Sega's Shining Force series made its name on a number of popular turn-based strategy games, so it's somewhat surprising that Shining Force NEO isn't a strategy game at all. The newest entry into the classic Shining Force line is instead a real-time, hack-and-slash adventure that pits your character and a small party against mobs of all different sorts of monstrous creatures. It's a game that ultimately is much more closely related to the handheld Shining Soul games and other recent series efforts than it is to the strategies of yore. We grabbed some time with the game to see just how the role-playing swordfest unfolds.
The game's hero is Max, a bright and promising red-haired youth with a carefree attitude and prowess in battle. He's been in intensive battle training for the past two years, trying his best to become a Force, a mighty warrior with magically augmented abilities. The reason for his interest stems from the disappearance of his older brother Cain, who became a Force user at the tender age of 15 and vanished without a trace in a battle three years before. Max doesn't get a chance to complete his trials and come into his Force status through conventional means, however.
The monsters that plague the world have started to mysteriously increase in number, and they wage an attack on Max's home of Greensleeves, a city suspended in the boughs of a great tree. In Greensleeves, there resides one of the three Force crystals, artifacts that keep the insectoid Legion from overwhelming their world. Unfortunately, a masked man arrives and shatters Greensleeves' crystal--and it turns out to be Max's brother, in the grip of some evil influence. So now the Legion is coming out of dormancy, the world is swarming with monsters, and Max is elevated to the rank of a Force so that he can take his brother down a few pegs and manage that "saving the world" thing that's so popular with heroes these days.
You'll move about freely through the various regions of the world, with Max under your direct control and up to three artificial intelligence-controlled teammates accompanying you. You'll come across a variety of different weapons and armor that Max can equip, and you can take these to a shop to have them enhanced with special Force powers. Besides Max's normal melee combos and the Force abilities that you can learn, there will be some weapons with their own special effects. For example, the Zweihander, a huge and slow two-handed sword, can be used to knock back all the enemies around you and send them stunned to the ground for a moment.
There's a variety of weapons that Max can use, from swords to staves to bows, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses in certain situations. Your teammates range along behind you and attack when they want to, be it with melee weapons or magical spells. They seem, in practice, to be fairly good at holding their own without too much babysitting, and they're helpful in the many fights you'll come across. As you defeat enemies, you'll not only discover items and currency, but you'll also gain experience points that will level and strengthen your group.
There are certainly plenty of monsters to fight. The lands are riddled with enemy spawn portals that are generally only defeatable after you've destroyed a certain number of monsters, and these portals spew forth increasingly large numbers of foes as things progress. The screen can swarm with 20 enemies or more at a time, and you'll have to find a way to quickly dispatch them before you get entirely overrun by tooth and claw. The type of enemies you'll face range from ogre-like monsters fond of chucking bombs and flying birdmen, to the insect Legion with its tough armor and great numbers. The only way through is to obliterate as many as possible as quickly as possible, so you'll perfect your weapon-mashing skills early on.
During normal gameplay, you'll move around in a richly hued and detailed 3D world populated by cel-shaded characters with fluid and good-looking animation. Gameplay is interspersed with a number of storytelling methods, the most common of which is voice-acted speech accompanied by a variety of character portraits and text. There are also a number of cartoon-animated sequences, and even a few 3D scenes thrown into the mix. Though the 3D animation is definitely the worst of the bunch, as it's simple and clunky-looking. The voice acting tends to the level of a middle-school play, overenthusiastic and usually hard to take seriously, but there's an option that turns it off during the text-based events. The music in the game seems solid, with soothing and light town themes and a few good, if subtle, battle tunes.
Shining Force NEO doesn't have a whole lot in common with the Shining Force heritage in general, but it seems to be loaded with plenty of hack-and-slash oomph for those who enjoy wading in never-ending seas of choppable evil. Players who'd like to get their stabbing quotas taken care of can look for Shining Force NEO to appear on the PlayStation 2 later this month. Stay tuned to this gamespace for the latest in Shining happenings.