The odds are you've never heard of Shiren The Wanderer - and with the series having suffered from a somewhat spotty series of releases and localisations in the past, it's hardly surprising. Part of a larger Mystery Dungeon series of dungeon crawling role playing games, originally created as a spin off for the uber popular Dragon Quest, it's a game which is both unapologetically hard, and rather Japanese, aiming for a very specific niche of players who look forward to what is the gaming equivalent of several hundred swift kicks to the gonads.
The latest in a long line of Mystery Dungeon games, Shiren The Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is an enhanced remake of an old Nintendo DS game that technically fits in between the events of Shiren The Wanderer DS2 and Shiren The Wanderer 3, although it's a totally stand-alone adventure that can be played without prior knowledge of the series.
Perhaps unusually, it's not the titular Shiren, a guy who wonders the world in search of mysteries great and small alongside his talking ferret companion, Koppa, that provides the impetus for the adventure here. Instead, it's a lovelorn villager. While wandering in search of the aforementioned mysteries, the pair happen upon a small village, where they find a bed-stricken girl on the verge of death, with her lover Jirokichi powerless by her bedside. With naught else to do to save his beloved, he puts his stock in an old wives tale - that if you can recover the three dices of fate and climb the tower of destiny, you can plead with the god Reeva to change your fate - and of course, Shiren soon joins him in his quest. A tale of love and desperation this may be, but story really takes a back seat in Shiren The Wanderer, serving only as a reason for the titular adventurer to head off on a jolly. Instead, this is a relatively hardcore dungeon crawler, where strategy, level grinding and luck are your keys to success.
Known as a 'rogue like', Shiren The Wanderer sees you exploring floor upon floor of maze-like dungeons, one step at a time. When you and your party move, the dungeon's enemies move too - and when you stop still, they stop still too, letting you plan out your moves at your own pace, theoretically preventing you from rushing headlong into a massive monster brawl unprepared. You may think ain't nobody got time for that much planning and foresight, but if you run around blindly in a game like this, you'll likely finding yourself paying the price later, setting off damage-dealing traps left, right and centre, and being swarmed by bad guys who'll easily end you.
Death is a pretty significant thing in the world of Shiren The Wanderer, too, and it comes at a hefty price - not only will you be booted out of the dungeon, but you'll lose all your money, items and equipment in the process. And did we mention that your overall level resets to level one every time you leave a dungeon, whether in a casket or not?
Essentially, the only way you can get an edge over your opponents in battle here is by stockpiling better and better equipment, which you lose for good should you fall in battle - something which makes later dungeons especially tricky, as once you've died, you're effectively going back in as a totally vanilla noob. No money means no weapons, healing potions or escape items, leaving you doing little to no damage, unable to recover health and prevented from legging it out of there when things turn sour. Hardcore, much?
Every floor of every dungeon is fraught with peril too, with many a trap lurking out of sight - step on one, and you'll get hit with a myriad of different effects, from those that simply deal damage or unequip all your items, to those that cast a confusion spell that messes up your controls or inflicts you with a health-draining poison. If you can manage to make it around all the traps, there's also all kinds of vicious beasties raring to have a go at you in Shiren The Wanderer's familiar turn-based battles. Exchanging attacks, spells, and item usage with your foe, you at least have a bit of time to weigh up your options here. Unfortunately, while you may have the sense to flee from a battle, your computer-controlled allies will simply fight to the death regardless of what you do - and as you have no way to alter their tactics, yet you'll require a specific item to bring them back round once they've been defeated, they're hardly the kind of folks you can rely on in a crisis.
Shiren The Wanderer may be punishing at times, but it's not all bad. If you can manage to hold on to any of the weapons you find littered about the place for a decent length of time, the weapon itself will start to level up and evolve, becoming more powerful the more you use it. Between this and being able to alchemise it with other weapons, and use magical scrolls to upgrade it, you can get yourself some pretty gnarly equipment to make traversing the harder dungeons that much easier. Effectively making up for the short fall in Shiren's level at the start of each new dungeon, it's the best way to get the edge over your opponents - although woe betide you if you die at any point. We lost a particularly good sword that way, and we're now terrified of losing our carrot-on-a-stick Veggie Doom +4, which can take out most enemies in a hit or two.
For a game that's almost entirely about wandering corridors and smacking bad guys upside the head, Shiren The Wanderer has an almost ridiculous amount of systems and tricks to master - as detailed in the several hour long (optional) tutorials. From rogue-like staples like a stamina bar that depletes gradually with every step you take, and must be replenished by eating periodically, to a painfully limited inventory that forces you to be conservative with what you gather, there's also a number of more fun and interesting bits too. Pick-up-able pots let you keep food from going off, expand your inventory space, hide from enemies or make nearby ruffnecks laugh uncontrollably, while various edible grasses you find in dungeons can make you breathe fire, cure poison or simply heal damage. 'Nut' enemies can be fed excess items, with each subsequent item multiplying the amount of experience points you get from defeating them - although it also increases the likelihood of them exploding too, which will deal damage to you.
Moveable floors, darkened dungeons you need to explore by torchlight and 'monster houses' chock to the rafters with bad guys give a bit of variety to the endless corridors and rooms you're exploring too, while a day and night system reduces the distance your character can see in front of them when night falls, making it harder to spot enemies, traps and other such perils. And that's barely scratching the surface.
Shiren The Wanderer is a bit of a weird one really - it's easy enough that you can pass through most of the earlier dungeons with minimal grinding or backtracking, but if or when you do die, it's undeniably harsh. Losing all of your items and money, including any fancy equipment you've been steadfastly upgrading, sucks, and can make you want to hurl your Vita at a wall after being attacked by a particularly feisty group of scorpions. But up until that point, it's actually a pretty fun dungeon crawler. An acquired taste, this one.