Shining Core Review

First things first: iPhone 2G and second gen iPod Touch owners will still want to approach this title with extreme caution despite the latest bug fix. By all accounts it runs smoothly on the iPhone 3G and third gen iPod Touch as well as the latest models, but still crashes with unsettling frequency on second gen iDevices. It’s a darn shame, because this is a real sleeper gem for those who happen to own the more advanced devices.

So, here we have another Korean-made iPhone RPG. The scenario – focusing on three heroes rushing to the aid of a kingdom besieged by your run-of-the-mill princess-stealing demon lord – is completely uninspired, and the translation has its fair share of kinks. Totally familiar story for burned-out RPG fans with iDevices, right?

Not quite. What Shining Core does differently is to use a Match 3 board – filled with tiles called “Cores” – as the driver of its battle system in lieu of menus or action virtual buttons. The player selects a character to run a gauntlet of one-on-one tournament style encounters in which the player and CPU-controlled adversary take turns matching up Cores, activating attacks and stat buffs according to the types of Cores eliminated from the board. Rounding out the RPG side of the equation is the fact that the player’s character gains experience and gold for each victory and has a chance to upgrade equipment or purchase items between rounds.

Both the Match 3 and RPG aspects of Shining Core lack some of the depth fans of either genre are used to. Match 3 veterans will frown at the rarity of crazy screen-clearing mayhem on the Core board, which tends to evolve gradually, and RPG diehards looking for complex item forging and exploration won’t find it here due to the hard focus on battle progression and linear nature of equipment upgrades.

However, there’s something about the mixture of elements here that’s likely to hit a sweet spot for anyone generally open to both genres. The player vs. CPU interaction is something of a novelty in Match 3 games as far as I’ve played them, and the fact that the player’s turn expires after a 15 second countdown means you’re never left staring frustratedly at the Match 3 board for minutes on end trying to find an obscure match — though missing a turn means not only losing the initiative but also giving the enemy a penalty health boost. The player and his or her opponent may opt to use an item during a turn instead of matching up Cores, making item purchases strategically significant. Enemy AI is satisfyingly aggressive, so the player’s game plan is devoted to snatching up offensive matches before his or her adversary does.

Perhaps even more appealing than the sheer novelty factor is that certain game mechanics weighing on most iPhone RPGs are absent here (ubiquitous item questing, I’m lookin’ at you) whereas genre strengths are well preserved. Shining Core‘s plot tends toward the insipid but it’s told through interchapter texts and art that lend the game a bit of an arcade feel. Equipment micromanagement is ultra streamlined but those who miss it should still appreciate the evolving appearance of the player character’s sprite as hard-earned gold is assigned to upgrading individual pieces of armor and weaponry. Each of the three player characters on offer feel different enough in terms of stat balance and specialties that three playthroughs are well justified.

Like the character sprites, backgrounds and other ancillary artwork are attractively delivered, and the fact that offensive moves vary according to number of Cores matched prevents them from getting too visually redundant over the game’s six hour length per playthrough. It’s probably no coincidence that the game freezes while executing special attacks on second gen iDevices because they’re entertainingly over-the-top, especially for sprite-based games; it’s a pity that the player’s attention will be divided between watching these play out and planning the next move on the Core board. Shining Core does fall short in the music department, which consists of jingle-length tunes that wear out their welcome as each is looped for an hour, the average amount of time it will take a player to complete each chapter. This would have been a perfect game for player-defined iTunes tracks, but Shining Core boorishly cancels out external music as soon as the player taps on the intro screen. D’oh!

iFanzine Verdict: Shining Core is a textbook example of how game design differs from technical execution. Technical flaws make the current version all but inaccessible to second gen iDevice owners, but if you a.) own a more advanced iDevice model, b.) like RPGs, and c.) have enjoyed Match 3 games, you would do well to give this one a go, especially at the $0.99 sale price that prevails as of this writing. ZLE Game, Inc., has proven that a Match 3/RPG mashup is a fundamentally solid idea. Now if they’d just create a sequel with an interesting story and more reliable technical execution, they could very well have a classic on their hands.

iDevice owners interested in the Match 3/RPG mashup concept but turned off by Shining Core‘s lack of polish in some areas would be advised to check out Rod’s ChronosGearreview for comparison, since the gameplay concepts underlying both games are in the same ballpark.

Like the review? Find the game on iTunes!