Oddly enough, it may be for the best if you're unfamiliar with Sega's classic Shining Force series of strategy role-playing games before delving into Shining Force Neo. That's because this latest game to represent the series that originated about 15 years ago plays nothing like the turn-based, strategic combat sequences that earned the series its recognition. Instead, Shining Force Neo is a fairly conventional action RPG, similar to games like Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and Diablo, but imbued with an anime look and feel. Shining Force Neo stands out to a certain extent because of its long-winded storytelling and crazily bad voice acting, as well as its chaotic and sometimes very tough battles featuring dozens of enemies onscreen at once. It's a long game whose simplistic but satisfying combat can be quite addictive, but mostly for meticulous players who don't get frustrated easily.
The hero of the story is Max, a whiny red-haired teen who aspires to be a great warrior like his father. He gets his chance fairly early on, as it seems monsters have invaded his homeland, surrounding the town of Greensleeves. Together with his childhood friend Meryl, with whom romantic tension is awkwardly established early on, Max ends up fighting off some of the threat, only to discover something far more sinister. Basically there's a great evil that's trying to make a comeback, and Max winds up searching for a mysterious masked man who seems to be the cause of a lot of bad things. During the course of his quest to save the world, Max will meet numerous companions--many of which aren't even human, like Baron, a snooty monocle-wearing werewolf--and together they'll battle many thousands of foes, including swarms of interdimensional insectlike things called the legion.
The story in Shining Force Neo is pretty predictable and often drags on for much longer than necessary given the straightforward plot, not to mention the straightforward gameplay. The story unfolds mostly through spoken dialogue matched with different character portraits, and neither these drawings, the voice work, nor the dialogue itself is particularly good. Initially the story's just embarrassing. It's the sort of stuff that gives anime its nerdy stigma. Max is inadvertently presented as this spoiled goody-two-shoes, the kind of guy who makes you root for the villain. And the game's early attempts at humor fall about as flat as its failed attempts to be serious. But the game just does not give up. The story keeps going and going, unwaveringly, and in time, you might begin to appreciate it for its single-minded consistency, if not for the many, many laughably ham-fisted lines. That is, for as bad of a first impression as the story and presentation make, they somehow take on a bit of charm after a while.
This is a pure action RPG from a gameplay standpoint. You view the action from a fixed isometric vantage point, and there's no zooming or rotating the camera angle or anything. You run around through various environments, some of which are surprisingly big, while frequently encountering swarms of monsters and having to kill them. What's nice is that your slashes frequently nail multiple foes in a single stroke, and you can keep on whaling on a foe after it's already been beaten senseless. Once you've had your fill or are low on health, you can whisk yourself back to town and sell your loot, upgrade your abilities, and replenish your healing supplies (fortunately all this business in town can be done very quickly). Controls are fairly responsive, and there's a useful automap feature to prevent you from getting lost. Later you also gain the ability to easily teleport around to key locations, including your home base. Items and special abilities are mapped to the D pad, which mostly works fine, though it can be a little awkward to fumble through the available options in the heat of battle.
In what seems like a nod to the arcade classic Gauntlet, monsters typically appear in the vicinity of a "monster gate," a thing that lets bad guys suddenly warp in for an ambush. Only after killing most of the surrounding creatures will you be able to smash the monster gate and safely move on. Battle involves simply pressing the attack button a lot whenever any bad guys are onscreen. You autotarget nearby foes, so there's no aiming involved. You can equip shields, but you can't actually block attacks, so battles invariably involve just slugging it out with your foes. Unfortunately for you, larger enemies can slay you with only a couple of hits, so getting down the timing of your attacks and running around to avoid retaliatory strikes becomes crucial.
Since this is an action RPG, half the fun (if not more) comes from finding new stuff as you defeat more and more foes and customizing your character's equipment and combat skills. Max is able to use close-combat weapons, bows, and magic, but you decide which of these disciplines to concentrate on improving. There are plenty of wicked-looking close-combat weapons in the game, and you'll probably be tempted to use them if only for that reason. But it turns out that Max will need to use all his combat proficiencies at one time or another--some foes pretty much can't be beaten in hand-to-hand combat (you'd figure that out the hard way), while others are immune to arrows or certain types of magic. At any rate, Shining Force Neo succeeds at throwing new items and loot at you every few minutes, keeping you intrigued by the prospect of potentially finding better equipment.
Max won't often be traveling alone in his journey, but he's the only character you control directly. His companions are entirely computer-controlled and will follow him around, helping to attack any nearby opponents. You may have a couple of allies in tow under typical circumstances, and each character has his or her own specialties. Against tougher opponents, the computer will practically offer up your companions as sacrifices, but for the most part, these guys do a good job of sticking with you and watching your back. It might have been nice if you could have had at least some influence over their behavior in battle, or over their equipment and skills (for that matter, is a two-player cooperative mode too much to expect?). But the simplicity of this system works, so it's a reasonable trade-off. Besides, you'll still be glad to have these computer-controlled companions around for the ride, if only because they give your enemies more targets to choose from. Hey, guys, no offense.
Shining Force Neo is much harder than the average game of this sort. For the first few hours of gameplay, the combat is incredibly easy, leading you to believe that this will continue to be a breezy little action RPG romp. But the early battles, which are presumably meant to ease you into the gameplay, end up seeming deceptive. All of a sudden, within the space of minutes, the challenge gets serious. Enemies inexplicably start hurting you a lot more than they used to, and you start dying...a lot. You die a lot not only because many enemies deal large chunks of damage at a time, but also because you're pretty much always fighting many enemies at once, and the game happily lets them all pound on you at the same time. It's possible to go from full health to dead as dishwater in a split second in many different circumstances, so even though you might have plenty of potions to instantly restore your hit points, you'll be looking at a game over screen by the time your thumb hits the button. And dying in Shining Force Neo means having to restore your last saved game and losing any progress since that point. Should you get hopelessly stuck at a particular point, at least you can backtrack and keep killing the same enemies over and over for experience and equipment, but that's not always much fun even if it's a conventional means of problem solving in an RPG.
Regardless, for several reasons the difficulty in Shining Force Neo can get rather frustrating. For one thing, this isn't exactly a skill-based combat system, so many of the times you die will feel like plain bad luck. Battles can be so chaotic that you can't always tell what's going on and may end up concentrating on watching your enemies' health meters and your own more than anything else. For another thing, your progress is never saved automatically. You can teleport back to town and save your progress at almost any time, but that means taking a minute after every battle to do so; if you don't, you risk the consequences of suddenly dropping dead and having to replay lots of battles. The game moves nice and quick, encouraging you to press onward--but having to constantly stop yourself and save your progress dampens the pacing (as does the brief pause whenever you switch weapon types in battle, which you have to do often).
Thankfully, Shining Force Neo looks quite good for the most part. Max is at his best when he's brandishing some oversized two-handed weapon of some sort, and many of his enemies look pretty neat, too. A few fairly satisfying effects are in there, such as when you shatter a big old stack of crates with just a single heavy slash of your sword. Some rather large foes are mixed in with throngs of smaller ones in some cases, but when battles get really jam-packed, the game's frame rate does tend to take a dive. You'll also see some of your companions wig out occasionally, twitching in place for no good reason. Fortunately, the game's colorful visuals and diverse environments are pleasant enough to keep this from being too much of a drag. Also, some full-motion anime cutscenes are thrown in to accentuate key points in the story, and these look pretty good as well.
As far as the audio is concerned, unfortunately there's more bad news besides the voice acting. Max and his companions yelp the same dumb lines incessantly during battle, so just imagine hearing 15-year-old fireball-casting Meryl squealing "Hot stuff comin' your way!" thousands of times during the course of a few dozen hours of gameplay--if that doesn't make you uncomfortable, nothing will. Honestly, though, the speech is so repetitive that you might just go numb to it after a while. Luckily, the game's music and sound effects aren't nearly as obnoxious, and they basically fit the fantasy theme well, though the individual music tracks tend to be quite short and loop often. The transition to and from combat music is also a little jarring. Shining Force Neo probably would have been much better overall if only it sounded better.
In the end, Shining Force Neo is tricky to recommend. This is a good game for role-playing game fans willing to overlook some noticeable shortcomings for the sake of having a big, action-packed quest to play through. However, those fans are liable to be familiar with and fond of previous Shining Force games, and therefore might take offense at this game's disregard for its predecessors' format. But if you've got a little forgiveness in your heart or maybe just an open mind, and you're looking for a long-lasting action RPG with a lot of challenge, you might as well give Shining Force Neo a shot.