As a frontline soldier of Nintendo throughout the Console Wars, I never allowed myself to own a SEGA Genesis, but I always knew great pleasures lay just behind enemy lines. Shining Force was one of the most tempting titles for me at the time, but thanks to iOS (the Switzerland of the Console Wars) and Game Boy Advance, I have a chance to experience this classic strategy/RPG.
Shining Force is most reminiscent of games like Fire Emblem, where you lead a battalion of heroes in fantasy battles, trying to stop armies of demons, flying bats, and other nastiness. Your units all have unique names, backstories, and stats that grow as you level them up in combat. But what sets Shining Force apart from others of its genre is the emphasis on the RPG side of things.
You begin the game controlling your character just like you would in an RPG. You can walk around town, talk to people, shop for equipment, solve side quests, and so on. The plot is cut and dry: The evil nation of Runefaust is attacking; mysterious artifacts need protecting; you’re the only one who can save us, yeah, I got it. It takes a while for things to really get interesting, but by the third chapter you feel like you’re on an exciting adventure with lots of surprises popping up in every town you visit.
Part of the fun is finding and recruiting new characters to join your corps, and they come in a colorful array of species (Centaurs, Mermen, Kobolds, etc.) and classes (cavalry, archers, mages, etc.). There’s usually some cursory reason for them joining, like “Runefaust killed my puppy!” But, once they join, you rarely see party members contribute to the plot thereafter: A bit of a disappointment.
What impressed me was how seamlessly the game transfers between RPG and strategy game. You might just walk out to the world map or step into a village, and the battle is just there, waiting for you with the same sprites and maps you might have been walking around in RPG mode moments ago.
Right away, I noticed one unusual thing about the combat: units take their turns is completely random order. As someone who likes to plan every move out carefully and tactically, this aggravates me to no end. But at least it adds a bit of unpredictability. The maps have a lot of variety. For every field full of the same old mountains and forests, there’s a battle on a ship or in a circus tent to spice up the experience.
Speaking of experience, you don’t lose any for losing a battle. You simply return to the last priest you saved at with any XP and items earned in the fight intact. Even better, you don’t permanently lose any units who died in battle. You simply ask the priest to raise them from the dead (for a price). Keep your members alive and well-leveled, and you can eventually promote them to superior classes, unlocking all kinds of kick-ass powers that make the longer later battles a lot more manageable.
Thanks to the relative shortness of each fight, this game makes a perfect portable strategy/RPG. My only qualms are with how SEGA transitioned the game over to iOS. The controls are particularly annoying, with the virtual D-pad placed at an awkward height. This may have been so the D-pad doesn’t block the text bubbles, but it makes moving my character or selecting menu options a chore. I don’t even have time to go into the confusing mess that was trying to figure out how to load my save data.
Despite that, I am dedicated to playing Shining Force all the way through because it is a quality title that strikes the perfect balance between depth and accessibility a wandering strategist like myself desires.