Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a monthly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre. This time - a detailed look at Atlus' Shiren The Wanderer for the Wii.]

“Shiren the Wanderer” is Atlus' name for their U.S edition of the two-years-old most recent Shiren game released in Japan, for the Wii game console. More properly the name is applied to a whole series of games, some of which I've mentioned here before. The games are of varying quality, but even the weakest Shiren game possesses awesome features and wonderful gameplay entirely absent elsewhere in the JRPG field.

This is a game of survival, of improbable escapes from tight situations. Once you learn to play a Shiren game well, you will constantly amaze yourself with the scrapes you get out of. Until you learn to do this you will die a lot, but no dungeon is really very long so you can always try again.

shirendsbox.jpgThey really are something special. So special that I have already spent four whole columns talking about them, three on the Super Famicom game [Journal 1, Journal 2, Final Problem] and one of the recent DS port [here], the first Shiren game ever to officially make it to the United States. The Wii game which I cover now is the second game to make it here.

shirenwii_boxart.jpgI talk the game up here at the beginning because, while good in a good number of ways, compared to the DS game, Shiren the Wanderer for Wii is not as good. Instead of the big single-dungeon structure that tends to work best for it, this edition is split up in a number of smaller dungeons, somewhat in the style of Pokemon Rescue Team. Further, most of these dungeons are set up as being one part of a longer journey, so Shiren retains his character level between them instead of starting from scratch each time. The high score and rescue features that were in the Japanese version have all been excised from this one, an unavoidable detriment to a wholehearted recommendation. And don't get me started on the cutscenes.... But even with all these problems, it is still the best (and nearly the only) game of its type for the Wii, and one of the few commercial console roguelikes to see release in the U.S. that is really worth playing.

New improved dungeons! 33% more peril!

It may be unfair to compare the game too closely to Pokemon Rescue Team. That was structured around the idea of a large number of small dungeons, with semi-randomized victory conditions, that were played many times each to advance the game. Shiren is sort of midway between that and the old, large dungeon style. There is a linear series of dungeons to tackle, each fairly small, and with character level persisting between them. The structure looks, a bit, like a longer dungeon with checkpoints interspersed throughout, although at each the player can both visit towns and even replay earlier stages of the journey.

shirenwii1.bmpFirst, the good things. The ally system, perhaps the biggest improvement made to this version, is a winner. Although the loss of the helpers from prior games is sad (Who will weep for Pekeji?) the replacement basically gives you a second character to explore the dungeons with. This character's actions can be set to one of a variety of AI plans, you can additionally restrict him or her from using almost any kind of item (in practice it's essential to turn almost everything off), and best of all, in a pinch you can set the game for “full control,” and you'll be prompted to alternate moves with them! It works exactly as you'd expect it to: a roguelike where you have two player characters roaming the dungeon instead of one, and since you can switch your ally to auto control when you're not in a tight situation it usually isn't too annoying to deal with.

In fact, I feel that ChunSoft missed out a bit by not figuring out how to expand this even further, into a full-fledged multi-player mode. Even without that there are often compelling reasons to switch the game into independent actions, yet by making it an option you can still cover ground in the dungeons quickly when need be. You can also decide at a moment which of your characters is the leader. Interestingly, only the character chosen to lead consumes food, but the leader also counts as the critical party member: if your ally dies you continue alone, but if the leader, whoever that is at the moment, is defeated you fail the dungeon.

The game offers room shops as before, in the style of Nethack (from which Shiren almost certainly stole the idea) although their rules are a bit different from before. Shopkeepers no longer wait at the door to shops in order to step in the way when you attempt to steal. This means you can get a couple of extra steps away before he catches up to you, but it also means it's a lot easier to accidentally walk outside with an unpaid riceball and get your clock cleaned because of it. It pays to be especially attentive in shops because of this. The change was probably made due to having an ally that follows you around and able to be independently controlled making theft too easy anyway. Another interesting change to shopkeeper behavior: they now have the ability to get independently angry at monsters that attack them without getting mad at you, and will chase them down and slaughter them, a possible distraction for when you are trying to steal. Shopkeepers do gain levels when they've slain their adversary, however.

Dual wielding weapons is supported in this game, and it's actually one of the better dual-wielding setups in roguelikes. Unlike most games, wielding a weapon in each hand doesn't seem to impose any attack penalties. Shiren games don't offer armor items, all protection comes from a shield carried in the off-hand, so going with two weapons means doing without protection, a considerable drawback. There are also now two-handed weapons that have higher attack power, and often powerful side-effects, that also disallow wearing a shield, or wielding a second weapon, with them.

shirenwii2.bmpI hear that after you're done with the main quest, the game has a plethora of challenge bonus dungeons to play through. I have not yet gotten to play them, and I am considering returning to Shiren Wii in this column when I've tried them out a bit. One of them is has 1,000 levels, although the word from user slayn of NeoGAF is that the effort of playing through it is not worth it.

Dungeons depreciate in value due to peeling plaster, bloodstains

Now for the gameplay drawbacks. Monster houses, while still in the game, seem to be less common, at least for the dungeons I've been in so far. Monster houses no longer reveal all the monsters on the whole map when triggered. Escape scrolls are in this installment, which sucks quite highly for reasons I'll get into later. Item identification is again limited to staves, armbands and jars during the main quest, which provides once again for too many no-brainer decisions. (“Hm, it's a Strength Herb. Should I eat it?”) The maximum hit point gaining trick of using healing herbs when at full health has been removed, which adds to the no-brainer decision factor.

There is a system now where each type of monster has an elemental affinity, which makes them vulnerable to weapons with particular seals but more annoyingly gives them special powers in certain circumstances. The worst of these is the Fire power, which gives a monster a critical hit ability. Interestingly, different levels of a species of monster tend to have different elements, meaning in certain cases a promoted monster may actually be easier to kill.

shirenwii3.bmpThe boss monsters, present at the end of most dungeons, are mixed good and bad. Good in that most of the time the challenges seem to be fair. Bad in that you tend to need a good amount of stockpiled healing, which promotes grinding in early dungeons. Good in that having an ally on your side greatly increases the strategy in these kinds of combat encounters. Bad in that, when there is an unfair boss, it can be greatly so; there is a puzzle boss halfway through the game in which you have to have three switches standing upon at once, but because of this the bosses themselves cannot be definitely killed, and it's easy to use up your prime resources before-hand in trying to inflict damage that matters for nothing before the game gives you the hint that it's actually a puzzle boss. Also, and here we're moving into the area of grave problems, bosses tend to be immune to many of the tricks that affect normal monsters, meaning a lot of your saved-up inventory will probably be of no avail against those challenges.

What happens when I die? Do I get to take my stuff with me?

Let's lay out the death rules of the game. If you succeed in a dungeon, you emerge from it with all the experience retained from it saved to your permanent character, and keeping all the items you found. Thus, you'll be able to go right into the next dungeon, which is designed expecting the player to be at the average level he'd be from completing all the prior dungeons combined without grinding, and to have the stuff remaining from those levels. The game's experience rules, which here award less for beating relatively low-level monsters, supports this.

If you die in a dungeon, your character's level is set to what it was before you entered. What happens to your items is determined by your difficulty setting. On Normal mode, you lose all the stuff you had from the previous dungeon. On Easy, your stuff is restored. The result is that, strangely, and generally against roguelike principles, there is more grinding on Normal mode than Easy. You lose all your items in most roguelikes when you die because you also lose everything else, you have to start over next time, beginning a new game. Shiren for the Wii, by cluelessly enforcing one aspect of roguelike play while ignoring another, actually seems like a better game when played on Easy. The item loss of Normal Mode seems more like a punishment than a natural consequence of death, because you have to take measures, then, to overcome it.

shirenwii4.bmpLet's return to that out-leveled experience gain thing. A consequence is that, if you return to replay an early dungeon that doesn't reset character level, all the monsters you kill will probably be worth only one experience point, making them useless, generally, for building up your character. That is a good thing, as it diminishes the incentive to grind. But you get to keep the items from those sessions. Players may end up doing that even on Easy mode, since healing items are very common in the first dungeons.

Ordinarily you only encounter the decreasing experience gain if you grossly outclass the monsters, but there is another situation where it is possible to replay dungeons, and unfortunately it seems to be due to an item whose main purpose now seems to enable grinding: the Escape Scroll. This pernicious item allows players to replay dungeons at nearly full experience gain

shirenwii5.bmpWhy do I bother to mention the decreasing experience gain? It has become almost standard in roleplaying games these days; in fact, many games now limit player experience requirements to 100 per level, and scale experience awards according to difficulty. Partly there are superficial benefits to building up a large “score” of experience points that increases throughout the character's career, but mostly, in Shiren's scheme the increasing experience requirements for higher levels already do the job. There's also the fact that even low-level monsters can still cause problems for a high-level player; the special abilities of monsters in Shiren do not usually grant the player a saving throw to have them not work. The business of avoiding the attack is handled tactically (stay out of range, use resources to nullify the threat) rather than randomly (close to melee and hope your character's save is good enough to not be affected). One of the high-level Gazes in the game, I hear, can affect your player if he's anywhere in the same room! Even though it's high level, under a scaling system it will eventually award only one experience point. That would be cheating a player up against such a monster, regardless of what level he is. Further, it seems the game doesn't scale high level monsters, they're just worth normal experience.

DEATH TO THE NINJA GIRL AND HER CRAZY ANTICS

shirenwiimaidenoflame.bmpAnd now we come, unfortunately, to the absolutely worst thing about Shiren the Wanderer for the Wii, worse than the game structure, worse than the death rules, worse than the linearity by far. The worst thing about Shiren is: the towns and cutscenes.

When I first started playing it, a couple of friends were around so I figured I'd show them what a Shiren game was like. They were not left with a good impression; the first half-hour of the game was spent talking to nearly everyone in town, a process that involved walking into every building and waiting the several seconds for each to be loaded from disk. Apparently, if you leave town without having found and spoken with the magic person, you'll just be told to go back in and find him. For a game with such play strengths as these, this is a horrible decision. It doesn't help when, between each dungeon, there is another, typically unskippable story segment featuring characters we absolutely do not care about, doing obnoxious things, in service to a forgettable story.

I've mentioned my problems with video game storytelling here in the past. Games like this are why I have them. It's not that I think it's impossible to tell a good story in a computer game, but I think it's harder to do it well than most developers realize, and for roguelikes particularly the story composed by the player in his head about the adventures of his character is usually far more interesting than, say, a story about a clockwork mansion that somehow infects things around it with clockworkiness.

shirenwiiyousaiditkoppa.bmpThese little pieces of RPG scenario writing made me want to scratch out my eyes. The only characters who were interesting were Asuka (she returns from the Dreamcast and N64 games by the way), who is at least not actively annoying, and Shiren himself, who has the good sense to say nothing. On the negative side, there is this ninja girl character who I wanted to strangle. She seems to serve no purpose in the game at all except to be an obnoxious, ineffective sideline antagonist, the Team Rocket of feudal Japan.

It could be that I'm just too out of sync with the world of JRPG scenario presentation. It is true that my days of enjoying Final Fantasy are mostly done with, although I do still have some fondness for Dragon Quest. It is just one of those many ways in which the excesses, not I think of specifically-Japanese game development, but of modern game development, what that has come to mean and how that has been refracted through that cultural filter, those are a large turn-off these days, at least for me. When they're overlaid upon a game with such marvelous and entrancing gameplay possibilities as the Shiren the Wanderer series, the result is nearly tragic.

Better than average, but worse than great

In the actual dungeons themselves there still exist the brilliant kinds of gameplay decisions that have always made the Shiren games so enjoyable. You have to swim through the typical excesses of JRPG scenario writing and design dilution to get to them, but they are there, and nowhere else on the Wii are they available. In fact, on any other console in the U.S., to get this kind of gameplay you have to either be playing Shiren DS or have hacked it to run homebrew.

It is true that Shiren for the Wii is not one of the best entries in the series. But the best games are nearly unknown in the U.S. Among the best, it is true, is the DS game that was released here by Sega, which did poorly in the market. Reasons for this have been bandied about; certainly one of them was the horrible box art. But another, unquestionably, is the nature of the gameplay, which, while somewhat neutered from the Super Famicom game on which it was based and remains a high-point in the series, was obviously too hardcore for many players based on their expectations for the game. The way to fix this is not to change the game, but to challenge those expectations.

And now, a word for our sponsor

shirenwii_shiren.jpgRecently, the idea has been making the rounds around the blogowebs that Atlus has claimed Shiren the Wanderer for the Wii is not a roguelike game. I note that Atlus did not actually say that, that that* impression comes from the title of a Kotaku article whose text, upon closer examination, merely presents Atlus as reluctant to use that word to describe the game, an important difference. No matter. They may not have said the game isn't a roguelike, but avoiding the term isn't doing us any favors either.

Roguelike games, as I have argued in this column many times, have some of the most awesome gameplay available anywhere in computer gaming. It is possible, I firmly believe, for anyone to enjoy these games. "Possible" here is a weasel word though; lots of people have difficulty in sufficently unlearning their expectations of what a computer game should be to allow themselves to enjoy them. (Readers are invited to find parallels in the United States' current political climate.) It is possible for anyone to enjoy roguelikes, but for some of them an epiphany is required, a flash of inspiration from outside, a brilliant and destructive ray of insight to awe the recipient into a renewed understanding of the world.

For roguelikes to approach mainstream popularity, these kinds of epiphanies would have to become more common. One way not to do it is to try to distract consumers from the game's essential nature, which does us all a disservice, fans and buyers alike. If the Shiren series is ever to become generally popular in the U.S., publishers are going to have to confront the games' nature, not sidestep it. Shiren is a roguelike: this is the entire reason anyone would want to play it. A game with Shiren characters and settings made along the lines of a Final Fantasy game would be worthless.

It may not be a guarantee of high sales. In fact, it probably would result in lower sales in the short term. That is the point: this is a genre that most players have never experienced before. To improve sales later, it may be necessary to suffer through reduced sales now. Roguelike popularity has been hindered by the games' obscurity and their adherence to design principles currently out of vogue. The reason they are out of vogue boils down to marketing. Until they are sold better, roguelikes may be forever doomed to being a niche genre. Sega and Atlus, by trying to sell these games in an ignorant market, are in an excellent position to further the genre, and thus establish a market for their sequels. Nintendo has been doing this, to varying success, with the Fire Emblem games. They should probably take notes.

* Three in a row! 1000 point bonus!

Game screenshots provided by Atlus. Shiren DS box art scavanged from Joystiq.