I’m not sure we realize how lucky we have it that a publisher like Atlus continues to exist, much less thrive in the current gaming market. Atlus does not do blockbusters, they do not sell millions of copies, and they do not have a massive advertising or marketing budget. They define the grassroots, and they market in genre pieces to select audiences.
And every once in a while, something that they do catches on, and we have the unexpected success of a PS2 game like Persona 3 after the console was thought dead or the sudden popularity of nigh-impossible difficulty as exemplified by Demon’s Souls. Even as Atlus found the masses, they never appealed to them. They just keep putting out games for their loyal following and every once in a while something that they release reminds us of something we once loved or something we never tried but should have.
It is that loyal audience, of course, that Shiren the Wanderer‘s Wii iteration is aimed directly at. Roguelikes and dungeon crawlers aren’t exactly moneymakers these days (if they ever were), and Atlus is counting on that small crowd of people to carry this release. Shiren appeared a couple of years ago on the DS, and its punishing nature (if you die, you lose all your stuff and all your levels) was utterly off-putting to many, but those who conquered it wore it like a badge of honor. To succeed at a Roguelike takes patience, it takes skill, it takes practice, and it takes a high threshold for frustration. And if you win, what do you have? 50 less hours of your life that you could have been doing something else, for one. But you won — you beat the thing and that puts you in a very, very small group of people.
The Wii version of Shiren the Wanderer is actually Shiren the Wanderer 3, though it’s likely that Atlus saw the odds of more than one of these getting released on the Wii in the states and just ditched the number altogether. In Japan, it’s the version of the game that was marketed to a larger audience: a Roguelike for the people, an easier experience not just for Roguelike fans but for anyone looking for a “hardcore” Wii gaming experience.
To bring this version of Shiren to the States is understandable then, but it also comes with risks. Atlus has gone through great pains to not call it a Roguelike, and it does deviate from the Roguelike formula quite a bit — there are many dungeons, Shiren travels with companions, and even in its hardest difficulty level, losing doesn’t take away the experience levels that you’ve accumulated. Sure, you can use strategy to win this, but you can also grind away in dungeons that you can beat with your eyes closed until you’re strong enough to take on all comers. In easy mode, you don’t even lose your items.
On one hand, it’s hard to see the Wii Shiren attracting new players to the genre, given that Shiren is such an obscure series anyway, and those who do know the name also know its reputation. They’ve already decided whether they’re going to buy this thing. That being said, the lack of a super ultra hardcore mode in the main story is bound to turn off those who would be attracted to it — that is, exactly the people who are going to be reading up on it in the weeks before its release. It would be a lot easier to turn that audience off to the game than it would be to turn an untapped audience on to it, which makes marketing the thing almost impossible.
And then, on February 16th, a cool week after the game’s release, Shiren‘s North American project lead Scott Strichart posted this to the official Atlus forums. And all was right with the world. As it turns out, once you spend the 35-40 hours it takes to beat the game, there are gobs of difficult, punishing, and just plain mean dungeons and tasks to tackle. And. thus, a bone is thrown, and the existing Roguelike fanbase is placated.
In terms of the entire medium, Shiren is a little rough around the edges. The turn-based nature of Roguelikes essentially guarantee that the animation is going to be stiff, that the gameplay is going to be slow, and that the in-game graphics are not going to wow you (though the cutscenes, even without any voice acting whatsoever, are some of the most beautiful on the Wii to date). The music is fine, but you could be listening to the greatest song in the world and even that would get old after five or six hours. There are a couple of hub spots where you can buy stuff and watch as townsfolk say the exact same thing at hour 30 that they said at hour one. The dungeons themselves are nicely varied, but you’ll hardly notice as all you’ll really be looking at are the outlines of the mazes that you are creating as you walk, occasionally dotted with red (enemies) and light blue (treasure). Plus, any risk that you take is lessened by the knowledge that, even if you lose, you’ll still have the hit points and the strength that you did when you died.
In terms of its genre, though, Shiren is pretty close to perfect. Sure, experienced players are bound to feel like they’re slogging through trivial tosh for the first 35 hours, waiting for something to happen, but they’ll be buoyed by the promise of more. Newbies to the genre will find a kinder, gentler roguelike, that will still (if more gradually) ask the question of whether they’re tough enough for this sort of experience. After all, losing all your weapons and items might not seem like the end of the world to an experienced crawler, but to the average everyday gamer, it’s quite the inconvenience.
Shiren won’t win awards for its story, but it’s not a bad attempt at epic RPG tale telling, with plenty of twists, turns, betrayals, time travel, dramatic captures and dramatic escapes, and a tremendous building just waiting to be explored from top to bottom at its center. Mostly, though, that story is a mere framework. It’s enough to keep novices like me motivated enough to keep moving forward, but that’s about it.
There’s very little that a review like this can accomplish in the way of buying advice for a game like Shiren the Wanderer — while I could say it’s nowhere near the best game on the Wii, the Roguelike fan who has been waiting years for a non-portable Roguelike experience might beg to differ. Once again, this is a matter of Atlus knowing its audience and knowing that that audience will eat this up even if it’s neither the most polished game, nor the prettiest game, nor even the most difficult game. That even someone like myself who doesn’t exactly live and die for the genre can get something out of it says something, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m looking forward to getting my life back and putting a Mario game back into my Wii.