Nowadays, RPGs tend to lead you by the hand, almost as if you're being babysat or something. They lead you on a set path with linear progression, and all of them try to WOW you with flashy graphics and stuff like that. Back in the days of games like Wizardry, there was no such thing as that. You were free to explore the world with little to no guidance and you can take on any missions or quests you wanted. This is the core gameplay element of Etrian Odyssey, a new RPG from the good folks at Atlus that focuses on the good old days, even going as far as making the game have a first person perspective. Can an old school RPG actually be good in this day and age?
There's not much of a story here in Etrian. The only thing you really have to know is that you are a group of guys in a clan who set off to gain riches and recognition. Essentially, you gain recognition by going through quests and missions. So, essentially, the story is really just a minority in this game, which in this case, is fine.
The primarily in Etrian Odyssey is obviously the gameplay. When you first start up, you end up creating your own party. That's right! There is NO set party in Etrian. You chose a name for each character, and you choose the class and what is the character image. There are a total of four character images per class (two male, two female) and there is up to 9 different character classes to choose from, which totals 36 character possibilities. The customization doesn't really end there. As you gain levels, you're able to choose what skills the characters will learn using the skill points you earn. Some skills are necessary to learn other skills, and some of them actually let you do attributes outside of battle, like healing, mining, and the like. So, the possibilities here are almost endless.
During battle, it's a traditional turn based system, of which you select whether to attack, defend, use an item or skill, boost up your stats, or run away from battle altogether. Be forewarned, though, as the enemies in this game are relentless. If you want to have any chance in this game, you have to constantly level up by gaining experience from defeating enemies, learning the right skills, manage your money by selling the items that the enemies drop, and equipping good weapons and armor, this game will give you a good whipping. You also must know when to advance to the next floor of the labyrinth or not. Unless you know you're ready, forget it. You are aloud up to five characters to take out at a time, and you are free to customize your party, but make sure it's a party that is actually good.
You also have to map out your progress. There is no set map at all, and you use the bottom screen to map your progress in the labyrinth. You use it to mark the path, dead ends, treasure, events, and the like. No enemies appear if you're not moving, so you can just stop and map out your progress without worrying about encounters. You can also move and map at the same time, but you run a risk of running into enemies as you map. You can also map during battles as well, since the battles are controlled with the D-pad and buttons. Mapping out your progress helps you out a lot. Plus, since there's no real linear progression, feel free to explore to your heart's content.
Finally, there are the missions and quests you take on. Unlike most RPGs these days, there is no set quest or mission. You actually choose which ones you like to take on when you're in the town. This freedom of choice gives it more legs, and you can actually tackle more than one quest at a time. When you start playing this, you start to wonder why more RPGs these days don't offer this kind of freedom.
Presentation-wise, it's not really that much. The labyrinth itself is done in 3D, and it actually looks pretty lively for a DS game. If you look closely, you can actually see some background effects, like flowers swaying and such. The rest of the graphics are done using 2D artwork with little animation. You view the labyrinth through a first person perspective which actually helps you seeing through the game with your own eyes. In the audio front, the music has a very good charm and also has a bit of a retro flavor, which actually helps it to give off its old school style. There are barely any sound effects, however. There is also no voice over, whatsoever. What's there is appropriate, though, so it does get the job done. To be honest, it's not really trying to get you in with its presentation.
Etrian Odyssey, which must be said, is really not for everyone. RPG gamers who remember the days of Wizardry and other games like it are more likely to get the most out of it. It's also appealing for those who like to be more part of the experience instead of being just a guided character in a story. Everyone else should probably try it first to see if it's your cup of tea. To be honest, I really loved this one, and I suggest you give it a shot.