A little look at… Shining in the Darkness

As someone who’s been absolutely ga-ga over Shining Force II since 1994 it’s more than a little embarrassing to admit that I hadn’t played through series starting point Shining in the Darkness until just last month, but here we are.  I’d like to pretend that this was just down to a fear of running into another Dinosaur, Carmine, or something slightly more interesting than the plain old truth but the fact is there are simply an awful lot of games out there and only so much Kimimi to go around.

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I want to start this blog post by talking about something that doesn’t normally get (nor deserve) praise in a 1991 console dungeon crawler – the excellent script as well as the fantastic localisation work that brought it to life for overseas players. Now at this point I could mention the wonderful plot twist that sees the delicate rescued princess cheerily join the party to dish out a demonic butt-kicking, or how the terrifying Big Bad admits he’s actually been a little bored since discovering he’s so powerful nobody (but you) can stop him, but as good as those points are it’s all the little details that really make a difference: There’s the beautiful variable-width English font with proper dangly bits for letters like ‘y’ ‘j’ and ‘p’. Battles concluding with ‘[Hero]’s party stands victorious!’ rather than the standard ‘[Monster] was defeated’. Magical herb water is sprinkled, spells are weaved, and powerful attacks land as awesome blows. It may not sound like much but small flourishes like these add that special little sparkle to a oft neglected part of the dungeon crawler experience and the game’s all the better for it.

It’s not flawless though, and a few problems typical of the era still raise their head from time to time: Japan’s nefarious Mephisto became Dark Sol in English, presumably to avoid the most enduring of all localisation sticking points, religion; and there’s a range of more minor details such as the kingdom of ‘Storm’ became ‘Thornwood’ and ‘King Storm’ being renamed ‘King Drake’ – probably because the poor soul deserved a name all of his own. But bar Dark Sol accidentally ending up with the same name as his own father everything else can be brushed aside as either a good editor’s personal preference or a mild case of the nineties, and there’s really no reason for most people to fuss over the authenticity of the official translated script when it reads as well as it does.

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Of course there’s no point writing about Shining in the Darkness without taking a look at the great labyrinth itself, and it’s my pleasure to report that while I was busy bracing myself for a maze of Psy-O-Blade proportions the game instead offers a relatively compact and hassle-free experience that’s skewed in the player’s favour with no invisible walls, disorientating teleports or teeny-tiny grey buttons hidden in grey walls (sorry, Dungeon Master) in sight. Even a total wipeout sees your party’s souls whisked off by valkyries to the town church shrine with your XP and gold unmolested, and as the first floor of the labyrinth acts as a hub area to all the other parts it never takes more than a minute or two to get back into the action.

Other user-friendly help comes in the form of an automapping spell that costs just 1MP to cast and shows everywhere you’ve walked as well as your exact coordinates and direction, a quick bit of pop-up text informing you where you are when you enter or clear a trial, and saving the best bit for last – the designers were kind enough to make all four trials their own entirely self-contained mini-dungeons to be started, puzzled through, and completed as a standalone experience – something that really doesn’t happen as often as it should and spares the player an awful lot of backtracking.

The game’s exceptional graphics help enormously with dungeon navigation too, with decorative touches such as elaborate statues and torches used to break up the twisting cobblestone corridors into bite-sized memorable chunks. Even puddles of water are carefully considered features in Shining in the Darkness, with your party either making a small harmless splash or on random occasions disturbing one of a selection of unique water-based enemies as they pass through them.

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Bar a bit of unpleasant but unsurprising grinding here and there I had a lot of fun with the game – proper fun fun too; the sort where I was looking forward to my next session with the game again rather than taking the ‘Well I can appreciate what they were trying to do’ approach I sometimes need to wheel out for older titles I didn’t catch the first time around.

Twenty six years after its initial release Shining in the Darkness can still stand proud as an excellent example of console dungeon crawling done right; it’s a well-designed and beautiful game with enough optional story content and missable equipment to make it worth playing through more than just the once. It’s not an especially cheap purchase in English if you want a cartridge all of your own (although it’s far from the insanity of Vampire Killer, to name just one of many through-the-roof Mega Drive titles) but the good news is Sega have it available digitally on Steam for the grand sum of £1.99. Two pounds for a fantastic game that kickstarted a much-loved series? Brilliant!

End of year post 2016 edition

It’s that time of year again! Close enough for me anyway – time to stop rushing through whatever’s caught my eye this week and instead take a look back over all the games I’ve played this year and do my best to badger you into playing the good ones. For those of you who wisely avoided my previous GOTY posts I’ll just take a moment here to explain that due to my odd tastes and mayfly-like attention span ‘Game of the Year’ within Shinju Forest’s imaginary walls means ‘A great game I played in 2016’ not ‘A great game released in 2016’.

Now I’m pretty sure at this point I’m supposed to try and build up the tension by making a long list that mentions just about anything but my GOTY pick(s) but sod that, I want to talk about Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.

I think Revengeance is perhaps best described as the game that lets you RUN UP BUILDINGS and JUMP ON ROCKETS and SLICE EVERYTHING TO TINY PIECES but the coolest part is the way GIANT ROBOTS GLOW RED-HOT after being SPLIT IN HALF with a SCI-FI KATANA and then SARCASTIC ROBOT DOG FRIEND says something funny and OMG HOW ADORABLE IS SUNNY and you did all this while wearing a RIDICULOUS SOMBRERO.

[deep breath]

To rephrase that in a less hyperactive sort of way, I adore this shot of adrenaline in videogame form not just for the finely tuned battle mechanics that have you practically dancing around enemies before ripping out their (cyborg) spinal columns with a single precision strike but also for its tone – this is not a game that’s afraid to poke fun at (and gloss over) Metal Gear Solid’s albatross-like lore, or one that passes on the chance to raise a smile because it’s afraid of alienating Manly Men Who Buy Action Games. Like last year’s Game of Awesome Awesomeness it feels like Revengeance only cares about offering up all the fun, all the time. While philosophising with terrorists.

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Speaking of fun-funny games, my other and equal GOTY award has to go to…

A movie tie-in. Yes, really.

Thanks to many years of harsh reviews, misguided purchases from well-meaning relatives, and the odd inexplicable bout of ‘Well, it can’t be that bad’ from myself I’ve learned to instantly dismiss any licensed game that doesn’t involve Tokyo police mecha, games of animes of games, and anything based on a nineties OVA series. So it took seven years and waking up with a strange need to bust some ghosts (like everyone else does, right?) before I finally touched Ghostbusters 3: The Video Game – and I felt terrible: To think I’d let something this lovely slip by unbought!

What makes it so brilliant is that it’s a sharply written and well paced game that’s more than capable of being enjoyable in its own right even if you don’t have a favourite Ghostbuster (Egon forever, by the way), and if you do then it reveals its true colours as a love letter not just to the movies but the franchise as a whole, with nods to everything from the NES game’s memetastic ending text to Extreme Ghostbusters tucked away inside Terminal Reality’s Big Ol’ Firehouse of Easter Eggs.

It is undeniably a little rough around the edges (Peter’s situational dialogue is very much of the help we didn’t get Bill Murray to record all of his lines variety), but when you consider the hell the game went through during development it’s a miracle it made it out the door at all, never mind as an fabulous-if-a-little-wonky movie/game hybrid that should really be the standard for all others to follow.

So my favourite games this year may look pretty different on the surface, starring as they do a cyborg man named after a Leonardo DiCaprio character and a group of scientist loser-heroes assaulting supernatural entities with homemade technology, but underneath it all they’re the same thing – thoroughly enjoyable adventures of just the right sort of length that know exactly when to give the player a cheeky wink and crack a good joke.

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They weren’t the only good games I’ve played this year though! With the big two out of the way let’s have a quick look at a few that’d receive an ‘honourable mentions’ trophy if I only had the time, money, and inclination to order one.

Koudelka: Incredibly well written horror-ish RPG with a ‘make do’ survival aspect to battling and some really beautiful locations.

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Makyouden: Linear but gripping point and click adventure with superb battle animations that takes place in an irresistible ‘dystopian (retro) future with demons’ setting.

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Abzu: Beautiful in so many ways, from the obvious thrills of swimming with dolphins over a bubblegum-pink seabed to the more subtle touches like being able to reach out your hand to stroke fish. Tie it all up with an emotional plot that tops the experience off with one of the most euphoric victory laps gaming has ever seen and you’ve got an essential game.

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Assault Suits Leynos 2: In many ways this still doesn’t knock Assault Suits Valken off its spot as best Masaya mech-action game, but on the other hand its not really trying to either. It’s takes some effort to understand what it’s trying to do, but when you get the hang of it Leynos 2’s brilliant.

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Galaxy Angel: For me this series was 2016’s little ray of sunshine, a warm and fluffy trilogy that’ll never be accused of being big or clever but was still so much fun I couldn’t help but play them all back-to-back with a big grin on my face.

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Genei Toshi: Phantasy Star IV’s cyberpunk-themed big brother – what more could you possibly need to know?

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And now for a few unexpected disappointments – Galerians (teenage writer’s self-insert fanfic: the video game), Omega Boost (as boring as it is pretty), Dead Space (not scary), and Popful Mail (Super Famicom - not a patch on the Mega CD version). Can’t win ‘em all, eh?

As for next year, it’s probably no surprise to hear that I’m all hyped up for Final Fantasy XII HD and Resident Evil 7. The new lighting work and the fancy arranged (or is it remastered?) soundtrack are just the sort of flimsy excuse I need to buy Final Fantasy XII for a fifth time, and Resident Evil 7 looks like it’ll be a good horror game even if I still have some concerns about the overly-scripted feel of the demo. Apart from those two I’m hoping to find some more eye-wateringly hard games to fall in love with, or failing that just play Lost Planet 2 (again). Sound good?