Shining Force III is a multi-volume tactical RPG that represents an advancement in the popular Shining Force series. Shining Force III (hereafter called SFIII) is an ambitious attempt to take turn-based tactical fantasy combat into three dimensions, while retaining the charm of its predecessors.
First, a little history is in order. A Japanese game development company called Camelot Co., Ltd created the Shining series of games for various Sega platforms. All of the Shining games are variations of RPGs. Some are dungeon crawls. Some are action-RPGs that bear similarities to Zelda. The Shining Force games prior to Playstation 2 were exclusively turn- and grid-based tactical RPGs.
The first two Shining Force games were very successful on the Genesis platform. There were some spin-off games on the Game Gear platform, but those were reduced in content, due to hardware limitations. With the advent of the Saturn, Camelot designed SFIII to expand on ideas of the past with innovations. Assisted by Sega's Sonic Team developers, Camelot published SFIII in three scenarios (discs), as well as a premium disc that contains only bonus material.
SFIII was published by Sega during the declining months of the Saturn. As Sega turned its focus to the upcoming Dreamcast console, some people at Camelot felt that Sega was faltering. After SFIII, all later Shining titles were published by Sega and developed by companies other than Camelot ... up to the Playstation 2. Camelot turned its attention to Golden Sun and a series of golf and tennis titles.
Only the first scenario of SFIII was translated from Japanese to English. A common question associated with this game is whether English versions of the other two scenarios will ever be published. The reviewer believes that it's a fair prediction that English versions will never occur for the Saturn console, as the Saturn is a dead system. A decision to port SFIII to another console is in the hands of Sega and Camelot. However, the first scenario is a complete game in itself, and fan translations are available for the other two scenarios. Upon completing the first scenario, most players are satisfied that they won a challenging game and met most of their goals.
The eponymous Shining Force is a collection of characters that the protagonist recruits along the course of his journey. Most of the characters fit into standard classes, such as Archer or Priest. A minority of characters are unique beasts that have style quirks. Protagonists have access to a spell called Egress (or sometimes Return) that can remove the entire force from a battle, allowing them to recuperate and regroup. Typically, Egress is used as a mechanism to build character levels without advancing to the next map. In many cases, a particular map is simply too difficult to win until you have built your might with several Egress trips.
Shining Force's strength in comparison to other tactical RPGs is its focus on the characters. The characters' personalities are highlighted through many dialogues. Much attention is paid to character art and combat animations. Victory is often dependent on how well you can coordinate the strengths and weaknesses of various characters. As a series, SF is really about the Force itself.
Now, onto our review of Scenario 1. As a game, Scenario 1 can best be compared to the Playstation game Vandal Hearts 2. The gameplay and graphics are very similar.
SFIII's greatest advancement is three-dimensional battles, both in terms of graphics and tactical considerations. Elevation takes a more prominent role. The free movement of flying characters is much more evident. Although the 3D graphics seem dated by today's standards, for the Saturn's time, SFIII is quite well done. It compares favorably to the Vandal Hearts games. My only complaint is that the combat animations are often less enjoyable than the environments, in particular, the Blaze spell and some of the summons. Overall, though, SFIII's graphics are impressive for their time.
Besides graphics, the next major innovation is the three-scenario system. Readers who have played Suikoden III will recognize similarities to its Trinity Sight system. Basically, the three scenarios are interleaved so that characters, items, and choices travel on to later scenarios. Also, some events are seen multiple times from different perspectives. Although it doesn't affect you much if you only play Scenario 1, you will be selecting choices that would affect later parts of SFIII.
Other innovations are the looting of tombs and an expanded weapon system. Scenario 1 is divided into six chapters. For one map per chapter, you have the option of using an item to uncover a secret area. This secret, enclosed area always contains items that are currently being looted by thieves, hence they are compared to ancient tombs. Recovering the items usually requires a charge on your part to strike the thieves before they can escape. The tombs are an interesting level design feature. Players will disagree about whether they like the tombs or not. Personally, I find them to be too often a frantic, failed pursuit of thieves. Catching a thief seems to involve more luck than tactics, and that's out of place in a SF game.
The expanded weapon system features critical skills and crafting. Many of the weapons above a certain level have a uniquely-named and animated critical hit. I like this feature because it causes battles to be more exciting. It gives you moments of glee at scoring a critical hit at an important time. Crafting adds an element of chance to which weapon you acquire. It's a fairly standard crafting system.
One more innovation that bears mentioning is the friendship system. When two characters hit an enemy successively, their mutual involvement helps them learn about each other. With enough teamwork, the pair can develop combat bonuses that activate only when they are positioned near each other. Friendships are a nice touch, but most players won't go out of their way to develop friendships. Friendships add to the sense of teamwork.
The greatest strength of SFIII is that the innovations expand upon, but retain, the core of SF combat. With a rock-paper-scissors system of balance, every character can play a significant role. In other SF games, there were times when a single character dominated the entire force, but SFIII does a great job of balancing between force members, as well as between enemies. The only notable exception would be the underpowered penguin character, but that presents a challenge for ambitious players.
Adding to the replay value of SFIII are some of its memorable battles. Certain battles are tactically interesting and imaginative. This review won't list specifics to avoid spoilers, but few battles are dull.
However, Scenario 1's map design doesn't capitalize on the innovations like the later scenarios do. Elevation rarely affects tactics in the first scenario. In a purely tactical sense, it might as well be two-dimensional. Looting of tombs isn't well-integrated. The tombs are major distractions in Scenario 1 (although still optional), while their impact is reduced in later scenarios.
The main weakness of Scenario 1 is that too much grinding is required. The maps are designed in such a way that brute force is often the dominant tactic. However, the slaying of enemies gives too little experience for your levels to rise quickly. As a result, Scenario 1 requires the most use of the Egress spell, to grind experience levels in order to win a certain map. This exposes Scenario 1 to the common complaint about RPGs that its length is extended by level grinding. Later scenarios in SFIII provide quicker experience gain and maps designed for tactics of finesse rather than sheer might.
Another weakness of SFIII is the audio department. Although the music is appropriate and decent in Scenario 1, it's nothing impressive. The sound effects are disappointing for a Saturn game. There aren't many, and they are minimal.
As for the story of Scenario 1, it has its highs and lows. It is more complex than past Shining Force games. It has heroes and villains. It has surprises. It's about what a Shining Force fan would expect.
All in all, Shining Force III is a tactical RPG for those who like characters. It's about taking individuals and composing them into a symphony of combat. Scenario 1 is the weakest of the three scenarios, but it lays a good foundation for the later episodes, and it is a complete game in itself. Scenario 1 is worth playing for those who like tactical RPGs.