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Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island review - A brilliant bid to survive

Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island review - A brilliant bid to survive

A devious and wonderful roguelike

When you mention the roguelike genre nowadays, there are a set of games that likely come to mind and I can bet Shiren the Wanderer is not one of them, despite it paving the way for so many to follow. Shiren has been around since 1995, when he appeared in the SNES game, Mystery Dungeon 2. The Mystery Dungeon series, on its own merits, inevitably became bigger than Shiren due to a partnership with Pokemon.

This preamble is to say that the franchise is a solid part of the genre, often defining new mechanics and features before they hit a mainstream audience. To review Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island, it’s probably best to give you the low down on how it plays because it’s a rather unique game and just calling it a roguelike would not do it justice.

If you’ve played Pokemon Mystery Dungeon or Chocobo Mystery Dungeon you’ll notice a few similarities, but perhaps the most important feature is being able to journey to the worlds of other players to save them from death, which we’ll get to in due time.

For now, let’s paint a picture. You control Shiren who explores randomly arranged dungeons looking for treasure and, more often than not, the exit to the next floor. These dungeons happen to be towers where we move up and down the floors, occasionally popping out into small villages or outposts.


In this new game, the tower dungeon happens to be a mountain, so after going up a few floors you‘ll come out to a viewing platform where you’ll find NPCs, or a village where you can buy or sell items, or upgrade your gear. Everything you need to complete the dungeons can be found within them, and this loot is also completely random. You may go several floors without a sword, for example. Or, you might head into a new run finding a sword and shield on the first floor. As with any roguelike, if you die, you lose everything and wind up back at the beginning. With nothing. It’s crushingly brutal, but therein lies the charm - the lows are low, but the highs are stratospheric.

Thankfully, the Mystery Dungeon games have a feature where if you die you can post a request for help. This ends up on a notice board of other players and they can come and rescue you for a batch of rewards and then when you next play the game you can start off from where you died.

Shiren the Wanderer is the best game that I’m terrible at. Each time I sit down to play I disappoint myself by missing out on utilising an item, or by pushing myself too far in a level. There’s the body of my Shiren character, languishing in a dungeon while I hope and pray that someone will come along and help me. I post on the game’s Rescue Board that I need help, and while I wait I think I’ll go rescue someone else (there can be played separately). Looking across the listings I can see that every other player is leagues ahead of me, in areas of dungeons I didn’t know existed, and the shame I feel compounds.


Due to the randomness of the game you need to tackle each floor as if it's some kind of 5D chess match with specialised pieces. Items vary from healing herbs to pots that can hide or transform gear; you might find stronger swords, and arrows that can be fired with different effects, maybe you’ll discover a scroll that wipes out all the enemies in one room, or makes them sleepy. There are hundreds of items to be found and you can bet that when you need something, you probably won’t have it. So, you’ll need to think outside of the box.

Shiren walks each floor of the dungeon on a grid. With each step he makes, he will heal one point of health if he’s low, and enemies will proceed one step in sync with you. This often results in enemies approaching you from multiple angles, or you having to take an extra step to be close to an enemy to hit it. You might need to lead a monster around a room in order to heal, for example, however, with each step you take, you’ll also get hungry. If your hunger meter empties you die. If an enemy hits you too hard, you die. If you step on a trap, you die.

I’m probably not doing a very good job of selling you on this game. It’s incredibly complex and convoluted at times and it’s obscenely punishing. But my God, it is brilliant. There’s very little like it - imagine Elden Ring but a 2D top-down view. You don’t know what anything does, where you are, or how hard that enemy can hit you, but you keep on going, like some glutton for digital punishment.


In one run, I was kiting enemies across the whole floor desperate to build up my health after taking a battering only to die from hunger; in another run, I found a high-damage sword and all the right healing items to get me pretty far only to die in one hit from an obscure enemy I hadn’t met yet. But each time I went down, I metaphorically sprang back up and kept on going, trying to find the right items to help me reach the exit.

In between floors of the dungeon, you’ll meet friendly NPCs and several different storylines will begin to play out. These nuggets of narrative drive you further forward but even without them we’d carry on pushing through in the hope of finding that perfect run where you’ll reach the end of the dungeon.

In the many hours I’ve invested I’m yet to even near the end. My friends on social media who are also playing each try completely different tactics as their dungeon dictates, I see what works and what doesn’t but that doesn’t make my runs any easier. Maybe I’ll try to use more magic to kill monsters, or perhaps I’ll use a scroll to dig under the ground and bypass a fight. I can find a shop and spend my money on new items, or I can steal something and hope it doesn’t come back to bite me.

I’ve never been so in love with a game that downright hates me. A game that, on some level feels archaic and overtly obtuse, but also features so many ways to try and solve the puzzle of survival that it's more engaging than a lot of roguelikes coming out today.

Pros: Complex and rewarding mechanics, a sense of community, increasing level of challenge, and no run feels the same

Cons: Some attempts feel downright unfair

For Fans Of: Elden Ring, Hades, Roguelikes

9/10: Exceptional

Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentscoil Island is available on Nintendo Switch (version tested). A review code was provided by the publisher. Read a guide to our review scores here.

Featured Image Credit: Spike Chunsoft

Topics: Nintendo Switch