Last year's Etrian Odyssey delivered classic turn-based role-playing on the Nintendo DS, complete with mapmaking, serious level grinding, and excellent character customization options. Those who played it will undoubtedly remember having to spend hours powering up their parties just to take down one of the game's many vicious enemies. Those who haven't will be able to experience this same action--with some welcome additions--in Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard, a sequel that barely alters the core gameplay of the original but refines it just enough to make it more palatable.
In Etrian Odyssey II, you trudge through the multiple floors of a forest labyrinth with the ultimate goal of reaching and exploring a mythical floating palace. The game's sparsely presented story revolves around retrieving medicines and a sacred chalice from the forest and this magnificent edifice; other bits and pieces of the plot are delivered through the talking-head introductions to the various side quests you can embark on.
If you're not deterred by the bare-bones plot, the game's difficulty might do you in. Don't be surprised if you find yourself in an impossible situation within the game's first hour: Scrappy beasts won't hesitate to eliminate half of your party after just a few battles, and your limited funds--reduced thanks to the need to purchase your initial weapons and armor--might not be enough to heal the injured. Your enemies don't drop money; instead, you have to sell the remains they hopefully leave behind.
With persistence and a little luck, though, you'll be well on your way to the enjoyable meat of the game. The nameless soldiers you recruit specialize in one of 12 different classes (one of which isn't available from the outset), each of which sports a combination of more than 15 upgradeable attributes, passive skills, and in-battle skills. Some skills are opened by leveling up others, leaving you with a deep tech tree to play with. You're afforded only one skill point for each level you gain, and there's an initial level cap of 70, meaning that it isn't possible to max out every skill. Progress is slow, but it also has the side effect of motivating you to choose your upgrades wisely and take every battle seriously.
The labyrinth's floors are divided into groups of five, called "Strata," and the jump in difficulty between each Stratum's typical battles is tangible. Each one starts off with denizens that can incapacitate one or two of your party members early on. After hours of fighting and regrouping, you'll grow powerful enough to use the auto-fight feature for level grinding. You'll need to employ this practice intently to combat each floor's many FOEs (Foedus Obrepit Errabundus)--powerful enemies analogous to minibosses--that block your progress to upper floors and key treasures. Most of them are ferocious enough to send even a victorious party back to town to recharge exhausted health and tech points, and a select few are too powerful for you to fight at all. It's this intense challenge--the thought that each battle might be your swan song--that keeps things exciting, and teaches you to know when to turn tail. You're given warps from town directly to certain points in the dungeon every two floors, cutting down on the backtracking; but you're only able to save in town and on every fifth floor, so you won't take any battle for granted.