When pioneering cartographers of yester-century got a bit puffed out, they filled their unfinished maps with the words terra incognita: "unknown land". It was as much an invitation as it was submission, the promise of something new and literally world-changing to find. First-person JRPG series Etrian Odyssey has always offered the same invitation - hand-drawing maps of the labyrinths you struggle through is its standout gimmick - but it's rarely been actively inviting to most.
For a game with deep, time-fattened RPG systems, complex dungeon design and a swish new graphical style, it seems perverse to say that the fourth instalment's greatest achievement is its approach to tutorials, but it is. You're still entering terra incognita, but are doing it knowing just how to deal with what you find there.
You begin with nothing. An empty party, a blank map and no idea what's going on. Like the previous games, the story's wilfully blank: you're an explorer on the search for mythical Norse shrub, Yggdrasil. Any further plot emerges from your experience with the game, not least your characters. Chosen from seven distinct classes, you can create 30 possible adventurers, five of whom can then be taken into the wild world as part of your party.
Choosing and experimenting with a team (which is formed up into one of two 'lines' for the battles you'll be involved in, each class reacting differently to its placement) is the game's first bout of exploration. Discovering how you want to play, how you organise your group and how your class choices play together becomes a huge part of the dungeon crawls. It's as much trial and error as it is skilled management; a back line of stick-thin Mages might provide some hefty fire support early on, but a city-sized kangaroo will bounce all over them without a shield-wielding Fortress taking the brunt up front.
It could seem a bad start: much like the overworld and labyrinths you chart, the effects of party composition and class powers aren't initially revealed. On the other hand, the intricacies of getting around, fighting a battle, levelling up and more or less every other major and minor system in the game are slowly and methodically explained in what amount to brilliantly designed PowerPoint presentations. Considering that these tutorials are accessible again at any time, it seems Etrian Odyssey IV is at pains to make itself transparent to any player.
What it isn't interested in is becoming easy. A new overworld system has you piloting a skyship around the various lands you have to cross to reach Yggdrasil, each littered with resources, F.O.E.s (gigantic enemies, colour-coded for their threat to your party, that roam a given map) and dungeons. The latter are the crux of the game: twisting, interlocking things, each of which you'll be forced to return to several times (thus the need for careful mapping).
At their worst, they're a fountain of random battles, designed to grind you down while you grind levels up. At their best, they turn into mechanical puzzles. One's filled with impassable logs, for example, only broken by marauding bears that inhabit the maze. Another features a huge room saturated with a poisonous gas that causes your party to faint after ten steps, meaning you need to plan as well as map your moves around. It's clever stuff.