Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island Review

Return of the Rogue

Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island marks a return for a classic roguelike series that hasn’t seen a proper new entry since the Nintendo DS era. Thanks to a successful Nintendo Switch port of the previous game, the series has been given another chance at life. The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island (aka Shiren the Wanderer 6) brings a more modern look, and some great online features into the mix, while keeping the core gameplay that the Mystery Dungeon series is known for. The story is a typical tale of a hero wandering into adventure (pun intended), but the gameplay loop still manages to shine after all these years.

The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island follows series protagonist Shiren as he travels in search of a mysterious island he and his traveling ferret companion Koppa have been dreaming of. The game places the player right into a boss fight, after which they are unceremoniously dropped off at a village on the edge of the island with little memory of what happened. Progressing through the game will slowly unlock the mysteries of the island, even on unsuccessful runs. There isn’t much depth to the tale, but it provides a nice incentive to keep making progress. The story scenes are well written, fun, and thankfully brief, providing a momentary break from gameplay. It’s not good enough to be a reason to play the game on its own, but the continued mystery even after the player rolls credits makes repeated journeys through the island feel more meaningful.

Gameplay-wise, Shiren plays like many Mystery Dungeons and roguelikes that have come before it. Enemies and NPCs in the dungeon move whenever the player does, making exploring each randomly generated floor in the dungeon a strategic endeavor. Players can spend each “turn” moving a tile, using an item, or attacking. Players need to keep an eye on a hunger meter and eat food when necessary as well, in addition to other dangers. It’s a simple and easy to understand setup, but where the complexity comes in is the variety of items, weapons, enemies, and status effects that players will encounter on their journey.

Shiren’s new graphics maintain the look of the old 2D sprites.

Items range from magic staves and various herbs, to pots for storing items and incense. The game provides a constant stream of items on every floor, so using everything at the player’s disposal is essential for survival. Each item has some kind of use, be it to apply a debuff to an enemy, teleport the player out of danger, show any hidden traps in the area, etc. At times items will show as unidentified, and using the item or equipment runs the risk of equipping a cursed item or causing some other harm to poor Shiren. Thankfully there is usually at least a hint at what the object is hidden in the name or description. As the game progresses, story events will unlock even more items that can be encountered in dungeons, giving players more tools in their arsenal to overcome the island’s dangers.

Though the game can at times feel brutally hard or even unfair, it provides a number of features and unlockables to help players survive, or even get a second chance at life. After dying, players are given the opportunity to connect online and request a rescue. The rescue system lets players attempt to save other players by venturing into a nearly identical version of the dungeon the players died in, starting from the first floor with no items, and no access to anything the player may have in warehouses and such in their main game. Successfully completing rescues nets players rescue points that can be used to buy buffs for future rescues. Players can also attempt to rescue themselves, though doing so does not result in any rewards beyond continuing a run if successful. It’s a great system, allowing players to help each other, with the only downside being players can’t do anything other than going out on rescues while waiting to be potentially revived. The only other option is to give up on being rescued and start fresh with all items lost. 

Beyond this system, the game provides a massive amount of info and unlockables that help soften the difficulty curve as players progress. Every item, weapon, and monster encountered in the game is logged into a detailed encyclopedia of information players can access at any time. These details provide the amount of health monsters have, as well as their attacks, abilities, and weaknesses. NPCs encountered also frequently give hints at what items do, risks to look out for, and potential secrets players can take advantage of. Multiple towns and safe areas are also littered along the main dungeon, providing vendors and warehouses where players can leave behind extra items to assist in future runs.

The story provides brief entertaining diversions from the dungeon crawling.

As Shiren assists residents of the island, many of these characters can be encountered in the dungeon and brought along as companions. These characters will act on their own, attacking enemies and potentially applying healing and buffs to Shiren depending on the character. These characters can significantly assist with the challenge of the game, though for the more adventurous out there, they are never required. More than one character can accompany Shiren as well, and they will stick around for the duration of the run. Unlocking the ability to get these companions is as simple as continuously hitting story events. These are always clearly marked on the map of the island, and the same mark will show on the characters the player needs to talk to when at these locations.

Though many of these things may be new to those unfamiliar with the Shiren franchise, most of these features are old hat for the series. What makes this entry stand out from its predecessors, and from other games in the genre, is how well everything is executed. The dungeon has a nice progression of difficulty without swarming the player with unfair enemies or elements. Roguelikes can often be too random, and result in deaths that feel like no fault of the player at all. This rarely happens while venturing through Serpentcoil Island. Even when a frustrating death does happen, it always seems like a new story sequence or unlock occurs to quickly wipe away the pain. Serpentcoil Island is easily the best and most well balanced entry in the entire franchise.

In the departments of audio and visuals, Shiren provides some wonderful and atmospheric tunes, suited for the locations on the island. Certain tense situations, such as rare monster-filled rooms, will switch to a more tense music. Outside of this, much of the music isn’t particularly memorable, but it’s also never grating. Sound effects mostly seem to be pulled from classic Shiren games, giving things a classic feel similar to sound effects used in Dragon Quest and Pokémon games. The visuals move away from the classic 2D sprites to new 3D models from an overhead perspective. These look and animate very nicely, and give the game a consistent look between gameplay and cutscenes. These are used to produce a nice variety of locations as well, as sections of the dungeon usually only last for a few floors, keeping things consistently visually fresh.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

All in all, Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island provides a thoroughly enjoyable and constantly engaging adventure. It updates the presentation and online features of the series, while stubbornly sticking to the tried and true mechanics that have worked since the SNES era. The challenge can be quite high, but the game will constantly unlock new tools along with a wealth of information, making it feel like the game is rooting for the player to succeed without compromising on the game’s structure. It may not have the wow factor to recruit legions of new fans to the series, but for anyone not afraid to explore its depths, a massive and fun adventure awaits.

Disclosure: This review is based on a free copy of the game provided by the publisher.

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'Great' -- 4.0/5
20-40 HOURS

Great art style with a consistent level of variety

Challenging and rewarding gameplay

A consistent stream of unlocks and encyclopedias to help players succeed

Can't start new runs while waiting for rescue

Early runs can feel overly punishing

Mostly unremarkable story

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