Shining Soul: A Cozy Way to Spin Your Wheels
The early 2000s was arguably the golden age for dungeon crawler RPGs - with the release of Diablo 2 in 2000, and its expansion Lord of Destruction in 2001, the genre reached unparalleled levels of success. PC is where the majority of these titles emerged from - games like FATE, or Baldur’s Gate 2, but of course, this isn’t a PC website. Despite… being probably viewed on a PC. You know what I mean!
Surprisingly enough, there were a decent amount of dungeon crawlers - possibly my favorite genre, period - on the Game Boy Advance, particularly those of the ‘Diablo-esque’ nature, one of which we’ve already tackled, Lord of the Rings; The Two Towers, but today we’re taking a look at a title that feels like the Japanese equivalent of the original Diablo - for better or worse - Shining Soul, a title with all the charm you’d expect from your first glance… though, unfortunately, this charm is one of this game’s few saving graces.
Shining Soul exists as a subset of the ‘Shining’ RPG series, which mixes in a whole variety of different genres, in this case throwing in dungeon crawling elements, much like the first game in the series ‘Shining in the Darkness’. Overall, Shining Soul was meant to be a soft reboot of the franchise, though I’m unsure how much of an ongoing saga this series really is. It did receive a direct sequel, Shining Soul II, but I’m unsure if Shining Soul as a whole dictated the future of the franchise. I dunno, even amongst fantasy RPG series, Shining looks pretty generic, so I doubt I’ll be playing anything beyond the GBA titles.
Honestly, I know next to nothing about the Shining franchise - my total sum of knowledge is the fact that my best friend has a figure of a knight girl from Shining Wind. She also has no knowledge of the Shining Franchise either, but got the figure because it fits her aesthetic. This really doesn’t contribute to the review at all, but more just to dunk on her. Moving on.
Shining Soul is fairly simple in gameplay and structure, drawing comparisons to the original Diablo of the late 90s. It’s your classic fantasy setting; you play as ‘The Hero’, fitting one of four distinct classes (Warriors, Archer, Dragonute, and Mage). The continent is losing a war against ‘The Dark Dragon’, a creature of nigh unimaginable strength, though in typical JRPG fashion, it’s all up to you, The Hero, to break through the Five Generals, and ultimately, the Dark Dragon himself to save the world. To achieve this, you’ll be dungeon crawling and buying and acquiring weapons and gear so you, y’know, don’t get your head kicked in by a goblin with an anger problem.
From the base camp, where you can buy, sell, and identify (which is kind of making magic items useable) various items and weapons, the player can depart to a world map, where you can access each of the various dungeons you will unlock over the game’s eight or so hour playtime. There’s little story to speak of, most of which comes from your encounters with the various boss fights, but these mostly boil down to ‘Raaagh, I will reward you with death, Hero!’ or ‘Oh, I wish I could see Darksol again…’. You know, normal fantasy schlock. And I say that as someone who appreciates some good ‘ol fantasy schlock.
The bulk of the gameplay takes place in these semi-randomized dungeons. Rather then in most dungeon crawlers, where you’ll just wander these floors until you locate either your target, or the stairs moving further into the dungeon, Shining Soul opts for a more combative form of progression. As you move through each floor of the dungeon, various enemies will pop into existence to try and kick your head in - the only way to open up the pathway to the next floor is to continually kill these enemies whilst working your way across the floor, which will eventually spawn a powered-up variant of a foe, who upon defeat will unlock the pathway. Finally, at the bottom of each floor is a boss fight against the forces of the Dark Dragon, which will unlock the next dungeon, and so on and so forth for the rest of the game.
Now, I’m just gonna get this out of the way right now; the main gameplay loop of Shining Soul isn’t interesting in the slightest. Now, I’m not trying to say dungeon crawlers need dozens of systems, all interlinked to make a compelling game, but the fact is there is just so little going on in this game. I played as the Mage in my run of the game, and the combat in this game pretty much boiled down to kiting enemies around rooms whilst I charged up my spells, ad nauseam for the entire game. Now, I know dungeon crawlers are kind of infamous for having the whole ‘left click enemies for twenty hours until you beat the game’, but at least other games of this genre have a wider variety of spells or attacks to play with - the Mage’s attacks were, more or less, just different coloured projectiles, their damage mostly tied to how high you’ve leveled that particular spell. It can be satisfying to charge up a decent attack and nuke a collection of enemies on the screen, but it’s not exactly engaging. I’m not going to say the gameplay is outright bad, but it’s pretty boring at the best of times.
I’m sure it’s possible that I just got unlucky and picked objectively the worst and most boring of the four playable characters, but I glanced at some Youtube videos and the Archer didn’t look particularly enticing either, which is a real, real shame.
To make matters worse, enemies aren’t particularly interesting to fight, either. There’s only a handful of unique kinds of monsters, and they always fall into the most basic archetypes. Y’know, orc with club, guy on horse, tunneling horror. And it doesn’t even matter how dangerous they are, because I found them almost all trivial to deal with, mostly because it seemed like moving even a few steps to the side as they attacked, you avoided damage entirely. Seriously, there were entire floors I avoided damage just because I got adept at kiting the enemies. I’m playing as a squishy mages, this really shouldn’t be easy as it is!
I’ll also admit, more then not likely because of my own idiocy (that’s gotta be the main theme of this website, actually), it took me a little bit to understand the whole progression mechanic. Early in the game, the Mage is pretty awful, so I was picking my battles where I could, which led to me running away from a lot of enemies at once. I’d spend a good five minutes running around the second floor of the first dungeon in circles, even at one point warping back to town to see if I’d just bugged the game’s random floor generator, when I went back and realized how the game actually worked. But even after I understood that, the whole system just feels a little weird. Enemies will continue to spawn ahead of you, but sometimes the exit won’t spawn, leading me to wander the floor for a while, just looking for anyone, anything to kill to let me progress. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but in a game with already so many ‘eh’ elements, it isn’t doing this any real favors.
This game did ship with a multiplayer element, allowing four players (all with four Gameboys, and four copies of Shining Soul), and I could imagine that could breathe a bit more life and fun into this game, but I don’t think it could save it. I mean, when there’s this little to actually explore and, y’know, -do-, what can just a few more bodies do? I suppose there’ll always be banter.
It doesn’t help that each dungeon is longer than the last, needlessly dragging out the middling experience. For the first three dungeons or so, I was having a good enough time - it was a fun enough title to play whilst I was watching Star Trek (Next Gen, the -third- best series, for the record) but it was as I entered the fourth dungeon that I realized that I’d pretty much seen everything, and the fact that these samey, repetitive dungeons, the likes of which only have the simplest of gameplay elements to differentiate for one another, were getting even longer… my enthusiasm for this game plummeted, and it really is because the game is just too goddamn basic.
This simplicity extends to the rest of the game - whilst games like Diablo or FATE had side quests or minor tasks for you to tackle as a distraction from conquering the main dungeon, Shining Soul has nothing. NPCs have pretty much nothing interesting to say from start to finish, shops and vendors have nothing but plain old boring gear to offer - the kind of stuff you’ll only need at the very start of the game and never else, and… that’s really it. It doesn’t feel like a town, or a hub, or anything - just a selection of people hanging out. It’s nothing like Tristram, a golden standard in regards to ‘home towns’ in dungeon crawlers. Nothing ever really evolves, there’s no weight attached to it. It’s just a base camp, and little more. The NPCS got a laugh here or there from me, but nothing I’d call remotely memorable.
I did appreciate the Centaur calling me an idiot every time I died, got a good couple of laughs out of me.
FATE, which is of a similar ‘vibe’ to this game, didn’t have any proper quests either, but it would randomly populate the NPCs with quests that, whilst quite generic (think ‘kill eight of this particular strong variant of creature on floor 8’ kind of stuff) did make the player feel like they were contributing to the world more than just carving through some dungeons forever and ever, and they normally gave you some good loot on the side. Also, the loot in this game outright blows! There only seemed to be handful of different items for each different class, and there isn’t any of the ‘Absolute Epitome of Magic Staff’ kind of stuff you’d find in a traditional, loot-based dungeon crawler, just.. ‘Staff+3’. It’s functional, but it’s just so… bleh.
The only real swerve from the game’s simplicity is in it’s boss fights, which thankfully are slightly more extended and thought-out encounters then the average rank and file. They weren’t a ton harder, but they actually made me think about my moveset - do I just machine gun attack with ice, or do big, area-of-effect spells with Inferno? With varied movesets, actual personalities that shine through with their attacks, and suitably impressive sprites, the boss fights were really the only thing I looked forward to as I ended my time with Shining Soul… and considering they make up a miniscule percentage of my time with this game… that doesn’t bode well overall, does it?
It’s only in the game’s visual design that I really have much else good to say; each of the game’s dungeons feel very distinct, with a warm art style that’s made fantastic use of the Game Boy Advance’s colours. The enemy sprites, whilst perhaps a little small and ‘too detailed’ to make out sometimes, all look pretty grand, with the bosses being the cream of the crop.
And as much as I bemoaned the lack of relevance the home town has to the game (seriously, I’ll take escort quests, I’m desperate!), it does has it’s own brand of cozy safety that only a home town can evoke, and more then once I found myself hummy its tune as I grinded through yet another dungeon.
In the end, I did kind of expect to be as middling as I am on Shining Soul. I heard little but positive things about its sequel, the aptly named Shining Soul 2, and almost all of that acclaim came with the note ‘It’s way better than the first game!’. So, probably in a year or two, I’m excited to come back to this sleepy little franchise, and hopefully have an experience with a little more, I don’t know, substance to it. Shining Soul is worth a try, and there is some satisfaction to be found in carving your way through the near useless foes you’ll encounter, but the game’s cozy charm belies an experience almost barren of complexity. It’s a shame - but that’s just how the dungeon crawls, I suppose.
Now if you excuse me, I’m gonna go play some Diablo 2 (through, uh, less then legal methods. Screw Activision Blizzard).
Thank you so much for reading my review of Shining Soul for the Game Boy Abyss! We’re almost at game number twenty for the Game Boy Abyss, something I’m genuinely amazed I’ve made it to. Seriously, knowing my stupid ADHD brain, I’d expected to give up on this after a couple of weeks. Keeping with tradition, game twenty will be something special to me, but as opposed to Astro Boy: Omega Factor, it’ll be a title I’ve never really played! Look forward to that next weekend!
As always, you can find me on twitter @Lemmy7003, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time.