After dabbling with ocean exploration and a traversable overworld in the previous two entries, Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth takes Atlus' first-person dungeon crawler back to its roots. It's five player-created characters adventuring their asses off.
The Etrian Odyssey series has always been light on story and big on challenge, and number five is no different. It's a first-person dungeon crawler along the lines of the old Wizardry games.
Players create a party of adventurers for a selection of different races and classes and test their skill in a massive, multi-level dungeon.
There's a seed of a story here, but only just. The player's party is the latest adventuring group to arrive in the City of Seven Hills, nestled in the roots of the gigantic Yggdrasil Labyrinth.
Legend tells that whoever reaches the top of the tree-shaped dungeon will have their greatest wish fulfilled. Sounds like a good reason to break out the mapping tools and start climbing.
The adventure begins with the player carefully crafting a party of adventurers from the game's four races (basically human, elf, hobbit and bunny-eared-folk) and ten classes.
New character creation options let players change the hair, eye and skin colour of the pre-rendered portraits, with 40 different voices (20 male and 20 female) to add just a tiny bit more character.
After a bit of dilly-dallying about town, gathering supplies and weapons and accepting quests, it's off to the labyrinth's first floor, where the player will almost certainly be killed in relatively short measure.
That is unless they have played an Etrian Odyssey game before. Then they would already know how challenging the series' dungeons are. Selecting the right combination of races and classes is crucial to survival.
My initial group included a Fencer, a speedy frontline offence class, a frontline burst offence Pugilist, a backline defending Dragoon I foolishly put in the front row of my party, a hound-summoning Rover and alchemy-wielding Botanist. I had made poor choices, and I quickly paid for it.
New Union Skills allow characters to work together to perform special feats like double-attacking or escaping. Escaping is very important.
Having the right party members helps, but it's not enough to get you through a floor in Etrian Odyssey V. It's about upgrading the right skills, making sure characters can fish and forage and mine and maintaining a healthy supply of healing and support items.
It's about efficiently mapping the areas the party explores, utilising the game's mapping tools. Creating one's own custom maps of every level is one of the series' greatest joys.
If painstakingly going over every tile of a map with a 3DS stylus, making sure every mining node or random quest giver is marked, doesn't sound like a good time, maybe this isn't the series for you.
The most important survival tip of them all in Etrian Odyssey V is knowing when to quit. The turn-based battles in the game can quickly escalate from basic and breezy to downright brutal, and the tide can turn in a heartbeat.
One random encounter can wipe out an adventuring party if they aren't prepared. Is mapping a few more steps on a floor worth the risk of a game over screen?
Giant FOB creatures roam the maps, ready to catch unprepared parties with their proverbial pants down.
The downside to Etrian Odyssey V is that it's very much a return to form for the series. While the third and fourth games in the series expanded the basic formula with new ways to travel and explore, the latest instalment has players hopping back and forth between the menu-based town hub and the various dungeon levels.
There are new elements, like multi-character Union Skills or bite-sized Adventure Episodes, random dungeon events that reward players with items and experience, but Etrian Odyssey V otherwise doesn't do much to advance the series.
Me? I'm fine with it. I have been there and I have done that, but I loved being there and doing that, and now I can do it with a fresh batch of character classes in a new setting.
As a mostly-mechanical dungeon crawler, Etrian Odyssey V is pretty much perfect. It's a game for players who don't want plot to get in the way of their min-maxing, and great rewards await those willing to surrender themselves to the minutiae. I surrender.