Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard

released on Feb 21, 2008

In the Grand Duchy of High Lagaard, it is said that the Duke is descended from inhabitants of a castle in the sky. When an unforeseen crisis befalls the nation, it is decreed that the first explorer to retrieve the Grail of Kings from that mythical floating palace will be rewarded with wealth and fame beyond imagining. Enter the central city of Lagaard and begin your journey to the clouds!

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This game is in such direct conversation with EO1 that they really are best played as a pair. There are a ton of changes in EO2 from EO1, many of which are about breaking everything that was strong in EO1 and making you take a different, often more challenging, approach here. I don't love every change they make (as fun as it is to use an alternate class in a role, a war magus just feels less secure to have around than a medic did), but the changes that are good are Really important to my enjoyment.
Every town NPC has dialogue every time you reach a new floor, which may be the most important change to the feel of the game from EO1. Every town character gets so much more personality, and the game plays with them (introducing character quirks and quest chains) and the time-of-day system (something that was barely relevant in EO1), all the time. Derek the hospital's doctor works all day and doesn’t want to be overheard, so isn't free to meet with you about a sidequest he's posted until 11PM. And in a later stratum there are tiles that save you a lot of time but can only be crossed at night. You will even speak to miscellaneous NPCs in the labyrinth far more now, a minor but still noticeable change.
The strata theming in EO1 was pretty good, and in the moment feels totally appropriate and strong but I like the theming and design of EO2’s strata (basic as the idea is) a lot more. While the series never quite recaptures the feeling of leading up to and then progressing through EO1’s 5th stratum, the 1st through 4th here are really good, and I like most of the 5th in a gameplay sense (though what a letdown compared to 1’s both visually and thematically, oof.)
And lastly the music is absolutely fantastic here, one of the best soundtracks of the series (though they are nearly all excellent).
Overall a great game, the quibbles I have with it don’t compare with the things I love about it, and I am really happy I revisited Lagaard.

What's unique about working artists among creative professionals is the way their education often leads to some acquaintance with the history of art. I don't know much about Shin Nagasawa's own background (a cursory search turns up some Pokemon cards, a dead website and a Pixiv account with some dubious illustrations of young girls), but I'm convinced the monster designs in this game were consciously influenced by the creatures in the work of Matthais Grunewald. There's a similar sense of texture and exaggerated motion, supported by a free sense of perspective and anatomy, that's so much like his work and so unlike the spritework in the prior game. It's distinct without being overstated, and I'd like to think Nagasawa chose it to support the northern-European feel of the game's setting, much as I'd like to think that somehow wasn't actually his Pixiv.
Where Etrian Odyssey was an effort to reduce the Wizardry-like to its essence and build a modern game around it, Heroes of Lagaard's got no such singularity of purpose. It's trying to balance familiarity and novelty well enough to make its place as a franchise on the Yoko Taro JRPG chart: to the former end there's frequent save points and limit breaks, and to the latter the cartography's more developed and the overworld enemies are turned from moderately challenging standard encounters to navigation puzzles. This is the version of Etrian which postdates the FOE flash animation.
At the same time, the game's substantially harder than the first. It's considerably more likely that a random encounter will kill a party member in the first round of combat, the two defense skills which trivialized Etrian Odyssey's middle strata are absent, and fewer classes are worth using. In conjunction with the two extra checkpoints each stratum, the game has an approach to difficulty comparable to a modern indie platformer: it sends the player back five minutes, time after time, until she gets it.
There's something lost in the move from an externally-referential piece to a self-referential one, a game trying to perfect an Etrian formula, but it's enormously fun. The world art in Heroes of Lagaard is more varied and interesting, the music's better, the town NPC's are well-developed and endearing. There's no rubbing yourself against a wall until you find the hidden path to progress, and the auto-battle Earthbounds you through old areas. I was fully prepared to admit that the franchised version of Etrian was the superior one until the fifth stratum, which is impossibly lame in terms of visual and level design as well as narrative content. Overlord fucking sucks and I'm glad I cheesed him with Dominate.
The faster pace of the game and the volume of dialogue does, I think, dislodge the sense of fondness for one's party that Etrian Odyssey built up. More content-per-hour means less time to get bored and consider how the landsknecht feels about medieval social class.

Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard added a few minor tweaks and fixes (including an autobattle toggle and QOL updates) to remedy the original, but mostly offered more of the same with less interesting level design, story, and gameplay.

i know i will never make games and thus never understand the difficulty that comes with making a sequel to a game, especially one as beloved by a niche crowd as the first etrian odyssey. so, i appreciate the attempt at balancing and iterating this game made. the new classes are interesting too. but, when you nerf relaxing and immunize, you have new skills that pop up and are arguably more broken than the former in force skills and virtually all of the skills that hexers and war maguses can use. it's different, but it's really the same.
and the plot feels... like a retread. i don't mean this in quite the negative way that implies, but i don't think anything new is accomplished here. the game even goes so far as to ape one of the biggest plot twists of the game (that i won't spoil, despite the fact that these games are approaching two decades old), but it loses all bite because it's beat-for-beat the same type of twist that was in the first EO game. i can appreciate cultivating similar themes and recurring motifs, but where is the surprise? where is the narrative weight if it's all going through the motions?
i don't have any strong complaints with this game, it just feels a bit safe and same-y. nothing here is bad, and i remember much of this game fondly. but, as a previous reviewer said, this is always the last EO game i think of when i think of the DS trilogy. the first game felt like this brand new take on a familiar concept, but this game just feels like a familiar take on a familiar concept. it's more of the same, in both a good and condemning way.
god why does this review make it sound like i don't even enjoy the game when i had a great time with it. it's weird how sometimes a game can be so good but shy of greatness that you can't help but only mention its shortcomings.

I truthfully don't know how to pin down why this is the case, but this is probably the numbered entry I think about the least. It's really great, but my mind always goes to "but y'know, 1 and 3 were better" without really having a clear reason why.
Still, it rules.