It’s no secret that I have been one of Atlus’ greatest supporters in reviewing its Nintendo DS titles, whether it’s been in the form of praising its often slighted Luminous Arc, or in declaring Etrian Odyssey and its sequel one of the best games of the year. With that said, sometimes Atlus chooses to publish a game that misses the mark for both the mainstream and even the niche role-playing fan. Unfortunately, Izuna 2: The Unemployed Ninja Returns is just that, and even worse, it is one of the least enjoyable games I have played on the Nintendo’s handheld system.
Izuna 2 takes place in a world where humans, gods, and beasts live in a peaceful harmony, even though they battled violently in the past. Because of the current tranquility, some of the ninjas are deemed useless and antiquated by segments of society. One such ninja is Izuna: a crude, selfish, humorous, and beautiful woman who has just returned home to resume her old ways after descending into the various shrines of the gods in the first installment of the series. Even though she is good-looking and often uses her sexuality, Izuna is a sly ninja who strikes when people least expect it.
Izuna is joined in town by Mitsumoto, an immature ladies’ man who is always on the lookout for his latest conquest; Shino, a dark haired femme fatale who is like a sister to Izuna; and Gen-An, an elderly advisor who provides Izuna with wisdom when she needs it most. They all gather to go to a wedding between two villagers (Ichika and Sakichi), when suddenly Shino is captured and disappears from town. Izuna feels an obligation to track down Shino and ultimately learn what caused her disapearance. While the wedding itself is a good catalyst to the narrative, the overarching story begins to become repetitive in the middle portions of the game. Generally speaking, the player must find either someone or something at the bottom of a cave, mountain, or the like, in order to further the story. I will say, however, that the underlying gods theme does provide some interesting flair to an otherwise boilerplate seek and rescue formula and that Izuna’s humor is back and better than ever.
Izuna 2 can be best described as a dungeon hack. The player enters each dungeon (all of which are randomly generated) and attempts to climb until he or she reaches the end. Along the way, Izuna and her clan encounter enemies, which are clearly visible on the field. The enemies operate in a certain style of turn-based action. For every step or attack that the player takes, the enemies can respond with a movement of their own. This leads to a hack and slash type game, with a tiny bit of added strategy. Oldschool RPG fans might better recognize the term “rogue-like,” and that would perfectly describe the exploration and combat for this game.
While none of this may be new to RPG veterans, Izuna 2 has some wacky components that make it stand out above the rest (and not in a good way). For example, if the player dies at any point, he or she loses all money and all equipment, unless the items were kept in a storage facility. Though it may seem daunting, have no fear: Izuna does not lose any levels. Because of this gameplay setting, there is almost no incentive to keeping your party alive. In sum, you should just keep grinding and dying. Grinding and dying. Grinding and dying. After a while, you have a very powerful party that won’t need equipment to survive.
Izuna 2 could escape this trap if it contained enough memorable equipment and weapons that made it worth your while to store, but it fails miserably here as well. Because of its rogue/dungeon hack-like gameplay, there are no specialized weapons to speak of, and, what’s worse, weapons don’t even have the same attributes to begin with. Therefore, it’s possible to have a demon claw with an attack power of “6” and then pick up a demon claw with an attack power of “60” on the very next floor. This causes the player to constantly go to the attribute screen to see what power their weapon has; no weapon has an intrinsic value of being good or not.
While I may be just reiterating complaints from the original game, let me speak out about the sequel’s most boasted-about new feature: the tag system. It’s irrelevant and not good. Do I need to move on? Seriously, it may sound like a good idea: have a player hit the select key and Izuna can tag in one of her clan to take over and fight for a while. The problem is two-fold with this system. First, because your colleagues do not gain experience with you (and you can die at any point during the game and lose all of your equipment), it becomes almost impossible to incorporate new members into the party as you progress in the game. In order for them to be strong enough to even survive one attack, you have to travel back to the first cave just to grind and build them up. Second, why even build them up and make them strong in the first place? It makes much more sense to make Izuna as powerful as possible and have her take you as far you can. Basically, I made it through the game just focusing on Izuna (and Shino a little bit).
While the tag system didn’t work to perfection, I did find the new tag system combination attack successful and useful. While it didn’t invoke sentiments of Chrono Trigger in me, I used the Izuna-Shino attack on more than on occasion. Because there are more than a dozen characters, there are a bunch of combination attacks to explore and I encourage you to try them out. It may be the most fun you have playing the game.
Izuna progresses through the game hacking and slashing and moving about the world map through the use of the traditional map hot spots. While there are multiple towns throughout the adventure, I found it annoying how none of them utilized the town maps in any way. There were no houses that you could enter and search for treasure (you would lose it if you died anyway), there were no interesting NPCs to speak of, and I found shopping for items pointless because of the way the game is set up. Why spend all of the time checking out the latest claw, pill, or talisman, when you could take one critical hit in an inopportune time and lose it all? Did I mention that the game autosaves when you die? That’s right, the game doesn’t even give you the chance to retry the dungeon and keep your equipment. Nice move, Ninja Studio. Nice.
The best part of Izuna 2: The Unemployed Ninja Returns is the control system. I liked how the game utilized the tag technique by hitting a simple button and the game didn’t incorporate the touch screen in any way, thus prohibiting any real control disasters. The only complaint I had was in checking the strength of the equipment. Instead of being able to touch a weapon to highlight its attributes and see its power in comparison to what you are wearing, it takes an extra step to “click” on the strength icon. In addition, because the game was turn-based and not RTS, maybe the developers could have allowed for some touch screen attack combinations. It would have spiced up the mundane gameplay.
While the release of the game may come with impressive art on the back of the cover sheet included with the box, the graphics in-game leave a lot to be desired. Even though the character portraits of Izuna and her friends were nicely styled, the actual gameplay was dry and uninspired. Each of the dungeons were interchangeable, and the town art was especially drab. Perhaps, this could have been the saving grace to an otherwise clunker of a title, but alas…
My summary regarding the audio is this: zzz…. Honestly, there was not a great variety of tracks and after hearing the potential of Atlus’ published DS games (hello: Luminous Arc!), this game’s music and audio is fairly pathetic. I will say that there is some nice voice-overs included, but this is just not enough to keep the player interested while hacking for hours.
I guess if I had to summarize my experience with Izuna 2: The Unemployed Ninja Returns, it would be this: do not buy this game. Do not rent this game. Do not borrow this game from a friend. With a library as impressive and expansive for both Atlus and the Nintendo DS console, there is no reason to ever waste your time with this game. I sure wish I had the time I spent on it back.