Published on March 15th, 2013 | by Kerry Brunskill0
Shining Ark Import Review
Welcome to Awesome Games’ monthly feature, Nihon Zone! Our resident import expert Kerry ‘Kimimi’ Brunskill brings you an exciting look at the wonderful world of Japanese video games. This month’s entry is an import review of Shining Ark.
Shining Ark is the latest in Sega’s new-wave of Shining games, again featuring sumptuous art and character designs by manga artist Tony Taka.
Released on the PSP at a time when we’re supposed to consider the format long dead, I was concerned that Shining Ark would be little more than a token effort, nothing more than a quick “hit and run” cash grab for PSP owners looking for a new RPG to play. As it turns out, not only is the PSP doing just fine in Japan (more than fine in fact), Shining Ark is quite obviously a game with as much care and attention poured into it as any other.
The game’s main characters are Fried (pronounced “Freed”) Karim and Panis Angelicus, who during the course of the game naturally expand their group of friends to also include Shining series staples such as elves, ancient robots and wolfmen. The plot is really quite predictable - as far as RPG stories about young women with amnesia and mysterious powers go. Suffice to say, every half-remembered old legend is true and ancient ruins always seem to be the right place to go.
While the plot itself may not be particularly original I found it hard not to get caught up in it when it’s delivered so earnestly and backed up by fantastic presentation values. Anyone that does get tired of it will be pleased to learn that all scenes can be completely skipped, even if you’re watching them for the first time.
A Casual Affair
Your very first option once you’ve hit start is a choice between “Standard” and “Casual” difficulties, with casual defined as the mode for people who want to enjoy the story rather than be troubled by battles. As it turns out standard mode is incredibly easy as it is, so much so that with absolutely minimal effort on my part I’ve won every battle I’ve faced first time.
Battles take place in specific areas that your team are immediately transported to once you accept a relevant quest – there’s no wandering around or random battles to contend with here. This could feel jarring but before each fight starts you’re shown both a map of the island with the battle location marked, followed by a quick flyby of the area which gives a smoother transition than simply being dumped before another group of monsters.
Four characters can be sent into battle, one of which must be Panis. Benched party members still get XP and remain close enough to the others in leveling up that there’s never a worry about somebody becoming redundant just because you don’t want to re-jig your party every fight. The simplest way to describe battles would be “quite like Valkyria Chronicles”: party members and enemies take turns to move around the map and get themselves in a position where they can attack.
Walking, dashing and guarding are all governed by the same gauge and any combination of them can be performed so long as they have enough energy in to do them. The “command” option brings up the usual attack/force (AKA: magic)/item menus, only one of these three can be performed per turn. Rather than using an MP system Shining Ark uses a replenishing Force gauge, although in practice the end result is very much the same.
For The Love Of Bread
Panis starts out as something of a free agent in battle, controlled completely by the AI and governed by her mood, which is in turn governed by the bread she’s eaten recently. Certain bread-based products make her more prone to attack, heal or… well, not do much at all really. Over the course of the game as you speak to her and ply her with muffins, doughnuts and sandwiches she becomes partially controllable, and in the end completely controllable. Her battle AI is far from perfect but the lack of difficulty coupled with the lack of penalty for dying means that when she walks into the line of fire, it’s more of an irritant than something that greatly affects the outcome of a skirmish.
Emote Night And Day
Other than plot progression battles also award precious materials that are required to create or enhance weaponry at the town blacksmith. Life in Shining Ark’s single village is on the whole an idyllic one consisting mostly of bread-obsessed residents, fishing and farming. You’re encouraged to participate in all these activities and are usually rewarded with items or materials for doing so. Azel village has a full day/night time cycle (although no dates, so there’s no danger of missing out anything time specific) and certain quests or events are only possible at certain times of day. It’s a nice touch even if it’s not a significant one, and thanks to the copious amount of emote bubbles that hang over the villager’s heads it’s very easy to see whether speaking to someone is going to advance the plot or send you to fetch some milk.
The presentation is impeccable throughout, even simple menus look fantastic while still remaining easy to navigate. Hiroki Kikuta’s score (a man perhaps most famous for his Secret of Mana soundtrack) is mood enhancing without being overpowering, and yet is still of a high enough quality to be worth listening to outside the game. All major scenes are fully voice acted and even minor dialogue tends to open with a spoken “Hello!” or “Good morning!” – this game is clearly a “proper” RPG that Sega would like you to invest some time in.
A Bit Stale
Summary: Shining Ark is much like the sugary baked goods Panis is so very fond of – a nice treat, but of no real substance. Though I found the game to be enjoyable, objectively it’s largely “fluff”; the plot isn’t particularly remarkable and criminally the battles are such a pushover there’s very rarely any need to engage in any tactics beyond “hit bad people, heal good people”. Having said that there’s no sense of your time feeling wasted after playing Shining Ark either, but it’s more of a light snack than a full meal.