Can't have dirty Holy Arks...
My party was running low on health. We had used up nearly all of our healing magic, one of our friends was dead and needed to be taken to the priest (fortunately he has a cure for death). We were nearing the edge of the forest and the safe road back to town, when suddenly a Bone Slave rose from the earth! To arms! Steel yourselves men (and women) for one final battle. Bind those wounds, and beware his magic. Remember he is our only obstacle before sanctuary...
Shining the Holy Ark is the latest RPG in the highly acclaimed Shining series. Most of you reading this have played either one of the Shining Force games, or Shining in the Darkness. In fact, it is Shining in the Darkness for the Genesis that this game most closely resembles, with quite a few additional enhancements.
The first thing you'll notice about Shining the Holy Ark is that the whole thing takes place from a first-person perspective; a rare format for RPG's, but one that works quite well. It is not a full freedom of movement game, like Quake or Kings Field II. Rather, you move from square to square like most RPG's, but you view the movement differently.
The graphics have been much improved since Shining in the Darkness, but they still maintain that 'cartoony' quality. The backgrounds are all rendered by the Saturn, and you can look up and down and all around while moving. The monsters and your characters are all animated sprites that look 3D because they were modeled on other machines and then brought to the game.
The sound is about average, with enough sound effects to get by. The background music is standard for the genre, with only one particularly BAD tune to accompany your adventures through the 'East Shrine'. There is only one combat music, and you will be very sick of it by the time the game is over. Wait! I've got two more complaints: There is no way to turn the music off and leave the sound effects on. And finally, my usual gripe: THIS IS A CD ROM GAME, SO WHY THE HELL AM I READING TEXT?! Lets move into the 20th century, folks. Just listen to the great voice work in Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain.
However the best part of the game is the user-friendly interface. Someone who has spent a lot of time playing RPG's had a hand in helping to design this game. For example, if you buy a new weapon at the shop, you can automatically equip it at the time of purchase, followed by the shopkeeper immediately making an offer for your old weapon. It turns a tedious 4 step process (unequip, sell, buy, equip) into a single quick purchase. When you are equipping or transferring items, the game automatically shows you which of your stats will be raised or lowered if you equip that particular item. There are simply dozens of little interface enhancements that let you skip the tedious stuff and get to the heart of the game: combat.
The fighting is pretty standard, but well animated. Unfortunately, most of the spells have really boring graphics (with a couple of exceptions). 'Hell Blast' and 'Weasel Slash' for example, are just some spinning pixels. Yawn. The best parts of the fighting are the 'Power Attacks', which occur randomly based on your skill levels. They all do more damage, some have special effects, and they all have unique animations. Each character has about 6 different power attacks. You begin with just one, and gain new ones over time to keep it interesting.
Another unique combat feature is the 'pixies'. As you explore the world, you may find pixies of six different types (fairies, leprechauns, succubi, etc...). They stay with your party permanently and can be use to launch a preemptive strike against foes, if your trigger fingers are quick enough. You must use the correct pixie depending on where the monster attacks from: if they come up out of the ground, use the leprechauns, from the left, use the succubus... This adds a real-time element to the game, but really isn't very thrilling.
You can also collect other adventurers. You begin with three in your party, but by the end it will have grown to eight. The characters are pretty standard Shining types, with a swordsman, a half-man half-dragon warrior, a girl name Akane (a regular Shining name), wizards, ninjas and whatnot. Most of the characters can 'change class' once at level 20 where they get keen new outfits and abilities. You'll find that some of the characters are just MUCH more useful than others.
But what brings the characters together? What is their quest? Well... its a little complicated. In fact, Shining the Holy Ark has one of the stupidest, hardest to follow, who cares 'anime-plots' that I have ever seen. You begin with yourself, Forte and Melody. You are trying to kill Rodi under orders of the king. You beat Rodi, then a spaceship crashes and glowing things with big ears save you from the cave-in and possess your bodies. Now Rodi is on your team and Forte is evil. The mercenaries Lisa and Basso want to kill you, but they don't. The king is possessed by an evil witch, but his advisor is good. There are evil immortal 'Vandals' who are trying to take over, but one of them helps you instead. Lisa and Basso stop trying to kill you and join you. You free the king from the evil spirit, then travel to some kind of null-time dimension to become 'Innovators', whatever the hell those are. Then you.... Oh, never mind, it just gets worse.
The puzzles are all easy, but the dungeons will take more than one venture each before you master them; bringing total gameplay time to about 45 hours. Not bad. While the plot is unfathomable, it is generally clear where it is that you have to go next.
The best part of Shining the Holy Ark is that it is fun, and a welcome treat for RPG-starved Saturn owners. The innovations in the user-friendly interface should immediately be adopted by all future RPG's as they make the game much less tedious. The first person perspective is also a nice change, and younger kids will find the cartoony graphics entertaining. However, a few good enhancements just aren't always good enough when you don't care about the story. The motor works fine, but the Holy Ark could still use a little more buffing and polishing.