There are few games out there in which the developer is so committed to their universe that they create a coherent language for it. Such is Enigami’s commitment to Shiness: The Lightning Kingdom, whose origins date back two decades. From the creative mind of a seven-year-old to a full-fledged video game release, Shiness represents an amazing actualization of dream into reality. Is the reality a true realization of such an old and imaginative dream, though?
Shiness takes place on Mahera, a world torn asunder by the eruption of a cataclysmic force from within the very heart of the planet. This awful, devastating power fractured the earth into several floating landmasses known as Meteoras. The adventure opens with Chado and his best friend Poky, Wakis from the Kimpao Meteora, crashing their airship onto the neighboring Meteora of Gendys while attempting to find the fabled Lands of Life.
Chado (pronounced like “shadow”) is compelled to undertake this seemingly foolhardy quest by a spirit of the earth, known as a Shiness, that only he can see. His clairvoyance and conversations with the invisible spirit mark him as a misunderstood pariah on Kimpao, furthering his drive to leave an increasingly unfriendly hometown in search of lands unknown. Unfortunately for the Waki duo, their failure in flight finds them in the heart of a fallen kingdom ravaged by war and the harshest after-effects of the great catastrophe.
The most apt and succinct description I can provide for both the setting and story of Shiness is one common to indie titles with outsized aspirations: unrealized potential. Shiness falls victim to the expectations that it set for itself, though I don’t mean those established by its prerelease hype. Rather, the first ten or so hours of the game set the stage for what seemed like a multilayered, Meteora-hopping adventure set against the backdrop of the aftermath of Mahera’s violent fracturing. The player is introduced to people and locations gravely affected by the physical and political reshaping of the planet they call home, and seeing the reactions of a society left to toil on a broken world is fascinating.
Amazingly, all of that is just the background to the mysterious cause of Mahera’s shattering, the Lands of Life, and Chado’s relationship with the Shiness. Sadly, the final few hours are a mad dash towards a conclusion that throws away most of the world building and characterization the game works so hard to establish. Major questions are left unanswered, plotlines remain unexplored, and characters devolve into standard RPG archetypes in an abrupt end to the game that is both unsatisfying and jarring.
That’s not to say that the ill-fated journey wasn’t a blast to undertake, however. The locales that the player does get to visit, particularly the lengthy dungeons, are well designed and replete with their own backstories that tie into the overarching narrative and character relationships. There are only a handful of real dungeons in Shiness, but each one is fairly unique in the context of the world and varied enough to maintain player interest. The boss battles at the end of each dungeon also mix in additional mechanics that the player must figure out beyond simply bashing the enemy into submission, a welcome change of pace for a battle system that can sometimes be frustratingly difficult.
That battle system is one of Shiness’s most unique features, mixing fighter mechanics with RPG elements like magic and status conditions. Players always engage enemies in one-on-one combat, though the player and enemy can swap out party members mid-fight. Each battle takes place in the confines of an “arena” that has a constantly shifting elemental affinity. This affinity is important because using the elemental magic attack that matches the arena will enhance the effect of that attack. The meat of the battles, however, is the hand-to-hand melee system built on combos and supers. It’s a system that’s as fun as it is frustrating, where making the right decisions on parries, blocks, and timing your big move can mean the difference between an easy victory and a swing in momentum out of your favor. Although the controls can be a bit clunky at times, Shiness’s hyper-dynamic fighting is one of the most engaging and satisfying battle systems I’ve experienced in an RPG title.
Shiness’s vivid, cel-shaded art brings the world of Mahera to life as characters and environments pop off your screen. It more closely resembles a big-budget game than one with its origins in crowdfunding, which is no small feat. Similarly, the soundtrack is an enthralling collection of uptempo flutes, strings, and percussion instruments that adds layers of personality to the accompanied environments. The voice acting is hit or miss, with the typical highs and lows found in most voiced games.
There are some technical hiccups sprinkled throughout the Shiness experience, regrettably, and some are more serious than others. Much of the voiced dialogue doesn’t match what’s present in the comic-style cutscenes’ speech bubbles. Some of the map edges lift the character up a few inches so that, for instance, they’re standing up above water on a coastline. Additionally, there are some grammatical and spelling errors, framerate drops and freezing, and instances where the music stops for a few seconds before restarting. All of these are relatively minor and don’t really detract from the overall experience. There is one major game-breaking bug, though, and I experienced it three or four times in my playthrough. Occasionally I’d have a character lose all of their health without being knocked out. Instead, they stayed standing but were unable to attack or be attacked. This would require a reset and some lost game time. Hopefully, this is something the developer will address quickly.
What French developer Enigami has managed to achieve with Shiness is admirable considering its humble beginnings. It’s clear that a lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into making this adventure a reality. It’s also clear that the developers fell victim to the same bogeymen that typically hinder most ambitious indie projects: time and money. Albeit flawed, Shiness is an indie gem that doesn’t quite live up to its potential, yet still puts many big budget games to shame.