Ponce de Leon on Graph Paper
Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard is a dungeon crawler that seeks to induce nostalgia for the very earliest RPGs; games that, if given half a chance, would happily hand a player their own teeth in a bag. The game’s designers have succeeded in producing a tough, classically-styled RPG, but its high level of difficulty, slow-paced plot, and one-dimensional cast is going to make it fairly impenetrable to anyone without a pre-existing love of dungeon exploration and turn-based combat. As far as dungeon crawlers go, Etrian Odyssey II is better than the vast majority, but this particular sub-genre remains a very insular and traditional one, and Etrian Odyssey II isn’t going to change any of that.
The classical turn-based combat system of Etrian Odyssey has been carried over to the sequel almost without any change. There are a handful of new classes to use, and there have been some minor alterations in the abilities they learn, but the nuts and bolts of the combat system are about the same. Players create a series of characters, selecting their class, appearance, name, and initial skills, and then form these characters into a five member adventuring party. Each character takes their turn selecting a move, which is then executed in battle according to highest Agility, with an element of random variability thrown in. There will be very, very few surprises for anyone who has played an RPG before.
Where Etrian Odyssey II shines, though, is in character customization. When a character levels up, they gain a single skill point that can be used to learn new skills or improve old ones. Some require a certain level of mastery in previous skills before they become available – again, nothing that will be too surprising to veteran RPG players. But each class’s skills are constructed in such a way to suggest a natural progression without demanding that a player follow it. For example, once the Protector class (the game’s stereotypical meat shield) has reached a certain level of proficiency in the Shield skill, they’ll gain access to two sets of skills. One set allows the Protector to decrease physical damage dealt to either the front or rear row, while the other set of skills reduce damage dealt by specific elements. Essentially, characters can be developed in such a way that each class has several different combat roles available to them, allowing for a huge degree of variability between individual members of the same class.
One of the main draws of the series has always been its unique use of the DS’s touch screen. Players are given a large grid with which to map out the Labyrinth, drawing out pathways and walls in the same style as many veteran gamers drew out maps on graph paper. Etrian Odyssey II improves a bit on the map system of its predecessor, but by and large, it’s just the same system with a few more emblems to mark out the locations of treasure chests and other fantasy dungeon decor. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing that the majority of map mechanics are holdovers – the map system of Etrian Odyssey was very solid, and Etrian Odyssey II‘s system is certainly no worse. But it is emblematic of a larger problem at work throughout the game – at many points, Etrian Odyssey II is far too similar to the first Etrian Odyssey. Early in the game, particularly in the first Stratum, the similarity is so strong that it’s very possible to confuse the two.
The sound of Etrian Odyssey II is largely a holdover from the first game as well, though less of a direct one. The game doesn’t re-use songs from the first game, but it does utilize the same sort of sound. Etrian Odyssey II uses very electronic-sounding instrumentation to produce a soundtrack that closely mimics the chiptune music that was common in the early RPGs the game strives to emulate. The end result is a soundtrack that, on the one hand, helps to draw closer parallels with the game’s inspiration, but on the other, also makes it harder to distinguish from the original Etrian Odyssey. The overall composition of the music is very solid, but I suspect that some people will have a much greater tolerance for music that emulates chiptune effects than others.
Like many dungeon crawlers, Etrian Odyssey is very, very light on plot. What plot there is deals largely with events concerning the town of Lagaard, built at the base of a giant tree that houses the Labyrinth. Inside the Labyrinth lie countless undying monsters, creatures who seem to spring back to life as soon as they are felled. The story will deal mostly with the forces behind these monsters, and forms a fairly unimpressive cautionary tale about the dangers of the search for eternal life. On the whole, the game tries to take a fairly sparse narrative and turn it into something more meaningful, with only limited success. The lack of any strong or well-developed characters combined with the widely-spaced plot points makes it a bit hard to become engaged in the story.
The game’s visuals do a fairly solid job of creating a believable 3D world to explore, though the fact that you have to adhere to the dungeon’s grid system can occasionally make it hard to see what you’re walking into, especially when turning a corner. Etrian Odyssey II‘s extreme similarity to its predecessor is especially strong from a visual standpoint early in the game, as the deep green forest of the first Stratum is very similar visually to that of the first Stratum in Etrian Odyssey. Later areas show a bit more variability, certainly enough to keep things interesting. The overall visual style isn’t terribly exciting or stunning, but it gets the job done.
Etrian Odyssey gets a certain amount of flak for being balanced like an old-school RPG, with everything that entails. The game is brutally difficult at times, which was no doubt the intent of its designers, but there is a unique loophole. At the end of every Stratum is a major FOE that serves as an end-of-level boss, but unlike other FOEs, players do get EXP for defeating it. A lot of EXP, actually – enough to make revisiting very early bosses worthwhile even towards the end of the game. Since these bosses regenerate like every other FOE, a player can defeat them for the EXP, rest for 14 days, and then start the cycle all over again. The end result of this EXP gap is that the difficulty level is quite high early on, but drops off very sharply once the player reaches the first Stratum boss. It’s fairly likely that the designers removed EXP from most FOEs in order to smooth the game’s balance out, so the ease with which a player can use these bosses to quickly surpass the intended level for each Stratum is a bit ironic.
A lot of Etrian Odyssey‘s appeal comes from the tension it creates. Much like a survival horror game, the player is tasked with navigating a dangerous and complicated area with few provisions, in an area where nasty killing machines lurk around every corner. The disruptions that boss FOEs cause to the game’s balance counter out a lot of this, making a great deal of Etrian Odyssey II‘s late game feel a little dull. And this is fairly unfortunate, because between the overpowering similarities to the first game, the thin plot, and the easily defeated balance, there’s just not much left to recommend the game. Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard will undoubtedly find purchase amongst afficionados of dungeon crawling and deep character customization, but it’s unlikely the majority of RPG players will find a great deal to engage them here.