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The Whole Game in My Hand #5

by Michael J. Anderson, 2007-06-25
Last month might have been action-packed ... but this month will make up for that to an extent. A total of three new handheld RPG's were released last month. And as I mentioned, nothing this month or on the Horizon for the GBA so it is completely left out. I'll augment the looks at those games with a review of a game that was released in late February but has occupied a large amount of my time during recent weeks. The theme this month might be called 'niche games', as all of the games (with a notable exception) have been given middling reviews on most sites. However, depending on what you like to play, each of these might appeal to you. My goal this month isn't to tell you the same stuff you've already heard about them, nor to spend a lot of time on the awesome Pokemon DS games, but to tell you why you might love (or hate) the other three games on the list. I've included an extended look at Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja, helping you bust through the generic bad reviews you'll get at most sites and see if this Roguelike is for you ... or if it really is the pile of junk you'll read about elsewhere.

Nintendo DS – April 2007 Releases

Pokemon Diamond & Pearl (Average Score 4.5/5, Rated E-10)
If you own a DS and don't have a copy of this game yet, by the time you read this you'll likely be in the minority. That is an exaggeration, but not by much ... in about six months of sales in Japan the game has sold well over 5 million copies, and factor in sales during the first two weeks of the US release and you have over 7 million total copies sold already.

There is a reason that kids love Pokemon, and there is also a reason why the games sell millions of copies - the games are excellent, and offer far more per iteration than any of the beloved sports franchises. This first DS entry sees over 100 new monsters as well as new evolution points for some existing creatures and the greatest catalog of older monsters and easiest transfer of existing creatures from previous games. There is openness of exploration, plenty of items to find, and a tremendous depth to the battle system that is belied in the apparent simplicity. It is all of this that makes these games amazingly attractive for kids and loads of fun for adults.

Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja (My Score 4/5, Rated E-10)
There are games with broad appeal and games with narrow appeal; games that are perfect in execution and games with many flaws. Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja is a game with many flaws and narrow appeal that remains one of my favorite games so far this year. I'll take it apart and describe the good and bad of it in a full review this month.

Nintendo DS – Coming Soon and Outlook

The only RPG release for the DS in May is Etrian Odyssey, a turn-based dungeon crawler that includes an in-game map editor and the ability to share dungeons with friends. This was just released before I completed this article and ... well, it rocks. Plan to hear me prattle on endlessly about it next month. Early June sees the release of a more RPG-like Harvest Moon game called 'Rune Factory', another one to keep an eye on as it integrated RPG elements with the standard Harvest Moon gameplay of farming and animal husbandry.

Sony PSP – April Releases

Valhalla Knights (Average Score 2/5, Rated E-10)
When you think of Valhalla, what springs to mind? For me it is the Norse God Odin's hall of great warriors who have fallen in battle. Several games in the past have included references to Valhalla - the PC game Rune had you pursuing evil forces and eventually end up as a favored warrior able to enter Valhalla. More recently, the PSP version of Valkyrie Profile Lenneth had you helping Odin prepare for Ragnarock by guiding great warriors (Einherjar) to Valhalla. Valhalla Knights has little to do with any of that mythology aside from the name - and perhaps that inconsistency should have served as a warning.

I will occasionally drift off in thought while playing games and picture life in the world described by the game. This can be a good thing, such as imagining life in the island city of Khorinis in Gothic II, or bad as wondering who is sitting in all of the empty chairs around Arindale in Dungeon Lords. In this case I was thinking about Sartre. To be specific, I was thinking of his play 'No Exit'. The basis of the play is that several people are trapped in a room with no exit, left to deal with nothing but each other. The group eventually realizes that they are in hell, and that hell is other people.

So what causes me to have these thoughts about Valhalla Knights? The battle system. When you meet up with an enemy on the field, you are tossed into a circular battle ring. You cannot escape the ring, unless you defeat the enemies. There are typical tactics you would use in a case like this - if you are a melee fighter you'd get into the thick of things with the enemy and count on your mages and clerics to aid you with support and ranged firepower. Your 'back line' helpers should also strive to stay out of harms' way as much as possible - but this is difficult when there is no 'line' because the battlefield is a circle. The tie-in to the original thought? At some point in the game you will ask yourself "what the heck am I doing here and how do I get out!" That is the easy part - press the 'Home' button, select 'Yes', remove the disk and insert something else ... and forget you every played this one.

Let me take a step back and talk a little about the game. On paper it is a thing of wonder - party-based dungeon crawler with near-total freedom to craft your own adventurers, enemies you can see and choose to fight or avoid, and so on. The game is a dungeon-crawler with plenty of quests and side quests to keep you busy, with a multi-tier class system with plenty of skills to allow very flexible character customization. You can see where this could be great - attach a reasonable scenario (we're not even talking about a great story here) and a robust battle system and you have the makings of an addictive game that would cost you dozens of hours of your life.

Unfortunately the implementation of nearly everything that doesn't look good in a screenshot is mediocre. That sounds harsh, but unfortunately it is true. Graphically the game looks really nice - the environments are striking and detailed and beg for exploration, enemies and characters possess a mix of cartoonish features and realistic details, and the menus and text are all crisp and clear. Even better are the effects in battle - they are perhaps not as impressive as some turn-based PSP games, but this is all happening in real-time as you run around evading enemies, making it more impressive. It is better looking than most games on the system, particularly better looking than other action-RPG's such as the Untold Legends and Dungeon Siege games. It is bright where it should be bright and dark where it should be dark, and has details where they best serve the visual focus of the player. But one thing is missing - style. This game could be called 'generic dungeon game 101' and it wouldn't matter - there is nothing that you will see during the course of the game that will strike you as something impressive that really marks the game as an individual achievement. The sound isn't so bad, but again it lacks personality and anything to make it stand out.

The presentation would easily be forgivable if the game had a story and characters to wrap yourself around. Unfortunately, the old truism of action-RPG's having hackneyed plots is an understatement here. After a brief cutscene and semi-interactive battle that is supposed to set the scene for the game, things begin in earnest. You wake up in an inn and - brace yourself - you have lost your memory. You have a - prepare yourself - a non-corporeal voice inside of your head, telling you things and giving you hints. There is an evil force sweeping over the land, headed up by 'the Dark Lord'. C'mon now, I'm not making this stuff up! Anyway, you need to get out of the area you start in so that you can regain your memory and pursue your true destiny.

But even a story as cliche as that wouldn't be an issue if the gameplay was there to support the experience. After all, dungeon crawls are not known for their deep and engaging stories - they are all about 'tell me why I'm about to kill everything in sight, then get out of my way and let me at it'. Unfortunately, the gameplay is weak and fraught with frustration throughout. The quest structure is a nice place to begin. You are given mandatory quests to complete to advance the plot, and can also accept missions from the local guild to gain experience gold and items. Here we start immediately with two problems - the quests are monolithically of the mundane fetch/find/kill type, and you really have to complete them all in order to gather up enough gold to gain new party members and experience to advance your character to a point where you will survive. One positive thing about missions is that completing them gives a significant boost in experience compared to battles, something counter to current action-RPG's (but very welcome). The down side is that quests are parceled out in a way that has you constantly trudging back and forth. You can't take on a bunch of quests at once, accomplish them all and then get your rewards - you actually have to finish one and return to get the next, at which point another 'magically locked door' becomes accessible. There are occasional teleports that help you cut the drudgery of the trudgery a bit, but you will still find yourself walking for several minutes (and battles) just to get back to where you died the last time. This is particularly true with boss fights.

Another big problem is that for a game that touts freedom of character development, there are certainly 'right' and 'wrong' choices to be made. For example, after you start the game, you are dumped on the street with a quest in pocket and have a random discussion that serves as pretty much your only direction for the early part of the game. You have some available gold, and you are pointed to the local guild and weapon shop as useful points to visit. What you are not told is 'look, if you go alone you'll die regardless of buying items. Go recruit someone - oh, and depending on what character class you chose initially and who you recruit, you might still die.' The problem is that the game starts with a single-player focus but immediately switches to party focus in terms of combat. Many people decide their character class differently based on whether the gameplay is single player or party based. Let me be more direct - you can choose any class you want to start the game, but it should be a combat class. And if you don't recruit a Priest right away you will end up restarting the game. Furthermore, the game does little to help you out setting up default combat behavior for your party. That is the bottom line - if you don't make the right choices out of the gate, you are doomed.

This feeling of 'make the wrong choice and you're dead' continues throughout the game. The game offers flexibility in character advancement by allowing you to take on sub-classes. The way this works is that once you've advanced enough in your main class you can choose a secondary class and take on some of the characteristics of that class. So if you selected a Fighter as a starting class, you could sub-class Priest and effectively become a Paladin. You can still only level your fighter, so it isn't true multi-classing, but it works well enough. Gaining levels through missions or battles allows you to level up your characters. You can directly spend these advancement points increasing your characters in a limited amount of ways. There is nothing as elaborate as the skill trees found in other action-RPG's, but what you do get is serviceable.

Finally, we return to Sartre's ring. You will spend a lot of time in combat in this game, which is how it should be. You will meet various creature types, with all sorts of weaknesses and strengths and means of ripping your party to shreds. The game is difficult, that is for sure - and again I think this is a good thing. Too often in recent years games with decent combat systems have been undermined by being mind-numbingly easy (such as the Legend of Heroes games). There is the system I mentioned that allows you to control the behavior of your allies in battle. It is based on a spider chart (check you math texts, kiddies) and allows you to add points to the various vertices to influence the likelihood of that ally performing that action. For example, if (when) you recruit a Priest (first action you take), change their behavior by reallocating every point they have into 'support' so they will constantly cast healing magic spells. Likewise set your mage to cast offensive spells and your thief to use their bow and so on. This is important because you only control one party member at a time and the rest use the spider chart to determine what to do next. The system works fairly well, but as you might expect nothing approaches actually controlling the party members yourself. The most egregious example is 'damage avoidance'. Let's face it, your mage can't take too much damage, which is why she is parked on the back line tossing fireballs.

The combat system fails for a couple of reasons - the attack system is limited and repetitive, and you are stuck in a ring. You take control of one character and let the rest do their thing. You can change which character you control at any time, which can be useful because while you can tell your Priest to cast healing spells all the time, there is no setting for 'don't just stand there getting whacked while I take out the rest of the mob!' This means that you cannot rely on the other members of your party to stay out of trouble - if you tell them only to cast healing spells they won't attack enemies even to save themselves, but if you give them balanced settings they will charge into battle and get killed quickly. This was yet another thing I adjusted to, still looking for the thrill of combat. But there isn't any - your melee fighters get standard and special attacks, you mages get spells and special attacks, and so on. You lock on target and button mash away, watching the enemy health bar for clues that your attacks are actually hitting.

That is the thing - I know this review comes off harsh, but I was pulling for this game for hour after hour; waiting for that little nugget to appear that I could grab hold of. I love niche games, ones that offer some small special thing. The thought of getting a niche dungeon crawler was very appealing. But more than anything those types of games really depend on a highly developed character customization and combat system. The character system seems deep and appealing, but is really fairly limited and what is there is undermined by the lack of true freedom in the game. Combat is a dreadfully boring experience that takes place in real-time in an ill-realized 'ring of death'. As for the rest of the game, the less said the better. This is unfortunately destined to quickly join the pile of poorly executed PSP role-playing games in a crowded bargain bin someplace. To quote Sartre again "Life begins on the other side of despair." I have reached the other side of this game, which is close enough. Now my life can begin again.

Aedis Eclipse: Generation of Chaos (My Score 3.5/5, Rated E-10)
Sequels are tough in games as well as movies - for every 'Empire Strikes Back' there are dozens of movies in the class of 'Caddyshack II' or 'Meatballs II' or worse. But what is even more rare than a excellent sequel to an excellent original is a a sequel that is really good based on a mediocre original. That is the challenge for Aedis Eclipse: Generation of Chaos. Based on a game that was criticized for, well ... generating too much chaos for players who tried to get through it. The original had a cryptic interface, a tutorial that is mentioned but never happens, and a game that isn't compelling once you actually figure out how to play. Not much of a foundation to build on, but fortunately this is better than the first game in just about every way imaginable.

Let me preface the remainder of the review by stating clearly that this is a niche game. If the thought of a slow-paced, turn-based strategy game with RPG and RTS elements gets you terribly excited, this might be the game for you. If not, don't read another word - this is not a 'genre broadening' game, not something that shooter fans are going to look back on as the game that brought them over to strategy games. With that caveat out of the way, let's look at the game in some detail.

The story behind Aedis Eclipse is interesting in design but fairly thin in execution - but this is fairly typical of the S-RPG genre. Instead of a single story, you actually play through three story arcs over the course of the game. The first is the most stereotypical and would probably make you quit the game if you weren't simultaneously involved with the tutorial (and knew better stuff was coming!). In this story you play as the typical set of brash and over-confident teenagers at a school ready to take on the world - go ahead, roll your eyes now, I'll join you! But in tutorial mode they make it work because each kid has strengths and weaknesses that require explaining and the 'adults' (such as the 23 year old the students call 'Auntie') have more advanced specializations that you also get to learn about. Pretty much the entire first part is a massive tutorial, accounting for perhaps a quarter of the play time of the game. There are also stories set on the surface world of Aedis and the celestial world of Galadia. In theory, you can play these in any order, but you will need the tutorial to succeed in any game and the difficulty ramps with each section, so it is best to do them in order.

The visual presentation is very similar to the original game in terms of the field setup and overall graphical style. Yet it is once again better in every single way - the original Generation of Chaos looked grainy and blurry as if it had been simply resized from its' original aspect ratio, but in Aedis Eclipse the backgrounds are bright and well lit and crisp with details. Everything is sharp and detailed: the text is readable, the menus are clear and make sense, and the battle graphics are just excellently done. The character style is the typical 'chibi' used in most of these games, but the even in the cluttered battlefield with a couple dozen units milling about you can easily distinguish unit types. Spell and skill effects are very dramatic and well done and add quite a bit of visual flair to the battles. The anime style characters that appear during dialogs are also nicely done, but I think we've become spoiled with the high quality of characterizations in games like Advance Wars DS and Trace Memory because I was watching the dialogs and criticizing the postures and facial expressions of the characters!

I was rather nervous when I started hearing voice acting ... this typically doesn't go well in translated games. And while there are some cringe-worthy characters sprinkled throughout the game, the overall quality is pretty solid and actually adds something to the game. It was quite a risk even adding voiced dialog, but in the end I would call it a net positive. It is all skippable and you can even change languages! The soundtrack is also well done and adds a charming background and feel to the proceedings - the feeling in the music is well suited to the particular scene, and the battle tracks are appropriately exciting and stirring. The audio - like the graphics - are not earth-shatteringly good, but they are solid and deliver a quality presentation that allows you to put your focus where it belongs, on the progression through areas and the battles.

Gameplay is entirely turn-based out of battle. The world is shown in typical tactical map fashion - meaning that if you were able to go too far in any direction you'd fall off the edge of the world. Everything is on a grid system and each character gets a certain number of actions per turn. The typical actions of build, prepare and battle hold true here, with some additions to allow for exploration. The typical flow of a turn involves preparing terrain to be favorable for your travels, buying or exploring areas, persuading prisoners to join you, placing buildings in strategic locations on the map, and finally approaching enemies and engaging in battle. Each part of the turn has considerable depth and flexibility, and lends a feeling of control to a largely linear campaign - you can tell that while every player must defeat the enemy HQ to get to the next area, how you approach it will be different for each individual and add to the overall experience.

But the real reason you get a game like this is for the combat system, right? Of course! And the heart of the game is the best part. As you conduct battles, your captains level up, gaining health and skill points, learning new skills and overall just becoming more effective in battle. After emerging victorious, you will gain experience, gold and usually some items as well. You use gold for just about every non-combat action you take. Terraforming takes gold, as does building new bases and outposts. Of course you will want to outfit your units as powerfully as you can, so you can plan on spending considerable cash on weapons, armor, upgrades, support items and so on. When it comes to combat, your captain has a number of attributes including preferred element and supporting unit type. You can select different unit types, many of which you gain from battles - it is advisable to use the most advanced units in your possession for each of your captains at all time to better your chances in long, multi-stage battles. When battle begins, you can just leap into battle or configure your troops. Leaping into battle without strategy is only advised when ... oh, it is just really never advised! You have a front line, back line and your captain. You line them up according to a specific strategy such as close quarters, aggressive or defensive. Each formation gives bonuses in some areas and weaknesses in others, and you need to choose the right one for your style and unit strengths. You can have your front line charge in and your rear guard hold back, and then control your captain manually. It is sort of like a mini-RTS and it works pretty well. During the battle you can call up a menu to launch special attacks or use items to help turn the tide of battle in your favor.

Back to some of the other nice details. You can capture prisoners during the course of battles, and choose their fate. Do you hold them in prison and try to coerce them to join you, or release them, or simply execute them? Each character has a different chance to persuade, and you can try once per character per turn until you get them to join you - or they rot away in jail. Execution is clear-cut, but by releasing them you guarantee you will battle them again. This sounds foolish, but since you know you can defeat them and you will gain experience and other items, it is always worth it to either hold them until they join you or release them to gain experience. The exploration system is a nice touch as well - each town or base you move through has a chance to hold some items - by taking a turn with a character and exploring you can find some valuable things that will enhance your units or add to your wealth. It is another nice touch that adds to the RPG feel of the game.

So what about the warts, you ask? Well, as mentioned before the voice acting could have been better. Also, I mentioned that the game is slow-paced, but that doesn't begin to describe it - glacial would be better. It is not simply a matter of load times, it is choosing a special skill and waiting more than thirty seconds until it has played out. Everything in the game is like that - you will be waiting, waiting, waiting. That pace will definitely drive some people crazy - indeed, I needed to take breaks more than once and get in some fast-paced shooter action just to balance things. The load times themselves are tedious but not painful, but certainly add to the feeling that you are constantly waiting just to get in some playtime. And while the game has made tremendous strides in terms of user-friendliness, the menu system and statistics are still fairly cryptic, and the manual still does a poor job of explaining the more detailed areas you might get concerned about later in the game. The combat system is much better than the original but still a mixed bag. It is a version of real-time action, but you are never fully in control except at the coarsest of levels nor can you really tell what makes your units stronger or weaker than your opponent. That is why I advised keeping the strongest ones possible at all times.

I really grew to dislike Generation of Chaos, so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked Aedis Eclipse. The flaws are out there for all to see, and it is clearly targeted at a very narrow audience. But for those gamers, this is better than it looks and better than you might expect. It is quite a long campaign that just keeps getting harder and harder as you go along - to the point where I was so engrossed dealing with major issues in the field that I forgot rule #1 - keep your base covered. It cost me replaying the entire mission and quite a bit of time as the enemy strolled right in and grabbed it. There are other tactical combat games due out this year, and they may be better suited to a more general audience. But if you are reading this far, then you probably have a PSP and an itch for a game like this - and Aedis Eclipse can do a decent job of scratching that itch.

Sony PSP – Coming Soon and Outlook

After a nice start, things have slowed down and look to continue a slow release pace for most of the remainder of the year. May sees the release of Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon, a 'life sim' that is somewhat questionable to describe as a RPG. Then there is the June re-release of Final Fantasy I and the game I have personally been anticipating highly since announcement - Dungeons & Dragons Tactics. While it has recently been revealed that downloadable content it out, the rest of the game is still very interesting and I'll keep you informed. Check out the Preview here at RPGWatch!

So with one certified really good game, a solid niche game you'll like, another that you might enjoy and the last one that nobody should have to play ... let's move on and take a look at Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja in some more detail.

Handheld RPG Review - Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja (DS)

This was released in February, and I didn't buy it because the review scores were low. Then I read a little detail in a handheld gaming forum about it being a solid roguelike, and I was sold. Because the reviews were middling, I didn't go in with any expectations for anything other than a lousy anime-inspired dungeon crawl that would leave me as internally divided as Tao's Adventure. What surprised me was that some minor annoyances aside, this is a wonderful and brutally hard game that has much more to do with games that were in vogue before UNIX had a GUI than it does with the silly Ninja girl on the cover.

Funny ... you don't LOOK like a Rogue!

The graphical presentation of Izuna is split between conversation mode and exploration. You will engage in conversations for a large part of the initial stages of the game and then only on rare occasions from there on out. This includes shopping, using the orbs you pick up after each dungeon, weapon repair and so on. These are handled in the anime-inspired style that is fairly typical of DS games - characters appear on either side of the screen with dialog bubbles and changing poses and facial expressions to match the context of what they are saying. Characters are all 2D over 2D backgrounds, and have name labels so you can remember everyone. When you explore town it is presented from a tilted top-down perspective with the characters having a somewhat chibi appearance. You can recognize characters easily enough from their undersized representations, and the world is very nicely realized.

You actually get more 'story' in Izuna than in similar games, but it is still presented short and sweet at the beginning of the game to establish the various characters and get you into the dungeons. However, you also get bits of story at the completion of each dungeon and in between dungeons. This gives you greater motivation to keep plowing forward, and also the illusion that you are playing a story driven game when it is really a dungeon crawl. The illusion works masterfully, though, since you really want to finish the dungeons and get to the conclusion of the game!

Once you hit the dungeons everything changes. The game is still presented from a tilted top-down perspective, but now it is layer upon layer of randomized dungeon crawling. You are the solo adventurer finding tons of items and battling tons of enemies on each floor of the multi-level dungeons. As you would expect, you enter each level blind to what awaits you. You see your local area on the bottom screen and the level map and some important character stats on the top screen. The map provides useful information such as the locations of enemies, stairs to the next level and items. Enemies are red dots, items are blue triangles and you show up as a blinking upside-down triangle. There are other markers you will discover ... but right after you do you will lose the ability to see the entire map. Such is the way of the unfolding dungeon crawl.

Please let me level up SOON!

Your goal on any given level is to get to the next level. Sure it is - we all know that the *real* goal is to grab every possible item and kill every enemy, squeezing every last ounce of value from each level before moving to the next. Why? Because the amount monsters in each dungeon are finite, as are the levels, and the final boss level requires everything you have to offer. Indeed, you will have to traverse the first dungeon without the ability to permanently store items or retain gold if you die - and that includes the final boss.

Dungeons have a very simple and interesting structure - there is a single entrance, and the stairs are one-way. You can save your progress at each staircase or in-town, but your dungeon saves only record your experience and character info. This is not a 'save before boss and retry only the boss battle' system. As a result, you want to be ready to face each boss - you may even choose to use items to return to town in order to descend the dungeon again. Of course, being random means that none of the levels or monsters are the same as your previous trek.

Hard as nails

Quick quiz - you are on level 20 of a 21 level dungeon. You have spent hours (including several deaths) making it down here and the stairs down to the final boss of the dungeon are in sight. Then you step on a trap that spawns several monsters around you and after using several items are killed. You wake up in the inn with all of your money and items gone. Do you (a) cry, (b) go right back at the dungeon again, or (c) curse your decision to ever buy this game. If you answered (b) then you need to go buy this game ... NOW!

Seriously, this is one of those games that will beat you down repeatedly and mercilessly, and have you coming back for more. The death penalty is simple - you lose all money and everything not tagged with a talisman as 'go to storage when I die'. And you will die a bunch - the first dungeon is brutal and you constantly lose everything. Depending on your fortitude, you might pull the cart from your DS and never see the first boss - indeed I suspect that several reviewers did this and never got very far - but if you do you will be hooked for the rest of the game. I have only finished the main part of the game, and am eagerly anticipating going back to traverse all of the dungeons again on higher difficulty with the bosses at full strength.

There are not just many ways to die, there are many pitfalls that await you within the dungeons. Aside from facing loads of enemies and very powerful bosses, you will soon find yourself beset by random traps that can cause you all sorts of problems. Then you will be dealing with the inability to see more than a couple of steps ahead of you, and so on. And all the while you'll be facing harder and smarter enemies. The game is utterly unforgiving about saying 'you are not strong enough to be here'. You die, then start the dungeon again, and hopefully you are ready htis time around. Or the next time. I died perhaps a dozen times on the first dungeon, but used that learning and did a number of returns to town early on in the second dungeon just to traverse the levels again to gain more experience - and that habit of pacing myself to get through the dungeons helped quite a bit as I died only a few times per dungeon thereafter.

This is a great place for a stick up!

The inventory and weapon system is very interesting, but also very difficult to master. Scattered around the dungeons are various weapons and talismans. The weapons include swords, arm guards and claw weapons as well as items you can throw at enemies such as bombs and caltrops. Swords and arm guards can be used together, but claw weapons are used alone. Talismans are items that are a combination of spell, rune and other standard RPG items. Weapons have slots for talismans, but also a skill point capacity. Talismans have a skill point consumption. You can stick a talisman that consumes 50 skill points on a weapon with a 45 point capacity - but it will break within a few uses and you'll lose both permanently. Outside of the dungeon you can 'burn' talismans onto weapons, but if you do that you will want to protect them with another talisman that sends them to storage if you die. This is just another of the many 'death preparations' you need to do throughout the game.

The inventory space is very limited and does not stack. You get twenty item slots, including whatever items you have equipped. This includes whatever you have that will restore your health and skill points. So in your puny inventory (which certainly makes more sense on the svelte self-proclaimed hottie Izuna than having a bikini-clad warrior carrying hundreds of items - where?), you must have space for weapons, talismans to repair weapons, talismans to transport you back to town, healing auras and skill point replenishers. And there are even more items to take on if you can manage the space - so the inventory system is a major challenge. Or a major flaw, depending on your perspective. I saw it as a challenge - this isn't some action-RPG where you can carry loads of stuff back to town and sell it off, keeping gobs of goodies for yourself. You need a couple of good weapons, a town portal and repair scroll, and a couple of health and skill point items. The other slots you have to juggle to get the best talismans and thrown weapons.

Beauty is skin deep, but ugly goes straight to the bone!

For a game that I really enjoyed, there are some rather obvious flaws. As I have mentioned, I do not consider the difficulty or limited inventory flaws but challenges - but they certainly put the game in the 'not for everyone' category. There is a single save per cartridge, which I still find unacceptable at this point in history. And the talisman system combined with the death penalty is a constant disincentive to actually keep advancing your weapons. With each dungeon you get better stuff - but you either have to keep going out and coming back in or risk losing it all when you step on the certain trap that spawns a small army of enemies all around you.

Everything about the weaponry feels underdeveloped when compared to the rest of the game. You will spend a fair amount of time early in the game with nothing equipped because the weapons can't handle the talisman burden and break too easily. And even when you do equip them they don't do significantly more damage than your unarmed attacks (she's a Ninja, remember?!?) - so why even bother. These things combine to undermine another combat element - Izuna has a statistic called 'LUV' that describes her affinity to her currently equipped weapons, and this grows as she uses them. On paper it seems great - use weapons more and cause more damage. But weapon fragility and the need to use talismans to make them worthwhile undermines this by making you fight without weapons most of the time - therefore your LUV increases much more slowly than it should.

So ... should you give Izuna a job?

Izuna is brash, obnoxious, and rude - and thankfully her lines are not voiced! She speaks fluent 'teenager' with occasional bursts of Japanese, and is alternately irritating and endearing, but always engaging and entertaining! At first glance it seems incongruous to juxtapose anime sensibilities typical of something from Cartoon Network on a classic western RPG game type. But it works - Izuna has a thin story that is better than most games in the genre, and is segmented in a way that makes sense while providing incentive to keep going. And you will need all the incentive you can get - Izuna herself threatens to give up a dozen times during the game out of exasperation! But you will be rewarded with hours and hours of challenging gameplay that feels varied and 'fair' - you never feel that the game is cheating or using stuff it knows that you don't against you. So when you do die it never feels 'cheap', you were just outmatched and overwhelmed.

Pros and Cons

+ Captures the essence of classic roguelike games.
+ Fun combat system.
+ Brutal difficulty
+ Massive random dungeons with endless replayability.
- Death penalty limits weapon system effectiveness
- Only one save slot.

Final Score and Game Info

I really enjoyed Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja, and despite the minor flaws would score it as a strong 4/5. This is one of those games that you will love or hate within a half hour and never change you opinion. You will die - often. You will get frustrated with dying so much and having such limited inventory and having weapons break all over the place until you figure out the practical workings of the talisman system. But if you make it pass the first dungeon boss, you are hooked ... but you have really just started. Unlike last month's Mazes of Fate, I do NOT recommend buying a DS to get this game - but if you already have the system it is definitely a game I recommend you to get .
Box Art