Shining Force Exa is fun for the first few hours, but it quickly wears out its welcome with dull combat and a frame rate that struggles to keep up with the action.
- Fairly detailed and colorful graphics, with good character and enemy design.
- Mind-numbingly shallow combat
- Severe frame rate instability
- Poor voice acting.
Shining Force Exa is an action role-playing game that follows very closely in the steps of 2005's Shining Force Neo. Once again you can spend hours hacking your way through countless enemies on your way to saving the world from utter annihilation. It's a generic concept but one that works for a while, simply because it doesn't give you time to ponder the banality of the entire experience; instead, it keeps you busy by throwing wave after wave of monsters in front of your ridiculously oversized sword. It's good, mindless fun for a few hours, but tedium and frustration soon set in as you realize just how shallow Shining Force Exa is.
The story in Exa is completely self-contained, with no direct ties to previous games in the series. The star of the show is a feisty young boy named Toma, who is hunting for the legendary sword known as Shining Force. He's joined by a centaur knight named Gadfort, an elven archer named Maebelle, and, later, a stern young magic user named Cyrille. The group soon finds the sword, and one by one they attempt to remove it from its resting place. Toma lucks out and ends up pulling the sword from the stone, which grants him the title of heritor. Along with his new title, Toma also gets a geo fortress, which is a huge castle built from a mix of technology and magic. The fortress serves as your base of operations as you attempt to solve an ongoing conflict between two warring factions that are threatening the peace and security of the entire world.
There are two playable characters in the game. Toma is quick and uses a sword, while Cyrille is relatively frail but can cast powerful magic or use a crossbow. You'll always have to leave one character back at the fortress as you take the other character out about the world to complete various missions that invariably involve clearing a dungeon. Along with one playable character, you can add a couple of computer-controller characters to your party. You can't ever take direct control of these support characters, but you can equip them with items that influence their behavior. Even then, a lot of times your characters will end up dying immediately, getting stuck behind obstacles, or attacking anything and everything except for what you want them to attack.
The characters that you do control don't have an extensive catalog of moves and abilities. Instead, they have a single attack assigned to the X button. This attack can be strung together to perform combos, and if you hold the button down, you'll perform a charge attack. If you're able to use magic, you can cast it by pressing the triangle button. That's the extent of combat. There's no block button and no strategy. Just hit the X button over and over again as enemies walk directly into your attack. There are a lot of enemies to attack. You'll often be up against a couple dozen monsters at a time, and as soon as you kill one enemy, 10 more will instantly appear. There are so many enemies that you don't even have to worry about targeting, or even moving; you can simply attack, and more often than not you'll end up hitting several enemies at a time.
All that action onscreen takes a heavy toll on the performance of the game. When the screen is full of huge monsters, the game slows to a crawl. It's so bad that it just about makes the game unplayable at times. It also doesn't help that you'll often lose track of what's going on because your character will completely disappear in a mass of enemies. In those situations, your only options are to either hammer on the X button and hope you can clear out some of the monsters or just die and reload your last save, which is something that will happen all too often.
While you're taking one party through various dungeons and towns, you'll have another party waiting back at the geo fortress. Your alternate party won't just be sipping lemonade by the geo pool, though; they'll often have to defend the fortress against invading enemies. While you're outside of the fortress, you'll receive a message that your fortress is being attacked, at which point you're forced to take control of your party back at the base. Using this party, you head out to fight a battle that's not the least bit unlike the countless other battles you fight in this game. In these battles, you have to protect a generator. If the generator takes too much damage, you'll lose the game and have to reload your last save. To finish these fortress battles, you usually have to defeat a boss, which can be difficult if you haven't properly leveled up your party. These fortress battles are mandatory, and you can't do anything else until you clear them, which is a serious design flaw because you can find yourself incapable of progressing through the game if you aren't strong enough to clear a battle. Instead, you have to create multiple saves so you can go back if you get stuck.
You can level up your characters and your fortress using special material that you collect throughout the world. Your characters can learn new "arts," which is just a fancy way of leveling up your basic attack, magic, and defense stats. There are some special skills that you can learn that are actually quite helpful, such as ones that make you less vulnerable to getting knocked down. The geo fortress can also be leveled up to improve its defenses, arm it with cannons, and more. Properly leveling up your fortress and your characters is key in Shining Force Exa, because the game can be extremely difficult if you aren't properly prepared. Some enemies have thousands and thousands of hit points, requiring you to hack away for several minutes to even make a dent in their health bars.
Despite the terrible frame rate, Shining Force Exa looks decent. The characters are well designed and display a good amount of variety. You'll see Shining Force standards, including beast men, centaurs, and elves, and they all look good. The enemies are often massive and show plenty of detail. Everything has a colorful cel-shaded look to it, which fits the fantasy theme just fine. The spell and attack effects look good, too, though they are a bit subdued compared to most Japanese role-playing games. It's a shame that the frame rate is so unstable, because the game looks nice otherwise. The music is unremarkable but also inoffensive, and it's upbeat enough to keep time with the action on the screen. The characters' battle cries are annoying and repetitive, but you'll eventually learn to tune them out. The voice acting that accompanies the cutscenes is nowhere near good, but it's not quite bad enough to be funny.
Shining Force Exa has the components of a decent hack-and-slash role-playing game. There are tons of well-designed enemies and characters, lots of huge weapons, and plenty of loot to collect. Unfortunately, the combat is way too shallow to sustain your interest for the 30-plus hours it will take you to get through the game. The shallow combat, coupled with the crippled frame rate, makes Shining Force Exa a tiresome and downright frustrating experience.