Shining Force II is the third game in Sega’s ‘Shining’ series that started with dungeon crawler Shining in the Darkness on the Megadrive and continued into Tactical RPG territory in Shining Force. Logic would dictate that the first game I reviewed would be one of these two titles, however Shining Force II has a special place in my heart and I felt it was only fitting that it be the first game reviewed on this new site.
Any player who has dabbled in the Shining Force series will attest that whilst its older brother, Shining Force gets the most ports and a lot of the retro-love, its sequel is the superior game. Lush graphics for the Megadrive bring to mind the early SNES Final Fantasy games but retain an original feel thanks to a more gritty medieval fantasy vibe that upholds a strange fusion of the feudal knights seen in Western RPGs and the wacky joviality of RPGs. Centaurs, Elves, Dwarves and Men share screen time with a talking phoenix and cute/kaiju turtle. Whilst the whole story takes place using the in-game engine (sans the girl who reads you the story and acts as your new game/continue hub, who is illustrated wonderfully) there are some wonderful graphical flourishes throughout, such as the character portraits that accompany almost every line of the games dialogue. The games best art is reserved for combat however, where actions play out with large well animated sprites that are full of detail.
Shining Force II has a soundtrack that uses the systems limited capabilities to their fullest, though the Megadrive was never a system with the best track record in this regard. The tracks that are present are thematically appropriate and unique to the feel of this games world, however the sum total of tracks is limited and the amount of time spent in combat leaves one wishing for longer periods between looping or more variety overall. Sound is functional but nothing to write home about, although attacks have a satisfying weight to them that is largely thanks to this.
The story of Shining Force II is one of its strengths. With so much time spent in battle the meat of any Tactics game has to be a strong story and fortunately this one does not disappoint. Bowie, the player character (although you are prompted to name him at the outset of the game) lives and goes to school in a small kingdom under the guidance of the local wizard and adviser to the king. When a thief accidentally steals two jewels that were keeping an ancient evil called Zeon prisoner events transpire that see Bowie come into his own as the leader of a new shining force. What begins as a simple save the princess quest takes on a life of its own as his small group of friends expands and kingdoms rise and fall. It’s all delivered with a good spoonful of humor to keep things from getting to dour in places, and the simple sprites do a great job of emoting comedy with simple movements, in some cases even just a jump or bulge effect goes a long way to making the scene work when its timed to perfection.
Gameplay is split between exploration and combat with exploration being a mixture of plot scenes, NPC dialogue and shopping in between bouts of running around and looking for chests. It’s pretty straight forward and conventional in that regard with the options menu displayed as a 4-square prompt that can be easily navigated. A nice touch that keeps the game from feeling too Final Fantasy like is that way the rooftops on buildings fade away to show the interior without leaving the map, meaning that the whole world is built to scale without buildings seeming tiny outside and huge within. Combat is where the game shines, though more complex systems have since been released. The player takes their chosen force from a pool of a great many varied characters into battle with them at all times, swapping them out by visiting a caravan outside of battle, and each fights according to his or her race and weapon. Centaurs move fast over plains but get bogged down in the trees whilst carrying spears and lances that can attack diagonals. Dwarves are small but tough and Elves are generally Mages or Archers who deal in ranged attacks and whilst being weaker can skip through trees without a movement penalty. Humans are as usual all-rounders with Bowie being you lifebar. He dies and the battle is lost.
The game does a great job of making you want to use Bowie rather than keeping him safe by having his stats and presence for the games duration make him the most valuable powerhouse of the team. He also has the Egress spell as standard which is the games only way to grind. Almost finish a battle then Egress out and replay it for more currency and experience. Characters promote to new more powerful forms with some even having multiple choices of second tier class with hidden values, making the game feel deeper than its contemporaries. Overall it holds up well today even lacking the bells and whistles of Disgaea or Final Fantasy Tactics.
It’s hard to rate a game I have such fond memories of, and normally I’d recommend it to anyone without pause. Especially if that person were just getting into tactical games and wanted an uncomplicated start. It’s that perfect mix of not too difficult whilst still offering a challenge and deep without being complex. That said by those same merits it can’t achieve a perfect score because it IS an easy game in those regards and it has been bettered in the genre. For what it is, Shining Force II is perfect. At the right time and in the right place it would be a bastion of the genre. Today it can be found on the Sega Megadrive Ultimate Collection for PS3 as well as on the Virtual Store and Steam. There’s been no apple or android phone ports yet by Sega, which sucks since Shining Force has been out there for a while now, but we can cross our fingers and hope to see more of it some time soon. In the meantime I urge you to get out there and to experience this game for yourself in any way you can.