Atlus have a fine track record on Nintendo's touchscreen handhelds, including the excellent Shin Megami-related role-players, and the compulsive, stylised Trauma Centre surgery romps. The Etrian Odyssey series is another gem, with tough-as-old-boots dungeon crawling the order of the day, put together by the director of the Trauma Centre titles and featuring a healthy dose of aural pleasure courtesy of the legendary Yuzo Koshiro - the genius behind the brilliantly innovative Streets of Rage soundtrack. The DS games have been uniformly enjoyable across the board.
Legends of the Titan does not disappoint. Although it features turn-based battles, this is about as far from a formulaic JRPG as you can imagine. In fact, it has a lot more in common with the kinds of dungeon-exploring games that you would have played on your Commodore Amiga back in the day. For starters, there is pretty much bugger all in terms of a complicated, sweeping plot and well developed characters. You know that you are part of a guild on a mission to reach the Yggdrasil - a magical tree that is purportedly the origin of humanity - but the characters you do this with are defined by their battle class rather than their unique personalities. Along the way, NPCs reveal lots of background information on the legendary tree and why you are crawling towards it, battle by battle, and it IS mildly diverting - but this is a game more concerned with dungeon crawling gameplay and the wonderful cartography elements (seriously!) to be bothered about delivering a ripping yarn.
You kick things off by choosing a party of four from the different class types available. Although their names may sound a bit fruity, there is nothing here you wouldn't have seen before - for "Landsknecht", read sword-wielding all-rounder, for "Runemaster" you get an aggressive magician type. You get to name your crew, but must avoid anything offensive if you want your characters to be involved in the online Guild-sharing functionality. You can also chop and change your party between missions, so if you get fed up with your Sniper and fancy changing up for a Bushi, you can do so to your heart's content.
Action begins with a tutorial level, which finds your gang immediately confronted by randomly-appearing beasties in the beautiful-looking first-person maze view. The static character portraits are Atlus 101, as anyone who has played their other titles will attest, but during the core action it looks utterly sublime, and coupled with Koshiro's spectacular multi-layered soundtrack this is an aesthetic tour de force.
You are shown how the game works in this first lush section of hostile jungle, including the awesome focus on home-made map making. As you explore an uncharted dungeon, you are given icons and a legend on the bottom of the clamshell that allow you to mark your progress and help make your way through the labyrinthine environments that bit easier. Since the original DS first appeared, the lower screen has always had excellent potential for this type of thing. A bit of crude drawing on Zelda: Phantom Hourglass aside, this is the first time yours truly can recall being this enamoured by mapping things with a stylus. It is a throwback to when you would actually do something similar using a piece of paper and - shock, horror - a pen!
Random battles are unavoidable - but then you have the series staple and Etrian's way of handling boss encounters: the FOES. Basically a more powerful, badass enemy that is visible on your map, it is often your choice whether to confront a FOE, given that they either move in a set pattern or can be avoided by simply running away from them if they do actively pursue you. Confronting a FOE depends on whether you are powerful enough to take them down. You quickly find out that, after just half an hour of romping through the forest, you are horribly ill-equipped to handle the giant bear-creature that lurches toward you out of the leafy undergrowth. A bit of a grind is necessary to reach the required level, but the rewards can be great, with FOES yielding tasty treasures. Thanks to the fast-moving combat, the prospect of grinding is an enjoyable one. There is a branching skills tree that allows you to add new abilities to your repertoire, as well as new classes to be unlocked - and of course it means you get to make more crazy maps.
Turn-based combat is governed by traditional RPG elemental attacks and status ailments, and made more interesting by the Burst gauge that allows you to unleash special attacks and skills once it is filled. Going out for a grind is made more palatable by the brisk pace of the fights and the ability to speed things up by using a handy "auto fight" feature. You will meet plenty of easy sword fodder on your way to the tougher battles so this is a boon. It is incredibly difficult on the standard setting; however, you can change the difficulty at will. Much the same way that Fire Emblem allows you to remove perma-death, you can switch to an option here that will simply take your party back to the town hub with no HP once they get greased. Of course, it is much more satisfying to play on the higher difficulty.
Out into the wider game world, you take control of an airship to go exploring the skies. The further you progress, the further your balloon can travel, and the more tricks it has up its sleeve. There are six distinctly different regions, each with their own dungeons and side quests. You can take on missions from the towns you visit, which is strongly advised given that you are often woefully underpowered and need to get stronger to be able to deal with the types of FOES you'll encounter. When it's all taken into account, there is a staggering amount of hours in Etrian Odyssey IV.
VERDICT: Don't come into this one expecting a story for the ages, CG cutscenes or a menagerie of individually identifiable characters. It's an old-school, extremely lengthy, extremely difficult affair which harkens back to a time when a game could and would kick your ass and send you crying to your mummy. With a plethora of customisation options available to your party, and a map-drawing system that makes exploring the huge dungeon areas a real treat, there is plenty to get your teeth into. Legends of the Titan is yet another banger straight out of the top drawer for 3DS owners, who can now add this little beauty to their expanding collection.
VERY GOOD. An 8/10 is only awarded to a game we consider truly worthy of your hard-earned cash. This game is only held back by a smattering of minor or middling issues and comes highly recommended.