Atlus' evergreen Etrian Odyssey series got its start on the DS with a trilogy of excellent map-making adventures, and it's found similar success on Nintendo's newest handheld, with Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan and spinoffs Etrian Mystery Dungeon and Persona Q all right at home on the 3DS. Thanks to 2013's Etrian Odyssey Untold - a remake of the original game with new graphics, updated gameplay, and an optional character-driven narrative - new fans got the perfect chance to discover the series' deep roots, and now Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold: The Fafnir Knight continues that happy tradition by bringing the second DS game up to 3DS speed. Sporting similar improvements to stellar results, this is a beautiful retelling of an excellent game, and a must-have for map-savvy RPG fans.
Untold 2's Story mode kicks off on the outskirts of High Lagaard. The main character - who you'll name and play as from a first-person perspective - and his childhood best friend Flavio, both members of the Midgard Library's archeological investigation team, have taken on an assignment from the Duchy of Caledonia to explore the secrets of the Yggdrasil Labyrinth just outside the city. Soon after arriving they bump into the kindhearted Arianna, Princess of Caledonia, who's on her own mission to carry out a centennial ritual in a mysterious, multilevel ruin known as Ginnungagap. Their fates are more intertwined that it might initially seem, and after adding the wandering duo of child sorcerer Chloe and jaded mercenary Bertrand to the team, they all set out together to explore Yggdrasil, Ginnungagap, and the mysteries that connect the two. Without spoiling anything, it's a genuinely interesting tale, and a definite improvement on the first Untold's story - you'll still find tropes aplenty, but the characters are much more compelling, and there's an appreciable chemistry that develops between your party as the adventure unfolds.
Of course, one of the hallmarks of the Etrian Odyssey games is that the story is centred around characters you'd create yourself, and for players looking for a more traditional experience, Classic mode lets you enjoy just that. There's still an overarching narrative in Classic mode, but it's subtler and more focused on the lore and secrets of Yggdrasil and Lagaard than the individual lives of your guild members, and apart from the Story-exclusive Ginnungagap labyrinth you won't be missing out on anything by skipping the new narrative.
No matter which way you choose to play, Untold 2's gameplay remains the same: a wonderfully addictive fusion of first-person exploration, turn-based combat and amateur cartography. That last element is what really sets Etrian Odyssey apart - while you comb the labyrinths on the top screen, you'll also be making your own map on the touchscreen as you go, using a grid-based interface with plenty of tools and drag-and-drop icons. If you've never played an Etrian game before, this is more exciting that it sounds, and though an Auto-Map option makes it almost entirely voluntary, we definitely recommend doing it yourself; charting your way is a surprisingly meditative exercise, and using your own map to solve a tricky puzzle, find your way back to an important point or just escape back to town is an experience that satisfies like few others in gaming.
It certainly helps that the mazes themselves are so memorable - Untold 2 has fantastic dungeon designs with plenty of shortcuts and setpieces, and plenty of FOEs to steer clear of. FOEs - in their capitalized form - are the series' trademark massive monsters that visibly roam the dungeon floors. They move in predictable patterns, and since FOEs are significantly more powerful than other monsters - they can easily one-shot your whole crew when you first encounter them - you'll spend a lot of time carefully consulting your map to try and tiptoe around them. In a first for the series, Untold 2 introduces traps that you can trick FOEs into falling in if you're clever enough, holding them in place and dealing some helpful damage while you waltz past - and when you finally do level up enough to return to earlier areas and start fighting FOEs, it's massively satisfying.
Of course, FOEs aren't the only things you'll have to fight in the labyrinths; random encounters bring Etrian's appealing alternate-reality animal monsters out of the woodwork for fun, deeply strategic battles. With your warriors arranged in two lines, you'll be able to employ three types of physical attacks, along with a huge number of skills, ranging from elemental attacks and follow-up Links to buffs and debuffs, Binds, and all kinds of support abilities.
The skills - which you'll curate for each character via extensive, class-specific skill trees - are a real highlight; they're inventive, standing out from what you'd expect of standard RPG skills, and feel engineered to work in concert with each other. Our resident War Magus Chloe, for instance, learned a group of skills early on that can lower an enemy's attack or defense for seven turns if they're suffering from a status effect, like Poison or Sleep. Chloe herself couldn't cast any status effects at the time, but once we had our Survivalist Flavio learn Sleep Arrow, we had a powerful one-two punch that took us through several tough fights. Skill chains like this are the bread and butter of Untold 2's combat system, and it makes you think about both battle and your party in a connected way - when assigning skill points, it felt like we were kitting out the whole team, not just individual characters.
Along with regular skills, each character class also has access to a unique two-part Force skill. Taking the place of the 'Burst' gauge of Etrian Odyssey IV, the Force metre builds as your characters deal damage. Once it's full, they can activate a 'Boost' effect, which lasts for three turns, and follow up with a 'Break'. The Fafnir Knight's Boost skill, for instance, increases his HP and damage output, while his Break launches a three-element attack on a single enemy. Force sets are a great addition - they're a lot of fun to use, and can really turn the tides if you use them right.
With the importance of skills and Force attacks, the class system is at the heart of Etrian Odyssey's combat, and Untold 2 offers plenty of classes to work with. There are series standbys, like the sword-wielding Landsknechts, bow-hunting Survivalists, damage-absorbing Protectors and Medics, along with several types of magic users (Hexers, War Magus, Alchemists) and ranged attackers (Gunners, Dark Hunters). There are the samurai-like Ronins, the singing-dancing support-system Troubadours, and the Sovereigns - like Princess Arianna - equally adept at proclaiming party buffs and follow-up attacks. And then - saving the best for last - there are the Beasts: tigers, bears, wolves, or pandas with fierce loyalty and even fiercer claws.
If you're playing in Classic mode, you'll be able to build your team from the ground up, but you're free to switch up your character's classes in Story mode as well. And even if you decide to stick with the well-rounded team you're given, your characters won't be limited to learning skills from their particular class, thanks to the Grimoire Stone system, which returns from Untold.
Acting a bit like bite-sized subclasses, each Grimoire Stone is imbued with a certain skill, and by equipping one, any character can use that skill - and any associated weapon type - regardless of their class. They're incredibly useful, and with several slots available per character, you can get quite creative in your builds - we spent hours happily tinkering with our setups. Grimoire Stones are fun to collect, too - you'll come across them them randomly in combat, but you can also trade for them with in-game townspeople, or real-life heroes through StreetPass or QR codes, and recycle unwanted Stones into potentially powerful new ones.
Gem trading isn't the only extra-dungeon distraction in Untold 2 either; the remake also adds in a surprisingly involved cooking mini-game. As honorary investors in Lagaard's newest restaurant, you'll be able to develop new dishes based on recipes and ingredients you find while exploring, and in addition to eating them yourselves - which can result in a variety of welcome buffs while you're exploring, like regaining HP or TP with each step - you can actively market your meals to the townspeople through targeted advertising and bring in a bit of extra revenue. It sounds strange on paper, but it's surprisingly engrossing, and ended up being one of our favourite parts of the experience.
Between map-making, character customization, cooking, and combat, Untold 2 has a lot to keep track of, and it might seem like a bit much for first-time adventurers. Happily, however, this remake goes to great lengths to keep things enjoyable for everyone, and - along with the first Untold - emerges as the most accessible Etrian Odyssey to date. Story mode introduces each new mechanic with painless, step-by-step tutorials, and there are three difficulty levels that you can switch between whenever you like. 'Standard' provides a decent challenge, and 'Expert' will give series veterans the uphill battle they're looking for, while the 'Picnic' difficulty is true to its name: on this setting, Auto-Battle is enough to take out most regular foes without breaking a sweat - perfect for players who'd rather focus on exploration than combat. The 'Floor Jump' feature also makes a welcome return from Untold, rewarding careful cartography with fast travel on fully mapped floors, and greatly reducing the time you'll spend backtracking for quests.
Along with these returning conveniences, a host of smaller thoughtful tweaks contribute to a real feeling of improvement over the first Untold. The most noteworthy is the inclusion of multiple save files this time around, with one slot on internal memory and up to eight on the SD card. In addition to letting adventuring families share a single cartridge, this fixes a significant issue with Untold, which effectively restricted players to either Story or Classic mode with its single save slot - now you can flit back and forth between both, or try out each mode before committing to a playthrough without losing your progress if you switch.
There have also been lots of little quality-of-life improvements across the board; the shop interface now highlights which types of weapons each character can equip, treasure chest icons show whether they've been opened or not on the map, and setting up auto-walk routes has been made significantly easier, with clumsy arrow-dragging replaced by Persona Q-style path drawing. The Grimoire Stone system is also both better explained and clearer to begin with this time around, and we much prefer this implementation over the original Untold's - the trading system in particular kept us coming back for more, and amassing an ever-larger pile of the useful gems became an addicting part of our labyrinth-trawling routine.
And while 'routine' can certainly describe the gameplay cycle here - heading out into the labyrinths, fighting foes, fleeing FOEs, collecting materials, and then returning to town to gear up for another go - it's comforting, rather than tedious, in large part thanks to the amazing atmosphere. Playing through Untold 2 feels less like crawling through a dungeon and more like taking a digital backpacking trip with a few close friends - the sense of adventure and exploration in Etrian Odyssey is second to none.
A big part of that feeling comes from the excellent writing, in both Story and Classic modes. Along with the dialogue - which incorporates just enough unusual vocabulary and marked sentence patterns to make Lagaard feel like a truly foreign place - the 'dungeon master' text narration that accompanies your adventure is written in an appealing, high fantasy storybook style; it's not literary gold, but it's absolutely literary, and a definite step up from most contemporaries.
That artful touch carries over into the presentation as well. While most dungeon crawlers are content to wallow in the darkness of samey corridors, Etrian Odyssey has always been beautifully, unapologetically organic, and Untold 2 is positively bursting with colour and charm. Yggdrasil's second stratum - the 'Auburn Thicket' - is a particularly impressive explosion of reds and yellows, but each area of the labyrinth is appealing in its own way, and we found ourselves pausing to admire the view (by using the Circle Pad to look around in 3D) at regular intervals. The sylvan aesthetic is backed up by impressive graphics, too - enemy models and animations are full of personality, the 3D effect is put to good use in both the labyrinths and town backgrounds, and the character portraits used in battles and cutscenes look great.
Etrian Odyssey's charm doesn't come from visuals alone, of course - Yuzo Koshiro's scores have always provided an incredible audio ambiance, and Untold 2 is accompanied by a new, orchestrated update of Etrian Odyssey 2's excellent original soundtrack. The labyrinth music has an airy, jazzy feel that's perfect for extended explorations, a light trio of piano, guitar, and flute fills the café with acoustic bossa beats, and a powerfully pumping electric guitar anthem serves as your rousing battle theme. And as an added bonus, you can switch to the original FM-synth soundtrack whenever you like.
The voice acting is top-notch as well, as we've come to expect from Atlus, and it's used in fun ways; characters will call out enemy weaknesses in battle, remark on possible shortcuts as you walk by in the labyrinths, and even launch into full-on conversations with each other if you idle in-place for too long - an all-audio take on the Tales series' silly skits.
Both a wonderful upgrade to the original Etrian Odyssey 2 and an impressive improvement on Etrian Odyssey Untold, Untold 2: The Fafnir Knight is a dungeon-crawling delight. With satisfying combat, endless customization, and beautiful labyrinths that are as fun to map out as they are to explore, this is a joyously engrossing adventure - and a truly accessible difficulty setting and user-friendly interface make it the easiest Etrian to dive into yet. If you've played other Etrian Odysseys and are looking for more, you'll have a blast here, and if this is your first time journeying into Yggdrasil, prepare to be hooked - just make sure to leave some breadcrumbs to find your way back.