I was nonplussed when Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl was announced. Although I am a fan of the original Etrian Odyssey and appreciate the interface improvements in the sequels, did it need a remake? Wouldn't it make more sense as a 2014 release rather than coming out so soon after EOIV and SMTIV? Would wedging in a story about a 1,000 year old girl with amnesia add anything worthwhile? Wouldn't the preset party's cutscenes and skits slow down a game that already has a glacial pace? I went into it with low expectations, and have been shocked to find a well planned and smart remake that I'm enjoying even more than Atlus USA's previous 2013 3DS releases.
"Every design choice and every change seems intensively planned to maximize the player's enjoyment."
Shocker #1: the preset party in Story Mode makes the game more fun. Maybe my imagination became weary after playing so many first person crawlers since 2007, but I love the frequent, short skits that take place in the labyrinth. Instead of finding a red berry and getting a couple vague sentences about choosing to eat it and the result, in Etrian Odyssey Untold the individual party members react to the discovery as well as the outcome. It adds interest and personality to events that usually have neither, and I'm finding out just how much I missed this in EOIV and Class of Heroes 2 earlier this year. The skits occur during side quests, during exploration, before bosses, and any time it makes sense for the guild members to chat, but they are short enough that they don't slow down the pace of the game.
When playing in Story Mode, the guild has five set characters with set classes. Naturally, Atlus didn't leave any gaping holes in the party's capabilities, and two new classes, Highlander and Gunner, help give the player access to every ability with plenty of overlap between characters' skillsets. It makes for a party of jack-of-all-trades types that is more defense-oriented than my usual style, but it can handle any situation and is well balanced given that the original game was designed for a party of specialists. The Highlander is the protagonist of the tale. Far from being mute, he frequently participates in conversations and the player always chooses his lines. It leaves more room for role-playing than I was expecting, as his lines direct the conversation and affect the other guild members' reactions to whatever is going on.
Shocker #2: the dungeon layouts have been overhauled and improved. While playing, I've recognized many of the labyrinth's design features that stuck in my mind over the years. There is the large room with a powerful mantis FOE that chases the party at the start of the 3rd floor. On the 11th floor, there are four doors with four pits, only one of which leads to the right path. I popped EO1 into my DS to compare the floors side by side, expecting them to be nearly identical, and was shocked to see that they were completely different. Atlus kept the best dungeon ideas and memorable characteristics from the original, but redesigned the layouts to make them more interesting and varied. The result combines the highlights from EO1's labyrinth with new, interesting ideas. It's the most fun I've had exploring in an EO title and shows the attention to detail Atlus put into it.
Shocker #3: there is a new, flexible system in place of dual-classing. Friends, enemies, and chests provide grimoire stones while exploring, and each party member can equip one at a time. They grant characters a new weapon type to equip and add bonus skills. Since stones can be equipped and unequipped in town, the system is more flexible than dual-classing, and players can combine three stones into one to customize them and increase their usefulness. For example, you can create one stone with all of the gathering skills so that no one needs to waste skill points on those. Squishy mage-types can use stones that let them equip shields and boost their defenses. I've found grimoire stones to be a godsend for augmenting the preset party, and it takes no time at all to create the stones you need.
Shocker #4, the biggest one to me: this game feels like a sequel or spinoff, not a remake. It's like EO5 went with a back to basics approach to its design. The layouts are new. Floors that were bland in EO1 have new exploration gimmicks added to make them interesting. Story Mode has two classes and a new dungeon that didn't exist in the original. Grimoire stones allow classes to use equipment and skills they couldn't before. Food can now be eaten in town to grant combat bonuses. The game looks and sounds great. The list of changes is long and the list of what stayed the same is almost empty. It also sports an obvious attention to detail that I thought was missing in EOIV and SMTIV; every design choice and every change seems intensively planned to maximize the player's enjoyment, and nothing feels out of place. My mind has been changed, and now I'm looking forward to what the last half of the game brings.