Do you believe in fate? If our future is already written, then do our actions even make a difference? Perhaps even more significant is the underlying question: can we do anything to change our fate? The notion of a predetermined destiny that controls us all is something that drives many conversations and even stories in film and literature. In the long-running Mystery Dungeon series, developer Spike Chunsoft released the long-winded Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate on Nintendo DS back in 2010. North America now receives an enhanced port in 2016, featuring additional dungeons, on the PlayStation Vita.
In this roguelike JRPG, the wanderer (and silent protagonist) Shiren, and Koppa, his talking ferret companion, reach a small village. There, they soon meet a sickly girl and her childhood friend who aspires to save her. Legends tell stories about Reeva, the God of Destiny, who allegedly controls the fates of all living beings. Reeva rests atop the Tower of Fortune, a monument inhabited by monsters and shrouded in mystery. Shiren and Koppa agree to help conquer the Tower of Fortune and try to change the girl’s fate.
"It was a charming surprise to see nameless filler characters actually supplementing the overall story"
Thanks to the wonderful localisation by Aksys Games, the plot comes across as genuinely thoughtful and sometimes thought-provoking. AI characters scattered around each hub village provide genuinely insightful opinions on fate and what it means to have a predetermined future. Perhaps it is due to my genuine interest in that main premise, but I was motivated to walk around and talk to each character to see what they were willing to share. It was a charming surprise to see nameless filler characters actually supplementing the overall story. Many games in the roguelike genre choose to forego a plot almost completely, while Shiren The Wanderer provides much more than expected.
Navigating dungeons involves a grid-based movement system and turn-based actions. Completing a dungeon means finding the stairs on each floor to dive deeper until reaching the end. Each time Shiren takes a step or any other action, that counts as a turn. Following Shiren’s turn, each monster on the same dungeon floor takes a turn as well. Knowing this, the player can try to anticipate enemy actions and gain the upper hand. Dying means a swift return to town and losing your money and everything in your inventory. In addition to monitoring Shiren’s health is his fullness meter; as any wanderer would, Shiren gets hungry. Getting too hungry results in losing health while taking steps, so using food to replenish fullness is absolutely necessary. In later dungeons, day/night cycles affect the behaviour and ferociousness of monsters and also grant Shiren new abilities.
Shiren enters each dungeon at level one, which makes the upgrading of equipment all the more important. The player can upgrade weapons and armour by using them, hiring a blacksmith, and even with the use of certain scrolls. Defeating monsters allows Shiren to level up and increase his health, increasing your odds of survival. Don’t expect to find the same enemies and pathways each time you enter a dungeon, however. Everything that happens in the dungeons is randomly generated; floor layouts, items drops and monster spawns differ each time you enter. Utilising both your equipment and usable items means the difference between success and failure.
Your limited inventory forces a maximum of 20 items at any given time. Items can be banked in storage locations throughout the game, but even then, the amount of goods you bring in a dungeon stays limited. Initially this may feel like a flaw, but after some time it becomes an essential part of what drives the game's difficulty: limiting inventory space forces you to anticipate potential risks. Do you bring enough food so that your hunger meter never empties, or save space for an extra weapon? Fortunately, the limit of 20 items can be stretched with pots – containers that can store other items. To retrieve stored items, simply shatter your pot by throwing it against the nearest wall. I quickly grew to appreciate the level of resource management available in preparing for my next big dungeon crawl.
"While every defeat is crushing, each victory is absolutely invigorating. The promise of such satisfaction upon reaching the end of a dungeon drives you to press onward"
That anticipatory mindset will undoubtedly become necessary as the game’s difficulty ramps up. In a single moment, your beefed-up swordsman can – and will – be cut down by an unexpected encounter. Shiren the Wanderer has no desire to hold your hand and make itself accessible to you: it demands that you learn its mechanics and utilise them to create the best chance for survival. Recruitable companions can help even the odds, but the game remains unabashedly persistent in taking every change it gets to stomp you. This is also, undoubtedly, the greatest lure to continue playing; while every defeat is crushing, each victory is absolutely invigorating. The promise of such satisfaction upon reaching the end of a dungeon drives you to press onward. That risk-reward system is the ideal gameplay hook for the roguelike genre, and Shiren absolutely nails it.
If you do die, you may choose to wait for another player to rescue you. This is Shiren the Wanderer’s only online multiplayer component. Essentially, waiting for a rescue means waiting until another player journeys through that same dungeon and comes to your aid. In doing so, you will respawn in the dungeon where you died and you avoid losing items. However, there is no guarantee that anyone will actually manage to find and save you. I tried testing this and gave up on waiting after around 12 hours. At that point, I chose to lose my equipment so that I could play more. Ad-hoc multiplayer allows for versus and co-op dungeons, but of course requires you to find someone else with a Vita and a copy of the game.
Last, but certainly not least, are the game’s lovely visuals. Sprite-based environments and characters come off as mildly dated, though the game still looks gorgeous. Colours appear rich and vibrant on the Vita's screen, and every location allures the player with an impressive amount of detail. As to be expected given their randomly generated nature, dungeons have less detail but are by no means plain; they still have their own unique look and feel, and are still enjoyable to venture through even after many attempts. Animations remain fluid even with numerous enemies and party members on-screen.
Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is not the less-experienced or the ill-tempered. It does not hold your hand, and in no way is it a roguelike for those looking to get into the genre. This is a game for battle-hardened, patient individuals itching for a serious challenge. I completed the main story dungeons in around 10 hours, and the surplus of post-game dungeons add dozens of hours of more high-quality adventuring. Those who put in the time will be rewarded with deeply strategic gameplay, beautiful environments and a surprisingly insightful story. If you have a PlayStation Vita and deem yourself worthy, then Shiren the Wanderer is an absolutely worthwhile investment.