Is the Western world finally ready for a Shiren the Wanderer game? It’s been six years since the last U.S. release, and each time it’s made an appearance on these shores, it’s come from a different localization house and with little fanfare. Despite that, this time, things feel different. Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate may be the game to truly leave its mark on the greater games world, as much due to when it is as what it is.
For the uninitiated — and that group gets smaller every day — Mystery Dungeon games like Shiren the Wanderer set you in procedurally-generated levels and have you fight your way through as well as you can until you either die or reach your goal. You have to use what you find and balance limited food with the need to grind for experience, building self-contained challenges rather than having the grind for levels to overpower everyone that you find in an RPG.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because… yeah, it is. It’s a roguelike, a genre that’s existed for decades but really come into its own in the six years since the last Western Shiren release. People get roguelikes now in a way they previously didn’t, having played such a variety of them. It could also be because Mystery Dungeon has gotten a Nintendo-caliber boost over the past decade. The Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series is phenomenally forgiving in a way the traditional games aren’t, but nevertheless, these games have trained little ones since the GBA days to understand the franchise trappings, and now those little ones are not so little and exactly the age that carries around a Vita. And they’re ready for something a little more serious.
Shiren the Wanderer represents the Mystery Dungeon series at its most distilled and pure, an original creation around the ideas it presents.
Shiren the Wanderer represents the Mystery Dungeon series at its most distilled and pure, an original creation around the ideas it presents. The games started as a Dragon Quest spinoff, which should be no surprise from the developer that made the first five main releases, and it’s long adapted itself to fit others’ franchises, but Shiren makes no adjustments. Its stories aren’t convoluted. Its characters are as utilitarian as they come. All is in service of the dungeon.
In The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate, an era long past meets a new one that feels familiar. It’s a gorgeous, pixel-driven game that takes full advantage of the Vita’s screen to display some gorgeously drawn animations and lush environments, looking exactly as it intends rather than attempting polygonal worlds and losing the battle with history. Sure, there are dim dungeon environments, but there’s also a vibrant Japanese-style village, a lush meadow and a stark tundra. It leans into its color palette at all times, making areas feel different even just from the glow of the screen as you glance away.
One of the great advantages of having so many opportunities to iterate is that the experience Shiren is trying to deliver is heavily refined. The controls make the game just as convenient as possible for people who get acquainted and settle in for the long haul, and the interfaces use whatever buttons are available to them to give you shortcuts. It really does take some learning to grasp these, either through the ludicrous number of available tutorials or through organic play, but once you do? Yeah, I like the diagonal-only toggle. I like the wait shortcut. I like setting multi-use items to the shoulder button and sorting my backpack efficiently. It’s not perfect; there are some improvements left to make in inventory management and communicating its systems intuitively. But it’s impressive nonetheless.
The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate encourages experimentation between runs. Sure, there are ways to build out your supplies for a run through successful earlier outings, but what the game does best is offer you more options than you can utilize at once. You can garb companions to take with you with different abilities, like shapeshifting and magic, but you can’t take everyone you know at once, and there’s no “best” configuration. There are choices that make you spend way less time working on your weapons, or ones that give you a bit of protection if you walk in carefully-considered patterns to keep them in position. It’s about finding a style you like more than anything else, and each player will find a different comfort zone.
It’s about finding a style you like more than anything else, and each player will find a different comfort zone.
It also thrives on its randomness. Sure, this provides varied dungeons to play, letting you have a different experience each time. More than that, though, this really mitigates the frustration of a bad run. Did you run into a packed monster room too early? If you get through, it’s a great story. If you don’t, that’s the nature of the run and you can try again. This sort of thing can be a real drag in other sorts of games, but making the loop a feature and not a consequence makes that a lot less aggravating.
The game also doesn’t drop the ball for series veterans. If you want a true challenge, take on the the game’s bonus dungeons, which have stipulations bordering on the ludicrous. Want the game to be hard? Oh yeah, it’s got you. There are also some fun distractions in town, from weird box puzzle dungeons to complex crafting schemes. You can use these to take a break from your repeated tower ascensions, or use them to augment the game’s staying power after you finish the main quest. Or you can put in just a few dozen hours to fulfill the story objective and call it a day. The game’s fine with that, too.
Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate may not grab the notice of every player as a 2016 Vita release, but it certainly makes its case well to an audience who, however limited, may now be more receptive to its message. And hey, the Vita’s at its best too when graced with an addictive timesink with vibrant visuals.