That’s one shiny ark!
Way back in 1991 Sega released an early dungeon crawler by the name of Shining in the Darkness. Similar to Sir-Tech’s Wizardry titles, Shining in the Darkness cast you in control of a party of heroes on a mission to crawl through a dungeon’s depths, find all the loot you could, and while you’re at it, save the world from certain destruction. Shining in the Darkness achieved some degree of success and became the springboard for an entire series of Shining titles. While the next four games in the series were exceptional strategy RPGs under the Shining Force title, it wasn’t until 1997 that Sonic Software Planning brought the series back to it’s dungeon-crawling roots.
Shining the Holy Ark was released for the Sega Saturn in 1997. While many fans of the series were eager for the third numbered entry in the Shining Force saga, Sega decided to try something bold and release a title that expanded upon the formula of SitD by crafting a larger world to explore than before, towering dungeons, and a cast of characters who actually end up making their way into Shining Force III’s story.
The game starts out with you playing the role of Arthur, a new recruit in a mercenary band tasked by the King of Enrich with taking down a ninja named Rodi who has made his way into a mineshaft to elude capture. Of course, capturing Rodi doesn’t go as simply as planned as a craft smashes into the mine, nearly killing your party and allowing one of your near-dead compatriots to be possessed by a demon. With the aid of the benevolent spirits who so nearly destroyed you, you’re given new life and incredible powers when the spirits fuse with you and your party and set you off on a quest to save the world.
And it’s a damn good thing you’re getting help from a higher power, because Shining the Holy Ark is quite a challenge. While exploring in dungeons and though the forests of the Kingdom of Enrich, you encounter a constant barrage of monsters. Battles take place in brisk turn-based fashion, with a command system similar to Dragon Quest allowing you to do battle with weapons, use magical spells, or items to assist you in battle. Even early on enemies have spells that can deal some pretty serious damage to your party, and you’ll learn fast that taking a slow and steady pace through a dungeon, taking time to leave and return with fresh supplies numerous times is often the only way to complete an area and move on to your next objective. This can become burdensome, especially due to the fact that there are no save points in dungeons, so planning ahead and making the best use of the items you have in your inventory before a boss fight is imperative.
Graphically, Shining the Holy Ark is a treat. Large and detailed pre-rendered sprites fill the screen during battles, some sporting some very impressive battle animations. While some of the character sprites come off a bit grainy, the colorful environments, flashy spells, and varied environments make the game much more interesting than most other games in the dungeon crawling genre.
Unfortunately, the large sprites and flashy effects of Shining the Holy Ark come with a cost. Slowdown happens regularly in battle, often causing menus to lag, which can be a burden when trying to manage an intense fight. While the game never becomes unplayable because if this, it is a bit disappointing, Thankfully, this problem doesn’t carry over into the exploration segments of the game-play.
Shining the Holy Ark is no slouch in the audio department either. Featuring a soundtrack by Motoi Sakuraba, the composer who created the music for Shining Force III, the game is full of excellent pieces of music. Towns feature upbeat and busy tunes, dungeons are filled with haunting melodies, and the battle themes are infectious enough to get stuck in your head for days.
Overall, Shining the Holy Ark is an excellent addition to the Shining series. Often overlooked for being different from the wildly popular Shining Force titles, it is a game that is worth a purchase by anyone who is a fan of dungeon crawlers in general, or for any Shining Force III fan looking to get some further insight into the story, as some of the major characters from SFIII play an integral role in the story of Shining the Holy Ark. While it may not do anything to reinvent the wheel, Shining the Holy Ark is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure that deserves a home in any role player’s collection.
Available on: Sega Saturn (reviewed); Developer: Sonic Software Planning; Publisher: SEGA; Players: 1