Currently Playing: Shining Force II and Ogre Battle

Man, I almost hate doing this entry. It feels like such a cop-out. But the whole “record games you beat” thing hasn’t been working well lately.

I have something to confess. I have seasonal mood disorder. Not only do my tastes change with the seasons, but so does my temperament. Over summer, I basically had little patience for–or interest in–playing video games. It was made worse by the fact that I was mostly attempting super-hard arcade games, which I’m not very good at. This is the reason I barely post new entries these days. That, and experimenting with video reviews.

Anyway, now I’m into RPGs and Strategy Games, which led to me attempting a pair of Strategy-RPGs: Shining Force II for the Sega Genesis, and Ogre Battle for the Playstation. Despite being the same genre, the two couldn’t be more different.

Shining Force II opening thoughts

I actually beat Shining Force 1 last year, before I started doing this blog. For those who have never played it… imagine a 2D version of Final Fantasy Tactics and you’ve basically got the idea. Well, that, and Shining Force also has overworld and town exploration like a real RPG (if I remember correctly, Final Fantasy Tactics reduced towns and the overworld to just menus and hotspots on a map). People often claim that the Shining Force series was basically Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Fire Emblem, but in fact series creator Hiroyuki Takahashi denies that he was inspired by Fire Emblem in any way, shape, or form.

Now, here’s a little bit of personal history. I first got into RPGs in 1994, and for awhile I thought that all the good RPGs were on the SNES. Shining Force was the series that showed me how wrong I was. Back then, there was no internet and Fire Emblem was still a Japan-only franchise, so there was literally nothing like it on a Nintendo console at the time. And frankly, I loved it. I never liked how RPG battles tend to lack strategy and depth and are often just button-mashing, so naturally I loved Shining Force’s more strategy game-like battles. The battles, by the way, are not random–they’re set up in advance, and in most cases once you’ve cleared a field, its clear for good. It is possible to grind (if you for some reason leave the battle without killing everything, the monsters all come back), but generally this isn’t necessary.

There is one thing about experience though: Characters get EXP whenever they do anything in battle other than simply moving. So if a cleric casts a heal spell, she gets EXP (the amount depends on how much HP she restored). Any character uses an item? That gets EXP too (usually not much). But the majority of EXP gains, of course, come from combat-related options. Characters get EXP based on how much they hurt an enemy… and they get a nifty bonus amount if they deliver the killing blow. Unlike most RPGs, in Shining Force characters level up every 100 EXP, but how much an enemy is worth is directly proportional to how strong they are–so if you do grind, eventually the monsters in the local area become worthless. That’s actually a pretty good system, and its actually not that hard to ensure everyone gets their fair share of EXP bonuses. One tactic for weaker characters (like mages) for example, is to weaken a tough enemy with your powerful fighters, and then let the mage or cleric or other weak character kill it off when it only has one or two hit points left.

Shining Force I was awesome, the only issue I had at first being it’s soundtrack… for some reason it’s rather low-key, and seems to always exhude darkness and danger. Just for example (skip to the 15 second mark). But the more I played the game, the more this soundtrack grew on me. In fact the reason I didn’t play the sequel immediately was because I found it’s more exciting, upbeat music to genuinely be kind of jarring. Hear for yourself (skip to about the 40 second mark). That said, both games have excellent soundtracks.

So far, Shining Force II is basically a “more of the same” type sequel, which in this case is a good deal, because I don’t think Sega could’ve improved on the original–they pretty much got the gameplay right the first time. One thing I particularly love is how Shining Force handles movement–most strategy-RPGs give you movement points, Shining Force just says “here, you can move around inside this area. Just tell me when you’ve decided where you wanna place your character.” Also, the battle animations rock. Seriously, I love those things.

I have, so far, only one complaint, and this only goes for the second game:

Why the flying flip do I have a computer-controlled character in my party?

To be fair, Peter the Phoenix isn’t that annoying and can actually be quite helpful sometimes. It just bothers me when I have an enemy down to one hit point, and I’m waiting for one of my weaker characters to get a turn so they can get the experience… only for Peter to swoop in and kill the guy himself. Again, though, this isn’t all that annoying, and I can work around it.

Ogre Battle thoughts

Unlike Shining Force, I never played Ogre Battle as a kid–although I had read about it in Nintendo Power (the original version was a Super Nintendo game). It was a game I had always been curious about, but never got to try. Then, about a year or two ago, I finally decided to just buy the game on eBay, opting for the Playstation “Limited Edition” (which was both cheaper and more common than the SNES version).

Ogre Battle is… it’s sort of a real-time strategy game, except it thinks its an RPG. You have units, but each unit is actually a party of characters. You can give orders by clicking on a unit, which brings up a menu (and yes, the game pauses while you’re in menus) with choices, usually just “move.” On each map, there are towns to liberate, and the goal is to attack the enemy boss’ castle. There are, however, secrets in each map that are discovered by sending a unit walking over them–these can include hidden towns, buried treasure, or hidden characters. Ogre Battle supposedly has 13 (or 15, depending on who you ask) endings, which are based on factors like your alignment, reputation, finding certain items, recruiting certain characters, how big your dick is, whether or not you can recite the multiplication tables while standing on your head, and so on and so forth.

The game is really not as complicated as I’m probably making it sound. In fact, it’s actually pretty simplistic… almost to the point of being boring, if I’m completely honest. That’s actually why I haven’t beaten it yet despite owning it for two years. At first, it was interesting enough to keep playing, but Ogre Battle got old kinda quick, and I wound up putting it away. I almost sold my copy, but I caught myself rationalizing and making plans about getting another copy later, which made me realize I really wanted to keep the game after all.

But about the “boring” aspects. See, part of the problem is that you don’t really have a lot of control. You can customize units, you can deploy units, you can shop or recruit in certain locations, and you can tell your units where to go… and that’s about it. When your dudes get close to an enemy unit, it goes into a separate battle screen. But see, the battles are handled Phantasy Star II-style: your units attack all on their own, and all you can do is interrupt to make suggestions, basically. The only direct involvement you have is that you can use a magical Tarot card to attack your enemy. Otherwise, you’re basically just watching the computer fight. I’d rather have a more hands-on approach.

Other than that, the only other thing I have a beef with is that Ogre Battle seems to almost require a strategy guide to understand some of its aspects–for example, I played through six chapters and my reputation never either raised or lowered (except when I drew certain tarot cards), and I could never figure out what I was doing wrong. Likewise, there’s supposed to be an “alignment” rating (there is, but its in the stat sheets rather than on the OSD like reputation is) that can raise and lower, but again I’ve never seen anything significantly affect it. But then, I am more or less an Ogre Battle newbie and perhaps if I had been a fan from way back, I’d know this game’s depths. So I’m willing to overlook these flaws and give it a chance.

One last thing…. for whatever the flip reason, this game is subtitled Episode Five: March of the Black Queen. There never was an episode four, three, two or one. And honestly, the story is pretty straightforward, so I don’t see much room for prequels anyway. I guess the creator just made that the title for shits and giggles. (By the way, “Episode Six” is Ogre Battle for Nintendo 64, and “Episode Seven” is Tactics Ogre, originally a SNES game).