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CONSOLE: PlayStation 2 DEVELOPER: Neverland PUBLISHER: Sega
RELEASE DATE (NA): March 20, 2007 GENRE: Action-RPG
// review by SoyBomb

You might as well call this Shining Force Neo Reloaded.

I have been a pretty avid fan of the Shining Force series ever since I first played the original Shining Force game for the Sega Genesis many years back. It had many solid elements supporting it: a memorable cast of characters, a strong focus on strategic planning, RPG aspects, and a chipper soundtrack. It has been considered as one of the gems of the Sega Genesis library (and a popular entry within the selection available on the Wii's Virtual Console channel). Many sequels and side-stories followed, and eventually, the series expanded beyond the strat-RPG genre to include direct action-RPG gameplay, not dissimilar to games such as Secret of Mana and Diablo in delivery. The series also sometimes dropped the word "Force", replacing it in such games as Shining Tears and Shining Soul. However, developer Neverland decided to bring the word back in a new action-based subseries, which includes Shining Force Neo, Shining Force EXA (being reviewed here), and the upcoming game for the DS, Shining Force Feather. To sum it up, Shining Force is back in full force, so to speak. I gave Shining Force Neo a solid review because it was a decent game that was ultimately satisfying, even with its flaws. As for Shining Force EXA, I should give it the same grade in theory, if only because it borrows so much from SF Neo.

However, I will not give it the same score because it is TOO much like Shining Force Neo. I don't mean that simply from a gameplay perspective, although in essence, it's pretty much the same. I am going beyond this; the developer chose, instead of creating completely new terrains, they recycled countless areas from SF Neo, only choosing to rename the areas (okay, MOST of them -- they decided to keep the name of Cantore Village for some reason). Only a bitter few new areas exist. Even the bonus dungeon after completing the game was just the castle from the end of SF Neo. And some things simply shouldn't be there anymore; there is one particular instance where there was, in SF Neo, a portal you could activate to enter a large battle arena. The activation pedestal and portal pad is still there, but it does not function anymore. What, they couldn't have removed that? The layout of the world is far too eerily similar, perhaps leading me to wonder whether it was intended for the game's surroundings to exist within an alternate universe mirroring that of SF Neo. However, this is not explicitly stated within the game or its documentation. In fact, there is really no direct relation between the two games, leading me to believe that is not a sequel by any means. Therefore, I can only assume that the designers were just very lazy, or perhaps the budget for developing another game was very low. The Hives from Neo, where you would fight only one species of enemy to win the ability to be better equipped against them, have been renamed Ancient Arenas and now have two floors, but it's the same concept. Some are even in the same places as the old ones, and the programmers even forgot to change the name of one on its sign! THAT is lazy.

But it does not stop there. Much of the music is recycled -- perhaps they changed an instrument or sped up the song by a couple of beats per minute, but oh, they did it! There are definitely some new songs in the mix, but expect some audio overlap. I would also argue that 95% of all the enemies are reused as well. I recognize all those orcs, flying creatures, dragons, golems, annoying Medusa-style snakes who petrify my body temporarily, etc. The only original enemies, really, are a few bosses here and there. Heck, even many of the party characters are nothing more than shadows of characters from SF Neo as well. Cyrille? Just think Meryl, only more bitchy. Gadfort, the centaur knight? A mere copy of Graham. Maebelle, the archer? That's just Mariel with a different hair flip. Duga, the wolfling? Just a more vengeful version of Baron. The list could go on, but you get the point. Frankly, you should be reading the Shining Force Neo review just to get the general idea of how this game works. Go on, I dare you.

Shining Force EXA may be practically a carbon copy of Shining Force Neo, but that doesn't mean that new elements have not been added. In fact, there is likely enough new material here to make it feel like at least a worthwhile expansion pack. The first thing you'll immediately notice is the fact that you are in charge of not just one character, but two. That's right, you will be traversing through the story as Toma and Cyrille at the same time. Granted, you can only control one at a time, you'll have to use both of them at one point or another. When I first discovered this, my initial thoughts centered around one question that many RPG players often dread: will I have to level them both up? The answer is a resounding yes, and that was something that sometimes got under my skin as I journeyed my way through the game. There will be times, especially in the beginning, that you'll have to switch back and forth between the two characters and their parties to ensure that they receive equal amounts of field time and experience. However, there is an easy way to deal with this, as I shall elaborate upon shortly. I also do not wish to spoil the general direction that the game goes, but there will be times when you will be forced to use one character over another, so you'd better make sure that both main characters are satisfactorily developed.

One of the biggest changes is the introduction of the Geo-Fortress, a location reminiscent of your party headquarters in Shining Force games of olde. This is where all of your preparations take place prior to heading out to battle, and you'd better get used to all its abilities because you will be spending a significant amount of time here. Many of the features here will require upgrading to improve their capabilities or scope using Core Metal, which you either find in select places or acquire after defeating a significant foe. The following is a basic list of all the exciting stuff located within your Geo-Fortress:

  1. Training Grounds: Here is where you can explore a fifty-floor dungeon to help build experience levels between bouts of intense storyline moments. The layout of each floor is randomly generated every time you visit them, so there will be no immediate sense of ennui. As you descend through the floors, the enemies become increasingly difficult to defeat, meaning that you will NEED to be leveled up in order to continue. To unlock more floors, you will need to upgrade the training grounds. This is the best way to sidestep from the problems of requiring leveling-up for two characters. Just be sure you can FIND the training grounds...
  2. Cannon: Need an obstacle destroyed? Or perhaps a large flock of pesky enemies are giving you grief. There's a solution to your problem: blast them all with an extremely powerful cannon blast! Although it needs a fair amount of time to charge its power, this will be essential to completing your quest.
  3. Residence Quarters: Your additional party characters need a place to rest. There's also a nice dining area and what appears to be a pub down there as well. It doesn't serve Toma or Cyrille any particular use, but at least you can rest assured that your comrades are comfortable.
  4. Buying/Selling/Identifying/Upgrading: There are extra NPCs standing around in your main lobby that will gladly aid you on your quest... for a price. You can buy and sell items here, identify weapons/armor you pick up in your travels to see what kind of attributes they are actually holding, and also upgrade weapons and armor to improve their statistics. Please ensure you snag as much gold as you can: these luxuries do not come cheap.
  5. Radar: Do you need to know when enemy forces are approaching the Geo-Fortress? That might be a good idea. The more upgrading is done to your radar system, the farther away you can see and the sooner you'll know when you're about to get ambushed.
  6. Robot Factory: In some battles (to be discussed shortly), you will need some extra help, lest you desire to be clobbered and have your Geo-Fortress overrun with fiends. You can build and enhance attack and defensive robots that can help you when foes come to attack the fortress.
  7. Change Party Members: Change your party members here. Pretty straightforward.
  8. Self-Repair Function: If your Geo-Fortress happens to get caught in the crossfire of an angry scuffe, it can repair its own damaged Photon Generator. Of course, if you happen to upgrade the Geo-Fortress itself with some Core Metal, the health meter of your fortress will be instantly restored. The same is true if you use Cure Metal. However, this is the least costly option. I ended up never using a Cure Metal throughout the entire game.
  9. Power Arts: There's a machine in the lobby just for this! By collecting scrolls throughout the game, you can give your weapons and armor additional attributes to help you on your quest. You can also use Mythril, a type of rock you collect a heck of a lot of, to improve your own abilities, such as Attack Power, Intelligence, Magic Use, and Defense. Visit here as often as possible.

The Geo-Fortress is certainly a hustling-and-bustling metropolis all on its own, but the key to survival and progression within this game is knowing when and how to use all its functions. In addition, you will be able to unlock even greater functionality in your citadel by transforming its structure for different purposes. By switching to Recovery Mode, for example, your damaged generator will heal faster, especially during battle. Cannon Mode, as another example, will further increase the scope of your cannon's firing distance. The bottom line is this: consider the Geo-Fortress an even more powerful weapon than one that you could ever personally wield.

Another immense change is the inclusion of Defensive Battles, a feature that I consider to be more of a nuisance and a hindrance to the flow of the main gameplay. Every once in a while, after traveling a specific distance in your main quest, the Geo-Fortress is attacked and you must defend one of your Photon Generators from an onslaught of brutal enemies. The battle will only end when you defeat the main boss in the area (who may or may not show up immediately), all the while trying to keep your generator from exploding from too much damage (leading to a Game Over screen). Sadly, when the Geo-Fortress is attacked, you are forced to use the character who was resting in the fortress for the battle (unless you reload your game, switch characters prior to the battle, and then head out). Once you have Recovery Mode available, the battles aren't so terrible, but sometimes there is just too much action going down, causing your Photon Generator's health bar to decrease fairly rapidly, not to mention excessive slowdown. I recommend going in as Toma and just swinging away because Cyrille's puny abilities won't cut it. You can also use your cannon to defeat the boss quickly in these battles, and I strongly recommend doing so. These battles create a jarring explorative experience; I wish they had not been implemented at all. When your Geo-Fortress takes damage, you can either let the Recovery Mode repair it to a certain extent, upgrade the Geo-Fortress entirely for a free refill, or use Cure Metals, which are picked up randomly, though less frequently than Core Metals. I thankfully managed to get through the game without using a single Cure Metal, but they are readily available as necessary.

Whether or not these additional features justify the price tag is up to you, the gaming individual. You certainly won't be gaining any significant evolutions in the graphical department: cel-shading is back, and aside from any new characters and scenery, you can pretty much expect a ton of déjà vu, leading me to believe that the graphics designers had a very easy time. However, there are all-new animé and cel-shaded cutscenes, so that definitely work in this game's favour. But it's not quite enough to win me over. The audio department won't wow you either. Obviously, the developer chose not to try and seek out better voice actors. They are just as annoying this time as last time. Okay, maybe a little less annoying, but annoying nonetheless! The game's soundtrack is as good as last time (though remarkably similar -- I wonder why), with some of the old songs retooled a tiny bit. It's actually the introductory movie's rockin' track that has haunted my dreams and kept my attention. Be sure not to skip that.

The bottom line is this: Shining Force EXA and Shining Force Neo are twin games. Their storylines may differ, and there are a few new features in EXA, but they resemble each other far too closely. Developer Neverland clearly took the easy way out to churn out a sequel quickly and earn themselves a few extra bucks without putting in enough effort. Although the game plays just as well as SF Neo (and so it should), you can still get the same experience out of both games, plus SF Neo doesn't have irritating defensive battles to jar the experience. This game also lacks a certain charm that the original had. If I had to recommend one over the other, Neo would get my vote. EXA is not a bad game, but it just didn't appeal to me like the other one did. But, to each his own, I guess. Whichever you choose, you will get a decent game.

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