Etrian Odyssey, and Difficulty (written 30/6, revised 04/7)

So I beat the boss of Etrian Odyssey several days ago; saw the credit sequence. I’m not going to spoil it, but the fifth stratum was beautiful, and pretty much entirely unexpected, to boot.
However, it turns out the game isn’t done with me. Etrian Odyssey 2: Heroes of Lagaard arrived today. I decided not to make the mistake I did with the first game; I ordered this one when it was released and easy to get, rather than waiting until a year later and then having to jump through hoops to find it from anyone who’d deliver it to the UK. But… I still can’t play it. See, it promises extras if you input a password the original Etrian Odyssey produces on completion, but… I haven’t beaten the game yet. Not really.

See, Etrian Odyssey has six strata, not five. Each stratum – each floor, really, but floors in a stratum are usually variations of the same problem – has a different trick or combination of tricks, and these usually aren’t replicated as the focus of a future floor. In essence, each floor, and therefore each stratum, has a different atmosphere to it.
The first stratum introduces you to the game’s elements, and as expected of an introduction area, isn’t difficult to navigate, or more difficult than usual to beat.
The second stratum forces you to walk long distances to simply reach the stairs to the next floor; you learn your time in the labyrinth is essentially very limited to the TP of your characters, barring a well-stocked inventory or a TP-restoring skill. It also has the first major non-boss FOE that is guaranteed death to encounter, at least until you gain 30 levels, and gives you little space to dodge if you screw up.
The third stratum is packed with winding, turning paths, pits behind doors, and FOEs that seem to revel in making existing fights worse.
The fourth stratum requires a lot of searching for secret passages, and careful mapping, before presenting a boss that’s more puzzle than any one encounter.
The fifth stratum has you following a winding path across four floors before you can make your way to the last floor; the one you think is final. Oh, and it doesn’t warn you when you’re on a path that eventually reaches a dead end.

Then there’s the sixth stratum, accessible only after beating the not-quite-final-after-all boss. The sixth stratum’s theme, or atmosphere, seems to be in encouraging frustration. Assuming you survive the enemies – tougher than the fifth stratum’s, of course, and pretty much requiring skills, and thus valuable TP, to defeat even at the highest possible level – your first problem is testing teleport points until you find the one – if any, that doesn’t set you back to the beginning. Then again, with secret passages. Again. Then again, choice of three. Any wrong choice means a lot of wading back to where you were, through enemies and FOEs (also worse). That’s the first of five floors.

At the time of writing, I was confused by B29F. One floor from the end. Well, one floor, and then the 30th floor’s hell of a single, winding, long path and three locked doors at the end.
B29F required all but 1 member to be at or around level 70 to survive; B30F killed you half the time if you had that but didn’t have a good stock of items in inventory, too.
I worried that my current party build was unsuitable, and that I’d have to train up one or more members from 60 again, after reallocating skill points. It was, and I had to defeat three very tough bosses outside of the sixth stratum, to boot.
But I still had two floors to solve.

I like Etrian Odyssey, because unlike some (more popular?) RPGs, it’s difficult to simply overlevel to solve a floor’s enemies – weaknesses need to be noticed and exploited in ‘fair combat’ to survive, sometimes, and it’s difficult simply getting enough experience to gain a single level, let alone get to the point where one stratum’s enemies aren’t a problem before the last floor of the area. The different floors of the Yggdrasil Labyrinth are all puzzles, too, as are quests; solutions to either may be hinted at, if you’re lucky or observant, but for the most part the whole game just lets you discover things for yourself. The FINAL final boss is painful like that; that’s how far they take it.
Difficulty throughout the game is carefully calculated, however; it ramps gradually, such that you don’t notice except when travelling to a new stratum, and you’re always at best struggling against a stratum’s enemies until the final floor, when you’re fully equipped with what the stratum can provide. Maps grow more complex and difficult to navigate, different status elements crop up, FOEs and bosses possess more intricate and fatal combinations of attacks, skills, resistances.

I prefer a calculated challenge; I’d rather spend an hour attempting to solve B29F (and I did – much more than an hour) than fighting through encounters with ShinRa guards, mutants and robots in Midgar and watching long FMVs. La-Mulana sits in a similar spot for explorational platformers – in the end, I’ll play it rather than Cave Story, as it has a balanced, ramping difficulty, whislt Cave Story in comparison has erratic spikes of difficulty, ridiculously easy in places and insanely difficult in others. Remember that cat-tank boss? Lots of people I know complained about that one being difficult. (Personally, I hate Omega – that jumping robot in the Sand Zone. The cat-tank is easy, but I died tens of times to Omega’s feet.)
It doesn’t help that I have the plots of FF7 and Cave Story memorised. Without discovery – of story, of environment, of nuances in difficulty – to drive me on, those games have little to offer me beyond the sudden odd urge to beat them again every year or so. Knowledge, in those cases, defeats the game. However, knowing everything – or as much as I’ll ever know – of a game like La Mulana or Etrian Odyssey does not eliminate the draw of the game; the difficulty remains unchanged, though I may be better prepared.