Have you heard? Polyphony Digital is taking Gran Turismo in an unexpected new direction. It’s going to be an RPG adventure. You equip your car with incrementally better parts as you tear around the globe in a classic tale of an orphan boy-racer, plucked from obscurity, and his path to showdown with an evil overlord; the fate of the world resting on his gleaming sports exhaust.
Likewise, Final Fantasy is to become a rhythm-action game for its twelfth iteration, Sly Raccoon is turning into a Tekken-esque one-to-one 3d fighter and, Metal Gear Solid is to become a card battling handheld game... Oh right.
While the transformation of Shining Force’s esteemed turn-based strategy-RPG mechanics into a fast moving Western style action hackandslash game in the style of Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance or Diablo (or, heaven forbid, Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel) might not be as high profile nor as drastic a move as the above examples (half of which are lies, in case you hadn't spotted), don’t underestimate it’s significance. It’s a change that has dismayed the venerable series’ hard-nosed fans the world over and perhaps with good reason: Shining Force is famed as being one of the great orthodox strategy-RPGs and, besides, the Japanese have never been experts at recreating hackandslash Western RPG mechanics.
Indeed, this is a traditional western action RPG in all but clothing: those Dungeons & Dragons blacks and browns and scowling frowns are now recast in anime’s primary colour brilliance and wide-eyed inanity.
The game opens when the diminutive town of Greensleeves is overrun by monsters and the scene is quickly set for some interesting interplay as the story establishes its key players: pouting red-haired teenager Max, who is desperately trying to step out from the considerable shadow of his famous warrior father, and Max’s childhood friend/love interest, Meryl. There is some scope for potentially appealing plot manoeuvres but, perhaps predictably, scope's all there is. The writing lacks flair, is bloated, long-winded and dripping in clichéd anime embarrassment. In yet another case of sloppy localisation, the ham-fisted textual expression is accompanied by dire, lifeless, hammy American voice acting, which grates and irritates like an ivy-clad scouring pad masquerading as an ear-bud. Even the artwork stills which accompany the text - an area where SEGA should gleam and sparkle with imagination and beauty - is mired in tedium, boasting plain designs we have witnessed a thousand times; identikit pictorial characterisation that has none of the bristling imagination of the game’s forbears.
Underneath the pixel clothing things don’t fare much better. Shining Force Neo is tired and basic in its execution. The action-RPG genre is simple at best and, ostensibly at least, the game does try to impress with its proud 90 enemies on-screen simultaneously. In actuality, these exorbitant numbers - when they do occur - simply clog up the screen, making it hard to see what you’re doing and, almost inevitably, leading to frustration, then death, then - if you’re persistent - a reluctant restart. Your window of the action is not helped by the fixed isometric viewpoint which cannot be rotated or zoomed. As multiple enemies can be hit with your sword at once there is little need for offensive precision and just a general hammering of the X button in the direction of the bounding on-screen foes is usually enough to clear the way onto the next screen filled with the same.
That said, there is some enjoyment to be had from developing your character as the game progresses. Combat skills can be customised and, as you can quickly switch between classes of weaponry (close combat weaponry, bows or magic) mid-battle with a flick of the d-pad, it’s possible to become quite a diverse fighter and this serves to chop up some of the monotony. But, as with all action-RPGs, you will usually find the weapon that suits your playing style best and stick to it, removing much of the gameplay diversity for all but the most committed player. Indeed, most of your experimentation will occur just after you discover a new item (something which happens every couple of minutes in an attempt to hold your interest), before you return to your original set-up, or accept whatever incremental bonus the new piece of kit grants you.
While Max is the only character you directly control, you are accompanied by AI-run sub-characters that follow closely behind providing mainly inconsequential backup, other than perhaps providing another target for enemies and distracting them away from you. It’s another missed opportunity in that you have no influence over whether they play an offensive, defensive or healing role in your team and the fact that Neverland has neglected to include a two-player mode, when it has demonstrated the console can cope, is ridiculous.
For the first few hours Shining Force Neo provides little challenge and you’ll be racing through the scenes, trail of dead in your wake. But the game suddenly switches into bitch mode, firing off reams of far tougher enemies, which crowd around you and deplete your life bar in rude, unflinching seconds. Frequently you’ll find yourself needing to battle enemies in the same area again and again just to raise your level enough to get through the next section of the game: that most tiresome and ugly of RPG vices. The cycle of restarts revolves ever faster as the game progresses and few will push on through this difficulty ceiling to see what is on offer in the latter stages of the game: after all, the overarching plot line is hardly a beckoning rainbow bespeaking golden promise at it’s shimmering end.
The tragedy of all this is that, unlike, say, Metal Gear Acid (which is a genre diversion from the main flow of stealth adventure games), we haven’t seen a true new Shining Force game for many years. To be presented with this utterly misguided and ill-conceived attempt to reinvent one of the best strategy-RPG series of the last two decades seems criminal and unfair. It’s a mammoth level grind, bringing together some of the action-RPG genre’s very worst conventions while leaving out some of the best: a disastrously misguided call for out with Old in with the Neo.