Saturday, March 20, 2021

Shining Force: The Legacy of Great Intention


Great Intention, Okay Game

Once upon a time, when Sega was in the console business, they developed a rivalry with Nintendo, piously proclaiming that they did “what Nintendon’t.” One thing Sega did better at the time was introduce Western gamers to strategy RPGs (with Nintendo keeping their own Fire Emblem franchise confined to Japan back in the sixteen-bit era), with Shining Force: The Legacy of Great Intention being my first tactics game, though as a rental back in its era, I wouldn’t see the game to completion until a few console generations later. Among the latest versions of the game is a port included with Shining Force Classics for iOS devices, with a few quality-of-life enhancements that make it preferrable especially to the original Genesis version.

Although Shining Force allegedly occurs in the same universe as its narrative precursor Shining in the Darkness, the Shining timeline as a whole is somewhat unclear, although the links among it, the three gaiden games, and the first numbered sequel, are a bit more coherent. The story itself follows a warrior named Max who leads the eponymous Shining Force against the Kingdom of Runefaust, with the villainous Darksol seeking to resurrect the ancient Dark Dragon whilst one of his servants, the warrior Kane, fights on the frontlines. The narrative was good for its time, with some decent twists, although the large playable cast mostly remains underdeveloped.

Unlike Nintendo, Sega didn’t seem to censor the North American version of the first Shining Force, with enemy names such as “hellhound” remaining intact, although there are occasional name inconsistencies such as Kane being Cane when faced in battle, and names such as Lug became Luke, whereas the former name would see use in Shining Force Gaiden, and the latter would apply to a completely-different character. The base and promoted class titles for characters, moreover, have four-letter restrictions and are consequentially incoherent in the English version. The dialogue certainly is legible, and while the localization wasn’t great, it could have definitely been worse.

The Shining franchise’s first tactical offering occurs in eight chapters, each with battles necessary to advance the storyline. Max and eleven other units participate in grid-based, turn-based combat against a number of enemies, with turn order likely dependent upon unit speed. Whenever one of the player’s characters reaches their turn, they can freely move in a flashing range on the map, with such movement mercifully not rachet as in other tactical RPGs such as the almighty Final Fantasy Tactics and its rereleases. Characters can attack with their equipped weapon if close to an enemy (with attack range dependent upon their weapon), use an item, use MP-consuming magic, or simply end their turn.

Should a character execute a command, the game brings the player to a separate screen where they see through their order, with a number of experience points rewarded depending upon the action, with a max of around forty-eight points acquirable, a hundred needed to level up. Leveling naturally increases a character’s stats by a certain amount, and when they reach level ten, the player can “promote” them to a more powerful incarnation of their base class, in which case their level resets to one, and they lose a few stats, although the process of leveling them again will be more fruitful, especially in the case of certain characters that can easily serve as “tanks” against the enemy.

Waiting until a character has reached level twenty before promotion is typically a good idea, especially in the case of characters that fight with no weapons such as the werewolf Zylo and the dragon Bleu, although certain units won’t be able to use better weapons until the player has promoted them. Perhaps the biggest issue with Shining Force’s game mechanics is that one can find difficult the task of leveling weaker characters, with more powerful units often acting as experience hogs, and consequentially, players may wish to stick with the same party until the end of the game, given occasional difficulty spikes.

The player instantly loses a battle if Max dies, although in this case, the game transports him to the last church saved at with half his money lost. As with the iOS port of Shining in the Darkness, however, players can record up to three save states, which I religiously did whenever Max reached his turn in combat, in case he became imperiled, and if the player is finding their party decimated, the hero can cast Egress to return to the last save point with no penalty incurred and experience retained. As in the game’s dungeon-crawler predecessor, moreover, certain items are able to cast useful spells, which at times makes a difference, and aside from the absence of a turn order meter and for foresight, the gameplay gets the job done.

Shining Force contains a linear structure that largely keeps players moving in the right direction, although there are some missables such as a particularly-useful magical party member, and the next person with whom to speak to advance the narrative isn’t always clear. Inventory management can also be a pain, with each character only able to carry four items, including their weapon, and Max has to have an open inventory slot in order to open a chest that appears either on a battlefield or elsewhere during exploration that occurs in between battles. There’s also lots of dialogue and confirmations when shopping, and in the end, the game could have been more user-friendly.

Probably the strongest aspect of Shining Force is its aural presentation, with a number of great tracks such as that which plays during the backstory sequence, not to mention its countless remixes throughout the game. The save menu music is pretty, as well, the town theme is relaxing, the overworld music is adventurous, the battle tracks are dramatic, the castle music is militaristic with its snare-drumming, and so forth. The game also features sound to imitate character voices, with characters sometimes having higher or lower pitches that fit. The sound effects could have been better, and the musical quality wasn’t as good as the Super NES’s in the game’s time, but it’s still easy on the ears.

The visuals were also good for their time, each major character having an anime portrait where lips animate with the “voices” during cutscenes, and the eye-blinking is a nice addition. The character and enemy sprites also have decent proportions, with the former largely resembling their designs except when promoted (with the exception of Max), and the graphics shine most during the battle scenes that accompany commands, with full-blown anime sprites for the attacking or attacked character and the enemy. The sprites don’t always show emotion, but the graphical presentation is all-around solid.

Finally, completing the game can take somewhere from twelve to twenty-four hours, depending upon how good a team the player builds, with little in the way of sidequests or lasting appeal other than perhaps experimenting with different party setups.

In the end, Shining Force, despite being one of the earliest examples of a strategy RPG, does show considerable polish in certain areas such as its aural and visual presentation, not to mention its narrative, and the game mechanics are fair enough that even novice players can easily pick up on it. However, the gameplay does have issues regarding the difficulty of giving every acquirable character a chance in combat without the need to grind a lot, and there is some noticeable user-unfriendliness and a general lack of lacking appeal. Regardless, the change from dungeon crawler to tactical roleplaying game was definite a step in the right direction for the Shining series, and the contemporary features such as save states make it worth a glance, if nothing more.

This review is based on a playthrough of the version included with Shining Force Classics on an iPad Pro, with disabled ads paid for.

The Good:
+Gameplay gets the job done.
+Story good for its time.
+Great soundtrack.
+Nice visuals.

The Bad:
-Too many benchable characters.
-Some user-unfriendliness.
-Average translation.
-Little lasting appeal.

The Bottom Line:
A competent but generic strategy RPG.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: iOS
Game Mechanics: 6.5/10
Controls: 4.0/10
Story: 7.5/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 8.0/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 3.5/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 12-24 Hours

Overall: 6.0/10

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