Better Late than Never: Etrian Odyssey IV

When I was growing up, I tended to play the games that my older brother purchased for the NES and later the SNES (and later the Playstation). My brother picked up Final Fantasy for NES, and so I would later play Final Fantasy II (IV) after he finished it on SNES. When I later learned of other JRPG franchises, I noticed the Dragon Quest franchise. I don’t think we’d ever played it. And if we did, I don’t remember it. My brother, in some conversation a long time ago by now, mentioned that Final Fantasy had appealed to him over Dragon Quest because in the former you could see your characters while you’re fighting.

And so we became two of millions of Final Fantasy fans.

This post isn’t about the Final Fantasy series, for once. Nor is it even about Dragon Quest. I just wanted to bring attention to the way Dragon Quest presents its battles for most of the series (up until IX, I believe?). You only see the enemy. You don’t see your own characters. Later on you’d get to see graphical displays of the spells you cast and so on. Such a way of presenting battles never really appealed to me.

Nor has first person dungeon crawling. I despise the first person perspective in video games. I could do a whole post on just why I do, but I’ll keep it short here. I find it incredibly disorienting when you can’t see your character on the map. Especially in games with platforming elements that use the first person perspective. It drives me absolutely nuts. It annoys me even more when you see you’re the characters hands spread out in front of the camera. Yes, I get that’s how real life is, but I don’t play video games to experience realistic things. I grew up playing games that use a third person point of view, and that’s what I prefer.

eo4 battle

Taking these two preferences into consideration, I had fair reason to be indifferent to the Etrian Odyssey series for the Nintendo DS. The games are based off of the old Western RPG Wizardry, which has you navigating a maze in the first person view. Unlike a game like, say, Final Fantasy VI, where you have a nice top-down view to show you other paths and corridors as you explore, first person dungeon crawlers only show you what’s right ahead of you. Back in the day, people would whip out graph paper to map dungeons in these kinds of games.

Etrian Odyssey lets you do that on the bottom screen of the DS. It’s brilliant, when you think about it. To this day, I think this series makes one of the best uses of the DS’s (and 3DS’s) bottom screen. Yet even that touch of design brilliance wasn’t enough to get me to play. Everyone told me the games were balls to the wall-levels of difficult, and that’s not really what I look for in games.

eo4 mapping

I really like the game’s character designs, too! I have no problem whatsoever with the somewhat “cutesy” designs that JRPGs tend to have. I like how the artist for the series draws adorable characters… and then draws horribly grotesque monstrosities using the same bright colors. There’s a weird level of dissonance there that makes the more freaky monster designs in the game even moreso.

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Meanwhile, a good friend of mine who absolutely loves the series has been telling epic tales of dungeon exploration and triumphs over impossible odds for the past six years. Etrian Odyssey III looked tempting, but it came out during a time when I wasn’t really in the mood to play games. Not even two years later, Etrian Odyssey IV was announced. This is the series’ debut on the 3DS, and the graphics were even upgraded to include 3D graphics for all enemies in battles. I’m not a graphics-obsessed gamer, but that seemed pretty cool.

What forced my hand, at last, however, was the inclusion of casual mode. Finally, a mode for lazy people beginners like me! I decided that this would be my entry into the series. And so, in early February of this year when the demo for EOIV came out, I downloaded it to my 3DS. I happily set the difficulty to casual and began my adventure.

…Man, were battles ever boring on that mode. I made a team of 7 characters, one for each class offered in the game. The maximum party size in the game is 5. The demo lets you explore a side dungeon, the first area of the world map, and the first floor of the first major labyrinth in the game. I was surprised at just how easy casual mode was turning out to be. Battles felt pretty mindless, to say the least, and I felt that I wasn’t using my characters’ full potential.

So I switched to Normal mode. Things were just fine from then on. To be fair, starting on casual mode let me level up more easily and thus made the usually difficult early start of the game much easier. After that point, however, it was just me and my 5-person party. One thing I quickly noticed is that the game is very good about throwing increasingly difficult challenges at the player. Everything is about escalation. The game seems to be saying to the player, “So you were able to overcome this challenge. Now, how about this?” But I never felt that the game was being overly unfair. In almost all cases where an obstacle was thrown in my way, I realized that the game gave me hints of some sort to help me deal with it. The in-game map that the player fills in herself is a crucial tool meant for dealing with the challenges of the game’s many dungeons.

The game also does a good job of keeping the playing experience fresh and new. I still remember the sense of accomplishment I felt after beating the first labyrinth, which then unlocked the second area of the game’s world map. As I directed my skyship (which you get to name) through the ravine to a place called the Scarlet Pillars, I felt a kind of awe at how different and mysterious it was. Yuzo Koshiro’s amazing soundtrack only made this experience even more striking. I got a similar feeling when I hit the 3rd world map area. And just when I thought I was a seasoned enough adventurer that nothing could surprise me, the 4th world map area managed to still throw a curveball at me! It was nice how the game kept me guessing and always had new things to throw at me.

My only gripe would be that the final labyrinth was somewhat of a letdown. Earlier games in the series have 25 floors of labyrinth to explore in the main game. This was changed when the world map was added in Etrian Odyssey IV, and the end result seems to be fewer labyrinth floors to explore overall.

Another aspect of the game I want to highlight is how you create your party in the game. This seems to be one of the most loved aspects of the series for diehard Etrian Odyssey fans. Etrian Odyssey IV has ten different character classes, each class having their own abilities and specialties in (and sometimes out) of battle. Each class then has four different designs: 2 males, 2 females. Since the third game in the series, alternate colors for each character are also available, which adds more diversity. At the beginning of the game, the character picks from the available classes to make a team. Only 7 of the 10 classes are available at first, so I decided to make one character for each. You also get to name them, which is pretty nice. This all guarantees that no two people will have the same party, even if they use the same 5 classes. It’s fun to see what class combinations other people use.

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The characters themselves have no dialogue, and the game itself isn’t that heavy on story. Most of the story is enacted through text and non-playable characters who move the plot forward through their actions. The result of this approach to the story is that a lot is left up to the player’s imagination. In many cases, the game will describe an event, and it’s up to the player to visualize that in their heads. It might sound lazy, but I personally enjoyed it. It reminded me of when I played SNES RPGs and had to fill in a lot of what was being portrayed on screen through the use of simple sprites and 16-bit graphics with my own imagination.

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Another result of the game being less story heavy is that the game is really easy to pick up and play. You don’t have to worry about getting bogged down with long cutscenes or sequences of dialogue. Most of the time when you’re playing, you’re jumping right into the world map or right into a labyrinth to explore and fight enemies. It was incredibly refreshing for me despite the fact that I like a lot of story-heavy games.

As for the first person view in battle systems, I found that I didn’t really mind that, either. Spell effects look cool enough, and even regular attacks have animations good enough to satisfy me. I also realize that when it comes to playing Japanese RPGs, only one thing really matters to me: how many numbers I can get to appear on screen at once. Etrian Odyssey IV definitely delivers in that department! What I enjoyed most of all was planning out what abilities to have my team learn, and building my team around everyone’s abilities. It reminded me of Final Fantasy V, in many ways, which is always a good thing for me.

First-person dungeon crawling turns out to not really bother me, either. Being able to map on the bottom screen makes exploring a ton of fun. I felt really accomplished when I finished mapping a given area. And since it’s simple movement from tile to tile, I don’t find it disorienting. It also helps that you can’t see your character’s hand floating in front of them. Thank goodness for that. That might’ve been a deal breaker for me.

Overall, I really enjoyed Etrian Odyssey IV. So much, in fact, that I went and purchased Etrian Odyssey III. Part of me wonders if EOIV was just going easy on me, and EOIII will kick my butt. I suppose we’ll see, once I get started on it. I’m also looking forward to the remake of the first game in the series that was just announced in Japan.

Etrian Odyssey IV is looking to be a contender for my favorite game of this year. It was a challenging game, but challenging in a way that made surmounting those challenges feel rewarding. The game never really felt overly unfair, and the player is given a wide array of tools to deal with all of the obstacles the game throws out. I loved being able to fly on the world map, and exploring dungeons while mapping kept me engaged with the game. I’d recommend this game to anyone who likes JRPGs and isn’t a stickler for cutting edge graphics. Even if dungeon crawling isn’t your thing, Etrian Odyssey games seem to have a knack for making exploration in this manner really interesting.

Also, if you already own the game, you can scan this QR thingy to get my guild’s card!

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