BY SEGA & SONIC SOFTWARE PLANNING, 1997
25 WORDS OR LESS:
A remarkably original tale of a band of heroes who journey to prevent an evil sorceress from abusing ancient technology.
Not just a double entendre
When you turn on a Sega console and hear that adorable Japanese woman say "Sonic! Software Planning~!" you know something good is going to follow. Known in the past as Sonic Co. and Team Sonic (not to be confused with Sonic Team), Camelot has worked on almost every Shining game to date. The company has dropped the series for good after a squabbling with Sega during the production of Shining Force 3 Scenario III (the newly announced Shining Force: Resurrection of the Dark Dragon on the GBA is being developed by Sega), but the team has a rich history involving some of the Saturn’s better titles. While not a Shining game in the traditional sense, Shining the Holy Ark borrows some of the classic strategy RPG series’ more endearing traits — the unique menu system, class change option, and mad difficulty — to create a pretty decent RPG that bears the distinctive mark of Team Sonic.
The game opens with a team of bounty hunters entering a mine to track down a criminal named Rodi. The two mages of the group, Melody and Forte, begrudgingly take on the assistance of the main character, a swordsman, by order of the king. The three discover Rodi, but their battle is cut short by a collapsing tunnel (or is it something else?!?) and an amnesiatic Rodi emerges from the rubble willing to side with the swordsman until they can figure out just what the holy hell is going on.
From here on the game crams as many cliches in as possible, including such favorites as the ancient power that risks being abused by the evil sorceress Rilix (likely relation to estrogen-powered pop rock outfit Lillix), who just so happens to be chancellor of the nearby kingdom, controlling the mind of its king. Our heroes are given the task of finding the three magical seals and stopping evil once and for all! It’s a twisting, turning adventure story that will leave you snoring for more.
Fortunately, Shining the Holy Ark falls in with the crowd that prizes plain old fun over the roleplaying aspect of the genre, giving anyone who still has their Saturn lying around a fun little romp regardless of the crappy storyline. Excluding the world map, the entirety of the game is played through a first-person POV similar to the original Phantasy Star. But unlike Phantasy Star, Holy Ark’s environments can be several levels high and contain curved paths, bridges, puzzles, and other obstacles to spice things up. And while they’re pretty damn pixelated for the most part, most of the dungeons’ textures are reasonably detailed and integrate seamlessly. Best of all, an auto-map on the edge of the screen expands as you explore.
Towns are also explored via the first-person POV, where players can rest up at the pub or pay exorbitant fees for slightly stronger equipment. Blacksmiths will forge unique items of great strength if you bring them any bits of mythril ore you pick up, and progress can be saved at the Church of Zod. But life in a small town can get hectic, as evidenced by the occasional slowdown whenever you pass through and get too many townspeople into the frame. Impressionists will love the Monet-style textures used to bridge the town and church areas — beautiful from afar, a total mess on close inspection.
Battles are turn-based, and can occur as rarely or with as much maddening frequency as in PS. Holy Ark’s monsters are all rendered sprites, many of them appearing pretty jagged thanks to the Saturn. The game’s battle system also allows for member-swapping between rounds, adding an element of strategy to the larger fights towards the end. With eight different warriors to recruit, keeping everyone well-equipped can be a very worthwhile and expensive endeavor.
Composer Motoi Sakuraba (who also supplied Shining Force III with beats) provides the game’s haunting score. Most of the game’s tunes are on the lighter side, with each one reflecting its environment through great instrumentation (usually flutes) and slow rhythms. Boss fights create the impression that Sakuraba himself is standing behind your party going nuts on a synthesizer, and if that’s not the point of boss music then maybe I’m missing the point of having boss music.
What some players may not appreciate is the game’s steep difficulty curve. The first couple of dungeons can be toppled with minimal effort, but it’s towards the middle of the game that equipping your party with the absolute best stuff available becomes necessary to stand any chance in the next area. Shining series fans know what a bitch it is to have enemies spew forth fiery breath! and knock everyone down to critical, but it’s one of those series staples that just needs to be there. The best I can do is tell you to pack a lot of herbs and don’t swear so much when your mom’s in the room.
Shining the Holy Ark is one of those games that comes through as one of the few really great titles on a console that tanked before its time. If you’ve played through Panzer Dragoon Saga a bajillion times (or just don’t feel like setting aside your next three paychecks to get it off of eBay), Holy Ark is a fun time-waster that might be worth tracking down. The going rate for a used copy is cheaper than most RPG’s of Holy Ark’s rarity, which is pretty damn good for a slice of solid Saturn-era fun. —Alex Fraioli