Shining Soul II

Year Released in US: 2004
System: Game Boy Advance

The first Shining Soul was a decent but flawed time-waster. It was a dungeon crawler with minimal storyline that mainly served to give the player lots of dungeon hacking while simultaneously offering the most cameo appearances by characters from other parts of the series I've ever seen. It was a virtual parade of who's who in the Shining universe.

Because of that, it's perhaps quite remarkable that other than a tenuous tie to the original Shining Soul, Shining Soul II has virtually no connection to any other part of the series. It has Boken and Yogurt cameos, but storywise there's nothing but a brief reference in the prologue and an optional dungeon that has statues of the last game's potential heroes. On the other hand, there's more to do in town than in previous games. Forging's improved, as in it's easier to find materials and then create something useful. Also, quite a few of the NPCs will change their dialogue after each section of the game. Unlike the first installment, Shining Soul II has a handful of characters with facial portraits that do nothing but add color to the player's home base. They might not be particularly useful, but at least the place isn't barren.

In terms of gameplay, Shining Soul II exceeds the original. The first game had some lackluster dungeons, one of which was the third one in the game. Because it's often necessary to replay a dungeon and level in order to be strong enough to take on the next one, it's important to have an interesting dungeon design because even if the placement of treasure is sometimes randomized, the dungeons themselves are not. On the one hand, this makes replaying a level easier because the player who's been through it before knows which way to go. On the other, if the dungeon art looks boring the player will be bored. Some of the dungeon art from the first Shining Soul is recycled in the sequel for optional dungeons and in most cases the lack of quality shows. The new art is better though and if I'm hesitant to replay a dungeon it's not because it's boring. It's because I got my butt kicked in it.

Shining Soul II is very much Diablo II on the go, only with cute anime characters. Much of the functionality is the same, from being able to replay completed areas (including bosses) to finding set items that give a bonus when worn together. There are differences too, but basically, if you like Diablo II you'll feel very much at home with Shining Soul II.

There are eight character classes, twice the number of the first game, and the original Warrior, Archer, Dragonute, and Wizard (aka Sorceress) return along with the new Ninja, Dark Wizard, Brawler, and Priestess. Other than the Dark Wizard, who seems to be a form of fan service for those players who like bad boy spellcasters (especially vampiric white-haired bishounen), all the classes are archetypes of various characters that have appeared in other Shining games. Since I an unable to resist a loveable wolf character and Zylo was one of my favorites in Shining Force, I selected the Brawler. And as a side note I'd have to add that the claw-equipped running Brawler animation is absolutely adorable.

Playing a melee character actually isn't all that it's cracked up to be in this action/RPG. As an Archer in the first game I spent a lot of time running away and charging up my bow before unleashing a volley of shots. As a Brawler in the second game I spent a lot of time running away and charging up my claws for a triple slash attack. There are differences though. It's actually possible to sit there and whack at a low to medium difficulty monster without taking too much damage, but that damage builds up over time and even pumping up the Healing skill doesn't regenerate much, especially in later portions of the game. I hardly ever used healing items as an Archer (though as an Archer it was in my best interests to attack long range), but particularly in the later dungeons I would make several healing runs to town with my Brawler. It wasn't uncommon for me to run through my stock of healing items after going through just a couple floors. A bad encounter with enemies could drain two-thirds my HP before I could heal and because in a perverse fashion I wound up spending more money than I was earning in the last third of the game this made the later dungeons very expensive for me. If I didn't have a nest egg built from the middle third I don't know how I could've afforded the healing items to keep going. It's a sorry state indeed when a player is counting pennies while on the second to last dungeon. (I eventually decided to go on a few leveling runs back in one of the middle dungeons and it's since turned into a goldmine, but it's pretty sad to be able to earn more money more efficiently in an older area than a new one.)

Part of the reason for the money problem is that the item drops are much more infrequent than in the previous game. Adding to that is that roughly a third to a half of the equippable items are unidentified weapons and armor that confer a bonus when properly identified and equipped. Valuing Scrolls did the job in the first game and still do here, but they are much rarer to find and only show up once in a great while in stores (where only one can be purchased until the store has it in stock again). This means that the player often has to pay the Valuer. The Valuer charges a fee, which is always more than the cost of a Valuing Scroll, and identifies the item for the player. Usually the player has no use for the item (it's worse than current equipment, can't equip it at all), but occasionally something good shows up. The problem is that about half the time the item is worth less than it cost to value! When this gets to the more expensive items it sucks to pay 1400 gold to value an item that sells for 600. That's eight Healing Drops right there. A poor exchange of valuing for sale price is very costly, especially when the entire profit of a dungeon could be 1400 or less. I've gone into the negative several times after selling my "profits" and that was before buying the healing items I needed to go back into the dungeon! So why keep valuing? Because unidentified items are nearly always better than their storebought equivalents. It's just a matter of by how much and if they are better than previous finds the character is already wearing. Also, unid'ed items only sell for 1 gold so if they're not valued then they are definitely worthless. To be fair, sometimes an item sells for twice the valuing price, but that's rare.

There's a mini-quest involving one character in the castle who has a huge appetite for apples. An apple (a rare find in the item store) costs 150 to buy and this character will pay 300. It's an easy quest available from the very beginning of the game, presumably to give low level characters a little extra spending money, and it says something about my sorry state of affairs in that I was still doing that repeatable quest at every opportunity until the end of the game.

Another contributing factor is while the monsters get harder in the later dungeons, they also drop less items than their already item-poor counterparts in the previous sections of the game. It's possible to only pick up a paltry five items over the course of the dungeon, over half of which need to be indentified, and then keep losing money through sheer purchase of the healing items needed to survive. It's not that I would consider the difficulty of the game to be hard. But the many battles in the later portion are very wearing and while it's easy to survive any individual encounter, it takes resources to survive a whole onslaught of them.

Aside from financial problems, the game's a good dungeon crawler. The conclusion of each segment of the game advances the story a little bit. In a nutshell, the player has come to the kingdom of Klantol for a warrior tournament and, when the princess is kidnapped, gets pressed into service by the king. It turns out that there's a balance between Light and Darkness, two primal forces which have been opposed since probably the beginning of time. Very Shining Force in feel there. Darkness has been gone for so long that Light is getting fat, arrogant, and lazy and so the powers of Darkness stage a comeback. The player frees the princess, subsequently saves her again from her own lack of better judgement, and also foils the plans of the Chaos Knights who are trying to revive the Darkness.

The game doesn't take itself entirely too seriously though. The queen makes frequently comments about baking cookies for the player because she's apparently good at that and even before facing the last boss the bartender tells the player all the usual gloom and doom and oh yeah, please come back hungry like you always do. Probably the only part of the story that really irritated me was the supposed player's age. It's never given, but several characters, particularly those that change dialogue as the game goes on, make repeated comments about how young the player is. If you look at the character illustrations in the manual, aside from the Priestess and possibly the Warrior, the characters don't look like teenagers! So it's very annoying when the player is spoken to like a fourteen-year-old later in the game (because the age references don't start up right away) after getting the feeling they're someone in their twenties. Or maybe I'm just getting old and expect characters to be closer to my own age when theirs isn't specificed. :P

Perhaps the interesting thing about the defeat of the Chaos Knights is that the game doesn't quite end right there, even though it could. The player goes back to town, the townspeople say victory dialogue, there's a party at the local pub (well, if there was a pub that ever served banana juice anyway), but the game doesn't end. Eventually the player will presumably go to the throne room one way or another and then find out that the royal family and their advisor have vanished into thin air. The room is an eerie shade of grey and the royal heirloom that shines bright in the presence of Light and clouds in the presense of Darkness is flashing a epileptic spray of colors. It's then that the barkeep leads the player to a secret basement located deep underneath the castle (which is reached via the back of the tavern o_o) and it's explains that the recent battle between Light and Darkness has toppled the balance entirely leaving room for a third presence that the Chaos Knights (despite their name) never meant to emerge. So Chaos is the last boss.

I was a bit annoyed by that since Light and Darkness, while palpable in the Shining games, was never a physical or even godlike force. Chaos can be whacked like anything else, though I'm very glad that the designers didn't make Chaos speak. I'm not sure I could've taken a gloating abstract concept. Chaos does make for a good last boss fight though. I just wish the boss chamber had been better designed. It's a dark battlefield and Chaos often jumps underground to chase after the player. I'm not sure if it's just that I'm playing on an older non-backlit GBA, but it's really hard to see Chaos coming if the angle isn't right and I died in my first fight against him thinking I was getting hit for no reason at all. This is the only part of the game I've had vision problems with so I chalk it up as more of a design flaw than anything else.

If I have the time I'd like to play Shining Soul II again. The save feature is better this time around so the player can make a quick save in the middle of the dungeon and pick up where they left off instead of starting at the beginning again as in the original Shining Soul. I also want to try out the other character classes. If I find myself traveling in the near future, this will be agood choice to bring along.