the first dozen hours: Etrian Odyssey 4

I’ve had my 3DS for a few weeks now, and I must say I’ve been pretty happy with the experience overall – even if the 3D does weird things to my eyes after a while.  The Streetpass feature is pretty neat.  I think I’ve mentioned that I don’t often see people using 3DSs on the subway, but clearly people are bringing them along in their bags or something, because almost every day I pick up 3 or 4 Tags, which is neat.

The game I’ve spent the most time with thus far comes as a big surprise (to me, at least) is Etrian Odyssey 4, which I’ve been playing rather obsessively for the last week or so.   I’d figured, since I’d had such a disappointing experience with Ni No Kuni, that I’d lost interest in JRPGs; but as it turns out, all I need was a breath of fresh air and a completely different context.

EO4 is a radically different experience from pretty much every other RPG I’ve ever played, even if it feels bewitchingly familiar.  It’s a first-person grid-based dungeon crawler (similar to something like Legend of Grimrock), with a turn-based random encounter battle system (much like, well, most old-school JRPGs) – but the key difference is that it also features a map-making system that encourages you to be as detailed as possible.  This comes in handy, as you might imagine, since you’ll frequently go through each maze more than once, and things that you might’ve noticed as odd or significant may end up being important on a 2nd visit.

The game also does a terrific job of making grinding as hassle-free as possible, which is something that I very much appreciate.  For one thing, you can create auto-pilot routes through each maze, which speeds things along quite nicely; for another, you can choose to auto-pilot your way through each random encounter, which makes going through easy enemies much quicker and doesn’t deplete your TP reserves (TP being what you use to activate special skills in battle).

The battles that you do choose to pay attention to, though, are a lot of fun to engage in.  It’s not just mindless button presses – that’s what the auto-pilot mode is for, after all.  Tougher enemies require strategic planning, and the variety of skills you can use mean there’s lots of different tactics you can employ.

The graphics are a little weird, I suppose.  The 3D screen makes battles look like active dioramas, with detailed monsters bobbing and weaving against rather dreary backgrounds.  Indeed, the actual 3D mazes you explore are surprisingly drab and ugly as compared to the rather crisp 2D character drawings; I’m not sure if the art style is meant to be consistent with earlier titles in the franchise (as I’ve never played them) but as an EO neophyte I’m not particularly impressed.  Still, I’m not staying with this game for the graphics.

Nor am I sticking with it for the story, although that may very well be because the story is just now – after a dozen hours of playtime – coming into focus.   In the early going, I was simply assembling my crew to go out on little missions for the local town – and that was enough, frankly.  Now – in the dungeon I literally just discovered about an hour ago – there seem to be larger, world-shaking forces at work, and I suppose I’ll need to save the world somewhere down the line.

One word of caution, in case you read this and decide to check it out – the game doesn’t explain itself particularly well in the beginning.  The very first thing you do is assemble a crew as part of a guild, and the types of crewmember are not necessarily self-explanatory.  (For example, the main melee fighter in your party is called a Landsknecht.  This is, in fact, a real thing, but I had to look it up on Wikipedia.)  Once you finish building your guild, you’ll find yourself in another set of menus – which is actually how you interact with the town.  The menus are a bit obtuse at first, but you get used to them with time.

I’d heard that one of the trademarks of this franchise is its punishing difficulty, which is why I’m grateful that there’s a “Casual” mode – which is still plenty difficult, mind you.  You can’t save mid-labyrinth without going back to town and then re-tracing your steps, which is a drag – especially as you have a limited inventory and it gets full very quickly.  (As a matter of fact, I’m about to go up against a boss, and I’m probably not going to make it – I never had a chance to go back to town, and my party has almost no TP left, and I could very much use some refreshment.)

In any event, I’m really enjoying my experience, and I’d highly recommend it if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing.

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