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Shiren the Slightly More Forgiving Wanderer

February 15, 2010

You know, some people really hate Roguelikes. Who knows why — maybe the thought of being subjected to brutal difficulty, combined with the knowledge that if you die you’ll lose all of your items and the experience levels you’ve accumulated, combined with the idea that you simply can’t practice the levels you’re playing because they’re randomly generated, combined with (*GAAAAAASSSSSP*) the idea that your entire raison d’être is to explore a dungeon, pick up items, and find stairs…well, okay, there are lots of reasons to hate roguelikes. Really, a badly-done Roguelike can be one of the worst experiences you can have in gaming, because if the sheer frustration of losing isn’t properly balanced by a well-implemented reward system, it’s basically masochism.

That said, it’s also a genre of gaming that features permanent death as one of its core concepts. There is no sitting down and deciding that “this time, if I die, that’s just gonna be it” — when you die, you lose all your stuff, and you’re kicked back down to being a level 1 weakling. In most cases, you may as well start over.

eeeEEEEeek! Monster room!

This makes playing a Roguelike a very stressful experience. As you crawl through the dungeons and do some basic turn-based combat with some silly little enemies, the idea that you could walk into a trap is always with you. The next level of the dungeon might drop you into a room with five or six enemies, and if you don’t have a spell, or an escape hatch, or some serious weapons with which to deal with such a room, you’re dead. And then that’s it. The farther you get, the more this stress is compounded. If a Roguelike features 30 hours worth of dungeon crawling and baddie beating, the idea that you could perish at any moment becomes an awfully weighty proposition at hour 25. If you die at this point, are you really going to play for 25 more hours just to accomplish what you’ve already done? You almost have to put down the game for a while, erase it from your memory, and allow the traumatic experience of Roguelike death to fade for months, maybe even years at a time before you remember the good times and allow your existence to be eaten alive by one of these sadistic things again.

It’s no wonder this is such a niche genre.

That said, this may be the perfect time for a console Roguelike to be making its way to the market. Shiren the Wanderer was released for the Wii this week, and it comes at a time when people are still enjoying fond memories of the terribly difficult PS3 exclusive Demon’s Souls. This is an RPG that was getting game of the year type buzz from some circles, largely because of the sadistic, gleeful pleasure it took in beating the player down.

That said, I’m oddly disappointed by one of the options given to us by Shiren the Wanderer: that of an “easy mode”. Specifically, this is a mode that removes the perma-death element of the game, allowing the player to keep all of the items and levels that had been accumulated to that point.

eeeeEEEEeeek! Head with legs!

On some level, I’m entirely aware that being nonplussed by a game mode that I don’t have to play makes me kind of a selfish bastard. After all, what right do I have to be nonplussed in any way about a game mode I don’t have to use? The thing is, it’s there. I know it’s there, I’ll always know it’s there, and every time I die while I’m playing the game on “normal” (that is, the punishing you-better-not-freaking-die mode), I’m going to feel like a little bit more of an idiot for not playing it on “easy” when I start it up again. None of this is even to mention that even in “normal” mode, the punishment for having the nerve to die is less severe — you may lose all of your items and weapons, but you get to keep the experience levels you’ve accumulated. A little bit of good fortune and a lot of luck later, you can find some decent equipment in the less punishing dungeons and be right back to business.

Has Chunsoft done Roguelike fans a disservice by making Shiren a little bit more like the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games? It seems like a huge gamble to leverage the existing audience for a genre in service of attracting a new one; the new faces will see it as curiosity, while the genre’s fanatics will see it as betrayal. Whether this results in a net gain or net loss in audience remains to be seen, but by removing some of the most important elements of Roguelike play, Chunsoft has made Shiren the Wanderer more like a traditional turn-based RPG. With so many graphics-intensive, cinematic, and full-featured (not to mention less repetitious) RPGs out there, it’s suddenly hard to see a case for Shiren.

Of course, I’m only four hours in…and I haven’t died yet. More to come, undoubtedly.

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