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Shining under the Couch Pillows
By: Anna Marie Whitehead
The Shining series spans more than 10 years and half a dozen entries, though it is most notably known for the Shining Force TRPGs. It actually debuted as a series with a first person dungeon crawler, Shining in the Darkness. Later, Shining Wisdom followed as an action-RPG. Now, with the release of Shining Soul, the series returns to those roots, though not without some growing pains. Though hampered by a nearly non-existent plot, poor originality and indifferent music, the game is still enjoyable through its flexible leveling, active battle system, and replayability.
When first beginning the game, the player chooses a class that will carry with them throughout the game. In total there are four choices: Warrior, Archer, Sorcerer, and Dragonaut. Each class dictates what weapons can be used - an Archer will use bows and spears, for example. Sore thumbs may abound after a long play session, as enemies come often in large groups, and defeating them will require much button smashing. The battle system, reminiscent of a Zelda or Secret of Mana game, is continuous action, as battles take place constantly with no segue into a separate battle scene. The advantage of this setup is that by holding down the attack button, a charged attack can be built up. The better a person's weapon skill is, the higher the charge goes. The largest problem with combat is the player's inability to pause the action; even when entering the menu, the character is still susceptible to attacks, and can even die. This can make the game both more challenging but also frustrating. The feature is a necessary one when more than one player is linked up and participating, but in the single player mode it seems a bit odd. Three weapons can be kept to swap between as well as three stacks of items, and they are thankfully easily accessible. Healing is usually one or two button presses, a nice change from plodding menus within menus. However, with no pause at all, it does usually mean once a dungeon is started, it must be ended in that play session. Otherwise, it has to be completed from the start again.
The interface is somewhat plain and very simple to use, which fits well with the game. A graphical interface for armor, accessories, and weapons makes it easy to deliberate between armor that has different abilities, such as higher defense or a raised immunity to a certain element. Items take up one item slot individually, though stacks can be accessed by setting the type of item to one of three active item slots; these are the three items that will be useable without having to open the menu and seek them out. The catch is that inventory space is limited. Many spoils are found in the dungeon, so there must be a balance between items brought in versus what will be found. There is an item which will warp you out of the dungeon, back to town, and return you to your exact location, allowing storage and sale of excess spoils in town, as well as any required restocking of recovery items. This plain but easy-to-use idea also moves over to the status window, where players deliberate how to distribute level-up bonuses. At each level increase, stats may be raised as well as skills. Each class has 3 of the 4 total stats to fill, and it is completely up to the player how they dole out bonuses. In the case of skills, each class has generic abilities attributing to the weapons they may use (Archer, for example, could level the bow or spear skill) and then skills attributing to different class abilities (such as increased defense rating for Dragonaunt), including two elemental resistances per class (fire, lightning, ice, etc).
Moving into the sounds of the game, Shining Soul's main problem with its music is not that it isn't good, but that it is horribly repetitive. Every dungeon has its own minor theme music, and this is the music for every floor of the dungeon, with the exception of the bosses. As most dungeons are ten floors or greater and the average dungeon takes longer than an hour, this makes the music, though good, annoying over time. Add to that a selectively small amount of sounds effects, and the best solution is to often to turn the volume down, or off.
Those RPGamers looking for a deep plot should be looking for another game. The plot of Shining Soul is simple: defeat the 5 generals of the Dark Dragon, and then annihilate the evil Dark Dragon itself. An effort was made to add to this lackluster plot by throwing in more than half a dozen cameo characters from the previous Shining games, mostly Shining Force titles, but it adds little to the overall story. On the flip side, being as action-oriented as the game is, little else is required to explain why the hero is venturing out to destroy the evil. That being said, there's not a huge amount of text to read in the game, but what is there has been translated well. Only one or two smaller errors were noted, mostly in the status menu, and so minor as to not interfere with the gameplay. Most characters found in town carry clear, if mostly useless, messages to the character.
There isn't much originality to be found in Shining Soul, either. With the exception of not having a pause feature, there isn't much that hasn't been seen in any other action-RPG game. The small amount of enemies and the large amount of palette swapping can make the dungeons unexciting. The story is too plain to be very interesting, and considering the stories found in the Shining Force series, a little disappointing. On the other hand, however, the selection of classes and their tailored abilities is great, giving the game a unique feel depending on which was chosen. In the end, though, much like the plot, more would have been greatly appreciated
One of the great aspects of Shining Soul is, by far, the replay value. Once the final boss is defeated, a new 'advanced' mode opens up for the completed save slot, allowing for a second run through of the game. Though items and equipment are lost, levels and stats are retained, allowing for further growth beyond the original game. The advanced mode is no walk through the park - even the first dungeon requires levels close to 40 to defeat. Additionally, the appearances of enemies and dungeons are changed, adding a new dimension to the strategy required. There is also always the option of playing a separate game as another class, as each needs a different strategy to successfully navigate through the treacherous dungeons ahead.
The graphics, while nice, are an odd lot. The game seems to make a valiant attempt at dark, menacing graphics - fitting considering that if the Dark Dragon prevails, the world will be thrown into chaos - but nothing looks especially menacing, and only a few dungeons have any dark ambience. Besides this hiccup, the game is very easy on the eyes, with soft anime characteristics, and though nothing has minute attention to detail, the simpler style of graphics fits the game's fantasy atmosphere very well.
One thing that does 'shine' in the game is the difficulty level. Though Shining Soul does tend to get a bit repetitive in its hack and slash aspect, the fact that it is possible to keep on par with the enemies, but much harder to get above and beyond them, keeps the game at an enjoyably challenging level. In advance mode, enemies require both strategy and judicious character leveling, making additional playthroughs much harder than the original one. Whether an RPGamer will find this challenging or frustrating may vary.
Shining Soul isn't an exceptionally long game, and an initial playthrough can be clocked in as few as 10 hours. As the advanced mode is significantly more difficult, additional leveling may be required, pushing the quest to defeat the Dark Dragon as high as 25 extra hours. Additional hours can also be clocked in trying out the different classes, adding an extra depth to the game time wise.
While the game has some rough edges that may have dragged it down a bit, it is still definitely worth a look for both those that enjoyed previous Shining games as well as any action-RPG fans. Though the battle system may be frustrating at times, it can be as equally enjoyable, with a little time to set towards learning it. The advanced mode will keep any RPGamer on their toes, and with a multiplayer aspect, four players at a time can take on the enemies, requiring good communication and strategy. Though suffering from a few flaws, with a bit of patience, there's definitely enough potential for a good look at the game.
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