I’m going to commit a game reviewer’s most egregious taboo: I’m going to assume something about you, the reader. If you have somehow found yourself reading this, you have likely played or heard about Mystery Dungeon. The series was born as a spin-off of the Dragon Quest franchise (Torneko no Daibōken: Fushigi no Dungeon) from Chunsoft, the original developer. You played as Torneko, the only good capitalist in existence, as you traveled through randomized dungeon floors looking for items and equipment to sell. Chunsoft took the brilliantly simplistic concept with them after leaving, wanting to flesh it out more under their own brand. Shiren the Wanderer was then born. I was ten years old when Nintendo released a Mystery Dungeon themed cross-over with their Pokémon series. I had no idea what a Mystery Dungeon was, I just wanted to play as a Pokémon for the first time. I’m certain that this game lit a spark in the hearts of many children, making them gravitate to roguelikes for the rest of their lives.
Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is the fifth mainline entry of the series, and the third game I ever reviewed when it came west on the PlayStation Vita in 2016. It was an expanded version of a 2010 Nintendo DS game we never got in the west. When I played it, I loved it as much as anyone could fall in love with a game about exploring randomly generated dungeons and hitting the X button. In the ten years of this game’s existence, it has never strived to be groundbreaking, instead, it has strived to be addicting in its aforementioned simplicity. This new version promised to both have more content and be on platforms people actually own, so by default, it is already the best version of this game.
How does one review a game that revels in randomization? Well, by apparently starting with two paragraphs of pretentious self-reflection. Outside of that, I guess I should inform potential buyers who might be interested to play this game because of the story. This is one of those games where the story exists simply to service the gameplay, but that’s not to say it’s bad. Shiren and his trusty companion Koppa, a talking ferret, travel to a new land and discover that the people talk of a tower that is said to be able to change destiny. On their way up said tower you meet a cast of charming characters that can join your adventures, sometimes for money and sometimes for the hell of it.
Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate cleverly eases you into the Mystery Dungeon experience with its first few “stages”. You begin at level 1 with absolutely no money and equipment, having to travel through a little forest on your way to a series of three towers. Every time you die, you have to restart back in the hub village having lost everything you might have acquired on your journey. This sounds brutal, but it quickly teaches you to choose your moves carefully. When you reach the end of one of those three towers you restart at the village with all your money and items but not your level. Since holding on to everything would just make your next run tedious thanks to your limited inventory, you naturally find yourself looking for the town’s storage and bank. By cleaning out your inventory so you only keep the essentials, and putting a decent chunk of your money in the bank, you’ve given yourself a safety cushion the next time you die. Which you will, a lot.
Survival is the name of the game and needs to be in your mind constantly as you explore the winding dungeon hallways and open rooms. You not only need to keep yourself well equipped based on the gear you find laying around, but you also need to maintain that gear. You can pay random blacksmiths that roam dungeons to upgrade your gear, who give it back to you better when you next see them, or improve it slowly by using it repeatedly in battle. Your health might regenerate while exploring, but your hunger will deplete. Keeping food with you at all times is a necessity, and making sure you keep your stomach from shrinking thanks to an unnecessary side effect is important. On the other hand, you can also increase the size of your stomach by eating when you’re full. Every single run requires you to keep numerous mechanics in mind constantly to succeed, and this metagame you play is as exhausting as it is satisfying.
Once those three towers are cleared, the game acknowledges that you are ready for the full experience. It then introduces a day and night cycle, along with an ability system that only works at night. You gain access to more mechanics that can help you retrieve important lost items. The enemies become a lot harder, requiring you use each turn effectively. While you will be using simple attacks with one button for a large amount of your playthrough (this time with the A button instead of the X button, progress!), making use of your inventory can keep you alive in a pinch. You pick up so many items on your quest, and doing so quietly encourages you to experiment with your playstyle every time.
Criticizing a game like this is difficult, as it holds the same frustrations you’d find with nearly every game in this genre. Dying is part of the game, but will still cause us to feel frustration upon losing all that gloriously earned progress. Hidden traps can put a severe damper on your run if you aren’t careful, causing you major setbacks or ruining your well-kept up gear. Monster houses are a glorious spit in the face, that can easily end a run if you are not careful. I get a sick enjoyment from these, however, and they always gave me a rush when I managed to clear one.
There are some more unique frustrations to Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate, however. Despite being designed around it, it is still tedious to go through the beginning forest and one of the original three towers if you die after clearing them. Your party does not follow you up the stairs to the next floor if they are not in the same room as you. When I finally reached the tower of fate, if Jirokichi dies (which he will, a lot) and you do not have a herb to revive him, you reach a dead end on the next floor and are kicked out of the dungeon. However, no matter how many times I died, I still felt I was improving with each run.
Despite the flaws of the Mystery Dungeon games being just as apparent here, I still found myself enjoying this game just as much as I did on Vita. The art direction is amazing, providing a unique aesthetic to each area that made exploring them worthwhile. The music is calming enough to make each run enjoyable. The localization is of insanely high quality. Seriously, just read some of the item and enemy details. The dialogue of this game being so good is just a delicious cherry on top of the over-used food metaphor I’m using to sum up this great game. Each run managed to provide new surprises, which makes that game technically infinitely replayable.
If you love the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games, you will most likely love this game. If you love dungeon crawling, you will most likely love this game. If you love Dark Souls, you could like this game. If you don’t like roguelikes, you will not love this game. If you are interested in playing a very good roguelike as your first roguelike, then you might end up loving this game. While this game is approachable to anyone interested in meeting it half way, it is unapologetically a Mystery Dungeon game. If you hate these type of games, or they just aren’t your cup of tea, Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is unlikely to change your mind. I adore this series, and this might just be one of the better games in it.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Spike Chunsoft