A direct follow-up to the classic Megadrive game, Shining in the Darkness, and arguably the best level-grinder on the Sega Saturn, the awkwardly-titled Shining the Holy Ark is a superb first-person, party-based RPG with turn-based combat.
Developed by Sega‘s own Sonic! Software Planning team, Shining the Holy Ark was published in 1997 and is a mix of 3D and 2D graphics. The environments are made of simple 3D polygons, and all the characters are animated using 2D graphics (by the looks of it: possibly rendered on a high-end 3D workstation). Like most “Dungeon Master clones”, you explore tunnels patrolled by belligerent monsters and can step from tile to tile on the map using the joypad. Unlike Dungeon Master: you don’t really get to see the monsters in the distance before they attack you. Just like in Shining in the Darkness: when you step on certain tiles, scripted battles will take place – usually with the combatants sidling-in from the side of the screen, as if to surprise you. The direction the enemies arrive on-screen to fight you is crucial to the gameplay because you can use ‘pixies’ to counter your opponents before the battle starts – that is: if you get the direction right when you counter. Random battles also happen from time to time and the direction thing also applies. Combat is icon-driven, but very easy to understand. You can fight, run, and do all the usual stuff, and you choose your commands from a series of pulsating icons (which are very similar to those seen in a later game: Golden Sun, developed by Camelot Software Planning).
The story in Shining the Holy Ark isn’t anything to write home about. Like most games of this type: dialogue and situations are simple and a bit dumb, but that doesn’t really matter because the game is both extremely playable and very challenging. Like the original Shining in the Darkness, Shining the Lost Ark is tough. You can forget trying to complete any of the dungeons in one visit. The tactic that saves you is in using an Angel Wing, or a Return Spell, to warp back to town to heal-up. Then go back in. Thankfully there’s a very nice automap feature (brought up by pressing Start) when you’re actually in the dungeons, which helps make exploring fun and not confusing.
I hadn’t played Shining the Holy Ark until recently, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I’m a big fan of the original Shining in the Darkness, and this is a perfect continuation in many respects. Graphically, it’s a little dated (it’s those pre-rendered character graphics that date it), but gameplay-wise it has survived the rigours of time extremely well and is very much worth playing now; if you can find a copy. If you like JRPGs this is a must-play game.