Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard is a role-playing game that casts its net back to the murky shores where computer RPGs first dragged themselves onto dry land. Wizardry, The Bard's Tale and Dungeon Master have their muddy paw prints all over EOII, and for certain segments of the gaming population, there'll be an attractively warm and nostalgic charm about a game that references these Grand Masters. Still, 'old' doesn't always equate with 'good'. There are certain hallmarks of older games, such as sudden, unpredictable death and difficulty curves with trajectories like a space shuttle launch, that should be labelled We Didn't Know Any Better At The Time and then buried in lead-lined caskets, along with witch burning, medicinal leeches and temperature sensitive t-shirts.
There is, however, something irresistible about being given the opportunity to play an RPG that's made from the same wood, leather and steel as the golden oldies, but with the funny smell and creaky hinges removed. This is the promise of Etrian Odyssey II, but does it deliver?
EOII is a party-based RPG, so the first thing you'll have to do is whip up a few characters. You can create a roster of up to 30 characters, any five of which can be taken into the field at a time. There are eleven character classes to choose from, which can be roughly divided into the usual selection of fighters, wizards, archers and healers. It's up to you whether you stick with the same five characters throughout the game, or keep a revolving roster. It's not a bad idea to keep a few reasonably handy characters in reserve so that someone can step into the breach when you come staggering out of a sortie dragging four dead friends behind you. It costs money to revive a dead character, so it's quite possible to find yourself with a severely depleted party and not enough cash to revive them all straight away. Money is best raised in the time-honoured fashion of venturing forth, flattening a number of woodland creatures and then selling their various body parts to the local trader, so it's also worth creating a 'farming party' to supplement the income of your main force.
Inevitably, you'll end up playing most of the game with a single party of five. As characters level up, they're awarded skill points and these can be spent on raising basic stat scores - strength, agility, hit points and so on - or on more specialised skills. You're only awarded one skill point per level, so fleshing out a character can feel painstakingly slow at times, especially considering that there are nearly thirty different skill slots per character. Distribute your points wisely, however, and it can be quite satisfying to see your long-term investment in your Ronin's sword skills really start to pay off.
The actual adventuring takes place from a first-person perspective in a 3D labyrinth. You inch through the labyrinth one step at a time, discovering treasure, avoiding wandering FOEs - deadly beasties that will kill your entire party stone dead if tackled too early - and getting dragged into countless random encounters with a huge variety of twisted woodland fauna and flora. Combat plays out much as expected: each character chooses to attack, use a special skill or item, defend or run away, and then the combat round plays out with the enemy taking swipes at your party as you visit similar grief upon their heads, and then the whole procedure repeats until one side is completely dead. Proceedings can be sped up significantly by just hitting the left shoulder button. This puts all your characters into attack mode and everything plays out automatically - very handy when there's just a solitary, battered hedgehog standing in your way.
Once your party have been thumped to within an inch of their lives, you'll need to head back to town. Here you can cash in any loot you've picked up, buy new equipment for your team, rest, heal and save the game. You can also pick up quests from the local bar or missions from the Duke's Palace. Missions generally involve some kind of grand objective that will shunt the (rather slim) story forward, while quests are more incidental in nature, and a good way to make some extra cash on the side.
Inventory management is streamlined and well handled. Each character has four slots, corresponding to weapon, armour, shield and other. As you scroll through the various items on offer at the trader's, any increase or decrease in attack value, defence or whatever is clearly shown, so it's easy to decide what your next purchase should be. There's also a pool of items that any character can use in the labyrinth, and you can put as many different potions, trinkets and traps in here as your budget will allow.
So the game plays out as a series of sorties into the labyrinth, as you constantly unveil its many mysteries while getting inexorably worn down by the legion of psychotic creatures that lurk within its walls. There's a constant temptation to always push a little further and this is aided tremendously by the fact that you have to create your own map as you explore. The touchscreen features a bare grid and a selection of drawing tools, and it's up to you to sketch out your surroundings as you push deeper into the labyrinth. It might initially seem an odd, potentially tedious inclusion but it quickly proves to be a little stroke of genius by the developers. It makes the exploration that little bit more personal and compulsive - no matter how bedraggled your party is, and how desperately they need to head home now, the temptation to have a quick squint around the next corner and sketch in a few more details gives the game a savagely addictive quality. There is an option to have the game automap itself, but you'd be short-changing yourself terribly if you never pick up the stylus yourself. Needless to say, for anyone who spent a significant part of the 80s with a pile of graph paper next to their keyboard, EOII's map-making will resurrect a long-forgotten pleasure.
The presentation of the 3D labyrinth, while being far from the best the DS can offer, is perfectly functional. All the creatures you encounter are shown as 2D artwork, and it's a smart decision, allowing much more detail and personality than would be possible in chunky 3D. Each of your characters can be assigned one of four different portraits, and they generally vary from saucer-eyed anime to a slightly less saucer-eyed anime. We would have loved to have seen a few portrait options with a completely different style - something a bit Baldur's Gate-y, perhaps - but as it is, the art style is fine without being particularly awe inspiring. The sound effects are a rather generic selection of rumbling doors and sword swishes, while the music is a collection of noodling, Casiotone horrors that can, thankfully, be swiftly turned off.
While EOII is an undeniably grindy RPG, it never steps over the line into a loot-grabbing trudge. There are enough warp points scattered throughout the labyrinth to avoid too much backtracking and careful character development allows you to tweak the gameplay as you go along. Too many random encounters? Invest a few points in the Stalker skill. Not enough cash? A point or two put into Scavenge will see more profitable loot drops. There always seems to be something interesting to do or an objective dangling tantalisingly close to completion.
The difficulty level can be a bit of a shock at first. Expect to spend a lot of time, particularly in the early game, getting hammered into the ground and barely having enough cash to make ends meet. Venturing into a new floor of the labyrinth is almost always like getting slapped in the face and drenched in a bucket of cold water at the same time. Expect your over-confident A Team to snivel its way back to the hospital many times, with their severed limbs tucked carefully into their backpacks. Which is exactly as it should be. Etrian Odyssey II thrives on the very fine line between barely achieved success and terrible failure, and there's nothing quite as satisfying as knowing that you've earned your progress through the game.
The DS is pretty much the perfect platform for this kind of RPG. An expedition into the labyrinth can be completed in twenty to thirty minutes, and there's a handy Suspend Save function should your bus arrive unexpectedly early. While we happily ran our battery dry playing EOII, it's probably best enjoyed in smaller, commute-friendly chunks. Etrian Odyssey II is easy to recommend to anyone with an old school RPG itch that needs scratching, but it's also one of most solidly enjoyable RPGs on the DS. You might have to search around to find a copy, but it'll be well worth the effort.