Shining Force 3 from Sonic Software and Camelot is the swan song of the Sega Saturn game system. While Magic Knight Rayearth is yet to be released, it has been delayed so often as to not be considered a new game. Shining Force 3 shows all the potential and power that the Saturn had to offer, but also reflects the failures of the Saturn system by only being the first disc in a series of three which encompass the entirety of Shining Force 3. A series of games that was a franchise for Sega and its Genesis system in the early 90's only receives a third of its due on the Saturn in this country. An unfinished beginning of what could be one of the greatest strategy RPG's ever made is all that gets released in the country that originally accepted the series as one of its favorites. Very fitting and very unfortunate for RPG and Shining Force fans.
"To protect our freedom."
The floating city of Saraband has long been a neutral haven for commerce. It lies between the rival factions of the Republic and the Empire. These two factions have been at constant odds with each other over their disparate idealism and need for fertile land. The leaders of both factions have come to Saraband to discuss terms of peace before nothing is left of the land they so covet. But all is not so peaceful in Saraband. A group of masked monks that worship the religion of Bulzome have established themselves in a nearby city. They have consistently attempted to disrupt the quiet in Saraband and stop the peace conference for reasons known only to them. At a key point in the peace talks, the Emperor is abducted from within the very walls of Saraband, seemingly by King Benetram of the Republic. You are the leader of a small band of Republican fighters who know the truth behind the kidnapping and the culprits responsible. You must expose the evil behind these doings and preserve peace in these dark times. You must lead the Shining Force and light the way to the truth and vanquish the great evil that seeks to rise again.
The story in Shining Force 3 is of excellent quality. It is rich with intrigue and sets a smooth pace leading you through its twists and turns while never boring you. And like any good story of political intrigue, there is a sense of mystery at every turn. You never know who your allies are and if your enemies are your true foe. And as with the previous Shining Force games, the power of magic and evil go side by side with feudalism and technology. As the series has moved on, it has come closer to a magical realm and further from the ancient technology. Sonic and Camelot have done an excellent job in carrying on those traditions and the ancient technology is all but lost in this story. Few know of it or know how to use it. Mystical creatures play a greater role and magic has advanced to the point of being able to summon magical creatures like the Phoenix and the Wendigo to aid in battle. Sonic Software and Camelot have truly expanded the Shining Force world and carried on the traditions set by Sonic Team and Climax in the earlier incarnations. The story is filled with nostalgia though it never really steals from the past games. It keeps its identity and expands its scope while staying true to its roots. That's not an easy thing to do and it is a pleasant surprise for fans of the series.
There were only a few problems I had with the story. One is a personal pet peeve while the other is a major problem if Sega fully intends not to bring over the other two discs that make up the entire game. The minor problem is that the main character doesn't speak, ever. I've mentioned this problem in other games but I don't think it bothered me quite as much as it did here. This is a great story and the main character is a key player, but a giant hole is left in the plot where his personality should be. Again, they are trying to use a first person perspective main character in a story told from the third person. If they want to do this and let the player feel that he or she is taking the role of this character, then give us some dialogue choices. Don't just have a series of dots flash under the main character's picture and expect us to fill in the missing parts. Have him speak or let us choose what he says. The character has a distinct look and based on the other character's reactions he has his own personality. I know very few great leaders that said absolutely nothing, even when asked a direct question. Even if he said almost nothing, maybe even just yes or no sometimes, it would have been much, much better. He may have had a weak personality then, but that's better than no personality at all.
The major problem I have is the lack of an ending. There is no nice way of putting this: the ending sucks big time. There are a million loose ends that don't get tied up, events that occur without an explanation and an ending that pretty much shoves in your face that there is more to this. All these concerns we know are explained on the other two discs. Unless Sega wakes up and realizes that they really can't do this and expect people to be happy, I really can't give the story in this game a good rating. As it stands, it is unfinished, and not in a minor way but in a major way. Sega needs to either release the other two games for the Saturn in the US or announce a re-mixed version of all 3 discs on the Dreamcast. If they don't release them they might lose the respect of many of the hardcore gamers that have stuck by the Saturn in the hopes of playing the next Shining Force game. I'm a huge Shining Force fan and I almost feel it would have been better for it to never be released than to get this unfinished game. I had a lot of fun with it, but I was left feeling very empty, anxious and very angry when it was all over.
"Shining in 3D."
The graphics in Shining Force 3 are excellent for what they are. I know many fans will be upset with the polygonal cut scenes, and I'm included in that group. I would have preferred the high detail and personality that 2D provides, but the gouraud shaded polygons do their job well and are extremely impressive for the Saturn. 3D also provides fluid movement without taxing the system's RAM and creating massive loading times. It also allows for sweeping camera movements and dramatic angles for special attacks and spells. While detail is compromised, what is gained more than makes up for it. The battle sequences are exciting to watch and never seem to get repetitive because of the large amount of character movement and the variety of attacks that wouldn't be possible in 2D without load time before every scene.
Magic spells look fantastic and use every effect the Saturn is capable of and many that it isn't. I don't know how they pulled off some of these effects, especially the beautiful transparencies, but it all looks great. The main map characters are represented by rendered sprites, which are somewhat pixilated up close but represent the characters nicely. They don't animate very much but are very nicely detailed. The town graphics are simple but clean. They are entirely polygons and look excellent. They aren't as beautiful as those in say, Grandia, but they do their job well. Textures are clean and everything looks sharp, so you won't be squinting at the screen wondering what some polygonal blob is supposed to be. The battlefields are also polygonal and nicely represent the terrain that all Shining Force fans are familiar with. Plains, deserts, mountains and forests are all there and look similar to their 16 bit counterparts except they are in 3D, and the field can be fully rotated and zoomed in and out.
The music in the game is top notch and very nostalgic. It has that same feel as in previous games but the compositions are all original. Again, the developers need to be commended for their excellence in staying true to tradition while keeping their own vision. Enthusiastic battle themes, mournful ballads and peaceful themes are all composed beautifully and keep the game flowing. The music is always welcome and never bothers the player in battle. One of the best game soundtracks I've heard this year. The sound effects are also excellent. The clanging of weapons is crisp and clear and magic spells all have a unique flavor to them. A lot of effort went into making the battles sound good but there is one exception and thankfully you have the option to turn it off. That exception is the voice acting in the game. It is only used in battle and only for spells and special attacks. But my god, it is awful. I wonder why they even bothered after listening to the first few characters' battle cries. They are either done with no enthusiasm or completely out of context. The best examples being the main character battle cry of, "Ta!" when he does a special which comes out like, "ta?" when performed in the game, and one of the villains who says, "I am going to kill you." before every attack in a complete monotone. Most of them are downright hilarious and you'll be laughing your ass off in the middle of the battles. I just want to know where they got these voice actors from and how much they paid them. If they paid them nothing it was too much for their services. Sega should have simply gone the same route as Panzer Dragoon Saga and kept the Japanese voice actors like they did with some characters like Irene the Monk.
Onto the battlefield!"
The gameplay in Shining Force 3 is your typical strategy RPG turn based gameplay. It basically follows the same rules as the previous ones. There are a few welcome additions this time around that truly enhance the gameplay. The first is the special attack system. As characters gain levels and does strong attacks, they will learn special attacks that are performed randomly throughout the game. They can do major damage and help you out of a bind. Specials are also determined by which weapon is equipped. Some characters will learn quicker if they have the right kind of weapon. Dantares should always have a lance equipped because it is his best weapon. He will learn more specials and do more damage that way. If he is equipped with a halberd or a spear, he won't be able to do the lance specials and he won't learn new ones as quickly. Finding the right kind of weapon and sticking to it is important. Usually the character will come equipped with the type that best suits them so stick with that.
Another new feature is the teamwork feature. During battles if the two same characters continually fight side by side or help each other out, one fighting while the other heals, they will quickly become partners in battle. When they are partners, they will have enhanced statistics when standing next to each other. What statistics are enhanced are determined by how they become partners, either both attacking one foe, or healing each other. Attack power might be raised; defense, critical attacks, or luck. As time goes by and the two continue to work with each other, they can go from partners, to friends, to trusted, to soul mates. With each succeeding level, the enhancements become stronger. Two characters that are soul mates can be unstoppable together and win a whole battle on their own. You can also gain partnerships with as many characters as you want. The only setback is that you lose trust when a character is defeated in battle. You will slip one rank down in your partnership with each loss in battle.
Summon spells are also a new addition and work in a unique way. Summons spells can do massive damage in battle, sometimes taking out a strong character in one shot. But unlike regular spells, the damage is distributed amongst foes. If you attack one foe with a summon spell it will hit that foe with the full force of the spell. But when you use it on more than one foe, the damage is spread out amongst your enemies and will do less damage per foe. You especially have to keep this in mind when facing an enemy with a summon spell. While you want to keep your team spread out against normal magic users so that they can't blast more than one at a time, this works against you with summon spells. You want to stay bunched up so that the damage is minimized amongst your allies.
As for the rest of the gameplay, it is exactly the same as previous Shining Force games. You can look to my reviews of the previous Shining Force games for a more in depth explanation, but the game is easily accessible to all comers. It doesn't try to confuse you or bore you to death with menus; it just lets you have some challenging fun. I didn't find any special promotions for characters like there were in Shining Force 2, but I haven't really explored the game yet. There are also 5 hidden characters that you can find and plenty of hidden battles throughout the game. There is definitely a lot of replay value with the number of characters available and just the sheer fun of the strategic gameplay. I only found one fault in the gameplay and that is the weak artificial intelligence. It is basically the same as Shining Force 2 with small waves of enemies attacking in turns. It is very easy to out think the enemy since their strategy is basically to not do anything until you are within a certain distance. You can set up your troops and easily cut through them when they finally move on you. Only a few battles are really challenging and force you to think way ahead of yourself. Some require you to save innocent civilians and you only have a short time to do it in. You'll have to fight a few battles over again to re-think your strategy if you want to win them flawlessly. Some of the final battles in the game are extremely difficult and will require you to apply all you've learned along the way. The enemy will not be passive and you will have to think offensively and defensively at the same time. All the simpler battles are worth it to get to those final ones and really be pushed. And there is nothing better than the satisfaction of winning those battles because of your superior strategic thinking.
Shining Force 3 is an excellent game. It does everything right and carries the tradition on to the next generation of systems. But I have some difficulty in recommending it, and even rating it. It is not finished. I don't know whether to rate it as a self-contained game by itself or as the first part in a series. Until Sega decides to release the rest of the series or announces a Dreamcast version for the US, I have to give it low ratings for the story and overall, despite knowing that when all the pieces are together it is possibly the best strategy RPG ever made. According to the packaging, this game is Shining Force 3, not Shining Force 3: Scenario One. And as it stands alone, it is not worthy of the Shining Force tradition.