Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth

I’ve been getting back into Etrian Odyssey 5 lately, after a long time away.  Looking around at resources and reviews for the game, I find myself dissatisfied with the coverage.  Reviews approach the game on its own merits, without taking a look at what 5 does differently than its predecessors.  Most if not all publications seem to have stuck some random staffer with the review, someone unfamiliar with the series, or who maybe wasn’t giving it their full attention, getting lots of things wrong or not telling the whole story.

Granted, they can be forgiven for their ignorance, as the game wasn’t marketed very well.  I had to hear about it from my partner, who randomly saw a Youtube video posted on the Atlus channel saying there was a new EO game and let me know it existed.  Or maybe people were just fatigued with the series after 9 games, who knows.  Either way, people seemed to just copy-paste their reviews of 4 and call it a day.

As someone who has been playing and beating these games since the first one on the original DS, I feel more than qualified to take the deeper look that 5 deserves.  With the 3DS systems falling more and more by the wayside, I feel compelled to revisit and celebrate the Etrian Odyssey series, a kind of game that simply can’t exist on any other platform.

Make no mistake, 5 changes up a lot about EO’s basic mechanics and progression.  In fact, it’s so different in this regard that my initial reaction was one of unease.  There’s a lot of good choices made, and a lot was done to start to return the series to a sensibility not unlike the first game, one that encourages RP and feels more like Wizardry or Eye of the Beholder than a JRPG.  It’s easy to miss this change in tone and style, however, because EO5 also makes some decisions in the furtherance of this goal that are initially somewhat frustrating.  This is true whether you’re a veteran of the series, or someone who cut their teeth on the Untold games’ story modes.  It’s just a very unique game in the series, one that I can’t blame anyone for initially disliking or not understanding.

To fully understand why 5 is the way it is and why that’s okay, we should briefly retrace the series as a whole, to put it in its proper context.

Etrian Odyssey is a series of games on the DS and 3DS where you explore a dungeon in first person POV, drawing your own map on the DS touch screen with the stylus.  Your party is entirely custom, made up of characters you create yourself.  There’s usually a lot of flexibility in how you build these characters, with at least 2 or 3 different ways to focus their skill point allocation to support different playstyles, per class.  They each feature (as a minimum) 5 strata of a dungeon that is always tied to Yggdrasil (the world tree of Norse mythology) in some way.  Each stratum consists of several floors, has some unique gimmick and a difficult boss at the end, with a (usually) brutal 6th stratum for the postgame.  Up until EO4, they all also had phenomenal FM synth soundtracks composed by the legend Koshiro Yuzo, one of my personal idols.

Because the games are so difficult, and because initially, skills had either no descriptions or very brief descriptions, the series has always given you ways to fix your character builds.  “Resting” a character decreases their level somewhat in exchange for a respec.  “Retiring” them creates a new character with a vastly decreased level, but increased base stats.  Starting with EO4, resting’s level decrease was reduced from 5 levels to 2.  Starting in 2, they let you see which skills required which other skills as prerequisites.

Seriously, the first game was great but it was very lacking in what we’d call “quality of life” features.  You couldn’t even do strafing movements in the dungeon.

Each game in the series has also had some mechanic for getting sudden boosts of power or using special skills outside of the norm.  In 1, this was the questionably-programmed “boost” mechanic, which did very little.  In 2, you had Force skills.  In 3, there were Limits, which were equipped on (usually) multiple party members and needed them to fill up a limit meter to use.

The first 3 games were extremely hardcore, grindy affairs.  Each new stratum boosts overall enemy defense substantially, with 3 as a particularly brutal standout in this regard, with each new stratum’s enemies taking a fifth or less of the damage you were doing just one floor prior.  Even random normal enemies hit like trucks from floor 1, and your resources are extremely limited.  That’s to say nothing of the FOEs, which are super-powered minibosses that actively move around in the dungeon as you do.

Your initial maximum level is always 70.  In the first game, that was that.  In the 2nd game, retiring a character at your current max level would increase your max level cap by 1, making it by far the most lengthy uncapping method.  In 3, they introduced the method that would become standard in future entries, that of killing 3 special postgame bosses.  I can’t stress enough just how grindy these games are, even with that concession.

Starting with EO2, they mercifully added an auto-battle function to help with fighting random encounters.  In 3, they even added in the ability to draw auto-walk routes on your map, to facilitate the process of running in circles (well, squares) for days at a time to grind up levels so you could proceed.

The first three games were very well received, but had grown increasingly hardcore and difficult as they progressed.  EO3 featured a puzzle minigame revolving around sailing a ship, mapping out new ports and unlocking side quests and bosses by doing so, with solutions for each new unlock being extremely precise and requiring a lot of blind, fruitless experimentation.  Postgames had progressed to the point that memorizing the exact turns enemies would do their big attacks was required for most encounters.  EO3’s difficulty necessitated building not just one character, but your entire party around certain game-breaking skills in order to make any headway at all in later floors.  There was some concern that the series was losing its head up its own ass, basically.

EO4 changed all this, and as much as I love 4, it was bittersweet to see it happen.  It was an Etrian Odyssey game that revolved around taking the formula and making it more accessible, more newcomer-friendly.  It was nice to be able to finally sell all our items at once or see which skills led into others in a visual tree, definitely.  But gone were those FM synths in favor of an orchestrated score with a decidedly anime feel.  Gone were the static 2D sprites for enemies in favor of fully animated 3D models.  FOEs were no longer big fuzzy dots, now they were monsters running around.  And the dungeon, previously all in one piece, had been split up into lots of little bite-sized pieces.  Gathering no longer relied on having skill points invested, and the gathering-centric Farmer class was gone entirely.

As time has gone by, I’ve warmed up to 4 quite a bit.  For one thing, it’s the only EO game my partner has ever gotten into even a little, and that’s worth something.  For another, it has some extremely solid class design.  Instead of requiring party-wide synergies for a party to function, classes were reworked and overall made much stronger, individually.  They really leaned into the anime feel of the design, even including a remarkably cool gunblade-type class (i.e. the Most Anime Thing) with amazing burst damage.  They consolidated the limit gauges into a party-wide “burst” gauge, and increased those skills’ usefulness.  And the airship is fun, like a more relaxed version of the ship exploration, less precise and strict.  The way the postgame dragons were done was cool.  It’s a nice little world, I liked exploring it.  The endgame revelation regarding all those disconnected dungeons was also pretty cool.  The music wasn’t FM, but it’s pretty good.  EO4 was a great game in the end, even if it was very different.  Even the lower difficulty and reduced grind were nice, in a way, as a kind of reprieve from 3.  Call it an Etrian Vacation.

And then the Untold games came out.  Now, Untold is a lot of things, and if you ignore the story modes and just play them on their higher difficulty setting in the custom mode, they’re alright, kinda like the originals but with post-4 QoL features and a bunch of vestigial mechanics that don’t make any sense.  But outside of that mode, these are weird games.  They have stories and pre-set characters that already have names.  They’re basically an attempt to re-tell the first two games, but in classic JRPG style that just so happens to make you also draw a map.  They’re not really EO games.  Neither is Etrian Mystery Dungeon, which is like a weird cross between Pacific Rim and a Mystery Dungeon game without much in the way of Etria in there.  At least the Untold games let you choose whether you want orchestrated music or FM, though.  If you’ve never played the original EO1 or 2, the Untold games in their “Classic” mode are a nice way to experience them in 2020, provided you ignore Grimoire Stones.

So at this point, EO had become this schizophrenic series that can’t decide whether it’s for the hardest of the hardcore and the oldest of the old school, or if it wants to appeal to a broader audience and be hella anime.  It’s putting in all these things to appeal to regular JRPG fans, and trying to mix them in with the old CRPG stuff, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

EO5 steps in to bridge that gap.  That is its primary aim, and everything different between 4 and 5 points to this attempt at reuniting the split halves of the series.  It is an attempt to “return to form” while keeping the good stuff of the new.

There’s some missteps.  There’s DLC here, and of course it was destined to be stupid.  Stuff like XP and item drop boosts you can buy, a few extra character portraits.  Then there’s the FM synth BGM option, which costs real money and is actually atrocious.  I was one of the people clamoring the hardest for this option to be available, but on first listen, I thought Koshiro-san couldn’t possibly have composed it himself.  It had to be an intern or something.  But he did!  That’s totally his work.  The short version is, it’s bad.  It has none of the energy or verve of the previous games’ soundtracks.  It’s like he just took a bad soundfont and laid it over the orchestrated tracks and called it a day.  The third stratum theme in particular is god-awful in FM, but every track suffers and falls flat to some extent.  It’s baffling.  Just accept the orchestrated music and enjoy it, because it’s not too bad.  There’s some jazzy stuff in there, it’s pretty good, not nearly as anime as 4’s OST.

EO5 does a lot of things right, though.  For one thing, you now get XP for all those little dungeon events you run into as you explore.  In previous games, you might find a suspicious backpack left by another adventurer, and if you take it, you get attacked by a beast.  Or you might find some fruit, and choose whether to try it or not.  Little things like that.  Now, these events have a lot more choices to them, they’re more involved, and they award XP.  A lot of them also require you to have certain racial skills, and that’s another big change right there.  Instead of just picking a class, now you pick both a race and a class.  And each race has its own set of exploration skills that help with these events and often give you passive stat boosts as well, or unlock new things you can do while exploring, like fishing for instance.  This is pretty huge, as it incentivizes you pretty strongly to not just have a pure combat-focused build, but instead to just RP your ideal party of adventurers and it’ll work out.  It also plays really nicely with classes having higher individual strength, like 4 did.

When you make your very first set of characters, each race can only pick certain classes, but once you finish the first mission to map 1F, you can change classes freely by spending 5 levels.  So, Earthlains can use their high luck to be poison smoke Botanists, Therians can become high-attack Dragoons, whatever.  Race also determines which “union skills” you get access to.  These are just EO3’s limits or EO4’s bursts, but they come from your racial skill tree and require one individual meter to be full.  These feel like an amalgam of all previous implementations of this kind of mechanic, to me.

To make up for all these new racial exploration and union skills, the class skills have been pared way way back.  Classes have barely any skills compared to how it used to be, at least at first.  Later on, you unlock “Legendary Titles”, and each class has two to choose from, each with a different focus.  The base Botanist, for instance, has some skills for healing and some for status infliction; one title focuses on the heals, one on the statuses.  Thinking about how to build your party becomes a lot more involved than it did in 4, while simultaneously being much less locked down than it was in 3.  It resembles the skill tree division of 4, but with a choice to make at the “Veteran” level.  Because the existence and content of this system is hidden from you at first, I found myself in an existential crisis wondering how the hell I was going to plan for a stratum 5 or postgame party without any skills to work with.  But in retrospect, that was just my PTSD from 3 talking.  As long as you don’t include a bunkers-and-turrets Dragoon, a two-pet Rover, and a Necromancer all in the same party, you’re basically fine doing whatever.

The gathering system from 4 returns intact, here, except that gathering-related skills are on races instead of classes now.  There’s a new kind of harvesting as well, related to food ingredients, and a cooking-at-campfires system that uses those ingredients to save you a ton of money on healing items.  Just as in 4 and the Untolds, you don’t have to pay separately to resurrect dead party members at inns before healing them by staying at the inn and paying again, it all just happens at once.  This, combined with more accessible gathering, leads to you having more money in general.  But it’s tuned well against the costs of items (which could feel a bit all over the place in 4 at times) to keep you on the edge of broke but not quite there, like EO1 used to feel.

Rather than forging special abilities onto weapons and having limited slots and unlockable “hammers” with which to do so (as in 4), 5 brings a straight “plus” upgrade system to the table.  You spend monster materials or special ingots to upgrade your weapons from +0 to +5, automatically unleashing latent abilities and increasing their stats pretty dramatically as you do so.  Even better, you can now recycle any +5 weapon into pieces of ingots, giving you a choice of what to do with your old stuff once you upgrade, while also extending the life of your old equipment.  This kind of system feels a lot more like D&D than a JRPG, and I like it a lot.

They also got rid of the airship / regular-ship puzzley bits in favor of a more straightforward single-dungeon crawl, but that dungeon’s map complexity and exploration mechanics have been beefed up.  Even the 1F map has lots of interesting and unusual features to map out, and some of what they do in later strata is really cool, like the third stratum’s night/day mechanic.

Speaking of strata, the overall design of them strongly evokes EO1, to me.  In many ways, the strata and bosses almost feel like a soft reboot of 1.  Granted, I haven’t fully completed 5, and maybe they get more explicit with this later, or maybe I’m totally off here and it’s all just blurring together in my old age.  But I feel as though 5 makes a lot of callbacks in its level design, but then kicks them up a notch into something really special.

I’d also like to take a minute to say how impressed I am with the overall class design in 5.  While there are definitely some legendary titles that are clearly better than the other choice, for the most part you have a ton of flexibility.  And even better, for the first time in the series you have a choice of what kind of tank you want!  Fencers are an agility-based dodge tank (like NIN tanking in FF11, lol), Necromancers can tank by sacrificing wraiths for the party (a magical tank!), and even Dragoons can also shell out huge damage with their guns while they shield the party, and their bunkers are sort of like the pre-Bunshin Ninja clone skill from 3, which is really interesting.  The shuffling around of abilities and class roles has led to a really cool combination of classes here in 5, and overall it’s harder to make a “boring” party than in previous entries.  It’s also nice to be able to customize voice, along with hair, skin, and eye color for each character.

So overall, that’s what EO5 is.  It’s an attempt to bridge the gap between the 4/Untold version of EO and the original 3 games.  It’s a step up in complexity in some ways, and a step down in others.  It encourages RP-based party building and rewards investment in exploration rather than pure combat min-maxing, but retains and sharpens the difficulty to make sure you stay on your toes and earn your successes.  5 seems to me to be an excellent game to check out if you are an old hand at this series who was turned off by 4, or if you cut your teeth on Untold and want something with a bit more meat to it.  I feel it succeeds admirably in what it set out to do.

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