Shining in the Darkness - Staff Retroview  

A Dimly Lit Labyrinth
by Mike "JuMeSyn" Moehnke

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20-40 Hours
+ Reasonable challenge
+ Sizable enemy variety
- Interface is outdated
- Miniscule inventory
- Looking at the same scenery is dull
- No automap makes navigation hard
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   Sega consoles would see a hearty helping of games under the Shining brand in the 90s, and more games in the series would be foisted upon the public long after its original creators endured a messy divorce from the intellectual property. Shining games became famed for the addictive tactical battles of the Force titles, but the series began with a very different style of play. Shining in the Darkness is a first-person dungeon crawler predating the Super Nintendo's release, and judged by the standards of other games in that category it holds up rather well. It is only when comparing the game to more recent releases, in particular its own spiritual sequel Shining the Holy Ark, that problems arise.

   Video game plots in 1991 were not examples of great sophistication, and even in the RPG realm rarely attempted to do big things. Shining in the Darkness is definitely a creature of its time in this regard, as the evil Dark Sol announces his intention of conquering the kingdom of Thornwood, which the nameless hero and his two friends must thwart. A kidnapped princess also figures prominently in what plot there is, though in a development that was progressive for the time, her rescue is not concurrent with Dark Sol's defeat.

   Like most first-person dungeon crawlers, the vast majority of time will be spent navigating the labyrinth. Enemies will pop out randomly to assault the protagonists, and character growth employs the standard method of leveling up to learn spells and enhance statistics. By the standards of 1991, the game's turn order is commendably solid, with few instances of participants taking an action at odds with agility. There are no frills whatsoever to the standard turn-based action though, thus its solid execution leaves little elaboration to make.

   Aside from using a spell to reveal a localized map of the surroundings that will promptly disappear, Shining in the Darkness does not provide any means of recording the current location, making navigation something of a chore. Enemies frequently appear just one step after a previous battle, so a moment's inattention can prove costly. Later in the game a method to return to certain points within the labyrinth is obtained, but lots of marching over the same ground will happen regardless, making the lack of an in-game map rather awkward because the dungeon is complex enough to make remembering its layout unfeasible. There are means of getting around this using the internet, but at the time of its release Shining in the Darkness demanded paper map-making from the player, and that quality has aged badly.

Get used to killing this thing, because it respawns for every trip. Get used to killing this thing, because it respawns for every trip.

   Dungeon navigation is somewhat constrained by several parts that can only be crossed with the use of special items, which is bothersome because of the tiny inventory the game allows. Each character can hold a meager eight items, with four of those slots occupied by equipment. This makes inventory management time-consuming and cramped. As was fairly common when Shining in the Darkness was new, the effects of equipment can only be observed through outfitting a character with them. The menu automatically closes after doing just about anything, instead of remaining open for the sake of convenience, and is thus much clunkier than later Shining games. At the time of its release keeping the manual around to remain apprised of what items do would have been well-advised, since the game does not offer any explanations except with the use of a spell.

   Climax did a good job of supplying enemies that change through the course of the game with relatively few palette-swaps, and opponents that look like differently-colored versions of earlier foes usually employ different tactics. Those enemies don't do much visibly except wiggle when they attack, though. The actions of the protagonists in battle are completely invisible, making most fights visually dull. The labyrinth isn't very interesting visually either, as the three designs of its nine floors are barely differentiated using palette swaps for only some of the levels, and one look is reserved for the final floor only. This makes the scenery get repetitive very quickly.

Could you be the villain?  The oddsmakers will take bets now! Could you be the villain? The oddsmakers will take bets now!

   The music also becomes repetitive very quickly. A single theme plays during the first five floors explored, and while a second dungeon theme is introduced when ascending to the top levels, it too wears out its welcome. Only the last two bosses have any kind of unique battle theme, meaning that it will be a very long time before anything different is heard during the many fights. An odd but not unwelcome sound effect is found whenever a critical attack is landed, since this noise is seemingly taken from Streets of Rage.

   Unlike most first-person dungeon crawlers, especially those from the pre-SNES era, Shining in the Darkness has a fairly manageable difficulty. The biggest reason for this is the tradition borrowed from Dragon Quest of subtracting half of the party's money and being dumped back into town if everyone falls in combat. Enemies become rather powerful while exploring the labyrinth, and the cramped available item space means relying on magical means of health restoration is mandatory. Since a Game Over will never occur, the challenge is not overwhelming, and late in the game money is awarded in such quantities that losing half of it ceases to be painful.

   Seen from an historical perspective Shining in the Darkness is very interesting, particularly the elements that would be expanded upon in its spiritual follow-up Shining the Holy Ark, which as a Saturn exclusive has been played by relatively few people. Shining in the Darkness has a few trappings of the fun style that would addict many in the later Shining games, but those are outweighed by the many mechanisms that are now archaic. As first-person dungeon crawlers from the early Genesis days go, this is definitely a good one, but that's not saying very much.

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