Shining the Holy Ark (1997, Sonic Software Planning for Sega Saturn)
Now we come to one of Sega Saturn’s marquee titles, and one of the great fantasy role-playing games of its era. Yes, Final Fantasy 7 stole all the thunder and Panzer Dragoon Saga has the most devout fans, but Shining in the Holy Ark offers a rich and enchanting experience that is the equal of any of its peers, and long enough to keep players engaged for a very long time.
Sonic Software Planning began with Shining in the Darkness in 1993, a Sega Genesis “dungeon crawler” that incorporated many elements common to Japanese RPGs, and thus helped to raise its stature above the genre (I write this as someone who has never been fond of first-person dungeon crawlers). They followed up with the seminal Shining Force series, which moved into the realm of Strategy-RPG, a genre that plays out more like a chess match than the traditional dungeons-and-dice fantasy games. In 1995, the studio created Shining Wisdom, an overhead adventure game ala The Legend of Zelda that was rather cooly received (It began as a Sega Genesis project and was moved to Saturn late in development). In 1997, the series returned to its roots while continuing the continuity of the overall world, as well as serving as a prequel to the Shining Force 3 trilogy that soon followed.
Shining the Holy Ark begins with a trio of mercenaries hired by the king of Enrich to capture a rogue ninja for unknown reasons. They meet at the mouth of a mountainside, and proceed to explore the mines inside. After the confrontation with the ninja, the roof suddenly collapses and all the parties are either knocked unconscious or killed. A group of strange alien beings revive all four, inhabiting their bodies. One of the characters, however, is taken by an evil spirit and vanishes into the darkness. The remaining spirits implore the remaining three to join together to defeat a malevolent force before it revives a lost thousand-year kingdom and plunges the world into darkness. As the story progresses, allegiances and loyalties are questioned, the true state of the kingdom is revealed, and many new characters are brought together for the quest.
All in all, this is standard fare, but I enjoy the characters and the pacing of the writing, which is brisk and engaging without becoming overly complicated or self-absorbed, thankfully avoiding the bloat that was already consuming the Final Fantasy series.
The graphics are rendered in a first-person view, a combination of 3D polygons and 2D sprites in fine Saturn tradition, with pre-rendered CGI used for the characters. This was a common style during the 32/64-bit era, as limited resources forced software developers to combine the technologies and make compromises whenever possible. The use of pre-rendered graphics would all but disappear after this generation, which certainly dates it for some but nevertheless retains a certain charm all its own. I like the way these characters and creatures look, with their richly painted colors, smooth animation and geometric shapes.
This world features a wide variety of environments, including castles, towns, churches, dungeons, cemeteries and elaborate cave systems. I was expecting the usual array of squarish dungeons that all look alike, as was typical of dungeon crawlers since the very beginning. I was very pleasantly surprised to explore open-air spaces, curved underground tunnels, hills and stairways. One dungeon even featured multiple levels of pathways, with deep ravines below and winding bridges overhead. Another region features a frozen lake above a mountain cave, where one wrong step sends you falling through holes. You’ll even explore a haunted mansion that clearly pays homage to Resident Evil. Two words: mine cart.
An especially novel feature in the game is the addition of fairy sprites who join your party on your quest. These tiny people will attack monsters at the start of battle, causing damage and sometimes even defeating foes for you. They are divided into five classes, and are selected depending on which direction the enemy monsters appear. There are 50 fairies hidden throughout the world in all, which adds a great incentive to explore every nook and cranny. You might even find yourself going back to a previous area to find them. As your quest progresses, these will prove to be invaluable friends, so you are strongly advised to seek them out.
Overall, Shining the Holy Ark is highly polished and brilliantly executed. It’s always challenging in the tradition of classic RPGs, which means that you’ll spend much time grinding out experience points in battles, and you are always in danger of being overwhelmed in the larger dungeons by dangerous monsters. The level designs are superb and tightly structured, with more variety than I was honestly expecting. And the musical score by Motoi Sakuraba is especially solid, full of catchy hooks and infectious melodies in the classic chiptune tradition. One of Sega Saturn’s finest. Highly recommended.