It's more of the same, but that's a good thing.
After playing Etrian Odyssey II, I looked at my review of the first game and was tempted to simply copy and paste it with a couple of minor changes (off course, I’m being facetious). Although there are a few significant differences, EO2 is a relatively straightforward sequel. While I don’t agree with all of the design changes, Etrian Odyssey II should still please fans of the budding series, while providing a good entry point for those who missed the first game since there’s no continuity between the two storylines.
The core gameplay in EO2 remains the same as it was in the first game. You start by creating several characters (name, class, portrait, and skill assignments) and taking them into the dungeon-like forest. You can stick with five characters for the whole game, or you can create several extras and swap them out as desired for different situations. As you explore, you’ll use the touch screen to notate the important features of each level. New weapons and armor are still unlocked by bringing the body parts of defeated monsters to the shop in town, and you still get one skill point per level with which to customize your party members. Now and then you’ll encounter a character that furthers the minimal story, and of course, the dreaded FOEs (boss-like enemies that stalk around visibly, as opposed to the normal randomly-encountered enemies) are back to bring an untimely end to your adventuring.
On the surface, every facet of EO2 is improved over the original. The mapping tools now come with more than twice as many icons, multi-colored paint for the floors, and a few other little changes that make mapping a better experience. Every character class but one is now available from the beginning of the game, and the one that isn’t becomes available very quickly this time around. If you assign your skill points poorly, you can reset them by sacrificing a mere five levels (to the first game’s ten). Controls have been refined, and an auto-battle feature has been added that speeds things up considerably (it’s useful when finishing off enemies, or killing weak enemies). The 3D graphics are noticeably more detailed than last time, but this does introduce slow down in certain areas. The addition of temporary waypoints on the third and fifth floor of each stratum eliminates a lot of backtracking. Overall, the changes are definitely for the better.
FOEs now come in several flavors. There are ordinary FOEs that simply patrol a predetermined route, red FOEs that chase you, blue FOEs that can fly over certain obstacles, and purple FOEs that only show up in the 3D view. You’ll find yourself avoiding these creatures almost completely this time around. They tend to be much more difficult to kill until you've surpassed them by several levels. They also no longer give experience points, so the only reward for going back to kill them is a chance at some rare monster parts (useful for making some of the more powerful equipment).
It’s difficult for me to evaluate the challenge of EO2 compared to the first game because of my pre-existing experience with its rules. It doesn’t help that both games can be significantly more or less difficult depending on the party you choose, the skills you develop, and whether or not you run from too many fights (which help you gain the necessary experience to keep things from getting out of hand). As with the original, there are ways to play that make the game much easier than it would be otherwise.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that the dungeon is still divided into strata. You’ll only see a significant change in scenery and background music when you reach a new stratum (every five floors). This isn’t so bad when the scenery is pleasant and the music is compelling, but I doubt everyone will like every stratum. In fact, I find it hard to believe that anyone won’t want to gouge out their eyes after five minutes in the fifth stratum.
Ultimately, Etrian Odyssey II lives up to its predecessor while including several incremental improvements that make the gameplay smoother. However, owing to the incredible amount of customization available to your party, it’s hard to say whether or not you’ll find the challenge and pacing to be just right or way off, especially the first time through the game. However, those who enjoy the game will find that, like its predecessor, EO2 can be very rewarding to replay using advanced party configurations. All in all, Etrian Odyssey 2 is a fine sequel.