Click "Sleep" for a dark background.
Click "sleep" again if text isn't dark.



Shiren & The Wandering Review

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer (Shiren) is a DS remake of an old SNES game released in Japan back in 1995. If I didn't know of its classic roots, I would write an article about how "next-gen" the game is. Instead, I'll attempt to convey a sense of the entire gameplay system by briefly stopping at each important topic. Like so many of my Shiren adventures, we're starting out this article with nothing.

Along with Spelunky and RO9, Shiren is part of a very small list of very good roguelikes. Two key design elements that characterize roguelikes are perma-death and randomly generated dungeons. To put it simply, you'll never play the same game twice. And when you die you have to start over from scratch (or something very close to it). If these core design elements don't make you sit up and snap to attention, then consider the power of...
Emergence and Counterpoint
  • Emergence is how a few rules can bloom into seemingly countless of unique outcomes. Counterpoint refers to the layers of a gameplay system and how they stack up to complicate and shape gameplay challenges. Shiren has crafted these two gameplay elements into a deadly science. Between the layers of Shiren's attacks, allies, items, enemies, traps, and the environment the smallest change in any of these layers can start a chain reaction of the most unforeseeable downfall or the most whimsical serendipity. You'll die so many times thinking something like... "If only I wasn't wearing that pitchers ring when that armor enemy showed up I would have had just enough equip left to throw a sword at the final boss to kill it!" Or "If only I didn't fall for that stumble trap and break my holding jar I wouldn't have had to leave my scroll of sleep behind." Needless to say, like many roguelikes, death and danger are never too far away. To the novice player this can be spirit crushingly overwhelming. Fortunately, Shiren stresses....

Knowledge Skills

  • Once you realize how dangerous the world is, you'll understand that you can't ignore any aspect of the game. Every enemy, object, element, and layer needs to be carefully considered before making a move (especially later in the game). Your wits are your best weapon and the more data you collect and consider the stronger you become. With this design, it's important to remember and learn from every death and experiment you conduct. Soon, you'll go from being overwhelmed to being well informed. And if you want to speed up the learning process (like I did), you'll want to use the power of a Shiren wiki. This kind of "learn or die" gameplay experience is common to roguelikes, which brings up the question of...



  • Hit points, items, and leveling up are at the core of battle system in Shiren. There are also enemies, towns, and side quests. These are Shiren's RPG features. However, the game world is a grid with turn based movement. This makes Shiren's combat more of a strategy game like Advance Wars. I often count squares between myself and enemies to carefully plan out exactly how many turns I can survive in a pinch. Space and time are linked in this turn based design. Naturally, deep strategies and tactics emerge out of this system. And finally, inside the main game there's a puzzle house featuring 50 puzzles designed around the nuances and intricacies of the combat system. Perhaps, like RO9, the reason why I like Shiren so much is because it plays more like a puzzle/strategy game versus a traditional RPG. If you try to play Shiren like a traditional RPG you'll quickly run into the issue of...

Decay and Dynamics

  • Nothing is static in Shiren (outside of towns). Because the game moves in turns, when you move all the enemies and NPCs make a move also. If you try to play Shiren with the classic, static, and in my opinion boring RPG tactics of attack-attack-heal or grinding enemies for levels you'll quickly learn that you run the risk of starving to death. In Shrien there are fullness points. Every few steps you take reduces these points. When your fullness hits 0, you begin to lose HP with every step. At first I thought this was a tedious and aggravating feature. But now I understand it's designed to discourage grinding and to put some weight on every player action. In the serious and deadly world of Shiren, conservation is the way of life.
  • Not starving to death is a test that players quickly overcome as they move from beginners to intermediate wanderers. Otherwise, the game is filled with decay. Magic staffs, jars, and other items have limited uses. Also swords and shields can rust. Items that are randomly scattered around each floor only appear the first time you visit a floor. Once you set out from the safety of a town, you know that everything will slowly start to fall apart. Fortunately, in the heart of battle, when you find yourself greatly outnumbered by enemies, you can build effective strategies around a fairly deep...


Interplay system

  • In Shiren enemies don't get to cheat. What I mean by this is that each enemy takes up a square and other enemies/attacks generally cannot pass through an occupied square. Sometimes enemies hit each other on accident trying to hit you, and sometimes enemies attack each other on purpose. When enemies kills something they level up into a much more powerful versions of themselves. Enemies also block each other making narrow hallways great for fighting groups one by one. You must keep all of these counters in mind to effectively conserve resources. The interplay (back and forth counters) of each item, enemy, or mechanic isn't too deep, which I think is a good thing. Shiren strikes a balance between simplicity of counters, layers counterpoint, and the high penalty of perma-death. If Shiren were any deeper, there would be too much information to learn and too many possibilities to consider for a given scenario. As it is now, the enemies and items are already incredibly unique, which is an issue of...


Design Space

  • Every item, enemy, and trap is designed to take up a unique design space. Beyond the common strength variations (weak-strong), types (flying-dragon-drain, etc.), and role variations (attack-defend-heal, etc.), enemies in Shiren can also move and react to enemies in different ways. The Polygon Jig enemy likes to dance around you as you move. The fluffy bunny enemy can warp next to hurt monsters and heal them. Some enemies steal your money/items. Others can knock your equipped items to the ground. Others masquerade as items and even allow you to put them in your inventory only to spring out when you try to use it and attack you. With hundreds of unique enemies and items it's quite engaging to be creative and explore the functional possibilities. Check out this creative way to rob a store. With such a layered, emergent system centered around deep combat with unique mechanics, it seems that the best way to expose the player to all of this content is through...



  • The randomly generated design of Shiren works well to expose the player to large amounts of the game content even without progressing far into the game. With the random item "drops" you can get your hands on something very unique and very rare at the beginning of your adventure. Yes, the random items keep the game fresh, but not because of chance. Rather, the "newness" that Shiren sustains comes from the quality of all the aforementioned design elements. When a single element has a unique function, layers with the rest of the game, and is lost forever when you die a permanent death, that one item will leave a very distinct impression for the player that's difficult to reproduce considering the randomness built into the core of the game. You learn to "use it or lose it" making each adventure strategically different. Fortunately, not everything gets reset and/or erased when you die, which brings us to elements of...

Suspension (Persistence)

  • If you really don't want to lose an item fearing that you will inevitably die, you can always store it in one of several store houses. These rooms function like an anti-roguelike bank allowing players to transfer efforts from one adventure into another. Furthermore, the side quests are never reset. If you help a family start a restaurant in one adventure, it'll be there when you die and come back. Coupling suspension with your growing knowledge of the game, Shiren has quite a lot of progression even though it may seem like you're standing still playing the same game over and over. 


So here we are at the end of the article. You've put time into reading. And I've put 25+ hours into Shiren without conquering the main adventure. The game is very hard. Perhaps too hard. Like Spelunky, there's a point when the game becomes more difficult, tedious, and punishing than engaging, unique, and fun. Sometimes the dice of fate simply don't roll your way no matter how careful you think you are.

I know of a good strategy for beating the game. It involves investing a lot of time "leveling up" my weapons. As far as I'm concerned, that's playing the game like an RPG and not a strategy/puzzle game, which isn't too appealing for me. So I'm putting the game away most likely for good. In the game I'm currently at level 1 right at the beginning of the adventure with nothing in my inventory. Like waking from a dream, I have the memories of my wild, creative, and abrupt adventures. 25 hours of work and nothing to show for it but this article really.

If I've only learned one thing from Shiren, it's knowing when to move on.

Life's too short.

« SMB Crossover: Balance & Design Space | Main | Leveling The Playing Field »

Reader Comments (2)

...You skipped out on the bonus dungeons?
I realize you're getting a little tired of the macrogame demands or dice-rolling runs for the main dungeon and are satisfied by your near-successful attempts. The extensions would be even worse (Tainted Path is pretty rediculous even with a nearly maxed out weapon, and Valley of the Dead is just impossible without bringing several genociding scrolls), even with a few tricks that make the rpg-esque weapon and shield grinding much easier available post-game.
Still, the Kitchen God's Shrine adds a pretty strong dynamic to almost every monster with the transformation meats, the Scroll Cave Dungeon adds another layer with the Trap Armband's experience multiplier chains, and Fei's Final Problem, while obviously quite the crapshoot of item distribution in-dungeon and re-introduces the identification game, teaches how to focus the earlier macrogame weapon-improvement rpg elements into the dungeons themselves pretty well and makes it feel more like the knowledge-and-luck game again (Strengthening Pots, Extraction Scrolls, and Melding Pots combined together are wonderful at expressing such).
Then again, since you've read the spoilers, I guess you've read up on them and decided they aren't worth the time. Oh well.

June 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterClaws

@ Claws

Some of those bonus dungeons sound really cool (especially the Kitchen God's Shrine). I might go back and look into them some day.

But there are way too many games I want to play and so few games I actually get around to playing.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>