The battles are turn-based, with characters and enemies moving in order of agility. A turn is in two parts, movement and action. Movement ranges will vary based on the terrain and on the character type and are displayed as a flashing grid of squares, to incidate spaces accessable by the character whose turn it is. After movement, the character can opt to: attack (if there is an enemy within the range of their weapon); cast a spell (if there is an enemy within range of their attack spell, or an ally in range of their defensive/supportive spells); use, give, equip or drop an item (you may equip, and then attack); or hold their position. Likewise, enemies may make the same moves. Actions are selected and confirmed via a series of blue and yellow on-screen menus.
Being a role-playing game, statistics play a vital part in battles, to determine movements, and effects of actions. If during a battle, a characters HP (hit points) reaches 0, they are exhaused and retire from the battle. To bring them back, a fee must be paid to the church in the next town to restore the character. Statistics increase with level-ups, which happen as a result of experience being gained from battling and defeating enemies. When an enemy is defeated, you'll also be given some gold, which is necessary to purchase items and weapons.
Inbetween battles are the roaming and town modes. In the roaming mode, your characters wander around the main land map of the game, finding their way from town to town, and getting into battles. Cutscenes are added in at points to add to the story. Areas of the main map can be searched, to reveal hidden items.
On reaching a town, you are able to talk to the townsfolk, who sometimes provide clues for the story, or sometimes just chatter away. There are usually two shops in a town, one for weapons and the other for items (such as healing items, antidotes, rings etc), and it is normal to stock up and buy better weapons when you reach a new town, in order to prepare for the next battle. The other important building in a town is the church, where you can go to cure poisons, revive fallen characters, save your progress or promote a character who has reached a high enough level. Usually in each town there will be someone to talk to in order to make the story progress, such as a monarch.
Sometimes battles will occur within a town, which can make them more interesting, due to the nature of the battlefield. While in a town, you are able to enter the houses of the residents (oddly enough, they seldom complain!), and search their homes for items that may be of use to you.
Some RPGs place a lot of emphasis on puzzles, however these are few and far between in Shining Force. There are just a couple of "find this item, and then use it here" situations, and these are very basic.
The system has some room for improvment, as shown in Shining Force II. Nothing major, but it's quite tedious having to select "talk" or "search" from a menu, and the way experience is added to make level-ups is annoying - after 100exp is gained, your character increases 1 level, however, the experience counter is reset after a level-up, meaning much experience can be lost. Imagine a character on 99 experience gaining 49 from a kill - that's 48 experience points (half a level!) wasted.
The gameplay is very easy to get the hang of, and the control method is straightforward too.
Although there is, as usual, little character development, it's more evident here than in Shining Force II. It seems we have more of a background to each character who joins here, and also on the major enemies.
The setting of the game is one of my favourite aspects. It's set in a fantasy world of swords and sorcery, goblins and dragons. Yet, amongst this classic fantasy world there are advanced technologies too, left by the Ancients, a race from the past. The technologies themselves are no longer practiced, but the items left behind are amazing indeed!
Though the humour in the game is quite minimal, I'll never forget the wondeful play at the theatre in Rindo - showing the Force being defeated by Runefaust! An absolute classic!
Depending on how you choose to play the game, it could be completed in anything from 20-40 hours. Many battles can be finished by simply defeating the boss character, allowing you to progress much faster through the game. Likewise, much of the talking in towns, and searching, can be skipped as its often nonesstential. To find everything, and get all the secret characters, a bit more work needs to be done, and would make the game last in the region of 35 hours.
Though some would argue that there's no incentive to play again once it's completed, I can find many variations on the gameplay to increase the lifespan of the game:
1. Ensure you get every item and every character
2. Play to get the highest levels you can, for all characters
3. Play through with only magic users
4. Never revive fallen characters
There are so many different ways of playing the games, so many things you can aim for, that this game really could last a lifetime!
My personal opinion is that the character designs are far superior to the young looking, cutesy Force of Shining Force II. In Shining Force, they all look like true fighters. There is, I suppose, a certain amount of nostalgia with the game style being fairly unique at the time - the simple icons in battle add to this.