This 2008 Nintendo DS release from Atlus is up there with the best in terms of top quality level-grinders – it really is superb.
The Etrian Odyssey series is all about mapping and exploration, item drops, boss battles, levelling, and lots of excellent turn-based combat, and this second instalment is a clear evolution of the first game, although arguably not quite as expansive and refined as its remarkable sequel.
Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard is a very easy game to play, but has many hidden elements that take real skill (and a lot of luck!) to unlock. I’m talking specifically about the item drops. Kill a boss or an enemy a certain way and they’ll drop a special item. Take that item to the shop and sell it for big bucks, and also to unlock new weapons and armour. Of course, getting the special item drops is an art in itself. An ‘art’ that is infuriating on a real DS, and somewhat ‘fun’ in a emulator…
Levelling-up and spending Skill Points on your individual characters is also fun. Etrian Odyssey II features detailed and imaginative skill trees, spells, and abilities, and the option of choosing from twelve different character classes when building a party. Even better: you can easily build and use different parties by visiting the Explorer’s Guild. This feature makes the game very re-playable and gives you a chance to experiment with all the different classes without having to have different saves for each. You can have a maximum of five in a party, or a minimum of one, and access to some ‘optional’ hidden areas is only possible with a party of three or less. The flexibility of the party system really gives this game – and all the other Etrian Odyssey games – an edge over much of the competition.
Graphically, Etrian Odyssey II is a pleasing mix of simple 3D graphics (the first-person landscapes in the main view window), and 2D, hand-drawn graphics. The 2D graphics I think are fantastically-drawn and really make the game look great. Again: a common feature of the Etrian Odyssey series and one of the reasons why I love it so much.
Another common feature of the series are the boss battles. Rather than simply meet a ‘boss’ in a set location in order to fight it, the bosses (called FOEs in Etrian Odyssey II) fit into different categories, and follow certain patterns of behaviour. Most FOEs patrol the maze, usually in a set pattern, and avoiding them (at least initially) is what you need to do. On occasion the lower-end FOEs will come after you if they see you, and break off the chase if you escape out of their range. And – rather scarily – the FOEs who chase you will continue to pursue you even if you’re locked in battle. As each turn of a battle passes, you can see the red-lit FOEs on your map get ever closer… and if they reach you they will enter battle. Which you really want to avoid! Especially with low-level characters. The next level of boss is a ‘Stratum FOE‘ – a sort of ‘end-of-level boss’ with hit points and skills designed to test your party to the max at a certain level. And there’s one other level of boss – the ‘Superboss‘ – which are usually hidden away for advanced players to find and take on. Needless to say: the boss battles in this game are phenomenal! They are not only a real test of nerve and skill, but they also force you to plan ahead, and also to employ certain tactics to win – especially if you’re trying to get the special item drops. The general idea with bosses in Etrian Odyssey II is: avoid them if you’re too low-levelled, and return to fight them later, when you’re more capable.
Overall: level-grinding has never been so much fun. While not quite as brilliant as its 2010 sequel, Etrian Odyssey III, Etrian Odyssey II is still a fantastic game. It’s deep, involving, full of detail and charm, and a huge amount of fun if you like level-grinders.