I’ve tried in the past to get into first-person dungeon crawlers. Really tried. The genre is known for a decent level of challenge and an oftentimes worthwhile narrative. Yet most first-person dungeon crawlers lack the modern polish I need to go the distance. I’ve sunk some hours into games like Strange Journey, Persona, and Wizardry, yet none of them have so vigorously grabbed me like Etrian Odyssey IV has.
In the game you assume the role of a silent, invisible guild leader in the bustling outpost of Tharsis. You lead one of many guilds venturing into the uncharted surrounding dungeons, seeking the secrets of the legendary tree Yggdrasil. Right off the bat you’ll be prompted to make a team of units to support your explorations.
Your team’s synergy is important in Etrian Odyssey IV, so deciding how to allocate skill points requires some thought. Thankfully it’s easy to plot out a character’s growth using clearly defined skill trees — a welcomed first for the series. I was also relieved to find several optional ways to reset skill points and even combine jobs. This flexibility took away my anxiety about making a permanent mistake. Instead I had a blast experimenting with my party’s cohesion.
Dungeon exploration is entirely first person. Movement is restricted to a grid system where one step is equal to one square on the grid. It’s not the most thrilling way to experience a dungeon, not gonna lie. What keeps it interesting for me is the ability to map each dungeon using the 3DS’s touch screen. You can even setup automated paths that can be toggled on and off. I came to take pride in my mapping skills, penning flawless recreations that became an asset when questing.
Dungeons vary in size, yet all feature certain elements. Most frighteningly: FOEs, or boss monsters visibly moving in time with each step the player takes. Early on these enemies are simply unbeatable and avoiding them becomes a mini-game in itself. This only made coming back later and killing them that much more rewarding. And hunting down FOEs was a good source of powerful gear. Each felled enemy drops an item which, when sold, increases Tharsis’ weapon shop offerings. This system is dangerous. Getting greedy and attempting to take on a FOE before I was ready caused no small number of game overs. But that’s part of the fun. You can choose to gamble with the possibilities of both total demise and great rewards.
The thrill of outrunning FOEs can also be enjoyed by traveling in your airship, a vehicle used to traverse the game’s overworld where new mazes are discovered. FOEs on the world map are considerably larger than those in dungeons, so avoiding them was very important early on. Luckily these FOEs have one major weakness: food. (Hey, that’s my weakness too.) Food items gathered from the world map can be dropped or launched in the path of a FOE. If the FOE likes the snack you threw at them, they’ll stop to eat, allowing you to sneak past. This engaging system made the world map feel like an extension of dungeons, where the player has to tread carefully and use their head.
Battles are also first person, with 3D enemies (a first for the series) taking center stage. The player can select actions for their team of five (or less) in turn based combat. In addition to weapon skills, a number of passive abilities and support skills come into play, turning battles into a strategic orchestra. Knowing your enemy’s weakness is important, as it can end a battle quickly and earn rare drops. Let me give you an example. There’s this Chameleon boss in one of the last dungeons you’ll need to explore. If left to its own devices this Chameleon will turn invisible, raising its evasion significantly. By paralyzing this enemy, it wouldn’t be able to pull off this move, thus drawing out the battle. I’d also consistently get a rare drop — the Chameleon’s paralyzed tongue. Each dungeon becomes an exercise in matching an enemy with a weakness, and this level of awareness is nicely rewarded.
On your quest towards the legendary tree Yggdrasil you’ll discover lands and peoples unknown to even the inhabitants of Tharsis. You’ll also cross paths with several NPCs on their own journeys. Each step that brings you closer to Yggdrasil will further reveal their intentions. Some characters will join your cause, others will inevitably become obstacles. The different peoples and factions you encounter, often for the first time, make the world of Etrian Odyssey IV feel both immense and mysterious.
When it comes to Etrian Odyssey IV‘s presentation, my favorite element is the fully orchestrated soundtrack by acclaimed composer Yuzo Koshiro. These tracks, which have replaced the traditional FM synth sounds used in previous games, are incredibly catchy. I often found that after any lengthy dungeon crawl I’d be humming that dungeon’s theme to myself the rest of the day. The above song especially made an impact.
Etrian Odyssey IV made me feel like an explorer, treading unfamiliar territory where my survival hinged on map management, my party’s cohesion, and good decision making. Despite a healthy challenge (I didn’t try the new Beginner mode), the game never felt unfair. Finally a slew of modernizations streamlined gameplay and put everything in a more presentable package. Etrian Odyssey IV not only advances the series, but makes the first person dungeon crawler genre more accessible and enjoyable.