Have you ever heard of the Shiren the Wanderer series? Don't worry, if you haven't - you're not alone. Prior to picking up Shiren the Wanderer for review (I'm not even going to try and type out that full title), the most that I knew about the series was that a few titles got localized last generation and that Pokemon Mystery Dungeon is a spin-off of the franchise. Besides those two things, I didn't know what to expect going in.
Shiren the Wanderer is a very classical roguelike. By that, I mean that players always start each dungeon at Level 1, and they lose nearly everything when they die. Shiren is a little less intense than some other titles in the genre. You have the ability to store both money and items that you aren't using, preventing them from being lost if you die - but at the end of the day it's still a much less forgiving roguelike than something like the aforementioned Pokemon Mystery Dungeon.
I found myself greatly enjoying the title's gameplay - although the game isn't as deep as something like Nethack (still by far my favorite roguelike), the game's main strength is the item management gameplay. Shiren, like many roguelikes, features a wide variety of items and traps you can find in the game's various dungeons. Since the game more or less forces you to take on its challenges all at once, with only a few exceptions, players are expected to maintain an inventory that will allow them to survive any encounter. Since players can only hold so many items, finding items like Preservation Pots that can allow you to hold on to more items at once is more or less required.
Besides items, Shiren the Wanderer's dungeons are filled with all sorts of enemies, traps, and even allies. Throughout the game, players can find characters that they can recruit to bring with them on the game's trek. In fact, players are forced to bring one character with them throughout most of the game. Besides just being obstacles, various enemies can be used to the player's advantage - one enemy type can absorb thrown items, increasing the experience you'll get from destroying the enemy for each item it devours. Another can fuse two pieces of equipment if you feed them to it back to back, and then destroy it. What makes variables like these so interesting, is that although dangerous aspects of the dungeon can be used to your advantage - you're almost always putting yourself at risk. The enemy that grants higher experience the more it eats can explode, and the other enemy that you feed equipment gets buffed each time you feed it.
Although Shiren himself will return to Level 1 whenever he leaves a dungeon, players can still increase his strength with various pieces of equipment that can either be bought at shops in town, or found in the dungeons. Various random NPCs found inside the dungeon, or different scrolls have the ability to increase your equipment's power - and continued use will cause swords and shields to "evolve" into a stronger variant of the same equipment. Players can also equip bracelets that add special attributes to the player character - if both your sword and shield "resonate" - they work well as a pair - you can equip two bracelets at the same time.
In dungeons, the other thing that sets Shiren apart from its contemporaries is the fact that later dungeons have a day and night system. As you continue through a dungeon, time will pass. Once a certain amount of time has elapsed, then players will find themselves ascending dungeons at night - where the real fun begins.
At night, Shiren's already methodical gameplay gains an extra edge; not only do players need to equip a torch in order to see things even two squares away from them, but enemies become much stronger, will attack each other - leveling themselves up - and become resilient to regular attacks. I felt that Shiren's item management gameplay was enjoyable even before I started experiencing night in dungeons, and the extra stress that comes from not knowing exactly what's around you and being forced to try and avoid enemies is great, and helps Shiren the Wanderer stand out from other games in the roguelike genre.
Players aren't totally defenseless at night, of course - players have access to up to 8 different magitama skills that can be used to either passively buff your character during the night, or attack enemies that get too close. Each skill can only be used once - though players can assign multiples of skills to the magitama on the player character's necklace. Although charges are limited, they reset on each floor and most of the time eight charges should be enough for whatever you're facing on each floor, as long as you are otherwise prepared with scrolls, staffs, and what-have-you.
I felt that Shiren's dungeon-crawling was varied enough with all the different items, traps, enemies, and more you can find; to make matters even better, besides the main story content Shiren features a wide variety of bonus dungeons as well. Players can access dungeons that play out like a puzzle (well over 100 of them!), challenge dungeons (each with a unique spin), and even a version of minesweeper. Even after the main story is over, the game features a ton of content. I can't even begin to guess how long it would take for someone to finish every dungeon in the game - though my best guess is at least 100 hours.
Although I mentioned that Shiren is a lot less forgiving than easier roguelikes, that isn't to say that the game is unfair. Besides featuring a massive, in-depth tutorial (a necessity, considering just how many different things can happen in the dungeon), players also have access to a small multiplayer component involves players sending for other players to rescue them. If you've played Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, you're already familiar with the system. Even if you aren't in trouble, you can head out to rescue other players - allowing them to continue in a dungeon from where they fell, preventing their items and money from being lost.
The feature has always been great in the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon titles, and it's great to see that it was a feature that was borrowed from Shiren in the first place. Besides going to rescue players online, if you have someone else with a Vita and a copy of the game right next to you, it's possible to go through dungeons as a team with one more player. For obvious reasons, I didn't have the chance to test out this mode.
Although Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is a Vita game here in the west, in Japan the title was called Shiren the Wanderer 5+, since the game was an improved release of a DS game in the franchise. As a result, the game looks like a DS game - albeit at the native Vita resolution. Despite that fact, the game's aesthetic is pleasing, and the DS graphics don't get in the way of enjoying the gameplay. The game's soundtrack is also very good, and features a thematically appropriate Japanese flair.
Overall, Shiren the Wanderer's latest outing is definitely one of the best games in the roguelike genre. It manages to straddle a good line between being accessible enough for relative newcomers to the genre, while still leaving plenty of content for experienced genre fans to challenge themselves on. If you enjoyed titles like Pokemon Mystery Dungeon for their stories, then maybe Shiren the Wanderer isn't quite for you; but for everyone else, this is a game that anyone with even a passing interest in the genre shouldn't miss if they own a Vita.