Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a kinda-sorta bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

That first generation of games in a new genre tends to not look too critically at the source material. Depending on how charitable one's feeling, this could be considered to be either because of a cynical exploitation of that material or a genuine enthusiasm for it. The "lost" roguelikes mentioned last time were like this.

The second generation is made by people further removed from the seed concept. Sometimes they may not even know of the idea's source, or they might view it in a less enthusiastic light. People start trying to fix what are perceived to be problems in the game. Sometimes these are actual problems, and sometimes the apparent flaws are a result of an incomplete understanding of the design. Often it's both at once; the designers fix things that are only problems from their point of view.

When the third generation comes around the same thing happens, then again, and again. Minor things are misunderstood to be essential to the design, and important things are forgotten. Eventually the genre solidifies around the aspects that are copied the most, and the Platonic ideal becomes something iconic that may, or may not, have a great deal to do with the original.

When the cycle crosses a cultural divide, there often occurs a much greater disconnect between the original ideas and their mutations. When Yuuji Horii created Dragon Quest, he was directly inspired by Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, which he discovered on a trip to the U.S. Later on there was Final Fantasy, which bears unmistakable marks of Dragon Quest's influence but less of Wizardry.

The cycle can also be seen when Chunsoft created the first two Mystery Dungeon games, Torneko and Shiren, both games that crib from Rogue, but not, directly, Dungeons & Dragons. Then other games were inspired by Mystery Dungeon while being ignorant of Rogue, each taking the core ideas and pulling them in a different direction.

Now, there are two main types of JCRPGs that draw from Mystery Dungeon. The more-common is the generic random dungeon game, the influence can be seen in full games (like Time Stalkers and Persona 3) and as a special area or mode in more traditional games (two that come to mind are in Lufia: Rise of the Sinistrals and Parasite Eve). The other, rarer category is a game that is more recognizably roguelike, but produced by people who have never heard of Rogue itself. This is what brings us around to Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja.

izuna1.png
Reincarnation Doesn't Suck As Bad As It Should

Izuna follows the same dungeon-replay model as Torneko and Shiren. But instead of one "major" dungeon to complete along with some bonuses, it features multiple sub-dungeons which are intended to be completed in order. Later dungeons are tougher, so the game allows Izuna to retain her experience level even after defeat.

One of the best ways to tell if a developer of a game with roguelike attributes is familiar with Rogue is how comfortable they are with the idea of permadeath. This is why Shiren returns to level 1 after each quest. While Izuna loses most of her items after each failure, she retains her level, including all the experience earned on the failed run.

Shiren does allow players to build up weapons and armor, but it's always possible for an accident to occur to them, resulting in their loss. Such losses, while somewhat preventable, are unavoidable in the long run. Izuna's permanent experience gain means the game becomes substantively easier the more the player plays it, and over-tough monsters at the beginning of later dungeons means that players will have to do some gaining to survive those dungeons. There is a word for this kind of experience gaining: grind.

Grind. You've played long enough that you deserve to be more powerful. More simulationist RPGs can excuse grind as being a realistic touch, and because there was both risk and skill to gaining experience points. But as RPGs have become more removed from the pretense of simulation, grind has become artificial and petty. If there's risk involved then it's a gamble, but Izuna doesn't lose a single experience point when she dies. At its core, grind means paying dues to the game, dues of time, and that's not healthy.

In addition to a storehouse in which items can be stashed between runs, and shops in town in which supplies can be purchased, Izuna provides a fairly easy way to ensure the player's main weapon can be saved, even after a death. Also, instant escape items aren't particularly rare. With all these escapes, it's relatively easy to ensure a beloved weapon not be lost, and this removes the game quite far from Rodney's endless stream of dungeon runs.

izuna2.pngIzuna the Strict Diet Ninja

Another thing that Izuna leaves out, to better effect in fact, is the food system. To remind: the classic roguelike purpose for food is to provide a time limit. Limits on food provide an incentive to keep exploring new levels, so that more food will be generated. To conserve food players must learn to explore maps efficiently, must not waste too many turns regenerating hit points, and must not wait for the wandering monster generator to produce too many easy experience points on the early levels.

Izuna does without food completely; there is no such item in the game. This means that the game must address each of the points I just brought up, and it actually does so: traps are more common in the more difficult dungeons of Izuna than usual providing cost to aimless exploration, monsters begin each level in greater supply than usual so evasion in order to heal is a less viable strategy, and new monsters are not randomly added to a level while it is being explored, so players can't build up so well on an easy floor. (Though they can, of course, replay earlier dungeons and build permanent experience that way. So this kind of balance is somewhat misplaced.)

Izuna brings some additions to the roguelike formula as well, and for the most part they're interesting ones. The biggest thing is the idea of weapon durability, which admittedly does act as a counter to the ease with which weapons can be kept indefinitely. Here, all uses of a weapon damage it slightly. Hitting certain monsters damages it more than others. Untended, a weapon can last maybe for around ten floors. When a weapon has taken sufficient damage it cracks, which is the player's warning that it only has a few swings left in it. If used beyond ultimate endurance, weapons shatter and are lost completely. In the intra-dungeon town there is a shop that repairs weapons, and one of the talismans that can appear in the dungeon can repair weapons of a portion of their damage, but later dungeons are long enough that durability becomes a matter of concern.

No weapon in Izuna is immune to damage! They're all limited in endurance, and keeping one in repair requires consuming resources. In a way, this makes up for the lack of food: players must still periodically consume stuff to remain viable, they're just weapon fixers instead of food rations. Weapons are common enough in dungeons that players can probably pick up a spare to use along the way, or go without in a pinch; Izuna is weak but not helpless without a blade in her hand.

Talismans and SP

Izuna's item system is similar to, but substantially different from, the roguelike standard. There are no potions, scrolls, rings or wands. Replacing them are pills, which can be eaten or thrown; orbs and pictures, which provide restorative and utility effects; and the real attraction here, talismans. (None of these items, by the way, is randomly scrambled. As in Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, all items are known the moment they are found.) A talisman has three potential uses: it can be read aloud for an effect, it can be "stuck" to a weapon to give it an effect, or it can be thrown at a monster to apply its "use" effect to it.

izuna3.pngBoth the use and stick effects carry an extra cost beyond using up the item. Reading a talisman causes Izuna to lose some of her SP, which only regenerate from looking at a picture, entering a boss fight or returning to town. If she doesn't have enough SP talismans cannot be read, but more importantly, her attack power drops dramatically if she's low on SP! An Izuna without any SP only does 10% of the damage one with all her SP will do.

This means that using talismans as emergency items is a much greater risk than the player might expect. Most talismans, especially those with an emergency-use function, have SP costs of 50 or more. Using one to get out of trouble or make a crowd of monsters easy to kill has the side effect of reducing Izuna's general survivability unless she's got a picture on-hand to restore that lost SP... and keeping spare pictures around quickly runs up against the game's 20-space inventory limit. So in practice, talismans don't get a lot of use in this way.

Sticking talismans to weapons works a bit better. Every weapon and "arm" (the game's version of armor) bears a "capacity," which is the total number of talisman SP points that can safely be stuck to it. While that number can be exceeded, the item will then decay rapidly in use, breaking after only a few hits. Until the later dungeons, most items will have a pitifully low capacity unless a few talismans have been used on it to increase its capacity, or Izuna has paid to have it expanded in town. And expanding capacity is slow work, with each expansion only adding a few points.

Weapon and armor power can be built up as well, although the process is different than in other games. One of the talismans raises a weapon's attack power when stuck, and another raises the defense of armor. As long as they are stuck to the item, its power is increased. But just sticking them takes up slots that could hold other abilities, and some monster abilities can remove talismans, returning the item to its default power. To make these stat changes permanent, the player must use a "Burn-In Orb," which destroys talismans on equipped items but makes stat changes (but not special effects) permanent, in exchange for permanently reducing the item's SP capacity by the burnt items' values.

Frogs, Why Did It Have To Be Frogs?

The monsters are a generally interesting bunch, not as tricky as Shiren's but still capable of some surprises. Marimos are round foes that have a bad habit of cloning themselves when struck, and promoting randomly when out of sight. Frogguns are the most interesting of the bunch. They're normal foes in most ways, but when killed they leave one or more eggs that, if struck, hatch into monsters far stronger than the original Froggun. Eggs block movement, meaning offing a frog in an inopportune spot could trap Izuna into having to fight a tough opponent to escape a dead end.

izuna3.pngThere are monsters that remove talismans from equipment, monsters that bestow a SP-draining condition, monsters that explode when struck, and monsters that don't move, but get the first hit when approached. None of the foes is as instantly incapacitating as Shiren's worst monsters; there is nothing like a Gaze, an Armor, a Skull Wraith or a Fear Radish here. The worst thing about monsters (other than those damnable Froggun) is the damage they do.

To fight against them there are a few miscellaneous bits of ninja equipment that players can find along the way. Shuriken and Kunai work like arrows in Shiren, but Caltrops and Bombs are new, special, and worthy additions to the game. Caltrops can be placed on the ground for a monster to cross, which does minor damage to it, or the whole bag can be thrown to scatter them across the floor. They do damage to Izuna too, however, so some care must be taken with them. They don't do a great deal of damage, but they serve to slow fast foes.

Bombs, when used, are placed on the ground and explode in a few turns. Explosions work like Shiren's landmines, halving hit points. (On the other hand, Shiren's exploding monsters do all but one HP of damage if they explode near the player.) Bombs take a turn to set and are only effective if you can get away and the monster can be lured near, so the best way to use them is to chuck them directly at foes, which provides all of the benefits with none of the risk.

While it doesn't happen nearly as often, it is possible for monsters in Izuna to promote, Shiren-style. It's rare because there are fewer things that can cause enemies to attack one another. The most common is perhaps one type of weapon Izuna can wield that randomly turns a monster into an ally. While nice to have around, this makes that monster a target for his former friends, and will probably result in a promoted enemy before long; sadly, ally monsters don't promote. This kind of monster advancement is as distinctive to Shiren as room shops are to Nethack, making it obvious where the idea came from. And promoted monsters are much more dangerous in Izuna, since the game's mechanics are geared more towards a slow, long-term gaining of levels instead of a rapid rise in power and the special items that might help the player cope also decrease attack strength. It's a good thing, then, that promotions are so rare.

The difference in the power-gain curve is the biggest problem with Izuna. Roguelike games of the Hack school are most fun when the player can turn sudden advantage against overwhelming odds through clever use of resources. Shiren, played carefully enough, can make it through hell alive. Izuna steals a lot from Mystery Dungeon, and adds in a lot of its own coolnesses, but those kinds of power plays are much rarer. Levels are gained much more slowly, as they have to be since experience gain is permanent, and too many of the power items leave the player depleted afterward. The game's slow rise in power gives it some similarity to the 'Bands, but without the tremendous strategic depth of those games. It's actually not bad, not at all, and it shows a lot of thought, but it falls short of Shiren's general excellence.

Screenshots scavenged from Atlus, by way of GoNintendo.