Role-playing games demand a lot of time and attention.  Whether it’s grinding up to the next level or exploring a new area of a huge map, RPGs aren’t games you can really pick up and play.  Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is a great example of a rougelike turn based JRPG that feels perfect for short play sessions.  With its heavily strategic gameplay and old-school charm, Shiren is a great portable game to play for any length of time, from a short bus ride to a long flight.

In Shiren the Wanderer, you play as the titular wandering adventurer, who goes from town to town solving problems.  This time, he joins up with the friend of a terminally ill girl, who is determined to change her fate by storming the Tower of Fortune and forcing Reva, the god of destiny, to save her.  The story, like that of most roguelikes, stays out of the way for most of the game’s runtime, as the emphasis is on the randomized levels and gameplay.

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Shiren’s gameplay is the perfect example of “easy to learn, difficult to master.”  At its heart, Shiren is a grid based game with turn based combat.  Any action you take, from casting a spell, swinging a weapon, or moving will count as your turn, and enemy turns will follow.  This simple set of rules works great in all encounters, as it allows you to speed through low-level battles while taking the all the time you need to plan your attack against bigger foes.

As simple as the combat system is, the roguelike elements add a considerable level of complexity.  For example, I lost track of the amount of random gear I found, even in the first few dungeons alone.  Adding to the complexity of selecting gear is the way different items “resonate” to give you a bonus effect, like a bonus to your defense or an extra equipment slot.  Some levels also have a day and night cycle, which turns a fairly straightforward JRPG adventure into a deadly game of survival.  During the nighttime, most enemies become invincible to Shiren’s basic attacks, forcing you to get crafty with magic and special abilities or run away.  

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While later levels, especially during the nighttime, are very difficult, Shiren is a fair game with a well-paced difficulty curve, which is a rare thing for a game with so many random elements.  It never feels like you’re being pushed too hard or given insufficient information to proceed, nor is the game holding your hand too hard.  The game introduces its more complex systems slowly, piece by piece, giving you plenty of time to understand its intricacies before moving on to the next challenge.  There’s also a long list of comprehensive tutorials you can replay if you’re having trouble.

Visually, the game takes a lot of influence from older portable RPGs, almost to the point where it looks like it belongs on the Game Boy rather than a current gen platform.  While the sprites are pixelated, the colors are incredibly vibrant and benefit from the Vita’s high resolution screen.  Unfortunately, some of the dungeon levels have repeating textures due to randomization, making them visually the weakest parts of the game.  While non-randomized areas like the hub levels and the stores have beautiful backgrounds influenced by feudal Japan, a lot of the dungeons are just endless deserts with the same repeating tile background.

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Other than some visually bland levels, the only other problem with the game are its incredibly lackluster boss fights, which all play out like a normal encounter but against a stronger enemy.  While that’s by no means a deal breaker, it’s a little disappointing to finish a long level only to be rewarded with a profound sense of “that’s it?”  Giving the bosses more complex attack patterns might have made them feel more challenging, as here you don’t need to do much to change up your strategy from boss fight to boss fight.