Upwards and Onwards
HIGH Using Deep Forest Lore the first time
LOW Getting stuck (twice) after falling for false in-game information.
WTF Four great games and this series is still largely unknown?
When it comes to the Etrian Odyssey series, I never learn.
After reviewing the second in the series (and loving it) I didn't see how a third could be appreciably better. When that third one came, it was… well, pretty fantastic. Once again, I felt that it possibly couldn't get any better. It was already so great, how could it be?
Once again, I am wrong. So very wrong.
Not only is Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan the best in an already-outstanding series, it's one of the most polished and finely-crafted dungeon-crawl games I've ever spent time with.
For those not familiar with the Etrian games, have no fear. While some thematic elements are consistent throughout the series, no previous knowledge of the older entries is required to enjoy this one. The stories do not connect with each other, and no characters reappear. Each new installment is a stand-alone adventure that continues with the same general design and mechanics, but nothing else.
This is an important thing to note because in this series, the plot takes a very distant backseat to the gameplay. Although I'm someone who usually gets a lot of value from narrative, the construction and design of Etrian is so strong that even though I can hardly remember what Legends of the Titan was about, it doesn't matter—all of my fondest memories are of simply playing it.
Etrian Odyssey is all about crawling through a series of dungeons from a first-person perspective and exploring every corner. Simple, yet satisfying.
The player begins by custom-creating five characters from a variety of classes: the armor-clad Fortress, the life-saving Medic, the elemental Runemaster, the blindingly fast Dancer, and so on. Once a team is assembled, the player heads out into the first area and starts to poke around while fending off all sorts of nasty creatures that pop up.
This formula may sound ordinary enough, but there are a few significant twists that set it apart.
The first is that the player is required to draw their own map on the Nintendo 3DS's lower touch screen. I can hear the moaning and groaning already, but trust me, drawing this map is incredibly engaging and far more interesting than it sounds.
Every dungeon holds a number of secrets to be marked and twisting passageways to be assessed. Shortcuts are revealed, non-player characters (NPCs) pop up unexpectedly, and locked treasure chests will be stumbled across. Making note of these things will often reap great rewards later in the game, and it's richly satisfying to start with a blank screen and end up with a beautiful diagram laying bare the secrets of each area.
Another twist to the dungeon-crawl formula is that the combat system and interplay between character classes is incredibly nuanced and intricate. Although it's possible to put together a questing party with any mix of classes that suit the player's fancy, careful selection and experimentation will yield fantastic results.
For example, by putting a Landsknecht, a Nightseeker, and a Dancer in the same row, I was able to have each of their special abilities trigger special abilities in the others, resulting in an enormous cascade of multiple attacks that drowned enemies in damage. Other strategies can play off of attacks that inflict greater damage when enemies are suffering from ailments, and certain skills imbue their party members with various buffs or defenses. For players that like to dig into a combat system, this one runs far, far deeper than most.
While everything I've mentioned so far is absolutely top-tier, it's worth noting that the Etrian Odyssey series has been somewhat infamous for an incredibly steep level of difficulty. That rep was entirely deserved. The first three games are brutally punishing, and I know many people who've been discouraged by the level of challenge.
The developers must have realized there isn't much value in scaring off a big chunk of their potential audience, so they've added a brand-new "casual" mode which makes the venture infinitely more friendly to newcomers and to those who want to enjoy the quality of this project without harsh penalties or ultra-lethal enemies. Making Etrian more approachable is a brilliant idea, and the original hellish difficulty is still available for those who want it—Legends of the Titan strikes a perfect compromise.
I could go on and praise a dozen other features in detail, but I'll keep this review to a manageable length by saying that everything about Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan is absolutely fantastic—the music is great, the art direction and animation is charming, it offers a ton of content, it's got depth in spades… I honestly don't have a single knock against the game, and readers familiar with my reviews will know that I don't say something so generous very often.
For fans of the dungeon-crawl genre or for those who just want their Nintendo 3DS to host something a little off the beaten path, Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan is at the top of its class, and guaranteed to be one of 2013's best.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the 3DS. Approximately 28 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed at the time of review. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains mild blood, mild fantasy violence, mild language, and mild suggestive themes. Despite all those warnings, there isn't anything to worry about. Suggestive themes probably refers to the bits of skin shown by female characters in certain outfits, and I honestly don't recall any mild language. The mild fantasy violence amounts to seeing a "whoosh!" visual effect as an invisible weapon strikes a monster who recoils a bit. This is all super-tame stuff, and I'd be quite comfortable letting my kids play this game, for sure.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You will have no problems whatsoever. I spent about 75% of my time with the game without any sound, and encountered no barriers. All dialogue in the game is presented through text, and since it's a turn-based combat engine, there is no need to rely on sound cues or anything auditory. All important information is presented on-screen, and the experience is completely accessible from start to finish.