Monday, June 15, 2009

Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard

Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard
RPG - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 3 Saves
1 player

I did not want to try this game. I knew that most of my peers were loving the series, but I have never liked 1st person perspective in RPGs, and do not particularly care for the dungeon crawler / survival RPG genre. And when asking someone whether the only thing cool about the game was that you had to draw your own map, the response was: "Yeah!" I thought that was the dumbest thing ever. Little did I know that it, along with the rest of the game, would be strangely compelling.

The structure of the game is similar to most dungeon crawlers. You have but one town and one multi-tiered "dungeon". The dungeon in question is really a labyrinth within a tree, so instead of drab and worn walls, you encounter lush green forests, autumn leaves, cherry blossoms, and other natural scenery. It's in first person, but there's a really nice level of detail to the environments and their vibrant color schemes. Unlike some other dungeon crawlers, the stages here are not randomly generated. The scenarios are specifically designed, which is a huge plus for me. The game is divided into blocks of 5 floors called strata. Each stratum has its own theme, just like you'd expect from a jRPG. For instance, the ice stages have these frozen tiles where if you walk on them, you slide and are forced along the frozen path until you reach normal ground again. It was the first time I experienced something like that in 1st person.

It's hard to keep focused on your surroundings, though, when there are plenty of hostile beings out there. Most of the enemy encounters occur randomly, but an indicator glows red when one is nearby. There are also visible encounters on every floor with boss/mini-boss type enemies called FOEs. FOE battles are generally extremely tough, to the point where you will want to avoid them at all possible costs. When exploring a floor for the first time, the FOEs can often take you out in a single turn. They can be overcome, as you become more powerful later and revisit, but the first time you see them is typically a death sentence. The majority of the FOEs do not even offer any experience when defeated. The only exception are the bosses in each stratum, who are part of the story. For the non-boss FOEs, the overpowering difficulty and lack of experience points (at least in EO2) means that you'll be intentionally planning your routes so as to avoid them. This is actually an interesting approach because it forces you to watch and monitor FOE movements. Depending on the FOE, they do a lot of different things. Some move in a rote pattern. Others will notice your presence and start following you. Some can move through walls. And others are invisible to your map. Their movements are so varied that even walking around is part of EO2's gameplay.

That's not to say the regular random encounters are a cinch. EO2 proves a challenge from the moment you step into the labyrinth. The enemies do more damage than your typical jRPG. The key to it all is how you configure your party. EO2 gives you a lot of choices. You can create your own roster of characters in one of 12 classes. You can arrange your party to include any five of the characters you create. And then when you level up, you get to choose what skills and/or stat bonuses to level up. You only earn one skill point per level. So if you're investing ten of your skill points in a single skill, that means not investing those ten points in other skills. There is a system of constraints at work. That is both a blessing and a curse. While all the skills are useful in some situations, many are not useful in all situations. So the game could make it very playable or very hard for you depending on what you put your skill points in. The game offers a couple of different ways to alleviate this burden. There is the ability to "Rest" your character, which allows you to redistribute all your skill points. It costs 5 levels, but mid-game, 5 levels is a small price to pay to be able to totally redo your character build. The other option is "Retire", in which you trade in your character for a new character at half your current level. The advantage of retiring is that you will receive both stat and skill point bonuses to your new character, which could make up for essentially losing half your levels. These bonuses depend on how high of a level you were when you retired. A level 99 character receives much nicer bonuses than a character retiring at level 30.

The cool thing about the combat is that because of the skill system and your choice of party members, your actions matter a whole lot. You absolutely cannot mow through the game by simplying selecting FIGHT each round. There is a time for that, and EO2 has an auto-fight command for those easier battles. But a lot of the times, you will be up against enemies that want to slaughter you. So using party buffs, enemy debuffs, elemental weaknesses, binding - anything that will give you an advantage, will be an integral part of winning fights. I find it comparable to Dragon Quest, where your options are simple, but they heavily influence outcomes. The other thing that's nice about the battles are the drops. This being a dungeon crawler, the enemy drops are a key element to the game. When defeated, the enemies will randomly/not-so-randomly drop items depending on how you defeat them. For example, defeating an enemy in the first turn may net you a different type of item than if you defeated them in 5 rounds. Or an enemy may only drop an item if you kill them while they're poisoned. Different situations will net different things. It's not the drops themselves that are noteworthy, but how the game builds its structure around them. You will sell the items you get from defeating enemies to the town store, in exchange for money. Then because the shop now has these new materials, new weapons and armor will be available for purchase. It's a really simple and logical system. So it's always a treat to encounter a new type of enemy, because it means a new kind of item, which'll eventually lead to new types of equipment.

What ties all of the dungeon crawling together is a barebones story about a bunch of guilds attempting to reach this shrine in the sky. So you'll get specific missions sanctioned by the city Duke, all with their own monetary rewards. On the side, you'll get optional quests from the city bar, that'll net you rewards as well. Both the missions and quests have you doing a variety of tasks, such as defeating a certain FOE, investigating a subplot, collecting certain items, or further exploration of the floors. I like that there's a linear structure to it all, and that the quests are based on how far in the dungeon you've gotten.

Then we have the mapping. It sounds odd, but being able to draw your own maps on the touchscreen is quite satisfying. In terms of functionality, having an automap feature would be more efficient. But since EO forces you to draw your own maps, this method is far more interactive. The manual method also has some perks to it, by giving you a variety of icons to utilize, different floor tile colors to use as you wish, and notes you can insert into the map for reference. So while it takes a little more work to set up your map, it pays off because it can contain far more information than an automap could ever produce.

I've come to really appreciate Etrian Odyssey in the way it encourages exploration. The mapping feature is great, but it's only part of the story. Enemies, including FOEs, will drop items, leading to extra money and new equipment. You'll want to explore further just so you can experience the new item drops. Quests will have you looking for a special item, so even though you may have mapped out an entire floor, you'll be exploring the floor again to find the quest item. There will be passageways that are accessible only by certain classes, so if they're not in your party, you will have to revisit. There are special character abilities called Force that builds up like a super meter in fighting games. These abilities are extremely powerful when unleashed, but because they build up slowly, will have you staying in the dungeons longer to build them up. There are things here and there that all push you to hold out a little bit longer, go a little bit further, exactly what a survival RPG should do. Etrian Odyssey excels at luring you into a den of wolves with the promise of cotton candy. While the encounters are difficult, all is not lost if your party does end up getting wiped out. One cool trick is that you're able to save your map progress if you die, so it gives you even more incentive for exploring further and further.

But on the flip side, I'm not as fond of the entire skill system, where your choices determine your fate. With only one additional skill point earned per character level, the way you distribute them among all your skills is of utmost importance. You can't simply throw a point into every available skill, because many skills will not even land until you've maxed them out. For example, if your Poison skill is below level 8, you have like < 50% accuracy. That means you don't really know how good or bad a skill is until you've invested 10 levels into it. You don't build levels quickly in the game, so it's a huge investment. Sure the game offers remedies in the form of Rest and Retire, but it reveals that the skill tree is really unbalanced. I also question some of their character balancing decisions. I haven't found a whole lot of use for the Troubadour class, for instance. Atlus apparently removed the two best abilities from this class from the first EO, and as a result, completely crippled it. You also cannot get around the fact that this game is grindy. Because of your limited choices, you can expand your possibilities by making duplicate versions of the same class to diversify your skills. And you can make characters of different classes as well. But unless you rotate your characters into your main party, they will not gain exp. So the only way to maintain level balance is by constantly switching your characters in and out, and grinding until they're at the appropriate level. I much prefer games where exp is distributed to the entire pool of characters. By making you rotate members, it doesn't make the game any more fun. Just more tedious.

Flaws in the skill system aside, what EO does well, it does better than any other game I've played. Every little aspect encourages you to move forward. Even though difficult enemies threaten every step, traps are scattered throughout the floors and the environments are unknown, you will want to progress. The risk vs. reward is exhilarating. For that reason alone, EO2 is the best example of dungeon crawler I've played to date.