The sequel to Sega’s dungeon crawler ‘Shining in the Darkness’ took a radical departure from the foundations set down by the first game in the series, throwing a lot away and keeping the setting. What they produced in Shining Force was a game that aimed to further the relatively new Tactical RPG genre in a way that hadn’t been done before.
Games such as the original Fire Emblem and Warsong had of course already been released at the time of Shining Force’s inception; however their take on the Tactical RPG was solidly focused on the idea of commanding an army of troops at the expense of the individual units standing out as characters. These were slow, methodical and plodding affairs that offered little by way of immediate excitement. Shining Force took the concept of the Tactical RPG and introduced a smaller overall party into the field whilst giving every single one of them a strong sense of character in their own right. A mashing of the kind of story telling seen in JRPGs such as the popular Dragon Quest series with the Tactical conventions of the time. In doing so it would set down the groundwork for Tactical RPGs to this day, up to and including the Arc the Lad, Disgaea and Final Fantasy Tactics series’.
Graphically the original Shining Force has some interesting design work and a host of fantastic sprites and locations on display. Being entirely rendered using a Megadrive friendly 2D sprite engine the world is given a lot of attention and feels like one constant location broken up by occasional trips across the world map. Some aspects that they chose to use will grip those with refined tastes, water is not animated and no character has a standing still animation (instead marching on the spot constantly) which may cause some annoyance. On the other hand every character in the game has an individual custom sprite with very few repeated examples, which is a rarity for the time. The menu system from the original Shining in the Darkness title makes a comeback and serves the purpose of mapping complex choices to one three-button controller, with its familure 4-box design aesthetic oddly pleasing to the eye. Concept work for this title is of an extremely high standard, masking the tightly reduced budget Shining Force received on its predecessor, and imaginative characters and locations keep the game fresh even by today’s standards. A special mention should be made of the larger graphical touches in the games introduction and loading screens, which set the tone of the game perfectly for new players and start a theme of ‘reading the book’ that would be used in each subsequent game in the series.
Aurally the game is a little less appealing. The sound of text writing itself across text boxes can grate over longer play sessions and the whoosh of boxes sliding in and out to do so is also something of an annoyance. Battle sounds are good, though few are unique, and the music represents itself well on the limited abilities of the Megadrive by looping after some time rather than being shortened pieces as was the trend at the time.
The story of Shining Force took something of a hammering upon its original translation into English, losing some of the finer points of the lead character’s backstory and muddling a few connections that would lead into other games in the series. Subsequent releases have done their best to fix this, but as it stands the story is perfectly serviceable and many of the Megadrive ports have kept it unchanged for the sake of authenticity. You play primarily as Max, a young soldier training under the tutorage of the captain of the royal guard in a kingdom called Guardiana. When an evil emissary known as Kane and his master DarkSol begins to go about the resurrection of a powerful force for evil known as Dark Dragon, Max is tasked with putting together a Shining Force and stopping him. This sets up some of the most inventive battle scenarios of the era, and leads to a series of personal and world-shaking discoveries on the part of Max and his friends. A later port to the GBA with completely redrawn graphics and new features added a second complimentary plot concerning Princess Narsha, who plays a much smaller role in the original games narrative, and restores some of the original script’s lost plot devices. This reimagining isn’t a faithful retelling of the original games script however as some plot threads openly negate important information from that version. Still, for those who want a fuller story experience the game can be found easily under the alternate title of ‘Shining Force: Resurrestion of the Dark Dragon’.
Gameplay sets down many of the standards seen in later Tactical RPGs, movement and attack ranges are clearly marked and turns are decided by the speed of each character. Combat is turn based and arranged onto a square grid which contains terrain of different kinds. Characters fall into types based on who they are and what they do in the story, with Mages specialising in high damage but MP draining spells whilst being particularly weak, and Warriors dictated weapons based on their race. In most cases Humans use swords which attack as standard, Elves use Bows for ranged attacks only or are Spellcasters, Centaurs use Spears which can be thrown or Lances which attack diagonally, and Dwarves are extremely slow but use powerful Axes. There are some exceptions to these rules, in particular robotic or mascot characters who do pretty much what they like, but the crux of the system comes from knowing and understanding your characters strengths and weaknesses. Enemy AI is easy to fool into coming into a trap but in some cases levelled to a state where you’ll still need to be careful. Some levels have environmental hazards as well, with a mountain-top charge through a ravine towards a powerful energy cannon sticking out as a highlight. Birdmen characters can fly, making their own paths through a level and this is their greatest advantage. Outside of combat the game allows you to build your party from a broad selection of characters as well as recruit more, outfit them from shops and engage in exploration. The game makes excellent use of the limited number of buttons available on the Megadrive classic controller and its menu system allows access to anything you could need at the press of a button. Some later ports suffer a little from mapping the game onto more complex controllers (in the case of the Megacollection) or virtual buttons (iOS) but the experience is well thought out and hard to dull.
Overall Shining Force: The Legacy of Great Intention is an excellent title, though its sequel would go on to improve on almost every aspect of it just a year later and the same basic experience was captured on the Game Gear in the Gaiden series. It lays down the groundwork for the Tactical RPG in a manner that’s dictated how the genre works for decades, and this games place among the trend-setters of its time can’t be underestimated. At this time the game is available on Steam, the iStore and all manner of Sega official collections. You owe it to yourself to get out there and experience it for yourself.