JRPG Review Rogue-Like

Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island – Review

You’ve most likely heard of the Mystery Dungeon series through its various crossovers over the years with the likes of PokemonEtrian Odyssey, and Final Fantasy. While it started out as a spinoff of Dragon Quest IV, it soon took on a life all its own in the form of Shiren the Wanderer. Shiren’s journey has spanned nearly three decades, he took a break after his last entry, originally released on DS. After 13 long years, he’s finally back with a brand new console entry: Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island.

The Ever-changing Mystery Dungeon

The eponymous Mystery Dungeon is a strange labyrinthine structure broken up into floors, containing treasures to find and enemies to fight. Your goal is simple: navigate through the Mystery Dungeon by finding the exits, which come in stairs or tunnels, across each of its 30 floors. However, what makes this task so daunting is the “Mystery” element of the Mystery Dungeon. Each time you enter it, nearly everything about it changes. What enemies are on what levels, what traps are placed where, what items you’ll find, and even the layout will be different. You also start out with nothing and will have to scavenge for supplies as you go. 

Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island - Firespew Mountain

Unlike, say, the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games, Shiren the Wanderer is a no-frills roguelike. If you die so much as once, you don’t get sent back to the start of the dungeon you were in, but rather the start of the whole game. Worse still, every time you die, you start completely from scratch. Every single level you gained, all of your experience, and all of your money will be lost upon death. There’s no two ways about it, this game will frustrate players endlessly. But there’s a sort of wicked beauty in that. Knowing that your game can end at practically any moment makes the act of clawing up victories by the skin of your teeth that much more fulfilling.

Losing also doesn’t really ever feel that bad, because the game is technically quite short. My first complete playthrough took roughly an hour. Of course, that length extended several times over by the sheer number of times I died, but it never took long to get caught back up to speed. This is helped further by the fact that the randomized nature of the game meant that I could never rely on the same old strategies to get by. Each death gives you just a bit more knowledge on the characteristics of the Mystery Dungeon, allowing you to make better decisions as you improve your craft. Creativity and improvisation are key for long stays in the Mystery Dungeon. 

Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island - Ghost Ship

Treasures of the Mystery Dungeon

Mystery Dungeon’s gameplay operates on a combination of grid-based exploration and turn-based strategy. With each action the player takes, a “tick” happens, where you and all dungeon inhabitants will take a turn at the same time. This could be moving, attacking, using an item, or equipping an item. While you may often be outnumbered by your enemies, what you have to even the odds is your wit and swathe of items that you’ve acquired throughout exploration. Mashing the attack button against stronger, single foes will also not get you far, so being crafty with items such as Wands and Scrolls will be what saves you.

Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island - Inventory

Each item has a tailored function that can be used wherever, whenever, and they fall under specific archetypes. Scrolls are extremely powerful, single-use items that cast spells that can damage entire rooms of enemies, put all enemies to sleep, convert items into food, and permanently buff equipment. However, scrolls will also become wet when you’re hit by water-based attacks or step through water tiles, making them unusable until they dry off. Wands are also powerful tools that are sort of the opposite of Scrolls, in that they only hit one target at a time, but can be used multiple times and cannot be deactivated. Wands can seal special skills of enemies, paralyze them in place, slow their action speed, and more. 

Pots can also be used to store items to counteract your limited inventory space, as several items can be stored in just one. Pots can also be used for specific benefits, such as a limited number of heals or transmuting items to change their effects. However, pots have the drastic drawback of locking up items inside until the pot is thrown and destroyed. So there may be a time where you’re in immediate need of an item that’s stuck in a jar, forcing you to risk death by spending a turn to retrieve it. There are also Grass-based items, many of which have decent benefits but take up precious inventory space for their lower effectiveness compared to other item archetypes. 

That’s the thing about every item, they all have a “catch” to them that must be considered as you make your way through the dungeon. This means that it isn’t enough to just have good items on hand, you also have to think about how all of these items synergize with each other to maximize your chances of survival. While going through the water-based parts of the Mystery Dungeon, you may want to consider forgoing scrolls, but maybe not if you have an equipable item with water resistance. While going through dungeons with fewer chances of rest between, you might want to use Pots to ensure that you have enough items to survive your journey. There is no such thing as making a perfect choice in Shiren the Wanderer, and that’s exactly why the strategy of this game is so compelling.

Traps and Monsters of the Mystery Dungeon

The Mystery Dungeon is fraught with unexpected dangers that will hit you when you least expect them. Not only do enemies come in abundance and fight in groups, but there are traps laid about meant to halt your progress in one inconvenient way or another. These traps can come out of nowhere, and you won’t know for certain where they are until you land on one and its effect triggers. Even with the best gear and a fully decked inventory, you can never be too cautious because of how potentially destructive these traps can be. Throughout my entire time playing the game, I was left constantly paranoid because they could and often did spring up in the worst-case scenario.

Walking into a crowded room of monsters and you’re ready to throw down with the best equipment you’ve got? Oops, you just walked on a tile that unequips your things and you’ll have to spend two whole turns re-equipping them while monsters are attacking you. Running away from a pack of monsters and you see the exit right there? Uh-oh, you stepped on a tile that locks you in place for five turns. There are more things besides, like ones that will trip you up and force you to drop your items, teleport you to a random part of the floor, or slow your movement speed. Combined with the aforementioned item weaknesses, these floor traps do an excellent job of forcing improvisation and on-the-fly strategy out of me. 

Naturally, the biggest threat is the monsters roaming every corner of the Mystery Dungeon. Most of them come packing distinct characteristics that make strategizing around them more fun. Some will spew water-based attacks, hide in water to heal or ambush you, or some will steal your money and run away. Others will be extremely powerful at first, but will run away as soon as you’re about to deal the final blow. Some will block or deflect projectile attacks, forcing you to flank them or fight mano-a-mano. Surviving these encounters means picking your battles carefully and knowing when to fight or when to just run and perhaps deal with it later.

Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island - Shop

Sometimes you may not get a choice in the matter, as you’ll occasionally be met with Monster Houses. Monster Houses are sudden ambushes where you’re surrounded on all sides by monsters as you enter a new room. These have an extremely low chance of occurring, but it all but guarantees a Game Over for players who are inexperienced or running low on supplies. You can run if you want, but if you stay and fight, you’ll be hugely rewarded in bountiful EXP drops and many useful items.

Take a Load Off

Every once in a while, you’ll find little break areas scattered between sections of the mystery dungeon. These can either come in the form of interims between areas to give your mind space to breathe, or in the form of towns. In towns, you can shop for items and sell the things you’ve found in the Mystery Dungeon, chat with locals for tips, engage in the story, or place items in warehouses. By placing an item in a warehouse, you save it to be kept there for future runs. It gives you an interesting choice. Do you drop off some of your stronger gear to make future runs easier, or do you keep your gear with you to make your current journey easier while also risking permanently losing it? Like everything else in the game, there’s no perfect answer, but it’s always something you want to consider. 

By initiating and completing certain storylines placed between towns, you’ll additionally gain access to new dungeons and new companions to team up with in your travels. Furthermore, you’ll also gain access to more permanent changes to towns that will dramatically reshape how you engage with the Mystery Dungeon… when and where that happens, I won’t say. It’s a big surprise best uncovered by the player. 

The bonus Mystery Dungeons can also serve as alternative routes to get to different parts of the map, which may change the storyline and how you play. These can be especially good if you would prefer to skip over parts of the dungeon that you’re ill-equipped for, but they come with the drawback of all deaths being final if you lose in them. Unlike in other parts of the game, you cannot call on other players to rescue you and potentially salvage your run. I always took the secret routes whenever I could, but I tend to throw caution to the wind when I play games like these. Depending on the preferences of the player, what routes they take may vary a lot.

Shiren’s Mysterious Journey

Shiren’s travels have taken him far and wide, and the destination for this game is the titular Serpentcoil Island. Said to house treasures inside of a beast resting at the mountain’s peak, he and his talking ferret companion Koppa set off to uncover the island’s secrets. As Shiren is the player’s eyes and ears, he is silent and Koppa does all of the talking on his behalf. Writing-wise, the story of Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery of Serpentcoil Island provides a breezy, fun, low-stakes fantasy with a good amount of laughs and fun character development.

Stories will develop across each town you stumble upon, with each major character you meet coming to Serpentcoil Island for different reasons. Some are pirates from rival factions who are racing to find a pot containing incredible powers, others are ninjas hiding away on the island to get away from their past. These serve as nice little vignettes to break up the oppressive nature of the game’s dungeon-crawling. Each story developing as each time you die and restart also helps to stave off any would-be monotony.

There are also references aplenty to past games to enjoy here, with some characters and nods to past games showing up here and there. This will appeal to a niche few predominantly English-speaking players due to most of the series being locked away in Japan, but the gesture is appreciated. Overall, the story does a good job at motivating the player when they’ve been kicked down by the Mystery Dungeon’s brutality, while also being something that’s emotionally resonant despite its simplicity.

Let’s Make Art and Music With Swords

As the first from-the-ground-up Shiren the Wanderer game made for an HD console, there were big expectations on how well this would make the transition. Luckily, Spike Chunsoft was up to task. Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island is a very charming-looking game. It uses a chibi style combining realistically textured and lit vistas with exaggerated and cartoonish character design, sort of like a living diorama. Towns have plenty of little details to take in and the dungeons themselves all look very distinct from one another.

This also extends to the enemy designs, which are very charming and instantly communicate many of their gameplay characteristics. Ghosts pass through walls, wallet-shaped frogs steal money, chickens will run from you, that sort of thing. Not only do they look great and animate very expressively, but it’s easy to immediately gauge how they function based on those things. 

Human character design is similar, with most of them feeling like they jumped out of a comedy manga from the 90s. They feature heavily exaggerated proportions and facial expressions, which helps out the game’s many comedic beats. However, it must be noted that there are a small handful of designs that might be cause to offend. Two characters whom you’ll frequently talk to feature exaggerated looks that could be easily viewed as being culturally insensitive. They are the only examples of that in the game, but I think it’s worth bringing up for transparency’s sake.

Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island - Achievement

Meanwhile, the music is absolutely stellar. Keisuke Ito’s elaborate and storied work on Mystery Dungeon comes into full play here. These are excellent compositions made to complement the pacing and visual ethos of each layer of the Mystery Dungeon. Slower-paced dungeons in watery caverns will have relaxed theremin to keep you cool under pressure. Fire-based dungeons will have more electrified and fast-paced tempos to keep you in rhythm with the dungeon’s now erratic pacing. Pulse-pounding orchestra with horror movie-like strings fills the scene when you’re navigating around dangerous Behemoth-type enemies. It’s quite impressive how the entire soundtrack manages to consistently elevate the variable moods caused by the Mystery Dungeon.

Verdict

Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island is a brutal, uncompromising game. It carries out all of its unconventional and punishing rules with conviction and smart consideration, making for an unsuspecting RPG that’s one of the most consistently thrilling I’ve played in years. Couple this with dramatically improved presentation compared to past entries, and you have an excellent example of how to modernize an old series without sanding off the edges. It says a lot that after finally completing my first playthrough, I was ready to jump back in again for another round. If you’re feeling brave, enter the dungeon and take a roll of the dice with this excellent iteration on the Mystery Dungeon genre.

SHIREN THE WANDERER: THE MYSTERY DUNGEON OF SERPENTCOIL ISLAND IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Platforms: Nintendo Switch

If you’d like to check out the previous game in the series, here’s our review for Shiren The Wanderer: The Tower Of Fortune And The Dice Of Fate.

Thanks to Reef Entertainment for providing a Nintendo Switch review code for Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island.

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