I recall a medieval themed toy set I had as a child, equipped with plastic knights and kings, thieves and villains. With a little imagination, I also involved sorcerers and witches and spun tales of warring nations and dark forces. Shining Force resparks this whimsy and nostalgia in me. It is a story book the player inserts himself into, a Dark Age fantasy charted by grid based battle fields and evil magi out to end the world. The simplicity makes me feel at home again, as does its incredible use of color and sprite work: Simple armor and block colored tabards, stout men and bony elves, pudgy priests and centaur paladins, and me, a red haired hero with blue bandanna and kilted tunic. Greens, reds and blues pop off the screen, giving this fairy tale’s lands of grass, lakes, rivers and royal carpets a true boldness.
A small platoon of archers, knights, magi and priests is put under my command and more characters await to join the Shining Force in taverns and royal keeps, and others as a reward for astute exploration of the game’s towns and their secrets. A princess with bow and arrow here, a werewolf I healed there, or a ninja hiding in a bush I found by accident, the Shining Force can grow to a maximum of 12 on the field. Some units prove more powerful than others and as commander, Shining Force presents highly enjoyable decisions that matter.
Other decisions are hampered by bad interface and deliberate modes of interaction. Talking to an NPC or simply examining a bookshelf first requires the opening of a contextual menu and then selecting ‘Talk’ or ‘Search.’ Inventories are unique to each unit, contain just 4 slots, and turn any item or weapon discovery into a small puzzle of menu selection inception. It makes walking into a treasure room full of chests a matter of frustration rather than excitement, as it will take entire minutes just sorting out the loot.
Dialogue comes in short squiggles of humour from shopkeepers, shouts of desperation from kings, and cackles from villains. Towns exist on grasslands, near rivers, or built into the sides of canyons. One is underground, and another travels its entire encampment on a wheeled caravan. Each has its quick show of personality and, after the usual errands, an effortless transition from field exploration to battle appears. The grid field simply manifests itself on the already existent game space. The town you were shopping in, the castle you were exploring, or even the world map are all suspect to the grid overlay and the skeletons, giants, goblins and gargoyles that accompany it.
Battle is initially strategic in a basic ‘frontline melee and backline fragile’ sort of way, but small flaws grow exponentially in each chapter. Twelve allied units plus all on-screen enemies means lengthy turn rotations, and on big maps, you must devote several complete go-arounds to the approach, as enemy units do nothing but pass turns in the meantime. They are split up into packs, and while some do move aggressively, most are complacent in seeing their friends slaughtered by your convenience. A few bats flap their wings by a bridge. A pair of evil clowns jog in place by a staircase. A boss and two powerful mages wait by a keep. Pass, pass, pass.
A box cursor must float to the unit who is take its turn, so imagine all this turn passing between a dozen or so enemy units where a cursor must float to one side of the map — pass. Then to the opposite side of the map — pass. Then back to your unit who can move 3-5 spaces, or perhaps just 1-2 if it’s on rough terrain. This review could be a few pages longer if it was to explain and excuse this kind of design, as I know it has its reasons. Indeed, if all enemies swarmed the player, it’d be impossible to win or clog the field. But whatever technical limitations or reasoning the design has for itself, the end result is my head tilting up toward the ceiling as enemies do nothing whatsoever.
What challenge does arise from Shining Force relies on more archaisms. For example, losing the main character ends the game, which is intense, maybe. But consider the monotonous effort of getting through manageable packs of enemies, passing all these actionless turns, and then having the MC take critical damage from a lowly skeleton or archer. A hearty case of oldschool punishment! Or a complete lack of design foresight, the two are often confused.
See, double damage criticals are so common in Shining Force there’s really no safe use of the MC beyond the first couple waves of grunts. After that I hide him, move him to some corner, and fight with other units where death has no real consequence as I can pay to resurrect them after I win. In fact, the go-to strategy for defeating the boss toward the end of the field is just a moronic method of fodder and suicide. As long as even half my characters get a swing in before they’re totally melted, it’s a guaranteed win. Besides, dead units keep their earned experience, so there’s no drawback. Meanwhile, a powerful MC waddles on the sidelines like a benched LeBron James.
It is, at least, a strategy of sorts, and Shining Force does encourage actual thought from the player’s end, whether it be tweaking an army’s composition or just abiding by the grid based tactical rule book. Protect the cloth wearers, cast those multi-tile firestorms when enemies are bunched, and place archers behind the knights and gladiators. Enjoy the cartoon animations that depict unit vs unit combat and shake a fist in anticipation of a hit or a miss or pray for a critical. That charm held me for a bit, but it gradually fell into routine. And all the skeletons and goblins who passed their individual turns suddenly felt like a mockery of the time I was wasting. Evil creatures, the whole lot of ‘em.