August 30, 2013

That's A Wrap: Shining Force 2

warning: may contain spoilers

That's a wrap! For real this time! Shining Force 2 on my beloved Genesis.

I've got mad love for this game. It's one of the first RPGs I vividly remember from my childhood - which is saying something. One of the best parts about replaying this, is how much I can immediately recall as I play through the game.
To be honest, I'm not sure how to write this entry. It's tricky to write about retro games because they can't really be held to the same standards as today's games, and I'm pretty sure I'd just end up writing the same love letter to them all anyway. So instead, I'm going to walk you through my experience this time 'round, maybe throw in some tips for anyone who plans on taking on this masterpiece in the near future - and hopefully mildly entertain those who aren't - and point out video game-y things along the way.

When you pop the cartridge into the Genny, you're immediately treated like a movie audience. Before anything else, there's a pretty lengthy intro sequence setting up the story. You learn to hate Slade before he's even introduced to you! What follows is, of course, the iconic Shining Force 2 theme and your start menu, after which you meet some creepy old lady who asks you to set up your game.
Unless you use a cheat, the main character is the only one you get to name, and his default name is Bowie. Being a David Bowie fan, I've always gotten a particular kick out of this. Bowie suits me just fine, so I usually just choose the default and move on. I will note, for whatever reason, that there were already two files saved to my cartridge, one of which was titled 'Ferio'. No idea where that came from, and my cartridge glitched and deleted the file before I could check it out. Might be worth noting I haven't touched this game in longer than I care to admit. Needed some exercise...

Since I haven't played this game in a while, I was pretty giddy for the first few days. I was in awe at how much came back to me as I moved along and how much I loved it like the first time. Had some serious nostalgia feels with this playthrough, and every playthrough.

If you differentiate RPGs from strategy games, then Shining Force 2 definitely falls under the latter. When you play, you don't enter a story with battles, you enter war. The game consists of battle after battle after battle and the plot is just kind of woven into the few steps you take in between. As such, the story is pretty linear. There isn't a ton of exploring to do or anything, in spite of the open world inspired map. You can still get lost, but the game does a pretty good job of keeping you where you need to be, and as long as you talk to the townspeople, you can usually figure out where you need to go next without much trouble. Other than that, the plot is fairly typical. In a good way. A great fantasy story.

Shining Force does not employ a battle system like its regular turn-based RPG competitors, such as Final Fantasy. There are no random battles. While wandering around on the map, you're pretty much on your own unless you stumble into a plot-related battle, of which there are many. A few of the battles can be repeated, but usually once you instigate the next section of the plot, the battle disappears and you have the world to yourself again.
This is one of the reasons I consider Shining Force to have the best battle system in video games. It depends entirely on strategy. You have to consider your offense, your defense, who can move how far and what your enemy's rebuttal might be. You have to anticipate everything in advance - like chess - and with a little luck it will play out your way. Otherwise, game over. When Shining Force (2) came out I was still pretty young, and had little patience for the "grinding" some games require. Actually, I still have no patience. Grinding is often my least favorite part of video games and I prefer to depend on my head rather than my character's arms. As a kid, I had much better luck learning to plan and understand my enemy, rather than just attack head on and hope I'm strong enough to take them out...
You will never be strong enough to take on your enemies in Shining Force. If you don't enjoy strategy, this game is not for you.

For anyone who doesn't know - the battle system for SF is what I like to call "chessboard style". At the beginning of the battle, your team is together at one end of the screen, and your enemies are scattered about the battle field. Sometimes there is a "boss" amongst them, and if you take out the boss the battle is over, regardless of how many baddies are left on the field. The catch is that unless you've played the game a hundred times, you won't know who the boss is.
You are allowed 12 active members in your force (once you've acquired as many), and when it's your turn, your character will highlight, and there will be blinking spots on your chessboard indicating how far your character can move this turn. If you manage to place yourself next to a enemy, you can attack them. If your character happens to use long-range weapons, you can attack once you are in range. Otherwise, you can use an item, magic or just stay put. Some characters can move rather far - flying characters for instance - and some can't move more than a few spaces (usually your strongest). When you attack, you are taken to a separate attack screen in which you get to watch the battle play out. Sometimes random events will happen, such as a character blocking an attack, counter attacking, or attacking twice. You can attack with melee or magic, and as per RPG tradition there are healing spells, too.
The only downfall to this chessboard style battle system is that battles take forever to complete. And in a game that consists almost entirely of battles... aye caramba.

There is no in-game clock in SF2. Unfortunately, I didn't get too much consistent game time to play, but I reckon I played about an hour or two every day that I could, perhaps a few 5 or 6 hour sessions, and it took me about 2 weeks to complete (felt like longer, huh?). It probably amounts to something like 40 hours. It's slow, like I said, because of the battles. There are more than 40 battles in SF2, many of which you will repeat 3 or 4 times, either because it's too hard or because you purposely egress and return to gain more experience. This is the only way to "grind" in SF2. If you're impatient like me, this gets to be pretty tedious after a while. I'm kind of glad I didn't get a lot of solid game time in because I'm sure I would have gotten fed up and just rage quit on many of these battles. I'm actually pretty surprised at myself, when I was young I would sit and play for days, if you let me, and never gave up. Is this what they call maturity? Because it sucks!

Gameplay for SF2 is pretty manageable. There weren't many complicated games for the Genny. That's something I love about it. The menus in SF are can be pretty iffy the first time 'round. Nearly every menu has a submenu, and another still. You get the hang of it pretty quick though. One of the trickiest things to do without an experienced... forcer? around is understand promotions. Promos are one of the coolest and most unique aspects of SF2. Once your characters reach level 20+, they can be promoted to a different fighting class. If you're not familiar with the game, you might overlook this altogether unless you get curious enough while conversing with a friar to go through with it. Some characters can be promoted to more than one class if you have the right item with you, and obviously there's plenty debate over which class is better. For example, I always choose to promote priests to master monks (if I can remember where the stupid vigor balls are!), rather than vicars because I find having a fighter that can heal much more useful than just a healer.

There are... ah jeez I'm running out of fingers... 30 playable characters in SF2. That's a fair few if I do say so myself! For the sake of your time I'm not going to list them all, but some of my favorites are:
Bowie, of course. Apart from the boss name, he is mandatory in your party. If Bowie dies, it's game over. He comes with some pretty good stats, but you always have to consider this in battle. He may be your strongest but he's also the most valuable, so risks can be a bad idea.
Chester - Bowie's schoolmate. A centaur. That's always good right? Chester sucks pretty hard in the beginning but with a little training he becomes one of the best. He has high HP and great ATK and DEF. He can use long-range weapons and you can eventually promote him to a flying-type, which gives him movement making him more than useful.
Jaha - another that you begin your journey with. He's pretty tough and has a good ATK. I found towards the end of the game he was less useful. Slow mover.
Peter - easily the best character in the game. Comes already equipped with best HP, ATK and movement. Pretty good defense too. Pete never leaves my party and is usually my killer.
May - No, not Mae from SF1, but she does bare striking resemblance. I give her a great deal of attention so her stats are always good. She has decent movement by the end of the game and uses long-range weapons.
Gerhalt - this dude looks like "Where's Waldo" when you get him. He's iffy at best. After promotion he's a badass. Just wish he had better defense. Also how the hell do you pronounce "Gerhalt"?
Rohde - once he gets his canon, he's a fair bit of fun. High DEF and long range. Never stops being useful.
Karna - praise the lord! I can never wait to get Karna, she's so much better than Sarah. Useless towards the end but she'll save your ass more than once before then.
Higins - only because I can call him 'enry 'igins! He's alright.
Skreech - no idea why I like him. Probably his badass mask and the fact that he grows up in about an hour.
Zynk - he's a damn robot! What other excuse do you need?!

The favorite award definitely goes to Petey, but Astral provides the most comic relief.


Obviously the graphics for SF2 are a bit primitive, but they do focus on the important things like characters, so you feel like you can identify them and learn a bit about them based on their appearance. And some of them change when they get promoted! Personally, I have a soft spot for the villain Cameela.

The game also has some pretty epic tunes. Whenever I think about SF2 (and sometimes even when I don't), the game's signature fanfare immediately pops into my head, and I'm pretty sure it was stuck in my head for a good week after I decided I was going to play SF2 again. There's something very "get this done" about that theme. I should probably make it my alarm tone.

One last thing I will mention is difficulty. Like I said before, the game is almost entirely strategy based, due to excessive battles. Even on easy mode, this game is no picnic. This time, I decided to take on the suicide mission and play on 'Ouch!' which I'm sure you've guessed is the hardest setting.

Essentially, increasing the difficulty increases the intelligence of the AI (...redundant) and so the baddies get a lot smarter on the field. It's really rough! I had to try 4 or 5 times at some battles, and I like to think I'm a decent fucking strategist. Additionally, sometimes you have to survive through multiple battles without any time to raise your dead or purchase new healing items, and you will ALWAYS be outnumbered in battle. With a mix of strong and weak characters to work with - and always keeping in mind that you can't sacrifice Bowie - it's pretty darn difficult.

Unlike so many RPGs, SF2 ends quick. If you haven't played before you won't even realize you're at the end, until suddenly you get 'final boss' music.
The story (across the whole SF series) is a classic; it's wonderful and a little different from all the others, and for these reasons Shining Force (2) will always be one of my favorite games. Ever.




2 comments:

  1. I'm always up for retro reviews of childhood games! Weird how I stumbled across this post and blog! :P A quick google search on Cameela and somehow I ended up here. I thought I had the game on Steam, but didn't, so just looked up stuff.

    The demons always did seem humanized. Geshp, Odd Eye, and Cameela were all cool. Like how when they were all defeated, they all warned you and stuff.

    And yes, from time to time, I'll hum the city music lol.

    Part of the charm for me was how customizable your party could be. So many were beasts (literally)! I did have two ranged usually, May and Elric were my two, and Lemon was pretty boss.

    Anyway, literally almost two years after this post, I'll agree that this game and Phantasy Star IV were some of my favorite games growing up. Take care! :P

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    1. Well thanks for stopping in, by whatever means! I'm actually a little embarrassed that this is the entry you found since it's so old and unpolished, but I appreciate you taking the time to leave a comment, anyway. :)
      You're spot on about the baddies, they all have very human qualities. Makes you wonder about how evil they truly are, versus how much they're affected by Zeon. Adds a whole new level of amazing when you take the time to step back and contemplate these small attributes of the game. That's what makes it such a favorite for me!

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