Enjoy that little feature while it lasts ... and it doesn't last long. After that, Etrian Odyssey quickly becomes one of the most difficult experiences to date on the DS -- but it's also one of the most fun. Heroes of Lagaard isn't for the faint of heart, though, so if you glaze over when we wax philosophic about Shiren and Izuna, this one may not be for you. If you're willing to jump in, though, Heroes of Lagaard will deliver one of the best gaming experiences of the year.
In the beginning, Heroes of Lagaard lulls you into a false sense of security, particularly if you put the time into the first adventure. Classes you had to work your butt off to open up last time around are freely available here, and you start off -- after creating your initial party, or as many adventurers as you feel like making -- with the same simple mapping assignment. The additions to the mapping system are nice, too; there are more icons, which means more information can go into your maps. That can only be helpful, right?
Don't let these early moments fool you. It's easy enough to die right there on that first "tutorial" mission if you're not paying attention, and Heroes of Lagaard gives you a lot to do right up front, for veterans and gamers new to the franchise alike. If you didn't play the first, the sequel may seem a little overwhelming. There's not much story to go on; you're a person, in a town, and like everyone else, you're there to explore the labyrinth, and that means setting up a guild. Setting up a guild means creating characters, and nearly all classes are unlocked here from the beginning, so you have a lot of options. The game won't let you wander unknowingly into danger, however; if you try to get away with just creating two or three party members at first, you'll be warned that it's a very, very bad idea to head into the labyrinth without a larger party. There's monsters in them there twists and turns, after all.
After you're done creating your adventurers (and you can keep up to thirty, but only take in a few at any given time), it's time to hit the town. Everything you need is here -- the inn, the shop, the Duke who'll give you your quest -- and nothing else. Heroes of Lagaard is all about simplicity; you want to play a game, not read a book, so you put together some characters and get your game on. Reading is for when you need to rest from having your ass thoroughly kicked all around the tree that houses the labyrinth. And, honestly, this sort of super-light plot is preferable, at least to me, than a game that tries, and fails, to deliver some epic story. Either put the effort into it or leave it alone.
For veterans, the gameplay itself is pretty much unchanged from the first Etrian Odyssey, though there are some new mapping features that will make everyone's life a lot easier (newbies and old hats alike). If you made it all the way through the first one, you've got a password you can enter in the beginning to carry some things over; otherwise, you're starting fresh like everyone else.
"Starting fresh" means starting off with a blank piece of parchment, or so the game says. What it means is a blank piece of virtual graph paper. Gameplay in Etrian Odyssey I and II is twofold: on the top screen, you're grinding away so you can prepare to fight bosses that will own you like you've never been owned before, while on the bottom screen, you're charting and annotating your progress, so you can avoid those bosses until you're ready, and still find your way back to town when you need to gear up, rest, or just breathe for a while.
It's never an easy adventure, but no one ever said it would be. This isn't a family-friendly RPG with lots of save points and more items than you'll ever use. You'll need to manage your adventurers, items, and skill points like a general surveying the field of combat if you want to survive, and amateur cartography is a huge part of the challenge. Every single aspect of this game is in your hands (literally, har har) from the beginning, and that's not going to be for everyone. If it's for you, expect a fantastic -- and very lengthy -- ride. Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard is well worth the money, as digging through this game will take you lots of time and effort, as well as good ol' blood, sweat, and tears.
Controls: One of the best things about Heroes of Lagaard is that everything is exactly where you expect it to be, and with the touchscreen dedicated to mapping, you won't ever feel like you have to look at the control guides or the manual.
Visuals: Heroes of Lagaard has a simple style, but it works. The character portraits show a good variety, though they're all pissed off, and the enemies look good. The labyrinth itself is gorgeous, though it takes a little time to get used to the moving effect. Keep that Dramamine handy.
Sound: While there's only a slight improvement here over the original, the better music is noticeable, and it serves as a great accompaniment into the mysterious labyrinth.
Story: This one's light on story, but that's okay. Of course there's a labyrinth in the big, twisty tree of life, and of course you want to explore it. What else are you going to do with your time ... knit?
Difficulty: On a scale of rib-kicking to face-frying, Heroes of Lagaard is, well, hard. But it's very rarely unfairly hard, which means it's perfect for the gamer who lives to try, try again.
Final verdict: 9.0/10 -- Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: deliver a punishing-but-fun experience with a lot of extras and nothing wasted on useless frills. It's like the Contra 4 of RPGs; it's an homage to a classic type of play that manages to do the old school one better. Beyond that, Heroes of Lagaard also manages to make excellent use of the DS itself, without any forced microphone use tacked on.