Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Game of the Quarter

I thought I'd start a new feature, and by "feature" I mean something that I'll do once and forget about unless you guys remind me. The idea is that at the end of each quarter, I'll write about the best new game I played during that quarter.

Today, it's the best new game of Q1 2008, and it's Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer (Nintendo DS).

It's a game about a samuari and his weasel.

I'd tell you about the story, but it doesn't matter. It's a journey through a dungeon full of mystery to solve another mystery blah blah blah. No matter--the design decisions and gameplay mechanics are what make this game impossible to put down.

You start off in Canyon Hamlet, a tiny village, with your pet weasel. Here's your objective: don't die.

That's right--no loading of saves. If you die at any point while you're fighting your way through the thirty levels, you get sent back to Canyon Hamlet, your character gets reset to level one, and you lose all the gear that was on you at the time of your death.


In this game, though, that's the point, and it forces you to use different strategies than you'd use in a regular RPG. For instance, in this game, you don't really level your character--you level and protect your gear. And in addition to leveling your gear, you level your knowledge of how the game works.

You have to, because there are literally hundreds of scrolls and staffs and weapons and miscellaneous items, and knowing how to use them is the difference between surviving or returning to Canyon Hamlet. And the game is turn-based, so deadly encounters turn into mind-twisting mental challenges.

Here's an example. Let's say your're facing, well, anything, and your weapon/shield aren't strong enough to defeat the enemy. There will probably be several staffs in your inventory, and here are some of the strategies you could use:
--a Knockback Staff would drive the monster back, unless it was already against a wall.
--a Doppelganger Staff would turn the monster into a copy of you (if there are other monsters in the room, they'd attack the copy instead)
--a Staff of Postpone would transport the monster to the exit, but it also levels it up, so it's harder to defeat when you do get there
--a Pain-Sharing Staff takes as many hit points away from the monster as it takes away from you.

Other staffs cause paralysis or confusion, so they'd be options, too. Or you could use one of many possible scrolls.

In other words, every encounter provides you with almost infinite strategic options. And that much choice means the game generates great stories, particularly involving your own death.

If there are a thousand ways to live, there must be ten thousand ways to die.

If you think losing your gear and your experience at death makes the game more gripping, you're right. Here's an example, and it's my current trip through the game. I'm on level 26, but my gear is all wrong. I've got a +12 katana, which is wicked, and some solid armor, but the scrolls and staffs haven't fallen my way this time (their distribution in any one game is wildly random, which greatly enhances replayability). Plus, you can find jars along the way which hold multiple items (which lets you carry many more items in total), and I'd usually have at least four or five "holding" jars at this point, but this time I have a grand total of one. So not only do I not have the right scrolls and staffs, I don't have enough of them, either.

I just walked into a monster house, too. A monster house is where you walk into a level and you're suddenly in one big area jammed with monsters--in this case, there were twelve. Without a Blastwave Scroll (which would cause huge area damage), I was in big, big trouble. Much to my shock, I survived, and now there's a ton of loot in that room.

Even with the loot, I'm not going to survive, because I have to trade out what I find with what I have (no free inventory slots). The quality of the loot, though, makes it well worth my while to do something that is rarely done in a game.

I need to go back.

Back through the dungeons, back through a few small villages, all the way back to a town with a sizable warehouse. I can store all that gear, cash in what I don't need, buy jars of holding, and triple my available inventory slots. But I can't die on the way, or I lose everything.

That makes for a tense, tense trip. [update: and an amusingly short trip as well, because I completely forgot that I COULDN'T go back--once you're past a certain point in the dungeon, if you continue forward, you either finish or die. In my case, you could add "quickly" in front of the die.]

In case you're wondering, I haven't finished the main dungeon yet. I've made it to the 28th floor, and I can make it into the twenties fairly consistently now, but I'm not quite there yet. A single run to the 25th floor takes me two hours or longer, depending on how I choose to play

So big deal, right? So death takes you back to level one, and you play through a bunch of times until you win.

Well, that's not all.

For starters, there's a tutorial dungeon in Canyon Hamlet with fifty puzzles. Those puzzles teach you the game, particularly how to use many of the more powerful items. You're rewarded with a random item each time you complete a puzzle, and it's a terrific way to get introduced to the mechanics of the game. Plus, if you complete all those puzzles, there's a bonus dungeon available after you finish the main game.

There are several other bonus dungeons, by the way, each one offering a special challenge.

Plus, the layout of each level is randomly generated. The landscape type is the same, but the layout is always different, and that difference is interesting. So when you accidentally step into a monster house, it's always a surprise.

Then there's the world, and I think this is a wonderful piece of design. In the world there are many characters with unresolved stories. If you find these stories and help the characters reach a conclusion, those same characters may join you or give you items on your subsequent journeys. I have two companions now who almost always join me, and they're both powerful (although they never make it past the 20th floor or so). There are also special items that are only available after certain stories are resolved. So it may be Groundhog Day for you, but the rest of the world is going about its business and continuing to change.

Here's just one example. One of the most powerful items in the game is what's called a melding pot, and it's essentially the basis for a very powerful crafting system. It gives you the ability to merge certain items, particularly weapons, and almost all the best weapons and armor in the game are a result of using the melding pot.

This pot, though, isn't available at first. It's actually not available for quite a while, and you must revisit a certain person multiple times as his story advances until it gets to the point where you acquire a pot. His story is actually a bit funny, too. Most of the other stories are as well, and the game has a clever sense of humor in general.

One last feature (I'm sure I'm leaving a ton of things out, but this is so long already): when you die, you have the option of sending out a rescue request, either by Nintendo wi-fi or via a password. Someone else who is playing the game can then attempt a rescue, and if they're successful, you're revived and can continue onward. Again, that's a totally cool design feature in a game that's full of them.

If you've seen reviews of this game, you'll see most reviewers complain about how much "luck" is involved. I thought that, too, for the first ten hours. The more you learn about items and how they work, though, the less random it seems. Skill and good decisions are a much, much bigger part of this game than luck.

I stumbled on this game thanks to a forum thread over at Quarter to Three, so full credit goes to those guys in terms of discovery. It's a terrific game and it is totally addictive.

Honorable mention for Game of the Quarter goes to MLB '08: The Show, which is the finest baseball game I've ever played. It also looks utterly spectacular in HD, and it's more lifelike in motion than any sports game ever created.

In spite of that, though, I spent most of my time now playing on the tiny DS screen, trying not to get turned into a riceball.

Don't worry--you'll know what I'm talking about soon enough.

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