Yes! May I Have Another!
Dusting off a handful of antiquated, traditional RPG tenets of days past, Atlus brought classic dungeon crawling back to the table in a big way last year with Etrian Odyssey. Old school revivals are nothing new, but the title struck a sweet spot among those who regard the time of early tabletop gaming and PC RPGs with feelings of nostalgia. The combination of exploration, survival, and cartography proved to be an intoxicating mixture, despite a few flaws and the game’s extreme niche appeal. Just over a year later the sequel is now upon us. It’s something to be feared and worshipped.
Rather than revamp the first title completely, Atlus set about the task of honing the original design. The improvements found in Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard are subtle, yet their impact is significant. To a large extent, the game retains the same look and gameplay of its predecessor. You can’t chalk it up to laziness; the other little additions scattered throughout the game are precise and calculated. Cavorting through labyrinthine dungeons packed with deadly creatures and glorious bounty, the second time around is easily more enjoyable. It’s also more punishing than ever.
The premise of Etrian Odyssey was essentially to form a party of adventurers and head off exploring into the near endless Yggdrasil Labyrinth to chart its depths, slay voluminous numbers of beasts, and seek a hefty fortune. Heroes of Lagaard features much the same routine only this time the dungeon ascends through the massive trunk of a giant tree – which oddly features a lush forest and other exotic environments in its berth. Arriving at the city of Lagaard where the giant Yggdrasil tree is located, your party is encouraged by the Duke to traverse the perils of the newly discovered labyrinth residing in the immense trunk. The tree is said to stretch to the heavens, and great rewards will be bestowed upon any adventurers who can locate the legendary floating castle rumored to reside at its apex. What better reason to repeatedly throw your merry band into the slathering path of beasts both vile and deadly?
Each of the previous game’s classes is available to choose from at the onset of the adventure. Forming a sturdy five-member party is a painstaking process, since your selection will make or break how successful your group is in the ensuing journey. Three new unique classes provide additional variety to select from. Gunners fire off long-range attacks with elemental charges, and the War Magus makes a great front-line unit with the ability to dish out decent damage and cast healing and support spells. By far the most interesting new class, Beasts (which come in grizzly, panda, tiger, and wolf flavors) are hulking brutes that command the front ranks with powerful attacks and unique special abilities. This class isn’t unlocked until after you’ve made it past the first stratum – a difficult task in and of itself – but they’re totally worth the effort. Old classes are still interesting to play, since their abilities have been tweaked and balanced to near perfection. Also, the crappy Boost system has been replaced with a force meter that, when filled, lets characters unleash incredibly powerful attacks and special abilities.
Level grinding in the original quickly became an excruciating chore – the need to continually level up your party through rote combat in Heroes of Lagaard is still ever-present – but a single, tiny new feature has managed to completely take the sting out of it this time around. Tapping the L button at any point in battle triggers an auto function that sets your entire party to attack foes repeatedly. When it comes to braving the frequent-yet-monotonous random encounters that are so crucial to building your party’s experience, this is a sheer godsend. If things start to get out of hand, you can disengage the feature at any time and resume hand-picking your attacks.
An expanded bestiary offers reams of new and unique adversaries to face in the labyrinth. The previously fearsome FOEs have been re-imagined in more horrifying detail. These meandering mini-bosses appear with greater frequency, and they’re far more powerful than in the first game. Some are invisible, others can traverse areas where you can’t move, and all are easily capable of dispatching your entire party within seconds. The worst part is you’ll no longer receive experience by taking these beasts down, so the rule of thumb is to avoid these creatures like the plague unless it’s absolutely necessary to progress.
Stylus-driven mapmaking is still a highlight of the series, and a handful of additional icons are included to make the process even easier. Players are given a blank grid canvas on which to notate every nook and cranny of the maze-like dungeons using the touch screen. The auto-tile feature can be set to draw the floors behind you as you walk along them, but walls and other features must be drawn by hand. Navigation has also been improved by the ability to side-step and more frequent teleport spots that allow you to warp into (but not out of) certain levels in the labyrinth. The cartography element is still simple and quite fun, giving players a greater purpose beyond battle and character management.
To call Heroes of Lagaard a tough game is a bold understatement. The first adventure was tough; this game is downright sadistic. Even hardcore RPG enthusiasts will find themselves frequently shaking their fists skyward and uttering streams of curses at the difficulty curve. The first few levels are completely unforgiving, but things start to look up by the time your party has attained a handful of abilities and sweet armaments. There are bound to be moments when you’ll feel like bashing your head repeatedly onto a hard surface – usually after spending several hours level grinding and mapping out terrain only to have your backside handed to you on a platter by one of the sadistically positioned FOEs. When all is said and done it’s entirely worth the frustration, since anyone who loves RPGs will understand much of their enjoyment comes from the strategy of building and leveling up your characters into increasingly powerful, death-dealing machines.
Though it’s hard to tell initially, Heroes of Lagaard features more than just a new coat of pain slapped over the first Etrian Odyssey adventure. It looks and feels only slightly newer, and it’s still very much the classic dungeon crawl of the original, but the minor improvements make it a much better game. It’s simultaneously sadistic and marvelous.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.7 Graphics
A little extra polish from the first game makes a slight visual improvement. There are plenty of lush forested corridors to explore. 4.7 Control
Stylus mapping is still extremely fun, and other tweaks make controls even better. 3.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Music is still not this game’s strong point, but it’s less irritating on the whole. However, a part in one of the tunes sounds painfully close to Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana,” and it’s been driving me nuts for days. 4.8
There’s tons to do and literally months worth of content to explore. You’ll still want to keep at it, even after having your party wiped out completely over and over again.
4.5 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.