You’d be forgiven for thinking Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate (which I’m going to call StW for short) is a cutesy traditional JRPG at first glance. With a colorful palette, charming 2D sprites, and a fantastically catchy score, StW looks almost anachronistic in the current state of gaming. Lurking beneath the surface, however, is an incredibly difficult and addictive roguelike that will test your patience one minute and having you screaming for joy the next.
This is actually the fifth game in this particular subset of the Mystery Dungeon series, and an enhanced port of a 2010 DS game we never got, to boot. Shiren and his faithful ferret Koppa find themselves in a village in need of some rescuing. It’s said that a massive tower holds the keys to changing one’s fate, and our plucky adventurer is unable to resist the call for aid. There isn’t much story to talk about, admittedly, but what’s here is incredibly endearing and makes the whole thing feel timeless in a positive way. You won’t find much satisfaction in helping the various characters of Nekomaneki village, but at least there’s some reasoning for the adventuring.
Once out in the field, StW makes you feel like the whole world is out to get you. Some of the cuddly little creatures don’t look like much, but they can turn you into hamburger meat in just a few hits. Combat is turn based, with Shiren getting to act at the start of every “round” and the enemies following suit. This gives you plenty of time to properly assess situations and make tactical retreats when necessary. See, the important thing to remember is Shiren will slowly regenerate his health with every turn. This turns the whole game into a giant resource management test, and it’s probably one of the tensest experiences I’ve ever had with turn-based combat. Especially at the start, when resources are limited and you’re attacking enemies with literal sticks, you’ll have to properly manage your health, enemy positioning and exit strategies in order to avoid death. I especially like how punchy and weighty this game feels despite using (lovely!) sprites to convey everything on screen. StW feels great and offers lots of positive player feedback with great sound design and visual flourish to impart a great deal of information to the player in fine fashion. The controls are also superb, with buttons you can press and hold to move diagonally without possibly fumbling with the mini D pad and proper inventory management that feels daunting at first but will become second nature and incredibly intuitive after just a few hours.
It’s also important to remember that Shiren resets to level one if he leaves a dungeon and loses all of his equipment when he dies. This is the typical roguelike setup, but there are persistent elements that keep StW from feeling like a total slog. Quest lines never reset, meaning you won’t lose progress when it comes to opening up new dungeons and adventuring opportunities. Your gear, probably the single-most important part of the game, levels up and maintains its strength provided you can escape from the dungeon. Yes, this means you’ll be grinding for experience to power up your sword to lightsaber status (not a real piece of equipment, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s in the game somewhere), but, with action this good and stakes this high, StW never feels boring. There are also companions you can hire to help with your escapades, though their AI is a bit questionable and more of a liability than an asset at times. Oh, and make sure to tag your best items so you have a chance to get them back (and bring money, just in case).
Truth be told, the early hours of StW were quite frustrating for me. The game doesn’t do a great job of putting you on the path to a key store with crucial items that help you mitigate certain disaster out in the mysterious dungeon (make sure to talk to everyone when you first get to Nekomaneki and play the gambling game to unlock the point shop). Without these items, StW can feel overwhelming to new players and veterans alike. Thankfully, there are tons of tutorials to help out with most of the gameplay mechanics, but StW needs a community that helps new players learn the ropes and avoid insane levels of early game frustration.
Even with the best preparation and game plan in mind, bad things will happen to you. You might end up dead in an instant thanks to a devilishly placed bomb trap, or an evil top hat-wearing rabbit might pull you and a bunch of enemies into a room and leave you with no escape, or maybe you hit a trip trap and your precious sword flies off into the water and is, perhaps, lost forever. Randomness is part of the fun when it comes to roguelikes, but this style of game is going to drive some people into fantastic fits of rage. I would recommend avoiding StW if games like Darkest Dungeon, FTL, or The Binding of Isaac drove you nuts.
It took me around 22 hours to finish the main storyline (and it would have been significantly less if I hadn’t broken my sword while idiotically searching for a hidden room), but that only scratches the surface of what StW has to offer. The post game content here is absolutely insane, with tons of new dungeons (many with specific requirements to open and conditions inside) which will test your abilities and sanity. Some of these dungeons are pure roguelike experiences, meaning no bringing items or partners to the party, while others let you bring that hard-earned gear and risk it all for greater reward. This means anyone even remotely interested in this type of game will find something to like, as hardcore gamers will find lots and lots of challenge beyond the main story in some of the more fiendish dungeons. It would probably take me hundreds of hours to clear this game and earn a platinum trophy, so let me be clear when I say that StW will keep you busy for a LONG time. Oh, and I still haven’t had a chance to play around with the co-op multiplayer mode (which is, unfortunately, ad hoc only).
And, yeah, I imagine I’ll keep coming back to Shiren the Wanderer for months to come. The game just feels so damn good and provides just the right amount of challenge, intrigue, and triumph to keep me going even when I’m surrounded by a bunch of evil plants that continually put me to sleep and hit for 1HP until I’m dead. It’s certainly an acquired taste, but I can’t think of a better experience I’ve had with a handheld in a long time. Shiren the Wanderer is an early contender for my overall game of the year, and it’s going to take a lot to pull me out of the dungeon. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have 30 floors of a lost well to investigate for treasure.