Game Reviewby Todd Ciolek,
Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth
The immense tree of Yggdrasil looms over the realm of Arcadia, and legends purport that its branches hide everything from godlike powers to unfathomable wealth. Your team of adventurers, plucked from various races and disciplines, ascends the great tree to discover its secrets.
Etrian Odyssey games ask a lot. They require you to pace around dungeon grids full of nasty enemies. They require you to map out levels in the tradition of the hardest RPGs of 1986. They require you to try again and again, even after a sudden and vicious encounter wipes out your entire party. Most of all, they require you to enjoy this potentially tedious rigmarole.
For series fans, Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth has an additional demand: you must be willing to discard the ocean voyages and airship vistas of the third and fourth Etrian Odysseys and go back to a focused crawl through a lone mystical realm. Of course, Etrian Odyssey's realm is an enormous tree named Yggdrasil. Starting off in a village at the roots, your party ascends through the big Norse plant, contends with arboreal monsters, and perhaps discovers just where the realm of Arcania fits into the plot revelations of the earlier Etrian Odyssey games.
Once again, Etrian Odyssey presents no heroes apart from those you make. Characters spawn from a new array of four different races: human Earthlains, elven Celestrians, rabbit-eared Therians, and impish Burouni. They're divided into a mix of familiar and new Etrian classes. Fencers, Pugilists, Dragoons, Shamans, and Warlocks all fit common RPG roles, while the gothic, scythe-wielding Harbingers mess with stat boosts and debuffs while samurai-like Masurao favor speedy swordplay over defense. Most intriguing are the game's summoner classes. The Rovers call up warrior animals and the Necromancers conjure magically versatile wraiths, both of which accompany your party in combat. A character's race determines the available classes at first, though those barriers soon crumble, leaving you free to form a balanced all-Therian party and pretend you're playing a Watership Down dungeon hack.
Your party, littered with in-jokes or not, ventures into dungeons structured on grids, advancing one square at a time. Despite the primitive movement, there's a lot to do on each floor, including fishing holes, mining deposits, and encounters with half-tame beasts and rival explorers. And despite the fact that these are dungeons in the old-fashioned RPG sense, most of the strata don't look it. They're lush, detailed forests full of pleasant music and dozens of ways to die.
Etrian Odyssey V knows that it has a reputation to maintain. Even with the less harsh difficulty available, adventurers never have it easy. Random encounters present enemies that can knock out a poorly structured party in a few rounds, and that's not to mention the extra-vicious FOE adversaries. The FOEs can be seen in advance, but that's largely so you'll have a chance to avoid them or perhaps even manipulate them.
If Etrian Odyssey V were alive and sentient, it'd tell us how much better things were back when players had to fill sheaves of graph paper with hand-drawn maps if they wanted to survive Wizardry and Temple of Apshai and similar RPGs with subtitles like Eldritch Gauntlet of the Chaos Gnomes. The earliest dungeon-crawler RPGs were brutal affairs that all but demanded player cartography, and Etrian Odyssey cuts us a break only by turning the lower 3DS/2DS screen into a handy map-maker.
With the stylus and circle pad, players chart the stage on the lower 3DS/2DS screen even as they wander, using a handy set of symbols and shorthand to denote everything from locked doors to a bush full of poisonous berries that your party members ate like idiots. The game under-explains the map yet demands that you appreciate it. You can't leave the first floor until you've explored it fully and either accepted the map as a fundamental part of gameplay or grown completely bored of it and gone back to playing Circus Caper on the NES.
Etrian Odyssey V's battles are much easier to understand. They're quick and dirty first-person clashes, with intuitive menus and tenacious enemies. You're free to arrange the front and back rows of your party, and placing armored Dragoons or magic users matters far more than one might suspect. Character attacks are accompanied by little voice clips, but their moves avoid flashy or protracted animations—even when they combine their moves in Union Skills.
In that light, Etrian Odyssey V fits together nicely once you embrace the dungeon-crawler ideal. You'll tread cautiously, marking each wall and savoring each non-lethal discovery. You'll try to sneak around a hulking FOE that turns around and demolishes your carefully arranged stratagems. And, if you're lucky, you'll escape a battle with a lone party member limping back to town with just a few hit points left. If you're less lucky, you might find that your entire party is ill-suited for the game's initial dungeons, but even then Etrian Odyssey V allows you to downgrade characters and remake your battle lineup.
It's fair to warn newcomers that Etrian Odyssey isn't about narrative, at least not in a pre-generated sense. It tells a player-controlled plot through the complex dungeon spreads, the ruthless battles, and sometimes in the sidequests available. That is, of course, the whole point of the game; it's a step away from overbearing dialogue and mandatory character interaction. Still, it's a fair criticism. Every game tells a story of some kind, and Etrian Odyssey V is more a collection of late-stage twists than a tale of any dramatic satisfaction or spacious world-building.
Etrian Odyssey V takes pains to build better party members, though. Creating a character involves picking from some artwork, including the usual blatant fantasy-art pandering, and customizing skin, hair, eyes (with optional heterochromia), and a surprisingly large selection of voices. It makes your chosen Fencers or Harbingers a little more endearing when they squawk before an attack or snobbishly tell you that they didn't need any healing. Even so, it's not the characters who make this game. No matter how much you come to like them, they'll never pay off.
Perhaps this isn't the Etrian Odyssey to break from the pack and cross over to every vein of RPG fan. The series wouldn't want it that way, anyway. This is for the exacting players: the ones who make maps for even the simplest Zelda dungeons, the ones who reset their games when a random stat boost is stingy, and the ones who enjoy treading the cruel edge between challenging gameplay and outright torment. If you're walking that road, there's no better companion than Etrian Odyssey V.
Overall : B+
Graphics : B
Sound/Music : A-
Gameplay : B+
Presentation : B
+ A gripping challenge from the get-go with plenty of side attractions
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