When most people think of retro horror movies, they think of something like "Jaws," "The Exorcist" or "Halloween." For some -- maybe film buffs or those who have simply been around a little longer -- a retro horror movie is "Frankenstein," "Dracula" or "Nosferatu" from long, long ago.
In similar fashion, when most people think of retro role-playing games, in the unlikely event they do at all, they think of something like "Chrono Trigger," "Final Fantasy III" or "Secret of Mana." For old-timers, though, a retro RPG is "Wizardry," "The Bard's Tale" or "Might and Magic," from a decade earlier. These '80s computer games are like the Old Testament to their '90s progeny's New Testament. They were a lot less user-friendly, but there was a power mystique to them, and their harshness meant those who stuck with them were rewarded with a sense of accomplishment that was hard to find in games 10 years later, and is almost extinct today.
"Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan" begins with the kind of lovely music and halcyon graphics that suggest this is another tribute to the "Chrono Trigger" era. But "Etrian Odyssey" is less a piece of escapism than an abduction. It drops you off in unfamiliar territory with very little guidance. The game, which has no manual, starts by making you choose between Casual difficulty and Normal difficulty. The description of Casual mode makes it sound like it's for people who don't know which is the A button, but then when you choose normal, it says, "May you enjoy a pressure-filled, intense adventure." Great.
Several similarly disorienting choices follow. There are no premade characters; you have to design your own party members, from what they look like to what type they are (soldier, archer, magician, etc.) to what their name is. Then you're given a small allowance with which to outfit them, choosing from a large selection of arms, armor, magic rings and more. Then you're given a different list of potential skills for each character to be good at, and forced to make hugely influential choices before you've even had your first fight.
|'Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan'|
|» System: 3DS|
|» Price: $39.99|
|» Rating: 3 out of 5 stars|
After all these roadblocks, the game finally begins, giving you the biggest shock of all: It's in first-person. You're not moving a character around on a map like you do in most games; you're seeing the world from your party's perspective, and can only move one "block" at a time, north, south, or west. So the game is effectively a big maze. How are you supposed to keep track of where you are?
Believe it or not, there was a time when players were expected to pull out graph paper and make a map based on the first-person perspectives they saw on the screen. For some people, this would be a chore; for others, it's fun. "Etrian Odyssey" softens the blow by letting you draw your map on the lower screen of the 3DS, while the upper screen shows your view. This isn't just-old school. It's practically school. But going through these motions involves you in the game's world in a practical, ground-level way that will refresh those who haven't experienced this type of RPG.
Whether it's exploration or battling, the game is unforgiving. But at a time when games are all too happy to take the reins from you, here's a game that doesn't play itself. For a change.