Credited for launching Sega’s successful Shining Force series but usually ignored and representing a play-style that although great would be cast aside for the series until ‘Shining the Holy Ark’ appeared some time later on the Saturn. Shining in the Darkness is an intense first person dungeon-crawling experience on the Megadrive that rivals the D&D classic ‘Eye of the Beholder’ and genuinely deserves more love than is usually receives from series fans.
Because Shining in the Darkness was produced on the bare minimum budget for a Sega game, Hiroyuki Takahashi (who would be credited as Writer and Producer) put the game together almost single-handedly. This led to a singular vision for what he wanted from the title and its world, and played into his love of older titles such as ‘Wizardry’. Facing still competition from PC RPGs of a similar nature at the time it met with mixed reviews, but the overall consensus was that when it came to console dungeon-crawling this was the best of the bunch, beating out Sega’s previous effort in Phantasy Star.
Graphically the game employs a cartoony visual style that seems a little at odds with the harder nature of the gameplay, but helps to paint a vivid world. Characters are large sprites on the screen and engage in animated conversations with the player, who always remains in the first person. The world has a medieval European flavor to it that echoes the King Arthur mythos in places, with castles, taverns and dungeons all in attendance. Special mention should go to the shopkeeper, a dwarf with Viking helmet who bounces around expressing his opinion on what your buying or selling in a manner usually not seen in games of the period. Character designs themselves are interesting and allow for you to be joined on your quest by a two allies on your quest to fill out a party and add dialogue to your otherwise silent protagonist. Milo and Pyra are the opposite of the heroic stereotype you yourself inhabit and add variety. The games menu-driven systems lay down the foundations of the 4-box menu systems employed throughout the Shining Force series.
Sound suffers a little from a lack of budget and comes across a little muted on the Megadrive’s less-than-stellar sound capacity; however some of the musical arrangements are memorable. Mostly focusing on relaxed background music (the opening theme is an example of this, opting to be less bombastic than later installments would become) although the Tavern exhibits a high level of energy throughout. All of the tracks are quite short and loop after a minute and a half at the longest runtime. For the period this was relatively common practice, though it can lead to a headache if the game is played through modern speaker systems in one of the new ports.
The game tells the story of Arthur (Arthr) who is the son of the gallant knight Sir Mortred. While your father accompanies the Princess Jessica to visit the Queen’s shrine the pair of them mysteriously vanish and you are tasked by the king with finding them. All is not as innocent as it first seems however as Dark Sol soon makes his presence felt and the stakes are raised dramatically. Unlike other dungeon-crawlers of the period you return to the King’s Court and Tavern to gather information and forward the plot quite regularly, allowing for the game to develop a story to back up the dungeon-delving. This focus makes the games characters stand out extremely well, especially your two friends and fellow party members. As the game progresses there are a few simple plot twists throw into the mix to add extra flavor, but for the most part it’s a fairly linear game. Where Shining in the Darkness sits in the series cannon is always something of a question, with Dark Sol on prominent display from early in the game and the antagonist of the original Shining Force title.
Gameplay is entirely in the first person and turn-based. When inside the labyrinth you move one grid-space at a time through pre-defined dungeons and random encounters occur to trouble you. Combat itself is reminiscent of a JRPG, but from an extensively first-person viewpoint. Battles themselves aren’t too difficult to survive, but the design of the dungeons themselves are from the old-school ‘bring a pen and squared paper’ shelf of game design and can prove to be your real enemy. Extensive mapping combats this, and the dungeons are clearly the focus of the title. Outside of the dungeons there are various areas to visit in the local town, as well as the castle. These include shops to buy better gear, save and heal your party of three. It’s a no-thrills kind of RPG that tasks the player with getting out there and getting the job done in a manner similar to the ‘Etrian Odyssey’ series but without layers of sub-systems to get your head around. Magic does play a part and some of the spells add tactical depth, but really this is a game about beating the designers that put together each map on their terms. The title does suffer from a lack of monster variation and limited location graphics, but the small budget allotted to development and amount of work that has gone into the title excuse this to a degree.
Overall Shining in the Darkness is a great console dungeon crawler that should grace the collection of every gamer who takes an interest in the history of the medium. It’s been bettered in many ways, with a recent resurgence in the first-person dungeon crawler leading to titles such as ‘Legend of Grimrock’ pushing the genre further than it ever was in its hay-day, but Shining in the Darkness manages to bring the PC experience to consoles in style. From a modern gaming standpoint it can be frustrating to play and the lack of additional features will leave a bare-bones feeling to the experience, but persevere and some of gaming’s best dungeon designs can be found.