So this is a review I originally wrote for my own site A Force for Good. There you go, a plug in the first paragraph. Anyway tho, I felt including it was a bit of a stretch. We’re a purely PC gaming site, whereas this was a Sega Megadrive (or Genesis, if you prefer) oldie. Okay it’s available on Steam, which technically makes it a game you can play on the PC. But still, a stretch. Also we owe the J-Man a review or two, but we need all our PC reviews for ourselves and I’ve not played many console games that he’s not already covered. Also it’s an exercise in publicity. That’s it, plugging done.
Here’s the overview. Shining Force is a game of strategy with some RPG elements; similar to the long-running Fire Emblem series over on Nintendo platforms. At your command are a band of warriors lead by a (big haired, sword-wielding) hero who is the central character on his quest to save the land from dark forces. You direct them through a series of turn-based battles. As they kill stuff, they gain experience, rise in level and become stronger and tougher. Between battles, you have segments where you run around towns, talk to people and also buy new weapons.
Just a note: there was an updated version released for Gameboy Advance back in 2004. This featured extra characters, more battles and some other enhancements. However, it’s just the original edition on Steam – and, as far as I know, anywhere else Sega is re-releasing their oldies such as iTunes. So that’s what I’m writing about today.
The setting is Guardiana, a high-fantasy world where humans are joined not only by elves and dwarves but also species like bird-men and centaurs, who seem to be the go-to choice for soldiers on the side of good. I guess it’s handy to combine two key elements – horse and warrior – into one entity. Unfortunately a terrible darkness is rising, laying waste to the fair city of Guardiana and raising armies of assorted monstrous nasties. As a student of one of the city’s knights, it appears you and your gang of fellow eager young heroes are the last thing left to find a way to stop the mysterious Lord Darksol.
So then, graphically it’s all fairly basic but I’m not here to complain too hard about visuals in a 1992 strategy game. It’s colourful at least and there is some variety in the maps, and Sega have thrown in some anti-aliasing to make up for the low resolution. Also you see some cool action-cutaways in battle whenever one of your guys attacks an enemy (or vice versa), which makes up for the dinky sprites used on the main maps.
The interface is mostly straightforward, even if it lacks the convenience of using a mouse that I as a PC gamer would expect in game of ordering little soldiers around a map. Also it’s decently unobtrusive, which is especially appreciated in this sort of low resolution fare where you don’t want menus blocking off the screen any more than necessary. My one grumble is, the inventory system is a pain. Characters can only carry 4 items, they’ll often need a couple of slots for equipped items, and everything you pick up always goes to the lead guy first. So there’s a lot of shuffling items between them.
Onto the Shining Force themselves. Each has a class that determines what they’re meant to do on the battlefield. So you have barbarians for close quarters work, whilst centaur knights can fight with melee spears, or trade hitting power for flexibility of ranged attacks. Mages drop powerful area of effect spells but are very fragile. Fliers have excellent mobility. Oh and you can deploy an armadillo in steam armour, which is sort of ridiculous and badass at the same time. Even better, a goddamn dragon joins you with the potential to be super-powerful (so much so he got nerfed in the update).
As for baddies, well similarly they have their melee types, archers and support casters. Some have key vulnerabilities – zombies are very hard hitting for early foes, but dislike fire greatly. Also later on it gets more futuristic with cannon and robo-squids joining the fray. My worst enemy tho were bastard wyverns with their bastard fire attacks. Which somehow combine the game’s rules of magic (bypass defense rating) with melee (chance to hit twice). Bastards! I sent the dragon after them.
Anyway as you wade into battle, at first it doesn’t look hugely complex. As in, there aren’t too many complicating factors to keep in mind and a simple bit of common sense will get you a long way. Like, knowing what your heroes are good for, and not having squishy mages and healers stood out on the front line ready to get stomped. Also though, positioning is key. On the one hand if characters get too far separated, or one charges off ahead alone, they can be ganged up on. This is especially a risk on rough terrain. On the other, if all bunched, you risk getting four guys fireballed in one shot, not to mention simply getting in each others way. These issues do add a decent amount of tactical thinking to the situation.
For more strategic decisions between fights, there are character promotions to contend with. A hero can go from level 1 to 20. However at any point from 10 onwards they can be promoted, take a hit to their stats but start a new 1-20 climb. This raises the ceiling on how powerful they can become, compared to unpromoted. Quick promotion means more of a short-term boost , but doing the full grind to 20 first means more power in the long run.
All this leveling stuff can mean a lot of what we RPG nerds call grinding, which basically means repeating battles over just for the experience. Even more comes up when you recruit a new hero who’s many levels behind everyone else. They might have the potential to be powerful, but you’ll have to spend several battles carefully guiding them as they flap around uselessly doing meager amounts of damage. Basically you end up having a veteran hero knock a monster to near death, then the newbie comes along, finishes it off and claims a load of experience. Repeat, over and over. Such play might sound tedious – it’s not essential but highly recommended to optimise your team. All I can really say is, it goes with the territory with a game of this vintage.
Oh, and there is a story to all of this. That young hero with a big sword and big hair. And a terrible villain in scary armour. And that villain’s general who is honourable yet still bound to fight you. And some reluctant allies join up, a wimpy dragon finds his courage, etc. Okay it’s all pretty generic and subplots are not especially developed, as most of your team don’t say a lot after their introductory scenes. Still it’s a moderately rousing tale of a team of motley heroes. The remake greatly expanded on this, not in the least by actually giving the hero some lines – sadly here in the original he’s just a silent protagonist.
So overall, it’s a pretty grindy game sometimes, but still I found it an enjoyable way of spending downtime after work. It has its cartoony charm, and enough tactical challenge posed to be satisfying, but not super-complex. So if you’re retro enough to go back to the 16-bit days, there’s hours of fantasy fun here for less than the cost of a pint of beer.
Colourful, nice battle cutaways, smart strategy gameplay.
Lots of inventory fiddling, generic story, grinding encouraged.