Review: Izuna 2: The Unemployed Ninja Returns (Nintendo DS)

Izuna 2: The Unemployed Ninja Returns
Genre: Roguelike
Developer: Ninja Studio
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: 07/22/08


Generally speaking, people who are new to the Roguelike have few options available to them to help ease them into the genre, so to say; on one side, the player is offered the relative ease of a product like Chocobo’s Dungeon or, sticking to the platform we’re working with here, something from the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon franchise to get them into things, but these only really give an approximation of what sort of mechanics to expect, leaving a player with something of a rude awakening upon jumping into something like Shiren the Wanderer or Azure Dreams or what have you, where the challenge is a bit more advanced. Basically, there’s very little “middle ground”, IE a game where all of the challenging aspects of the games exist without any of the odd mechanics that make such games confounding to most players (IE returning to level one upon death or departure from the dungeon, for instance).

The first Izuna was, in many respects, an attempt to rectify that. It offered up many of the difficulty elements of more challenging Roguelikes with some concessions to make the experience easier for new players, while also adding in some of its own unique mechanics to make the experience feel fresh and unique, then topped that off with an anime-inspired storyline and cast of characters. By and large, it did what it set out to do, in that it did indeed offer up an experience that was challenging, but not as difficult as some of its contemporaries, but it also bore some significant flaws that made the experience less exciting than it could have been. Izuna 2 is something of an attempt to expand upon the ideas of the original, and in many respects it succeeds; it features some genuinely interesting gameplay mechanics that go much further toward making the game its own unique entity, and it still retains the challenge of the original game while modifying it slightly to make it more palatable to those who didn’t enjoy the prior title. However, it still retains many of the flaws of the prior game, and also manages to incorporate new flaws that make it somewhat less than what one might desire from such a product.

The story of Izuna 2 starts off with the crew from the first game (Izuna herself, Shino, Gen-An and Mitsumoto) meandering about the world looking for something to occupy their time (since, as the subtitle notes, they’re jobless), when they end up finding out that Shino’s long-lost sister, Shizune, is apparently wandering around the country, and at the same time, all sorts of weird monsters are popping up. This more or less initiates the main quest of the game, that being to 1.) find Shino’s sister, and 2.) figure out what’s going on with the weird monsters and such. The story tries to mix serious emotional angst and end-of-the-world plot points with light-hearted anime-inspired comedic bits, which it more or less succeeds at, though to what degree it is successful will depend on the opinion of the player.

The writing in the game, as it is, is somewhat spotty; serious situations generally come off well enough and work about as well as can be expected, but the comedy mostly consists of either jokes about Izuna’s immaturity (either directly or when she’s hypocritically criticizing someone else for bring that way) and appetite, Mitsumoto’s complete failure to woo members of the opposite sex, Shino’s small bust size (which is supposed to make sense considering the majority of females in the game sport back-breakingly huge boobs, except that other characters pop up who do not, and no one seems to rag on them for it), and fourth-wall breaking jokes relating to the first game. So, in other words, if you’ve seen Sailor Moon and The Slayers this game has absolutely no new material to show you. Now, generally, these sorts of games aren’t well known for their amazing storylines or anything, so skipping the plot to get to the dungeon exploration would be fine, except that you can’t skip plot exposition sequences, you can’t change the speed of the text to be any faster, you’re FORCED to talk to a bunch of people to learn new mission objectives a large amount of the time (even when you know where you’re supposed to go), and talking to vendors and such often requires you to sit through the same dialogue bits over and OVER AND OVER until you can’t stand it anymore. If you love the kind of comedy this game delivers, you’ll be right at home with this, but otherwise, Izuna 2 will feel like a game where less talk and more action would have helped out a lot, mostly because the talk is kinda boring.

Visually, well, here you go:

One picture is from the first game, the other is from the second game. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out which is which.

Izuna 2 does generally look cute, the dungeons within it look sufficiently good enough for the sort of game this is, and the various enemies and characters have all sorts of cute animations they do from time to time that add some solid personality to the game. The only notable problem is that the game looks largely identical to its predecessor, and since many of the same enemies are shared between games, this also makes the game feel less like a “sequel” and more like “the same game, again”. The audio presentation is much the same; the Far East-themed soundtrack, “cuddly combat” sound effects (IE the noises in battle sound silly but work in context) and voice clips that pop here and there, either in battle or for dramatic/comedic purposes, generally work well and sound nice overall. However, once again, this is mostly what the original game had going for it, making the game feel more like an expansion pack than a new game.

Of course, if you either liked the original game a whole lot or never played it, this won’t matter, but it bears noting, all the same.

Now, rather than continue re-explaining how Roguelikes work, to paraphrase the Chocobo’s Dungeon review:

“The gameplay of Izuna 2 is more or less identical to the typical Roguelike or Fushigi Dungeon experience, though it contains a few novel additions that make the experience a bit more interesting than it might otherwise be. As is expected, the vast majority of the game is spent moving around in dungeons in a turn-based fashion, meaning that every time you move, everything else moves, regardless of what those moves may be. The game is static until you take an action, meaning you can carefully consider your next move as needed, which is part of the appeal of these sorts of games (strategy in knowing when to stay and when to run for the hills, and in what actions to take to prevent your own demise), and it generally works as well as it ever did in Izuna 2.”

Okay? Okay. This is basically the same across most of these sorts of games, so there you go. Now let’s talk about what’s different.

Much like most of these sorts of games, Izuna and company have a life meter that will be depleted when damage is taken, but UNLIKE these sorts of games, your characters have no “stamina” meter to pay attention to. In most Roguelikes, one must eat food in order to keep ones strength up; that is to say, eating food means being able to continue exploring the dungeon further because you have the stamina to go onward. Izuna 2 does not do this. Generally speaking, stamina bars are used to force players to keep moving forward so as to prevent them from, say, camping on a floor to spawn-camp enemies and such. Izuna 2 prevents this sort of behavior in two different ways; first, enemy spawns are limited (meaning you can’t camp a floor), and second, after a while, your SP bar will begin heavily depleting until you change floors. Now, the SP bar basically serves two purposes; first, it acts as your reserve “magic” in a sense to use specific items, meaning they draw from your SP and if they cannot draw enough points they cannot be cast, and second, SP also influences how much damage you do with attacks, meaning that if you have low SP you do less damage than if you have high SP. This is a surprisingly strong mechanic, as it often means making the choice between using a high-powered spell but having no melee damage to back it up, or trying to melee everything to death, and it has the potential to force the player to really think about what they want to do and how they want to do it.

Lots and lots of items, traps and monsters await the player when they ascend/descend into a dungeon as well, as one might expect, though players of these sorts of games will probably be a bit baffled by what does what at first. Item-wise, you will be finding all sorts of different weapons, armor and items, and while weapons are fairly self-explanatory (swords, gauntlets, throwing blades, bows, boots and so on are generally equipped and either provide additional attack, additional defense, or both, depending on the item in question), the items are not so much. Blue Orbs work as your curative items and can either heal HP back or can cure status ailments. Pills can either be eaten for stat boosts or thrown at enemies for status ailments. Bags of consumables, IE Shurikens, Bombs, Kunai (throwing knives) and such can be tossed, one at a time, at enemies for ranged damage or, in the case of bombs, planted to blow up groups of foes (if timed correctly). Talismans act as a sort of catch-all magical object category that can either be used (which drains SP), placed on a weapon or armor (to add an additional effect to the item in question), or placed on a staff (thus allowing you to use the staff to cast the spell without cost to you). Pictures can be looked at to boost SP, and basically act as healing items for the SP bar. It also bears noting that weaponry can be equipped at any time in a dungeon, so long as your character can equip the item you have, but as they are used in battle, they will begin to deteriorate through normal wear and tear until they crack and, if you continue to use them, are destroyed. Equipment also has maximum SP limits, and as each Talisman has an SP cost to use or place, if you exceed the SP limit on your chosen piece of equipment, it deteriorates faster because of this. Fortunately, equipment can be repaired by blacksmiths or certain talismans, and you can use items or NPCs to remove the talismans (either by destroying them or peeling them off to be re-used) or burn them in (to improve the stats of the weapon at the cost of SP levels of the weapon). If one were so inclined, as there are talismans that boost attack/defense levels and talismans that increase the maximum SP level of items, one could theoretically boost a weapon to hideously powerful levels given enough time and patience.

On the other hand, since death is an ever-present concern, this may not be something that occurs to most people. See, most Roguelikes do all sorts of crazy stuff to mess around with the player and appropriately build a “risk vs. reward” mentality, where everything you do could be rewarding or deadly, depending on what happens as a result, and Izuna 2 is no different, though it does things its own way. Now, on the plus side of things, items need never be “identified”, meaning that the effects of an item will generally be known as soon as you pick it up, thus removing the risk of using a bad item at a crucial moment. Also, death is not a complete loss; your levels are retained no matter how many times you die, though all items and money on your person are lost upon death. You can, of course, store any money and items you escape with at storage houses around the game world and sell various items to vendors, and if you stick a talisman to your equipment that transports that item to storage upon death, you can retrieve it when you come back to life. You can also carry talismans that teleport you out of the dungeon you’re in entirely to save you the trouble of dying at all if you’d rather, which makes life a good bit easier in the long run.

This is all generally good, as on the downside, the dungeons and enemies you face are generally intent on doing you in from the moment you set foot into them. Dungeons themselves are full of all sorts of traps that make your life hell, such as Confuse Traps (which confuse you), Forgetful Traps (which make you randomly drop items), Darkness Traps (which make you blind), Abacus Traps (which fling you in a direction, usually into a wall, for unpleasant damage), Deception Traps (which levels all enemies in the dungeon up until it wears off), and so on. Trap effects don’t go beyond the floor their effect is gained on, and enemies can set off traps too, which at least puts you on even footing with your foes, and can actually allow you the option of using enemies to map a safe route for you by making them set off traps as they pursue you, then following the path the enemy took for a safer trip. The enemies themselves are also quite problematic to deal with, however, as they can also use all sorts of odd abilities, like cloning themselves, de-leveling you (massively), stealing items, destroying items, releasing eggs that will spawn stronger enemies if attacked and can block halls if the enemy is killed in the wrong place at the wrong time, and so on to make your life miserable. Enemies can also level up by killing other enemies to give you a larger headache, though this thankfully doesn’t come up as often as you might think.

Izuna 2 has one helpful trick up its sleeve that the original game did not offer, however: instead of simply traversing the dungeons solo as Izuna, as you did in the first game, this time around you’re given teams of two to poke around with. You can switch between your two teammates with a simple press of the Select button, meaning that if a character is low on health you can simply press the button to bring in a fresh character instead of burning a healing item, or you can have higher level characters act as backup for lower level characters while you’re trying to gain experience points for these characters. You can also use tag-team attacks by pressing the L trigger and Select, which generally do lots and lots of damage to enemies over a large area, meaning that you can wipe out lots of enemies quickly if you’re in a pinch or do large damage to a powerful foe. Neither technique can be abused, however; you can switch teammates three times and use tag-team attacks once before you have to allow them to recharge, which happens over time, thus making you think about using them on the odd chance you’ll need them later. It also bears noting that characters in reserve do not gain experience or health while not active, though they don’t lose SP either and aren’t affected by status ailments the primary character is stuck with at the moment, so this more or less balances itself out.

As in the first Izuna, you’ll be traversing many random dungeons of variable floor count (generally ranging from five to twenty or so floors per dungeon), and between each dungeon you’ll be traveling through numerous towns around the countryside, which is new to this game. Most towns have the bare essentials (storage and an inn) at the very least, though many have vendors, blacksmiths, and other such useful things to help you out, and going back to towns that have these amenities is a simple matter of choosing the town you want from the overworld map, meaning that anything you need will generally be in easy reach. The core game itself will probably take around twenty or so hours to blow through, but for those looking for something else to do, you’re given a camera to take pictures with early in the game that you can use to photograph characters and enemies, as well as three bonus dungeons to complete (one of which is ninety-nine floors of hell that requires you to enter it empty and starts you at level one… so it’s a pretty good primer for a Shiren-type game, really) which should extend playtime nicely if you’re interested.

Sadly, Izuna 2 has a major strike against it, and it’s a strike that the original game had as well: grinding, and lots of it. Now, in a game like Shiren the Wanderer, grinding is more a matter of “surviving” than anything else, and as levels are precious and come not infrequently, grinding isn’t a big issue or necessity so to say. In games like Pokemon Mystery Dungeon and Chocobo’s Dungeon, grinding was something that was mostly optional and minimal, and one would only bother to do it if one wanted to breeze through the game. In Izuna 2, however, grinding is necessary if one values life, because as you progress through the major dungeons, you will eventually find yourself facing down enemies who are simply too powerful for you to face down in normal combat. Die in a dungeon? Scale it again, spend more time grinding. Have to teleport out of the dungeon to spare yourself from dying? Scale it again, spend more time grinding. This becomes especially egregious after two events occur in the game: basically, you’re given a bunch of characters to assist your battle against evil, but they all join your group at level 1 when your present team members are pushing level thirty. Then, your most useful secondary member departs the team for a while for storyline reasons, leaving you with one leveled teammate who takes damage from tag-team attacks (which is meant to be for comedic effect, but I stopped laughing the first time he died because of it) and a bunch of teammates who are level one, meaning IT’S TIME TO GO GRIND A LOT. Some people love grinding and enjoy the act of doing so because it rewards you in interesting ways, but by this point I had two million dollars in the bank, nothing to spend money on, and no reason to grind except because the game pretty much forced me to, which was fairly annoying, and will most likely annoy any players who dislike this thing.

There are also all sorts of minor complaints that, on their own, aren’t bad, but taken together, make the game something of an annoyance. For one: there’s no need to bother making awesome gear, because 1.) you’re generally guaranteed to find better stuff in the very next dungeon unless you spend hours building it (in which case, grinding won’t bother you anyway), and 2.) death robs you of your equipment unless you stick talismans to it to teleport it home, so in many cases you’re just as well off raiding the dungeon and using whatever you find to make your way through the dungeon, because this really works just as well as actually bothering to customize equipment, all in all. You can’t identify talismans once they are installed, which is great when monsters stick talismans to your gear; since you can’t ID the talisman YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT THEY DID until you go to town and have it removed, which could have been resolved by, say, a pop-up description of the talismans when selected. There are generally lots of traps in later dungeons, and as there are no obvious ways to set them off until you walk over them or an enemy does, this tends to make traversing the dungeon a pain in the butt; generally, Roguelike games punish careless dungeon exploration, and that’s fine, but there’s a difference between punishing mistakes and taking your first step into an abacus trap that saps half of your life bar in one shot. And while we’re on the topic of “bad luck, kid”, ascending or descending a floor and popping up in a room with six monsters and no obvious means of escape, even when both characters are at full health, you have a good amount of healing items, AND you have a tag-team attack, could easily still spell death for your heroes, which places the game more heavily into making use of “luck” than “skill”, as at that point your only options are praying to God, escape, or death. In fact, the name of the game here is luck moreso than skill; in most Roguelikes, a bad decision means death, but in Izuna 2, even when played smart the game often puts you into positions where your own fate is out of your hands, like when fighting groups of Mutterflies (an enemy that can reduce your level as a special attack) only to watch them strip you of four or five levels, thus meaning you wasted the past hour leveling up for nothing, or when you walk into a room and an ENEMY hits an abacus trap, sails into you, deals a ton of damage to you, then leaves you easy pickings for the other four enemies.

There is no strategy in that; that is luck, pure and simple, and when your only option is escape or death because of something you had nothing to do with, that’s annoying. But in a game where death is mostly meaningless, it presents itself as less of a truly terrifying possibility and more of a mild inconvenience that essentially means you have to scavenge up new goods and grind your way back to where you were. It’s less of a case of “challenging your tactical skills and intelligence under terrifying pressure” and more of a case of “annoying you over and over because Lady Luck rolled you a snake eyes and you have to grind some more”.

The bottom line is this: Izuna 2 features some very interesting and neat mechanics, some at times challenging Roguelike game play, and some imaginative ideas, but wraps them in a package of awkward balance issues and boredom that might be hard to deal with. For those who are fine with grinding and luck-based deaths, there’s a decent challenge and plenty of depth to be had here, the new team mechanics are very nice, and the game plays and feels right all in all. For those who are not or for those who had issues with the first Izuna, however, this game reuses a lot of the material from the first game, requires hours and hours of grinding to progress sufficiently, and puts you into the awkward position where death can be for any reason but makes no difference because you can simply loot your way through the dungeon without having to be bothered building great weaponry, and while that’s fine on its own, the fact that you can effectively do nothing but change floors and instantly be more or less dead is not particularly conducive to a positive experience. Generally speaking, Izuna 2 is the first game with a couple of new mechanics added to it, and while the new mechanics add interesting depth to the gameplay, the rest of the game is essentially the same as it ever was, warts and all; if you liked the first game you will like this, if you didn’t you won’t, and if you’ve never played it, you might get some joy from it assuming you can accept the flaws that the game possesses.

The Scores:
Story: MEDIOCRE
Graphics: ABOVE AVERAGE
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: POOR
Originality: POOR
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: POOR
Miscellaneous: POOR

Final Score: DECENT.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Izuna 2 is the first game with some new mechanics, and as such carries both the good and the bad of the original game along with it for the ride. If you’re into the sort of Roguelike experience the game presents, you’ll find the gameplay mechanics to feel as good as ever, the changes to many of the expected play systems to be fresh and different, the challenge to be tolerable, and the experience to be lengthy and full of replay value. Those looking for a step up from the easier Roguelike experiences of something like Pokemon Mystery Dungeon probably won’t find it here, however; aside from the generally mediocre story, the game favors luck over skill and often places you into losing scenarios through no fault of your own, and generally favors the player who is willing to grind on their own over the player who is forced to grind because no other option is available to them. If you’re a fan of Roguelike games or the original Izuna, there’s certainly some fun to be had here in either case, but in the end, the challenge presented is hollow and victory over it is unsatisfying.

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