While many of us on staff are more than favorably disposed towards Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs), it was a country closer to our own that deserves much of the credit for the popularity of the genre in general. Most of us are aware of the works of J.R.R Tolkien, and it was this famous Briton’s books which helped inspire the creators of Dungeons & Dragons (made by a company called TSR, co-founded by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax) here in the United States. I will add that, while intentionally downplayed due to TSR’s liability concerns facing copyright infringement claims from the Tolkien estate, Middle-Earth was probably as influential on the development of D&D as any other literary source. And without the popularity of D&D, we can only wonder what the viability of RPGs would have been in the early days of computer and console gaming. But, even though the current crop of RPGs owe something to their predecessors (some more than others, of course), most modern games have left the dungeon crawling aspect of D&D behind. I mention this very brief background into RPG history simply by way of a meandering introduction to the matter at hand – or, more correctly, in hand – as the subject of this week’s editorial is the modern, portable dungeon crawler. And, despite everything I wrote above, all of the following games originated in Japan. Let us examine a few dungeon RPGs (aka DRPGs, or, in this case, DJRPGs, if you will).
First we have Etrian Odyssey, which is a beautifully realized series from Atlus that begin on Nintendo’s DS handheld before moving to the 3DS. Etrian Odyssey offers a complete dungeon (though most of the action takes place outside in forests) RPG experience in the palm of your hands. I have played two of the entries in the series (Etrian Odyssey II and Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl), and for many hours apiece; but have finished neither. Why is this? I absolutely adore them, but Etrian Odyssey, like any of the genre I have played, requires a lot of time; and there is no substitute for reaching higher levels/abilities (and upgrading to better equipment) when you run into a challenging boss. Backtracking, endless grinding, and slow level progression might seem like a recipe for disaster; but the series has a beautiful, visual style, excellent music, solid gameplay mechanics, and real depth. (Who says meticulously mapping a dungeon on a touch screen is not ‘fun’?) For those who prefer it, the later Etrian Odyssey Untold games provide a more JRPG-like story mode, in addition to the traditional dungeon-crawling mode. If you are willing to try a DRPG then one of the latter games are a great place to start, and if you are a fan of te genre these are a must-play. The style certainly lends itself well to an experience you will be investing many hours in.
Our next game is Stranger of Sword City, which was originally a PS Vita exclusive from Experience, Inc. (published by NIS America), and is now available on PC via Steam. This game combines familiar DRPG game elements that will make anyone who has played other titles (such as Etrian Odyssey) feel right at home; though the story and trappings are different enough to make this its own unique experience. The game begins as the plane you are traveling in mysteriously vanishes during a flight to Alaska (presumably from Japan). When you regain consciousness you find that you are in an unfamiliar place, and a sinister old man and weird creatures will soon have you jumping to action – or dying in this strange world. One of the interesting aspects of this game’s design is the ability to completely alter the art direction, as two very different art styles can be chosen from the menu. One offers a gritty, modern style; while the other looks like it came straight from a recent anime series. Whichever style you choose, the gameplay and depth are everything you could ask for in a DRPG, and its availability on PC as well as Vita makes it more accessible than ever.
Next we have a lesser-known Atlus game called The Dark Spire, which is the most authentic D&D style dungeon crawler of any that I have played. It was released for the original DS, and can be found now only in the used market, where it often carries a rather hefty price tag for even the bare cartridge. And it is very hard, or I am very bad – hard to say sometimes. Expect to die over and over unless you are very smart – or just lucky – as you begin with single-digit HP and no strength or defenses to speak of. But the narrative style is enjoyable and the art direction is stark and very well done (and straight out of some grim graphic novel). If you like DRPGs and enjoy an authentic RPG experience that has many similarities to traditional tabletop RPGs, this is worth a look.
The final ‘entry’ is today’s roundup is not a specific game, as it is a brief exploration of the sort of “games” that might turn some players off of the otherwise worthy DRPG genre. I inadvertently discovered the risque side of DRPGs when I was looking for games to play after purchasing my PS Vita originally, with one of the demos I downloaded from the PlayStation store. It was something called Dungeon Travelers, which I downloaded (AGAIN, just the demo) based on the title alone, and it turned out to be “more” than just a DRPG. Do you like still images of anime girls with large chests and little clothing? You are in luck! In fact, in carefully researching this article I discovered that other such “games” exist in the DRPG genre, and it seems to be a popular vehicle to inject the kind of imagery that some find enticing, into a “game”. Titles such as Sakura Dungeon do little to promote what can be a legitimate genre for JRPG fans who appreciate a deeper, harder RPG experience. Wait. That did not come out right. MOVING ON.
So, as they say, there you have it. Or not, if you neither own any of these games or have any intention of checking them out. I do recommend the Etrian Odyssey series for any 3DS owners out there, with the most recent installments offering more of a storyline, and not just a straight dungeon crawling experience. But what do I know? I still have yet to finish one of these games! (Why do I even work here?)