Publisher: NIS America Europe
Some of you will remember the days when a pen and paper were as important as a mouse or joystick. Ancient RPGs and text adventures didn't mollycoddle or patronise us, instead throwing us into staggeringly tough labyrinths designed to test our mettle, requiring us to fill reams of graph paper (if not the back page of the instruction manual) with home-made maps and annotations. These embryonic gaming experiences demanded much from their players, but a little imagination and a lot of hard work paid off in spades.
Atlus describe Etrian Odyssey IV as "gaming's best tribute to retro RPGs," and they're probably right.
The basics are present and correct, lifted straight from the likes of Dungeon Master. You'll create a team of dungeon adventurers from scratch, choosing their classes and even their names, before embarking into hellacious mazes stuffed with vicious monsters and secrets to find. All while sketching out your own maps on the lower 3DS screen. Etrian Odyssey IV is unquestionably a product of the old-school, but succeeds so emphatically because it romanticises everything we loved about the good old days without ever cracking our rose-tinted goggles.
After being introduced to a somewhat cliched fantasy storyline and setting that involves a quest to reach a legendary tree (enjoyable yet undeniably silly tosh evidenced by lines like "as divine verdure fertilizes, the malign verdure corrupts"), players find themselves in a city on the edge of civilization, tasked with putting together a squad of dungeon delvers. You're free to construct your own dream team of adventurers from a selection of hard-hitting knights, tanky Fortresses, DPS damage dealers and more esoteric offerings, taking advantage of newly-streamlined skill trees to gradually build them into even more specialised roles. Dancers, for example, can focus on front-line DPS or party-buffing tangos, while Nightseekers choose between daggers and bows. Versatile and flexible, yet newly approachable, Etrian Odyssey IV's class system is easily the most robust we've seen from the series thus far.
Raiding party created and named, you'll proceed to take on an enormous wealth of dungeons from a first-person perspective, much like the SNES-era Dungeon Master or Legend Of Grimrock for those of you with shorter memories. Brought to life with sharp 3D textures, levels heave with secrets to mark on your map and roaming FOEs to avoid: staggeringly over-levelled monsters who move when you do as you traverse the stages in cardinal directions. Finding your way to the exit or quest objective while evading these nightmarish horrors and surviving random battles is the aim of the game, since engagements will usually result in your party being wiped out in short order.
It's old-school tough and seriously difficult in parts, eschewing the auto-levelled enemies that have crept into so many RPGs over the last few years. Even random scuffles against squads of critters prove to be difficult, forcing you to carefully balance all-out attack with buffs, conditions and defence using an incredibly deep battle system. However, I'm truly thrilled to report that auto-levelling has been replaced by what we've always craved from RPGs: balance and choice. You're always free to explore into areas that are too tough for you, and win out by clever skill usage to gain boosted experience and items, or run away at any time. Tougher enemies and FOEs can be engaged when you return to visited areas with more powerful characters and gear, finally letting you claim your victory. Etrian Odyssey IV gives us the choice, and choice is good.
There's also a slew of tweaks that make Etrian Odyssey IV the most accessible title in the fearsome series thus far. 'Random Battles' is arguably a misnomer, since you're warned of how close you are to being attacked by an on-screen indicator, allowing you to heal your party in preparation. Inexpensive 'Ariadne Threads' whisk you back to your home city in a pinch. Should you find the going too difficult, you can even activate 'casual mode' at any time, which reduces incoming damage and whisks you safely back to town if your party is wiped out as opposed to a Game Over screen. It's a cop-out, sure, but the fact that you can choose to use it at any stage means that difficulty can be personally tailored to you. Activating casual mode is also an exploitative way of avoiding a game over if you're a few steps away from a random battle you can't possibly win. Again, the choice is yours.
Etrian Odyssey IV does a great job of tying these disconnected dungeons into an open world by way of an overworld, which you'll explore via an upgradeable airship. Far from an empty wilderness, these expansive tracts of land teem with FOEs of their own to avoid or engage at will, alongside resources to harvest for extra gold. When necessary, you can bring resources and bits of slain enemy back to town to sell for gold, which in turn unlocks increasingly more powerful gear. The delve-sell-delve loop has always been an addictive part of role-playing games, and it's superbly realised here. And, of course, you'll need to fill in the blanks on the map as you go.
There it is again. It's high time we tackled the elephant in the room: cartography. As mentioned, the 3DS' bottom screen is solely dedicated to a fully-featured mapmaking suite complete with numerous tiles and drawing tools, allowing you to flesh out and annotate your own maps as you explore the levels. Though some players will balk at what appears to be unsatisfying busywork, this actually proves to be one of the strongest parts of the package.
Being able to manually mark secrets, tough monsters and hidden doors directly onto your map is a godsend, and a feature we'll miss in every RPG we play from now on, but Etrian Odyssey IV's old-school cartography lends the experience a sense of real adventure. You're always striking out into unknown territory and making it yours, cataloguing your journey and gradually making sense of the mazes over countless hours. The feeling of true discovery and exploration is intoxicating, and makes us wish that more modern games trusted us to blaze our own trails rather than shepherding us from point A to B via a thousand cutscenes.
Presentation-wise, Etrian Odyssey IV impresses with its reasonable if oft-repeated sprite work, but picks up the slack with a truly sensational soundtrack. Whether rocking out to the superb battle music or spurred on by the upbeat adventure themes, you'll want to grab some headphones and crank the volume up to maximum.
Though a fantastic game that succeeds in its lofty goals, it's definitely not for everyone. As a "tribute to classic RPGs," it's somehow fitting that Etrian Odyssey IV's flaws have been present in the genre from the very beginning. For many players, they won't even be flaws at all.
Grind is inescapable. Even a well-balanced team will need to bash their heads against hours of farming for experience and gear in order to smash straight through some horrifying difficulty spikes, which is fair enough, but should you ever want to introduce a new character to your roster, they'll start out at level one. Good luck with that. The joy of finally beating a tough boss or killing an FOE that you used to run from in terror makes these hours worthwhile, but you'll need to approach Etrian Odyssey IV willing to put in the time.
You'll also need to be willing to use your imagination and suspend a colossal amount of disbelief to fully engage with the retro-styled experience. Your characters may be fully customisable down to their names, but they sacrifice all personality in the process, effectively becoming blank slates of numbers and stats. They're no-one, incapable of personal relationships or dialogue of their own. The city is merely a selection of menus, its inhabitants single sprites. Levels are just mazes, maps are just squares. You, the player, will have to fill in all the blanks. That has always been the agreement since time immemorial.
There's no doubt that Etrian Odyssey IV could have done more to help. Major NPCs could use a range of emotion-dependent portraits, for example, while some "characters" in the tavern don't even have any artwork whatsoever. Class-specific dialogue with important characters would have been welcome. It's on you to use your imagination and make the world real in your mind's eye, and many players will have been spoon-fed by modern RPGs too often to put in the effort. That's understandable. We've been spoiled over the last few years. But if you've ever played the likes of Dungeon Master or Icewind Dale, you'll know that a little make-believe can lead to blank slates becoming more memorable than any voice-acted protagonist from the last generation.
- Huge freedom of exploration
- Lashings of player choice
- Capable visuals and presentation; stupendous soundtrack
- Plenty of player customisation
- You'd better love grinding
- Meeting the game halfway in terms of imagination might prove too much for some
- Some interesting difficulty spikes
The Short Version: A superb dungeon crawler that expertly blends the ancient and cutting-edge. Etrian Odyssey IV demands a great deal from its players, both in terms of retro-tough difficulty and fleshing out its menu-heavy world. However, for students of the old-school, a little effort will pay off in spectacular style.