Etrian Odyssey has been pleasing fans of classic dungeon crawls for years, delivering throwback gameplay punctuated with modern design enhancements. The fourth installment makes the move to the 3DS hardware, and brings with it some well-thought-out improvements to its formula. The result is the most engaging and accessible game yet in the franchise and an excellent example of how games built on classic concepts can still feel fresh.
The setup to EOIV mirrors that of the previous games in the series. You control a guild of explorers (all named and chosen by you), and you are new to the city of Tharsis, a bustling hub of trade and exploration. In the distance towers the great Yggdrasil tree, which has remained inaccessible for centuries and hides some manner of secrets lost to time. The routes to Yggdrasil aren't clear, and the lands are dangerous, with monsters and terrifying beings roaming the skies, the underground, and everywhere in between. It seems as though some of the world's labyrinths contain secrets pertaining to Yggdrasil, and it's up to your guild to brave the dangers of both the overworld and the underworld to find the truth behind the tree's seclusion and the legendary Titan.
Etrian Odyssey is modeled on the first-person-view role-playing games of yore. There are few non-player characters to interact with and only a handful of hub areas in the game that allow you to recover, buy items and gear, undertake side quests, and collect hints. Furthermore, the characters within your guild are warriors of your own design, with no real personality to speak of beyond what you imagine them to be. Yet the world itself tells its own story through its lands, dungeons, puzzles, and dangers. Brief bits of narration give context to your actions, and the handful of NPCs you encounter throughout expand upon the lore without sounding like living infodumps.
You spend the majority of the game exploring various caves and dungeons, looking for treasures, events, materials, and solutions to help you proceed. Dungeons and caves are presented in a first-person perspective, and you wander through them step-by-step. RPGs from bygone days often required you to have hand-drawn graph paper maps at the ready, but Etrian Odyssey IV comes with an indispensable mapping feature to chart out the mazes you explore, enabling you to mark points of interest and hazards like damage traps and warps. As the mazes increase in complexity, so too do your maps, so keeping them constantly updated is vital to happy exploration.
As in any RPG worth its salt, these areas are also teeming with monsters hungry for unaware explorers. Encounters are random (though a radar appears onscreen to let you know the likelihood of one happening), and combat is turn-driven and menu-based. Enemies are now fully animated, which helps a lot during fights: it's easy to see at a glance if an enemy is hurt or ailing and act accordingly. Don't expect to simply mash A through combat, though: even the rank-and-file foes in Etrian Odyssey IV can pose a serious threat if you're not paying attention to their behavior and their unique quirks. It's not uncommon to be badly burned after underestimating a never-before-seen enemy in a new area. Burst skills, which require spending meters that build up as you fight, can help even the odds if you're in trouble, but their limited usage requires careful consideration before going all out.
Conquering foes requires careful character planning. Because the characters are mostly blank slates (aside from a few NPCs later on that you can potentially recruit), you are responsible for developing their abilities through various skill sets. The presentation of the skills has improved vastly from previous EO games, with easy-to-follow trees replacing the confusing lists from games past. Each level-up grants skill points that can be applied to purchase or upgrade class-specific skills for each character, allowing you to specialize each warrior to your personal tastes. Later in the game, characters can also adopt a subclass to bolster their skills and create some potentially lethal fighting combinations. Some skills require certain gear to be equipped, so keeping tabs on characters' weapons and armaments is also important. New to the game are rare weapons and armor that bestow additional skills upon their user, sometimes granting abilities outside of a character's chosen class.
Mazes and skill trees aren't the only parts of the game that require player exploration; to get to the various caves and labyrinths, you need to set out on your balloon-powered flying vessel and explore the overworld. Etrian Odyssey III introduced the concept of exploration outside of its dungeons with its sea travel, but it felt disconnected from the main game and had some limitations that made it frustrating at times. EOIV, in contrast, integrates the exploration seamlessly into the core game, encouraging you to fly and discover new places to explore as part of the natural game progression.
One thing that both the skies and the ground have in common is the presence of fearsome monsters called FOEs. These beasts wield considerably more power than the average monster, threatening your entire team with extinction should you stumble into their path unprepared. FOEs appear on your maps, allowing you to track their movements and see if they are pursuing you. Since each type of FOE exhibits unique behavior, learning how to avoid them--or, if you want to challenge them, how to approach them with an advantage--is essential to progress. The map also displays a helpful aura around each FOE that indicates its power compared to your group. This helps you decide if a struggle is worthwhile. While most FOEs are better to avoid when you first encounter them, after gaining a few levels, it's incredibly rewarding to return to a FOE that has terrorized you in the past and smite it mercilessly.
What happens if you do get annihilated by an enemy? If you're playing on the standard difficulty, you resume from your last save, losing all progress and acquired experience/items. A new addition to EOIV, however, is casual mode, which removes the punishing penalty for wiping out, instead transporting you back to the safety of town where you can regroup and try again with all progress retained. While devoted series fans will likely gravitate toward the more traditional setting, casual mode removes a lot of the stress and frustration from unlucky encounters that may have turned players off from the series.
Don't think casual translates to cakewalk, however; the enemies are still extremely vicious, and crossing an FOE carelessly could send you swiftly back to recuperate in Tharsis. You still need your wits and some good planning to succeed in combat and destroy the most dangerous foes in the dungeons. And if you change your mind and think you're up for a harsher experience, you can change the difficulty setting back and forth while you're in town.
But while it might be more accessible, Etrian Odyssey IV isn't a game for those lacking in patience. Sometimes you need to revisit old dungeons and caves to grind for items or materials necessary to obtain some gear you need or to complete a quest. You get access to new classes at certain points in the game, and if you want a custom build, you need to raise characters from level one, which, naturally, entails more grinding. (There is a very rare item that allows you to gain multiple levels at once up to a cap, though it's incredibly hard to come by.) One of the major elements of character creation, the ability to dual-class your characters and combine ability subsets, isn't available until around the game's halfway point. A few of the puzzles you encounter on the overworld or in dungeons can be tricky and could prove to be points where some players get stymied.
Taken as a whole, however, Etrian Odyssey IV is the most impressive and entertaining entry in the series yet. It may be somewhat old-fashioned, but modern sensibilities make it both challenging and welcoming, and rich lore draws you into its world. Few series manage to continually improve themselves with each successive installment, but Etrian Odyssey IV proves that some things do get better with time.'