New role-playing games are a cause for at least subdued anticipation, as the prospect for new characters, stories and adventure can be tempered with the measured expectations for possibly familiar genre conventions. But Shiness: The Lightning Kingdom, on the surface, appeared to offer enough of a new vision to raise my expectations for a unique experience.

Described as an action-RPG by publisher Focus Home Interactive, developer Enigami has fashioned a stylish game that combines arena fighting with magic and role-playing elements. The music trailer is a beautiful introduction that convinced me to research this title and ultimately explore the game itself, despite my being an absolutely pitiful fighting game player.

The concept somewhat reminds me of past brawlers Rise to Honor and Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks (and perhaps Yakuza 0, which I have yet to play), which mix fighting genre gameplay with a narrative structure. Of course, to my knowledge those lacked RPG elements. In many respects, Shiness does have the potential to mostly stand alone as a hybrid title.

Shiness is based on manga, and the story follows the fragmentation of planet Mahera and the resulting power struggle among multiple kingdoms. There are five playable characters (Chado, Poky, Kayenne, Askel, Rosalya) whose travels among celestial islands form the basis of the game. Shiness opens with companions Kayenne and Rosalya fleeing an army.

Eventually we learn that Rosalya has been granted temporary refuge from her native Adorya in Mantara, a floating city that is the last refuge of Gendys. The Awakening of the Earth laid waste to Gendys, making farming impossible and leaving behind entities of Dark Shi. Adorya closed its borders to Gendys, fearing infection. When friends Chado and Poky crash land in Gendys, they are thrust into the middle of the conflict.

The game's art design from the beginning reflects a manga influence. While the story unfolds slowly, it does so with a style that is refreshing. Cutscenes alternate between animation and storyboards, creative characters pop against the colorful, fantastic backgrounds with their cell-shaded quality, and the strong fantasy music paints a pastoral setting with flute, drums and strings.

Dynamic action complements the unique presentation. The companions have different affinities toward Shi elements (i.e. water, fire, air, earth), which grants them different powers relative to their surroundings. Teams can be built to match one's gaming style, and one's choices reportedly can affect the main storyline and rewards.

Besides exposition in cutscenes, the narrative is revealed in discussion with NPCs and other characters. Dialog trees allow for some freedom during conversation, amusingly using kinds of emojis (i.e. confused, laughing, exclamation, etc.) with dialog indicators to guide the discussion. I haven't noticed that response order impacts the conversation, but these elements are always appreciated.

Where there is a mixed bag even early on is in the use of humor during cutscenes or discussion. Granted, the game is likely designed for a younger demographic than yours truly, but some jokes and general humor fall flat or are groan worthy. Still, whimsical exchanges can help lighten dialog, which generally is well conceived. Voice acting is solid though at times over the top, befitting the manga/anime style on display.

Beautiful settings reflect the same vibrant vision, with stylish landscapes adorned by colorful flora, active fauna and imaginative settlements. Each locale benefits from its own distinctive terrain, whether plains, coasts, swamps, etc., and include RPG staples like dungeons and caves. Traversing the terrain involves standard movements, though swimming or even wading would help avoid some circuitous routes.

The map and minimap provide a decent frame of reference, and do a good job showing points of interest such as landmarks, objectives, merchants or save points. However, they can sometimes confuse as navigation aids, as pathways and obstructions are not always clearly demarcated. Following the map can lead you in the general direction, but trial and error in the form of dead ends and backtracking aren't uncommon for me.

When Chado and Poky crash, the two friends are separated. Chado's journey brings him in contact with Terra, a Shiness or spirit of the earth that becomes his guide. Terra provides some exposition as well as helping train Chado in the ways of this world, including actions or activities that will help him survive and progress as he continues on his path.

Chado and Poky have special abilities (via R1 on PS4) that help in exploration. Chado can summon a Shi-Menhiro rock that can be dropped (X) or thrown (square) at a target. As RPG fans can guess, such a heavy object can be placed/thrown onto floor plates/objects to open doors/retract vines/roots, or heaved at cracked walls to create a pathway or reveal a hidden chamber. And it works as advertised, including targeting.

Poky can use a Shi Wrench to affect power, or Flux of Shi, among energy nodes. Flux can be released/disrupted (square) at the source, or linked between sources via coils (X). Figuring out how to conduct Flux among various sources/coils can, for instance, create a new pathway. Both the Shi-Menhiro and Shi Wrench early on allow for light puzzle solving that varies gameplay, though doesn't deviate from genre staples.

Exploration is an important element for any RPG, and interacting (square) with various items in Shiness such as chests or found objects can provide loot in the form of clothing, consumables, equipment, etc. Some in turn can then be equipped, consumed, used or sold/bartered at trading posts. Wildlife, too, have uses, and hunting with stealth (L3) will yield more rewards than chasing them down.

Sprinting (R2) is a quick way to traverse the landscape, especially when some objectives might involve backtracking to found areas. Jumping can surmount gaps or obstacles in a path. In the beginning, at least, navigation is mostly limited to these options, and can feel restrictive (especially given the lack of swimming/wading in copious bodies of water), though placement of terrain/objects suggests more options later.

During your travels you'll come across NPCs that will engage in conversation. Often, these will solicit your help in the form of quests, or an opportunity might present itself for you to otherwise offer your services, for instance, to find a lost patrol. Bulletin boards likewise can be sources for activities, such as finding a wayward pet, via the contracts posted there. Completed quests or contracts can reward the player.

Arena combat is really the central component of this hybrid action RPG. From an aesthetic standpoint, it shares the same emphasis on style, flash and overall ornate design as other areas of the game, though title screens celebrating an opponent's defeat or announcing a new combatant likewise are a nod to fighting game visual cues. The overall impact, including detailed particle effects and smooth animation, is pixel eye candy.

Basic combat moves include hit (square), kick (X), block (hold O) and dodge (hold O plus L). Parry (triangle) is a little more involved but functions the same as in most melee combat mechanics. A successful parry will stun the opponent and allow a counterattack. In addition, parry can be used to deflect incoming projectile attacks back at your foe. Parry consumes Tension, which can be replenished by hitting/kicking.

Players can also target their opponent (R3), and throw Shi-Menhiro rocks to hurt or distract. All offensive and defensive moves are fairly intuitive, responsive and effective. Combat, as in other fighting games, comes down to timing. If players can precisely time their moves in relation to enemy movements, they can quickly gain the upper hand. That also applies to casting spells.

Poky's journey also involves searching for his friend, but along the way he teams with Kayenne and Rosalya. Kayenne proves a mentor of sorts and schools him in combat the same way that Terra instructs Chado. Only Kayenne gives a Discipline (Kiidju, which manipulates Water Shi) to Poky for use while fighting, enabling him to add spells to his repertoire of combat moves.

Disciplines like Kiidju are assigned to face buttons, and can be thrown at foes (L2 plus button). Throws can be chained together (pressing button repeatedly), but each spell that's cast consumes Shi. Because arenas cycle through elements (depicted by the colors of their energy barriers), Shi that has the same element as one that's cycling can be restored when channeled (R2) at the time the element is displayed.

Shi also can be charged (hold L2 plus hold button), then cast at adversaries. Shi management thereby becomes important, and arena elements can be crucial to combat. Another key to survival is restoring one's health by consuming items (direction keys) such as blue apples. This is where experience with fighting mechanics can prove useful, as one will need to monitor foes, arena elements and health at the same time.

Learning enemy weaknesses, attacks and patterns also is necessary for successful combat, as some will cast spells from a distance, others will burrow to attack from underneath your feet, and foes protected by armor and weapons can be tough to damage. There are a variety of enemy types, as well as boss encounters, and developing specific strategies for each will prove helpful in a fight.

Boss fights can be a problem if you're fighting game challenged like I am. A resilient and persistent foe, who also seeds the arena with countless poisonous plants that sprout at your feet, can bedevil fighting noobs. Thankfully, Shiness allows you to tag team your comrades in the middle of a fight, switching characters on the fly (L1), an option that also is available outside the arena and helpful for overcoming obstacles.

Team combat benefits from support. Support aids allies (with over 30 support types) by increasing power, defense or affinity, placing elements, or healing penalties that harm the player. Players select an action, attribute a support and choose a condition, such as triggering a heal ability when an ally's maximum life falls below a set percentage. Such automatic buffs (above, top) can be a boon when in a bind.

A blessing for anyone wading through trial and error combat is generous save points. If at first you don't succeed, save. With the possible exception of checkpoints triggered by story progress (though I have yet to test that theory), Guardians of Memory can be found in many places to save your progress. Chances are that even if you forgot to save prior to a boss fight, for instance, the last save isn't too far behind.

One other element for overcoming your enemies is a staple of fighting games or melee combat in most games. Combos, called Techniques in Shiness, greatly increase one's strength during combat. Techniques work like Shi, using up Tension when applied. Equip a Discipline, like Pushing, and apply the respective button combos during combat to implement. Hidden recipes teaching combos or Shi can be obtained from Traders.

Combat overall in Shiness is well implemented, with responsive and effective moves at one's disposal. The challenge is in memorizing the deep fighting options available, and your opponent's style and vulnerabilities. For fighting game enthusiasts, I imagine the gameplay will feel familiar. For others, there's a pretty steep learning curve to employ all the moves expertly in fights against rank and file foes or boss level opponents.

I, for one, am at a disadvantage, but do feel that with practice it's possible to become reasonably proficient in all the fighting options that this title presents. A saving grace is the ability to sometimes avoid combat encounters, or to engage in repeat encounters and build one's experience and level. Practice makes perfect, as they say. Though they also say, Live to fight another day. Both happily apply.

Outside of combat, a menu can be opened (triangle) for Team, Characters, Items, Equipment, Shi, Combos, Support, Journal, Skills, Options. This allows for customization of one's control scheme, equipping items or abilities, reviewing skills and combos, etc. The interface, including layout and movement between screens, demonstrates an ease of use and comprehension.

The beginning hours also exhibit recurrent problems that threatened frustration but so far have not proved too annoying. In fact, these are relatively common issues that many games face, whether poor combat cameras on occasion, wonky character placement/collision detection, and characters that can get stuck on the environment.

The former two could be real problems for combat, especially in a game that relies so heavily on that mechanic, but so far have not risen beyond an occasional irritant. Helpfully, camera angles can be adjusted on the fly, and I encountered a floating enemy only once thus far. Likewise, I've become stuck a few times already, but have been able to extricate myself in each instance.

Add to that the sometimes grating humor mentioned before and the list of grievances still are thankfully few and far between. Despite the challenge that fighting games in general present for me, and the struggle I began to have with a boss and other higher level foes, the combat mechanic is not broken and in fact is deep and immersive.

Indeed what warrants the attention of gamers is the impressive union of a seemingly deep arena fighting game with a promising and truly stylish RPG that I've only scraped the surface of. The overall design so far shows off a real care for artful presentation, immersive gameplay and imaginative theater. It's not perfect in the early going. Some gameplay is conventional and the story threatens to become convoluted.

However, if that gameplay and the narrative in general can only tighten as the game progresses, and as more areas and character abilities become accessible in the process, Shiness: The Lightning Kingdom has the potential to carve a unique and enduring niche in a genre that can sometimes suffer under a lack of truly new and innovative experiences.