There are very few games that offer much in terms of true difficulty any more. Sure, there are games like Demon Souls (another Altus title) for the PS3 which offer a higher degree of difficulty but yields a low ranking reward. In short, it could be a frustrating experience.
Then there are games like Etrian Odyssey that take the concept of a brutal and unforgiving dungeon crawl and make it a fun and entertaining experience.
To those unfamiliar with the EO series, the player is tasked with charting the details of a dungeon while hunting down the monsters that inhabit them. It's a simple concept that actually works really well. EOIII: The Drowned City is no exception to this story. Starting at the port city of Armarod, the player is given the quest to explore the labyrinth Yggdrasil, a large tree that descends below the city. Giving the game customization options, the player will design a team of five explorers. It's straight forward, easy to understand and simple enough that you never need to worry about putting the game away for a few weeks and forgetting where you are or what it was you were doing.
The graphics stay mostly the same as before. The static images of the characters are all very well designed and are quite elaborate, it just gets boring after 10 hours of looking at the same characters in the same positions. The same could be said for the soundtrack of the game. It is nicely composed but can start to become repetitive with time.
Character creation has evolved some from the first two versions of the series. All of the old characters have been replaced by new interesting concepts. Instead of one basic character to be your damage dealer, healer, or meat shield, the game offers multiple ideas for ways to set up your five-man party. The Ability to choose a sub-class adds an entire new and deeper level of customization. Some of the most interesting parts of the game came from just looking up class abilities and finding interesting combos that would work well for class/subclass combinations. My personal favorite is a Monk subclassed with a Hoplite to get the Parry and Magic Parry abilities. It made my healing based monk much more resistant to dying in one hit. Point being, it pays to experiment a little bit.
Once the dungeon exploring quest beings, it is not hard to see how unforgiving the difficulty can be. It takes a significant amount of grinding and random exploring to make it deep into the dungeon. The real draw to explore though isn't the random battles. When you enter the dungeon for the first time you receive a blank map and it is up to you to fill it in. Like past games of the series, it is up to you to draw in everything on the map: Walls, event spots, treasures, everything. And like the first two games, it is quite addicting.
There were two new additions to the cartography screen that are welcomed additions. The first was specific symbols for each type of gather point. It was always obnoxious to have to travel back through each floor to find the right point you needed. The other, far more important addition, is the ability to set an auto-move pathway. Grinding became much faster when I designed a square path on certain floors and pushed the auto on button, making my characters walk on their own. Some of the tedium of spending hours grinding faded away as I could put the DS down and let the game walk on its own while I concentrated on other matters.
EOIII is the first of the series to branch off from the basic idea of one dungeon and adds an entire second area for the player to map and explore in the form of ocean sailing. Ocean sailing is similar to the dungeon with a few key differences. It actually costs money to explore the ocean, as you need to be able to buy supplies for the journey. The fact that you need supplies means you only get a specific amount of movements on the ocean before having to return to the city. Eventually, through ocean exploration you can unlock the multiplayer aspect of the game. Using the DS's wifi you can have your friends’ characters help you in sea quests, which are usually just fighting a boss monster of some sort. The multiplayer feels a little tacked on and it really isn't necessary to have.
My one real complaint about EOIII is the same complaint I've had about every one of the games. There is only one save slot. It's aggravating when I want to let my friend try out the game, but he can't save because it would erase all my data and in a game as unforgiving as EO it would be nice to have a second or even a third save slot.
Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City is a huge step in the right direction of the series and it’s made me nothing but excited for the already announced forth game in the series that will be coming out on the 3DS. If you've never played the series before, don't worry about not playing the first two as there is no real connection between the games. If you can actually find copies of the first two games though, I would highly recommend you buy them, because they are pretty rare games now and they are just as fun and rewarding as EOIII. If you already have EOIII, post your team combinations, I'm always interested in hearing what fellow explorers came up with.