July 13, 2017

That's A Wrap: Shining Force

warning: may contain spoilers.

You've probably heard me raving about Shining Force 2 more than a few times on this site, and that's because it's my favorite game of all time. But I seldom talk about its predecessor, Shining Force. The way I see it, in a world where SF2 exists, there's little reason to reach for Force 1 much, but that didn't stop me downloading it on my iPhone just in case I got bored one day...

...one day is here. After my pal DukeTogo from RF Generation mentioned that the Playcast's game of the month is Shining Force 2, I somehow got roped into a Shining discussion that ended in me mentioning that I had Force 1 on my phone. I was asked if it was terrible, and I realized that I didn't actually know... I dabbled with it a bit after downloading (and that was years ago) but never actually tried to play it on my phone; I always just play on my Genesis. So I decided to give it a look and see if it belongs in the Shining world...

Shining Force is 1992 strategy RPG made by Sonic (hahaha) and published by and for the Sega Genesis. It was ported to iOS in 2010.

Graphically speaking, the game looks exactly like it does on the Genesis. Apart from maybe some updated clarity, it literally looks the exact same. And it didn't look bad to begin with! SF employs just the right amount of detail in its landscaping, and saves the real talent for the character sprites. You'll almost always know if someone you talk to is available to join the force because they'll have a proper portrait in addition to a unique sprite. Not quite as good as SF2, but not a bad starting point!

While the graphics look right at home on iOS, the soundtrack has no business being played on iPhone. Shining Force games have some of the few truly great Genesis soundtracks but you wouldn't know it coming from my iPhone 7. It hits a very shallow wall and clips like a motherfucker some of the time, and just plain trips over itself for the rest. I had to silence the game for the most part, it was too painful to listen to. I'm not sure why this is... it seems to me my "all powerful" iPhone 7 should be able to handle a simple Genesis OST... in fact, I have select tunes from these games in my music app, and they play just fine. Yet, it was unable to straighten itself out coming from the game. Odd.
On the Genny, however, the soundtrack is quite good... not Shining Force 2 good, but a worthy older sister.

The story of Force 1 centers around a knight-in-training called Max (or whatever you decide to name
him). Max isn't doing so hot as a Swordsman but he gets the chance to prove himself after his kingdom is attacked by the evil Darksol, and his King, nevermind his mentor, are both brutally murdered. Max is charged with assembling a Shining Force (fancy way of saying army) to avenge the kingdom and save the world. Max gets by with a little help from his friends, the daughter of his mentor, Mae, and a dozen others he meets along his journey.

If you've read my SF2 article, or are otherwise familiar with the series, you know that there are far too many playable characters (30, including Max) to mention here, but I'll give you the lay of the land:
Max is the aforementioned leader, the chosen one, the warrior of light. He's your priceless protag, which is to say that he can't die, or it's game over.
Mae and Ken are your earliest and probably most dependable knights. Mae has incredible defense stats, and can be trained up to be a tank; Ken is one of your most reliable pals and will get you through the first half of the game by himself.
Lowe and Khris are your voluntary healers. Lowe joins you from the get-go and Khris breaks you out of jail, so he can't be too bad right?
Tao is your introduction to mages, her blaze spell is indispensable.
Bleu is a mother fucking dragon. 'Nuff said.
Amon is one of your birdmen options. Both are great, but I find Amon to be just a little bit tougher and she manages some sweet double hits pretty often.
Zylo is a wolf man. A kickass wolf man. Beware the wolf man.
If you manage to find the Domingo Egg... hatch it!
And finally you get your assorted ninjas and samurai...
All of your characters fall under one of three umbrellas: melee, magic, healer. Pretty self-explanatory, but you need to balance your force well to maximize your efficiency.
In 'bad guy land', you've got your run-of-the-mill witches and possessed assholes... Elliott's not a bad dude (not bad enough to save the president... wrong game), he just chose the wrong team; Balbazak is your average lacky; Kane is... the same as anyone else in video games named Kane. Mishaela needs a hobby. And Darksol just wants to rule the world. Is that really asking so much? As per usual in these games, it's the last boss you need to brace yourself for. And that stupid Marionette...

Gameplay for SF games is pretty simple, but this is definitely where the game suffers on iOS as you're playing on a touch screen, without a true D-pad, and that makes getting around really frustrating. I also found after long plays the buttons would become uncalibrated, resulting in my actions becoming retreats. Also frustrating.
Basically, you'll take control of Max after you watch him get his ass handed to him. You and your nosey friends want to know what all the gossip is about so you start snooping, and in true karmic fashion, results in you getting sent to war. After all, that's what Shining Force is - very simple, classic story told betwixt the 30ish full on battles you'll encounter. You're joined by a few friends and you've got yourself the makings of a Shining Force. The rest of the game is spent wandering from town to town, collecting new members for your force - most of which you just need to speak to, but there are a few that require a little magic! You'll always know if someone is eligible to join because they'll have a proper sprite and portrait (save for various Kings and Friars). In my experience, talking to townies is less helpful than in Force 1's successor, but what else are you gonna do?
In each town, you'll have access to headquarters, which allows you to view and swap up your force, store items or ask for advice that doesn't actually help. Your active force is limited to 12. Choose wisely.
Then you can outfit your force with new weapons and stock up on items which are either bought in town or recovered from the chests scattered about towns and dungeons. Other than weapons, items fall into basically two categories: healing and stats. Medical Herbs and Healing Seeds help your team recover some HP if you're willing to use your turn to execute the notion, there's also a very limited supply of Shower of Cure that can be found, and they benefit the whole squad. Angel Wings give the ability to egress to someone other than Max - who is the only one capable of relieving the whole team at once otherwise. You can also purchase antidotes to alleviate poison. Then there are the more rare stat boosting items like Power Potions or Legs of Haste which are one-time use items that do exactly what you think they do; and rings, which can be equipped to add a permanent boost and/or the ability to cast a booting spell, but you must be careful with them! These items can break and be lost forever and there's very few of them in the game. Any other items you find serve a plot-related purpose. Each character can only hold four items, so you'll spend a lot of time managing your inventory between characters.
When you lose a unit in battle, you must visit a friar in church, there's one in most every town. These guys will help your raise your dead (but it's gonna cost ya!), exorcise curses or ailments, and promote team members. This is one of SF's more fun features but it can be tricky to master. Essentially, every
character can be promoted to a new fixed class once they reach level 10. Max the Swordsman will become Max the Hero, and so on. There are a number of advantages to promoting, but it's not without its scares; promotion usually leaves your character with lower stats then you're used to, but they raise much quicker than before! This means grinding is a helluva process... As there is a fixed amount of battles, none of which are repeated once they're completed, the only way for you to grow your team is to egress and restart each battle. Of course characters will earn more experience for delivering the finishing blow, so you must handle your movements wisely. In my not-so-humble opinion, there is a point of the game after which promoting or grinding is no longer recommended. Friars can also save your game for you, but there is no need for this in the iOS version.
In Force 1, everything is pretty uncomplicated. Towns are small, there aren't very many screens to traverse in the overworld, and you usually just go from point A to the only available point B on the map. In almost every case of you leaving a town (and oftentimes upon entering one), you will encounter a battle, and that is where Shining Force shines. It's a strategy game! This means there's more to it than just sending in your tanks and blowing up bosses. You must consider who your heavy hitters are, what each unit's defense is like, how far a character can move in addition to learning your enemies; what their strengths and weaknesses are and how they move and rebut your actions.
So when you enter battle, your force is gathered together just outside town, and the baddies will be scattered across the field. Sometimes there is a "leader" that needs to be eliminated before the battle can end, but more often than not you need to bury the entire army to move on. Each character's turn is determined by their speed; this includes your 12 units as well as the countless enemies. When it's your turn, your character will highlight and the land will begin flashing in a "chessboard" fashion. Those of you who have played other strategy games like FF Tactics will be familiar with this, but in short: your character can only move a certain amount of spaces (determined by their 'mov' stat). If you are able to move within range of attack (some characters have range weapons which allow them to attack from afar, but otherwise you will need to be in an adjacent space to the foe) you may do so, or cast magic, use an item or just stay put. The rest is up to you! Plan your attack carefully and methodically.
Once you engage an enemy, you're taken to a new screen to watch the event take place, and occasionally you will witness random events like dodging or attacking twice. But mostly you'll just miss and get a measly 1 experience point for your effort.
Each enemy is outfitted with a HP and MP meter, health and magic, if you will, which you can view once you engage them (or they engage you) or you can pause your turn by pressing B and move your cursor wherever you like, and investigate any threat. This includes their stats and weapon!

The only controls provided are a virtual D-Pad plus an A and B button. A is action and B is back or 'no'. No need for a third. Pressing the start button simply removes the info displays so you can see things a little more clearly.
Simple, but awful. The D-Pad is not nearly big enough to make me happy and playing anything on a touch screen sucks. I can't tell you how many times I accidentally healed the wrong person due to loopy controls. Furthermore, the game has no intuition... you can talk to thin air as much as you want, but you have to open the menu to do anything but move. It's a touch irritating, but you get used to it shortly.

Okay, so menus. This changes slightly since the game is running on iOS. Normally the only menus you'll face in SF are the in-game activities, which are cute, little, animated quads. When you hit 'A' anywhere, you're given the options to talk, item, search and magic - which is useless. Under 'item', you'll find options to equip, give (move), use, or drop items.
When you boot up the app, your options are Continue (if you have an existing file); New Game; Options and Help. 'Options' just has your volume setting and a reset button, while 'Help' offers instructions, controls and credits.
If you press the 'Menu' button found at the top-left of the screen, you can Resume; Switch View (which just adds an unattractive border to the game and compresses the screen); Options and Help - which are the same as above, and Exit, which quits the game.
Something else exclusive to the iOS version... save states! No longer are you required to visit a church to save your game! Simply backing out of the app or exiting from the menu will cause the game to freeze, exactly how you leave it.

Unlike SF2 which comes preloaded with a bevy of difficulty modes, Force 1 on iOS has but a single difficulty, and it's not too shabby. Definitely not as brutal as SF2. That said, it doesn't come without its idiosyncrasies. Despite being a seasoned Shining Forcer, I ran into a couple of things that drove me nuts during my play.
For one - unfair enemy advantage at times. And I mean UNFAIR. In addition to the usual terrain difficulties, the game decided at some point that 98% - no exaggeration - of my hits should fail, while my foes should frequently get double hits or crits. That got old fast. Also, a number of bosses in this game seemed to have auto self-healing abilities - and I don't mean spells or items that take up their turn, I mean you just hang around for a while and they magically regenerate. I don't remember this many bosses having this ability on the cartridge... but maybe I'm just repressing horrible memories. Occasionally I would notice mage's MP changing as well, but that usually worked in my advantage since the number almost always went down. Don't know what's up with all of that.

Shining Force is divided into eight chapters, each of which contains a small chunk of story in the
form a mission (of sorts) and a few battles. There's no play clock, but all in, it takes less than 20 hours to play the game through, and passes at a very quick pace. There are no side quests - save for perhaps a couple of optional recruits - there's no getting lost, and there's very little exploring or other distractions. Its successor expanded on all of these greatly. Where SF2 takes me about a week, Force 1 could be beaten in a day or two. I stretched this out since I wanted to play at work. Don't tell my boss.

Despite being a pretty full-fledged game that I played for hours at a time, Force 1 didn't affect my phone's battery unreasonably.

So the good news is, the port isn't awful! The bad news is, you can't play it. At some point in 2015, Sega removed the majority of their titles from the mobile market, so unless you bought it prior, you won't have access to it. There have been rumors persisting for years that it and others would come back with a vengeance, but so far... no luck.
Meanwhile, the game is still available on cartridge for an absurd price (at time of publish), or, if you need a more reasonable option, it's been ported... freaking everywhere. The game can be found on the Ultimate Genesis Collection for your favorite console and on a number of shops that aren't mobile. If you're into strategy and/or turn-based RPGs, I can't recommend Shining Force enough. While you're at it, get Shining Force 2 as well (and brace yourself for a much larger challenge) and if you're in Japan (or are crafty) Shining Force 3 and the rest of the damn Shining series!

LOTIPS
  • Learn to use your healers. Save your money for revivals and weapons upgrades.
  • You may happen upon a cursed item in your travels. Beware that these items are bound to their users and cannot be unequipped without the help of a priest. They also tend to cause a bit of damage at random intervals, the trade is that you get amazing stat boosts. In my opinion, they're worth it.
  • If you catch it in time, rings can be repaired at your local weapons shop!
  • Usually you can grab chests after battle, so don't worry about it too much during. Always open chests that were near bosses last though.
  • Auto-healing bosses: surround on three sides (four if possible) with your warriors; back them up or on diagonals with mages and range weapon users; use birds to surround from behind or on walls/cliffs.
  • Speed up text by holding 'A'.
  • You can also leave some battles by placing Max on the tile nearest the exit or city - check the video!
  • Give Mae a range weapon. You're welcome.

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