I know it sounds strange, but filling in that grid paper with neat little lines and boxes to represent rooms is nearly a fetish. It’s the nostalgia of that first magical game of Dungeons & Dragons, mixed with the fantasy thrills of being a cartographer delving into the unknown; something that’s practically impossible in the real world now that humankind has mapped the entirety of Earth.
Back in the early days of video games there was no auto-mapping and players were responsible for drawing their own as they went. With early Wizardry and Dungeons & Dragons video games being practically impossible to navigate without a map games tended to take a while as players literally drew every step as they went along, but boy was it rewarding, as that grid paper provided a real, tangible sense of progression.
Etrian Odyssey IV continues that fine tradition by using the 3DS touch screen to allow people to draw their maps as they play. It slows the pace down for what is otherwise a very heavy grindfest of a JRPG to a nice, methodical pace and gives the game a unique hook that, while hardly innovating within the genre (especially considering there are three previous Etrian Odyssey game doing basically the same thing), does give JRPG genre veterans something of a flavour to the norm.
Mapping aside, Etrian Odyssey IV really doesn’t break with genre tradition. Players create a party made up of a range of different archetypes (Warriors, Mages and Healers), and navigate them through dungeons filled with random monster encounters. Fielding a diverse set of skills is essential to succeed in this game, which does like to challenge players (Wizardry veterans wouldn’t have it any other way). Scattered throughout each level are special enemies, called FOES, that unlike regular enemies are not generated randomly and wander around the maps as you do. At first it is guaranteed that your party doesn’t have the power to overcome these creatures, so the trick is to figure out how to navigate past them, or even trick them into solving some environmental puzzles like bashing through some debris as the party ducks around a corner to safety. Coming back later as a much more powerful group to defeat Goliath-like monstrosities is then so very rewarding.
Between the exploration and combat the only variety is in the form of missions, which are picked up at town and are of the “get X item” or “deliver Y item to Z location” ilk. There’s not much variety here and it’s not helped by the fact that the town is literally nothing more than a menu. That is of course part of the Wizardry tradition but it makes for a game that might feel a little limited to more casual JRPG players that are used to explorable towns and NPCs to talk to. There isn’t much of a formal narrative, thought the snippets of dialogue and references to Norse mythology are tantalising enough to drive the game forwards.
Something the developers did see fit to do was to modernise the character development to something more modern. In the Wizardry games of yesteryear characters would have limited options as they level up but here there’s a full skill tree for each hero type that allows for a rich range of character types. One of the greatest joys in Etrian Odyssey is introducing new characters into the team to see whether a different range of skills do manage to make a particularly difficult encounter easier.
And special mention needs to be made of the use of 3D in this game. In principle the art style is so basic that the 3D shouldn’t matter, but it does. As Etrian Odyssey plays out in a first person perspective the 3DS’ hardware makes the experience that more personal. Acting like a window into the game’s world it’s difficult not to appreciate the gorgeous colourful art style and superb monster design.
And I do have to make a special call out for the music. It’s beautifully classic JRPG stuff.
Etrian Odyssey games have always been the perfect example of how to take a popular retro approach to gameplay and modernise it in a way that it saves people from the frustrating design quirks of old games while not messing with their nostalgia. While I suspect your enjoyment of this game will be somewhat dependent on how much you like drawing maps, I must recommend this to people who are looking for something a little different.
– Matt S
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