Cartography At Its Finest: Etrian Odyssey V Impressions

Since 2007, Nintendo handhelds have been blessed with one of the best dungeon-crawling franchises on the market. Starting on the Nintendo DS, Etrian Odyssey has been giving players one of the best ways to experience the dual-screened handheld. Now the fifth installment in the mainline series is here to give the 3DS another leg to stand on as we near the end of its lifespan, and if you’ve never played one of these games, today might be a good time to start.

Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth dropped in America, Europe, and Australia on October 17, more than a year after its 2016 release in Japan. Despite being the fifth iteration on the game’s simple dungeon-crawling formula, it still remains as addictive as ever. The fat from previous titles has been trimmed out, creating a more focused journey through the Yggdrasil labyrinth, and for those new to the series, it has some friendly settings to help boost your confidence.

You can name your party members whatever you want; everyone’s equal in the labyrinth.
Drawing each map isn’t as scary as the enemies you face in the labyrinth.

The Etrian Odyssey games pride themselves on bringing back tough old-school RPG mechanics. You build a five-member party, giving each character their own class, look, and voice, and this party explores the labyrinth in first-person, moving one square at a time. What makes these games stand out, however, is that the bottom screen is reserved for you to draw the map as you explore. It’s nothing complicated; everything is on a grid, so it’s a matter of filling in squares and drawing straight lines. There are many ways to leave notes for all the varying parts of the dungeons, so you won’t forget where that thinly-veiled trap is next time you want to lose some health. If that puts you off, Etrian Odyssey V is nice enough to add an auto-fill option so the map can be drawn for you. But I think that ruins part of what makes this series so special.

This series hasn’t been known for its character building. Atlus took a stab at giving the games some color through the remakes of the first two games, but for the most part, the mainline Etrian games don’t make a concerted effort to have the characters in your party stand out. Etrian V breaks that tradition, allowing you to customize each of your party members’ hair, eyes, and skin color; but the best addition is the choice of voices. You can give each character one of the forty different voices in the game—although people who prefer the silent experience can opt out—and the added personality really shows itself in the dungeons. My healer, Herb, is a timid but nice fellow who looks out for his teammates, but whenever he heals the sassy fighter Eltaea, he’s met with a, “I didn’t need that or anything.” These little interactions build more stock in these characters, which up until now have just been hollow shells for the class system.

This is one of the pre-made portraits for the pugilist class. The colors can be customized before he punches you.
Colors are chosen on the bottom screen. Nothing has to match, but they make it easy if you like matching colors.

The game features ten classes, which at first are linked to the four races you can choose for your character. The humans get four classes while the other three races get only two classes each. In typical Etrian Odyssey fashion, a variety of classes have great synergy with each other, giving you more than enough options for party formations. The way skills are handled is the simplest it’s been in the series, and that’s for the better. Previous games overwhelmed you with the skill trees each class can go down, which makes you worry that at some point, you made a bad decision. The skill trees in this game are more straightforward. Each skill point is still a meaningful decision, but the decisions feel easier to make.

No rabbits were harmed during the development of this game.

Digging through the dungeons feel the same as in previous games, which can at times feel repetitive if you’ve played a lot of Etrian Odyssey games. To keep the pacing fresh, Atlus introduced the Adventure Log. On each floor of the labyrinth, many small events await you at different dead ends. Some of them can leave you with more loot, others can lead you to the game over screen. This isn’t new to the series, but what is new is that characters can take points in skills that can give you an edge in these moments. Because my swordsman is also a great hunter, I’ve been able to find more food. Because my black mage has night-vision, I’ve saved myself from being ambushed many times. Every time you complete these events, it’s recorded in your Adventure Log, giving you a small boost in experience—which, by the way, is infinitely more precious than gold in this game.

Exploring the labyrinth is all about being able to withstand the challenges the game throws at you. Most fights are random encounters, and the bigger fights come from mini-bosses called FOEs that actually roam the labyrinth. More often than not, the first time you run into a FOE won’t be the first time you want to fight them. Finding ways around them requires you to memorize their patrol path, like a puzzle. Scattered throughout the maze are different gathering points; some are for raw materials that lead to better weapons, others for food items.

Raw materials from deeper parts allow the local shop to sell better gear, and food can be used to recover between battles. Interestingly enough, your party can learn different recipes to make better food that heals more than the raw ingredients alone. Taking the time to understand cooking makes dungeon crawling much easier; between every fight, you can scarf down enough food to keep everyone’s health up, even if it isn’t necessarily the healthiest amount to eat.

That’s just one of the many monsters you can hit for 55 damage in this JRPG.

The turn-based battle system hasn’t made any big changes since Etrian Odyssey IV. Instead of the Burst Gauge, Union Skills are introduced, which are powerful abilities that can only be initiated after a character builds up their union gauge. Once full, they can activate a skill by teaming up with a number of party members. Strategically, the union system makes pivotal moments in a battle more tense. For example, there’s a skill that replenishes your party’s HP, but it takes four of your five party members to do it, limiting your options if you want to activate another union skill in the same turn.

What makes battles so brilliant is that they offer the perfect stage to see and feel your party’s growth. It’s a slow, gradual growth, which says a lot about the pace of the game. On your first foray into the unknown wilds, you’ll likely run into enemies who pull very few punches, and it doesn’t get any easier from there. It can feel like every other battle will send you back to town to lick your wounds. After a couple hours though, you’ll notice your characters are more durable and can handle the growing difficulty of the labyrinth. When you’re ten floors into the dungeon, it’s satisfying looking back to see the strength and resilience your party’s accrued.

Etrian Odyssey V Review Labyrinth
Doesn’t this look like a nice place to go camping?

On a technical level, the graphics haven’t made major improvements since Etrian Odyssey IV. There have been some UI changes that make the menus look more sleek and nonintrusive, especially the new design for the map toolbar. The soundtrack, however, is worth a listen. As far as JRPG soundtracks go, it hits the same beats you’d expect. The music for the labyrinths elicit a sense of wonderment, as if you’re truly probing into an undiscovered world. The tracks that play while in combat reflect the sense of danger the enemies present; if you’re caught off guard at the onset of a fight, the music will be chaotic and tense. If you get the upperhand and ambush an enemy, the music sounds heroic, as if it’s driving you to your inevitable victory. The boss fights are especially improved by the music, as each note makes the enemy seem all the more daunting.

Etrian Odyssey V is a solid addition to the 3DS’s lineup, especially while we’re in its sunset period. The game delivers a lengthy playtime, addictive battle system, and invigorating character growth. The experience is definitely more about the journey than it is the destination, and while it doesn’t deliver anything new, the game executes what it knows very well. It’s a polished dungeon-crawling RPG that’s sure to please diehard fans and welcome interested newcomers.

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