Shiren the Wanderer Review

By Michael Thomsen - Posted Feb 18, 2010

Shiren the Wanderer is a throwback to a time when games had serious depth in their gameplay, but looked like bizarre computer hieroglyphics. It's a punishing and tactical combat game whose structure encourages real experimentation.

The Pros
  • Gentle learning curve
  • Greatly detailed characters
  • Tactical combat has rare depth
The Cons
  • No conversation system
  • Easy mode ultimately takes away from the experience
  • Old-fashioned to a fault

Shiren the Wanderer is a throwback to a time when games had serious depth in their gameplay, but looked like bizarre computer hieroglyphics. It’s a punishing and tactical combat game whose structure encourages real experimentation. It’s also an outdated curiosity that ignores some of the great innovations in RPG design over the last thirty years for the sake of staying true to a genre that’s become increasingly obscure. In other words, fans of the subgenre may already have an idea of the proceedings, but RPG dabblers should proceed cautiously. 

Shiren the Wanderer

A Roguelike is not a Roguelike

Not everyone at Atlus is comfortable calling Shiren the Wanderer a roguelike, although it strongly resembles one. The RPG subgenre, which formed around the 1980 role-player Rogue, typically offered players an enormous dungeon with a mystical treasure that needed fetching from the bottom floor. The games were cruel and punishing, undoing all of your items and experience if you died. They were equal parts turn-based combat and pure survival, with absolutely no gristle. The genre has endured since the early days of ASCII art and pure abstraction with recent games like Baroque, Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja, and Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon.

Like past roguelikes, Shiren is a real-time puzzle RPG in which you’ll make your way through a series of increasingly difficult and elaborate dungeons. While the number of floors is fixed for each dungeon, the layout, enemy placement, and loot are randomly generated, meaning you’ll have a substantively different experience every time you plunge in. You’ll move through dungeons on a grid, and enemies take one move for every step you take, though it all plays out in real-time. When you begin, you’ll find it easiest to just walk up to enemies and take turns hacking at them with physical attacks.

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As you progress, you’ll need to start taking a more chess-like approach to the grid, balancing how many grid spaces away the enemy is, what sort of projectiles or magic items you have in your inventory, and how much physical damage the enemy is likely to do when it arrives. The focus is on survival throughout. If you die in a dungeon all of your items and experience points that you had when you entered are lost and you’ll need to spend some time in shops (you can save money in banks before you enter dungeons) or mining earlier dungeons to build up your cache again.

It’s a wonderful and frequently torturous system that encourages you to play with every possibility within the mechanics. After the first couple of hours, death becomes a regular occurrence and you’ll quickly learn that survival is centered on the artful use of consumables. The kinds of items you discover in a dungeon can also dramatically affect your play experience. Simply calling Shiren the Wanderer a roguelike belittles an experience that pulls from influences as diverse as chess and Dungeons & Dragons. It’s too dismissive of a descriptor and creates a needless divide between aficionados and those just passing through which, in large part, has led a once innovative area of game design into the dark corners of genre obscurity.

Shiren the Wanderer

But It’s Still Awfully Rogue-ish

Shiren the Wanderer has a more cohesive storyline than any other game in the series, and it’s also got an easy mode that allows players to keep all their items after death. The easy mode will lessen some of the initial trauma for players not ready to embrace the idea of consequence to failure. But it also deadens the combat, making it easier to hoard items and rely on a few basic attack options because you’re never forced to make do with a brand new item inventory. The essence of roguelikes is to strategize based on mortal mistakes, and although easy mode is designed to make the game more accessible, it ultimately makes the game worse, not better.

Calling Shiren a roguelike also protects it from comparison to other creative advances in role-playing games over the years. There aren’t body specific effects like Fallout offered more than ten years ago. Likewise, the setting is the over-familiar fantasy version of feudal Japan that’s shaped RPG aesthetics going back to the 80s. There isn’t any environmental puzzling like you’ll see in Spelunky, and there’s no dungeon creation tool for the hardcore to experiment with. And there’s no conversation system or procedurally generated mini-quest system to break up some of the monotony of larger dungeons.

In other words, Shiren doesn’t do anything meaningful to evolve the traditions of the real-time puzzle RPG. It’s a wonderfully detailed version of what was once trapped in ASCII abstraction. Character models have a great sense of detail, but environments can get a little bland after ten or eleven floors of loot trawling. The music adds a great sense of melodic personality to each dungeon, with dramatically different moods and instrumentation. Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling this is just a prettier version of an old and creaky approach to game design.

Shiren the Wanderer

Yesterday Once More

I had a good time playing Shiren the Wanderer, but I was finished with it a long time before I got to the dungeons of Karakuri Mansion. There have been so many wonderful recent RPG advances seen in other Japanese-produced games, but Shiren is a game obstinately stuck in the past. There’s a definite value to be had in the terrifically complex array of weapons, scrolls, status effects, and buffs. The way the game presents its turn-based mechanics in a real-time environment is a neat contrast to some more traditional menu-based RPG’s. But ultimately, the systems don’t feel like they’ve changed substantively since the early days of Rogue and Hack. If that’s all you want, there’s a lot to appreciate in Shiren. But if you were hoping for a more inventive approach to procedural storytelling or some new variations on attacking enemies on a grid, you’ll find there’s a lot missing.