If, in your secret heart of hearts, you really enjoy being kicked in the face, then we can heartily recommend Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja. It will satisfy your special needs in a way that is beyond compare.
However, if you're like the rest of us and don't have a genetic need to sweat and swear your way through games, we'll tell you to approach this one with caution. Izuna has a lot going for it, but prepare yourself for an unforgiving gaming experience.
So what's it all about? In a nutshell, Izuna follows the story of -- you guessed it -- Izuna, an "unemployed ninja" in a time when ninja are no longer valued as they once were (say it ain't so!). She and her ninja brethren are traveling across the countryside, looking for work, when they stumble into a village. Before they can even settle in, our heroine manages to piss off the gods, and thus is the stage set: Izuna must travel to a number of dungeons, placate (read: crush) the gods within, and restore equilibrium.
Izuna is not the longest game you'll play this year -- the entire experience revolves around fewer than ten dungeons with the story wrapped around mastering each one -- but what seems like an easily surmountable adventure quickly becomes a more monumental effort. Why? Because each one of those dungeons is brutally punishing, and just to add insult to injury, if you want to stay on par with your enemies, you will have to slowly comb each one and maybe even delve into some replay.
But it's not as bad as it sounds.
Izuna -- which might as well have been named Izuna: Legend of the Mystery Dungeon -- is a throwback to a time when games were hard and enemies kicked your ass. What's more, it's unforgiving. Forget about resetting when you're not doing so well; if you turn off the DS, the game chalks it up as a death. Guess what happens when you die? You lose everything. Every coin, every item, and definitely large chunks of your self-respect. And you will die, and die, and then you'll die a few more times. In fact, the multiple screens one must skip upon death are one of the game's few major annoyances. Since it's established that you may well croak at every turn, they could have made that a little more streamlined.
The game starts you off with what seems like a ridiculous amount of money, at least until you go to the local shop and find out that prices are even more ridiculous. Forget that money. Pretend it's not even in your pocket. Sure, you could buy things, but that just makes it worse when you go into the first dungeon and are brutally slaughtered by blobs. Once you restart six times (memorizing the script in the process), hoping each time to hang on to your hard-won items, only to be killed (again), you'll thank us for this advice. Go in this first dungeon with nothing. Learn to survive on what you find. The dungeons are randomly generated each time you enter, so pray for a good start.
Once you get into the game, it gets a lot easier. You learn to be careful. Gameplay is turn-based; enemies move when you move, so you can learn to use the level designs to your advantage (corridors are gold) and let enemies come to you. The items you find inside dungeons provide a lot of the game's depth. They often come with vague descriptions, and experimentation can lead to interesting results. Along the way, you also find talismans (essentially spell scrolls) that can either be used for direct attacks, or can be combined with weapons. Of course, sometimes the talisman is too powerful for the weapon in question, and ... well, let's just say that usually results in badness that sometimes leads to those three screens we were talking about skipping earlier. A broken weapon is nobody's friend, so combine with caution.
Now the good news: you do hang on to one thing when you die, and that's your experience points. This is good news, because you will grind, and grind, and grind in order to avoid those three painful screens of death. While this can get somewhat monotonous, it's a staple for this type of game, so if you were paying attention, you knew what you were getting into, buddy!
Don't get us wrong. Izuna is in no way bad, and if we've made it seem frustrating with the above ... well, sometimes it is a little frustrating, but what good game isn't? The pain of grinding is lessened somewhat by the irreverent story and quirky characters. This is where Atlus shines for the DS -- no one localizes brutally difficult games like Atlus. From the occasional high-pitched voiceover from Izuna herself to the names of the talismanic scrolls, it's the little touches that make this game such a treat, and it makes grinding through those dungeons a little easier as well.
The basics (or, the review is in the details):
Controls: Simple and straightforward. Use the d-pad to control Izuna in all directions, including diagonally. If you want to be assured of moving diagonally, you can also hold the right shoulder button. Holding B while moving allows you to sprint, but Izuna is pretty hard to control when she's jamming like that. Attacks are as easy as pressing A. Don't look for any touchscreen controls. Izuna is a hands-off kinda girl.
Visuals: Nothing special, but the retro look suits the gameplay just fine, and the character depictions on the top screen are fairly endearing.
Sound: Less special than the graphics, except for one thing -- Japanese voiceovers. Oh, how we wish more games would do that, instead of sticking us with terrible English lines that sound like they've been read off a cereal box by a homeless person. There aren't many of them, but we treasured each one like a pretty, sparkly jewel.
Story: Hilarious, but somewhat shallow. The inciting incident will probably make you want to slap Izuna in the mouth, but once you get past that, it's smooth sailing. The localization is brilliant, and the conversations in the village make all the other punishment worth it.
Difficulty: It may make you cry and call for mommy.
In the end? We give Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja a solid rating but admit that we do at times enjoy being tortured during gameplay. If you prefer less of a challenge, your mileage may vary.
Final score: 7.0/10