The Strategy RPG has evolved a lot over the years, but there’s something about the simplicity of this early installment that continues to resonate with me. There’s no permadeath or expansive character interactions; just a straightforward chess battle of hoping to topple the enemy’s leader before they capture your own. In a genre known for heavy punishment at the smallest sign of failure, it’s nice to have a few strong entries which can be taken at a leisurely pace.
Emerging during an era when platformers reigned supreme, the RPGs of the fourth console generation offered a mesmerizing scale. Instead of artificially inflating their length through absurd difficulty spikes and resetting you back to zero after enough failure, these games truly were that big. On the Sega Genesis, few games felt bigger than Shining Force II.
This sense of scale is perhaps why Shining Force II holds a certain edge over most of Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series for me; where the typical Fire Emblem jumps from battle to battle with a cutscene or two between, the Shining Force series incorporates its battles into the world. Thus, the series captures a sense of exploration like more traditional RPGs, searching through towns for hidden treasure and sometimes secret characters. When a conflict transforms a town into a battlefield, there’s more weight than being plopped into a nameless village you’ll never revisit. The ability to explore the overworld gives a nice break between battles and a better sense of how these conflicts connect.
The lack of permadeath also seriously alters the dynamics of combat. This game is not designed for you to treat every party member as valuable at all times, allowing you to take risks as you push your way toward the end. Where other SRPGs can devolve into letting a few overpowered units run ahead, Shining Force allows even the fragile characters to get in a much-needed hit before bowing out. Battles here feel less like running a minefield where one false moves destroys all progress, and that little bit of wiggle room makes all the difference. There’s also just something freeing about being able to actually lose a battle based on in-game conditions instead of hitting the reset button due over a critical hit – an unfortunate side effect resulting from permadeath is it causes you to stop while victory is achievable; you haven’t lost as much as you aren’t accepting the game’s conditions.
Whatever the flavor, the strategy RPG genre is phenomenal at capturing a sense of battles bigger than a lone hero but smaller than a full-blown war. The relief from an enemy missing an attack at just the right time, the panic as you realize your healer is in range of the enemies, the sliver of hope you feel as you scramble to correct that issue; all of this emotion with the necessary time to process what it all means.
Shining Force II feels like the strategy RPG in its most distilled form. The plot which is there is simple. The mechanics are straightforward and forgiving while the battles still offer a challenge. There are dozens of variances on the basic formula, but Shining Force II is a testament on how well this formula worked from the very beginning.