"In ages long forgotten light fought darkness for control of the world"
First released by Sega on the Genesis System back in 1993 the Shining Force Saga over the years became one of the most popular Strategy RPGs in video game history. However after the release Shining Force 2 on the Genesis, a few titles on Sega Mega CD and a superb third part on the Saturn (1998), there was a long silence, which utterly ended with the announcement of the re-release of the 1st part on Nintendo’s Handheld.
As you might have guessed after reading through the short intro of Shining Force on Nintendo’s Gameboy Advance, the whole game is about fighting evil and restoring peace. After naming your hero (very, very mysterious person, who doesn’t remember anything about his past!) you will immediately embark on a long and winding journey in order to crash the plans of the cruel Darksol, the one who is responsible for the resurrection of the dark dragon. Even back in 1993 this plot surely hasn’t been among the most creative and innovative, but it is nevertheless easy to sympathise with the straightforward story of our young hero and his companions.
The game’s concept is at the same time simple and effective. Next to travelling around the continent by exploring various towns and villages you’ll face turn based strategy action when it comes to fighting the evil forces of Runefaust (similar to the one of Square’s Final Fantasy Tactics or Konami’s Vandal Hearts). The mayor goal (next to saving the world) is recruiting and building up a so called Shining Force, a well balanced mix of warriors, wizards, birdmen and even more unusual fellows.
For the beginning let’s concentrate on the main tactical element of Shining Force – battling.
The battles are divided in different rounds with turns for every single unit both for your side and the opponent. As soon as one of your troop members is in action, you can choose from a variety of options:
Depending on the terrain (mountain, plain, forest etc) and your character’s "Move" level you will be able to move around the map on a grid raster. When an enemy is in reach (different from unit to unit) you may attack, or if possible cast a spell out of the traditional pool (freeze, blaze, heal, etc.). After beating an opponent you will be rewarded experience points and eventually advance to a higher level, thus gaining more and more strength. In order to fight most effectively it is suggested to train the members of your force as much as possible and mix between the different races, using each character’s special ability – Horseman for example are, due to their high "move"-level, best used on plains, but rather useless in mountains, wizards and healers are powerful, yet slow and, since their defence stats are pretty low, usually too weak to put in front.
Of course, it takes quite some time to find out your party member’s weak and strong points, but once you get used to it, you will soon have an army designed for your individual purpose.
No more Basics
In general, after leaving the battlefield you’ll end up wandering around towns, exploring and talking to inhabitants and re-equip/vive your forces. A special feature that is shared by each Shining Force part is the possibility of promoting characters to a higher class as soon as they reach level 10. By doing so you will be able to use more powerful weapons, perform more devastating spells and acquire new abilities - but beware, right after promoting you might end up with lower stats than before. Although they will increase a lot after fighting some opponents the character is more vulnerable for a certain period of time and requires your special attention. It is therefore recommended to either promote one after the other, or wait until you have reached a higher level, somewhere around 15+.
For those of you who are familiar to this kind of games (and I think most of you know what I am talking about) – good news, I’m about to stop with the basics!
On the first look this game seems to be an exact remake of the classic one, but when you take a closer look you will find more than just marginal changes.
The storyline, although not Tolkien-like, was improved heavily by adding new and more dialog. Instead of being just some puppets on a string with one or two sentences throughout the whole game, the members of your force are now considered as individual persons, with individual memories, wishes and stories to tell. Therefore your headquarter has become a much more atmospheric place, which you will surely like to visit more frequently in order to find out more about your companions.
The epilogue that introduces each chapter (the whole game is divided into eight) is has been enriched by several cut-scenes that inform you about the activities of the dark side.
Until the end of the first third of the game there is also a playable side story with entirely new characters – princess Narsha of Runefaust, the ever so enigmatic cardmaster Mawlok and Zuika, another rather mysterious insect-fighter. After fighting some battles on their own, these three will join up with your troops at the beginning of chapter 4 (or 5? I can’t remember...).
Mawlock is also involved in one of the most interesting improvements to the original - the Card System. Scattered around equally throughout the whole game these cards - there exists one from each member of the Shining Force and from certain enemies - can be found and collected by either searching the area (look out for bookshelves and spooky engines!) or by talking to people. By equipping up to four of these cards in battle, Mysterious Mawlock can make use of their individual effects (perform special attacks, support a friend, copy the abilities of the card’s representative or summon a clone). As you might imagine, the card master serves as both, a powerful ally and an innovative tactical feature. Collecting and experimenting with new cards does also add very much to the overall motivation (some of them are extremely hard to find) and is thus a very important element of Shining Force’s gameplay.
In terms of graphics the GBA version has also slightly improved when compared to the one on the Genesis back in 1993. Although it doesn’t push the graphical capacity of the GBA, like Sword of Mana for example, the overall appearance of the game is pretty neat. Based on the original, some details have been added - colours look brighter, more varied and intense. As far as characters are concerned, portraits have changed (not always for the better), and their appearance during the 2d attack sequence are a lot more detailed and distinct.
Luckily, the interface stayed just as intuitive as in the original. It has always been a big plus for the Shining-series to combine a logical interface with a decent quantity of stats and numbers on the screen. In opposite to other RPGs, it is self-explaining and at the same time simple and efficient. Even for newbies it does not take long to command your troops without getting furious about pressing buttons and being concerned about tons of battle-statistic.
From the musical point of "view" Shining Force stands its ground perfectly well. Town melodies and battle marches vary a lot and, although not incredibly memorable (with some exceptions), encourage the player either to stay and rest for a chat or to send the evil forces back beyond the gates of hell (...) However, the musical support won’t get on your nerves easily, not even in the long run.
Sound effects don’t leave much to complain about, but will at some rates (for example when toggling through character stats) force you to turn down the volume due to their monotony.
Shining Force actually is one of these rare games that leave hardly anything left to desire, yet there are still some more or less important points that could be improved – First of all, the game’s difficulty level is (up until the last chapters) way too low. The same goes for the AI of your opponents, who magically tend to attack the wrong person at the right time, thus leaving you enough time to heal or run away. Even if you are not familiar with the game’s concept it won’t be easy to loose a fight in the beginning and if you pay a little attention to a balanced army that steadily levels up equally, you grow strong enough to face and beat every battle without mayor problems. On the contrary I have to admit that a good part of the game simply is training and levelling up your forces by re-playing battles to shape them just the way you like – who’d like to play with a weak, easily wiped-out party? However, as the game advances, winning battles does get a bit harder (but not really too heavy, I must confess) and takes a little more tactical consideration. Although the game will become more difficult after beating it once, it would have been a lot more convenient to determine the difficult-level right from the start (like in Shining Force 2 or Shining Force CD).
Since Sega didn’t add a Golden Sun like two player mode there is no possibility of ever comparing your army and tactical refinements with those of your friend(s). Without doubt, this feature would have been the most thrilling Shining Force experience since its original release.
Summing it all up Shining Force - The Resurrection of Dark Dragon is not just a nostalgic drag-up of a successful title from the past, but more a great game to (re-)experience the feeling of the best days of the console roleplay gaming by focusing more on efficient and intuitive game-play than on brilliant graphics and cheap love stories (you know exactly what I mean...). What’s left to hope for is the instalment of a two-player mode and more emphasis on strategic elements.