Review by tarot

Reviewed: 09/15/03

Rogue-like with variety

While ''Asuka'' is officially a ''gaiden'' work in the Shiren series, it is really a sequel. Shiren is in turn a sequel of Torneko, a Japanese rogue-like game on the SFC console.

For those who don't know what a rogue-like game is, it is a special kind of RPG with these characteristics:

1. The dungeon is randomly generated. There is no switching between movement mode and combat mode. You meet monsters when you move around in the dungeon, and you fight them in the same environment. You and the monsters alternate turns: you take a turn (move, attack or use item), and the monsters take a turn, and you take a turn, and so on. Thus, it can be disadvantageous to fight several monsters at the same time.

2. The game is focused on the challenge of clearing the dungeons. The story is there, but it is a minor part of the game. In most rogue-like games, dying comes with a large penalty: you may lose all your items and levels, and may have to start over from the beginning.

Torneko itself started the trend of Japanese console rogue-like games. Other rogue-like games, such as Waku Puyo, Azure Dreams and Chokobo Dungeon, are influenced by it. They are also not as good. Torneko and Shiren have much tighter game balance, so that the challenge level is just right. Because these games are supposed to be about the challenge, this is important. Some RPGs (such as Climax Landers and Evolution) have also imported some rogue-like concepts (primarily the randomly generated dungeon), but honestly not to any satisfactory effect, since the randomly generated dungeon plays little significance if battles take part in a different environment (namely, the orthodox RPG combat engine). Without its effect on playability, a randomly generated dungeon would in fact feel featureless and boring.

In the original SFC Shiren, there is a main story quest. After completing the main quest, you can challenge two special theme dungeons (one is about ''transforming into monsters'', the other is about ''traps''), and then a secret advanced dungeon. Asuka has taken the concept of special theme dungeons and expanded it by several times. In Asuka, you first play the first story part, which consists of two dungeons. After clearing this part, you go to another land for the second story part, where you play, not two, but seven special theme dungeons!

There is the ''puzzle'' dungeon, with fixed stages as mini-problems for the player to solve; the SFC game has this feature too, but the problems here are more advanced and challenging, and they also make use of some of the new features in the DC game.

The ''transformation'' concept in Shiren has been developed into the ''electronic box'', and its corresponding special dungeon. Each electronic box represents an enemy monster. You can toss it like a Pokeball, and the monster will fight alongside you as your ally. It can also gain levels and evolve. You can also equip the box and transform into the monster yourself. You can register your boxes in the warehouse to prevent loss. Thus, when you play the ''electronic box'' dungeon, you are essentially playing Pokemon, except that the rogue-like dungeon environment is more fun to play than the one-on-one-queue battles in Pokemon.

The ''trap'' dungeon has also been improved: in Shiren, you can see the traps, and monsters (instead of yourself) will be caught by them, while in Asuka you can also pick up and reposition the traps.

In the ''magic'' dungeon, you can't find weapons and shields, but instead you will find lots of wands and scrolls, and your challenge is to utilize them to survive the dungeon without your usual trustworthy fighting gears.

The remaining three dungeons involve more novel concepts. In the ''secret technique'' dungeon, you can learn ''secret techniques'' with a variety of effects. Using them cost ''power'', which you can charge slowly with time, or quickly when you take damage.

In the ''thief'' dungeon, there are no corridors joining the rooms. Instead, you are given a (durable) pickaxe, to dig your own path. There are a higher frequency of ''monster houses'' and treasure rooms. However, the enemies become stronger at a much higher rate than other dungeons. Thus you need to level up and build up your hit points, probably by making use of the monster houses.

In the ''fate'' dungeon, you do not gain experience or levels, nor can you increase your hit points. You can bring a few items of your choice into the dungeon, and what you bring will be a large factor affecting your success.

After clearing all the special theme dungeons, you will conclude the second story part with the final dungeon, which is a difficult dungeon with a parade of previous bosses.

As if these were not enough, there are two extra dungeons for you to challenge. One is the advanced dungeon with unidentified items (including many baneful ones) similar to the one in the SFC game. The other is a challenge dungeon into which you need to bring the items you have accumulated. You need to bring your items, because random items do not appear at all in this dungeon, and the enemies are strong. Also, for many of the themed dungeons, while you need to clear 20 or so floors in order to ''clear'' the dungeon for the story part, you can re-enter the dungeon for the ''greater challenge'' of clearing 50 or 99 floors.

Shiren is a rogue-like game which can give hours of enjoyment. Asuka has added variety to the formula, so that the game has even better longevity (''replay value''). Even if you have played the weaker (less challenging) rogue-like games and have not been impressed, Asuka is well worth a try. However, the language barrier is quite high: if you can't read the names and the effect text of the items, and other text in the game describing game play hints and rules, the game is quite rough to play. If you can read some Japanese and have access to a good dictionary, it is worth it to play the game as a learning experience.

You may sometimes see inexperienced reviewers complaining about certain premise issues with rogue-like games. One is that if you die, you have to start over. In Asuka, you will lose your levels and all items you are carrying. (You can store items in the warehouse, and those will be safe.) It is part of the challenge of the game. If one could freely re-load after death, the game would lose its tension and its excitement. It is advertised for Shiren/Asuka that, even though your character may lose his levels and items, what is most important is that the player has gained experience which will help him in future travels. I feel that this statement is very true. If the player learns from his mistakes and persevere, he will eventually prevail. The story parts in Asuka are of a very reasonable level of difficulty, so as long as one accepts defeat with a positive attitude of ''challenge again'' instead of getting mad and breaking the TV, I can't see how this can be a problem. Another issue is hunger. In Asuka (and Shiren), there is a ''stomach fill'' meter. You need to eat food from time to time; starvation leads to death. Some people are mad about this. Well, if everyone keeps dying of hunger all the time, that is probably a game balance problem. But I haven't felt any particular shortage of food in Asuka. If one dies of hunger frequently, he is probably spending his turns with very poor efficiency. Perhaps he is stuck with his RPG playing habit of ''leveling'' unnecessarily too much? The game is not at fault, here.

Asuka, with its classical Japanese setting inherited from Shiren, has beautiful graphics and music. Unfortunately, the game is not flawless. The game has a few fatal bugs. If you run into a game-freezing bug while inside a dungeon, the DC save game mechanisms will treat this as death, so you lose your levels and items. The save game mechanism is one area where Asuka is inferior to its SFC predecessor. In Shiren, the game is saved automatically after every turn, every move. If the game freezes or if there is a power failure, you can re-load from just before the failure. However, the DC can't save game after every turn, so in Asuka any such trouble means death. Also, in Asuka you can save game only at the end of a floor. This can be quite inconvenient. Another issue is that, some people overrate the interface of Torneko/Shiren/Asuka. In my theory, a good interface needs to behave well in three aspects: it should be intuitive, responsive, and efficient. The interface, which is primarily the menu system inherited from Dragonquest, is certainly intuitive and easy to learn. By 'responsive' I mean that the interface should do what the player wants to do. In this area, the interface is so-so, as among experienced players, ''control miss'' is a main cause of death. And the interface is certainly not very efficient: there are some trivial everyday tasks (like ''pot'' management and manual trap detection) which are quite cumbersome to execute. The two problems are somewhat related: the multiple levels of menus are, though intuitive, tedious to navigate over and over again, so the player gets impatient and hit a button at the wrong place, which causes an unintended action - which can be dangerous or costly. But, despite these problems, the game is still one of the best among rogue-like games.

Rating: 9

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