When you say “Tactical RPG” most gamers think of Final Fantasy Tactics or the slew of titles from Nippon Ichi in the last couple of years. But there’s a series with a much deeper history, a series that helped define and continues to influence the genre: Shining Force. The series began in 1992, and there hasn’t been an original entry since the abortive Shining Force III on the dying Sega Saturn. As you can probably guess, fans reacted rabidly to news that a new Shining Force game was finally coming for the PS2.
Unfortunately, those fans will be disappointed. Shining Force Neo may be set in the same universe as the rest of the series, but Sega jettisoned the tactical combat for Gauntlet or Diablo style hack-n’-slash gameplay. Even though fans are crying foul and wishing a pox upon Sega’s house, this isn’t a bad game; it’s just not a great game either.
Shining Force Neo does do a few things right. For one, all of the expository text is voice acted — but can someone tell me if that strike is still on? This is some of the most annoying voice acting you’ll be subjected to all year. More interesting is the style Sega used for the cut scenes. They’re all done as anime, a great choice considering the story of heroism and betrayal, and they’re just right — not too short, not too long, and not too melodramatic.
Unfortunately, the story told by these cut scenes is uninspiring, especially to those unfamiliar with the series. If Yoda and lightsabers are the only things you think of when you hear the word force, you’re going to be confused. The plot is fairly basic: a great evil, sealed away, resurrected, monsters invade, a hero is needed, so on and so forth. The story does give an excuse for the existence of numerous monster portals scattered across the countryside, belching out hordes of baddies for you to slash, thrust, and cast your way through.
The real action comes from simply mashing your way through the seemingly endless mob of ever-tougher enemies, collecting experience and resources to make your character bigger and badder. It’s standard stuff, but if you can ignore the Shining Force title (or, more likely, if it doesn’t mean anything to you because the only RPG series that anyone cares about in the U.S. is Final Fantasy), the relentless pace is pretty fun. A rotating cast of party members and a deep customization system for both abilities and equipment enhances things.
Unfortunately, this customization only exists for the main character. You can’t even equip anything on the rest of your party members, so while you can change your strategy by switching from a sword to a bow or staff, the other characters always have the same role. The force art system is interesting, and would probably remind gamers of other obscure titles like Record of Lodoss War, except of course that nobody played them. Abilities and attributes, such as defense, upgraded spells, and special attacks, can be purchased, and equipment can be upgraded. The number of arms and armor is staggering, often forcing you to choose a tradeoff; power for protection, speed for accuracy.
This isn’t a simple button-mashing walk through the park, either. Well, there is a lot of button mashing, but things can get tough. If you’re not properly prepared and willing to retreat and regroup every now and then, you will die. Your compatriots will help, but they’re dumber than Jessica Simpson, so you’ll have to wade right into the fray with them or they will die. Couple this with a not entirely railroaded adventure, where you can stumble into areas you’re not yet strong enough for, and there’s a high level of challenge here.
It would be nice if things looked a little better, though. Everything is bright and colorful, but the terrain, characters, and monsters all lack detail. Most annoying is the slowdown that occurs when too many monsters are on screen at once. Want to know how the game typically challenges you? That’s right, it throws dozens upon dozens of monsters at you, reducing things to a crawl. If it were any slower, there would be loading screens between frames. This is the one big complaint with Shining Force Neo, since otherwise it’s a competent title.
Just like the video, the audio is acceptable with a major exception. Well, okay, including the community theater voice actors, two exceptions: the second is the annoyingly repetitive battle cries, which aren’t only grating, there’s just plain stupid. Who would yell, “Here it comes!” when casting a fireball? “Eat flaming death!” would have been better, or even better yet, nothing at all!
When it comes down to it, Shining Force Neo is an average title with a couple of nice game mechanics. It’s long enough to give your money’s worth (if you mute the voices), with a deep customization system and a huge array of gear, but this is all hidden within a mediocre hackfest and wrapped around a clich?d story. Fans of the Shining Force series should stay far away, but everyone else (and that’s just about everyone) will find a challenging action-RPG that can fill a few of those slow winter gaming weeks.