Shining in the Darkness (Genesis) review
"A brilliant gleam"
"You STILL haven't beaten Shining Force?"
No, I haven't, and there's a reason for that. You see, I'm one of those weirdos who has a hard time getting into anything that's a sequel or spin-off without first playing its predecessor. Also, I have a hard time mustering the desire to play rat-maze RPGs. And what precedes Shining Force? A rat-maze RPG entitled Shining in the Darkness. Sure, I could just ignore that one and leap into Force, but then I'd have to contend with the nagging sensation at the back of my head dogging me with, "GAME SKIPPER! GAME SKIPPER! AHHHH!"
After years of this dilemma, I had to make a decision: buck up and play Darkness or buck up and skip Darkness. Obviously, you can tell which one I chose: putting on my big boy britches and venturing into the cold, musty, first-person dungeons, courtesy of developer Camelot and the Sega Genesis...
My initial fear getting into this adventure is that it would be another one of those painfully antiquated first-person jobs where you wander around for hours, die constantly, and don't ever feel like you're making progress. It didn't help that the story takes off with a dark overlord kidnapping a princess, just like thousands of other old school RPGs. However, glints of hope shined through--no pun intended--as I checked out the game's hub town and took in its presentation. The game waxed cheerfulness despite the dreadful opening sequence. An ecstatic village theme played while various cartoony citizens sold me armor and herbs or rented me a room. Some of the townsfolk weren't human, either, appearing as anthropomorphic animals composed of an art style that apparently combined anime elements with shades of Don Bluth.
Voyaging outward from town, I entered the labyrinth proper: a dungeon composed of convoluted hallways, traps, and treasure, and teeming with beasts. From here, the game's tone shifted to a more menacing ambiance, but one that didn't stand terribly at odds with the previous visit to the opening burg. In fact, it presented a lovely foil, showing off expertly that the experience could dance the line between whimsy and woe. I wondered if my early opponents would resemble the happy slimes seen in Dragon Quest or remind me of Phantasy Star's horrific mutants. And what should happen to greet me as I rounded the first corner except
Gary Hartley's avatar a very happy, yet hideous pair of evil, green blobs. How fitting...
Once again, I found myself impressed. Here you have a couple of specimens that clearly don't take themselves too seriously. They gawk at you with big, evil smiles like henchmen from a Saturday morning toon, but they're not so colorful as to be saccharin. And like any good early-campaign slimes, they fell with minimal effort thanks to the game's intuitive combat system, consisting of the usual turn-based, menu-oriented battle. Armed with only a knife and the desire to not perish right out of the gate, I repeatedly selected "fight" and hoped that strategy would suffice...
Darkness isn't like some of your early rat-maze games. You don't have to remain in the dungeon until you croak, struggling fruitlessly and attempting to survive off whatever goods you find in the twisty corridors. You get to exit the place and trek back to town, then sleep off all your mortal wounds at the inn. From there, you're free to mosey back into Hell and continue chopping up giant snails, three-headed worms, monkey-men, and pissed-off gnomes until you've sufficiently gained levels or earned money to upgrade yourself.
After some grinding and exploring, I forgot all about my objective: rescuing the princess. It's just as well that this game kicks off with such a hackneyed plot device because its main emphasis doesn't lie in its storytelling. Sure, its tale provides a few intriguing developments, but it's not exactly a deep work of fantasy fiction. Rather, Darkness throws most of its weight behind exploration, inventory management, party building, and weighing risks against rewards. For instance, you could delve deep into a new area in the hopes of landing a new item that'll aid you in your quest or discovering a unique weapon. However, in doing so, you increase the chances of bumping into bulky beasts that can easily tan your hide. To make matters worse, certain spots on each floor have a chance of spawning a mini-boss that can send you warping back to town to revive fallen comrades or rent a room.
Unlike your average first-person roleplayer, this one doesn't progress linearly. In other words, you don't complete a floor by locating the next one in line. Hell, you don't even access the second floor until you're halfway through the affair. Instead, the first half of the campaign consists of seeking out special sub-dungeons that serve as trials, with each one tougher than the last. Only then do you get to climb the structure, only to discover that the rest of your quest still isn't as simple as ascending the next staircase. You still encounter other objectives to complete, including acquiring magical items like a rope that allows you to climb through holes in the ceiling, not to mention collecting minerals for crafting purposes or nabbing the protagonist's ultimate equipment.
Advancement stands at the core of this adventure. You always find yourself searching for ways to strengthen your crew so you can chew through fights faster, earn money more quickly, and survive more challenging opponents. You're always pushing yourself to win as often as possible, gain levels as much as you can, and end up with a team that can take on anything handed to them. Call me old fashioned, but this sort of roleplaying always appealed to me. I've always loved taking a little extra time to bolster my party and be as prepared as possible for the coming challenges, then laughing endlessly as my hard work pays off.
Some games in this category tend to bore you so much that grinding becomes insufferable or tedious. The SNES RPG Arcana comes to mind, with its expensive pieces of equipment combined with lackluster variety in its bestiary. Thankfully, Camelot apparently knew this would be an issue and worked hard to vary enemy parties. You don't often bump into the same group twice, as the game terrifically mixes up the creatures you battle. You might take on a quartet of viking statues in one encounter, then slaughter a duo of necromancers joined by a pair of griffins. After that, you could run afoul of a single griffin, two necromancers, and a troll. And what after that? Just a single viking statue. Darkness's fights are that impressively random.
Never mind that its environments aren't very diverse or that its narrative lacks creativity, because you stop noticing those things after pounding through the third area. However, one missed opportunity constantly remains conspicuous by its absence: an in-game map. Yes, this is one of those titles, that expects you to pull out the graphing paper and manually chart your own course. Sure, you can cast a spell to catch a glimpse of your immediate surroundings, but that doesn't change the notion that Darkness could have and very well should have tacked a map screen on.
Regardless, Shining in the Darkness remains a fantastic RPG bolstered by its expertly balanced campaign, varied array of enemies, usage of risk versus reward mechanics, and art style that marries grim and playful sensibilities. No, this isn't your average, frustrating rat-maze padded out by a cryptic hint system. Rather, what you have here is a Japanese RPG viewed through a slight WRPG lens, cleverly performing a few delicate balancing acts.
Community review by JoeTheDestroyer (April 07, 2023)
Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.
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