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   Away: Shuffle Dungeon - Review  

I Thought Going Away Would Be So Much Better
by Slates

PLATFORM
Nintendo DS
BATTLE SYSTEM
2
INTERACTION
2
ORIGINALITY
3
STORY
3
MUSIC & SOUND
4
VISUALS
3
CHALLENGE
Easy
COMPLETION TIME
Less than 20 Hours
OVERALL
2.5/5
+ Nice soundtrack and voice acting.
+ Interesting shuffle dungeon mechanic.
+ Stylized graphics and cutscenes.
- Recycled boss battles.
- Little variety in gameplay.
- Game drags despite its brief length.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Away: Shuffle Dungeon is a top down dungeon crawler developed by Mistwalker and Artoon for the Nintendo DS. Coming from Mistwalker's all-star pedigree, with scenario design by Hironobu Sakaguchi and music by Nobuo Uematsu, expectations were rather high for this quirky looking DS venture. Unfortunately, instead of being Mistwalker's blockbuster stateside DS debut, Away: Shuffle Dungeon floundered, with a botched release and a staggering price drop soon after. Is Away: Shuffle Dungeon a better game than its reception implies, or should you get as far away as possible?

   Away: Shuffle Dungeon is the story of Sword, a resident of Webb Village, who finds himself in quite the bind when his girlfriend, Anella, sacrifices herself to a mysterious power called the Away. The Away appears every year and abducts one person, and this year it was Sword's turn. Fortunately for him, Anella intervenes and asks that the Away take her instead. The Away is not just content with taking her, however, and abducts the whole village. Sword soon realizes that the villagers can be found in mysterious dungeons scattered about the village, and sets out to save them in hopes of finally being reunited with Anella, but he soon comes to find out that there's more to the Away and the disappearing villagers than he ever could have imagined. The story in Away starts off pretty simply, but around the halfway point takes a leap into bizarro-world and never looks back. The story as a whole is interesting and sufficient for the simplistic dungeon crawler gameplay, but never quite feels cohesive, or even coherent.

   While the story is hit or miss, the graphics of the game are rather nice. The dungeons are top down 2D affairs that capture the Saturday morning cartoon vibe the art style seems to be getting at, and the 3D graphics for the boss battles and town exploration are serviceable, but average for the system. Unfortunately, most of the dungeon backgrounds, enemies, and bosses are encountered at least twice throughout the game, and the fact that you're fighting the same enemy at the two hour mark and at the ten hour mark diminishes the much needed sense of progression.

If Sword had only used better protection, he wouldn't have a second case of the Crabhead Master. If Sword had only used better protection, he wouldn't have a second case of the Crabhead Master.

   Music is certainly the game's strong point. Composed by Nobuo Uematsu of Final Fantasy acclaim, the tracks never quite reach the caliber of his best work, but prove to be nice on their own. For the most part you'll be hearing the town theme which has a nice feel for the peaceful tropical island, but the background music changes to fit dungeons and battles. As the tone of the story changes from idyllic to insane, the music takes note and capably matches it. It seems that the developers were aware that the soundtrack was their strongest suit, since they incorporated a music player into the main quest of the game, in addition to one being unlocked upon completion.

   While for the most part the game is average or better, Away: Shuffle Dungeon fails at providing an enjoyable gameplay experience. The general plot progression is that Sword treks into a dungeon, rescues a villager, and then talks to NPCs around the town to get a clue as to where the next dungeon is. This progression repeats for the bulk of the game. This soon becomes a burden in itself, as a considerable amount of the game is spent simply wandering around and listening to rather boring dialogue. Generally, the rescued villagers open a shop in the village which can be upgraded with items found within dungeons, but selling these items to the appropriate store only pads out the time spent running around Webb Village instead of exploring the dungeons.

   This would be easier to cope with if exploring the dungeons felt worthwhile. The dungeons are top down 2D mazes that span both screens, and Sword must simply make his way through them to reach the exit. Unfortunately for Sword, the maps are on a timer, and after a set amount of seconds either the top or the bottom half of the dungeon will "shuffle" and a new area of the dungeon will appear. It is thus up to the player to guide Sword through the enemies and traps that make up the dungeon while making sure to be on the side that isn't going to shuffle as soon as time runs out. Early on in the game, this mechanic seems less like a burden and more like a novel innovation that keeps the dungeon exploring interesting and unique, as the player will flick switches and fight enemies while the timer counts down. However, as the game progresses, the dungeons become more convoluted while the timer becomes shorter, and traps become more prevalent. As enemies start to deal increasingly higher damage, the gameplay soon depreciates into trial and error. Even combat is dull, as despite the four types of weaponry offered in the game, none of the weapons handle that well, and the hit detection is erratic. Fortunately the game levies no penalty for dying in the dungeon, but this does little to make the game feel any less frustrating.

Giant robots, jets of smoke, and bouncing colored blobs still can't save this dungeon from being exactly like all the others. Giant robots, jets of smoke, and bouncing colored blobs still can't save this dungeon from being exactly like all the others.

   Another innovation comes in the form of the magic system. Magic is handled with fupongs, collectible creatures strewn throughout dungeons that can be combined to become more powerful. They can be brought into dungeons and used to cast different elemental spells, but unfortunately prove to be nothing more than another obstacle. Spells can be used to break barriers in dungeons, annihilate enemies, or heal Sword, but the fupongs themselves trail behind Sword in dungeons. Carrying them with Sword soon becomes a chore of making sure they are always out of harm's way, and the hassle of constantly monitoring them often outweighs their benefit.

   Away: Shuffle Dungeon is a game that failed almost as soon as it debuted in the US, and the reasons for this failure are evident upon playing it. The storyline seems promising, but has so many unexpected plot twists that it never feels cohesive. The gameplay is an exercise in tedium, with a difficulty that never really feels challenging and combat that's not quite comfortable. While the soundtrack is well done and the dungeon crawling is a novel take, Away: Shuffle Dungeon as a whole is a subpar game. For fans of 2D dungeon crawlers looking for an interesting take on the genre, or for someone who wants an easy and quick romp on the DS, Away: Shuffle Dungeon is a nice choice, but it is certainly overshadowed by many better games on the system.

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