Review: Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard (Nintendo DS)

Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard
Genre: Dungeon Crawling RPG
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: 06/13/08


The original Etrian Odyssey was one of those weird old-school dungeon crawling RPG’s that those of us with PC’s and no social lives played when we were kids (not that I’d know anything about that…), only with modern conveniences attached to make the game slightly more accessible than a traditional throwback experience. It was designed to be less of a throwback and more of an homage, really. The game was hard as nails in some respects while easy in others, and it took the CONCEPTS behind the old-school “send Deldac into the dungeon to grab some loot and hope he lives through the first floor, repeat as needed” style of games like the original Wizardry titles and such. It was a little spotty here and there, but it had its charms, and it was a game that really appealed to a specific niche of gamers who either were looking for a challenge or a game where grinding to earn levels and cash was the de facto play style.

Etrian Odyssey II is, in many respects, a far better experience overall. The game offers more rewards for the risks it asks you to take, and it doesn’t specifically rely on making you grind to accomplish things. It also retains the difficulty of its predecessor while being slightly more accessible to the average gamer. It offers more to do, more to play with, a lot more variety, and a whole new set of rules to work with. As such, it’s largely a better game. That said, there are a few changes here and there that make it difficult to know who it’s going to appeal to. While it’s still a cute throwback experience, a lot of the changes in the sequel aren’t ENTIRELY for the better. While fans of the original game should love it, it feels an awful lot like it’s re-treading old ground.

The gist of the story involves a Labyrinth, again, though it’s a different one from the first game. Though the first game took place, oddly enough, in the town of Etria (hence the name), this game takes place in the town of Lagaard (again, hence the name). The name of the Labyrinth in this game is, again, the Yggdrasil Labyrinth (because, in fairness, that’s a pretty cool name), and again, your task is to go in and find the end (in this case, the top) or die trying. Your characters are essentially the random grunts you create in service of the guild you represent. As such, they’re not really ever referenced by name or anything. The game just basically talks to “you” whenever decisions need to be made or storyline bits need to be explained. There’s a good bit more story this time around, along with various and sundry heroic decisions and heroic (or not so) sacrifices and such, but the story is generally just a backdrop for the gameplay. As such, it’s neither incredibly well-detailed nor offensively interruptive. It’s entertaining without really being emotionally engaging, and in the end it keeps the experience going well enough to give you an actual GOAL and such to keep playing, even if it’s not something that’s exciting or special. The story does its job, and for the sort of game EO2 is, that’s really good enough.

Visually, EO2 essentially replicates the visuals of the first game, only with redrawn artwork and redesigned dungeons. The environments are often pretty and look nice enough, especially on the DS. The menus are clean and uncluttered, and the artwork is all really nice and well drawn/colored. On the other hand, none of the monsters are animated and all attacks basically amount to the visual image of the attack with no one actually MAKING the attack. The latter isn’t uncommon, really. Dragon Warrior and the original Phantasy Star did this, after all, but the former is lame. Again, the original Phantasy Star (a game that came out, what, twenty some-odd years ago?) at least had SOME enemy animation. It’s true that plenty of games don’t have animated enemy attacks even recently, but that doesn’t necessarily make that a positive selling point. Aurally, the music is solid stuff, what with each Stratum having its own appropriate ambient track that works well with the theme of the area, and the battle tracks are powerful, driving tunes that get you into combat nicely (which is to be expected, thanks to Mr. Yuzo Koshiro of Streets of Rage music fame). The sound effects are generally above average, on the other hand; they’re standard RPG fare, they work, and you never get confused about what’s going on, IE whips don’t make tinkling sounds for example, but they’re not anything special.

Etrian Odyssey II isn’t really about its presentation so much as it’s about its gameplay, so it’s good to know that in most respects the gameplay is pretty solid. When the game begins, you’re offered the option of importing a password from EO1, should you have one, which nets you a nifty little item that’s of use for about half of the game or so. From there, it’s off to the guild to make your party. The original EO offered nine classes to create your team from, including Protectors (tanks, damage-takers, essentially), Landsknechts (warriors who use swords and axes), Medics (white mage), Alchemists (black mage) and others; seven were available by default, while two (Ronin and Hexer) were locked until you made it some distance up the tower. Thankfully, EO2 makes those nine available by default, along with two more (War Magus and Gunner) and a third (Beasts) that’s unlockable after defeating the boss of the first Stratum. Additionally, the various classes have been rebalanced somewhat (though whether this is better or worse is up to the player), meaning that players of the original game will still have a different experience from the original game. In theory, any combination of characters is as equally viable as any other. In practice, however, a team of five Medics will probably get slaughtered a million and five times, while a team that makes proper use of a Hexer and War Magus in tandem (the Hexer casts curses on enemies, the War Magus has sword strikes that deal heavy damage to cursed enemies, it’s like peanut butter and jelly) will own all. You’re offered six slots in your party screen, five of which may contain characters (for some bizarre reason you can’t bring six members into the labyrinth), allowing you to build front and back rows as needed.

For those who care, I went in with a Protector, a Landsknecht, a Ronin, a Medic and an Alchemist. This would be because I am boring, but it was a perfectly viable team, as it turns out.

Anyway, the town of Lagaard proper offers several places for your guildmembers to visit, each with its own useful functions. The Guild Hall allows you to recruit new members and dismiss (fire) useless members as you see fit, as well as offering two other functions: Rest (which drops your character FIVE levels this time around in return for you being able to reassign their skills) and Retire (which sends off a member of level thirty or higher in exchange for an improved recruit of half their level, up to level thirty, with improved stats and more points to devote to skills, though these improvements don’t stack on multiple retirements). The Trading Post allows you to sell things you acquire for En (the currency in the game) as well as buy new equipment; as you bring items from the labyrinth to be sold, new weapons, armor, accessories and items will be available for purchase and, in a nice touch, items that are partially researched will show up grayed out, along with the items you need to complete the recipe. The Hospital revives dead or petrified characters, and is manned by Dr. Derrick Styles of Trauma Center fame in a nice cameo touch, even if he was the doctor in the first EO as well. Maybe Markus and Valerie held out for more money, I don’t know. The Inn lets you sleep (until 5am) or nap (until 6pm), replenishing your health and magic and allowing you to enter the labyrinth during day or night time, as some dungeons/quests can only be completed at certain times of day. The Tavern lets you take on quests for the people of the town as you progress further up the labyrinth, each with its own reward. The Castle is the home of the sick king of Lagaard and his headstrong daughter, as well as their servant (who you will consistently deal with throughout the majority of the game), with the servant and the princess dispensing quests as needed and the servant cataloging your discoveries into different records (one for monsters, one for items dropped by enemies, and one for items made in the trading post). Oh, and the Labyrinth takes you to the entrance of the labyrinth itself, which can be entered either from the bottom floor of a Stratum or from poles found every couple floors or so. All of the locations in town are accessed by a simple text menu, as are the various choices you can make from each of these locations, making town navigation a breeze, fortunately enough.

Upon entering the labyrinth, you’re given a first-person perspective of the floor you’re on in the top screen, while the bottom screen displays the map, and from here is where EO2 begins to take shape. Unlike most standard RPG’s that map the dungeons for you, EO2 allows you to map the dungeon yourself using various tools and icons provided on the touch screen. You can set the dungeon to map each square you step on, which, if you’re lazy, may be tolerable enough, but the idea is to fill in the various squares on the floors you traverse, draw lines around the paths, mark important areas and monster paths, color the floors differently for poisoned traps, and so on, much like if you were mapping a dungeon using graph paper. So, in other words, it’s REALLY an homage to old gaming experiences. This is a VERY important element of the game, as you can mark all sorts of useful points, like traps, treasure boxes, resource gathering spots, boss monsters, and so on, so as to allow you to return to them later (in case you die; the game allows you to save your map data for just such an occurrence) or to allow you to remember where they are as needed. This is, I cannot stress enough, a huge part of the appeal of the game; drawing your own map is neat, as is using your drawn map to find hidden paths and avoid dangerous monsters.

Oh, yes, there ARE dangerous monsters in EO2. Now, this being a dungeon crawling RPG, you will get into your normal random encounters (a small light in the bottom right of the top screen will indicate how close you are to being ambushed, thus allowing you to prepare as needed), and most of these battles will be expected, but as in EO, you will also encounter monsters known as FOEs. FOEs are monsters that are more powerful than anything else on the floor, and as such, will often overpower your party upon first confronting them. They come in several different flavors as you progress through the labyrinth; orange FOEs are normal FOEs that can probably be defeated with enough effort, red FOEs are WAY overpowered for the floor they’re on and will probably smite you for a good, long while, blue FOEs can cross barriers and are generally flying monsters, black FOEs are Stratum guardians, and so on. Generally, FOEs follow specific patterns and are MEANT to be avoided, as they are no joke, though an enterprising party can defeat one if properly prepared; they offer no experience points, but DO offer rare drops that are worth nice payouts at the trading post (and can be used to make good equipment), making them worth hunting down and killing if only for better gear to use. FOEs in EO2 are generally more manageable than they were in EO; the orange and blue FOEs tend to be easy to smite by the time one has ascended to the top of the Stratum they inhabit, if not earlier, and most FOEs can be avoided with relative ease, though some are easier to dodge than others. Some quests actually make it a point to MAKE you avoid the FOEs, either by making them one-hit kill monsters until you grind up a bazillion levels or by telling you to avoid killing the monster or face failure, but in most cases, you can kill them without issue. The vast majority of FOEs, bosses included, respawn fourteen days from termination, meaning farming them for items (or EXP in the case of bosses) is entirely viable, but until you can do so in one or two turns, they can be scary propositions.

As you meander about the labyrinth, you’ll encounter all sorts of novelties in design and gameplay that make the game interesting in its own right, both for fans of EO and for newcomers. As you level, you earn Skill Points (one per level) which can be devoted to all sorts of skills, from the generic boosting of statistics to more interesting skills specific to each class or generalized across several classes (IE Alchemists can learn different elemental spells, Protectors can develop their Shield skills and learn to protect their allies, Medics can boost their healing abilities, and so on). Force abilities have also received a makeover; in the prior EO they were little more than a powerful strike that you could charge each time your characters took an action (think of it as a Super meter), which could be unleashed for massive damage; this tiome, Force abilities vary based on character job, IE Medics heal and cure the status of your party, Ronin hit all enemies for damage and a possible instant-kill, Protectors make everyone invincible for one turn, and so on. This basically adds additional interesting depth to the experience, in that every character’s Force ability can potentially turn the tide of a long, violent battle, if charged quickly enough. Every class also has the ability to collect plunder from various harvesting points (some can do so across multiple types of points as needed) which come in Chop, Take and Mine flavors and dispense the expected materials (IE Mining gives out metals and gems, Take collects fruits and leaves, and Chop dispenses roots and wood), but watch out; new to EO2 are monsters (from the highest floor of the Stratum, usually) who attack while you’re mining. This was most likely added in to stop people from creating “mules” (characters used to farm resources, a term taken from various MMORPG games like Everquest and FFXI) by killing level one mules when they harvest, but it doesn’t really work, since you can just run from them or reload and all. You’ll also find various Geomagnetic Poles as you scale the tower, in another new addition, which act as waypoints that can be teleported back to upon leaving the dungeon, making the tedious climbing of multiple floors to get back to your prior location a thing of the past. You’ll also find numerous quests that bring you to the labyrinth in search of items or people to keep you going when killing monsters and making progress aren’t on your mind.

In short, there’s a metric ton to do with the game across the twenty-five floors that make up the five Strata (five floors to a Stratum, each Stratum has its own unique theme IE autumn forest, icy city, and so on) and beyond (there are more floors than that, but that encompasses the majority of the game experience), making the game not JUST a game about grinding levels to kill monsters.

But, of course, there are issues with the experience, the biggest one being the archaic nature of the experience. Now, the problem with EO as a franchise is that it’s straddling this very fine line between old-school and modern conventions, trying to be an homage to various older PC RPG’s while being modernized so as not to be COMPLETELY archaic, but the problem is that it’s hard to look at the games and say “this is something someone will want to play”. Now, hey, I like the game fine, but I don’t know who else would; gamers looking for that old-school feel are going to be annoyed by the concessions the game makes to reasonable challenge (“Why can I resurrect my characters? Dead is dead, dammit!”) and modern ideas (“Why am I being resurrected in a hospital? Where’s the church?” and yes, people ask this), while modern gamers are going to wonder why they have to spend time leveling up to avoid dying at all. Someone looking for a challenge will love this, certainly, but a lot of gamers won’t be looking for a game where being ambushed by a monster who confuses the entire party equals instant death, for instance.

The game is also awkward in certain respects, appeal aside. Beating the core game will probably take you somewhere between forty to sixty hours, assuming you don’t exploit design issues, but once you’ve done that, that’s it; unless you want to constantly retire and rebuild your team to get them to the maximum level cap (a process that, if I understand it correctly, involves retiring and re-leveling your characters something like forty times to complete), there’s no reason to go back to the game save to level up new characters. Some people may well endeavor to reach that ultimate level ninety-nine, but most people will simply set the game down at this point and never touch it again. The balance issues are also spotty; the FOEs and normal monsters on most Strata aren’t very much of a challenge, but many of the bosses either need specific builds of parties to be defeated by anything other than a half-hour long battle, or they require everyone to be charged to full in their Force meters before battle begins, which makes grinding to beat bosses a required annoyance at times. Finally, the game is rather exploitable in certain design elements, most notably leveling itself; aside from all sorts of crazy Youtube videos that show Hexers and Troubadours earning hundreds of thousands of dollars killing all the bosses in two turns, if you can beat a boss monster that expels decent EXP, you can rest for fourteen days at the inn with a level one character, bring back the old team, and keep killing this monster for, say, ten thousand EXP as well as lower level bosses until you’re at maximum level, thus making leveling unbalanced; either you spend hours leveling and earning cash legitimately, or you exploit boss re-spawns and burn through multiple levels in a few hours, but either way grinding becomes the most feasible way to make further progress.

But some people (myself included) will love that, and by association, will love Etrian Odyssey II. It’s a throwback to the olden days of gaming with a few modern conveniences thrown in, and it makes for an interesting experience for gamers looking for a challenge or looking for that old-school feeling. It’s pretty, it sounds nice, it has a story that’s simple and easy to work with but doesn’t take over the experience, and it’s easy to play insofar as the mechanics are concerned. The story isn’t complex, the sprites don’t animate, it’s oddly paced and has odd challenge issues, and the game really comes down to a fair amount of grinding, so if this is not something you want to do, EO2 probably isn’t for you, but if you DO want to do these sorts of things, or you love games with a retro flair, EO2 is definitely an experience you want to go through. For those yearning for the days of difficult RPG’s where death was common and survival was earned, not assured, look no further than EO2; it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good.

The Scores:
Story: MEDIOCRE
Graphics: ABOVE AVERAGE
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: MEDIOCRE
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: BAD
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: GREAT

Final Score: ABOVE AVERAGE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Second verse, same as the first, Etrian Odyssey II carries on where the previous installment left off, with a few tweaks thrown in. Those who loved that game will love this one, even if it’s more of the same; more character classes, rebalanced skills and FOE difficulties and the same overall oppressing difficulty make this something old-school dungeon crawl fans will love on sight. Those who hated EO won’t find much to love in EO2, however; it’s still on the hard side, it changes some difficulty problems (FOEs that slaughtered you unless you were ten levels their better) for others (being attacked while farming resources), making it a niche title in almost all respects. It’s a fun, charming game if you’re of the right mindset for it, however, and anyone who misses the old days of PC RPG’s or is just generally looking for a challenge will find plenty to love about Etrian Odyssey II.