Shining the Holy Ark - Staff Retroview  

This Ark Shines Brightly
by Bryan Boulette

20-35 Hours


Rating definitions 

   The rogue ninja Rodi, considered an extreme threat to the security of the Enrich Kingdom, has holed himself up in the remote mines of Desire Village, deep in the Godspeak Mountains. Fearing the turmoil he can cause even in such an isolated location, the king's advisor, Rilix, orders the soldiers of Enrich to seal off the mines. But the soldiers themselves aren't up to the task of bringing down Rodi: for that, Rilix has hired an elite mercenary team. Enter the loner swordsman Arthur and the partners, sorcerer Forte and shaman Melodye. Their mission begins at the Desire Mines, and seems simple enough: hunt down Rodi, and restore stability to Enrich.

   Of course, things never turn out quite so simply. The three mercenaries find Rodi, but their battle with him is interrupted by a huge object crashing through the cavern's ceiling. All four are left on the verge of death, their brains damaged or their lungs punctured. Surprisingly, though, they're saved. Rodi, Melodye, and Arthur are possessed by beings known as Spirits, whose ship it was that crashed through the ceiling. The Spirits repair their bodies, but when the three come to, Forte is nowhere to be found. And so three former adversaries must work together to escape the mines of Desire, find the missing magician, and discover just why it was that Rodi was hunted by Rilix and the King. Thus begins Shining the Holy Ark, the classic traditional RPG for the Sega Saturn system.

Forte Fireballs For Fun Forte Fireballs For Fun

   It's an unusual and effective way to begin a game, with the heroes actually being pointed enemies who are forced to work together for their own survival, as well as to discover what has happened to them if they have any hope of restoring themselves. As they progress, they'll meet additional characters, such as the rival mercenary team of Lisa and the dragon-man, Basso; Rodi's sidekick, Doyle, who's none to pleased to see his boss in the custody of two of Rilix's mercenaries; and, of course, the disappearing Forte. Most of the characters are well developed, and their animosities and rivalries are played up for greater dramatic tension.

   The story itself rarely breaks new ground, sticking to fairly traditional conventions; even while it has a number of plot turns throughout the game, they're not exceptionally surprising. Even so, it's an enjoyable tale, thanks to the personable characters that are largely -- with some interesting twists -- derived from the standard Shining Force archetypes, the well written dialog, and the strong cast of genuinely creepy and intimidating villains. Another plus in favor of STHA's story is that it ties directly in to the much more widely known, and popular, Shining Force III, with a story that takes place about ten years prior to Shining Force III's. Shining the Holy Ark sets the layout for the later story, introducing the menacing Galm, the conflict between the Vandals and Innovators, and even featuring Shining Force III's hero Julian as a young child, thus establishing the quest for vengeance that drove him throughout SF3.

   Words like "creepy" and "menacing" aren't just applicable to the game's cast of villains: they also apply to the dungeons, which are explored in full first person, a rarity in RPGs. The dungeons are large, complicated, ever-twisting, and as the player progresses through them from a first person perspective, monsters will leap out from the sides, from below, from above, often with shocking speed. These elaborate dungeons are a true joy to explore, and as the player covers each inch of ground, complex maps will slowly become filled it. Exquisite level design accompanies the vastness of the forests, ruins, and caves Arthur and his friends explore. When the monsters suddenly appear within, battle is engaged, but not before the player has a chance to preemptively attack the monsters with his fairy companions. During the game, by examining suspicious spots, the player can acquire fairy allies -- leprechauns, succubae, pixies, and so on -- and if you use the right type of fairy before each battle, they'll damage the enemies as well as net extra gold and experience.

The Gang's All Here The Gang's All Here

   Aside from the first person perspective and the fairy ally system, battles in STHA are a routine affair. The menus, identical to those in every Shining Force game, allow for the standard attack, defend, item, and magic. There's nothing special about the battles, but nothing objectionable either, which is a good thing, since you'll be in a lot of them. Aside from the dungeon exploration, battle is SHTA's major emphasis, and they are frequent, damaging, and often difficult, while upgraded equipment is expensive and level-building is a necessity. It's nice that each of the game's eight characters has a defined class, and thus brings their own strengths and abilities to the battles. None of them are useless, depending upon the situation, but they're all flexible enough that you can use the ones you like most. Thankfully, too, the battle allows each character to be rotated in and out at any point during battles.

   The game's graphics are among the best on the Saturn, featuring highly detailed environments that only increase in immersiveness due to the first person perspective. Cities and dungeons are both full of life and tiny details, and they're never bad to look at. Character models are top notch: the characters, NPCs, and monsters are all well designed, distinctive, and contain great animation. The only minor flaw in the graphics is that the special battle effects, such as spells, are somewhat lacking, but it's not a very big deal.

   STHA shines in the musical department, though. The game features a wonderful soundtrack composed by the prolific Motoi Sakuraba, and he delivers. Of particular note are the dungeon themes: since the dungeons are so long and so engrossing graphically and stylistically, it's important that they get music to match, and they do. Sakuraba's dungeon themes are ambient moodiness with some occasionally creepy undertones. The approach works well, and helps pull the player into the cemeteries, haunted forests, and abandoned mansions he or she'll be exploring.

   The battle music is also great stuff, which is precisely what one would expect from Sakuraba. They're fast-paced and action-packed. But there are also a lot of gentle, uplifting songs to settle things down after the long hours spent battling deformed monsters or exploring ominous dungeons. All the songs sound great and work perfectly at what they're intended for; the only downside is that there just aren't enough of them. Given the length of the game, a longer soundtrack would've worked better.

   The game is strictly linear and offers little in the way of additional sidequests, which hurts its replayability. However, the traditional but enjoyable story and the unique gameplay experience the game offers are endearing enough that it's still easy to feel an urge to revisit the game and its moody environments, which serves as an important reminder that gimmicks like bonus dungeons aren't always necessary for a game to be replayable.

   Despite its commercial failures, the Saturn was home to a number of truly excellent RPGs, many of which are often as forgotten today as the system itself is. This is one game that shouldn't be forgotten, succeeding as a great RPG even without much recognition or popular notice.

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