You’d think drawing your own grid-maps would be tedious, but the map is one of the coolest details in Etrian Odyssey IV. The giant, dangerous FOEs who move around the labyrinths even while you are busy in random battles make having the map on your lower screen especially interesting, and it’s extremely tense to have a random battle start with even the weakest enemies when a FOE is just two or three squares away from you–if it catches up, it’ll crash the party, and you’ll have to fight both it and what you were already fighting at the same time!
Although certain character builds and party combinations show up far more than others, all the classes are really interesting and practical in some form, which meant I had to spend far too many hours in order to put my party together. I spent a good deal of time with every class, at least in its subclass form, and my final party strategy required a convoluted binding, elemental weakness-changing, priming, combo linking, elemental damage onslaught, sometimes with multiple setup rounds. Although a lot of it was relatively by-the-book, gleaned from forum posts and advice, a surprising amount of decision-making went into every skill point, especially when you can only have three buffs on a single character. Most build ideas are bad ideas, but there were plenty enough workable alternatives to make me feel satisfied–I could’ve made a totally viable, synergistic party out of an entirely different set of five classes, and I know this for a fact, because I built a solid B-team just to find out.
Random battles felt far more like solving a puzzle than the “grind and be conservative with your mana” busywork of the standard JRPG, and that needs to be praised. Especially in the postgame dungeon. You’d get into a battle with a powerful sleeping lion, a mage who could buff and wake the lion, and a little electric gel monster who would transform and go nuts if any of his allies died. Suddenly you’re running this game-theory in your head, like, okay, if I kill the mage first, I have to deal with the gel monster, but can I bring down the gel while it’s on the back row and then hit the mage before the lion wakes up on its own? Or should I try to bind the mage on the first turn, leave it alive, and then hit the gel? The only problem was that sometimes the very next battle would be the exact same combination of enemies, which is something a puzzle game would never do. But since you might instead get the tank-bug enemy who forces you to hit him, or the dragonfly who gets a damage boost when you hit his allies, or the mushroom that paralyzes your party if you don’t kill him in one shot… I would’ve preferred a lower encounter rate, but it managed to stay interesting long enough to map the dungeon.
The conditional loot drops and the forging system were cool, too: think that fire dragon’s hard? Try killing him with fire, the element he resists. You’ll need to if you want him to drop his best item. Usually this meant the classic Pokemon strategy of beating a monster to near-death and wrapping it up with silly moves instead of a pokeball, but with five people in your party, it also means anticipating the turn order and skill priorities of your fighters, so that sniper shot isn’t overkill before the link attack sets it up, or before you throw down some formaldehyde or whatever to guarantee a drop.
The labyrinth decision-making and gameplay always communicated a feeling to me: “Life is hard; we have to do what we can for each other.” No good deed is forgotten, and while this would feel trivial in an easier game, here it makes every elective battle on behalf of someone else a resonant, ludonarratively consonant experience. When guards lined up to thank me for things I’d done for them in earlier labyrinths, I was moved by it. In fact, I have really fond feelings about all the NPCs of Tharsis, despite them not really getting into stressful situations with me, the way a party member might in another, less player-customized RPG. You’re not generally expected to bond with the people in town. But everyone was really welcoming, and really reinforced the game’s central message of working together: the harder the game was, the better it felt to have a port in the storm. The cool, occasionally sentimental woman running the bar, Kirtida, who always had high standards for the Ownicon Guild, was probably my favorite character. Wynne, the girl who was overeager about forging, was great too. And despite his appearance, the Count was really everything one could ask for in a political leader. I’m glad I got these kinds of positive sentiments out of the game instead of some bad cutscene-heavy anime storyline.
The soundtrack was perfect. I think I’ll be popping on the youtube playlist every so often for a while to come. I fell for the first Labyrinth theme immediately–it has a really beautiful quality to it that makes me think of Miyazaki or something (the motif gets around, too). But the leitmotif makes Labyrinth V, especially, a real masterpiece, and I come through it feeling like some sort of triumphant warrior-king. The “Super Arrange Version” of various songs is hit-or-miss, for me, but some of those covers are wonderful. This one, for example.
On the other hand: I can’t believe they let the music get interrupted and restarted whenever the game was saved. It was such a small thing, but so annoying that I’d be reluctant to invest time in another Etrian Odyssey without a guarantee that it doesn’t do that. The daytime town theme was this fantastic, sunny thing that made me think of something off Richie Havens’ Mixed Bag, only without the undertone of depression. But it was ruined for me by the constant restarting when I saved, or moved out of the bar or the explorer’s guild or wherever. And when I’m fighting four or five FOEs on the world map, I’m saving between each one of them. The fourth land has a great theme, but it’s really painful to keep prematurely returning to that overt brass intro in-game. The labyrinth themes actually resume where they’d left off after a random encounter, which is wonderful. I just wished the soundtrack would do that in other places, too.
On mapping, I would’ve liked to write longer notes, and to have had a more exhaustive set of dungeon icons. But I also kind of liked coming up with my own design language, and liked seeing how other players online used certain symbols differently. More tile colors might’ve helped, but having your map get a little messy (four colors with which to indicate ground, water, poison hazards, FOE-territory, teleport squares, maybe more) might just be part of the experience. The autopilot feature was kind of neat, but I never really used it after the first dungeon.
The biggest problem, though, was easily the obfuscation of a lot of skill information. I probably googled my way into a hundred different gamefaqs forum threads about how such-and-such stacked with this-and-that, and constantly relied on a website build-simulator that was loaded with question marks for how certain skills worked at different levels, sometimes putting me completely in the dark about the usefulness of a point in something, usually because of wildly random diminishing returns. Considering forum posts saying that certain passive skills were bugged and didn’t even do anything to evasion rates etc., and that a person playing blind would probably never figure that out, the game should’ve received a patch or two.
EO4 is a really stand-up title for the dungeon-crawling genre, but sometimes, early on, I regretted buying it once I knew what kind of time commitment it would require, and knowing how many other games were competing for my attention. I put it down for over half a year, at least, and when I finally gave it my attention, I powered through it, it felt almost as if I was trying to rip off a bandaid, running the stressful Labyrinths II to VI in two weeks of doing almost literally only that. Once you’re through, it’s nearly impossible to regret the experience as a whole, but getting another person to play the game could almost be seen as cursing them: shackling them to something long and stress-inducing. If you’re accustomed to using story as an excuse to push through a JRPG’s tedious grind, that also likely won’t help here, with EO4’s minimalist offerings.
I’d also rather not praise a game that embraces “old-school” design when old-school generally happens to be easier, cheaper, and less imaginative, but EO4 is this sort of game, and it happened to win me over anyway–eventually. It’s the best at what it does, but what it does is sometimes lazy. I only recommend it if you’re really patient, truly enjoy hardcore dungeon-crawling games like Legend of Grimrock, and aren’t weighed down by guilt when the dust settles and you realize you’ve spent entire days of your life comparing skills and fighting the same bosses again for rare drops. If you’re tired of the old-school and you’re looking for something fresh, look elsewhere. If you’re looking to play a JRPG anyway, and you’re looking for the fruit that’s tastier for having been earned, welcome aboard.