When a game series runs as long as Etrian Odyssey has, you usually start to see some sweeping changes and reinventions to its formula. But Etrian Odyssey has never really been about keeping with the latest gaming trends--after all, its core conceit of exploring a 3D labyrinth that you must carefully map out harkens back to the very earliest days of PC role-playing games. Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth continues in that tradition: It offers a big, challenging old-school-style adventure that has been carefully iterated on and improved over the past decade, with various enhancements and refinements bolstering a formula that doesn't need any dramatic changes to stay relevant.
Beyond the Myth plops you down in the continent of Arcania, which is home to a Yggdrasil tree whose mighty branches grow all the way up into the heavens. Surrounding (and within) this great tree is a sprawling labyrinth, with many a myth spun about what lies at the top. Adventurers from across the land come to the kingdom of Iorys, which has just recently permitted exploration of the great tree for the first time. You construct and take control of a guild of adventurers. But many hazards await you on your climb--twisting mazes, unexpected surprises, and myriad monsters, including especially bloodthirsty beasts known as FOEs.
Like previous Etrian Odyssey games, Beyond the Myth focuses on exploration and atmosphere over storytelling. It lets you create a team of adventurers to your liking before setting you free to explore the gigantic labyrinth, with little in the way of extraneous banter (beyond some expository text and events every so often). Your characters don't have much in the way of personality besides what you imagine, and the handful of non-player characters that you encounter outside of town aren't terribly chatty.
In a lot of ways, it feels like a tabletop RPG campaign, with a game master chiming in every so often to describe a character or elaborate on lore, while leaving much to your own interpretation. But Beyond the Myth has a fair bit of voice acting for NPCs and the narrator, as well as battle cries for your created characters. While this sounds like a potentially good thing, the voice acting at large ranges from forgettable to aggravating, ultimately doing more harm than good. Sometimes things are better left to the imagination.
Before you begin your long, treacherous climb, you must assemble a guild from several different classes of characters, ranging from variations on standard RPG classes like Fencer, Pugilist, and Warlock to more esoteric classes like the Necromancer (who can conjure up wraiths as additional party members on a whim) and the Shaman (who wields dual buffing/healing abilities). As you level up, you can put points into character skills as you see fit, to create a truly customized party. Once you get some ways into the game, you'll be able to hyper-specialize characters using Legendary Titles--a new system that effectively replaces the dual-classing system of previous games by allowing you to hyper-focus characters into a particular role (for example, your Dragoons can be unmovable, party-protecting tanks or hard-to-kill damage dealers). The option to hyper-specialize and micromanage your party to your heart's content has always been a strong point of the series, and Beyond the Myth continues that tradition.
A brand-new element added to the character management mix is the choice of races. There are four races of characters, each with distinct stat growth patterns and unique skills: the humanoid Earthlians, rabbit-eared Therians, elf-like Celestrians, and cute-and-tiny Brouni. Each race has unique skills (also powered with skill points), such as elemental resistance debuffs, and passive restoration skills. While this opens up some neat possibilities for additional min-maxing of stats to create superpowered adventurers, it's also kind of a pain to manage at times; not only do you want a nice, balanced mix of party members that work well together, you also want to make sure you have the correct race skills to make your crew run like a well-oiled machine in combat. Sometimes remembering who has which race skills available can get messy.
Once you've made a party, it's time to start the long, arduous hike up that big tree. A common element across Etrian Odyssey games are the grid-based, first-person 3D dungeons that you need to thoroughly explore and manually map out using the 3DS's bottom screen. This isn't an optional thing; you will need to make maps, or else find yourself terribly lost in a sprawling labyrinth of flora and fauna. Fortunately, you have a lot of mapping tools and markers available to you and a new automap feature that will save you from having to manually draw walls (a tremendous time-saver that I recommend turning on immediately). Don't expect automap to do everything for you, though; you'll still want to mark points of interest, hidden passages, and other potential hazards.
Speaking of hazards, the labyrinth houses plenty of them, mostly in the form of monsters that inhabit each successively more demanding floor. From the moment a member of your fledgling party gets one-shotted by a rabid flying squirrel on the first floor in your starting expedition, you know you're in for some grueling fights.
The combination of careful, quiet exploration punctuated by fierce combat is what makes Beyond the Myth so much fun.
Fortunately, a variety of improvements makes combat a lot more enjoyable. For starters, the "enemy radar" in the dungeons is more accurate, allowing you to know almost exactly when you can expect an encounter to pop up (and prepare if you need to). It's also possible to check enemy data mid-fight, meaning that you don't have to memorize a bunch of weaknesses and details over the course of the game. Finally, a "Basic" difficulty setting makes the game slightly more merciful, altering stats and damage by a small amount in your favor and increasing experience gains. Thankfully, you can turn it on and off at a whim.
The combination of careful, quiet exploration punctuated by fierce combat is what makes Beyond the Myth so much fun. Seeing your meticulously planned party finally take down a fearsome FOE that's been giving you trouble for hours is immensely satisfying, while little text-based side events that litter the dungeons as you explore are enjoyable in a different but no-less-engaging way. By focusing instead on small improvements to systems and ideas that already worked well, Etrian Odyssey 5 is a long and challenging RPG that sucks you in and leaves you determined to see what lies above.