I have been writing a lot recently about the many creative and technical successes that Sega had throughout the tenure of their last two home consoles, and this-coupled with the recent discussion of the Mass Effect series-brought me towards the interesting, yet only recently celebrated option, of importing a save file into a game in order to impart some level of influence upon the overall story arc. I cannot state for certain when this was first implemented, or by whom, but as far as I am concerned, the first instance of its successful implementation occurred way back in 1998 in a criminally underrated, yet seminal RPG for the Sega Saturn. This feature, that was the impetus for my train of thought, is one of the key components that initially made Mass Effect such a wonderful concept, and the recipient of substantial critical acclaim. Spurred on by this, I naturally wanted to revisit this landmark RPG title, so that I might see how well it stands up today.
Established in 1990 as a division within Sega Enterprises, Sonic! Software Planning (originally known as Sega CD4) were responsible for the creation and development of one of the company’s most beloved franchises, Shining Force. Initially co-developing the first two entries in the series with Climax Entertainment (creators of the classic RPG, Landstalker), before assuming complete control over every release to bear the Shining Force name between 1992 and 1998, which finally culminated in the team’s greatest achievement, the three part (four if you count the Premium Disc) magnum opus, Shining Force 3.
Shining Force 3 was an incredible game for so many reasons; it had a wonderful, strategic battle system, an epic story, a great soundtrack and beautiful graphics which played to the strengths of the Saturn hardware, featuring a wonderful mixture of 3D polygon constructed areas and detailed character sprites. The huge collection of optional team members that could be recruited to join the ranks of the player’s team was astounding and, unlike the majority of RPGs that get released today, it refuses to treat its fans as though they have the mental capacity of a corpse (yes, Square, I’m looking at you). By comparison to most modern efforts, the sheer depth of Shining Force 3’s narrative and setting, divulged across a story that ties together three separate acts, could very well be described as convoluted, but I prefer to use the term complex myself.
In the first scenario (each part of the trilogy is referred to as a scenario), this one is known as “God Warrior of the Kingdom”, players assume the role of Synbios, a young lord from the independent state of Aspinia-which had formerly been a part of the Destonian Empire-but, seeking to distance themselves from the totalitarian regime of Emperor Domaric, had left to establish their own state. These events take place prior to the start of the game, of course, but are discussed in depth in some of the early dialogue. Since their split, however, tensions between the two have been progressively rising, escalating into numerous skirmishes between their forces along the border, and it is here, that the player enters the fray, at a peace conference between the two nations, held in the neutral city of Saraband. Naturally, this meeting does not go well, as the conference is sabotaged by an evil cult, The Bulzome Sect, which sees the two nations plummeted into full scale war. In this first part of the story, Synbios and his party must battle away, against the backdrop of escalating violence, to identify the real forces at work, which at times involves working with the young Prince Medion of Destonia, who recognises that Aspinia is not his country’s real threat.
In the second scenario, or “Target: Child of God”, players assume control of Prince Medion and his forces as they also do battle with the forces of the Bulzome sect, along with various separatist factions that have helped to orchestrate the onset of war. The actions of this party run parallel with the goings on of the first game, even seeing Medion doing battle with the crooked forces of Aspinia so that Synbios and his own party need not fight their own countrymen. This episode climaxes in a showdown between the forces of both Synbios and Medion-only for the games true hero, Julian, to step into the fray and put an end to their in-fighting.
Scenario three, “Bulzome Rising”, is based around the character of Julian, who makes appearances in both of the previous instalments, but only this time does he find himself as the main protagonist rather than as a seemingly inconsequential team member. His own story is a personal one, he is hunting down the vandal, Galm, whom he believes to have murdered his father-this was actually first introduced in the previous game, Shining: The Holy Ark. Here, players could encounter him as a young boy, desperate and alone, seeking assistance to find his missing parent. In scenario two, Julian is found washed ashore (after being thrown from a cliff in his first confrontation with Galm), and agrees to help Medion do battle with the Bulzome sect, as he is keenly aware of their ties to the resurrection of the vandals. The particular story arc of this concluding episode, starts somewhere over half way through the events of scenario two and culminates in Julian leading all three parties into battle against the evil vandal, Bulzome-the real mastermind behind everything that has transpired.
Thankfully, players have the option of changing the names of the protagonists at the very beginning of the game, these choices are carried across when the player moves from one scenario to the next, importing their save file as they do so. Also, during this process; players import the additional characters that they have managed to recruit, choices made at the various points throughout the games where the intertwining storylines meet, as well as the stats of each and every character. It is surely impossible to not be impressed by the fact that Camelot managed to pull this off almost ten years prior to the release of the original Mass Effect, it is surely a glorious achievement in gaming, and one that should have garnered them universal acclaim, but sadly, this was not the case.
It is deeply saddening that only the first scenario of the saga was released outside of Japan, limiting the game’s exposure, and rendering the majority of Western gamers unable to properly complete the story. Typically, it has left both the game, and its talented creators, as relatively unknown quantities in the West, which has been something that Sega have thus far failed to remedy. There was some discussion two years ago about a possible re-release of the three games, but sadly, this too failed to materialise, despite the growing market for traditional RPG titles such as this. The Shining series took something of a down turn following the completion of these three entries, and the departure of developer, Camelot, who severed ties with Sega and promptly set to work for Nintendo, creating not only a plethora of Mario sports titles, but also the highly lauded, Golden Sun. Personally, I feel that a re-release of Shining Force 3 might very well be exactly what Sega needs to re-establish its famous RPG series, and in doing so, finally earn it the attention that it so desperately deserves.
In summation then, Shining Force 3 is a wonderful and complex moment in gaming history, and one that has thus far mostly passed under the radar of gamers, as well as the professional journalistic profession, who have since heaped so much praise upon BioWare for a mechanic that they didn’t even pioneer. Of course, I’m not going to claim that Camelot used this concept first, I don’t know who did, but regardless, if we are still so impressed by its usage today, try to imagine how it felt in 1998? Or perhaps, you should simply discover for yourself.
– James Paton @theblackpage81