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Shiren the Wanderer (Wii) artwork

Shiren the Wanderer (Wii) review

"As you press on through one dungeon after another, you'll find yourself caught up in a charming storyline that delves into not only into Shiren's past, but the history of the small village that he's chosen as his base of operations. Taken at face value, the story seems almost painfully simple: Shiren's goal is to find the shape-shifting Karakuri Mansion of legend, and of course the great treasures that it holds inside."

When Shiren the Wanderer's opening cutscene unfurls, you're instantly drawn into a world with a gorgeous Japanese art style reminiscent of titles such as Okami and Muramasa. Eggshell clouds part to reveal a mountaintop that looks like something from a rice-paper painting come to life. The presentation shifts from that to watercolor still shots that relay a back story, then those still shots come to life in the form of impressive GG animation featuring the game's cast of characters. The scene concludes with the titular Shiren gazing across a moon-lit field as the papery appearance returns. After viewing that opening sequence, one might believe that Shiren the Wanderer is an artful masterpiece. Then you actually play the game.

The spectacular visual style evident in the opening sequences is sodomized the second Shiren steps into Otsutsuki Village. PS2-level visuals the likes of which grew stale in 2002 mean that NPCs look bland and malformed. The dusty hamlet that they populate offers little in the way of distingushing features, to the point that it's hard to describe it as anything other than "Just another Japanese-style hub town with the amenities you'd expect from a dungeon crawler." The visuals are serviceable, in other words, but barely so.

But you press on...

Shiren's first steps outside of Otsutsuki take him to the Sanuki Forest, a wooded area populated by cute monsters and a nefarious band of ruffians. As is the case with most dungeon-crawlers, particularly those of the rogue-like variety, Shiren presents the player with turn-based combat that takes place in a multitude of randomized dungeons. You're never told why the forest you'll frequently visit is completely different each time around, but it really doesn't matter! What matters are the goodies that you can grab. Those treasures won't collect themselves! They will leave your inventory on their own, though, provided you're unfortunate enough to fall in battle. Unless you play on the 'Easy' difficulty setting, your last save is instantly reloaded when you fall in battle and all of your carried items are lost to the wind. A storage facility in Otsutsuki can safely hold your loot once you place it there, causing Shiren the Wanderer to become every bit as tactical as it is action-packed. Should you put all your items in storage to minimize losses if you die, or should you bring plenty of supplies with you to reduce the likelihood of death ever even happening? The need for that level of preparation required has the potential to make each dungeon a harrowing experience. It's unfortunate that the boss fights you'll encounter at the end of those dungeons are such a joke.

In an early battle, Shiren's smart-mouthed ferret is kidnapped by a giant centipede monster with swords in each arm. Conveniently, that boss is one of the four Guardian monsters that hold orbs you need to progress the plot. Expecting a boss fight of epic proportions, I entered the centipede's den, fought my way through a multitude of monsters and used up most of my healing items, only to drop the centipede in less than two minutes. I chalked that up to the sort of experience that one might expect from an early battle, but unfortunately, the bosses never really put up a fight. Even the more difficult battles are easily conquered simply by packing a ton of healing items. It's underwhelming at best.

But you press on...

As you do, you find that the dated visuals and the laughably simple boss fights don't matter so much because the dungeons themselves are fantastic. That's largely due to the turn-based approach. For every action you take, each monster on that floor takes one as well. If you stop, time stops and you can safely plan your next course of action. There's also time for you and your comrades to learn from past mistakes. Suppose that you step on a trap, like I did. Before I knew it, Shiren hit a stumble trap and fell flat on his face. Items spilled along the path ahead of him. As I moved forward to pick them up, I realized my mistake. Shiren's comrade and uncle Sensei was following closely behind. He was sure to stumble next, I thought, but then something crazy happened: he moved around the trap.

In a welcome twist, the two NPC allies that you can bring with you on adventures aren't complete dimwits! Not only will they walk around traps, but they also will use your items, spells, and staves against the opposition. They'll work to keep both themselves and your character alive. If you're trying to conserve items, you can also specify which items a given character will use when controlled by the CPU and you can even sort out the general style of play. Finally, if you don't like the prospect of the game controlling the characters for you, there's the welcome option to control them manually. This works especially well for setting up positioning during boss fights.

As you press on through one dungeon after another, you'll find yourself caught up in a charming storyline that delves into not only into Shiren's past, but the history of the small village that he's chosen as his base of operations. Taken at face value, the story seems almost painfully simple: Shiren's goal is to find the shape-shifting Karakuri Mansion of legend, and of course the great treasures that it holds inside. While most dungeon-crawling experiences would be content to simply drop you at the building's entrance and tell you to have fun exploring it, Shiren opens with the titular wanderer thwarting bandits, climbing mountains, and infiltrating a Tengu's castle before he even sets foot inside of Karakuri.

Once Shiren arrives at that destination, his locations remain every bit as varied. You'll explore courtyards filled with sakura in full bloom and even break out of the holding block of an airship commanded by a female ninja that takes the guise of an old hag. Odd moments like that are presented with an expectedly top-notch localization effort from Atlus, one that's filled with witty dialog. There are an astounding number of chuckle-worthy moments, actually, like when the ferret Koppa starts to give dating advice to a human or when a peeping tom throws items your way to bribe you into leaving him alone. Of course, there's always a catch: because of the sheer Japanese-ness of Shiren and the manner in which some content lacks context, you may have to do a little bit of outside research to know what's happening if you don't know your jizo from your sake or your ronin from your kasa.

Keep pressing on and what you'll ultimately find is a charming yet somewhat flawed game. If you can get past the dated visuals and boring bosses, you're left with an entertaining dungeon-crawler that will challenge you for hours on end.


espiga's avatar
Freelance review by Kyle Stepp (February 16, 2010)

Espiga likes big butts, and cannot lie.

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forweg posted February 20, 2010:

Boring, easy boss battles... are you insane? The first boss group in Karakuri Mansion is virtually impossible without a healthy supply of Lightning Scrolls (which I sadly didn't have my first attempt), and the next group (with the three switches) is one of the toughest I've ever faced... I still can't beat it.
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espiga posted February 21, 2010:

Really, that's strange. My strategy for that fight consisted of standing in one spot so that my formation looked kind of like this:

[Asuka] [empty] [Shiren]

And then I'd just swing a Restoration Staff to the other character as needed. Which wasn't very often. The one that Asuka was fighting was practically unkillable until the healer just stopped healing and tried to attack Shiren, but by then, Shiren had killed 2 of the foes and so my group wasn't taking nearly as much damage as it was at first.

If I recall, Shiren was somewhere around Lv. 23-25 or so.

Either way, it was an easy fight, and so are the rest of them, provided you pack a ton of healing items.

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