Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is the fifth instalment in the long-running Shiren the Wanderer roguelike franchise. Having originally been released in 2010 on the Nintendo DS as a Japan exclusive, this upgraded Vita port brings some fresh dungeons and extra features. The Shiren series is generally unheard of outside of Japan, as few of its titles are actually localized in the North American and PAL regions. However, fans of Pokemon Mystery Dungeon will feel quite at home with Shiren’s near-identical interface, as they fall under the same series.
Shiren 5 is a tightly knit dungeon crawler made for loyal fans of the roguelike genre. While the roguelike genre has evolved into the action genre with releases like Rogue Legacy and The Binding of Isaac, Chunsoft’s Mystery Dungeon games tend to stay true to the roots of the genre. Shiren 5 continues this trend with its punishing difficulty, randomization, and tactical nature.
Shiren 5 puts the player in the shoes of our silent titular protagonist as he travels (or rather, wanders) alongside a comedic talking ferret named Koppa. After a brief prologue involving a sick girl and her stubborn anime hero friend, Jirokichi, the player quickly dispatches towards the Towers of Fate. Here, Jirokichi follows you to the tops of these towers to obtain the Dice of Fate, a set of plot devices that will allow him to save his ill friend’s life. The story is little more than motivation to set up the adventure, but it serves its function well enough. This game isn’t about plot or character development; it’s about the player’s painful, glorious grind to the top. Shiren 5 is largely representative of Mystery Dungeon’s core mechanics. Shiren ascends the towers floor by floor, facing progressively tougher challenges. Moving tile by tile at the same pace as the dungeons’ various hostile monsters, Shiren needs to keep himself alive while gathering useful items and upgrading his gear. Shiren can hold up to 24 items which are scattered randomly throughout the dungeon. Since these items make up most of Shiren’s capabilities, the player will quickly learn how to manage his inventory in order to keep Shiren well-equipped, well-prepared, and well-fed. Players are challenged to progress as far into the dungeon as possible. Without certain items, there is no turning back, and death leads to a complete loss of all of Shiren’s equipment. A return to town through an Escape Scroll or Undo Herb will still reset Shiren’s level, but allow the player to stockpile their items and money for later use.
This design choice is what makes Shiren 5 such a brutal game for newcomers. The game’s unpredictability and ruthlessness will often send you to the beginning with nothing to show for the last few hours of exploration. It is initially quite difficult for one to gauge their progress, as repeated dungeon attempts still have the player running through the same areas they’d conquered before, just to get to where you last left off. It can be incredibly discouraging to spend hours trying to collect and hone a set of powerful equipment, only to lose it after being one-shotted by a deadly monster.
One can easily prepare for this loss by holding an Undo Herb. In my first day with the game, however, I was just upgrading my shield and feeling like my equipment was finally getting good, when the game soft locked due to an unknown error. This cost me of all the items I had on me at the time due to a rather punishing save system. In order to discourage rage-quitting and save exploits, the game requires you to manually suspend the game from within its menus in order to quit. Simply turning off the Vita will cause the game to treat you as if you’d died. I feel like this suspend function is rather archaic, as I believe a system like the Vita can more than handle an autosave system. Regardless, this only happened once, so I do not consider the crash to be a game-breaking bug.
There is a vast array of items at Shiren’s disposal, but they generally fall into a few core categories: weapons, shields, bracelets, consumables, projectiles, one-use spells, and pots. Weapons, shields, and bracelets upgrade through continued usage and other means, and can give the player extra abilities when paired with a corresponding piece of equipment. These extra perks range from attack bonuses, EXP bonuses, to extra bracelet slots. Projectiles can be simple damage-dealing rocks and arrows, or gimmicky staves which can cause status ailments or teleport creatures. Pots typically expand the user’s inventory, but can serve other purposes, such as transforming item types, turning unwanted gear into money, or fusing equipment together. These synthesis pots are particularly fun and rewarding, as you can stuff your favourite sword into a pot alongside a few others in order to fuse their bonuses onto it. There’s a lot to love about a sword that attacks three tiles wide, resists rust traps, and inflicts confusion. Inventory management can seem daunting at first, but it didn’t take long before I was swiftly organizing my items, having comfortably memorized the function of each implement I’d found.
Aside from items, Shiren can hold a limited set of abilities in his amulet. These abilities can only be used once per floor and regenerate under certain conditions. Abilities function much like magic scrolls, usually dealing wide area damage, inflicting status ailments, or providing defensive utility for Shiren. They offer life-saving utility against the dangers of the nighttime phase. At night, visibility becomes extremely tight, and all monsters become significantly stronger. Night monsters can grow in power to a point in which they can easily kill the player in a single attack. In addition to their abilities, the player needs to make use of their magic items, like staves that knock enemies far away, or scrolls that put all nearby creatures to sleep. The night phase doesn’t come into play until the first few areas are completed, and it acts as a challenging difficulty spike for new players.
The Towers of Fortune are tough and unforgiving, but Shiren will not have to face them alone. AI-controlled allies serve unique purposes that extend beyond Shiren’s powers. Tao’s boomerang hits several enemies simultaneously from a distance, while a pair of fox twins can copy monster attacks and transform into items. Recurring NPCs offer utility by way of upgrading Shiren’s arsenal, telling the player’s fortune, and teaching him new abilities.
While the characters never go through much development, this does not take away from their charm. Some dialog can become repetitive, but I often found comfort in running into a familiar NPC and seeing what they had to offer. The Mr. Popo-esque dungeon shopkeeper always seems to show up when I need him, and the mysterious fortune teller usually has more good news than bad. The likability of the characters is mostly due to the quality of the art. While sprites may be an overly common trope in recent years, the developers pulled no punches in making Shiren 5 look as lively as possible. Every action is animated as smoothly as possible, from Shiren putting an item into a pot, to a cyclops pulling you in with a chained flail. Clarity seems to be a key part of the art style, as auras, items, and status indicators become easily recognizable within a short amount of game time. Shiren 5 wants to ensure that the player knows exactly what they’re looking at in order to figure out how to deal with it.
Shiren 5 contains a heavy trove of content beyond the main dungeons. If you’re a seasoned roguelike veteran who needs more challenges, side content offers dungeons with increased difficulty through handicapping the player’s abilities. Immediately available from the start is a minigame house with a Minesweeper-like dungeon and a large set of navigational puzzles which test your knowledge of traps and items. These puzzles do well to harness all of the main game’s mechanics while forcing the player to look at the game from another perspective.
This may sound odd, but I feel like the game is rarely unfair. The odds are definitely stacked against the player, but most situations, whilst partly random, can be handled with more forethought and preparation. Almost every time I hit a roadblock, my death taught me a little bit about how to survive the next run. Strong monsters are intimidating, but they, like the player, follow a strict set of rules. Losing fights and taking hits will teach the player more about what a specific enemy type can or cannot do. There is a thrill to returning to the place of your last death, and a rush of glory to be had when overcoming seemingly unbeatable challenges.
Shiren 5 isn’t for everyone, but it stays true to its niche with its mechanics. While not taking any evolutionary steps for the Mystery Dungeon formula, it still offers countless hours of content within its gaping maw of procedurally generated content. It hits the right spot between fun and frustration, giving the player enough agency and capability to feel empowered by their choices, only to eventually knock Shiren right back onto the ground with whatever lies around the next corner. It’s up to the player to re-evaluate their approach, climb back up, and push through to the top.
A PS Vita Review Code for Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate was provided by Aksys Games for the purpose of this review.