Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island Review

When I first sat down to play Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island, I already had an idea of what to expect. Not only did we have the chance to preview the game ahead of launch, but I was coming straight off a playthrough of Shiren's 4th numbered adventure in Shiren the Wanderer: The Devil's Navel and the Eye of God. The only other Shiren game I'd played prior was Shiren the Wanderer 5+ - or, Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate. 

I think with full context, it's rather striking just how similar Shiren 4 and 5 play. Sequels always play similarly, of course, but I'd be hard pressed to say which game had preceded the other if I didn't know the release timeline already. There's some small changes here and there - Shiren 4 omits Onigiri for the most part for Bananas, which offer an extra wrinkle to inventory management, while Shiren 5's main scenario requires you to babysit an NPC to the end as part of the story. Otherwise, the core gameplay loop is remarkably similar.

In contrast, Shiren 6 - as I'll now be calling it - is a breath of fresh air; and perhaps not in the way you might think. 

If you're not familiar with Shiren the Wanderer, then perhaps you're familiar with Spike Chunsoft's other Mystery Dungeon franchise; it's a roguelike, where players take control of the eponymous Shiren the Wanderer as he follows the winds guiding him on his next adventure. At the start of every run, you'll enter the randomly generated dungeon with nothing more than a single piece of onigiri - and it's up to you to make use of whatever you find in the dungeon to prepare for the increasingly brutal challenges deeper into the dungeon. This includes managing your health, accounting for traps and enemies, and considering your ever increasing hunger.

In those ways, Shiren 6 doesn't differ from its predecessors. You can still find different weapons, shields and bracelets - each with their own unique attributes. You can still periodically find villages scattered across the dungeon, offering a quick moment of respite and the ability to upgrade your equipment and stock up on supplies. You're still able to tackle a wide variety of post-game dungeons, after you've completed the main story - each with their own unique gimmicks.

What sets Shiren 6 apart from the previous games - especially 4 and 5 - is how it actively removes some of the features that added to those titles, and how as a direct consequence players feel far more incentivized to engage with the mechanics that remain. The day and night cycle has been removed, replaced with Behemoths - large, lumbering monsters that can only be attacked from behind, and which force you to plan your actions around avoiding them. Weapons and Shields no longer naturally evolve as you use them, and with the removal of items that can return Shiren back to town this means players can't simply rely on cheesing upgrades to make the game trivial. It's not often that a game removing features feels as much of a revelation as its additions, yet Shiren 6 manages just that.

The end result is a game that can appeal to both newcomers and series veterans, alike - and makes it an easy recommendation for fans of the genre. Even returning features are sometimes doled out at a much slower pace; it will be at least several hours in before players will even begin to be able to augment their equipment with Runes manually, or tackle the dungeon alongside companions. These mechanics don't take too long to return that series fans will be too frustrated, but the way that they're handled - doled out through short story scenes with characters during each run - feels like it might be just the sort of hook that might help players that would otherwise lose interest before long to stay engaged.

Another returning feature that ties into this line of thought is diverging paths; Serpentcoil Island is filled with separate routes through the island, and over the course of your runs you might discover a few of them that offer both unique challenges - and rewards. Maybe you took the standar path up the mountain last run, but you decide to take the secret path from the Ninja Village this time. Once you've reached the port, do you take the underwater passage, or hitch a ride on the ghost ship to cross to the other side of the bay? 

All of these changes add up to make a game that really feels like its finally bridging that gap - where players of all skill levels can have something to look forward to on their next run. Even the core story, even if it still remains a mere distraction for most players, ends up having an engaging enough conclusion with the addition of a few additional story dungeons following the credit roll.

The only complaints I have with Shiren 6 feel like nitpicks; though, I will say that the game's graphical presentation leaves a lot to be desired. The character models and environmenst look fine enough, but the depth-of-field filter the game uses reminds me of the vaseline smear that the Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening remake used years ago. I sincerely hope that if the game is eventually ported to other platforms, that the feature can be disabled - or at least replaced with something far more visually pleasing.

As for the other complaint; Sumo mode, despite being a core element of the marketing feels woefully underutilized, and the vast majority of players likely won't even engage with it until the postgame. I can say something similar about the Peach Bun system, but at least once players have completed the pre-requisites to unlock its spawn for the dungeon, you'll be able to use it rather easy during runs. The requirements for Sumo mode are so strict that unless you're going out of your way to plan around it - a rather strict ask - you won't be using it outside of set circumstances.

Other than that? Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island accomplished the impossible. It's a strong contender for the best in the series, and I don't say that lightly. If you've ever been interested in giving the series a try - I can't think of a better place to start. Shiren the Wanderer is back, and better than ever.