My first RPG – I mean my first ever honest-to-God 100% electronic RPG – was The Bard’s Tale on the Commodore 64. Yes, that would mean I am old. Back then The Bard’s Tale was one of a handful of big names in the computer RPG world. It, along with the Wizardry and Might And Magic series helped define the first person party based RPG. From the first moment I played it, I was instantly hooked. Never before had I seen such depth in a game. There was a world here for me to explore, one filled with secrets and riddles to be discovered. It was also filled with dungeons to be mapped out – for you see, there was no auto map function back then. Oh no. Your auto map was a sheet of graph paper, a pencil, and patience. But the end result – a fully drawn map of a dungeon that you had done yourself – was immensely gratifying.
What does that have to do with Etrian Odyssey Untold, you ask? Everything. You see, Etrian Odyssey is a throwback to that style of RPG, complete with maps you draw yourself. The tech has advanced, of course – the graphics are far, far prettier than I could have even imagined back then for one thing. Filled with colorful environments, hand-drawn characters and some great voice work, the world this game is set in leaps off of the 3DS’ screen. But also advanced are the tools at your disposal. You see, you no longer need a pad of graph paper, because the 2nd screen IS your graph paper. In a move of pure genius, you use the stylus and the lower screen to draw the map as you explore. There are icons to drag onto the map and the ability to write yourself notes that allow you to fully customize the maps you draw. And the feeling you get from completing a map is every bit as rewarding as I remember from my days long ago with The Bard’s Tale.
This demo, which is available now from Nintendo’s eShop, was my first experience with the Etrian series. I had always been curious, and I had heard a lot of positive things about the games, but for one reason or another I had just never tried one out. And I didn’t really expect the game to be as good as it is, truth be told. A lot of times these throwback games miss the mark, losing the charm that made the originals so great. Not so here, as Etrian Odyssey Untold is a virtual love letter to the games of my youth. It’s obvious the designers not only understand what made those games great but have a genuine love for them. The story mode, which is all that’s available in the demo, never bogs down with walls of text like many RPGs are prone to do. Rather, in the spirit of the games it seeks to emulate the story is simply there to service the gameplay, which is pushed front and center of the experience. You are very quickly sent out into your first dungeon, and everything from the exploration & map creation to the turn-based combat come very naturally without the need of overly complicated tutorial segments. The game knows it’s fun, and it wants you to experience that fun for yourself as soon as possible.
The other problem that these types of retro games often face is that the thing they seek to emulate just does not stand up against modern games. Again, that is absolutely not the case here. This style of gameplay is every bit as fun as I remember. But in addition, the production values, menu design, and many other small touches I probably didn’t even fully appreciate help to subtly bring the game up to today’s standards without sacrificing its fundamental old-school design. I dare say even if you never played those old games you would have very little trouble getting into this one and would probably have just as much fun.
In short, this game went from barely on my radar to preordered with one play of this demo. It’s that good. If you have a 3DS and a soft spot for classic RPG design, you owe it to yourself to download and play this demo. As an added bonus, or perhaps as a nefarious plot by Atlus, your save from the demo will carry over to the full game which is set to release on October 1. Basically, you get to play the beginning of the game now. More games should have the confidence in themselves to take that approach.