Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Laagard is a very tough game to review simply because it's one of those "love it or hate it" game types: An old school dungeon crawler. There's only a rudimentary story (you're exploring a single, gigantic tree dungeon trying to find the way into a magic, floating castle), there's no character development beyond gaining levels and choosing skills, and its turn-based battles are soul-crushingly, stomp-on-your-goldfish merciless. The game is more than happy to brutally slaughter your entire party, wasting hours of your playtime, over and over again. And what do you get in return? The privilege of drawing your own maps because the game won't do it for you.
Yet, Etrian Odyssey II is nonetheless one of the finest games of its type we've ever seen because what it does, it does really well. For instance, almost no story means you get to make all your own characters. There are 12 character classes - everything from the first game plus the Red Mage-alike War Magus, the snipe-tastic Gunner, and the Beast, a big, meaty brawler who likes to take hits for other party members. You create your squad entirely from scratch, choosing classes, assigning skills, and deciding which five people to take with you each time you venture into the labyrinth. When you return, it's up to you to use the body parts of the monsters you've killed to obtain new gear.
This is, in fact, the key to the game. This is all about battle, and your party members' classes, skills and gear are what will make the difference between triumphantly hauling a box of monster heads into the store and becoming the poor corpse on the dungeon's 23rd floor whose gizzard has been gnawed out and shoved through his eye socket. You'll be fighting tons of tough random battles, and the FOEs - higher level monsters that you can actually see on the map and will often want to avoid - are even tougher this time. You'll need all your wits to survive, and that includes frequently running away and possibly sacrificing some progress to redistribute your characters' skill points. Like we said - this is hardcore.
Then there are the maps, which you really do need to create yourself if you want to complete the level. The mapmaking tools are greatly improved from the first game, with many more options to lay down graphics and symbols that show exactly what you're up against. Thus, it's not the total chore you'd expect. Neither is shopping, thanks to some nice interface tweaks.
What you would expect, at least if you've played the first Etrian Odyssey, is a little less recycling of assets and sprites. This, along with a battle system that has been heavily refined instead of revamped, lends the game a slight "been there, done that" feel. It's still a big improvement over the original and totally worth playing, but it's not quite as fresh as one would hope. Still, the bits that have been changed have been honed to perfection. This is a specific kind of game for a specific type of gamer - the RPG masochist. But those people are going to love this thing.