I’ve wanted a new old-school RPG experience for some time now, but have failed to find a game that could deliver. Then Shiren wandered into my life. While I’m glad to have met him, it really did feel like he didn’t know where he was going.
Developed by Chunsoft, Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is the fifth main entry in the roguelike RPG Shiren series, and was originally released on Nintendo DS back in 2010. Now on PlayStation Vita, Shiren feels right at home and has even brought along some extra dungeons and a new camera mode as a housewarming gift.
The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate’s story takes place between Shiren the Wanderer DS2 and Shiren the Wanderer 3. There’s no need to worry about needing to inform yourself on past games in order to appreciate the story, largely for two reasons. First,it’s fairly straightforward and takes a back seat to gameplay. After an introduction video and commentary from Shiren’s talking ferret companion at the beginning of the game, the objective gets laid out pretty quickly. Second, the moments of story engagement are so few and far between that many lose their desired impact as a result.
The story of Shiren isn’t even about the main character, at least in the beginning. Shiren himself is completely mute, and his feelings and thoughts are only understood through the colorful commentary of Koppa, his aforementioned talking ferret companion. In this adventure, Shiren and Koppa wander into Inori Village, and that is where our story begins. In wandering the village you discover a young woman stricken with a mysterious sickness and on the brink of death. Her lover, sitting at her bedside, learns of a legend that could save her. Atop the Tower of Fortune sits the venerable god Reeva, who has the power to change fate itself. Shiren and Koppa overhear the tale and chase after the forlorn beau to protect him on his journey, and also hope to change their fates as well. Along the way, Shiren encounters numerous allies that can join his merry band and help fight against the monsters that stand in his way, which is just as well, because he needs all the help he can get.
Shiren the Wanderer is a roguelike RPG, and a difficult one at that. You start at level one with no items (like most RPGs), but if you die at any time in its randomly generated dungeons, you will lose all character progress earned. Your level gets reset to one, you are stripped of all items and equipment, and your money disappears. Once you’ve completed a dungeon, you won’t ever have to play it again, but death essentially means a game reset and each dungeon only gets harder.
There is a vast array of items that do an equally vast amount of things. Even weapon and shield possess their own unique abilities in addition to their base stats, and particular sets of weapons and shields will even resonate with each other to give an added effect. The way that items and abilities interact with the monsters themselves, what time of day they are used, and even the various methods of navigating environments just adds even more complexity to the game than is necessary. It honestly feels like Shiren was made with the mindset of “let’s see how many things we can cram into one game,” instead of focusing on a design with purposeful choices and mechanics.
Thankfully, there is a training area to help you digest the numerous mechanics, but that’s if you want to sit through 56 training missions. Even just doing a portion of those can take an hour to slog through. To be fair, however, many of these missions show mechanics that you won’t encounter until much later in the game, but there is no indication of that as you work to complete them in an effort to prepare yourself for the world ahead. It literally felt like I was studying for an exam after the first dozen and needed to move on to the game proper before all enthusiasm for playing left me. Better pacing all around is something that felt sorely lacking in Shiren.
It may feel bogged down with an ocean of mechanics, but I enjoyed the deceptively simple style of combat in Shiren. In this case, it’s an instantaneous turn-based style of combat where every time you move, the monsters move too, and just one mistake can be your last. It’s unfortunate that the game’s interesting combat is often nullified by dungeons being randomly generated. You can fight back perfectly without making a mistake, and suddenly be overwhelmed in an instant, or simply just not be rewarded with decent weapon pickups or healing items to keep you in the fight. This happened to me while trying to beat just the second dungeon of the game… for over five hours. Yes, five hours stuck on the second dungeon. Absolutely, there were a number of times where I made the wrong move or accidentally used an item when I didn’t mean to, but the times I died were often because I simply got screwed over by the random level generator. Even farming extra enemies on each floor to build up my level as much as possible simply did not work. Speaking of farming, that, unfortunately, is exactly what Shiren is: Repeated, glorified farming.
Finally beating that dungeon was an incredible relief, but it wasn’t rewarding. All sense of overcoming a challenge was not there because the game was felt unfair–my success, unearned. Within the first hour, I learned what to expect. No matter how well I understood what I needed to do, it just didn’t matter. Bad weapons or a low number of healing items, or both, was a constant, insurmountable obstacle to compensate for and continued to be a problem as I moved forward.
What does help to deter some of the negativity of this substantial problem is that it is a portable game. It’s a perfect game to pick up and play in short bursts when you have a few minutes here and there to make a couple quick attempts getting through a dungeon or floor. I would encourage anyone interested in Shiren to play it this way in order to keep their sanity.
Aesthetically, Shiren has beautiful and well-crafted pixel art, though it can be almost too colorfully busy at times. Its visual style honors the JRPGs of old, and competes with or even beats many in that respect. The music of the game also draws its inspiration from titles of the same era, but I doubt any of these songs will go down in the annals of video game history.
Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is a competent game, even great in some ways, but it does little to excite. The story has an interesting premise but it fails to grip you in a meaningful way, which is partly due to its brief and sparse dialogue. Combat, the game’s core, is fun and engaging, but is greatly detracted by unbalanced randomness that can make progress actually impossible at times. It has a diverse array of items and intractables that function well individually, but the unnecessary amount of mechanics as a whole borders on being a burden to the player. Shiren wandered into my life ready to take me on a grand adventure, but instead all we did was go camping in his backyard.