Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Available on: PlayStation Vita (reviewed)
Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate for the PlayStation Vita marks the fifth entry for the series over its 20-year history, although it’s only the third to reach North American shores. The punishing rogue-like began as Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer on the Nintendo DS back in 2008, which was a remake of the 1995 Super Famicom release that was exclusive to Japan. Later in 2010, Mystery Dungeon – Shiren the Wanderer 3: The Sleeping Princess and the Karakuri Mansion made its way stateside on the Wii as simply Shiren the Wanderer.
Although I dabbled in the Wii version a few years back, I have no attachment to the series whatsoever. I’ve played my fair share of rogue-likes in the past, and while they’ve never been my favorite genre, I’ve always understood how they’ve managed to carve out a niche audience looking for games that are deep, punishing, and rewarding.
Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is no different, offering an experience that’s complex, dense, and somewhat rewarding, while also infuriating me to my wit’s end. No matter how many times I tried, how many 30-minute breaks I took, I just couldn’t connect with the diabolical nature in which it punished my failures, but there’s no denying its sheer amount of content, beautiful sprite work, and wonderful soundtrack.
It may not be for me, but I do understand the series’ appeal a bit more.
When the titular hero Shiren and his ferret companion Koppa arrive at Inori Village, they happen upon the plight of a man named Jirokichi and his dying lover, Oyu. Oyu’s suffering from an incurable disease, and with only a couple of days left to live, Jirokichi is willing to try anything to save her.
There’s a local legend about the Tower of Fortune, where the God of Fate, Reeva, uses the Dice of Fate to control the destinies of all living beings. If he can reach the top and obtain the Dice, maybe ol’ Jirokichi can prevent Oyu’s demise. Wouldn’t that be sweet?
Shiren, being the treasure seeking adventurer that he is, follows Jiro in to the tower and immediately finds him dead. No surprise, really, since the game is brutally difficult. However, Shiren and Koppa politely resurrect him and decide to lend a helping hand in climbing the tower and securing the magical Dice.
It’s an interesting scenario at least, but the core of Shiren the Wanderer lies in its dungeon crawling, which, with it being a rogue-like, is randomized and punishingly hard. There’s a daunting supply of necessary tutorials that do a great job covering the game’s intricacies, but slow the opening moments to a halt while you spend nearly an hour learning how not to die — rather than doing something a bit more exciting. They’re skippable, sure, but they’re pretty much required if you hope to live longer than Jirokichi did.
Your primary goal is to climb the three Towers of Fate, with each being more difficult than the last. The introductory tower is simple enough, giving you a chance to use what you’ve learned in the tutorials without much of a threat in its earlier floors. The challenge ramps up significantly thereafter, with the 2nd tower ending my initial visit in roughly 20 seconds. You don’t have to go at it alone though, so long as you can afford to hire temporary party members, like the boomerang tossing Tao. The AI is generally terrible, but having another body to soak up damage proved invaluable throughout.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Mystery Dungeon style of play, the game moves along a grid in real-time. Every action you take, be it moving, attacking, using an item, or equipping a new piece of gear in your backpack, allows each enemy in the dungeon to use an action as well. It’s similar to the concept used in games like Azure Dreams or Quest of Dungeons. This adds a lot of tactical depth to the combat, preventing you from fumbling around the Tower of Fate at your leisure. You always have to keep an eye on your surroundings and be one step ahead of the monsters that wait within. And even then, you’ll probably die a lot.
Death in Shiren the Wanderer is unforgiving, sending you back to your village and removing all of your money, items, equipped gear, and levels. Yes, levels, but you lose those even if you successfully complete a tower, so that became the least of my worries — along with making said success feel totally unrewarding. You can take preventative measures by depositing money and storing spare sets of gear in their respective in-game facilities, which made it sting a bit less when I rolled back in to the 2nd tower for the 5th time.
However, death is a constant factor that’s meant to be used as both a cautionary tale and a learning experience. The moments when I wanted to escape death by locating the entrance to the next floor, I often threw caution to the wind and was made short work of by enemies I was never prepared for. It’s a game meant to be played move by move, like an unpredictable round of chess, and not treating it as such typically ended in a trip back to Nekomaneki Village, naked, poor, and reduced down to level 1.
This is something I never, ever got used to, yet it’s the main reason fans of the series keep coming back. I either lacked the patience or skill required to progress further, as frustration overtook joy with each consecutive death. I tried to keep my cool, venturing back with more knowledge than my last attempt, but found myself saying “fuck it!” and putting my Vita down for a much needed break instead.
Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate has a beautiful aesthetic with a lot of great sprite work, which works in tandem with its wonderful soundtrack. It features a ton of depth and content to explore for those willing to endure its steep learning curve and punishing failures. It’s technically sound, and I have nothing bad to say about it, but in the end, Shiren the Wanderer defeated me. I don’t see myself ever coming back to finish it, in fact, but denying how well its various components combine in to such a solid foundation would be stupid.
This is a rock solid dungeon crawler, but one that is well beyond the effort I’m willing to put forth. But that’s just me. Perhaps you’re more suited for the challenge that lies ahead.
*So where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I spent a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if the game is worth your time and money.
Full disclosure: This review was done using a PlayStation Vita copy of Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate that was provided by the game’s publisher, Aksys Games. While I’m sometimes given games to review, I pride myself on providing unbiased reviews to fellow consumers, along with constructive feedback to hard working developers and publishers. Whether or not I pay for the game is completely irrelevant.