By its very nature, Etrian Odyssey has always been something of an acquired taste. Dungeon crawlers are a notoriously demanding strain of RPGs, and Atlus’ series has done its best to live up to that reputation with its crushing difficulty. With Etrian Odyssey IV, however, the developer has decided to cut back on some of the series’ more sadistic tendencies without diluting its gameplay, resulting in the most accessible Etrian Odyssey game to date. It's also one of the finest role-playing experiences on the 3DS.
The game begins with your arrival in Tharsis, a bustling city built in the shadow of the fabled Yggdrasil. Like other would-be explorers, you have been drawn to the settlement by tales of the untold wonders that sleep within the mythical tree, and resolve to take up the challenge issued by the Count of Tharsis to explore its winding innards and uncover its secrets. After a brief chat with the townsfolk, you round up a party of adventurers, stock up on supplies, and set out on your quest for the legendary tree.
For a role-playing game, the story in Etrian Odyssey IV is decidedly light, but the appeal of the series has always come more from the sense of adventure it instills through its gameplay than the narrative it weaves. Etrian Odyssey IV is certainly no different. You’ll spend the better part of the game exploring its many labyrinths with your guild of personalized adventurers, battling the monsters (including the infamously overpowered FOEs) that lurk within and mapping out their twisting layouts on the 3DS touch screen. This is just as enjoyable now as when the series first debuted, and you genuinely do feel like an adventurer each time you reach a previously unexplored area or stumble upon a rare item.
There are also a handful of changes, particularly to the game’s presentation, that help keep the experience fresh for returning fans. Enemy characters have been fully rendered this time around, giving some much-needed life to the battle sequences, and the new orchestrated soundtrack features some of the best compositions in the entire series. These tweaks extend beyond just the cosmetic as well; the game is now divided up into six different lands, which are strung together by an overworld that you navigate via your airship. This adds another layer of exploration to the gameplay, and it gives players plenty to see and do in between dungeon diving and farming for materials.
In fact, all of this can seem a little overwhelming at first, particularly if you’ve never played an Etrian Odyssey game before. Fortunately, Etrian Odyssey IV introduces a new casual setting to help alleviate some of this strain, making it the perfect starting point for those who have been put off by the series’ trademark difficulty. In this mode, Ariadne Threads, an item that can instantaneously warp you back to the safety of town, are now reusable rather than being depleted on use, and your party retains any experience it’s gained should you happen to fall in battle, making exploration much less punishing. Best of all, players can switch between the two settings at any point in the game simply by accessing the menu, ensuring that its challenges never become insurmountable.
That’s not to say the game is easy, though; even on casual mode, Etrian Odyssey IV will still test your mettle like few other 3DS titles. Progress is entirely incremental; you’ll claw your way through a couple of rooms before you’re forced to retreat to town to patch up your wounds and sell off any spoils you’ve accumulated, only to repeat the process again until you’ve plumbed the deepest parts of the natural maze standing before you. The game demands patience and careful planning, but the sense of satisfaction you feel as you gradually delve deeper into the heart of a labyrinth, besting foes (and FOEs) that once decimated your party, makes the experience highly enjoyable. And thanks to the cartography system, you have a clear measure of your progress right on the bottom screen. Charting out dungeons as you explore them continues to be one of the most rewarding aspects of the series, and you’ll find yourself looking forward to each trip you take just so you can fill out more of your map.
Still, while these elements help make Legends of the Titan the best Etrian Odyssey game to date, there are a few instances where the title stumbles. For all its emphasis on customization, it’s a bit disappointing to see the game retain the generic character portraits used in earlier installments, especially now that other areas of the presentation, like enemy characters, have been improved. This is more a quibble than a real strike against the title, but your heroes never truly feel like your own creations (as they do in, say, Dragon Quest IX) because of their set appearances, which slightly undermines all of the freedom you have in determining their builds.
More bothersome is the high encounter rate, which guarantees you’ll be beset by monsters very frequently while exploring. This in itself wouldn’t normally be an issue, but encounters in Etrian Odyssey are notoriously difficult to run from, effectively forcing you to see each one through. Seasoned explorers will no doubt already expect this when they first set foot in the game’s labyrinths, but it’s nevertheless frustrating to see every member of your party fail to escape from a battle multiple times over before finally fleeing, which makes retracing your steps through a dungeon all the more tedious.
That said, these complaints are fairly trivial in light of the game’s strengths, and they shouldn’t deter anyone--especially those with a predilection for RPGs--from picking up a copy of Etrian Odyssey IV. The game offers enough tweaks to the Etrian Odyssey formula to keep the experience fresh for series veterans, while the new casual setting ensures that even novice adventurers will be able to conquer its sprawling labyrinths with a little grit and determination. Dungeon crawlers may still be something of an acquired taste for most gamers, but Atlus has done its best to make Etrian Odyssey IV more palatable for a wider audience.