You should pick up Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer this week. Not just because it’s GameSpite’s game of the week. Not just because it’s this month’s Fun Club RPG selection. Not just because I gave it a great score in my review. Although those things certainly help.
No, you should pick it up because it’s one of the best RPGs available on DS — and easily its finest roguelike.
Of course, you may not like roguelikes. You may think they’re too limited, or too random, or too hard. But I say this is not so. Sure, they’re all those things, in a way… but Shiren manages to turn those elements into selling points, or to simply subvert them. The action seems basic on the surface — move, and the enemies move with you, and you hit them until they die — but you absolutely cannot beat the game by simply striking foes. You need to use missiles, scrolls, wands and other items (usually in combination with one another or with special abilities like transforming into enemies), or else you’ll never get anywhere. The dungeons, items and enemies are random, yes, but always laid out in a varied but consistent (and eventually predictable) fashion. And it’s hard, but it’s a good kind of hard.
I was amused to see some message board comments that expressed shock, shock I say, that I like a hard game. B-b-but Ultimate Ghosts ‘N Goblins! But no, I love challenging games… when they’re challenging for the right reasons. UGnG was definitely not. But Shiren is a different story — though it’s true that some of the difficulty comes from random factors, and it is possible to find yourself in an unwinnable situation. But you never once feel like you’ve been screwed over by the game. When you die in Shiren, it’s your own fault: you didn’t play it right, you could have avoided failure. But no. You blew it.
Maybe you got carried away chasing down, say, the ghost of an Evil Soldier (even though it’s only worth a piffling 4 exp.) and followed it around the screen until it reached one of those rice breather guys and turned it into a Rice Boss, who promptly transformed you into a giant, defenseless onigiri and pummeled you to death. Or maybe you forgot that a tank’s shell has a blast radius. Or maybe you left all your food in a warehouse and starved. Or maybe you were hoarding your goods and let an enemy overwhelm you because you were too stingy to read a Blastwave Scroll. Whatever; there are dozens of ways to die in Shiren, but no matter what kills you, the fact remains it’s not because of lousy controls or sloppy level design. It’s because you didn’t play smartly.
What makes Shiren so enjoyable are the persistent elements. Shiren himself is perpetually dying and being sent back to the beginning of the game without the weapons and experience points accumulated over the course of his failed venture, but the world around him retains the effects of his exploits. The characters you rescue will show up from time to time as optional companions, the warehouses you unlock will store goods, the sidequests you complete will make new items available to you. I compared the game in my review to Super Mario Bros. (in that when you die you have to start from scratch, but each subsequent effort is a little easier for your experience) but this is not really true, because Mario can’t store power-ups between worlds, and the Mushroom Retainers never tag along with him. On the Retronauts we recorded today (early, for next week) I compared the game to a reverse Groundhog Day where the main character relives the same day over and over while the world around him slowly changes. This is, I think, more accurate… though even then doesn’t quite cut to the heart of Shiren, because it doesn’t take into account the fact that you, the gamer, are slowly learning from your failures.
You’ll probably want to store up goods in the warehouses for “serious” runs, but with smart playing and a bit of luck that’s not strictly necessary. I normally complete games before reviewing them, but with Shiren I haven’t quite finished the main quest — to date the furthest floor I’ve reached is in the mid-20s (out of 30 total). And for that run, I started pretty much naked, taking nothing into the dungeon but a rice ball. But I lucked out a bit and happened upon an armband that gave me experience for simply walking, and then I stumbled across a fairly powerful katana that let me slice my way through the absolutely vicious swamp section with a series of one-hit kills (thus preventing me from being poisoned or having my gear corrupted). In the end, I lost through poor energy management — I died of starvation after running out of food. And I ran out of food because midway through the quest I decided to backtrack five floors to rescue a lost little girl… which rescue attempt I bungled anyway. See? My own stupid fault.
But hey, don’t take my word for it. Check out John Harris’ definitive @Play columns at GameSetWatch, which beautifully break down the Super NES version of the game in a three-part series. [ One | Two | Three] I’ve been champing at the bit to play Shiren ever since I read those columns… and happily, it hasn’t disappointed.
The only bad part, really, is that I can’t decide whether to play Shiren or Etrian Odyssey on my upcoming vacation. Decisions, decisions….