Etrian Odyssey V, a DIY tribute to the art of game mapping

Atlus gives us the best gift possible: A love letter you have to write yourself.

When Nintendo announced the DS handheld, one of the first use cases it offered for a game system with two screens rather than one involved maps. Now players would be able to check a map of their surroundings as they play rather than dropping into a menu screen! For some reason, this prospect became a point of derision for many critics, as if the concept of simplifying game interfaces and minimizing time wasted on navigating menus and subscreens wasn't a driving concern in game design through the ’00s. 

Granted, the first few efforts we saw to make use of the concept didn't exactly fill the world with awe. Consider the top-down secondary view in Super Mario 64 DS, which also doubled awkwardly as an analog control surface — pretty awful, all things considered. Once developers settled down and started to think things through a little more, though, the DS soon became a great way to play exploration-intensive games. Having a perpetual castle map on-screen in Castlevania games removed the need to fuss around with pause overlays, and some of the DS-based Final Fantasy games even offered in-game rewards to players who went to the trouble of filling out their auto-competing dungeon maps 100%.

But only one series truly embraced the full suite of the DS's screen design by combining permanent map displays with the lower screen's touch function: Atlus's Etrian Odyssey

Left: Etrian Odyssey; right: Etrian Odyssey Untold 2, a remake of the sequel

At first glance, Etrian Odyssey seemed as laughable a prospect as the DS itself. Steeped in the trappings of the classic first-person PC dungeon crawler, the game embraced a subgenre that had fallen into disrepute and deprecation years before; the beloved Wizardry VIII had given the dungeon crawler its final dying swan song back in 2001. Even publisher Atlus had given up on it, ditching the first-person format of Shin Megami Tensei II and Persona 2 by making their respective follow-ups, SMT: Nocturne and Persona 3, into third-person free-camera affairs. 

Now here was a game that combined an archaic play format largely remembered by crusty old PC RPG veterans, presented on a handheld system designed with kids and casual gamers in mind, wrapped in anime-flavored artwork that frequently drifted in Lolita complex territory. What story existed in the game appeared parsimoniously, in dribs and drabs, and it featured no actual main characters to speak of. Rather, players rolled up a guild of generic warriors from a set of alternate portraits attached to about 10 character classes. Guild member characterization existed entirely in the player's mind, with skill customization representing the full extent of in-game development for your entire roster.

Oh, and worst of all, Etrian Odyssey forced you to make your own maps. The horror!

A fan-made map of Etrian Odyssey's 2F. Source: IGN

Well, for some people. Others, however, found the need to create their own dungeon maps to be Etrian Odyssey's primary draw (pun only somewhat intended). By combining that DS launch sales pitch of permanent map screens with the console's stylus-and-touch-screen tech, Etrian breathed new life into the long-abandoned art of mapping out game worlds. It turned the DS's lower screen into a virtual tablet of graph paper, dedicating a separate map screen to each of the in-game labyrinth's 30 floors. Each step through the first-person dungeons represented a square on the virtual paper, and everything in the labyrinth (despite initially taking the form of verdant overgrowth) fit together at sharp 90-degree angles. 

The game automatically recorded the player's footsteps on the map by coloring tiles that had been traversed in green. Everything else, however, was left to the player to handle. A pen tool, which snapped automatically to the graph paper lines, allowed explorers to draw the bounding lines of the maze, while a brush tool gave them a way to "paint" tiles alternate colors as a way of marking hazardous spaces. Meanwhile, a small suite of icons provided most of the tools necessary for denoting things like doors, hidden passages, treasure chests, material gathering points, and even marking transporter mazes. The system wasn't perfect; each floor could only contain a set number of icons, and some of the more complex later mazes (which featured conveyor mazes and vast fields of hidden pitfalls) contained too many geographic features to fit within those limits. Nevertheless, Etrian cleverly employed the DS's design to transform what had once been a critical yet external gameplay process into an integral play feature.

Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth, which arrives in the U.S. later this month, is pretty much what you'd expect from the fifth iteration of a series that's been in constant development for a decade. Really, Etrian V is more like the seventh iteration; it picks up a few tricks from the two Etrian Odyssey Untold remakes, improving on them as well. As with every game in the series since Etrian III, Etrian V completely reworks how class skill trees work… along with many of the classes themselves. In some ways, this makes the game more challenging, as old tactics and strategies no longer work; at the same time, once you sort out new tactics, you'll recognize all sort of new potential advantages. For example, summoning front-row assist characters plays a huge role in combat. In Etrian II, "Beast" was a character class and occupied one of the five available team slots; here, the Rover class can summon two beasts to appear in a temporary row ahead of the party's forward guard. It's possible, when you're exploring with a guest character and have a Rover and Necromancer calling forth temporary allies, to have as many as nine characters active at once, giving you a massive numeric advantage. At least until enemies start whipping out area of effect spells, anyway.

As usual, Etrian V's portrait choices range from undeniably cool (the samurai-like Masurao options, top row) to likely to land you in jail (that second Necromancer option on the lower row, yikes).

What impresses me most about the changes Etrian V brings to the table, though, concern its mapping features. Atlus has given mapping a pretty massive overhaul this time around. The basic concept and functions remain the same as ever — each floor of the dungeon constitutes a separate "page," with hand-drawn lines and automated green squares denoting your progress — but the number of tools you have for creating your maps has grown significantly. In fact, you have so many options available that your mapping tools now appear on floating palettes that you can move around the page and slide onto and off of the screen to keep partially hidden. Think Photoshop menus, basically. 

Why the added complexity? Well, for one thing, Etrian V gives you more icons to work with than in past games, including some very specific elements unique to this game. For example, the dungeon this time around features strong golem imagery (at least in the first stratum, which consists of floors one through five). Several floors include golem statues that function as switches, raising and lowering obstructions that can open passages or allow you to pen roaming F.O.E. super-bosses away safely as you explore. So, now the map palette includes golem icons… 

…although even then you don't have to use those specific golem icons while mapping. Etrian V now includes a switch lever icon as well, something that would have come in handy in most of the previous entries in the series. So, maybe it makes sense for you to designate a golem switch as a golem, or maybe your map hierarchy demands it appear as a switch lever. Much of the appeal of Etrian mapping comes from how much latitude the games allow you to create maps that make sense to you, personally; and chances are good the map you draw won't completely resemble someone else's. Maybe you designate in-dungeon NPC encounters with an exclamation point icon; then again, maybe you don't bother to track one-time interactions at all. Maybe you like to make a note of what's in each treasure chest you encounter, but maybe you're content to simply mark the presence of the chest.

Source: Gematsu

Etrian V also includes a remarkable eight different colors for marking different kinds of floor, so many options that the colors appear in their own free-floating palette. I've taken to using the paintbrush tool to mark "inactive" spaces on the map, designating the difference between walls (grey) and water (blue) in the first stratum. Those space have distinct mechanical properties: Walls are hard boundaries, while water can be traversed by certain F.O.E.s. You can put a wall between you and a monster, but you're not necessarily ducking to safety when you navigate to the other side of a pool of water. 

It helps a lot that the map design of Etrian V features a lot more variety in terms of flow and structure than I've seen in older games. Dungeon layouts in this series tend to come down to very rigid, intricate mazes full of tightly wound passages; those certainly exist here, but you also have more room to breathe as you explore. Some floors I've traveled through have a looser, more naturalistic layout. Combined with the improved lines-of-sight made possible by the presence of water barriers, the lower floors of the dungeon at least feel less claustrophobic and mechanical than I expect from Etrian games.

Sadly, there turns out to be a down side to my exhaustive efforts to create lovely maps that mark out all the playable and non-playable space. The game rewards you for completing floor map with both material goods and the ability to jump immediately to that level of the dungeon when you leave town. Someone told me via Twitter that the game compares the maps you create against its "optimal" designs, and things that weren't intended — like, say, marking neutral spaces — count against you. Indeed: After completing the third and fourth floor, or at least as much of them as I could access in my first pass (a longstanding Etrian tradition is to lock off a portion of the first stratum behind a door that can only be opened later in the game), and the local government didn't reward me for my efforts. 

A WIP version of the sprawling fifth floor map. 5F ultimately fills the entire map screen and offers a single backtrack-shortcut to the end; the journey to unlock that shortcut involves a brutal slog through powerful enemies capable of pulling off nasty, party-ruining tricks and even a few instances where you have to outfox F.O.E.s by making use of the environment. It's peak Etrian Odyssey.

After some experimentation, I determined that the game looks for the walls you've drawn with the pen tool. Icons and floor colorations don't seem to register, only wall boundaries. By drawing divisions between walls and water spaces, I had drawn the map "wrong" by the game's reckoning. It wasn't until I went back and erased the surplus markings that the local prince gave me my hard-earned rewards.

But that would be a lone, and ridiculously specific, sour note in an otherwise excellent and addictive package. The Etrian games have paid tribute to the long-forgotten art of game mapping from the beginning; Etrian V rolls a decade of improvements and refinements into that principle. With some of the most interesting map layouts the series has seen and an extensive set of tools with which to mark out their boundaries, it's a great reminder of why Nintendo created the DS concept in the first place.