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Developer:
Neverland
Publisher: Sega
Platform: PS2
Release Date: October 20, 2005

by Aaron Slater





Shining Force Neo has tons of monsters, a vast world on the edge of war, interesting and unique characters, fun and addicting gameplay, and a great soundtrack. In other words, itís everything that a Shining game is expected to be.


To say that Shining Tears was a disappointment would be quite an understatement. The first new installment in the Shining series in quite some time, it departed from the strategy RPG elements that had been a series mainstay for many entries, and instead utilized an action RPG hack-and-slash battle system. Unfortunately, the game offered little in the form of variation, and the stale formula of too few enemies and too much button-mashing got old quickly. One would think that Sega would have seen the error of its ways and given up on the hack-and-slash gameplay, but instead Sega fixed many of the errors that bogged down Shining Tears and improved upon everything that made it passable, leaving the player with a fun and dynamic hack-and-slash RPG.


Shining Force Neo tells the tale of Max, the son of the powerful Force Gaia who sets off to become a Force himself so that he can find his brother who disappeared many years before. Thirteen years prior to the events of the game, the world was thrust into a war that cost many their lives. A cult-type organization known as the Clan of the Moon rose up and called in monsters from another dimension known as Legions to aid them in their path of destruction. The Clan of the Moon was destroyed and their base has been sealed away by three Light Crystals kept guarded and separate from one another with hopes that the Clan of the Moon will never be able to rise to power again. Max lost his mother in the war, and his best friend from childhood, Meryl, lost both of her parents when she was a mere infant, but both of them have the Forces to thank for ending the war. However, when the legions begin to return and an entity in the form of Max's brother begins a crusade to destroy the Light Crystal, Max, Meryl, and the many comrades they meet will set out on a journey that will determine the fate of the world around them.


Although the story is nothing special, it does deliver itself in an interesting way. Many of the plot twists were evident long before they were finally delivered, but it didn't take away from them being genuinely enticing and adding to the story. The characters in the game are very unique, in the sense that most of them are in one way or another suffering from the war that occurred thirteen years ago. Despite the fact that most of these characters have been scarred by the past events, the game never gets too dark or morbid. There are many sad and serious moments, but the cast of characters remains upbeat and helps to lighten the mood of these occurrences. Since the game never gets too dark or morose, it avoids many of the pitfalls that a game with a trite storyline would face, and instead delivers the story in an interesting and engaging way.


Graphically the game looks solid. The game is done fully in 3D, with an isometric view as you explore towns and dungeons, and periodically a water painting backdrop behind the 3D world. The characters are very well detailed; shields and weapons change the appearance of the main character. The enemies are also very well detailed and move very fluidly. Magic attacks look nice as they glide across the screen, arrows fly, and swords slash, and everything looks very nice when it is all in motion. On the downside, every once in a while the game suffers from slowdown. The slowdown does not occur often, but there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason for it. It occurred once while fighting a boss in a room full of enemies, but later when fighting a larger boss in a room filled with even more enemies the game didn't slow down once. Regardless, when the slowdown occurs it is annoying, but it doesn't occur nearly often enough to truly be a detriment to the experience.


One last thing that should be said about the graphics is that some cut scenes are delivered in anime movies. The movies are done by the acclaimed Studio 4C and are used effectively and to the game's benefit. These add to the game's anime-influenced style, and are just fun to watch and rewarding to reach.


The audio in this game is well above par. The sound effects are all very nice and fitting, whether it be swords slashing or spell casting; the accompanying audio always fits. This game also features quite a bit of voice acting in battle, during cut scenes, and during the aforementioned anime movies. The voice acting ranges from very well done to passable, but overall adds quite a bit to the game. Although it can be annoying to hear the same voice clip for a character during battle, and some of the more stilted dialogue can be a bit grating, the voice acting does enhance the gaming experience. The music is definitely the best aspect of the audio, as the pieces played are always well matched to their environment or to the action that is onscreen. The opening theme is very nice as well, and is quite rousing, which fits for the action-packed experience that this game offers.


So the story is trite but entertaining, the graphics are solid but not spectacular, and the audio is fitting and little else. This would leave very little to be expected from the gameplay department. Fortunately, unlike Shining Tears, it is in the gameplay that Shining Force Neo excels. The game is hack and slash, and there is little doubt about that, however there is more to the game than just repeatedly attacking. The player character is Max, who can be customized in a multitude of ways, and any of two party members who Max can choose (as the party gets larger) to do battle with him. Enemies are encountered in large groups and continually spawn from a Monster Gate, which is a giant sphere that is a portal to the den of the monsters. In order to stop the enemies from spawning, the player must destroy the Monster Gate, but the Monster Gate cannot be damaged without killing the onslaughts of monsters that continually spawn from it. Once the monsters have been decimated, the shield that surrounds the Monster Gate disappears and the player can finally damage the Monster Gate. Once the monster gate is broken it will drop force energy, and maybe a weapon and a Force Art if the player is lucky. The Force Art is basically a skill (mainly passive) that the player can learn. By allotting force energy to a Force Art at the specific shop in town, the skill becomes more effective and eventually the skill will max out and the next level of the skill may become available. It is in these skills that the customization of Max becomes evident.


Max can be customized primarily in three ways, as a swordsman (utilizing a wide variety of one- or two-handed weapons), a mage (using a wand that has been imbued with magic spells), or as an archer (firing arrows from afar). The Force Arts tend to fall into these three categories, as some will increase how fast an attack is, others will enhance a spell's power, and even others may increase Max's status. The status screen is fairly simple, with elemental defense for each of the game's elements, attack and defense, and HP and MP. These stats are increased mainly through leveling up, although some can be altered through Force Arts. The rest of the stats, which range from attack width to footsteps (how audible the player's steps are -- the less audible the less likely monsters will hear Max's approach), are all customized with weapons and armor, which are acquired in stores, from treasure chests, or (most likely) are dropped by enemies in dungeons. The weapons that the player uses contain the active skills, so equipping different weapons will result in different active skills. While one wand may have a Level 2 ice spell, another might have Level One spells for dark and fire spells, so for some classes considering which weapon the player equips may be crucial. For others, the weapon chosen may simply be the one that does the most damage.


Items are acquired in the same manner. They, too, are either bought at stores or found in dungeons dropped by monsters. There aren't many items in the game. Keys to open chests, bottles that can be filled (unlimited times) with water at fountains that fully heal all characters in the party, pixie dust which enhances a characters defense in battle, and a talisman that can be used to warp back to the base at any time are the most important items. The player never has to stop playing to utilize a specific item, as with just a flick of the right analog stick the item can be selected, and with a button press it can be used. The same goes for skills. This system helps to simplify item usage, so that it never slows down or interrupts the quick nature of the game.


The basic strategy of the game is no more complex than that -- kill hordes of monsters, gain experience and level up, destroy the Monster Gate, customize your character, rinse, and repeat. The game very rarely strays from this setup, unless the player is in a town where there may be bouts of storyline interrupting this formula. Fortunately, this formula stays fresh as the enemies get tougher, the weapons get cooler, and the skills the player can use become more powerful. When Max is fighting enemies who regenerate health while decimating his, quickly switching between skills and healing potions, and the party members are standing alongside Max blasting away at the enemy, there is a sense of excitement and a rush that comes with these fights. As the game becomes more difficult, these moments become more and more frequent, and the game maintains a level of entertainment until the end of its sizeable quest.


Shining Force Neo is a throwback to old-school hack-and-slash games which incorporates some new elements that keeps it fresh and fun. Although the graphics, audio, and storyline certainly will not set the gaming world ablaze, the solid game mechanics should offer plenty of enjoyment for players. Shining Force Neo is an exciting and engaging quest that fans of the Shining series, as well as RPG fans in general, should be willing to try out.


Final Grade: 82%




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