Hey. Hey! Hey! Put down that copy of GTA IV. There are other games out there, you know. Not that we'll notice for the next few months. In anticipation of the eventual government crackdown on 'murder simulators', however, we've composed another DS roundup of your typical average-to-bad games. Because somebody has to. Surprisingly this time, one of them is actually rather good. Fancy that. Even the lowly street sweeper comes across a dropped tenner once in a while.
Shiren the Wanderer
- Developer: Chunsoft
- Publisher: SEGA
The first death is the hardest, of course. Whether falling at the first hurdle or fluking a run-through to deadlier levels only to get chopped up by a high-level beast, the first time all your experience points and items are taken away and your character returned to the first town, you feel shocked. Hurt, even. That's when you either root for the receipt, or grit your teeth and take the pain for what can turn into a great little RPG.
Welcome to the roguelike, the RPG genre that strips away all that the Mass Effects of the modern world have become. In its place, turn-by-turn movement, random dungeons and one single life (reloading's a no-no) that the computer determines to take away in as quick and cruel a manner as possible.
The Mystery Dungeon series is a rare foray into handheld territory for the roguelike, particularly on this continent. This is only the second game in the Japanese series to make it to these shores, having already buttered us up with the previous Pokmon Blue/Red Rescue Team spin-off. But the nature of that licence led to a lot of mollycoddling. If you want an RPG experience that likes to slap you in the face, offer a kind hand, then slap it again, Chunsoft's port of its old SNES game should be right up your alley.
Of course, there's no genius in constant repression, and Shiren's concession is to allow you to keep items you've saved in the handful of warehouses en route after death. Any time you die, anything you've stored is yours to use again. As you move through levels, you upgrade weapons and shields. Ultimately, despite many deaths, provided you keep everything safe, the sensible, patient player gets a little further each time.
The rest of the world doesn't entirely reset Groundhog Day-style, as you might expect, either. By fulfilling certain criteria or talking to certain people, you inch on some of the NPCs' own stories. Some may join you, or offer certain items on your next run-through. It's that and the random nature of the dungeons (which are also small and manageable), which ultimately keeps the eternal trudge through the low-levels entertaining.
It's got a lovely look to it, too. Mountainous forests, ridges and villages that get starker and more dangerous, the further you get. All punctuated by evocative sound effects and sparse music that provide a calming, atmosphere on the lonely adventure into the unknown.
As a port, it has its ups and downs. Apart from opening up the menu, the game can be played entirely by touch-screen. It doesn't add anything special, though, and you're far better playing with buttons. Disappointingly, no thought was given to updating the horribly fiddly item management. The top screen is committed to displaying a pretty useless picture of the world map when it could easily be put to far better use trying to keep things organised.
The other new DS feature on hand allows you to aid other fallen Wanderers' online. Send out a call for help and others can respond, or vice versa. If someone manages to reach you, you get to live another day. A rather clever idea, even if you do only get three chances to plea for aid.
In some ways, Shiren is anathema to what the modern RPG has become. While it may not have the immense depth of a roguelike like Zangband, it's still an experience that you can't just sleepwalk through. You could effectively argue that it reveals itself as a game of attrition that revels in its sadistic, repetitive nature, yet it's that approach that's precisely what's appealing about it. The stakes are far higher, making the rewards much sweeter.
It always gives you a fighting chance then waits patiently until you muck it up. Your average roguelike player's core weaknesses are impatience and false bravado. Not identifying cursed scrolls, not taking out that missile-wielding monster from afar with a lightning wand, not saving that healing herb... There's a sense that if only you'd planned two moves ahead you wouldn't be another death stat in the multitude. Which may not be the first thing on your mind when you've fallen into a monster-filled pit with a rusted shield and stepped on an immobilise trap, but there you go.