Away: Shuffle Dungeon - Reader Review  

Calgon, Take Me AWAY!
by JuMeSyn

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Less than 20 Hours
+ Unique use of DS hardware
- Very hectic pace
+ Involving combat
- Surprisingly linear
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   Hironobu Sakaguchi has been behind some interesting concepts in his many years of directing and producing RPGs. Away: Shuffle Dungeon represents one of these concepts in a use of the DS that takes advantage of its dual-screen in a fresh way. This game mechanic is paramount to arriving at one's enjoyment of the title, and all other considerations must be shunted aside in contemplating potential enjoyment.

   The central concept to Away: Shuffle Dungeon lies in its title. Dungeons take up both of the DS's screens, and either the top or bottom screen will have a timer ticking down. This timer will never be for more than ten seconds, and if the player cannot move to the other screen in time it will 'shuffle,' causing damage and placing the player back at the floor's beginning. Each floor of a dungeon has multiple screens, with an exit eventually shuffling into view that the player must gravitate towards in order to progress. Simple puzzles litter the dungeons, though their simplicity is often belied by the time constraints the player is under. Boss fights take place from the same 3D perspective the village is portrayed with, and are simple enough that the fixed camera angle is not a major problem.

   Aside from the central shuffle mechanic, combat is not particularly novel. Taking control of Sword, the player will wander the dungeons in an overhead perspective fighting enemies and maneuvering around traps. Combat has its issues, such as Sword's involuntary movement forward regardless of the weapon equipped and his sometimes-too-long pauses after attacking that are just enough for an enemy to hit back. With practice the player will become good at gauging this timing, but it is still too easy to miss an enemy by the tiniest amount. Enemies bequeath experience upon death, and enough experience will increase Sword's level. Level-ups do increase attack power, but HP rarely goes up with a level - for Sword to pass 10HP will take a long time. Equipment plays a direct role in Sword HP as well - some armor removes a HP or two in return for higher defense.

Lots of lithium in this house for some reason.... Lots of lithium in this house for some reason....

   The progression mechanism found here makes comparisons to Soul Blazer come to mind. Sword will enter a dungeon and usually find someone at the bottom, whereupon he must bring that person back to the village. If Sword dies or is caught in a shuffle, the person is lost and steps must be retraced to bring him/her back. Once the person is returned a cutscene ensues and, particularly in the early part of the game, the newly found villager will offer a service helpful to further progression. All stores also can be upgraded by a cumbersome process of finding specific items in the dungeons that increase and/or improve their capacities; this is dually annoying because items must be individually sold to the correct establishment and because Sword can carry but 20 items including his equipment at one time.

   Sword does not technically have any magic of his own - that task falls to pollywog-esque creatures he dubs 'fupongs.' Fupongs are found in the dungeons and will cheerfully follow Sword if he touches them, up to six at one time. Red fupongs shoot fire in a straight line, blue create a shield that protects Sword from one attack of any type, yellow use a bolt of lightning that does not miss on the closest target, and green heal. A fupong can only use its ability once per floor, and if Sword is caught in a shuffle his fupongs will be rendered powerless until he can reach the next floor. Fupongs can be combined to create stronger selves in the village as well. One aspect of the fupongs is annoying and must be mentioned; because they tag along in a line following Sword, they frequently get caught on retracting spike traps and must be fetched again (this affliction is present for villagers Sword is escorting also). Leaving them behind when switching floors means they are lost.

   The tale Away: Shuffle Dungeon tells proceeds simply at the beginning, with a mysterious force known as the AWAY having taken one person a year for the past 99 years from the village. Sword appears to be next on the list, only for his maybe-girlfriend Anella to proclaim that she will do anything to save him from this. Sword then finds himself alone and begins uncovering dungeons that conceal the people who went AWAY. Later in the game its story takes some unexpected turns that do not fully compute but are nevertheless atypical - a comparison to The Village, only better integrated into the plot, can be made here.

Doctor Seuss characters have lots of pent-up rage, apparently. Doctor Seuss characters have lots of pent-up rage, apparently.

   Aesthetically there is little to prompt great feeling one way or another. The 3D segments are reminiscent of the Nintendo 64's capabilities, and the infrequent FMV looks identical to the in-game 3D graphics. These parts and the 2D dungeons look fine without ever impressing greatly. Aurally the game again sounds fine without excelling - Yutaka Minobe's work on Skies of Arcadia's music has not translated to a similarly stellar job here. The music is far from bad and sounds quite pleasant in the game, but fails to be memorable. The bits of voice acting are well done, if odd (possibly the intent of Majesco's localizers).

   Evaluating the challenge here is a highly subjective process. Given a couple of tries to acclimatize oneself with a dungeon, any player with quick reflexes will be able to navigate the game without great difficulty. Aside from the possible loss of fupong that have been empowered, there is no penalty for death, with the game allowing restarts at a dungeon's beginning plus experience and items acquired. If one does not possess quick reflexes, this game will be insurmountably difficult. The villagers offer plenty of fetch quests to fill up time but the main story can probably be finished in 14-15 hours. The aforementioned fetch quests are the only impetus towards replay, however.

   Away: Shuffle Dungeon is an interesting game to play, and the dungeons manage to add enough features as the game continues so that the game does not feel repetitive. It is quite disconcerting to find an action-RPG dungeon crawler with so much plot however, and slowly-moving text kills the pace at times. Anyone intrigued by its central mechanic will probably be well-served to investigate, and anyone repelled will find nothing in the game to reverse that repulsion.

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