This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.
After three games worth of trial and error, Etrian Odyssey IV seems to have hit the 'Goldilocks Zone' of RPG difficulty. In other words, it's still pretty tough, but it's not impossible. And for that reason, it's finally reached the point where I can reasonably recommend it to someone other than a hardcore dungeon crawler fanatic.
The crux of EOIV's new accessibility is its casual mode, which makes it to the second high-profile 3DS RPG this year to feature such an option (Fire Emblem: Awakening was the first). The effects are relatively simple: when you die, you'll be whisked back to town, rather than having to start over. In addition, you will be blessed with an item that lets you leave a dungeon at any time.
This would seem to have the effect of making EOIV a tad too easy; but in reality, it makes it compulsive. Rather than getting frustrated by every cheap death and accidental counter with an F.O.E. – minibosses that roam the labyrinth – I've found myself simply rolling up my sleeves and trying again. The result has been much more rapid progress than I've ever experienced before, and a whole lot less in the way of cursing and throwing my 3DS.
Granted, I've still experienced my fair share of untimely deaths, mostly when testing my might against a particularly powerful F.O.E. They're everywhere in this game, from huge moth monsters to giant, horrifying dragons that can swat away your airship like a fly. The mazes still run deep, and oftentimes they will take more than one attempt to complete. Moreover, there will come a point when you hit a wall and need to spend some time leveling (most likely around the third major maze). Luckily, there are plenty of side quests to attempt, which typically include plenty of rewards and powerful (but not impossible) enemies to defeat.
Mostly, I've been struck by how little frustration I've felt like playing Etrian Odyssey IV. This is no small thing given how much heartburn I experienced while playing the first three games in the series. And the thing is, I don't think RPGs need to be excruciatingly difficult to be fun. I think they need only be able to propel you to the next challenge, and to have sufficient depth that they don't become boring within five minutes.
On the first point, Etrian Odyssey IV excels with the help of several rather substantial world maps, each of which can be explored at your leisure in an airship. The best parts of these maps is that they are dotted with optional dungeons, which can be explored at will, and frequently make for a great alternative when you get stuck in one of the main areas. It's not grinding per se; just another thing to find and explore on the map.
As for the second point, the Etrian Odyssey series has never had a problem with depth. Each of the classes are interesting in their own right, ranging from the more traditional tanks to exotic classes like the debuff-oriented Arcanist, each with their own sprawling tech trees. Party composition is just one component of Etrian Odyssey IV that has occupied a lot of my time. Among other things, I'm constantly wondering whether I really need an Arcanist, Elementalist, or even a Medic, since I want to squeeze in more damage whenever possible. I love it dilemmas like these present themselves; more than anything, they are what keep me playing.
If you're wondering why there's been no formal review to this point, it's because EOIV came in rather late (like two days before it was actually released), and I've been spending all my time playing it. Don't worry, I'll have much more to say on this subject soon. But I'll leave you with this thought: There's never been a better time for a casual RPG fan to pick up an 3DS.
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.