5. Shining Force III
One last whirl for the “game that made me love a genre singlehandedly”, my decade-plus love of strategy RPGs comes from a wish to find a title that matches up to this. Hasn’t happened yet. Camelot’s last instalment in the series they created is a wonderful tale of giant steampunk robots and noble centaurs, with a surprisingly deep backdrop that examines the pros and cons of differing political viewpoints. Also there are dragons made of magic, because yes.
The actual gameplay is fairly straightforward and easy compared to the likes of Disgaea or Fire Emblem, but it’s hugely enjoyable and couched in a fantastic background. The battle locations are inventive and distinctive (up a mountain! Roof of a speeding train! Inside a volcano!), the plot’s enjoyable and full of unexpected turns, and the characters are simply fantastic. Every member of your ramshackle army is memorable and individual, be they human, elf, centaur, ninja, werewolf or weird penguin thing. My personal favourite is secret character Ratchet, a tiny goblin who wears a self-invented suit of steam-powered armour to battle. (It can shoot its fists off.)
The most amazing thing about Shining Force III, though, is that it’s only one third of a game. In Japan, there were three separate games under the SFIII banner – two set simultaneously, with occasional crossover scenes, and a third set afterwards. Various factors affected the different games. For instance, at the beginning of chapter 2 you can find a secret passage in an inn, at the end of which is an archer tied to a chair. Free him and he’ll run off. Then, if you play the second game using the same save data, said archer will turn up, talk about how he’d been kidnapped and freed, then join your party. Brilliant. Tragically, by this point the Saturn was dead outside its home country so only the first game got a worldwide release.
MAGIC MOMENT: the opening of chapter 3, where you wind up in a haunted town and wander around as ghosts lift chairs up and slam doors. It’s surprisingly spooky.