There are two types of difficult games in my opinion, games that are hard because of challenging the player with specific mechanics and games that are hard because of imbalanced decisions, Shiren The Wanderer (or STW) for the Nintendo Wii sticks with the former. A sequel in a sense to the Nintendo DS game, STW is our second taste of the series that was once a Japanese exclusive.
For those that missed the first one, the Shiren series is from the rogue like sub genre of RPGS. These are titles that have a huge difficulty curve made up by very explicit game mechanics and randomize dungeons; lots and lots of randomize dungeons. You will die in STW and most often it will probably be your fault. The variety of ways to fail in Shiren is staggering, you can have your weapons weaken, permanently destroyed, experience levels lost, beaten up by a shopkeeper among many other ways. To say that these games are not made for novice gamers is an understatement, as death takes away all those sweet items you have accumulated over your play through. The designers at Chunsoft have realized that not a lot of people like getting killed repeatedly and have made several changes to the formula.
First is now being able to select the difficulty level, players have the choice between easy where you will not lose items on death and normal or the manly way (or foolhardy way) where death takes away everything. Also for the most part you will keep your experience level after death unlike Shiren DS where you will go back to level one. The three biggest changes to the formula that may upset veterans of the series are boss fights, multiple dungeons and allies. In the DS Shiren title the main quest was a nonstop romp through several areas ending with the boss at the end. The final enemy is the only enemy considered a boss fight in the game. In STW the game is made up of numerous dungeons that can be selected from the map. Each dungeon is self contained with its own enemies, possible items to find and a boss at the end. This both increases the play time in STW and breaks up the main quest into bite sized areas.
First I want to talk about the dungeons; this style was used in the Izuma series (rogue like on the DS). To be honest I prefer this way to one long dungeon as it allows the designers to be more creative in the dungeon styles and gives the player a greater sense of accomplishment and allows them to see their progress. However one complaint I do have is the fact that items seem to be set on a dungeon by dungeon basis. One of the selling points of Shiren DS was the fact that you could find anything at anytime. You could stumble on a powerful weapon on the first map of the game or nothing; it gave the game a greater sense of excitement. In STW the only way you are going to find the good stuff is to survive long enough to reach the later dungeons.
Moving on boss fights mark the end of every dungeon, a unique foe is waiting for you and other then being immune to certain items each fight plays out differently. I enjoyed the boss fights as a challenge waiting for you. Since you are going to have to fight them after braving through their dungeon, you’ll have to balance out being prepared for both the normal enemies you’ll face and the final fight at the end. I cannot talk about any of the boss fights for obvious spoiler reasons. Fortunately you will not have to go alone.
Joining Shiren on his journey are two allies who will follow him into the dungeons. You can either take full control over them or set up AI commands. During boss fights having backup is invaluable either as a second attacker or dedicated healer. My complaint about them is that there isn’t a happy medium between AI control and full control in my opinion. No matter how much I tweaked their behavior the AI would do something stupid like waste an important item on something meaningless. The alternative is to neuter their commands but then you risk that one time that you do need them to use an item and they won’t. Still when the chips are down and you are knee deep in monsters; it’s good to have a helping hand.
While making several changes to the formula STW does keep the variety of items and monsters seen in Shiren DS. Like Shiren DS, each type of enemy is distinguished by species and rank, species is their form and rank is their color. If an enemy kills another enemy in any way they will rank up, higher ranks increase stats and can also give enemies unique abilities. One enemy at rank 4 or 5 can hit twice for about 120 points of health in one turn. The designers were smart and for the main quest you won’t have to worry about the strongest monsters at their highest ranks.
Which at last leads me to talk about the post game, another staple of Shiren is the massive post game content. The main quest is basically schoolwork and the post game is the final exam. Once (or if) you managed to beat the game you’ll unlock a brand new quest taking place after the game ends. Here’ll you’ll have access to a variety of dungeons and fights with unique rules to them. The post game is also where you’ll fight enemies that were deemed to annoying to deal with in the main quest. Some dungeons have you start out back at square one when you enter them and others allow you to take your equipment with you. I have a design problem with the latter that isn’t so much a knock against Shiren but a knock against the genre.
The trick about Shiren is that your actual level doesn’t have as great of an effect on your performance compared to your gear. Your level has a small affect on your damage output and mainly determines your total health. Having a huge health bar is important but your gear is what determines if you live or die. The problem is that to even stand a ghost of a chance in the post game dungeons you’ll have to grind for healing items and the necessary items to boost your equipment. My beef with this is using the concepts of “potential energy” and “kinetic energy”, potential is the time you spend grinding out what you need to survive. Kinetic is the time actually spend in the dungeon you are trying to clear. you can easily spend several hours repeating dungeons to spend maybe an hour or so in the actual dungeon you are trying to complete. If you fail you’ll lose your gear and have to repeat the process over again. Granted playing on easy mode removes this restriction but for a game like Shiren you lose half the experience of the game. Imagine if Demon’s Souls for the PS3 had no penalty for death, you would have a completely different experience in that case.
I have been playing very cautiously hoarding items and have gear boosted, not to their limits of course but still enough to get by. I have a feeling that if I die and lose everything that would mark the end of the post game for me for now. The problem with Shiren is the same problem that I have with Demon’s Souls; there is no real motivation for me to go beyond the main quest. I’m not going to unlock some new secret mode for beating Shiren’s 1000 floor dungeon (yes you read that right) and the reward of a notch on my belt only satisfies me with games that have skill based progression. Does that make Shiren’s post game wrong? Of course not and for the hardcore fans of the series they will put the time and dedication into the game. However for someone like me who likes to switch from game to game I think my time is about up with STW. I find it interesting how the loot based reward system of Shiren doesn’t enthrall me like it did with Diablo 2 and I have a theory why.
In Diablo 2 loot is the reward, it is the reason why you play on higher difficulty levels, the reason why people did Baal runs and simply the reason to play Diablo 2. In Shiren and other rogue likes loot is the means to an end, you’re not collecting loot as a reward but simply as the tools you need to cross the finish line. Whether you cross it unscathed or down to your last life point it doesn’t matter, either you win or lose.
The beauty of STW’s design and the reason to play the game is figuring out the rules of the world and how to use and subvert them to win. There is a certain sense of satisfaction when you finally have the materials needed to fashion that ultimate blade you wanted or surviving a tough fight. For fans of the series or genre, STW is a must buy and thanks to the easy mode it makes STW accessible to newcomers as well. At around 36 hours in I think I’m close to shelving STW for now. While the 1000 floor dungeon is out of my reach I do feel the urge to at least get through the 100 floor challenge.