Shining Force Neo

Sega’s Shining series has been on a roller coaster ride as of late. Other titles such as Wild Arms, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Suikoden, or Namco’s Tales series have continued to surprise and entertain dungeon crawlers and would-be heroes despite the long wait between releases. Even Ys: Ark of the Napishtim made a somewhat low key return to the gaming scene, providing the kind of action RPG fix that some players have been looking for with simple, fun gameplay. The Shining series, in contrast, has had a long hiatus in the States between Shining Force III on the Saturn until only recently.

Shining Force Neo, as the name suggests, is an all new take on the Shining series as Sega hopes to once more reinvograte their franchise with an ‘evolved’ approach.

Shining Force Neo is part of the PS2’s inventory.

Return to the World of Shining Force

The latest title of the Shining series takes place just thirteen years following a terrible war. The Crystal of Light, that which kept the dark power of the Clan of the Moon in check, was shattered plunging the world into chaos. Entire nations were destroyed, leaving what is left of the world a pale shadow of itself. But where there is war there are heroes and Forces…mighty warriors embued with the power of the crystals…rose up to save what was left. Ultimately, the Clan of the Moon was defeated along with the terrifying horror of creatures known only as ‘Legions’ and their Dark Castle was sealed forever by three crystals, all that were left of the Crystal of Light. But the cost was high as most of the Forces that had participated in the battle were lost.

But now a shadow has fallen over the last three nations of the world threatening to destroy the crystals and unleash the horrors of the past once more. Are there enough Forces in the world to save it? As the tale begins, we turn to Greensleeves where Max…son of the renowned Force, Gaia, who had fought in the war…is training under the watchful eyes of his master at Larcyle Fort. Little does he realize that his homecoming will have more than a warm meal waiting for him at the end of it.

Shining World

Sega has asked Neverland, the developers behind the Dreamcast’s Record of Lodoss War and the PSP’s Tower of Purgatory, to step in and take the Shining series in a new direction. From what I’ve read, members of the original Shining team have also participated in the development of the title alongside Neverland and the result is an action title along the lines of a Diablo, Dungeon Siege, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, or early Gauntlet. Make no mistake, Neo is all about the button mashing. If you are expecting a deep tactical game like Shining Force III or an RPG along the lines of Shining and the Holy Ark, you’ll be very disappointed. But if you’re looking for an action RPG with little to do other than wear out your O button, your thumb or whatever finger you like to use will thank you.

Neo is played from a third person, fixed isometric, 3D perspective in which you take control of Max as he explores the world to ready himself for the inevitable battles to come. A battle at the beginning of the game initiates you into the fighting scheme and what you can do as it introduces other things, such as Goddess Springs, that can be used to heal up and fill bottles of healing water that you will eventually carry with you. This is where it also drops you right into the story of what is going on as you deal with ‘monster gates’, dark spheres swirling with energy that provide the point of entry for the monsters invading the world. Destroying these will keep the monsters from spawning, like the spawn houses in Gauntlet, but you have to first meet the ‘quota’ of monsters that the gate has already pulled in before you can bring one down. Once you destroy the gate, you’ll get a healthy chunk of experience along with some loot such as coins that can be used to strengthen your weapons or armor and crystals that you can use to build up your abilities once you get a Force Frame.

The controls are easy to use for the most part, allowing you to view party status (once you make friends) and equipment at a glance. The directional pad or the right analog stick can be used to select ‘trigger’ items for use with the triangle or the square buttons. The triangle button will key off whatever special weapon ability or spell that is available with the square doing duty with whatever consumables you have, such as bottles of healing water or fairy dust that you can use to keep yourself and your party from being stunned or knocked about like bowling pins.

Combat is even easier. You can always point Max in the direction that he should be swinging, shooting, or spellcasting, or you can just let go of the left analog stick and furiously bash the attack button and watch him go. This is especially true with the bow as he’ll automatically lock on and shoot at anything on…or off the edges of…the screen. Just run up to a mob of monsters with a sword in hand and start hitting that button if you don’t feel like pointing at anything in particular. It can make combat a little too easy…and a little boring.

In addition, you also have a handy automapping feature that fills in as you explore the land and the dungeons around you. It will also show you the cardinal directions, your party member locations once you have them, and the exits that you’ve found out. This last is very useful as it can show you routes and pathways that you might have just walked by.

Soon, Max will come back home to Greensleeves and as the adventure kicks up, it will act as his first base. There’s a smith who can improve the damage of your weapons or the protection of your armor for coin, a storehouse where you can keep up to two hundred items, a store that is pretty useless unless you’re selling things, and a collection of townsfolk that are as interesting as cardboard cutouts. Max will soon come into possession a stone that acts as a personal teleporter, whooshing him out of battle with a simple press of the button and back to Greensleeves. As long as he doesn’t leave the town, the gate back will be waiting for him allowing him to zap out of battle or from the middle of the furthest wasteland, fill up on healing water, save, sell stuff or improve items or abilities, and then head back out again. This neat trick doesn’t work all the time, though, as there are several zones such as certain lairs where you have no choice but to duke it out or die trying.

As the game progresses, you will soon inherit a headquarters where other Forces that you meet on the field will await your return, allowing you to have a maximum of two in your party. The extra Forces remaining behind will patiently wait, their Force energy used to fuel the gates that you will also get access to. As you explore the world, you’ll be able to unlock gates that link up with those at headquarters that make it convenient for you to go from one end of the world to the next.

The Force is Strong With This One

As you play, Max will eventually be able to make use of a Force Frame with which can allow you to customize and improve various abilities. As you explore the world, items called ‘Force Arts’ will sometimes drop from certain monsters or from the monster gates and these can be brought back to Greensleeves to be improved from the energy of the crystals you have found. The higher level a particular skill is, the more energy you will need to improve it. These abilities and skills are the core of the customization that the game has to offer, ranging from improving the damage that you can do with a weapon to focusing on improving damage against particular types of enemies or in raising your resistance to certain elements. Some abilities will also open up additional levels on their own once you complete improving the previous level. You also have to be careful in improving your skills for once you invest energy in improving a particular one, you can’t get it back.

The sheer number of skills available in the game is pretty extensive. Skills have multiple levels, ensuring that you can improve many of them dramatically and tilt Max’s fighting style to either a melee or mage-like direction…or both if you can gather up the crystals. This isn’t much of a concern, though, as whenever you return to a particular area the monster gates also respawn, ready to be taken down again. The value of the crystals also improve over time as you gain in level. You might be picking up crystals that are worth only fifty energy points early on, but eventually you’ll get to snag crystals that are nearly a thousand energy points apiece. For those that have played Record of Lodoss War on the Dreamcast, this system will seem like a variant of the rune and forge system that had been used there.

While the system is pretty straightforward, it there was one issue in particular that was particularly frustrating concerning Force Arts found on the field of battle. Gathering up crystal energy to improve your skills basically makes you a farmer in the later stages of the game as you go on runs revisiting areas to clear them back out. The problem is that at one point in the game, while working on improving some of Max’s abilities, I had picked up several Force Arts that were a higher level than the one I was working on. In other words, while working on improving my “Level 8 Protection”, I snagged a “Level 9″…making improving the previous level a waste. This wasn’t much of a problem later on but be ready to experience this annoying quirk in the beginning to middle part of your adventure.

Along with your skills, you will also have an arsenal of weapons and armor including rings and bracelets that you can equip. Many of these will have a maximum of two additional enchantments ranging from buffing your HPs to providing added protection against being stunned. Eventually, master arts can also be found which allow you to add a powerful ability to your weapon, armor, or shield. Some of these master arts include the ability to kill certain monsters with only one hit so finding these can prove to be very useful.

Shining in the Darkness

The world is rendered in 3D including and the monsters that you will inevitably encounter sport a sort of cel shaded look to them including the main characters. The world looks pretty good overall, especially when some of the special effects from spells and certain attacks come into play. Shields and weapons wielded by your character are represented and the sheer amount of equipment almost ensures that you’ll have quite a bit of eye candy to enjoy. Other pieces of armor, such as helmets and suits, don’t get any real representation at all. Max will keep sporting his flaming red hair for everyone to see. The animation work is also worth mentioning, giving every monster their own particular attack and ‘personality’ along with the characters that join your party. As for the monster AI, it’s pretty simple. Most creatures will rush you head on and surround you. Creatures with ranged attacks will try and strike from a distance and most will give chase until you move far enough away for them to give up.

Unfortunately, all of this comes at a real cost to performance in busy scenes. The case promises “over 90 enemies” that will simultaneously attack Max and his party. It isn’t kidding. What will amount to small armies can fill your screen at times if you happen to run across multiple monster gates and you will hear the fan kick up in your old PS2 as the console struggles under the weight of trying to keep it all running at a reasonable clip…and failing. It is not uncommon for Max to literally find himself and his friends buried on the screen somewhere amidst all of the monsters leaving you to button mash and hope for the best. Add to that effects such as lightning, breath weapons, and explosions, and you’ve got a recipe that will have you changing up your strategy to try and kill as many monsters as possible…not because they’re the bad guys…but because you need to free up the screen. How this could have been overlooked is a huge mystery.

Hello? Is This On?

The story in Neo is told through pre-rendered CG cinematics. There are also animated scenes created for the game by Studio 4C whose work some may recognize from several episodes of the Animatrix. Studio 4C is made up of former artists from Studio Ghibli (whom many consider to be the ‘Disney’ of Japan), so the quality of these scenes are particularly something to look forward to.

The character designs were done by manga artist Yuriko Nishiyama with the monster designs handled by Yoshitaka Tamaki who fans may recognize as a long time illustrator to the series. However, as soon as the characters start talking, that’s when you’ll be clawing at the screen in agony. A few of the characters were particular harbingers of audio hell, namely the love interest which was not a good thing, but this was most likely the fault of what she does in the game than in the dialogue scenes she is in.

Stills in the form of well drawn character portraits tell the story in cut scenes with text and voice whenever something happens that doesn’t require an animated or CG cinematic, allowing you to hear some pretty awful dialogue. Resembling a radio show from the 1920’s only with pictures, the scenes play out with dialogue that is hard to take seriously. Whether this has something to do with the translations or not, one thing is absolutely certain: the voice acting did not help here. You have to hand it to the professionalism of the voice actors to say such memorable lines such as “Oh, I’m gonna be in such a mess if you die now. This is no time to just lie around!” with what I can only imagine to be serious faces. Who says that kind of stuff?

It may not have been so bad if this was in only one or two instances, but it carries it’s way through the rest of the production. Fortunately, not all of the characters share in dialogue hell. The villain, in particular, was seethingly evil until the end. There was also Baron, the wolfman who teams up with you later on, who lucked out on having some of the better dialogue as well. I finally opted to turn off the event voices and just read the dialogue for myself which actually worked out better for me.

But I couldn’t escape their voices on the battlefield. As you fight, the main character along with other members of his party will yell out things such as “Take this!” or “Easy as pie!”, many times whenever they attack or do something particularly interesting such as use a spell. Remember the love interest? She gets to say “Hot stuff, coming your way!” every time she casts a spell. Guess what her only attack is.

They also say things when they get blasted by hard attacks, forcing me to hear “No way!” countless times, each spoken word later becoming drops of water in an audio version of chinese water torture. And you can’t turn any of it off. Well, you can, but then you won’t be able to hear anything else in the game, either, other than the music. Early on, this wasn’t bad. Later in the game a few hours later, I found myself visiting the option screen often as I tried to decide to either turn it all off or just suffer through several hundred more screams of “Hot stuff, coming your way!”. Fortunately, not all characters are as obnoxious. Baron is a ninja, so whatever he has to say if you can hear it is easy on the ears since he’s soft spoken. I found two other characters that were also relative hard cases, one who didn’t speak at all and another who just seemed to have all of the right lines along with the devastating power.

The music doesn’t fare much better for what is supposed to be the triumphant evolution of the Shining series. This was a surprise considering that it was scored by none other than Shiro Sagisu of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame. Only a handful of the pieces are particularly memorable or inspiring such as the introductory theme. The theme from Mount Bakaus or from the frozen lands are two of the pieces that stand out as being particularly interesting in battle or just in exploration. For the most part, however, most of the music either felt as if it didn’t fit or was more along the lines of bland filler between events.

Crystal Farmer

In an action RPG like Neo, you need a story to support the action, something to keep the player focused on what they need to do. While the concept of ‘saving the world’ isn’t something new to RPGs, they always supported themselves with fun gameplay and a unique take on the idea with interesting characters and locales. Unfortunately, Neo felt as if had taken several steps back. As was already noted with the dialogue above, the story doesn’t hold up very well when the main characters fail to inspire you with the possible exception of the villain. The storyline is also rife with too many obvious cliches. At least the ending is somewhat decent, but that’s not saying much.

There are also other problems with the title that made this an absolute chore to play through. Again, if you’re into button mashing fun, this might be your title. For me, though, it took it to such extreme levels that I was bored to tears by the end of the game. At least Ys: Ark of the Napishtim or Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance managed to balance gameplay and story together along with the action so as not to have it feel like a burden. In Neo, the action began to feel like a massive weight only a few hours into the game that just got heavier as I continued.

The repetitive slaughtering of hundreds of monsters soon felt like a massive chore during the course of the adventure, especially when one of those goals was in trying to gather up crystals to extract energy from in order to improve your skills. The improvement of your skills became so chore-like that it actually detracted from any fun that I had been having. This was until Max was so powerful I didn’t care anymore. As soon as it got to the point where I didn’t really have to worry about improving my skills near the end of the game, that’s when it became a little more fun again.

Other fun moments included how to tackle certain boss monsters with certain weapons and tactics, running around to get angles of attack and dodging fire and ice to survive. These battles were also pretty fun, reminding me of the ones from Ys where just going in swinging would get you killed pretty quickly. But don’t get your hopes up. The ‘bosses’ are just supersized monsters that don’t do much other than walk at you, shoot at you, or try and bash you.

Having a large selection of skills available can give the player the ability to customize their character. Morrowind had a huge plethora of skills to improve, but each one was just as important by itself. Ys allowed you to improve your weapons, but with a simple to manage and easy to use system that kept things focused and fun. Record of Lodoss War had a system of inscriptions allowing you to mix and match abilities on your weapons and armor which still kept things simple and focused.

But Neo layers the skills that you find in the game on a nearly obscene level. Imagine playing a game like Diablo or Dark Alliance, and instead of nicely rolling certain skills into convenient general effects and abilities, everything was piecemealed to death. You might improve your weapon skills, but guess what? That’s just your general skill set. That sword won’t do well against certain creatures unless you layer another skill on top of that. Not only that, but you might have to layer something else on top of that just to be able to inflict maximum damage. Some might like this. I found it to be just as repetitive as the combat.

So as a result, not only will Max pick up skills for general weapon use, many skills make it necessary to learn more skills in order to fill in the gaps, ensuring that the player will be forced to farm some more. You may need to learn skills that target lizards, orcs, or only winged creatures in order to complement your general weapon skill. And on top of that, you might want to focus on either doing heavier damage to scaled creatures or creatures with weapons. Customization is a lot of fun, but the skill system combined with the layers of other skills on top of those in Neo felt too obvious in encouraging excessive farming. You really have no choice if you want to have a chance at surviving some of the more brutal encounters later on. A majority of the time will be spent living as Crystal Farmer Max.

There’s also the massive Monty Haul mentality that dominates about half of what you’ll be doing here. I like collecting stuff in RPGs, it’s all part of the fun. But again, Neo went into overkill with it. It might not have been too bad, but most of what I found was useless. Offering a smorgasbord of items served up faster than french fries at McDonald’s, the collection of items in Neo is such that I had to wonder if an entire army had literally died for every ten feet of ground that there was to cover. There are occasionally good pieces, with more being unlocked after accomplishing certain challenges, but most of the stuff you will find is garbage making the store in Greensleeves more useful. The deluge of items in the game will litter the battlefield, with much of it staying behind even if you leave an area. Teleporting, selling, fighting, and teleporting again was so much a part of the gameplay in Neo that at one point I just gave up doing it, leaving hoards of gold and items just lying around (crystals were always useful) because I got sick of having to “stop ‘n sell” every few monster gates.

Oh, and one more thing about the monster gates. As mentioned before, each gate can only be destroyed after you have killed so many of the monsters that it has summoned. The problem is that sometimes, in the heat of battle, some monsters will run off in other directions leaving you to wonder why the damn gate just won’t ‘weaken’ enough to kill it. That is, until you find the errant beastie and kill it because odds were good that your party members weren’t going to do anything about it except blindly attack the still fortified monster gate like idiots.

There’s also the fact that the camera isn’t your best friend. Being isometric, this means that you get less of a ‘line of sight’ on your foes if they happen to come up from the bottom or left and right of the screen as opposed to the top and its corners. This can get really annoying when you are trying to use your bow for distance shots to kill particularly brutal monsters who can suddenly pop up if they are approaching from the bottom and kill you. Some of these beasts can also blast you offscreen resulting in several deaths that can catch you by surprise. Much aggravation followed.

Then there’s the inventory system. The game tends to treat batches of items as seperate lines in your inventory, meaning that you find a card like item with three uses in it, it ends up in your inventory as an item with an x3 next to it. The problem is that if you have multiple types of the same item, x1, x3, or x whatever, they get their own spot in your inventory. The same thing with keys. Nothing stacks. If you find three different sets of keys with x1, x3, or x10, they all get treated as three separate inventory items…as if the keys are really that unique. This eats up space in your inventory, forcing you to dump quite a bit of stuff in your storehouse which also has its own limitations. There are things that you can’t afford to leave home, like the bottles of refillable healing water. Instead of stacking these, you guessed it…they all take up separate lines of space in your valuable inventory. Add to that the need to carry around sets of armor and weapons to fight certain enemies in the best way possible with the best protection, and management gets to be annoying especially when you want to collect as much crap on the battlefield as possible without making separate trips. This can get annoying after doing it for so long.

And why aren’t keys automatically used whenever you encounter a locked door or chest? It’s not as if every door or chest in the game had a special key made for it. Yet the game forces you to select the key and use it before you can actually open whatever is in front of you instead of just ‘using’ what you’ve got as part of your inventory. At first, not so bad. Later in the game especially in several sections that were filled with locked doors and chests, this also got annoying in having to switch back to the key, back to healing, back to stone to flesh, etc..

The world of Neo isn’t particularly interesting, either, most of the cities and places you go to existing only to lead the player from one end of the world to the next. Given that this was an action RPG title, I certainly didn’t expect much to be there, but it did leave the world feeling very empty. There were only three stores that I found willing to sell Max and his party things, and only one of them had anything particularly useful. Most of anything that you will need will be found on on the battlefield leaving the stores to act as convenient stop stations for selling what you don’t want. You could go and get crystal energy extracted from those items that have enchantments worked into them, but why when it will be faster to just destroy and farm monster gates or sell the items for cash you need to improve your armor or weapon? The stores in the game, with their bottomless cash reserves, were useful only in this one regard. One store attempted to sell weapons, but they were all useless.

The Party Stops Here

Oh, and your party apparently doesn’t have an inventory that they can use to help you haul all of this stuff back to headquarters to sell off. In fact, your party members are mostly helpless in any regard other than in getting themselves killed, forcing you to waste precious healing water to resuscitate them for another beating. Most of the time, I’d just let them stay dead to conserve healing water if I wanted to focus on killing monsters.

You also can’t customize your party members. Remember the shoot ’em up Gradius? In Gradius, you had little indestructable satellites that you could get that followed you around called “options”. These handy little things could help shoot and blow up bad guys. By picking up and upgrading weapons, you could give your ship and these options the ability to deal death on a wide scale making them very useful. In contrast, your two party members that can follow you around are Max’s ‘options’, only they are utterly useless. Most of them are, anyway, aside from two of them later in the game that can actually deal out attacks that help you. Everyone else is cannon fodder. Even the healer character that you eventually get is pretty useless. I stopped picking her as a party member, if not because of her annoying voice acting but because she never heals on a consistent basis. By the time Max needed healing, he’d usually be dead if I had to depend on her.

But given the game’s drive to allow you to customize Max to the ‘max’, the omission of being able to do the same with your party is something of a mystery. Unlike the helpful options in Gradius, the arsenal of waste that you will be collecting and selling cannot be given over to your party for better use as upgrades. I tried, if only to get Meryl to stop shouting “Hot stuff, coming your way!”, only to find that I can just view what level she’s add, some dialogue describing her as fit, and the fact that she’ll be doing a lot of dying. Okay, the last wasn’t there, but you get the idea.

Despite being the party ‘leader’, you don’t do much leading other than in watching your party follow you around. But forget about giving out orders, putting your party in formation, telling them to stop attacking the stupid monster gate because there’s still one beast alive that’s keeping it protected, or basically telling them to run away and form up on you if things get too difficult for them. If anything, they’re loyal to a near fault, but the unfortunate side effect is that you’ll watch them die too often.

Other technical issues include watching your party members get stuck on obstacles, but here the pathfinding actually works as advertised. Most of the time. I’ve seen them get stuck on the edge of my radar because they couldn’t get around a mound of debris or something similar. I found it faster to zap back to Greensleeves and then go back to where you left off which forces everyone together. Returning to Greensleeves also also automatically resuscitates anyone that may have died trying to be brave while Sir Max wisely ran away.

The End of the Road

When Sega had announced that it was making Shining Force Neo with developer Neverland, I was pretty excited. From their work on Record of Lodoss War, I was hoping to experience much of the same thing that had made it fun to play. To say I was disappointed is something of an understatement. To its credit, however, Neo does have one thing going for it: it does have its moments of addictive gameplay…as long as you don’t try to think too much on what is wrong with the game. Sometimes button mashing can be fun and there are at least thirty hours of this in the title, more if you chose to go through all of the optional ‘Legion Hive’ challenges in the game. When you finish it, be sure to stay until after the credits for the last animated cinematic that ends the title. A new dungeon will also open up if you choose to continue with your ‘end game’ save.

When all is said and done, however, the overly repetitive action, awful story, painful dialogue, overused voice acting, and bland music following you everywhere made this an experience that was entirely too disappointing on several levels. I can’t really recommend this to anyone other than die hard Shining Force fans that absolutely have to have every Shining title out there. Or to those that simply love the thrill of blowing through armies of hapless monsters. For this dungeon crawler, though, the adventure had its moments but they were too few to make it feel as if the journey was worth it.

– World 1-1

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