Thursday, April 30, 2015

Game #38: Shining in the Darkness (Genesis) - More Like a Maze Than a Labyrinth (Finished)

A nice simple ending to a nice simple game
It's mildly interesting how I remember seeing this game as a kid, but nothing looked familiar other than the first person dungeon setting. The game is relatively easy. Exploring every nook and cranny ensures reaching a high enough level to complete the game without any additional grinding. I welcome this balance in this genre. Actually, a lot of these older games have an unwarranted specter of required grinding. So far the majority haven't outside natural exploration and random battles. To me, grinding means leveling up without making any progress outside of character building. Even during the last portion of the game I was still actively exploring and reaching new areas.
That orange-red door from the beginning of the game led to the Labyrinth Proper
Theos, the king's adviser, congratulated me on my conquest of the trials, and told me I would need to collect the Arms of Light inside the Labyrinth Proper. Strangely missing from the court was Melvyl. The second floor had a few more stone statues, but this time they came alive. Progress was slow going due to that and the Kromeball, another mini-boss encounter who had a tendency to explode. I collected my crafted items, a Mithril Helmet and a Dark Robe. The helm was great, but when equipped with the Dark Robe, Pyra randomly fell into a trance where she would only heal the enemy.
This has a chance of occurring after the first round
Throughout the second and third level I found holes in the ceiling. Like the pools of water, there was a chance for an enemy encounter to occur one space away. An enemy would drop from the hole on a rope, and it was a bit tougher than the normal enemies. Once I reached the third floor, I returned to court to find Xern the Elder. Strangely absent all this time, he was there to warn us that Melvyl was actually Dark Sol. He bestowed upon the party a medallion, half of which can be stored in a golden fountain that the party could return to by using the other half. I had just found such a fountain before ascending to the third floor, and wondered if I really needed to scale all these floors every time I made my way back. I'm glad the answer turned out to be 'no'.
Not a question I had a chance of answering... makes me almost want to say 'yes'
Melvyl appeared in the town to proposition Zenic, but he was having none of that. With the small bit of choices, I wish this was one the game put into my hands. I pressed on, and halfway through the third floor I acquired a Mystic Rope. It allowed the party to ascend into the many holes I had bypassed. Most of them had treasure chests, but one near the end of the level was required to reach the fourth floor. I passed by a few iron gates, with still no way to open them, and picked up the Light Helm. One piece of equipment down, three to go I suppose.
There's a nice little cut-scene on both the second and fourth floors
More importantly on the fourth floor was Jessa, the captured princess. Finally after so much searching we found her, behind a cell door (the iron gates). She told a story of Mortred (the hero's father) turning evil, and it's he who guards the cell key. Around the corner I found the Dark Knight. After defeating him it was revealed that he, Mortred, had turned to evil due to the cursed sword Darkblade, a gift from Melvyl. Sadly, I had to slay Mortred to pass him. I found cell key, and freed Jessa. She joined the party after a lamenting thanks for the rescue tinged with the regret losing Mortred. Unfortunately I had used all my magic on Mortred, and was out of Angel Feathers to return to town automatically. My only option was to attempt to walk out.
She's really pulling her weight
Whether through luck or not, I seemed to be able to run from most battles all the way back. Once outside I returned to town immediately to recover my MP; however, Old Vik was having none of that, and refused service until I returned her to the castle. As a reward the king granted me a magic ring, which restores MP, but like all magic items has limited charges. (I also found two more of them, so really not that unique.) The repair option at the trader is used to restore these charges once they reach their last one. I was told by Xern I'd need to find defense against a Demonbreath attack, and Edward at the inn mentioned how: I needed to recover the Arms of Light, find the spirit fountain, and use a vial containing the tears of one who holds me dear.
Can I trouble you for some love and tears?
I actually took on Dark Sol before I thought to return to the castle, and Jessa, for some tears. He trounced me thanks to his Demonbreath, which wouldn't have been so bad if he hadn't used it twice in a row. Seems he tends to do that when low on health. I had already collected the remaining Light equipment by using the cell key to get the shield, knock down a Grimwall to get the sword, and the armor was easily retrieved on the fifth floor. With the tears, I summoned the Spirit of Light at the rainbow colored fountain, and received her blessing as well as the title of Shining Knight. This cut the damage I received from the Demonbreath in half.
I almost beat him without becoming the Shining Knight, I wonder if it's actually possible
I emerged from my second attempt victorious. Dark Sol's chamber opened up and let the light inside once more. I restored peace to the land. The game didn't end though until I returned to the castle, but first I wanted to hear the adulation of my friends back at the tavern. Apparently news traveled very quickly. Zenic became the lord and master of the realm, and I'd guess Jessa's hand in marriage. Milo was appointed counsel to the new lord (me). Pyra agreed to apprentice under Xern. The fate of Thornwood was now locked in place, but the people enjoyed a time of peace.
Same to you old man, whoever you are
Well that was a fun adventure. A bit slow during combat, more so to do with the number of fights than the pace during each battle. I really enjoyed the mapping, and discovering what the game had to offer, but I'm not sure it holds up well after all these years. The story is very light, and at least to me on the more obvious side. I would have liked some more control over the crafting system, but coming late in the game didn't really have much effect. I did use it to get the Mithril Axe, Milo's best weapon, but I was a bit dismayed by the cursed items from the dark blocks. By the end I had nearly all Mithril equipment. I can understand having some drawback to powerful items, but I like to know what I'm getting myself into before locking myself out of other choices. In any case, fun game. Time for the review.

Elapsed Time: 13h17m (Final Time: 26h56m)
An alternative title screen only shown after selecting not to continue the adventure
Combatant - Combat was a nice mild challenge. The only exception were the times certain characters were instantly killed. The times I wiped out were obvious times I was overreaching with my resources. It was strange when I seemed was able to run from most encounters while escaping with Jessa, but I might have been over-leveled even without grinding. Rewards were good, and leveling has a nice pace. Enemies were interesting, and even though there were a number of palette swaps, the game continued to introduce new monsters with a nice frequency. Magic played a vital role in the late game, but early on it's only use was healing.
Rating: 6
That crab
Admirer - Most of the first-person games aren't going to do well in this category, and until we get to the really customizable characters we're going to continue to see lower scores. The only choice to exercise is equipment, which doesn't change appearance, but does allow the hero to use things like the healing ring. Of course if you're doing anything other than attacking with him, then you're doing it wrong. Controls are good, I'll give it that at least.
Rating: 3
I wonder if this bard will continue to make an appearance in the series
Puzzler - It's a very straightforward game. The main quest's next steps are never foggy, even if reaching them takes a while. Each point along the way had enough guidance. I'd count the crafting as either a side quest or mini-game, but I didn't really enjoy it. The whole game is a bit contrived with ancient trials and intangible passing of each allowing access to the next. There aren't any alternatives or branches from the main path.
Rating: 3
Pit traps are not fun puzzles
Instigator - The game does well to present an interesting narrative in-between the lengthy combat. As you can tell from these post lengths though, that's where the majority of time goes. There are times where choices are given, but I don't know how much they affect the game. Like if I had told Pyra's mom that she wasn't integral to rescuing the princess. There were other times where a choice was made automatically, like not joining Dark Sol. I enjoyed the item descriptions given by Milo's Vision spell, which offered a short description of each item; however, in the end it was rarely enough to make decisions about what to use. I had Holy Water, Herb-Water, and a Magic Mirror, which I had no clue what they did throughout the game
Rating: 5
I take it back, I found out it shatters right after using it too many times
Collector - A great variety of items, but I wish I knew what they did. Inventory was so limited: eight slots, four of which were taken up by equipment. Add in the keys necessary to make it through the dungeon, and there's really no more than 4 - 5 slots at most times. By the end of the game gold mattered little, so tossing one item for another was usually an easy choice. One nice thing, actually one brilliant thing, was the shops stored unique items after selling them. Meaning an item never really disappeared unless dropped. That's a first, and rarely seen in this era.
Rating: 5
I was expecting this drunk turtle to do something interesting, but he never did
Explorer - Graphics, music, and sound effects are all consistently well done. There's not much to see here though. Caves and labyrinth vary in color, but most of the textures remained the same throughout. Exploring everywhere was equal amounts necessary and rewarding, just not visually. What's here is well done, but the number of locations to visit for the sights is easily counted on one hand. The "world" opens up in a carefully choreographed manner, and while each key is understandable it's not consistent when NPCs wander into locked areas.
Rating: 3
Best view in the game
Final Rating: 25 [42%]

An admirable score at this stage for a sub-genre that's obviously not going to hit on all points. Overall an enjoyable experience, and I welcome the developer's next game. That won't be for a couple game years though (~40 games). Shining Force is one I hear quite often as a defining series for Sega systems, and of course the spiritual sequel Shining the Holy Ark was highly anticipated in its time. Shining Wisdom is the only iffy title. It's more action-adventure than RPG. I might just include it anyway though since it ties into the series.
Although, I believe Climax pulls out of the Shining series after the first Shining Force
For now we move on to cutting Pirates!. The release for the NES doesn't quite make it. I haven't decided yet if I'll evaluate it with the Genesis remake, but I suppose I should make that decision soon. The next full post will be about Final Fantasy Adventure. I'm definitely looking forward to that, and the next few games coming up. I haven't played any of them.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Game #38: Shining in the Darkness (Genesis) - The Four Trials of the Ancients

No title screen when loading... how strange
Game 38

Title: Shining in the Darkness
Released: Auguest 1991 (March 1991 JPN)
Platform: Genesis
Developer: Climax Entertainment and Camelot Software Planning
Publisher: Sega
Genre: RPG
Exploration - First-person
Combat - Turn based
Series - Shining

This is the closest the game gets to a title screen
Compared to most RPGs that is an impressive localization time. I think most people are familiar with the Shining series, but many are probably more so with the Shining Force games. This however was the first, and Camelot was not the lead developer even though they would take over full-time development of the series after the first Shining Force. Climax is the company responsible for the loosely related Stalker series of games--LandStalker, Lady Stalker, and Time Stalkers--of which I'll review only two since Lady Stalker wasn't released in the US. This all makes sense now since I've heard Pyra, one of the characters here, makes a cameo appearance in Time Stalkers.
Of course I am, and don't forget modest, extremely modest
The kingdom of Thornwood is facing a crisis. The king has misplaced his daughter, last seen with the hero's father, and desires to find her. Seeking the princess, the hero hopes to find the whereabouts of his father as well. The king fears some dark deed has whisked them away. I received 200 gold and instructions to equip myself for the task.
I wasn't quite sure what to buy. Zenic, what I named the hero, had a basic weapon and armor, but lacked a shield and helmet. Helmets were quite expensive, so I settled for a gauntlet, an antidote (called depoison), some healing herbs, and an Angel Feather that returns the party to town. At the tavern the local riffraff were discussing the disappearance of the princess and Mortred, Zenic's father. When I returned to the castle, the local labyrinth was pointed out as potential launching off point for the investigation, and confirmed with the sudden appearance of the antagonist.
Oh good, she's safe with Dark Sol (aka Mephisto in the Japanese version)
Dark Sol, not to be confused with DarkSol from Shining Force, requested the kingdom in exchange for the safe return of princess Jessa. The king instead decided to depend on Zenic to rescue the princess from Dark Sol's clutches. With that, the game opens up most of what it has to offer.
The first of many battles: like other RPGs this one begins with slimes
The problem with describing the play-by-play is eventually I get to dungeon crawlers where the story slows to a crawl. Most of the game centers on combat. Combat that occurs erratically. Available commands are limited to attack, magic, items, and running. Actually, only the first character, Zenic, the hero, has the ability to run; both other characters, which come later, are able to use their turns to defend. So far this resembles how Dragon Warrior II's battle system worked, with about as many options. Since the hero doesn't have magic attack and item use are the only choices. Glad I picked up those herbs.
I tend to enjoy making my own maps for these type of games. Actually, I've noticed that it's rather the most enjoyable part of the game. Combat is so simplistic and the story so sparse that the minute to minute game I'm happiest about is marking my progress down by hand. In the end, once the game is done, if I weren't writing these blog posts, I'd have the maps as a tangible reminder of my days playing this game. Back in town the tavern owner spoke of friends looking for me, but they were nowhere to be found. A brother and sister were split apart when Dai was summoned to the castle to assist in the search of the princess. The tavern doubles as the standard inn to replenish HP, and eventually MP, for the party (currently of one).
I listened to this bard's song once, and never saw him again; hopefully he went to practice
I continued, as is the case in these games, to fight many battles, gain a few levels, and refresh myself back in town. I bought myself a sword called Sword and a helmet. Eventually I delved deep enough to find a steel door, a solemn statue, and fight a Kaiser Krab. The latter of which had a Royal Tiara in its possession. Back at the castle I presented my finding to the king, confirmation that the princess was inside the labyrinth. If she was in the Labyrinth Proper though, she was currently beyond my reach. First I had to form a party, after which I would learn from Melvyl and Theos, the king's advisers, that I needed to pass the four trials of the ancients to be accepted into the Labyrinth Proper.
I probably could have gotten more at the store for it you know...
Back at the tavern I met up with Pyra, a magician from a fine line of magic-users (her own words). After picking her up I ran into Gila, a mercenary hired to search for the princess. It's rare for a game to have a cast of NPCs on the same quest, even if I know they won't make any progress. Milo was waiting for me at the shrine, which acts as the sole save point and place to restore ailments, remove curses, and revive characters. Milo takes on the role of the main party healer and defensive caster, while Pyra specializes in aggressive magic. Both are fairly capable melee fighters though, and magic is often better used for healing (like most games).
Party assembled for the first time
At the castle once more, this time with my friends to back me up, I was told I needed to face the four trials: Strength, Wisdom, Courage, and Truth. I received the Dwarf Key, and was told the first trial began beyond the door it opened. Apparently there was no record of any knight that actually succeeded in passing this test. Best to send their youngest knight, and his two childhood friends.
1 / 24 inventory slots permanently used
Instead of doing the sensible thing and grinding up a few levels for Pyra and Milo I took them on a small tour of the corridor behind the Krab boss, and then delved right into the trials. The Krab boss was now a random encounter that could appear around any corner. The game has a few of these types of monsters. They are random encounters, but with set limitations such as corners, pools of water, or holes in the ceiling. In addition to random encounters, there are treasures scattered throughout the dungeon, and some are even home to monsters. Enemies encountered outside normal random battles are a bit more difficult to handle, especially during this first trial. Pyra wiped out a number of times until I raised her level to about 10.
I have a better question, how did you get past the door without the dwarf's key?
Gila, pictured above, tipped me off that the Orb of Truth was located in the Cave of Courage. Well, strangely enough, I was in the middle of the Cave of Strength when I found him, and with no idea that I even needed the orb. The Trial of Strength ended with a red wall bleeding into an angelic mural of steel. It announced that I had completed the trial, and opened up the pathway to the Cave of Courage. Passing the Trial of Courage was the same as the previous trial. Explore a 30 x 30 square map enough to find the red wall that marked the end. There wasn't any sort of boss other than the slightly more difficult enemies that appeared randomly.
It introduced these MP sapping tiles as well
Even though I'd passed two trials I couldn't proceed to the next without that orb. So, I explored the sections I had failed to map before reaching the end marker, and found another boss-like encounter. By that time Pyra had learned the Boost spell, which doubled a character's attack power. That combined with Zenic's high attack made short work of the boss. In fact most bosses seemed to fall within 3 rounds of action. Turn order is based on a speed attribute, but between my characters it's set with Pyra, Milo, then Zenic acting. This makes buffing before an attack simple. I recovered the orb, and moved on to the next trial. The orb is used to reveal hidden demons inside certain walls.
Who knew you could put a wall to sleep
In the Cave of Truth the game introduced spinners. Those anti-navigational devices aren't too bad in this game as they always spin to the same direction, facing 90 degrees counter-clockwise (true when entering backwards as well). Monsters were getting progressively more difficult. One type of enemy would strike as a group for more damage than an individual, and ghosts would appear from treasure chests to cast Desoul, which had a chance to kill a party member outright. With no revive capability at the time that meant a trip back to the shrine in town. Characters don't gain experience while dead. Another section had walls that would appear from the ceiling if I dared an attempt to enter their square.
The rare falling ceiling caught in mid-descent
The Trial of Truth ended once again with a red wall that announced I passed; however, I had bypassed an imprisoned Jessa that requested I release her with a False Idol found somewhere in the labyrinth. I actually had the item, but suspected a trap. It was a trap, but a necessary one. The prisoner turned into something called a Doppler, and a Rune Key was my reward for defeating the beast. That key unlocked the final trial, Wisdom. The Cave of Wisdom was littered with hidden pits. Two maps contained in chests showed where most of them were, so I avoided most of the time wasting backtracking. Yet, I still had the urge to complete my auto-map as much as possible. I also found Dai hiding behind a series of one-way blue doors.
It took longer than I care to admit to figure out that all I needed to do in order to open these was to push on them
Rescuing Dai, while nice, didn't reveal anything crucial, but I now have the gratitude of Dyan and Edward back at the tavern. Once again the end of the trial came rather unexpectedly and without any build-up. With the Trial of Wisdom complete I returned to the castle to announce my success in passing all four. Now I could enter the Labyrinth Proper and start the actual task of rescuing the princess. With five above ground levels I'm probably only half way through the game at this point. The last message before wishing me luck was that I needed to find the Arms of Light to vanquish the darkness. Back at the tavern I ran into my companion's parents. Apparently, they were kept in the dark about the whole rescue the princess operation.
I wonder what would have happened if I told them Pyra and Milo weren't integral to the party
Making it this far into the game unlocks the trader, a small tent between the weapon shop and the tavern. Inside was a new assortment of armor, helms, shields, and weapons. I was beginning to think the game forgot I had all this money piling up and nothing to spend it on. I had already purchased the best of what the other stores had to offer. I found some dark blocks and mithril ore during my adventure; its use was finally revealed here as I could now craft equipment. Creating items requires me to choose the material, the person, and then the type of equipment without any way of knowing what it will produce, or how it compares to my current inventory. Shooting in the dark seems to be how this game rolls.
Oh, and payment in advance, no refunds
I tested the waters a bit by purchasing a helm for Zenic, a shield for Milo, and--using the dark block-- some armor for Pyra. The helm worked best on Milo, the shield on Pyra, and the armor was cursed. I thought, how bad could the curse be since the the defensive improvement was huge. Turned out it makes Pyra heal the enemy after a random number of turns after the first round of battle. Forget those dark blocks. Knowing that I'm only half way through the game is a little off-putting. Combat hasn't been terribly difficult, although I tend to run out of resources multiple times in each cave. Getting into the Labyrinth Proper is easy enough as there's a red wall on the first floor that's been waiting for me since the beginning of the game, so I haven't been lost yet, and am actually nearing the end of the game in real-time. Wish me luck.

Elapsed Time: 13h39m (Total Time: 13h39m)