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CONSOLE: PlayStation 2 DEVELOPER: Neverland PUBLISHER: Sega
RELEASE DATE (NA): October 20, 2005 GENRE: Action-RPG
// review by SoyBomb

This is NOT your older brother's Shining Force game...

Let's take a trip back to ye olde days of the beloved Sega Genesis. You remember the Genesis, right? That black console that always seemed to be bursting with "blast processing" and such! Yeah, that's the one. Now let's think back to the year 1993. It was a wonderous time for video games, and all the greats were being released around that time, including Mario's Time Machine, Super Godzilla, and Bible Buffet! Hidden amongst the many fine gems of its time was a small game released under the title of "Shining Force". It was a majestic journey into a world of good versus absolute evil with a strong strategy-RPG battle and character improvement system. The game had vibrant graphics, a killer happy soundtrack, and some simple yet sweat-inducing battles that could cause a player to raise his hands in victory or tear out a few chest hairs in outraged defeat. "Shining Force" was practically a must-have for any self-respecting Genesis owner and avid gamer.

Now get your butt back to the present and forget the past, because "Shining Force Neo" has practically nothing to do with the original game from which its name is derived. The only ties it has to the original Genesis title are: 1) the title itself; 2) the names and appearances of certain characters, such as the main character Max and robotic companion Adam; 3) a conflict between the powers of Light and Darkness, and 4) a party of Forces is formed, many of which have to stay behind at your headquarters and loaf around while you get business taken care of. However, fans of the old classic can expect a completely different experience here. Any remnants of 'strategy' have been burned and replaced with a more Diablo-style game engine, requiring you (and your two backup characters) to simply fight to the death in an action-RPG environment as hordes of ugly monsters come at you with murderous intent.

The game sets you in the shoes of Max, a teenager who has been training for a couple of years to become a Force (heroes of the world), thirteen years after a brutal war had broken out against a group known only as the Clan of the Moon. With the aid of their monster underlings, the Legions, the Clan of the Moon had tried to achieve complete world domination, only to fail at the hands of the Forces but with an astounding number of casualties. However, in Max's time, the Legions have re-awakened and it appears as though a nasty repetition of the past may be in the works. Boasting the abilities of a Force, as well as the will to seek out his brother who had not returned for three years, Max and company must seek out the truth behind the recent uproar and discover the secret: it's all in the family...

Corny re-capping aside, this game is definitely one with its ups and downs. But first, I'll give you a basic run-down of how Shining Force Neo operates. You control Max, who is primarily a fighter but can also use staves as a magic user and bows if his inner archer needs to be freed. As you move forward in your journey, you will meet up with, and associate with, fellow Forces, allowing you to bring along some backup on your quest. You will meet up with as many as eleven other Forces, but you can only take two others with you at any given time. In your travels, between bouts of chatting with your party or other NPCs in the game (this aspect will be discussed later in a bit greater detail), you'll be exploring a wide variety of terrains and locales, as well as fighting off swams of monsters that have come in via a monster gate. After you've killed off a certain number of enemies from a particular gate, it will be "unlocked" and you can destroy it, preventing further invasion in that area. When you kill enemies, they may drop some gold -- great currency -- while destroyed monster gates will drop Force Energy (also to be discussed later) and sometimes weapons or armor as well. While Max picks up the weaponry and armor that he uses, the gold can be spent on upgrading your goods. It can be pricey though, so sell off anything you don't need and work on that bank account.

Yes, there's more than one type of currency in this game. Aside from the typical gold pieces, you have Force Energy, which can be redeemed as a means to improve your own abilities! In one special shop in a certain town, there are numerous slots at that require so much Force Energy to fill up. A couple of examples involve raise your maximum HP, improving your resistance to various element-based attacks, and building up powerful spells. As you go along in your quest, Force Arts will fall from monster gates, adding to your list of skills to enhance. This is a nifty way to improve your character aside from the usual "battle and gain experience until your level goes up" method which is also present. Unfortunately, you'll need to acquire a TON of Force Energy in your travels, as skill enhancement is NOT cheap.

The basic battle system has Max and friends hacking and slashing their way to success (unless they are using a weapon other than a sword, in which case they might be shooting or casting their way to success instead). You will be controlling Max as he uses his equipped weapon to take down his foes. Of course, the foes are equally perilous; you'll be amazed how much punishment you'll be taking in this game. You will be stunned, petrified, knocked down, and knocked down again (all of which are BEYOND irritating until you build up a resistance against such attacks). Your two backup characters will also join in on the action. Each Force has his or her own unique method of fighting. For example, Graham, the centaur knight, will use his mighty lance to plow through foes; Chiquitita, the whiny dog-girl, will use magic and also heal the party at regular intervals; Baron, the calm wolfling, will use his ninja skills with agile ferocity. However, only the characters you are using will gain experience, so choose well by selecting the allies that you find most appealing and helpful in battle. You'll have to keep them in line, though; although it doesn't happen frequently, they may tend to get stuck on walls or in corridors instead of following closely behind you. You should also keep an eye on their health meters, as some characters are better at taking massive beatings than others -- your healing potions will come in handy more often than not.

Thankfully, potions work differently in this game: you collect a certain number of potions, and can refill them infinitely in special springs. This works later on for magic potions as well. Refillable potions are great, but if you're not near a spring, what good are they? Well, that's where one aspect of this game shines (and prevents the game from being a flat-out impossible mission): your Mystical Stone of Return. Named by an unimaginative person, this stone will allow you to return to your hometown from most points in the game (with the exception of during major battles; the enemies' magic is blocking your ability to transport out). Back in town, you can take care of monetary, healing, and saving business that might be deemed necessary. If this feature was not present, it would be unlikely that most people would finish the game. Refilling your potions in town is not only convenient, it's a necessity!

When you return to town (or visit any new one for that matter), you will also notice a certain number of NPCs (non-playable characters, for the uninformed readers who are now informed!) standing around. Unfortunately, while many of them have things to say, many of them can't be talked to and just stand there being anti-social. This is unusual for any game of the RPG genre; it is considered standard to be able to talk to everyone, even if they have nothing productive to say. That's unfortunate, and for 2005, unacceptable. I don't care if they say "Hey, you suck!" I want to talk to people standing around. If Sega didn't feel like writing extra responses, they should have removed some NPCs. Problem solved.

So that takes care of the non-playable characters. But what about conversations between Forces? In other words, what about cutscenes? Are they here? Well, they DO exist. However, most cutscenes are as exciting as an avocado. Most of the time, you see the artwork of characters' faces alongside a speech bubble showing us what they're saying while we hear what they are saying. There's nothing exciting about static imagery, I'll tell you that. And what's equally irksome is the voice acting -- sometimes it's passable enough, but other times it's just painful. The voices of female characters Meryl and Chiquitita are gut-wrenchingly juvenile and will make you want to yell at the television for them to shut up. You will have to put up with frequent and lengthy conversations such as these, stretched out even further by the fact that everybody has to put their two cents into each cutscene, even if they are just re-stating the obvious or agreeing with what has already been said. What could easily be stated in thirty seconds can take ten minutes. I have even had to endure consecutive cutscenes lasting up to forty-five minutes in total... that's too much to take in one sitting. Approach this game with caution if this frightens you. The translation here is USUALLY good, but sometimes (and this is a frequent problem in most RPGs), characters just act too scripted and don't react to people's statements the way any normal human being would. Thankfully, the music in the background is somewhat decent and will entertain you for a while; it will echo in your mind for weeks. However, many songs are used frequently in the game, so be prepared to hear that happy pan-flute sonata during cutscenes often.

Visually, this game serves its purpose but does not mean to impress. The game has opted to go for cel-shaded 3D sprites instead of fully-rendered 3D characters. This certainly sets the game apart from many others. The terrains (and characters alike) are quite colourful, and even the non-playable characters seem to work well with the scenery. All the characters and enemies are animated smoothly as well. One important thing to note, as a word of caution, is that when you have a large number of enemies on screen (or even in the general area), the framerate of this game drops dramatically and Max feels as though he is a man made of molasses until enough foes are defeated that the game can resume its normal framerate. Bah.

The difficulty of this game can range from 'calm and soothing' to 'a bowel obstruction would be more fun'. The main journey is usually not too strenuous (provided you've leveled up sufficiently, of course), but some side-quests can cause enormous amounts of pain and suffering. Plus your character will be beaten up pretty badly as well. However, even the roughest of locales can be made much easier thanks to the secret dungeon opened only after the game is completed! I managed to go up over sixty levels just going through this dungeon, and that made an amazing difference when I returned to the final boss for a second shot at the showdown!

But regardless of all the rambling I've just spewed out like a text fountain, it comes down to this: was the game fun? Well, to answer that question, I'm going to say that it was indeed a fun experience with occasional droughts in amusement (particularly the talkative and therefore irritating cutscenes). Leveling up even seems to be fun, provided you don't go for hours on end trying to level up in an area that only gives you bare minimal experience points for your troubles. And don't be fooled initially: the world in this game is much larger than it appears! Exploration is the key, and it's something that keeps the gamer wanting to play more and discover more! So I am going to recommend this title to those who enjoy the action-RPG genre. It bears very little in common with its predecessors (the original Shining Force for the Genesis), so those people who are expecting a strategic adventure will be disappointed. I suppose this new perspective on the series is what the "Neo" in the title represents. However, this is nevertheless a strong effort by Sega to keep their Shining franchise fresh, and it sucked me in for over sixty hours of play. Good job!

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