Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is a game you’ll either love or hate. In classic roguelike fashion, the whims of luck can be cruel, unforgiving, and downright unfair. One bad toss of the dice is all it takes to bring a dungeon delve to an early end, flushing potentially hours of progress down the drain. But fate isn’t absolute, and luck—good and bad—is something you can bend to your whim, if you’re smart about it. The appeal of game like Shiren the Wanderer isn’t in bashing your head against a wall until you finally get a lucky drop that lets you break through, but in finding ways to strategically, creatively make whatever hand you’re dealt work in your favour.
Each crack at one of The Tower of Fortune‘s many dungeons sees Shiren, our eponymous wandering swordsman, start at level 1 and, in most cases, without so much as a pointy stick to fend off the monsters he encounters. Kitting himself out for the challenges ahead and stocking up on those ever-useful healing herbs comes by the luck of the draw, whether in the treasures found lying about each new floor of the dungeon or in the spoils dropped by slain foes. Levelling up is linear and reliable, but most of your strength and ability to deal with the challenges ahead comes from the items you find and, most importantly, how you choose to use them.
That latter part is key—how you choose to use them. There are a lot of items in Shiren the Wanderer that, at a glance, seem very situational or far too precious to be wasting unless you absolutely need to. That’s almost never the case; every magic scroll that looks useful in a jam is one that can help you avoid getting into a jam in the first place, if you’re not stingy with it. Every seemingly situational item is one that can be useful in far more ways than you might expect. Experimenting with these things and seeing what opportunities they provide will take you much further than praying to lady luck ever could. Figuring out how to strategically use the game’s tile-based, turn-based setup to avoid danger and give yourself the upper hand is always going to be more dependable than hoping for a lucky weapon drop.
That’s why, frustrating as it can be to lose all your items, revert to level 1, and have to restart that dungeon again from the beginning, death is often a blessing in disguise. It’s a chance to play around with a new set of tools, figure out new tactics, and arm yourself with the knowledge that will, eventually, let you build a winning run no matter what cards you get dealt. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to want to throw your Switch out the window when you collapse on the top level of a 50-floor tower, or that you won’t still sometimes die in ways that are completely random, unexpected, and unavoidable, but there’s a bigger context to those deaths.
I’ve you’ve ever played a Mystery Dungeon game or any other roguelike, this will all be familiar. But it seems more apparent in The Tower of Fortune than in its Mystery Dungeon siblings—where the likes of Pokemon Mystery Dungeon have, in some ways, eased up on the more unforgiving aspects of the series (which isn’t itself a bad thing), Shiren the Wanderer has long remained true to the series’ more “hardcore” roots. Again, it’s a game you’ll either love or you’ll hate, and for the people who love it, overcoming that unforgiving nature is a part of the appeal.
That said, The Tower of Fortune does have its ways of easing the journey a little and giving you a more permanent sense of character progression despite being set to level 1 for each new run. As you fight your way through each dungeon, your equipment gets progressively stronger—both passively through regular use, and through upgrades from chance encounters with blacksmiths. Normally, death means losing all your items, but there are ways to flee a dungeon with your haul in tow, letting you keep all those upgrades intact for the next run (at least of the main story dungeons; bonus dungeons, of which The Tower of Fortune has many, typically don’t let you bring any items in from outside). Reaching certain milestones will see Shiren gain permanent passive abilities that, when equipped, can give you a bit of an edge. It’s still a tough adventure, but Shiren the Wanderer doesn’t leave you completely in the dark.
Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate originally came out in 2010 for Nintendo DS (only in Japan), before getting an expanded release on PlayStation Vita in 2015. The Switch and Steam release takes that Vita version and expands on it further, with three new bonus dungeons offering unique challenges and some handy new features.
The new dungeons are a particular highlight, as you’d expect from a dungeon crawler game, building on the dungeons already present in The Tower of Fortune with some inventive new challenges. In the Bladeless Wasteland, weapons don’t exist—you can’t carry anything in from the outside, and they don’t drop at all. Instead, the focus is on using items like arrows, rocks, and magic scrolls to defeat your enemies. The Cloister of Certain Doom lets you set your own target of how many turns you’ll clear the dungeon within, at the risk of getting booted back to the beginning if you exceed your self-imposed limit. And finally, the Garden of Destiny twists things by having the experience you earn from each foe tied to how quickly you defeated it—kill it in one hit for a huge boost, but the more turns you take, the smaller the reward at the end of the encounter.
There’s now a handy music collection feature now that lets you listen to music from the game whenever you like, and for streamers, an optional “Live Display” that shows viewers your status, items, abilities, play time, turn count, and other stats as you play. The Switch and Steam release also expands the Wanderer Rescue (which lets you call for help when you die, and hopefully get rescued by another player) and rankings systems, which were previously restricted by region and language settings, to now be truly global (though you can still filter them if you want to).
What hasn’t really changed, mostly because it doesn’t need to, is The Tower of Fortune‘s gorgeous pixel art. It’s vibrant, detailed, full of energy, and with all the charm that only a 16-bit game can offer—this game wouldn’t look out of place in the heyday of the Super Nintendo, which is high praise indeed. The music is catchy and pleasant, and the localisation is superb, with lots of humour thrown into things that can often be quite dry, like item descriptions. The story is light-touch and mostly serves as a catalyst for dungeon-crawling, but that doesn’t stop its colourful cast from bringing plenty of character to each scene.
Like I said, Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate isn’t going to appeal to everyone. It’s a classic roguelike, with all the cruel twists of fate and occasional frustration that comes with that formula. But there’s a lot of appeal in learning how to stack the RNG odds in your favour and trying to creatively come out on top with whatever hand you’ve been dealt, and that’s something Shiren tackles incredibly well—with plenty of retro style to go with it.
Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is developed and published by Spike Chunsoft. It launches 2 December 2020 for Nintendo Switch (reviewed) and PC, and is already available for PlayStation Vita.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.