Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island review

Not every video game is for everyone, and at a time when there are more people playing games than ever, that’s perfectly acceptable. Moreover, it’s commercially viable – these days even something offbeat has a good chance of finding its niche. It may seem strange to introduce The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island – the sixth entry in a long running series – this way, but those who’ve played past instalments will likely have an inkling where this is going.

The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island is a roguelike RPG – a genre that’s arguably at its peak of popularity. However, it’s a very traditional one. When you die, you’re presented with two options: give up and return back to the sandy beaches of the titular island and start the adventure fresh, or wait for an online player to come to your rescue. Said rescue involves a kind-hearted soul battling their way through the same randomised multifloored dungeon you’ve just experienced, which could take a good hour. So, in reality, your options upon death are to either start again from scratch or put the Switch down and hope that the next time you play somebody has come to your aid. There are no checkpoints, and all XP is lost upon death. At a time when most roguelikes have permanent upgrades, The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island could be seen as a very brutal example of the genre, and that may turn some gamers off.

Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island

Indeed, this isn’t something that can be progressed through swiftly, but rather something to slowly chip away at – sometimes getting a little further than before, and other times failing miserably. The only thing to carry over from one retry to the next is experience in the literal sense, along with descriptions of previously unidentified objects such as magical bracelets and pots. The game’s hook is that every failed attempt to traverse the rugged and mountainous Serpentcoil Island brings you a little closer to your goal, knowing what dangers lie ahead. Dying over an hour into a run can be frustrating, sure, but chances are you’ll also have some newfound knowledge or found a new trick that can be put to good use on the next retry.

As you explore the randomised dungeons in a turn-based fashion – where enemies only move at the same time as yourself – you’ll start to memorise attack and movement patterns and learn which magic scrolls to keep hold of – and the best times to use them. Some items initially seem worthless but later prove useful too. Then there’s the scope for experimentation to consider, leading to once-per-run moments of genius. One magic scroll transports an enemy to the map’s exit, which may sound like a disaster waiting to happen…unless you happen to also have a sleep or paralyzing scroll in your inventory, allowing you to escape unscathed. This is just one example of the clever ways death can be avoided, and there are dozens to discover.

Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island

Pages upon pages of information are also present for newcomers – the ‘how to play’ section isn’t found on the main menu as you may expect, but rather accessible from the in-game UI. A monster dojo also unlocks early on, giving you a dungeon floor to place discovered enemies and items to learn their quirks. In addition to online rescues, it also charts the progress and statistics of other players, revealing what level the majority were on when they entered each dungeon, along with a typical completion rate. These touches don’t just help the experience to feel modern, but innovative too.

Structurally, it’s pretty straightforward – although it does have the capacity to surprise, with new cut-scenes occurring upon returning to villages and key locations. Shiren and his talking ferret friend Koppa are brought to the island by a vision of a mysterious monster and a trapped girl. They start out on the beach, and make their way through multi-floored randomised dungeons, often stumbling on villages where item vendors and blacksmiths can be found. As well as a health bar, which expands upon leveling up, Shiren also has a fullness gauge, ergo a requirement to eat a rice ball (Onigiri) every so often. Running on the spot regenerates health, aiding in swift recoveries, but also prompts enemies to advance.

Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island

Shiren starts out with nothing but a single helping of food, slowly gathering weapons, shields, magic scrolls, herbs, projectiles, and pots with various abilities. In keeping with the randomised theme, you can never guarantee that a weapon will be found within the first couple of floors. The same goes for shields, Onigiri, and everything else. I had runs where I found a powerful weapon straight away and runs where I had to clear around a quarter of the game with a feeble bronze sword. Floor exits can also appear next to a starting zone, forcing you to mull over an easy escape or to explore. Complete floors too quickly, and you may find yourself underpowered.

There are two areas where the experience shines bright. Firstly, the number of tools at your disposal is vast. To elaborate more on every item having some use (even weeds can be placed in a transformation pot and turned into something useful), you’ll often find yourself outnumbered during later dungeons or feeling unpowered, yet if you search the two-page inventory you will probably find something to turn that situation around. Taking a chance when low on health is pretty exhilarating. Secondly, there’s quite a bit of ‘magic’ going on behind the scenes when it comes to the randomisation algorithms. I got the impression that it does throw you a bone every so often, placing a decent weapon in the first dungeon, or doling out two batches of ‘revival grass’ (an extra life, essentially) after coming a cropper early on. While basic, the dungeon randomisation works well, with dead ends being non-existent.

Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island

The presentation is par for the course for a Japan-developed RPG, with easy to navigate menus and cut-scenes with expressive and colourful characters. I’d hesitate to call it visually stunning, but there is quite a bit of detail (every sword and shield are unique, for instance) and some of the scroll effects are alluring. The villages and mountain peaks that Shiren and Koppa stop at often have picturesque views, and the enemy designs are the right side of quirky – including a colossal tank with a goblin-esque face.

Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island isn’t for everyone. I mean, it’s an RPG that throws you back to the beginning upon death. By the time you reach the story’s foregone conclusion, you’re likely going to have 30-40 hours’ worth of failed attempts to your name. Mechanically, it’s quite simple too – Shiren merely walks, attacks, throws objects, and casts spells when commanded. Yet, there’s a lot of genre mastery on display here. It never feels particularly unfair or punishing, even if the thought of never obtaining a certain powerful weapon ever again may be discouraging. Franchise veterans will of course go into this knowing that there’s no chance of beating it on the first couple of attempts. Or even the first dozen. Once accepting that dusting off and trying again is part of the experience, you’ll soon realise why the Shiren games have amassed a cult following over the years. I don’t doubt that one iota.

Spike Chunsoft’s Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island is out now on Switch, available both digitally and at retail.