Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Shining Force: Resurrection of the Dark Dragon

A Shining Remake

During the sixteen-bit console era, my older brother got a Sega Genesis that he only sporadically allowed me to play, and it was at a time when videogame rentals were still a thing. Among the various titles he rented for the system was Shining Force: The Legacy of Great Intention, which I got the opportunity to try, and served as the very first strategy RPG I had the pleasure of playing. I wouldn’t actually finish the game until roughly two console generations later, and when came the announcement that the title would be remade for the Gameboy Advance as Shining Force: Resurrection of the Dark Dragon, I pounced on the opportunity to play, and wasn’t disappointed.

The original game was among the first RPGs to sport an ancient evil, in its case the Dark Dragon, which vowed to return in a millennium after defeat by the Ancients. The remake’s present follows the amnesiac Max (the Genesis release among the first roleplaying games featuring a protagonist with amnesia), who becomes leader of the eponymous Shining Force when the Kingdom of Runefaust brings war to the land. The story in the remake is surprisingly well-developed, with the use of various characters in battle unlocking background on themselves and the game’s lore, with some good twists that pop up later in the plotline.

The translation is passable for the most part, but is somewhat rough around the edges. The main dialogue is legible, with some nice lore, although there are occasional incongruities such as the reference of the ancient evil as “Dark Dragon” instead of “the Dark Dragon”, and one character appears to have multiple mothers. The name of the character Lug was also mistranslated as Luke, with a character in the gaiden games having the latter name, and creating confusion when the former shows up with his actual Japanese name. Finally, in cases where characters gain one experience point or one of a stat when leveling, point is pluralized.

The remake features thirty story fights where the player’s party of up to twelve characters squares off against the enemy in turn-based combat, with the startup formation largely irrelevant towards the tide of battle. Each unit takes their turn depending upon speed, with a turn order meter luckily showing who goes when. Mercifully, unlike a certain exalted Square strategy RPG, movement isn’t ratchet, and there’s no elevation to worry about hindering the execution of commands, although the current terrain can sometimes impact a character’s range, unless a character is skyborne, with certain ground units also easily able to traverse terrain such as woodlands.

Each character can end their turn, attack an enemy with their equipped weapon when in range, cast an MP-consuming spell (with characters sometimes acquiring higher levels of magic, thankfully adjustable depending upon the situation), or use a consumable item, with the limit of four per unit adding to the battle system’s effectiveness. Whenever a unit executes a command, the game takes players to another screen where either side performs their order, and when the player’s characters do so, they receive experience, as high as forty-eight points, particularly when they kill an enemy, or as low as one point, largely when their action misses.

A unit losing all their HP means their disappearance from the battlefield, with no revival magic of which to speak. The player resurrects deceased allies for a price at a town’s church, in addition to curing status ailments or promoting characters, which becomes available once a unit reaches level ten. However, waiting until a unit reaches its initial base level of twenty is wise, especially in instances of magical units, as to maximum stat gain in their promoted state, which also allows them access to more powerful weapons. Should Max perish, the player forfeits the fight, and he revives at the last town’s church with half his money lost (although players can bank currency at headquarters).

Characters level and gain stats, sometimes additional magic spells or spell levels, once they acquire a hundred experience points, their rate of acquisition proportional to their current level and the power of the foes they face. Most battles, moreover, reward players who win within a certain number of turns, with some having objectives such as defeating a specific enemy. New to the remake is that each character, in addition to a weapon, can equip up to three accessories, not to mention the new magic resistance stat, with a certain purchasable late-game accessory providing good boosts in that area.

Also handy in the case a player should experience a real-life interruption is the ability to suspend progress in battle and resume where they left off. In general, the game mechanics serve the remake well, although rushing through the game without spending some time grinding can be a prescription for trouble later on. There are also many missable characters, the player has to center magic on allies or enemies to execute them, and a turbo mode would have been welcome, given the significant downtime during combat. Regardless, anti-frustration features such as the ability to back out of battle and retain progress on death make the remake preferable to many other tactical RPGs.

One of the remake’s weaker aspects, however, is control. While things such as the suspend save in the middle of battle, the easier nature of changing battle formation compared to the Genesis version, and the linear structure serve the game well, there are issues such as the tedium of shopping, when merchants bombard players with endless dialogue and confirmations; the clunkiness of the menu system, the difficulty of managing characters with loaded inventories, and so forth. Regardless, things could have certainly been worse, but the remake doesn’t interact as well with players as it could have.

Perhaps the Gameboy Advance version’s strongest point is its aural presentation, beginning with the theme played during the introductory backstory sequence, which serves as a central theme at points in the game and is pleasing. The main town theme is also bouncy and catchy, and the overworld track, which plays during battles there, has a certain grandeur. The other battle pieces are nice, as well, as is that which plays whenever the player’s characters or the enemy attack one another, the former changing when the player promotes their units. The only real downside is the muffled quality of the Gameboy Advance’s audio.

The visuals also have plenty going for them, most of all being the excellent art direction, with everyone’s character portrait updated for this rerelease. During cutscenes, character portraits occupy the screen, with eyes blinking and lips flapping, and in the combat sequences that play during the execution of player and enemy commands, well-proportioned character models signify both sides of battle. Perhaps the biggest downside of the graphics, however, is that the sprites outside battle have chibi proportions, which doesn’t really fit considering the different races of characters such as humans and dwarves.

Finally, the remake’s playing time ranges from one to two days total, with a replay mode where enemies become more powerful sure to pacify those seeking a challenge, and pre-battle cutscenes vary depending upon the characters chosen for combat, although there is a near-total absence of sidequests.

Overall, Shining Force: Resurrection of the Dark Dragon, is, for the most part, a solid remake that hits most of the right notes with regards to things such as its straightforward strategy RPG mechanics with anti-frustration features such as the general riskless nature of grinding, along with other positives such as the well-developed storyline and aural presentation. There are areas, however, that leave room for improvement such as the clunky menu system, the weak localization effort, and the rough spots of the graphical presentation, although the rerelease definitely ranks among the few tactical RPGs I’ve actually thoroughly enjoyed.

This review is based on a playthrough of the European version of the game.

The Good:
+Good straightforward mechanics with anti-frustration features.
+Excellent plot and character development.
+Nice soundtrack.
+Colorful visuals.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Can be a little grindy.
-Clunky control.
-Weak localization.
-Visuals have some rough spots.
-No sidequests.

The Bottom Line:
One of my personal favorite strategy RPGs.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Gameboy Advance
Game Mechanics: 7.5/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 10/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 7.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 7.5/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 7.5/10

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