Dungeon-crawling and map-making is back with Atlus' stateside release of Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard for the Nintendo DS. RPGamers might find a lot of the gameplay familiar from the original title, but luckily it seems that anything that has been changed has been changed for the better. But first a little backstory for those unfamiliar with the games.
Etrian Odyssey is an Atlus-developed dungeon crawler series aimed at the more hardcore of RPG fans with wide customization and unforgiving difficulty. The original title had a pretty quiet release in North America, yet sold very well considering the small number of copies shipped. The series makes full use of the Nintendo DS capabilities. The top screen tends to handle all the action while the bottom screen contains the user-created maps. This is where the series is truly unique as it allows the player to draw their own maps of the game's in-depth labyrinth using the stylus and the provided in-game drawing tools. The game also uses simple presentation to draw focus to their old-school gameplay mechanics.
The sequel, specifically, continues these trends. Players still draw their own map of the massive labyrinth that the game is based off of, but now there are more tools with which to feed the aspiring cartographer's desire for detail. Players still choose from a large number of classes to form a team to tackle the looming depths of the maze, but now there are three more classes to choose from. Players are still able to go into town to sell their loot for better weapons and armor, except now changes to character stats are shown conveniently on the bottom screen while browsing the wares. Players are still able to fully explore the labyrinth, but now they can strafe left and right to make navigating that much easier. See a trend? Etrian Odyssey II tries to improve upon every gameplay element without sacrificing what made the original so addicting.
"Etrian Odyssey II tries to improve upon every gameplay element without sacrificing what made the original so addicting."
All the classes available play differently from each other in the first-person perspective battle system and like before, a customizable statistic point is awarded for each level gained. The game allows the player to create up to 30 characters for their guild and five of those characters are allowed to explore the labyrinth at a time. Once a player steps foot inside the maze, enemies are randomly encountered but a small orb in the corner of the top screen will at least provide some warning as it slowly transitions to red when a battle is imminent. As mentioned before, Etrian Odyssey II features a classic first-person perspective turn-based battle system. While the animation remains simple, it's entirely functional and the enemy sprites are typically very interesting and more detailed compared to the original. While battles against the ever-challenging FOE remain as tough as ever, regular battles can become a bit of a chore. Luckily, this sequel features an "auto-battle" feature. By the easy press of the L button, every character will perform a regular attack until the end of the battle. This is particularly helpful when re-exploring old areas with enemies that have become relatively easy.
About 10 floors into the labyrinth, EOII provides a balanced stream of missions and sidequests to complete without feeling too linear. There are even times when there is no present main quest and there is nothing to do but brave the depths until more story is triggered. So far this seems to add a great sense of exploration to the game and it draws focus to the magnitude of task ahead. This exploration is also driven by the game's signature map-making element, which remains as surprisingly compelling as ever. In fact, Atlus has made the map-making tools more intuitive to make the process even more enjoyable. Expect to read more about that in the full review.
As of now, however, Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard seems to be carrying the same charm as the original with its simplistic presentation, basic story, and deep and challenging gameplay. If you loved the relentless difficulty and few-frills package of the original, don't expect to be disappointed in the sequel. The game releases stateside on June 17, 2008, so keep your browser tuned to RPGamer for our full review close to the official release date.