In the shadow of the titan
My biggest problem with Class of Heroes 2 isn't really anything endemic to the game itself. No, my biggest frustration with Class of Heroes 2 is that it exists in the shadow of Etrian Odyssey IV.
Both series hail from a common progenitor -- SirTech's seminal Wizardry series -- and both attempt to modernize the design of those very important but very old RPGs in entirely different ways. The Etrian games aim to rekindle the sensation of playing old PC dungeon-crawlers, letting you forge a guild of nameless heroes in various classes and forcing you to map your own way through expansive dungeons by hand. But at the same time, that series' developers (Atlus and Lancarse) haven't been afraid to throw out the specifics of Wizardry in favor of more contemporary, player-friendly mechanics. The essence of '80s PC RPGs remains, with a high difficulty level that demands exacting play, but the former randomness and clumsiness have been replaced by consistent mechanics and user transparency.
Class of Heroes, on the other hand, hews far closer to its inspiration. Its modern design overhaul is mostly an aesthetic one, with a facelift consisting of cutesy anime characters and underpinnings that don't stray far from those old wireframe RPGs. In short, it puts a fresh face on something old, whereas the competition engages in a more comprehensive overall from top to bottom.
Choose your destiny, sort of
Now, neither of these two approaches to dusting off an aging and mostly forgotten gameplay format is inherently more right or wrong than the other. Personally, though, I find the more comprehensive overhaul approach a lot more enjoyable. Game design has evolved a lot in the past three decades, and not just in terms of graphics, and I appreciate seeing those changes reflected in a new release.
Make no mistake: The Class of Heroes approach feels more dated, but deliberately so. After all, the Japan-developed series takes aim primarily at its own local audience. For various reasons, many Japanese gamers regard the first five chapters of Wizardry as one of the platonic standards of RPG design, whereas Western fans tend to gravitate toward the more advanced Wizardry VI through VIII. As such, Class of Heroes 2 plays like those older titles.
In short, this means you'll encounter vast mobs of monsters, deal with teleporter and moving floor traps a short way into the dungeons, and struggle for hours to be able to afford basic equipment upgrades. The dense encounter rate will occasionally fling you into battle with every single step you take, and the difficulty level from one fight to the next varies wildly to the point where your weakest party members can one-shot every foe in one conflict and yet the entire party will have to use their most powerful skills in concert to scratch a foe a single map square away.
Class of Heroes 2 hides a lot of its details beneath surface, making even basic actions feel needlessly complicated at times. Your party can consist of any number of races, alignments, and classes, but many of your choices are affected by factors detailed in the instructions and exert subtle influences on your party's outcomes throughout the adventure. It takes a spreadsheet approach to game design, and as such will appeal to the meticulous -- though its moment-to-moment unpredictability (which exists independently of any factors under the player's control) will frustrate that same audience.
A harrowing semester
For all its archaic elements and frequently fuzzy interface decisions, Class of Heroes 2 represents a massive improvement over the first game in the series. All the things that made the original Class practically impenetrable (not to mention unenjoyable) have been smoothed over: Dungeon randomization is gone, and infuriating traps are greatly reduced in aggressiveness and frequency (though the dungeons hardly lack for passive hazards). With a thief or ranger in your party, you can disarm treasure traps with consistent ease. And multiclassing is a snap, something you can engage in freely at any time, working your way toward the usual prestige classes.
Best of all, though, Class of Heroes 2 creates a world. You're not simply mapping a dungeon; rather, you're exploring a land, forging paths to new towns. You travel through bogs, caverns, deserts, ruins, and more, but each portion of the dungeon exists contiguously to other locations. This creates a sense of place more akin to what you'd find a standard JRPG, with the difference being that instead of points of interest littering an out-of-scale overworld, the overworld itself it what's interesting.
Class of Heroes 2 includes some genuine flaws, there's no question about it. It also includes some features that will undoubtedly polarize -- acquired tastes. But it accomplishes what it aims to do -- namely, put an anime face on the old-style Wizardry format without tinkering too much beneath the genre's hood -- with reasonable success. Players aiming for an authentic '80s RPG will find a lot to like about Class of Heroes 2... though I do wonder how much overlap there will be between Wizardry I-V grognards and fans of Japanese animation, if any.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: Functional at best, though the saccharine anime designs only extend as far as the party members and NPCs; most monsters look, well, monstrous. The best visual feature? Battles take place in-dungeon (no separate combat screens), greatly reducing disorientation.
- Music: I'd say the audio is also functional, but it's not even that; dungeons are totally silent but for ambient noise, with music playing only in menus and towns. Weird, disappointing, and totally atmosphere-killing.
- Interface: Class of Heroes controls sensibly enough, though some of the menus can confuse. Example: If you save in a dungeon, quit, and resume the game later, you start back in town with no active party and have to choose "resume" to get back to where you saved. Also, crafting is a tedious chore.
- Lasting Appeal: There's certainly no lack of content here; I'm quite a ways from conquering every dungeon, a task that looks to demand about 100 hours of play time. The question instead is, does this particular style of game appeal to you enough to keep you hooked that long?
Class of Heroes 2 tends to be a little archaic for my tastes, but I've happily invested a lot more time into this adventure than the last. This sequel goes a long way toward rectifying its predecessor's failings. I intend to keep plugging away at it over the coming months with the hopes of conquering its enormous world. Maybe that day will never come, but neither do I feel like working toward that end will be a waste of time.