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Shining Force EXA (PlayStation 2) artwork

Say it.

Say that the Shining series is over. Tell me that itís lost its edge, that itís nothing without the brilliant strategy that made it so famous. Say the Shining series is destined to fade into obscurity rather than make the leap into the next generation. Say it, and I may have believed it. Two months ago, before EXA, I may have uttered the exact same complaint. Things change. Thatís what games are all about--change; You can be blown away when you least expect it.

EXA blew me away.

I was worried, at first, that Neverland would run away with itself. That they would follow the same trend everyone else has and try to create an ďepicď. Surprisingly, EXA is the exact opposite. Itís not overwrought with airship battles, nameless characters that you donít care about, or pointless plot twists. EXA derives its charm from two very different, very endearing main characters, centers the plot around them and stays simple--as well as focused--the entire time.

Of all the main characters Iíve played, Toma is perhaps the most brash, most hot-headed, and maybe even most foolish of them all. Heís over-the-top and he has very little respect for authority. His ďact-first think-laterĒ mentality is expressed in mind-blowing magnitude for most of the game and his choices always seem to cause him more trouble than he bargained for. And yet with all that, he fascinated me. Heís not a knight, a hero or even a squire. He doesnít have a King to fight for or a beautiful princess waiting in a tower. Thereís no gold in it for him and there may not be any glory. Toma is poor; a vagabond with only his clothes and sword to call his own.

But Toma has something few main characters ever possess. He has heart and passion. What drives him forward isnít a lust for fame or a desire for riches. Toma puts himself in harmís way time and time again for the simple fact that he wants to do whatís right. He may not always think it through, or calculate the risk, but his intentions are pure, and as the game progressed I found that Toma had more spirit than a lot of other characters. Itís hard not to like someone like that.

On the other side of the spectrum was EXAís second main character Cyrrile. Sheís the complete opposite of Toma in every sense. She plains everything, thinks everything through, rarely shows emotion and keeps herself hidden, especially from Toma. While often that leads to characters brooding, or being overly mysterious, Cyrilleís steel resolve and focus is what comes through, not an abundance of secretiveness. Her distant, almost robotic nature never comes across as snooty or egotistical but protective and even noble. Perhaps thatĎs the one thing she has in common with Toma: Nobility, for no other reason than morality. Only, she calculates the hell out of it.

When you have characters like this, characters who are so utterly different, clashing is inevitable. It happens in epic proportions between these two. Itís obvious they feel for each other very deeply, but Cyrille is so incredibly stubborn and Toma so carefree that when she does have an emotional moment she either waives it off, or even worse, gets angry, leaving Toma stammered and stupefied. But what made it so captivating was watching how these two played off each other. Cyrille kept Toma grounded when he became too over-zealous, Toma kept Cyrille spirited when she felt too over-whelmed. They argue quite frequently during the game but they also bond, learning to rely on the other for what they are missing in themselves.

What develops is a very endearing, very different take on a classic love story that drove the entire game. I had to play EXA. I had to know what would happen between these two. I had to know if Cyrille would stop being so stubborn or if Toma would stop being so oblivious. The relationship between Toma and Cyrille is so believable, so down-to-earth that itís addictive. And itís easy to forget these two are thrown right in the middle of warring countries, that there is an entire land in need of their help, or that there is a sick, disturbing evil named Malxatra sleeping beneath the earth.

Yet EXA would never let me forget that I was in for a fight.

Much like the story, the game meshes together two completely conflicting worlds and makes it work. It drew me in with an emotional down-to-earth story, then pummeled me with intense combat that left my mind frazzled and my adrenaline gushing.

Enemies litter every inch of the land. When one group fell, twice as many burst from the earth in pillars of fire to swarm in on me before I could think. Carcasses are tossed left and right, yet that only opened the way for more of them to surround me. When I finally cleared a path, killed everything to be killed and pushed forward, it started again. With no warning or no time to strategize I was overwhelmed once more. Turn a corner, thereís a fight. Idly open a treasure chest; fight.

Every valley, every dungeon, every castle and every cave is another battle. Anywhere outside the sanctity of the fortress I was crushed by huge hordes of enemies--massive armies that would chip away at my hp, drain my magic down and surround me until only one of us was left standing.

Melee combat like this--one that seems never-ending no matter where you travel--runs the risk of becoming very dull, but EXA allows quite a bit of variety during the constant battles. I could switch from Toma to Cyrille at any given time. If I got bored with swinging a weapon, I could switch to slaying enemies with magic or vice-versa, and work with two unique party members every time.

I never got tired of looking at the enemies. Most games have two or three specific to one area and maybe, if youíre lucky, they change the color on them to give you something different to look at. EXA has enemies of every kind, tormenting you in any area. Huge, one-eyed horned monsters that crash both fists down on you and knock you senseless; chubby, grotesque creatures that look like huge overstuffed flesh bags with tubes, wobbling towards you and swinging their stubby, greasy arms; massive dragons of every element lashing their claws at you and tossing you into the air like a rag doll.

The rare times that I actually needed to step away from the battles I could do so with ease, and find things outside of them to distract my attention. By using the warp tool to return to the fortress I could sell items, have a brief conversation with other party members or add more mythrill to reinforce my Power arts. Shining Force Neo had a similar system to this, and it was one of the things that made me absolutely love the game. I was happy to see that it returned.

Most of your stats aren't increased in the traditonal sense of just leveling up. Instead enemies, bosses, supporting characters and hidden areas contain what are known as Power arts. These arts can increase critical hit damage, increase your resistance to petrification and elemental damage, raise your HP and MP or give you better defense against weapons. There are even arts known as ďkillersĒ; power arts that are specific to a certain type of enemy, like birdling killer, snake killer, demon killer and so forth.

Anytime you find mythrill you can return to the fortress and add them to your power arts. When you increase the art by an increment, it adds a percentage to the chosen stat. There are hundreds of arts to find and the choice is up to you on how you use them. You build your character how you want. Itís just another reason on an already heavy list of things that make EXA enjoyable to play, and enjoyable to lose yourself in.

Iíll admit, even I get nostalgic. I long for the days where Shining Force was about controlling a massive army rather than two other characters. I miss the days where you would involve yourself in huge, strategic battles that lasted hours not seconds. Then, I look at what Shining Force has become. I see the brilliant story, the one of a kind stat building and the incredible melee and I no longer question the future of the Shining series. When I play EXA, I am at peace; An emotionally driven, finger-blistering, fight of my lifeÖpeace.

True's avatar
Community review by True (August 27, 2007)

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