Some games can do almost everything right. Starting with a simple but engaging narrative, a game can hook you in with mere story progression. It pushes you to work your way through floor after floor, all in a valiant effort to reach that next cutscene. The easy-to-grasp combat and the ever evolving strategies that can stem from it only aid in this process, as it keeps your mind active and your attention gripped. Another thing that helps your eyes stay tied to the screen are the visuals. A game that looks good is (almost) as important as a game that plays good. Finely detailed and diverse environments filled with unique and varied sprites are a great thing to have. So too is a deep variety of gameplay, items, and features, to give the feeling that there’s always plenty to do.
Certain types of games manage to combine both of these aspects and execute them in such a way that can make for a truly memorable experience. For some, Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is that kind of game. For others however, a certain design choice may overshadow everything that makes it enjoyable and leave you with nothing but an overwhelming sense of exasperation for this truly bothersome and unfair chore of a game.
But before we get there, let’s run through what makes this game great! Starting with the story, Shiren the Wanderer begins with Shiren (a.k.a. the wanderer) walking up to a cliff side overlooking a village which pokes out of the surrounding forest. Alongside him is his partner, Koppa. Koppa briefly explains that what they do is “travel the world in search of mysteries of all kinds”, and then alludes to a previous adventure in the series before setting up the one they’re about to stumble into. Also, Koppa is a talking ferret.
So they stroll into town and the player finally gains control. After going through the age old JRPG tradition of exploring stranger’s homes without any expressed permission, you’ll eventually find yourself in the room of a bedridden girl. Oyu has a terminal illness, and her friend Jirokichi decides he’ll do whatever it takes to reverse her fate. He brashly rushes out of the room to go take on the Tower of Fortune and retrieve the Dice of Fate, which should be able to cure her…for some reason. Shiren follows in hopes to catch up and help Jirokichi. It’s a pretty basic plot, but nonetheless a solid foundation for the game to build upon. And of course, more complications and party members will be thrown into mix further down the road.
Pretty soon Shiren reaches Nekomaneki Village, the main hub world that seems to be full of wonderful things to do! There’s shops, storage, banks, and more to be unlocked later in the game. Two particularly notable buildings within the village are the Dungeon Center and Hotel Nekomaneki. The Dungeon Center is like a training dojo where you can try out an assortment of dungeons and play fun little minigames. You can take your prizes from the Dungeon Center back to Hotel Nekomaneki, where you can place them in storage or sell them for gildan (money) to deposit in the bank. Inside the hotel there are even more renovations to come with a group of cute little raccoon dogs working on some kind of store in the basement.
Aside from that is the rescue desk, where you can go to setup rescue quests of other players. Sadly, the system is a bit convoluted and the player base doesn’t seem large enough, or at least engaged enough with this part of the game to consider it worthwhile. When you die in a dungeon you have the option to either wait for someone to rescue you or just go back to Nekomaneki Village and lose all of your inventory. In concept it may seem like an interesting way to build camaraderie within the player base, and perhaps affect positivity in the community overall. In practice, you’ll be waiting days if not an eternity for a savior, so all it really does is take away, time that could’ve been spent actually playing the game.
The dungeons are what you’d probably expect: random floor layouts, lots of traps, legions of monsters roaming around, a decent amount of loot, and a surprising amount of sometimes helpful NPCs. Occasionally villagers will find you in the middle of a dungeon and talk to you about a range of things, but mostly they’re just begging for money. There’s always a choice to indulge them or not, but it never seems to do anything, or at least not right away. Shiren the Wanderer is full decisions with consequences that aren’t immediately apparent, but they’re not too substantial either.
Enemies come in all different shapes and sizes, with a variety of abilities and fighting tactics. Some will fly through walls when hunting you down, others might pick you up and throw you into another ally for a hefty amount of damage. Then there’s monsters with ranged attacks and multiple forms, opponents that can teleport you, and a whole lot more. Sometimes these enemies will randomly have stat buffs, making them even harder to defeat or get away from. It’s especially frustrating when an already high attack monster gets an attack boost, forcing you to run because it’ll wipe you out in 1-2 hits.
And while running away may seem like an easy solution, your stupid allies will not feel the same way. As soon as a monster is in contact with one of your teammates, they will fight to the death regardless of what you actually want them to do. There is no changing their battle style nor is there any way of controlling their actions manually. Having to cope with poorly programmed AI is just part of the game. Luckily, they don’t set off traps or pick up items, so you don’t have to worry about extra inventory management or waiting for an ally to awake from a sleep trap. It’s also worth mentioning that while it’s okay to let some of your allies die (because they’ll just return to the village), story specific characters like Jirokichi need to make it through the floor otherwise you will not be able to advance. He can be revived by herbs, but if you don’t have one in your limited inventory you’ll have to start all over again.
So far Shiren the Wanderer seems like a pretty enjoyable experience. Sure, it can be a little annoying sometimes with its abundance of ways to indiscriminately screw you over. It might feel a bit too reliant on chance, as if skill isn’t going to be quite enough to progress your way through. In typical RPGs, if you feel like you’ve hit a brick wall that’s usually because your level isn’t quite high enough yet. The simple solution here is to grind until you reach the appropriate amount of strength to knock over the next obstacle in your way. Shiren the Wanderer doesn’t have this simple solution…or at least, it’s a hell of a lot harder.
The biggest “problem” with this game is that it doesn’t allow for overarching level progression. You start every dungeon at level 1, and you can level up as many times as you want, but once the quest is over you’ll revert back to level 1. It doesn’t matter if you failed, escaped, or completed the quest, you’ll just return to the same starting point. And that same starting point has the same low health bar with the same low damage. The only way to reliably build up your strength is through upgrading your weaponry, but you have to keep in mind that if you die in a dungeon, you lose everything. A sword you spent countless hours building up could be lost in an instant thanks to the harsh conditions of a randomized dungeon. Monsters can literally rain on your parade if you step into an ambush, and there aren’t many ways to ensure you, your items, or your party are safe.
I put “problem” in quotations because this isn’t really a problem, but perhaps more of an “acquired taste”. When stakes are raised in video games, in such a punitive and arbitrary manner such as this, some (like me) can’t help but feel anxious and annoyed. Not only that, it’s incredibly time consuming to try again and again, only to get smacked down AGAIN and AGAIN. For those with patience (not like me), the many adversities Shiren the Wanderer offers might make the accomplishment of beating it feel even grander. However, for someone who already has a busy schedule and many other games to play, The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate just isn’t worth the effort.