ATLUS’ booth at E3 this year was packed full of 3DS RPG goodies, with marquees advertising Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux, and Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth. Of those heavy hitters, only Etrian Odyssey was playable, but having immensely enjoyed previous entries in the series, that was more than enough to excite.
That said, RPGs are tough beasts to sample on the showfloor, and that’s particularly true of Etrian Odyssey. The series’ joy lies in its sauntering, satisfying build-up of exploration and growth, and it’s hard to replicate that experience with limited playtime, a pre-rolled party, and attendees jostling for swag in your peripheral vision. So instead of going for the traditional approach, we embraced the chaos and played Etrian Odyssey V in two sessions separated by two days, with the help of a crowd-sourced level-boost in-between.
In our first session, we focused on exploration. Like earlier games in the series, Etrian Odyssey V has you exploring a massive, multi-story labyrinth — the Tree of Yggdrasil, this time — and mapping it out square-by-square on the touchscreen as you go, like digital graph paper. There’s no overworld to explore as there was in Etrian IV, so this time you’ll just be moving between Iorys — the town that acts as your team’s home base — and Yggdrasil as you try to climb ever upward to the top.
Since our breakneck beeline to the ATLUS booth meant we were the first attendees to try out the game on day one, our team was starting fresh at low levels, and locked more or less to the first floor of the first area. Lush and inviting, it took the form of a blue-green forest in early evening, with pools of water interspersed among grassy squares of land, and certainly carried the sylvan style the series is known for.
As we filled in our map on the bottom screen, we noticed that the cartographic interface has seen some real improvement: the brushes, tools, and symbols you’ll use to chart your way are now held in two small palettes which take up minimal real-estate on the right side of the screen. By dragging their tabs out from the corners, you can expand them — in a smooth and pleasantly tactile motion — to whatever size you like. Even better, you can customize exactly which symbols and options you’d like to appear in your palette, and where, so players should be able to draw up some truly unique charts on their journeys.
Aside from plotting our path, however, it was hard to get a real feel for the intricacies of the game; battles with the first floor’s infirm enemies only lasted a round or two, so the multi-step spell setups we loved in earlier Etrians never had a chance to get off the ground. We could still admire the beautiful new character portraits, however, and these were a treat. Etrian Odyssey V features both four different races (a new category) and ten different classes, and the combinations present in our party — like a bunny-eared grandmother with a crossbow and a blue-skinned lunar warlock — showed off just how much customization is possible. A big piece of Etrian Odyssey’s identity is how far it takes character design beyond familiar fantasy tropes, and that happily looks set to continue in part V.
After playing around in that first floor for a while, we’d seen about all we felt we could without grinding for levels to progress, and so we put the 3DS down and headed for less-green pastures. Yggdrasil stuck with us, however, and so on the last day of E3 we went back to have another go.
By this point in the show, the power of collective gaming had worked its magic; through continuous effort by a steady stream of players, our heroes had leveled up substantially and somehow made it to the third floor of the labyrinth, where fierce FOEs — massive enemies which roam the dungeon floor — awaited. Our ATLUS rep suggested that though they were tough, this powered-up party might be strong enough to take one down, and so we headed back into the fray to try our luck.
It didn’t take long to find a FOE — a terrifying owl-bear combo — and when we did, the intricacies of Etrian Odyssey V’s combat and new classes shone through. The FOE attacked for massive damage, and we didn’t have a healer in our party (!), but our rabbit woman came to the rescue with Rover class abilities. Rovers are able to summon various animals, including hawks and wolves, to fight alongside your team in the frontline. And we do mean the frontline; when we summoned a wolf with her Hound Whistle ability, it created and occupied a new third row in the front of the battle formation. In addition to attacking the FOE for follow-up damage, our new furry familiar also used a skill called ‘Lick Wounds’ at the end of every turn, healing a random hero for quite a bit of health.
Even with the help of our wolf friend and a skill-chain combination (our bard imbued everyone’s weapons with ice, which triggered several chase attacks from other heroes), the battle stretched long enough that we were able to see another new Etrian Odyssey V feature: Unison Skills. As you fight, each character’s ‘Unison Gauge’ will rise, until it eventually hits 100% — once it does, you can use that character to trigger one of these collaborative spells with powerful effects.
Unison Skills act as a free turn, and they always have priority, so their effects tend towards restorative powers or last-resort game-changers. In our case, our bunny gran was running out of TP (needed to summon more animals and start our attack chain), so our host from ATLUS smartly suggested triggering a TP-restoring Unison. Each Unison Skill has a cost number, which refers to the number of characters you need to enact it; the skill we needed required four party members, so we punched it in, watched their four portraits combine for an All Out Attack-style cut-in, and basked in blue gauges rising at the start of the turn.
Eventually, thanks to another skin-saving Unison Skill and a few lucky hits, we managed to bring down the owlbear and make it back to town. The class-based strategy we used to pull it off was incredibly satisfying, and from what we were told that sounds like just the tip of the iceberg — characters in Etrian Odyssey V now have not only class skills but also ‘racial skills’, and the two types overlap to create a huge variety of potential builds. Our rep explained that these combinations can play into the in-dungeon ‘scenarios’ as well, so that you might see a ‘mysterious stone’ or ‘suspicious bush’ on your travels, but only be able to unlock the ensuing event if you have party members of certain races and/or classes with you. If you don’t, of course, you can always mark it down to return to later — that’s the magic of touchscreen mapping.
Our time with Etrian Odyssey V might not have been long, but thanks to some anonymous assistance in-between sessions, we managed to see a pretty clear picture of what it entails, and came away very impressed. Strategic, stylish, and polished to sheen, we loved it all, and we can’t wait to sit down and spend more time with this map-making adventure at home when it releases, in North America, in Fall 2017.