The Shining series has long been Sega's RPG fallback to the Phantasy Star series. However, Shining Soul is the first title not to be developed by the Takahashi brothers, the pioneers of the series. The new hands have decided to follow the route PS took with Phantasy Star Online: a multiplayer dungeon-crawler where players descend from a central town to fight real-time battles with baddies for experience and items.
When one goes out with friends, one has to look good, and to that end, Shining Soul fits as much customization as GBA sprites can take. Which, er, means that their color can be changed. In fact, there is a whole four different hues available. But that is just a superficiality! The player also has the choice between four riveting character classes: archer, mage, warrior, and dragonnewt (a stronger kind of warrior). Seriously, Shining Soul features more customization than the average bear. The RPGamer is awarded points to distribute freely to attributes upon level up, in addition to points that can be expended to increase the power of a weapon. RPGamers may also develop their own weapons by collecting raw ores. Further customization can come through the souls that enemies drop. These can be equipped as accessories and then charged to unleash powerful attacks.
The battle system is designed to simplify and encourage the multiplayer process as much as possible. The combat is fully real-time, which means there are no pauses for any reason whatsoever, be they to change equipment or just take a break. The interface, therefore, is necessarily tight, and cycling through the inventory with the L and R buttons changes the equipment. From there it's just typical hack n' slash, and the player's immediate goal is nothing more than clearing out all the foes of one area to proceed to the next. Although this definitely gets repetitive, the occasional huge bosses and the numerous item rewards make plowing through worthwhile. If the player's thumb gets too tired, then there are always the charge attacks.
One gripe with Shining Soul is the inability to save without quitting. There are no save points in the dungeons, so the player always loads up back in town. Happily, not all progress is lost upon death, so it is worth taking a risk and holding out. Dying only means having an angel show up to take the player to the town to heal up, and then returning them to a checkpoint. There are also potions that can be used to warp to the town, and these presumably also allow the player to return to a checkpoint.
Another weakness of the game is the plot. The game takes place X number of years after the Dark Dragon came and destroyed everything. The descendants of the survivors now must rise up and show the Dragon the business - and his five evil generals too. There are connections and cameos from other Shining games, but reportedly they are used in a manner that won't necessarily impress long-time fans.
All this is just laying the groundwork for the most important aspect of the game: the multiplayer. Connecting with three other RPGamers by link cables is the best way to make Shining Soul more interesting - but not indefinitely. Besides fighting together and exchanging items, there is precious little interaction between the players on screen. True, there doesn't need to be a chat system like there would be on an online game, but it would have been nice to have combo attacks or other features not available in the single-player mode.
The graphics don't break any new ground, but they aren't bad. It is clear that Shining Soul is perhaps the brightest and most appealing dungeon-crawler out there ("dungeon," of course, being used in the figurative sense). However, the game does suffer from one of the classic problems of 2D: a lack of character positions translates into choppiness on the animation front. Even more unfortunate is how the music adds to the overall repetitiveness of the title. One theme is used for an entire dungeon with no change until a boss is reached.
The dungeon-crawling sub-genre has been doing well these days, and with Nintendo's offline multiplayer emphasis, Shining Soul seems to have found itself a good home. The depth of the game may not astound, but at the end of the day, players are still going to have fun with it.