Dungeon crawlers have sadly become a little bit lost in the shuffle of the modern gaming market. Sure, a lot of games still bear elements of the genre, but they typically make up a small part of a much larger experience, so few games are dedicated to the crawl itself.
That’s part of why I’ve always found Atlus’s Etrian Odyssey series to be so endearing. Delivering an experience devoted to making your time in the labyrinth as engaging as possible while maintaining a very old school edge and still bringing a level of accessibility uncommon for the genre, the series sounds like a mess, but it’s executed with such finesse that it all blends together to create possibly the finest dungeon crawling experience available today.
Etrian Odyssey 4 (3DS)
Developed by Atlus – Published by Atlus (USA) and Nippon Ichi Software America (Europe)
It’s rare to find a game so unforgiving yet so incredibly encouraging at the same time. You will die a lot in Etrian Odyssey 4, yet similarly to games such as Dark Souls, each death feels like a learning experience. Every time I died, it wasn’t due to a design flaw or mechanical issues, but the game being infinitely fair with me, punishing me with failure when I earned it. I began to tread carefully, monitoring my every action and taking note of exactly what kind of attacks each enemy would use. It’s the kind of teaching through experience we rarely see these days, and it feels all the more satisfying when you’ve got enough of a grip that you can breeze through areas that once seemed insurmountable.
The guild you create, made up entirely of characters named and designated classes by you will grow into one of the most highly customised band of heroes you’ll ever see in an RPG. Each level gained gives you a single point to drop into a character’s skill tree, and sub classes introduced later on add an even greater degree of freedom with character growth, doubling the amount of skills available to you. By the time you’ve reached a fairly high level, each party member will feel entirely unique, and you’ll grow incredibly attached to each hero.
The core gameplay itself, revolving almost entirely around exploration, is an absolute joy. Sticking to a relatively small collection of elements, the game nonetheless manages to make each labyrinth hugely engaging. You’ll be making your own maps throughout the game using the touchscreen, marking down every discovery you find. It sounds tedious, having to draw everything save for the floor you tread upon, but it’s handled so smartly that it only adds to the enjoyment found within the labyrinths. It’s an incredibly interesting experience on the whole. The exploration is tranquil and very deliberately paced, whereas the combat, always signposted by a marker in the corner of the screen telling you when an enemy will strike, is fast paced and intense, both styles of gameplay backed by a very fitting musical score. The turn-based combat is fairly traditional, but the game is difficult enough that players can’t rely on simply bashing their way through everything, and demands that you master the skills of every class, and finding a mix of classes that works for you is crucial.
It’s this music that deserves as much attention as possible. Master composer Yuzo Koshiro ditches his old school stylings seen in the previous games in the series for an orchestral score, and it may be the best soundtrack I’ve heard this year. The high energy battle theme “Storm” possibly being one of my favourite videogame tracks of all time. Expertly composed no matter what the mood of the current scene, the soundtrack is endlessly listenable, and I expect it to be looked upon one day with a massive amount of reverence.
The new airship system, makes travelling between labyrinths a more pleasurable task than in prior games, and unlike the puzzle-esque ship travel in Etrian Odyssey 3, is a fully fledged vehicle for exploration, allowing players to discover materials to sell and trade with other ships, fight incredibly powerful enemies, and even opens up sidequests beyond those found in the labyrinths. It doesn’t revolutionise the game or anything, but it’s never anything less than enjoyable.
Perhaps the true beauty of Etrian Odyssey 4 is that it manages to strike a balance between appeasing series fans while still catering to newcomers. A casual mode eschews the mapmaking and tones down the difficulty the battles, but the regular difficulty upholds all series traditions. It’s easily the most accessible entry in the series without toning down a thing that gave the series such a dedicated following, and I can’t laud it enough for that.
For those looking for a particularly engaging story or characters, Etrian Odyssey 4 might not be for you. The story is told almost entirely through very scant dialogue or descriptions of everything around you, and although Atlus’s impeccable localisation imbues all the NPCs with surprisingly strong personalities, it’s all kept very light. Those same people might be interested in Etrian Odyssey Untold, due out just next month in the US. But for those who want a fantastic role playing experience that engages players throughout, look no further than Etrian Odyssey 4. You will not be disappointed
Final Score: 9/10