What was the last RPG that you played that made you say “Well, that was different?” Let’s face it, there just isn’t a whole lot of gameplay innovation in the RPG field these days. There are hosts of traditional RPGs with turn-based combat, mountains of strategy RPGs, and plenty of traditionally-styled action RPGs. Every so often though, a game comes around that is really “different.”
Away: Shuffle Dungeon is one of those games.
Away: Shuffle Dungeon was developed by Artoon in conjunction with renowned RPG developer Mistwalker, and released for the Nintendo DS a little over two years ago as of this writing. Away manages to provide innovative gameplay by acting somewhat like a roguelike, but providing a new dungeon system unique to the DS hardware. The end result is not a perfect game, but something that is fun, easy to play, and certainly interesting.
The central concept behind Away is dungeon-diving, and the plot sets this up early on. The protagonist is Sword, a young man living in Webb Village on a tiny, homey island. Webb Island is not just home to Sword, but it is also home to a strange phenomenon called AWAY. AWAY is an event and a force of nature; about once a year, this mysterious event occurs and a villager goes missing, never to return. 99 Webb villagers have gone missing in the past, due to the AWAY.
The dramatic action begins as Sword is about to confess his feelings to his love interest, Anella. Naturally, a bright light appears, and captures Sword. Fearing that this is the AWAY, Anella begs and pleads for it not to take Sword away. She would do anything to keep him. And with these words, the AWAY releases Sword, and the world fades to black.
Sword returns to Webb Village, but instead of a single person being missing, every single inhabitant is gone. Thus the adventure begins, and Sword must find the entrance to mysterious dungeons and rescue his fellow villagers. All the while, Sword searches for Anella, hoping each time that she will be in the next dungeon he explores.
This premise is simple enough, right?
As the game goes on, the narrative takes a few huge twists and turns. If you say that you knew how this game would end at the beginning of your first playthrough, you’re a liar, a psychopath, or both. Whichever, I’m a little scared of you. The game’s story starts out innocently enough, but it gets weirder and weirder as time goes on. Not only that, but there are some truly enormous plot holes throughout the game. There’s plenty that doesn’t really make very much sense, and several events may leave you scratching your head if you take the time to think about them. At any rate, although the plot gets more complex as the game goes on, the core gameplay mechanics remain the same.
These gameplay mechanics provide the foundation of the game. The formula is simple: find a dungeon, proceed through three to five levels of the dungeon, reach the bottom, either fight a boss or don’t fight a boss, rescue a villager, and then proceed back through the levels of the dungeon to the surface. After that, you hang out in the village until you repeat the process again and again. Sounds easy, right?
Dungeon delving in Away is completely different than any other game I’ve encountered. And despite the structure, it is different enough from traditional roguelike RPGs to qualify this as a different type of game. I’ll have to take a few paragraphs to explain this. Each floor in a dungeon fills both screens of the DS; half of the dungeon is on top, half on the bottom, and Sword can move freely from one screen to the other. On one screen or the other, you will see a timer, and this timer will have a maximum of ten seconds on it. This indicates how much time is left until that half of the screen “shuffles.”
Do not, under any circumstances, have Sword standing on that screen when it shuffles. I cannot stress this enough.
If the screen Sword is standing on is about to shuffle, run for the other screen, because if Sword is standing on the screen that shuffles, the player will have to start the floor over, and Sword will lose a portion of his hit points. There are a couple of other negative effects, but those are the big ones.
After a shuffle, the layout of the dungeon changes on the screen that was shuffled. Each screen has a distinct layout, with certain paths, traps, puzzles, and monsters to fight. The screens shuffle in a pattern, and it usually takes between five and ten shuffles for Sword to make his way to the end of the dungeon and move to the next floor. After a certain number of floors (usually between three and five), Sword comes to the final level of the dungeon, where there is usually a villager, sometimes a boss fight, treasure chests, and a save point. Congratulations. You are halfway done with the dungeon.
Now Sword has to make it back to the village, this time with a villager in tow. Having a villager with you is tougher that not having one, as the villager follows behind you and can get trapped as you navigate your way back up. If the villager is on a screen that shuffles, they are sent back to the bottom of the dungeon, no matter what happens to Sword. This means that if you lose your villager, you have to go back down to the bottom of the dungeon to get them, then start your ascent anew.
Again, don’t get shuffled. It is a serious pain in the rear.
I mentioned earlier that there are monsters in the dungeon. To fight them, Sword has a weapon, armor, and up to 20 support items at his disposal. All of these can be upgraded. The combat is old-school overhead, very much resembling the original NES Legend of Zelda game. Boss battles are quite a bit different, switching to a 3D free-ranging view, but much the same in terms of structure. While regular enemies drop quickly in the face of a full frontal attack, boss battles are quite a bit more difficult, and rely on deciphering and exploiting movement and attack patterns. While a nice diversion from the core gameplay, boss battles can be a little more difficult, and they tend to last a bit too long. Once I figured out an attack pattern and was able to execute it, I felt that perhaps five to ten attacks should be enough to defeat the boss. Instead, I often had to repeat the same attacks upwards of fifteen times, which made the battles more of a chore than anything else.
Early in the game, Sword discovers strange creatures called “fupong”, which are brightly-colored blobs with faces. These fupong come in four colors, and are basically a mechanism for performing spells and skills. Each color of fupong performs a different task, from healing to fireball to shielding to lightning bolt. These fupong follow Sword around the same way a villager does, so they can be caught by traps and shuffled away, but so long as the fupong is following you, it does not disappear permanently. It just cannot be used until the next level of the dungeon. Just don’t let a fupong get separated, and then get shuffled away, or it is gone forever.
Interaction in Webb Village, the hub, is like most town areas in RPGs. You can interact with the locals, buy weapons and supplies, and save your game at Sword’s home. What makes the whole experience a little different than many games is that throughout the game, Sword will collect “upgrade” items in yellow chests, which can be used to upgrade the shops in the village or cause new events with villagers. This gives a bit of an incentive to return to previously-delved dungeons to keep an eye out for new items.
At any rate, I feel like I have to take so much time to explain the gameplay because it is so different, and defies simple explanation. The easiest comparison is to a roguelike, such as Shiren the Wanderer or Chocobo’s Mystery Dungeon. But unlike the typical roguelike, the dungeons are non-random, and not turn-based. The timer is (almost) always running, giving everything a breathless feel, but there’s less of a focus on loot. Most importantly, there’s no severe penalty for dying, other than picking back up and starting the dungeon over again. Difficulty is fairly low (except for a dramatic spike near the endgame), which further distances Away from its roguelike peers. In the end, it plays more like The Legend of Zelda than anything else, perhaps mixed with a dash of Shiren the Wanderer for good measure. Except, you know, shuffled.
Let’s talk about graphics briefly, shall we? They are choppy and unfinished, but with some style. From a design perspective, there really is a lot to like. Webb Village has an island sun-god motif that works well as a design element, and the characters are blocky and small. It is almost as if the whole things is a tiny Jamaican party, except with a dash of Katamari Damacy design thrown in for good measure.
In terms of overall presentation, the game is designed to be “cute” and seems quite straightforward. You may think that this is a reasonable game to let your seven-year-old play at first. Right?
Once more, wrong.
The intensity and sincerity of the first main event in the story (Anella’s abduction), hints at the undercurrent of seriousness in the plot. Though it is at times outlandish, the story deals with a couple of serious themes at times. I wouldn’t recommend this game for kids, but it’s probably fine for teens and up, despite being rated E10+ in the US.
The sound is simple and well-designed. I like it quite a bit. There’s a lazy, laconic theme during cutscenes and slower moments that has a slow, harp-like string sound. While the DS hardware means that there’s typically a little less audio fidelity than we hear on other platforms, it doesn’t stop this score from having its moments. But if you were expecting the type of score found in Mistwalker-developed console titles, well, forget it.
In the end, Away: Shuffle Dungeon is certainly worth a playthrough. Without rushing, there’s a good twenty hours worth of content even before the NewGame+ option. For the weirdness of plot and uniqueness of gameplay, it is certainly worth trying to find and play a copy of this game. Too few games try to mix things up as much as Away: Shuffle Dungeon does.