Shining Force 3 has been released on the Sega Saturn. I thought it would be a good idea to go back and review the first two chapters of the Shining Force series that appeared on the Sega Genesis in commemoration of this release. The Shining Force series of games have been consistently popular and a staple of the Sega line-up since the first game's release on the 16-bit Genesis. They have also been the leader in defining what makes a great strategy RPG, and spawned numerous imitators.
"The Legacy of Great Intention"
The original Shining Force takes place in the wondrous land of Rune. Rune is a land where technology sits alongside magic and the blade. A future past, if you will. 1,000 years earlier a terrible series of events took place. Dark Dragon led the powers of darkness in a battle for domination over the world of Rune. Legendary warriors of light, the Shining Force, engaged Dark Dragon in fierce battle with the ancient and modern weapons of the time. Dark Dragon was driven into another dimension, but vowed to return in another thousand years.
A thousand years of peace and tranquility passed. The people of the world were happy and spent time recovering the magical and technological wonders that Dark Dragon sought to destroy, and used them to benefit all the people.
But now the kingdom of Runefaust has begun to attack the other kingdoms of Rune. Their intention is to help Dark Dragon return to this world. You are the leader of the new Shining Force, an apprentice knight in the kingdom of Guardiana. It has fallen upon your shoulders to face the forces of Runefaust and stop Dark Dragon's return. Prepare for the ultimate battle.
The story is rich with character and has many interesting twists and turns. Most strategy RPG's tend to ignore story in place of gameplay but not Shining Force. While the battle engine is still the strongest aspect of the game, the story is involving and the dialogue is witty and well done. While the characters don't receive the depth of focus and development you'd expect in a traditional console RPG, they are far from faceless drones. They are all individuals and in many ways unique. You grow attached to them not only as great warriors, but also as fun and interesting characters. You'll remember them after you finish the game, and it will be very difficult to choose those that get left behind before a battle.
"The Scene is Set."
While the graphics and music in Shining Force show their age, when it was first released they set a standard for 2D animation on the 16 bit systems. The cut scenes in battles featured very large, highly detailed sprites with 3 or 4 frames of animation each. While that seems like little in retrospect, it was amazing back then on so large a scale as a role-playing game. The world of Rune is one of incredible diversity and rarely do the battlefields and towns seem repetitious. A lot of care went into the design of every detail and it shows. From large, open plains to multi-tiered castles to a mermaid-inhabited island, the world of Rune is a fantastic place to explore.
The music is very catchy and never annoys the player, which is vital to a strategy RPG when some battles may last over an hour. You'll find yourself humming the military beats long after you've stopped playing. While the compositions are not all that complicated, they are well done fit the mood of the game.
"The Battle begins."
Shining Force's greatest asset, as it is with the rest of the series, is the wonderfully uncomplicated yet deep battle engine. When most people think of strategy games, they think of huge battles with hundreds of faceless characters and enough options to put you to sleep. Shining Force strips all of the excess away and leaves a battle engine that allows for strategic thinking without wearing out the player.
You control 12 Shining Force members maximum per battle on a wide variety of landscapes. The lay of the land is a strong factor in the determination of a plan of attack. Each character has a limited number of spaces they can move, and certain terrain can limit movement further. Spacing of troops is important in keeping everyone alive and not allowing your team to be outmaneuvered. For example, you wouldn't want to send a magic user with a low defense but high movement into the midst of the enemy way ahead of your other troops. If your timing is bad and terrain slows your other characters down, that magic user will be taken out with ease. Placement of long distance attackers and flying allies is vital to success.
Characters earn experience and become stronger through attacking foes or healing teammates. Once a character reaches level 10, they can earn a promotion. But when you promote is important because characters' statistics drop briefly after they are promoted. If you promote everyone at the same time, you could be seriously overmatched in your next battle. Spread out your promotions, with magic users and your main character being promoted immediately, and physical attackers after they have gone a few levels past 10.
When a characters turn comes up, you have 5 options available. First of all you are shown your range of movement and are allowed to move anywhere within that range. After moving, you can use or give an item to a teammate, stay where you are, use magic or physically attack a foe. To attack there must be an enemy within your range. Depending on the character's class, range can be anywhere from right next to the enemy to 4 or 5 spaces away. Magic usually can be cast from 2 to 3 spaces away depending on the rank of the spell. And they can cover anywhere from one to five to sixteen spaces. Magic can be your greatest ally, but it is limited by the number of magic points a character has. It's best to wait for a cluster of enemies to cast a large spell on for maximum damage.
The easiest way to describe how wonderful the battle system is would be to run through a battle. This is one of the earlier battles that occur when you are trying to reach the town of Manarina. The battlefield is large and has samples of almost every piece of terrain in the game. You start out from a town in the southeast section of the battle map. Your destination is the northwest corner. There are three separate groups of enemies at various points between your starting point and destination.
I began by scanning the terrain. My first set of foes was straight ahead of me across a river with a bridge that allowed only one at a time across. But there was another way around the river through mountainous terrain. So I sent some of my fastest troops around the long way to outflank the first set of foes. My other troops headed for the bridge at a slow pace. I sent one of my strongest characters to the end of the bridge to block the enemy from coming across while my magic users and archer inflicted damage. My flanking troops reached their positions and assaulted the awakened foes from behind while the other troops stormed across the bridge and helped clean up.
Next came a group of mages in the center of the desert terrain. Desert slows everyone down so the pace had to be deliberate and I had to make sure weak characters didn't get too far ahead. I formed a wedge with the strong characters in front followed by weaker magic users and distance attackers. My first line hit the enemy spread wide to prevent the mages from attacking more than one of my troops at a time. After the initial class it was my magic users turn to go and they finished off the enemy from a distance.
The final group surrounding my destination was the strongest and featured a new enemy, the zombie. If you had listened to your advisor Nova at headquarters before entering battle you would know that zombies are susceptible to fire. It always pays to get advice before each battle. In order to take advantage of this weakness, I sent half my troops to the enemy's flank while the other half with my mage went at them from the front. When I was close enough, I sacrificed a strong character by sending him in alone toward the enemy. They took the bait and surrounded my teammate. As soon as her turn came up, my mage moved in and was able to catch 4 zombies in a blaze spell that nearly wiped them out. The rest of my troops followed in a great pincers attack that ended the battle very quickly. A perfectly planned battle and only one character to raise once we reached town.
That's what makes Shining Force great. Rather than having to worry about small details and equipment, you're free to concentrate on the proper troops and the perfect plan of attack. It keeps the complex strategies while stripping away the unnecessary busy work and creates a strategy game that is just plain fun to play.
The only weakness to the game is the rather weak AI of the enemy. Their routines are sometimes too easy to figure out and their attack pattern is rather simplistic. Once you figure out the AI triggers like how close you can get before the enemy attacks and the enemy's priority in who they attack, the game can be a bit easy. But the game makes up for it by giving you little room for error. Your opponents are generally stronger than you are, but not impossible to defeat if your plan is solid.
Shining Force is a top-notch game and a true strategy RPG. It gives you the strategy engine but doesn't forget to include the heart and soul of the RPG, which is story, exploration and non-player character interaction. Many that have come after have tried to capture the feeling that this game has, but most have failed. They may capture the fun battles, or the great story and graphics, but none have combined them as well as Shining Force did. Well, none except for Shining Force 2.