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Shining Force NEO
Platform: PlayStation 2
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Neverland
Genre: Action RPG
Format: DVD-ROM
Released: US 10/20/05
Japan 03/24/05
Official Website: English Site



Scorecard
Graphics: 87%
Sound: 50%
Gameplay: 70%
Control: 85%
Story: 70%
Overall: 72%
Reviews Grading Scale
 
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We have...
 
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...two words for you:
 
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"Hack," and...
 
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"Slash."
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Patrick Gann
Shining Force NEO
07/02/07
Patrick Gann

The original team behind the Shining Force series, Camelot, stopped making games for this franchise long ago. Sega, not ones to give up on pandering to nostalgic fans, had developer Neverland make a game called "Shining Force NEO." In case you weren't aware, NEO did away with everything that defined the original series. Turn-based Strategy on a grid? Nope, it's hack 'n slash a la Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance or Diablo II. Yeah, that's exactly what we wanted.

Well, whether it's what we wanted or not, Sega thought the game might be marketable as its own entity, with its own fanbase. After all, they did away with everything fans from the past would recognize. Well, almost everything. Let's start by picking up the pieces and seeing what keeps the game in the tradition of the Shining Force universe.

Story

Our protagonist is a young red-haired boy with great fighting ability... and his name is Max. Hey, that sounds familiar! Oh, and you have a brother named Cain who may or may not be your enemy... yup, that sounds about right too. There are even short, obscure references to Adam (the robot-guy) and some other key characters. Also, the roster of anthropomorphized animal races looks almost identical to the original Shining Force: wolflings, birdlings, centaurs, titans, and a few other human-esque creatures roam the world of Shining Force NEO.

And that's about all the game has in common with its namesake series. From here, everything's about to change. The game opens with Max finishing up training at Larcyle Fort, where his master Graham (a centaur) tells him that he's ready to go home and take on the "ordeal of a Force." In this game, a "Force" is something of a magical super-soldier, blessed with the power of light and goodness. Equipped with a "Force Frame," a Force is able to grow and strengthen in ways that he or she sees fit. When Max returns to his home in Greensleeves, he is greeted by three people very close to him: Gaia, his father; Meryl, his childhood friend who is also something of an adopted sister; and Chairman Rebecca, whom Max refers to informally as "Grandma."

Gaia, the strongest Force in the known world, is reluctant to allow Max to go through with the Ordeal of a Force. He has his reasons: Gaia's wife, Maria, lost her life 13 years ago in a great war (this war has significance to the game's entire plot). Furthermore, Gaia's son (and Max's older brother) Cain disappeared three years ago on a mission in Cascade Castle; he was deployed there as a Force on one of his first assignments. Reluctant as Gaia may be, Max has the approval from both Graham and Chairman Rebecca to go through with it. But Max never gets the chance to go through the Ordeal proper.

Not long after making his return, Max and Meryl are out picking herbs in a field when they decide, in a moment of mischief and wonder, to descend to the Sanctuary of the Crystal. There are three crystals in the world that seal off the powers of darkness that came from the Clan of the Moon 13 years prior. These crystals sealed off the Eye of the Moon and Dark Castle, two powerful bases where the "Legion" (giant evil insects) bred and were ready to attack the world when given the chance. Nothing bad happens, but they notice some strange egglike objects near the crystal. After confessing to Gaia their wrongdoing, they mention these "eggs." The eggs then hatch and all hell breaks loose. When Gaia reaches the crystal, he meets the game's villain, a "Man Behind the Mask" who seems to resemble his son Cain, but is not necessarily Cain himself. The Man Behind the Mask destroys the Force Crystal of Greensleeves before quickly and mercilessly taking Gaia's life. Needless to say, Max is shocked.

(Take note: the traditional RPG cliché "hometown ravaged to send you on your quest" has been used in this game.)

In his dying breaths, Gaia bestows his Force Frame unto Max, officially making Max a force. Not long after, Chairman Rebecca (who is still alive and well) gives her Force Frame to Meryl, allowing her to accompany Max as a Force as well. The two set off with letters in hand to reach the remaining two kingdoms, each protecting the remaining Force Crystals. Will Max and Meryl make it in time? What strange encounters await them?

After this fast-paced opening, the game's plot slows down a good bit. It will take almost the entirety of the game's length to reach these two distant kingdoms, and as you go about your way, a few things regularly occur. One is that Max begins to recruit Forces as he travels through the world. He picks up his master Graham, a cute little doggie-girl named Chiquitita, a wolfling named Baron, a titan named Rhinos, a centaur named Mariel (Graham's daughter), and a few other interesting characters as well. The other thing that happens is that wherever Max and Meryl go, the Man Behind the Mask seems to make a habit out of stopping by to create obstacles and laugh at their "pathetic struggle." Our masked villain also uses his Cain-like appearance to taunt Max: "can you kill your own brother?" And he also seems interested in winning Meryl to his side, perhaps in an effort to further demoralize Max (who obviously has a secret crush on her).

Character development and dialogue are at an all-time high for the Shining series in this game. Of course, quantity does not necessarily guarantee quality. Much of the dialogue's potential is ruined by a mediocre translation and even worse voice acting (which I discuss in more detail below). But the characters really do take on a presence that is something beyond the flatness one might expect of them. Many of them have moments of insight that change their outlook on the world; a sort of mini-dramatic-climax for each of your party members. Furthermore, the truth behind the game's villain, and what it is he really wants, may come as a surprise to some gamers. But once you find out what it is he wants, the rest of the game becomes fairly predictable... even if the characters act as though they are completely clueless about what's going on.

(Again, note: the traditional RPG cliché "the characters are dumb as bricks and can't figure out what we've obviously known from the start" has been used in this game.)

The world of Shining Force NEO has some interesting locales, and I did enjoy exploring the world and learning its secrets. But overall, the plot did not deliver in the way Sega advertised that it would. The fact that a plot exists is nice, but there's little here in the way of originality. I noted two clichés thus far in the review, but if I felt like it (and wanted to spoil the plot for everyone), I'm sure I could list dozens of events where we veteran gamers are left saying "been there, done that."

Gameplay

Speaking of doing things we've done before, let's talk about gameplay: more specifically, combat. The game is a hack 'n slash title, no doubt about it. It's also one of the hardest games in this style/subgenre that I have ever played. Be warned: Shining Force NEO is brutally unforgiving. You will die, and you will die a lot. No matter how well you upgrade and customize Max, there will always be enemies out there that can bring you to your knees with quick one-hit or two-hit kills. This problem is exacerbated by Neverland's poor game design. Generally, you are outnumbered 5 to 1 in any given group of enemies, so there's a lot for the game to display. But, generally, if an enemy isn't in your line of sight, it won't be displayed. And then, even when it is in your line of sight, the fixed camera (that is zoomed in well too far for a game of this nature) prevents you from seeing that giant dragon to your right that's about to destroy you. And even though the game loves to not display enemies that are right in front of your eyes, perhaps as a method to prevent slow-down, know that there is plenty of slow-down to go around, particularly when the field is swamped with enemies.

But let me tell you how fighting monsters, generally, works in Shining Force NEO. Monsters pop out of a "Monster Gate," a black sphere with a protective barrier. Once you've killed enough enemies spawning from this gate (which can potentially spawn an infinite number of enemies, though the rate of spawn slows as you kill more), the shield will disappear, and then you can take out the gate itself. If you plan on playing this game, plan on killing lots of monsters and destroying lots of gates. I wouldn't be surprised if my enemy kill was well over 100,000, and my gate kill over 5,000. They fall fast, but keep in mind that, generally, you fall faster.

There is a fair bit of strategizing to be done. Some things you can help, and some you can't. For example, though your party members are very strong, they're also pretty dumb. In a game like this, you need to spam your strongest attacks to stay alive. But your allies will just randomly pop off their best attack, or magic, or heal spell, when they feel like it's most useful. There were many times I wish Neverland would have built in some basic AI commands like "run away from that enemy who will kill you!" or "go hog wild on that target!" Instead, for those decisions, you're left to your own devices and will not have the aid of your allies.

The game allows you to pursue any of four "jobs," though this is a loosely defined trait. When the game's tutorials tell you about jobs, they basically mean what weapon you use. There are four weapon types: one-handed blades, two-handed blades, bows, and wands. Wands go with the one-handed blade as being... well... "one-handed" weapons, allowing you to use a shield. Two-handed weapons (the blade and the bow) prevent you from using a shield. Each weapon type comes with its own pros and cons, and I'm sure you can guess how it all works out. Ultimately, I found that bows were a good weapon if your enemies were much stronger than you. Why face them head-on and risk the one-hit kill when you can stand back and pummel them with arrows? Thanks to the Force Frame's customization options, anyone who puts a lot of stock into leveling your "stun" rate and then wields a bow can hold off hordes of enemies for a long time: usually enough time to kill them before they reach you.

But it doesn't matter which weapon you "like" most, because you'll probably be forced to use most (or all) of the weapon types throughout the game. Some enemies have immunity to all attacks other than those with elemental affinities, so magic is your best bet there. And though some swords and bows come with low-level spells (skills are attached to each particular piece of gear you have), it takes the power of a wand-wielder to break out any decent damage with magic. I myself never once used the one-handed blade weapons, but I regularly used all the others as I plowed through this game. Also, take note: though I've heard reports of people doing a bare-bones run in 25 hours, it took me double that time to complete this game. It wasn't easy, and honestly, I think I may regret investing so much time in a mediocre, and dare I say "broken," game.

The key to survival in Shining Force NEO is warping back to Greensleeves. I'm sure I did it hundreds of times, and you will too if you play this game to completion. Unlike Shining Tears, which allowed you to die and then pick up where you left off, death for Max equals "Game Over." What then? Load your game. Though a few save points exist throughout the game's field, the save point you'll almost always use is back at Greensleeves. With the exception of some "event" battles which negate your ability to use it, the "Warp" spell (similar to the old Shining Force "Egress") allows you to go home, refill your bottles with healing water, and most importantly, save. Then after warping home, as long as you don't leave Greensleeves, you can warp right back to your current position, and everything is the way it was when you left (i.e. the enemies you killed are still dead). There were some difficult dungeons where I would go nuts with my weapon, warp, save, and go on. I was literally warping every two minutes for half an hour in those dungeons. It was an unhappy time. I had lots of unhappy times while playing this game.

But as angry as the game made me, and as problematic as the combat was at times, I think I found myself addicted to it. Character growth and leveling was an uphill battle, but it's a battle that's worth fighting. As you level, and as you increase the skills attached to your force frame, you slowly but surely find yourself able to overcome once-insurmountable tasks. It feels good to be able to obliterate something that, hours ago, was obliterating you. I guess that's the appeal of level-grinding games in general.

Control

For all the things that Neverland did wrong, they did a great job with the control scheme. Once you learn what all is available to you, the game becomes very intuitive. I won't go over particular button assignments (this isn't an instruction manual!), but let's just say that the user interface was lovely. The only thing that would have improved it would've been having a quick-swap option for weapons, rather than having to enter the menu each time you wanted to change weapons. A skilled player will find reason to change weapons on a regular basis, and keep a large supply of decent weapons in the inventory.

Sound

Check it out: I gave the sound a very low 50%. It's rare that I rate sound so low. I'm fond of game music in general, and I was partial to this game's soundtrack. Along with the import Japanese CD that featured the OST tracks, there were additional tracks from Shiro Sagisu using live instruments and high quality synths to create some really interesting, neo-disco style songs. I couldn't have been more pleased. Well, if Sega hadn't cut the Japanese opening vocal and put an instrumental track in its place, I suppose I would've been slightly more pleased.

And, you know, if the game just didn't have voice acting, this score would be a fair bit higher. Even an option to disable voice acting so you could play the game without having to hear your characters talk would've been a bonus. But, no, instead, Sega's US localizers gave us the worst voice acting for a PS2 RPG to date. I challenge anyone to find a worse example than this game. It was so absolutely appalling, I wanted to hit myself on the head multiple times. Friends and family who witnessed this atrocity from my TV set asked me questions like, "what the hell were they smoking when they recorded this dialogue?" or "could you please turn that down?"

Sega must despise the trend of allowing gamers to listen to the Japanese audio. Apparently the Japanese voice acting to the game was decent, and they had a fairly well-known cast doing some of the voices. But in the US, rumor has it that what we got came straight from a local children's theatre troupe (I cannot confirm that, but I wouldn't be surprised). Max is a dopey B-class version of Dragon Ball Z's Goku (American), Meryl is at times bland and other times over-the-top, and our villain just doesn't know how to be sinister. The guy sounds like he's just talking! Sometimes the lines are rushed, and sometimes they take absurdly long dramatic pauses. The voice behind one character, Rhinos, was by a guy who clearly didn't understand the nature of the character. The only voice actress I appreciated was the young lady who voiced Chiquitita: I actually thought she did a decent job, and the accent was cute.

Now, during static dialogue cut scenes, you can rush the dialogue along and read it to yourself before they can finish doing their poor performances, but in battle, they will shout the same phrases over and over based on the skills they use. It's enough to make one sick. Just thinking about it is giving me a headache. I have to stop writing about it now for the sake of my health.

Graphics

I cannot deny the quality of this facet of Shining Force NEO. If there's one thing they did right, it's graphics. During FMVs, seamless blends of anime and CG (done by some prominent Japanese studios) will keep your eyes glued to the screen. Character portraits are, generally pretty nice, though Max has some really stupid-looking faces. The in-game 3D graphics are top notch. The motion is smooth and fluid, and the attention to detail is extraordinary. If only they had put this sort of effort into the rest of the game.

Overall

It really is a shame that Neverland did so many things right, but then killed it with an absurd level of difficulty that could only be overcome with cheap, exploitative decisions (like warping home every minute to save and heal). Also, I blame Sega for not knowing the first thing about how to properly localize a Japanese RPG. They either need to go the route of Square Enix and spend money on decent voice actors and translators, or they need to do what Atlus and NIS America do: offer the Japanese language track. As it stands, they're somewhere in the middle, and it's a very very ugly middle with no alternative but to suffer through the localization project in the past few years.

I'm being generous in giving Shining Force NEO a 72%. After watching the game's very anti-climactic and woefully predictable ending, I wanted to lower the score even further. But, the truth is, at the end of the day, I did have enough fun with this game to cross the finish line. So maybe there are some redeeming qualities to it.

A final word of caution: if you're a Shining Force fan, do yourself a favor and don't play this game. It will probably just make you angry because it's not at all what you wanted. This is a good game for people who like the hack 'n slash genre, and have little to no experience with the original Shining series.



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© 2007 Sega. All rights reserved.


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