This past week has been very refreshing for this late thirty-something, old-fashioned gamer. While I'm finally starting to embrace the sweeping changes to how we buy and play videogames, at my core, I still just want to buy a cartridge, stick it in a console, and spend 30+ hours of my life getting stronger, working up to killing a big boss with spells, numbers, menus, and jars of magic. This is what makes me most happy as a gamer.
Atlus' Etrian Odyssey IV has rejuvenated me this past week with its not-afraid-to-be-old-fashioned gameplay. In the midst of countless high-budget, high-resolution, super flashy wham bam internet-connected franchise sequels, we have this classic, challenging dungeon crawler that has you drawing your own maps on a grid, just like you used to do in the old days. Again, incredibly refreshing.
Surprisingly, seeing similarly-minded gamers enjoying Etrian Odyssey IV as much as I have this past week has been just as refreshing. This is a game that I would say is of limited appeal these days, yet it seems that those around me cannot stop singing its praises.
Etrian Odyssey IV (3DS)
Release: February 26, 2013
Etrian Odyssey IV is a classic dungeon crawler and it makes no apologies for that. This means the focus is solely on getting lost in and eventually finding your way out of a constant string of increasingly difficult dungeons, with random-encounter turn-based battles stopping you every few steps. The focus is on how to get stronger in order to kill bigger monsters. The focus is on doing everything you can to stay alive.
This is not your epic yarn about legendary heroes with pink hair that fall in love and travel through space and time. There are no cutscenes or voice overs, and the game doesn't really have much of a cast. It really is just your created party marching through mazes in a first-person view, looking for the bad guy that caused all the trouble.
You'll start off in the town of Tharsis as a group of adventures answering the call of the city's Count to join other adventures in exploring the mysteries of the massive tree that looms in the distance, called Yggdrasil. In this quest to learn more about its rumored mysterious powers, you'll encounter other races that have been affected by the tree. You'll eventually get pulled into a deeper story that actually manages to break out of the typically shallow dungeon-crawler story type into something a bit more satisfying.
Creating the best initial party in an Etrian Odyssey game has always been a critical first step for series fans. Thoroughly considering each of the classes' abilities and how they'll unify with others' is part of the challenge and fun of the franchise. That depth is still here Etrian Odyssey IV's seven starting classes (with more that unlock later), allowing you to roll your party of five in any way you wish, mixing your typical healers, archers, and swordsmen with some of the more specialized classes, like the status-jamming Nightseekers, or the healing/swording hybrids, Dancers. With this outing, it seems that Atlus has put some work into making sure that there are no bad combinations of classes. More than ever before, it feels like you can pick whatever classes you think look fun and go with them. And if that doesn't work, you're free to visit the guildmaster and roll another, as dozens of slots are open for storing your character creations.
With a party formed, you'll venture from the game's hub town of Tharsis into the unexplored worlds that lie under Yggdrasil, taking on missions from the Count, reporting back afterwards to earn your rewards and then moving onto new missions. This loop is exactly how the past series games have played out, but Etrian Odyssey IV is the first game to offer free, limitless exploration of the world outside these assigned missions.
You'll explore in an airship, which also doubles as a mode of transportation from Tharsis to mission dungeons. From early on, you'll have the ability to take a break from mission dungeons, called Labyrinths, to take that airship to find caves and attractions where you might find new monsters or spoils. There's a proper overworld now, complete with varied attractions and city-sized enemies to deal with. This welcome change makes EOIV feel more like an adventure than previous series titles. Even if you love first-person dungeon views, getting out into the sky and flying around an open world makes for a nice change of pace.
With all of these dungeons and unexplored lands to navigate, charting your way is more important than ever. The engrossing mapping function from Etrian Odyssey III returns with several improvements worked into the cartographical system, which now extends to the sky. You'll use the bottom touch screen of the 3DS to hand draw every wall of every maze in a grid, dropping in various icons, markers, and now annotations, so that you may return after you die.
Hand-mapping every stage and dungeon may sound tedious to some, but it ends up being one of the most rewarding aspects of this game. Carefully plotting to make sure that every doorway and item spawn point are marked feels a lot like working in customization menus to make sure every member of your party is optimally equipped. Role-playing game fans are planners by nature, and this gives them one more thing to plan, and eventually one more aspect to look back at and be proud of after succeeding. Besides, old-school RPG fans would probably want to graph out the dungeons anyway. This function gives you the virtual pen and paper.
More planning fun awaits in the game's skill system. Each level earned lets you drop a point into the various skills of each of your party members' skill trees. Exploring the synergies between members skills lets you craft some really complex interactions on the battlefield. Other than some tree branch progression level requirements, EOIV has very little in the way of limitations on how you customize your characters. Things become even more interesting when you unlock sub-classes, which let you mix one classes' abilities with another. By the end of the game I had what felt like the most complex, specialized party I've ever used in an RPG. That's a geeky kind of fun that we don't see in a lot of games of this genre these days.
Also returning are the series' FOEs, or the Field-On Enemies. These are roaming sub-bosses that you'd do best to avoid at low levels. They're big and bad enough that they're represented by on-map icons, and they're challenging enough to warrant a color-coded icon warning system. Red means run -- you can expect to die in a single hit in an accidental encounter with one of these guys. With even the movement being turn-based, you can watch your map to try to avoid them. That works fine until late in the game, where they manage to appear out of nowhere.
You'll take on FOEs as well as standard encounters in fast-paced, turn-based battles. It's nice that you can blast quickly through standard fights as the encounter rate is fairly high. For low-level baddies, you can simply hold down the confirm button to blast through your last string of attack commands, or tap the L button to start an auto-hit round. Grinders will definitely appreciate this.
The battle system isn't anything new or fancy, but it's deep and well-rounded, and packed with many different options to keep you interested. Beyond normal attacks and magic from this two-row, turn-based system, Atlus adds Burst skills, which let you use earned points from an attack-filled meter to use special spells to give you advantages in battle. You'll spend from this pool to do things like boost party defense, or cast a huge fire spell. And a tip of the hat, as always, to Atlus for making RPGs that actually make use of status ailments. Yes, poisoning an enemy is actually a valid and worthwhile attack EOIV.
Of course, for FOEs and bosses, you'll want to watch that finger on that confirm button and carefully consider every command input. Most of my enjoyment of this game came from its almost unforgiving difficulty. Anything less than my most focused, well-planned attack plan would result in death. Every advantage, from equipment to elemental weaknesses, must be considered. Deaths happen often in Etrian Odyssey IV -- one-shot kills are not uncommon. If you like challenging games, this one will have you both grinning and wincing.
EOIV is more approachable for first-timers with its new Casual mode, but you'll still find yourself having to work up to gain levels and get the best equipment to stand toe to toe with the bigger enemies. My few hours in Casual showed that exploration and dungeon navigation are a bit less challenging, but that bosses are still pretty mean. Deaths hurt less as you'll be beamed back to town, ready to heal up and head back out. Standard enemies go down easier, too. This mode is freely switchable from any point in the game outside battles.
Etrian Odyssey IV looks better than ever on the 3DS. This game is one of the most colorful titles available on the platform with its vibrant green and blue world and attractive character art from Yuji Himukai. The new, superbly animated 3D monsters seem to pop off the screen, even with the 3DS 3D function switched off; some of the designs for the larger monsters are outstanding. Taking the flat, stand-in graphics of past titles and turning them into moving, breathing monsters does wonders for the title.
It's not all pretty, though. The increased graphical power allows for more detailed dungeons with more moving visual cues (like swaying tree branches, for example) over the last installment, but they're still really just flat walls with fancy textures on them, and it gets old after awhile. The lower-resolution wall textures pale in comparison to the monsters and foreground art, sadly. Worse, NPCs in missions aren't graphically represented in dungeons. I don't know if Atlus ran out of graphical resources in these situations, but it's maddening to go stepping around a cave trying to find the invisible guy you were just talking to. Finally, the 3D view for the top screen gives some depth to battles, especially with multi-row encounters, but makes the action feel a bit farther away, and actually a bit harder to follow. I kept it off after a few rounds of trying it out.
The musical score in Etrian Odyssey IV comes courtesy of game music legend Yuzo Koshiro. He has been the series composer from the first title, but he goes nuts with this latest outing, working in every genre he could muster to make for the most varied and enjoyable soundtrack yet. The sound is new for fans, but I'm sure none of them will mind as his work here is fantastic. Every piece, from the jazzy town tunes, to the rocking battle theme, to the sweeping orchestral exploration beds, spill over with musicianship. These aren't just background songs -- these are recordings of inspired performances. It's strange to say, but a 3DS game has set a new high bar for RPG soundtracks.
It's a shame that the audio quality seems compromised. It may be a case of over-compression for storage sake, or it could be that the audio was "overcooked," but these songs are slightly marred by an equalization curve that makes them sound thin and brash. High frequencies are over-pronounced coming through the 3DS speakers, which sadly had me suffering from ear fatigue while trying to enjoy the excellent music. Headphones made things slightly more bearable, but it also made the hit on audio quality more apparent at the same time. Fans will want to check out the full soundtrack on CD.
Finally, Etrian Odyssey IV has some neat social features built in. The game uses QR codes to let you trade Guild Cards with other players without the need for StreetPassing, though that option is still available. You can also use QR codes to unlock special items and quests that Atlus has distributed on its webpage and others.
For as much as I loved this game, it must be said that Etrian Odyssey IV isn't for everyone. There are no character arcs to drive a story, and there's nothing even close to a CG cutscene at the end to serve as a reward. There's really no avoiding the need to grind to work against the considerable difficulty level of EOIV, either. And if drawing maps sounds like a bad time to you, you're going to hate this game.
The rewards here are smaller than your big-budget RPG, though they come more frequently from the work you put in. They come from the deep, almost limitless planning possibilities of the game's customization system. They come from plotting a path so well that you always know where you're going, and where you came from. They come from returning to that FOE that kicked your ass earlier to show it who's boss.
Etrian Odyssey IV the best series title yet, and an excellent place to start if you've never played one before. It is, by far, the most accessible series game yet, with its Casual mode and its wide-open, free-exploration gameplay. And for the first time, despite being a dungeon crawler at heart, an Etrian Odyssey title feels like a sprawling adventure.
For series fans, everything you love about Etrian Odyssey is here, and then some -- better music, art, monsters, and mapping. You will not be disappointed. For everyone else: fans of classic dungeon crawling, fans of planning and plotting, or fans of a sizable challenge, I cannot recommend Etrian Odyssey IV enough.