You’ve likely heard of the Istery Dungeon series before, but that’s probably because you’ve seen one of the many Pokémon or Final Fantasy spin-offs. Though the spin-offs have taken on a life of their own, they owe their origins to the Shiren the Wanderer games, which stretch back as far as the SNES. Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate stands as the fifth numbered entry in that series, and it originally saw a Japan-only release on the Nintendo DS back in 2010. Five years later, it made its way to the west via an enhanced port for the PlayStation Vita, and now it has received a further enhanced port for the Switch. Though the core gameplay remains as divisive as ever, Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate nonetheless proves to be solidly built roguelike that provides challenge and enjoyment in equal measure.
Shiren the Wanderer 5 (let’s call it that from now on, for brevity’s sake) maintains a rather basic narrative premise, one that revolves almost entirely around a simple search and rescue mission. The events begin when the titular hero and his talking ferret, Koppa, first come across a mortally sick girl named Oyu who lives in a village at the base of the mysterious Tower of Fate. Her friend, Jirokichi, is unwilling to accept her impending demise, however, so he sets off to attempt to find the Dice of Fate and to climb the tower to reach the God of Destiny at its top.
It’s a dangerous journey to make, and Jirokichi certainly isn’t prepared for it, so Shiren and Koppa decide to go after the boy to try helping him in his quest. Sure, it’s not much of a story, but a game as intensely repetitive and gameplay focused as Shiren the Wanderer 5 wouldn’t be served all too well by lengthy dialogue and cutscene interruptions. What’s here fulfils its role well and doesn’t get in the way of the endless dungeon crawling.
The bulk of your experience will be spent meandering your way through the randomly-generated dungeons, which are all laid out similarly. Though the exact shapes are different every time, each floor of each dungeon is essentially just a series of rectangular rooms connected to each other by hallways. To progress, you have to find the stairs somewhere, but it’s usually a good idea to poke around even if you stumble upon them early. Each floor usually has quite a few useful items to pick up which can help make your run easier, and sometimes you’ll find NPCs that’ll join you or pop up shops to spend some cash at.
Each floor is usually crawling with enemies, too, and this is where the series’ unique turn-based combat comes into play. Time remains frozen as long as Shiren remains still, and every step you take across the grid-based floor moves time forward by one tick. It’s a simple concept to grasp, but you’ll very quickly learn that you need to exploit the edges of this time-gated system if you want to survive. Sometimes it’s best to let an enemy come to you so they can fall into a trap you’ve set up. Sometimes it’s better to run and try to create some distance so you can give yourself more options. You primarily attack by a simple button press, but the real meat of combat comes in through the cavalcade of random items you find along the way.
You can find new weapons and armour to replace your older, weaker versions, but you can also find goodies like magic scrolls that grant you powerful spells. Objects can be thrown, too, so that scroll that randomly teleports you to somewhere else on the floor can also be used to teleport your enemy instead. A lot of items synergize well with each other, and though many of them only seem to have vague and situational uses, we rather liked how Shiren the Wanderer 5 is always subtly prodding you to experiment around with the things you find.
Experimentation is all but required, too, as Shiren the Wanderer 5 is not shy about beating you over the head with its difficulty. It can take quite a while to clear every floor some of these dungeons, and they don’t get any easier as you make your ascent. Sometimes you find yourself in a monster house, where you’re bum-rushed by half a dozen strong foes that block your escape. Sometimes you step on an invisible trap, and suddenly half your health is gone.
It’s expected that you prepare for such contingencies in advance. And if you don’t – whether because of ignorance or overconfidence – death comes for you swiftly, meaning your inventory gets empty and you get booted all the way back to square one. There is a small mercy in the Wanderer Rescue system, which allows other players to come save your bacon via the miracles of online play, but this is hardly something that can always be relied on.
Frankly, this uncompromising difficulty is likely what will make or break Shiren the Wanderer 5 for most people. On one hand, it can be thrilling to know that there are real stakes to every move you make, which gives every decision and combat encounter a real sense of weight. On the o ther hand, watching thirty minutes of progress go up in smoke because of bad luck is outright discouraging no matter how you slice it. If you’re the sort of player who doesn’t like to take that kind of risk in a game, we’d certainly suggest that you think twice before taking the plunge.
This technically being the third time Shiren the Wanderer 5 has released, Spike Chunsoft saw fit to include some additional content to help make the package a little more appealing. The headlining new feature is the inclusion of three new dungeons which each have unique rulesets to change up the way you play, such as having to clear every floor without using any weapons. Aside from the dungeons, there’s also a new sound check feature which lets you pick the music you can listen to, and there’s also a “Live Display Mode” to help out those of you who want to stream gameplay live on something like Twitch. All of this is to say, there isn’t enough here to justify double-dipping if you’ve already played this release before, but newcomers can rest assured that this is the most content-rich version yet.
Shiren the Wanderer 5 also suffers from the same issue with repetition that plagues all Istery Dungeon games. Simply put, the actual process of exploring and clearing floors never changes throughout the experience, and it doesn’t take too long for a sense of monotony to set in as you do the same basic tasks. Sure, the enemy variety can change up and the floor layouts are always varied, but it feels like there’s an extra X-factor missing from the core Istery Dungeon formula that keeps it from becoming truly addictive.
Maybe it’s the lack of overarching character progression. Maybe it’s the lack of puzzles in the dungeons. Maybe it’s the uninteresting layout of the dungeons. Whatever it is, it can be quite easy to grow tired of Shiren the Wanderer 5 in extended play sessions; this is certainly a title that lends itself well to bite-sized handheld sessions.
As for its presentation, Shiren the Wanderer 5 demonstrates a commanding mastery of the 16-bit visual style, making for a title that’s consistently lovely to look at. In many ways, it feels like this is a SNES title that was lost to the ages, and we mean that in the best of ways. Environments and sprites are exquisitely detailed and rife with colour, and while there’s nothing here that truly pushes the boundaries of pixel art, it’s clear that a lot of effort was put into getting all these sprites just right. This is all backed by a chiptune soundtrack that admittedly doesn’t stand out too much, though it does a great job of setting the mood where it needs to.
Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is one of those releases that could really go either way. If you don’t mind repetition and you’re not afraid of some tough difficulty spikes, there’s a lot of depth and content here to keep you busy for quite some time. If those caveats do raise concerns for you, there are a couple of other Istery Dungeon titles on Switch that may offer a more palatable experience. Wherever you may fall, Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is certainly worth your time, and we’d encourage you to give it a look.