One part Soul Blazer, one part Phantom Hourglass – that's Mistwalker's Away: Shuffle Dungeon. The DS title is very much like Soul Blazer in the sense that its hero wanders through lairs in a quest to restore his town, piece by piece (and villager by villager). Meanwhile, shades of Phantom Hourglass trickle in via Away's cartoon visuals and arena-like boss battles. And despite these associations with games of the past, Away: Shuffle Dungeon does offer a unique, avant-garde feature not found elsewhere: shuffling dungeons.
"Shuffling dungeons" entail dynamic changes to the layout of enemy-infested locales as players explore in real-time. A dungeon is displayed on both the top and touch screens; only one screen at a time will shuffle out an area and replace it with a new section. The objective is to arrive on the other screen before the timer runs out; if a player fails to make it in time, the penalty takes them back to the beginning of the floor they're on. The overall effect of this system makes the tedium of regular dungeon crawling go away. The time pressure and the puzzle-connected areas force gamers to think quickly, making things not only challenging, but quite exciting as well.
The shuffle system may be a little difficult to grasp at first, but there are many signs that will remind players which screen is about to shuffle out. The screen that's about to exit will be the only one with the timer display and it will also shake momentarily right before it's about to be removed. As players continue shuffling through the various themed hideouts, they'll eventually come to a staircase that will take them to the next floor. Sometimes, these staircases take the player straight to a boss battle – so be prepared before taking that next step. Also, whenever a player arrives at a staircase, they'll be offered a chance to quick save. This is very handy if one needs to stop gaming abruptly.
Dungeons shuffle in a loop. This means that once players get to the final area of a floor, it's not actually over if a player doesn't make it to the staircase. Instead, the dungeon will shuffle back to the beginning of that floor and will go through the same sequence. This also means that all shuffled areas are preset, which makes navigating through each section much easier since they can be memorized. Some dungeons are hardly straightforward and require players to loop around the same floor several times before moving on; this is usually due to variables like blockades that need to be removed by switches, or treadmills that need to be switched to go in the other direction.
Another interesting aspect of the game is its magic system. It revolves around magical creatures called "Fupong," which can be collected inside dungeons. They will follow behind the hero in a line as he parades around the lair grounds, and it'll be crucial to ensure that the Fupong don't get caught in an area shuffle, lest you risk losing all of them. Each Fupong equals one spell and players can have up to six of them at one time. The first spell we came across was the flare spell which shoots out a fireball at the tap of the 'X' button. Unfortunately, the battle system doesn't really balance out the use of magic and physical attacks – combat is still very much focused on swordplay. Magic only seems to be of real value during boss battles.
Speaking of boss battles, these spectacles occur in 3D arenas. The first boss encountered in the game is a blue crab-like monster, which attacks in a very predictable manner. The weak spot on its front side is the only place where it can be damaged. When it gets hit there, it will go into a spinning mode and will zoom around the battle area. This then brings up an important point: since the camera is fixed in only one direction, it makes it rather difficult to see where this creature is when it is spinning. Though it wasn't difficult to avoid the creature while this was happening, it was evident that the combat felt unrefined and far too restrictive. It appears that the game nails down the 2D dungeon crawling greatly, but the way it handles the 3D boss battle section comes off a tad jilted.
Well, that was it for our time with Away: Shuffle Dungeon. It's a quirky little title co-developed by Mistwalker, Artoon and AQ Interactive with some big names on-board, such as Nobuo Uematsu. It's a fairly generic romp through action-RPGland in terms of story, but its dungeon shuffle mechanic is truly something that should be explored at least once. Away: Shuffle Dungeon releases on December 2.