Shiren picked up a Frustrating Game + 1. Shiren is cursed.
It's likely that if you're seeking out a review of Shiren the Wanderer, the latest Mystery Dungeon title for Wii, then you're probably already familiar with the game. The series of Mystery Dungeon games, of which the original Shiren on SNES is a founding member, are referred to as roguelikes amongst their fans, a reference which dates back to an early 1980s computer game called Rogue. If you count yourself as a fan of Mystery Dungeon games, understand that this review was written by someone who had previously never played a roguelike before, and thus this review is not aimed at you. If, on the other hand, you've been curious about the genre and wondered how it played from an outside perspective, then this review should be right up your alley.
Roguelikes are known for several key traits: severe punishment for death, randomly generated dungeons, and turn-based combat. All of these traits are represented faithfully in Shiren the Wanderer, and the game does a fair job of laying this all out for you in a series of optional tutorial screens that are more like an on-screen user manual than a real tutorial. The game does seem to assume that you already know what you're doing when you start, but this is offset by a fairly low difficulty level in the first 5 to 10 hours of the game.
It should be noted that even though the difficulty is lax in the early stages, this is still a roguelike, and the penalty for death is severe if you play the game on normal. For those who are uninterested in replaying many hours after death, an easy difficulty mode is provided. The only difference is the penalty for dying; on normal, you lose all of your items, but on easy, there is no such item loss. Even on easy, however, a death might result in a loss of 40 to 80 minutes of gameplay, depending on how long it has been since your last save. On more than a few occasions while playing on easy, I died at the boss fight at the end of a dungeon that had 8 to 12 floors, meaning that after scouring for loot and grinding in the dungeon for an hour or so, I lost all of my progress. The game gives you some recovery herbs, a passive item that lets you revive one of your characters, but these items are hard to come by, so once you're out, you're more likely to just lose your progress should one of your characters be ambushed by a monster-filled room.
After you get past the first 10 hours, the difficulty rises significantly, and you can expect to have to replay dungeons to gain the experience and gear needed to proceed through the game. Not only is it necessary to grind to gain levels, but also to stock up on essential items such as healing herbs, escape herbs, and recovery staves.
Most of the folks who enjoy roguelikes do so for the feeling of risk and reward when they carefully plan out an attack and see it through to success. If this is the kind of gameplay concept that appeals to you, you'll find it abounds in Shiren the Wanderer. The actual battles in the game aren't incredibly complicated, but there is a lot of strategy in how you manage your inventory and improve your weaponry. In one instance, after I realized how precious inventory space was, I stumbled across a holding jar in a dungeon. I was happy to have a place to put extra items, so I placed all of my riceballs in the jar. The riceballs are required in the dungeons, as without them, your character will starve to death. I was happy to have a new holding jar specifically for riceballs, and immediately after I ran into a monster, he stole my jar (riceballs included) and vanished. As I didn't have any idea this could occur, I became incredibly frustrated. This is the type of occurrence that happened over the course of the time I played the game; just as I started to figure out another aspect of the strategy of the game, a new monster or trap would come along and add another layer of complexity, often costing me an hour of gameplay. It was frustrating, but I often felt like I learned something from the untimely death that would help me the next time I attempted the dungeon.
The game presents itself nicely as a Japanese role-playing game, with a town to explore and lots of NPCs to interact with. The story is interesting, and has several twists and turns even in the first few hours. It's nothing groundbreaking, but it helps drive the gameplay and gives you compelling reasons to keep exploring the dungeons. It's a lengthy experience, taking 30 to 40 hours to complete, and there's plenty to do to lengthen the game even further if you like.
The music in the game is also interesting, but somewhat repetitive. It consists entirely of original compositions that do a nice job of evoking the feeling of Feudal Japan, but aren't necessarily memorable. The graphics in Shiren are very nice during cut scenes, but feel a little dated inside the game. Most of the dungeons look bland, and if it weren't for the auto-map feature, it'd be very easy to get lost as you explore.
Mystery Dungeon games aren't for everyone; in fact, I'd go so far as to say they're not for most people. They're frustrating, time consuming, and not particularly straightforward. However, if it is a genre that you have come to love, Shiren will deliver it for you with a bit of style, and a lot of substance.