Shining Force II – Staff Review

When Shining Force II was released on the Wii’s Virtual Console a few weeks ago, Sega fans across North America rejoiced. First released in the 1990s for the Sega Genesis, it is one of the era’s most fondly-remembered games; it is also one of the Genesis’ best-known RPGs. How long are its legs, though? Can it still hold its own in these days of super-powered systems, multi-layered storylines, complicated battle systems, and high-definition graphics?

For those who aren’t in the know, Shining Force II is, like its prequel, a relatively early member of the tactical RPG genre. The same can’t be said for the entire Shining series, though, which has spawned games ranging in flavour from Traditional RPG to Real-time Strategy. While some of these attempts at variety were debatably more successful than others, Shining Force II kept it basic. As a youngster and student in the kingdom of Granseal, the main character gets into mischief along with friends Sarah and Chester as their teacher, famous wizard Astral, investigates the peculiar aftermath of a strange storm. The sequence of events that inevitably unfolds causes the main character to lose his home and his princess; to make matters worse, the world’s peace is placed in jeopardy by the imminent revival of an evil devil named Zeon. The hero is swept up into an epic quest to travel the world, build an army – an aptly-named “Shining Force” – and right the things that are wrong with the world. The storyline is quite massive for its time, featuring some interesting twists, and certainly serves as an effective backdrop to the game. It is also far more coherent and mature than the plot forged out by its predecessor, Shining Force; while that game was broken into chapters, Shining Force II is not, and the storyline seems to flow somewhat more naturally as a result. Unfortunately, it doesn’t completely escape the randomness of its prequel; many characters and places seem very random and largely unnecessary, and sometimes, the player is left confused as to what the significance of certain events is. At a couple of awkward points, even how exactly to progress the storyline can be a confusing question. This is, however, a mostly minor issue.

Battles quickly grow in difficulty as the game progresses.
Battles quickly grow in difficulty as the game progresses.

Shining Force II is separated into two parts; one part involves advancing the plot, exploring towns, and discovering new places in the world. The other part involves the battles that the hero’s army will certainly find themselves in, and often. Generally speaking, combat is the heart of this game, and while it’s not quite as hearty as some later tactical RPGs, it still possesses a solid system. The battle system is probably closest in structure to Final Fantasy Tactics, as player and enemy units take their turns in sequence, one at a time. While the order of turns is not visible, character agility generally determines this sequence. All units have a certain amount of HP, a regular attack option and possibly a limited number of magical abilities at their disposal. Damaging an enemy unit causes them to lose HP, and when they’re out, they spin around and explode cutely, indicating death. Similarly, a member of the hero’s army will die if they run out of HP; since there is no way to bring anyone back to life in the heat of battle, defensive strategies are often a player’s best bet. It is possible, however, to revive fallen members at a church once battle is done, but for a (generally very affordable) fee. If the hero dies in battle, it’s curtains; the battle is lost, and the hero alone is brought back to life and teleported back to the last save point with half of the party’s money… which must then be usually spent further upon reviving fallen allies. It’s a stiff price to pay, but often worth it, for any experience and treasures will be maintained in spite of the defeat. The hero is luckily outfitted with an “Egress” spell which allows for immediate escape from any battle that seems to be an overmatch; using this spell to come back later and fight again is a key method of level-grinding, which becomes necessary by the halfway point of the game.

The units are all quite varied; there are centaur knights and flying units and archers and priests and gladiators and mages, all of whom possess their own advantages and drawbacks. To top it off, units that achieve Level 20 or better have the option of promoting to a new class, resulting in vastly improved abilities and often new skills. Sadly, though, this is where many of the weaknesses of Shining Force II‘s system start to rear their collective ugly head. First of all, many of these available “options” really aren’t that useful at all. Many units simply never get powerful enough to do anything effective to enemies, and many magical abilities, especially those that cause status effects, can be extremely expensive in terms of MP costs and yet almost never work. To make matters worse, the difficulty of the game is all over the place; balance is not a strong point of Shining Force II. While the game starts out reasonably gently, enemies begin to gain strength from area to area with almost alarming speed by the midpoint of the game, to the point where they can one-hit kill most weaker units without much problem. Bringing weaker units into battle with the hopes of increasing their levels can be a nigh-impossible task for this reason, but to top it off, the bizarre level system rewards experience in part based on the amount of damage that units do. For example, when low-level units do 1 damage to an enemy, they will certainly receive 1 point of Experience, while higher-level units will do 20 damage and get 14 or 15 Experience. This system makes it very, very difficult to train weaker units and makes battling quite frustrating at times for those players who want to raise a large number of strong members. This makes the difficulty of the game hard to pinpoint; battles can swing widely between extremely difficult and quite easy, depending on who you bring into combat. Strangely, however, overcoming its shortcomings can become a strangely addictive exercise, and getting those weak characters “past the hump” to blossom into something more is oddly gratifying. Largely, however, the battle system is really only mediocre when compared to most other tactical RPGs.

The interface is a little better. It is cutely constructed; the menu is neatly tucked into the bottom of the screen, pops up into existence only at the push of a button, and is more-or-less easy to maneuver through simple animated icons. The only really annoying aspect is the fact that any single character is only able to hold four items at a time (including any equipped items as well), and that the game doesn’t address this issue very gracefully. Try to pass an item to a character without any space, and no option to “swap” is available; try to buy an item from a shop and give it to a character whose hands are full, and there is no “rearrange” option to make life easier. Yes, the player is forced to do the shuffling manually. Partway through Shining Force II, it does become possible to store unwanted items, freeing up some space and making life easier. Regardless, however, this item-space issue is still an ugly reminder of the age of the game – because while granted, it’s a characteristic weakness of many games of its time, improvements would have been welcome nonetheless.

The graphics are attractive and pleasing in their old-school charm.
The graphics are attractive and pleasing in their old-school charm.

Getting away from the kludge, the graphics are quite clean, sunny and colourful. The sprites are generally very easy to differentiate between and the battle animations are simple but entertaining. Nothing about the graphical presentation is terribly special, but it isn’t bad by any means. While there are relatively few musical tracks to listen to, the main overworld theme is quite bright and epic sounding, the town music is peaceful and upbeat, and the music is generally quite effective. Certain themes, such as the battle themes, are heard only for bursts of a couple of seconds at a time (whenever an attack is made) – and yet somehow, they never really become annoying. In the end, Shining Force II is really just a game that looks and sounds like it comes from the early 1990s, which shouldn’t be too surprising, given that it was developed in the early 1990s. But, at the same time, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

All of the above taken into consideration, Shining Force II is a classic tactical RPG that has some good parts, some bad parts, and some ugly parts. The game as a whole, however, feels like something more than the sum of its parts. With the close of the final battle, it really does feel like a great achievement, and watching the final scenes is very gratifying. The addictive nature of the game can help to mask its weaknesses and the variety of characters and things to find in-game also really provide some considerable replay value. Coupled with that, the classic feel carries a danger of really sucking in the truly hardcore. At the end of the day, Shining Force II is a perfect example of a gem of the past: an imperfect but nevertheless likable game that carries with it most of what you’d expect from an older RPG.

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