Atlus’s Etrian Odyssey series is notorious for its imperial level of difficulty, comparable at times to forcing a bulky square peg into a much smaller round hole. True, at times it can be wildly frustrating, yet very few other modern portable JRPG experiences manage to successfully embody the authentic spirit of adventure like Etrian Odyssey so effortlessly does. Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan is the first entry in the series to appear on the 3DS, and the transition is essentially unmarred. The game looks and sounds superb, taking advantage of the system’s 3D effects without lessening the alluring 2D-anime-style artwork the series is known for.
In terms of gameplay, in comparison to past Etrian Odyssey titles, there’s not a staggering amount of variation to be seen, but what’s present is a highly rewarding, endlessly challenging dungeon-crawling affair, elevated to something genuinely special with the addition of an improved cartography element that allows players to fabricate their own patented battlefield maps. In classic role-playing fashion, Etrian Odyssey IV prides itself on permitting players to explore its extensive universe at will, sans any guided hand-holding or linear pathways. Beware, though, the game is quite ruthless with its circumstantial can of worms, harboring no guilt as it routinely makes you question your established degree of JRPG aptitude.
The narrative setup is simple, which is more or less a necessity given the arresting depth of Etrian Odyssey IV’s cardinal mechanics. The game casts you in the role of a curious traveler newly arrived in the ancient city of Tharsis. A legendary tree called Yggdrasil has been the source of mystery in the lands for countless centuries, and you’re the latest inquisitive explorer seeking vast acclaim by uncovering the massive topiary’s archaic secrets. Once the anecdotal ball is rolling, the creation of your five-person team gets underway. There are seven job classes to select from, with an appended three to be unlocked later. The standard occupations are in tact (sword-swinger, archer, healer, and mage), but there’s also deviceful options like the artsy dancer caste which implements rhythmic moves like the tango and samba as balletic methods of attack. Strengthening your characters is accomplished via Etrian Odyssey IV’s superlative Skill Tree, which has a unique, labyrinthine layout of active and passive attributes for each individual class. It’s a traditional concept executed impeccably, with acquired points used as currency, and eventually subclasses can be attached to your party members, granting them useful abilities that were previously unattainable.
If there’s a drawback to Etrian Odyssey IV’s otherwise thoroughly impressive blueprint, it’s that the central hub of Tharsis is comprised exclusively of text-saturated menus that advance the main story and introduce multitudinous side quests. However, this mild bummer can be forgiven due to the presence of a serviceable airship, an ever-customizable way to traverse the mammoth world, with numerous optional missions and collectables waiting to be seized. Soaring through the skies is one of Etrian Odyssey IV’s highlights, but the game’s grounded activities are equally as satisfying. Every meticulous dungeon is an epic undertaking, populated by roaming FOEs, ultra-jacked enemies that scout in foreseen patterns. Mastering the game’s unexampled cartographic aspects, wherein you sketch the traveled areas, adding notations as you go, is key to prevailing in each patience-testing combat situation. Traditional turn-based encounters are the modus operandi here, with an emphasis on understanding formations and perfecting the art of inflicting/alleviating status conditions. Micromanaging your squad while assigning assaults that range from singular to the party-dealt Burst commands is an invaluable technique, and one you’ll quickly have to familiarize yourself with if you have any hope of reaching the game’s end. With its grade of arduousness so dramatically steep, it’s a blessing for gamers unacquainted with franchise that Etrian Odyssey IV adapts a generous Casual mode alternative similar to that of Fire Emblem: Awakening. When your team fails, rather than being met with a dreaded game over, you simply teleport back to Tharsis. None of your dedicated mapping efforts have gone to waste, and you can breathe somewhat easier knowing your precious development hasn’t been erased.
Unarguably, Etrian Odyssey IV is a significant advancement over its predecessor, Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City. Its graphics aren’t quite as state-of-the-art as Fire Emblem: Awakening’s, but the lighter, less dreary visual approach, led by Yuji Himukai’s elegant designs, gives the game an appealing pop-up-book-esque aesthetic quality with the 3D function turned on. Furthermore, Yuzo Koshiro’s markedly varied score provides some periodically mesmerizing instrumentation to soundtrack your lengthy enterprises. Sure, there’s the lack of touch-screen usage during clashes, and the obligatory StreetPass stat-boasting is relatively expendable, but, as a whole, Etrian Odyssey IV is a JRPG not to be overlooked—one that scrupulously melds a hoary, conservative procedure with liberal resourcefullness in order to produce something contemporary and comprehensively balanced.