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Apex Legends Review - Battle Royale The Way It Should Be

Sat, 02/09/2019 - 09:30

If Apex Legends has one thing going for it, it's the feeling that the game is complete--something not all battle royale games can boast. The explosion of popularity in the genre means there are a lot of games that do last-player-standing competition pretty well, but with some kinks. Some existing shooters are adding battle royale modes to their offerings, fitting their existing gameplay into a new framework; other battle royale games are constantly struggling to work out bugs, kinks, and balancing issues; and still others started life as something else and managed to retrofit their ideas the battle royale mold, with some fitting better than others.

Meanwhile, Apex Legends focuses on doing one thing extremely well. That thing is team competition in the BR genre; at launch, it only includes a team-based mode where 20 groups of three players square off against each other. Everything in Apex Legends works to further teamwork: that includes a number of improvements to issues that plague the whole genre, like cleaning up inventory management and increasing accessibility, and the addition of new ideas, like squad composition elements and special character abilities.

Apex Legends excels by combining good ideas that have worked in shooters before. The battle royale ruleset is the same as in similar games, with very few changes: Teams skydive onto a huge island with nothing and scramble to gather up weapons and items to use against any other teams they encounter until only one team survives. While there are no titans or wall-running, it's still possible to see the bones of Titanfall 2 undergirding Apex, which reuses Titanfall's weapons and some of its fluid movement mechanics, like sliding and mantling. But the core of the formula here is the tight, three-player squad structure, which all the other pieces benefit.

Another big change to the battle royale formula in Apex Legends is one extremely similar to what Blizzard brought to multiplayer FPS games in Overwatch. At the start of each match, each player chooses one of eight characters, each with specific abilities that serve specific roles. The defensive Gibraltar can drop a shield and call in an airstrike to drive another team back; the offensive Wraith can create portals between two locations and briefly disappear to avoid damage; the supportive Pathfinder uses grappling hooks and ziplines to help the team reach areas where they might have a tactical advantage.

It all plays back into the focus on teamwork, since no character is especially powerful, and no abilities are useful all the time. You're not a lone wolf--instead, you have a specific role that complements teammates as you play, and that works to help find a new side of battle royale that hasn't been explored before.

Moment-to-moment, though, what's remarkable about Apex Legends is that it just works. Battle royale is a bit of an obtuse genre with a lot of moving parts; in most games, you find weapons, gun attachments, armor, healing items, and more. You'll spend lots of time digging in menus to manage inventory. Apex streamlines all of that with user interface tweaks that make it possible to instantly identify what you need and ignore the things you don't. Ammo types are color-coded to the guns that use them. Attachments automatically join with guns they fit and swap to appropriate new guns when you pick them up, while things you can't use or don't improve your gear are brightly marked as such. It's an even more accessible version of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4's battle royale improvements with its Blackout mode, and the rest of the genre should adopt it.

The best feature in Apex Legends is its extremely robust "ping" system, which lets you press a button to create a marker on your teammates' screens. The ping system is super smart--aim it at a gun or a helmet and your character will identify that object's location to everyone else. You can ping in your menu to call for things you need, mark places you want to go, or identify spots other players have passed through. Most importantly, you can use pings to mark enemy locations. The system is so responsive and well-implemented in Apex Legends that it can fully replace talking to your team at all. In fact, the accuracy of a ping on-screen can often be better at helping you quickly convey information than talking.

A revival system also helps you get more engaged with your team. If a teammate falls in battle and is knocked out of the match, you can recover their banner, an item that drops with their loot, and use it to respawn them into the game as if they just started. The system adds some intense, harrowing strategy to Apex that requires you to risk everything to save your squad; you can only call back dead teammates at specific, single-use Respawn Beacons on the map, but you're completely exposed while doing so. Pull off a clutch play, though, and you can bring your team back from the brink. The system provides a great incentive to stay in matches and keep talking to and aiding your team, instead of just leaving when you die to join another match.

Like in Respawn's previous games, shooting here is hefty and satisfying, and Apex sports a wide variety of cool guns to learn and master. However, gunplay sometimes gets held back because lots guns carry strangely small magazines. Players have a lot of health, which gets increased greatly with the addition of armor, so it often takes a lot of shots to take people down. Ideally, you're always shooting someone with the help of a pal, but the small magazines have the effect of making you feel underpowered alone. In most matches I've played, shotguns get the most use from players because they have the highest likelihood of actually taking down an opponent, while many of the other guns spray bullets too much and leave you vulnerable as you reload and reload and reload.

Apex Legends is a mix of smart shooter ideas that makes for a competitive, team-based game that gets at all the best parts of battle royale while addressing a lot of the weaknesses.

As a free-to-play game, Apex Legends includes both loot boxes and in-game items that can be purchased with real money, and loot boxes can also be earned by playing. Everything on offer is cosmetic, much like in Fortnite or Overwatch, so paying money isn't essential to playing the game and staying competitive, and you can largely ignore microtransactions if you aren't interested in paying.

The one place Apex Legends' microtransactions can irritate is in trying to unlock new characters. At launch, six characters are available for free, with two that can be unlocked either with paid or earned currency. Neither is essential--they offer different abilities but not better or worse ones--but as an average player, it still took me around 17 hours of play to earn enough currency to buy one character (it'll be shorter if you get more kills and more wins). With Respawn adding more characters to the game in the future, it's fully possible trying to unlock new characters will become a slog that turns off casual players and those unwilling or unable to pay.

Apex Legends is a mix of smart shooter ideas that makes for a competitive, team-based game that gets at all the best parts of battle royale while addressing a lot of the weaknesses. Respawn's intense focus on team play makes Apex more than just a worthy addition to the genre; it's an indicator of where battle royale should go in the future.

Astroneer Review - New Frontiers

Fri, 02/08/2019 - 10:03

It's rare that you'll ever feel stressed while playing Astroneer. Its colourful planets and soothing synth soundtrack make exploring its handful of varied planets a treat for the senses, but its reined-in take on survival is what makes your hours with it as serene as possible. With little to worry about in terms of actually surviving, Astroneer shifts its focus to a core resource gathering and building loop. But, disappointingly, it struggles to entice you to visit all of the land it has to see.

Astroneer's solar system includes seven uniquely styled planets with procedurally generated terrain. They feature a familiar low-polygon styling that is made striking thanks to bold, vibrant colors and a great range of colour palettes used throughout the solar system. Your starting planet features gorgeously green fields stretching for miles on end, while another nearby feels far less inviting with harsh mustard-yellow mountain ranges and darker, more ominous clouds hanging above. The cartoonish designs that stretch from your customizable character to the structures you build blend well with the vibrant backdrops. Everything looks larger than it should realistically be, from the tires on your trusty rover to the simplistic 3D printers you make use of frequently, but it's an aesthetic that gives Astroneer a great and distinct look.

You play as a lonesome Astroneer, or as part of a pair if you choose to play cooperatively with a friend. You're given nothing more than a few tools and a home on a planet mostly devoid of life to start off with. You also aren't given any objectives, either--instead you're encouraged to explore the land around you and harvest useful resources to fuel your home expansion. Resources such as the vaguely named "compound" lie in abundance next to resin and organic matter on a planet's surface, with the catacombs beneath it housing rare metals and strange alien elements. Your progress is defined by how you expand your home on the planet, with no direction or set path imposed on you.

You can feel aimless at first, but the initial hours of Astroneer are some of its most intriguing. With nothing but foreign land stretching out all around you, it's tantalizing to pick a direction and set out. Your exploration is limited by oxygen, though--without a direct connection to your home or a substantially large oxygen generator, you will quickly burn through the reserves on your backpack and succumb to suffocation. You can craft and then drop oxygen tethers to extend your supply far beyond your starting point, and, in the process, leave a glowing blue trail that can easily lead you back home when you need to return. It strikes a good balance between being both a simple survival mechanic and a way to chart your explorations on a planet, letting you recklessly explore with a means to return safely.

As you start hoarding and building more, your options start expanding. After gathering resources on foot, you can craft a tractor which can carry a train of trailers, allowing you to gather more resources during a single expedition. Refiners let you turn basic resources into the building blocks of more helpful structures. These can range from simple large storage units to lighten the load of your backpack to massive research chambers and soil refiners that reward you with research points and basic resources respectively.

Without a narrative reason to push your exploration, watching your barebones homestead expand over time is the strongest driving force behind your extensive exploration. Specialised structures require unique resources that can't be synthesized through constructed tools alone, which encourages you to explore beyond your starting biome. Yet despite the prospect of adding new structures to your home base, extended exploration on other planets isn't that alluring. It takes a lot of investment to build up your main base on your starting planet, and there's no way for you to move this from one planet to the next. Without established sources of oxygen and power, survival on each new planet is tricky, and it feels like you're starting from scratch. It's far easier to make short trips to other planets in the solar system and gather the exact resources you need as quickly as you can, almost completely ignoring their unique designs and possible secrets in the process.

When you aren't managing oxygen on the go, you're overseeing power distribution between new structures around your base. Each operation--such as refining raw materials, researching mysterious ores, and printing new tools--requires power to operate efficiently. Operations will slow down or speed up relative to how much power they're supplied, encouraging you to route power intelligently throughout your base. Instead of managing this in a series of menus, you have to physically connect each module and structure with large red power plugs. The constant redirection of power can become tedious to manage individually; it's not complicated to understand where power is coming from, but the larger your base becomes, the messier the tangled web of power wires becomes, too.

Astroneer's overall inventory management also struggles at scale. You aren't inundated with meters and bars to watch on your journeys; all the information you need is conveyed mostly by your large backpack. Your inventory, for example, is always visible, with stacks of resources occupying single slots on your backpack and mining tool. You can zoom in on this and swap out items without having to dive into a menu, or drag and drop items out of personal storage and into a structure nearby with the flick of the mouse. It initially seems clever, but problems arise again when there's just too much to manage. Trying to place a stack of organic matter on a specific small generator becomes challenging when your zoomed-in backpack view takes up half the screen in an already chaotic home base, for example, and finer movements with your mouse are undone by an overly aggressive automatic snapping that makes trying to place an object cumbersome and frustrating.

Inventory management initially seems clever, but problems arise when there's just too much to manage.

There are some technical hiccups that unbalance this serene setting on occasion, but none that are severe enough to really hamper your progress. Performance on PC (which in this case featured a RTX 2080Ti and 6th generation Core i7) can inexplicably plummet when you're surrounded by numerous oxygen tethers, and I had two separate instances where I clipped through the ground and was forced to reload a previous save. Astroneer is generous with when it saves, though, so progress loss is infrequent.

Astroneer succeeds when it's enraptured you with its beautiful visuals and the irresistible call to explore the planet you find yourself on. Although it lacks a central through line to give you guidance, the variety of structures you can build helps point you towards new resources to hunt for. It struggles to incentivise you to sufficiently explore other planets within its single solar system, however, while also forcing you to work with an inventory system that is often unwieldy. These are frequent frustrations that Astroneer never fully overcomes either, but they're worth putting up with to experience its serene sense of planetary exploration.

Dragon Marked for Death Review - Dates With Death

Fri, 02/08/2019 - 02:00

A war rages on for centuries between the powers of light and dark. After strife and sorrow, the light prevails in a veritable burst of glory that changes the course of the world forever. However, life goes on, and adventurers rise from the rubble of the old world to claim their fortune. This is where you come in. Considered the lowest of the low on the mercenary food chain, you harbor a dark secret and a tragic past: You've made a pact with an evil draconic legacy that seeks to disrupt the world anew. Unfortunately, you have to be a somebody to set things right, and so begins the true saga of many a video game protagonist--murder, mayhem, and fetch quests. Dragon Marked for Death delivers on all three fronts with colorful aplomb, but if you're looking for a solid single-player experience, then your prize is likely in another castle.

Inti Creates' latest offers a classic side-scrolling multiplayer action experience that will be instantly familiar--the studio is intimately acquainted with some of the most famous titles of the genre, such as Mega Man and Azure Striker Gunvolt, and Dragon Marked for Death appears to contain the necessary components for success. The big point of difference is the elegant anime visuals sprinkled on top of retro fantasy, which make it feel like a more original conception. It's a nice, modern facelift on the bare bones of Azure Striker Gunvolt, albeit with a less-stylised UI and a statistic display familiar to any RPG fan.

There are four distinct classes, all with their own quirks and charms, and each of the game's levels can be traversed in different ways that let you make the most of your character's capabilities. The Shinobi and the Empress classes, in particular, have gap-closing abilities that allow them to flit across stages with deadly efficiency, while the Warrior and Witch have far more situational movement inputs that open up the map in more indirect ways. Dragon Marked for Death differentiates these classes by difficulty, and this is evident in the way that the title has been released on the Nintendo eShop. There are two versions: Frontline Fighters (containing the Warrior and the Empress) and Advanced Attackers (containing the Shinobi and the Witch). In order to acquire the classes that your chosen version is missing, you'll need to buy them as additional DLC.

As indicated by the names of each release, some of the classes are better suited to getting hot and heavy up close. The Warrior is the most robust and is well-suited to living through absolutely everything that could be thrown at you. The Empress strikes a balance between mobility, damage options, and defensive capability--the perfect class for beginners. On the other hand, the Shinobi is more of a glass cannon, blessed with speed and damage in spades. And the Witch, potentially the most rewarding class to use if you can handle it, has powerful spell combinations entered with button sequences that you have to memorize, all locked inside someone with the physical constitution of wet tissue.

In solo play, it's easy to identify where things could get a little hairy for each class. Enemies are relentless in their pursuit of your character once they spot you, and each level sees you facing off against a variety of minions and sub-bosses that all have one single-minded focus: your destruction. You face down ogres who spew fire, cut a swathe through the bellies of seafaring monsters large enough to drown entire ships, and dodge bullets that take away your ability to control your movement. If you're advancing through the maps as they become available, each one will feel like a challenge and an exercise in how you manage both your class and your time. No matter which class you pick up, going toe to toe with the baddies is rewarding once you figure out the intricacies of damage dealing. Whether it’s suped-up spells that wipe out everything in a five-mile radius, knowing when to deploy a shield in that split-second between life and death, or running up walls and gleefully skewering your foes, there’s an interesting game plan for every character in Dragon Marked For Death.

Do you kill as many mobs as possible for experience and money? Do you skip all of the minor enemies in order to head straight for the sub-bosses at the cost of missing out on healing opportunities? If you run out of time on a level it's Game Over, and if you run out of your vitality, it's also a rude kick back to the starting line. Dragon Marked for Death forces you to find a strategy that works for you, and the timers are just tight enough that you're incentivized to learn the layout of maps and the quirks of the enemies inhabiting them if you want a chance at success. You repeat levels at different difficulties as you get stronger, farming missions for experience and for the gold to equip yourself with better weapons, all so you can chip away at the seemingly immovable wall of at-level quests to progress the story. This is essentially the gameplay loop that is fundamental to the title--grinding.

A frustrating difficulty curve emerges when venturing solo, and even if you're accustomed to this kind of loop, it's a bitter pill to swallow compared to the experience provided by the multiplayer mode. Each classes' distinct identity makes it feel like they've been designed for the sole purpose of filling a party role in an MMORPG, since their strengths and weaknesses are complementary. Playing as just one without any backup feels incredibly limiting--you aren't capable of much in the face of high stakes.

Luckily, linking up in multiplayer with your friends is as seamless as jumping into single-player. You need a Nintendo Online subscription if you're worlds apart, or simply flip to the local multiplayer menu if you're sitting next to each other. It's as easy as dropping in and out of a party, with the leader selecting what maps to tackle. After you finish a stage, you're returned to the map selection screen so you can jump right back into the action, and it's that kind of action that will keep you coming back for more.

Multiplayer is compelling because the classes work better in tandem--tank characters keeping the heat off damage dealers always results in a boss dying quicker--and levels feel less deadly when the Witch can focus on blasting through anything and everything with a Warrior to cover her from any fatal damage. In later stages, single-player requires an amount of dedication to the grind that can suck the fun out of the encounters, especially when you have had a taste of co-op and can spot moments where having a party would have helped save your bacon.

Akin to the classes themselves, the levels were clearly designed with multiplayer in mind. Because of the varied ways in which maps can be explored, including hidden segments that can be tricky to navigate if you don’t have a particular movement skill or the sufficient patience to figure out an alternative route, having more than one class in play at a time helps make those closed-off areas feel more accessible. The relentlessness of your foes is another thing which makes the single-player experience feel a little less than well-balanced in difficulty if you’re tackling new content as soon as you unlock it; you won’t have sufficient items or perhaps the know-how to navigate certain levels. As the Witch in particular, you only learn certain elemental spells when hitting level thresholds, which can leave you at a type disadvantage for longer than is necessary. What smoothes out all those little bumps, however, is another player to take the heat off you, and the experience bonus granted from multiplayer also sweetens that deal.

Overall, Dragon Marked for Death is a polished experience that draws on a lot of existing genre sensibilities, but with a heavy focus on aspects that make for a good co-op experience. The classes are thematically coherent and entertainingly distinct, and the levels are just varied enough that gliding through one for the first time is always aurally and visually pleasing. The unbalanced single-player experience is a big sticking point, but if you have friends who are willing to take up the Dragonblood mantle with you, then there are few action platformers more entertaining.

Sunless Skies Review - Text Appeal

Wed, 02/06/2019 - 11:00

Would you like to hear a Tale of Terror or a Sky-Story? Relay some Salon-Stewed Gossip or pass on a Savage Secret? The names given to the various forms of currency exchanged across Sunless Skies give you a good idea of what sort of game it is. This is a world where words flow like water and stories hydrate whole planets. Where a turn of phrase is just as likely to unlock a door as the turn of a key.

Sunless Skies is a narrative-heavy adventure where every dramatic event is conveyed through beautifully written text. A delicate, customizable layer of "rogue-lite" action and survival encases a beating heart of vivid location descriptions, verbal flights of fancy, and giddy, spiraling story paths. Developer Failbetter Games has cleverly built upon the foundation of Sunless Sea, designing a sequel that improves core mechanics and spins its world into imaginative new orbits while easing the avenue of entry for new players. You're welcome here as long as you love words.

The British Empire, headed by Empress Victoria, has boarded its steam-powered engines and, improbably, made for the stars. There, amid the floating drifts of rock snaking across the sky, it has founded New Albion and, by remaking the Sun, it hopes to start again. It's an eccentric vision of outer space as alien territory where polar winds blow through ice-crusted canyons, hive-shaped asteroids drip honey, and myriad fungal spores glitter like stars. You play the captain of Her Majesty's Locomotive, the Orphean, newly inherited after the untimely death of the previous captain, and your ambition is to travel the stars seeking fame, fortune, or the truth.

Dotted around the New Wilderness, which is composed of four maps you may travel between once you've earned the appropriate permits, are dozens of busy ports and isolated homesteads. You pilot the Orphean between them, revealing new points of interest on the top-down 2D map and working to ensure you've packed enough fuel and supplies to make it to your destination. While docked you can repair and re-supply your engine, purchase any available upgrades, and visit the bazaar to claim prospects and earn additional revenue through trade.

Once that admin is out of the way, you can take your time to explore. Each port is well-stocked with fascinating locations and idiosyncratic characters. Buy a ticket to Polmear & Plenty's Circus and enjoy a show where the clowns can't juggle and the trapeze artist has lost their partner. Encounter an Inadvisably Big Dog at Port Prosper while seeking to aid the establishment Stove-pipes in their civil war against the revolutionary Tacketies. Travel to Hybras in search of a lost filmmaker and discover an entire colony of seniors has mysteriously vanished. There's a new captivating story to be found every step of the way.

As you follow each new narrative thread you're called upon to make choices and meet certain requirements. You might find a dying captain whose engine ran aground. Do you: end his suffering, return him home for one last glimpse of London, or escort him and try to complete his final, failed mission? There's something odd about that Repentant Devil you picked up at the previous port, but you'll need to track down some tea before he'll open up to you and reveal his true motivations. The decisions you make can see you gain or lose favor with a host of rival factions as you chart a course through the political struggles of this new frontier.

Every time you are presented with a path of action or choice to make, it's always clear how you have unlocked it. Some are based on having the correct items, purchased at a port or found in an earlier part of the story, while others provide a percentage chance of success depending on one of your character's core attributes. Actions you cannot yet take are grayed out but visible, allowing you to note that you need to find another Vision of the Heavens to make that selection or come back later once you've increased your Hearts attribute and boosted those odds in your favor. It's a clever setup in that you always have the information you need about your immediate options and enough of a nudge towards how to open up new sets of paths.

Between ports, however, things can slow down. Exploring an uncharted region of the map can be tense, especially as you venture into the outskirts and encounter some of the more dangerous enemies. It's also never less than beautiful to look at. But combat is simplistic and, much of the time, completely avoidable anyway. And while puttering the often long distances between points of interest, there's not a great deal to do beyond pinging your bat scout to identify random resource deposits and just watching the maze-like scenery wash by.

Popping up from time to time, and helping to enliven long journeys, are incidents involving the various officers you've recruited on board and your crew. Like the cast of a Mass Effect, each named officer--and like everyone in this world they all sport wonderfully evocative titles like The Incautious Driver or The Incognito Princess--has their own storyline to follow and they serve up some of the best questlines in the entire game. You'll want to check in with them whenever you can and prioritize their next steps.

There's also the ever-lurking concern of the "Terror" itself. As with Sunless Sea, Sunless Skies leans into elements of horror, in particular a kind of horror that draws on the ineffable mystery of the cosmos. Despite reaching the stars in our iron engines, no matter the expertise of all our Phlegmatic Researchers and Romantic Ornithologists, we don't have all the answers. So as you explore the darkest corners of space, and run headlong into the inexplicable, the Terror accumulates. Untreated, the Terror will send your crew, and ultimately you, into madness. But not before you've wasted supplies in a futile effort to placate their fears or lost crew members to horrific accidents.

You can die, of course, at which point you reroll as a new captain and inherit (most of) what could be salvaged of the Orphean. Certain character traits can be "passed on" as it were, a nod to your predecessors' achievements, and any banked goods can be retrieved at a major port. However, in what at first feels like a jarring rebuff, all story progress is reset upon death, leading to the retreading of narrative beats and character interactions. But, in combination, the freedom you have to explore the world, the small random elements it throws up, and the sheer speed at which you can breeze through any previously encountered scenario mean such repetition is ultimately only of minor concern.

There are small flaws, but each is balanced out. Travel can be dull, yet the passing scenery and shifting soundtrack are never so. Combat isn't interesting, but the decision to fight or flee carries weight, and the choices you make when scavenging through the wreckage can feel momentous. Repeating a quest can feel tedious, but this time you're wiser and, hopefully, better prepared.

At its best, Sunless Skies is a triumph. Its writers have crafted a world of endless wonder where seemingly anything is possible. At heart, it's a text adventure that conjures the imagination to send you on a journey as spectacular and memorable as any big-budget graphical blockbuster.

Etrian Odyssey Nexus Review - Where All Paths Cross

Tue, 02/05/2019 - 10:11

For over a decade, the Etrian Odyssey series has been keeping the old-school dungeon crawler RPG alive and well on the DS console family. We've created our own adventurer's guilds and party members time and time again, painstakingly drawn tons of dungeon maps step-by-step, and slain countless numbers of deadly enemies in turn-based combat. Etrian Odyssey Nexus is the series' swan song on the 3DS, and it's a farewell celebration well worth attending, combining many beloved elements from across the whole of the series.

As is usual for the Etrian Odyssey series, you find yourself almost immediately thrust into the game's main story. The floating islands of Lemuria are filled with strange, unexplored lands and a Yggdrasil tree, the secrets of which adventurers come from all the over the world to discover. You must assemble a guild of adventurers, name them, customize their looks and voices, give them basic adventuring skills, and gather them together in a party to explore the mysterious floating islands, dungeon by dungeon, floor by floor.

Character creation and customization in the Etrian Odyssey games has always been a key component, and in Nexus, it's taken to new heights. The interesting fantasy races of Etrian Odyssey V (and their various race-based bonuses and skills) are gone, but that's fairly easy to forgive considering that you have a whopping nineteen classes from across the entire series' history to choose from at the beginning of the game for each character, giving you an incredible amount of freedom in constructing your own personalized band of explorers.

It can be a bit overwhelming at first to assemble an effective party out of the huge amount of choices you're given, especially when several classes have overlap--for example, Pugilists, Ronin, and Ninjas are all "glass cannon"-type classes that emphasize offense and speed over defense, but each will evolve and function very differently over the course of the game. Things get even more in-depth with sub-classes, which become available much later in the game and provide yet another layer of intense customization, allowing you to either augment character strengths or compensate for weaknesses with additional skills from other classes. Sub-classing isn't new to the series, but this feature unlocks far later in Nexus than I had hoped, leaving me sitting on banked skill points I probably could have better used to boost main class skills.

At the very least, if you're unsure which classes would work well in your ideal composition--or you just want some backup you can swap in as situations dictate--you can create a few extra party members and keep them in reserve at the adventurer's guild. You'll get an item early on (the Memory Conch from EO5) that will let you give some EXP earned to members in reserve, so you don't have to level-grind to make lesser-used teammates and new additions viable.

Similarly to Etrian Odyssey IV, once you venture outside of town, you're not given one gigantic dungeon to explore floor by floor but instead presented with a world map that grows as you progress through the game, with multiple sub-areas and dungeons that you explore and map out individually. The airship-flying exploration sections of EO4 that connected these dungeons are gone, replaced with a very simple map you select locations from, which is a bit disappointing since it means fewer fun expeditions and less discovery outside of dungeons--but it also eliminates many of EO4's exploration frustrations like having to navigate hazards.

The meat of Etrian Odyssey, however, has always been its dungeon exploration, and Nexus does not disappoint in that regard. You wander through intricate labyrinths step by step, exploring every nook and cranny for treasures, exits, gimmicks, and various points of interest, jotting all of your findings down on the map on the 3DS's touchscreen. The dungeons themselves take on lives of their own as you spend hours within them; they're filled with distinct graphic flourishes, unique hazards, and terrifying enemies that give a sublime sense of ever-present danger to the often-serene environments. Longtime fans will also recognize callbacks to previous titles in some very familiar enemies, areas, and musical tracks presented throughout the game.

While most of the core Etrian Odyssey games outside of the Untold spin-offs have less of a focus on story than other RPGs, Nexus' storytelling is a high point for the series as whole. EO has traditionally let its story unfold through gradual exploration and careful, well-placed NPC dialogue when necessary, rather than through lengthy text dumps and cinematics. Over the course of the Nexus adventure, you encounter numerous NPCs both in town and while exploring, all of whom have flavorful dialogue and well-conveyed personalities without being overly wordy. You also encounter various points of interest in the dungeons, described to you in richly detailed text as if hearing it from the mouth of a storyteller, where you have to make careful choices about how to proceed. It's all fantastically done and does a spectacular job of letting you feel like part of the world without being overbearing.

Nexus' storytelling is a high point for the series as whole... It's all fantastically done and does a spectacular job of letting you feel like part of the world without being overbearing.

There's not much new to combat--it's still turn-based, and you've got the Force Boost/Break system from Etrian Odyssey Untold 2 for every class--but it's just as intense as ever, with even low-level enemies poised to offer a serious threat if you aren't paying attention. The flora and fauna of each area varies slightly, requiring you to do your homework and observe enemy types and their attacks--especially the FOEs, extremely dangerous enemies that roam the dungeons (usually in patterns) and can absolutely wreck you if you bumble into battle unprepared. Sometimes, however, it feels like Nexus' pacing in terms of hazards and enemy threats feels off.

I played on standard ("Basic") difficulty, and there were a few times where I'd finish one dungeon and head to the next only to get totally trounced from the standard enemies there, as though I were still a few levels behind. There are also a few points where the game springs some major battles on you without much warning. For example, at one point fairly early on, there are two major boss battles one right after the other, the latter being a complete surprise. While you do get a free health refill between these two fights, springing the extra battle on you so early without giving you a chance to regroup is rude and exhausting even by the series' standards of challenging encounters.

Despite a few small stumbles, the grandiose adventure Etrian Odyssey Nexus delivers is a rewarding, engaging journey you'll be glad to take. The feeling of discovery as you and your band of merry adventurers venture bravely into the unknown, fighting one fierce battle after another and growing stronger along the way, is tremendously fun, and Nexus does it better than any other game in the series yet. This is definitely the last EO game on the 3DS, and it has an air of finality to it that makes it feel like it could be a closer for the series as a whole--which I hope isn't the case. I'm ready for many map-making expeditions in the future. But if this really is the end, then Etrian Odyssey goes out on a high note.