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Shiren the Wanderer

Platform(s): Wii
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Chunsoft
Release Date: Feb. 9, 2010


Wii Review - 'Shiren the Wanderer'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on March 3, 2010 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

The grandfather of the rogue-like RPG, the legendary Shiren series (also known as Mystery Dungeon) is all about tough-as-nails battles, thrilling exploration, finding tons of items, growing in strength, and most important of all: staying alive!

Shiren the Wanderer for the Wii may share a very similar title with Sega's Mysterious Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer for the DS, but they're two very different games. The original DS title is a port of Fushigi no Dungeon 2: Furai no Shiren, a Super Nintendo title from 1995. The Fushigi no Dungeon franchise is rather well-known for starting what is called the "Mysterious Dungeon" genre, a series of dungeon-crawling exploration games known for its challenging gameplay and sometimes unforgiving death mechanics. The SNES Shiren was the second game in the franchise, and just to make things a little more confusing, the plainly titled Shiren the Wanderer is the third game in the franchise and shouldn't be mistaken for a mere clone of its DS counterpart. It changes quite a few things, although the classic Mysterious Dungeon gameplay is still intact.

In Shiren the Wanderer, players join Shiren and his talking ferret, Koppa, in the middle of another adventure. He is traveling with his father's friend, a man who Shiren and Koppa call Sensei, to investigate the mysterious Karakuri Mansion, which is at the center of legends and rumors that go back over 1,000 years and is said to house a legendary treasure. No sooner does Shiren enter a nearby town than he gets caught in a plot involving bandits, time travel and the mysterious princess who has some sort of connection to the Karakuri Mansion. Compared to the DS Shiren game, this title is more plot-heavy. There are a few characters to remember, plot twists and turns aplenty, and a mystery to unravel. While the overall plot is pretty simplistic, it has enjoyable characters and an intriguing mystery that adds a bit of spice to the gameplay without overshadowing it. Perhaps the only frustration is the very real feeling of coming into the middle of a story. Shiren, Koppa and their new friend Asuka reference some events that occurred in games that were never released in English-speaking countries. You don't miss a lot by not understanding these references, but it certainly feels like you're out of the loop.

One element of Shiren the Wanderer that must be discussed before any other is the difficulty level. Those unfamiliar with the Mystery Dungeon franchises may boggle at the idea that death has a harsh punishment. The DS version of Shiren the Wanderer, along with many other games in the genre, will reset your levels and take away all of your items when you die. The idea is that you're supposed to build up new items and knowledge through each playthrough of the game until you reach the point of being able to defeat the final boss. You may lose equipment and items to screw-ups, but new ones are right around the corner.

The Wii version does things a bit differently. On the game's Easy difficulty mode, you lose nothing but time if you die. Levels and items are retained, turning the game into much more of a traditional RPG. This mode is a lot more accessible for newcomers to the genre, as it allows them to make common mistakes without the otherwise harsh punishments. The game isn't exactly something you can sleepwalk through, and you can and will likely die if you make a mistake, but it becomes significantly more accessible. It's very easy for the term "roguelike" to set off panic alarms for more casual RPG fans because the games involve a serious investment of time and effort that can be lost through one stupid move. Shiren the Wanderer limits the punishment to time, and this makes it a more user-friendly game.

 Far more controversial to Mysterious Dungeon fans is the fact that on Normal mode, you retain all of your levels, if not your equipment. Regardless of how often you die, you're never going to start all over again, at least during the course of the main story. To hardcore roguelike fans, this is probably going to be frustrating, as it means that failure gives you a tangible benefit: You'll begin your next adventure a little more powerful each time. It isn't a particularly huge gain, as your primary attack and defensive abilities in Shiren come from weapons and armor, but it should be a tangible one. If you're the kind of gamer who hates it when a game adjusts for difficulty after multiple failures, you might find this to be very frustrating. On the other hand, less talented gamers may find this feature to be useful. It effectively means that each death in the game gives you a chance to become a little more powerful. This may be agonizing to hardcore players who dislike getting advantages, but it does a lot to make things friendlier for newcomers without downgrading everything to the significantly simpler Easy mode.

In this dungeon-crawling RPG, players enter a randomized dungeon and must reach the last floor in order to escape with their lives and any prizes. You move around with the analog stick, attack by pressing the A button when you're near an enemy, and use items from the menu. It's a very simple game, and even newcomers should understand how to do everything within a few moments.

The complexity comes in keeping your character alive. Enemies are deadly and powerful, and keeping up your health is a big part of keeping alive. Shiren the Wanderer is about understanding exactly what abilities you have access to, and how they can prevent you from being overwhelmed. This isn't the kind of game where you can equip a good sword and go to town. Enemies are designed to exploit your weaknesses and use various gimmicks to make things difficult for you. Some may confuse you, causing you to use up valuable items or toss away hard-earned weapons. Some may transform you into other forms that can't battle, knock your shield into a pit, paralyze you so you can't fight, or drain your character's fullness status so he starves to death.

Not only does Shiren have a HP bar that refills slowly over time, but he also has a hunger bar. Running out of food is as sure a death sentence as being hit by a powerful attack. On top of that, you have to be careful of traps and tricks, which can severely debilitate Shiren. Very few of these are outright fatal, but most can be dangerous in their own ways. Poison traps can drain Shiren's strength, making him do less damage. Landmines can drain huge chunks of his health in a single explosion, making him easy prey for nearby enemies. Others can knock him into walls, teleport him away from allies, or even send him back to a previous floor.

Fortunately, the entire game is turn-based. Until you move or take an action with Shiren, the enemies don't move either, so you can decide on your next move without feeling rushed. Sometimes, it may be more worthwhile to use a magical staff item to stun an enemy and run away. At other times, you may use a scroll to cause enemies to take damage when they attack you. At no point in the game do you feel like you don't have a choice about what to do.

However, that doesn't mean that Shiren the Wanderer will be easy. A wrong choice can lead to a very easy death, and indeed, player error is the number one cause of death in the game. There are times when you absolutely can't find the items or equipment necessary to succeed, but more often than not, you'll die because you used the wrong item or fell into a trap that you could have avoided. If you're the kind of player who gets frustrated very easily, this game can take a toll on you, even on the Easy difficulty level. It is a game built around failure and repetition, so it's nearly impossible to use brute force to get through, and even if you spend hours and hours grinding for items and equipment, you can still die if you make a major mistake.

Equipment is far more important than levels in Shiren the Wanderer, partially because levels only add small benefits to defense and offense, but mostly because equipment can be customized to weaken many of an enemy's special abilities. You can use certain characters or special scrolls to upgrade the attack power of a weapon or defense of a shield, but the real benefit to equipment is in seals, which are special attributes that grant different abilities. A seal can allow your weapon to paralyze a foe when struck, weaken certain kinds of enemy attacks, prevent your items from being stolen, or even to reduce how quickly Shiren gets hungry. There are various ways to get seals. Sometimes you can find equipment with seals already on them. These items are usually weak but can be fused with good weapons by using a melding jar. You can also find dragon orbs in certain areas of the game, which allow you to perform a ritual to upgrade a weapon with certain seals. Losing these items is worse and more painful than losing levels ever could be, as finding new seals to replace your old ones is significantly harder than killing enemies for experience points.

One particularly cool feature in Shiren the Wanderer that wasn't in the DS version involves commanding your allies. At certain times during the plot, Shiren will be joined by a second character, and these allies will follow you around the dungeon and serve as assistants during your adventure. These characters are a bit different from Shiren, although not substantially so. They can equip weapons and use items, but some items are unique to them. For example, Asuka the swordswoman can't dual-wield weapons but can use two-handed things that Shiren can't, like giant fans. However, if your AI partner is defeated, the game is over just as surely as if it were Shiren.

By default, your allied partner is AI-controlled and will follow you around, occasionally move into position to fight enemies, and use items freely anytime the AI deems it appropriate. This can be frustrating. Nothing is worse than trying to save a Lightning Scroll only to have the AI use it on a room with three easy-to-kill enemies, and if you don't do something about that, the AI will do something wrong. If you have rice balls that get toasted by an enemy attack, an AI ally will devour your entire stash of food in a few moments, leaving Shiren doomed to starve.

Fortunately, the AI is very customizable. You can alter the AI behavior and item use patterns with a simple system. If you don't want it to use offensive scrolls or healing items, you disable them. If you'd prefer that your allied partner use scrolls before it uses staves, you can set that preference. You can also alter how aggressive the AI is; it can chase enemies, loot every item in the room, or simply hang back and let Shiren do all the work. Most importantly, you can also take direct control over the ally. One option is to take control of the ally, which turns Shiren into the AI-controlled partner instead. This is particularly useful if Shiren is injured or you accidentally get his equipment destroyed. The other option, Full Control, lets you control both Shiren and the partner at the same time. This slows down exploration a lot, as you have to take actions for both Shiren and the partner during every turn. However, this is extremely helpful in combat, as it allows you to defeat certain difficult encounters with ease. Full Control can be turned on and off with the touch of a button, making it very easy to take a hands-on approach in bad situations while allowing the relatively competent AI to take care of things the rest of the time.

The gameplay in Shiren the Wanderer is very well designed. Death will happen, but it very rarely feels unfair. You'll usually regret not healing when you had the chance or saving a rare item for later instead of using it when you should have. It's extremely satisfying to figure out the various tricks, gimmicks and mechanics in the title. Once you've gotten the hang of how the game works, nothing is as fulfilling as using the proper combination of scrolls, staves and swords to make mincemeat of a nasty group of enemies, or figuring out exactly how to escape from a bad situation. Much like Demon's Souls or other difficult games, a player's enjoyment relies heavily on his tolerance for repetition and frustration. A mistake, even on the easiest mode, requires you to effectively restart the area, and a particularly nasty dungeon may cause some players to want to break the Wiimote in two. However, the lighter difficulty also makes this a good choice to introduce beginners to the roguelike genre, as it can do a lot to alleviate the difficulty. Boss encounters are challenging, but are, in some ways, more like puzzles. Once you figure out the gimmick to a boss battle, they're rarely difficult, although they can punish even simple mistakes.

Most of the dungeons in Shiren the Wanderer occur during the main part of the game and are relatively straightforward. You retain your levels and can bring in any items or equipment that you've collected during the course of the story. Each section involves climbing through a rather lengthy portion of the dungeon, and there is usually a boss encounter somewhere along the way. It's not nearly as difficult to reach a safe area in Shiren the Wanderer as it was in the Nintendo DS version, but you will have to dedicate a fair amount of time to finishing a dungeon. You can use Escape Scrolls to escape without punishment at any time prior to a boss battle, but if you do, you'll have to restart the dungeon.

Aside from the main story dungeons, there are a few optional dungeons you can enter, each with its own restrictions. The first one you'll be able to access is Portal, a mini-dungeon that resets you levels (but not equipment). The Portal is a great way to find new equipment and rare items, but you'll have to take the risk of beginning as a low-level character again. The Portal also levels up as you complete the main story, allowing you to go deeper into the dungeon. Later on in the game, you'll gain access to a variety of other, more gimmicky dungeons. You'll have to exploit certain gameplay mechanics to survive, and almost all of them set you back at a low level or with minimal equipment. You don't have to step into most of these bonus dungeons to finish the game, but it's nice for gamers who've already conquered the main story.

Unfortunately, Shiren the Wanderer is not a particularly great-looking game. The graphics are serviceable but unexceptional. Most of the level design is rather mediocre, and the character models are a tad bland. There are some nice animations here and there, but a majority of them only slow down the game. Players will want to be sure to turn off the "picking up items" animation at the first opportunity in order to prevent an excessive amount of wasted time. The game features some rather nice CGI cut scenes during important plot events, although they're very brief, and the lack of voice acting seems odd. Overall, the soundtrack is pretty good. The songs provide good mood music for dungeon exploration, and none of them are particularly intrusive to the experience. A lot of the tunes are familiar remixes of songs from the original Mysterious Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer, and that adds a nice touch of nostalgia to the game, even for U.S. players who have only experienced the DS iteration.

Shiren the Wanderer for the Wii is a great game for beginners. Its difficulty may be a bit low for some of the most extreme fans of the genre, but for newcomers, there is a lot here to make the experience more pleasant. The forgiving Easy mode makes it easier to experiment and fool around with your various abilities, and the tutorial and simple controls make it very difficult to get confused. Hardcore gamers shouldn't feel slighted, however. There is a lot of late-game content that retains the same exciting Shiren the Wanderer feel of the DS title, and even the most hardcore of gamers will find a few of these dungeons to be intense and challenging. The repetition and frustration mean that Shiren the Wanderer isn't for everyone, but anyone who is a fan of the roguelike genre or interested in trying it out should pick up Shiren the Wanderer. Everyone has to start somewhere, and there are few better places to start the roguelike genre than with Shiren the Wanderer for the Wii.

Score: 8.0/10

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