Greek myths tell of a character named Sisyphus, forever doomed to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it inevitably get away from him and hit rock bottom again. Sega's Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer might just give you some insight into poor Sisyphus' plight. This Nintendo DS role-playing game--an enhanced version of an old Super Famicom game--tasks you with trudging through 30 dungeon floors, collecting a plethora of items, managing your paltry inventory space, and surviving turn-based encounters with relentless monsters. You do this all while knowing that death will send you to back to the start of the game, stripped of all your progress. If you're something of a masochist, then this might not be a bad game for you.
You play as titular adventurer Shiren, who is on a quest to find El Dorado and the Golden Condor, a legendary bird who some say can grant wishes. Your journey takes you across forests, mountain creeks, villages, and eventually into the heart of Table Mountain, where your search is expected to come to a successful close. All of these areas are analogous to the floors of a dungeon, and for the most part their layouts are randomly generated.
Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer is presented in a top-down view, and at first glance could be mistaken for an action-adventure game. However, the gameplay is entirely turn-based. Every single action you take--whether it be moving, attacking, or picking up or equipping an item--takes up a turn, after which any enemies and non-player characters respond accordingly. You also have to manage Shiren's hunger, which is governed by a fullness counter that decreases with every turn. The turn-based nature can result in some awkward moments full of quick pauses as you wait for other onscreen characters to act.
You'll learn a number of tricks that you can use to overcome difficult situations as you progress, many of which involve using certain items to take advantage of the game's turn-based nature. For example, if a troupe of monsters is following you down a corridor and another creature cuts off your avenue of escape, you can hit it with a paralysis staff and then switch places with it using a switching staff, which leaves it to block your assailants' path for a few turns. Consequently, your best chance for success is to stockpile items and sort out a balanced inventory. In every area you'll feel the urge to just find the exit. However, even if the exit presents itself right in front of you, you'll do better if you take the time to scour the entire area for the numerous herbs, scrolls, staffs, swords, and shields that you can pick up.
Building up this inventory is difficult. Aside from your inability to carry enough items at a time, many of the enemies you encounter do quite a bit of damage. Even early on, a single encounter can potentially cost you most of your hit points. You recover health just by walking, but sooner or later another enemy will spawn and try to spoil the party. The real kicker is the game's permanent deaths. You can't save your progress; you can only suspend it. When you die, it's like being mugged and then having a pie thrown in your face: You lose all of your experience levels, your possessions, and a little bit of dignity as you're thrown back to the very first village. These risks stifle the desire to explore, given that you might stumble across an insanely powerful monster. Trial and error is often the only way you'll eventually learn how to survive these encounters, which isn't much fun given the aforementioned permanent death system.
Happily, villages appear every few areas, and most of them let you unload items into storage facilities where they'll be safe even if you die. Village blacksmiths will also upgrade weapons for you, and though they're supposedly limited to a single use, it's possible to visit them multiple times by exploiting the storage system and deliberately dying a few times. You drop items that you're carrying when you die, so even if you manage to lose a favorite weapon, there's a very small chance that it'll turn up again somewhere.
Non-player characters in the game are aware of what you've done previously, whether it was on an earlier attempt to complete a level or if you beat that same level the first time you played through the game. For example, one character you encounter likes to blind you the first couple of times you encounter her, but when you revisit the same level you have an opportunity to assist her and gain a formidable ally.
The quality of Shiren the Wanderer's presentation goes some way toward making the repeated deaths a little easier to bear. The graphics are of a simple but colorful Super NES-era quality, and though levels would have benefited from greater visual variety, the overall effect is pleasing. The music uses some nice samples inspired by Asian instruments, and the compositions do a nice job of incorporating the game's two common themes to fit the mood of the area you're in. Another factor that makes your demise somewhat tolerable is the chance to be rescued from death via an outdated 34-character password system, DS Wireless play, or the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection.
When you send a rescue request via the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, you have to rely on a Good Samaritan to start the game and specifically choose to rescue someone. If you've got a friend with the game, then DS Wireless play is the most convenient bet. In either case, you'll be waiting quite a while: The rescuer needs to have reached the level of the dungeon you died on, at which point he or she must accept the rescue mission and then start it from level 1. If your rescuer succeeds, then you'll be able to pick up right where you left off, with your items and experience levels intact.
All told, Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer is a largely frustrating experience because of its randomness and permanent deaths. With perseverance you might find that the game's robust item system and unreasonable challenge are reason enough to continue playing, but even those itches would be better scratched elsewhere. With side quests and several postending dungeons to explore, not to mention the 20-plus hours you might spend simply trying to beat the main game, Shiren the Wanderer will last you for as long as you'll tolerate it. If you enjoyed and understand how to approach games such as Pokemon Mystery Dungeon or last year's Izuna: The Legend of the Unemployed Ninja, this game will be right up your alley. Otherwise, this is a quest you should avoid taking on.