Genre: Strategy/RPG Developer: Sonic Co. Publisher: Sega of America Players: 1 Released: 1993
What a treat! First, a bit of history. The Shining series has a bit of a confusing backstory, compounded by the fact that developers liked to rename and reuse certain names for characters with no relation to each other. Naturally, this makes the story harder to piece together and the hierarchy tough to place. This game is actually named Shining Force Gaiden II; the first Gaiden game was stranded in Japan until both games were eventually upgraded and ported to the Sega CD as Shining Force CD. This game was the only Shining title released for the Game Gear in North America. It stands well enough on its own merits, but you’ll get so much more out of it once you understand its place in the chronology of the series. Since the ’90s, the Shining series has fallen into a bit of a slump, with Sega putting out new games to mediocre reviews. But how does this handheld game stack up and is it worth playing now?
This game manages to incorporate all the familiar Shining elements: the pictograph menus, the cute/deformed sprites, the juxtaposition of fantasy with science-fiction, and epic music. No doubt about it, the game has style. The battle system works just like a Shining game should. They even managed to program in the land effect that governs whether your character is walking across a flat field or through wooded mountains.
If you’ve never played a Shining game before, you command up to 12 characters and move them across a battlefield, casting spells, whacking monsters, and laying down justice. It’s a bit like chess. Every character gets a turn with a set area to move depending on the land effect and their mobility rate. Once you maneuver your character close enough to an enemy, you can choose to attack it. Though the AI is not extremely tough, there are multiple ways to take each battlefield. Other options include healing yourself or your teammates, casting offensive or defensive spells, using items, or choosing to retreat. Each character class has strengths and weaknesses and each have their own stat growth trends. Centaurs have low defense, dwarves are tanks, and mages are glass cannons. The smooth nature of the game has to be played to be believed. The first Shining Force on the Genesis was one of the first true strategy/RPGs to hit the States in the fashion of Fire Emblem, spawning numerous imitators and helping to codify the genre. This game follows in its footsteps.
The big disappointment here is the lack of explorable towns. Towns here are just as they were in Shining in the Darkness – tiny hubs consisting of a shop and headquarters. The item shop and weapon shop have been integrated into one single bland menu. Priests and churches are nowhere to be found; all healing is done in your HQ. I was sad to see these omissions but not surprised. Cuts had to be made somewhere, and everything is still functional, just not as pleasing to the eye. The lack of exploration is a big bummer, but it does make the game flow much more quickly and you won’t get lost wondering where to go.
Graphically, the game is pretty competent. If there is one downside to the graphics, it is that everything is so cute! It’s hard to feel in danger when your enemies look about as threatening as an overstuffed teddy bear. Otherwise, it’s the familiar style as the Genesis games – tiny characters, the grid system, battle screens. Many of the enemy sprites are ported from the earlier games and given new names. Some made the transition better than others. The goblins, dwarves, and lizardmen will be instantly recognizable. Everything is a bit watered down to accommodate the hardware, but it’s still instantly recognizable, and a happy sight to see for anyone who’s played the initial installments to death.
The music is brilliant. Even with a weaker sound chip, the musicians manage to evoke sadness, happiness, dread, and the rush of battle. The town themes are cheerfully chirpy and very, very 8-bit, with lots of good old blips and bloops in the same style as the originals. I can’t stress how great the songs are.
Overall, Sword of Hajya is a wonderful game that any fan of strategy/RPGs should have a lot of fun with. Though it may be a bit on the simple side, for gamers who just want another fun fantasy quest in the Shining universe, it’s a great addition to the Game Gear library.
SCORE: 8 out of 10