In 1993, Sega released Shining Force, one of the first console strategy RPGs. Shining Force was influential, as it first exposed a North American audience to the fledgling console SRPG genre. Now, nearly twenty years later, Sega has re-released this classic game for the iOS. Shining Force for the iOS is a straight port of the original Genesis game, with only added an emulation shell, menu system, and virtual buttons for control. And sadly, it just doesn't hold up the way many imagined it might eighteen years later.
The story of Shining Force is one of the swordsman Max, who trains the sword in Guardiana under his mentor Vario, who's a captain of the guard. Immediately, tragedy strikes Guardiana, as Kane of Runefaust, a neighboring kingdom, strikes down Vario and the king of Guardiana as part of a plot to resurrect the ancient and evil Dark Dragon. Max is left to create the Shining Force, a band of warriors of Light, to fight Runefaust's Dark designs to plunge the world into chaos.
If the plot sounds familiar, well, it should, because it is about as classic an RPG plot as one can get. Beyond the inclusion of a few non-human races and mechanical developments into the structure of this fantasy world, there really isn't anything that stands out in the world of Shining Force as something exciting or different. This is a very standard fantasy setting. And truthfully, the plot, story, and setting in Shining Force are all secondary to the gameplay. Max is always moving towards Runefaust (and his goal of finding Kane) all while stopping the rise of the Dark Dragon. However, during many phases of the game, the plot points are incoherent. Max's travels take him to many parts of the world, but the interactions with NPCs and villains are clipped and don't always seem to make a great deal of sense. For example, there's a misunderstanding with a king late in the game that makes very little sense, and results in Max being thrown into prison. Later, he is broken out by a wanderer, all for seemingly no reason. Perhaps elements such as this are due to text limitations, to the style of antiquated games, or to translation issues, but there's much room for improvement in plot, in story, and in character development in this game.
Gameplay is another story, though, as everything about the gameplay is clear, crisp, and makes perfect sense. Max travels through overworld and town scenes as if this were a standard JRPG in the Final Fantasy / Dragon Quest vein. Yet battles are pitched sequences with up to twelve allied units on a grid-based battlefield squaring off against the hordes of Runefaust. Combat is truly tactical, as the decisions regarding deployment and spacing do tend to reflect in how successful your Shining Force is during battle.
Throughout the game, Max recruits more members to the Shining Force: centaur knights, mages, healers, magical creatures, and many, many more. The player selects his or her allies to enter the battle, and then the characters take turns attempting to inflict damage on the different units. There are assorted magical skills, a few different weapon types to equip on your characters, and a few attributes such as attack and speed that can be improved by leveling. And the characters themselves reflect the world of Shining Force, a world populated with centaurs as equally as humans, assorted slightly demi-human races, as well as mechanically-derived weapons and one singularly stupid rodent in a helmet.
The number of potential members of the Shining Force is high; there are approximately 30 allies available during the course of my playthrough. While the characters have differing characteristics, several of them were redundant, gifted with remarkably similar skills and statistic progressions. Now, as later in the game you can promote your units to more advanced classes, and while that may hint at further customization, in truth, all this does is give some characters a slightly different look. And while many SRPGs have characters who no longer affect the story after joining the party, the characters in Shining Force offer virtually nothing to the story before joining the party, and literally nothing afterwards. The most character development that is seen in this game is a line of dialogue that's repeated in the party headquarters, which doesn't even compare favorably to the Fire Emblem or Ogre games, much less the SRPGs that are more character driven such as the NIS games or Final Fantasy Tactics. If you're looking for a good story with your combat, this probably won't appeal a great deal to you.
Despite the high number of characters, and the ability to customize them to a small degree, battles can quickly become tiresome. The pitched battles aren't terribly long most of the time, but can be frustrating as the result of mis-timed critical hits or slow-moving enemy units. With two dozen or more characters on the screen, it can simply take a long time just to get through all the character turns. While difficulty is not too terribly high, there are a few challenging battles. These are primarily due to high-HP, high-defense boss characters that require a concerted effort by many of your attackers. All in all, the battle system is engaging at first, but near the middle of the game, it slows down with larger concentrations of characters and battlefields that slow movement to a crawl, and this sucks a lot of the fun out of the game. While the difficulty level varies between very easy and moderately difficult, the fact that the game ends if Max is defeated is a strong push to exclude the main character from the battles, pushing him to the periphery, and this seemed like a poor gameplay decision.
Control, unfortunately, is a continuing issue in this version of the game. When ported from the Genesis to the iOS, some measure of virtual control needed to be instituted in order to substitute for the Genesis controller. The solution was to implement large A/B buttons on the right side of the screen, and a virtual D-Pad on the left side - a fairly typical solution for iOS ports. However, the D-Pad's controls are very slippery, and it is a bit unresponsive. This makes controlling the characters a dicey proposition, and the menu system is extremely annoying to navigate. Using an iOS-specific control scheme certainly would've mitigated these problems dramatically, but would've required a much greater programming investment. However, it definitely would have been worth it, as the resulting controls are just not good enough to keep the game rolling easily.
Shining Force is a straight port of a game released in 1993, and as such, the graphics are outdated. Perhaps twenty years ago, they'd have qualified as acceptable, or even good, but for a game released in 2010, these images fall remarkably short. With the exception of some relatively interesting character and creature designs (the Dark Dragon is suitably menacing, the mechanical enemies are like manufactured Lovecraftian horrors), backgrounds are bland and serviceable and characters are run-of-the-mill in appearance. Character faces are deformed, with serious chins and foreheads. In fact, the main character's forehead was so prominent, I changed his name from "Max" to "Forehead". Perhaps it should have been "Max Forehead", but I digress. Graphically the game is not on the level of Chaos Rings or Infinity Blade, and that's to be expected, but it is also not on the level of the iOS version of Final Fantasy II or Ash. If you compare this game to the other offerings available on iOS, it will certainly be at the low point of the totem pole, regardless of how good the graphics might have been in 1993.
The character sprites are interesting enough, but again, there's the though that the game could be better. In 2004, the game was re-made for Game Boy Advance, and had improved graphics, story, gameplay, heck, nearly everything was improved on while maintaining the feel of the original. But in this iOS version, true to the original in nearly every way, all of the original game's flaws are on display. One particular graphical thing that's truly aggravating is that during a battle, your character is always facing away, as if the player is looking over the character's shoulder. While logical, the player never gets a look at the more detailed character design from the front! What gives?
Background sound in Shining Force is nothing special. With a relatively low number of musical tracks, and the limitations of the Genesis-styled outputs, tracks seem to have a particular intent. One is meant to be victorious, another foreboding, but none are memorable. And as far as sound effects go, in this game they are serviceable, but nothing more. Again, given the capabilities of the Genesis back in 1993, they do the job, but they may fall short when compared to other iOS offerings.
In iOS games, it is crucial to cover how well a game can be picked up and put down, and the one area where this game is excellent is in ease of use. The shell for the game developed for the iOS is capable of auto-saving at any moment, allowing you to stop the game seamlessly, without losing a thing. This is a terrific feature for any handheld, much less a game that can be interrupted by a phone call. But looking at the game from a holistic view, this one powerful benefit doesn't make up for a game that already feels out-of-date, slow, and dull. The messy control scheme gums up a game that already comes across as stuttering, and the positives can't break through enough to make up for the negatives.
Some games just do not age well, and Shining Force is one of those games. In essence, Sega had three options: to port a nearly 20-year old game to the console, to port an improved re-made version (2004's Shining Force: Resurrection of the Dark Dragon), or to develop a new remake of the game that takes advantage of the iOS platform. Unfortunately, the first option, being the easiest, is the one that Sega went with, and the end result is a disappointing, lazy port that is tough to control and lacks compared with today's SRPG offerings. It doesn't have the difficulty of a Fire Emblem, the story of a Final Fantasy Tactics, the over-the-top craziness of a Disgaea, or the complexity and verve of an Ogre game. Today, Shining Force is a game without differentiators, when released today it flounders in the middle of the pack of SRPGs. And without a remake, reboot, or at least a better control scheme, there are plenty of better, more fun options for games on the iOS device.
For the purposes of this review, the version played was 1.0.0, and the device used was an iPhone4.