Earlier this month I was introduced to a part of Atlus that, surprisingly, I’d never really even heard much of before – Given that this IS Atlus, and that unsung masterpieces are their sort of foray, I decided to go into Etrian Odyssey V entirely blind. No walkthroughs, no help, no jargon-busting wiki guides… Just a brand new person experiencing the title for what it was.

And, upon entering this mystical, deadly world, I was rather pleasantly surprised. You begin the game by making up to around 25 different characters of varying classes and races, choosing between the core four races, Earthlian (The most humanoid of the four races), Celestrian (Elven-inspired humans that specialise in magical abilities), Therian (Animalistic humanoids that channel their bestial strengths to unleash familiars and summons), and Brouni (Small cabbage-patch kids that use their medicinal knowledge to heal and buff their allies and debuff opponents); part of the challenge in Etrian Odyssey V comes solely from identifying not only what team members would be optimal to take with you on certain quests, face certain bosses and overcome different obstacles, but also to try and figure out what racial traits and classes they should all fall within – It acts as a sort of puzzle that has a number of different parts and pieces that slot together in a variety of completed forms; for my playthrough however, I felt relatively comfortable having one of each Race and two combat classes, one healer / debuffer, one healer / buffer, and one “jack-of-all-trades” class that could mix’n’match between different roles as the situation arises.

Through this though, I faced a large number of challenges that may not’ve been encountered had I gone solely for mass debuffing / focusing on buffing a single super-high-powered combatant, or focused on status effects, magic or melee exclusively… It’s refreshing to see a title (Or rather a franchise) that doesn’t force you to change your tempo and team, but does nudge you in the relevant direction – It allows for players to experiment with what classes and races they prefer in their teams, and to learn each one’s unique advantages and disadvantages and choose to either accommodate for said shortcomings and benefits, or alternatively introduce more risks to herald a greater reward such as better item drop rates through racial benefits, more overall damage output, or even just self-inflicted challenges.

This, however, leads to one of Etrian Odyssey’s first issues; the amount of experimenting required early-game is rather exhausting, leading to a lot of game over screens and resets when facing even the first enemies you encounter – Grinding is a somewhat mandatory segment of Etrian Odyssey that Atlus thankfully tried to at least make a little bit more bearable; the retainment of Atlus JRPG staple features such as Auto-Battle and Auto-Mapping help to cut down on the amount of time a player has to spend on repeated combat, however to me, I never used the Auto-Mapping within the game’s options solely because being able to play navigator and draw out your own floor layouts can be extremely entertaining; if you miss a pathway, it’s because you didn’t draw it on the map, not because it was totally obscured! It makes me wish that more dungeon crawlers had this sort of navigation system; my only gripe is that there didn’t seem to be enough in the way of “secret areas”, where players would be rewarded for their vigilance and attentiveness when exploring the various floors of the Yggdrasil – Small things like foliage looking different, or walls appearing slightly stranger than normal could open up the doors to more mystery-dungeon-like floors, where secret rooms could bestow healing items, weapons, armour, optional bosses or even traps for players to try and overcome – I guess that’s why we have Etrian Mystery Dungeon then!

Saying this, however, there are a huge number of mini-events that occur throughout the many floors of the Yggdrasil; everything from finding camping spots, other adventurers, hunters and ambushes are all par for the course here – Only issue is that there’s never really a clear-cut way of telling exactly where to find these events. A good example is right at the start of the game where you encounter a soldier looking for a set of chickens he was herding – Finding these chickens was absolutely painstaking from a typical ‘quest’ perspective, having me spend around half an hour on the current floor pressing A on every tile and wall I passed; were the chickens on the same floor as me? Were they in the same relative area? Were they all scattered? All I knew was that there were 3 chickens to find, and no indication as to where they were located.

In terms of a plot, Etrian Odyssey V doesn’t really have one; a plant known as “Yggdrasil, The World Tree” fuels the world of Arcania, rumoured in legends to hold the power of gods inside it’s highest floor; with each race having unique perspectives on exactly what is waiting at the top of this mystical and deadly tree, be it knowledge, power, wealth or simply fame, one simple theme resonates with all: Whatever IS at the top of the tree will grant your wish. To prevent hapless people just wandering into the tree and getting slaughtered, the town of Iorys which sits at the base of the Yggdrasil enforce guilds, authenticated groups of adventurers that are ‘permitted’ to explore the tree at their own risk –  Delving into the great tree, you can obviously see why they wanted to stop any random schmucks from wandering in, as this game will, and is intended to, kick your arse at every opportunity it gets. I hate the phrase “The Dark Souls of this genre”, but to be perfectly honest, asides from other Atlus titles such as Shin Megami Tensei, 3DS Dungeon Crawlers don’t get harder than this.

Stating this, however, isn’t a bad thing. It’s good that Etrian Odyssey V is so complex and difficult – It almost acts like that hard part of crackling you get during one of your grandma’s roast dinners; sure, you may cut your teeth and scar your mouth trying to chew on the bloody thing, and it may take you 120 hours to finally bite through and digest it all (Slight dramatisation there), but my god do I enjoy every second of it. The delicious blend of challenge, rewarding gameplay, expansiveness in content and reliance on my own problem solving and dedication to progress is, frankly, something that is missing from a good number of JRPGs without having to crank up the difficulty to 11 after a playthrough or by default.

Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth wants to kick your arse. It wants to beat you down. It wants to be ruthless. However that feeling when you finally nail that strategy; when you overcome a floor that was kicking you down for weeks; when you beat that FOE or that boss that stopped you dead in your tracks…

…Well, there’s no better feeling, really.

I give Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth, a final rating of 8.5 / 10.