The Room: Myst in a nutshell

I wrote before that Point-and-Click games were my second favourite gaming genre ever and that I gladly welcomed them in any shape or form. So when I heard about The Room, I knew right away that I had to try it. Which I did—to my great delight, shall I say. 

The Room, developed by Fireproof Games and published in 2012 for iOS and 2013 for Android, is a game that differs wildly from what you can usually find on these two platforms. Android and iOS games routinely tend to be casual affairs that involve simple gameplay mechanics, which The Room is anything but; this game appears as a refreshing island of brain-mashing in an ocean of uninvolving casualness.

The best way to describe that game goes as such: it’s basically a pint-sized version of Myst, in which you explore boxes instead of worlds and tinker with tiny devices instead of huge machineries. Apart from this scale difference, it follows the Myst template to a T by featuring first-person view, beautiful and sleek graphics and an atmospheric soundtrack that sets up a contemplative mood without hindering the player’s thinking process. It goes without saying that you can’t die in any way, which makes The Room a very relaxing experience at its core—albeit an intellectually intense one. 

As one may expect from a Myst-like game, the story is conveniently vague and laden with mystery. It treats you with appetizing clues about what lurks beyond the borders of your current knowledge, providing thus a great incentive to keep playing. Not that you’ll really need it, if you’re a Point-and-Click aficionado: the enigmas alone are enough to keep you hooked to the point of obsession. They are clever, stimulating and come in a variety that’s quite impressive, considering that you’re only dealing with boxes of various shapes during the whole game. 

As the title indicates, the whole action takes place in a single room. That room contains a cabinet that itself holds several secret-laden boxes, contained in one another like Russian dolls. You have to investigate each one of these devices to uncover hidden mechanisms and secrets that will allow you to progress to the next step and further uncover the underlying mystery that brought you here in the first place. This is a manner of speaking, for let’s be honest: you won’t uncover that much in this first installment. Fireproof Games planned to release several games from the get-go and thus kept the biggest chunk of the mystery for the latter episodes, and who could blame them? But back to The Room, 1st. Once again, it faithfully follows the Myst template regarding the unfolding of the story and the puzzle solving: you start in that unknown room with only the most basic information about why you’re here and what you’re supposed to do, and you have to figure out how to solve the puzzles and progress all by yourself. No instructions, no in-game clues woven into the narrative: you have to tinker, experiment, and most importantly, think—very often out of the box, both figuratively and literally. 

It’s worth noting that despite taking its cue from Myst, The Room is significantly easier than any Myst installment ever released. The enigmas are nowhere near as complex as the ones featured in the Myst series, and the mechanisms involved are much simpler and easier to crack; and should you still be stuck, the game provides you with some complimentary clues that can reorient your thinking process in the right direction. As a Point-and-Click purist, I am slightly offended by this; but I guess it’s a better option than aiming straight for an FAQ as soon as you’re stuck. And of course, nobody forces me to use these clues in the first place, so it’s fine.

I’ve referenced Myst quite a lot until now, and that may lead you to wonder if The Room is nothing more than a less ambitious, watered-down version of that mythical Point-and-Click. Well, rest assured: there is fortunately more to The Room than just a copy-paste of Myst. The atmosphere, for one thing, is very distinct: The Room features a darker, more ominous setting, with supernatural undertones quite reminiscent of Lovecraft’s short stories. The fact that you deal with small contraptions while being confined to a single room gives a claustrophobic feeling to the whole experience, which is completely at odds with the openness of the Myst series that sends you out to explore worlds.   

However, if there is one single department in which The Room outshines and betters Myst a thousand times, it has to be the gameplay—or rather, the perfect matching of the gameplay and the hardware. Touchscreen devices are absolutely tailor-made for Point-and-Click games: no hardware ever can provide a smoother, more satisfying Point-and-Click gameplay than a device that lets you poke and probe every corner of the screen with unmatched precision. And this is exactly the kind of experience that you’ll get by playing The Room on a tablet: a near-perfect gameplay in which hardware and software blend perfectly and seamlessly in a match made in heaven. Myst, with its use of the mouse to scroll and explore the environment, could sometimes be clunky and lack much-needed precision. The Room virtually eliminates these problems and offers an amazingly fluid gameplay experience that lets you rotate the camera in every direction, zoom as much as you want and explore every nook and cranny in the most precise way imaginable. Some enigmas even take advantage of the hardware in a way that’s delightfully imaginative and clever. Of course, the touchscreen may be slightly unresponsive at times, or the camera may be difficult to position properly; but these are only occasional inconveniences that cannot undermine the whole fluidity and efficiency of the gameplay. The Room is an incredibly intuitive Point-and-Click game that no aficionado of the genre should miss, for it may well be the game that we’ve dreamt about all these years while struggling to position the cursor on the right pixel. 

Despite being a near-perfect and utterly enjoyable Point-and-Click game, The Room has a glaring flaw that can simply not be ignored: it’s criminally short. A Point-and-Click veteran could easily clear that game in a single afternoon, especially if they’ve played Myst before. Talk about brevity! However, a short but excellent game is better than a long and boring one, and Point-and-Click games are still too rare to be sniffed at, no matter how concise they may be. Given that The Room comes with a very fair price tag to boot, there is really very little reason to complain. Better purchase that game and enjoy it to the fullest, for there is much to love here. Good sales may even encourage other developers to create more Point-and-Clicks and lead to a rebirth of the genre—who knows? At least, it’s definitely something I would wish for. 

So, I really had a blast playing The Room, and I’m now waiting for the opportunity to play the second installment, which should come in a couple of months. I really hope it will be as great as the first; but if the reviews are to be believed, it should be the case. As for now, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Final Fantasy I: Back to the roots of a legend

What can be more exciting than to play the first installment of a mythical series twenty-seven years after its original release? It’s a fantastic opportunity to see how the craze started and to study the evolution of the said series from a historical point of view. And for a gamer that could never play the said series before due to a number of reasons, it’s also the thrill of discovering a gaming monument in perfect chronological order. 

Of course, I know that technically, this is not exactly how the Final Fantasy series started; for this PSP version is not an exact replica of the original game. Developed by Tose and published by Square Enix in 2007(jp/usa) and 2008(eu), it’s an enhanced version of the Gameboy Advance remake known under the name Final Fantasy I&II: Dawn of Souls, which was itself already an enhanced version of the original. Gee, are things not getting a tad watered-down here? Oh, well. This mythical first installment of a mythical series has already been remade a good number of times for different platforms, and I’d wager that this PSP version won’t be the last one. Whatever floats your boat, Square Enix. 

That PSP Lifting

What we have here is thus the latest iteration of a long line of Final Fantasy I remakes; and as one may expect, it has been revamped for the occasion. The graphics are crisp, sleek and glossy, in pure PSP-fashion, and a huge amount of details has been added to the sceneries and layouts. The audio department also enjoyed a good remix: the original themes sound gorgeous and more complex than in the former versions, and the sound effects are smooth and well integrated into the music. (By some ironic twist, the themes from this game reminded me of… ChocoboTales, where they are revisited in what can only be considered pure and unashamed fan-service.)

The battle system also went through a couple of neat enhancements. The most immediately noticeable is the addition, on the battle screens, of new backgrounds that vary depending on which type of terrain you stand on when you engage into fighting. As for the most useful, it has to be the automatic reassignment of attack(s) to another enemy in case the enemy that was initially targeted dies before your character(s) can attack it. Let’s remember that this was not present in the NES version: in that same situation, the character’s turn was purely and simply lost, which forced the player to strategize their attacks a tad more. However, this felt more like a consequence of hardware limitation than like a deeply though-out design choice; and thus, despite some complaints that this enhancement removed some of the challenge of the original game, it’s quite a welcome one. 

Still, let’s not be fooled by those changes, for they are mostly cosmetic and skin-deep only: this PSP version of FFI is basically nothing more than an 8-bit RPG with a sleek, modern look. It may shimmer and bristle with details, but it remains old-school at heart: the design of the towns, the appearance of the sprites, the dialogue, the world map and, last but not least, the gameplay, everything screams 8-bit in that game. And that’s exactly what I was expecting. 

No-frills is the name of the game

I decided to play that game mostly to fulfill my long-time dream of playing the Final Fantasy series; but I was also quite curious and interested in it from a historical point of view. What I wanted was a glimpse into the early stages of J-RPG, into those nearly mythical times where pioneers probed and felt their way through a vast and uncharted new territory. As I mentioned earlier, I am quite aware that this version of FFI is not the real thing, and that my glimpse may well be taken through a magnifying glass of sorts; but I am confident that it remains faithful enough to the original to allow some historical analysis. And I can always play original 8-bit RPGs later on if my historical curiosity about them becomes ravenous. 

As I started playing RPGs during the 16-bit era, the 8-bit RPG and its specific staples and rules were virtually unknown to me—apart from a few vague notions, as we’ll see later. I was thus thrilled by the prospect of discovering a gaming territory that was entirely new to me, and I have to admit that I was often surprised by what I encountered. This made me realize how huge a leap was taken in the RPG department from the 8-bit to the 16-bit era and makes my historical analysis all the more fascinating and engrossing. 

Of course, the first thing to surprise me was the bareness of the whole narrative. I somehow expected it, but not to that extent; not to the point of starting the game directly on the world map with my party fully formed and no backstory whatsoever and having the king ask me straight to rescue his abducted daughter after barely ten seconds of talking. You sure are fast to trust people, your highness!  This sets the mood and is actually the template for the whole game: anytime you reach a new place, you have to find the specific NPCs who will either ask you to perform whatever task is needed to save the day or give you some vague clues about how to further progress. In the same vein, the towns are as bare as they can be, featuring only the basic shops where you can refurbish and the traditional inn and church, sometimes along with a royal castle containing an NPC with a mandatory task to entrust you with. As for your characters, they remain silent through the whole game and don’t experience any sort of character development. Now this is an unadorned narrative if I ever saw one: everything is clear-cut and minimalist, with no attempt of fleshing out thing whatsoever. This could nearly pass as an artistic statement of sorts, really. Not that it disturbs me at all; I actually have a soft spot for simple storylines, and once I got past my initial wonder, I quite enjoyed the simplicity and straightforwardness of FFI in that regard. 

Contrasting starkly with the conciseness of the narrative is the vastness and openness of the world you have to explore. Your travels go mostly unobstructed and huge areas are accessible nearly from the get-go; as for the occasional obstructions, they are bound to be removed, and quite promptly at that. I was absolutely blown away by how huge the world map is and how free you are to scour every corner of it. I certainly didn’t expect that from an 8-bit RPG; I rather expected to be restricted to tiny areas at a time and constrained to travel a single definite path, the way you are often in… well, 16-bit RPGs. Now, that’s embarrassing. Shouldn’t these changes be seen as a regression of sorts, hum? But once again, it’s fairly interesting to see how things evolved in just one generation, from an approach where you have to explore and figure out where you must go by yourself to one where you are somehow gently guided and pushed to the next available area. 

Furthermore, FFI features a massive number of areas that are basically useless. The world map is covered with completely empty lands, unoccupied except for monsters, and the dungeons brim with vacant rooms and dead ends. Once again, the 16-bit era marked a huge departure from this template by creating much tighter level designs in which every single place has a purpose. In a 16-bit RPG, following an alleyway in a dungeon or a hidden pass between mountains will lead you to a side quest or to a secret treasure; in FFI, it will most likely lead you to a dead end. It’s hard to figure out if this was implemented to enhance the thrill of exploring a vast unknown world, which was essentially a brand-new gameplay experience at the time, or to extend the lifespan of the game, making this a classic case of fake longevity. My guess is that it is likely a well-blended, smooth mix of both. 

Another thing that kind of shocked me is how utterly irrelevant character statistics are when it comes to fighting. FFI features all your classic stats, like Attack, Defense, Agility and so on; but unlike what you can see in modern RPGs, those stats have little to no influence on what happens in battles. The Agility stat, for instance, has no impact whatsoever on the order of attacks: your characters or the enemies will attack purely at random, making it impossible to establish any reliable strategy. The others stats are hardly more relevant: a given character can do different amounts of damage to the exact same enemy from one turn to the next, which somehow mock the Attack stat; the same goes for Defense, with a given character taking various amounts of damage from the same enemy from turn to turn. As for Accuracy, well… If you ever want to equip a stronger weapon but hesitate because it would lower your Accuracy stat by ten points, don’t bother and go for it: it won’t make any visible difference on the field. There may be some hidden rules behind this apparent lack of pattern, but I wouldn’t wager on it; these programming inconsistencies are most likely due of the technical limitations of the time. The whole issue makes battles arbitrary and sometimes erratic, but it’s not a deal-breaker, for it doesn’t make the game unplayable; it just makes it somehow random and unpredictable when it comes to fighting. 

Another thing I didn’t expect was the total absence of any sort of dungeons puzzles. Dungeons rather follow the labyrinth model, with branching paths and occasional dead ends, and that really struck me as extremely simplistic. Of course, I didn’t expect some puzzle galore like in FF: Crystal Chronicles either, and it would be quite unfair to lambast an 8-bit RPG for being too simplistic; but on the other hand, The Legend of Zelda, released roughly at the same time on the NES, featured a good number of clever dungeon puzzles. So it’s not a matter of hardware limitation this time, but more likely a conscious design choice. FFI was not meant to be a dungeon puzzles RPG, but rather a 'slaughter-your-way-to-the-bottom-of-the-dungeon' RPG. Whatever floated your boat, Square.

One last little surprise element for the road: the moniker given to your party by NPCs in the game world, which immediately rang a bell. You and your fellow adventurers are referred to as “The Four Warriors of Light”. Just like the quartet of adventurers in Final Fantasy: the Four Heroes of Light, the spin-off released on the DS more than twenty years later. I love when a series cultivates continuity between its episodes with the reoccurrence of such details.  

The meat and potatoes

So, I was surprised quite a lot, and that’s a good thing. Not everything took me by surprise, though; there were some elements that I fully expected to find in FFI, and they didn’t fail to show up. The first of them is one that doesn’t need introduction, for it’s been there since the dawn of console RPGs, and it’s been known to be at its most potent and offensive in the 8-bit era; we’re of course talking about the Grinding, ladies and gentlemen. 

Note that I’m saying the grinding, not the level-grinding. Unlike what one may expect, you don’t need to level-grind that much in FFI; in fact, you hardly need it, except if you want to clear the five optional dungeons that have been added to this version of the game. Let’s face it: FFI on the PSP is actually a rather easy game. My understanding is that the original was much harder, but over the years and the subsequent rereleases, the difficulty level had been toned down to follow the evolution of gaming trends; in parallel, new and much harder dungeons were added to provide hardcore players with fitting challenges, should they want to tackle them. But I digress. I was talking about the grinding—the grinding alone, not the level-grinding. 

Let’s face it: this game, in pure 8-bit RPG fashion, features metric tons of grinding. 

This overabundance is solely due to the extremely high encounter rate. Once you’re out of the safety of towns, you’re bound to land in a random battle every couple of seconds. The encounter rate varies depending on which area you’re exploring: the ocean has one of the quietest rates, with one encounter every seven to ten seconds, while the world map is a bit more demanding, with encounters every three to five seconds. As you may expect, the worst offenders are the dungeons, which ramp up the encounter rate to every three seconds or so, with some specific areas throwing battles at your face literally every second. I’m totally serious. And yet, since the game is easy, these random battles never really pose a threat to your progression. They just test your patience, and they do so without pause or mercy. 

But that’s the way it’s supposed to be, after all: Grinding is the meat and potatoes of 8-bit RPG. And upon playing FFI, I understand much better why. Grinding was mandatory in that game because there was so very little else to it, and that probably applies to every 8-bit RPG with heavy emphasis on grinding. The minimal storyline, the imperfect battle system, the simplistic dungeon design and the paper-thin characters would simply not be enough to provide a satisfying and fulfilling gameplay experience, were the grinding removed. It had to be introduced in healthy doses, to flesh out the gameplay and give some density and depth to the game; it’s the firm and juicy meat around the bare bones that are the basic architecture of FFI

The same can be said about the general elusiveness of your objectives, which is another characteristic I expected to find in an 8-bit RPG. Unlike modern RPGs that set you on rails and tell you very precisely where to go next, FFI gives you only the most basic clues about what you should attempt to do and where you should be headed and lets you figure out the rest by yourself. (This could be seen as an interesting alternative for dungeons puzzles, in a way.) And once again, this gives some depth to the game by involving the player and making them work for it (whatever ‘it’ may be at any given time), which I find somehow more rewarding than being fed every specs of information about where to go and what to do. It can sometimes verge on abstruseness, though, especially in the latter parts of the game. Once again, it’s hard to determine if this was implemented solely to flesh out the game and introduce a challenge element of sorts or if it was rather a cleverly concealed attempt at fake longevity; and once again, my guess is that it’s most likely a smooth blend of both. 

The test of time

Playing FFI was an incredibly interesting experience that taught me a lot and helped me understand better the evolution of console RPGs, as well as the reason at work behind the prominence of such classic 8-bit RPG features as intensive grinding and cryptic progression. But historical analysis alone doesn’t cut it when we’re talking about a videogame; it is certainly worthwhile, but it’s not the primary purpose of gaming. A game must be an entertaining and enjoyable experience first and foremost, and the question is: does this PSP version of FFI fit the bill? 

Well, it certainly does. In fact, it holds itself surprisingly well and manages to offer a very engrossing gameplay experience, despite being quite simplistic by today’s standards. I find grinding to be both soothing and stimulating once I get into the rhythm of it, and I love games that manage to say clear-cut and simple while offering enough to keep me occupied, so I was fully satisfied with my playthrough of FFI. It’s refreshing to take a break from the sometimes over-inflated modern RPGs: no mandatory cliché character development, no convoluted storyline, no babbling galore, no malarkey of any sort; just you, the game, and mountains of grinding. So comfortingly simple. 

I only regret that this PSP version was made so much easier than the original. I never felt truly endangered on the field, neither during my millions of random battles nor during the boss fights, which I usually cleared in just a couple of turns. Since I never ran away from any encounter, I became quickly overleveled and overloaded with useless money. Worse, I hardly ever used any of my items because there was simply no need for it. I feel there is a balance problem here, and it steals away a part of the challenge: it’s never stimulating to have mountains of currency that you can’t spend and tons of items that you don’t need to use in a RPG. This imbalance is particularly blatant when it comes to the difficulty level: the main quest lifted from the NES game has been made incredibly easy, but the optional dungeons (four imported from the GBA version and one exclusive to that PSP version) are ridiculously hard and can’t be cleared lest you grind for hours or wait until the end of the game to tackle them (probably both, in fact). I would definitely have preferred a higher and more unified difficulty level like in the original, which would have provided a smoother and more balanced experience. Once again, this is quite a modern feature, obviously designed to accommodate both the hardcore and the casual RPG player, and I feel it doesn’t really belong in an 8-bit RPG—be it a remake. Oh, well.

As for understanding better how the Final Fantasy craze started, which was another reason that prompted me to play that game… Well, I’m still left in the dark when it comes to this. While I can obviously feel the appeal of that game and can honestly say that I enjoyed every minute of it, I somehow fail to see how it could be a smashing success to the point of single-handedly salvaging a whole company from the engulfing pits of bankruptcy. Many ideas are lifted straight from the slightly older Dragon Quest series and what is original to the game is rather nondescript and unmemorable. I guess it's something you can only understand in context: you had to be around in the 8-bit era and see this happen to feel the importance of that game and be properly swept away by it. Given that Europe was mostly deprived of 8-bit RPGs, even more so than North America which was already not so spoiled in the matter, I simply couldn’t experience this game in its rightful original context. And it’s not something I can recreate by any means, especially after having played RPGs from latter eras. 

But what I garnered from this game was sufficient to delight me, so I’m not complaining. It provided me with excellent hours of gameplay and a deeper understanding of the evolution of RPGs, and I’m quite grateful for that. More than that, I’m actually craving more 8-bit RPGs. The next milestone to satisfy my historical appetite will most likely be the Dragon Warrior I&II remake on the Game Boy Color. The very first installment of the mythical Dragon Quest series, never released in Europe, handed on a handheld plate: what could be more exciting than this? As for now, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Shiren the Wanderer (1): I’m in love with a roguelike

It’s never too late to fall in love. Especially with a gaming genre. 

'Roguelike' is a term I had encountered before in my gaming life and was vaguely familiar with. It’s fair to say that I knew at least the basics of the genre. I knew that the name 'Roguelike' was derived from Rogue, a cross-platform game released in 1980 that defined the mechanics of the genre. I knew that the said Rogue somehow single-handedly created dungeon-crawling as a gaming style, while at the same time setting itself apart from yet-to-be dungeon crawlers by sporting specific features like permadeath and random level generation. And, last but not least, I knew roguelikes were supposed to be hardcore and unforgiving. This, added to the fact that the most famous ones belonged to the PC realm, cemented my vision of roguelikes as games beyond my reach; games I knew about but would never play, mostly because I’m not a PC gamer, and maybe also a little bit because of their fabled difficulty. 

And then came Shiren the Wanderer on the DS, a game that blew away all those misconceptions and made me discover the delicious, pungent flavour of Roguelikes.  

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer, released on the DS in 2006(jp) and 2008(na/aus/eu), is quite an interesting game. It was developed by Chunsoft and is part of the Mystery Dungeon series, which I introduced earlier in my posts about Pokemon Mystery Dungeon. Shiren is the only Mystery Dungeon game featuring completely original characters instead of characters pulled out from a well-known series; and it’s also by far the hardest Mystery Dungeon game and the truest to classic Roguelike mechanics. It was initially released on the Super Famicom in 1995, and quickly enjoyed a huge popularity in Japan, which motivated Chunsoft to release no less than five sequels over a period of 15 years. Meanwhile, the western world remained widely unaware of this series and firmly set on the belief that Roguelike=PC=Diablo; that is, until Sega decided to publish a DS port of the original game in Japan and then, seemingly guided by a divine inspiration, to bring it to the West in order to expand our gaming horizons. We then discovered that there were indeed console Roguelikes—and excellent ones at that; but I’m getting ahead of myself there. 

First impressions

One can hardly talk about Shiren the Wanderer without mentioning first its graphics and soundtrack. Roguelikes being repetitive games by nature, it’s nearly mandatory to have graphics and music that are pleasant enough to the senses and will not bore the player to death after a few replays. And fortunately, Shiren totally shines in these departments. The graphics are clearly lifted straight from the Super NES era, with no visible enhancement; but they manage to convey some charm and create a really unique atmosphere, despite being undeniably primitive by today’s standards. As for the music themes, well… They are truly splendid. Composed by Koichi Sugiyama of Dragon Quest fame along with co-composer Hayato Matsuo, they are soulful, gorgeous pieces of ear candy that accomplish the tour de force of never becoming boring to the ear. Ever. Many of them have a cinematic quality and wouldn’t feel out of place in a movie, and they play a massive part in giving you the feeling that you are involved in a fascinating adventure. And if you’re familiar with the Dragon Quest games or with their soundtracks, you should click immediately when hearing the Pegasus Ridge theme, which is a more complex take on the World Map theme from the first Dragon Quest games. 

Let’s broaden the picture and talk about the general atmosphere of the game. The very sweet and lovely atmosphere, shall I say: for Shiren may kill you routinely and without mercy, but at the same time, it treats you with an atmosphere so gentle and loveable that you always want to come back to it and play more. I find this to be an extremely clever design choice: instead of conveying a gritty or dark setting that could increase the discouragement already caused by repeated deaths and prompt you to simply give up, this game puts you at ease with its lovely setting and makes you feel that dying over and over is not such a huge problem after all. 

And while I’m mentioning clever design choices, kudos must be given to the sheer brilliance of the random level design. It’s not brilliant per se, mind you, for no random level design can ever be considered truly clever. But in the context of Shiren, a game in which you are bound to replay levels over and over, it’s pure genius. Random level generation saves you the unbearable boredom of having to replay the same exact levels and provides some constant freshness to your explorations. 

By some strange and ironic twist, Shiren first reminded me of the Platformers of my youth. In the 8 and 16-bit era, you simply couldn’t avoid Platformers: they were ubiquitous and pretty much the dominant genre, and despite not being too fond of them, I played them just like anybody else. And I really found some similarities in the process of dying over and over and progressing a bit further—or not, as we’ll see later— every time. The platformers of old, especially the harcore ones, would submit the player to a similar test of patience with their die&retry approach; but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Shiren is much, much deeper than any platformer, hardcore or not, and it doesn’t take long to notice that. I already mentioned the highly clever level design that saves you the boredom induced by many of these platformers with their never-changing layouts, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Let’s now explore the depths of Shiren’s gameplay!

Diving into the game

To put it bluntly and candidly, Shiren is one of the most fulfilling gaming experiences I’ve ever had. 

This was definitely not what I expected when I picked up that game, and I was utterly surprised by this turn of events. What I expected was a punishing, frustrating and unrewarding game that would beat me to a pulp, because that’s the way Shiren was pictured in most reviews. What I discovered instead was a deep and engrossing game promoting patience, perseverance, strategic thinking and planning, all things I totally lap up in games. Shiren is the perfect gaming illustration of the Japanese gaman, which is the notion of enduring seemingly unbearable circumstances with dignity and patience. Like, the dignity of not smashing your DS on the floor when you die in the most stupid and unpredictable way and the patience to forge ahead with a smile instead.

Not that death is a problem at all in Shiren, oh no; perish the thought. (Ha-ha. Erm… Sorry.) Far from being an occurrence to be avoided at all costs or a punishment of sorts for your lousy gameplay, dying is part of the process of progressing through the game. It acts as a reset function that will allow you to further advance side quests: to put it simply, each run until you die is a loop, during which you can perform some actions only once. If you want to perform the said actions another time, you will have to die—or to use the “give up” command in the menu, which is technically the same as dying, only you decide to do so. This will save the progression you made in side quests and send you back to the beginning of the game, from which you can restart and further progress. 

This may be a bit too abstract, so let’s take examples. Recruiting allies is a process that includes several steps: you have to first meet them and talk to them, upon which they will either trick you or ignore you somehow. (I love how this differs from what you usually see in J-RPGs, where people you just met are ready to follow you to the end of the world after just five minutes of chatting. Shiren brings a healthy dose of realism to this whole party members matter.) If you want to recruit them for good, you will have to die/restart a few times in a row and interact with them every time until they finally join your party. The same goes for upgrading weapons at the local smithies: you can only do so once per run in every given smithy, so you’ll have to die/restart to repeat the process. 

As its core, Shiren is a purely iterative process. You progress through the game by increments, creating some accretion of experience and knowledge as you do so. The good old trick of level-grinding won’t get you far in Shiren: it’s all a matter of learning and building up solid bases that will lead you further and further into the game. In that regard, no run is totally useless: even the shortest one is likely to teach you something or help you advance a side quest. This is a fascinating experience, not unlike learning a new language, with its specific grammar and set of rules. You may learn at you own expense that throwing an item at an NPC will prompt the said NPC to retaliate by punching you to death, or that some of your allies are not as reliable as others. 

This learning factor is a key element in Shiren. Far from feeding you endless tutorials, this game lets you figure out its many rules mostly by yourself. The instruction manual gives you only the most basic information regarding menu navigation, completed in-game by random tips and clues offered by NPCs; as for the rest, you’ll have to try, observe, and learn accordingly. No hand-holding there: it’s just you, your brain, and the game. This is trial-and-error, only applied to a whole game world instead of just specific traps in a level; and it’s incredibly stimulating and thrilling. Not only that, but this learning process will carry on through the whole game, from the first dungeon floor to the last, keeping the game fresh and challenging up to the very end. 

And you will need all the knowledge you can get, along with clever planning and honeying of your equipment: for Shiren is an unpredictable beast, and one that can lash at you when you least expect it. There is definitely an element of randomness and unpredictability to that game, which adds to the challenge and forces you to use all your knowledge to the fullest. You never know what to expect from a dungeon floor, let alone from a whole run. You may die at the first floor surrounded by a mass of enemies, or you may have a massive breakthrough and make it all the way to a floor you never reached before. You have to learn to bend circumstances to your advantage and get hold of the game’s randomness, and this is a truly fascinating and exciting thing to do, especially when you finally succeed.

It’s worth noting that Shiren, while being demanding, remains fair to the player. The difficulty curve is well-balanced and quite regular, and you will definitely notice and feel your own progress. To breeze through a dungeon floor that felt incredibly difficult just a few hours before is a sheer joy, and one that is bound to repeat itself through the whole game. Shiren shows even more fairness by giving you the possibility to train yourself and get the feel of the various traps awaiting you before you encounter them for real in dungeons. This can be done in the so-called Fey’s Dungeon at the very beginning of the game, where you will be offered fifty puzzles of strategic nature with increasing difficulty levels. These puzzles replicate situations that can happen in dungeons, and mastering them will definitely give you some strategic advantage and an edge over your many foes, on top of being an absolute treat for puzzle lovers. 

So, that’s Shiren in a nutshell, from a beginner’s point of view. I’ve now played the game for 15 hours, reached floor 17, and I’m taking my sweet time. I’m planning to play this game as a red thread over the course of several weeks, maybe months, and I will of course give my final thoughts on the matter when I’m done with it. But for now, I plainly and simply adore it. I adore it so much that I’m firmly planning to buy the full series, which will give me a great incentive to dive back into my long-forsaken Japanese studies. I just can’t let a series that good pass me by. 

This prompts me to mention how poorly received was Shiren in the West, for it may well be the reason why we didn’t get to play the subsequent installments. Critics lambasted Shiren for being too unforgiving, punishing and not rewarding enough, to the point where I actually formed the mental picture of a game that was more torture than entertainment and would whip me good and shatter my soul. None of this happened, as I stated above; far from it, I actually found Shiren to be easier—yes, easier—and globally much more forgiving than I had expected. This is the Avalon Code syndrome all over again: a good game that is dismissed and sniffed at because it’s at odds with the current gaming trends. In the era of general hand-holding, intrusive in-games tutorials and scripted games playing on rails, the notions of figuring out a game’s mechanics on your own and progressing through increments while doing so was not likely to make a hit. Which is a shame, for Shiren is quite the gem. Oh, well.

That’s all about Shiren for the time being. Expect at least another post on the matter when I’m done with the game, and maybe more, if it inspires me. As for now, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!

(Edit: The rest of my Shiren epopee can be found here, there and there.)