Developer: Ninja Studio
Release Date: February 20, 2007
Have you played NetHack? If the answer is no, stop reading this review long enough to start downloading it because your gaming career isn't complete without a good run of the original dungeon exploration game — and it's free. NetHack's one of those games that not everyone has played, but everyone who calls himself a gamer should have played. The levels of complexity grow organically to easily outstrip even the great classic board games, and in its simplistic graphics, there is an incredible amount of beautiful gameplay to it. The formula is so successful that it's been copied, and copied, and copied, from Angband to Tales of Middle Earth to games on graphing calculators.
In Japan, there are plenty of gamers who will think of a pseudo-series of games in the same vein. Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon share similar characteristics alongside the Roguelikes, except for having somewhat more color. Ninja Studio isn't the company behind the Mysterious Dungeon series, but their own take, Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja, manages to bring itself somewhat closer to the text-based style without losing a certain graphical and presentational charm all its own.
Before I continue, however, may I give you a little warning: Nethack is famous for its difficulty. Imagine a game where, if you die, your save is deleted, and your save game can't be copied, either. If you thought of Steel Battalion, you spent $200 too much to experience this kind of hair-tearing frustration. Izuna is almost the same way, except that there are fewer stupid ways to die, and death doesn't mean starting over from the beginning, but it does mean losing all of your items, which will, without fail, set you back severely. There is a storage space for protecting items, but it doesn't do much.
You also can't power off the game and reloading your save because all of your items get stolen that way, too. You can choose to "save and exit" in town, and at the end of any floor of the dungeon (so that you can legitimately turn off your DS), but if you prefer powering off to closing your DS to pause games, Izuna is not for you. If you don't like the prospect of backtracking to rebuild your inventory, Izuna is not for you.
If you want every last ounce of Nethack's difficulty, sadly, Izuna doesn't quite hit it; with enough hammering on areas, you'll eventually get through, and a good sense of tactics will speed up your job immensely. If you played through Disgaea 2 using one character, you'll have a partial idea of how to handle this, though randomly generated dungeons will force you to think on your feet quite a bit.
If you haven't played Nethack to get the idea yet, Izuna is a turn-based, dungeon-crawling game with a single character. Most of your items are found inside the dungeons, though shops in town provide some assistance and most of the storyline. I'm impressed with how Ninja Studio handled the control scheme; you get everything you need (not much) and quite a bit you'll want (a lot). For example, a button which locks you into diagonal movement will get more use than you'd initially think. There is no dig, dip, enhance, or other insane stacks of skills as in most Roguelikes, but keeping it simple is probably a good thing, although a massive cluster of buttons on the touch-screen would've worked, too.
The play is simple but surprisingly difficult and tactical, mandating a lot more attention than it seems. You'll adjust eventually, but even then, prepare for head-bangingly difficult dungeons and a lot of careful thinking about how to progress, not in a massive world-spanning arc, but in the little nitty-gritty of every floor of a 10-story dungeon. A week of obsessive play got me about two-thirds of the way through, so the length is decent but not incredible, but then again, I know Roguelikes well enough that Izuna wasn't exceptionally difficult for me.
The game's presentation is interesting, taking maximum advantage of the twin-screen DS layout, while demanding your hands go around but not over the system (i.e., no touch-screen use whatsoever). The graphics are full-on anime style, with some definite Naruto influences, but also a fair amount more traditional in terms of the environments. You're in a Japanese village, you've pissed off six anime-ized local Shinto gods, and the few voice clips get the different characters across excellently and authentically to the Japanese language. Sound effects otherwise are not noteworthy and can grow repetitive, while music is consistently customary Japanese mixed with old-school RPG in style. It's not necessarily a classic, but surprisingly beautiful, rather haunting, and well-composed through and through.
Storylines count as part of the presentation of a Roguelike, though they are usually tacked-on and secondary to the gameplay. Izuna, however, takes the time to make this plot good. In an unspecified era, your family of ninjas gets downsized by a local lord, and you go to find a new home. Being a 16-year-old girl, you promptly steal a powerful artifact from a Shinto shrine and naturally curse the entire village. This forces you to face off against several local gods, who all conveniently hole up at the bottom of different dungeons, to get magical orbs that will erase some of the different curses on everyone in the village. Needless to say, this is told with pretty large amounts of comedy, in true Atlus USA style, though the game is far less localized and more literal in some translations than most. For example, Izuna always refers to her sister and fellow ninja as "Shino-sis." The results are interesting, funny, and drive you to keep fighting through the game without ever being more than a "light" storyline.
In short, Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja is old-school in trappings on more than one level. It is humorous in its story, but makes no bones about being meant for exactly one audience: the truly hardcore players. If you thought Ninja Gaiden was easy, if you've beaten Uber Prinny Baal in Disgaea without having characters of higher levels than Baal himself, if you beat Viewtiful Joe on the GameCube (no Dante, weaklings) on any upper difficulty level, or if you've ascended in Nethack, then go grab Izuna and enjoy some high-difficulty, high-humor action. (Well, actually, you might find Izuna a bit easy if you've ascended.)
If, on the other hand, you prefer saves and epic lengths of play to intense difficulty, avoid Izuna, as no amount of presentation polish is going to save you from dying, dying, and dying enough times to risk breaking your DS in inexorable frustration. The game's gotten a lot of hate from a lot of people, and while I hate to admit it, it's true for certain games in certain genres — you may not be worthy of playing Izuna. Chat with the Oracle a few times, and maybe you'll figure out if you are.