if they looked to computer game models, they would see punishingly difficult games like Wizardry and Ultima that also had few hints, and not much of a sense of fair play.

All that is to say that I think Dragon Quest’s popularity may be at least in part because it was one of the first (if not the first) RPGs that was kinder to the player and didn’t seem to take it as a goal to annihilate the player’s party or character whenever possible.

Because of the quick development time, it’s not surprising that the game is essentially a refinement of DQ1. It is a much larger game than the first one, but the biggest change is that you now have 3 party members vs. groups of enemies, rather than just the 1 vs 1 fights of the original game.

The story is a sequel to DQ1, with the main character and his two companions being descendants of Loto (Erdrick) from the first game. You begin as the Prince of Lorasia (Midenhall). The King hears that Moonbroke has been destroyed by Hargon, and sends you out to defeat Hargon after collecting your two cousins, the Prince of Samartria (Cannock) and the Princess of Moonbroke. I believe this is basically all the story of the game.

At the beginning you have only Lorasia, who is essentially a fighter class that can’t use any magic. This means the early part of the game is very much dependent on levelling and having the right equipment, although as usual the “die and lose half your gold” system means that you do not have to be extremely cautious in your explorations.

In my Super Famicom reviews I often referred to games as having a “Dragon Quest II system” (which I sometimes called AMID for Attack, Magic, Item, Defend). I wanted to play this for at least the first few dungeons to see if that judgment was accurate, and I think it is.

The first task is to find the Prince of Samartria, and you start out on a fairly small island that you can’t leave until you find him, which is a kind way to start the game out. You basically have to follow him around to various places and hear that he’s already left, while at the same time trying to get more levels and money to make your character better. The fact that Lorasia has no spells means your healing is entirely dependent on herbs (and antidotes), and the game has no bag like the one added in later. So there is some inventory juggling needed.

Eventually after going around to various places (including the cave above), I finally found Samartria in an inn and he joined the team. He is basically a combination healer and attacker.

He begins at level 1, which means it’s good to do a bit of levelling before we leave this continent for the next one, hoping to find the Moonbroke Princess. Before leaving you can also get the Silver Key, which is technically optional. In DQ1 you had to buy keys that were used up after one use, but this game introduced the system that would be used at least through Dragon Quest VI, where you find increasingly powerful keys that open certain kinds of doors. I’ve always liked this system, where you have a locked door in an early town or dungeon that you know you will need to come back to later when you have the right key.

This is one of the passwords

The next continent has the destroyed castle of Moonbroke. There you can learn that the princess has been turned into a dog, and that the Mirror of Ra can cure her. Someone tells you about a marsh that’s near bridges — I didn’t find any clue that specifically said this is where the mirror is but I guess you assume that if someone tells you about a location it’s important.

Once you get the mirror, you can restore the Princess and she joins the team. She is a magician character — these kinds of characters are often underpowered and difficult to use. As I mentioned in many of my “DQ2 clone” reviews, it took a long time for JRPG designers to break out of the Dungeons and Dragons/Wizardry system which dictates that there is basically no way to restore magic points except to rest. This means that magician characters often cannot freely cast spells because their MP are so limited, and they’re usually worthless as attackers as well. Eventually designers figured out that it’s OK to let people restore their MP and cast more spells.

This is where I decided to stop. This game is well known for being quite difficult and having a lot of balance issues, and one of the main things the various remakes of the game do is smooth this out a bit. They allow better equipment for the companions, easier level ups, and just generally a better balance and less frustrating game. Many years ago I played DQ2 on Game Boy, but I found even that version fairly frustrating to play, so maybe this game’s day has simply passed. But at the time it came out I can see why it was popular; compared to everything else it shows a level of development and amount of content that no other console game could match.

SRPG Game 87 – Back Gainer (Awakening Chapter) (PS1/SAT)

Back Gainer (バックガイナー よみがえる勇者たち 覚醒編「ガイナー転生」), released 1/29/1998 (PS1), and 7/30/1998 (SAT), developed by Ving

The SRPGs are back! In 1996, Ving released a game called Harukaze Sentai V-Force, which was an attempt to make a game that would do its storytelling through high quality anime cutscenes. The anime scenes were well done (they were essentially at the level of a TV show or OVA of the time), but the reliance on these expensive anime scenes limited the amount of story they could tell. And also, perhaps because they had to spend so much of their resources on the anime, the game itself was poorly designed and not much fun.

At the time, I said that I didn’t think Ving tried this again but I was entirely wrong — this game is another attempt to do the same thing as V-Force, and it’s basically has the same plusses and minuses of the previous game. Even before getting into the specifics of the game, there’s a huge problem with the way it was released. For V-Force, I think they realized the limitations of what they were doing, and they chose to tell a story that had a conclusion, but that contained significant foreshadowing for a sequel (that was never released).

In this case, they chose to make a longer base story, and release the game in three separate parts. However, each part was not a standalone complete game — the first game has only 9 stages and takes about 10 hours to complete, and the second game has (I think) 7 stages. The third game was never released, probably due to poor sales of the first ones. So essentially you are playing a game that is only 2/3 complete, and the conclusion to the story is unknown.

Obviously that is a big reason to avoid this game, although in theory it still might be worth playing if the gameplay is fun (especially now when you don’t have to pay full price for both games). Unfortunately, the gameplay is bad — at least as bad as V-Force, if not worse.

Each mech has a “synchro level” and a “burning level”. The Synchro Level affects various things, but the most important is that if it falls below 5, you can only move and use the Synchro command (which takes Burning points). Burning is what you get from being attacked and taking damage. You can use it for special moves, to increase your synchro rate, and you can spend 60 (I think) points to enter “burning mode”, which lasts for one turn and greatly increases your stats and move rate. The enemies also have synchro rate and burning.

That doesn’t sound too bad, so what’s the problem?

For one thing, all attacks except for map (multi-hit) attacks are 100% hit rate. There is also no “zone of control”. This makes it very hard to protect your units. Second, too many of the enemies have map attacks. Third, the maps usually involve a pretty tight time limit plus numerous waves of surprise reinforcements.

But all of this is not necessarily bad; it could still add up to be a challenging but enjoyable game. What I think really pushes it over into being tedious and unfun is that there is little to no way to upgrade or change your own mechs. You can level up the pilots, but the stats of the mechs never change (including HP). There was one time when I was allowed to shift around the weapons equipped, but after that, I never found a way to do it again. This means that while the enemies keep getting stronger and more numerous, and the stages more difficult, your party basically seems the same, which feels frustrating.

Being attacked reduces your synchro rate, and so you can also find yourself having to waste a bunch of turns on the synchro command.

As with V-Force, each attack comes with a little anime clip, but you can’t skip it or turn it off the way you could in the previous game. This makes the stages take a lot longer.

The basic story involves the high school students Shin and Natsumi. When they stumble in to a fight between some monstrous things and some people in powered suits, it turns out that they have an amazingly high synchro level with the suits and are able to pilot them well.

They join a special attack group of the Japan forces, who are dedicated to fighting these enemies (and who are all women). As the story progresses, it turns out that both Shin and Natsumi are reincarnations of warriors, and in some stages they are able to become “Gainers”, a sort of hybrid being that fights much better than the normal suits.

The enemies are also reincarnations from the same place — they recognize Raizetsu (Shin’s Gainer form) as the most powerful warrior of the previous age, although he hasn’t awakened to his full power yet. The enemies are looking for vessels to act as hosts for their own reincarnated warriors, and they are particularly concerned about finding one for Lucita, who seems to be their leader.

The story has familiar elements — it’s heavily criticized for being a combination of cliches from other mech series (particularly Evangelion and Sakura Taisen). I actually thought the story was fairly interesting and better than V-Force, despite the cliches.

I made it up to stage 8 out of 9, but that stage had unlimited reinforcements and starts you off with only one unit — I tried to rush the boss but a bunch of powerful reinforcements arrived, and it just didn’t seem worth it to keep playing an unfinished game. I also will not be playing the second part — apparently they added an Easy Mode, and if the 3rd part had actually been released I might continue just to see how the story ends up.

My impression from the Japanese blogs and such is that V-Force was already considered a kusoge (bad game) and that this game is considered to be even worse. I’m certain this was Ving’s last attempt to do this kind of game (and almost their last game before they exited the game market), but I’m not sure if any other company tried it again. I just don’t think it’s likely to work unless you get a situation where a company is willing to give the game enough of a budget that both the anime cutscenes and the gameplay development can be fully supported.