First Look: Etrian Odyssey II

I’ve been in an old-school gaming kind of mood recently, so when Angela gave me a shiny new DS Lite for my birthday, I went game hunting, and came up with Etrian Odyssey II. It’s got lots of old school RPG goodness in it, at least on paper. I’ve only done the first starter mission.

The first thing you do is create a “guild” for yourself. Guilds can have up to 30 (!) characters in them, and a party consists of 5 of those characters. Characters can be one of 12 classes (to start, it appears you can unlock more later) and you create them all. No pre-made characters or emo NPCs to join your group. When you pick characters for a party you arrange them into front and back rank. This feeling familiar yet?

Head into the (single) dungeon and you’ll be overwhelmed with nostalgia. Action takes place on the top screen of the DS, and what you see is a grid-based, first-person view of the dungeon. Suddenly it was like I was playing Dungeon Master on my Atari ST again! D-Pad moves you 1 step forward, 1 step back, or turns you 90 degrees left or right. Shoulder buttons let you sidestep.

The bottom screen contains your blank map. An arrow indicates your party’s position, and as you move, square by square, it’s up to you to draw in the map with the stylus. This was pretty darned neat at first, but I’m wondering how interesting it’ll be 15 hours into the game. You can have the ground underfoot draw in automatically, but I wouldn’t have hated having the walls that you move adjacent to being drawn in as well. Going from d-pad to move, to stylus to draw, to d-pad to move, to stylus to draw might get tedious. Then again, I am left handed…if I was drawing with my right hand it might not be as bad.

So you move through the labyrinth exploring, and encountering monsters to fight. Combat is turn based using complete rounds. That is to say, you give orders to each member of your party, and then once all orders are given, combat plays out, each creature (friend or foe) getting its turn to do its action based on individual speed and presumably some random variable. Happily if you order all characters to hit one baddie, and that baddie dies by the sword of first character to go, the rest will hit someone else. Unhappily spell casters aren’t as smart, since I’ve had healers waste spell points on a dead character.

Eventually of course, your characters will level up. When they do, they get a skill point to spend. Skills are arranged in a skill tree very reminiscent of those in PC games such as Diablo II or World of Warcraft’s talent trees. You have to spend points on “earlier” skills in order to unlock later, more powerful ones. Every character is ‘born’ with 3 skill points but after that they get just 1 per level, so you’ll want to really think about how you want to grow your character. I’m not yet sure what the level cap is, but my feeling is that you won’t be able to give a character all the skills in his tree. This means you might want to have two of the same class, with different skills emphasized. Anyway, there appears to be plenty of replayability insofar as character development is concerned. In the event that you change your mind, you can ‘untrain’ skill points by letting a character Rest in the Guild Hall, but at the cost of 5 levels of progress.

That’s about all I have for you so far. I’m looking forward to digging into this one; reviews indicate its a challenging game and I’m interested to see how well I react to a strong challenge now that I’m older and have less time to play. Of course the fact that its on the DS means I can sneak in a few moments here and there. So we’ll see. My initial, gut reaction is very positive. I’ll check in from time to time to report how well that reaction holds up over time.