Sunday, May 6, 2018

Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth

Since its humble beginnings in 2007 on the Nintendo DS, Atlus’s Labyrinth of the World Tree series harkened back to old-school first-person dungeon-crawling RPGs, the original title released under the name Etrian Odyssey in English, sort of a misnomer in that only the first sequel had remote connection to the first game that occurred in Etria, equivalent to keeping the Raiders of the Lost Ark moniker for the Indiana Jones movie sequels. Roleplaying game nomenclature aside, the pantheon would expand to the Nintendo 3DS, its latest release, Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth, providing an experience on par with its precursors.

After commencing a new game, the player can create a party of up to five characters compromised of several different classes, with the introduction of races that have occupations native to them. Players can ultimately opt to give their characters secondary classes regardless of their race at the cost of five experience levels, although odds are most gamers will want to focus on developing the abilities of their party’s base vocations, since there would consequentially arise the tough decision of skills into which to invest limited ability points. Later on, players can promote their characters to advanced versions of their base classes, with several different options akin to Seiken Densetsu 3.

As with prior entries in the franchise, the player can arrange their active party in front and back rows, the former having greater attack but decreased defense and the latter vice versa. In the hub town, moreover, the player can take missions from the tavern and occasionally the council hall with rewards such as items and a fair chunk of experience points for occasional leveling. When ready, the player can commence their party’s exploration of the multilayered maze, which is true to the franchise’s original Japanese name a labyrinth actually existing within the world tree Yggdrasil.

Like prior installments, an indicator changes color to show how close the player is to encountering enemies, which as with the player’s characters can have front and back rows that function the same. The fifth entry follows the structure of most classic turn-based RPGs where the player inputs commands for each character alive, including attacking with their equipped weapons, defending to reduce damage, using a consumable item, executing a TP-using skill, using a Union Skill with an ally (where the game is kind enough to show players their odds of success, and in which case the involved allies can skill receive normal commands), changing row setup, or attempting to escape.

Characters and the enemy execute their commands likely depending upon agility, with players needing to memorize turn order within battle since the fifth game doesn’t have a turn order meter a la the traditionally-turn-based DS remake of SaGa 3, and there can arise situations where healing allies low on health comes too late. Furthermore, since foes seem not to decide their commands upon reaching their turns, there can also come situations where the player revives an ally in a round, only for the said character to die again the same bout.

How the game handles death depends upon the difficulty setting, with the easiest selection letting players restart with the health and magic their party had at the same place in the dungeon where they encountered the foes that killed them. Speaking of foes, the series’ FOEs (Field On Enemies) wander most floors of the labyrinth, and tend to be far stronger than the normally-encountered adversaries, and avoiding them at low levels is highly recommended. Fortunately, in the case that the player mistakenly encounters one, they have five chances with all characters alive to escape the battle successfully, although there is the chance that no ally successfully egresses from the fight.

Should the player emerge victorious in combat, the game rewards all characters still alive experience for occasional leveling (in which case they gain a skill point investible into various active and innate abilities) and enemy parts that players can sell at the hub town’s shop to gain money and make new inventory available such as equipment to keep the party’s stats on par with those of the enemy at the highest floor. Overall, the game mechanics are for the most part a decent evolution of those in prior entries, although akin to most other traditional turn-based RPGs, they share many of the same shortcomings such as initially-indeterminable turn order, not to mention slight endgame hell and slow leveling late in the game.

As with prior Etrian Odysseys, moreover, the player must utilize the Nintendo 3DS’s stylus to detail the map created on the bottom screen, which only tracks visited spaces in the dungeon’s current floor. The emphasis on non-automatic cartography certainly won’t appeal to all players, although there is the reward of detailed maps of being able to travel instantly to the highest floor, significantly reducing repeated dungeon-crawling. However, there is a limit on inventory space of different types, with monster parts and consumables, for instance, lumped together, and while the consumable item limit restricts what the player can carry into combat, it creates the problem of having to drop items if players find other goods. Even so, the game generally interfaces well with players.

The Etrian Odyssey franchise has never excelled at storytelling, with the slight exception of the Untold remakes of the first two games (although their developed plots certainly weren’t perfect, either), and the fifth mainline entry continues this trend, with the narrative taking a backseat to the gameplay, the player’s characters, not to mention NPCs encountered throughout the game, not having any significant plot behind them, although the defeat of the final boss reveals key backstory that adds slight reward to triumphing over a tough antagonist.

While some revere Atlus for their localizations, and the fifth Etrian Odyssey generally having a serviceable translation, there are several niggling issues, such as unnatural battle dialogue, RPGs tending to have the worst writing in this area. The reason could be the thick California fog to which Atlus USA’s employees are subject, but there seems no plausible explanation as to why anyone would think it natural for a character, for instance, to proclaim “I won!” in the presence of allies upon triumph over an enemy party, or shout “More! More!” while gathering items. If dialogue sounds unnatural, then either cut it out of the game or change it to something better.

Series composer Yuzo Koshiro, as usual, does a superb job with the soundtrack, with solid dungeon themes and two different standard battle tunes for the main game’s stratums, which can vary depending upon whether the player takes foes by surprise or they do the same to their party. There’s also frequent voice acting, whose quality is largely hit-or-miss, and customizable voices for the player’s characters when creating them in the first place. The aforementioned unnatural dialogue, however, plagues performances, although mercifully, players can silence voice volume. Even so, the sound is one of the fifth entry’s hallmarks, as with its precursors.

The graphics also make good use of the 3DS’s three-dimensional capabilities, dungeon environments being believable, and the character art being superb, in addition to slightly animate with things like blinking eyes. Battles, while strictly in the first person akin to the game’s predecessors, contain reasonably-flashy spell animations and fluid enemy movement, even if a fair number of foes are palette swaps. There are only minor technical hiccups such as slight slowdown during navigation of the final stratum of the main game, but otherwise, the fifth Etrian Odyssey is easy on the eyes.

Finally, the main game lasts one to two days’ worth of total playing time, with things to pad out playtime such as a postgame stratum and a New Game+. In the end, Etrian Odyssey V is a worthwhile sequel, with plentiful positive elements such as its solid traditional game mechanics, the rewarding cartography, the superb sound, the fluid visuals, and enough to keep the player coming back for more. There are some elements that leave room for improvement, however, such as the endgame slog, the limited inventory space, the potential off-putting nature of mapmaking, the minimal storytelling, and a few localization hang-ups. Even so, those that enjoyed the game’s predecessors will likely be in for a treat, and fortunately, those who haven’t played a game in the series don’t have to have played its precursors to enjoy the fifth.

The Good:
+Solid gameplay systems with lots of classes and different races.
+Floor skip feature cuts down repeated exploration.
+Excellent soundtrack.
+Nice graphics with decent use of 3D and great art direction.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Endgame slog.
-Inventory limit.
-Stylus cartography won’t appeal to everyone.
-Minimal storytelling.
-Some localization hiccups.

The Bottom Line:
Another enjoyable Etrian Odyssey.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Game Mechanics: 8/10
Controls: 7/10
Story: 6/10
Localization: 7/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 8/10

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