Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan

When I say that Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan provides an old-school RPG experience, I'm not referencing games like Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy. The series is akin to even older, now more obscure greats like Eye of the Beholder or the more recent Legend of Grimrock. From a first-person, 90-degrees-at-a-time perspective, you and a band of user-created adventurers explore the world, plunder caves, and fulfill requests to bring fame and fortune to your guild along the way. It's a classic, exciting base that has served many RPG greats over the years, and by taking the essence of those old, punishing classics and working in a few niceties of modern game design, Legends of the Titan will thrill fans and anyone else who bonded not with the characters and settings of their childhood role-playing days, but by the min-maxing of stats and other data crunching. For those expecting any other motivation than cold, calculated victories, a recommendation becomes a lot more complicated.

The game's story, such as it is, has your avatar arriving in the explorer's hub city of Tharsis, where a decree has been passed down to any brave enough to heed its call: find the secret to unlocking the Yggdrasil tree, an ancient natural relic said to house profound secrets. Inaccessible for hundreds of years, the key to unlocking the tree lies deep in a bunch of winding, labyrinthian dungeons all throughout the land, and without any input or dialogue from your party from beginning to end, that's all the impetus you get. That's mostly fine, too, because Etrian Odyssey doesn't strive to capture specific moments or feelings so much as a scenario.

If the core goal was to depict the plight and danger the adventurers in RPGs would face in a more realistic, practical light, then the developers have certainly realized that in a unique way. You'll be fighting tons of monsters through random encounters, of course. How many modern RPGs not only stick you into an inscrutable labyrinth, but ask you to painstakingly map your map in and out, though? Legends of the Titan is really two games converged into one. On the top screen, you'll be exploring dungeons and overworld areas and fighting monsters, using their leavings to forge new equipment, and forging on ahead through the game's combat loop. On the bottom screen lies a robust set of mapping tools. The game doesn't give you an inch; you'll need to draw the walls, floors, stairs, doors, special mineral or herb deposits and everything else you encounter manually. You drag the stylus to draw walls or paint floors, and icons can be dragged from a sidebar to your map. These can be notated, as well, giving you plenty of tools to keep on top of your exploration. It's an extremely slow process, though, more than doubling the amount of time it would take to simply battle through a bunch of the game's hard-hitting, plentiful encounters. The small touch screen means the scale of your mapping is equally minuscule, and the game demands you map any current and currently inaccessible areas perfectly. Missing a single doorway or other important mark can leave you wandering around inscrutable dungeons for hours as you try to rectify your mistake, forced to grind the entire way. The themes of survival don't stop there. The game will also permanently kill felled characters, and RPG standbys like status effects are brutally effective without proper planning and equipment, although these and other harsh penalties can be relieved with a more casual difficulty setting.

Aside from a couple of cruel twists and turns, Odyssey IV's core combat plays out much like you'd expect from a traditional JRPG release. It's your group of adventurers versus a group of monsters, and you take turns thrashing each other, buffing your respective defensives while weakening the opposition's, casting spells, and making sure to heal at appropriate times that won't set you up for further punishment. There's a few additional wrinkles to consider - fights build up a Burst meter for special attacks that should be saved for the toughest encounters, while party members need to be placed on either a front or back "row" to maximize their effectiveness - but otherwise, the minute-to-minute functionality of combat is very familiar. Your mute party also come similarly bereft of transferrable skills at first, and so you have full reign over assigning stat points and building your combat dependencies. There are plenty of active and passive abilities to consider, from devastating new magic spells to bonuses while picking herbs out in the field, and all of them are tied to a basic branching system that, over hours and hours, slowly begins to fill out.

Fighting and mapping are combined in such a way that the most memorable moments are always derived simply from playing the game, instead of the staged plot points more innate to JRPGs. The gigantic bears that terrorize your sojourn through the Lush Woodlands until you're finally strong enough to best them stands out as an early moment of world building, and the game is packed with that sort of early revealing that punctuates your downfalls along with your progress. It's refreshing that such dynamic moments appear out of the most rigid of systems. Problem is, these moments felt increasingly rare as I progressed. Both combat and exploration are steeped in time-consuming, repetitive tasks that can really weigh down the experience the more you play. The game is certainly difficult, and that challenge can bog your progress down a bit, but the real problem with Etrian Odyssey IV is that it's, well, a little bit boring. Those aforementioned battles take up the vast majority of the experience, and aside from wading through menus and pressing on the same few skill options, there's just not much to do. Yes, figuring out how to best a new adversary is exciting the first time, but the subsequent hundreds of battles with those very same foes give markedly diminished returns.

Mapping similarly grates over time because there is zero attempt at any sort of sane or interesting geographical layout whatsoever. Every single area you encounter, from dense forest to harsh tundra to a dank cave system, is the same old winding labyrinth as before. This is, of course, the way the series has always been. That doesn't mean it must always be, though. While the combat grates, the map design is the real culprit; while other elements of this game appear to be long-winded, all of them are exacerbated because of the ridiculously twisty paths you're forced to navigate. They don't make sense, they don't feel like anything resembling a real place or world, and they are a massive, blatantly visible wall to progress that drags out each action. This is an especially big disappointment considering that Etrian Odyssey IV really has no story, either, and that there could be plenty of opportunities to materialize a convincing world in a game like this. With smarter, more naturalistic algorithms, the world could have felt alive while simultaneously keeping the mapping system relevant. As is, it felt like a huge missed opportunity to me.

The basic visual elements don't help immensely on building that world, either. This is the series' first outing on the 3DS, and while the presentation has improved noticeably, I wouldn't call it a looker, either. Enemies are modelled in three dimensions this time around (no more weird, glowing energy balls to represent large monsters, either!), and while it's a step up from the static sprites in past entries, your party still remains behind the curtain. You see a bright line or fiery cloud run across an enemy, but there's still no connecting animation, no visual heft or interest to the proceedings. When I played for more than a few hours on end, I was dying for something - anything - dynamic to unfold on my screen, and I was rarely heard. I wasn't very fond of the game's artistic style, either, which sticks mostly to stock, cutesy anime portraits of characters and some fairly plain monster design to get its point across. There's no voice acting, but the fine soundtrack stands out as the single best thing about the presentation. I thought I'd have switched to some of my usual RPG grinding tunes shortly after beginning, but some great tracks kept that music volume slider dialled up for hours longer than I expected.

There were times when I felt like I was enjoying the game nearly in spite of itself, but nevertheless, I enjoyed Etrian Odyssey IV enough to at least see its appeal past its deluge of menus. The approximation of dangerous, fantastical exploration is emulated here with a lot of thoughtful touches that managed to interest me in ways I was skeptical were possible before beginning. If you're new to the series, this is probably the best possible place to start. The presentational upgrades, while still squished under some heavy tedium, make getting in a little friendlier than before. Unless you're a chronic stat-cruncher and menu enthusiast, though, I can't imagine that this incremental and grind-heavy sequel will resonate with you.