Mention Shining Force to gamers who came of age in the 16-bit era and you're likely to see them smile fondly as they recall memories of two of the best strategy RPGs ever to grace a home console. In an age where RPGs (Role-Playing Games) were a niche genre at best, the Strategy RPG was like the kid in your class who ate the paste—even the other nerds didn't want to hang out with him. That's all changed now, as the RPG has become a dominant genre in the industry, and the strategy RPG enjoys a major renaissance as well. What better time for a new Shining Force title, right?
In theory, it's the perfect time for a new Shining Force game,which means Sega will offer up two games with the Shining title this year—Neo and the previously released Shining Tears—and that neither of them will be strategy RPGs. Instead, both will be Diablo-styled hack-and-slashers. Way to go Sega! And one wonders why this company was on the verge of financial ruin just a few short years ago…
To be fair, once the initial disappointment dissipates, Shining Force Neo is a damn good game—it's just hard for an old guy like me to get past the whole Shining Force not being a strategy RPG thing. Why call it Shining Force? Why must Sega continually toy with my emotions? What's next? A Nights RPG? A Phantasy Star card battle game…oh, wait, they actually did that. My bad.
Anyway, much of my dismay was eradicated when I realized that while this wasn't the Shining Force of my youth, it was a hack-and-slash game made by the guys responsible for the criminally underrated Record of Lodoss War on the Sega Dreamcast. I, and about twenty other people, played that game, and let me tell you, you guys missed out. Sure, you could almost count the individual polygons in each character model, but when it came to free-roaming hack-and-slash gameplay with larger than life monsters and tons of cool loot, Lodoss War was consoledom's answer to Diablo.
The Lodoss War influence is readily apparent throughout Shining Force Neo—the little sound and animation for when players warp home to their base are pretty much identical, for example—and that's a good thing. Yes, the game features a long-winded and trite story about young Max and his quest to save the world with his band of friends, but none of that matters. What really matters is that the game is easy to pick up and play and deceptively addictive.
Being a hack-and-slash title, there's not a whole lot of depth to the combat. In fact, most of the combat revolves around mashing a single button on the Dualshock 2 repeatedly. The game puts you in an area, lines up 100 monsters, and then turns you loose like a lumberjack on a three-day meth bender with a forest of trees in front of you and a nagging deadline to beat. Hacking up the monsters earns the player experience, which levels up the character making them stronger and able to kill more monsters in less time. Killing enemies also leads to new items (monsters always carry good loot in these games), money, and "force energy"—a material Max uses to upgrade his passive character attributes.
The game is simplistic and repetitive. My stepdaughter watched it for five minutes one night and said "so, all you do is kill monsters with your sword?" Believe me, there's nothing quite like having something you're really enjoying as a 33-year-old so casually dismissed by someone who isn't even 11 yet. Of course, since I know guys who're still playing Diablo II religiously, there's apparently something to be said for the joys of hacking-and-slashing through hordes of palette-swapped monsters.
I'm not sure what that is—but it's probably something to do with our compulsive need to level up our characters until they're demi-gods who can smite down the most difficult of foes with a single blow. The guys at Amusement Vision understand this implicitly, which is why a character in Shining Force Neo can break the standard level 99 cap of most games and keep on going like that stupid rabbit in the battery commercials. My Max is currently level 143—and hits some monsters for over a million points of damage a swing. Yes, I'm a geek for getting excited about this. No, I don't care.
One area where the guys at Amusement Vision tweak the formula is in the game's party system. Games like Record of Lodoss War were single-player experiences. If you wanted helpers in Diablo, you had to find actual real-life friends to play with you (no small feat, for sure). Shining Force eliminates the need for human interaction by allowing Max to have two A.I. controlled cohorts assist him in battle. Diligent players will eventually have eight characters to choose from, each with different strengths and weaknesses. Like in standard strat RPGs, the helper characters are centaurs, bird people, a baby dragon, a robot, etc.—this is one of the nods to the original Shining games, and it's definitely appreciated.
The artificial intelligence is mostly impressive. Pathing is decent (although players will lose characters in the maze-like dungeons from time to time due to all the twists and turns), and the command scripts seem spot on. Healers actually heal when they need to and the other spell-casters generally cast the right thing for the situation at hand. My only real beef is that on occasion the mages wander into melee range and get stomped out with a single blow. The game features a "stay" command, but I didn't find it all that useful.
Another thing gamers will want to consider before plunking down their hard-earned greenbacks is that this is a long game—especially for one in this subgenre. Recruiting all the characters, getting their class changes, and destroying the optional (but almost necessary) Legion Hive dungeons will have most players killing the final boss past the fifty-hour mark. Granted, players can skip some of this stuff if they're more interested in just getting to the end credits, but even then, expect to spend in excess of thirty hours with this game. Even at thirty hours, it's a long game when one considers most of the time is spent mashing one button repeatedly.
Players who still haven't had their fill after the final battle can start a new game with their old game characters and tackle the optional dungeon—fifty floors of randomly generated mayhem that makes most of the regular game's bosses seem like pansies. Expect this dungeon to add at least another five hours to the final gameplay tally.
If it's not apparent already, the gameplay in Shining Force Neo is rock solid. The aesthetic elements, however, are more of a toss up.
The game utilizes cel-shaded characters that are nicely detailed and placed on top of some lush (although often repetitive) environments. Enemies are diverse and nicely drawn as well, and the game manages to mash 100 of them on the screen at a time. This, of course, leads to some ugly slowdown, particularly when there's a lot of spell-casting happening. This slowdown doesn't kill the game, but it can be a distraction.
The game's biggest flaw, though, is the voice acting. I thought we'd finally reached the point where developers hired real actors to voice their game characters instead of just grabbing the building janitor and any of the winos hanging out around the dumpster behind the office, but apparently I was wrong. Shining Force Neo has some genuinely terrible voice acting—it's like cat claws on a chalkboard. Fortunately, during the static dialogue scenes (which make up the bulk of the game), you can mute them or skip over the offending voices before they make your ears bleed. This isn't true during the CG cutscenes—which are rare, but still feature no subtitles at all. Gamers are stuck listening to the voices in those instances. Worst of all is that each character has an in-battle cry that they repeat like a thousand times per encounter. There's no way to stop these, and they will drive everyone within earshot totally insane.
Despite those few minor flaws, Shining Force Neo is a rock-solid game. While it's not the Shining game I would have asked for, it's definitely one of the better hack-and-slash titles out there for the console market. It's longer than it needs to be and it's definitely a bit repetitive (as are all games in this subgenre), but it's also a game worthy of bearing the Shining Force moniker. Sega may not have given us the strategy RPG we all long for, but this is a decent stand-in until they get around to making a genuine Shining Force game.