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Game Review

by Heidi Kemps,

Shiren the Wanderer


Shiren the Wanderer: the Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate
Legend has it that Reeva, god of Destiny, holds sway over the past, present, and future. Said to dwell in the mysterious Tower of Fortune, Reeva decides the fates of all mankind with a trio of magic dice... Lead Shiren The Wanderer and Koppa in their quest to conquer the Tower of Fortune!

When you ask Japanese gamers about roguelike dungeon-crawling games, there is one series that stands out as a benchmark among all others: Shiren the Wanderer. The formula developers Chun Soft (now part of Spike-Chunsoft) have perfected over the past two decades has served as the basis and inspiration for many other Japanese-developed roguelikes that have appeared in the years since. If you've played Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, Chocobo's Dungeon, or Etrian Mystery Dungeon, they share a lot of the same DNA as Shiren.

While there hasn't been much Shiren on Western shores, the games that have wandered their way overseas have found a lot of love from people who have picked them up. Now, Spike-Chunsoft is trying to give Shiren another go in North America with Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate on Switch and PC. It's a bit of a mouthful, but it's actually the fifth title in the Shiren chronology and an enhanced re-release of a PlayStation Vita remake of a DS game released some time ago.

But generally, those other titles have something about them that takes the edge off of the experience. Yes, there's bad luck and losing a bunch of your good gear when you eat it in a randomly generated dungeon in other Mystery Dungeon titles, but there's also usually an easy, accessible way to mitigate a lot of the consequences and reduce risk. This is why Shiren has tended to be a tougher sell to Western audiences (besides the lack of a recognizable license): it's far more harsh and unforgiving. The dungeons are long and filled with gimmicks, traps like annoying little landmines are all over the place, enemies have powers that can completely wreck you if you charge in blindly (which you often have to do), and an invisible die roll not going in your favor can spell the end of a run when you miss that enemy who is nearly dead but who counterattacks with a fatal strike. Oh, and did I mention the new day/night cycles that come into play later in the game, which alter visibility and make enemies a lot more brutal? Yeah, it's rough.

That isn't to say that Shiren is totally unfair. One of the reasons why Shiren is so highly regarded as a roguelike is that the game gives you a lot of tools and options to make use of. You can find weapons and shields in dungeons, which you can upgrade and plate to protect against wear – and which will improve in potency with use. Various plants you scrounge up will grant special powers and stat boosts, while scrolls, staves, and talismans you find and buy can be utilized to afflict enemies with various status ailments. If your inventory is getting packed (and it will be, constantly), you can organize things in pots – but be careful, because there are some pots with some weird and wild effects like transforming and combining items. As you progress through the game, you'll also have the option to recruit various helpful NPC partners to accompany you into dungeons, who will level up, provide you with combat backup, and serve as handy meatshields when needed. By keeping a well-stocked, well-managed inventory, you can prepare well for many potential situations, and by using storage in town after your successful dungeon runs, you can keep items safe until needed – or even use them to create new, potentially awesome stuff).

But while you have a lot of tools at your disposal, it's being able to calmly analyze a situation and use what you have skillfully in a pinch that will determine your success or tragicomic failure. Yes, when things go wrong in Shiren, they often go nuclear, turning into a tragicomic trainwreck with Yakety Sax blaring in the background. Let me relay one of my experiences: mid-dungeon, I realized I was in over my head, went to get an escape scroll out of my inventory, realized another enemy had stolen the escape scroll a bit earlier, and used some Warp Grass to leave the room and go elsewhere. This would have been somewhat clever, except I left one of my teammates to get horribly mauled, which leveled up one of the room's tougher enemies. Even though I found the seal-like Zakoleft monster that had snatched my precious means of escape, the leveled-up monster quickly chased me down at double speed, making my death inevitable. And even though I thought I had a last-ditch escape upon death item, it turned out to be a dud that failed on me. Farewell, all my sweet loot.

Of course, my reaction to this loss was to immediately pick myself up, snag some second-rate gear out of storage, and try my luck again. No matter how many times Shiren the Wanderer kicks you down, it has a delightfully addictive quality to it that encourages you to keep at it. It's considerably more unforgiving than something like Hades, which allows you to gradually improve your base abilities over time to give you an edge in subsequent playthroughs, but Shiren’s focus is more on learning through experience – often very painful experience. So now you know about that stupid enemy gimmick and will bring a bracelet that negates it, or now you have enough points to buy some spare Undo Grass. Better yet, you now have some skills that will decimate enemies when nighttime comes. You might have cut me down this time, but I'm coming back and I'm going to kick some ass this time.

And really, isn't that the feeling we all look for in roguelikes? We play, we get knocked down in our prime, we lick our wounds and come back smarter and hoping for better luck until we emerge as conquerers. Throughout this whole article, I've said nothing about the visuals or music (both of which are pretty nice, if a bit dated), because compared to the moment-to-moment gameplay of Shiren, they aren't important. If you love roguelikes as a genre and want to experience one of the most satisfying, well-crafted examples of the genre, you owe it to yourself to pick Shiren the Wanderer up.

Overall : B+
Graphics : B
Sound/Music : B+
Gameplay : B+
Presentation : B+

+ Engaging and addicting roguelike gameplay that makes you think outside the box
Make sure you're prepared for some extremely painful losses

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