Tactical RPGs – A genre of video games which incorporates elements of traditional role-playing video games with that of tactical games, emphasizing tactics rather than high-level strategy. The format of a tactical RPG video game is much like a traditional tabletop role-playing game in its appearance, pacing and rule structure. ¹
Admittedly, before playing Shining Force on the Sega Genesis this year, I had never played a tactical RPG in my life. I’ve played plenty of RPG/JRPGs, but never a game that also incorporated the elements unique to tactical RPGs. Honestly, not long after beginning this game, I wondered if I had made a mistake picking this title as the next game to work my way through. The battle mechanics were awkward and I wasn’t sure I was going to like the tactical aspect of the game. Thankfully I stuck it out and gave it a shot, because overall, I was very impressed with the presentation and execution of Shining Force.
Released in Japan on the Sega Mega Drive in 1992 and in North America and Europe in 1993, this Sega published title is technically the second in the “Shining” series of games. The first entry in the series, Shining in the Darkness, was a much simpler dungeon crawler RPG released in 1991. Shining Force incorporates much more strategy than its predecessor. Apparently, the timeline of the “Shining” games is as convoluted as the Castlevania and Zelda games and Shining in the Darkness takes place sometime after Shining Force II. Thankfully, these titles can be considered stand-alone and you can pick up and play Shining Force without any prior experience or knowledge of other games in the series.
In my opinion, graphics in RPG games aren’t as crucial as they are in maybe an action platformer or beat ’em up title. I don’t grade RPGs too harshly in this category as a result. With that said, the graphics in Shining Force are clear, colorful and fit the story. The game has two primary visual modes. One mode while you explore towns and traverse battlefields, you’ll be presented with an angled top-down view. Two, during combat, you’ll be presented with a view behind the character that is doing battle, allowing you a full view of the beast you’re fighting. Both look good and definitely don’t detract from the game’s appeal.
Shining Force’s music is quite impressive overall as well. It is upbeat when it needs to be, downbeat during times of distress or mourning, and most importantly, during major boss battles, is unique and distinctive. The only drawback is that there are certain tunes you will hear over and over during the early battle scenes. After awhile, I would turn the volume down when I knew I’d be spending the next 30-45 minutes in battle, allowing me to listen to something else in the background. Other than this unavoidable nit pick, the soundtrack is quite effective.
So I’ve touched on Shining Force’s graphics and the music, but what about the gameplay? The plot? The gameplay isn’t unlike most RPGs from the standpoint that you control a main character, whose default name is “Max” but you can ultimately change it to whatever you want, on an epic battle of good vs. evil. He’s the game’s hero and everyone else you end up meeting are supporting characters in your quest.
Max begins the game having suffered amnesia but is immediately thrust into a plot that involves evil forces being led by a character named Kane, who intends to resurrect the mythical Dark Dragon to assist in taking over the land of Rune. You later find out that Kane, as well as others in the kingdom, are being manipulated by another evil force named Dark Sol. Dark Sol ultimately ends up being your primary antagonist throughout the game until the final battle. Shining Force’s plot is presented in “chapters” (8 in total), instead of levels, which give it a very novel-like appeal. This is reiterated during the game’s opening menu screen. Each time you play, you are “treated” to a scene with a young girl reading aloud from a large tome, foretelling the return of Dark Dragon. I say “treated” a bit facetiously as this opening scene is played out each and every time you press power on your Genesis, forcing you to scroll through the pages of text of the girl telling you what you already know, before you can even select your game and begin play. Oh well, it’s a minor gripe but certainly an unnecessary one.
What were some things that I liked about Shining Force, since the start up screen clearly bugged me? I liked the way that the plot of the game was presented in chapters, as already mentioned, but I really liked the minimal amount of grinding that is required in order to advance in the game. Unlike a lot of JRPG style games (e.g. Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior/Quest, Phantasy Star), you are not obligated to defeat enemy after enemy in order to slowly level your characters up. Sure, Shining Force does incorporate the leveling up system in which your characters start weak and through experience in battle, gain EXP, thus gaining strength, magic powers, hit point increases, etc. Rarely did I feel like I was grossly under-powered simply by playing the game straight through. Only near the end of the game did I need to repeat battles with the sole purpose of gaining experience points and to level up my characters. Since you can never go back to a previous chapter once you’ve passed it, the only way you can grind is by beginning a battle, beating a number of enemies in that battle, then using Max’s magic spell of “egress” to exit out of that battle and start it all over again. Tedious? Sure. Infrequently necessary? Absolutely.
What else did I like? I really liked the variety of and amount of characters (centaurs, birdmen, dragons, Valkyries, mages, monks, etc. etc.) you could incorporate into your party. You can use up to 12 characters in battle, but you will find many, many more than that throughout the course of the game. Some characters are mandatory and will enter your party simply by advancing through the A-plot. Others are optional and if you don’t talk to the right person or perform the right series of tasks in the B-plots, you will not have access to those characters. Once a character is missed, you cannot return to a previous chapter to retrieve him or her. This may be considered a negative to some, but for me, once I realized that so many characters you meet will rarely get used anyway, it didn’t bother me. What this ends up doing is increasing the replayability of Shining Force tremendously. With the exception of Max, no other character MUST be a part of your party as the game progresses, so you have the ability to promote and level up whomever you desire. If you choose to play the game more than once, a rarity in RPG-land, it allows you to play it in an entirely new way, using new characters and thus, new strategies.
As a result of this gameplay quirk, I did not pick up one of the best characters in the game. Zylo, a wolf-man character, is one of the inherently strongest characters who ultimately becomes a figurative beast in battle throughout the game. Some characters start weak and can end up very powerful if given the chance. Some characters start weak and are never able to strengthen themselves to become valuable members of the team, no matter how hard you try to improve them. Other characters start out strong and end up being key strategic members in defeating enemies later in the game and ultimately part of the final battle. Zylo is one of these characters, but I never found him! Did that mean I couldn’t finish the game? Absolutely not. I might have had an easier time with Zylo on my side, but it ultimately made no difference in terms of the outcome.
At the end of the day, it’s the battle scenes that make Shining Force a tactical strategy RPG. Instead of walking around and then blindly being hit by an enemy, thrusting you into combat, in Shining Force, battle moments are predetermined. Once you begin each battle, your entire team is presented before you while your enemies are also laid out on the screen along with yours. Think of it like a chess board, where you must strategically move your characters during your turns and the enemies will do the same during theirs.
Some characters will be faster than others on normal terrain, while some characters can fly over rough terrain or water, allowing them a different angle for attack. Some characters can attack from a distance, while others must be directly touching an enemy in order to engage in battle. Some characters strengths are magic powers, some are healers with very little offense or defensive abilities. Others have a little of this and a little of that in terms of abilities and some aren’t very useful for anything and will quickly get lost in the shuffle. That’s what makes Shining Force, Shining Force.
During a character’s turn, you can maneuver them around the battlefield or you can simply stay put and perform some sort of action to heal other characters or cast a defensive magic spell, among other options. Once you are close enough to an enemy, you’re given the option to perform an attack. If you choose to attack, you are taken to the combat screen as described previously and at this point you will see the result of your attack option, either from weapons or magic. When it is an enemy’s turn, the combat screen is pulled up as well and the result of their attack on you will be shown.
If you defeat the enemy, they permanently leave the battlefield and cannot be resurrected. If one of your party members are defeated during battle, you will no longer be able to use that character until they are resurrected, for a fee, after the battle is over. Keep in mind that if Max perishes during battle, the game is over. If you allow this to happen, you lose half the money you earned during battle and must start over from the last town or checkpoint in the game. Thankfully, you can retreat from battle at any time during one of Max’s turns, if you feel overpowered and unready to fight. This will save you the loss of money, which is necessary for purchase of weapon upgrades as well as basic healing items in addition to other minor items you can acquire. A battle is finished either when all enemies are defeated or if that specific battle’s main enemy, if there is one, is defeated.
That description of the gameplay was overly simplistic by design. I could write paragraph after paragraph about the combat aspects of the game and go into the minutiae of what makes Shining Force truly special. Trust me when I say that the battles actually contain a ton of nuance, strategy, trial and error, and sometimes luck in order to get through them. You’ll be able to breeze through some battles while others will really give you troubles and require multiple attempts until you figure out that perfect strategy and approach. This is what makes the game special and it can’t be experienced by reading a review.
So what didn’t I like about the game? Not much, to be honest, but I will admit I was not a fan of the menu screen. To properly manage your battle party, their weapons, their items, and their actions (talk, search, buy, sell, repair, use, give, etc.) you need to navigate an unnecessarily complicated menu screen. It’s cumbersome, time consuming and not overly intuitive. In order to prevent having to revisit this menu screen to check which weapons and items I already had and what I still needed, I would write all of this information down on a piece of paper, like a common 20th century slob. I do understand this was an early ’90s title and menu screens would get better as time went on, however, the Genesis had greater capabilities with it’s 3 or 6 button controllers so this is just a case of the developers not spending a lot of time on creating the best menu screen they could.
Was there anything else I didn’t care for? Sure, there were some annoying moments during battle, watching enemies take their turns only to show them staying in place or moving one spot on the grid….it all just seemed to take more time than it needed to. There were annoying moments where I accidentally healed the wrong member of my party because I was trying to move too fast through all the menus, but that was more user error than the game’s fault. Yes, there were times when I had to traverse a narrow passage and had to wait for townie to get out of my way before I could move. Annoying but forgivable.
Shining Force just does so many more things right than wrong and the game’s final battle and ending scenes are really memorable and stick with you. This was my first ever tactical battle RPG and I loved it. It won’t be my last.