(Nintendo 3DS Review) Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan

Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan is the latest in a long-running series of colorful dungeon-crawlers from developer-publisher Atlus. Released on the Nintendo DS back in 2007, the original quickly made a name for itself with its embrace of old-school mechanics and brutal difficulty. Two sequels followed over the next three years, each carrying on the grinding and adventuring traditions of yore. Now that the DS has joined its predecessors in retirement, the series has made the jump to the 3DS, and things have never been better.

There has been a significant amount of design cross-pollination in the role-playing genre since the 1980s. For as much as today’s Western designers have been influenced by the cinematic, far-flung adventures of Final Fantasy, there has been an equal pull amongst Japanese developers towards the cornerstone of Western role-playing games: the dungeon-crawler. In particular, Sir-Tech’s Wizardry series was highly influential when it was released overseas, so much so that Japanese developers took up the series’ mantle and continue the line, having seen it through the 2000s on the PlayStation 2 and up to today, on iOS and PC. Sir-Tech’s design ethos is on full display in Legends of the Titan, and if it wasn’t for the adoption of a wonderfully colorful palette and wacky creature designs, gamers would think they were on their way to Llylgamyn.

Make no mistake, though, Legends of the Titan is much more than a gussied-up clone. Instead of being a mere nostalgic rehash, it is a pitch-perfect amalgam consisting of the charm and imagination of yesteryear’s games and the accessibility and forethought of today’s.

If there is one thing that older role-playing games never fretted about, it was the story. The only thing the player needed to know was that a kingdom was falling, an evil wizard needed to be stopped, or an empire toppled—just because. True to its roots, Legends of the Titan also sets adventurers about on the deadliest of tasks for the most threadbare of reasons. An interesting backstory slowly emerges to the fore, about humans abandoning long-forgotten allies to the Titans, and those allies in turn nursing a now-ancient hatred, but it is slow to progress and so far removed from the day-to-day tasks that it is easily forgotten. Instead, players set forth for the only reasons that they have every needed: experience, loot, and glory.

Quests derive from the capital city of Tharsis. It is from this beacon of humanity amongst an untamed wilderness that the land’s Count holds court and doles out official missions. Whenever he is preoccupied, or simply satisfied with the current state of affairs, a band of hardy explorers can always count on the patrons of the Dancing Peacock to have ready rewards for those prepared to take on their tasks. Given the adventures that awaited, I needed little incentive.

As the leader of a newly established exploration group players must recruit members to form a party. The first course of action is to register new characters at Tharsis’ Explorers Guild. Up to 30 characters can be registered, but only five can be placed in the party. There is no character-creation system as such, but there is some customization during the recruitment process. Each of the ten classes includes male and female counterparts, with two design variations of each: Landsknecht, Nightseeker, Fortress, Sniper, Medic, Runemaster, and Dancer (the other three are story-related unlocks). In more common parlance, the classes roughly break down as follows: warrior, assassin, paladin, ranger, cleric, and bard. It’s a well-rounded assortment, and the seemingly minimal amount of customization is instead actually quite robust thanks to a three-tier skill tree and subclass option.

Each character begins as a blank slate upon which the player can build. An initial allotment of skill points is made available to get the ball rolling, and they can be allocated to the active and passive abilities that make up the Novice tier. As additional experience is earned and new levels reached, more points will become available to improve the available skills, and this progress eventually unlocks two more advanced tiers, Veteran and then Master. There are a variety of skill types available within each tier; some are specific to a tier, some affect individual party members, and still others affect the party as a whole. A good example of the skill spread is Camouflage and Spotter from the Sniper’s party-based abilities pool: Camouflage makes it easier to go undetected inside the labyrinths and caves, and Spotter increases everyone’s hit rate. Customization is further increased by the role equipped weapons play in the skills available to the character. A Landsknecht, for example, can use a shield to bash enemies into a state of physical weakness or two swords to auto-parry attacks. Going further still, they can use swords to attack entire rows of enemies or rapiers to penetrate through the ranks. The interplay between skills and weapons smartly broadens what could have been a very restrictive system, and makes experimentation a constant source of enjoyment.

After getting set up, the party will set roots in Tharsis and, from there, make their way through several cordoned areas filled with treasures and monsters. Each area is dotted with caves to explore, as well as a sizable labyrinth that will test the party’s mettle (and the player’s cartography skills). The caves are actually a series of mazes set in a variety of locations, including jungles, poisonous forests, and yes, underground. By completing the Count’s main quest and felling the boss of the labyrinth, the story progresses and the next area is opened for airship travel. The areas themselves are home to both flora and fauna, with the flora being the locations where the airship can land and vegetable patches that the crew can ransack, and the fauna being either food to capture or beasts to battle. From the airship, all manner of birds, fish, and ungulates can be taken aboard and cooked and eaten for stat boosts (or ailments), sold at Tharsis, traded with two other fellow explorers if they are in need, or catapulted to distract the dangerous beasts that wander the lands. Depending on the upgrades equipped on the airship, other activities can be performed as well, such as using a dowsing rod to check for treasure. There are other area wonders, such as the geopoles that serve as save points and teleporters back to Tharsis, the occasional rare enemy or food, deadly tornadoes, and even lumbering dragons that decimate any poor traveler caught in their path.

Most of a party’s time won’t be spent in the air but on the ground, tackling the various quests. Townsfolk will have family in need of rescue, precious minerals in need of retrieving, monsters in need of slaying, and bagged lunches in need of delivering. As with its predecessors, every unexplored area shows up as a blank grid that slowly fills up as the party makes their way through the bushes. As the party passes over a tile, its color changes to a dark green, while everything else remains a neutral color. To ensure that areas are both fully explored and easier to navigate, a number of icons can be placed on the map tiles to indicate a variety of actions and items: a one-way pass, a minable spot, a replenishing object, a locked treasure chest, a staircase, the exit, and so on. A trail can also be laid to auto-follow, which works well with the auto-attack feature for some item and experience grinding. It pays to go over every tile, too, even if a passageway looks like a dead end. Several nondescript spots will host some surprises, including buried items or a wounded soldier in need of help. Some the game’s funnier moments also occur at these spots, such as the deadly crayfish whose black, beady eyes coldly mocks the careless adventurer who tried to pick it up and quickly suffered a nasty pinch. These surprise moments are entirely text based, a nod to the days when games relied on the imagination to do much of the narrative’s heavy lifting.

These random encounters, as with everything else, can be noted with a variety of icons. Annotating maps properly becomes a significant part of the game, as not every section of a location is always navigable the first time around. Noting staircases, dead-ends, waterways, and mining spots is crucial to actually surviving the trek. The icons used are dragged and dropped onto the map, or removed to a trash bin, and they come in a number of types: stars, pickaxes, hands, arrows, exclamation points, filled and empty circles, etc. Lines can also be drawn to signify boundaries—or whatever the player wishes them to be. The survivalist element enforced by having to fill and detail a map is one of the game’s underlying strengths. Getting lost might be frustrating, but finding the way out and correcting a mismarked map is even more satisfying. There is also a strange sense of accomplishment to go into a cave and see it fully detailed; they can take a lot of work (and deaths). But for all of the humorous asides, minerals to mine, and tiles to mark, the game can never be taken lightly, or safety for granted, because danger lurks everywhere.

Enemies both seen and unseen skulk in every corner of the caves and labyrinths. A meter gauges the level of danger, with each step shifting the color from green to red, depending on what foul beast is nearby. These are the low-end enemies; the real challenge comes from F.O.E.s, a messy acronym for those monstrous enemies who are visible on the playing field. These beasts don’t need to hide because they have little to fear as they are leagues tougher than their shadowy, weaker counterparts. An area is effectively conquered once its F.O.E.s can be taken down with little effort, though it was often satisfying to beat a few to a pulp for all of the times they sent my party limping back to town, down a few members. Once an enemy is engaged, the first-person dungeon view switches to a first-person combat view, with the enemy facing the player’s party. The 3D effect is most pronounced during these moments, with the various interface items popping out in layers, such as the party members’ health bars, the characters’ portraits, and the distance between fore and rear enemies. The game is equally playable without the effect, which was frequently how I played it, but the depth adds a bit of flair.

Combat itself is turn based, though who goes first is only determined once the sides engage one another. This element of randomness requires that players stay on their toes because even seemingly weak enemies can do some serious damage. There were numerous occasions when my high-level party found itself in trouble after being surprised by an enemy’s initial ailment attack. The tiniest creatures can do a serious amount of damage when they unleash piercing and slashing attacks on a sleeping or paralyzed troop. Even with Legends of the Titan‘s concessions to a newer audience unprepared for the grind and difficulty—see: Casual mode, which offers free transports to town whenever a party falls—the game will still allow enemies to get some seriously hard knocks to remind players not to let their guard down.

Even with the game’s numerous intermediate grind sessions, combat remains fresh throughout, thanks to a variety of supplemental mechanics. In addition to each character’s standard attacks and unlockable skills, the party itself has access to a host of Burst moves. These are tiered attacks or buffs that are gradually unlocked during play and unleashed during combat whenever a meter has hit the move’s required level. Not all of those obtained can be equipped at the same time, however, so it will take practice to see which best fit the player’s style. Two earlier Burst moves that saved my party innumerable times were a double slash attack and an increased chance of retreat; given how rarely retreating worked otherwise, I’d say that having it equipped is a must.

The party can also evolve over time through the use of subclasses and retiring. Starting at level 30, characters can retire to a life of leisure, leaving space for a new recruit to take their spot. Retiring is a way to switch out a member that has proved insufficient or to experiment with another class. The trade-off to retiring an old party member is that the new one will start at half the level of their predecessor. The upside is that the newcomer will retain the retiree’s stats and buffs, as well as receive additional skill points and stat bonuses commensurate with the older member’s level. So if players choose to retire a level-30 character, their replacement will start at level 15 while receiving four Skill Points and one point to all stats. Given how long it can take to level advanced characters, receiving a small pile of Skill Points is very tempting. Players who are attached to their party but still want a little variety can assign a subclass to their characters instead. A party member that adopts a subclass will be able to use the weapons and most of the skills of their side profession. There is a nice bump of five Skill Points for adopting a subclass, but there is also a future expense in having to split up subsequent Skill Points between main and sub skills. Another factor to consider is the ceiling imposed on sub-skills that prevent them from leveling above half their full potential. The party can also be left as they are, for those who are satisfied with their characters’ builds.

Grinding in Legends of the Titan allows the party to benefit in multiple ways. In addition to experience points, victory in combat also leads to the party obtaining items that have been salvaged from defeated enemies. The loot is then sold to an armorer in Tharsis who creates the very weapons, items, and armor that the party purchases. This is a fantastic system, as most ingredients are used for something handy, so that even if an enemy party doesn’t offer much experience, their loot might lead to more purchasable medicine or accessories. Most weapons can also be sent to the forge to be enhanced with certain upgrades, such as increased attack or luck and the possibility to bind arms or paralyze. Contrary to many other games, ailments are a potent part of the player’s arsenal, as they land often enough and do enough harm to be a notable factor in combat. Equipping a medic with a knife and sending them to slash at a giant wild cat might not seem wise, but that one quick shot might lead to any number of benefits given that the knife has been forged to possibly poison, bind, or blind the enemy.

For those cases when enemies are simply too weak to put up a challenge, or when the encounter rate ramps up, particularly during the last act, items can be bought and skills used that mask the party from enemies. If those are unavailable, the game’s auto-combat will cause the characters to use their standard attacks to dispatch the enemies without the player having to get involved. Be warned, though, as I found that automating combat can end poorly due to some party-wide spells hitting several times in a row, leaving my fearsome crew to limp back to their airship in shame and on to the clinic at Saehrimnir Inn.

What makes Legends of the Titan so satisfying is that all of the elements matter—nothing is wasted.  Clues from non-playable characters are constantly available to keep up the momentum, while the laddered accessibility of the caves, labyrinths, and class options means that something new is always around the corner. To top it off, a lively soundtrack, which includes some surprising touches of soft jazz and rock, adds personality bit of kick. And taking full advantage of the system’s features, there are also QR Code-accessible downloads that provide a link to the wider world, with Atlus sprinkling new quests and items throughout their websites and players capable of passing along their guild cards via Street Pass. With everything Legends of the Titan has to offer, it’s definitely a battery drainer.

Atlus has a grand adventure in store for gamers with Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan. Whether it’s charting dangerous dungeons, battling giant chameleons, or delivering sack lunches, Legends of the Titan offers a humorous, addictive, and engaging experience for gamers itching to crawl through a few dungeons. The required grinding and increased late-game encounter rate won’t appeal to everyone, but those who heed the call will find an immensely satisfying journey.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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