I was very much looking forward to writing an article introducing the Shining series. Now I come to writing it and I realise the enormity of the task ahead of me, and wonder - can I really do this wonderful series justice? There are so many aspects I could cover - that's why I built a site about the series, to cover everything a fan could need to know. So, what I have decided to do is try to give an overview of the series covering the most important aspects.
As with so many classic RPGs, the Shining series is set in a fairly traditional fantasy land, of goblins and dwarves, dragons and damsels. I say 'fairly traditional' because there's a little more to it than at first meets the eye. Amongst the woodlands, mountains and deserts of Rune, evidence of an ancient, superior race can be found, in the form of technology such as has never been seen by the planet's current occupants. Mechanical weapons of mass destruction, ancient robots and buildings that emerge from the depths of the ocean are just a few of the mysterious remains from a civilisation long since lost. Of course, time has not stood still, and the people of Rune are developing technologies of their own - or at least bargaining with the devil for them!
The underlying story throughout the series is of the battle between the Forces of Light and the Forces of Darkness, whatever incarnation they may take. Though the basic plotline could be summarised as "destroy the big evil dude who wants to take over", there is always more to it than just that; each game in the series has a unique set of sub-plots, twists and turns. Character development has never played a very large role in the games, though that's easily understood when the sheer number of characters involved is considered. However, it's worth noting that there is an equal amount of development in the characters fighting against you as there is for your own Force - it's rather refreshing to get an insight into the motivations of the enemy and the relationships between the characters.
The Shining series is best known for its gameplay, which was, at the time of its release, unlike most other RPGs on the market. The battle system was what really set it apart from the competition at the time, with its tactical overhead view of the battlefield and strategic turn-based action. While other games allowed you to play as three - perhaps four - characters, the Shining Force consisted of twelve active characters and almost double that in reserve, allowing the player to really customise his or her team and their skills. These days the battle system has been adopted by other, better known, strategy RPGs such as Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre and Vandal Hearts. However, these seem to make the system more complex than necessary, as part of the Shining Force charm is its simplicity. Anyone can pick up the game and begin playing it, and when they do it's hard to pry the joypad from their hands! Though a number of new features were added with the release of Shining Force III, they enhanced the gameplay without making it more difficult to play or understand. Such innovation and user-friendliness is a real joy, and shows the dedication of the development team at Camelot Software Planning.
Of course, the above only accounts for 'Force'-style games in the series. The style of play in the series has varied, as indeed the series started out with a basic first person perspective dungeon crawler (Shining in the Darkness) and not the battle system for which the series is now best known. Something I've always loved about the series is the way in which the storyline and overall Shining-feel is never lost, no matter what format the gameplay may be. For example, the story in Shining the Holy Ark, a first person dungeon crawler, leads us into the story of Shining Force III, which uses the classic tactical battle system. Likewise, characters and events from Shining Force II are featured in Shining Wisdom, and so on.
The plot and character crossovers throughout the games add to the overall enjoyment of the series. So, while any game in the series can be played as a game in it's own right, with the experience of the other games they all begin to tie in together and some kind of chronological order can be established. In fact, Shining Force III features a rather unique new story style called the 'Synchronicity System'. Released as three separate discs, Scenario 1 and 2 are played from opposing sides of the story, meaning the events that are going on behind enemy lines in the first disc become the plot for the second disc, giving a more full picture of the events through the game. In addition, your actions will affect the story and events in the subsequent discs. The third disc, Scenario 3, continues from the previous discs and gives the player the opportunity to train the characters from all three discs, to utilise them in the ultimate battle against the Forces of Darkness! The Shining series is far from being just a set of games, it's also a fascinating world to study and theorise about. That may sound very nerdish now, but when you've played a few of the games I don't doubt you'll agree!
Perhaps the only disappointing aspect of the series (besides the recent flop of Shining Soul, which in my opinion is a poor excuse for a Shining game, try though Sega did) is the lack of new games, and the number of games that have not seen an English release. However, I prefer to see the glass half full, and consider it this way: more time between the releases allows more time for development. I for one would hate to see this series go the same way as some others I can think of, for which the policy now seems to be 'quantity over quality'. The series has always been of a high standard, as one would expect from Camelot Software Planning, whose belief is to make quality games and not lots of money. With regards to the lack of English releases, though it's disappointing in one way, the fact that fans continue to play the games in a language many of them cannot understand speaks volumes about the quality of the gameplay. In addition, the Shining Community is lucky to have some truly dedicated fans that have gone to the trouble of translating the game scripts for all to enjoy.
There was a period of over four years in which no Shining games were released for players outside of Japan, but the series is far from over. In March of 2002, Sega released Shining Soul, which introduced a new style of play, not unlike Phantasy Star Online. Though the game was not received well (perhaps because the team who had worked on the series until this point is no longer involved), it spawned an infinately superior sequel in Shining Soul II and seems to have paved the way to future Shining releases. It is fair to say that the series has now reached something of a turning point. Without Camelot Software Planning, new teams have continued the series, beginning a whole new chapter in the Shining world, with different concepts and features to be welcomed by a new fanbase.
There are now four Shining titles available for the Playstation 2, namely Shining Tears, Shining Force NEO, Shining Wind and Shining Force EXA. It would appear that without Camelot's involvement a new naming convention for the series is being used. In the past, "Force" in the title would imply a Strategy RPG, now it no longer bears this meaning. EXA and NEO are both of the actiion (aka hack'n'slash) RPG genre and have split the opinion of Shining fans around the world. While some enjoy this new style of gameplay, almost all wish that the series would at least re-visit its SRPG roots. Tears and Wind are also action RPGs, but more reminiscent of Shining Wisdom, but with more Shining style graphics. These titles introducted the novel concept of controlling two characters with one joypad to allow for co-op attacks and this bright idea is what made the games so enjoyable for me.
The Japanese market has also been fortunate enough to be given several Shining titles for mobile phones, about which sadly not much is known outside of Japan due to there being seemingly no way to obtain or play them in other countries. Many of these titles would seem to be of the Strategy RPG genre, including Shining Force EXA: Mobile, a game I would love to get my hands on.
The series took a brief diversion in Shining Force: Feather being the most classic-Shining styled game of all the non-mobile Shining offerings in the last decade (with the exception of the GBA Shinng Force remake) which with disappointing sales led to the downfall of its developer, Flight Plan. For me, Shining Force: Feather shone a new light of hope on the series, bringing back the turn based system I so loved but introducing a twist on the play style as well as new real-time action based elements. Such a shame the game never saw a release outside of Japan - many fans are reluctant to play it in Japanese due to the large amount of text in the game - although if you don't mind not following the story, the game itself is easy to learn to play and great fun.
In a bold step indicative of the modern Shining series' success in Japan, Sega have now taken the Shining title to the Arcades in the form of Shining Force Cross and Shining Force Cross Raid. Both titles would appear to be based on the NEO/EXA model and are of course unlikely to be played by many Western fans of the series, short of them going to an arcade in Japan!
The series moved platform once again with its most recent title, Shining Hearts for PlayStation Portable. The game has met a mixed reception from Japanese fans, with its match-making storyline and rather more traditional style RPG battles. I'd like to pick this one up when I can afford a PSP!
But why wait until the next game to embrace this series? With almost thirty games available already, there's a whole world of adventure, waiting for a hero such as yourself to save it from the darkness that looms on the horizon. Are you up to the challenge?
If you've read all of this and would like to know more, Shining Force Central will, I'm sure, contain or help you locate the answers to all your questions. If you have no interest in the series after reading this, I still recommend a visit to SFC, because as I said, I can barely even begin to cover the beauty of this series and all it's facets in this article. I sincerely hope you'll try the games and come to appreciate the Shining series as much as I do.