Shiren the Wanderer Vita Review: Rogue Leader

Shiren the Wanderer Vita Review: Rogue Leader

The original console roguelike returns to show the new kids how it's done.

Let's get this out of the way right up front: Shiren the Wanderer is not a game for everyone. You may, in fact, hate it. And that's OK.

I try my best not to be a snob about video games, even if I do have my own particular expectations and interests. All the things I love about the latest Shiren game (which bears the unwieldy subtitle of "The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate") will be precisely why many people will hate it. Video game fans look to their hobby as a way to unwind, to relax... and nothing about Shiren offers relaxation. It can be a nerve-wracking, spirit-crushing experience at the best of times, and taking a particularly cruel tumble can fill you with the desire to fling your Vita across the room in a rage. And that's why it's so good!

Like all proper roguelike, Shiren has no interest in petty human notions of "fairness." It does not play fair, and it makes no apologies for its harshness. Very little about the game is predictable, presenting players with a series of randomly arranged dungeons containing a randomized assortment of monsters and a random collection of consumable items and equipment to gather. You can gird yourself with a small arsenal of gear, or stack the odds in your favor by recruiting companion characters to fight alongside you, and even so you constantly run the risk of dying in a horrible instant, losing all the progress you've made in a hours-long dungeon run to a stroke of bad luck. There's no way to foretell that, for instance, one of your companions is going to wander off on his own to fight the toughest enemy on the current floor of dungeon and get his ass beaten, causing that monster to level-up and mop the floor with poor Shiren because you ran out of healing items and stuck your only dungeon-escape scroll in a pot for later (meaning you can't use it, because you have to break the pot to collect any items within, but you're on an open-concept floor, which means there are no hard walls to shatter the pot against).

Nevertheless, the game works, because while it never quite feels fair or predictable, it's always consistent. Everything in the game operates within a very firm set of rules, and even the most diabolical enemy never deviates from those boundaries. Those rules may infuriate you — especially when you start taking fire from off-screen courtesy of horrible little tanks whose attacks hit hard and have an area-of-effect impact on your entire group — but once you learn all the behaviors of enemies and items, you can begin to account for (and brace for) those actions.

That doesn't mean you're ever guaranteed to survive a dungeon dive. Just because you know what the bad guys can do and which tools will most likely help you survive as you go exploring doesn't mean you'll necessarily have those tools on hand when you need them. Everything in the Mystery Dungeon appears at random, and the success of a run often comes down to what pickups you manage to draw through sheer luck. You can attempt to stock up in advance, of course, but the most specialized gear you need typically comes into play a dozen or more floors into the dungeon — meaning you have to tote it around with you through the not-at-all-unchallenging sequences leading up to that point, sacrificing one of your precious limited inventory slots for a stratagem that may never even come into play.

When you fall in combat, of course, Shiren the Wanderer strips you of everything: Your experience, your gear, your consumables, your progress. You're sent back to the beginning of the game, reduced to nothing. Even if you escape back to town on your own steam, exiting before completing the dungeon will allow you to keep your stuff but will still revert Shiren back to experience level 1. It's the same formula you've seen in games like Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon and Etrian Mystery Dungeon — all works developed or overseen by Shiren creators Spike Chunsoft — but here you'll find a much purer take on the roguelike genre. It's nowhere near as story-heavy (or as easy) as the Pokémon games, and it lacks the permanent skill-building and fortress-defending of last year's excellent Etrian spinoff.

Even so, it's not a truly pure roguelike, because despite the constant threat of massive setbacks, Shiren the Wanderer does include a number of persistent elements that evolve throughout your quest. You'll find a variety of running subquests throughout the game, mostly in the form of seemingly minor character interactions that can have huge payoffs that create permanent advantages for you in your ongoing mission to conquer the Mystery Dungeon. You can also store cash and equipment back at the starting town in order to create a pool of resources for your journeys, ensuring you need never venture out empty-handed.

In fact, the bulk of Shiren the Wanderer's content actually resides in the starting area, before you ever set foot into the dungeon. Besides dozens of non-player characters to interact with, Nekomaneki Village also contains something like 20 massive bonus dungeons, each with its own particular gimmick. If the four-part story dungeon with the horrible, nigh-unstoppable boss at the top strikes you as being entirely too easy, maybe you should try the 10-floor dungeon where you can only kill enemies by using traps? Or the 99-floor dungeon in which no healing items will be generated, ever? Shiren the Wanderer's main quest can be fairly generous with item distribution (you might even get lucky and run into a fortune teller whose reading causes the appearance of numerous items that cause your character level to increase instantly), but even though it gets tough toward the end — especially once you start dealing with the day/night cycle — the Tower of Fortune itself is a breeze compared to the bonus stages.

Shiren also takes a clue from PC roguelikes such as Nethack by including hundreds of minigame challenges in the form of a Soukoban clone (that is, box-pushing puzzles) and a Minesweeper series. These turn out to be a lot more engaging than you might expect from adaptations of three-decade-old PC games, because both modes integrate Mystery Dungeon mechanics. Shove-It! and Boxxle never demanded you solve box puzzles while avoiding vicious crab monsters, dealing with crippling curses, or using magical staves possessing numerous different effects. I can't begin to guess how many hours it would take to complete every puzzle and dungeon challenge in Shiren the Wanderer, but I have to assume it stands in the hundreds... if it's even possible at all. This is the kind of game a person can truly commit to.

A big part of what makes Shiren work comes from the sheer number of game elements at play. There are dozens of enemies to contend with, each capable of evolving into deadlier forms over the course of the dungeon (or if they manage to claim a kill while fighting you). Similarly, there are many more dozens of items you can collect and use: Weapons and armor, skill-enhancing bracelets, seals and staves and scrolls containing magical effects, curative and buffing items, storage pots, and more. Dungeons can contain a variety of traps, and you can arm yourself with equipment to make you resistant to some but not all of them. You can also team up with a number of companion characters, who may fall in battle but nevertheless will retain their level-ups (unlike Shiren) when you next meet up with them.

The game embodies the concept of risk-reward; it's intrinsic to the experience. Do you hang around on the current floor and farm for experience at the cost of stamina? Do you hang on to your powered-up weapon and risk losing it to death, or should you send it along with the wandering blacksmith to further strengthen it at the cost of not having your best gear on-hand? Do you keep feeding projectiles to the fragile, exploding creatures that double their experience payout with every object they consume but are as likely as not to explode and wipe out everything? Do you use that rare and precious Scroll of Extinction on a ruthless foe now or save it for when those damned tanks start to appear? Do you stuff an item into a jar for safekeeping and run the risk of it not being available for your use when you most need it? And then there's night.

Night in Shiren the Wanderer isn't like night in most games. It's not a matter of different enemies coming out, or enemies doubling in strength. Night limits your visibility (even if you carry a torch, you can only see a few spaces ahead) and causes enemies to become nearly indestructible... except to one another, as they attack anything that comes near them, including other monsters. Which means you're constantly seeing notifications that some unseen foe took down another creature and evolved into a more powerful version of itself. Night only lasts a fixed number of turns, but during that period you're under constant threat of instant annihilation from enemies that you're almost powerless against. Your only real way to fight back comes in the form of special amulet powers, which can be used once per floor — in order to recharge them, you have to ascend, meaning it's impossible to simply lurk in a safe corner until dawn breaks. Eventually, more monsters will spawn on a floor than you have amulet charges to deal with, and you'll die.

I realize all of this paints a bleak picture of Shiren the Wanderer, but that's its appeal. The game features gorgeous classic 2D sprite work (it's a Japan-only DS game expanded to high-resolution widescreen for Vita), and it's absolutely loaded with content and features. I fell pretty hard for the original Shiren when it was converted to DS back in 2008, and I've played every single console roguelike I can get my hands on since then... including roguelites such as Rogue Legacy, The Binding of Isaac, and F.T.L. This latest Shiren stands head-and-shoulders above every previous game to bear the name Mystery Dungeon, and it deserves to be canonized with greats like Spelunky.

I realize a turn-based classical console roguelike on PlayStation Vita is basically the definition of "doomed venture," but if any game of this genre deserves to succeed, it's this one. I can't promise you'll enjoy Shiren the Wanderer, but if you give it a chance and really explore all it has to offer — starting with the tutorials! — you just might come to appreciate what it represents. Yeah, you'll die. You'll lose hours of progress. You'll scream at the game when you stumble on a hidden landmine while trying to escape from a more active threat. But Shiren the Wanderer is designed so thoughtfully and addictingly that once the red fades from your vision and you settle down, you'll want to throw yourself back into the fray again.

Interface
Shiren does a fine job of making a very complex game approachable, though you'll definitely want to learn the various layers of menus.

Lasting appeal
Potentially unlimited, if you really want to go for it. It's a vast, challenging, randomized experience that poses a fresh challenge every time

Sound
The sound cues for dungeon events happening around you will come to elicit either Pavlovian slobber or (more likely) existential dread.

Visuals
Dated, but beautifully so. True old-fashioned bitmaps, not try-hard retro wannabe trash.

This may be an entry in a highly specialized and generally unfriendly genre, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a better example of the type. Heartless, demanding, infuriating, yet seemingly boundless in the depth of its content and mechanics, the latest Shiren the Wanderer adventure wraps taxing game design in just-one-more replay appeal. Think of it as the Wolverine of console roguelikes: It's the best there is at what it does, and what it does isn't very nice.

5/5

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