Shining Force III (Available exclusively on SEGA Saturn)
ESRB Rating: T
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Tactical RPG
Developer: Sonic Software Planning and Camelot Software
Release Date: May 31st, 1998
Parent Talk: The ESRB rates Shining Force III T for teen because of mild animated violence, and mild language. Much like the other entries in the Shining Force, and Fire Emblem series, parents can expect cartoony animated violence, and mature subject matter with mild language. If this game were rated today I’m fairly confident it would earn an E10+ rating since the graphics aren’t realistic and are so primitive by today’s standards.
Plays Like: If you’ve ever played a tactical RPG you know what to expect. Story progression takes place on a 3D field with sprite-based characters. You can visit towns, talk to countless NPCs and purchase goodies from item shops. Battles take place on a dedicated battle map, whereby both enemy and player units take turns moving on a grid. Depending on where in the environment you place your units, their combat effectiveness increases or decreases. Certain units are also stronger than others, giving way to lots of strategy.
Review Basis: I played and finished Shining Force III back in 1998, and recently played through almost half the game to brush myself up on the gameplay mechanics, graphics, and overall presentation.
One of the biggest crimes SEGA of America committed back in the late nineties was releasing only one part of the Shining Force III saga. For those that don’t know, the game is broken down into three different scenarios. In Japan, those that purchased all three could send in their proof of purchase to SEGA and claim the much-coveted Premium disc which included a wide assortment of bonus goodies. So what made the three scenarios so special? It was the way they connected to one another. Save a character in scenario one, he might come back in scenario two or three to help save you when you least expect it. Even the story would be slightly altered based on the actions you performed in each of the different scenarios. This was fairly mind-blowing stuff back in 1998! Sadly North Americans and Europeans would only be teased as both scenario two and three never made it outside Japan. As such, what you’re left with is essentially only a third of the overall experience, but damn what a third.
The world of Shining Force III is broken down into several main factions. There’s the Destonian Empire, the Republic of Aspinia, which broke free of Emperor Domaric’s rule, and the neutral region of Saraband. You take on the role of Synbios, a young Lord in the Republic. The Republic’s king, Benetram is meeting with Emperor Domaric in Saraband, in hopes of establishing permanent peace treaties between the Empire and the Republic. Things go awry when mysterious masked monks appear in Saraband, and explosions break out in the city. While investigating the explosions Synbios and his entourage are attacked by the mysterious monks. Making their way back to their camp, they see a group of monks with King Benetram, and he’s kidnapping Emperor Domaric. All is clearly not as it seems as when Synbios makes his way back to camp King Benetram is seated on his throne and has been there for a while. So who kidnapped the opposing Emperor and why? With war erupting all around you, a mysterious sect of monks appearing out of nowhere, clearly something sinister is afoot. Only you and your team can save King Benetram and get to the bottom of this.
The story acts as one giant tease because while entertaining and complex on its own, things get even more interesting when you take into account the second and third scenarios. The second scenario deals with this same story, but from the side of the Empire, through the eyes of the Emperor’s youngest son Medion. It’s scenario three that really brings things together, by following the mercenary Julian, who is actually the true hero of Shining Force III. In the first two scenarios he’s a secondary character that joins both Synbios and Medion. The first two scenarios take place roughly at the same time, but the third pushes the story forward and combines the previous two scenarios perfectly. Characters featured in the first two scenarios return in the third, certain choices you make in the first two games unlock different characters that can be recruited in the third. It’s a brilliant system that was never fully realized anywhere outside Japan, and that’s a crime against humanity!
For anyone interested, Julian’s initial motivation was to kill a character named Galm, who he believed killed his father. That might sound somewhat familiar to fans of Shining the Holy Ark, as Julian was actually featured in that game. He was the young child that asked for help locating his missing father. Now if that’s not a cool way of tying the games together, I don’t know what is. It’s just such a shame the entire trilogy of games couldn’t have been released . SEGA fans had to wait almost an entire year with no new releases from November 1998 to September 1999 when the Dreamcast hit. It would have been nice to have gotten at least one more entry in the series during that long span of time.
+ Far less complex than some of its brethren. You don’t have to worry about getting bogged down with countless menus, or thousands of unit stats. Here you simply need to make sure you pit the right unit against an enemy, and position yourself so that you’ve got the greatest defensive and offensive position possible. Simple as that.
+ While the simple interface and gameplay might make you think the game’s a push-over, nothing could be further from the truth. This game can easily kick your ass if you’re not careful. Enemies aren’t dumb, and will automatically attack your units that have the lowest HP, or are the weakest unit based on their type. This means you have to be extremely careful how you position your troops, and the strategy you use to tackle whatever foes lay in your way.
+ Finding secret maps allow you to access areas that not only provide additional enemies to battle, but also a wide assortment of goodies which will make later battles much easier.
+ There’s also great mission variety. Some missions challenge you to defeat all the enemies on the map, others force you to save different characters within a set number or turns, etc. This goes a long way in helping keep battles fresh.
+ The introduction of a friendship system also adds an entirely unique layer of depth to the battles. If two units are positioned beside each other, they will slowly form a bond. At first the units are all allies, but they can become partners, and eventually work their way through the ranks to soul mates. Doing so rewards bonuses in key stats including attack, magic, counter, etc. The catch is that you have to keep these units paired up in order for the bonuses to take affect, which completely changes the dynamic of battles. The downside to this system is that if one unit falls in combat, their friendship ranking is reduced by one level.
+ The soundtrack was composed by Motoi Sakuraba, the famous composer of such hits including the Star Ocean series, the Golden Sun series, and my personal favorite, Shining the Holy Ark. The music is powerful, emotional, and sounds fantastic as each new track fits the tone perfectly. The sound effects are mostly ripped directly from Shining the Holy Ark, which is a good thing as that game was extremely well designed, but some might be a little disappointed by the repeat.
+ Very few would argue that most 32-bit era 3D games haven’t aged too well in the graphics department. It’s true here as well, as the FMV sequences are extremely grainy, 3D environments are mostly made up of low res and low poly count objects, but the sprite-based characters look very nice. This is the one style that hasn’t aged too poorly, all things considered. While in combat the characters are rendered in full 3D, and animate well. You can clearly see and immediately know what’s happening on-screen. The other good news is that there’s almost no loading whatsoever, and the game runs at a fairly constant framerate, which is great.
+/- Unlike the second iteration in the series, Shining Force III pulls players along with the story, removing any free-roaming areas. That means exploration is limited to the area you’re currently in. This is important to note because once you move on, that area is no longer accessible.
+/- Unlike some other tactical RPGs, there are no permanent deaths, unless you fail to recruit a character before they were killed. This means you can visit a church and revive your fallen comrades. It’s also possible to teleport back to your last visited church, which allows you to restart a battle that wasn’t going in your favor, while retaining the experience gained. This means you can grind levels for all your units at any point, and can be considered both a good and a bad aspect depending on how you decide to play the game.
– The camera system takes a very long time to get used to, and even when you do, it’s still very easy to make a mistake when you’re trying to position your units while in combat. You’ll be constantly pressing the L and R buttons to rotate the camera to get a better look at the action, and it can become a bit annoying after a while. Exploration can also be a bit problematic because of the camera angles, as you might miss where an entrance is, or not notice a secret path.
– The limited voice samples are just awful. The lack of emotion while delivering the dialogue makes Resident Evil sound like it should win an Academy Award.
– Some glitchy sound effects cut the music every now and then for whatever reason. It doesn’t happen often, but is annoying when it does.
Waiting a lifetime for the three scenarios, and never seeing them appear anywhere else is heartbreaking, especially since the story is so interesting and the gameplay so fresh. What a waste!
Shining Force III holds up remarkably well today. While the graphics may look dated in a lot of ways, the gameplay is still spot-on. I can’t stress this enough, but far too few have played this awesome game, and fewer still ever will. Today (2013) the game fetches insane prices on eBay, depending on the condition. You can spend upwards of $150 or more, which is asking a lot for only one-third the story. If you can spot a copy of the game for under $100 I’d say to pick it up in a heartbeat, and if you’re a huge Saturn fan I’d say it’s worthy of $120 since most of us had to pay $89.99 back in 1998 for our copies. Since this game has never been released elsewhere, the only way to experience it is via the Saturn and I think it’s well worth checking out.
Final Score: 9/10