After chatting to a number of people on Twitter, and seeing a “Top Genesis games” list that featured Shining Force as the top Megadrive game, I figured I would finally have a playthrough and see what it is all about.
So where does Shining Force stand in my imaginary list of top Megadrive games?
Set in the Kingdom of Guardiana, in the land of Rune, Max (silent protagonist in non-JAP versions) is sent to stop the forces of Runefaust headed by the evil Kane. Turns out in typical JRPG fashion that Kain is under control of Darksol, and Darksol is attempting to resurrect the dark dragon in your basic good vs evil plot and on your journey you’re joined by about 30 almost unique characters.
Shining Force is a tactical RPG, this means you fight on a grid based system, kind of similar to isometric strategy games.
Each character moves based on their character class; so Knights move further than men on foot, flying units can move further and skip terrain issues, but also unit turn is on based individual speed stats. It means players from both sides of the battle will move when it is THEIR turn. Your team doesn’t move, and then the enemy moves like in X-COM. It means you have to plan ahead, and always think about vulnerable characters. You might think it is a good idea to move Max or your healers ahead first, but if the next 4 turns are fast moving hard enemy units, Max will die. It means you rarely move your full movement unless you “know” it is safe.
There are tonnes of secrets squirreled away in Shining Force, and some are VERY easy to miss. There are some where if your trooper kills a certain enemy that person will get an item, but if the person that gets the killing blows inventory is full, no uber special weapon for you!
Others are one off items, that if used in a certain place unlocks a hidden character (Domingo), in total there are 11 missable characters, with 5 of these considered “secret”. It means there is always something to look for, it gives you reasons to replay the game to find all top tier items, characters or even find the bags of wank that do sod all. No doubt L337 players will do hardcore runs with just archers, healers and spunk flannels.
As this is an RPG, your characters level up through experience in combat. Cast a spell, attack, use an item and you get a little experience. Land the killing blow and you’ll gain more, as the battles are a theatre of war rather than a Final Fantasy style “encounter” there is no after battle exp shared among the troops. This encourages you to use everybody, because if you don’t, your characters will get left behind. I struggled levelling up the Healers as they were one hit wonders, and healing gives next to zero exp.
Once your solider reaches level 10 they are eligible for a promotion, again, this is your standard fantasy fare, Mages become Wizards, Warriors become Gladiators and Knights become Paladins (there are others).
However, and this isn’t explained in game. You really need to hold off promoting your men. Most internet guides advise waiting till level 20, once you promote, your men drop back to level 1, and in most cases will suffer a temporary reduction in stats. Luke, was my main damage dealer, I promoted him at level 12, and he became unusable. Pelle, I promoted at 20 and he stormed the rest of the game. Same with Gort.
It makes promotion a double edged sword; terrible characters can steamroll if you get them through the early struggles. Others will tail off and become less useful. It means you need to do a bit of reading before hand, or tonnes of experimenting, as your preferred party can become unworkable very quickly.
Shining Force can be very hard at times. The AI isn’t the smartest, but from Chapter VI onwards I found I had to hide/protect Max. It meant he went from one of most useful party members to utterly useless, on my Dark Dragon battle I had Max standing on the Skeleton respawn spots. If he was even slightly in the open, the enemy would make a beeline to him, and usually kill him in one shot. If Max dies you are sent back to town, and you need to restart the entire battle again. There were a number of battles I had to do 5-6 times because a fast moving enemy would just cheese Max if he wasn’t protected by a wall of meat.
After that, the difficulty comes from learning the characters. Yes Hans is a useful character on Chapter I and II, but he very quickly becomes a waste of oxygen. Zylo when you get him is awesome as a werewolf. But for me, once promoted he couldn’t hit a barn door with a banjo at 2 feet so had to be subbed.
On Chapter VI you really need to start experimenting with team configurations. There are 29 selectable characters which you can chop and change to find a party that suits your play style, though you’re only allowed 12 troops into battle. Before I finally found a configuration that worked for me, I was sending useless people like Zylo, Hans and Diane into battles and they were doing 1-2 damage tops. Poor squad balance will also leave you with issues, as having too many healers means you’ll lack firepower which means bosses may be auto healing above your damage rate. Thid all adds a level of depth missing in say the Final Fantasy series, as if you aren’t getting your balance right of power/distance/magic, you’ll be fucked.
One way for you to cheese the game is to do most of the battle, and then let Max die or use the Egress spell to teleport back to town. If you do this you restart the battle all over again, you can exploit this and spend time grinding. It means if you want to get a toss character up to scratch you can do, but this is a significant time commitment.
Shining Force is clunky as hell. There is no escaping this. The inventory management system is a freaking chore to deal with. Each person can hold 4 items, but Max will always be full due to him being the main controlled person. Moving equipment between characters is overly convoluted.
This leads onto the equipment, the sword you’re holding stays in your inventory, if you have a ring, that takes a space. There are a number of key items too which again take up free space, it means Max is ALWAYS trading equipment to be able to open treasure chests.
The shops and the priest that resurrects your troops, are also inanely clunky. In 1993 this might have been acceptable, but this clunkyness does affect the overall score when looking at the game with modern eyes.
You will need patience for this game, so if you aren’t the patient type you’ll probably hate Shining Force. So while I liked the slow methodical nature, it can start to drag and will be off putting to some.
My only other gripe is the game does lack story. Max has a backstory, but that is cut from Western versions, and the support characters don’t really have any personality. You’ll grow to love people because of their fighting ability, but there is no reason to keep somebody around for their personality like in Final Fantasys or Knights of the Old Republic, except maybe Bleu.
While I like the music in itself, the music will quickly grate. The loops are not that long, but the worse thing is that you’re constantly going into battle. It means that the music is changing every 5 seconds, so while you will rarely get to hear the end of the loop the constant changing gets annoying. As a result Shining Force falls into the catagory of mute the game and stick a CD on in the background.
I loved Shining Force, there were a few rage quit moments, when the enemy cheesed Max, and the slow nature of the game will drive some people mad. But what you have here is a game with depth, and a lot of reasons to replay. The game takes about 20 to 25 hours to beat, so there is a time commitment here. But with different troops to use, and secrets to be found, there are enough reasons to come back the game.
Shining Force is certainly one of the best games on the Megadrive, though the clunky user interface does nudge the score down slightly.
The game is a little bit expensive for the Megadrive, at around £55-60, but you can pick it up for cheaper as part of the bundle on the SEGA Mega Drive: Ultimate Collection for XBox360 and PS3 if you don’t fancy the upfront costs.
Pros: Deep, difficult, dying on Dark Dragon with him on 3hp.
Cons: Clunky, REALLY clunky
Back in the day
Shining Force scored in the low 90s at release and is widely considered one of the better Megadrive games.