Sunday, July 11, 2021

Shining Force II


Granseal ‘94

The original Shining Force on the Sega Genesis had the honor of being my first strategy RPG during the sixteen-bit era, and while I enjoyed what little time I spent with it, as we had rented the game, I wouldn’t play it to completion until years later. We had also rented the game’s sequel, Shining Force II, another case where I wouldn’t see the game to the end until a generation or two later. The first numbered sequel would eventually find its way to iOS devices as part of the Shining Force Classics collection, and while it can be fun at times, it’s by no means a masterpiece.

Disaster is the name of the game as far as the second mainline entry goes, with a series of cataclysms wrecking the Kingdom of Granseal, thanks to a rat thief named Slade stealing magical jewels from a shrine, these disasters forcing the country’s inhabitants to resettle elsewhere overseas. The narrative ultimately focuses on a conflict against the devils, led by Zeon, with protagonist Bowie leading his own Shining Force against them. There are a few links to the original game (and gaiden game Final Conflict links the storylines), but a map showing the universe of the series would have been welcome, and there isn’t a lot of character interaction among the massive playable cast.

The translation definitely doesn’t help matters. While the dialogue is mostly legible, there are a series of issues such as the recycled names within the series for the various characters, such as Slade and Luke, not to mention a few name inconsistencies, such as “Nazca” and “Nazka”. There are also many errors within the text and frequent uncharacteristic dialogue such as one character proclaiming “Groovy!”, which really wrecks the mood. The error in prior English Shining Forces of characters obtaining “1 EXP points” also recurs, character names are in all caps, and class names are compressed to four letters. Generally, while the story was good for its time, the localization could have been better.

Shining Force II is a strategy RPG mechanically similar to the original game, albeit with some key differences, prime among them being that it’s significantly less linear than the first game, with the eventual ability to return to previous locations across a vast overworld, and not in a chapter-based division. Still, the tactical battles occur with the player’s party of up to twelve active characters facing off against enemies across battlefields in turn-based combat where speed most likely dictates turn order. When one of the player’s characters reaches their turn, they can move around in a range, movement luckily not ratcheted as in future strategy RPGs such as the original Final Fantasy Tactics.

Each character can attack normally (players able to calculate damage by subtracting enemy defense from attacker strength), use MP-consuming magic spells with each of these abilities having a maximum of four levels (which are adjustable for different situations), use an item (characters able to hold up to four, including their weapon), or simply end their turn. When a character is in range and is able to perform a move for an ally or against an enemy, the game switches to a separate screen where they execute their command, players able to disable the extra dialogue to speed up these scenes slightly.

Performing most commands nets a character experience points, with a hundred needed to advance a level and up to fifty obtainable with commands performed, the bulk of it coming from killing enemies, and largely proportional to a character’s level. Stats naturally increase with raised levels, with the sequel increasing the minimum level necessary to promote characters to twenty, forty being the maximum level an unpromoted character can obtain. Players will definitely get the most out of their characters by waiting until level forty to promote them, and in a twist, certain items can allow them to promote to alternate classes, such as master monk for healer allies, potential tank units.

Battles end in victory for the player when they off the “leader” enemy, whereas Bowie’s death transports players back to the last save point with half their money lost yet experience for all characters retained. Fortunately, the Shining Force Classics version retains many of the same modern conveniences implemented for the original game, such as the ability to keep up to three save states or rewind time by fifteen seconds, handy in case of screwups. However, contemporary features like a turn order meter are absent, alongside other issues such as a lack of balance in leveling and the need to center spells on enemies or allies to execute them. Regardless, the mechanics help the game more than hurt.

Control, alongside the localization, is one of the sequel’s weakest link. Given the reduced linearity, direction on how to advance the main storyline can be poor at times, and the player can’t view a map of the overworld to help in navigation. Reviving deceased characters at churches can be taxing as well, given the ability to resurrect only one at a time, and while the four-item limit for each character adds to the battle system’s effectiveness, managing inventory can be tedious. There are some bright spots, however, such as the sequel, like the original, being one of the earliest RPGs to feature a suspend save, and while it doesn’t interact with players as well as it could have, things definitely aren’t abysmal.

Motoaki Takenouchi’s soundtrack is inarguably the high point of Shining Force II, with a central theme in the form of “Warrior of the Reviving Light” (doubling as one of the primary battle tracks) and its various remixes such as the Caravan music and flying piece. There are also plenty of catchy tracks such as the main town theme, a few militaristic pieces such as the castle music, and enthralling tunes during the battle scenes, which change for promoted characters. The overall quality of the soundtrack could have definitely been better, alongside more diverse sound effects aside from pitches in digitized cutscene voices, but the sequel all in all is a definite aural treat.

The visuals look nice as well, bearing some more polish than the original game, with character sprites containing good anatomy and occasionally showing some gestures such as shaking heads, with their environments looking pretty and colorful as well. The designs for the characters prominent during cutscenes are good as well, their sprites resembling their portraits, with the high point of the graphics being the battle scenes where a character or enemy performs a command, characters and the enemy having great anatomy. There are some reskins on both sides of battle, and pixilation is more apparent on an iPad, but the sequel is more than visually competent.

The second numbered entry’s main source of lasting appeal comes in the form of difficulty selectable when starting a new game, not to mention the endless potential playstyles and extra battle that occurs a few minutes after the ending credits, but there aren’t any major sidequests or a New Game+ (though to be fair, the concept wouldn’t come along until Chrono Trigger), so this aspect is largely middling.

In the end, Shining Force II is a competent sequel that hits many of the right notes with regards to its straightforward tactical mechanics, inventive (for its time) storyline, excellent soundtrack, and great visual presentation, although it does have issues preventing it from truly excelling such as the general user-unfriendliness, poor direction in the main narrative, lackluster localization, and middling replay value. Granted, it is, alongside the original game, one of the better entries of Shining Force Classics, although it’s by no means a bucket-list game, and there are plenty other higher-quality titles within and without the tactical subgenre.

This review is based on a playthrough of the version included with Shining Force Classics on an iPad Pro, on Normal difficulty.

The Good:
+Good straightforward tactical mechanics.
+Original story.
+Excellent soundtrack.
+Nice visual direction.

The Bad:
-Somewhat user-unfriendly.
-Frequent poor direction on how to advance.
-Lackluster localization.
-Average lasting appeal.

The Bottom Line:
A competent sequel.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: iOS
Game Mechanics: 7.5/10
Controls: 4.0/10
Story: 7.5/10
Localization: 3.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 8.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 6.0/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 24-36 Hours

Overall: 6.5/10

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