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• Away: Shuffle Dungeon

developed by Mistwalker & Artoon, published by Majesco
1 player / 3 save slots / Nintendo DS / 2008.10.30

Mistwalker, led by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, tried to bring something new to the action-RPG genre with Away: Shuffle Dungeon.  A mysterious force known as the Away has been kidnapping the villagers for the past 100 years, and our hero must rescue them from the many portals that appear in town.  The game’s primary gimmick uses both screens on the Nintendo DS to show two rooms, which alternately shuffle like a deck of cards every few seconds.  What starts off as a simple adventure ends up going in a completely unexpected direction.

Shuffle Dungeons

Most of the time you’ll be exploring dungeons, where you must traverse from screen to screen on the hunt for the stairwell leading to the next floor.  These sections play like most other action-RPGs, where you fight monsters while looting treasure chests.  If you get caught on a screen as it shuffles, you will have to start that floor over again.  It’s one of the more original uses of the DS’s dual screens, and because the shuffling occurs frequently you’ll have to think on your feet to solve its simple puzzles.  Most dungeons are only three to four floors deep, and once you’ve rescued the villager at the bottom you must lead them back out again.

The puzzles are mostly limited to flipping switches to open new paths.  However, because of the time limit you will often have to revisit a room several times in order to get to the treasure or stairwell that was blocked.  There are also a number of traps that can hurt you or slow you down, and these can be a nuisance when time is running out.

Villagers & Fupongs

As you save villagers, they’ll rebuild and settle in town.  Most of them fulfill typical RPG jobs, so they’ll help you upgrade equipment or sell useful items.  The stores can also be upgraded by selling them loot, and you’ll want to do so because they offer better items at each new level.  All in all it’s a simple but satisfying way to grow the town as you play.

Then there are the Fupongs, which can be collected in dungeons.  These color-coded critters serve as single-use magic spells (red for fire ball, blue for ice, etc.).  Up to six will follow you at once, and when you’ve used up their power they will go dormant until you reach the next dungeon floor.  Back in town you can drop them off at the local ranch, and level them up by combining them with other Fupongs or by feeding them.  Each type of Fupong (and therefore the magic they cast) can be raised to level four.  You can also collect more than six Fupongs at a time by buying a bucket, but if the bucket gets trapped in the shuffle you will lose it and any Fupongs that it contained.

Presentation

Just about everything in the 3D town borrows heavily from the style established by Nintendo’s Animal Crossing, while the dungeons are entirely 2D.  They’re simplistic, but it helps keep things visually clear when you only have a few seconds to sort things out.  However, enemies are limited to a small variety of monsters that aren’t particularly interesting.  Every now and then a dungeon will contain a boss monster, but they’re nothing special (and the game recycles them a few times).  The music is generally pretty good and there are some voice clips for each character.

Conclusion

Away: Shuffle Dungeon has some good things going for it – there isn’t anything else like it out there, what with its shuffling dungeons.  However, everything about the game is extremely basic, and since the dungeons share the same formula it does become repetitive.  Rebuilding the town provides incentive to keep playing, and once you get about half way through the game you’ll begin to uncover the central mystery.  The story goes off in a very strange direction that will be totally unexpected, and its originality earns it some brownie points.  Given that it can be purchased for around $10 these days, it’s not a bad investment if you have already played the two Zelda games available on the DS.

Quick Run Down

PROs:

  • Shuffling dungeon mechanic is unique
  • Rebuilding & upgrading the town is rewarding
  • Weird story gets more and more strange as you progress

CONs:

  • Limited variety of enemies and bosses
  • Design formula gets repetitive
  • Homophobic undertones (related to the town tailor)

One Sentence Review: While it is simple to its core, Away: Shuffle Dungeon is a decent game that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
One Word Review: Basic.

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