How the Friendship System in Shining Force 3 orients gameplay without punishing casual players

An analysis of how the Friendship System in Shining Force 3 works, and what we can gain from knowing about it.

In a series of blog post, I intend to analyze different game systems that are mostly unique. Through this analysis, I'll point out what works, what doesn't work, how to improve it and other games that have used similar systems.

In this post, I'll talk about the Friendship system in Shining Force III.


Shining Force III

What is the game?

Shining Force 2 is probably the game that most marked my childhood. I remember spending my summer vacation playing it with my sister, barely stopping to eat (and accidentally burning many meals). Our love for this game was enough to make us seek out the other titles in the series.

Shining Force is a Japanese tactical RPG created by Camelot Software Planning for Sega Genesis. Having been released in 1992, it’s easy to think that is was created to compete with the Fire Emblem series, of which the first title came out in 1990. In fact, it was inspired by Dragon Quest, as well as an obscure Japanese PC game called Silver Ghost. Shining Force 2 quickly followed the first opus of the series in 1993. Another game named Shining Force Gaiden: Final Conflict, that links the two games together, did come out in between for the Game Gear, but it never coming out in the west). Both games offer a similar design, with mainly usability improvement between the two titles. The story is really the biggest difference.

In 1997, the studio brought us a new installment of the series: Shining Force 3 on the Sega Saturn. This was the first game of the series to have 3D graphics. Where the first titles were set in fantasy settings where the player would have to fight demons and monsters coming to take over the world, the third installment went in another more “mature” direction. It is still set in a fantasy world with Centaurs and monsters, but the story revolves around politics. The title was released in 3 different games, each featuring a different hero: the first two games’ timeline overlapped, and the hero of the third game was at one point part of the army in both previous games. Sadly, only the first one made its way to North America. It took awhile for me and my sister to get our hands on the game.

A random combat from Shining Force 3

What is the mechanic?

As far as game mechanics goes, Shining Force is pretty generic for a Japanese tactical RPG. It has the typical square grid system, allows the player to fight with short range or long range weapons and adds magic to this.

The system I feel is special in Shining Force 3 is the Friendship System.

In Shining Force 3, the characters can develop a friendship between themselves, leading to boosts in combat. The system is pretty simple, and a player that doesn’t actively take part in it can still reap its benefits. But if the player does pay attention to it, he can really improve his army.

Being friends with another character gives that character a boost to one or two of his stats when he is in an adjacent square to his friend. The stat boost depends on the character itself. For example, heroes are some of the rare characters that give an Attack boost, while Centaurs increases your Succumb stats, which lowers the chance of critical hits from enemies on that character. Other stats that can improve are defense, luck, magic attack and resistance, evade, and chance of critical hits and counters. A character can be friends with as many other characters as he wants, so the boosts can stack up quickly.

Friendship between characters come in 5 different stages:

  • Ally: the basic stage. Evey character start with a relation at this level. It gives absolutely no bonus.

  • Partner: Gives a small stat boost to a character at a one square distance

  • Friend: Gives a medium stat boost to a character at a one square distance

  • Trusted: Gives a large stat boost to a character at a one square distance

  • Soulmate: Gives an extra large stat boost to a character at up to 2 squares distance

To reach each stage, the characters needs to get 10 points of friendship with the other character. Once these points are reached, the friendship blossoms and the next stage is reached. The characters need to go through the previous stage before unlocking the next one. The exception is the last stage: Soulmates. This one relies on chance. The characters gain points as usual, but once they reach 15 points, they have a chance of becoming soulmates instead of it happening automatically. If they do, all is great and love blossoms on the battlefield! If they don't, the counter returns to 0 and they can retry after 15 Friendship points.

How do you develop this friendship? By fighting together! Doing an action on the same opponent one after the other or healing one another increases gives you Friendship points that go toward growing your friendship. Defeating an enemy counts for extra Friendship points. Of course, friendship is mutual, so both characters receive Friendship points for the action. 

Here’s what influences the friendship and what doesn’t

  • Attacking an enemy after another character

    • Work for both physical and magical attacks

    • If the enemy is killed, the characters get 2 friendship points

    • If an AOE attack is used, friendship can increase for all enemies hit

  • Healing a character gives a point to both the healer and the healed

  • Missing an enemy doesn’t influence friendship

  • Curing a status effect doesn’t influence friendship

  • Support spells don’t influence the friendship when cast on playable characters, but do increase the friendship when multiple characters cast it on NPCs. 

  • Hitting an enemy with a status effect won’t raise friendship unless the enemy dies from the status effect.

For example, if Character A attacks an enemy, followed by character B, and then C, the friendship increases between A and B, as well as between B and C. But it doesn’t increase between A and C, since they didn’t attack one after the other.

If Character A hits 5 enemies with an AOE spell, and Character B hits 4 of those 5 enemies right after with his own AOE spell, their friendship increases by 4 points.

If Character A attacks an enemy, and his turn is followed by the turn of an enemy, after which Character B attacks the same enemy as A, their friendship increases. As long as no one else attacked that enemy in between their hits, they get the friendship points.

Death also has an effect on the Friendship level. If a character dies, he loses one Friendship level with all of the characters, but doesn't lose his current Friendship points. For example, if A dies while being Trusted with B, and having 4 Friendship points accumulated, he becomes Friend with B but keeps the 2 Friendship points towards the next step. This means that dying when you have no friendship doesn't carry any penalty (other than the money paid to resurrect the character), but if your characters are Soulmates, it's a heavy price to pay. Shining Force doesn't have permadeath, but this penalty means that the player takes care not to lose his characters. And it has the benefit of having the penalty increase as you progress in the game, as you have more developed friendship, so more to lose. It’s a good way to increase the difficulty of the game as the player learns to play it.

It is important to note that there is no grinding in Shining Force. Each combat can be performed once, and there are no optional fights. This means that friendship building (and leveling up) must be done within a limited amount of fights, and a player needs to plan how he fights if he wants the perfect team. There actually is a way to grind by fleeing a combat and restarting it, but it’s not obvious to players that don’t know the series… and the penalty upon death makes grinding a challenge.

As I’ve previously mentioned, Shining Force 3 comes in 3 different games, each a different chapter to the story. In each game, the player controls a different main character and a different army. In the third game, the three armies eventually joins force and you get access to the characters from all 3 games. The friendship system makes the character choice of your final army all the more complicated, as you not only have to consider a good team balance in stats and role, but you now also have to consider the relationship between all the characters. 

Visual Representation of the Friendship System

Visual representation

Friendship between two characters can be seen during combat. During a character’s turn, small bubble icons appear on top of other character’s head. When a bubble appears, it represents a friendship with this character. The icon inside the bubble represents the stat that goes up. However, it is impossible to know at which step of the friendship the characters are simply by looking at the icon, except for Soulmates, for whom the icon is replaced by a small heart. This is not problematic, as the info you need at that moment is the one shown: the stat that increases. The player knows that if there is no heart, he needs to be at a one-square distance for the effect to take place. If there’s a heart, he can be at 2 square for the effect to take place.

The player can see the actual level of friendship in the menus. When selecting a character, he can go in the “Friendship” menu and see where he’s at for all characters. Sadly, there is no way to know how many Friendship points he has accumulated with characters. 

Hey Dantares! You're my friends!

What it means for the player

An average player doesn’t need to actively participate in the mechanic to gain advantage from it. Friendship will naturally happen as the characters fight. What’s more, the friendship will naturally happen between the characters the player uses the most. This gives the boost at the right place. This type of player will still try not to get his characters killed, but since boost aren’t essential to victory, an occasional death won’t ruin his chance at victory.

A player that’s paying attention can manage his fights to increase the stats he wants from the duos he wants. If you build a friendship between the right characters, the boost will help alleviate weakness in some characters. For example, a healer that becomes friends with a warrior will see his resistance increased, meaning that he can more easily be used directly in the melee and be more efficient in his healing, as well as provide his boost to more characters.

What’s interesting is that building and using friendship brings an extra difficulty when fighting magicians. At level 2 and higher, magic can hit 5 characters: a central character and all of the characters directly next to him. This means that placing a character in an ideal position to take advantage of friendship makes him a better target to magic user! So as the game progresses and enemies start to reach higher levels of magic, the player will need to take this into consideration. However, for summoning enemies, the opposite is true. The more characters in a Summoner's magic spell, the less damage they take. The effect of the summon is divided by the amount of players it’s cast on. Against Summoners, placing characters to use friendship is the best strategy.

How to improve the mechanic

I think that this is a pretty solid mechanic. It pushes the player towards a certain strategy, while punishing him for letting his characters die. However, unlike a game with permadeath, it allows the player to learn the game before becoming punishing. 

The only thing lacking in this mechanic is the emotional side. Since this is building friendship and trust between characters, you would tend to think it would actually influence these character’s relationship. But it doesn’t change anything else in the game. The game coming out in 1997 makes this not such a big surprise, but it would be a nice plus to add if this mechanic was repeated in a more modern game. Fire Emblem Awakening offers small dialogues between characters when you increase their friendships, giving a good lead on what could be done. However, it’s nice to have a mechanic that allows all characters to become soulmates and no end up in wedding.

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