Back in 2015, a Manga by the name of Shiness was gathering crowd-funding for a game.
After the Kickstarter was an overflowing success, French studio Enigami got to work on making their first title. Without doing too much research, I could tell that this was a game by a very young studio, as the game showed me such a great deal of potential and uniqueness, but unfortunately suffered as the result of a few choices made during its creation. Constantly treading the line between a JRPG, fighting game and a third person action/adventure game, Shiness: The Lightning Kingdom never really settled down enough in one genre for me to enjoy it fully, but it did manage to keep me having fun.
Drawing inevitable ties with the original Manga, Shiness tells the story of Mahera, a planet that has been fragmented. In the universe, there is “Shi”, which you can take as slang for magic. The story is told through the perspectives of five companions, although our main hero is Chado, who has a special connection to the “Shiness”, a group of spirits that lead Chado to his quest. In particular, Chado has a connection to one Shiness called Terra, who no one but him can see. On Mahera there are are many races, some more hostile than others. Are you feeling a little overwhelmed yet? Good, because after dropping all of this information on the player in an elongated opening section, the game finally starts. While I’m sure manga readers are completely comfortable with the story and setting of the game, one thing the developer should have remembered is that this game should be about bringing this intriguing world to new eyes, and although you can see they’ve tried, the story of the game isn’t communicated very clearly.
My main criticism with the way the story is told is that, like with its genre, the game can’t decide what it is. In the opening ten minutes alone you’ll encounter fully voiced and animated cutscenes, which would lead you to believe you’re in for a third person action game. Next you’ll witness a manga-inspired cutscene with voices but also still images (Supposedly taken straight from the Manga). After you’ve started thinking that you’re in for a JRPG, the game will drop you in a cutscene straight out of a PS2 Dragon Ball Z game and you’ll be completely thrown off. It’s great that the developer wanted to tell the story that obviously captivated so many fans, but not telling that story in a clear and fluid way can really mess with a player’s head. For me, the story was so disjointed and told in such an inconsistent way that I began to seriously lose interest, which was a shame because I could tell I might be really drawn in by it.
In the AV department, Shiness does a lovely job for the most part. It has a somewhat nostalgic look about it for me as the third person perspective and cartoon shapes remind me of games like Banjo-Kazooie. One thing I loved about the game is that it doesn’t shy away from its heritage. Sometimes the loading screens will show some artwork from the Manga, for example. It’s nice to see and it gives the game a clear piece of inspiration. Moreover, the character models are textured brilliantly. There has obviously been a lot of work put into making Chado stick out from the rest of the world. His textures and his colours pop out from the shapes of Mahera, again giving a clear anime-inspired feel to him. It would be easy to criticise Shiness for its aged graphics, but I think its equally simple to recognise that sometimes a nostalgic look can suit a game like this. I was actually taken aback a few times by how pretty the colour pallette was, which is always a plus.
Musically, Shiness: The Lightning Kingdom does a brilliant job at creating atmospheres. I was delighted by the original soundtrack that the game had, and again, some of it aided the somewhat nostalgic experience I was having. I was a tad disheartened by the levelling of the sounds, however. Sometimes the music sounded just great, then I’d enter a combat situation and my ears would be blown out. Sound design is important, as is EQ.
The gameplay is the thing that I loved most about Shiness, but also something that made me want to punt-kick my controller through the TV. A large part of the gameplay is centred around some brilliantly-designed combat. Taking some clear hints from Dragon Ball Z and Naruto games, the combat really feels like a game of this type should. In particular, I loved that every fight is contested in a circular battle-arena which you can’t escape from. You can only face one enemy at a time, and when you begin to play as more than one character you can easily switch from one character to another. I can’t stress enough how satisfying and fun the combat can be. When you get it right, using a mix of melee attacks and shi techniques can be intensely fun. The arena idea is a fairly unique one, but also an extremely clever factor in how fights play out. The colour of the arena wall changes, and charging up a particular shi can only be done at certain moments when the colour of the arena changes to the according colour of that shi. If one of your characters is especially good with water shi, and the arena isn’t changing to blue, you’re forced to think of other ways to deal with the situation. It’s a brilliant idea. Furthermore, the experience of your characters goes up regardless of who you’ve been fighting as, which is a real relief.
Unfortunately, the honeymoon period of using this combat system quickly wears off. If you want to play Shiness, be prepared for some pretty ridiculous difficulty spikes, but not in the way you’d conventionally expect. Instead of giving you higher levels of enemies to fight, this game will do one of a few lesser options. The first you’ll encounter are enemies that will wear down to low health, then start furiously dodging every attack you throw at them. They will run circles around the arena before facing death. Another option is they’ll be downright unfair to come up against. They’ll have shi that allows them to pepper the arena with explosive plant bulbs, they’ll be able to parry every punch you think of, they’ll make the screen go dark momentarily, or, my personal favourite; they’ll use a move called “fear”, taking your control away and making your character turn and run to the other side of the arena. Further, not only do enemies automatically pull you into combat if you get too close to them, but they also respawn like in a Dark Souls game. This combat slowly turns sour and becomes a rinse and repeat process you try to avoid. It’s such a shame because when it goes well, its as fun as the game gets.
When you aren’t in combat, you’ll spend your time running around Mahera, catching wildlife, solving puzzles, and completing objectives. Movement alone is fun, and running around as each character feels unique. I particularly enjoyed sprinting around as Poky due to his hilarious sprinting animation. Enjoy exploring, but I can guarantee you’ll bump into enough invisible walls to make you groan with irritation. The camera is possibly one of the worst I’ve used in a long time. Straight away I noticed how badly it controlled and swung my view around the screen. Whats more, for some reason the mini-map is inverted – I have to say that is the first time I’ve ever come across that and it isn’t at all comfortable. Progress is in Shiness is also tediously slow. Objectives are viewed through a journal in the menu screen, but they’re never specific in what you actually have to do. I spent a lot of time backtracking through old areas and praying to find something I missed. Overall the game just isn’t that strong in communicating what needs to be done. One more gameplay related problem is that while you’re in these explorable areas you have the choice to do both side missions and contracts. For a game that isn’t fully open world to have so many mission types, it will inevitably shoot itself in the foot. With only so many spots on the map to base missions around, and no fast travelling, the game becomes far too repetitive.
When Shiness tries to be a JRPG, it can seem a little overwhelming. Upgrading and equipping techniques and shi to use in combat is all done through the menu screen, and although you’re given a short tutorial on how to do each of these tasks, the menus aren’t clear or easy on what you can or can’t do. When you do work some aspects out it can make a huge difference to how you go about your business, but being stuck in the equipment menu wondering what techniques you have at your disposal can be a little off-putting.
Despite its issues though, Shiness: The Lightning Kingdom is overall, an enjoyable experience. I’m certain that fans of the franchise will be more than happy to be able to step into Mahera as their favourite characters. The game shows so much potential and promise going forward, and I will look with eager eyes to see what Enigami come out with next. Unfortunately, the game spread itself far too thin over so many genres. Whilst I admire the fusion and accessibility Shiness creates between hardcore RPGs and intense fighting games, I wish it would find some focus, and concentrate on sending one clear, beautiful message. God knows that message is there, it’s just in so many languages at once that you can’t make complete sense of it.