The Retro Game Journal returns! Like the first entry, this will stray from the usual review format. The emphasis here is to look back at some games from yesteryear: some classic, some not so much. The second journal entry will focus on the cult hit for the SEGA Saturn courtesy of Camelot Software Planning: Shining Force III.
Gamers today should recognize Camelot for its contribution to handheld gaming with the Golden Sun RPG series or its line of Mario sports games. However, back in the 90s, Camelot was closely tied with SEGA’s Shining series. The Saturn in particular had several games in the franchise, including: Wisdom, Holy Ark, and III (which was divided into multiple releases for each scenario). Today, the Shining series has stepped out of the limelight, but back in the Genesis era, it was a franchise to be reckoned with.
Back in the days of its initial release in 1997/1998, gamers never assumed that Shining Force III would be the rare, collectible gaming gem it has become. Playing and owning this game is like a badge of honor among retro gaming enthusiasts…especially if you’re dedicated enough to acquire all three scenarios. Unfortunately, only the first part (“God Warrior of the Kingdom”) was officially localized for a North American release. The remaining two scenarios (“Target: Child of God” and “Bulzome Rising”) are only available in Japan. Unfortunately, I only own the first scenario of the game, so my comments will be restricted to that version.
The plot, at least from the first scenario, centers on Synbios, a young warrior from the Republic of Aspinia. Aspinia and the nearby Empire of Destonia are experiencing political tensions, which are being further agitated by a fanatical religious cult. The game’s central themes encompass war, loyalty, and understanding in times of conflict. Even though the player is (mostly) sided with Aspinia, the writing team didn’t demonize the Destonian Empire. Though they have disagreements and have had some battles, they are willing to seek diplomatic solutions even early on. The story works surprisingly well and is enjoyable still, even though the remaining parts were never released outside of Japan.
Is the game good enough to justify all the praise? In this humble reviewer’s opinion, yes, absolutely. Camelot Software Planning was and still is a talented game development company, and that talent comes through when playing Shining Force III. With a musical score composed by Motoi Sakuraba (who some may recognize from the Tales and Star Ocean series) and solid, challenging strategy RPG gameplay, the game remains satisfying to play. The battle system follows a similar format to Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series. Characters move on a grid, almost like a chess board, but attack animations are shown on a different screen for dramatic effect.
The game design culls from both linear and non-linear concepts. The sequence of events is largely linear: a story segment, some time to explore town, followed by a battle, repeat. However, the game also offers some chance to alter the course. Failing to save a character (or even just allowing a character to die) may change what characters may be met and recruited later in the game. This concept is also similar to Fire Emblem. The main difference is that the main characters, the ones already enlisted into your party, can be revived after a battle.
The gameplay has aged well. The game is still fun to play because of how well designed the battle system is. The level of challenge is high too. It’s difficult to craft a game that doesn’t emphasize level grinding and still give a sense of balanced, but difficult challenge. Shining Force III won’t enrage modern gamers with its difficulty, but it’s far from the cakewalk that most HD-era RPGs are. In other words, you’ll never make it out of a battle without a scratch; you WILL suffer some damage and occasionally be in serious trouble.
While the music is still excellent, the graphics and voices haven’t aged as gracefully in other areas. Early 3D-era graphics are notorious for jagged edges, so Shining Force III’s visual inadequacies just come with the territory. With retro gaming, there’s a certain level of aging you have to accept, and it’s important to look at the graphics in context. They certainly aren’t horrible, but may take time to adjust to. The voice acting though, is just hilariously bad. PlayStation 1 and Saturn games are not well-known for high-quality voice work, so you’ll be grateful to know that there’s an option to disable the voices. Turn those off and you’ll be just fine.
So how can you play Shining Force III? Well, it’s not easy. Like Soul Blazer, it has yet to see an update on any other console or download service. If you want to track down the North American localization, a used copy should cost between $50 and $120 US, depending on how “complete” the package is. If you want the original case and manual, you’ll definitely be looking at the higher end of that spectrum. You can find the remaining two scenarios on sites like Play-Asia for about $40 to $60 US each, not including shipping prices. Special collectors who want the premium disc should be prepared to spend well over $100 US.