|Format:||Wii Optical Disc|
Take time to reflect on the pinnacle moments of your life. Not just the obvious ones (graduation, marriage, parenthood), but the little things too. For me, the "little things" that made a big difference include: the first time someone sat me down and made me listen to Daft Punk; the first time I took a manual transmission automobile onto a freeway; the first time I ate sashimi (raw fish). These and dozens of other key moments, small as they might seem, have had significant impact on my life.
I had one of these pinnacle moments recently, and the experience came as a result of 50+ hours of training. That pinnacle moment was completing Shiren the Wanderer, a recently-released "roguelike" RPG from Chunsoft (localized by Atlus USA). I knew I had mastered the techniques, the idiosyncracies, the whole system, of this punishingly difficult game. And the craziest part of all? I enjoyed the ride.
Why this over the others?
There are hundreds of roguelike games out there. Starting from the genre's namesake "Rogue," to the popular "Nethack," to other Atlus-published games including Baroque and Izuna. On the DS alone, there are many roguelike games: from the relatively easy Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games to the original Shiren the Wanderer (published by Sega, it was the first appearance of the Shiren series in North America).
My first thorough experience with a roguelike game was a terribly dull and frustrating DS game from Konami called Tao's Adventure. It generally turned me off to the genre. Climbing through a dungeon (either up a tower or down an underground cavern) with randomly-generated floors, picking up loot as I went, and knowing that death brought permanent penalties; well, it seemed like a good idea on paper, but there are ways to make the style of game suck.
Then I played Shiren the Wanderer on the DS and my opinion of the genre totally changed. It wasn't just the charm of the graphics or the fantastic music composed by Dragon Quest veteran Koichi Sugiyama. It was the balance of the game, the brilliance and patience required of the player to move forward, knowing that with each play I may just reach the end, but I may start from the beginning as well, and determining the risk/reward balance for myself (thanks to the storehouse to keep items for another attempt, or utilizing those items in my current quest for victory)... every floor left me with multiple conundrums that I could only solve as I learned more. And with more learning inevitably came more death.
But the punishing mechanics of the roguelike was made optional in the Wii version of Shiren the Wanderer. It's worth noting that, despite relatively high praise from Famitsu (35 out of 40), many Japanese game critics were disappointed with how this game was made easier. Originally titled "Mysterious Dungeon Shiren the Wanderer 3: The Sleeping Princess in the Clockwork Palace" (yes, this is the third game in the series, and the fourth is out in Japan on the DS!), developer Chunsoft offered two difficulty levels. You choose "Easy" or "Normal" when you create the account, and cannot change difficulty for that account at any time. In Easy mode, death results in minimal penalties. You retain all items and experience points. This is the "roguelite" experience I described in my preview article for the game. But Normal mode still allows for loss of all items (save those held in a storehouse). Experience points are still retained. And yes, the Japanese press was apparently disappointed that there wasn't an option to revert to level 1 with death (a "Hard" mode, if you will).
For this entry in the Shiren series, however, there's little sense to offering experience penalties. Shiren is joined by two other companions: Asuka and Sensei. And unlike the original game, which essentially provided one 30-floor dungeon for the main campaign with a few towns in-between and some crazy post-endgame content, this Wii title has over a dozen dungeons in the main plot arc alone, each ranging from 3 to 25 floors. To be honest, regaining those experience points wouldn't be challenging with this "choose your own dungeon" layout, whereas recovering and re-upgrading weapons, shields, and inventory will always be a challenge.
So, why this game as my pinnacle roguelike? Why do I recommend it to RPG fans in general, even those who may have been turned off by this insanely-difficult niche genre in the past? I promise it's not just because the Wii needs more decent, challenging RPGs (though that's certainly true). I think the Easy mode is the key. Knowledge is so important with games like these, and with Easy Mode, you have a chance to preview what lies ahead in a "legitimate" conquering of the game with minimal difficulty. A seasoned gamer can probably clear the main plot arc to this game in 10 to 15 hours on Easy mode. With no deaths, the same could possibly be done on Normal mode. Me? It took me about 60 hours to beat this game on Normal. A particularly pernicious trap lies in wait at the game's end, and had I known earlier, perhaps I would have been better prepared. I also wasted a grand opportunity intentionally worked in by the developers (a one-shot 10-floor dungeon where you're invincible and free to collect all the loot you can find).
With Easy mode, you can experience this game's beauty, charm and intricacy without having to experience the frustration of losing it all in one bad mistake. But after playing on Easy, I think many gamers will want to take on the true challenge. Nothing less than perfection will be allowed, and even then, you need a lot of luck and even more patience.
The Other Portal
I want to give the reader a specific look at how this game operates. So, if you'll bear with me, allow me to delve into the particular of the "portal" dungeon.
Throughout most of the game, the player is free to revisit old dungeons as they progress through the game. However, there are key points when you're left with no options on the world map besides a shop (which does not help if you died and kept no money in a bank or items in a storehouse) and the next dungeon. In particular, the three-floor "jar" dungeon with a boss fight, and the final dungeon, put you in this difficult situation. And when that happens, or whenever you're just looking to pick up great loot, you are allowed to access the "Portal" dungeon from the menu.
The Portal starts as a 5 floor dungeon, and as you progress through the game, its size increases in increments of 5 up to 30; after you complete the game's main plot arc, it expands to 100 floors (and, I'm told, there are larger dungeons awaiting true masters/addicts). When you enter, you are forced to go solo (as Shiren) and you are temporarily reverted to level 1. You can take items in with you, but again, Normal mode players run the risk of losing all items if they cannot get through the dungeon (or find a handy Escape Scroll to exit early).
In my situation, I was stuck at endgame with no items and no money, and had to rebuild my inventory from scratch utilizing only the Portal. With each play through the dungeon, I'd learn something new about what I'd face with each floor. Examples:
And again, that's just for one dungeon. One experience. And I'm not even getting into controlling the AI for your other party members or playing in "full control" mode for special situations like boss fights.
Though the Japanese have a dedicated Shiren wiki page, this kind of information I had to glean on my own. And honestly, I think what I did was the more worthwhile experience. In short, I'm giving high recommendations.
Everything else about the game (doesn't matter)
The music is great (Sugiyama doing Asian-style stuff is perhaps even more interesting than Sugiyama trying to sound like a classical European composer). The graphics are adequate, and though I love the FMV scenes, they don't look too hot on an HDTV. The game has no voice acting. The plot is a quirky re-telling of some Japanese folklore about Tsukihime (Moon Princess) mixed with some crazy ever-growing mechanized castle (which is actually a super cool setting for a game). Atlus' localization is fantastic, as usual. Shiren's pet ferret Koppa has a lot more personality here than on the DS game localized by Sega. Then again, the DS game (a remake of a Super Famicom title) didn't exactly have a major plot to flesh out anyway.
But all of this stuff takes a backseat to the challenging and addictive gameplay. So while I would have plenty to say about the other aspects of the game if you sat me down for a cup of coffee, here let's just leave it at "gameplay gets the weight, and I have no complaints about the gameplay."
I suppose I should mention the control. The Wiimote and nunchuck is always a challenging thing upon which to map input for a traditional game. Yet, Chunsoft really did a great job here. My only complaint would be holding down B to do the "run" function. I do it a lot, and holding that trigger button can bring some discomfort to one's wrist.
Play this game; if you come to regret it, blame me
I'm putting the stock and clout I have as an editor at RPGFan (which, admittedly, isn't much) on this game. Give it a try. Rent it. GameFly it. Borrow it from a friend. Buy it if you're feeling good about the whole enterprise. I think you'll come to like it. And if not, you can move forward in life and say "that Patrick at RPGFan doesn't know jack about gaming." And I'll have to live with it. That's the deal I'm making. My reputation for a chance to play this game. It's a strange pick, I know. But whether you love, hate, or are indifferent about "roguelikes" of the past, this charming and addictive adventure may just hold your mind and body captive for a few days.