My experience with Etrian Odyssey is not one of extreme depths but rather gliding across the surface. I casually experimented with the first one on the Nintendo DS and enjoyed it. I made the first true push through Etrian Odyssey IV on the Nintendo 3DS, and I loved it. After Persona Q last year, a game which borrows elements from both franchises, I marveled at seeing its formula unfold under another banner.

And now we have Etrian Odyssey II Untold: The Fafnir Knight, the latest in the expanding handheld RPG series.

In a time when we bash most games for not innovating enough, praising Etrian Odyssey for rarely changing its core formula might come off as downright hypocritical, but I just can't help myself. The series has become comfort food for me, a reliable sandwich I can turn to when I crave that familiar catchy music, those excellent RPG mechanics, and that old-school sense of adventure that often evades most of its modern day brethren.

It's a rush similar to Final Fantasy, just thirty years later creating nostalgia on a 30-year-old man well past his age of innocence.

Etrian Odyssey II Untold is a remake of the second game from the original Nintendo DS, tasked with diving into its empty shell of a plot and retelling it with more context. Just when I didn't think the series needed anything else to be any more fine tuned, this latest entry sprouted a new and exciting branch to my tree each time I fire up the game: genuine heart in the form of lovable friends.

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You've got a friend in me

Originally, I approached Etrian Odyssey II Untold with the intention of playing "Classic Mode," a way of saying purely vanilla Etrian Odyssey. No set characters with personalities, no dialogue, little emotional connection. "Classic Mode" amounts to little more than creating hollow avatars with a single portrait and skill trees, and using them to dive into the green dungeons.

My experience with the series led me to believe that it primarily thrived on pure gameplay with minimal plot getting in the way, but after an hour or so, I wasn't feeling it. I had already explored these mechanics at least three times before, and I saw little need to go through the paces one more time.

What else is there left to see? I could mishmash the 15 different job classes available to create my ideal team, but the limitations in abilities and overabundance of useless job classes compared to Etrian Odyssey IV didn't exactly sell that idea.

After an hour or two, I thought I had played out Etrian Odyssey for all it was worth, but then I fired up the main attraction of this remake, the "Story Mode," and decided to throw all my convictions to the wind. Gladly, I was proven wrong. Characters only strengthen what had originally been established.

And I don't mean the bloated 19 character star-studded cast found in Persona Q. No way! Etrian Odyssey II Untold keeps things simple with five characters, each with a job class and abilities designed to perfectly compliment one another, a perfectly synced team. You might even call this setup a tutorial, teaching newcomers how different archetypes can work together in Etrian Odyssey's toughest battles.

"Classic Mode" is more of a postgame treat, but I can't really see myself backtracking through with game without my new buddies.

Four of these characters also come with a defined personality, and the sole one who does not is you, the playable Fafnir Knight, a classic silent JRPG protagonist through and through. The other four aren't particularly deep or original, unfolding like paper JRPG cutouts, but they should be enough to get you involved in their struggles.

Flavio, a carefree ranger who is the butt of all jokes. Arianna, an adorable princess who drips with enthusiasm and innocence. Bertrand, a jaded but wise "old" man who can't possibly be beyond his late 20s (ancient in JRPG years), and Chloe a monotone young lady mage with both offensive and defensive magic.

Get this for how cliché these characters are: Chloe is thin as a rail, but gorges on an insatiable hunger for meat! Not beef, not pork, just general meat. Tell me, has Atlus ever tried that character quirk before? Yeah, it did in the very last game it made!

There is not a whole lot to really explore in the characters. The superficial depths of this story merely exist to give extra motivation to press on, and your friends pleasantly tag along on your quest, delivering fun little quips and surprisingly strong chemistry with one another. Some will randomly visit your hero in the night and ramble with exposition, but it's more touching than you might expect.

Remember though, Etrian Odyssey is powered primarily by its gameplay, and letting these characters steal that limelight would be going against that lofty goal. The development team perfectly nails a balance so that its personalities never truly distract from the deep RPG mechanics working under the lighthearted and lusciously green surface.

Oil is pointless on this frictionless machine

It's safe to say you'll feel right at home with Etrian Odyssey II Untold if you are already a fan of the series. Not a whole lot has changed from previous entries. Five adventurers dive into a dungeon and explore on a grid from a first-person viewpoint. They fight monsters, gain levels, collect items, uncover shortcuts, and when they run out of magic points or the dungeon gets the better of them, it's back to town.

There, they sell their goods, stock up on items, trade out for newer gear, sleep at the inn, and dive in once again.

It's a "rinse and repeat" affair, each time resulting in a dive that manages to push just a bit further thanks to the improved levels and equipment. Repetitive, but oh-so addictive because from the get-go, it's obvious these characters will become unstoppable killing machines before the game's end. Incremental increases through abilities and damage with each passing level just make the suspense grow more and more unbearable.

What ARE these character capable of?

Sadly, the skill trees aren't quite a lucrative as the ones in Etrian Odyssey IV, at least to my memory, but II Untold makes up for it by rehashing an older series' element called Grimoire Stones. Each of these stones are won through battle and holds an ability found on the skill tree or used by an enemy. Equipping it will grant the holder that power.

Two major uses come from these, and it's up to you how to best utilize them. Do you boost the abilities your characters already have to levels beyond their normal limits, or do you have them learn entirely new skills, granting the game a sense of dual-classing that is far more streamlined and far easier to tinker and toy with without consequence than previous games.

Etrian Odyssey II Untold's biggest addition to the game though is a cooking mini-quest and a town expansion mechanic. Our heroes will be able to run their own cafe from early on in the game, using ingredients found in the dungeons to create outlandish food. These meals grant special stat boosts in battle, but they also act as a second source of income. Eventually, the cafe will advertise its wares to the public, inviting townspeople in with promises of what they crave. They'll come in droves if the proper food is advertised, and the establishment will be overflowing with cash.

Our heroes can always use that cash to buy new weapons and items, or they can also expand different areas of the town, increasing the population, making guilds more wealthy, brightening the mood, and overall, improving profits for the long haul. Etrian Odyssey II Untold provides perhaps a little too many ways to use money because I often found myself lacking in funds whereas in other games, I always seemed to have an excess.

Maybe that's a good thing.

One final point is that Etrian Odyssey's reputation as a challenging series is a little overstated. Ever since it popularized the "old-school first-person dungeon crawler revival" genre, countless copycats have followed in its success, and those games are where the brutal and often unfair challenges lie.

Etrian Odyssey never once helicopter-parents you through its dungeons, but it perfectly paces the difficulty curve so that it is never truly unfair. Screwing yourself into a corner is nearly impossible since permadeath is nonexistent and the price is cheap for realigning skill points. Resources, experience, and profits in the dungeons mean that every dive has a purpose, and you'll never exit feeling like you've wasted your time.

There is a finesse to this series that the "me to" games in the genre miss out on, and that's why it is simply the best on the market.

"Up" isn't the only direction

If you are an Etrian Odyssey fan, then chances are you already have this game on your Nintendo 3DS and don't need my convincing for a purchase. This is another seminal entry in the series, and it does just enough to set itself apart so as not to make it feel like a tired retread through familiarity.

On the surface, one Etrian Odyssey game might feel like plenty, but there are enough smaller differences from release to release to warrant picking one up every other year or so. Playing ALL of them is a bit of a task, so be prepared to pace yourself. I preferred a few elements from Etrian Odyssey IV like the overworld map, multiple dungeons, and dual-classing, but Etrian Odyssey II Untold rises to the occasion with its cooking quests, Grimoire Stones, and pleasant characters, each enough to offset those sacrifices.

For newcomers, this is a decent place to start, but I still think Etrian Odyssey IV is the best entry to climb aboard with. The lack of a deep story and heavy attention on gameplay is what is needed to "get" what the series is about. Afterwards, you can sprinkle on the cosmetic elements like story, characters, and additional RPG systems.

Plus, IV is a lot cheaper than II Untold when it is on sale. $14.99 vs. $49.99 for two games with only a handful of small differences. The choice is easy to make.

From the heart though, Etrian Odyssey II Untold proves why this is one of my favorite series of the last half-decade or so. Like the games before it, I simply can't get enough of diving into the dungeons, losing myself in the luscious mazes, listening to the rockin tunes, and building my characters. There is a consistency and a reliability here that only masters of the genre have matched, and Etrian Odyssey is quickly finding itself among them.

On my own experience, I played a majority of this campaign on a 13 hour flight from New York to Tokyo, and I didn't put it down once!

Everything in this series works, and even though it could stand to be a bit more liberal from time to time, the additions to this latest entry prove that the team isn't entirely out of ideas yet. My guess is that after the third game inevitably gets remade, Atlus will rain the innovation down on the inevitable fifth game.

Can't wait.


Disclaimer: We purchased Etrian Odyssey II Untold: The Fafnir Knight with personal funds and played 25 hours of the campaign before writing this review.

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