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Hands-On: Shining Force NEO (Playstation 2)

Genre: Action/RPG Developer: Neverland/Amusement Vision Publisher: Sega of America Players: 1 Released: 10/20/05

After more than a dozen titles, many people were beginning to think that perhaps Sega was running out of ways to reinvent the Shining franchise. Both GBA Shining Soul games left gamers scratching their heads and a lot of faith appeared to have been lost. See, the series had always distinguished itself for being able to diversify its releases among several genres of play. From the traditional strategy/RPG Force classics to the first-person dungeon crawlers of Shining in the Darkness and Shining the Holy Ark, just about every outing was considered gold. Sure, there were a few hiccups along the way, but every new announcement was something for gamers to look forward to.

That is…until Sega announced Shining Force NEO.

Almost immediately, worried fans began to voice their concern over the direction taken with this latest release. A Force game that wasn’t strategy-based? No involvement from Camelot? How on earth could this succeed? The Soul games made it quite evident how the games could turn our when handled by another developer and remain, to this day, a textbook example of how to ruin a classic formula. If someone else were going to be at the reigns with this newest entry, then NEO appeared to be doomed from the start.

So began the collective breath holding that lasted until only recently, when the positive reviews started pouring in. 9 out of 10 from 1up? How could this be? Suddenly, people started to relax their rumpled brows and slowly but surely figured they’d give the game a chance. Well my friends, let me be among the first to tell you that your faith has been rewarded. While not a true Force game, NEO is definitely worthy of the Shining name.

The story is about as deep as any of Neo‘s predecessors, which any fan can tell you isn’t that deep at all. As Max (a good Shining name), you’ve spent your life training and hoping to one day undertake the Ordeals of the Force and become a user of that most sacred of powers. When the evil Clan of the Moon shatters the Light Crystals, the fate of his world is unforgivingly thrust into his lap. Together with eleven companions, he must seal the demon portals and restore peace.

Perhaps it’s not the most profound of storylines, but it’s well done and splendidly told through static dialogue scenes that are all fully voiced, making it more interesting and appealing than it might initially appear. The characters are instantly recognizable, from Max’s childhood friend Meryl, to the centaur knights. I especially liked the inclusion of certain character styles that harkens back to previous titles, like the wolfling Baron. It simply would not be a Shining game without a claw-bearing werewolf, and this is one of the few subtle details that actually made it over from past titles.

Which is where a good portion of complaints from long-time fans will initially come. There’s not much here to cause that warm and fuzzy feeling among the faithful, and while such omissions only slightly bothered me, they were still enough to notice. All you need to do is boot up the game to know what I’m talking about. Gone is the classic menu system with its animated icons. Few items and spells are present as well, although I’m sure that many will be happy to see blaze, return, and spark included; I for one, was sad to see that there were no magical bread or cookies. Those were so cool! These are really only minor quibbles, mind you, and it is the gameplay that makes or breaks a game, not the names of its spells. That is what’s most important, and it is where NEO takes its largest detour from past Shining titles.

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Exactly how does NEO differ from any of the other games before it? For starters, this isn’t the same Shining Force we all know and love. In fact, it has more in common with Falcom’s classic Ys series than anything Force-related. I think Sega felt they needed to give it some brand name recognition and slapped the title on it, which gives the whole thing a certain Final Fantasy quality, in that it’s part of the series…but at the same time it’s not. Mind you, I think it’s perfectly acceptable that this game bear the Shining moniker, but the Force part does seem a bit misleading, to say the least. Yes, you have a group of adventurers, and they all meet at an HQ where you can change between them, but that’s about it. There really isn’t any strategy involved, since the actual gameplay is very hack-‘n-slash, with no turn-based combat at all. In fact, the computer handles your party during combat, allowing you to concentrate on cutting a swath through the evil hordes around you.

And what hordes they are! NEO boasts up to ninety, yes ninety enemies around you at a single time, each chopping and swinging almost as mindlessly as you. As you plow through their front lines, the excellent party A.I. maintains your group at a respectable level of combat-readiness, casting spells from behind you and defending themselves when attacked directly. You won’t have to spend valuable resources keeping them alive or leave bosses and tougher enemies to run to their defense. Nope, they can handle themselves quite well.

They look great while doing it, too. NEO sports some gorgeous visuals, with 3D backgrounds nicely complimented by cell-shaded character models. It gives the whole game that special atmosphere that is so much a part of this universe. Having played through Ark of Napishtim, I was convinced that Amusement Vision could pull it off here, and they most certainly did. Colors are smooth and soothing, and the detailed graphics are highly reminiscent of Square’s Mana games in style. Very nice to look at, indeed. All of this goodness is complimented by some incredible anime-style cut scenes done by Studio 4C (Spriggen, Steamboy). They’re sprinkled throughout the game, and are quite a nice departure from the standard CG scenes most RPGs employ today. Round off the package with a solid soundtrack, and you have the makings of a great game.

It would, of course, mean nothing if the gameplay weren’t up to par. Thankfully, that’s not the case here. NEO plays as solid as it looks, offering the sort of depth you’d expect from an action/RPG, without ever getting too complicated. A grand total of seventy different weapons can be used, each upgradeable with standard and Force options. Depending on the type of character in question (single or two-handed weapon-type, archer-type, or magic-type), certain weapons provide special skills that are very handy in battle. Once your weapon skill meter is full, you can then use that skill like a spell. For example, some two-handed swords offer the knockdown skill, which sends out a shock wave that knocks foes to the ground. You can pick and choose which weapon and skill to use during specific battles, so be sure to think ahead!

There are tons of weapons and equipment to use, as well as the spells and skills. As you progress through the game, Max will develop into a specific type of fighter. Make him a warrior, archer, or mage; and watch him grow accordingly. You use points earned in battle to tailor such traits as strength, defense, dexterity, and intelligence; which are changed using a sleek slider bar system. You essentially “buy” traits with these points, and you can even exchange enchanted equipment for them. Increase your flame resistance, improve your attack stats; it’s quick and easy, making combat seamless and unencumbered. No one wants pages of meaningless statistics in an action/RPG and character customization, while nice, should be a bonus, not a burden. Your characters can also learn skills and spells, and level up in battle as you do. They’re not as customizable as Max is, and the whole multi-character party that was so central to past Force games has been watered down considerably here. It’s a shame, but understandable when one considers the difference in gameplay styles.

 

I’ve noticed that many previews have compared NEO to famous dungeon crawlers like Diablo and Record of Lodoss War on the Dreamcast. In a sense, that is true. The gameplay and graphics do adhere to the hack-‘n-slash standard set forth by those great games, but this isn’t merely a clone. There’s a distinct personality here, which is strong enough to give it its own voice. Perhaps the whole issue is moot, as no one will really be comparing it to any other dungeon crawler before it. No, the Shining games have their own standard, and while it’s a pretty flexible yardstick (more like a measuring tape) by which they’re measured, there is a specific criteria that fans want followed. My biggest gripe, much worse than the gameplay change and lack of classic items or menus, has to be the complete and total failure to continue the single greatest tradition of everything Shining: unity to a single, common universe. None of the countries, characters, or enemies are from any previous game; and no mention is ever made of the other heroes or great battles. This was very disappointing to me, and is why I fear that Sega might be leaning towards Square’s policy of having each future release share only the brand name. That would be most unfortunate.

So what you basically have here is a rock-solid action/RPG that offers great gameplay and visuals, as well as a quest that spans between 35 and 40 hours. It may not be the tried and true Shining Force we all know and love, but it’s still an excellent purchase. I personally would have preferred Sega have changed the name to something else (Shining Knights, perhaps?), and the lack of classic elements was disappointing. Taken for what it is though, Shining Force NEO is a wonderful game that is sure to please gamers, whether they’re Shining fans or not.

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