Developer: Atlus / Publisher: Atlus / Played On: 3DS / Price: $39.99 / ESRB: Teen [Mild Fantasy Violence, Mild Blood, Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes]
I recently had the opportunity to review a game very similar to Etrian Odyssey IV on the 3DS, Unchained Blades, itself a port from the PSP. I reference this past review because Etrian Odyssey IV does everything right that Unchained Blades did wrong. This fourth installment in the Atlus dungeon crawling RPG series is the best entry the entire genre has seen in a long time, and if we’re lucky it will start a steady influx of quality titles.
As a dungeon crawler your main goal in Etrian Odyssey IV is grinding through waves of creatures bent on your destruction while you explore ever growing labyrinth-like caves. Should you overcome your enemies and make it through one dungeon you’re greeted with the next more challenging dungeon before you can wipe the sweat of your brow. Every battle is a life and death situation and there’s no such thing as an easy victory. The intensity of gaining levels, upgrading equipment, and trying again and again when you die is the appeal of the dungeon crawler genre, and Etrian Odyssey IV nails every aspect of it with such fine precision you won’t even be upset when you get a game over for the fiftieth time.
Enemy encounters make up the majority of gameplay. You create a party of five characters with varying class skills that fall into standard RPG territory. Landsknechts are basic warriors that can wield many different blades and armors, Fortresses are tanks that soak up the most damage while protecting your other party members and Snipers are ranged characters that can target specific enemy body parts. Each member of your group is placed either on the front line or in the back. Allies on the front line usually deal more damage but take more damage in exchange, while the back row is a safer zone for more squishy characters.
Each class has a unique set of abilities to decimate enemies, like the Sniper’s Head Shot that can bind a foe’s head (preventing it from attacking or casting spells) or the Medic’s Party Heal skill which restores some HP to all allies. Battles themselves are turn-based, allowing plenty of time between attacks to strategize what to do next. There are no pushover fights in Etrian Odyssey IV so you’ll find yourself oftentimes praying you come out ahead. It may sound disheartening to be so challenging but the game is incredibly fun. Unlike Unchained Blades’ dull combat and lackluster leveling system, Etrian Odyssey manages a near-perfect blend of difficulty and skill.
There are some instances where you’re punished for exploring too deep in a dungeon, resulting in your party’s defeat because the new monsters are a higher level than you. While these scenarios are frustrating to say the least, there are a handful of gameplay elements that counteract this, such as Burst Skills. Acting sort of like Limit Breaks in the Final Fantasy series, Burst Skills are powerful attacks and spells that can be used in battle if the required Burst bar is filled.
These skills include attacks like summoning a fire wall to damage foes, support skills that heal your party or grant extra experience points, and the “Oh Shit!” skill that lets you teleport back to the start of the dungeon. While these aren’t new to the genre they play a major role in the strategy of fights and exploration. Knowing which Burst skills to equip, when to use them, and more importantly when to save them, is key to survival. This makes for a complex and satisfying combat system.
Etrian Odyssey IV also lets you play cartographer on your journey. The bottom screen of the 3DS shows a grid of the current zone you’re exploring, but instead of filling in the map automatically as you explore it, it only highlights the squares you’ve been. At first I was really turned off by the idea of having to physically draw out lines for walls and such, but I quickly realized this was an invaluable tool to my exploration. As I discovered areas of interest I would make a note of it on the map. If I found a river that healed my party, I would write a tip to remind me. If there was a room that had ridiculously high leveled monsters I would put a red exclamation point on the map telling me to “stay the &*#@ away.” Being able to edit your own map as you see fit is a crazy useful feature and one that enhanced the experience.
That said, there is no overworld to run around. Instead you have one city that acts as your hub between outings, complete with a rejuvenating Inn, capable blacksmith, and citizens that need the most mundane things done in exchange for an item and some experience points. The world of Etrian Odyssey IV is broken up into plains that you traverse via airship. While flying around searching for entrances to caves and dungeons, you also have to avoid extremely powerful foes and occasionally avoid the massive dragon or two.
There isn’t too much substance or story to appease your appetite for gripping narrative, but then again there usually isn’t for these types of games. Etrian Odyssey IV is a kill or be killed challenge, and if that isn’t enough to drive you forward through the game there isn’t anything else to hook you.
Etrian Odyssey IV is the first game in the series on the 3DS and it takes advantage of the system’s unique capabilities. Using the 3DS’ cameras you can scan QR codes to unlock bonus content like extra quests and items. Visually the game is a combination of 2D and 3D styles. The land, background, and enemies you face are represented in full 3D. Each area, whether it’s a lush forest or dank dwelling, looks polished, with plenty of color and detail brining the zones to life. 2D portraits are used for characters during dialogue and cutscenes and are equally as well done. The soundtrack hits all the notes you’d expect with dramatic battle music, moody melodies while rummaging through a misty forest, and a somber song within the safety of town. Unfortunately there are no voices in the game; with a fair amount of text it would have been wonderful to hear them delivered by convincing voice actors.
With dozens of hours of gameplay, plenty of replayability with multiple class types, and a difficulty that is balanced with the right amount of reward, Etrian Odyssey IV is far and above the best dungeon crawler I’ve played. It does a lot of things right with the nature of the genre, but it was the minute details that made the game better than the games before it, not the least of which being the map editor. I could see the dungeon crawler genre surging back to life if more games were designed with this much care, and I’d happily embrace this resurgence. If you’re up to the challenge, Etrian Odyssey IV will find residence in your 3DS for a long time.
+ Near-perfect blend of challenge and reward
+ Creating your own map is surprisingly fun
– Primarily a grind-fest
8.5 / 10