Shining Force II
Platforms: Sega Genesis, PC, Switch (via Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack), various collections
Shining Force was arguably the first strategy RPG to really succeed in the west, proving that in an era where Nintendo were leaving their major entries in the series in Japan, there was an audience for them in other countries. Shining Force II took the first game’s strong base and improved it in almost every way. It opened the game up, allowing players to freely explore its world and revisit past areas. Character promotion opened up with multiple options to customize your party. Larger areas, a stronger story, and more strategy, it didn’t totally reinvent the game, but there’s little about the first Shining Force that the second game doesn’t improve on. Fans of the genre wanting an early game in the genre still worth their time should absolutely check it out.
Shining Force III
For the most part, we stuck to one entry per series on this list, but that just didn’t seem right with Shining Force. While I referred to Arc the Lad II earlier as one of the great epics of the genre, Shining Force III is the great strategy RPG epic. Releasing in three parts, playing through all of Shining Force III’s scenarios will take players through several different parties and characters in a truly massive story that somehow manages to come together. Players outside of Japan only ever received the first scenario, with minor edits to try to allow it to stand alone, but thankfully a strong fan translation of the remaining scenarios is readily available for players determined to seek it out.
For some players, a certain anime art style has grown to represent everything that’s wrong with modern RPGs. There was a time not that long ago where it seemed like fan service was all that was keeping the genre afloat. They weren’t entirely wrong, even if those games certainly have their fans. It’s easy to lump Stella Glow into that group, though a few years removed from that era, with the RPG genre in a stronger place with a larger variety of styles available, we can look back and see that might not fit. It’s true that there’s certainly still plenty of fan service here, with players “tuning” a group of elemental witches in a way which can feel more than a tad gratuitous. Look beyond that, though and you’ll find that there’s a lot more going on in Stella Glow. Deep combat and some of the best levels the genre has ever seen help. So does having a ton of ways to customize your characters and develop them. That the various characters here have a ton of personality and are generally likable, and that Stella Glow tells a fascinating story, just seals the deal. Fans of the genre should make an effort to seek this one out.
Platforms: PS3, PS4, Switch, PC
Valkyria Chronicles plays a lot differently than most of the games on this list. You won’t find any grids here, with characters moving freely in a way which has a bit more to do with real-time strategy games. Don’t let that make you think this isn’t as deep of a game though. Valkyria Chronicles offers incredible depth in combat as you lead your squad of soldiers against seemingly impossible odds in a war for their kingdom. Positioning is perhaps more important in Valkyria Chronicles than almost any other game on this list, with setting up your squad in the right position allowing you to potentially mow down foes even when it isn’t your turn. Its sense of style stood out on the PS3 in the late aughts when so many other games were going for a darker look, and despite the dark story here, there’s also humor and joy to be found. Most games in the Valkyria Chronicles series are perfectly solid, but the first game still sits atop our rankings thanks to offering a far tighter experience than the rest.
I recently wrote a whole article about what I love about this early PlayStation title, but Vandal Hearts still holds up nearly thirty years later thanks to its depth of characters, strong mechanics, unforgettable soundtrack, and its fountains of blood which were perhaps a strange choice by the development team but which are certainly memorable. Konami has started to at least rerelease some of its classic titles, we can hope that someday they’ll consider doing the same for Vandal Hearts.