Etrian Odyssey 5 is the Best Hardcore RPG You Don't Know About

Why you should be playing what might be a quiet swan song for a hardcore RPG series.

Analysis by Kat Bailey, .

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.

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Comments 19

  • Avatar for riderkicker #1 riderkicker 6 months ago
    It's got a Yuzo Koshiro soundtrack, what's not to like?

    I probably should've bought this instead of South Park, but I haven't played my 3DS recently. Ask me after Xmas.
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  • Avatar for sleepiest #2 sleepiest 6 months ago
    I thought I read somewhere (Parish's site maybe?) that Atlus has talked about producing one final Etrian Odyssey for the 3ds besides this one?
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  • Avatar for AstroDemon #3 AstroDemon 6 months ago
    I made 10 characters last night and decided to go with Pugilist, Masurao, Botanist, Rover, and Dragoon. I like all of the character options, but it'll be challenge to find the right combination, I'm guessing. I think, for instance it'll probably be necessary to have a Warlock for more elemental damage, but I like the Rover for the extra pet you can summon. Dragoon is my main tank, and like the Fortress in EO4, you can eventually taunt/draw in and tank from the back row, reducing damage taken.

    I love this series of games, but often I run into a wall of difficulty deep into the game where it seems that I need to grind and level other party members in order to defeat a boss with the proper configuration and proceed in the game. I hope EO5 is not as grindy as the previous games.

    The first couple hours have been very fun, and I really like the unique experience this series brings to the table.Edited October 2017 by AstroDemon
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  • Avatar for link6616 #4 link6616 6 months ago
    I should probably make sure to buy this near launch despite having yet to finish PQ, or EO4, gotta support these games.
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  • Avatar for TernBird #5 TernBird 6 months ago
    I'm used to Parish writing these EO reviews, but he never linked the FOE music video (only referenced it). So, good on you Kat! ^_^

    I still haven't finished EO4, though, so I'll wait on this one for now.
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  • Avatar for Flipsider99 #6 Flipsider99 6 months ago
    Thanks for drawing attention to a great series that really should get more attention. That is what it's all about!
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  • Avatar for touchofkiel #7 touchofkiel 6 months ago
    @sleepiest I haven't heard that, but I'd be surprised/disappointed if we never saw a Untold remake of EO3. And the Mystery Dungeon crossover is getting a sequel.

    But Kat makes an interesting point - where does the series go from here? I really have no clue. The Wii U, ironically might have been the best system for a home version - it's also pretty much the only game that would have sold me on the console. I don't see it working on the Switch in its current form, though.

    If it does press on to something without dual screens, the mapmaking function will have to go. It would be entirely too tedious to map using a controller, though it could work on PC.
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  • Avatar for Hoolo #8 Hoolo 6 months ago
    I bought Etrian Odyssey IV because I could get a discount with My Nintendo. My first time through, it wasn't a big success because I had no idea what I was doing.

    Cue the start of September. I had just finished Super Mario 3D Land (I'm working on my backlog, I know it's old) when I had a space of a week without a game on my 3DS before Samus Returns hit. I needed something I could put away at any time when the new Metroid arrived for me.
    By the time that game released, I had hit the third land in EOIV. I had started over, thinking a bit more about what I needed, and had a much easier time. I was playing on Casual, sure, but as a newcomer I feel like I might be forgiven for doing that. I beat Samus Returns in a weekend and went right back to exploring the Yggdrasil. I finished it last week, defeating even the final superboss in the game (with the injection compound, mind. I'm not that crazy). I got both the enemy encyclopædia and the item compendium full. My guild card looked pretty good.

    I knew Etrian Odyssey V was going to hit stores on Tuesday, but Europe won't get it physically for another two weeks. Even then, I don't know if it will be the launch edition North America received. If so, well, that'd settle it. Gotta support more Etrian Odyssey. In the meantime, I'm not playing EOV. I'm not even playing the demo. I like to start fresh in the game for some Gog-forsaken reason - gotta remember the story, what little there is of that to begin with. I could have started on Untold. I liked the demo, and the story mode seems nice (although I already want to throw Grimoire Stones in a pit, never to be seen again).

    I didn't start on Untold.

    I started on the original NDS game.
    It was pretty brutal at the start, although I'm starting to get better at it. I just hit 9F, dodging the Wyvern, and now that my TP pool is getting larger I can actually use skills somewhat more, helping me survive some more. I highly doubt I'll finish it before V hits, but that's okay. I'll take my Etrian Odysseys one at a time.

    If only the game would let me put more than 20 Notes on a single floor.
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  • Avatar for Frosty840 #9 Frosty840 6 months ago
    Always been a fan of these games (for around ten years now, apparently!). Loved the first Untold, felt PQ didn't quite fit together properly, sadly (though it was a very brave attempt, moving Persona's combat from turn-based to round-based never clicked with me and I found the game incredibly tedious).
    Hadn't realised the outside-Japan release of EO5 was coming up (Japanese publishers do themselves absolutely no favours by letting the prerelease hype build for the Japanese release then die off for an entire year before crapping out a translation virtually unannounced in the English-speaking markets) so I'm very glad for the heads up. I'll probably be picking this up just before a big holiday I've got coming up in November.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #10 riderkicker 6 months ago
    @sleepiest Probably the remake of Etrian Odyssey III?
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  • Avatar for boatie #11 boatie 6 months ago
    I always think of FOEs as: Avoid at first, come back later for grinding/power levelling
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  • Avatar for Murbs #12 Murbs 6 months ago
    Sold my 3DS to get a Switch and this series is one I've missed more than most. Of course I'd love a Switch EO but it won't be the same. Can't be the same.
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  • Avatar for Wellman2nd #13 Wellman2nd 6 months ago
    Love the series, although I came in late only getting into it on the 3DS with EOIV.

    I liked the first Untold game but never finished because I had a brain fart and reclassed my entire story party just for kicks in the middle of the desert stratum. This of course cut my parties levels in half and getting them back to previous levels with new group felt like a slog and I started working on Bravely Default instead.
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  • Avatar for AstroDemon #14 AstroDemon 6 months ago
    I think a Switch version of Etrian Odyssey would not be out of the question if the developers thought outside the box and took a few chances. I personally don't see a huge problem with developing a touch game for the Switch as long as it's communicated to the buyer ahead of time.

    Capacitive styluses are dirt cheap, so I could see Atlus shipping one with the game, if they wanted. Atlus could develop the game to give the player options on how they want the map displayed and filled out. They could allow the map to be displayed on the left, right, top or bottom, or full screen by pressing the + or - buttons. They could also support multitouch to zoom or rotate, if they wanted.

    The Nintendo Switch would allow Atlus to create a next gen Etrian Odyssey if they invested in the effort. They are using the Unreal Engine to develop the next Shin Megami Tensei, so I think we may see some cool stuff from Atlus in the near future.
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  • Avatar for Tetragrammaton #15 Tetragrammaton 6 months ago
    @sleepiest They're doing a second Persona Q I thought I heard.

    Thanks for the writeup Kathy--I love the series but I've only ever finished the original and 4, the easiest games in the series. Making a run at U2 and then I think I'll take the jump on this. After all, the big plot twist with the original game was that there was a plot in the first place!
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  • Avatar for Ralek #16 Ralek 6 months ago
    I really hope they move on to the Switch sooner rather than later. Since I got that damn thing, my tendency to pick-up and play my 3DS has really gone down the drain ...
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  • Avatar for discohospital #17 discohospital 6 months ago
    @sleepiest@Tetragrammaton@touchofkiel Persona Q 2 has in fact been announced, but additionally series director Shigeo Komori has said that there's still another unannounced Etrian Odyssey series title coming to 3DS as well.

    "In order to meet the expectations of these fans, I would like to deliver a “festival”-like game that can be said to be another culmination [of the series]. That’s the feeling I have, and I am currently developing a new game.

    This is the last game in the series that will have a map to be drawn on the bottom screen on the Nintendo 3DS. For specifics, I hope that you can wait until the day when we can officially announce it."

    So it sounds as if this will be some sort of spinoff, and not a new numbered entry. They're really getting their mileage out of that engine while they can (I can't blame them!)

    Source: October 2017 by discohospital
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #18 SatelliteOfLove 6 months ago
    I seriously don't have time for this now; I JUST got to the 3rd zone in DOS2.
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  • Avatar for sleepiest #19 sleepiest 5 months ago
    @discohospital Thanks for looking this up! That's the exact quote I was semi-remembering. You take the cake
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