When it comes to the Nintendo DS, games tend to fall into two categories: quick-play titles designed for mobile gaming, and more robust affairs that usually play on the hardware's strength. For all that the DS has to offer, graphics can be a bottleneck and therefore have a big impact on playability, even for die-hard role-playing game (RPG) fanatics.
With the limited storage capabilities on a DS cardridge, providing an enjoyable role-playing experience can be hit or miss, either due to the attempt at translating conventions from console and PC based that are ill suited or due to a lack of polish in production values.
If you are used to RPGs, and have become accustomed to the overwhelming vastness of the worlds, gameplay, storyline, etc. you can find in RPGs on a plethora of other platforms, you might be wondering what Etrian Odyssey has to offer.
Etrian Odyssey harkens back to the hey-day of PC RPGs, in the vein of Wizardry and The Bard's Tale. Dungeon exploration is presented in a first-person scrolling perspective, with turn-based battles. Character progression is slower compared to the main-stay of the modern RPG, and the game generally rewards thought and patience over recklessness. "Very hard" would be an accurate description. The "hardcore RPG gamer" especially one who yearns for the type of game of yesteryear will enjoy this. So too will the gamer that enjoys making up his or her own story, and as well as the gamer that enjoys finding a good balance in a party.
There isn't so much of a plot or storyline hidden in this game. You're an adventurer who will gather fame by mapping out the underground forest near the city. There will be a very small introduction after which conversations are usually limited to the business at hand, e.g.: buying armour/weaponry, selling medicine, resting, etc... NPC's are quite uncommon so don't expect great deepness in the plot or ongoing conversations. However this seems not to be a negative thing in Etrian Oddyssey. You will basically just want to get on with your business, accept a few quests and be on with your taks at hand: mapping out the forest while obtaining items to be sold and leveling and skilling.
Somewhat worth discussing is the way you visit Etria, the town where you can sleep, buy/sell stuff, engage on quests, etc... You don't walk from house to house as you often do in 2D mapped RPG's. No, you have an overview of the different places shown to you in a list. Once you select a location, you'll be inside the building where you have your options listed to you as well. It is not a disturbing fact that you have easy access to all of the facilities in Etria without walking from door to door. Trust me, there's a whole lot of walking going on in this dungeon crawler type of game. Some people might miss roaming through villages, but there's a whole lot of dungeons to roam through. Soon you'll come to appreciate the easiness with which you can have matters dealt with so you can continue on your journey.
The biggest aspect of the game, as should be obvious by now, is exploration. There's a deep underground forest close to Etria, ready to be explored by the many adventurers. In the beginning, part of the first section is mapped, but you'll soon realize that once you head a little deeper into the forest, the map only shows the area you've walked in (if you've enabled that option). You will have to draw the walls (or borders), stairways, treasure locations, item (mining/taking/chopping) points, ... on the map yourself. And this is really necessary to remember where a particular doorway (which might become accessible later) might be located. You mark these locations by drawing the borders with your stylus and placing available icons on the map. The system is pretty intuitive which is a more than fair requirement for something you'll have to do during the span of the entire game.
Another aspect of the game you'll soon figure out after some minor advancements in the forest, is the difficulty. All in all you will fair fairly well in the forest if you're patient and care to level up whilst acquiring the right skills (see next paragraph). Even though this is no outrageously difficult game, rushing through the dungeons is certainly not an option. This actually IS quite a hardcore dungeon-crawler with little or no introduction/tutorials when you start off. Dangerous monsters lurk in every new section and are far more dangerous then those in the previous level. Just when you manage to deal well with the monsters in the current area, it feels like starting all over again in the next area. I believe this to be a standing plus point for the game. There's nothing to a game which you can roam through just like that, and I think many gamers share the same thought. However, you might rather be a type of gamer who likes to take it slowly, have everything explained to you in tutorial or help sections somewhere available in the menus, and learning at the hand of those tutorials while being engaged in a beginner's quest. Nope, no such thing here... Although the first quest is pretty obvious, straightforward and kind of easy, you will be likely to die in the fields if you expect a gentle treatment to newcomers.
But how about leveling and skilling?
You level up by defeating monsters and FOE's in the dungeons. After a set amount of experience has been received, a character will level up. The character then receives a skill point which can be assigned to a specific feat or skill. As you have not so much of a clue which skills to level up before another becomes available, it could prove to be easy to assign your skillpoints in a less than favourable way.
Of course... where would be the fun without discovering by yourself how the path you choose affects your play?
Assigning skillpoints randomly, though, will cause a lvl20 character to be far weaker than a lvl12 character which has skilled following a specific path. Luckily, the game provides a solution there. The big town Etria houses several guildhouses, on of them being your own. If you rest characters here, they'll lose 10 lvls and 10 skillpoints, but you'll be able to re-assign the skillopints in any way you want.
If you retire a character, that character will be lost forever, but it makes place for a new character and that new character gets bonus skill points based on the lvl of the retired character. A bit confusing mayhaps, but something a good player definitely will make use of.