The Shining Force series may have retreated from the west of late, but back in the early 1990s it was incredibly popular in both the US and Europe, managing to attract a large audience while Nintendo's rival Fire Emblem franchise remained Japan-exclusive. As well as scoring critically-acclaimed entries on the Mega Drive / Genesis, Shining Force enjoyed three outings on the portable Game Gear — the second of which saw an English localisation. The first two Game Gear games were upgraded and included in the Sega CD exclusive Shining Force CD, which was launched in 1994 and hit the west a year later, when the format was on its last legs.
Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya is a direct continuation of the story seen in Shining Force Gaiden, the first Game Gear game. Set around two decades after the events of the 16-bit Shining Force II, the game sees Nick — the hero of Shining Force Gaiden who has had his hand turned to stone following the events of the previous game — replaced by newcomer Deanna. When Nick leaves to meet the forces of the evil nation of Iom, Deanna and his companions are left to defend the nation of Cypress and retrieve the titular Sword of Hajya, which is stolen in the opening mission.
Like its forerunner, Shining Force: Sword of Hajya focuses totally on combat and does away with the exploration segments seen in the 16 and 32-bit entries. It's an arrangement which is arguably better suited to mobile play; with no filler in-between missions, you can swiftly move from one to the next with the minimum of fuss. Those who like a large side-order of role-playing in their turn-based strategy titles may find themselves missing the ability to wander around towns and converse with NPCs, but the omission isn't as harmful as you might imagine.
Battles follow a fairly traditional blueprint; you and your opponent take turns to move your units around a grid-based map, engaging in combat, unleashing magical spells and using items. Unlike many other tactical titles, the order of turns is jumbled up — it's not a case of you moving all of your units and then waiting for your opponent to do the same. The fact that you're both marshaling your forces concurrently adds a deep strategic edge to the game, making it feel slightly more dynamic.
Combat is straightforward. Successfully attacking an enemy gives your character experience points, which allow them to level up. To add some variety, your blows are sometimes evaded, or — at the opposite end of the “luck" scale — you get a second attack. Unlike Fire Emblem, your enemy does not respond to your assault — they have to wait until their turn before they can strike a blow. Defeated foes drop coins and sometimes special items, which can be used to restore health, replenish spell-casting points, and so on. If you manage to push one of your characters to level 10, then they are able to upgrade their current class, which results in additional strength, vitality and health. Sadly, you're not able to choose which upgrade path you pick, as was the case in Shining Force II.
The graphics are exactly what you'd expect from a Shining Force game on the Game Gear. Sega and Sonic! Software Planning (now known as Camelot) did an admirable job of squeezing the art style seen in the 16-bit versions into more humble hardware, but predictably everything takes a visual hit. Battlefields appear slightly simplistic (and they could hardly be considered overly complex and detailed in the Mega Drive / Genesis games) while combat scenes look like heavily pixelated equivalents of what has gone before. Even so, Shining Force: Sword of Hajya is still an appealing game to behold, and certainly pushes the Game Gear to its limits. Audio is very much the same tale; the music is catchy but basic, and the sound effects are your typical selection of beeps and farting sounds, which will no doubt be familiar to anyone who grew up with Sega's handheld — or the 8-bit Master System home console on which it is based.
Presentation isn't really an issue here, however; despite the somewhat rough appearance, Shining Force: Sword of Hajya remains notable for its engaging and rewarding gameplay. While it sometimes feels like a dumbed-down version of the two 16-bit games, there's more than enough entertainment here to retain your interest for the entire duration of the campaign. At points, the game is immensely challenging, too — while it lacks permadeath, there are several missions later in the game which boast enemies who can kill a fully-stocked character in a single magical attack. Frustrating, yes — but such a roadblock only forces you to rethink your tactics.
Shining Force: Sword of Hajya isn't the best entry in the lineage — in fact, it's not even the best version of the game (that honour falls to the Sega CD port, which combines both Game Gear titles with two additional chapters) — but as a 3DS download, it's a must-have entry for fans of the series. When you consider how expensive the original Game Gear cartridge is these days, the fact that it's available for such a low price on the 3DS eShop is sure to make it even more desirable to life-long Sega lovers. For everyone else, it should be considered a perfectly passable pint-sized portrayal of the famous tactical RPG franchise. While it doesn't quite scale the heights of Shining Force and Shining Force II, it's still an adventure well worth embarking on.