The Etrian Odyssey franchise is a bit of an odd duck. It's a throwback to the long-lost days of Wizardry and its ilk, when video game RPGs were gussied-up dungeon crawlers. While Etrian Odyssey may be from old-school lineage, it has learned from experience. Each successive title in the franchise stays true to the Wizardry roots while adding new features and ideas. They don't always work out, but the next game in the franchise improves upon the weaknesses of the previous entry while maintaining its strengths. Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan is easily the best in the series. It fixes some of the frustrating missteps of Etrian Odyssey III while adding some amazing new ideas.
If you've played Etrian Odyssey before, the basic plot hasn't changed much. You are a band of adventurers who form a guild in the city of Tharsis, which is overlooked by the great tree Yggdrasil. The city is looking for people to discover the secrets of Yggdrasil, and your band of merry do-gooders signs up. To reach your destination, you must venture through a series of labyrinths, discover a few plot twists, and battle the deadliest monsters. While it has enough to keep things interesting, you don't play Etrian Odyssey for the plot. The game is mostly an excuse to hop into dungeons, collect loot, and slay monsters. Fortunately, EO4 is extremely good at all of those things.
By far the coolest new feature in EO4 is the airship. Early on, you get a customized airship that allows you to explore the world map. There are multiple world maps, each containing one "main" dungeon and a series of smaller dungeons. As a result, the game feels a lot bigger and more in-depth than previous titles. These world maps are almost minidungeons, where you have to explore to find new areas, food caches, hidden enemies, and other secrets. It also helps the pacing. If you get stuck, you can leave and search for another labyrinth to explore, take on some of the bosses roaming the map, or farm the environment for items that you can cook to boost your dungeon stats and abilities. The new overworld keeps things fresh and interesting.
As in the previous Etrian Odyssey games, you're tasked with mapping the dungeons yourself using the 3DS' touch-screen. Almost nothing about this has changed, for good or bad, from the previous Etrian Odyssey installments. There are some areas where it could be made a little less tedious, but overall, it's a good system. It may sound tiresome to map the dungeon as you walk, but it provides a rather interesting thrill. Accurate mapping is important and can help you discover shortcuts or important things for later. There are a wide variety of icons you can use to denote everything from mining spots to hidden doors. The icons are obtuse, but they don't have specific purposes, aside from the icon you use to create notes. As long as you work out a system in your head, it will work for you.
You have a party of five characters at any one given time in EO4. In a nice change from previous games, the basic character classes have been simplified while losing none of the depth. Each class has a distinct and useful purpose. The Nightseeker, for example, is a front-line fighter who can wield two weapons and gains additional attack power when inflicting a status effect on an enemy. You can build the Nightseeker as a fast attacker who keeps the enemy debuffed or a powerful physical fighter who exploits his twin weapons to deal a lot of damage in a short time frame. Every character class has multiple potential builds, made all the more complex once you can give them abilities from a second class. There isn't one "right" answer. While some character builds are more optimal than others, you'll have plenty of room to create the party that works best for your play style.
Combat in Etrian Odyssey sticks closely to the turn-based combat formula seen in the previous games, and the deceptively simple surface gives way to very deep gameplay. This is no Dragon Quest, despite the remarkably similar system. It's about exploiting enemy weak points and manipulating buffs and debuffs to reach the optimal fight outcome. The game is absolutely ripe with status effects, and each one is useful. You can poison enemies, paralyze them, bind their arms and legs, manipulate your allies to get free attacks, reduce elemental weaknesses — it may sound like traditional stuff, but it's extremely meaningful here. A well-greased party can take on enemies well above its level. A poorly optimized one may struggle with grinding. There are fights with special conditions, and if you set them up properly, you can kill bosses in a single hit or make enemies drop rare items.
Knowing how and when to fight powerful enemies is a big part of Etrian Odyssey. One of the series' most iconic features is the FOE (short for formido oppugnatura exsequens), wandering mini-bosses who populate the many dungeons. They differ from regular enemies in two ways: They are visible on the map, and they are universally more powerful than anything else in that area. EO4 goes a step further than previous installments and lets you see the foe on the screen if you're nearby. FOEs may be powerful, but they're part of the game's ecosystem, so you may have to manipulate or avoid them. Eventually, though, you'll want to fight them because FOEs drop rare items and massive amounts of experience points. To get the best items, you'll need to take on the nastiest enemies. It's exhilarating, and figuring out the best way to beat a FOE is some of the most fun you can have.
EO4 can be challenging, but a lot has been done to make it accessible to new players. There is a "casual" mode that you can enable and disable at any time, and it lets you adjust the difficulty. It makes it easier to get out of dungeons and lessens the impact of being killed by whisking you back to town. The mechanics have been softened slightly, but not in a way that severely impacts the fun. The re-spec mechanic, for example, only costs two levels, so it's much easier and less time-consuming to alter a character's build for a different kind of encounter or because they were built poorly. It may sound like a little change, but Etrian Odyssey vets will be glad to hear it.
EO4 is a mixed bag when it comes to visual improvements. The dungeons look a little better, but not much else does. The characters are still depicted by sprite artwork, and the battle screens are simplistic Wizardry-style first-person interfaces with minimal flair. Even the 3DS 3-D effect is muted and makes the game look worse. It looks better than the previous games, but it's still not that impressive. On the other hand, the soundtrack is phenomenal. Series composer Yuji Himukai brings some of the best music the franchise has ever known, and that's saying something. The default battle theme is one of the best I've heard, and the eclectic mix of music makes each new dungeon and area a delight to explore. EO4 may not like look like much, but you'll never want to turn off the music.
The word that most defines Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan is polish — and plenty of it. It keeps to its roots and makes sure that every aspect works as well as it can. The dungeons are large and fun to explore, the characters are well balanced and interesting, and most importantly, the frustration is kept to a minimum. Some weak visuals hold back the game, but it more than makes up for it with an amazing soundtrack. Newcomers and veterans alike will find a lot to like here. If you're remotely a fan of dungeon crawlers, Etrian Odyssey IV is for you.
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