Shining Force 3 - Reader Retroview

Third Time's a Charm for this Strategy Series

By: David Adler

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 9
   Interface 9
   Music/Sound 5
   Originality 7
   Plot 6
   Localization 7
   Replay Value 7
   Visuals 7
   Difficulty Easy
   Time to Complete

20 - 35 hours


Title Screen

   Any RPG fan who has owned a Sega system in the past decade has heard of the Shining series, and is most likely a fan. Shining games are a long running and numerous series that started with Shining in the Darkness on the Genesis, and continued on the Sega CD, Game Gear, and Saturn. They come in few flavors: First-person dungeon crawlers, an action RPG, and the strategy RPG's known as Shining Force. Shining Force 3 was one of the very last games to appear on the Saturn outside of Japan and did not receive much notice, but that in no way means that it is unworthy of the attention of strategy RPG fans.

   The Destonia Empire and the Republic of Aspinia have been bitter enemies since the Republicans fought for their freedom 20 years ago. War between the two is about to erupt again over the contested territory of Barrand and a peace conference is called to avoid open combat. But all hope of peace is lost when the Emperor himself is abducted and all leads point to the Republic's King Benetram. As Synbios, the son of a Republican hero, it is your job to get to the bottom of this plot and save Aspia from the vengeful armies of Destonia.

   To do so will require lots of army to army combat. The battle system is the most important part of a strategy RPG, and the battles of Shining Force 3 are its strongest point. The general feel of the gameplay is more similar to Vandal Hearts than to Final Fantasy Tactics or Front Mission 3 because there is little character customization but many characters on the battlefield at once. The strategy in Shining Force doesn't come from building up powerful characters and then squaring them off against the enemy as in Final Fantasy Tactics and Front Mission 3. Strategy in Shining Force is in the formation and movement of your army. When you have an army of 12, any one of whom can be destroyed in a few hits, battlefield strategy becomes very important.

   Battles in Shining Force basically follow the standard formula of: Move your character a limited number of spaces, then attack, cast magic or use an item. Earlier Shining Force games were little more than this, but Shining Force 3 makes two additions to this simple formula. The first improvement is the weapons classes. Most characters can equip one class of weapons, which is made up of several types. For example, knights can use the spear class, which includes spears, lances, and halberds. The sword, axe, and spear classes follow a paper, rock, scissors pattern, so it is important to properly match your fighters against the enemy. Characters are free to switch between weapon types within the class, but as they fight with one type, their attack power with that type increases and they learn special attacks. It's too bad that these special attack are activated randomly; it would have been more strategic if the player could choose when they were most needed.

   The second, and most interesting feature of the battle system is the friendships that develop between your soldiers. Think of it like this: as two fighters work together by attacking the same enemy or casting helpful magic on each other, they become war buddies. Everyone starts as allies, but their relationship can improve to partner, friend, trusted, and soul-mate. When two partners stand next to each other on the battlefield, they give each other support. The type of support depends on the type of character. For example: warriors give their friends defensive bonuses and archers give increases to the chance of executing a critical attack. But if a soldier falls in battle, (and is revived at a church) they lose one level of trust with their friends. The idea of the army's trust rising and falling in this way makes perfect sense as well as adding a bit more strategy to the placement of your soldiers and the timing of attacks.

   This description of the battle system has been rather lengthy because it is the central element in Shining Force 3 and the principle reason an RPGamer would want to play a somewhat older game. As such, its elegance lies in its simple basic structure, embellished by the weapon classes and friendships, neither of which dominate the gameplay.

   Everything else in Shining Force 3 is secondary to the combat, but still merits discussion. The control of the game is quite convenient. Menus are laid out in a diamond pattern so that all options are no more than one press of the D-pad away. Battles are on the large and long side, but move along well thanks a shortcut taken in moving your characters and automatic targeting of spells and attacks. The player can also save in the middle of a fight. Outside of battle, towns may be explored as in any RPG (but not many strategy RPG's). But unfortunately, the player cannot travel about the whole world freely and is limited to a few locations at a time. It's nice that large towns are actually very big and packed with citizens, which contrasts with the small backwater villages.

Synbios takes a hit
Synbios takes a hit  

   Music/Sound. Sadly, the sound in Shining Force 3 is one of its weakest aspects. The soundtrack has its share of good tunes and it's great that not every battle is accompanied by a pounding march. A battle in front of a waterfall plays out to a peaceful yet eerie composition. But each track is rather short and is only broken up by the very short tune that is played when someone attacks, casts a spell, etc. And a few tracks are plain nerve-wracking, one of which plays in 3 battles in a row. The sound is worse. Spells rumble nicely, but when they impact with the enemy it sounds the same as an axe or sword. Most other sounds fall somewhere between unrealistic and cheesy. In addition, characters shout threats and taunts when they cast a spell or use a special attack, and for the most part, these are done well. But a small minority of the voices are just terrible, and the worst of these is Synbios, who sounds like a village idiot who recently took a punch in the jaw.

   The Shining Force series has been around for awhile, and has not really changed much. But number 3 gets originality points for the additions to the battles, and the step up in quality of the plot. While not really "new", it is certainly "improved". The most original part about this game is that it actually comes in three parts. The problem is that parts 2 and 3 were released only in Japan. Each is a stand alone game, but some things you do in one part can affect what happens in the next, allowing someone who plays more than one part (and keeps a completed save-game) to get additional characters, and items. Part 2 follows Prince Medion of the Empire through the same period of time as part 1, and part 3 follows Julian (who appeared briefly in Shining: the Holy Ark) to the final conclusion. ItŐs disappointing that these weren't released outside of Japan because they are both slightly better than part 1. Very poor form for Sega of America to only give us part 1.

   The plot of part 1 is adversely affected by the missing parts 2 and 3 because part 1 ends in a cliffhanger. Besides that, the plot is actually several steps better than previous Shining Forces, which were basically quests to kill the big bad demon. The plot won't be the selling point of the game, but it provides enough politics and double-crosses (almost too many) to surprise the gamer. Despite the interesting plot, most characters, and the player characters in particular, are one-dimensional and have no past and little motivation. There is at least one minor plot hole, and sometimes the writers take the easy way out by relying on magic instead of human motivation and action to advance the plot. The localization team did a good job of avoiding all spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. The few small complaints about this aspect include a few oddly-worded sentences, character classes abbreviated to four letters, and villagers who tell you their deepest, darkest secrets just because you barged into their houses. These are only small problems, and the end result is that each battle is worth winning just to find out who is really behind the latest conflict.

It's a good day to die
It's a good day to die  

   This game can be played through and enjoyed almost exactly twice. Without the aid of a strategy guide, it is impossible to find all the characters and interesting items the first time through. Starting a new game with a completed save-game in memory allows three harder difficulty levels to be chosen and the game music to be changed at any time. These added features plus the large number of characters from which to choose your force make the game worth playing through twice.

Shining Force 3 graphically stacks up quite well with other Saturn games. It begins with a nice rendered FMV which looks stylish even though the quality pales in comparison to the movies of recent Square games. Battles, towns, and the wilderness are presented as pre-rendered sprite characters moving on polygonal terrain. Buildings and some battlefields look blocky, but detailed textures and the fully rotateable camera give them a polished look. The fact that the characters are computer-rendered, rather than hand drawn, and have 8 different sides makes them fit in with their 3D environment. The use of movement in battle backgrounds adds some excitement to the battles on a speeding train and over a rushing river. When one character attacks another, the game switches to a fully 3D display of the action. These look really good. While they are a bit blocky, characters move smoothly and have a huge variety of animations. Spells and effects bathe characters in colored lighting or make them glow from within. And summon spells border on seizure-inducing with their kaleidoscope colors. The best part is, these scenes load, and then play out very quickly and don't slow down the game at all. A little more camera panning and zooming would have utilized the 3D engine better, though.

Difficulty. Like most RPG's out there, Shining Force 3 is easy. Enemies are sometimes weaker than Synbios's fighters and appear in small groups spread across the battlefield. The AI is no worse than in other strategy RPG's, just a bit too timid. The game can be made even easier by fighting most of a battle, retreating, then returning to kill the same enemies again to gain more experience. But after beating the game once and then choosing the hardest difficulty, the enemies become much stronger than the heroes and present a real challenge. Too bad this option is not available from the beginning.

Synbios inspects this town's 
dirty laundry
Synbios inspects this town's dirty laundry  

The plot of Shining Force 3 is mediocre, and the sound is just bad. These are balanced out by nice visuals, control, and some good music. And then there are the battles, which make it all worthwhile. The large armies and focus on battlefield tactics give it a different, more epic feel than other recent strategy RPG's. While certainly not a must-buy for everyone, Shining Force 3 is a premier example of the strategy RPG genre.

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