There are three main play zones: labyrinths (in the form of woods, mines, dungeons, mansions and more), towns and the main world map. The labyrinths are, of course, the primary playing area, which you fight through to reach the next town, and find out more of the story. Within the labyrinths there are items to find, bosses to fight and pixies to recruit.
The battles are turn based, with each character (from your group of 4) and monster having a chance to attack, cast a spell, use an item or take a defensive stance (to reduce damage). Unlike the Force games in the series, the battles are not viewed from overhead, but are from a first person viewpoint, with characters and monsters simply standing facing one another. Any character can attack any monster, and vice-versa. Actions are selected and confirmed via a series of on-screen menus. The battle format is somewhat more restrictive than the Force style battles, and can become frustrating when every few steps through the dungeon, another battle begins. It's nice that in Holy Ark you're able to see your characters when they attack.
Being a role-playing game, statistics play a vital part in battles, to determine the effects of actions. If during a battle, a characters HP (hit points) reaches 0, they are exhaused and retire from play. To bring them back, a fee must be paid to the church in the town to restore the character. Statistics increase with level-ups, which happen as a result of experience being gained from battling and defeating enemies. The amount of experience required to reach the next level increases throughout the game. When an enemy is defeated, you'll also be given some gold, which is necessary to purchase items, weapons and armour.
Inbetween quests in the labyrinths, your characters visit nearby towns, and wander around the main land map to get to various places. In the towns, there are several places you'll need to visit (in first person view, as always!) - the church (for curing, raising and saving the game); and a selection of shops from which items and weapons can be purchased. You'll also be able to wander into people's houses and other buildings to talk to the residents, and hunt for items or pixies.
As with most RPGs, there's a puzzle element in Shining the Holy Ark. Besides the labyrinths, which are all puzzles in a sense, there are of course items that must be found and used in certain locations in order to move on in the game.
Though the story is already set in stone, and is not really affected by your actions in the game, the end is left open to interpretation, and has lead to much speculation.
As with all the Shining games, Shining the Holy Ark is set in a fantasy world of monsters and demons, swords and spells. There are some signs of more advanced technologies, from the past, but little is used in the game
Once you know the labyrinths, the game would be easy to play through again, meaning you can spend more time searching for items and following the story than trying to find your way around. It's not a game that could be played over and over like some of the others, but certainly it's not one you'd hide away in the attic after the first time through it.