Shining Force EXA
Most long time gamers are probably familiar with the original Shining Force. This role playing game (RPG) originally came out for the Genesis system way back in 1993 (in the US at least) and Sega ported it over to the Dreamcast too. (It was one of the games included in the Sega Smash Pack, a disc that came bundled with the Dreamcast, for a while at least.) Then in 2004 the game was altered slightly and adapted to the GBA handheld system. Shining Force was a fun and exciting strategic game and, like most popular games, it started a string of sequels.
The latest in the line is Shining Force EXA for the PS2, and this has basically nothing at all to do with the original, in either story or in game play. To give you an idea of how far removed EXA is from its namesake, here the Shining Force refers to a sword, while in the original it was the name of a group of fighters. Not only is the story different but this game has removed most of the strategy that made the original so much fun. The real time battles in this PS2 game consist of mashing the X button over and over again until the enemies have fallen, and it gets monotonous quickly.
Players in this game take the role of alternately Toma, a young impulsive fighter, and Cyrille, a quite contemplative magician. As the story begins they, along with two friends (the centaur Gadfort and an eleven archer Maebelle,) are searching for the Shining Force, as sword of remarkable power that promises to make the holder king. Early in the game the sword is discovered and, though everyone tries, Toma is the only one who can remove it from its resting place. He takes on the role or Heritor, and the others vow to follow him.
In addition to getting the sword (that he doesnít actually use in combat) Toma inherits the Geo-Fortress, an ancient castle of awesome power. Not only does it protect the Heritor, it has a training room, Ďartsí system (more on that later), and a huge cannon. Toma hopes to use the power of the Geo-Fortress to stop the impending war between the human Noswald Empire and the magical Magnus who live in the kingdom of Fyrlandt. Before he can do that however Toma has to get the fortress back up to power, and that means finding rare ďmetalsĒ to reactivate its systems. In this ďeverything including the kitchen sinkĒ plot however stopping the war wonít be enough. It turns out that a black god has been trapped under the Crimson Place in Fyrlandt by the last Heritor 1000 year ago, but now it is starting to awaken and only the power of the Shining Force can stop it.
In this game the player controls either Toma or Cyrille (its possible to switch between the two at will), and this player character (PC) is accompanied by up to two non-player companions (NPCs). Over the course of the game the PC is sent on a variety of quests; to get a special material to power up the Geo-Fortress, to rescue some townsfolk who are being used as slave labor, and eventually to confront the leaders of the two empires and the dark god who is awakening. These quests are pretty straight forward and linear. Aside from some side battles that you can skip (they are clearly marked) there isnít a lot of choice in what a character does next.
Toma is armed with a variety of one and two-handed swords, axes, and war hammers, while Cyrille totes either a magic book that she uses for close combat which also lets her cast spells, or a crossbow which allows for ranged attacks. One of the potential cool aspects of the game is that the weapon that is chosen defines how often it can be used in combat. A two-handed sword takes much longer to swing than a one handed version or a crossbow, but it also does much more damage when it hits. Simply pressing the X button causes the character to attack. If that button is held down after the attack, the weapon will power-up unleashing a more powerful attack when the X button is released. By pressing the X button three times in a row at the proper time and then holding it down releases a devastating ĎCombo Strikeí that deals significant damage. Itís easy to see that getting the rhythm of an instrument is important. After a little practice it is easy to press the X right when the character is ready to attack again. Pressing too soon will accomplish nothing and doing it too late will waste time. This is a neat idea that makes the game more interesting. A less powerful weapon may be more damaging if the rhythm of the attack is easier for the player to reproduce.
Unfortunately this leads to the biggest defect in the game: it slows down drastically when many characters are on the screen. This is really nearly a fatal flaw. The timing of attacks goes flying out the window when there are more than 8 or 9 creatures on the screen, and this happens frequently. You can no longer time your attacks, so Combo Strikes donít work the way they are supposed to and even regular attacks are iffy. When this happens the game is reduced to just mashing the X button over and over again.
Another problem with combat is that when it is crowded (again, this happens a lot) Toma or Cyrille are often obscured by the attacking creatures. You canít see them, know which way they are pointed, or where they are going. Again, the only recourse is to repeatedly press the X until enough monsters are killed to reveal the character. Boy is that irritating.
The combat system is really too simple as there are no defensive moves. Characters canít block or dodge, they just attack. Aiming is easy too, too easy in fact. Just face the general direction of an enemy and the computer will have you attack whoever is nearest. There are problems with this though. When attacking a boss, a minion can walk up and get closer to the PC causing the attack that has been charged up to be wasted on him rather than the boss. There's really nothing you can do to prevent this. Yelling at the screen doesnít help any. Believe me, Iíve tried.
Another flaw in the game, though much less irritating, are the walls. Though they are opaque on the screen, the NPCs and monsters can see and even attack through at least some of the walls. Magic and ranged weapons wonít work, but you can take damage standing next to a wall from close quarters weapons. Of course this works both ways. Itís possible to nearly clear out a room by slashing through a wall. The advantage to this tactic is that the PC is never surrounded.
The two NPCs that accompany the main character add some much needed (in places) fire-power to the group, but the AI controlling them is imperfect. Though they are pretty good at following the leader, rarely getting stuck or going down the wrong passage, they will always attack the enemy when they encounter them, even if thatís an idiotic idea. When a NPC runs into a room of powerful monsters only to get killed in an instant, it doesnít really help.
One of the things that takes some of the strategy out of the game is the fact that the main character can transport back to their base in the Geo-Fortress at any time they want. Even in the middle of a battle. (There are a few times when this doesnít work, but those are the exception.) At the Geo-Fortress they can fill up healing potion bottles (a healing potion fully cures all three members of your party when used, and since the battles take place in real-time, you donít lose a turn curing everyone. You can even be charging up for an attack while you heal the party.), identify/buy/sell weapons and save the game. After that, warp back to the exact spot in the battle. (Granted the bosses and other monsters will be back at full health, but creatures you killed will still be dead.)
As the game progresses and the player defeats monsters, new weapons and armor are found, often with magical properties. These items can not be used until theyíve been identified (at a cost) in the Geo-Fortress. After that they can be utilized, sold, or saved. Unfortunately the NPC can not be equipped with any magical items. If something that they can use is discovered it goes automatically to them. Itís not possible to give Gadfort a +3 sheild even if there is an extra one lying about. This takes even more of the strategy out of the game, which is a shame.
So, while one character is gadding about in a dungeon or arctic wasteland, the other PC is waiting around the Geo-Fortress. At various times the fortress is attacked by evil monsters and the second PC has to defend the Photon Converter that helps power the fortress. If this converter is destroyed then the game is over, so itís a good idea to keep raising the levels of both PCs. (This isnít really necessary though. The game gives advanced warning that an attack is coming, so it is possible to go back to the Geo-Fortress and switch out characters, leaving the more powerful one behind. When the attack starts, this character will then defend the base. Afterwards you can just switch them out again.) The attack isnít over until the boss is defeated, which was never overly difficult even with a weaker character. In playing through the game I never once had to reload due to the converter being destroyed. One of the reasons for this is that fairly early in the game the Geo-Fortresses cannon comes on-line. With this powerful weapon even a weak character can take out the boss in one shot. Itís really anticlimactic using it.
The game is long, it took me about 60 hours to finish it, but it can also get monotonous. The quests that Toma is sent on start to feel the same after a while. They all consist of fighting through a cavern or across a landscape. Every time the passageway opens up, monsters appear with a *PFFT* sound and another battle is on. Defeat those baddies, and walk to the next battle. While this is fun for a time, this game doesnít lend itself to extended play. After about an hour I was always ready to move on to something else, which is unusual.
While most of the strategic elements have been removed there is one element of the game where a little thought still comes in handy, and that is the ĎSecret Arts.í At various spots through the world, the PC will encounter tablets that give him (or her) the possibility of gaining a special ability. After encountering a table, the Secret Art it contains is loaded into a machine in the Geo-Fortress. Toma and Cyrille can then Ďbuyí these abilities with Mythril, a mystical metal straight out of The Lord of the Rings that they find laying around in boxes or as booty after battle. There is a finite amount of Mythril, not nearly enough to earn all of the Secret Arts. So which is more important, gaining an attack bonus against giants or increasing your resistance to critical blows? Do you increase your HP or your weapon's attacking power? This was a nice feature that worked well in the game.
Though there is a lot wrong with this game, itís still enjoyable to play, just not as fun as it could have been. Since there isnít really any strategy in the game itís easy to play it for 15 minutes and then leave it. Throughout the game the battles are more or less even too. Sure, towards the end the random dungeon monsters are easy to beat with one attack, but the game always manages to make the bosses hard enough to challenge without ever seeming too impossible. This game wonít do a lot to advance the franchise, but until another really good RPG game comes out, this will do.
While this PS2 game doesnít have high definition graphics (Iíve been spoiled by the Xbox 360) the picture is quite good. The character designs are great and there are many creative and interesting monsters to fight. The lava men, dragons (both big and small), sandworms, and dark magicians all have distinct looks and graphical representation of their powers. There was a good amount of effort spent to get the various dungeons and wastelands to look right too. The attention to detail wasnít limited to the monsters and cities though. When the main characters (Toma and Cyrille) don new armor or wield a new weapon their appearance in the game changes, which is a nice touch. The various magical attacks all have different visual representations and that adds a lot to the game. The cut scene animation was excellent too.
Itís too bad that the game slows down to a crawl when there are many enemies on the field. The video score comes down a couple of notches because of that. See the Gameplay section for more details on this sever flaw in the game.
The audio is only so-so over all. The background music that plays through the game does a fair job of setting the mood but is generally bland while the sound effects are pretty good, especially during battles. The voice acting however is horrid. Every line is overemphasized (especially by the actress who plays Cyrille) and itís really hard to take after a couple of conversations. Luckily the dialog appears on the screen also and you can hit the start button to jump ahead to the next sentence. The only things worse than the dialog are the battle phrases that the NPCs shout out over and over again during every battle. If I hear Duga growl ďLeave them to me!Ē one more time Iíll probably scream.
There are a lot of things wrong with this game. There is hardly any strategy at all, the battles often consist of mindlessly hitting the X button over and over, and the various quests do seem to feel the same after a while. If the game was limited to those flaws, it wouldnít be too bad. Unfortunately the PS2ís engine isnít powerful enough to properly run this game so it bogs down significantly during battles with many opponents. This occurs frequently and it ruins the rhythm and feel of the combat system. Even so, for a role playing fan like myself I had fun playing through this adventure. Itís just too bad that there was nearly as much irritation and excitement. This would make a good rental.