Shiness: The Lightning Kingdom - Review  

Realities of Game Development Tarnish This Fantasy
by Charalampos Papadimitriou

20-40 Hours
+ Vibrant world with great area layouts
+ Strong soundtrack most of the time
+ Well-designed combat mechanics ...
- ... but clunky controls ruin combat
- Main story threads are all left hanging
- Technical glitches, sometimes game-breaking
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   Conceived 20 years ago and brought to life recently by a Kickstarter effort, Shiness: The Lightning Kingdom is a manga-inspired indie RPG that reflects the era of video games during which it was initially conceived. It offers many modern touches including beautiful and vibrant environments, an action-packed combat system, and great presentation. Unfortunately, like many other titles ranging from AAA to indie, Shiness appears to have fallen victim to budgetary and time constraints reflected both in its technical and its creative aspects.

   Shiness begins with Chado and his best friend Poky crash-landing their flying vessel, having left their home guided by a spirit-like creature named Terra, in search for the Lands of Life. Soon after they run into a number of different characters and get caught up in a conflict between the Mantarans and the Adroyans that encompasses the rest of their adventure. Chado's and Poky's initial involvement in this conflict feels a bit forced and unmotivated, but the early story is well presented. By covering both the historical context and the present, and doing so from both a broad perspective but also from the specific perspectives of involved individuals, the story manages to remain interesting and mysterious for most of its duration. Cutscenes are presented in manga-style panels that look great and feature some simple animation to increase dramatic impact. The dialogue has quite a range, from fun, to interesting, to clichéd. The cutscenes are also voice acted, and while the voice actors are competent, the developers have chosen to go for voice acting reminiscent of cartoons aimed at younger audiences. This can be off-putting at first, but it's consistent with the story's simplistic style. While the story doesn't break any new ground it feels like a classic and engaging adventure for most of the way through.

   Unfortunately, the main story is never completed. The ending events are unexpected, and not in a good way, as they do not fit in the rest of the story and feel both forced and rushed. In addition to this, the game also leaves most of the side threads the story spends considerable time building hanging. Overall, it leaves the impression that Shiness is only the first part of the story that was forced to end early due to practical constraints. This is also apparent in a general lack of technical polish, including invisible walls and floors, and a handful of bugs — a few of which are game-breaking.

Very expressive manga cutscenes breathe life into the game's world and story. Very expressive manga cutscenes breathe life into the game's world and story.

   Shiness features a unique, action-packed combat system. Three team members can be in the active party at any given time. The player controls one of those characters, while the others take AI-driven actions from reserve positions. The controlled character can attack, chaining together punches and kicks, and can also block, dodge, and parry. Each character also has four unique techniques, learned and improved by equipping items called disciplines and using them in combat. To use techniques, a short series of buttons must be pressed in order, quickly and accurately. Techniques use characters' Hyper bars, which can be recharged through normal attacks and must be carefully managed as they are also used for parrying. There are also many spells across six different elements that all characters can learn. Up to four of these can be equipped to use in battle. Each spell consumes one of four element-specific MP pools which can be recharged mid battle by standing still and holding a button, though this can be interrupted by enemy attacks and is most effective when enemies are knocked down or stunned. AI-controlled characters can equip up to three support abilities to use automatically, triggered by conditions configured by the player prior to the battle. There is also a button to switch the active character with one of the support characters, and this can be done at any point during the battle.

   The battle mechanics are carefully thought out and complement each other well. The game also features some truly great boss battle designs that require strategy, battlefield awareness, and ability to execute. Unfortunately, battle controls are extremely clunky and unresponsive, with inputs that are sometimes delayed or do not register at all, significantly impairing the real-time action game's combat in many ways. The controls make it particularly difficult to use all of the features of the battle system effectively, and make it tedious and unintuitive to use and learn techniques. Battles are also plagued by extreme camera issues, as enemies zoom around the battlefield where the camera simply fails to follow or its view is blocked by scenery. Losing enemy targets repeatedly is the rule rather than the exception and makes targeting enemies with some abilities frustrating. The unresponsive control and camera problems are exacerbated as enemies routinely interrupt player actions with their own, which are executed with extremely fast reaction times and highly precise targeting, often in immediate response to specific player actions. Overall, this combination creates a unique feeling of battles being simultaneously unfair but also easy. Combat is also heavily level-based. Falling behind by just a few levels makes battles exponentially harder, while being ahead by just a bit makes fights too easy. Players are also unable to flee from fights, and accidentally entering into a fight with an enemy just a couple of levels ahead can lead to game overs and significant lost progress. The overly heavy emphasis of character levels takes away from the importance of skill that real-time combat typically emphasizes, though Shiness makes up for some of this by keeping players at the right level most of the time and by having meaningful equipment and battle preparation choices that can significantly affect battle outcomes.

I'm probably pushing a lot of buttons in this shot, despite the character standing still due to clunky controls. I'm probably pushing a lot of buttons in this shot, despite the character standing still due to clunky controls.

   Where Shiness really succeeds is in its excellent area layouts. Game areas span a number of different settings, from forests, to caves, to snowy mountains. Each area is layed out in complex, interconnected designs with many paths leading to many different places and crisscrossing with each other. Progressing through dungeons is typically very non-linear, with multiple objectives necessary to complete a dungeon being simultaneously available. The complex, interconnected, and non-linear designs bring a much welcomed sense of exploration and discovery to dungeons notably lacking in most modern games. Dungeons and other areas also incorporate puzzles that require each character's unique abilities to solve. This is great in theory, but the execution falls flat as puzzles are generally too simple to justify the cumbersome mechanics of repeatedly changing between characters.

   Shiness features a beautiful cartoon-like aesthetic, and although the graphics are simple and don't push the hardware, art assets are vivid and well-used. Environments beg to be explored, feel engaging and often mysterious, and evoke a sense of adventure reminiscent of 90s JRPGs. Character designs are unique and feature different anthropomorphic animal races, each with recognizable and self-consistent physical characteristics. These designs offer a believable consistency in characters' races and cultures that make the world and its lore feel solid. The only blemish to the visuals are the combat animations, which like the controls are stiff, choppy, and don't transition smoothly from one animation to the next. To bring the world and story to life, the visuals are complimented by generally good music that stands out and covers a variety of different themes and moods. Like the graphical design, the score takes inspiration from 90s JRPGs and is well suited for a vibrant fantasy adventure. While there are several memorable tracks, a number of them can be simplistic and flat. There is also a notable lack of powerful, epic tracks, somewhat detracting from the completeness of the soundtrack.

   Shiness teases us with an adventure that is pure fun. The developers bring back much of the style from the early 90s games that inspired them, while successfully infusing the game with modern gameplay elements and mechanics. The world is engaging and the story presentation is great, complimented by a competent soundtrack, vivid visuals, and stylish manga-like cutscenes. The ideas behind the battle system are carefully architected and work wonderfully together to offer variety of play, action, and battle planning. Unfortunately the game seems to be a case where the realities of the world caught up with the developers' fantasy too soon. As a result, it fails to follow through on both its story and the promises of its combat system, and is marred by a lack of technical polish and bugs, leaving players with a distinctly average experience.

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