2021-07-11: 7th Dragon -- Totally not a 2D Etrian Odyssey
I loved Etrian Odyssey. I played all five of the mainline games, and plan to do Untold and Nexus at some point, maybe. I love dungeon crawlers, I love how Etrian approaches skills, builds, and levels. I love the aesthetic in general of the Etrian series. So when I stumble across a game that carries that same general feel, I have to take notice.
7th Dragon doesn't just carry the same general feel, it's more or less an Etrian game projected into a classic 2D JRPG aesthetic. It's no surprise, really. 7th Dragon is directed by Kazuya Ninou and composed by Yuzo Koshiro, who were members of the original EO's development team as well. 7th Dragon was released two years after the original Etrian, giving the team time to refine the bits of the formula they kept. Largely speaking 7D was experimental, taking that original Etrian formula and doing a "try and see" conversion to a 2D top-down style RPG. In many ways it was successful, in some it wasn't.
Being a more classic style JRPG, 7th Dragon couldn't really just take place in one dungeon and feel satisfying. It needed a wide open world to travel, and 7D delivered on this. However to have an open world filled with the danger you'd come to expect from an Etrian style game, you need an over-arcing threat. This comes in the form of the titular dragons. While you may think there's seven of them, that only refers to the bosses: the seven "Imperial" dragons. No. Instead there's 666. Really more like 680 depending on what you consider a dragon and what you don't, but the game points out there's 666 that count.
This number is so important, even, that it has its own permanent interface element for it: an ever-present meter on the right edge of the DS's sub-screen.
For the first couple of hours of the game, this meter rests down there unmoving, a static interface element in red. During this introduction the game feels like it might just be a full on Etrian game: you take quests, you go do them, you return to town to turn them in for a reward. There's no real urgency or threat to the plot. You're carefully guided along by a series of quests that each unlock the next quest, until an ominous directive to investigate a strange dangerous foe in the forests.
No shock here, it turns out to be a dragon, and upon defeating it 665 of its friends show up and take over the world. No really, the world is literally destroyed in cutscene at the end of the prologue. The 665 dragons spread to every corner of the planet, six imperial dragons take up residence in various fortress-dungeons across the world, and a strange toxic flower spreads across 90% of the surface leaving only the major well-defended capitol cities of the world as the last bastions of humanity. For some reason your fight with the first dragon puts you in a coma for all of this.
You wake up three years later in this utterly screwed over world, and as the only group that's managed to kill a dragon in those three years, are tasked with fixing it. Such is how the game's FOE system is introduced, as well as the Bloom. From here on out 90% of every map (including the world map) is covered in orange pain tiles you can destroy by walking on them, and every dungeon is patrolled by map-visible FOE style enemies that chase you, assist each other in combat, and can invade even normal and boss encounters at random.
With 665 FOEs sitting in front of you, you know it's a daunting task. I can say fairly certainly I beat most RPGs without even having 666 battles in total. 666 mini-bosses is a hell of a tall order; and you have to kill every single last one of them to zero that counter; no shortcuts here. Fortunately, zeroing the counter isn't necessary to finish the game.
While the world travel and dungeoneering is in a top-down 2D style, combat is classic Etrian. You're presented with a first person perspective of the enemies and input commands turn by turn, their execution order decided by your party's speed and not made known to you at entry time. The only major difference at first wash, aside from the strange radial menu replacing the more elegant sidebar menu, is the absence of one party member: your party limit is four instead of five.
In order to support a four-person party, classes are weighted differently. There's seven, and each class can fill two roles instead of Etrian's "One with a splash of another" approach. Your tank can damage, one healer can buff, debuff, or even damage, damagers can debuff effectively, casters and provide defensive tools. Every class splashes a bit of every role, practically. In order to support this flexibility, class kits are fairly flat and unimpressive. Abilities are, by and large, "what it says on the tin" affair. Basic elemental damage spells, basic heals, basic buffs. There's a couple of neat complex skills like the Knight skill that deals massive damage to foes but only if a Princess is in your party to mark them, but these interactions are fairly rare.
In short, with a four person party, team-wide synergy becomes less important-- or perhaps easier to achieve. You also need less rigid roles in order to not lock team design into ideal solutions versus inferior ones. So skills are less unique in order to fit together more easily.
I ran a team of a Samurai for physical damage, a Mage for magical damage, a Princess as a healer, and a Knight as a tank.
For the most part no one class is required. There are two healer classes: a pure healer and the Princess as a hybrid healer/buffer/debuffer, and also the Knight has a heal but has no MP with which to use it. Having some form of renewable HP restoration is definitely recommended so one of them is the closest thing to "required" you have in team composition. The Knight as a tank is, quite honestly, not all that necessary. They're not that much more durable than physical damage classes. "Provoke and Parry" is, however, a valid build that will completely cancel boss damage for a good two thirds of the game, if done correctly.
It's more likely you'll consider the Samurai and the Knight necessary for their world skills. The Samurai carries a cheap encounter reduction skill, the Knight can prevent Bloom damage. The encounter rate gets quite ludicrous later on in the game, and Bloom is everywhere. These two effects are attainable from consumables but I would not want to need to buy fifty consumables every dungeon trip just to keep the encounter rate and pain tile damage under control.
The only other notable change from Etrian is the introduction of Exhaust, or EX. EX is 7th Dragon's answer to Boost. Each character has three EX charges and they can only be recovered by sleeping at an inn (or using an extremely rare consumable). When using an EX charge, a character's stats are significantly boosted for one turn, they will go first, do additional damage, conditions are more likely to land, they'll even have more defense, and they can use special EX-only skills. It's an extremely flexible system that lends itself well to things like burning an EX charge to guarantee a cure will beat incoming damage, or even increasing your chances of fleeing from combat.
However this, and the relatively flat and simple class kits, renders most boss battles as "Buff, then EX, then hit as hard as you can".
So you have a team, you have 666 dragons running around the world. From here you largely have free reign to decide if you go hunt some of those 666 dragons, or go take a Mission that continues the plot. Missions are always plot progression, Quests are side content, much like Etrian. Quests however are strange. Most of them not only are not necessary to progress, but also provide you with nothing useful. You could get 500g as a reward for a quest when you're already flush with cash, or a consumable you can just buy by the dozen. Frustratingly though, some quests are important and provide you with entire new game mechanics, skills, and world access. Never anything mandatory to finish the plot, at least.
The main plot is fairly bare bones. You're guided from city to city in the destroyed world, trying to unify the world in one coordinated counter-offensive against the dragons. In doing so you hunt the six imperial dragons present in the world. Defeating them removes dragon subordinates and Bloom from civilized areas, slowly chipping away at the pall of orange that blankets the entire world. Once the six imperial dragons are defeated, the seventh and final dragon appears in a tower at the north pole, beckoning you for the final showdown.
Except by this point, if you've hunted every single dragon you've come across in the process of completing the main plot, you have 350 dragons out of 666 remaining. Zeroing the counter is another ten to twenty hour chore requiring you to retrace your steps through old dungeons then enter about a dozen completely untouched dungeons to find the rest. If you're extremely methodical in doing this, you'll have about ten left.
The remaining dragons fall under what I call "anti-100%". They're fairly well hidden and even the game's mechanics that are intended to tell you when you're done with a dungeon won't help you find them. These dragons fall under three major events:
- A hidden room in an early dungeon, completely invisible on the map and requiring you to walk into a solid wall. This room contains seven dragons running around in a circular cavern. As far as I can tell no hint exists to the existence of this room.
- A hidden room in a late-game forest that starts a quest that causes one additional dragon to spawn in the forest. This quest is only available if you enter the hidden room with a Rogue in your party. I did not have one.
- An event chain that ends in a battle with a dragon that is otherwise not findable in an early game dungeon. This event chain is not a Mission or a Quest. It's kicked off by talking to the party organization NPC and moving around the starting town at specific times in the plot. Five times, in fact, at very different points of the game. After the final event, you'll be sent to an early game forest for the battle.
I found #1 and #3. A viewer had to tell me about #2.
Here's the thing though: if you're absolutely methodical in hunting dragons as you go, you take down about 300 of them across the plot. The game doesn't intend for you to do this, and it shows. Right from the beginning, if you hunt these dragons as you come across them, you will out-scale the game's difficulty curves, and out-scale them hard. In the very first dungeon after the prologue you'll have trouble, needing to go back to town after every dragon battle. Very quickly, though, you'll start to be able to fight two, then three, then they'll stop threatening you entirely. Once they do, the game is never threatening again.
In a way this is good. You can choose your own difficulty by grinding on dragons if it's too hard, and skipping them if it's too easy. The game never really tells you this though, and my fear of reaching the end and finding I plot-advanced myself out of completion was too strong. 7th Dragon, however, seems to have no perma-missable content at all with the exception of three cash reward quests in the prologue. Nothing else is ever rendered inaccessible by plot. You can finish the plot without touching a single dragon and go fight all 600+ remaining non-mandatory dragons just before the final boss. I wish they made that more clear at some point.
My suggestion? Fight as many dragons as you need to feel comfortable in the game's difficulty, then go back and hunt them all before the final dungeon if you want.
On the other face of that coin you have the Bloom. Bloom carpets 90% of the world map and about as much of dungeons. About half way through the game an NPC starts keeping track of how much is left in the world, noting its importance. There are two ways to get rid of Bloom: defeat the bosses and dragons in surrounding dungeons to clear small chunks of it, and stomp on the rest. Stepping on a Bloom tile does a small amount of damage to your party and, after four steps, destroys the flower. You can, if you're determined enough, stomp on every flower in the entire overworld.
Doing this actually nets you an extremely powerful accessory that cuts your MP usage in half. I also read hints that the final boss can use an attack that deals damage based on remaining Bloom. Actually mowing the world's lawn is a weird thing though, because Bloom can also sometimes grant experience. Rarely when you step on a flower one of two things will happen: it'll grant your entire party 1% of their level in experience, or start a metal slime style fight. Clearing the world of Bloom just before the final dungeon rocketed my party from 62 to 75. I was grossly overpowered for the end.
At that level I stomped the final boss flat in four turns. It was actually quite a letdown. Your reward for slaying every dragon in the world and purging the surface of Bloom entirely? A bonus dungeon. This is where all the difficulty is. Even at level 75 I got destroyed by the foes within. I'll need to level cap a party specifically built for this dungeon to stand a chance in it.
Something I may do, but it took me nigh on 70 hours to 100% the plot as it is. I think I need a break from this one. All in all 7th Dragon is a really neat "What if" regarding Etrian Odyssey in a more classic JRPG package. Its balance is wonky and it's grindy as hell to actually clear the world of all its threats, but you don't have to do that if you don't want to, and the rewards for doing so aren't that worth it if you're not a completionist.
I enjoyed it, even if it was easy with the way I did it. There's three other games in the series but I hear they're nothing like the original, rendering the original a unique peek into "Etrian but not"