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Evan Norris
, posted on 23 February 2024 / 2,800 Views

Shiren the Wanderer has been gone for far too long. The last game in the series was 2010’s Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate, which debuted on Nintendo DS. And although that game saw ports on PlayStation Vita and Switch in 2016 and 2020, respectively, it’s now been approximately 14 years since a brand new Shiren experience. After more than a decade of dormancy, can developer Spike Chunsoft do justice to the roguelike role-playing franchise?

Shiren The Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island, the latest title in the long-running Shiren series, follows the titular hero Shiren, an honorable wanderer who speaks softly and carries a big katana. Along with his loyal companion Koppa, one of the few remaining talking ferrets, he travels the land in search of adventure. The duo’s latest destination is the mysterious Serpentcoil Island, a distant isle rumored to hide a massive treasure trove left behind by pirates. What they find on the island, however, ends up being much more than anticipated.

Like everything in The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island, this story benefits from a surprising amount of depth. What starts off as a straightforward narrative soon branches into many interesting directions, introducing quirky NPCS, engaging subplots, and plenty of unexpected tangents. Indeed, the game is very much like an iceberg; 90 percent of it lingers out of sight. The thrill of this newest Shiren experience is making incremental progress, peeling back the layers, and witnessing all the obscured stories, heroes, villains, adventures, dungeons, monsters, and mechanics reveal themselves. If you played The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island for only a few hours, you’d barely scratch the surface.

You’ll need those opening hours just to acclimate to the game’s strict mechanics and unforgiving nature. Everything revolves around the Mystery Dungeon system, an interlocking framework of turn-based movement, procedural generation, random encounters, and permadeath. Shiren enters each multi-floor dungeon at experience level one, and must level up by exploring maps, defeating enemies, and gathering loot — all of which are randomly generated. If his HP hits zero at any point in a dungeon, he’ll lose all of his accrued gear, gold, and XP, and must start again, from scratch, at level one.

As a result, The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island is not for the faint of heart. The specter of permanent death hangs over each step and every encounter. You might lose thousands of gold pieces, a number of rare items, and several hours worth of progress because the wrong monster showed up in the wrong room at the wrong time, or because you landed on a hidden trap one step away from the exit. No matter your skill level, you will experience frustrating feelings of failure, loss, and unfairness.

If you can reconcile yourself with this randomness and arbitrary injustice, and use each death as a learning opportunity, you’re in for a treat. For every moment of frustrating failure, there are several more of exciting adventure and revelation. Shiren might start each dungeon run at level one, but the players controlling him do not. They benefit from hours of experience, and a deep understanding of terrain, monster vulnerabilities, weapon synergies, and battle tactics — all logged in a handy, accessible Notebook.

Using this accumulated knowledge in creative, consequential ways is what the game is all about. Since it’s turn-based, and monsters only move when you do, you have all the time in the world to make a choice, but which choice is the right one? Do you explore every inch of every floor to find as many items as possible, raising the odds of enemy encounters and starvation? Do you use that strength grass to defeat a nasty monster on floor 24 instead of hoarding it for the final boss? Do you equip a weaker shield that protects against dragons or a stronger one with no added abilities? 

If you make enough wise decisions (and benefit from some lucky RNG), you’ll scale all 31 floors of the main Serpentcoil dungeon and defeat the final boss. But this is only the beginning. As you explore the island, successfully or otherwise, you’ll encounter areas, NPCs, and special events unrelated to the main quest line. These might lead to optional missions or even brand new dungeons with unique themes and challenges. What’s more, new items, abilities, monsters, shops, and companions will start showing up on the island, changing the game considerably. Expect to spend dozens of hours with The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island if you want to unlock and achieve everything it has to offer.

If you’re the altruistic type, you might spend several of those hours in the game’s asynchronous online multiplayer mode. This mode, called Rescue, allows players to save others who have collapsed in a dungeon. If successful, the fallen player will resume play with all belongings intact. As for the rescuers, they will earn “Aid Points”, new to this installment of the Shiren series. Aid Points can be used to make subsequent rescue attempts more likely to succeed. There’s also a new option to Rescue Self, helpful for folks who want to play offline or simply believe they can do the job themselves. Be warned: you won’t collect Aid Points for self-rescues, and the odds are stacked against you.

Rescue mode isn’t the only thing that’s been refreshed in this newest installment of the Shiren franchise. The game also features a brand new artistic style. While not nearly as timeless as the refined pixel art from The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate , the new 3D assets come off quite well. None of the personality of the series has been lost in translation. If anything it seems more alive. In the same way, music feels like a continuation from prior games. The driving themes and traditional Japanese instrumentation help to create a feeling of urgency and sense of place.

Shiren The Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island is a triumphant return to the Shiren series, roughly 14 years after the last mainline entry. It benefits from an ever-expanding story, a cast of colorful characters, a revamped asynchronous multiplayer mode, and, most essentially, the same challenging tactical gameplay and extraordinary replay value that has defined the franchise for generations. Its unforgiving nature and focus on random generation does prove frustrating at times, but also sets the stage for endless experimentation. If you can stomach the setbacks, you’ll find a lot to love.

VGChartz Verdict

This review is based on a digital copy of Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island for the NS, provided by the publisher.

Read more about our Review Methodology here
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