Of all the lost opportunities on Sega’s part, the one that strikes a blow to the heart is that the western world only received the first instalment of the epic three-game experience that was Shining Force III. That it hasn’t seen remastering and release onto a modern mobile platform speaks volumes of the split between Camelot and Sega over this decision.
Scenario One, titled ‘God Warrior of the Kingdom’ remains the only translated and available title in English for the Sega Saturn and whilst this review will touch on some of the facts surrounding later instalments (and bonus disc) it is primarily a review for that release only. Should the series have been reviewed in its entirety the score below would have been significantly higher.
Graphically this title is a huge step up in terms of scope from the original console releases, making a jump from sprite work to 3D rendered environments and character sprites built in 2D using pre-rendered 3D models (as seen in ‘Donkey Kong Country’). Obviously this looks less appealing today than it did at the time, arguably not holding up as well as the earlier instalments with hindsight, but for the time these were some truly revolutionary steps for the series. Menus retain their four-square hub that remains a quick and easy manner of selecting anything you’d need over the course of your adventure (both in and out of combat), and are easy to read with large friendly text boxes that do their best not to eclipse the action. Character portraits also return and now appear over the dialogue boxes rather than in the top corners of the screen. Attack animations are fully 3D, using character models that are blocky but nicely detailed and special effects from spells arguably push the Sega Saturn harder than any other game tried. The game opens with a CGI cinematic that feels woefully dated but does set a tone for the game in terms of high stakes and action.
Sound effects have had a significant upgrade, maintaining a suitable amount of larger than life drama that makes thumping an enemy with a close combat character more akin to punching them through a wall than simply slapping cold meat in front of a microphone. Spells in particular have impact and by the time you’re dealing in higher level magic the sense of power comes primarily from their sound design. Music is also nicely done, composed by Motoi Sakuraba, who worked on ‘Star Ocean’. Some tracks have genuine emotion behind them, though many fall a little flat when compared to other games available at the time (‘Grandia’ for example). Voice acting is also included, though this title, though the performances are less than stellar. Monotone performances by English speaking actors who feel like they aren’t trying and when compared to footage of the game played in Japanese feel superfluous. Sega’s localisation team would have been better leaving vocal performances in their original state and relying on the strength of the text displayed simultaneously.
In terms of narrative, Shining Force III makes huge strides toward more adult themes and tone when compared to the relatively breezy story in the original ‘Shining Force’ or the slightly more complex ‘Shining Force II’. Following a young man named Synbios from the Republic of Aspinia (which has secluded from the Empire of Destonia and maintains a poor relationship with it), we open on a failed attempt at a peace conference that breaks down dramatically and leads into a full-scale war between the two sides. Synbios both takes a part in this struggle and investigates a mysterious third party called the ‘Bulzome Sect’ who appear to have been manipulating events from behind the scenes. Through a series of encounters with Medion, a young prince of Destonia who is fighting on the other side of the war, the pair begin to work together to solve this threat. Unfortunately just as things seem to be progressing the campaign ends abruptly, leaving space for ‘Scenario 2’ to switch protagonist to Medion, both recapping some previous encounters from a new perspective and forwarding the battle against Destonia. Both campaigns (sold separately, of which only Scenario 1 was available outside Japan) featured cameo appearances by a mercenary named Julian, who prevents them from killing each other at the climax of Scenario 2 and becomes ‘Scenario 3’s’ leading character, taking the game to its conclusion. Julian’s narrative also serves to tie the spin-off title ‘Shining the Holy Ark’ into the series canon. Sadly, without the second two games released abroad the narrative comes to an abrupt and forced conclusion that cliff-hangers to an alarming degree. Sega of America’s division had proclaimed the Sega Saturn ‘dead’ shortly after the release of the first scenario and shifted their full attention to the upcoming Dreamcast console, disappointing pleading fans who would petitioned them for years to come.
In terms of gameplay the structure of battles remains largely unchanged from previous instalments and the basis of the Tactical combat is fairly straight forward with a few minor additions. Units take turns to perform actions on a square grid (move, attack, use an item, cast a spell, etc) in an order determined by their stats with enemies doing the same. There are now significantly more classes for characters to promote into, more spells to learn and weapons are now linked to specialism levels on characters and unlock special attacks as proficiency increases with the different types available. Characters on average can wield two weapons, and concentrating on one allows for maximising that stat faster but limits flexibility when planning for battles. A friendship system has also been incorporated that sees characters who work together regularly slowly build a relationship that boots their stats when in close proximity to each other on the battlefield. Should a character die this stat drops a level as punishment, making it all the more important to preserve your party’s health in combat. AI has had small tweaks but can still be goaded into falling into traps where they can be surrounded and pounded upon by multiple characters. In many circumstances the party will be vastly outnumbered but only a few monsters will attack at a time, breaking action down into a series of smaller skirmishes rather than one massive brawl. The game does its best to remedy this by slowly contracting the size of the battle grounds as the game goes on, forcing close-quarters combat more frequently at the expense of more wide-spread combat. Exploration segments outside of battle are well planned and play to the strengths of JRPGs, allowing for the player to speak to NPCs, buy and sell items and explore to their heart’s content. This mechanic, sadly missing from ‘Shining Force CD’ and the handheld instalments released since ‘Shining Force II’ is a welcome return to form as it makes the games world far more involved and interesting than other Tactical RPGs at the time and even requires some puzzle solving on occasion.
Overall, Shining Force III is a flawed masterpiece. Had Camelot’s ambition of releasing all three games (and a bonus disc that allowed players to re-battle iconic encounters from past games with the current party) been realised then it’s entirely possible that Sega would be releasing Shining Force games to this day. Sadly the resulting cancellation caused a rupture between Camelot and Sega that eventually led to Camelot’s defection to the Playstation and then development of the ‘Golden Sun’ series for Nintendo’s handhelds. I’d advise that whilst the game is a fun title to play through, it only be tracked down by those who wish to complete their collection or are ready to experience just one third of a bigger story.