Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Review: Shining Hearts

Some time ago I did a review of a game for the Playstation 2 called Shining Tears.  It was a simple Japanese role-playing game that I felt had a lot of neat features and ideas that rose it above a lot of the (let's be honest here) mundane RPGs that were flooding the market in those days.  What I didn't learn until much later was that the world was deeper than just one game, and other games and animated series linked to it were steadily coming out in Japan and not making the slightest effort to make their way over here.

Seriously, I will pay someone to sit beside me and translate Shining Wind for me as I play it.

One thing that did make its way over here, however, was an animated series called Shining Hearts, and seeing that it had some of the same things I liked about the original game I played (amnesiac swordsman, Tony Taka's artwork), I figured I'd give it a watch.

Never before has bread mattered so much to a story.

Here's the entire story in a nutshell:  Rick, a young man who works with three young women at a bakery, has no memory of his past life before he washed up on the beach of a small island.  When a mysterious young woman washes up on the shore some time later and a dark force attempts to follow her to the island, will he be able to reconcile the life he has now with the violent past he no longer remembers?

That single paragraph is quite easily the most boring, overdone pitch for a Japanese role-playing game in the history of video games, and I'll be honest, the story itself in this series is kind of weak.  There are some very big ideas introduced late in the story that change everything, but we never really get the chance to explore what those ideas mean.

Here's the amazing thing, I didn't care.

For people who know how much I hate loose threads or "hey, wait, what about" moments, this might come as a surprise to you, but Shining Hearts does one thing absolutely perfectly, and it makes up for most of the other failings the series might have: it builds the world.

A world with some familiar faces, if you've played the games.

I wasn't kidding when I said bread has never mattered more to the story, and much of Rick's daily life (and the lives of the people he knows) revolves around that bakery.  But instead of simply being a background detail to a character that matters little to the plot at large (like, say, every other career a character has), Rick's job as a baker connects him to the community at large.  The characters he meets through the series are either people who are either already customers of the bakery or become customers.

All of these characters help build the world Rick lives in.  For the most part, when characters simply show up in something involving an "amnesiac young man" you can expect that soon a bad guy is going to show up and burn the whole village down, so you don't get too attached to the other people you meet.  In this series though, despite the warning in the back of my head that "at any moment this pristine little paradise is going to get wrecked," I found myself wanting to know more and more about it and the people who lived in it.  Whether it was watching the fishermen bringing loads in for the market, seeing the regulars in a bar, or just listening to conversations between two guards wishing they didn't have the overnight shift, I felt myself becoming attached to this little island village.

It also helps that, for the most part, the supporting characters are incredible.  A young woman with some distinctive feline traits works as an antiques dealer.  A dwarf with a mechanical hand becomes involved when a kiln needs repair.  The prince and princess of the island and their maid, the local bartender, a "good guy" pirate, every character has a fully developed personality and their own motivations, and get their own great moments to shine throughout the series.

Most people would call the show "slow."  I call it "a slow burn" as it takes its time getting to the major conflict of the whole series.  It touches on it here and there as the series continues, but it progresses organically, as small threads weave together into a larger, over-reaching ... I'm not sure what the term is.  Quilt?  Rope?  What do plots come in?

Anyway, this plot ... braid, I guess... does reach a large peak towards the end, but by the time it gets there, you feel invested in the safety and security of this island.  You know that if an attack happens, no matter where it happens, someone that you've met or someone that they've met will be affected.  You don't want anything bad to happen to these people.

That's not to say it's not perfect.  I noticed a few weird little animation moments where a talking character was shown from behind with their head just bobbing up and down.  A large storm that blows through the island leaves surprisingly little damage behind it considering how much it gets played up.  One entire episode feels completely out of place from the rest of the show and could probably have been omitted as "pointless filler."

For its faults, it did enough to keep me hooked through untold loaves of bread being baked, rolls being consumed, and me feeling like I really don't appreciate my local bakers enough.  It's a deep exploration of a character trying to decide who he is: the man he is now, or the past he left behind.  It has engaging characters, some cute eye candy for everybody, and enough "WHOA!" moments that I kept waiting anxiously for the next one but never saw any of them coming.

It's no Moribito, but it was nice to have a series that didn't feel like it had to rush me along or pad too much of itself out to artificially lengthen itself beyond that one weird episode.  I still give it a thumbs up and I'm now more determined than ever to play those other games.

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