You know, I don't think I've used the phrase 'ludicrously difficult' before. At least, not in recent memory. But Etrian Odyssey III deserves the title. I've played every dungeon crawler that I could get my hands on since Wizardy threw me in a poorly-rendered orange-coloured dungeon back in the 80s. And though some have been difficult, they haven't been ridiculously so. But Etrian Odyssey III...anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself.
Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City is the latest in the similarly-titled dungeon-crawling series on the Nintendo DS. Renowned (and appreciated by some) for its high difficulty and highly customizable character classes, the EO series has gained a suitable amount of popularity from the classic RPG crowd. Though the sequel (Heroes of Lagaard) was a bit of a disappointment in terms of introducing new content and concepts, The Drowned City adds a whole lot of new things to the series, sure to please any fans of the previous games.
Like previous titles, The Drowned City is about getting a group of five adventurers together, running into a labyrinth, killing things, bringing back loot, and running back in to kill more things with bigger weapons, of course. You need to chart your own map on the bottom screen of the DS, making sure not to get lost as you go along, since the dungeons you're given are large and easy to get turned around in. These are not dungeons you want to get turned around in. Filled with monsters, some deadly, some incredibly deadly, and some merely terrifyingly deadly, it's easy to find yourself dead pretty quickly if you're unprepared.
First, the Drowned City presents a whole new set of classes for you to play with. Gone are the Landsnknechts, Survivalists, Medics, and all the rest. Replacing them are a variety of classes such as Gladiators, Buccaneers, and Farmers (yes, farmers). While some of the classes perform more or less the same function as past counterparts such as the Monk, which is essentially a more violent form of the Medic, or the Gladiator which is a Lansnknecht in almost every way some classes perform new roles entirely. The Buccaneer, for example, acts as a support attacker, following up attacks with his own with guns or rapiers, or the Farmer who is like a super-powered gathering class that can't fight worth a damn.
In addition to the entirely new skillset that every class gets, this game has done things a little differently: each class gets a series of class skills that only they have access to. In addition to this, every class also has access to a common set of skills that they can put their points into if they so choose. This common skillset allows any member to gather materials, gain extra experience, raise health and defense, or even heal party members outside of combat. Some of them are really useful, but it's a question of if you're willing to take skill points away from the other skills to put them into the new set.
That's not all though, since The Drowned City introduces the concept of subclasses: basically, your classes can eventually take a subclass of another class, adding all but one of their skills (called the 'Class Skill') to the character's repertoire. It creates a remarkable amount of customization and specialization in your team, with hundreds of possibilities of teams to create to see how you can faire in the dungeon.
Oh, and aside from the dungeon, there's an entire new frontier for you and your guild to conquer: that of the ocean. You can take to the high seas whenever you feel, paying the cost for provisions and supplies, to see what riches you can find. The sea differs greatly from the dungeons: first, you must pay money for every excursion, the cost depending on what food and extra supplies you bring. The food, determining how many turns you can move before you must return, and the supplies, which can do other tasks to help you out, such as catching you more fish with every throw of the net.
The sea isn't home to enemies like the dungeons are. There are dangers, of course, and trade goods to find and sell for some money back at port. But dangers come in big sizes here, with bosses and sea quest to fight and complete, earning you money and experience if you can make it. The sea is also where the multiplayer component of Etrian Odyssey III resides. It is here that you can take on quests with other players, having them control their own characters as you take on the bosses of the sea. It's an interesting component, though not really necessary for the gameplay, since if you can't find someone else with a copy of the game, you can just take a trip with some NPC guilds that the game provides for you.
The Etrian Odyssey series has always been known for its complete lack of forgiveness. Screw up, and you'll find yourself losing your entire party to a bad encounter. I liked this challenge, it kept me on my toes. But Etrian Odyssey III is...something else. The challenge is there, but ramped up to ridiculous levels and then taken mostly out of your hands. For example, the very first floor of the dungeon holds a random encounter with a monster that, until you gain about half a dozen levels, can kill any member of your party with a single hit. The second floor, if you're unfortunate to go in there during the day, every encounter will be against a beast that can kill a party member in a single hit. During the night, you're lucky enough to merely fight very powerful groups, such as ones composed of powerful enemies that can poison your entire party or groups composed of the powerful units from the previous floor.
These are the first two floors of the game. As you learn skills, things get less frustratingly irritating. But then there's issues with money. Unlike previous titles where the various harvesting points in the game were some extra equipment and cash, it's almost required in the Drowned City if you want any cash at all. With the trips to the sea, party revivals, and resting all burning cash out of your pocket, you'll be lucky to have any cash at all left for equipment.
Basically, the game necessitates grinding much more than the previous games in the series ever did. It can get really tiring.
This latest game in the Etrian Odyssey is going to be a lot of fun for the fans of the series, or of the dungeon-crawling genre in general. The difficulty can get pretty ludicrous at times, and I wouldn't be surprised if that turned a lot of people away from the game. Still, the gameplay is solid, and the amount of customization available with each party you want to send out is unmatched. There's also some small, additional features, like the ability to make draw out a path on the map that the party will follow automatically. So if you want a really solid dungeon delving experience, even with some solid sidequesting in the sea, Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City has got you covered.