I’ve got seriously mixed feelings about the roguelike genre. On the one hand, one of its central tenets is losing progress when you fail — something I generally despise in video games. On the other hand, I’ve always loved levels that construct themselves randomly or procedurally, and I appreciate that so many roguelike games “play fair,” forcing you to learn their mechanics and not letting you win through a tedious war of attrition. Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate frustrated me, but I also had too much fun with it not to give it a solid recommendation. If you’re a fan of the Mystery Dungeon games, you’ll feel right at home here; if you’ve never touched one before, a helpful set of playable tutorials will ease you into the mayhem that later ensues.
Shiren doesn’t have a story so much as it has a list of excuses for you to trek into its myriad dungeons. The titular MacGuffins (the Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate) are at the center of the “plot,” and there are plenty of NPCs to chat with and help out, but things are kept pretty light on the story front. That shouldn’t be a problem for the majority of folks who play it, of course, who will be itching to dive into the dungeons in search of money and loot. I did find several of the characters endearing and memorable despite a lack of strong emphasis on narrative, including Koppa (the eponymous silent protagonist’s easily-excited talking ferret) and Tao (a quirky girl who wears a panda suit and charges you for her services as a “tour guide” in the dungeons — read: temporary party member). Just don’t go in expecting deep lore and you’ll have a great time.
Go Crawling Back to the Dungeons
I mentioned this briefly earlier, but I have to really give credit to this iteration of Shiren for including an extensive set of playable “mini-dungeon” tutorials that walk you through the game’s systems. Knowing all the tips and tricks that can make your journey easier, such as walking diagonally to get away from enemies, aren’t all that obvious to first-timers — so kudos to the team at Spike Chunsoft for allowing more players a shot at enjoying the roguelike genre. Of course, once you actually start, don’t expect to be treated lightly: after your first couple of outings, things ramp up in difficulty quite fast. Thankfully, there’s an elegant simplicity here that’s in keeping with the “playing fair” spirit I mentioned before. With just three types of items to equip — weapons, shields and bracelets — and a fairly standard equipment upgrade/level up system, it’s generally no mystery what you need to do to proceed, or what you did to deserve your crushing failure.
It’s as viscerally pleasing as you’d expect, diving into each labyrinth, waiting to see what monsters, traps and loot drops await. Taking any sort of rare items or money with you is a risky prospect, of course, so the nearby towns are outfitted with storage services and a bank to hide away your most valuable items. There are even some neat minigames to play that use the dungeon-crawling mechanics as a base, including one that imitates Minesweeper and another that echoes the block-pushing puzzles of The Legend of Zelda. These are particularly nice diversions when you get sick of the constant forays into dungeons — as fun as it is, I found my attention span waning after about an hour of play each time. This is definitely one to play in short bursts, as the repetition of exploring dungeons and the frustration of getting blindsided by a randomly-placed trap can really start to grind on one’s nerves.
One thing this Shiren gets absolutely right is its interface. I’ve always found old-fashioned roguelikes, like many games in the Mystery Dungeon series, to have cumbersome controls and menus that only serve to increase the frustration of dying and losing everything. That’s definitely not the case here, with everything kept refreshingly simple and intuitive. There’s a quick-sort button that makes organizing your often-cluttered inventory a snap, and you can assign certain items to the shoulder buttons if you don’t feel like manually selecting them each time. The menus themselves are plenty easy to use, too, making it easy to do everything from finding a description of an obscure item to equipping a new piece of gear you’ve found.
I can’t deny it: I absolutely love, love, love this game’s pixel art. Colorful, detailed and distinctive, it makes wandering through the procedurally-assembled environments of the dungeons a lot more interesting than they might otherwise be. Of course, the towns — which are more deliberately constructed and full of NPCs to chat with — are even more spectacular. I know some people are “tired” of the pixel aesthetic after its use in so many indie games, but I’ve always found their complaints a bit silly. This is a great-looking game, and one that deserves credit for making a series of dungeons so visually appealing.
Shiren the Wanderer Vita Review - Death Becomes Him
A (Mostly) Fair Challenge
Been yearning for something a little more challenging and unforgiving than usual? Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate might just satisfy your craving. Polishing up the Mystery Dungeon formula, Spike Chunsoft’s latest entry in the roguelike series has all the procedurally-generated dungeons, randomly-dropped loot and tough monsters you could ask for. You might not want to play it for long sessions, but that makes its place on Sony’s portable all the more appropriate, and the appealing simplicity of its game design makes it perfect to pop out whenever you’ve got some free time.
Review code for Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation Vita. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.