Review – Shiren the Wanderer

Shiren the Wanderer is the video game equivalent of Candide. Think of something that can go wrong and it will, but not in the normal “I locked my keys in my car” kind of way. Like its literary inspiration, things don’t just not work out, they go absurdly wrong. As in “I locked my tiger in my car but forgot to unstrap my newborn child from the baby seat” wrong.

Shiren meets so many untimely deaths so often that it seems the game is mocking you. The most ridiculous deaths at least allow you to join in the laughter. For example, on the last level of the game a minotaur picked me up and threw me into a corner, then proceeded to pick up and hurl another minotaur at my head, followed by an undead mage, followed by the final boss itself. Had the mage not already sealed my ability to use items I may have stood a chance, but in the state I was in all I could do was wait for each of these enemies to take turns pummeling me.

Don’t let him give you a massage.

My current favorite demise came at the hands of one of the game’s many traps. I stumbled into a monster house, which is a room full of enemies, items and traps, and promptly used a scroll that immobilized all aggressors. I gracefully picked them off one by one from afar with arrows before foolishly running towards the trove of items left behind. It’s crucial I mention now that I was in possession of two arm bands, each granting a different power (despite having two arms Shiren can only wear one at a time). Greedy as always, I had removed the arm band that made me immune to confusion and equipped the one that gave me experience points with every step I took.

Of course while sprinting towards mad loot I stepped on a trap. The game thought it had me with its pitiful rotting trap, but I am smart and came prepared – all of my rice balls, necessary to keep Shiren fed and living, were safely stowed away in jars and thus immune from the rotting trap. I barreled on into a confusion trap and immediately lost control of Shiren (recall I had moments before decided to remove the arm band that would have prevented this). No worries, all the enemies were dead so what could a few traps possibly do to a mighty warrior with a Katana+10?

Then I stepped on a rice trap and became a hopping ball of rice. Perhaps you see where this is going. I certainly did not. Frustrated that I was now food, I recklessly stepped over the same rotting trap I had sprung earlier. And died immediately. If only I had been carrying myself in a jar.

For all the cruel deaths you will suffer there is some screwed up kind of justice to the game mechanics. Having your allies ruthlessly murdered in front of you only to see their killer level up into a super monster struck me as unfair until I realized that if I somehow managed to kill said super monster I would gain an assload of experience points. Shiren is full of little positives for each negative and the hard truth is that at almost all steps of the game the choice to die is yours. Seen as a whole, many of Shiren’s deaths seem brutal and unfair but when examined closely there are few cases in which player error did not lead to Shiren’s end.

1. Read confusion scroll. 2. Hope monsters kill each other and not you. 3. Die at the hands of newly leveled up monster.

Shiren is ultimately a puzzle game with RPG trappings, not an RPG that hates you. It is often mistaken as the latter because when you die, which happens constantly, you start over at level 1 on the first map with nothing. This cruel mechanic has led many reviewers to accuse Shiren of being an RPG that wastes your time more flagrantly than church. While it is possible to level up weapons and store them safely for the next playthrough, if I couldn’t see the game through the lens of a puzzler I would be as enraged as those reviewers.

Shiren is really a giant, randomly generated complex board game. Every turn gives each player (Shiren, allies, neutrals, and enemies) a single move or action and with experience and planning it is possible to vastly improve how you fare in each runthrough. Video game historians describe Shiren as a roguelike, which is fine, if somewhat meaningless to everyone who has not played Rogue or one of the million clones of Rogue that all manage to sell just well enough to guarantee more clones, but poorly enough to never make a significant splash in the industry. As an aside, it is not acceptable to defend a game by saying it is a roguelike (take note forum nerds).

Like a game of nude Risk, each play through Shiren yields a unique and potentially disturbing experience. Dying horrible, ludicrous deaths is unavoidable but the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune will likely amuse as they crush your spirit. The knowledge that any bizarre turn of events that leads to your downfall is not only under your control, but can be turned on it’s head and used to destroy your foes will drive you forward at least as much as progress erasing defeats set you back.

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