Away: Shuffle Dungeon Hands-On
We play as Sword, the not-so-lucky 100th person about to be whisked away by the mysterious phenomenon known as "Away."
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Hironobu Sakaguchi, head of Mistwalker, and composer Nobuo Uematsu of Final Fantasy fame team up in another role-playing game, but this time it's on the Nintendo DS. Away: Shuffle Dungeon is a combined effort from Mistwalker, AQ Interactive, and Majesco Entertainment that offers a unique twist on the usual hack-and-slash RPG. As the title suggests, dungeons will shuffle, which changes up the gameplay to keep you on your toes.
You play as Sword, a young man who washed up on the shores of a village called Webb two years ago. He is stranded there because the village apparently doesn't have any maps, but he seems quite content living in this seaside town. However, there is a phenomenon called "Away," where in the last century 99 people have disappeared without a trace from Webb, and people are worried about who will be next. Sword and his friend Anella were having a pleasant conversation one day when suddenly that mysterious Away started to happen and had Sword as its next target. Being the heroine that she is, Anella sacrificed herself in his place, so the Away took her in a beam of light and the rest of the village instead. Thanks to Anella's heroic efforts, you now have a lot of work to do.
Since the entire village has vanished, except for you and your house (where you can sleep and save), you have nothing left to do except go around Webb and find objects that are linked to specific villagers. When you come across one of these artifacts, whether it's a sword, a piece of armor, or an instrument, it opens a portal to a dungeon. Once you get to the bottom of the dungeon, you'll find your missing villager. To set things up for the rest of the game, you'll find the village chief first, who comes back and opens a general store. Next you have to go find Helmut and Macy, the two guys who run the armor and weapon shops and who both have a thing for a girl named Giggles.
When you venture down into a dungeon, the 3D village environment changes to a 2D maze-like area that spans two screens. The top or bottom of the screen will have a timer. When it hits 0, the screen will shake and shuffle to a new screen. If you get stuck in the shuffle, you are booted back to the first level of the dungeon. This is a strange but interesting concept, and it makes the game a little more frantic than typical action RPGs. You'll have to traverse quickly to hit switches or move obstacles to try to uncover the stairs leading down--or up, if you're trying to lead your villager back safely. When you're aboveground, the top screen provides a map of Webb and shows you where the shops and portals are located. A star will show up next to the name of the area if there is something important going on that will move the story forward, so there is some guidance in case you don't know what to do.
Sword gains one experience point for every monster he slashes and kills, and he can pick up bouncy colored blobs that hang out in dungeons, which he fondly calls fupongs. Fupongs come in a variety of flavors depending on their element, and they are your source of magic. They can be used only one time on each level of the dungeon, so once you use them, they will be grayed out until you move to the next floor. Up to six fupongs can tag along with Sword as he navigates through the maze, but since they trail slightly behind him, you have to be careful that they don't get caught in the screen that's about to be shuffled, because then they'll get severed from the partyturn gray. They can also get severed from the party if you get it caught in sliding blockades. If you leave your fupongs at the general store and feed them food that you find in the dungeons, they'll level and become more powerful. When you start to bring the villagers back, they'll rebuild their shops, and you can help them upgrade by selling them special items that you find in the dungeons. You can also choose the location of the store, and Giggles will tell you whether the location has ideal feng shui or not, which can affect pricing and inventory. The items will start off fairly pricey, though you would think you'd get a discount for trying to rescue everyone in the village. Giggles can also tell you your fortune, for 300Gs.
Characters are designed by Naoto Oshima, known for his work on Sonic the Hedgehog. The villagers have a blocky style to them, which you may or may not find appealing. While you're aboveground, it feels a lot like Animal Crossing, but when you're running through the dungeons, it feels like the older Zelda games. The music complements the game with tunes that fit the mood, like the wistful melody we hear during the initial start screen where we also hear the soothing sound of waves. There is some voice acting--more so in the cinematic cutscenes--but when you talk to villagers, they'll say just a word or two and let the text do the rest.
From what we've played, Away: Shuffle Dungeon is a good change of pace. It's not necessarily hard, but you will find yourself using the unlimited retries because you got greedy and wanted to snag the treasure from the other side. There is a Raid Battle mode for two players to play cooperatively against bosses, as well as special weapons and armor that can be used in the single-player game. Check back for our full review of Sword and his band of fupongs in October when the game is released.