Last year around this time I decided to indulge in a bucket list game of mine: Shining Force. Given the choice between all the options released for the Sega Genesis, I randomly decided to begin with the first title that bore the name, all the while hearing over and over from sources online that the sequel blew that game out of the water. So in the mood for an old-school RPG, I pulled out Shining Force II and prepared for it to impress me with…a game almost completely indistinguishable from the first. Don’t misunderstand me, the first Shining Force more than justifies the cost of a Sega Genesis. But I had hoped that the improvements touted across the internet might include a story not ground from the same petrified chunk of mammoth shit, or a menu system a little cleaner than a congressman’s after-hours activities. Sadly, the game fails to deliver on both counts.
Shining Force II centers around tactical role-playing. As the leader of the force, the hero, dubbed “Bowie” in all media except for the game itself, commands a cast of characters with rudimentary job classes, mostly determined by species. Centaurs come equipped with all the important parts of the horse, so they make good cavalry. Dwarves make good, stout, infantry, while elves tend to work best with ranged weapons. Still, so as the king can cite examples in opposition to passing any civil rights legislation, you’ll occasionally get magic-using elves or humans, a centaur with a bow, or some other such crossover. For the most part, classes only determine what type of weapon the character will use, or in the case of magic-users, their spells and MP. The game’s primary difference involves a cast of hidden characters, each with special requirements to fulfill before they’ll join you. Furthermore, while all your characters should receive a promotion at level 20, you can promote some (apparently) to alternative classes. On both counts, I can’t say for sure whether or not I unlocked any of these, since even the main story often fails to clarify the steps you need to take to advance.
The story begins with a careless thief (but one with a good heart!) unsealing an ancient Devil on Granseal island. This demon unleashes his hosts upon the world. They possess one king, try to kill another, suck the princess into an alternate dimension, and somehow embed two jewels into Bowie’s neck. Shaking off this pretty intense body modification as no more than modest bling, Bowie sails with the other survivors to the continent in order to found a new Granseal. He meets a phoenix named Peter who somehow becomes an important character, they travel around, do…stuff…and somehow they find the Peruvian Nazca drawings in this fantasy world otherwise unrelated to Earth, fly back to the island, and face off against a host of devils, demons, cliches, and WTFs.
Much like the previous game, the plot serves as an engine (albeit a badly tuned engine with a few pistons not firing and the “check” light constantly blinking on the dash) to get players from one battle to the other as fast as possible. While many games of this era can defend themselves with the “poorly translated” argument, Shining Force II has a special kind of bad writing that you only see when both the writer and the translator habitually abuse strong narcotics. The kind of writing that, while not overtly suggestive, makes dialog such as “They took my jewels” and “Don’t touch it! I’ll shake you off” sound like they lifted it right out of Leisure Suit Larry. One of the primary cliches–I mean, antagonist with a heart of gold who joins you after a major epiphany–suffers from one of the worst mistransliterations I have ever seen; rather than squaring off against the valiant Baron Ramon, the game expects you to take seriously repeated encounters with a villain named Lemon. However, I think I’ll grant my coveted Drunken Developer award to the end of the game where they can only break the curse on the sleeping princess with yet another cliche, and the characters hold a meeting to choose which one can deliver the true love’s kiss. While I never doubted for an instant that Bowie would get all the action here, they actually disappointed me by suggesting your healer–the blue-haired, sparkly-eyed elven priestess–could have possibly broken the curse, and then didn’t follow through on that.
Honestly, until that point, I didn’t think any of the characters had an inkling of personality behind them. They join your party out of the blue and fade into obscurity almost as quickly. To save space (presumably) on the cartridge, battle menus display character classes as four-letter abbreviations, such as RNGR, PGNT, RDBN, and SDMN, which I can only assume stand for Ringer, Pageant, Robber Barron and Sadomasochist, respectively.
The battle system helps this game stand on its own. Battles occur on the map, but like the first game they switch to an isometric animated environment whenever a character acts. Like any other tactics game, characters have a certain distance they can move per turn, each attack has its own range and effect areas, and different attacks seem to affect enemies differently. The limited number of attacks and the inability to customize characters make it a very rudimentary strategy game, but it plays well and forces you to think about your actions (even at one point dropping you onto a chess board and making you fight the pieces). Unlike the first game, you can freely explore the map and return to areas previously visited. Rather than having a set number of battles, they’ve introduced random encounters, which always seem to follow the same presets–kind of a nice gesture, I guess, but since you retain any experience when you die, it really makes level grinding unnecessary unless you really need some quick cash.
The system for awarding exp, though, leaves a lot to the imagination. The amount you earn after each attack seems about 10% dependent on whether the attack connected or missed, 10% on whether it defeated the enemy, and 80% on whether the game feels like giving you only 1 exp. Also on my list of criticisms, I’d like to add that I enjoyed the opportunity to explore the map (on account of having that option in every RPG released since the 1980s.), but the game didn’t always clarify where to go or what to do. At all. I felt good when I got a cannon and read that it could destroy rocks while also remembering a rock from halfway back to the beginning of the game that blocked my path. However, when I got there: nothing. Only by looking up a walkthrough did I learn it wanted me to backtrack to New Granseal and talk to a random guy outside the weapon shop in order to get ammunition. And while the game should take the blame for not giving me so much as a hint, I end up looking like a dumbass who tried to shoot a gun with no bullets.
But I have to look really hard for those flaws; while I appreciate a strong story, I can look past that to see the strong gameplay. I can’t comment on the music since I turned the sound off and played the game while watching seasons 3-5 of Dexter–all the while, of course, not missing out on storyline for Shining Force. Looking back at last year’s entry on the original game, I did the same thing with the sound. Losing track of how many times I compared the two games, I can say confidently that Shining Force II really stands out as an excellent jewel (hehe) of a game; I just disagree with the assessment that it surpasses the first.