|Official Site:||English Site|
Chunsoft is a company with a long history of making, essentially, the same game over and over. They specialize in the realm of "rogue-like" games (a name whose derivation leads us back to a classic PC game using ASCII text as a graphic interface). Generally, Chunsoft's games are built atop already decent franchises. The "Torneko" spin-off series from Dragon Quest is under their jurisdiction, as is the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series. In fact, any game that has "Mystery Dungeon" or "Mysterious Dungeon" in its title is either developed by Chunsoft, or has otherwise received permission through licensure from Chunsoft to use the name and game style (such as Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon).
But Chunsoft has created one, and only one, IP of their own. That is "Furai no Shiren," known here as "Shiren the Wanderer." Shiren and his talking pet "Koppa" have gone on many adventures together, but we Americans haven't had the chance to join him on these adventures until very recently. The series is fairly well-known in Japan and has been around since the 16-bit era. This particular DS game, in fact, is an upgraded port of the original console iteration of "Shiren" (Mystery Dungeon 2 Furai no Shiren for Super Famicom). It also happens to be one of the most challenging games I've ever played.
Granted, I've never gotten into a rogue-like game before. This was an entirely new experience for me; if it's old-hat for you, maybe you won't see the value in it. But compared to Torneko and Pokémon, it is widely held that the "Shiren" series is far more challenging and far more brutal than anything else Chunsoft has developed. If you're ready for a truly difficult but rewarding RPG, keep reading.
Shiren's main quest in this game involves traveling through a total of 30 "floors" (areas) to reach a city of gold and, perhaps, the blessings of a Golden Condor. Along the way, Shiren will have the opportunity to befriend other wanderers, have some join his party, discover a variety of useful items... and of course, fight lots of aggressive creatures.
And here's the fun part: if you die, game over, too bad, so sad. There are no save points in Shiren the Wanderer, and the possibilities of "resurrection" are limited to either holding an extremely rare item, or else being rescued by another player (which I will discuss in further detail below). If you die, you restart at the first floor, having lost all your experience points and all your items... unless you stored some items in the warehouses found throughout the few towns that appear along the journey.
In this way, Shiren the Wanderer broke all the rules I knew about RPGs. I always thought that the key to success was level-grinding. But in this case, level-grinding is temporary, like a band-aid, and it can never truly improve your character. Instead, the key is to find and upgrade the most powerful of items and save them in storehouses before you, inevitably, die. And, should you ever feel the urge to take on the almost-impossible task of clearing a high-level dungeon, you'll have to decide which items you'll risk bringing with you, at the possible expense of losing everything.
Some people take this form of difficulty to be a false form of challenge, based too much on luck and not enough on skill and strategy. If you feel this way, avoid this game and anything like it at all costs. It is my opinion that this sort of game does indeed take quite a lot of skill, but it is of a different kind than the simple persistence of the Final Fantasy level-grind experience.
The game takes place on what is, essentially, a giant chess board. Every time you move, attack, or fiddle around in your inventory, everything else on the field gets a chance to make an action as well. It is the epitome of turn-based combat, with a few exceptions. Those exceptions, involve items. There are literally hundreds of items in this game: scrolls, herbs, weapons, wands, armor, accessories, jars, traps, and food. All of these items play intricate roles, bringing the level of customization to a place that makes the otherwise simple feel and pace of the game seem, frankly, deceptive. This is not child's play, and if you don't attempt clever solutions, you will ultimately fail to progress in this game.
The rules that govern this game are simple, but they can feel arbitrary, and they can change at the drop of a hat at the player's (or AI's) whim, thanks to the many types of items available. Add to that a number of quests that can only be completed over the course of many (failed) attempts to finish the main story arc, and you have yourself one incredibly addictive rogue RPG. For example, the NPCs that can join your party will not do so upon first meeting you. A young lady who has the power to blind anyone begins her misadventures by blinding you, and you'll have to put up with that a fair bit if you want her to join you. Then there's a self-proclaimed massage therapist who doesn't quite know how to crack your back properly, but if you give him enough chances, he'll join your party and become an expert healer. Then there's your "brother," a dumb oaf named Pekeji, who will only continue to follow you if you regularly feed him. There is a fourth NPC that joins your party after completing the game as well, but it is not an easy task to achieve.
Indeed, after completing the original 30-floor dungeon that is the "main" game, multiple dungeons are unlocked containing incredibly powerful items. Each of these optional dungeons have a super-powered item waiting as a reward for completion; but completing them is even harder than the original game's quest. It is safe to say that you cannot do it without the help of a friend.
That's right, friends can help! There is no real-time multiplayer, sadly, but if you die, you can be rescued by other players. By manually writing down the 56-character password, or by connecting to Nintendo's Wi-Fi servers, you can either give or receive help at any time. Rescue quests are no cakewalk either, since they do not allow you to stop at towns along the way, but I for one would have been unable to finish the game without the kindness of strangers. This experience was, strangely, one I really enjoyed, and I quickly found myself attracted to the prospect of helping other people finish this game.
I am truly surprised by how much I enjoyed this game. The formula driving the mechanics of this game is nearly perfect, in my opinion. There is so much to learn; I've put over 30 hours into the game, and there are still items and dungeons that I know nothing about. If you give it a chance, and you aren't afraid of dying (a lot), you won't be disappointed.
The touch screen has been integrated seamlessly, something other ports have failed to do (I'm looking at you, Final Fantasy III). Considering all movement, exploration, and combat take place on a grid, the touch screen functions rather naturally. Also, the button layout is perfect, but it does take some practice navigating the menu. I thought that menu navigation, particularly in terms of jars and storage, could have used some streamlining.
It's rare for a game with such a heavy emphasis on gameplay and, especially, replay value to have a story of any merit. In Shiren the Wanderer, your pet weasel tells you that there's a mythical city on the top plateau of "Table Mountain," and some riches may await you. Of course, the journey will be perilous, but you go anyway. The not-so-spoiler alert: there is something nasty waiting for you at the end.
But the main plot arc isn't that special, and there really isn't any serious character development either. What did win me over was the game's charm. The many characters found throughout the towns are unique and memorable. Gaibara the master potter, the boastful Foreign Wanderer, Naoki the chef, Fay the puzzle-master, and a host of other interesting characters await you. A number of events are triggered based on what you do, and what you discover, in your many adventures across the plains toward Table Mountain.
Generally, the graphics in Shiren the Wanderer are simple and functional. They've received a fair upgrade from the 16-bit days, but there is certainly room for improvement. Animation is smooth, and the few cut scenes that exist are a pleasant touch. I would have liked more of those cut scenes, personally, but I can't complain too much about this. Perhaps some character art that appeared alongside text boxes would have helped as well.
Along with having excellent sound effects, the music for Shiren the Wanderer comes from an all-star duo. One member of the team is Koichi Sugiyama, the master of VGM known for each and every Dragon Quest score. The other member of the team is also no name to scoff at: Hayato Matsuo has worked on such games as Front Mission 3 and the Ogre Battle series. The music is fitting, and it is very impressive. After having played this game, I am on a hunt for any and every soundtrack this series has to offer (though, sadly, I think the current count of album releases is quite low).
This is a game for the most hardcore of the hardcore. Though, on another level, it is a surprisingly casual game if you want it to be. The lack of any permanent character growth allows you to play the game over and over, like the original Tower of Druaga, without the fear of saying "what if..." since you'll probably be attempting it from the start in a few minutes anyway. I've never had a game keep me on my toes as well as this one, and I anxiously await the release of more Shiren titles in North America.