Etrian Odyssey finally has the problem I never thought it would have: over-saturation.
Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold: The Knight of Fafnir is a game that comes too soon after its predecessor to really shine, which is a shame, because it's a good game. The problem is, it never feels like a great game, or at least, never one that's worth the time it asks you to invest into it.
The first Etrian Odyssey game I played was EO2: Heroes of Lagaard. I'd heard of the first one, and it seemed interesting, but I couldn't track it down. Etrian Odyssey 2 was unfriendly, brutal, and completely inscrutable, but for some reason, I got really really into it.
There's a good reason for that. Underneath the layers of obfuscating complexity, there's a very simple driving force to Etrian Odyssey. Once you get past the endless skill trees, map drawing mechanics, roaming superbosses, Etrian Odyssey is, effectively, cooking. It's a game about adding together certain abilities in just the right order to devastate your opponents before they can even touch you.
So even when the game ripped me a new one, it was easy to remember the appeal of it all. All I had to do to succeed was alter the recipe. use my knowledge of individual ingredients to make something deadlier each and every time. When Etrian Odyssey III came out, I got just a bit better at the craft, at knowing the individual mechanics that let me create stronger strategies. And so one and so fort until I found myself with Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold: The Knight of Fafnir, the second Etrian Odyssey game this year.
Technically that statement isn't true. The last Etrian Odyssye-ish game to come out was the fanservice-focused, but totally solid, Persona Q. The last "real" Etrian Odyssey Game was Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl, which was, in turn, a significantly enhanced (read: less broken, but still kind of broken) remake of the first game in the series. Similarly, Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Knight of Fafnir is a significantly enhanced (read: not broken, as far as I can tell) remake of the second game in the series, the first I played.
Going back to EO2 (the original) is a strange experience. For one, the text crawls. Not that there's a ton of text in these games; the story is told through two or three text boxes at a time, mostly through second person narration, almost like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Then again, the Untold games add full-on story modes to the originals, with static characters instead of the nameless randos you get to roll at the beginning of a campaign, and anime cutscenes galore.
I prefer to look at these as bonuses, considering most people who are into the Etrian Odyssey games aren't looking for the more modern JRPG comforts of story and moe. Etrian Odyssey games are, at there core, the oldest of JRPGs. First person slogs through brutal, unmapped dungeons, with a bunch of characters you roll and kit out yourself. To go back to the cooking metaphor, you're growing the ingredients you will one day cook into a highly efficient murder engine.
The metaphor falls apart somewhere along the line, sure, but what metaphor doesn't?
There does a come a point when cooking however, that you realize you've maybe made the same thing seven times over the last few weeks. You've eaten the same roast chicken with potatoes, rice and stir fried vegetables for months on end, and you feel fine, your'e just bored.
I can't say I was bored with Etrian Odyssey II Untold. That would be a lie, and I wouldn't lie to you. I'm not like that. But it did feel familiar, and not in the sense that I'd played the original. There isn't much different between Etrian Odysseys. They're about as different from one another as each year's Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed. Same basic mechanics with different labyrinths to trapeze through and classes to mess with. Usually that's enough, but as EO2U is forced to use the same classes as the original EO2, it's stuck with the exact same classes as last year's game. It's a weird nit to pick, but being stuck with the same ingredients means you can only make so much.
Etrian Odyssey 3 and 4 mixed things up by tossing in some new mechanics here and there. Three had the boat system between dungeons dives, with a traversal puzzle that led to entertaining and unique boss fights. On top of that, it also had the weirdest class lineup of any RPG I've ever played, lacking a dedicated healer class entirely. 4 was a little more traditional in the class sense, but split each floor of the dungeon's five 5-floor strata into separate dungeons spread across a world map you traversed by blimp, with bonus dungeons and superbosses littering the ground below. It was refreshing and different, and alleviated the, sometimes-boring, routine of diving into the same dungeon again and again. It also let each dungeon have its own unique environmental trick, rather than forcing the traditional five floors to adhere to just one theme.
EO2U's side-mechanic is, perhaps fittingly, a cooking game. You manage a restaurant on the side, bringing back ingredients to you head chef, then playing a game of guess and check until you figure out which ingredients make what recipe, and what recipe you actually want to use. Each dish alters your stats, or grants bonus effects, but you'll often find yourself using one or two for the entire dungeon, then swapping to the one clearly designed to assist with that floor's boss for the fight before switching back to the Paella, because the Paella is busted.
(No joke, the Paella restores SP at the end of every turn, and SP is more valuable than health in EO games. My party should have been renamed the Paella Partisans considering how much rice, shrimp and chorizo they consumed by the end of their voyage to kill a god.)
Like a lot of things in EO2U, it feels tired. It's an evolution of EOU's teas, which raised and lowered stats accordingly, but they had wild, volatile effects, and were the source of some of the most interesting strategies in that game. The dishes you prepare have effects that either aren't strong enough, or don't stick around enough to be used strategically. It;s obviously an option mechanic, but it mostly feels half-baked.
If you're wondering why I'm going so deep into this, it's because it is literally the only new thing EO2U adds to the formula. Not that that the cooking thing is bad, but it isn't quite deep enough to distract from the dungeon dives, which, like all Etrian Odysseys, do get old after a while. The flawed cooking system is emblematic of a lot of EO2U's problems. It's not quite original, it's not quite different, it's not quite interesting, it's just there. It doesn't take risks on weird stuff the series has never seen before, or break stuff on purpose just to see what happens. It doesn't feel cruel in a new and interesting way. It's just there. It's still a wonderful, personalized storytellign experience with a deep, and flexible battle system that encourages experimentation, it's just not as good at it as other games in the series. It's certainly better than the original Etrian Odyssey 2, but so is Etrian Odyssey 4, and it's different in really interesting ways.
Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold has been sitting on the shelf a little too long, and it's really only there to tide you over until Etrian Odyssey 5 comes out. It's tasty sure, but if you want to eat something you had before, maybe just pick up the old ingredients and make it fresh.
Just maybe don't make paella.