Like many Gen-Y gamers, Final Fantasy VII was my first taste of a role playing game, and it created a lifelong love affair with the genre. When I ran out of PlayStation Final Fantasy titles to play, I looked backwards to the SNES and NES games; when I ran out of those, I looked beyond the franchise to the great many other RPGs of the ‘90s.
In all this historical gaming though, I could never get myself over the “hump” of the console era. I missed out on the text adventure and dungeon crawler hype of the 80s - I was never eaten by a grue, and I never had to deal with stacks and stacks of hand drawn maps on my computer desk. I’ve tried to retroactively get into them, but I’ve become accustomed to modern conveniences like on screen maps and games actually giving you some idea of what you’re meant to do.
However, I can see the appeal of these older games, and of the sense of being a badass dungeon raider that they bring. It looks like the teams at Atlus and Lancarse also recognise the appeal, and have used the Etrian Odyssey series to recreate this experience in a more modern, palatable form, to impressive critical and commercial success.
If you haven’t played an Etrian Odyssey game before (which is likely, given that until now, only the first one has even come out in New Zealand), they essentially follow the formula of classic dungeon crawlers. You create a party of adventurers, then set out to explore labyrinthine dungeons, kill monsters, gather loot, return to town to sell said loot, and repeat. What sets this series apart from other retro inspired dungeon crawlers though, is its cartography elements - rather than a standard on screen map, Etrian Odyssey games task you with drawing your own maps on the touchscreen as you explore.
In Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan, the people of Tharsis have long seen to the great Yggdrasil tree on the horizon, but nobody from the city has ever seen the tree up close. So, for science, the Outland Count of Tharsis tasks an Explorers Guild (the player’s, naturally) with travelling to the tree and uncovering its secrets.
It’s not the deepest and most involved plot, but what is fascinating about it is the way it's told. Instead of big budget cutscenes and Nolan North voice acting, EO4 draws heavily on its text adventure inspiration.Outside battles and dungeon crawling, there is little in the way of animation, and all the game’s plot points unfold through expertly written text descriptions. This is something that could lose its charm very quickly and turn the game into a chore to play, yet somehow, it never does.
The story is interesting and well told, but at the end of the day, it’s mainly there to give context to the gameplay. And what an exciting game it is! I play a lot of RPGs, but this is easily one of the best I’ve played in a long time, from a purely mechanical standpoint. The thing is, it doesn’t do anything at all new or innovative with the turn based RPG formula, the developers just seem to know how to take these decades-old systems and use them to create an incredibly deep and engaging experience.
The game begins by asking you to establish your Explorers Guild by choosing a name (in an effort to be current and just a bit silly, I called my clan Skywhale) and filling it with adventurers from any of the game’s 10 classes. You can have up to 30 people in your guild, from which you create a party of five to take dungeon crawling. A big part of the game’s depth and engagement comes from just how well these classes are designed - no two are alike, and they all have a particular focus on overall group synergy. Building your party isn’t just about picking five tough guys with whom to bash heads, its about finding this synergy in order to create something that’s more than the sum of its parts.
The depth doesn’t stop at party building though, as the game is filled with interesting, varied enemies that all demand a unique approach. Whereas many RPGs will see you choosing “Attack” constantly in any fight that’s not a boss, every enemy in EO4 demands a tactical approach - unless you’re more than a handful of levels stronger than them. It’s not unusual for enemies to be able to drop even your beefier characters in two or three hits, so the status changing abilities that would sit on the move list collecting dust in other games becomes supremely important. Taking advantage of elemental weaknesses doesn’t just make fights slightly quicker, but is often the difference between success or failure in an encounter.
Battles can be very hard, but they never feel unfair, and rarely even make you feel like you need to grind levels a bit before you can pass. Instead, they ask you to bring your wits to the table, and every loss feels like a step closer to finding just the right approach to win.
The cartography side of EO4 is surprisingly engaging, too, and manages to strike a good balance between the conveniences of modern games and the fun of mapping out your adventures. The map on the touchscreen mostly functions like any other on-screen map from any game released in the last ten years. It shows you where you are, where things you might want to interact with or avoid are; it follows you as you move, and lets you zoom out to see the map in full. The only difference is, instead of already being there, or automatically filling itself out as you explore, you’re the one drawing the map yourself - and this really amplifies the need to explore every nook and cranny of a cave or forest.
Like any game, though, EO4 isn’t without its flaws. There isn’t much in the visual department - environment and enemy models look good enough, but are far from pushing the capabilities of the 3DS, and the character portraits, while impressive to look at, lack any sort of animation. This isn’t really a big deal, and in some ways it aids the retro feel, but it could still make it hard for some people to get into the game. The high difficulty might also be a turnoff for some gamers, although there is a much easier Casual Mode that makes this less of a concern.
What’s more troubling is the occasional misleading quest text. At one point, I spent a couple of hours helping other adventurers out on the world map with their random spawn quests, in an effort to get a particular reward that would allow me to upgrade my airship (also called Skywhale, of course) and get on with the game. I was doing this because the NPC responsible for dishing out main story quests told me to - however, after a few unfruitful hours, I hit Google, and learned that these quests were just optional sidequests. What I actually needed to do was go find another particular dungeon to explore, which would contain what I needed. Judging from the number of Google hits asking about this particular part of the game, I’m not alone in getting tripped up here.
Nonetheless, the game is still a blast to play, and experiences like that are few. There is a tonne of game here, too - the main storyline can easily get you 30 hours or more of gameplay, and then there are a multitude of side quests, post-game content, and replayability to stretch that out even further. If you’re like me - curious about those old school dungeon crawlers, but not quite brave enough to take the plunge - Etrian Odyssey IV strikes a perfect balance of classic gameplay and modern convenience. Even if you just enjoy a good RPG, you can’t really go wrong with this game.