We Regret This Labyrinth Lacks David Bowie
The Etrian Odyssey series has always catered to an older crowd of RPG fans, with its brutal battles, need for grinding, and the requirement that players draw their own maps using the DS touchscreen. These well-made dungeon crawling games deserve more attention than they get, and Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan seeks to draw in more players with a new “Casual” difficulty setting and various small tweaks that make the game less tedious and more user-friendly.
Although the game doesn’t exactly hold the player’s hand, particularly through the process of creating the characters that form the game’s adventuring party, it’s certainly more welcoming than previous entries in the series. A colorful cast of non-player characters guide the player through the basics of becoming a guild of explorers, setting out to brave the mysterious labyrinths that hold this world’s secrets. The playable characters don’t have their own personalities, but the world’s inhabitants are interesting, and the sparse story offers some intriguing mystery and occasional chances for player choice and input.
After completing a quick starter dungeon, the player is introduced to the best new feature in Etrian Odyssey IV: the airship. Rather than jumping directly into a gigantic dungeon (or sailing somewhat underwhelming seas in the third game), this time the player is able to explore the entire world in a motorized hot air balloon. This feature changes the entire scope of the game, making it feel like a grand adventure in a real world rather than simply a dungeon excavation. Not only can the player soar over the landscape, collecting resources to sell in town and fighting gigantic monsters that bound and fly around the world, this layout has allowed the designers to spread the dungeon crawling across various small caves and larger labyrinths, making exploration more varied and a bit less daunting.
Opening up the game with the airship has allowed for a more diverse gameplay experience in general, as the player can choose to directly tackle the main labyrinths or explore the world via balloon and complete side quests in smaller dungeons. In this game, the side quests are more like miniature adventures than the simple fetch quests usually found in dungeon crawlers. There’s a story behind each side quest, and most involve several small events within the dungeons.
Of course, combat is a major part of the adventure in Etrian Odyssey IV, and the player is given plenty of tools with which to take on the temperamental monsters found in the world. The player must choose between seven classes to create a five-character party capable of surviving the labyrinths (three advanced classes are unlocked later on). All classes are customizable as they level up, with the player spending points to buy desired skills. There are many possible class and build combinations that can spell success, as long as the party has the ability to do both physical and magic damage, heal, protect the party from status abnormalities, and inflict those status problems on foes as needed. The game’s monsters have a variety of deadly attacks, and encountering a new kind of monster is always a learning experience.
Combat is turn-based but moves relatively quickly. There’s an auto-battle option for fighting weak monsters, and only the most challenging fights will take more than a few turns. Each character class has its own particular gameplay twists that bring spice to fights, and the random encounters aren’t overly frequent, so it’s possible to enjoy exploring without being accosted every two steps.
Players can choose to play the game in either Normal or Casual Mode. In Normal, even ordinary dungeon creeps can be a big challenge when they’re first encountered, and the player will need to proceed slowly through the dungeons, grinding up experience and carefully building up characters in order to survive every challenge. In Casual Mode, the main challenge is provided by the boss monsters known as FOEs. Normal battles can’t always be played with auto-battle, but aren’t terribly difficult and there’s much less grinding required overall.
As always, FOEs travel visibly around the map, and no matter what the difficulty level, most are lethal when they’re first encountered. A colored aura around an FOE’s map symbol handily informs players of the monster’s relative difficulty, and a big part of the game is figuring out when (and how) to avoid a FOE and when it’s time to take the beast down. While FOEs showed up as generic orange blobs until the battle began in previous games, they’re now fully rendered in the labyrinth. Although the sense of anonymous dread imparted by the orange blobs is now gone, it’s been replaced by the sense of dread felt when being chased by a barn-sized bear or humongous mantis creature.
The mapping system has always been a big selling point of the Etrian Odyssey series, hearkening back to the old days of drawing graph paper maps of dungeons but much easier and more fun with the 3DS touch screen and stylus. The player is given plenty of tools to draw walls, mark points of interest, and annotate the game map as needed. It remains a surprisingly entertaining part of the series—there’s just something satisfying about mapping out a dungeon from scratch.
Other parts of the game’s interface show continued improvement for the series. By its nature, the game involves a lot of information processing and menu browsing. Most things are relatively easy to get to, though it will all be too much for some players. For fans of the genre, though, it’s nice to see that character skill trees can now be easily browsed, and the player can get a great deal of information during battles with just a press of a button. There are a few oversights; for example, the player can check how many turns are left in running buffs for the party, but not in running debuffs placed on the enemy. Generally, though, the series has come a long way in terms of its user interface.
With the series moving to 3DS, the graphics have gained some nice upgrades as well. Along with the FOEs becoming real moving creatures instead of orange blobs, all regular monsters are now represented by 3D models during battle. They have lost a bit of the detail found in their hand-drawn predecessors, but they still have plenty of personality. Dungeon graphics are now higher-resolution and retain the highly botanical and riotously colorful themes they’ve had throughout the series. The game’s many menus are attractively designed and are largely easy to look at.
There are still graphical improvements that could be made. It would be nice to see NPC encounters and other dungeon events shown more graphically. In addition, the environmental graphics are a bit pixellated, lending a fuzzy look to the world at large that clashes with the smooth monster designs. The 3D effect is hit or miss—it looks quite nice in the menus and on the battle screen, but is a bit dizzying while exploring the dungeons. Still, Etrian Odyssey IV is ahead of most games in its genre graphically, something it certainly deserves credit for.
Likewise, the musical score in the game is head and shoulders above most dungeon crawlers (and many games in general). This time around, it’s fully orchestrated, and the pieces are gorgeous. Atlus has a winner in composer Yuzo Koshiro, and his score makes up for the fact that all other aspects of the game’s sound design are completely unremarkable.
Etrian Odyssey IV won’t appeal to every gamer, but the series has come a long way since its first entry. With an interesting world, the sense of adventure imparted by hot air balloon exploration, the interesting strategic choices surrounding the FOEs, and the fun of literally charting a course through the dungeons, there’s a lot to recommend about this game.
Gamers who tried the series earlier and found it too tedious or difficult might want to give it another try with this game. Casual Mode is a godsend for anybody who wants to have a good time exploring the labyrinths without having to grind too much, and the game’s many strong points have elevated Etrian Odyssey to the best dungeon crawling series around. Fans of the dungeon crawling genre will love it, and newbies who are intrigued by the concept will find no better introduction to this kind of game than Etrian Odyssey IV in Casual Mode.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.5 Graphics
A colorful and lush world with nicely-done monsters and somewhat fuzzy environments. 3.5 Control
Although still heavily menu-dependent, EO is easier to play than ever before. 3.9 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The fully-orchestrated score is gorgeous. The rest of the sound is unremarkable. 4.0 Play Value
There are tons of dungeons to explore, quests are like mini adventures, and Casual Mode is a godsend. 3.7 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best