Review by Sashanan
Reviewed: 11/10/01 | Updated: 11/10/01
Shine once more, like you did before!
While not exactly as famous as Final Fantasy or even Sega's own Phantasy Star series, Shining Force has quite a name among Sega RPG fans. Many believe Shining Force to be the first game in the series, although that honour really goes to Shining in the Darkness, a dungeon crawler RPG very unlike the games that follow it. Shining Force, released in 1993, is more of a strategy game with RPG elements than the other way around, and sets the theme for many other titles in the Shining series.
The idea of the game is to guide a large party of adventurers through various tactical, turn-based battles in a fantasy environment. Your force consists of up to 12 characters at once, each of which is controlled individually in battle. The game has many RPG elements as well: you visit towns between battles, talk to people and outfit your characters with new weapons. Characters gain experience points in battle and level up accordingly, gaining improvements to such familiar statistics as attack, defense, hit points and magic points. The focus is on the battles, however, and each trip to town feels more like a preparation for the next one than an independent part of the game.
To its credit, Shining Force has a fairly interesting storyline. For a full-blood RPG it probably wouldn't have satisfied the casual gamer: very little dialogue between characters, no true personalities, and a very linear story. For a strategy game, however, it gets the job done. In a nutshell, you play the role of Max, leader of a group of inexperienced adventurers. Early in the game your kingdom is attacked by the country Runefaust (brilliant name!), who seek to release an ancient evil that your kingdom has guarded for generations. Over the course of the game, you battle the forces of evil in 30 different battles, during which the storyline slowly unfolds, and eventually ends in an epic battle between good and evil. Nothing we've never seen before or will never see again, but it's all executed in a charming fashion, with a few slight plot twists at the end.
The story is of course not what it's about in a game like this (though it certainly contributes). Since it is all about the battles, let's take a closer look at those. As said before, you can field 12 characters at a time. You start with only 6, but over the course of the game you can build up your force to a maximum of 30 people (which includes hidden characters). Each character belongs to a certain class, which determines the kind of weapons they can use, what their statistics will roughly look like, and several inherent advantages. For instance, Warriors use swords and axes, and typically have a high defense rating but low hit points. In practice, this means they take little damage from physical attacks, but they are weak against magic (which does a set amount of damage, regardless of defense). Knights use lances and spears, and while they are not as sturdy as warriors, they can move longer distances during their turn, which gives them a definite tactical advantage. Other characters include birdmen, which can fly and therefore ignore difficult terrain, a wolfman who is very quick in the forests but moves slowly indoors, healers who have little combat prowess but help to keep the rest of your characters in shape, and of course, archers and magi who are weak in close combat but can wreak havoc from a distance if properly covered by melee characters. Your hero, Max, is quite a powerful character, but if he goes down in battle you lose. This presents you with the interesting dilemma of having to use one of your most capable characters very carefully.
Once in battle, your characters and those of the enemy move in a turn-based fashion. The order is not entirely predictable, and therefore you have to move your characters carefully, keeping them close together so you can give backup when necessary. On the other hand, you do not want to huddle them too close together, or they may block each other's movement in heavy terrain like mountains - and, more importantly, become a juicy target for area effect spells. It is possible to win the game by level building, as your main character has a spell which lifts everybody out of battle, returning you to town to recover, after which you must try the battle again. Using that spell again and again allows you to build the levels of your characters to the point where every battle becomes a yawner, if you so decide. It's far more fun, however, to use strategy to win your battles. Even at high levels, you can easily ruin your performance by sending your characters in one by one, by failing to concentrate on major threats first, or by carelessly allowing your leader to be slain. On the other hand, if you move your characters carefully, use hit and run tactics to do as much damage as possible while minimizing exposure to enemy counterattacks, and make use of the territory whenever you can, battles against superior opponents can be won. Needless to say this is a challenging, but very satisfying way to play the game.
Graphically, Shining Force follows its predecessor Shining in the Darkness by delivering cheerful, colourful graphics. They may not be the best ever seen, but you can see how much time has gone into drawing them. The best scenes are whenever combat between two characters occurs: a closeup of both characters is seen against the background of whatever territory they are fighting in - from dark caverns and deserts to lush forests and aboard a ship - and the attacking character pulls off his melee attack, bow shot or magic spell. It's truly worth seeing. The music is memorable, too. Several different battle and town tunes exist, and some are quite catchy. The influence of the preceding game is evident here, as many tunes are in a similar style and one (a boss battle theme) has been copied directly. Sound effects are less impressive, but thankfully they're not too intrusive. I'll take bland sound effects over nerve-grating ones any day.
While Shining Force is fun to play and definitely worth a try, there are a few flaws that have to be mentioned. One is in the balancing of the game's battles. Shining Force is divided into eight chapters, each of which consists of three to five battles. Interestingly, the first two chapters are fairly challenging: your force is still weak and characters go down in battle quickly. Then, starting in chapter three, but particularly evident in four and five, you suddenly outgrow your opponents. Enemies fall like flies and give big chunks of experience, causing you to gain levels two or three times as quickly as before, and breezing through this part of the game. Then suddenly at chapter six, the challenge once again sets in. The reason for this sudden drop in the midgame is because of the game's promotion system. At level 10, a character can be promoted to a new class, which is basically just an upgraded variant of the old one. For instance, a swordsman becomes a hero, a birdman becomes a sky warrior and a mage becomes a wizard. At this point, the statistics of your characters are decreased slightly (perhaps to simulate the fact that they have to get used to a new style of combat), but from then on gaining further levels allows them to rise in power far more quickly than before. The decrease is what causes the problem here; since most characters will reach level 10 roughly around chapter four, the difficulty level of this chapter and the ones before and after it have been decreased to accommodate for having to build up your characters anew. The problem is that this decrease has been overdone, making the battles in these chapters uninteresting and making it all too easy to exploit the easy, experience-rich battles to build power characters.
Another problem which has to be mentioned is that Shining Force is a rather short game. Assuming you don't spend hour after hour to build levels you do not really need, this game can be finished in one long sitting. Eight hours, six for an expert, is enough to see it through; and that's just a little short for a linear game in which the replay value lies only in using different characters in battle.
In conclusion, Shining Force is an interesting strategy RPG title which has paved the way for the Shining Force series more than the original game, Shining in the Darkness, has. It is also a good title when viewed on its own, but its relatively short lifespan and an overall lack of challenge, most significantly felt in the midgame, keep it from achieving greatness. When all is said and done, Shining Force is merely good.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
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