Plot your course to victory.
The “Rocky Element” is a term I like to apply to certain games. Games that keep you coming back no matter how many times they’ve previously beat you down. Some of you may know it as the “Tubthumping Effect”. A perfect example of this can be found in games like Dark Souls, the Armored Core series, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, and PaRappa the Rapper, to name but a few. Honestly, I was not prepared to add Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan, a humble 3DS RPG, to that list having not played previous games in the series.
Much like a game of Dungeons & Dragons, the game itself always appears in charge of the events you’ll encounter and is not afraid to throw a curveball or two when you least expect it.
Etrian Odyssey IV was more than prepared to unashamedly beat me into the ground with the difficulty bat, leading to many a reload and a vocabulary as colourful as the Northern Lights. If anything, Etrian Odyssey IV is brutal, unforgiving, and preys on even the slightest of your mistakes. And it’s fantastic for exactly those reasons.
Starting in the hub city of Tharsis, your goal in Etrian Odyssey IV is to form a guild of adventurers for hire, thwarting the threat of monsters across the land and helping out clients with their requests. All of this is in aid of finding the legendary Yggdrasil Tree that eternally looms on the horizon. A simple setup, to be sure, but it’s the events and characters you’ll encounter on your quest that bring your journey alive thanks to the game’s excellent writing that carries with it a degree of eloquence not often seen in other games of its kind. Much like a game of Dungeons & Dragons, the game itself always appears in charge of the events you’ll encounter and is not afraid to throw a curveball or two when you least expect it.
Forming your party is the first thing you do in Etrian Odyssey, and is thankfully a simple process. Your main party consists of five members, who are placed on a front or back row. Like in older Final Fantasy titles, the front row allows for greater attack at the expense of defense. The back row are less susceptible to attack, but lack in physical attack power. Some classes specialise in one row or the other; the Fortress class for instance is your classic tank character, and has abilities that specialise in boosting party defense, protecting specific characters from attack, or drawing attacks to themselves. As such they should be firmly placed on the front row. The Runemaster, on the other hand, has very low HP, but can use very powerful magic, perfect for the back row. Other classes include the self-explanatory Medic, the Landsknecht who specialises in offensive and defensive buffs and debuffs, the Nightseeker who can inflict status ailments and effectively avoid enemy attacks, and the Dancer, who performs various dances to boost stats for rest of your party. The robust selection of classes allow for a great number of combinations when forming your main party, and utilising them in conjunction with each row is vital to your success. Thankfully, there is also room to experiment, as the Adventurer’s Guild in Tharsis allows you to create more characters, meaning if you’re not happy with how a certain class is performing, you can switch them out whenever you feel like it. Once you have a party you are happy with, you’ll most likely be able to finish the game without being forced to change anything.
It’s A Cruel World Out There
The majority of Etrian Odyssey IV is spent out in the supremely dangerous overworld, exploring its wealth of labyrinths and constantly improving your party. You’ll start by leaving Tharsis in your skyship: your means of exploring the overworlds beyond the hub city. On the overworld, you can pick up raw materials to sell in Tharsis, donate those materials to passing adventurers in exchange for useful items, or take on a variety of incredibly tough monsters known as FOEs, or Field On Enemies, though this is discouraged until your party reaches a higher level. Thankfully, these monsters are always shown on the map, and won’t bother you unless you fly into their general vicinity.
It’s not uncommon, for instance, to see a lowly forest rat take three quarters of your health in one hit. Later on in the game, it’s entirely possible to have a high level party completely wiped out in one turn.
Dotted around each overworld are a series of labyrinths for you to explore, and this is where the game gets interesting. Etrian Odyssey IV does not provide you with a map. Instead, whilst exploring labyrinths, you have to draw your own on the touch screen. This includes drawing out the walls, mining and foraging locations, treasure chests, doors, staircases and so on. While this sounds quite tedious, it’s actually rather satisfying mapping your way through each area, and fully mapping out a labyrinth is a victory in itself. Etrian Odyssey adopts a first-person dungeon crawling interface, and your movement is restricted to a grid-based system where you can move in four directions. As such, exploration feels very much like navigating a board, drawing another similarity to tabletop role-playing games.
As you move through a labyrinth, an icon in the bottom right of the top screen will change colour from blue, to green, to yellow, then orange and finally red. This indicates how close you are to your next enemy encounter, which grows closer with each step you take. The battles themselves play out in turn-based fashion, and are where the game’s difficulty stems from. A problem a lot of RPGs are plagued with is their lack of emphasis on using abilities such as buffs and status inflictions. Not so in Etrian Odyssey IV; you’ll have to use every ability at your disposal, at some point or another, to get the upper hand in battle. Weakening your enemies’ effectiveness in battle is absolutely key to victory. It’s not uncommon, for instance, to see a lowly forest rat take three quarters of your health in one hit. Later on in the game, it’s entirely possible to have a high level party completely wiped out in one turn. As such, progress can feel like a bit of a grind at times, as hitting a wall can send you back to an easier area for some intense training. However, rarely does Etrian Odyssey feel like a grind in the traditional sense. There’s grinding to be had, for sure, but when the rewards of your labour are so sweet, so fulfilling, it actually serves to make the whole process rather exciting. Which item will you stumble across next? How shall you spend your next skill point? Perhaps the best part about the game is the thrill of discovery, and overcoming insurmountable odds to reach your goals.
As an RPG, it’s only natural that Etrian Odyssey has a levelling system. As mentioned, you earn a skill point each time you level up, and each party member, depending on their class, has a unique skill tree for you to put those points into. Each class has a wide variety of skills, allowing each member to fulfill a number of roles even within their set class. For example, you can build a Runemaster to pump out massive damage on a turn-by-turn basis, or to cast spells that lower the enemy’s resistance to a certain element, whilst increasing your party’s. All classes have skills that allow them to be more effective offensively and defensively. Or perhaps you’d like to invest in a skill because it sounds cool? Well, fortunately, that approach is also surprisingly effective.
Etrian Odyssey IV is also a very pretty game. Menus and character portraits are vividly designed, allowing them to really stand out on the screen. In-game text is incredibly clear, a boon for a game that can sometimes be somewhat text-heavy. Enemies have been upgraded from 2D sprites to fully animated 3D models, and most look great, especially with the 3D turned on. Sadly, however, the 3D environments are a little lacking, often looking somewhat drab and a little blocky, especially when compared to the amazing work on the enemy models. The soundtrack is also worthy of mention, with the labyrinth and battle themes being a particular highlight, as well as the theme that plays when in Tharsis, which is incredibly catchy.
It seems the 3DS is currently the hardware of choice when it comes to RPGs, and Etrian Odyssey IV continues to add to the pile of great portable role-playing games. Featuring an epic quest that spans well over eighty hours, hardcore RPG fans will find a lot to love here. A final warning, though: the game is incredibly difficult on its default setting, so for those of you who might not want that extra spice, the game’s optional Casual mode comes recommended.
A review code of Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan was provided courtesy of NIS America.
Risin’ Up To The Challenge
Etrian Odyssey IV is a must-have title for hardcore RPG fans. The game is incredibly difficult, but immensely satisfying once you find the rhythm of levelling your characters and besting the opposition. With a main quest that spans anywhere from 80-120 hours, and a wealth of endgame content, Etrian Odyssey IV is a game that could last you forever.