Shiness: The Lightning Kingdom is a strange game. Kickstarted back in 2014, it sold itself based on its adherence to a formula. In the same way one might crowdfund a “Metroidvania” or a “Banjo-Kazooie-like” based on the familiarity of an audience with those kinds of games, Shiness was backed on the promise that it would be a new game in the familiar genre of the role-playing game in the Japanese style (JRPG). While that term gets thrown around quite a lot, the meaning has shifted over the past 30 years. When I say that Shiness is a JRPG, do I mean that it’s like Dragon Warrior? Or do I mean that it’s like Final Fantasy VII? Or maybe Ni No Kuni?
As a term, “JRPG” is ambiguous. It is as much about tone, the character types and the world of a game as it is about mechanics and actual play, and so pitching that kind of omnibus experience to the crowdfunding winds is a Hail Mary in a lot of ways. People are either going to latch on or they aren’t, and a lot of that has to do with how much they recognize the intended genre in the final product. So the question that Shiness has to answer is this: Is it immediately recognizable as part of the JRPG genre?
I think that it is. The stock characters are all there. There’s the adventurous and good-hearted Chado, the silly Poky, the competent Rosalya, and the gruff and responsible Kayenne amongst a cast of PCs and NPCs who all fill out this world. These character are almost lifted out of a play in the sense that they are one-dimensional people who have predictable responses to situations. I say that not to disparage the writing, but merely to say that there are no surprises here. A few lines of dialogue into any character and you learn the exact narrative and emotional range of that character. They are stock, and they are predictable.
Ultimately, I think this has to do with both the JRPG format and the crowdfunded aspect of the game. To win over players into this new intellectual property, the game’s developers have to lean into what they will expect from the game. What they expect are characters who might appear in their idealized fantasy of a generic JRPG; those are the characters we get in Shiness.
The game’s story has a similar function to it. Without getting into specifics, of which I could only give you about 25% of, I can say that I didn’t understand the stakes of most of the characters’ interactions or their broader place in the world. Some conversations and events seemed to have consequences that would alter the entire world. Others might impact one person, or no one at all. Shiness shares the problem that giant games do right now in that it expects you to be heavily invested in its world via its prerelease promotional material (in the case of Shiness that seems to be a manga). The problem is that Shiness, unlike an Assassin’s Creed or a Final Fantasy, doesn’t have millions of dollars of advertising or millions of fans who have been bought-in for years. I think it’s a problem when one of those huge franchises expects me to know anything about its world before beginning; I find it bewildering that Shiness dumps a seemingly-infinite amount of worldbuilding and lore on the player’s head in the first couple hours as if I’ve been a fan of this franchise for half my lifetime.
The best part of Shiness is its combat. It is a relatively seamless system that goes from wandering around maps and solving puzzles to a battle arena that has the player memorizing combos to beat up on enemies. At first glance, you might think that it’s a brawler, but it’s much closer to a fighting game. Specific enemies are vulnerable to certain physical or magical attacks, and the game takes all of that potential complex depth and runs with it.
On one level, it means that the game has a satisfying deepness to it. On the other hand, I don’t think this is the kind of game that one can just casually play. There were multiple early boss encounters where I had to have the kind of intense focus and strategic thinking that games like Final Fantasy Tactics or XCOM require, and that was just in the gameplay. The menu system of statistical management, ability and item equipping, and micromanagement of numbers across party members can be dizzying. It just made me want to curl up and not have to think about it.
For all of these reasons, I can’t say that I think Shiness is a bad game. It’s just a game that has leaned into its genre so hard that its spine is cracking. If you’re the kind of person who wants to micromanage numbers within the framework of a traditional JRPG story in a fantastical world of animal-people and human-people, then this might be the game for you. If a single part of that sentence made you have a second thought, then it probably isn’t.
Shiness: The Lightning Kingdom was developed by Enigami and published by Focus Home Interactive. Our review is based on the PS4 version. It is also available for PC and Xbox One.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.