Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate, for the Nintendo Switch and PC, is a slightly updated version of a ten-year-old game that has the potential to feel like a twenty-seven-year-old game. It is a possibility that it won’t feel like that, though, if you’ve never played any of the Mystery Dungeon games, whose core gameplay has endured since the series was born in 1993. That’s the camp I am in and, for me, the first few hours of gameplay in Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate feel like a contemporary roguelike with some novel twists.
The roguelike qualities are certainly present, and I am a sucker for slowly mastering a dungeon after a gauntlet of deaths. I’m nothing if not tenacious. Shiren games, though, are a very difficult game to master. The stellar reflexes of a thirty-one-year-old game writer aren’t something you (assuming you, too, are a thirty-one-year-old game writer) can rely on. That is because the gameplay in Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is turn-based. At a glance, the game has the visage of a standard (albeit beautiful) pixel art action RPG. It even controls like one outside of its dungeon scenarios. In dungeons, however, almost all actions are followed by enemy reactions. If you step forward, an enemy gets to do something. It’s not so punishing as to give enemies an action in response to Shiren facing a new direction, but most of the tools at Shiren’s disposal, including walking, should only be used after at least a moment’s calculation. I’m not being glib when I count walking as a tool, either. A single step has value equal to a swipe of a sword in my book and use of space ends up being a significant factor in success.
The dungeons are, in equal measure, both zen and stressful. There’s something calming about focusing your attention on a single moment. On the other hand, the tension of a perilous moment that threatens to end a good dungeon run in response to an ill-considered move helps define the game. There are some real emotional peaks in the aftermath of these situations. You might feel proud of your decisions and your growth as a player, or you may feel foolish or frustrated. It’s hard to claim the game is unfair, though; it did give you time to plan and there was probably a better move you could have made, after all. What’s difficult is when you immediately recognize what the ideal move would have been a second after you didn’t choose it. “Welp,” I once said. “I deserved to lose all my upgraded items and hard-earned levels for that one.” And it was absolutely true. I deserved it.
In this scenario, I had also forgotten to store a substantial chunk of my items with an NPC. The ability to do this is appreciated because not only does it serve as a safeguard against losing items that you weren’t planning on using, but it means you have to strategize before even entering a dungeon. What items do you need? How much should you invest in this run? How many times can I fail before this dungeon robs me of all I hold dear? It’s risk versus reward, and it’s more fun than it sounds on paper.
On paper, all the systems and items present in Shiren the Wanderer also might not sound as fun as they can be in practice. For the most part, the game is rife with options that can empower you as a player. With this much to consider, you would figure there would be some frills attached. That’s not really the case, though. There is a degree of what feels like needless busywork but it’s limited. That said, learning the ins and outs of dungeons, monsters, traps, items, and abilities can be incredibly overwhelming. Before I left the starting town to attempt my first dungeon, an NPC told me to try visiting the aptly-named “Beginner’s House.” Inside, I undertook a series of tutorials. Once I finished those, I undertook a brand-new page of tutorials. About an hour later, I had finished the tutorials and felt as though I couldn’t possibly retain everything I had learned, much less masterfully utilize the knowledge. I figured that such an ability would come with time and would feel like a suitable reward for the effort I put in. I was right. Also, the tutorials provided me with some items that would have come in handy in my adventure, had I known to store them.
Turns out, that tutorial was a waste of time. Lost items aside, I later discovered that there is a convenient help menu in the game that provides a succinct, accessible, portable, and all-around better version of the lengthy tutorial. On top of that, speechless Shiren travels with a talkative ferret companion who teaches him what to do throughout the early stages of the game much like a standard tutorial would do. In defense of the NPC who wasted my time by telling me to go to the Beginner’s House, he had no way of knowing I had a gifted ferret and a menu full of tips. I can’t extend the same benefit of the doubt to the developers, though. They knew.
I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent with the game so far, though, and look forward to working through the rest of the game and bonus content. I also look forward to being able to talk about the story, which is built around a simple premise: a girl is sick and a few of the townspeople believe that it is possible to appeal to fate. Most of the others are more resolved to let her die. My first impression was that the game was going to have a ton of stilted dialogue and weird word choices. While my first impression was accurate through a certain lens, I am now charmed by the repetition of ideas and the use of clear themes. It has an effect that seems, like most things about Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate, to work better than you would think.
Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate will release in North America and Europe on December 2, 2020. The release date for Japan is December 3, 2020.