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For a while, first person dungeon crawling was a dead genre, but Atlus gave it some life again when they released the Etrian Odyssey series. Despite the steep learning curve and excessive grinding, it ultimately succeeded due to its challenge along with its major emphasis on exploration and deep character customization. It was a series that lacked mainstream appeal, but provided enjoyment for the old-school RPG crowd. Recently, Altus released a PSP dungeon crawler, called Class of Heroes, in North America. As a genre that's known to be cruel, the developer (Zerodiv) took the liberty of making the genre more accessible by toning down the difficulty and streamlining a few mechanics. Class of Heroes may have made dungeon crawling more accessible, but it lacks the enjoyment other dungeon crawlers have.
The premise is simple: mysterious labyrinths, full of monsters and treasures to find, suddenly appeared one day below the surface of the world. This mysterious phenomenon made many people want to explore the labyrinths, and thus came the rise of adventurers. With the increase in young people interested in becoming adventurers and the dangers that are present in these labyrinths, several people decided to guide inspiring adventurers by forming the Particus Academy in order to educate them. With many students enrolling to get the 101 on proper adventuring, perhaps some would emerge as true heroes.
Beyond this exposition, there is little else to the story. For a while, all you do is learn the ropes of being an adventurer by taking on basic tasks instructed by several teachers. Eventually, the main plot does slowly unfold as you begin to delve into the mystery of these labyrinths. This story, however, never once felt engaging; I felt as if the plot was there only because people expect some sort of plot and dialogue in an RPG. There was no real "story" to be told. Character interaction is scarce. They're one-dimensional anime archetypes, but they have some quirky charm to them, and Atlus' strong localization skills make the dialogue read better than many other subpar RPGs.
Of course, plot and characters are never a strong point for dungeon crawling. These games rely on the actual gameplay, and rarely do they count on the aesthetics or the plot to compensate.
At the beginning of the game, you first create a party of up to 6 players, divided into front row and back row groups; you can alternately choose to select pre-made characters to get into the game easier. Upon creating a character, you name your hero along with selecting gender, race and alignment of good, evil, or neutral. Afterwards, you are given a random amount of points to spend on character stats. Upon meeting the stat, gender, and alignment criteria, you get to choose between 15 character classes known as "majors" (fitting the game's university setting). You do have the ability to change majors later if your character fulfills the stat requirements or decides to take on another major. Changing majors resets the character back to level 1, but their MP pool and magic remain along with most of their stats, enabling you to create hybrid builds.
There may be some customization aspects on initial base stats and making hybrid builds, but that's all there is to it. When you level up, your stats, magic, and abilities are gained automatically at certain levels like in traditional RPGs. It does simplify things for newcomers, but it's a big letdown for those who like complete control of their character progression.
The biggest drawback are the majors themselves. Sure, there might be 15 to choose from, but they're not very distinctive. Mage-type majors do at least have priority on which of the four different spell groups you specialize in, but fighters all feel the same. Even if the different races mix things up, the abilities you get are very few, and it comes down to which weaponry type you like to use. Being able to build a character with multiple majors is a nifty idea, but this mechanic hampered by a lot of weak choices.
The combat is standard turn-based fighting with heavy emphasis on elemental strengths and weakness. Magic works differently because you have a limited number of uses for a group of spells, similar to the original Final Fantasy. There is also a tension system that enables the party to perform unite attacks for massive damage. In order to activate it, there is a tension meter that slowly fills up during fights and other means. The attacks are powerful, and there are several you can get.
In each battle, there are many enemies to fight, split into rows of different groups. Unless you have ranged attacks or magic, you are only able to attack the enemies in the front row. It provides some strategy, but on the other hand, it makes a lot of regular encounters feel drawn out. Even when pitted against easy enemies, it can take a while just for the sheer number of foes to fall, one at a time, unless you have loads of magic at your disposal. The slow pacing and high encounter rate makes all the battles a drag, and does not help that the experience gain and rewards are small.
There is also a strange, inconsistency in combat as well. Initially, the game offers a steep learning curve where the enemies are tough from the get-go and can only handle few at a time. After slowly making progress in the first dungeon and gaining some levels, the enemies become major pushovers with the right abilities, and the majority of the game from here leaves you on easy street. There are moments where all of a sudden, a random enemy can give you loads of trouble, and bosses are either total wimps or insanely cheap. The cheap bosses can take a long time to kill: with powerful HP regain, multiple actions that can one-shot your party members, and/or having the first turn and inflicting status effects that can make you unable to take actions. Challenges are welcomed, but gradually increase the difficulty, don't make it come and go spur-of-the-moment.
Combat might be slow and faulty, but at least the dungeons fare better. Dungeons are in first-person perspective and are done in a semi-random fashion. Typically, a set of random maps is selected for most floors, but the center of each dungeon always remains the same. Central floors are where a lot of events occur, along with later getting access to special floors called labyrinths, which are extra floors where some story objectives reside. The maps are complex and are full of traps and obstacles to challenge you: damaging tiles, random warps out of nowhere, anti-magic zones and far more. The floors are huge and initially you have no map, but with a spell or the right item, you can check the floor with the press of a button. The greatest feature of all is unlocking shortcuts to go straight to the next floor by finding a magic lock hidden in each randomly-generated floor. There are many different floors throughout the game, and a lot of them are creative.
The only drawback is that maps are completely rehashed in new dungeons sometimes. It's one thing to palette swap enemies and dungeon designs, but utilizing the exact set of random maps occasionally can kill off the thrill of new exploration. It does make it easier for the player and removes some tedium, but it feels like a cop-out for taking that route. You'll also notice a lot of locked rooms you can't get into without a special key; hence there is a fair amount of backtracking in the game. The foes you face in the new areas are barely stronger and you still have to fight a lot weak foes, making your sense of progression feel skewed most of the time.
You can go through dungeons all you want, but you can't progress through the game that way. You need to undergo quests in order to unlock new areas. Quests typically involve getting items with very low drop rates, just talking to an NPC or simply fulfilling an objective. The majority of quest destinations take place in the central part of a dungeons, but the instructions tend to be vague, giving you little to work with. Sometimes, it does not even specify the exact item to get. Aside from getting access to new dungeons and rooms, the reward for quest completion is a large portion points for your tension meter while increasing the max capacity... and that is it. Tension abilities are useful, but the payoff feels empty and makes optional quests barely worthwhile. Is it too much to ask to throw in cash or item rewards as well?
Throughout fighting and dungeon crawling, you gain all sorts of items. These are items used for the item creation aspect of the game: alchemy. Alchemy is the answer to providing new equipment and items due to shops having little beyond basic equipment and items. With the right ingredients, you can create a variety of items and equipment for a small fee. You can also dismantle equipment to obtain materials in order to create something better, or enhance it by upgrading equipment's power or adding elemental properties. You are free to experiment to figure out how to create new items, but you can buy recipes to make it easier.
In theory, it sounds great, but suffers from a big drawback; trying to obtain the ingredients is an awful, painful task. Shops cannot provide you with the goods so you find them yourself, but the core materials are typically rare. You can only get them in rare fights and chests, and what you get is completely random. It makes it difficult to go after what you need, and it gets tedious. Some of the other materials are also hard to get, and altogether, it's hard to upgrade your equipment for one character, let alone six.
On the graphical front, the game is pleasing to the eyes. The graphics are primarily 2D, consisting of anime-styled character portraits and lush, pre-rendered backgrounds. The character portraits are nice and detailed with many different designs present. The only downside is that the portraits lack different expressions, and despite variety, enemy designs get reused a lot. Dungeons went the 3D route, and while they don't look as good as the 2D images, each dungeon looks unique to keep things interesting.
While the visuals are solid, the audio is not up to par. There is no music present in dungeons, and relies on ambient sound effects such as screeching bats and dripping water to get players immersed, but this method is a double-edged sword. Some players would like the immersion, but some, such as I, would prefer to hear something to make things feel less daunting. While you can't fault the game for taking the ambient route, the music we do get is uninspired. The intro town music is upbeat, and a little catchy, but it only sets the mood; it is not a fantastic composition on its own. Combat music has a bit of a chaotic techno beat to make the battles seem intense, but all of them are bland.
The controls and interface are decent overall. Load times are tolerable, and even in sluggish battles, you can hold down the X button to auto-select actions. The only negative is how clunky inventory management is, and you'll need to do a lot of item sorting and transferring due to the alchemy system.
Class of Heroes manages to complete the job of being an introductory RPG, and it does a couple of things right, but it wasn't much fun. It was a game with potential–but the disappointing class types, bland combat and an underwhelming alchemy system prevented the game from excelling. It can fulfill your PSP dungeon crawling fix, and the length will keep you occupied for a while, but in the end, there are better dungeon crawlers out there that deserve more attention.