"As you become proficient with the tools provided, the game and its challenges evolve. You'll rely on the bottom screen to let you know where you are in relation to horrific monsters called FOEs that have wandered down the tower from much later areas. There's only one term for any of these guys the first time you meet them: badass. Surviving one round of combat is often impossible. They'll mop the floor with you. However, they can—and generally should—be avoided."
The majority of console role-playing fans have spoken. They don't want labyrinthine dungeons filled with traps, brutal opponents, challenging puzzles or anything else that might get in the way of the next heart-warming cinema. They're not interested in experiencing a video game where plot is secondary to gameplay. After all, where's the fun in triumphing over a fire-breathing dragon or toppling a maniac bent on world domination when you could instead be staring into the soulful eyes of an amnesiac hero with fantastic hair?
Some gamers are different, though. We long for the days when RPGs were experiences, not movies. We miss mapping our ways through barren wastelands and we mourn the gradual passing of a genre that once forced us to experiment. Most of all, we miss becoming lost in a fantastic world where death lurked around every corner and the real thrill came not from plot twists but rather the sense of accomplishment when a vicious demon collapsed in the face of our carefully orchestrated assault. In short, some of us still want to play something like Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard.
For the old school gamer, even the game's Spartan plot--despite or perhaps because of its resemblence to games like Wizardry or Might & Magic--feels like a breath of fresh air. Everything comes down to the goal of exploring a tower that rises into the clouds, simply because legend has it that something incredible waits at the top. There are NPCs and brief plot arcs, sure, but neither element ever gets in the way of the good stuff.
In this case, 'the good stuff' is dungeon crawling. Etrian Odyssey II contains precisely one town, located at the base of the tower. There you will receive side quests of a surprisingly compelling nature. There you'll sell the materials you've gleaned in your adventures (there's no gold and monsters rarely even hoard jewels). Most importantly, it's while in town that you'll be able customize your group at the guild or refresh yourself at the inn after the tower's denizens have soundly thrashed you for the hundredth time.
Before you ever endure such beatings or come to appreciate the hospital's pricey resurrection services, you'll need to create the group of adventurers who will fight for your cause. There are around 12 classes available in the game, most available right from the start. Many of these return from the original Etrian Odyssey, which I've not yet played. None of them have conventional fantasy names, but they serve a lot of the same purposes. For example, what would be called a healer in another game becomes a 'medic.' A paladin is here called a 'protector' and so it goes. Differences can be severe and are generally quite intriguing, which forces players to take heed of the different skills that define each class in order to be successful right from the start. Thankfully, those initial choices needn't be final.
That's because a guild can consist of as many as 30 characters (even though only 5 can be active at any one time). These can be swapped out whenever you're in town, meaning that you shouldn't ever find yourself in a moment where you can't switch up your party configuration to meet requirements that you couldn't have anticipated at the start of a game. The design goes beyond that, though, by allowing you to 'retire' a character. Suppose you create a troubadour early in the game and you start to realize that his offensive and defensive skills aren't what you're really looking for. After a set point, you can retire him and produce an experienced new warrior in a preferred class... with points ready to allot to the skills that you see fit!
Etrian Odyssey II offers many such options, occasionally to an overwhelming degree. Even within a single class, you must make important decisions to produce the best possible character. In my own adventures, I decided early on a medic character. That class has a revive skill and can also heal single party members--or the whole group--with delightful frequency. It can even hone an innate ability to restore life automatically after combat with no SP use, which appealed to me for reasons that you will understand immediately if you play the game for yourself. I let myself get distracted in those areas, and when I reached my initial level cap, I found that there were a lot of really great skills I couldn't learn. Fortunately, the game isn't unforgiving to a fault. It let me drop 5 levels and reassign all of the skill points, this time in a more sensible fashion.
I've barely scratched the surface when it comes to discussing the considerable customization options the game offers. Their number isn't what's significant, though; what you'll care about is the way that they free you up to enjoy some of the game's other strengths. You might remember the old games where pencils, graph paper and erasers were a necessity. In 2008, the bottom screen on the DS unit now fills the role of those familiar implements. You'll see a digital facsimile of the old grids and you can tap tools to the right (sort of like an inverted Paint program from Windows) to produce lines that represent walls, or colored swaths for floors. It's also possible to note places where items can be gathered, mined or harvested, plus you can easily note passages through walls or pitfalls and treasure. Pressing 'X' also zooms in and out, depending on if you need to make modifications or just glance at an overview.
As you become proficient with the tools provided, the game and its challenges evolve. You'll rely on the bottom screen to let you know where you are in relation to horrific monsters called FOEs that have wandered down the tower from much later areas. There's only one term for any of these guys the first time you meet them: badass. Surviving one round of combat is often impossible. They'll mop the floor with you. However, they can--and generally should--be avoided. Some only appear at certain times of the day or when other requirements are met. Some like to chase you and ambush you when you get stuck in a random encounter with weaker monsters. There are even skills to stop them briefly in their tracks, or to lure them away from their posts. The end result is that you'll hate FOEs but love the process of avoiding them.
One added benefit of FOE encounters is that they keep the early floors from becoming repetitive even when you're revisiting them for side quests. Returning to the 23rd floor to find a sacred flower is anything but the walk in the park that the quest description implies. It's also fun later in the game--once you're suitably powerful--to go back through those old locations that kicked your butt and return the favor... FOEs included. Many slain critters will drop new treats in response to your new show of force.
Naturally, the game's numerous secrets go well beyond mere item drops. Some of the side quests are quite devious and require thorough exploration. Even when you've been through a given location several times, some new task can come along that opens up an entire new area or boss--perhaps even on multiple floors--and gives you something to keep yourself busy for another few hours. Exploring every nook and cranny has seldom felt as rewarding as it does here.
The system of constant rewards and the evolution of play mechanics will either draw you to Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard or repel you. It's difficult to imagine anyone's reaction falling in between the two extremes. Though the game is never ugly and often quite attractive, it's clear that the developers poured their heart and soul into gameplay without much thought of anything else. As such, the game will delight most old school RPG fans but may leave the new breed of gamer perplexed and potentially disgusted. There are intricacies at work here that defy description in any brief review and the way everything comes together is beautiful... in the eye of the proper beholder.
Staff review by Jason Venter (July 29, 2008)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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