The Wanderer’s Welcome Return
HIGH Ultra-balanced, ultra-deep, ultra-tight.
LOW Getting one-shotted during my first night run.
WTF Abort to save? Why is it not called ‘suspend’?
I like the concept of the roguelike – ideally, it’s a type of game that prioritizes moment-to-moment strategy and clever use of available resources, and the risk of going back to square one after a loss can greatly increase the intensity of the experience. But, as much as I like the idea of them, I don’t always like playing them.
Lesser roguelikes tend to be harsh and punitive — I like to be challenged, but I don’t like being tortured. I find that smart designers balance their sticks with a good amount of carrot. More importantly, a good roguelike is fair – rules that apply to the player should apply equally to the AI, with no exceptions. Nothing sours me faster than seeing powerful items suddenly ‘not work’ because a certain boss needs to be a challenge, or to have unprecedented obstacles appear because a certain section has to be a slog.
Getting a roguelike right requires designers to tread a very fine line, but it can be done — Shiren The Wanderer: The Tower Of Fortune And The Dice Of Fate handily proves it.
As the story begins, series protagonist Shiren comes to a village and finds a woman who’s gravely ill. Her fiancé will do anything to save her, so Shiren agrees to accompany him to the Tower of Fate to change their destiny. It’s a ‘good enough’ premise and there are a few cute lines and cute characters, but like most others in its genre, the story is not the reason to show up — it’s all about the gameplay.
In many ways, Shiren adheres to classic genre standards by being top-down, turn-based, and having the player start from scratch. Shiren has nothing at the start of a run, but before going into a dungeon, the developers make him travel through a brief ‘starter’ area where items are in plentiful supply. They know it’s not a great idea to send an underprepared player into harm’s way, so this buffer zone is meant to provide a few necessities before the real challenge begins. Once he’s in a dungeon, nothing moves until Shiren takes a turn, and then once he goes, everything else gets its turn as well. This structure affords the player plenty of time to evaluate each situation and weigh all possible options before taking action.
From this point, it’s all about exploring each floor of the dungeon and getting as far as possible – ideally, making it to the absolute end in one go. Everything is randomly generated including the items that appear, the monsters that populate the halls, and the NPCs that show up to offer aid. The trick to winning is to keep on collecting resources while not getting killed, but it’s far, far easier said than done.
While what I’ve described so far may seem like par for the roguelike course, what makes Shiren stand out is the attention and care given to every aspect of the experience, not to mention how wonderfully the difficulty is balanced.
For example, every item in the game (and there are many) has special properties and different ways to be used. One particular pot will let Shiren hide inside to evade enemies or he can toss it at one to trap them. A specific tuft of grass will let Shiren warp to a random part of the dungeon when he needs a quick exit, or he can toss it to make an attacker warp instead. The list goes on and on and on, and these items provide a wealth of options for any situation while also leaving plenty of room to be creative.
Also noteworthy is that the developers are quite merciful – well, merciful relative to other games like Shiren, anyway. Although some pickups are unidentified (meaning that their power or use case is unknown) many other items are instantly identifiable and the player can click on each one to get more specific info about what they do. There’s also an exhaustive optional tutorial that covers nearly every aspect of play for those who want it. In a game like this, knowledge is power, and the developers aren’t stingy about sharing it.
Shiren offers many other niceties, as well. If the player can escape or complete a dungeon, the gear that’s collected can be used for the next run or saved for a future attempt. Having a great sword socked away is a big boost when going on a final push for the endgame. Even better, certain items can be “tagged” – if Shiren dies, his favorite bracelet or shield will be sent to a lost and found instead of being lost forever. There are also ways to turn basic items into amazing ones, a bank to save cash for when it’s really needed, and a cast of supporting characters that will join Shiren on a dungeon dive when certain conditions are met. Even though a loss is a loss, the various ways to mitigate failure help the player build towards eventual success. The challenge is still there, but those who suffer some bad luck don’t get kicked when they’re down.
When taken as a whole, Shiren The Wanderer: The Tower Of Fortune And The Dice Of Fate delivers a carefully crafted, carefully considered experience that captures the best of what makes a good roguelike, while also mitigating the pain points that give the genre its hardcore reputation. As the developers so aptly prove, there’s no reason why entries in this genre have to be exercises in masochism – thanks to some smart changes and quality-of-life additions, they’ve delivered one of the Vita’s finest titles yet.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Spike Chunsoft and published by Aksys Games. It is currently available on Vita. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Vita. Approximately 32 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed at time of review. (I’m still playing!) There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E 10+ and contains Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence and Language. While the game may be too difficult for little ones, there’s nothing to be worried about. The violence is swinging a sword at goofy animals and watching then go poof. As for alcohol and language, I honestly can’t even recall a single instance of either. This game won’t offend anyone.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is subtitled and there are no significant auditory cues. It’s fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.
Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway