- A hefty challenge for those who want it
- Character creation/customization is among the best I've seen
- Solid, easy to grasp battle mechanics
- Nails the old school aesthetic, down to the 80's soundtrack
- References to previous entries aren't annoying
- There is no wrong or right way to play
- Grinding shouldn't always be its own reward
- Unpredictable boss battles
- Even with all the variety, dungeons can be boring to look at
- Side content dries up too quickly when the grind is on
- It provides a challenge, but at what what cost?
Etrian Odyssey Nexus does what an old-school RPG should, and sometimes goes above and beyond for good measure. Unfortunately, the challenge at hand is over-zealous and mutes otherwise standout features to average out to an average score.
A DRY CHALLENGE
As a neophyte to the series, I knew Etrian Odyssey Nexus would be tough place to start. It combines a mix of dungeons, classes, and characters from across the franchise’s twelve year lifespan, and nudges players with constant winks and nods. Expecting to get annoyed by these references, I found it odd that they were the furthest thing from my mind. Instead, my focus was on the game’s challenge. I spent over 100+ hours with Nexus, and it’s one of the most difficult games I’ve ever played. Yet, in comparison to other hard games I’ve beaten, where there’s an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, I leave Nexus with a number of questions. Namely: how far can “challenge” stretch before it’s too much? Is there anything to take away from games with old-school design? And, most importantly, is this experience just not for me, or is there something I’m missing?
Nexus harkens back to an era of first-person dungeon crawling when the visuals were simple, and players had to draw maps on their own. There’s not much to say about the 2D character portraits and 3D dungeon tilesets: they’re functional and they work. However, playing cartographer is a constant joy. Some of my best memories of Nexus involve developing my own shorthand as I sketch a dungeon floor by floor in a handful of hours, slaying monsters, and cutting through puzzles along the way. I’d love to see more games take on this idea, though it’s hard to imagine it working well without a second screen and a handy stylus.
Another part I enjoy is the character creator. The player represents the collective will of an entire Guild, and that can range from a lone adventurer, to an active party of five, to a maximum of sixty. There’s no major backstory to fill or build quota to follow; players simply choose from preset character designs based on the class they select, and fill in the rest. Eye, hair, and skin color are all standard in creation tools like these, but my favorite features were the universal pool of voice samples (which allow masculine-looking characters to have feminine voices and vice-versa) and the ability to give everyone heterochromia. If you’re interested in creating a band of punk, genderqueer adventurers, this is a friendly avenue to explore those options.
Once the characters are created, the game gives free reign for the player to explore their personalities as much or as little as they wish. Like a D&D campaign, a DM-like narrator will occasionally drop an event in the middle of a dungeon, like the party coming across a bag of items caught in a tree, and ask for a volunteer to try and get it down. It doesn’t matter who gets selected really, but it was easy for me to assign tasks like these to my most nimble and aggressive member, while feats of bravery would often go to my party leader.
I chose early on to keep my team limited to five party members that balanced each other out, thinking it’d be the best way to experience the game. As time went on though, I realized that there’s no one right or wrong way to play Nexus. With nineteen classes and up to sixty Guild members, it’s possible to create a party member for every occasion, and spend a ton of hours leveling them up to spec their builds in different directions. My choice resulted in a party that reached level 99 before the end of the game. This saved me some time in the long run, but came at the expense of only learning a small portion of the skills and battle abilities Nexus offers.
Still, even if I were to spend hundreds of hours finding the best team, I have strong doubts it would erase the monotony I felt the more Nexus went on. As great as the character customization is, it’s essentially putting a wide funnel over a narrow tube. Players can pour whatever they want into the top, but it all gets pushed through the same linear trek of dungeon after dungeon. Between the main dungeons and optional sub-dungeons, there are twenty-four in all, and for the most part, the game expects the players to go through them in order. It does the best it can to provide variety in each new place, with numerous story events and sidequests that add interesting optional objectives, but there frequently came a point where I’d be out of things to do while stuck against a boss, and my only option left would be to grind, grind, grind.
I’m okay with a game asking me to buckle up and drop ten hours leveling my characters. But, there comes a point where Nexus‘ challenge stretches thin. Without much to break up the routine, the reward for beating a hard boss, is often to get into another dungeon and fight another hard boss. I had a couple ah-ha moments, where I learned something new about a character skill, but those fleeting moments weren’t enough. Eventually, the sense of pride and accomplishment I felt for doing the right thing got replaced by dread. Dread that even if I took down one boss, there would be another handful to go. Dread that even if I leveled everyone up to 99, that might not be enough.
Without thinking about it, I would often compare my time with Nexus to my time with Etrian Odyssey‘s sister series, Persona Q. Both rely on the same dungeon crawling and map making formula, but they tackle it in vastly different ways. Where Nexus relies on challenge to drive players through dungeon after dungeon instead of a story, PQ slows down the pace enough so that the challenge and story buoy each other. Both Persona Qs combined offer only a fraction of the dungeons that Nexus does, but they place greater importance on each floor players visit, while also making sure that no two dungeons feel alike. They’re ultimately two sides of the same coin, but the choice between balanced story and gameplay, and pure gameplay with minimal story is a a vital difference.
The truth is that Persona Q is the experience I prefer. There’s still quite a lot to like about Nexus, especially a soundtrack by the legendary Yuzo Koshiro that’s transported straight from the 1980’s. However, though the game tries to switch up songs for every dungeon, they eventually become part of the slog, too. There’s nothing here that I want to listen to for hours on end, except maybe the final boss theme, but even then, I’m likely only saying that because I’ve heard that song the least.
I can sum up Etrian Odyssey Nexus in two words: patiently obstinate. It’s all about giving the player time to prepare, fiddle around, and tinker with their characters as much as they want. There’s no rush, even when the world’s about to end. However, it’s also resolute in making players take on its immense challenge without compromise. The difficulty can’t be changed mid-game on a first playthrough. If this is a celebration of everything Etrian Odyssey represents, then it’s fair to say that I feel I’ve played all the Etrian Odyssey I need. This is the kind of game you either live and breathe, or muddle through until its over, and though I’m glad I beat it, some games just aren’t for everyone.
Platform: 3DS | Publisher: Atlus USA (Sega) | Developer: Atlus
Release Date: 2/5/19 | Rating: T for Teen
This review was conducted on a New 3DS XL using a retail copy of the Etrian Odyssey Nexus Launch Edition I bought on launch day. It is exclusive to the 3DS. If you’d like to get in touch with me, you can leave a comment below or follow me on Twitter. You can also reach me via email at dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios(dot)com. For a look at what else I’ve published on Tilting Windmill Studios, you can look here.