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Shining Force (Genesis) artwork

Shining Force (Genesis) review

"During the game’s final battles, I didn’t have the courage to send Max into the heart of conflict. Why? Because if he gets defeated, the game ends and I found out the hard way that one unlucky confrontation can accomplish that in the blink of an eye."

If I hadn’t played Fire Emblem for the Game Boy Advance shortly before firing up Shining Force, I undoubtedly would have enjoyed playing through the first installment of Sega’s classic turn-based strategy series a bit more.

While Shining Force is a very good game that has its fair share of challenges, it’s really starting to show its age, especially when compared to fast-moving and intense (at least for the genre) games like Fire Emblem. Many battles (virtually all the wilderness-based ones) get artificially lengthened by terrain so hard to navigate that most party members only may advance two or three spaces per turn. Strategy games tend to lose a bit of their appeal when the “strategy” revolves around me praying my three or four mobile characters can clear an entire field of enemies because everyone else is moving at a snail’s pace.

More damning, though, was the complete and total lack of urgency I felt for nearly the entire duration of the game’s 30-or-so battles. Max, the young hero of Shining Force, comes equipped with one spell (Egress) that allows him and his companions to escape any battle if the going gets too rough. Max also is the only truly necessary member of his army. If he dies, the game is over -- if someone else dies, all the player has to do is revive them at the local church (which, conveniently, is where the party winds up whenever Max casts Egress).

To make matters worse, Max’s Egress spell is just what a patient, diligent player needs to remove much of Shining Force’s challenge. All one has to do is pound on all but one enemy in any given battle and then have Max cast Egress. If anyone was killed in action, have them revived, leave town and fight the battle again -- a process that can be repeated as many times as a player wants. While most monsters offer fewer and fewer experience points as party members gain levels, it seemed that in the final battles, nearly every foe would give most characters 48 points per kill (the maximum allowed) -- regardless of level. Considering it only takes 100 points to go up in level, this makes it child’s play to organize a powerful army.

As for the fighting, I found it to be somewhat hit-or-miss. On one hand, the horrible AI in this game didn’t do the enemy forces any favors. Most enemies seem programmed to use their first few turns to move to a set location and wait for Max and friends to get close to them before actually doing anything useful. Many times, I could use a character with a long-range attack to pick off a number of foes without fear of retribution. After all, they were in their designated spot and my character wasn’t in their attack range.

However, after a while, I considered cheap tactics like that to be a blessing. While a number of these foes were either weak or would become non-factors after a bit of level-building, others were much tougher to take down. Chimeras (a late-game enemy) were absolute nightmares with the bad habit of dodging a high percentage of melee attacks while issuing brutal assaults capable of causing enough damage to make me cringe. Other foes were fond of magical attacks capable of causing great damage regardless of a character’s defense. Also, enemies also can sometimes strike twice in a row and occasionally unleash a critical attack capable of killing all but the most powerful of Max’s allies. During the game’s final battles, I didn’t have the courage to send Max into the heart of conflict. Why? Because if he gets defeated, the game ends and I found out the hard way that one unlucky confrontation can accomplish that in the blink of an eye.

The powerful attacks some enemies have keep many battles reasonably challenging, as one wrong move can lead to a hero exiting the battlefield. While the A.I. is flawed in many aspects, when the monsters finally start “thinking”, they do a good job of it. I’ve seen enemies run right past other characters to attack Max more than once and I’ve also seen them concentrate on wounded characters to take them out of action.

Besides the better aspects of the fighting, the main thing about Shining Force I liked was the assortment of characters. Figuring out exactly which ones to send out to the battlefield wasn’t an easy process in this game. Take Arthur, for example. When he joined Max, he was absolutely pathetic. Sure, he had good movement while indoors, but was weak as hell, making it near-impossible for me to get him experience. There’s no way a melee specialist that weak should have been in my fighting unit, right? Wrong, after getting Arthur a few levels and some better equipment, his attributes shot up, making him a solid fighter. He also eventually gained a handful of spells, giving him a bit of diversity that similar characters couldn’t boast.

Compounding my difficulties in picking characters was knowing when to promote them. Like the Fire Emblem games, a character can spend up to 20 levels at their original class and then get promoted, so they can gain up to 20 more levels. A character is eligible for promotion when they’ve earned their tenth level, but it is wise to make that move so quickly? It depends.

As I played through Shining Force, I noticed that my characters gained the least amount of experience per attack/kill shortly before reaching Level 20. Meanwhile, as soon as they were promoted, it seemed they got 20+ experience for lightly wounding a foe and the full 48 for killing one. Therefore, players not willing to repeatedly fight tough monsters for single-digit experience rewards might want to promote as soon as possible and watch their characters gain levels quickly. However, I also noticed some characters (like the aforementioned Arthur) get great stat increases as they reach those final pre-promotion levels. By promoting them as soon as they’re eligible, they will never come close to realizing their full potential. Other characters start out getting great boosts early on, but stagnate after a few levels and wind up mediocre afterthoughts, though, which adds another element to the mix.

The combination of a few good fights and the strategy required to maximize a party’s performance does make Shining Force a fairly entertaining game, but one that didn’t appeal to me the way Fire Emblem and Front Mission, among others, did. While a solid early entrant into the diverse and long-lasting Shining collection of games, it just doesn’t stand out in comparison to other retro turn-based strategy role-playing games. I had fun playing it, but nothing in the game struck me as memorable or particularly noteworthy.

overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (June 08, 2006)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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