For years now developers and gamers have been stuck in their own nostalgia. The good old 80’s and 90’s and sometimes the early 2000’s are often honored by indie studios, who either go all the way with a retro game or try to bring something interesting and fresh to the table whilst retaining the nostalgic value.
Although there’s no explicit mention on their inspiration, French indie studio Enigami seems to have drawn elements from games such as Secret of Mana and Illusion of Gaia to develop their debut title Shiness: The Lightning Kingdom. Everything from the story to the characters and the world feel as if the game was written back in the 80’s. It would probably have been a big hit then, but today with 3D environments and mechanics, it falls short.
It isn’t fair to compare an indie game to high profile titles, but in the same way, developers shouldn’t try to match such competitors when they don’t have the budget or experience. On the surface, Shiness looks like an interesting action RPG that tries to push some boundaries while seeming nostalgic to 80’s kids. But just as we start diving it becomes clear that it doesn’t live up to its potential.
Shiness bites more than it can chew. It tells a bland story that’s all too familiar to JRPG fans and on top of that, counts with outdated and simplistic designs that, again, seem to belong in the 80’s. Its opportunity to shine brighter than its name is wasted in an unnecessarily convoluted combat system that tries to be too innovative but only manages to confuse and frustrate the player. Tying everything up is a colorful world that feels lifeless.
We could go on and on about the many hours it takes for the story to build up (if you ever thought a FINAL FANTASY game took a while to get interesting, then think again), or how the characters try to mimic classic JRPG tropes, but the dull world and overly complicated combat are the actual culprits. Great gameplay tends to save a dull story, but a combination of shortcomings often results in the opposite.
The world of Mahera, while bright and colorful, relies on underdeveloped mechanics and terrible platforming. Shiness‘s exploration has potential, but just like every other system in place, it’s lacking. Whereas other developers focus on one aspect and make it the game’s strength, Enigami tries to excel at everything. Branching too much makes one lose focus and that becomes particularly evident with how clunky platforming is, or the obvious switches and breakable walls that open unnecessary shortcuts. The interesting part is that each character has specific abilities used to unlock paths, but their individual mechanics are gimmicky and unpolished. A few of them aren’t annoying to control, but the same can’t be said about others such as Kayenne and his psychic powers.
Every area is also filled with critters that can be hunt down, either stealthily or by downright running after them. These can be difficult to spot with how colorful and vibrant the environments are and only give items used as a sort of currency when haggling at shops. Alongside critters are the inhabitants and more dangerous creatures of Mahera, all of which feel like a pile of codes. NPCs are hardly interesting and enemies are oddly distributed. Their placement and limited behavior are immersion breaking as their sole purpose seems to be satisfying combat demand, not blending with the environment as part of the world.
Speaking of combat, Chado and his band snatch the “Most Convoluted System” trophy from FINAL FANTASY VIII and the confusing Guardian Forces. At first, battles seem simple enough: players use X to punch, A to kick, B to dodge, and Y to parry. However, the commands are clunky and the addition of unnecessary features turn combat gimmicky. Taking down foes consists mostly of smashing X, A, and occasionally Y to take back the advantage since the most aggressive ones leave no window for damage. On top of that, the player fights not only the enemy but also a locked camera that moves on its own, often placing itself behind the enemy or in spots that make it impossible to make out what’s happening.
Opening the main menu (Y during exploration) reveals just how far Enigami was trying to reach. This clutter mess contains an array of submenus that allow players to customize their party either by deciding what they wear, customizing their abilities, or assigning AI commands that function similarly to FINAL FANTASY XII‘s Gambits. For the most part, swapping characters during combat is just as necessary as having six playable characters in, again, FINAL FANTASY. Each of them manipulates a specific element, but besides that, they all play exactly the same.
Shiness: The Lightning Kingdom is a very ambitious project for a small indie studio. It desperately attempts to reach the heights of AAA darlings, but its budget wasn’t enough. Had Enigami focused on polishing one or two aspects, this could have turned out to be one of the best indie games of the year. Alas, overreaching killed it early. As Tim Gunn and the panel of Project Runway judges would say, “Edit it down!” Sometimes, less is more.