Shining Force II is captivating because of its fairytale ambiance. It is immersive and easy-going, if not especially complex. Oh, just in case you're wondering, you do get to save a princess.
The yarn Shining Force II weaves is as ordinary as any other, but what distinguishes it from the rest is utter and thorough prosaicism, an undeniable, urgent attachment to the plot's here-and-now realism.
Unlike a good deal of other RPGs, Shining Force II maintains the air of undiluted feudalism: here you'll find no giant robots, no exotic cultures, no grating cut-and-paste that exists in the majority of other games (I'm sure we can all let the bit with the Nazca Ship slip by unnoticed). From start to finish, Shining Force II is what it means to be: a medieval romance with some save-the-world derring-do thrown in for good measure.
And, of course, the game's other distinguishing aspect is its strategic element. Shining Force II utilizes a simple grid-based battle engine. All battles are cast in stone, pre-plotted and unavoidable (unless you EGRESS creatively, but more on that later). You are allowed a maximum of twelve combatants in your party, though you are usually outnumbered, sometimes severely so.
Combatants on both sides take turns fairly at random. Everyone moves according to their range of movement, and, once you find a square you like, you can choose whether to attack, cast a spell, use an item, or sit idly by.
Magic in Shining Force II is somewhat weak. Instead, the game places an especial emphasis on formation, attributes, and terrain. In essence, your allies and foes usually only differ in terms of attack and defense ratings.
Throughout the game you have access to no more than seven magic users (that's out of thirty or so characters total), and magic usually doesn't have that great a range and doesn't do that much damage. In a nutshell, if you huddle your forces and your characters are comparable in strength to your foes, you can simply barrel through any opposition with brute force.
The crux is where the battlefield is limited or convoluted, in which case the battles increase in difficulty by leaps and bounds.
Since Shining Force II offers an oddly large library of characters to choose from, there are two approaches to battling. You can either go through battles again and again, leveling up every character up to par. You can exit any battle by using the EGRESS spell - you keep all the experience and items, but all your foes are re-spawned. In addition, the characters acquire experience individually, on a blow-per-blow basis, allowing you to level up specific characters.
The other approach is not to level up at all, which makes the game a lot less tedious. Now you must choose your party carefully, since any character left behind is likely to be at a severe disadvantage in the next battle to come. Unfortunately, the majority of the most powerful characters join your force early on in the game, dooming most of the later recruits to oblivion.
Another interesting aspect of the battle engine is the promotion system: beginning with level twenty, every character can be promoted to a superior class, and, with the help of certain hidden items, to an alternate class.
Presentation-wise, Shining Force II has its ups and downs. The field is pixilated and graphically primitive, utilizing a good deal of solid expanses of primary colors. The sizable overworld is mostly made up of forests and rolling hills, occasionally interrupted by desert or mountains.
However, in battle the quality of the visuals jumps exponentially: each attack is presented in the form of an animated cutscene. All combatants are represented by large, realistically proportioned sprites, and though the animation is somewhat strained, the colors are vibrant and there is a good deal of detail.
Audibly, however, Shining Force II isn't much. In the overworld you are constantly facing the fanfare-intensive main theme, which seems wildly inappropriate. In addition, there are two separate combat themes. The rest of the music assumes the form of brief sound bites.
Similarly, SFII isn't played for its story, which is clean and simple, but hardly engaging. The main theme surfaces at certain points, but otherwise the player spends most of the time moving from place to place in order to complete a fetch quest of some sort. The characters' identities are essentially limited to their portraits, and you can be almost sure that everyone who gets his or her own portrait will eventually join you.
Though Shining Force II is noticeably rough in places, it is still quite a game, especially for the Genesis. Just completing it takes a good while, and with all the secret items and characters to find, it will be the chief thing on the player's mind for many days.