Old-school dungeon crawling at its best.
If you’re not intimately familiar with the world of RPG dungeon crawlers, you’re not alone. It’s normally a difficult genre to become accustomed to—primarily thanks to the lack of accessibility and punishing difficulty which generally accompanies games of the type. Partially for that reason, the genre has long subordinated its popularity in the US to more heavily story-driven variants of the RPG classification.
Take the Etrian Odyssey series for example. The franchise has, since its 2007 introduction on the Nintendo DS, long been defined by an unforgiving difficulty, conspicuous lack of player guidance, and endless, labyrinthine environments. Some of those qualities are what make great dungeon crawlers truly great, but not every gamer who appreciates explorative RPG experiences has the patience for the trial/error and grinding that this embodies.
Back to basics.
Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan recognizes this, and to that end, it brings sweeping changes to what was previously a franchise noted for its barriers to entry. While this might worry series purists, the good news is that most of these changes come in the form of increased accessibility, polish, and just general updates that help bring the series in line with some of its more modernized RPG peers. Challenge is indeed affected, but mostly by way of a selectable difficulty—either Casual or Normal—which determines how some key aspects of the gameplay are handled.
But let’s back up. What this game is all about is exploration and adventure. A story is indeed present, but it takes a notable backseat to what would instead be best described as a first-person experience. Much like the older Final Fantasy games, the first thing you’ll do is select five dynamic characters (choosing a class, followed by a likeness, and finally a name) to comprise your main party. There are only seven different classes to choose from in the beginning, but a few others can be unlocked in due time. There’s also the added complexity of subclassing, but that doesn’t come into play until much later in the adventure.
The story—which isn’t bad, but which certainly isn’t the centerpiece on display—is communicated in narrative, almost literary, fashion. There is no voice acting or cut scenes; it’s all character art and accompanying text. The writing resembles one of those choose-your-own-adventure books from the 1980s, complete with explicit elaborations regarding the sorts of feelings and observations your character experiences as they progress through the environments. To use the word sparingly, it’s a very immersive approach.
An example of the customizable overworld map
The basic gist of what’s going on is this: you’re the head of a guild of adventurers looking to make important discoveries at the request of the Count of Tharsis. The main request centers on a gargantuan, divine tree on the distant horizon named Yggdrasil; legends say that something sleeping within it calls people to paradise. The town of Tharsis is where your adventure begins, and it serves as the central hub for the adventure. Here, missions are dispatched, supplies are purchased, lodging is provided, and just about everything is set in motion.
Travel between destinations is by way of airship. Right from the start, you’re granted the ability to fly around the surrounding area, searching for places to land and collecting resources (such as food). Even the 3-D airship flight gameplay is a bit unconventional; rather than zooming across flowing vistas, you’re instead stepping one “square” at a time in your ship, an approach which allows for turn-based principles to be implemented even in the overworld—where dangerous monsters called FOEs (more about these in a bit) roam the landscapes in patternized fashion, often pursuing our heroes if within eyeshot.
The entire adventure is turn-based, in fact. Once you land—whether at a “cave” or “labyrinth”—the perspective shifts to first-person, and you control movement one step at a time. An indicator in the lower-right corner of the screen indicates the likelihood of an enemy encounter, slowly shifting from green to red with each progressive step (so while the encounters are indeed “random”, the sting of surprise has been reduced to a much more predictable state). Meanwhile, the environments are unapologetically maze-like; a limited number of landmarks exist, with most environments appearing rather homogenous throughout.
These guys will destroy you.
This isn’t necessarily bad; after all, the game encourages you to create your own maps using the touchscreen as you progress. To aid with the task, you have at your disposal a couple dozen markers you can place, and you can draw/erase walls and fill in paths to your heart’s content. Or you can be like your humble editor and refuse to do much of any mapmaking due to your darned ADHD. Some of the later environments, however, almost require some degree of accurate mapmaking. It’s this sort of thing that will still divide the casuals from the hardcore in the midst of the adventure.
Meanwhile, missions are dispatched in the form of requests from the town of Tharsis; you can choose to partake in as many or as few as you desire, though the Count’s primary requests are required to progress. There are also rewards for completing these, of course; usually something like money or a special piece of equipment.
Speaking of equipment, four different item slots are available for every character. Here, you can shuffle class-compatible items, armor, and accessories to your heart’s content. Better yet, it’s easy to work your way toward better equipment. As you play through the environments, you’ll encounter spots which you can mine for additional resources, and enemies drop them rather generously as well. These resources, once sold to the shopkeeper in Tharsis, immediately make available new items. The only catch is that (of course) you’ll need the money to afford them, as well as any required resources to produce the item at the time of purchase.
On top of that, existing items can be “forged” to fill slots in the items (think Diablo, sort of). To accomplish this, you need to collect special items from around the world called hammers. Once you have one, you are granted its forging abilities for good. So, for instance, if you’ve got a sword with a couple of empty slots, and you have both Vitality and Poison hammers, you can add both of those properties to the sword by forging it.
The well-done skill tree
As for player skills, the skill tree is well done and easy to comprehend. It’s also chocked full of different paths and options to make each and every character sufficiently malleable. Nevertheless, the game still relies rather heavily on the principles of grinding, so if you expect to keep up, you’ll need to spend plenty of downtime exploring optional “caves” and other areas to build up your party’s strength. In fact, on the Normal difficulty setting, the game presents an unforgiving challenge. Standard RPG rules apply; you die, you return to the previous save point. TP preservation is paramount on this setting.
There is some additional hope for those who aren’t hoping for endless nights of frustration, however: Casual difficulty. Rest assured, it’s still adequately challenging—and the biggest difference of all is perhaps the fact that a death against a formidable foe merely lands you back in the town, complete with all of your collected items, equipment, money, and any experience you earned—and with full health. So ultimately it’s a way of asking the game not to punish you for attempting a battle and failing—and in a lot of ways, it is more enjoyable than the Normal setting as a result. Your humble editor admits to relinquishing his experience to the mercy of the Casual difficulty setting in the interest of completing this review in a timely fashion.
I mentioned earlier the existence of enemies in the environments called FOEs. These are a mainstay of the Etrian Odyssey series, and they’re mostly best left alone if possible. They not only roam the overworld, but also the caves and labyrinths. If you study their patterns (and watch them on the maps), you can avoid them in most cases. However, you have to be careful, because during normal random encounter battles, the FOEs continue to move one step every turn that is taken—so if they’re already in pursuit, you could be in for a nasty surprise if they happen to catch up with you. By the way, it’s worth mentioning that the battle system in general (also turn- and menu-based, of course) is very well done; not only are many battles interesting, but should you find yourself bored with easy enemies, you can simply press L to auto-attack and rapidly conclude such encounters.
Special side quests come by way of QR codes
For the most part, Etrian Odyssey’s greatest strength is its ability to suck you in. Since the character is you (nameless and voiceless, just like in the old-school RPG days), your personality is projected onto him. Meanwhile, although the visuals are hardly sophisticated (textures are merely average and environments frequently appear repetitive in their design) and 3-D is barely even conjured (only layers are detectable—no actual three-dimension environments exist), there still is a great deal of atmosphere while roaming the labyrinths. This is probably most due to the first-person perspective, very real challenge, and Yuzo Koshiro’s absolutely amazing soundtrack.
In fact, let’s dedicate an entire paragraph to this. Unlike previous games in the series, Yuzo’s OST for Etrian Odyssey IV is comprised of live instruments—woodwinds, guitars, you name it—and built out of multiple genres of music. The environmental themes are calming and heavily atmospheric (while still melodic), while the town music is like a blast from the 70s past… and it’s excellent. The battle music is fantastic also—nearly five minutes of orchestra and electric guitar, synergized to produce a truly majestic and blood-pumping experience. Bravo, Yuzo!
Having said all of that, you’ll still need a penchant for persistence, and some patience to boot. In spite of the major strides toward accessibility that Legends of the Titan makes, it’s still a whole lot less forgiving and more rigid than many modern RPGs. But that's just what many gamers are looking for.