Atlus' latest DS project is a bit of a dark horse. Developed by a small Japanese outfit calling themselves "Studio Ninja," Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja seems primed to capitalize on fans of anime quirk. Beyond that, there isn't a whole lot of background or history to go on, so when the preview cart arrived, I had naught but to jump in. To my surprise, it was all eerily familiar, as if I'd played this game before...
The Fushigi no Dungeon name probably doesn't mean a lot to most gamers in the West, but Chunsoft's classic series has seen more than 10 installments in the last decade. On this side of the pond, it's best known for it's licensed spin-offs like Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, or Nightmare of Druaga. Whatever you want to call it, they're the archetypes for most of Japan's Dungeon RPGs, and if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Fushigi no Dungeon is blushing beet red.
For the uninitiated, these are not your typical RPG epics. They're streamlined, simplistic dungeon crawlers. All the levels aside from whatever hub-town the game is built around are generated randomly, and littered with treasure and roaming monsters. There are no random encounters (one of the few things in the game that isn't random) and the simple, turn-based combat is integrated into the dungeon crawling. Just walk up to an enemy and begin trading blows. Die, and you're back to square one, at the beginning of the dungeon, with empty pockets.
The idea of a new handheld game in the series seems like a great idea. They're perfectly designed for short, repeated plays, with light gameplay, and quick pacing. It's such a good idea, in fact, that there are already two games in the series on the Nintendo DS already. One of them has been doomed to Japanese exclusivity, however, and the other is populated with those Pokemon creatures that you may or may not care for. So, perhaps there is room for one more.
Izuna isn't out to make any waves, though. Its design is very conservative, and it really reminds me a lot of the first FnD, right down to the graphics that could have come from a Super Nintendo game. It's a little disappointing to see the lack of original idea or real ambition in the title, but others might see it as staying true to a proven formula. Be prepared, though: There are no uneven terrains, no 3D graphics, no diagonal walls, maps made entirely of large rectangular rooms connected by narrow paths, and none of the other accoutrements associated with later games in the genre.
What might save the game is its enjoyable cast of characters. There's a lot of personality, accented by some very nice character art that looks out of place plastered on the otherwise dated graphics. The problem is that this isn't really a character or story-oriented game. The meat and potatoes of the experience is still trudging solo through the dungeons, and it remains to be seen if this will be strong enough to hold players attention. At least the lovely soundtrack brings the experience up.
Izuna will ship in February, and GotNext will have the final verdict for you then.