Saturday, February 26, 2011

Shining in the Darkness

Do you like mazes? Do you ever sit down with a puzzle book and do the maze because it gets you your jollies? Do you like going out with friends to a corn maze or a hedge maze and finding your way through? Does it feel rewarding when the maze is finally solved? If you answered yes to any or all of the above, would you still enjoy mazes if they were filled with an infinite number of deadly monsters bent on hunting you down and murdering you?

Dozing.Well you're in luck! Welcome to Shining in the Darkness, a game that gives you precisely that. An old dude in a rocking chair will introduce you to the Kingdom of Thornwood, where you're the son of the King's most trusted knight, Mortred. Unfortunately, he's gone missing along with the king's daughter (please note: "king's daughter" is no more than a synonym for "princess"), and you are charged with finding them. Then some dark sorcerer shows up calling himself "Dark Sol" and cackling about he's the one responsible and he's trapped the king's daughter in the giant Labyrinth that is conveniently located in the kingdom but for some reason nobody recalls building or exploring. Mmkay.

Thornwood's straight creepy. There's a town near the castle with all your amenities, but it's populated by those creatures from the kid's show Arthur. Yeah, I don't know what kind of animal they're supposed to be either, but they're happy to sell you crappy weapons and armor. "Oh, you're on a royal mission to save the life of the heir of the kingdom? Well in that case for 100 gold pieces I'll give you this leather glove." Whoa whoa, nevermind that a leather glove is meaningless in the long run, and nevermind the price gouging for it. What concerns me is who this dude skinned to get it. I mean, if the shopkeeper is some sort of anthropomorphic mammal of indeterminate nature, doesn't it stand to reason that animals in this kingdom are capable of higher cognitive processes? What I'm getting at is that by selling me a leather glove he might as well be offering me my uncle's severed arm. I'll pass, man.

The town's layout gives me pause too. The game is entirely from a first-person perspective, which is fine. So in the town you choose which building to enter by turning in a panorama and selecting the given buildings that are encircling you. This doesn't seem like a problem except for two things. First, the screen pans far too slowly. I don't have all day. Second, who builds a town like that? Who puts up buildings to form a circle with nothing in the middle? I know who. Cultists. Cultists do that. The Kingdom of Thornwood is full of murderous animal cultists. Yeah, I said it.

Poisonpowder.All this without even setting foot in the Labyrinth! When you get in there you'll be ready to get out. I'm talking battles every 2-3 steps on average. It starts off innocently enough, with just slimes or oozes or whatever name you want to give the same stereotypical blob that opens virtually every RPG. But the monsters really ramp up to a frustrating degree as you move along. Not to mention the keys. See, the whole idea is that Dark Sol is on the top (fifth) floor of the complex, and you've got to work your way up to his sanctum. But it's not that simple; much of the maze on the ground level is blocked off by locked doors or similar obstacles. In exasperation you'll just return to the king ready to quit. Instead some adviser of his will start prattling about having to complete four ancient trials to move on, and the town will foist a couple other people on you to make a "party."

The embarrassing part is that each of these helpers, named Milo and Pyra, is more useful than your own character. By far. They both use a little something we in the video game world like to call "magic." You should check it out at some point. Lots of possibilities. Milo comes from the "Shrine" to whatever higher power he worships. The game never really commits. But it's got stained glass windows, so we're going to just assume it's Christianity. Though, I guess it's a fantasy world, so....Aslan. Milo is a priest of Aslan. Pyra though is an arrogant wizard skank (and also one of those wallaby-rat abominations from the town). This means Milo can heal and pray and stuff, and Pyra can burn and electrocute things. Your dude? He swings his sword. That's it. Solid.

Map screen.Now what comes as a really disappointing surprise is that each of the four trials you've got to do is another maze. They're like basement levels of the complex. So that means to "pass" all the trials you've got to actually explore and solve five mazes, each throwing enemies at you every few steps. And thanks to the whole "I may be king and I may own that place but I never bothered sending anyone to explore it" bit, you've got no map. None, that is, until Pyra reaches a certain level and spontaneously learns a spell that lets her see an overhead view of the maze level on which you're currently located. And thank goodness, because to that point I was having to scribble it on a sheet of paper as I went along. It's damn tedious drawing a new line every step to make sure your maze drawing is accurate.

Then there's some revelation that Dark Sol was actually one of the king's advisers at the beginning and it's supposed to be all shock-worthy and stuff. Whatever. I just want to finish these mazes. I guess it's good that Shining in the Darkness managed to do away with some RPG battle failings from older games. For example, if you tell two people to attack the same enemy, and the first one kills the enemy, your second character will actually attack someone else. I know, right? Someone finally caught on. Monsters are also divided into groups, which are somewhat randomly sized. A group of enemies might be two or it might be five, but either way when you tell your characters to attack, you attack the group and not the individual. This sometimes can create a minor amount of frustration by not eliminating certain individuals in the order you'd want, but there actually aren't any major hiccups with the system. For one, groups can only be composed of the same type of monster. So while you might have to fight a group of slimes at the same time as a group of slugs, you'll never have a group composed of both slimes and slugs together. Secondly, there's a bit of AI going on wherein your characters will attempt to maximize their damage by not using stronger attacks to kill weaker enemies, and so forth. It's actually very well done, which allows you to focus less on how to battle and more on what the various species of dumb creatures you'll be slaying are.

Sméagol.There are two types of monsters in this game: those with generic names, and those with names that are bad puns. The former includes such writing gems as "Zombie," "Minotaur," "Ghost," or even "Brikeye" (which, yes, is a brick with an eye in the middle). The latter is comprised of things like "Centaurion" (a centaur in classical Roman armor), "Lancerot" (an undead knight), or "Battle Oxe" (a half-man half-ox wielding a giant battle axe). Hardy-freaking-har, game.

It's not enough though for the monsters to have weird names. They've also got to do weird things. I'm talking statues coming to life and "exhaling a blast of freezing breath" that wipes out your entire party in one go. I'm talking necromancers "howling for help," which when you hear it sounds like an obese cat doped up on catnip and coke, and being answered by monsters literally called "Meat Zombies." I'm talking about when it says "Tommyhawk 2 is flexing its muscles!" Hell if I know. Even the cursor to select your target is an upside-down male symbol. If this game is some type of message in support of feminism, I've got to admit it went right over my head. If you've got an agenda, maybe next time start by creating a plot that doesn't revolve around another princess getting kidnapped, okay?

Stormcrow.Consider for a moment the question of what happens when your party is on the verge of death. There's a tavern in town with the typical "rest for a night and somehow you'll recover the quarts of blood you lost yesterday" thing going on, and you can save in that shrine, but how does that help you from inside the Labyrinth? Answer: It doesn't. You've got to leave the mazes every single time you want to save or rest. And you've got to then retread the parts of the maze you've already explored to get back to where you were. This is infuriating at times, which is why you'll be thrilled when a familiar wizard decked in gray shows up to give you an item that lets you create checkpoints on every floor of the complex as you ascend. Even still, you'll be going back to town and therefore redoing entire maze floors repeatedly. Doesn't help that the inventory is largely against you.

Each of your characters has eight inventory slots, though at any given time four of each of these will be taken up by equipped armor and weapons. This means each person has four "usable" slots of inventory, though keys and other necessary items to progress through the mazes will also take up space. Realistically you'll have four or five free spots of inventory total among all your characters, so space is really at a premium. It's not at all uncommon to be full on space, particularly as you find better items you don't want to ditch. So let's say a character dies and happened to be holding the item that allows you to return to town to heal up and restart. You go to use the item and aren't allowed. Why? Because that guy is dead, that's why. Don't worry yourself over the fact that you've got two perfectly healthy people (or one healthy person and one half-animal abomination) who could just pick the item up out of the bag and use it. We don't deal in common sense, here; did you forget this is a video game?

And God forbid you try to use the "Miracle Herb." It's an item that claims to revive a slain character, but it doesn't actually work. Ever. You're treated to text stating "But nothing happened!" every single time. It's a dirty lie is what it is. But the chumps in town will buy it off you for 6000 gold, so feel free to pass the scam around. And don't be surprised, the townies are pretty idiotic. I once had two identical swords. I sold them to the blacksmith one at a time. Know what he says when I hand him the second one? "I've never seen anything like this before!" Dude, I sold you that exact same sword not five seconds ago.

Hygiene.In order to get the cell key to save the princess you've got to kill the dark knight, Mortred. If you're anything like me, you reacted to this by going "Okay? So?" Lemme lay a refresher on you: scroll up to the second paragraph of this review. Mortred's your dad. Whoooooaahooo yeah! That's a sick plot twist isn't it?! Except that by this point in the review you probably completely forgot who "Mortred" was, and you probably never really cared in the first place. Let me tell you something: it's no different in the actual game. I was actually surprised when I came across the princess in her jail cell because I forgot I was looking for her. I'd forgotten everything other than the understanding that there was some dude with a really lame name I needed to kill. But moreover, I just wanted to get through the mazes. The maze is supposed to be the means to the end, but the nature of the game is such that if you don't quit playing after the first two hours, finishing the maze becomes the end in itself. Plot be damned.

I think here it's also worth noting that one of those horse-faced rodent people from town, named "Edward," was an ass to me the whole game. He kept saying something about bringing him "Dai," and I didn't know what in the world he was talking about. At the end of the game, this Dai showed up in the tavern complaining about how tough it was to escape the dungeon on an injured ankle. So let me make this clear: the plot in Shining in the Darkness is so forgettable that there was an entire character I could have rescued and neglected to for the entire game, with no ill consequence. Unless deeply desiring to grind up Edward for my glue counts as an ill consequence, that is.

If you like doing mazes, and especially if you like doing the same mazes over and over with continuous interruptions, you've hit the jackpot with Shining in the Darkness. If that doesn't sound too appealing, don't fret. On rare occasions within the mazes you'll come out onto a balcony, and it plays some sweet balcony music. It's like elevator music, only you're in the open air, and you're walking, and you're not actually going up or down, and it sounds completely different. Worth the price of admission alone? You be the judge.

Bottom Line: 13/20

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