Inside Pulse 12

Review: Shiren The Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate (Sony PlayStation Vita)

Shiren The Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate
Genre: Roguelike
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: Aksys
Release Date: 07/26/16

If you’re a fan of roguelikes, you’re almost certainly acquainted with Shiren the Wanderer in some fashion, but if you’re not, or you’re the sort of person who’s most acquainted with the simpler games in the Mystery Dungeon series, a bit of explaining is in order. Mystery Dungeon is a franchise that’s reasonably popular in Japan, but outside of certain entries (most notably the Pokemon games) is very much a niche series in the US. Of the games in the franchise, the vast majority are licensed titles, and even the very first game in the series was based around the adventures of Torneko, a shopkeeper from the Dragon Quest franchise; in the US we’re more familiar with the Chocobo and Pokemon themed games, but games based around Torneko, Etrian Odyssey and even the Druaga series have found their way here. That said, the franchise does have one unique character that exists within it, outside of the various licensed titles, and it is the Shiren the Wanderer series, all of which follow around a wandering adventurer named Shiren and his talking weasel friend Koppa as they explore mysterious dungeons for adventure and to do good. While the series has been kicking around in Japan since around 1995, the US has only seen, up until now, two entries: a 3DS rerelease of the first game which was exactly what you’d expect from the genre, and a Wii title with some interesting balance options that seemed like an attempt to open the game up to casual fans of the genre. Thus, The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate marks the third US release for Shiren and friends, and like its predecessors, it’s a roguelike dungeon crawler where you try to survive while collecting loot and slaying monsters. However, those coming into the game from anything other than another Shiren title may find the game to be a bit more cumbersome and frustrating than its predecessors; Shiren, for better or worse, has little tolerance for the concessions of its predecessors, and while those who love the genre will love this too, it’s clearly not for everyone.

On being a hero in a colorful world

As the game begins, Shiren and Koppa arrive at a nearby town where they happen to hear the legend of the Tower of Fortune, a tower that holds the key to changing one’s fate. As the story goes, every person’s fate is dictated by the Dice of Fate, be it wonderful or miserable, and those who seek to change their fate (or the fates of others) can do so by climbing the Tower of Fortune to reroll their fate, more or less. As it happens, Shiren meets a young man named Jirokichi who has (somewhat recklessly) decided to climb the tower to save the life of Oyu, a young lady in the village who is essentially dying, and since Shiren is a good dude, he and Koppa decide to scale the tower themselves, as well as help Jirokichi in his quest, which (of course) is way more involved than it sounds. Generally speaking, you’re almost certainly not playing a Mystery Dungeon game for its plot, and this is likely no exception, but the story here is fine for what it is. Shiren and Koppa are likable protagonists, and the various NPCs you meet have interesting enough personalities that you’ll grow to like many of them, especially the more goofy characters like Tao (a panda suit wearing girl who works as a guide to the Tower of Fortune for… some reason) and Gen (a cat warrior who’s kind of a jerk), so there’s more to this than tower climbing. That said, there’s an abundance of that too, but it’s nice to see that the plot can carry things along for those who want both in equal measure.

Visually, the game is more in line with the DS release than anything else; as this is a remake of a DS title this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but it’s very much visually similar to Shiren the Wanderer on the DS, extensively so at points. Make no mistake, the game does look good if you’re into sprite work, and there are lots of charming moments, like Koppa bouncing in the background while Shiren eats a riceball or the simple environmental changes that occur during later dungeons that are just nice to see in action. That said, while the character sprites are bright and colorful and the game world features several really interesting and unique dungeons, as well as some varied enemy types in each that fans will definitely love, it’s kind of frustrating that there’s not really a lot of improvement from the prior game in this Vita port. Aurally, on the other hand, Tower of Fortune is really charming, starting with a solid soundtrack that compliments the dungeon crawling experience nicely, no matter which dungeon you’re in at the time. The game also features lots of complimentary and well-chosen sound effects, be they for combat, item usage, or simple environmental interactions. It’s also worth noting that the audio also features simple but charming moments, like different level-up cheers for male and female characters, which other games simply don’t think of, and the attention to detail is appreciated.

On dungeon crawling and adventure having

At the core of any Shiren the Wanderer game, it’s a roguelike like any other, meaning that you’ll be spending most of your time wandering through dungeons, looking for items and gear that will boost your ability to survive whatever is coming next, all while hoping you don’t stumble into a trap or meet an enemy that will obliterate you. Tower of Fortune utilizes many of the same mechanics as related games in the franchise, so if you’ve seen anything in the Mystery Dungeon series, or a roguelike in general, chances are good you’ll have an idea of what to expect as you go. Movement is turn-based, and dependent on your actions, so when you perform an action, so does every enemy on the map, so you can time your attacks to draw enemies closer and use timing and positions to set up the most ideal combat scenarios for the moment. The Shiren series tends to work off of diehard roguelike rules, so any time you go into a dungeon you’ll start from Level One, and while you’ll consistently level up as you go through a dungeon, leaving or dying resets your level back to One every time. Items stick with you as you go, however, so if you leave voluntarily, you keep your loot, but if you die, you lose everything (unless you mark your weapon and shield, then they come back with you) and get carried back to town to try again. As you go along, dungeon floors are filled with enemies to slay as well as lots of loot to pick up, including swords and shields to boost your attack and defense, healing items and food (since you can get hungry over time), ranged weapons, magic staves, scrolls with mass-effect spells, pots to store stuff in and more, giving you lots of options to play with. None of this is really new if you’ve played a Shiren game before, but if you’re new to the series the game helpfully offers you an extensive tutorial (seriously, it’s around an hour and a half long altogether) to take on in segments if you want to learn the ropes before getting into play.

That said, the Shiren series is generally the most complex, pound for pound, of the Mystery Dungeon games, and Tower of Fortune is no exception, as it has so many complex and complimentary systems that it’s a game you’ll likely spend hours experimenting with and learning from as you go. For one thing, the game offers you several different NPCs you can recruit, each of whom can be picked up based on different conditions as you move through the game. Jirokichi is available pretty regularly by default (so long as you can heal him), and you can recruit Tao at the entrance to the towers early on if you have the cash, but other characters are more complex to discover, and some may come down to random chance as far as recruiting goes. However, you can recruit several at one time, and unlike Shiren, your allies retain their levels between dungeons; while they’re less inherently capable than Shiren and take longer to level up over time, they’re great to have as equalizers as you go. Shiren can also level up gear simply by using it, allowing it to become much stronger over time to further augment his damage and survival. By default, simply using the items will level them up over time, but you can also find items that improve the rate of level up, change the gear entirely, allow you to merge gear to make improved equipment and more, giving you many options for making the best loot possible. In addition to weapons and shields, Shiren can also equip bracelets that confer benefits; you can only equip one at a time unless you have a matching sword and shield, and bracelets can’t be tagged to keep them if you die in a dungeon or leveled up, so they’re not as vital pound for pound, but they can really save your bacon in a bind.

The game also utilizes a lot of complimentary systems in dungeons that really make combat a satisfying and challenging thing when you’re well-armed, though the caveat is that, this being a roguelike, you can only prepare so much for a dungeon, and everything else is left to chance. Pots can be used to store, protect or change items you find, scrolls can be used to confer benefits or mess with enemies, staves and ranged weapons can be used to hurt or impair enemies, herbs can heal you or improve your status, riceballs and peaches can fill your belly and possibly improve your status, and so on, and you’ll definitely need the edge these things confer. Dungeons are stuffed with enemies and traps, and since traps can easily hurt you or damage your gear and enemies can quickly gang up on you or even level up if they beat another enemy or your allies, things can turn hairy in seconds. However, unlike normal RPGs, dungeons are procedurally generated, meaning that while you might be able to expect the same enemy variety overall, the paths, items and traps always change between visits. You can’t go into a dungeon expecting you’ll find escape or resurrection items, for example, because if you don’t and you need them, you’ll curse yourself for risking it all and losing everything due to a bad roll of the dice… so at least the game is thematically consistent.

What’s especially interesting about Tower of Fortune, though, is that it’s simultaneously a relatively fair roguelike while also being a very complex experience, if you’re up for it. To the first point, the game gives you several useful tools that can be leveraged to make the experience fairly reasonable for some time. You can collect point cards that allow you to exchange points found in the dungeons for items, including resurrection and escape tools, and since points are fairly plentiful this makes it reasonable to make progress slowly if you’re new to the genre. The game also offers free loot and prize-heavy (but challenging) side dungeons to beef yourself up in advance, so you can really set yourself up well before going into the dungeons if you’re inclined to invest the time. It’s not easy, mind you, so Pokemon Mystery Dungeon and Chocobo’s Dungeon fans will see a marked challenge transitioning to this, but if you’re willing to take your time the game will work with you. To the second point, there are also several useful options available to you that take some time to really grasp, but can be quite useful in the long run. There are multiple towns to visit, each with their own shops and unique elements, and through these you can get access to upgrades, item creation stations, shops that allow you to befriend monster types (for a while anyway), shops that mark your gear so it comes with you on defeat and more. Investigating is also worthwhile, since it can unlock new shops, allies and more, if you’re willing to poke around and talk to everyone before running off to slay monsters. Heck, even dying has its benefits, as getting out of the dungeon by any means can advance stories and unlock new things for your benefit. It’s definitely a game that’s challenging, to be sure, but there are extensive rewards in play to benefit the careful and consistent player.

On the extended dungeon crawl

Completing the core storyline is likely going to be your first goal, and that’s not impossible even for newbies; there are only around seven dungeons to take on for the core storyline, and they’re all relatively short in comparison to what’s to come, so for new players they act as a good introduction to the concept. However, diehard fans will love the game more for its long-term play, as there are nearly forty dungeons in the game, and while some are much shorter than others, there are several that expand to feature nearly one hundred floors once you’ve completed them the first time around, for those hankering for the ultimate challenge. There are also a whole lot of interesting and powerful pieces of gear and items to collect along the way, and the game utilizes many interesting challenges, including day and night cycles that change enemy challenge and specialty challenges to some dungeons that really make for a tough challenge in the long term. The game also features multiplayer and the ability to save others or request salvation yourself should you fall in the dungeon, and you can also plow through other dungeons you’ve completed before while you wait if you’re so inclined. Fans of roguelikes or the Mystery Dungeon series will find this to be a content-rich experience, in other words, and it’s easily recommended based on that alone if nothing else.

That said, the single most obvious thing to point out to those looking to jump into the game fresh is that the game is hard, and it’s in no way ashamed about this thing. If you’re coming into the game blind, or fresh from Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, you’ll find this to be a considerable step upwards in terms of challenge, as it’s decidedly for diehard fans of the genre first and foremost; this isn’t a bad thing by any means, but it deserves to be considered if you’re not that skilled at the genre. It also doesn’t help that the game, for all of the many tutorials it offers you, doesn’t explain nearly as much as it should. For example, the game does offer salvation options on death, but no one can seem to agree if they work outside of post-game or not (in my own experience, after waiting two hours I gave up), and I’ve seen more than a few people who’ve found it a major pain attempting to find tagged items on death. It’s not that the systems don’t work, it’s that the game isn’t as good as it could be about explaining the systems, and considering the multiple hours of tutorials in the game, it’s unfortunate that some of the more useful systems don’t give the player as much explanation as they might need. Finally, it also bears noting that, unlike many Vita RPGs which don’t seem to understand they’ve been released for a mobile platform, Tower of Fortune has the opposite problem, in that it assumes you’ll never have a power issue (say, if the power goes out while playing on PSTV), because if you do it’ll nuke your inventory. Honestly, there are a few actively bad decisions you can make that do this too if you’re not paying attention (make sure dungeons don’t say that you can’t bring your inventory with you), but while this specific choice makes sense from a “keep players from turning off their console to cheat death” perspective, it’s not the best solution when forced autosaves are a thing that exists.

Basically, Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is a fairly hardcore roguelike that diehard roguelike and Mystery Dungeon fans will love, but for everyone else it’s going to depend on how much you love difficult games, as it’s a great game, but it’s also a hard game, make no mistake. The story is cute and carries the early game well, while the extensive amount of content, dungeons and items will carry the late-game for fans with no problems whatsoever. The visuals are a bit archaic and clearly borrow from the DS games of the past, but are still charming in their own colorful way, and the game is aurally pleasant and full of personality all around. The mechanics are easy to understand whether you’ve played a roguelike or not, and the game is absolutely stuffed with tutorials to explain much of the game for newcomers, while dedicated fans will find the game to be a lengthy and challenging affair thanks to a massive dungeon count, conditional dungeons and expanded dungeon floor counts. The game is exceptionally challenging, though, so it’s really not for everyone, and between some inadequately explained systems and punishing save management, it’s going to be a tough experience for more than a few players. If you’re a fan of the genre, though, The Tower of Fortune is one of the best entries in it, and it’s easy to recommend to fans. Everyone else may want to think a bit on whether they’re ready for the challenge, but this is clearly a game made by diehard fans, for diehard fans, and if you’re one of those people, it’ll more than meet your expectations.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is a game that unashamedly loves its hardcore roots as much as its fans will, and it’s one of the best examples in the genre… so long as you’re able to deal with its at times punishing difficulty, that is. The plot’s interesting and charming enough to carry the game along in the early going, while the heavy amount of content by way of more dungeons, gear, monsters and more is what’s going to drive late game play, and the game has all of this in spades. The visuals are more than a little reminiscent of the DS game from a few years ago but mostly hold the same style and charm as they did back then, and the aural presentation is excellent for the sort of game it is. Picking up the game is simple enough even if you’ve never played a roguelike before, though the game comes with hours worth of tutorials to explain the fundamental aspects of play, and there’s a massive amount of content to the game which will keep diehard fans busy for a long while. It’s worth noting, though, that the game is exceptionally challenging, to a point where it may be a frustrating experience for newcomers, and thanks to some poorly explained systems and a save system that’s not the most friendly to PSTV users, the game’s really not for everyone. Still, if you love roguelikes or just are itching for a challenge, The Tower of Fortune is worth a look; it’s absolutely not for everyone and it’s not at all ashamed of this, and if you’re into what it’s doing, you’ll find it’s an easy way to enjoy yourself for many, many hours to come.