2019-08-07: Shining in the Darkness & The Holy Ark
Today I finished Shining the Holy Ark, a pretty obscure Saturn dungeon crawler that's the more-or-less sequel to the Genesis classic Shining in the Darkness. I'd played Darkness years ago now, but a lot of memories of the game came flooding back once I got into Ark properly. It's definitely a respectable sequel, even if the story doesn't really directly continue.
Shining in the Darkness was amazing for its time. Though it was clunky and slow in many ways, Darkness really had atmosphere going for it. The dungeon itself was your enemy. Along side the standard staple of random foes that appear out of thin air, you had environmental foes that could appear when you crossed specific formations of dungeon elements. Crossing a T-intersection could spawn a crab which strafes in from around the corner, crossing a puddle could spawn a water sprite that rises up from it, crossing stalactites could spawn a foe that drops from the ceiling. You came to recognize certain formations and what they spawn, and even avoid those formations in the case of particularly rude foes. This coupled with the slow plodding movement through the dungeon, the amazing music, and the very well balanced progression that ensured the first time you met an "environmental" foe would be painful meant the entire dungeon had a memorable atmosphere.
Shining the Holy Ark came out on the Saturn, which doomed it to relative obscurity. That's a shame, since it took the Darkness model and polished it up. The slow clunky pseudo-3D dungeons of Darkness were replaced with true 3D in Ark, though the 3D capabilities of the Saturn produced a lot of things that looked like they were made out of plastic or clay. The rough start of Darkness in which you have to explore the first (very large) floor of the dungeon as a solo fighter was replaced with being provided with an immediate party of three, much to my delight. The relative static and basic battle scenes were replaced with dynamic models that leap into view, act in different ways (sometimes multiple ways even for the same ability), and animate in really endearing and exciting way... I feel like it may be an out and out improvement in every way.
Ark is a little strange in that you play Arthur, the paladin-trope character of the party. You control every party member in the same way as him, but the presentation of the game makes it very clear that "you" are Arthur. He's the only party member that cannot be removed from the party, the only one that doesn't speak, and the game is persistently presented from his point of view. In fact, in combat your allies will leap onto screen from the foreground, attack, and leap back-- but when Arthur acts, it's the camera that moves (sometimes to a nauseating degree in the case of an attack that I assume is supposed to be a spinning dive-slash). This is a neat little detail in trying to make the player feel like one of the party members.
Arthur is introduced along side Melody the Shaman and Forte the Sorcerer, as a trio of mercenaries sent to hunt down a rogue Ninja hiding in a cave. During the ensuing fight with Rodi the Ninja, a space ship (or air ship? or something?) crashes through the ceiling, nearly killing all four individuals. From the ship emerge "spirits", ghostly alien-like things that then possess the four humans for their own purposes. Three of them possess Arthur, Melody, and Rodi to heal them, while a fourth evil spirit leaps into Forte and runs off. The three good spirits beseech you to help them find the fourth spirit and fulfill your destiny or some jazz. From there you start a journey that reveals a massive plot to destroy the world and build a kingdom of evil in its place. Not the most original story, but not trope fodder either.
While Darkness takes place in one massive dungeon underneath a town, Ark takes place across a large semi-open world. Each area is a maze-like "dungeon" of its own, with exits leading you to a world map that lets you freely walk between areas. In total there's three towns and fifteen dungeon areas, with most dungeon areas being two or three floors (though up to seven). To be honest, I prefer the idea of a singular dungeon, but the distinction is rather moot in the presence of good travel options. Vexingly, dungeon areas between your source and destination have to be entered and traversed... but this is only relevant when accessing two areas: Desire Town and the Far East. The dungeons are varied, with each one having its own aesthetic and also a gimmick unique to that dungeon. One dungeon has you walking on the ceiling (a first for me!), one requires you to kill plants and use them as ladders to move between levels, yet another requires you to flip switches to toggle the direction of flowing water that acts as conveyor belts. No dungeon is as simple as just walking across it.
The interface is also unique in that in the dungeon view there isn't one. Your view is totally devoid of any UI element or distraction save for the dungeon itself. You have to open the menu to see any party details, but within they are neatly organized to give you (almost) all the info you need at a glance. In battle health indicators are a narrow bar across the top of the screen and input is done with the Shining style cross menu. It all flows very well and never really gets in the way.
Where Ark truly shines (haha) though is in all its little details. Random "enemies just appear" encounters are gone; the environmental encounters of Darkness have been expanded to be the only way to get into a fight. This means if you know what various formations of hallways and dungeon details spawn foes, you can avoid them to extend how long you go without a battle. In some places there are no battles because the right formation of stuff to spawn a foe doesn't happen. Every enemy appears in the dungeon to battle with you in a different way: some walk around corners, some drop from the ceiling or rise through the floor, and some come flipping gracefully from behind you into view, striking a perfect gymnast's pose, and then engage-- yeah. That happens.
Examining certain dungeon elements usually produces a "There's nothing here" text box, but once in awhile you can get a cute little random scene of something inconsequential happening in the dungeon. Examining a rock several times may get you some bugs crawling out of it, a hedgehog popping out and scampering off, or a really weird little scene where three slugs ooze out and get into a pushing contest at your feet. It's all really strange and charming and I have to wonder why the devs put work into such a small inconsequential detail... but I'm glad they did.
The most engaging detail of Ark though is critical hits. Normal attacks don't just have the ability to crit, they have multiple levels of crits. Crits that are learned from level, crits that are learned from equipping a specific weapon, etc. When you critical hit, one is chosen at random and executed. Some of these just do more damage (sometimes a lot more), some add additional effects like sleep, stun, health drain, elemental affinities, etc. By the end of the game Arthur had at least eight unique critical attacks... and you crit often. In addition, certain spells can crit. Most of these just do more damage without any special effect, but some completely change their animation and effect. Critting Spark level 4, for instance, instead summons a giant that brings lightning down on the enemy. By the end of the game I was mostly building my party around what they did when they crit; the damage and effect difference is so large, and you crit so often, that it's viable to do that. It also means even battles where you mash "OK" are dynamic and interesting, since any given basic attack can be one of half a dozen different things.
Another thing I enjoy about Ark compared to Darkness (or even other crawlers) is at no time are you solo, or even a duo. You begin the game as a party of three, quickly pick up a fourth, and at no time are you left short-handed. You eventually pick up eight members and can freely swap any four into your party, even during combat. It adds a layer of depth most crawlers don't have in that you can pull someone in for one turn, have them cast a spell, then swap them back out for someone else next turn. Switching is completely free and without penalty-- the penalty is anyone you bring in has to take the abuse of the enemy group for the turn they're active. Even better: everyone gets experience at the end of every fight, even if they never acted. No worries about anyone falling behind because you don't use them often!
Every party member is unique. No role is duplicated. There's two pure physical fighters, but one specializes in heavy hits and the other specializes in agility and crits; they perform completely differently in battle. There's three healers, but one has powerful single target heals and resurrection, one has a powerful group heal, and one is more durable and can contribute decent damage in her own right. In the latter boss fights of the game, I needed all three healers for different reasons. Then you have a pure sorcerer, a debuffing master ninja, and finally Arthur himself who is kind of a red mage with a heal, an attack spell, and powerful physicals. Every single party member is useful in given situations, and every single one is required for optimal execution in battle except for maybe Doyle the crit ninja. But Doyle when built correctly is also a physical damage beast matched only by Arthur with the end-game sword, so him too.
The main team for most of the game (after getting the group together anyway) was Arthur and his massive physical hits, Rodi and his sleep spell lockdown and AOE attack spells, Akane and her AOE heals, and then either Doyle and his massive crits for single targets, or Forte and his AOE spells for groups. For bosses though I often needed Melody or Lisa in to be a second healer... and sometimes even both of them! The only party member I didn't use a ton late in the game was Basso, who is a lumbering slow physical attacker with no magic. He, however, had his time earlier in the game as he's the fourth party member you get and therefore is the only choice for some time.
Another quirk worthy of mention: Ark approaches dead characters inconsistently. Since it was Arthur, Melody, and Rodi present at the start of the game and possessed by the good spirits, if any of them die, they get back up at 1hp at the end of the fight. If any other party member dies, they must be revived. Resurrection requires either Melody's magic (or Arthur's at extremely high levels), a consumable item I found exactly three of in the entire game, or thousands of gold at a church in town. Death of a non-spirited party member is expensive until Melody gets revive! Fortunately losing the three spirit holders isn't an instant game over, nor is losing your entire active party. If no living characters are left in battle, someone from your reserve will jump in. This is good since instant death magic gets a teensy bit common toward the end.
My playthrough of Ark took almost exactly 26 hours. A pretty good length. As I was entering the final dungeon I was starting to feel a tiny bit of fatigue with the game, which really... the final dungeon is probably the perfect time to be ready to move on from the game, no? It didn't overstay its welcome, had no real frustrating moments, and though combat was fairly long and slow, at no time did I feel it was really tedious. The difficulty felt fairly consistent overall, with some bumps when freshly entering a new dungeon-- as expected. The end got a little spiky though. I went from fairly confident strutting about and taking out bosses to barely surviving the final three boss fights once bosses started getting multiple actions a turn. Still, I only wiped entirely once: the battle with Rilix at about the two-thirds point. GameFAQs and various forums definitely cite this as one of the hardest fights in the game, so I don't feel so bad about it. After that I gained 5 levels on everyone, came back, and wiped the floor with her.
If I had to ding Ark on anything, it's that battles indeed run a bit too long. Every attack has a long fluid animation and while these cycle around enough to not be seen over and over again, I do kind of wish there was some way to speed them up after the 100th time of seeing them. This wasn't helped by the fact that I was forced to emulate the game, and Saturn emulation is not the best. Frequent slowdowns during complicated animations made battles even more glacial from time to time. I started using attack magic less, because it was faster to take an extra turn in battle than deal with the chug-- that's an emulation problem though, not the game's fault. Also Ark's dungeons are quite large, requiring multiple trips to explore just a single floor in most of them. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but one that should be prepared for.
Ark was put out by most of the same team that'd eventually become Camelot and produce Golden Sun, and the similarities show. A lot of features in Ark feel like prototypes for what would eventually be in Golden Sun. While there's no Djinn system, there is a system of finding fairies that can assist you before battle. The general feel of battle is very similar, the music is similar, a lot of the models are similar... It shows that the same hands and minds created both games. It kind of makes me want to play GS, to be honest.
All in all, a solid 5 out of 5 for me; an amazing game. It made me want to go back and play Shining in the Darkness again, too!