Hailing from the Mystery Dungeon series, one of the roguelike genre’s oldest, is Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and The Dice of Fate. This PS Vita exclusive is actually a port of a Nintendo DS game that launched in 2010: fortunately (no pun intended), the main game has aged wonderfully in that time since.
Shiren the Wanderer brings familiar and solid gameplay to a genre represented very little on the PS Vita. The 2D visuals are charming and detailed, especially when compared to bigger budget games that seem to always scrap sprites for 3D models. This is true even if the age of the original game is clear at some points.
Narratively the game is rather light, though it does feature some interesting characters. Rather than Shiren, the story focuses on a young boy from the remote Nekomako Village who seeks to change the fate of his love interest, who has become terminally ill. Fate is preordained though and, as you might imagine, changing fate is easier said than done. To make it happen, you’ll need to help the kid retrieve the Die of Fate, and then ascend the Tower of Fortune.
It can be slightly interesting to see how the events play out and there is some cool artwork for some scenes. Of course, since this is a roguelike, narrative takes a back seat to the tight and rewarding gameplay. Fans who have played previous games in the larger encompassing Mystery Dungeon series know exactly what to expect in this game.
All characters take turns simultaneously, resulting in a fast paced game that almost manages to feel real-time in the thick of dungeon diving. The speed is kept in check though by the inherent danger in the dungeons and the sting of defeat. When you’re defeated in the game, you lose all accrued experience points and all of your inventory, save for what you had equipped.
This isn’t the only handicap that Shiren delivers you with. You will lose your experience points whenever you leave the dungeon; that means upon defeat or upon reaching the top floor. However, if you manage to reach the top floor, you will be allowed to hold onto your inventory. The game demands careful, calculated play to progress at times and forces you to remain about your wits or start over again. A similar gameplay component has been universally praised in the Dark Souls series, in the time since Shiren the Wanderer first debuted.
In the blink of an eye, you can lose everything. You can get companions from time to time, however there aren’t strong parties of characters like in Etrian Mystery Dungeon. The burden of survival falls on you most of the time and it can be very exciting. The huge variety of items and limited inventory space encourage (force?) you to use most of what you pick up. Some items have descriptions, but other items you’ll need to experiment with and learn for yourself.
There are tons of upgradable weapons in the game, but the methods of upgrading the items are relatively limited. Thankfully, this isn’t a problem due to a more standard leveling system for weapons and shields, which increases their power after you’ve used them to defeat a certain amount of foes. The dungeons are sprawling and the huge variety of enemies, items, traps, and status effects lends a distinctly unpredictable feeling to the game.
What do I mean unpredictable? For instance, I found a powerful weapon on the first floor only before stepping on a trap that weakens that same weapon. Within moments, I was hit by warp grass which sent me to the other side of the dungeon into a room full of monsters that I just managed to defeat with a slash scroll…that is, before a leveled up ghost came out of the wall and killed me. It feels like anything can happen.
If you have friends with the game, you can play local ad-hoc and rescue one another when you’re defeated in dungeons. Realistically this would get a lot more use if it supported online play since not everyone has friends with a Vita, let alone friends that would be into this sort of game. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to check it out, but if it works the way it does in previous games, being rescued would allow you to keep all your weapons and items. More importantly, this would detract from the fear of death, which is a rather significant component in the game — don’t fret if you can’t use it.
The game is undeniably charming. The music and visuals lend a distinctly Japanese feeling to the title that makes it even more enjoyable to play. Alongside this, there is considerable depth to the difficulty ramp. Enemies become stronger after they defeat your allies or other enemies, posing an even greater threat.
While you’re guaranteed to level up if you fight enemies, the items you get while journeying can mean the difference between life and death. Even with the best resource management, you may find yourself several floors from the next healing item. You can also suffer and inflict status effects that slow or completely stop movement, drain health points, lower your overall health points, blind (which makes the screen completely dark rather than simply lowering accuracy), and much more.
Even if defeat becomes inevitable at some point, you’re whisked back to town and then you’re back where you started, usually much faster than when you traveled there the first time. The hub town also houses facilities for storing items and money for safe keeping even if you are defeated. Yet you may wish to carry money to make use of the facilities in the dungeons for character building and life saving items, making it something of a gamble to leave town with a full inventory: I think this lines up nicely with the “dice” and “fortune” themes.
Thanks to a dynamic and challenging play experience, there are plenty of reasons to get back up after you meet your untimely end in Shiren the Wanderer. Fans of this genre know exactly what they’re getting into and fans of RPGs in general may find the formula fresh, fast, easy to pick up and exciting to play. The lack of online support may render the co-op useless for many, but even without it the game’s rather enjoyable.