Shining Force: an Old-Fashioned Strategy-RPG

If the iPhone has done anything for established game developers, it’s been to offer a place where classic titles can be ported and played not only by the original players, but also an entirely new generation (or, in some cases, generations) of gamer. Sega has done this with Shining Force, a classic strategy-RPG that follows a group of inexperienced fighters as they battle to protect their land.

Is this classic reborn on the iPhone, or is this a half-baked port that doesn’t do the original game justice? Read on to find out.

Runefaust Attacks Guardiana

The game begins when Runefaust attacks its neighboring kingdom of Guardiana. Guardiana stands as the guardians (get it?) of an ancient temple created by the Ancients, designed to make sure Dark Dragon doesn’t break free of his magical bindings. Silly naming aside, the story doesn’t break too far from typical ’90’s-era role playing game stereotypes. That isn’t to say that it isn’t well done, as there’s enough here to make you want to keep going, but there isn’t anything new done with the game.

All of the soldiers now have blue hair, which is odd.

All of the soldiers now have blue hair, which is odd.

You’re in control of the head of the Shining Force, whom you can name whatever you’d like. For simplicity’s sake I’ll call him “Max.” Max leads a ragtag group of adventurers around the continent, travelling all around in hopes of keeping Runefaust at bay and stopping Dark Dragon from being resurrected.

The king is dying, and not a single person thought to cast Heal.

The king is dying, and not a single person thought to cast Heal.

The game follows a typical town-battle-town-battle storyline, which is fine as it gives you just enough respite from battles to explore towns and outfit your team without causing you to stray from the task at hand. Easter eggs can be found in each town, so there’s a definite benefit to exploring when you have the opportunity.

Characters are often fairly one-dimensional; many of them want revenge, some want to test themselves and others are simply born for battle. The enemies, on the other hand, often have conflicting emotions and express different ideologies and a weird sense of obligation to battle even if their hearts aren’t in it.

Battles

Battles are conducted via the typical strategy-RPG method of moving units around on a grid, combining RPG elements like spells and attacks with a more tactical approach and an immersive experience. I’m a fan of this style of gameplay, as it feels a bit more realistic than troops lining up into rows of three and running back and forth to attach each other. Shining Force doesn’t disappoint in this area, offering a large character roster and variety of spells and weapons.

Our hero is about to kill a dwarf with a much, much larger weapon.

Our hero is about to kill a dwarf with a much, much larger weapon.

Upon attacking an enemy, the screen will cut to a short, unique animation detailing how much damage was done, how much experience was earned and (if an enemy has been defeated) how much gold has been found. I found that these short scenes not only made battles more engrossing, providing a cinematic feel, but also made me feel more interested in the characters as they attacked or were attacked.

Each battle is unique from the last, pitting you against different enemies, goals or environmental concerns. Fighting in the mountains will drastically decrease your movement, while fighting inside can make it easier until you reach a bottleneck. You’ll have to tweak your strategy for each battle, making it easy to change things up and breaking any sense of monotony.

Here's one of my wizards, moving through the mountains. Two squares at a time.

Here's one of my wizards, moving through the mountains. Two squares at a time.

Since battles are the main focus of the game, it’s important to stress how well they’re done. Conflict is challenging but, with proper care, never feels cheap. Learning how certain enemy units act and using that to your advantage is fun, and learning how to deal with different environments will keep you on your toes.

Characters

Some characters will join your Force automatically, while others will require you to do some digging. Two secret characters (a Samurai and a Ninja) exist in the game with only a single tile devoted to their joining the Force. Other characters require multiple steps to recruit, usually involving talking to them in one town and then finding them again in a different town later on. Deciding who you want to bring with you can become difficult in later portions of the game as your Force grows larger and there are many compelling characters to choose from.

And some other, not so compelling characters.

And some other, not so compelling characters.

Characters will fall into different Classes. These classes can be “promoted” at any point after level 10, offering them access to more powerful weapons and spells. Promotions also change the sprites for the characters, often making them look more hardcore (though, in some cases, making them look just a bit silly). Classes can be described with a few main categories: wizards, healers, tanks, ranged attackers and movement-based classes. How you’ll play will affect your choice of how to bring, and it’s important to make note of who you’d like to have with you.

That's actually pretty depressing, Mr. Werewolf

That's actually pretty depressing, Mr. Werewolf

Beyond having different classes, each character has a distinct personality. You can talk to them down in the headquarters, and there are short scenes here and there (usually when they’re about to be recruited) that give you a sense of how each character will act. This gives you just enough exposition to evoke a bit of caring, making you feel something as Mae is knocked out beyond “well, there goes my tank.”

Fun Factor

This game is a blast to play. Not only am I one of the people who played an earlier version of the game (in my case on the PC, though the game originated on the Sega Genesis) but I also believe that the game stands on its own.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of 8- or 16-bit games, and that applies here as well. To me, this game shows that game developers had it going for them in the 90’s, as there’s an excellent balance to be found. I enjoyed looking into all the nooks and crannies for new items or characters, and the characters have just enough personality to make you want to keep them alive on the field of battle.

The game follows a fairly steady difficulty curve, allowing you to experiment a bit with your characters without feeling as though you’re too underleveled. One complaint I do have is that if Max is killed the battle is over; I understand that he’s the hero (quite literally, after his promotion) but it makes it hard to level the main character up when he’s such a sissy. Besides that, I never felt as though the game were cheating me, a feeling that I’ve been getting more and more often as developers sacrifice stability for ‘challenge’.

iOS-ify me, Captain!

One fun thing about this version is that you can choose how the game is displayed. You can view a minimal version, where buttons are barely-visible overlays on top of the action, or a different version that offers a far-more compressed view. It’s up to you how you’d like to play the game, though I strongly suggest the view that allows you to utilize your iPhone’s screen.

Even the guys at Sega don't remember what the Genesis looked like. (Hint: it wasn't a handheld)

Even the guys at Sega don't remember what the Genesis looked like. (Hint: it wasn't a handheld)

There’s the normal iOS fare here, meaning that the game will resume right where you left it after you come back from another app. This makes the need to save next to nonexistent, removing one of the main functions from the priests in the original game. This doesn’t remove any difficulty from the game (you can’t turn the system off and back on to the last quick-save, a technique I’ve used for other games) but does it make it easier to play in short bursts.

Is It the Game for Me?

Absolutely. If you like strategy-RPGs, this is one of the best available for the iPhone. It’s easy to pick up and play, there’s a decent amount of exploration, and working through battles is fun and exciting without feeling unfair.

I can’t think of any drawbacks to this port, which is rare with iOS. The game flows naturally despite the much smaller screen size, and it’s incredibly faithful to the original version. If anything, I might say that it’s too faithful, avoiding the modern age and sticking to some weird rules that were decided on decades ago.

If you can accept that, or even prefer it, Shining Force is the strategy-RPG for you on the iPhone.


Summary

Shining Force is an old-school strategy RPG from Sega, originally released for their Genesis console. The iOS port is fantastic and faithful to the original.

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