A Different Kind of Odyssey
In an age when role-playing games continue to expand in size and scope, it’s a delight to see Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth hold on to its old-school, dungeon-crawling roots. As a first-person dungeon exploration RPG that asks players to draw their own maps, the game has a specific appeal. But for devoted fans and interested newcomers, this is one of the most refined sequels to date.
The story is rather light since your party is comprised of your customized characters. As a result, there isn’t much in the way of party development or interaction. Rather, your collective guild of characters has a shared goal: to climb the world tree Ygdrassil, which is rumored to offer power, treasure, and other nice macguffins. While there is a good helping of worldbuilding throughout the adventure, the plot takes a backseat to its true attraction: its classic RPG gameplay.
The dungeon crawling is wonderfully old-school. Your party of five characters travels up a tall tower of wildly varying areas, known as Stratums. Each Stratum has five floors within it, and each floor is an elaborate labyrinth. Seriously, you’ll need to allot at least an hour or two for each one, so you’re looking at a meaty length of 40-50 hours. If you’re coming from Etrian Odyssey IV, note that this game completely removes the overworld airship mechanics that it tried to set forth. As a fan of connected overworlds and adding more variety to the standard grind from floor to floor, I’m disappointed by this “step back.” As a plus, the gigantic mazes resemble the more drawn-out designs from the first couple of games. This return to series roots will likely please anyone who preferred the larger dungeon structures.
The series’ standout mechanic is the ability to draw out the dungeon maps on a touch screen grid. In fact, it’s a requirement. It’s easy to get lost in these complicated mazes, and playing cartographer is the only way you can remain sane here. This means marking every single wall, walkable piece of land, and area of interest. If you get bored finding your way through dungeons in any other RPG, this game isn’t for you. But for those who appreciate the art of making maps for old NES games like The Legend of Zelda, drawing a personalized map is engaging. It completely immersed me as I searched every tile, making sure I didn’t miss anything.
There are many ways to markup your map, including arrows, symbols, and numbers. The user interface is pleasantly more dynamic than it was previously. You can arrange the menu of symbols however you like. You can also draw multiple paths throughout the maze, and your characters will automatically follow them. Thanks to the flexible interface, it was easy to make my map and it didn’t feel like a chore. What impressed me most was how the game created situations where it was vital to have that map handy. Indeed, every environmental puzzle requires you to keep track of where everything is on-screen, usually to hit switches or avoid FOEs, huge enemies that follow set movement patterns and are usually impossible to beat at your given level.
On that note, battles follow a traditional turn-based structure: you set all your party members’ attacks and then watch them unfold. Just because it’s an old-school system doesn’t make it simple, though. Elements like binding enemy body parts and chaining attacks make encounters interesting. New to this game are Union Skills, combining your party member’s powers to unleash greater abilities. Overall, I found most Union Skills underpowered, considering you have to use up multiple characters’ Union gauges just to achieve a one-turn power-up that likely won’t change the flow of battle. I’ll admit that they helped with the games’ bosses, all of which are tough, even on the Normal difficulty setting.
Overall, Etrian Odyssey is hard. And my biggest annoyance was having to constantly leave the dungeon and return to town just because I ran low on limited technique points or got trapped by a relentless, unbeatable FOE. Luckily, you can warp back to the same floor easily, albeit at its starting area. It beats the alternative of losing your progress upon death. Grinding was a necessity, though interestingly enough, it was the party build and set skills that mattered more than the levels itself.
. Not even kidding.Indeed, character customization remains at the top of its game here. In fact, I’d wager that creating a strong party that suits your playstyle is one of the most fun and important aspects of Etrian Odyssey. Before you begin your journey, you are asked to create your members. Like previous entries, you have ten class options, ranging from the sword-wielding Fencer to the magically trained Warlock. These classes are technically new to the series, though most are similar to ones found in earlier titles. The only ones that felt fresh were the Necromancers and Rovers, who summon wraiths and animals, respectively, to the field.
Each character now belongs to one of four races: the Earthlains, the elvish Celestrians, the beastlike Therians, and the dwarvish Brounis. This affects several factors. One, when starting out, each class is specifically tied to a race. For instance, the Warlock class is exclusive to Celestrians…at first. Very soon, that limitation becomes arbitrary once you can change classes, even to one belonging to another race. But that begs the question: why even limit it at the beginning? Race also affects the already polished skill tree system. As you level up, you gain skill points. In addition to allocating them towards class-specific skills, you can now invest them towards special abilities unique to each race. Many of these skills feed into new Adventure Episodes. In these special party events, you make decisions and the game immediately tells you the outcome, reminiscent of choose-your-own-adventure books. These frequent vignettes helped immerse me in the world, despite being told entirely through textboxes.
Since stats are also tied to race, mixing and matching classes and races lead to a variety of potent combinations, further deepening the rich customization system. The only downside is that the skill trees are visibly smaller. At the same time, they’re less complex and more inviting to newcomers. For those longing for the more multifaceted skill trees, the game eventually allows characters to inherit Legendary Titles, which let you shape class specialties. For instance, the healing-focused Botanist can either follow the path of stronger recovery magic or offensive poison attacks. It’s not as deep as the series’ subclass and grimoire mechanics, which let you learn skills belonging to other classes. It’s a more laser-focused progression system that, when combined with the race skills, produces incredibly in-depth character creation.
From an aesthetic standpoint, I was hoping this entry would be the one to allow truly robust avatar creation. But alas, you’re still limited to choosing from a set of predesigned portraits. Still, you have more options than ever now that you can give your party members voices and alter small details like eye color. Otherwise, the anime visuals look good but aren’t much of an improvement from previous titles. The 3D dungeons look dated, though, and textures sometimes take a while to load on screen. At least the game features all novel enemy designs, which is a breath of fresh air if you’ve played the series long enough. The addition of voice acting for most everyone, including your own party, is a plus. And Yuzo Koshiro continues to deliver a brilliant orchestral soundtrack of ethereal themes and rocking battle beats. The music is utterly beautiful.
Etrian Odyssey V might not have changed much over previous installments, but it has refined the already sophisticated cartography to a T with its clever environmental puzzles and great user interface. The addition of race skills and Legendary Titles only contribute to the game’s excellent sense of character customization. And it remains a fun challenge to grow powerful and destroy the toughest FOEs in classic turn-based gameplay. I only wish that there were bigger steps forward, and the removal of an overworld doesn’t help. Perhaps now that the series is a decade old, we can see larger improvements in Etrian Odyssey VI. But as for this fifth entry, it’s an odyssey worth taking for hardcore dungeon-crawling RPG fans.
A review copy was used for this article. This review was written for DarkStation.