Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan tells a very simple story: you take control of a new group of explorers tasked with reaching the mythical Yggdrassil tree that towers in the distance. You meet a variety of characters to aid you in your quest, both in town at the various shops and guilds and out in the unexplored lands, who are often just a little too undeveloped to be interesting. Your missions come from the Count of Tharsis, the town where your journey begins, and slowly bring you through four distinct overworld areas called lands to reach the endgame. It’s adequate fuel to spur your adventurers onward, but it doesn’t really ever evolve into anything that interesting. Annoyingly, the story comes very infrequently for most of the game. The last land and its dungeons are where most of the “big” revelations come about, but the beats are fairly predictable to anyone who is even partially paying attention. One character’s “twist” reveal was so laughably obvious that I even knew exactly when it was going to happen. The dialogue and the descriptions of the various things you encounter (which feels very much like a DM for a game of Dungeons and Dragons) are actually fairly well-written, but the whole game still falls subject to tropes that fans of JRPGs will instantly recognize. Overall, it’s pretty bland.
However, I did end up enjoying my journeys through the lands of Etrian Odyssey, thanks to a bit of imagination. This game inspired me to do a bit of roleplaying (which isn’t something I find myself doing often), using my imagination to make up what my party was thinking, saying, or doing at any given moment in the dungeon. While your charcters never actually speak in the game itself, I came to become attached to my five party members by the end of the game. When I needed to replace one of them to better suit my party’s composition for the final boss, it took me several minutes to actually boot her out and bring in a fresh member. I never would have imagined that I would feel so attached to characters that the game did nothing to built; it all came from how I imagined her in my head. Some people may argue that a game shouldn’t force the player to do this on their own, instead giving character to the members itself, but I believe that I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much if they had. It forced me out of my wheelhouse and gave me a unique experience because of it.
Gameplay in Etrian Odyssey IV is very much a throwback to CRPGs of yore, particularly the early Wizardry and Ultima games, but with traditional JRPG combat. You start in Tharsis where you can rest and save at the Saehrimnir Inn, trade monster parts for new weapons and armor at the Berund Atelier, accept side quests from the Dancing Peacock, and manage and recruit new members at the Explorers’ Guild. When you’re ready to depart, you set out on an overworld map in an airship. Once you find a dungeon you want to explore, the game become first-person and grid-based, a clear homage to early dungeon-crawlers. Exploring and mapping out (which I’ll get to in a minute) these dungeons, while fighting off random encounters every so often, is your main goal. Story dungeons progress the game forward, but there are plenty of side dungeons with tantalizing loot and extra EXP for your characters if you’re interested.
For those of you who haven’t played an Etrian Odyssey game before, it features a map on the lower screen at all times. Unlike other RPGs, however, it expects you to make these maps yourself with the various tools provided to you: wall and floor painting tools, various icons for marking important points, and even a system that lets you program automatic paths for travel. I LOVED mapping the dungeons in this game. Some may not find it to their taste (and they can use the auto-mapping feature to do it for them), but it was absolutely my favorite part of the game. I became obsessed with mapping every tile, with finding every shortcut (a necessity to reach bosses quickly with your party healthy). In fact, I would often find myself underleveled for a new dungeon because I would so frequently run from encounter, wanting to draw the next hallway instead of fighting another battle. There’s just something satisfying about finishing a floor’s map and knowing exactly where everything is because you’ve been there yourself to find out.
Combat in Etrian Odyssey IV is very standard JRPG fare: you and your enemies trade blows until one or the other is defeated. Where it gets interesting is in the various classes and how they can sync together. Landsknechts, an offensive class, have abilities called Links that allow other party members to follow up his or her attacks for extra damage. Nightseekers, a class focused on status effects, have an attack that hits eight times in one round. By pairing the two classes, you can unleash a long stream of stacked damage on a boss that can absolutely devastate its health pool. This is just one example of how the classes can work together in combat. The skill trees for each character are diverse and allow for many options in crafting a team that works well in combat together. It gets even crazier when you can subclass your members and open up a whole other tree for them to utilize. It’s easily the most synergistic combat system I’ve seen in a JRPG and encourages experimentation in a way that’s fun and rewarding.
Note that this is a pretty difficult game. I’ve read that it isn’t even as hard as past games in the series, a fact that frightens me a bit. Expect to be beat down rapidly even by random encounters if you don’t exercise caution and test out the capabilities of a new monster before charging into battle. Boss fights are long affairs, requiring strategy in order to overcome the various abilities and exploit the weaknesses of the creature, but are truly rewarding when conquered. The difficulty spikes every so often–I had more trouble with the second dungeon’s boss than any other enemy in the game, even the final boss–but an encounter is always able to be overcome with enough strategy and planning. Interestingly, gear and levels don’t make that big of a difference; they definitely help ease an encounter’s difficulty but not nearly as much as a well-planned party and battle plan do. You’re really expected to think tactically in Etrian Odyssey IV, something I originally balked at but came to enjoy and love by the end of the game.
I did have a few issues with the game. The random encounter rate is strangely variable, sometimes only requiring a few steps for a fight to trigger while other times not triggering for a whole floor. On average, however, I felt it was a bit too high. This is likely my personal preference kicking in, but I really grew tired of the various random encounters by the end of the game. I enjoyed the boss fights much more than enemies that became rather trivial once you knew how to overcome their challenges. Sometimes, getting to the next boss was a slog of these fights, which soured my opinion of the game slightly. I also found myself annoyed with a few of the dungeon layouts, particularly the third main dungeon. This one features irritating scales that block your progress unless you have an Ice Spike to melt them, respawning every time you enter the dungeon. Even worse is that this dungeon featured larger scales that, when destroyed, would freeze over the water found within and open new paths. After a few days, these would respawn, forcing you back to the (usually) out-of-the-way scale to refreeze the water. Combine this with a floorplan featuring various entrances and stairs to different parts of each floor and it was unbearably confusing at times. Most of the dungeons avoid this confusion, but a few here and there had me scratching my head or practically throwing my 3DS in annoyance.
I was rather surprised by how much I enjoyed my time with Etrian Odyssey IV. While the combat was a bit harder and more frequent than I prefer in my JRPGs, it was also impressive in its design and unbelievably rewarding. I stood from my chair and whooped in joy every time I beat a boss, something I never do with games today. Mapping ended up being my favorite activity, giving me intense desires to go back and play those old CRPGs I missed out on due to my age. The story wasn’t very interesting, but the way I was inspired to do some roleplaying of my own was fascinating. I don’t think the Etrian Odyssey games are for everyone, but I think everyone should at least give it a shot; within the steep difficulty curve lies a gratifying experience unlike any other RPG I’ve played before.