I'm not certain that more than a handful of people in North America completed Class of Heroes. I found it to be a fun, easy crawler that embraced the simplicity of retro Wizardry dungeon mechanics without inflicting their brutal combat and inconveniences. Atlus USA spaced the release between Etrian Odyssey II and Strange Journey, and I ended up preferring the breezier flow of Class of Heroes over the difficulty spikes in EO2 and the ludicrously long final stretch of SMT:SJ. But 2013 is a new year with a new publisher: the EO series has taken two giant leaps closer to casual crawling since 2009, a new SMT is around the corner, and Atlus USA isn't moving release dates to give MonkeyPaw Games breathing room. If the first game in the series was a widely unappreciated underdog, what is Class of Heroes 2 when it releases June 4th?
"I would dare to say that, yet again, I'm enjoying the latest Class of Heroes more than the latest Etrian Odyssey."
For starters, Class of Heroes 2 is a game that fixes the inexcusable difficulty found in the first several hours of Class of Heroes. The first time I entered a dungeon, I was able to explore most of the first map with a level one party. In the last game, that bit of progress took hours of baby steps and reloads. Dungeons themselves have more in common with other modern series than they do with the first in this one. Maps are fixed in each dungeon, have a realistic visual style including indoor and outdoor locales, and link to each other in an understandable way so that it feels like your party is moving from an entrance, through a dungeon, and out an exit on the other side.
Dungeons function as convoluted, dangerous paths linking cities and schools. The initial one, Beginner's Brush, is four 18x18 maps large and has two exits on opposite sides. It sparingly uses warps, shortcuts, damage tiles, and other tricks while the enemies are so pathetic a group of newbie freshmen with butter knives can dice their way through them. At each exit is a town with basic amenities, and if you need to hightail it back to the school to turn in a quest or use alchemy, there are one-way warp orbs that will teleport you there instantly.
I was disappointed to see the return of alchemy in Class of Heroes 2 without any improvements. I recalled the trick to correctly guessing formulae in the last game, but the interface is clumsy and neither the manual nor the game gives any instructions on how the system works. On the positive side, with Class of Heroes out for four years, it should be easy to look up tips online, but it's disappointing to see this weak point from the first game return without an upgrade.
Creating students is also unchanged. The manual gives a race compatibility guide encouraging you to make a diverse party that isn't ravaged by bigotry and hatred. The impact of racism on your six member team is measured by their individual Affinity scores. The manual assured me that Affinity does amazing and important things in the game... but not what those amazing things actually are. I'm all for maxing mysterious stats, so I made a party of races that adore or at least can tolerate each other. Bonus point rolls are either significantly more generous than in any other game I've played, or I should have bought a lottery ticket last week. There's no need to spend more than a minute rolling each character, which is nice.
The last gameplay mechanic introduced at the beginning is class selection. Again, neither the manual nor the game gives a full description of class requirements, or even full descriptions of what differentiates the similar ones. If you want to plan your endgame party's classes at the start, you'll need online assistance. In my opinion, this is outweighed by the increased number and diversity of classes. Many are race-oriented, and it gives more individuality to your taciturn dolls when they can't wear every hat in the game. Classes are less specialized this time around, leaving wiggle room to customize your six as you please. For example, many mage classes learn attack, healing, and support spells — you are not forced to have a wizard and a priest taking up two thirds of your back row all game. More prestige classes become available as new schools are visited later on.
So far I've cleared the first three dungeons. The second was only three maps long and was a straightforward path. The third was a massive, twisting nine-map dungeon with three exits that went all out showing just how cruel and interesting the simple dungeon gimmicks can be. Each dungeon has different visuals and themes and feels very consistent in that regard. The game has quickly grown on me, and I would dare to say that, yet again, I'm enjoying the latest Class of Heroes more than the latest Etrian Odyssey, at least at the start. I'm crossing my fingers that it doesn't fall victim to the abrupt pacing or challenge shifts that often drag down games in the genre, and time will tell if the special spotlight that stays on Victor Ireland draws more potential fans to the series than the last entry was able to garner.