"I won't even try and hide the fact that I have a soft-spot for the Shining franchise; it would be pointless and if day-time chat shows have taught me anything, it is to be proud of who I am - and I am a Shining fan. So when I spied a Shining game for my pristine and newly-purchased GBA, I didn't even pause to lay down the cash. I knew nothing of the game pre-release, I admit, so when I managed to steal myself away somewhere quiet and slid the cart anxiously into the game slot, what followed the ..."
I won't even try and hide the fact that I have a soft-spot for the Shining franchise; it would be pointless and if day-time chat shows have taught me anything, it is to be proud of who I am - and I am a Shining fan. So when I spied a Shining game for my pristine and newly-purchased GBA, I didn't even pause to lay down the cash. I knew nothing of the game pre-release, I admit, so when I managed to steal myself away somewhere quiet and slid the cart anxiously into the game slot, what followed the warming wave of nostalgia was something a little less than fulfilling.
Set before Shining Force I, you take on the role of the first to take on the evil and aptly named Dark Dragon, the legend told in the first of the Shining Force games. Puzzlingly, you start your game near the end of the war when all that is left is to defeat the remaining generals who are hidden in their respective strongholds. And for the plot, that, sadly, is pretty much it. Most of the story is more hinted at than told, such as the battle against the Dark Dragon and company before this last offensive strike to reclaim Runefaust's freedom. It's a shame that the reason you are fighting is made to take a back seat role.
And those fighting the good fight, the legendary Light Warriors, consist of the ever-popular archer, mage and warrior typecasts along with today's newbie, the dragonute. [Read: the obligatory powerful but very slow one.] You can choose which of these four lucky chaps will act as your on-screen avatar and get to navigate through your adventure.
With your character onboard, the game then starts as all things Shining do - with someone reading a book and inviting you to take place in the story within; it's always nice to see that some things don't change.
A simple start is fitting, as Shining Soul promotes simplicity, as the controls reflect. You can move around with the D-Pad, hitting A activates your respective weapon, and B uses your chosen item, such as an herb or angel wing. Holding down A will charge up your attack should you wish to do so, and the L and R shoulder buttons cycle through quick-select sub-menus for the items and weapons respectively. You have three slots for each, so you can carry three differing weapons and change them as you desire. On the other hand, you can hold perhaps a couple of healing items but quickly switch to an angel wing to teleport away when the going gets too tough. Nothing new to those familiar with, say, Diablo, but it’s a vital touch in both respects.
Hit the start button to open the game’s menu, where you have your inventory. In here you have a grid containing all your items, where you simply select the ones you wish to use and either transfer them to the correct quick select menu (be it a weapon or an item) or discard them. The same system is utilised in all manner of shops with respects to buying and selling stock. You have your armour slots in this screen as well, and to equip it is again a simple click and drag system. Played Diablo or PSO? Then a lot will be familiar to you. If you've not, it's an easy-to-use interface that will be picked up in no time.
I felt a little disappointed at all the straying from the Shining formula, but one large thing stays true to the series. Shining Soul exhibits graphics that stay true to the vibrant colours of the world of the series. In keeping with the style of the previous games, it is all presented in rather an attractive cartoony style, and everything is crisp and clear. Each enemy (although suffering from a great deal of pallet swapping - another long-running Shining trend) is well animated and easily recognisable. It is exactly what you would expect from a Shining game on the GBA, in fact; it’s colourful, sharp, and well presented. Arrows and spears will whiz across the battlefield, spells look pretty impressive, and melee weapons get swung around with ease. I can find no fault with anything graphical. A special mention go the generals via their end of level battles - impressive stuff.
It's not all good, though, I fear. This game has some 'features' which can make the frustration level soar.
When you save the game, it means ending it. You can only save by exiting your current game, but that doesn't sound so bad, right? After all, you mainly only save because you are putting the game down for a while, surely? Of course, it means no saving before a stubborn boss or difficult area, but annoyingly there is more to it than that; if you save mid-dungeon, you lose your place in that level and have to start over from the beginning. You don't lose all your progress; finished levels remain finished and all new equipment and items remain, but it still means you have to do each level in one non-stop chunk. Obviously, as the game goes on, the levels grow in length and difficulty, and thus this becomes more of an annoyance.
Pausing? No such thing! Hit the start button mid-level and up pops the inventory screen, but the game continues on. Want to use something not in your quick-select menu mid-battle? Well, whilst you select it, you will continue to be pummelled by any beasties still roaming your in-game screen. This can be extremely annoying. Whilst it does keep a feeling of real time, it is impracticable for a machine like the GBA, seeing as the whole idea of the system is that you can play it on the move. This makes this pause system (or, rather, lack thereof) impractical and frustrating.
Not convinced? Let me paint you a scene. You are on the train, merrily mashing A to see off the latest hoard of evil that swarms you from all directions. Mid-battle, the mini-Hitlers that are the train conductors wander into your carriage, calling for tickets. Your choices are to ignore them while you try and see off all the nasties on-screen, risking the unholy wrath of underpaid train workers, or to accept that by the time you have stopped playing to find your ticket, and with no way to pause the game whist doing so, your bloodthirsty foes’ attack will continue. You'll be dead by the time you resume.
If that wasn't enough, this game will quickly strike you as repetitive; hack 'n' slashes often are. After the first few levels, running around pumping the A button will start to grate, and what with that being the entire attack system, it will. Believe me, it will. This is the game’s major flaw. Fighting the boss battles relieves this to some extent, seeing as they are quite well-made and you'll have to adjust your strategy from pure pummelling, but the cannon-fodder that inhabits the dungeons can and will be beaten purely by brainless brawn and button-mashing. Even mixing it up with charge attacks soon gets old.
There is the odd silver lining. Levelling up gives you the ability to place stat-ups; this means you get the chance to customise your warrior of choice. Also, for fans of the series it's nice to have some understanding of the story before the story in some respects, Shining Soul being a prequel to the original Shining Force. Fans will also recognise the vast array of cameos from various games over the years. I won’t name any names, but Dark Sol is one of them.
It does work as a good intro to the Shining Force plot as well, but as a stand-alone game, it just doesn't hold much weight plot-wise. However, the flaws will always outshine the positives, no pun intended. You need to set aside a good chunk of time to get anywhere thanks to the save and pause systems, and it repeats more than an undercooked steak.
The Shining fan in me wants to add to the score purely for the joy of seeing the odd cameo and my personal favorite anti-hero Dark Sol's appreciated presence, but at the end of the day, this will not appeal to the mainstream fan. Action fans will become tired of the repetition, and RPG fans will feel let down from the plot, low interaction... and repetition. Fans of the series will enjoy it much more than newcomers, however; it should not be dismissed as a no-go. The core of the game is enjoyable, and if you do enjoy it, it contains a good deal of replay value should you want to master all classes. Linked play also helps this game into becoming much more enjoyable, and if you have that option available you should certainly take advantage of it.
Add a few points if you are familiar with the series, but keep as it as is for those coming in fresh. It just repeats a little too much to be a must-have.
Community review by bside (September 17, 2005)
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