First person dungeon crawlers were a dead genre in the Americas, but Atlus seems hell-bent on proving that these games can still sell here. Etrian Odyssey was a very traditional such game that ingeniously used the DS touch screen to let the player draw maps without having to mess with a giant pad of graph paper. Now, the hope is that Class of Heroes will provide on the PSP what Etrian Odyssey provided on the DS: a polished, straightforward, tile-based, dungeon crawler that gives a generation of gamers a chance to try a genre that died before we got into RPGs. So far, it is living up to its potential.
"Class of Heroes will be the first dungeon crawler on the PSP that succeeds at being polished, fun, and wonderfully old-school all at the same time."
One thing Class of Heroes does well right at the start is provide the player with a deep character creation system. You won't be picking between a generic melee guy, wizard, and thief here. There are ten different races in the game to choose between, two genders, and three alignments. Once these are selected, bonus stats can be assigned before choosing one of fifteen different majors, the game's name for job classes. Some majors have gender and alignment constraints, so that must be considered when generating people, but more interesting is the race relations chart. The manual provides a chart displaying how well each of the ten races gets along amongst themselves. Elves don't like dwarves. Sprites don't like other sprites. Everybody dislikes the diabolos race due to its evil heritage. A party's affinity affects how often it can execute powerful Group Gambits in battle, and also alters the statistics of members. The more they like their peers, the stronger they will be.
For the lazy, or those who want a tiny head start, a slew of diverse level two students is available to create a party from at the start of the game. They can be a good help at the get-go since students created by the player start at level one, but ultimately it's more interesting to make your own dudes, right? If you want to create that ideal party of all catgirls, you're going to need to make them yourself. When your party is ready, you'll find that the dungeon crawling is very unsurprising. Once you buy a map for the current dungeon, it automatically updates itself to display all of the floor tiles the party has crossed. There are doors and warps back to town and traps and locks and treasures and random encounters — the works. How the dungeons are laid out is a bit unique, though.
There are many dungeons in the world, and they all have the same basic structure. Every dungeon has a left and right entrance. Between the entrances will be a center section called the Inner Sanctum. While the Inner Sanctums are unique for each dungeon, the left and right entrance floors are randomly selected upon entry from a set which all dungeons share. It's odd to wrap your head around at first, since you can see an old floor layout when you enter a new dungeon for the first time, but it's very simple and makes exploring the dungeons easier than it would be if each were completely unique. I'd be lying if I said I don't breathe a sigh of relief when I get a layout I have already explored, mapped, and hit the magic lock on. In the heart of every floor is a magic lock. Triggering it opens up shortcuts so that the next time that floor is encountered, you can stroll right to the next level without having to traverse the whole thing again. It makes for a nice balance between wanting to explore and wanting to get the heck across an area to reach the next path.
So the class options are interesting and varied, and the dungeons are what you would expect with a couple concessions made to keep the exploration from getting repetitive. The last key to a good crawler is its interface, and Class of Heroes has its hits and misses there. For starters, the whole game is surprisingly polished. When I get a PSP game from a developer I've never heard of, part of me cringes and prepares for the worst, but Class of Heroes has a vibrant, clean presentation with an easy to use interface. The best feature, and one I wish every turn-based RPG would adapt, is that you can hold down the X button in battle and it is treated as though you were smashing X over and over. Considering how much battling you will do, and how many windows appear in those battles, it's great being able to just hold X through them instead of hitting the poor PSP button hundreds of times. The only interface complaint I have right now is related to inventory space and moving items around, but in a game with as many items, scraps, and equipment as Class of Heroes, that is almost expected.
One last unique aspect is how equipment is obtained. Foes don't drop much cash, and the store's prices are insanely high. The player must craft his own equipment out of junk, materials, and scraps found in the labyrinths. The crafting system is simple, open, and random enough that it works well in the game. Early on, most weapons require iron scraps to be created or upgraded. I have to choose between using the iron to make an equipped weapon stronger or crafting a new weapon entirely. This unfortunately introduces the game's one hangup, though, since moving all of the equipment to storage and back, and constantly checking alchemy recipes to decide what junk in storage is needed can be time consuming. Recipes tend to follow set patterns, so once you start remembering them, this becomes less of an issue.
I've been playing Class of Heroes for a little over ten hours, and have only entered five different dungeons. The plot has just started getting beyond "students in a school, learning how to be adventurers by risking their lives in monster-filled mazes" so I cannot comment on it yet. I am pleased with the game thus far. The overall presentation is great. Being able to create my own party with so many character choices was cool, and something I haven't done in an RPG since Wizardry 8. The difficulty is reasonable enough that it can serve as an entry level game to the genre without putting veterans of the Etrian Odyssey series to sleep. While it isn't amazingly outstanding, Class of Heroes will be the first dungeon crawler on the PSP that succeeds at being polished, fun, and wonderfully old-school all at the same time.