Since Shining Soul's gameplay is different than the other games in the series (though almost comparable to Shining Wisdom in some respects), it was bound to receive mixed reactions. Now, though I've always loved the Shining series for it's tactical, turn based battles (and originally disliked Shining Wisdom for it's lack of them), I'm open to trying something different, as long as it fits into the Shining World properly.
When you start the game, the first screen allows you to select your language of choice: English, French, German, Spanish or Italian, after which you can select to play in Single Player or Multiplayer mode. Of course, since I only have the one Game Boy Advance and just the one demo cartridge, I could only test it in Single Player, however having played the Japanese release with a friend, I can say that it, sadly, doesn't add much to the game besides the distraction of chatting to your friend about which items to trade.
Going on to start the game, a selection of four different characters Warrior, Archer, Dragonute and Wizard (in a variety of colours) are available to choose from. Each class of character is able to use different kinds of weapons (though the Wizard can only use magic), and each has their own set of skills to be built up during the game. The different items that can be used by the character classes are the essense of the multiplayer mode, as if you're a Dragonute and you find a bow, you can give it to your friend who's playing as an Archer. Neat.
There are 8 Areas in the game to play through (in normal mode) and there's not much to be said about them. As you wander around each area's various stages, you'll encounter monsters to hack your way through, and when killed, these monsters might drop items for you to pick up. As described above, however, you're likely to find items that your character type can't use... and so the only point in picking them up is if you intend to go on to play in Multiplayer mode, or to take back to Prontis (the main town) to sell for profit. You may also find items just lying around in some areas, or hidden inside a chest. Once you've killed enough of the monsters in the stage, you'll progress to the next stage... and eventually on to the Boss for that area.
If you've played other games in the series, I know you'll recognise at least some of the bosses. Sadly, most of the bosses pose little challenge, with their predictable patterns of movement/attack - in some cases the confined areas in which you are fighting pose more of a threat than the boss itself!
"But there has to be more to it than that!", I hear you cry. Well, there is a little. As you kill monsters, you gain experience. With each level your character goes up, you'll gain some stats and skill points to be distributed to your character's various attributes. This gives them various benefits, such as a more powerful charge-up attack, taking less damage from certain magic types or even restoring more health with each medical herb used.
The final feature worth mentioning is that of collecting souls. There are various 'souls' that can be collected in the game, mostly dropped by enemies. These are basically an item that can be equipped as an accessory. They need to be charged up by killing monsters (each soul requiring a different amount of kills to be fully charged), to reach "soul max" status, meaning a quick tap of the select button will give you a pretty scene of the soul's character (for example, a Golem Soul would show a Golem) performing a 'devastating' (sometimes... usually it just knocks down the monsters HP a bit) attack on the surrounding enemies.
"Anything else?" ... well, there is the 'Advanced Mode' that you're able to play through with a character with whom you've completed the Normal game mode. However, all that really offers is some higher stat monsters, and slighly motified graphics (note: modified, not 'better').
Camelot's lack of involvement in this project is, I'm sad to say, blatantly obvious. Let's hope Shining Soul II shows a lot of improvements.
To summise, the gameplay is far from innovative, and - to a Shining fan at least - not a patch on the more traditional gameplay styles in the series. How would I describe it? Hack-n-slash. Think Shining Wisdom (or Zelda, if you will) combined with Gauntlet and you're not far off the mark. In fact, after you've gained your first weapon skill, the bulk of play will simply be a case of backing off to a safe distance to charge up your attack, then just letting it do its thing. The game won't take very long to complete this way, but I would have to say there's more enjoyment in the second playing of the game... at least for me.
The reason for this is that once you've played the game, you know what to expect from each of the 8 Areas of play... meaning you're able to tactically build up the statistics and skills of your chosen character in order to get through the game in the most efficient way possible. Of course, this may not be to everybody's taste, but it certainly made me enjoy the game a little more, having to put some thought into it, rather than simply bashing buttons.
Being set at this point in Shining history gave the developers a lot of opportunities to expand on the Shining storyline and answer a lot of questions. Instead, they chose not to do as much research as a series of this stature deserves, and unfortunately Infogrames did not try to change these mistakes when localising the game.
As such, not only are there many (albeit fairly minor) inconsistences in the game itself - for example, no matter which character class you choose, the bosses still refer to you as human, and the girl in Prontis still calls you handsome if you're a female; but also there are some areas where the storyline simply doesn't tally with the information we've gained from playing the other Shining games. It seems this game is 'Shining' in name only, with nothing more than some cameos and poor attempts at linking the story in with the others.
I could go on to criticise the individual details of the storyline, but I'd be here all day. In a nutshell, nothing has changed from the Japanese version... which is a good thing in one way (it's about time they stopped changing the original storylines) but also very bad for the overall Shining storyline.
The many mistranslations (Dark Sol... he hasn't even been born yet! ... I-Ohm?! What kind of a name is that?) and poor grammar in the English version were very disappointing - it's been almost a year since the Japanese release - plenty of time in which to fix things. It seems as though the game had no proof reader before release, I've seen numerous fan translations of games which are of a higher standard.
But, the grim truth is that this game won't take you long to get through, and even with the Advanced Mode when you complete the normal mode, it doesn't add an awful lot to make you want to keep playing.
As I described in the Gameplay section, the main advantage of replaying is the benefit of hindsight - you know what to expect next, so you know how to build up your characters stats in order to get through the game as quickly as possible.
Of course, there is the possibility you might want to play through the game as each of the character classes... but to be honest, this doesn't change much. Sure, you'll see some different graphics, and have different stats to build up. But the bottom line is that nothing else in the game changes... it's still relatively dull.
The repetitive nature of the game is it's failure. Though the various (and sometimes fun) items to find can make you want to keep going to find more, that soon loses it's charm too.
Minimal skill is required to get through the main levels of the game - simple button bashing will get you through without problems. Charge up for a few attacks and you'll find the enemies dying all too quickly. There's no challenge in this game.
Even the bosses are relatively easy to defeat, each having a pretty much set pattern of moves and attacks that can easily be avoided. With all the medical items you can carry, you'll have no difficulty in passing most of the bosses first time around. Poor.
Compared with Camelot's GBA games (Golden Sun & Golden Sun 2), the graphics are pitiful. We've seen what the GBA is truly capable of, and Shining Soul is far from it.
As a Shining game (I'd give it 2 stars, maximum!), it's absolutely abysmal. Without it's name, the cameos and familiar characters (if such poorly translated names can be considered 'familiar'), I doubt anyone would recognise it as a Shining game. I think my nickname for it sums the game up pretty well: Boring Soul.