"Am I ready? I was BORN ready to die!"
Shiren the Wanderer as a series has seen a few releases in the US over the past decade, but it really hasn’t been a series that’s stood out from the crowd. It could be because it’s a roguelike or because it’s so unambiguously Japanese in its style and setting. It's more of a niche genre as a Mystery Dungeon-style roguelike, and it’s meant to break a player’s self-esteem until they’re a quivering, crying mess of a human being.
But while some players would simply play, start over half a dozen times, then give up and play something they think is more “fun,” fans of the genre look forward to that kick in the gonads with a spiked boot until they’re simply unable to start back from scratch for the 435th time. I guess some people won’t get it, but when done right, a difficult roguelike can strike that balance of “tough as a two-dollar steak” and “hurt me plenty.” It’s a difficult line to tread, and to be blunt, Shiren the Wanderer is more in the “get the knives ready for your own carcass” category.
Originally released for Nintendo DS in 2010, re-released and upgraded on Vita in Japan last year, and now translated and released for Vita here in the States, Shiren is the story of a mute wanderer followed by a talking ferret. After meeting a young man in a village whose lady-friend is stricken with illness and grows weaker by the day, his goal is to climb the Tower of Destiny to redeem a single wish: that she would, once again, be healthy. Thanks to the wise-cracking ferret named Koppa (like something out of a Disney flick), they become an integral part of that journey, with all of the heavy lifting in battle that comes with it. And if you, the player, aren’t ready for it, it will kick your ass.
Even if you're somebody who appreciates a good and tough dungeon crawler, making any progress in this game is a difficult start-and-stop experience, which can be too much for the average player. Taking control of Shiren (or whatever you may have named your protagonist), you’re thrown into the thick of it without anything in your hands or your pockets, fending for yourself and whatever you can find.
From what can be found, players are limited as to what they can hold, only about twenty items at a time, making the decision of using something now or saving it for later becoming a scary and crucial decision. Using a certain scroll in a dangerous room means it won’t be available later when it may save the day, and if it’s the last one in the bag, that can leave a team open to decimation given an inopportune trap.
And there are plenty. Tiny monsters dot the landscapes with new monsters appearing in different areas (some palette swaps, but enough different monsters to keep the crawling fresh) and traps hidden all over the place. Even in the early fields it feels dangerous, and I’m not ashamed to say I died more than once in the early locales due to being woefully unprepared.
Thankfully, there are a few allies along the way, and your party can have up to four characters. Everyone has a different skillset, like Tao’s boomerang and Okon’s shapeshifting abilities, and they can take some damage if placed between you and your dangerous opponent. Sacrificing your allies can help save your ass, moral conundrums be damned. Sure, they'll rush off into battle occasionally and get themselves killed, but I was treating them as human shields much of the time anyway, so... yeah.
Again, this was a DS game originally, and it looks the part. Instead of being given an overhaul, the pixelated sprites are still front and center, and the environments help cement the SNES-era visual appeal. This isn’t necessarily a knock, since the animation is fluid and it looks more like a style choice than settling for what’s possible, but compared to other re-releases on both PSP and Vita from older titles, it could have used some buffing. One definite upside is that there’s no stuttering or long load times, no matter how large the environment or how many baddies grace the screen at once. Sometimes under-doing things has benefits.
There is a day-and-night cycle after the first few dungeon sections, which change the challenge from “beef up and work through the pain” to “HOLY SHIT RUN JUST KEEP RUNNING.” The night cycle is when every monster is incredibly tough, sometimes capable of killing a character in a single blow. Through the night, they’re all wandering randomly and will only attack or follow you if they find you through the darkness by accident. This is when abilities can be used, like fully-healing magic or blowback strikes, but without a supply of items to keep enemies at bay—the weak but effective Knockback staff, or a scroll to confuse anything in the room, there are many options—it’s so incredibly difficult to even survive by the skin of one’s teeth.
The real annoyance comes from the difficulty in feeling like any progress has actually been made. Sure, there are some “checkpoint” towns along the way where items can be stored and even recovered (should you pay enough money), but dying out in the field will direct a player back to the very very beginning, the “training fields,” to rediscover items and armor (unless you can find multiples and sock them away for a rainy day). This usually means everybody’s going to lose their more powered-up and favorite gear that can’t be recovered. I know these titles are for the more hardcore of dungeon-crawling fans, but Shiren doesn’t do itself any favors by such a capital-B-Brutal campaign.
There are some online and ad-hoc options, like both versus and co-op local multiplayer, but let’s be honest, not many players will have friends that also have this game. And if they do, they probably have the original for the DS. When there’s no online multiplayer, only online “rescue”—if you die in the world, you can wait to be rescued, which means you can’t really play at all until and unless a random stranger is nice enough to venture out to find you—the multiplayer options are just window dressing for a single-player game. Which is a shame... I would have liked to venture out co-op with a stranger or two to help each other get deeper into the dangerous territory.
At its heart, this is a game for the masochist players who, like me, keep trying to reach just one level further. Sure, we’ll be slaughtered, and there’s little we can do to fully prepare for every enemy that finds our soon-to-be-rotting corpses on the battlefield. But there’s something still cute about how dangerous an overpowered shadowy beast can be. I literally cheered when I survived my first night cycle (and was immediately slain in the daytime), but then I started back up again from the beginning, no progress having been made. This genre is almost a fetish for certain players, and this game presents as fervent an example as any can be. And that’s honestly its downfall, because it’s otherwise a good kind of challenging. I just wish it could feel like there was no way to get “good” at the game itself. You know, make it more "fun" instead of an instrument of pain tolerance.