Shining in the Darkness, the inaugural installment of Sega's popular Shining series, featured traditional RPG play from a first-person perspective, the bulk of which was spent in long, convoluted dungeons. Even though the Sega Genesis, the system that Shining in the Darkness was released for, had little to no 3D capabilities, the viewpoint of the game gave it a bit of a 3D feel. Subsequent Shining games, however, eschewed the first-person perspective for the popular overhead view that is prevalent in most console RPGs. Shining The Holy Ark marks a return to the Shining series' roots in a grand way; it's one of the best first-person RPGs that I've ever played.
In the kingdom of Enrich, a price has been put on the head of a fugitive named Rodi. Although little is known about him, Rodi is said to be strong, so the king and his chief advisor Rilix have been actively seeking skilled mercenaries to bring him in. Their search leads them to put together a trio of some of the top mercenaries around. Forte is a powerful sorcerer who has made a name for himself through his past accomplishments. Melody is a shaman who rivals Forte in experience. And Arthur, the main character of the game, is a relative newcomer to the scene, but he has impressed those who he has worked with and shows a great deal of promise.
As the game begins, the trio of mercenaries arrives at the Desire Mine, where Rodi is said to be holed up. After consulting with some soldiers, Arthur, Melody, and Forte enter the dark caverns of the mine to search for their quarry. Deep inside the mine, the mercenaries finally encounter the wanted outlaw, who, naturally, is reluctant to allow himself to be taken in without a fight. A fierce battle ensues, with the trio of mercenaries finally subduing the dangerous fugitive. As the battle concludes, however, something collides with the mine, causing it to cave in.
After the dust settles, Forte is only lightly wounded; however, he is possessed by an evil spirit almost immediately after regaining consciousness and leaves the scene of the wreckage while under the spirit's control. Rodi, Melody, and Arthur are left with critical injuries; none of them can survive without major medical attention.
As it turns out, the object that crashed into the Desire Mine was an escape pod belonging to 3 good spirits. The 3 good spirits are unable to survive on their own, but by inhabiting the bodies of the critically injured Arthur, Melody, and Rodi, they can thrive as well as heal all of the wounds sustained by the crippled trio. Unlike the evil spirit that took over Forte's mind, the symbiotic good spirits allow their host bodies to act on their own free will. So, after obtaining permission from the psyches of the dying characters, the good spirits settle into their new bodies.
The one caveat of the spirits' habitation of their human hosts is that that the 3 humans involved now have to stay together. So, Arthur and Melody agree to put aside their past differences with Rodi and work together as a team. During the evil spirit's possession of Forte, Melody had awoken briefly to witness part of Forte's ordeal. So, the team decides that its first order of business is to escape the mine and try to find Forte in order to exorcise the evil spirit from his body. From there, your quest begins.
Shining The Holy Ark's storyline starts off interestingly enough, but unfortunately loses some steam as you progress in your quest. Although the plot never gets spectacular, it does remain pretty solid throughout its length. On the plus side, the translation is above average; the dialogue flow is pretty good, and spelling and grammatical errors are relatively rare.
On the minus side, the pacing of the story is somewhat slow, though certainly not excruciatingly so. In addition, character development is quite poor. The player doesn't really get any insight at all to the personalities of any of the playable characters in the game (or any of the non-player characters, for that matter). As a matter of fact, the player characters really don't interact with each other at all throughout the game.
Shining The Holy Ark doesn't really bring anything new to the table in terms of play mechanics. Enemies are randomly encountered, though they have a tendency to appear in certain specific locations within a given dungeon. Battles are completely turn-based. Magic and items can be used in battle in addition to normal weapon attacks, and, for some characters, monsters can be summoned to deal major damage to the enemies.
One major difference that separates Shining The Holy Ark from the bulk of today's console RPGs (other than the relatively uncommon first-person perspective) is that instead of spreading your quest over many, many small dungeons, you spend most of your time in a few extremely large ones. This game layout unfortunately gives Shining The Holy Ark less variety than most of today's RPGs hold.
However, Shining The Holy Ark does what it does extremely well, and gameplay is where Shining The Holy Ark is at its best. I'm not a huge fan of either the first-person perspective in RPGs or RPGs where you spend almost all of your time in extremely convoluted dungeons, but Shining The Holy Ark executes better than just about any other game fitting the above description. The gameplay is crisp and efficient for the most part, and the dungeons, though confusing at times, are laid out quite cleverly. The game is also paced well in terms of gameplay; there are a few slow and boring sections, but they're pretty rare.
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Shining The Holy Ark's gameplay is its reserve character system. In my opinion, Shining The Holy Ark has the most well-designed and well-executed reserve character system I've ever seen in an RPG. You can take up to 4 characters into battle with you; any others you have are in reserve, like in other RPGs. However, all of your reserve characters receive full experience points for each battle, thus keeping themselves balanced throughout the game. This feature is great; it keeps you from having to waste time leveling up characters that you haven't been using if you find that you need to use one of them.
In addition, your reserve characters can be substituted in and out of combat at the beginning of every round of battle. This feature adds a ton of versatility and strategy to your party's attack, and is useful as well as fun. As a matter of fact, it was only through strategic substitution that I survived some of the tougher boss battles in the game.
Although Shining The Holy Ark plays better than any other RPG of its type, there are still some weaknesses here. There's a lot of slowdown going on, especially in battles. Although it isn't a problem early on in the game, the slowdown gets worse as you progress in your quest. By the time you near the end, it isn't just confined to battles, but occurs when you try to enter a shop or stay at an inn, too.
Shining The Holy Ark also could have used a few more save points. The dungeons get really long, and there are no save points within them. Boss encounters can appear quite suddenly, and it's really frustrating to have to go back and replay an hour and a half of exploration after a boss pops up suddenly and toasts you because you weren't quite prepared to fight him.
Finally, aside from the reserve character system, there isn't a whole lot of variety in Shining The Holy Ark's gameplay. Combined with the fact that the storyline isn't all that strong, the lack of variety occasionally makes the game get a little bit boring despite its strong pacing.
The control of Shining The Holy Ark is another one of its high points. Shining games always have a very crisp interface, and Shining The Holy Ark is no exception to the trend. Your party is responsive and makes smooth and efficient 90 degree turns when you explore dungeons and towns. You move at a brisk pace throughout the game, and you can go even faster by pressing twice on the directional pad.
There are weaknesses here as well, though. Your party's directional movement tends to be over-responsive, particularly when you are moving at faster speeds. Also, although the menus are very organized (another Shining game trademark), there are just too many of them. For example, outside of combat, you have to navigate through 5 or 6 menu screens just to cast a simple heal spell on a character.
Shining The Holy Ark is also strong in its graphical presentation. The dungeon and town backgrounds are detailed, especially compared to past first-person perspective RPGs. The enemies sport an even higher level of detail, and generally look quite impressive overall. The colors are a bit drab in the backgrounds but are quite vivid on the enemies and characters.
In battle, each attacking character animates as he, she, or, in the case of monsters, it attacks. The animation is pretty fluid, and the overall effect is nice. Spell effects, while not impressive, are serviceable, though the summons are a bit subpar, in my opinion.
CG FMVs also pop up here and there in Shining The Holy Ark. They are mostly used to introduce boss characters, and they provide an excellent segue into the boss battles. The CG is well constructed, and although the graininess of the FMVs is noticeable, the movies still look good.
Shining The Holy Ark is also blessed with impressive character designs. Although none of them are spectacularly innovative or original, they are almost all appealing, and among the best that the Shining series has to offer.
The sound department, in keeping with the rest of the game, is well done, too. Sound effects are strong, from the thud of the powerful blows that you rain upon your enemies to the anguished cries of monsters as they go down in defeat. There is no voice acting in Shining The Holy Ark.
The soundtrack is also solid. Throughout most of its length, Shining The Holy Ark has a darker and spookier mood than the average RPG, and the Motoi Sakuraba-composed score does an excellent job of setting the mood and creating tension in a scene. Taken on its own, however, the soundtrack isn't one I would place in the top echelon of game music. The melodies are pleasant to listen to, but aren't that memorable, and there aren't any spectacular numbers in the score (the boss theme does come close, though).
Shining The Holy Ark is possibly the best first-person dungeon RPG yet released in the US. Although I'm personally not a big fan of the game's layout, I still really enjoyed playing through it. I heartily recommend this one to all interested parties.
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