Shining The Holy Ark

Shining The Holy Ark
4.5
Game Name: Shining the Holy Ark
Media: 1 CD-ROM
Publisher(s): SEGA Europe
Developer(s): Sonic! Software Planning
Genre(s): Dungeon Crawling RPG
Release Date: 14th June 1997
Serial Number: MK81306-50
Region: PAL


For many of you, the mere fact that Shining the Holy Ark is a 1st person dungeon crawler may immediately put you off. Indeed, if you loathe dungeon crawlers there’s a good chance you won’t like this either – but there’s also a solid chance that you’ll love it. I say this not just from my own analysis, but from the many gamers I’ve heard say “I usually hate dungeon crawlers, but Shining the Holy Ark is awesome.”

Shining the Holy Ark Title Screen

The iconic title screen of STHO.

A big part of it is the way random battles are handled; they almost don’t feel random at all. Unlike many RPGs, the game doesn’t cut to a separate battle scene. Instead, monsters pop out from the scenery and grapple with you right there. Furthermore, each monster type always appears in the same type of layout. For instance, Scissor Crabs always scuttle out from behind corners, so if you’re walking down a straight corridor, you won’t encounter them. Many non-boss enemies don’t appear randomly at all, and are only encountered when searching treasure chests, coffins, etc. or taking some other action.

To top it off, encounters are relatively infrequent; no battles every three steps. The whole presentation maintains the unpredictability and tension of random encounters, while making them feel more organic and less tiresome.

The manner in which enemies appear also comes into play in the unique pixie system. 50 pixies of five types are hidden throughout the game, and join when you find them. Each type of pixie corresponds to a direction, and selecting the right type when an enemy first appears makes the pixies score a first strike. For instance, if an enemy rises from the ground and you select your Leprechaun pixies, the wee folk will go forth and deal the enemy damage, whereas if you select your Incubus pixies they’ll fly right by and do zilch.

Shining the Holy Ark Screenshot 1

“Superbly designed characters and much more, all experienced in breathtaking pseudo-3D”

Pixies also have the happy effect of reducing grinding, since they gather extra experience points from each battle if you successfully used them at the beginning. If you find enough pixies and get the hang of using them, it’s quite possible to complete the first half of the game without any grinding at all! Indeed, this is one more reason why even many dungeon crawler haters come to love Holy Ark. If you want to make the game easy, the grind option is there, but if you prefer a more fast-paced and challenging experience, you can mostly skip the grinding.

If there’s one thing liable to turn people off the game, it’s how simple combat is to begin with. For the first couple dungeons you mostly just attack, attack, attack, and heal up afterward. As enemies get deadlier and characters learn more spells and criticals, however, battles steadily become more involved, and some of the boss fights are epic tests of wise planning and responding to mishaps.

The game also allows you to rotate any of the 8 playable characters into the 4-character active party even during battle. This deepens the challenge, as some bosses are tough enough that using everyone is required.

Puzzles add to the variety, and many of them are truly ingenious. Of particular note is a dungeon which flips you upside down at points, allowing you to reach areas and objects you otherwise never could. Getting through the dungeon requires well-considered use of both upside down and right-side-up.

Shining the Holy Ark Screenshot 2

“Unlike many RPGs, the game doesn’t cut to a separate battle scene. Instead, monsters pop out from the scenery and grapple with you right there.”

The game is also outfitted with a mysterious and truly unique story. On its surface it centers around the reluctant heroes’ struggle against an evil villain, but it runs much deeper on examination. Mature studies of the nature of good and evil are the themes, and while the characters can all be categorized as either good or evil, those of the light have their shadows and those of the dark are lit by a soft glow of humanity. There’s Arthur, the silent protagonist who seemingly values his freedom above all else, yet willingly devotes himself to the aid of Melody, despite her derision towards him. Melody, though arrogant and condescending in an effort to hide her inexperience, is quick to offer friendship, and the game’s events will change her outlook entirely. Sabato guides the forces of good, yet the means he uses raise ethical questions. And Rilix, the villainous hag, seems in fact driven by a yearning for the glory days of her clan. The game is not too text-heavy, either, with the story cleverly designed for the player to fill in the blanks or speculate on many points.

Of course, all the above observations come from an avid reader; most of the story’s subtleties will be lost on the typical gamer. However, there’s no need to fear the story being impenetrable, as at its surface is simply an entertaining tale of goodies versus baddies. For those who like something to ponder, though, Shining the Holy Ark has plenty.

Much like Shining Force III, this ninth installment in the Shining series has precious little connection to the storyline of previous entries. So don’t worry on that score.

Shining the Holy Ark Screenshot 3

“The gorgeous ACM-crafted graphics and soundtrack pull you right in to the whole experience.”

The gorgeous ACM-crafted graphics(a la Donkey Kong Country) and soundtrack pull you right in to the whole experience. Until you see it yourself, it’s impossible to understand how lovely every setting and NPC looks, to say nothing of the killer animations for the character’s various criticals or the sight of monsters crumbling to dust when you slay them. And composer Motoi Sakuraba pulls no punches. The music doesn’t just say “tension”, or “peacefulness”, or “creeping paranoia”; it forces you to feel those moods, whether you want to or not.

Shining the Holy Ark isn’t for everyone. Some of those adverse to dungeon crawlers will find their minds unchanged by its numerous merits. But the game is worth at least a try for any gamer, and for the dungeon crawling aficionado, this is THE game to own for the Saturn.

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