ron, Aug-14 2007

Shining Force again

Another game we spent a little more time with last weekend, refreshing old fuzzy memories, was Shining Force, which we have recommended to you a short while ago. Not only do we have lots of images now, but we can also ramble about it for a little longer!

Tactical view

Shining Force's tactical combat. The darkened tiles represent the movement range of the currently active unit.
(that image is so clickable, you wouldn't believee it)

So it's a strategy RPG. Your units take turns and fight one-on-one versus enemy units, nasty giant bats in the above image. But unlike standard turn-based strategy games such as the venerable Advance Wars, where your units are distinguished only by their type, such as light tanks, artillery, infantry etc, the thing about strategy RPGs is that every unit is a proper character, with a name, skills and dialog. And they level up individually. They aren't built in factories either, but recruited in the story segments between missions, in towns most likely, and if you keep them in good health they will stick with you for the rest of the campaign..

Like in Fire Emblem, if you want your units to grow you must put them to use, as experience points are awarded only to the unit that performed an attack, with some extra bonus for units that defeat (not just damage) an enemy. Unlike Fire Emblem (but like Advance Wars), terrain affects how far a unit can move per turn, which adds some welcome depth. In other aspects the game system is shallower than Fire Emblem, e.g. the whole weapon-type triad of swords beat axes, axes beat spears, spears beat swords is missing, and units being limited to one move and one attack per turn. But overall it is a nicely refined mix of ideas that definitely requires strategic thinking to go through missions with minimal losses. The broad roster of recruitable characters means you can customize your experience somewhat to fit your play-style, and the experience system will reward you for sticking with your decision.
It's for these reasons that we uphold our recommendation of Shining Force.

However, when we talk about Shining Force we also must talk about its darker, uglier side: the story segments. All the in-town parts of its user interface are aggravatingly clunky and inefficient.
If you've ever played any Final Fantasy, you have used a context-sensitive action button: pressing A opens that chest you're standing in front of, or it initiates dialog with an NPC or it searches for hidden items. Another thing you'd have used in an FF is well-designed menu system that allows you fast access to your character stats and equipment, and gives you additional shortcuts to skip across related information (i.e. while in any equipment sub-menu, a single button will instantly switch the party member you're inspecting). Shining Force has none of that.

Everything is layered onto a four-way menu tree, which uses the d-pad's cardinal direction to let you select an item. Because four items per layer isn't nearly enough for proper stats-mongering, the menu tree is deep. An attempt to list all the submenus you have to go through to trade items between two characters would surely implosify this server.
Speaking of items, there isn't even a shared inventory. Each character has four item slots, shared between equipment and healing/miscellaneous items, and that's that. Because only the lead character can pick up items out of chests, you'll find yourself constantly moving items away from him, to some other party member with a free item slot. And no, multiples of the same item do not stack.
And speaking of speaking, to talk to an NPC you must stand in front of them, pull up your menu and select "Talk". Likewise, to open a chest or search for hidden stuff, you pull up the menu and select "Search". Inspecting your characters' stats isn't even possible with just your menus. No, you have to be in your headquarters, talking to some assistant guy for that.

To add insult to injury, the interactions with all the more useful NPCs (shopkeeps, the priests that allow you to save your game, and that assistant guy) are rife with senseless confirmations. There is absolutely no reason that the shopkeep should ask if you want to continue shopping after buying something when there already is one button reserved exclusively for backing out of the purchasing menu, and neither is there a reason for all the other variants of the same idiosyncrasy which the UI designer invented. And a marvelously intelligent person it must have been who decided that a button that is held down to speed up the display of the conversation should also be instantly recognized as a menu selectiong immediately after the dialog line finishes.
Play testers should punch you in the face if you try any of that, let alone all, but obviously Shining Force has been approved by someone and shipped as is (and it wasn't the only instance of such offenses on the Megadrive).

Now the good news is that this horrible in-town interface design isn't really relevant enough to overshadow the game. The vast majority of time in Shining Force is taken up by combat, while the story framework is just a quick and loose justification for that, a couple of minutes a pop. The combat controls are entirely okay, and that's what you'll be using most of the time.
So you probably still want to play it for the tactical challenge and nice art. Just be prepared to get annoyed for a few minutes between missions.

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