Originally Released: 2002 (Japan) / 2003 (NA)
Version Played: Game Boy Advance
I’ve never really been able to enjoy games on consoles or portables with an isometric perspective. From Q*bert to Crusader: No Remorse to The Immortal, something about the angle and dpad controls never clicked with me (the perspective seems to work far better on PC games where you use a mouse, like Diablo). On the contrary, I love action-RPGs and the Shining series, so Shining Soul has always been on my radar. Thanks to my recently renewed interest in Game Boy and Game Boy Advance games, I finally took the first awkward diagonal step with Shining Soul.
Turns out, the isometric perspective is basically a non-issue. Sure, sometimes projectiles fly at a weird angle (which is in some part due to the auto-aiming), but there are no frustrating isometric platforming sections ala Landstalker here, so the perspective never really works against the player. All in all, Shining Soul is a remarkably player-friendly game. As in previous Shining titles, you don’t lose items, experience, or progress in death- just some money. The money issue can even be prevented by depositing your cash with a nice old man in town for safekeeping, a process that should be familiar to anyone who played the original Phantasy Star Online. Factor in the ability to save-and-quit at any time and you have a game that, despite mostly being about grinding, still respects the player’s time.
Outside of the town, there are 8 main areas, each divided into roughly 10 levels. You fight (with Mana series-like controls, complete with charge attacks) through the levels of the area, defeat a boss, and move on to the next- a pretty linear structure that takes about 30 minutes per area. It can get a bit repetitive (as is typical of this sub-genre), but Shining Soul occasionally surprises, like in the level where you emerge in a tiny room surrounded by slimes that you must fight off, or the part in Area 3 where you have to dodge falling boulders as you search for the exit, Death Mountain-style. The game’s soundtrack keeps the experience enjoyable, as it is varied, catchy, and technically impressive- no nasty background fuzziness or shrill sound effects here.
Most of the story references to past Shining games are pretty inconsequential- Runefaust and the Dark Dragon factor in, but Soul does little to add to the lore of the Camelot games (I’ve also read that Shining Soul marks a reboot of the series, but there isn’t a ton of info out there to confirm this). Again, comparisons to Phantasy Star Online are apt, as most of Soul’s connection to its lineage comes through in the aesthetics and “feel” of the experience. The game opens with an elf girl reading a book, there are yes/no icons, items share names from previous games, etc. At the end of the day, despite the difference in play style compared to the Shining strategy RPGs and dungeon crawlers, Soul still feels like a legitimate entry in the series.
Shining Soul is not just a good Shining game, it’s a good action-RPG in the vein of Diablo/PSO. Over the past week, I’ve found myself picking it up quite a bit, for play sessions lasting anywhere from 10 minutes to 2 hours at a time. I definitely feel like I got my money’s worth (I paid about $7 for the game, shipped, from Amazon) and after I wrap it up, I plan to pick up the (supposedly far superior) GBA sequel. Shining Soul may be isometric, but don’t hold that against it. If you’re a fan of the Shining series or PSO (which, if you are reading this site, I expect at least one of these to be true), give it a shot!