Etrian Odyssey and Its Enduring Popularity
In seeing Atlus trying to expand on the series with remakes and crossover games, it seems like Etrian Odyssey is getting more recognition in the community than before.
Though a relatively niche game that some people just can't get into, Etrian Odyssey has been as popular as it has been niche. The first game in the series wasn't an overnight success, but it had enough sales to warrant a sequel. And soon enough, the series became a popular, so called "cult hit". So far, there are four main series games with a new one in the works, two remakes, and two crossover games.
Though it doesn't seem like the type to spawn multiple sequels and games, Etrian Odyssey certainly does have its own special appeal that keeps people coming back.
The biggest and most important thing about the series is the fact that it's a throwback to the dungeon crawling games of the previous decades, namely 1987's Dungeon Master. The series' scenario director, Shigeo Komori, found it sad that people didn't like games like this anymore and created Etrian Odyssey in hopes that it would revive the genre. And in being a throwback to earlier games, it does not skimp on the difficulty.
That difficult, pushed-out-of-the-nest quality of the series is one of its biggest appeals. It's most definitely not a hand-holding experience. Besides the little tutorials it gives right when they start the game, the players are left to fend for themselves. In doing that, the game makes the player focus during each and every fight, use whatever items they have, and hone their characters' skills and abilities. It calls for real strategy to do well and to not see that patronizing "Would you like to save your map and exploration data?" when they die in battle.
The game gives players no real sense of security; rather, it gives them a false sense of security. Just when the player thinks they're doing really well, they can go against an enemy that absolutely destroys them and puts a hold on their progress. And then they're expected to go right back in as though it wasn't that big of a deal, even though hours of exploration and experience went down the drain... and then they do. The fact that they were defeated fuels the player to try their best the next time - and each time after that until they win.
This can happen at Level 15, it can happen at Level 99! It may take days, weeks, or even months to do it. They may have to level grind and retrain characters; they may have to make new battle strategies and plans; they may even have to remake their entire party! All this time and effort is just to go back into that dungeon and serve up revenge against something that crushed them however long ago. And when the deed's done, there's such a satisfying, euphoric feeling, it's like being handed a gold medal at the Olympics!
Freedom to Do Anything
But putting the sadomasochistic side of the game away for a moment, the free reign aspect of the series is also one of its biggest appeals. Freedom to do whatever with your party, to explore as much or as little as you want, to map however you want: the game is very forgiving in that way. It lets the players do whatever they want so long as they continue going through the labyrinth, and with that, the story.
Even though there's an established story taking place, the players are allowed to go about the game their own merry way. The story's more of a background event than a main facet of the series (excluding the Untold remakes). The player can explore the labyrinth for as long as they want before some part of the plot pops up. They can explore the seas as in Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City or the skies as in EO IV: Legends of the Titan; they explore and complete quests for the smaller, side dungeons introduced in EO IV; they can even explore a whole other dungeon as in the previously mentioned Untold remake series. Wherever the player chooses to go, there isn't much of a restriction the game puts on them besides difficulty and the occasional mission.
With a number of battle and support classes, players can pick, choose, and train 5 to create a party worthy of dungeon exploring and battling. There's no definite best party or worst party; it's all about the strategy and planning the player puts into it.
Do they want use a Dark Hunter and Hexer and take advantage of the ailment and bind-based damage they do? Do they want use a party based entirely on follow-up attacks? Or do they want a well-balanced party that can face pretty much anything? Do they want to create a party that is built to defeat any and all bosses, or one that's just plain good for exploring the labyrinth? It's all up to the player's discretion, desires, and how far they can get into the labyrinth without a "game over" or two (or five).
This also goes along with party building, though a different aspect of it. The series' open-endedness, the freedom is has and gives, leaves a lot of things up to the players. One of these things is the members of their parties. Players are allowed to choose what they look like, what they're named, what their jobs are, and what they do (abilities and skill-wise). With exception to the Story Modes in the Untold series, the characters don't have any set story or background that the players have to abide by.
They can have the backstories that player makes up, making them like actual characters with a past, present, and future. Characters with their own quirks and personalities. Where a random person could just see a Farmer and a Gladiator, the player could see a battle-shy, but exploration-wise Farmer, and a Gladiator that's so reckless that he rushes into battle even when he's bleeding like a water fountain. They don't have to be plain portraits, people that the players only care about their build, stats, weapons, etc. They can be the main characters in this story of a rookie-turned-professional exploration guild and what they do as ordered by the town government.
A player's party can include them as the leader of the group or as a supporting member. There can be Medic who's surprisingly squeamish, a Troubadour that's ridiculously bad as making music, or a Protector that takes their job title seriously both inside and outside the labyrinth. It's all up to the player's imagination and wants.
Etrian Odyssey, even though a relatively niche game, has become a staple series of Atlus. The fact the company announced three new games all within the same month last year can attest to that fact. Two of those three, Etrian Mystery Dungeon and Etrian Odyssey Untold 2: The Fafnir Knight, are to be released very soon in North America. It seems that the series hasn't hit a low point and won't as long as it continues to be the dungeon crawler everyone loves.