When I heard Atlus had plans to localise the game for the USA, I jumped at the chance to help improve the black sheep of the Shining series! Thankfully Atlus were willing to listen and more than happy to provide a review copy for SFC. Thanks so much guys! It may be worth noting that the version I am reviewing isn't the final release, though little has changed (bar a bug fix or two), or so I'm told.
Of course, having played this game through several times already, and knowing how repetitive the gameplay can get, I honestly wasn't looking forward to having to go through it again! I was, however, pleasantly surprised to find that the game seems far more enjoyable with a decent translation! That's not to say it's suddenly a great game, but it's an improvement without a doubt!
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.
After the Atlus screen disappears, 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 essence 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. Some of the weapons, it must be said, are pretty cool (if a little oddly named!), having spell-like effects, and thus being more effective against certain types of monsters or providing you with stat boosts or extra magic resistance. 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! On the up side, the numerous mistranslations in the European release have now been fixed, and we can happily fight against our previous Shining foes with their original names :)
"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 charge-up attack makes the game even easier than it was to begin with: simply back off, charge up and let loose on a bunch of monsters - almost instant victory, guaranteed!
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. Sadly, these are quite a rare find in the game - in all my journeys through the world of Shining Soul, I have found only two souls... and in my first play through the US release, I've not found any!
"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 slightly modified graphics (note: modified, not 'better').
Although Camelot's lack of involvement in terms of gameplay and overall storyline is blatantly obvious, Atlus have managed to make a silk purse from a sow's ear in this case, dramatically improving the translation, which leads to the game being slightly more enjoyable.
To surmise, 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 loose on the monsters. The game won't take very long to complete this way, but I would have to say there's more enjoyment in subsequent playings 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 - but fortunately Atlus tried to clear up at least some of the mistakes when localising the game.
Minor inconsistencies in the game itself - for example, being referred to as 'human', despite being a Dragonute or Elf! - have been remedied as much as possible. Obviously the main storyline hasn't been altered dramatically, but overall it's much easier to read (decent grammar & smoother translation, unlike Infogrames attempt!) and thus more of a pleasure to play. I just wish they'd remembered to change 'the Dark Dragon' to 'Dark Dragon' ;) Ah well, can't have it all! It was wonderful of them to take my suggestions on board anyway :)
In conclusion, Atlus have done a wonderful job of localising this game, without straying too far from the original story, while making enough changes to satisfy a Shining fan.
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... its still relatively dull.
The repetetive nature of the game is its 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.