Etrian Odyssey has been pleasing fans of classic dungeon crawls for years, delivering throwback gameplay punctuated with modern design enhancements. The fourth installment makes the move to the 3DS hardware, and brings with it some well-thought-out improvements to its formula. The result is the most engaging and accessible game yet in the franchise and an excellent example of how games built on classic concepts can still feel fresh.
The setup to EOIV mirrors that of the previous games in the series. You control a guild of explorers (all named and chosen by you), and you are new to the city of Tharsis, a bustling hub of trade and exploration. In the distance towers the great Yggdrasil tree, which has remained inaccessible for centuries and hides some manner of secrets lost to time. The routes to Yggdrasil aren't clear, and the lands are dangerous, with monsters and terrifying beings roaming the skies, the underground, and everywhere in between. It seems as though some of the world's labyrinths contain secrets pertaining to Yggdrasil, and it's up to your guild to brave the dangers of both the overworld and the underworld to find the truth behind the tree's seclusion and the legendary Titan.
Etrian Odyssey is modeled on the first-person-view role-playing games of yore. There are few non-player characters to interact with and only a handful of hub areas in the game that allow you to recover, buy items and gear, undertake side quests, and collect hints. Furthermore, the characters within your guild are warriors of your own design, with no real personality to speak of beyond what you imagine them to be. Yet the world itself tells its own story through its lands, dungeons, puzzles, and dangers. Brief bits of narration give context to your actions, and the handful of NPCs you encounter throughout expand upon the lore without sounding like living infodumps.
You spend the majority of the game exploring various caves and dungeons, looking for treasures, events, materials, and solutions to help you proceed. Dungeons and caves are presented in a first-person perspective, and you wander through them step-by-step. RPGs from bygone days often required you to have hand-drawn graph paper maps at the ready, but Etrian Odyssey IV comes with an indispensable mapping feature to chart out the mazes you explore, enabling you to mark points of interest and hazards like damage traps and warps. As the mazes increase in complexity, so too do your maps, so keeping them constantly updated is vital to happy exploration.
As in any RPG worth its salt, these areas are also teeming with monsters hungry for unaware explorers. Encounters are random (though a radar appears onscreen to let you know the likelihood of one happening), and combat is turn-driven and menu-based. Enemies are now fully animated, which helps a lot during fights: it's easy to see at a glance if an enemy is hurt or ailing and act accordingly. Don't expect to simply mash A through combat, though: even the rank-and-file foes in Etrian Odyssey IV can pose a serious threat if you're not paying attention to their behavior and their unique quirks. It's not uncommon to be badly burned after underestimating a never-before-seen enemy in a new area. Burst skills, which require spending meters that build up as you fight, can help even the odds if you're in trouble, but their limited usage requires careful consideration before going all out.
Conquering foes requires careful character planning. Because the characters are mostly blank slates (aside from a few NPCs later on that you can potentially recruit), you are responsible for developing their abilities through various skill sets. The presentation of the skills has improved vastly from previous EO games, with easy-to-follow trees replacing the confusing lists from games past. Each level-up grants skill points that can be applied to purchase or upgrade class-specific skills for each character, allowing you to specialize each warrior to your personal tastes. Later in the game, characters can also adopt a subclass to bolster their skills and create some potentially lethal fighting combinations. Some skills require certain gear to be equipped, so keeping tabs on characters' weapons and armaments is also important. New to the game are rare weapons and armor that bestow additional skills upon their user, sometimes granting abilities outside of a character's chosen class.