Shining Force Neo - Retroview  

Definitely Not The One
by Mike "JuMeSyn" Moehnke

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40-60 Hours
+ Extensive character improvement system
+ Distinct areas
- Laughable, long-winded story
- Extremely inconsistent difficulty
- Outstays its welcome
- Unnecessarily cramped inventory
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   Prior to Shining Force Neo, Sega always steered clear of using the word Force in the title of a non-tactical entry. Something changed this time around, but the naming issue is the least of Neo's manifold problems. It boggles the mind that two developers, Amusement Vision and Neverland, pooled their resources to make a loot-gathering action RPG without ever making it fun. I wouldn't have as much of a problem with the game's name had it turned out better than the Shining action RPGs before it, but even that was apparently too much to hope for.

   Neo's story begins with its protagonist, Max, returning to his home of Greensleeves after two years' training in combat skills. He doesn't get to enjoy the homecoming for long before it's time to help his father and adoptive sister Meryl overcome a monster invasion. Greensleeves is the location of a crystal that serves as a seal on a nefarious instrument of destruction, and the monster attack's architect proves to have its destruction as his goal. After the death of his father at the hands of this opponent, Max and Meryl take on the title of Forces and go forth to make sure the other two sealing crystals don't suffer the same fate while gathering up allies. Las Vegas bookies are putting up very high odds on their success.

   Resorting to clichés in an RPG narrative is only a problem if the product fails to rise above them, and Shining Force Neo fails abjectly to produce anything in its story worth experiencing. Three writers are credited with the story, and their collaboration has succeeded in concocting moronic characters who talk through everything ad nauseum without offering any interesting material. Such creaky plot devices as the childhood friend who becomes the love interest and the villain who yammers incessantly in lieu of taking direct action against the protagonist are employed without any semblance of interest. Some of Sega's translation work is unintentionally amusing, most notably the decision to call the class of superior soldiers in the game world Forces, which leads to plenty of talk about the power of the Force that could come from a much better-known franchise. Nothing else is praiseworthy in the narrative.

   Neo also provides evidence of why Sega of America's removal of the voice acting from Shining Tears was not the worst thing it could have done, by demonstrating the company's amazing ineptitude in the field of dubbing. The one factor that links the performances of this game's English voice acting is atrociousness, but the actors manage to do it in a variety of ways. The purportedly villainous actors rarely manage to sound more menacing than unassuming parking valets, and the protagonists vary from monotone to regrettably miscast. Audio Atrocities has some choice samples of the dialogue, but hearing it in long stretches removes the entertainment value. To be fair, Sega's localization didn't necessarily give the actors much to work with, considering how oddly phrased and poorly worded numerous parts are.

'Hi, I'm some kind of orc. Please get used to killing me until my race should be completely extinct!'

   Shining Force Neo's actual gameplay seems to have taken a hint from Gauntlet, in that most enemies are spawned by monster gates that must be destroyed. The player has direct control of Max, who possesses a great variety of potential weapons that have a considerable effect on how to kill the thousands of enemies in his path. Up to two of the allies Max will gain join as support, and while the player has no means of influencing their behavior the compatriots are extremely helpful. Each area also feels distinct within the game, enabling new environment maps to hold the player's attention for a spell of time.

   The problems begin after the first two areas when Max has to make his way on foot across the land. Up to this point the challenge has been easily manageable, but taking a wrong turn onto a part of the path the game does not intend players to visit will result in him getting killed with one hit. When Max goes down it's Game Over, and in an unpleasant first for the Shining series that means reloading a save file instead of popping up back in town minus funds. This impossible-to-predict difficulty curve continues throughout the game, thrusting players into new areas where skill does not matter a bit in survival. The swarms of enemies are large enough that even seeing where Max is becomes impossible at points, so dodging is no solution to surviving powerful adversaries. The game also uses a form of scaled experience gain that will eventually drop player rewards to one point per foe, making any attempt to grind Max to a survivable position unrealistic. Levels don't make much difference for Max anyway, though they help his allies tremendously. The only thing keeping the constant deaths from being an insurmountable aggravation is a device that allows Max to instantly retreat to his hometown for saving and restocking purposes, whereupon he can pop back to where he was with the situation unchanged. Returning to home like this is a constant activity.

   Instead of levels, Max's Force abilities usually make the difference for his survival. These are found while fighting around the game world and enabled through energy accumulated from enemy drops. The range of abilities they enhance is considerable, from increasing Max's attack power against specific enemy types to improving his resistance to multiple forms of attack. The time it takes to improve all desirable attributes is enormous, but necessary when almost everything helps to ensure Max is not so easily brought down. He'll still die with ridiculous ease in certain places, even when the player has increased every kind of defensive attribute available to its zenith, but he has no chance at all without doing so.

   The viewing angle in Neo doesn't help matters at all. The camera is zoomed in far enough that the player has to stay constantly alert for an enemy to pop up only a couple of body lengths away from Max, but the reason seems to be that the draw distance is pathetic. Things the player should be able to see plainly given that they are in the screen's viewing area remain invisible until Max is even closer, and tracking down wayward monsters is sometimes harder than it should be when they bounce just offscreen. Instead of being directly overhead the camera is angled from the front, and this means objects or enemies in the foreground of Max can and will block the view of things that need to be seen. In an attempt to correct for this the music changes to a different track when enemies are close by, but knowing they are nearby is still no solution to the problem of not being able to pinpoint their location, while the constant switching between tracks gets annoying fast.

   With a limit of fifty items in his inventory and the tendency of destroyed monster gates to cough up plenty of equipment, Max will need to go back to town frequently. The item limit is more glaringly obnoxious than it needs to be thanks to the game's rigid means of grouping expendable material. In addition to keys and status recovery items which can be bought and sold, the materials which directly heal the party are fully replenished every time one of the many fountains in the game is used. These healing materials are found throughout the game in various set quantities from one to five, and they can never be condensed so as to take up a single inventory slot instead of a dozen or more even though such a thing can clearly be done. This makes trips back to town happen more frequently than would otherwise be necessary just for the purpose of clearing out the inventory of spare equipment that rarely represents an improvement over Max's current setup.

What What's that? You'd like to see everything you need to at any given moment? Boy, are YOU in for a surprise!

   Neo also makes the critical mistake of going on far too long without enough variety. In an unusual move, the developers mostly forgo palette swaps of enemies to indicate differences in later hordes. Either enemies increase in size, an effective means of making clear their potency, or they look exactly the same as earlier hordes yet are nevertheless much stronger, which is the more common approach. The final areas of the game are particularly overt offenders in this regard, offering almost nothing new and simply making the player kill thousands more of the same opponents that had outworn their welcome hours before. Bosses don't vary the procedure much either, since most of them have a ridiculously high HP regeneration that can only be eliminated by killing all the ordinary enemies that come along for the fight. Though using different weapons to take things down efficiently is an option, sticking with the same setup all the time is quite viable, making the effort even more repetitive. The voice acting wears out its welcome too, specifically the single clip that plays with each attack Max's allies initiate. When they will be initiating their few attacks thousands of times during the game, those clips become impossible to forget or overlook. With a play time that is likely to exceed fifty hours, their potential to be burned into the brain is high.

   Considering how hectic the onscreen action can become, Shining Force Neo's relative reluctance to allow slowdown is commendable. Otherwise the visuals are okay but nothing more, considering that zooming in the viewpoint should have yielded more eye candy. Those tuning in for sumptuous FMVs such as the box depicts will be disappointed as well, given that the game only uses them at three points in the narrative. The music is at the worst forgettable, but a few tracks are catchy enough to appreciate.

   Previous Shining action games made after Camelot and Sega's separation had the lure of multiplayer, but Shining Force Neo doesn't even offer that means of deriving entertainment. I have no idea how such an aggravating experience sucked away so many hours of my life, but I will not be adding to them by sampling the dungeon only accessible after completing the story. For Sega to put the Shining Force name to use in such a miserable endeavor is just another example of how stupid the company's decisions can be. Maybe it gets better after this, but I'm not counting on that.

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