ATLUS has been one of the 3DS’ biggest supporters, supplying Nintendo’s stereoscopic system with an impressive stream of JRPG gems over the last 6 years — including several excellent entries in the Etrian Odyssey series. Starting out on the DS and combining first-person dungeon crawling and touchscreen map-making, these old-school adventures have been delightful additions to the 3DS’ RPG canon, and this latest entry, Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth — the first numbered sequel since Etrian Odyssey IV’s 2013 debut — is no different; in fact, it might just be the best of the bunch. Polished, refined, and gorgeously green, with engaging exploration and strategic class-based combat, Etrian Odyssey V is an absolute gem of a game.

Etrian Odyssey V takes place in the land of Arcania, centred around the massive tree of Yggdrasil, which extends upwards from the earth as far as the eye can see. Arcania is a land of many peoples, and each group has their own legends about what might be waiting at the top of that tree. Gods? Lost treasures? Infinite wisdom? Whatever their reason for the journey, scores of adventurers flock to the city of Iorys at the mighty tree’s base to try and make their way up the labyrinths of its trunk, and that’s where you come in.

If that setup sounds wide open, it’s entirely by design; with the exception of the Untold remakes, Etrian Odyssey games tend to stay out of your way in terms of story, letting you field characters of your own design and leaving a good part of their adventures open to your imagination. Before you take your first steps up Ygdrassil’s roots, you’ll build a five-member party from scratch, with one of the most detailed character creation systems we’ve seen. You’ll begin by picking from one of four races — the human-like Earthlians, the elvish Celestrians, bunny-eared Therians, and short-but-sweet Brouni — and ten classes (more on these later). Then, you can select from ten portraits per combination — some more masculine, some more feminine, some androgynous, and all thoughtfully referred to with gender-neutral pronouns throughout. 

Even though the tool relies on pre-set portraits, we were amazed at how much you’re able to tweak your characters. Free RGB colour sliders let you dial in the right shades for your character’s clothes and accessories, skin tone, and eyes — you can even set iris values individually for heterochromia! — and you can assign one of 40 voices to flesh out your hero’s personality. It’s an amazingly in-depth system, and the amount of customization possible meant we were able to create a group of adventurers that really felt like our own.

With your party assembled, Etrian Odyssey V’s gameplay loop can start in earnest. Like its predecessors, it’s based on a classic dungeon crawler template: you’ll venture into Ygrdassil, starting at the bottom floor of the first Stratum (dungeon) up the trunk. From there, you’ll explore each labyrinth-like level from a first-person perspective, mapping your way as you go and trying to get as far as you can before exhaustion sets in (usually in the form of a lack of MP for spell-casting and healing). Each trip into the tree will feature plenty of enemies to fight, environmental puzzles to solve, resources to collect and quests to undertake, and when you make it back to town — either by retracing your steps or by using an Ariadne Thread (think Escape Rope) — you can sell the spoils from your last expedition to open up new weapons, armor, and items to help you get further in your next foray. 

It’s a fine-tuned feedback loop, and makes for a fun, addictive experience; seeing how deep you can explore before having to hoof it back to town is just about the purest distillation of the risk-vs-reward concept we can imagine. And while this time-tested system is a big part of the attraction of most dungeon crawlers, Etrian Odyssey goes a step further to get you truly invested in each exploratory mission through its manual map-making. As you make your way through Ygdrassil, the 3DS’ touchscreen acts as a blank piece of digital graph paper that you’ll fill in as you go, painting floors, sketching in walls, marking doors, traps, and items of interest, and leaving yourself notes and reminders for places to return to.

That might sound tedious, but there’s something undeniably soothing about seeing your journey come to life in ink before your eyes. If you’ve ever sketched out level layouts in NES games or kept a journal as you worked through an RPG, you’ll be in heaven here — and even if you think it’s not for you, we’d recommend giving it a shot. Though a generous optional ’auto-map’ feature means you won’t have to put in the work if you don’t want to, looking back on our cartographic creations at the end of a Stratum is easily one of the most satisfying experiences we’ve had on the 3DS. V has also seen some nice upgrades to the system which make mapping out the worlds even easier: you can now customize the icon palette, for instance, and it sits helpfully out of the way on the bottom right until you drag it out to its full size.

Besides leaving breadcrumbs on the bottom screen, you’ll also spend plenty of time in Yggdrasil dispatching foes in Etrian’s excellent turn-based combat. Thoughtful, dynamic, and lots of fun, it’s one of our favourite RPG battle systems out there, with a relatively straightforward design hiding some serious depth. Your party — as well as enemies — are arranged in rows, with a rearguard and vanguard, and you’ll be able to issue commands — attack, defend, use skills — to each character before the turn starts. That’s standard enough, but Etrian’s essence lies in how characters’ skills — determined by both their class and race — build on and play off of one another, letting you craft your own ‘combos’ to fit any situation.

At the heart of this system are the classes. There are ten in all, each unique and appealing in their own way, and all of them distancing themselves from the usual fantasy RPG tropes both mechanically and thematically. Take the sword-wielding Fencers, for instance. At first glance they seem like a standard ‘warrior’ class, but they’re actually focused on following up ally attacks with their own knock-ons, adding on status effects and elemental damage to get as much out of a single turn as possible. Similarly, Dragoons might look like straightforward tanks, and while they can certainly soak up damage, they also fight with ranged cannons that let them deal plenty of damage from either line. Perhaps our favourite class is the Rover, a hunter that can call in both Hounds and Hawks to help the party out. Once they enter the fray, these loyal beasts will stay with the party until you return to town, occupying a new frontline ahead of the vanguard and acting on their own each turn — the hawk to attack your enemies and the hound to heal your friends.

To give an example of how these classes can integrate, our starting party consisted of a Rover, a magic-casting Warlock, a samurai-like Masurao, a scythe-swinging Harbinger, and a herbal-expert Botanist. The Harbinger and Masurao were our primary damage dealers, but on opening turns they both had easy buff/debuff skills to use to start the fight off in our favour — a cornerstone of Etrian's combat. Our Warlock could cast spells that varied in their geometry as well as their elements, with a fireball that deals splash damage to enemies next to the target, a lightning spell that hits an entire row, and an ice attack that pierces through a frontline enemy to hit a second target behind. The Botanist served as a primary healer, but could also whip up poison and blindness potions for offensive might, while our Rover’s animals provided a burst of attack power and a party-wide heal at the end of every turn, backed up by her ranged bow attacks.

That grouping worked well for us in the early game, and was fun to expand on as we went thanks to the skill tree character growth system, where you can use points earned when leveling up to add new skills based on both class and race. Class skills usually focus on combat moves, while race techniques tend towards stat boosts and field techniques, but also include invaluable Union skills. These require a certain number of powered-up teammates to pull off, but can substantially change the tide of battle, with healing and revivals, all-out-attacks and damage shields all on the table.

Series fans may remember that in addition to tinkering with skills, Etrian Odyssey IV also offered subclassing, where you could outfit your party members with a secondary skillset after reaching a certain point. That feature is absent from V, but with the already complex interaction between race and class skills, its removal feels like a smart simplification, and it’s been replaced by a streamlined, Fire Emblem-style specialization system called Legendary Titles. These titles allow you to take a character’s class in one of two distinct directions once you’ve raised them to a high enough level. A Rover could choose to focus on hawk skills or hound skills, for instance, while a Masurao could learn to weld up to four katana at once for multi-target mayhem, or focus on getting the most damage to a single foe with one. In a nice touch, the actual ‘titles’ can be whatever you like, so feel free to christen your high-ranking Rover “Birb King” or “Prince of Puppers”.

All these upgrades will be increasingly important as you move higher in Yggdrasil and start to encounter the series’ signature FOEs, massive “field-on enemies” that are visible in the labyrinth and considerably overpowered relative to other enemies on the same floors. The idea is that you won’t be able to make a dent in these creatures when you first see them, and you’ll need to steer clear by observing their movement patterns and slipping by undetected. The presence of FOEs makes for enjoyably tense exploration, and then later — when you’ve grown your team — just as enjoyably tense combat. There are few accomplishments in RPGs more satisfying than returning to a floor to challenge FOEs you had to tiptoe around before, and they’re as intimidating and fun to fight here as ever.

Another series staple that returns — with considerable upgrades — in this fifth Etrian outing are the ‘Adventure Episodes’, the newly-named small sidequests and set pieces you’ll encounter in Yggdrasil. While Etrian games have always featured some manner of bite-sized vignettes as you wander the labyrinths, V makes them a more central part of the experience, increasing their number and scope as well as rewarding you with experience points and endearing summaries for completing them. These micro-stories are fun diversions from the larger task at hand, and often involve some sort of on-the-fly decision making: will you eat those ripe-looking berries for a potential MP boost, or leave them alone in case they’re more poisonous than they look? They tend to play off your expectations in clever ways, too, so it’s not always safest to take the ‘safe’ way out. 

We loved coming across these in our travels through the labyrinth — and seeing our characters breeze and/or stumble through the scenarios they found themselves in — and the EXP bonuses make them feel like much more than just window dressing. Race skills now play into these quests as well; in one early example, for instance, we had to help a guard round up his missing chickens. We knew where they’d be from having jotted down the position of noted ‘chicken-friendly areas’ on our earlier explorations, but actually catching them proved trickier; we were only able to reunite the flock once when we’d brought along our Therian Botanist with the ‘Animal Care’ race skill. 

From Adventure Episodes to FOEs, one thing that really impresses in Etrian Odyssey V is how balanced the experience is — all of its systems fit together beautifully, and the result is a game that’s consistently fun to play. There are difficulty spikes, to be sure, especially at the boss of each Stratum. But these spikes still feel less punishing than in other games in the genre, and — even better — like they serve a real purpose beyond padding. Rather than force you to go back and grind, these spikes make sure you take a nice, winding path through everything the game has to offer. 

When we ran up against the first Stratum’s boss and failed spectacularly, for instance, we upgraded our armor and then headed to lower floors to fight its FOEs for the first time — FOEs who would have wiped us out in a single turn hours earlier. After felling a few of these formerly formidable foes, we unlocked new weapons in the shop, completed a side-quest we’d picked up at the bar in town, and then explored the boss’ floor to find hints for an effective strategy. The next time we tried, we were successful — and not a second in-between those two attempts felt like ‘grinding’. While there’s arguably something satisfying about leveling up in general, in Etrian Odyssey it feels like you’re getting better along with your characters, and that makes for a wonderful feeling of natural progression.

That best-in-class balancing is part of a wider level of polish that shines throughout this fifth Etrian Odyssey. It’s full of charming little touches — like the title screen changing based on the time of day you play, or StreetPassed teams showing up in the labyrinths to give you items and hints — and the writing is legitimately excellent, with the tone and style of an expressively erudite dungeon master walking you through an absorbing tabletop adventure. 

It also looks absolutely wonderful, and uses the system’s stereoscopic 3D to fantastic effect; the menu-based town is overlaid atop a breathtaking pop-up-book-style diorama of its flowered main street, while Yggdrasil’s Strata take on an impressive sense of depth and scale. It’s stylistically stunning, with bright pastels and organic motifs making for a vividly verdant atmosphere, and the 2D character portraits (for NPCs and your party) and 3D models (for enemies and FOEs) are equally lovingly rendered. The animation is also particularly expressive; the almost-earthly-animals enemy designs get a great deal of their personality from their movement, and it’s easy to tell how far you’ve worn an enemy down by how they’re carrying themselves. Our only issue with the graphics is that the framerate seems to take a bit of a hit in the labyrinths with the 3D mode on — particularly disappointing considering how much the effect adds to the experience.

The soundtrack is another high point, with a surprising mix of smooth jazz and excellent elevator music in town and sweeping, sylvan orchestral scores in Yggdrasil itself. It sounds incongruous on paper, but as a package it’s lovely, and gives Etrian Odyssey V a unique audio footprint. Our only disappointment here is that the retro-styled FM Synth version of the soundtrack — a feature accessible in previous games in the Options menu — has been relegated to paid DLC.

Taken as a whole, this presentation gives Etrian Odyssey V a feel unlike any other dungeon crawling series, and that aesthetic is a huge part of its appeal. Rather than cold and oppressive, something to break free of, the world of Etrian Odyssey feels lush, beautiful, and inviting. It offers a real sense of adventure, where journeys into the labyrinth feel like earnest exploration of a world you’ll always want to see more of. That’s a perfect fit for the gameplay, too; the central loop will keep you busy and engaged for many, many hours, so it only feels right that the presentation makes it such a pleasant ride. That also means Etrian Odyssey V is very much worth trying even if you wouldn’t normally consider yourself interested in dungeon crawling; it’s such an agreeable world to be in that it’s hard to imagine anyone even remotely interested in RPGs not enjoying their time here.

As for where V stands in terms of the 3DS’ many Etrian offerings, that depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re after a traditional RPG story, the Untold remakes are still the best way to go, with their preset characters and persistent narratives. In terms of the mainline, less story-focused entries, however, V absolutely takes the top spot. We loved the airship overworld and mini-labyrinths in Etrian Odyssey IV, but those tweaks to the formula will mean more if you’ve played through the original trilogy, whereas V’s back-to-basics approach makes it a perfect point to jump in. You’ll get the Etrian experience perfected and distilled, with upgrades like the Adventure Episodes and race skills which serve to refine the gameplay core, rather than branch out from it.

Conclusion

Whether it’s your first foray into Yggdrasil or your fifth, playing Etrian Odyssey V is a true pleasure. Its addictive central gameplay loop combines engaging exploration, strategic combat and DIY cartography, all wrapped up in a charming presentation and a lush, organic aesthetic. It’s gorgeous to look at it, beautifully balanced, and polished to a sheen, but perhaps best of all Etrian Odyssey V feels like the culmination of a concept that’s uniquely tied to the 3DS. With its touchscreen mapping and masterful use of stereoscopic 3D, it feels utterly at home here, and while the little handheld may have plenty of life in it yet, we still can’t imagine a more fitting swan song for this extraordinary era of dual-screened RPG wonder. A must for any aspiring adventurer.