Shining Force III is an SRPG (with traditional RPG exploration segments) developed by Camelot Software Planning (headed by Hiroyuki and Shugo Takahashi), and released for the SEGA Saturn in 3 installments from 1997-1998. While this may seem like a cash grab at first, the game is PACKED with content; my final endgame save file clocked in at over 230 hours. Sadly, only the first Scenario was commercially released in English, but the folks at https://sf3trans.shiningforcecentral.com/ have translated the game into English in its entirety.
I’ll be honest, SFIII is my favorite SRPG to date. Let’s talk about the big factor in a SRPG: strategic combat. Shining Force III does not require grinding, but if you are having trouble, you can retreat mid-battle, keep your gold/items/EXP, and restart the battle, and repeat until you are satisfied. There is also an option to save mid-battle. This comes in handy, as some fights take a long time. SFIII has many fantasy races represented in the force, Humans are a significant minority amongst Elves, Dwarves, Birdmen, Unicorns, Dragons, Robots, Centaurs, Pegasus Centaurs…I wish more SRPGs would be this creative with their units. Also present is a Synchronicity system. This means that actions you take in a previous scenario affect who can join your force in a later scenario. There is also a friendship system where two units attacking the same enemy together, or healing someone wounded can build friendship points. These translate to stat boosts when two friends are next to each other. The combat is friendly for beginners, but gets more complex as time goes on. Early missions just have you kill the boss or whole enemy army, but later many missions have more creative side objectives/conditions. There is a mission where you have to control five refugees to escape the enemy army from slaughtering them, while minding trains coming in on both sides of the battlefield. Yes that’s right, you can CONTROL them, no terrible villager AI to worry about. In another battle where in addition to fighting the enemy army, you have to be wary of energy beams shooting out of pillars sporadically, which can hurt both you and the enemy. One battle has your force manning cannons on a warship in an effort to stall another warship boarding yours, by destroying its cannons first. Finally, another mission makes you to guide a series of NPC puppets to certain squares on the ground, and depending on which squares they land on in the process, some good and/or bad things will happen. Many more examples exist, but I never felt bored with the battles; there was always something new waiting for me when I left the safety of the current village.
Speaking of Villages, let’s talk about the exploration segment of the gameplay. While Shining Force III’s combat is highly strategic, it has towns to explore, which SRPGs sadly often forget to include. There are villagers (and your own army’s fighters) to talk to, bookshelves to look at, and chests to open and receive items. Talking to all these villagers/ force members is optional but rewarding. They have a lot to say about the world that you are playing within, much of the history of the SFIII world is told through these people (and elves, centaurs, etc.) Of note is that (unlike previous Shining games) every force member has regularly updated dialogue that shows a bit about their personality. We learn a lot…Masquirin matures from a prankster to a responsible force member, Hayward talks big about his travels but really hasn’t seen much of the world, Hazuki has strong family values when concerning her father, Hedva and David are nature-loving forest Elves, Marky’s a total flirt, Isabella and Medion were very close as children…etc. In fact there is a certain plot point in the middle of scenario 3 that can feel like a Deus Ex Machina (I won’t spoil it other than that it involves “handwriting”) , BUT it was actually revealed by talking to an NPC in Scenario 2!
Let’s move onto plot. Shining Force III has a very complex political drama. The Republic of Aspinia has recently separated from the Empire of Destonia. The Republic was founded on the ideals of equality, and while it’s leader, King Benetram (title aside, he acts more like a prime minister) is a genuine honest leader, many of his underlings are plotting against him, and between that and bad harvests, times are bad for the peasants. Meanwhile, Emperor Domaric is plotting revenge by reconquering Aspinia. Also at work is the mysterious Bulzome cult, a religious fanatical sect that is orchestrating a war between the two nations and trying to revive their dark god, Bulzome. The first two scenarios revolve around Lord Synbios of the Republic, and Prince Medion of the Empire, who despite different nationalities, help each other on multiple occasions. The third scenario has the player control the mercenary Julian, who eventually teams up with Medion and Synbios’s forces for the final battles in Scenario 3.
Also of note is the graphics/art design and music. Scenario 1’s 3D character models look a little blocky by modern standards. Not bad by any means, but Scenarios 2 and 3’s models looks noticeably smoother, and those games start to have very creative pans and zooms in the battle camera. The character designs by Hiroshi Kajiyama and Shin Yamanouchi are representative of 90’s style anime in a nutshell. That’s definitely a plus for me. Some of the fanservice-heavy designs on certain lady characters may turn some off, but considering the developed character dialogue that fleshes them out, I didn’t mind (Ok, I highly enjoyed them 😉 ). Some towns have a unique look. Eg Stump the Elven forest, and Maya village, which has flying houses. The music is by Motoi Sakuraba. Not my favorite composer; he didn’t make many emotional themes for this soundtrack, but his battle themes, and atmospheric music were really great.
One final note is that this game is the origin of the meme “NOW BEAR MY ARCTIC BLAST!” originally uttered by the fabulous elf mage Noon. SF3’s first scenario had some of the worst English voice acting in a video game, ever, but it’s only sporadically used during battle taunts, so ironically it ends up being highly entertaining.
I love Shining Force III, but to be fair it isn’t perfect. The three main characters Synbios, Medion, and Julian are all silent protagonists when you control them, but when you meet one of them in a different scenario, they are quite talkative. This makes their silence seem very FORCED (terrible pun, I don’t care.) Julian in particular has a very FORCED (ok I’ll stop) romance with an NPC named Jane. She has no relevance in the main story, has no chemistry with him, but they’re still a canon couple. While I am very grateful to the SFIII translation project for translating the full game, they also westernized many elements of Japanese culture in the game. I’m not some weeb who wants a literal translation. But many nouns that are relatively commonly known outside Japan are changed to something western, eg “Geisha” became “Diva”, “Shinto Priest” became “Oracle”, etc. This is cultural censorship, but since it wasn’t part of the official release, it does not affect my review score. It would be nice to have a listing for turn order. The enemy AI is pretty bad. They wait for you to come right to them, then attack your commander, who is hard to kill. On rare occasions, the enemy units took no action when my units were attacking them. In Scenario 1, the music sometimes glitches, and then stops playing altogether. This is fixable by resetting your Saturn. These are small nitpicks, and do not greatly detract from the game.
Abdark. Even for a Vandal, he’s ugly as sin. Someone get this guy a dentist and some rogaine!
Hedva. She’s so glam!
Shining Force III has amazing SRPG gameplay with a very developed plot, characters and world-building, plus town exploration and good graphics and music. Despite a few minor nitpicks, I highly recommend this game. SEGA not re-releasing it is a crime, but you can still use a SEGA Saturn, or if modding for an unofficial translation isn’t you thing, Saturn emulation has come a long way (real Saturns aside, my choice is Mednafen via OpenEmu.) 9.5 out of 10 arctic blasts!
Year: 1997-1998 (multiple installments)
Console: SEGA Saturn
Developer: Camelot Software Planning
Translation Patch: https://sf3trans.shiningforcecentral.com/
Gameplay guide 1: http://jumesyn.org/
Gameplay guide 2: http://wolfgangarchive.com/sf3_new/index.html