Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya
Developer: Sonic Software Planning/Camelot
Release Date: 06/13/2013 (Originally 1994)
Man, it’s nice to see another portable Shining Force game. The last one was back in 2004 with the remake of the first game in the series. The Sword of Hajya is an odd duck though, as it is often considered the weakest in the series in terms of balance and story, but also because it’s the direct continuation of an earlier Shining Force Game Gear release, Shining Force Gaiden. In fact, a good deal of the story in The Sword of Hajya references back to Shining Force Gaiden and although you can still understand and enjoy what takes place here, the full impact is lost because Gaiden was never translated into English for the Game Gear. To get the full effect of the story and how intricate both halves are, you’ll need to experience Shining Force CD, which takes both Game Gear games, gives them enhanced visuals and audio and adds more two more unlockable full length games that you can play after beating the original Game Gear titles. Obviously Shining Force CD is the best version of both games and the extra material makes it a truly stellar release, but how many of you own a Sega CD and Shining Force CD. So, unless Sega decides to localize Gaiden (and even better, Final Conflict!), this 3DS port of the Sega Game Gear classic is as close as many of you will get to experiencing the full awesomeness of classic portable Shining Force. The good news is that even taken on its own, The Sword of Hajya is a wonderful experience and still holds up today as a great SRPG title. Even better, with a price tag of under four dollars, it’s arguably the best RPG for your buck on the 3DS right now. Let’s take a look at the good and the bad of The Sword of Hajya and why it really was a system seller for the Game Gear all those years ago.
The game starts out with the appearance of your nameless, amnesiac protagonist. He is found and nursed back to health by the Kingdom of Cypress. Your Prince, Nick, has set out with his old friends, the Shining Force of Guardiana to fight an evil army who once controlled the Kingdom your PCs dwell in. Unfortunately that group is defeated and to make matters worse, the young inexperienced warriors left guarding the castle are attacked. While they defeat the enemy horde, it is revealed to be a diversion and the enemy forces steal The Sword of Hajya, a powerful magic item, once wielded by Prince Nick until his hand was turned to stone by the big bad of the previous game. Like I said, having played Shining Force Gaiden clears up a lot of what seems like storytelling gaps. Your character and his friends force their own Shining Force in an attempt to reclaim the sword.
The story of SoH is pretty well told. Character development really isn’t there, unlike previous and following Shining Force games, but the political intrigue and the events the Shining Force go through are pretty fun. There’s even a point where your team is broken in twain and you go back and forth between the two. It’s just too bad all the A list guys are on one team and the B-listers are on the other (with the harder battles!). Even without a lot of character development you will find favorites amongst the team. I love the Centaur Dawn for example, even though she is never given any personality, simply because she’s a great meat shield with a huge movement. Much like with many old school SRPGs, you’ll find yourself giving the characters personalities rather than reading the script from the game. That said, the story is the weakest in the franchise and it’s the second game in a row to have the protagonist with amnesia and a dark secret. Why both Game Gear games had this is beyond me. The enemies in this game have some twisted motivation and it’s the only one I recall where they outright show/perform human sacrifice, but all that said, the plot of Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya is really fun .
The visuals for Sword of Hajya are a mixed bag. The overworld battle graphics with the super-deformed characters are a bit of an eyesore, especially if you’ve ever played the non Game Gear Shining Force titles and doubly so if you’ve played the Sega CD version of this game. However, when you remember this is a twenty year old game, and that it was the first SRPG for a portable gaming device in North America, your opinion of what’s on the screen will undoubtedly improve. What’s here is amazing for a portable device in 1994 and the actual battle visuals are almost on par with the first Sega Genesis Shining Force. Think about that. In a time when Nintendo was give you black and white 4-Bit visuals on a bulk handheld, Sega was giving you a full on color SRPG that was better than 8-Bit but not quite 16-bit quality. That’s crazy impressive. After a while, you forget how outdated the visuals are and just enjoy the ride. In all honesty, around the twelve hour mark with this game, I was starting to convince myself this was able to hold its own against a lot of the DSIshop/EShop budget releases and then some. I’d put this game’s visuals up against stuff like PIcdun and other digital only titles for the system. The visuals here are fine and while the game will obviously pale compared to the recently released Shining Force: Awakening, SoH can still holds its own visuals and that’s mind-blowing to me.
Being a portable game from 1994, no one should go into this expecting a fully voiced acted production. Instead, you’ll get some really nice sounds effects and a terrific musical score that will get stuck in your head. Even though I own all three Shining Force games for the Game Gear, I was shocked at how easily the Town/Base track still stuck in my head after all these years and I found myself regularly whistling it as I played or even did something else. Every stage has a really strong musical track accompanying it and playing this just made me really wish that THIS is what Camelot was still doing instead of Golden Sun and bad Mario Sports games.
The gameplay is Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya is like all Shining Force games (but not all Shining games… ) and really it’s very similar to the flow of most SRPGs ranging from Disgaea to Fire Emblem save that those games are turn based by side and the Shining games are by individual character initiative like a tabletop roleplaying game. This means one of your guys could have his or her turn, followed by an enemy, followed by two of your guys, followed by an enemy, followed by one of your guys, followed by four enemies. The Agility stat determines the order of who goes when, so keep that in mind, especially with healing magic as the Clerics and Monk tend to be slowfooted. Other than that you have different races/classes and each attack or action they take earns them experience. For every 100 XP you earn you level up, and once you hit Level 10 you can promote your character to a new class. Unlike the first Shining Force where there are benefits to waiting until Level 20, you can go ahead and promote at Level 10 across the board here, although some characters might not get promoted until they are Level 11 or 12 due to a big battle. You equip items and do battle on a large grid based map. If a character on your side is killed, they are not dead permanently and can be raised back at base. If your main character(s) die, then you lose half your gold and have to start the battle over. Each character has their own strengths and weaknesses, even ones of the same race. For example if we look at the three Paladins you get, Dawn has the highest defense in the game outside your main character, Randolph is one of the best attackers in the game and Eric is decent at everything but excels at nothing. You get a maximum team of twelve, which is still unheard of in most SRPGs, and you’ll have to pick and choose who stays on the bench once you get more than twelve playable characters. It’s easier in this game as you only get eighteen playable character, compared to the thirty or forty in the console games. I left the Dwarves off this time since they are so much slower, have no distance attacks and their defense is actually kind of low compared to other characters. Sure they have a high attack but if they’re always lagging behind, the enemies are dead before they even get close to them. So on and so forth. All in all, The Sword of Hajya is a wonderful experience to playthough, even for someone who has played the original Game Gear and Sega-CD versions countless times.
Replay-wise, the game doesn’t hold up as well. One of the big reasons to replay a SRPG is for the ability to use a very different team with each playthrough. Unfortunately s a Game Gear game, The Sword of Hajya offered less of everything – no villages to explore, a short story, less battles and less characters to have join your team –including a lack of any hidden ones. With only eighteen characters, there really isn’t much you can do unless you just want to have the six lesser characters on your team and give yourself a harder, slower time at progression…which isn’t advised as we’ll see in the next paragraph. Unlike the first two Genesis Shining Force games which I could complete back to back to back without trying anything else as a teen, The Sword of Hajya is something you play once…and then come back to years later and find it still delightful, but not AS good as other games in the franchise. Once you get your hands on the Sega CD version, it’s even harder to come back to the Game Gear version. The good news is that at only $3.99, you’ll still get far more out of this game that what you paid for it, and as it is unlikely Sega will ever want to make itself a mint by doing a Shining Force collection (including localizing the games that never made it stateside), you won’t ever know what you are missing. Instead you’ll simply have a blast playing this and shocked you got it for under four dollars.
Balance is the one area whereThe Sword of Hajya really suffers in the Game Gear version. The localization team really some controversial and highly disliked changes to magic in this game (that thankfully don’t plague the Sega CD version). The first two levels of spells have drastically reduced damage, meaning magic often times does little damage to enemies. All that changes when spells hit Level 3 where instead of damage being half of what they are supposed to be, they do 250% more damage than in the Japanese version! As well, they spells are given more range and can affect four times as many characters than they could in the unlocalized or Sega CD version of the game! This is insane and it means that for most of the game, your mages will be a liability while enemy ones can wipe our your entire team at full health. All you can really do is make a beeline for any mages with Freeze, Blaze or Bolt Level 3 and hope to god you kill them before they kill a bunch of your guys. This is why I mentioned not using the dwarves earlier as they have only a Movement Rating of 5, while other characters have a Movement of 6-8 and so they can rush in and kamikaze the enemy spellcasters. So yes, Magic is totally messed up in this game and you’ll be keeping a Mage (or both) on your team to do rinky dink damage and leveling up at a fraction of everyone else until they eventually learn a Level 3 spell and then they just become your primary death machines. Totally unbalanced and to this day no one can answer why this was done to the Game Gear version of the game. It makes for a completely different playing experience than the Sega CD or even the Japanese Game Gear version of this title, I’ll tell you that.
As well, things really get bad with these magic changes when your team is split in two. Pretty much the best characters are on the protagonist’s team while Natasha, your second in command gets the guys with low defense…and Dawn who pretty much just takes a bullet for everyone constantly. The problem is Natasha is a Mage and by the time you split she will know Blaze and Freeze, but only Levels 1 and maybe 2 depending on your level. By the time you get done, she still won’t be high enough of a level to have a Level 3 magic spell, which means she is HORRIBLE throughout the split and unfortunately you have to keep her near the frontlines letting her nickel and dime experience in hopes you get her ever closer to leveling up and getting the spell you desperately need her to have. Because he team is so low in defense and the enemy mages do crazy damage with their Level 3 Blaze, Natasha will die several times, cutting your income in half with each death. This is terrible and it leaves you with three choices – to either grin and bear it, leave Natasha in the lurch not gaining any XP, but keeping your gold intact, cheering the day your party reunites so you can dump her, or replay battles over and over in true grinding fashion until she levels up enough (Level 7 Wizard or Level 17 Mage if you don’t promote her) that she isn’t a pile of absolute crap with a target on her back. Again, this is VERY different from the Sega CD or Japanese version of the game where Natasha is quite good but man, you really have to change the way you play for the four battles where Natasha has her own mini B-team.
Even today, Sword of Hajya stands out. It’s the first portable SRPG that North America ever got. It’s one of only two portable Shining Force games in English. It’s the only game to be released for the Sega CD and Sega Game Gear simultaneously , the changes to the magic system make it one of the strangest SRPGs ever and it’s the only SRPG where your team is broken into two smaller team for nearly a dozen battles, forcing certain characters to step up big time. There’s a lot to SoH that makes it highly memorable to those that played it two decades ago, or who are playing it now for the first time. It may look and feel dated at times compared to contemporary SRPGs, but it’s just as fun, if not more so than a lot of them.
As you can probably tell from this long winded review, I really enjoy Sword of Hajya in spite of the fact I feel it’s the weakest Shining Force game done by Camelot. It’s still a lot of fun and if I check my 3DS, I’ve only put more time into two other games than this one – Pokemom Rumble Blast and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon. I’ve logged more time with Sword of Hajya than Fire Emblem Awakening – and that’s a modern full priced SRPG. I was kind of shocked by that. It’s definitely a game fans of SRPGs will devour and because it’s a simpler version of the genre from a bygone era, it’s also far more welcoming and easier to get into for younger and casual gamers alike, as well as those inexperienced in the SRPG style. Factor in that $3.99 price tag and you have what is arguably the best deal on the Nintendo 3DS to date. Obviously I feel anyone with a 3DS should be downloading this thing, if they haven’t already. Even the least of the Camelot developed Shining Force games is better than 75% of what’s on the market past, present or future, and it’s time you experienced why first hand. Now come on Sega, let’s see a localization of Final Conflict!
Short Attention Span Summary
Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya is the middle of the three Shining Force titles for the Sega Game Gear, but the only one to get localized for North America. Now, for less than four dollars, you can experience one of the best SRPG series of all time on your Nintendo 3DS. There is less to do and there are fewer characters than in the console versions, but this one the first ever handheld SRPG in English and only the second ever made, so it’s understandable that there was less content. Still for only $3.99, this is arguably the best deal on the Nintendo 3DS today. Anyone with the system should download it today and experience firsthand why this classic has stood the test of time for the past nineteen years and single-handedly sold a LOT of Game Gears.