I first got into the Etrian Odyssey series about a year or so ago when I picked up EO III. I had been wanting to play it for a while but never really got a chance to before then. I wanted to play a turn based RPG and that's what I got.
However, what sets Etrian Odyssey apart from most RPGs is the sheer amount of control you have over the dungeon map. Making notes on your map is not really anything new, I think one of the Legend of Zelda games is the game that used the DS hardware to do that first. However, EO managed to take that to a whole new level. In EO they not only give you a means to take notes on the map, but they also give you a multitude of icons and colors with which to decorate your map. And since they don't actually tell you what all the icons are for (although most can be implied) you're free to assign your own meaning to them.
Something new to this installment of the EO series is something resembling a world map. The previous games consisted of one giant dungeon where as you progressed you would gain access to teleporters that would send you to certain floors (Yes, very similar to Persona 3.) In fact the dungeon was the focus of the entire game, everything else is reduced to menus so that more resources could be put into developing the dungeon. And I must say that the dungeons turned out rather impressive. If you've played SMT: Strange Journey you'd know how things worked (in fact, EO did it first). The dungeon is grid based and you navigate it in first person. There are also both random encounters and roaming enemies; the later being the reason for the grid based dungeon.
The roaming enemies deserve a section of their own. FOEs (Formido Oppugnatura Exsequens) will wreck your party if you do are not at least ten levels above the dungeon level. If you're doing decently against the standard random encounters then the FOE will probably be killing your party members in one hit, possibly more than one per action. Although it is usually possible to run if one manages to catch you, they manage to cause a tension that you usually don't see in RPGs. As IOSYS kindly points out.
With regards to combat there's several viable parties in this game, some are easier to run than others. I personally decided to use a party consisting of 5 Night seekers so my entire strategy is based on inflicting status ailments. Strangely enough, this party does fairly well, even against bosses as I have managed to get to the third major boss of the game (about half way through) using this strategy. I was considering running a team using runemasters (the casting class of the game) but I don't think they could be anywhere as much fun as the team of Zodiacs I had in EO III so I decided against it.
Speaking of that Zodiac team, it seems that the skills in EO IV have less combo possiblities than they did in EO III. Maybe it's just me but in EO IV I had a team of 5 Zodiac/Ninja. (Yes, there's dual classing in this series. I don't know when they started using it because I haven't finished EO I and II yet.) And when I combined those two classes I managed to create one of the most efficient glass cannon teams I've ever seen. High damage from the magic, both elemental and meteor, the ability to reduce your casting cost to 10 MP per turn (spend 10 mp once and the rest of your spells are free for the turn), absurd dodging ability, and the ninja ability that restored your MP every time you successfully dodged. That team was insane.
The current team I'm running in EO IV isn't quite as insane, for the most part the strategy is to just get a status on all the enemies and then just attack until they're dead. The Night Seeker has an ability to let them null physical attacks, and since I'm subclassing some of the party as Arcanists I can put out persistant ailment effects that heal me (dropping the ability ticks once at the end of each turn for 3 turns to try to inflict a status, then it heals the party a bit). But it's not quite as insane as what I had going in EO III. I think that the developers might have wanted to tone down the ability comboing you could do in this iteration so it might be intentional.
Moving on to the graphics, the dungeons look a lot less flat than they did in the earlier versions. The FOEs that I mentioned earlier now show up as fully animated 3d models as opposed to the orange puff balls they were in earlier games. The new FOE look and the animated turn based combat look very good and the game gives you the ability to move the first person view around so you can take in all the scenery using the 3DS's 3d. The character portraits are very anime with the usual stereotypical design cliches (not that it's a bad thing) and the menus look much smoother than they did in the earlier games.
I have left the best part of this game for last. When I first got to play this game, one thing completely blew me away. The music. A huge amount of work went into the soundtrack of this game. The music of the first dungeon made a huge impression. Birds were incorperated into the music at very appropriate times and the music style was very appropriate for a non-threatening forest dungeon.
|+ Great music|
+ Class combinations allow for interesting combat strategies
+ The graphics have noticably improved from EO III
|- The classes aren't as fun to work with as they were in EO III|
- Dungeons feel a little linear.
Final Grade: A-
Etrian Odyssey is a good series, but it isn't for everyone. I'd actually recommend it to the MMORPG crowd as a lot of the party maximization is very reminicant of optimizing a character.
Etrian Odyssey is for the OCD in all of us.