Years before the venerated Final Fantasy Tactics made the genre cool stateside and became every "pro" critic's poster boy for what a tactical RPG "should be," another powerhouse publisher attempted to make the American gaming public understand just how awesome of an idea it is to infuse strategy into a role-playing game. Some of us caught on, and with its emphasis on simplicity in gameplay and lighthearted storytelling, Shining Force and its sequels still provide a perfect alternative to Square's tactical titles.
A common question people have is, "just what the heck is it?" Shining Force CD is an enhanced port of the two Shining Force games on Game Gear, plus two short campaigns that are unique to this compilation. All four books follow the same story arc, beginning after the events of the first Shining Force. The original Force has settled down and scattered since spanking evil and restoring peace. Several have found their way to Queen Anri's Guardiana, where the story kicks off.
When Anri is placed under a sleep spell by the evil Woldol, archbishop of Cypress, a good chunk of the Force reconvenes for the rescue. Deciding it would be just far too convenient for these seasoned veterans to go defeat Woldol and break the spell, their untested children are sent out instead. Can just one of these experienced fighters go along and actually fight? No, no, no, no, nooooo. This mission is far too important! History is on their side, even. Ever hear of how the kids of the Children's Crusade valiantly, uh, never even got to their destination? Okay...fingers crossed that this will be different. Not to spoil too much, part two begins presumably shortly after the first ends, albeit with a new leader and party. Part three, exclusive to this compilation, is a short string of mainly boss fights with everyone from one and two. It is fun, although it definitely feels tacked on.
Story progression should feel familiar to fans of the series. Go to a new area, defeat the oafish villain who was supposed to stop you, liberate the people from his/her oppressive rule, someone joins you, occasional wacky mishap in between. Nothing that would make for a very interesting book, but in a video game the story is entertaining, in its own way. Lighthearted and silly, it is clear that Sega did not want the story to be taken too seriously or be lifeless. Most importantly, Sega clearly wanted the emphasis to be on the fighting.
Like the story, the battle system is straightforward and easy to comprehend, diving down to a depth where there is still a nearly infinite number of ways to conquer a given level while keeping the fighting relatively fast-paced. A party must be selected before each fight. Every character has his or her own set role to play, and each class has its own set of strengths, abilities and weaknesses. The Shining Force consists of the compulsory mages and priests, but also include flying birdmen, speedy centaurs and dwarves that are like axe-wielding tanks. Changing even one character can have a dramatic impact on the outcome of a battle if it needs to be fought again, as someone who was virtually useless last time could be irreplaceable now and vice versa.
Terrain is a big factor in deciding whom to take. Some are unhindered by mountains and forests, while most can barely move through them at all. Only flying creatures can scale pits and walls. Etc. While it may no have the options and customization today's gamers are used to, to call Shining Force CD shallow would be to display criminal ignorance of what separates it from the rest. The focus is on winning with what you have at your disposal. Don't' expect to be spoiled. Your dwarf can't learn healing spells and your mage will never be the next Bruce Lee. You will just have to live with that, or you are screwed. That's how things work in life, and that's how things work in Shining Force. Okay, so the player is a bit spoiled. Experience, items and cash acquired in battle are kept, even if the battle is lost. Not just a good way to beef up the party and scope out the battlefield, but that shortens the game-in a good way. Less wasted effort.
While the battle system remains almost untouched, the time spent between engagements has changed drastically for this installment. Anyone familiar with the series should notice something amiss right after the first battle-no town! Instead, preparation is done from a flat side view screen with only the base and a shop about every other time, and they all look exactly the same. It is possible the team wanted to streamline the "boring" parts and just get the player back into the fray of battle as quickly as possible, since all the basic functions of a town remain and the end result is the same. From that angle, it was a nice move. However, exploring new areas is a big part of any RPG experience. Plus, all of the secrets have been moved to the battlefield, where they are understandably much easier to miss.
If you have never played a strategy RPG before, this series is the perfect place to start. The SF games certainly have more depth and difficulty than other "beginner" games like Rhapsody, but with a smaller learning curve than much of the competition. The beauty of the series is that it manages to be easy to pick up and get into without treating you like an idiot. The result is, at the risk of sounding like a clich?, a great game for both beginners and veterans alike. None of the four parts are particularly long, the last two being particularly short, but taken as a whole Shining Force CD is an excellent package well worthy of carrying the Sonic Team and Saga logos.