It's a scene that hearkens back to the very dawn of gaming: Five adventurers step into a dungeon, uncertain of what dangers await. Their only goal is to reach the deepest—or in this case, the highest—part of the forest. Along the way, they have to fight a horde of dangerous monsters, each stronger than the last. Death waits around every corner.
Etrian Odyssey 5 is a throwback to the early days of the medium—when roleplaying games were dominated by the likes of Moria, Angband, and Wizardry.
It's also a throwback for the series at large. Where Etrian Odyssey 3 put you on the high seas, and Etrian Odyssey 4 featured an airship, Etrian Odyssey 5 is a return to the foundation laid by the original game way back in 2007 (has it seriously been a decade?).
Once again, you are tasked with recruiting a guild of adventurers—fencers, necromancers, pugilists, herbalists—and setting off to explore Yggdrasil: the massive world tree that waits just outside of town. With your crew in tow, you move tile-by-tile through each floor, painstakingly sketching out a map on the 3DS touchscreen as you go.
It's an RPG that represents the genre at its absolute crunchiest, eschewing almost all story in favor of a handful of silent protagonists that you create yourself (the Etrian Odyssey Untold spinoffs do include a story, as does Persona Q). It demands a good sense of strategy, as any attempt to brute force an encounter will result in you getting rolled. It demands patience in a way that many other games don't. It's old-school.
The map remains its distinctive feature. It's an obsessive compulsive's dream in the way that it demands that you explore every inch of a given floor. You can learn a lot about a person just in the way that they sketch out the map. Do they fill in every detail, or just the parts that matter? Do they outline the walls with the pen? Do they differentiate the water?
I'll admit, half of my maps inevitably end up missing walls as I grow lazy and forget to fill them in. I'm always a little afraid of closing off my map, lest I give myself a false sense that I've found everything there is to find. As the floor grow more complicated, it's often more important to know where you haven't been.
The format ultimately works because it introduces a real sense of ownership to the exploration. The guild is your guild, and every character in it is one you created. The map is your map, and you are responsible for every single square.
It also works because it has a distinct and satisfying loop that compromises entering the maze, exploring as much as possible, then returning to town laden with treasure. This unlocks new items and quests, which you can use to gear out your party for another run. It can grow to be addictive as you find yourself making "just one more run" into the maze before shutting down for the night.
It helps that Etrian Odyssey has become progressively more forgiving in the years since the original game, gently easing players into the grind before taking the limiters off around the Second Stratum. It's also gotten prettier: the lush woods populated by detailed 3D monsters that comprises the first stratum is genuinely lovely. It's a very attractive, very polished series.
In the midst of what has been a quiet renassiance for the genre—Divinity: Original Sin 2, Persona 5, and Nier: Automata have all been excellent—Etrian Odyssey stands out less for its brilliance and more for its consistently. It knows that it's a stubbornly hardcore RPG that hearkens back to the genre's roots, and it executes wonderfully on that concept.
What Makes Etrian Odyssey 5 Different From its Predecessors
Of course, if you've played previous games in the series, Etrian Odyssey 5 won't strike you as overly different from its predecessors. It retains many of the hallmarks of the series, from the aforementioned map, to the quests that you can pick up in the bar, to terrifying monsters like FOEs—powerful enemies that you have to find a way to avoid.
Its main differences, not surprisingly, are mechanical. Etrian Odyssey 5 brings with it a new set of classes and abilities, as well as Unity Powers: special abilities that can be activated when enough party members fill their Unity Gauge. Each class also has powerful evolutionary variants that can be used to further optimize your party build.
This is where I confess that I've mostly been using the Internet to build my party. I did that thing where I Googled "Most Broken Class," which tells me that the Blade Dancer and Necromancer make for a particularly strong combo. So I'm currently working toward that, with the Dragoon, Pugilist, and Herbalist for backup.
I'm sure hardcore Etrian Odyssey fans are rolling their eyes right now; but honestly, this game is hard enough that I don't feel bad going to the Internet for a help. In an RPG where a sub-optimal party composition can get you utterly destroyed, I'll take every advantage I can possibly get.
And I've gotta say, I'm a big fan of the Necromancer so far. In tandem with the Dragoon, the Necromancer can throw all sorts of frontline barriers up, occasionally sacrificing one for a massive toxic attack or perfect defensive shield. It almost feels unfair when I dump poison on an enemy party and watch them swiftly succumb. It's great.
That's the moment when Etrian Odyssey is at its most satisfying: when you have a good handle on the layout of the floor you're on, and you're at the point where you can handle whatever challenge it throws at you. It can take a bit to get there, but when you do, it feels great. Of course, the next floor is always waiting for you.
In the past, this is where I've tended to burn out on Etrian Odyssey games. The gloves typically start to come off once you hit the Second Stratum, and it's here that the pacing begins to slow significantly. It's also exhausting to finish mapping out one stratum, only to have to start from scratch when you finally reach the next.
Nevertheless, I can't help but admire a game like Etrian Odyssey 5, which demands a kind of patient mastery that you don't always see in games these days. It'll hold your hand to a point, which is evident in the extended tutorial that is the first floor, then you're on your own. It's not for everyone; but for those patient enough to unlock its secret, it's a distinct pleasure.
With the 3DS on the verge of retirement, this may be the last chance Etrian Odyssey has to really shine on the two-screen format. Atlus may yet find a way to make it work on the Nintendo Switch, but it won't be quite the same without that omnipresent map.
If this is indeed Etrian Odyssey's swang song, then it goes out as a unique and entertaining series that grasps not just the intrinsic joy of old-school dungeon crawlers, but of pulling out a fresh piece of graph paper and mapping out a maze. If you've never had a chance to sample the series, then now is the time to give it a shot (there's a demo on the eShop if you're interested). And if you're a returning veteran, you'll find Yggdrasil just where you left it, ready to be explored once again.
So gather your adventurers one last time. The labyrinth awaits.