The holidays have come and gone, but I’m still stuck here with a freezing cold apartment and two cats that desperately miss lounging on my third-floor balcony. I know because they won’t stop screaming at the sliding glass door, no matter how many times I open it to reveal the frozen hellscape that is January in North Dakota. It’s winter. It’s cold. I need an old video game to play indoors. And as usual, I can’t stop searching for the perfect one to get me through the dry spell of new releases.
For the time being, I’ve settled on Etrian Odyssey 4. This is partly because I’m a broken individual who refuses to play more Etrian Odyssey Nexus (the series’ newest and a genuinely great release from 2019) until I get through every other 3DS game in the franchise. I also chose it because Atlus RPGs sum up a lot of what makes a good “winter game” to me.
Much as ardent Dark Souls fans describe those sorts of games as “tough but fair,” franchises like EO and Shin Megami Tensei have deeply ingrained rules that must be obeyed — both by players and their enemies. Most role-playing games don’t. Instead they impose special rules (see: bullshit) that make certain character builds pointless. Why would I ever specialize in one-hit-kill attacks, for instance, if I know bosses will just be magically immune to them? Wouldn’t it be better to focus on the bog-standard mix of spells, healing, and frontline attackers that every other JRPG — from Dragon Quest to Chrono Trigger — funnels you toward?
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Well, just this morning, I one-shotted a boss in Etrian Odyssey 4. I knew it was possible on paper. I just didn’t appreciate the little design decision that led to it until it actually happened. My little edgelord Nightseeker — a class built around ailments like poison, blindness, and yes, a minuscule chance to one-hit-kill with the “death” status” — completely turned the game on its head for me in that moment.
But what about that has anything to do with being a good game for the winter? Well, just as in Dark Souls, any good pattern is meant to be exploited. And exploiting patterns takes time. It takes trial, error, luck, and the dedication to keep poking big, spiky monsters with a stick until they lie down in a ditch and die out of sheer exasperation. I am not the chosen one, or the savior of humanity in these sorts of games. I am an annoying fly who is too quick for the swatter and too stupid to stop landing on your leg. This is how I win (and by winning, I mean spending way too much time repeating the same tasks).
You know when I still have that level of “summertime in elementary school” eternity on my hands? Motherfucking January. Have you looked at the new games release list for this month? I have. It’s small! Now is the winter of my old-ass content — 80-hour JRPGs from 2012 that I can finally play till my organs give out from a lack of Vitamin D.
Tough but Fair in Etrian Odyssey
More specifically, though, these “tough but fair” video games give me direction. They impose obvious challenges with obvious solutions, and make them difficult enough to solve that I’m encouraged to spend time creating optimal routes. This kind of fantasy is something I’ve only come to truly appreciate later in life. I love being repeatedly de-powered and given the tools to build myself back up however I see fit, rather than play the superhero or legendary savior. That’s especially crucial for me in the winter months, when I feel cooped up and aimless. It’s something I thought might change when I jumped from freelance to full-time work. Nope! It’s a new year, but the same old me.
Etrian Odyssey fulfills that role wonderfully. Its signature F.O.E.s — ultra-powerful enemies that patrol dungeons in unique, but predetermined routes — turn the very act of moving through space into endless new puzzles that must be solved before you even get to the fighting, and the grinding, and the bosses. Mana and healing items don’t come easy or cheap in this series. It’s natural to overextend yourself and your supplies while juking through labyrinths.
That is until I get so overpowered that I eventually extinct-ify those huge goddamn bats that chased me up and down reality. Who’s laughing now, you huge goddamn bats? It’s me. I’m laughing maniacally as I type this, just thinking about how my Imperial does 1296 damage per Drive Attack now.
I hope you can hear me in hell, bats.
The other bright side to Etrian Odyssey is that there’s a lot of it to go around — at least for me. I wasn’t much of a Nintendo DS or 3DS player during either system’s heyday. And I keep finding all these untapped veins of fantastic, esoteric little series that scratch my particular itches in all the right ways. I’ve got four more Etrian games to go (plus a spin-off) after this. Finally, my quest for the perfect winter video game can stay on hold for a little longer.