Game Review: Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan
If you’re looking for a challenging dungeon crawler with killer kangaroos, travel by airship, JRPG combat, and old-fashioned map drawing, Atlus’s Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan is a winner. And as the latest in a series known for its difficulty, it’s more accessible without changing the overall tone or the retro gameplay.
You begin as an explorer in Tharsis, taking up the Count’s challenge to uncover the secrets of the mysterious Yggdrasil tree. After putting together a five-person guild, the game tosses you a few skill points as a metaphorical push and plunks you in the middle of a dangerous world. To enjoy its adventures, you’ll need a passion for the traditional JRPG battle system, a love of exploration, and perseverance.
Rather than story, Etrian Odyssey IV’s focus is adventuring across the sprawling map, navigating infested labyrinths, and coming face-to-face with the FOE mini-bosses that stumble into little battles and make them feel infinitely more challenging. My first FOE was a raging baboon that delivered one-hit kills.
The in-depth leveling system is a delight for methodical gamers. Character classes are familiar but have new names; for instance, the Landsknecht is the straightforward warrior wielding a sword, the Fortress is a tank, the Sniper is an archer, and the Nightseeker is your stealthy, agile rogue. Though you’re limited to five fighters on the battlefield, you can create many more and rotate them. In a way, this is the first adventure the game throws your way: trying out different combinations of characters until you land on the perfect set-up for your fighting style.
As you explore, you map out dungeons with the Nintendo 3DS Stylus. This lets you quickly backtrack to navigate out of dungeons when necessary, without having to manually maneuver your character through already treaded territory. The map is especially useful for spotting FOEs, because once you’ve seen them, you can track them on the map to avoid them until you’re ready to take them down.
Etrian Odyssey IV’s greatest success is in removing unnecessary obstacles without getting rid of the series’ difficulty. Playing on Casual is a welcoming entrance for players unfamiliar with the series, as battles are easier, some items don’t run out when you use them, and deaths take you back to Tharsis rather than eliminating your progress. On any difficulty, the inn now has free storage, and resetting your character’s skills costs fewer levels than ever (just two). These small changes give new players room to breathe and make the game feel much less intimidating to everyone.
Still, a few factors make Etrian Odyssey IV a slow slog much of the time. One is the minimal story. In many JRPGs — even when I adore the battle system — I feel like I’m fighting through random encounters for the reward of the next cutscene, which is a refreshing change of pace from combat, and a chance to watch the story unfold and get to know the characters.
But Etrian Odyssey IV has next to none of this.Your characters are pretty much cardboard combatants with no personalities outside the heat of battle. Sure, you can name them, level them, retire them, and replace them, but your guild still feels less like a group of dynamic individuals fighting together and more like a combat machine that needs regular oiling as you level up. Without much story, the RPG elements are restricted almost entirely to the leveling system. It’s not necessarily something to hold against the game, but I’d be remiss not to warn players that this lack of story makes Etrian Odyssey IV stand out from other JRPGs.
The real joy is in exploring, but grinding has the potential to make it tiring after a while. Hulking FOEs seem intent on blocking your path, and random encounters will often spell your doom. Choosing the right character classes to balance your guild and leveling appropriately can help you take down the baddies, but your skills can only get you so far. Grinding is necessary to take down the toughest enemies — and it’s an outdated inclusion that could have easily been done away with to make the game fresher. The retro JRPG battle system feels charming at times, but it’s not for the impatient.
The art of mapping is the game’s greatest wild card — something that will appeal to many and feel like a chore to others. Exploring every corner of the map, drawing routes, and marking things like doors can make you feel like an old-time cartographer. It’s a unique feature with loads of charisma, as long as you don’t let the methodical approach fatigue you.
In short, Etrian Odyssey IV is a game with dated mechanics. For some, that makes it a welcome JRPG adventure. But even with its improved accessibility, without a story to reward exploration and inevitable grinding, this adventure by Atlus appeals only to a niche market — namely, players with a passion for the toil of old-fashioned dungeon crawlers.
[Images via Atlus]