Shining Force III

 A gorgeous opening movie sets the mood.
A gorgeous opening movie sets the mood.

   You can blame the untimely death of the Saturn on many things: poor third-party support, underpowered hardware, or Sega's infamous "surprise" launch, but the cause that probably hurt gamers the most was Sega's seeming unwillingness to update its most popular 16-bit franchises. While the Saturn saw more than a few top-notch original titles from Sega, loyal Saturn owners never saw a "proper" Sonic sequel, never got a new Phantasy Star, heck, they never even got a Streets of Rage sequel. But, after the system was already declared dead and gone by most, there was at least one bright spot for those who were still paying some attention: Shining Force III.

   The arrival of a Shining Force game on the Saturn shouldn't have been too much of a shock - the series has graced every Sega platform (with the exception of the 32X) since its birth on the Genesis. The "Shining" series itself actually had two other incarnations on the Saturn: the action-RPG Shining Wisdom and the first-person dungeon romp Shining the Holy Ark. But, the 32-bit sequel to Sega's seminal strategy RPG was the one fans were waiting for. And, despite the almost suicidally depressed Saturn market, it even made the over to the U.S. Sort of.

A huge (and unique) cast will join you.
A huge (and unique) cast will join you.

   SFIII's story eschews the standard RPG cliché of "group of youths try to stop ancient evil" for the somewhat fresher strategy RPG cliché of "group of youths, embroiled in a morally ambiguous political struggle, try to stop ancient evil." The story itself is fairly straightforward, but there are enough plot twists to keep you interested and the translation is well above average. Players take on the role of Synbios, a young noble of the Aspinian Republic. Sent to the floating city of Sarabrand to attend the King during peace talks with the rival Destonia Empire, Synbios must flee after the Bulzome cult kidnaps the Destonian Emperor and frames the Aspinians. In the midst of an escalating war, and pursued by the evil priests of Bulzome, Synbios must gather his own "Shining Force" to bring peace to the land and foil the Bulzome's plan.

SF's traditionally goofy hidden characters return.
SF's traditionally goofy hidden characters return.

   Or, at least start to foil that plan. SFIII, as it appeared in the US, is only the first scenario of a three game epic. Similar to Suikoden II, saved data from the previous scenario could be used with the next. But, unlike that sequel, all three SFIII scenarios take place nearly simultaneously, with overlapping events and characters carried over. Each is played from a different side of the struggle and numerous actions in one scenario can affect your possibilities in the next. At the end of Scenario Three, all three heroes meet up for one grand battle against the real enemy. Although the first scenario's story certainly isn't bad, the thought of a multiple-story, overlapping RPG epic probably would have seen more than a few US gamers plunking down $150 for what, essentially, is one very long game. As it stands, anyone interested in following the game through to the end will have to resort to finding imports of Scenarios II and III. (Sega was kind enough to make the save data compatible).

Classic Shinning Force battles…
Classic Shinning Force battles…

   But, despite being only part of a larger whole, SFIII is a surprisingly strong game, which can stand on its own and stand up next to its predecessors. SFIII still excels at the simple (but not simplistic) brand of strategic gaming that made the series famous and introduced so many gamers to the genre years ago. And while more recent SRPGs have set themselves off by giving gamers more and more variables to manage, SFIII thankfully maintains the series' focus on the tactical basics: troop management, positioning, and plain ol' fashioned teamwork. As you work you way through the game's battles, you'll find yourself thinking more about getting your twelve allotted swordsmen and sorcerers, cavaliers and clerics working together as a team, with the fast ones supporting the strong ones supporting weak ones, rather than trying to figure out who has the highest hit percentage when standing on rocky ground in partly cloudy weather. There's even a new "Friendship System" implemented in the game-characters who continually help each other out in battle, either by attacking the same targets or casting supportive magic, will gradually gain stat boosts when positioned next to their new friend. It's an innovative and fitting addition to the game which, unfortunately, never seems to be as useful as you'd think. The bonuses do continue to accumulate as a character keeps helping another, but they reset if one of them gets knocked out in battle (presumably, all the characters have extreme abandonment issues to deal with after seeing a close friend fall).

...with a little 32-bit flair.
With a little 32-bit flair.

   The battle scenarios themselves, while not quite as diverse as Shining Force II, are certainly more dynamic than the standard "kill-the-leader" drill. Players will find themselves saving refugees while dodging speeding trains, storming a wall defended my an boulder-slinging golem, fending off countless ambushes, and even splitting their troops between two separate maps for a little extra treasure hunting on the side.

   Unfortunately, while the battles are as great as they ever were, one of the most innovative aspects of the previous games has been lost in SFIII. The series' traditional RPG-like exploration is largely missing and the game is almost as linear as every other strategy title on the market. Town exploration is still a large part of the game-you are free between battles to walk around towns, visit shops, talk to townspeople, and generally behave as though you were playing a traditional RPG. But, once you leave, it's on to the next battle and there's no going back. There's no real world map, no backtracking, and almost no free exploration. Perhaps it was designed this way to better orchestrate the three overlapping scenarios, but being "on rails" may come as a disappointment to fans of the wide open spaces of Shining Force II.

You can almost hear the poor Saturn wheezing.
You can almost hear the poor Saturn wheezing.

   Luckily, those fans have all the spiffy new graphics to distract them and, for a Saturn game, SFIII's graphics still distract remarkably well. Battles and exploration are done in the increasingly familiar "sprites-on-3D" style used in titles like Xenogears and Breath of Fire III, and can be rotated freely. The battle animations used when a character attacks or cast a spell have made the jump to polygons as well, complete with the kind of graphical tricks, such as (pseudo) transparencies and light-sourcing, only seen at the very end of the Saturn's life. While the graphics never quite reach the "How the hell'd they make the Saturn do that?" level of Grandia or Panzer Dragoon Saga, they still remain some of the most impressive the system has ever seen. Audio also gets the full 32-bit treatment, with high-quality (and memorable) martial tunes to accompany your battles and a full compliment of battle voices for all the major characters. Unfortunately, the voices themselves range from the barely audible to the barely tolerable. In Synbios' case, it actually sounds as though they tracked down Sloth from "The Goonies" to record his lines.

   But, unintentional giggles aside, the presentation, and more importantly the gameplay, is still top notch, and Shining Force III makes a classy epitaph to the Saturn's short career. It would be nice to be able to say that the game introduced a new generation of fans to the long running series, but, due to dwindling Saturn sales and limited production runs, SFIII joined its Game Gear and Sega CD brethren as great games that almost no one played. And while strategy RPGs may not exactly be the rare "niche genre within a niche genre" they once were, fans of the more recent SRPG explosion (as well as old timers who missed out) owe it to themselves to check out this latest, but hopefully not last, incarnation of a classic.

Retrospective by Zak McClendon, freelance.
Shining Force III - Scenario I
Developer Camelot / Sonic Software Planning
Publisher Sega
Genre Strategy RPG
Medium CD (1)
Platform Sega Saturn
Release Date

Walkthrough / weapons guide
34 battle screenshots / 29 FMV screenshots / 8 miscellaneous screenshots / 30 story screenshots / 14 credits screenshots / 4 movies
35 character designs / 27 character portraits
3 US box art and CD scans / 15 manual scans / 3 maps