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[Review] Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island

Posted on February 26, 2024 by (@NE_Brian) in Reviews, Switch

Shiren the Wanderer Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island review

System: Switch
Release date: February 27, 2024
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft

After dreaming of a strange mountain island, Shiren and his ferret friend Koppa embark on yet another journey. Following an unfortunate battle with the biggest baddy on the island, he awakens at the base of the mountain with no memory of his journey to the top. Spurred onward by Koppa’s recap of the events, Shiren and his companion decide to ascend once more and unravel the mysteries of Serpentcoil Island once and for all.  Now with Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island, does this adventure change up the long-lived series, or is it just another tried and true entry in the series we love?

Serpentcoil Island is experiencing a debilitating drought. The islanders make mention of a deity of the sun called Jakaku, as well as vast riches and treasure that could be found with a trip up to the top of the mountain where the angered god makes his home. These rumors of treasure have attracted a multitude of colorful characters to the island, like the energetic and wily pirate Tugai, who you’ll meet on the shore one day. You’ll be able to recruit allies through some of these to help you on your journey, so if you want to make sure you don’t miss anyone, take care to start their side stories and talk to everyone at least once.

Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island review

Mystery Dungeon titles from series developer Spike Chunsoft are a breed of their own: a wonderful melding of both roguelike and JRPG genres that go all the way back to the year 1993 and a Dragon Quest IV spin-off titled Torneko’s Great Adventure with the first Shiren title following a couple of years later in ’95. If you’ve never dabbled in them before and this is your very first one, don’t be intimidated! The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island is an incredibly approachable starting point for anyone wanting to dip their toes into the series, as well as the very first game to break away from pixel graphics. Just be mindful that you will perish to pesky traps and rooms full of bloodthirsty ninjas, and if the item granting RNG gods have blessed you, you MIGHT just make it out alive.

When I was a youngster, I had gotten ahold of a free copy of Dokapon: Monster Hunter for GBA due to a local GameStop trying to get rid of their overwhelming stock of it. This game would single-handedly ignite a bit of an obsession with Spike Chunsoft’s games. Known for fun and challenging gameplay, these titles have the player starting from the beginning of a dungeon when knocked out and dropping everything in their inventory, including: money, equipment, items, and losing all levels gained on their journey and starting again from level 1. Coming over from Dokapon, the first time I lost all my levels in a Mystery Dungeon game, I wasn’t super pleased about it, but after games in the Shiren series as well as Chocobo Mystery Dungeon, and even Azure Dreams, I understood the balance need for this mechanic and delved a little deeper into the Shiren series in particular.

While Dokapon: Monster Hunter had a very simplistic game play loop with rock-paper-scissors style turn-based combat, Shiren the Wanderer and other Mystery Dungeon titles take a different approach to turn-based fighting entirely. All movement and combat actions take up a global turn within the dungeons – that is, if you take a step and move, the enemy can then do so as well. You get an action, all enemies and NPC’s get an action, and this trades back and forth. Care is absolutely necessary. If you happen to get close enough to engage while they’re a single tile away, enemies will be able to use their action to attack you, which means you’ll need to be mindful about where to go, how many enemies are there, and what you have in your inventory to deal with them.

Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island review

Starting out on the first floor of a dungeon you’ll go in without a weapon or a shield. Exploring the dungeon will allow you to discover items spread out across the various floors. Items are distributed randomly and you may not encounter a weapon or shield for a few floors before finally being lucky enough to stumble on one. Part of what makes roguelikes so much fun is the randomness of items and resources – what you pick up can make a huge impact on the outcome of an adventure into the dungeon. You will be starting over from square after every knock out, which is frustrating to new players, but can become very cathartic for gamers who enjoy the more grindy types of gameplay loops.

Items and equipment are the key to your success in Shiren games. While leveling up can be incredibly helpful as well (who can complain about more HP to soak hits?) the biggest part of success in the dungeon is dependent upon the use of the game’s impressive list of items and mastery of the various systems that the game employs. The more you use things and experiment, the more knowledge you’ll pick up. When you finally hit floor 30 of the main dungeon, you’ll likely have had several dozens of attempts, will have unlocked side dungeons and side story content, and have gotten to know the intricacies of using and upgrading equipment.

Serpentcoil Island’s familiarity to longtime players feels right at home, but the limited online rescue system is a bit of a change to recovering a run. When the player ends up getting knocked out on a floor, they can put in a rescue request to the game’s online service. Players can take on these requests to earn Aid Points, which can be redeemed for powering yourself up to take on new requests with more levels or additional health. It’s definitely a fun way to spend time, but it’s also a great way to get assistance or help other players rescue a botched dungeon run. Players are able to respond to their own requests offline, but won’t receive Aid Points for their troubles. They will, however, be able to revive their run and continue forward. The player can use the Rescue Request feature three times per excursion before it becomes unavailable.

Utilizing rescue requests is especially useful if you’ve come across an extremely powerful piece of equipment. At certain points in the game, new features will become available that can add to Shiren’s combat capability and a new one that gives him the ability to change into a monster temporarily. Any player can, with a lot of trial and error, become quite proficient in using items to damage, hinder, or even escape from enemies to lure them into narrow halls for easier kills. When an enemy seems difficult, you can even return to town and fight them for practice behind the inn. As a test of patience and learning, Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island is as much a game of science and physics as it is a roguelike RPG.

Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island review

Longtime players will notice the vast difference in graphical approach for this sixth game in Shiren’s lineup. Finally moving over to 3D models, Spike Chunsoft took a different approach. Not known to have a riveting plotline and instead focusing on its addictive combat system, Serpentcoil Island breaks the mold once again with a much deeper and involved story than before, and one that unfolds slowly as you make your way across the island dungeon’s thirty floors. Knowing that you’ll be backtracking and clambering up the slopes of the mountains again and again, Shiren and Koppa will start having small side cutscenes and new quest lines opening up for even more content than the actual main story encompasses, with all of the optional stories being just as engaging as the main line.

Overall, the newest game from Spike Chunsoft took a few chances on an old recipe and it all turned out for the better. Admittedly, I do miss the beautiful pixel graphics (previous title, The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate had particularly good art work, for example). But familiar sound effects and ambient music bring me right back to appreciating the atmosphere. Does the Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island turn its genre on top of it’s head? Not at all. What you do get is a much more engaging story, a lot of quality of life improvements over previous games, and a new 3D coat of paint on the characters and new and old monsters you love. Mystery Dungeons are a wonderfully relaxing experience and a great way to teach yourself to let go of a small setback and dust yourself off to start from scratch again, something I used to struggle with, but have found a nice balance for in my older years.

The Verdict

If I spent an hour every night playing a Shiren game, I’d be a much happier person. While many gamers might balk at losing all of your levels and items when you get knocked out, there’s something incredibly satisfying about surpassing your last attempt when traipsing through the twists and turns of a Mystery Dungeon game. Shiren the Wanderer titles aren’t for just bulldozing straight through, and the Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island is a fantastic addition to any roguelike fan’s library – provided you have the patience to start again from zero time after time. Even after losing completely broken equipment, I keep playing every night for a couple hours. I haven’t been this engaged in a storied game like this since Tangledeep. Definitely play this one.

Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.

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