Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate Switch Review
Aim for the Top
Most of Spike Chunsoft’s Mystery Dungeon titles are spin-offs of better known series. The Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games are fondly remembered by many, and even the very first game of the series followed one of Dragon Quest IV‘s main characters, Torneko Taloon, in his quest to stock his store with wondrous items. The only titles of the series with an original cast bear the Shiren the Wanderer name, and follow the eponymous protagonist and Koppa, his talking ferret companion, in their travels. Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is the fifth chapter of their story and was originally released on the Nintendo DS exclusively in Japan, before being ported to PlayStation Vita for western fans to enjoy in 2016. Four years later, the game is no longer confined to Sony’s portable console and is launching on both Nintendo Switch and PC, where this roguelike gem can have access to a much wider audience.
Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate starts right after Shiren and Koppa’s last adventure, but those events are quickly brushed aside as the duo enters a village where they meet Oyu, a girl that has fallen gravely ill, and Jirokichi, her childhood friend. Upon remembering the village’s legend of a mysterious tower where Reeva, the god of destiny, is said to lie, Jirokichi sets off in his attempt to foil Oyu’s fate, with Shiren and Koppa following close behind him. The story retains its simplicity from beginning to end, but it is still a charming tale about, quite literally, defying the odds.
Climbing the Tower of Fortune is a turn-based affair where players have to explore the randomly-generated floors of the dungeon while gathering new items, defeating dangerous beasts, and avoiding traps. Movement is grid-based and the pace of the game is completely up to the player: enemies can act only after Shiren has made his move, giving ample time to think about which strategy to employ in order to safely reach the stairs leading to the next floor. Carefulness cannot be overstated, as a loss means an empty pack, an emptier purse, and a need to restart from level 1 after Shiren has been carried back to the village.
To those unfamiliar with the roguelike genre, this may sound harsh, and the idea of watching money and equipment vanish right before one’s eyes can be off-putting, but the game reveals itself to be kinder to those who are prepared. As players go along their journey, they will learn of different means to safeguard themselves. Food should always be on hand, since there is a hunger meter to be mindful of that will cause tick damage when empty. Arrows and rocks can be used to hit distant enemies before dealing with them in hand-to-hand combat. Magic scrolls, staves, and seals can be lifesavers when surrounded by foes, allowing Shiren to inflict area-wide status effects and avoid being overwhelmed. If worst comes to worst, some items allow Shiren to revive or even escape the dungeon when his HP reaches zero with no repercussions. The game openly nudges players towards making full use of their arsenal and the available consumable items. Hoarding is ill-advised, as dungeon floors are rife with new equipment and inventory space is limited, favoring experimentation and the exploitation of newly learned item effects and uses.
While being prepared makes up a big share of the player’s chance of success, every trek through the Tower of Fate is different from the last. Many unique NPCs can be found inside the dungeon’s floors, each offering heplful services. A blacksmith can use his hammer and anvil to strengthen Shiren’s equipment, or a roaming gambler may ask for money to fund his investments, promising a worthwhile reward. Some can even become party members and assist the player in dispatching foes, each of them employing their own fighting style, like transforming into monsters and using their own abilities against them. While their help is mostly appreciated, especially in the earlier stages of the game, their AI can sometimes be cumbersome to manage, as in many cases they won’t attack the enemies on screen if not placed right next to them. Moreover, since Shiren has to assist Jirokichi in climbing the tower; story segments won’t trigger if the companion died on a previous floor and wasn’t revived by throwing a healing herb at him. This is something to be particularly careful of, since advancing without Jirokichi means that players will be sent back to the village instead of progressing the story, albeit with their inventory and money untouched.
The beasts that can be found within the tower are diverse as well, since each monster family has unique characteristics and abilities setting it apart. As a few examples, venomous scorpions can decrease Shiren’s strength with their poison, ghosts can attack while being safe inside walls, and thieving walruses can steal items. Enemies can evolve and become stronger as they defeat other monsters, a mechanic that works in conjunction with the game’s day and night cycle. While monsters focus mainly on Shiren and his party during the day, as night falls they become aggressive towards any living presence that roams the given floor, gaining strength as their body counts increase. What’s worse, a torch must be equipped to properly see Shiren’s surroundings and to read scrolls, and regular weapons have little to no effect against the creatures of the dark, so abilities must be used instead. A maximum of eight can be stored inside Shiren’s necklace, and each can be used only once per floor. Abilities have varying properties and damage potential, so choosing the right loadout is another element to be mindful of if one wants to survive until sunrise. All these elements conspire to change the rules of the game and to spice up every attempt at reaching the tower’s summit.
The presentation also does a good job at keeping boredom at bay. The pixel art is a joy to look at, its 16-bit glory helped along by fluid animations. There are many swords and shields to choose from, each with its own appearance that can alter after being upgraded enough through continued use, and the dungeons change layout and colour palettes after a certain amount of floors to prevent them from becoming stale. The same applies to the background music, which does a fine job of accompanying the player in their adventures, amping up the tension upon reaching new floors. Sound effects are also plentiful both for equipment, with unique slashing sounds for each sword, and for monster grunts and attacks. An honorable mention goes to the level-up sound, which is always satisfying to hear.
When not out exploring the dungeon’s depths, players can make use of the village’s many facilities. Items can be stored in a warehouse so that they’ll never be lost even upon defeat and the same can be done with money at the local bank. The shopkeeper not only sells items, but also offers the chance to tag equipment so that it won’t vanish into thin air upon Shiren’s defeat and can be later retrieved at a lost and found facility. Newcomers can get the hang of the game at the Beginner House, which offers quick lessons in the game’s mechanics that grant a small reward upon completion, while players that want to take a break from the ascent of the Tower of Fortune can do so at the Dungeon Center, where more trials and ordeals can be found, each with different rules, restrictions, and rewards. Even not counting the content that can be unlocked only during the post-game, which the new versions expand upon by adding exclusive dungeons and a soundtrack player, what is available before the credits roll can still amount to tens of hours of playtime. The main story on the other hand reaches the twenty-hour mark, and can go slightly beyond or below that depending on skill and, to a certain degree, luck.
Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate offers a tough challenge that rewards those who are up to learning the game’s many intricacies and mechanics. It is a tight package bursting at the seams with loads of content, but it is also a game that asks the player to be in a certain frame of mind, one in which losses aren’t regarded as just a waste of time but opportunities to learn for the sake of future success. Even then, there is definitely an addictive feeling in brushing the dust off after the latest defeat and stepping once again into a dungeon to reach for a brand new goal, be it finding more useful items, upgrading Shiren’s gear, or managing to reach the last floor and reap the rewards.
Disclosure: This review is based on a free copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Addictive and challenging gameplay
Many mechanics to uncover and exploit
Charming 16-bit aesthetic
Hard difficulty may be off-putting for some
Party members can feel like dead weight at times