Shining Force Neo
Released in 2005, Shining Force Neo is the first of the Shining Force games on the PS2 and departs from the tactical RPG style typical of Shining Force to deliver a Diablo-style adventure game. Enemies are monsters which spawn from "monster generators". You must destroy a certain number of monsters or the generators will instantly regenerate.
Shining Force Neo is a game that is nice to reviewers like me. A lot of 2 and 3 games get the rating because they're decidedly average and are therefore hard to describe. Shining Force Neo gets a 2 on gameplay because it both sucks and is good at the same time. Gameplay is interesting and combat is responsive and fun. On the other hand, monster generators are EVERYWHERE, take forever to destroy, and usually must be destroyed to continue. This gets tiresome fast.
Shining Force Neo takes place a couple decades after a war between light and darkness. As usual, the darkness was sealed away but not destroyed and now the darkness is reawakening again. A cliche premise, but well executed with interesting twists and developments. Characters are interesting, if typically anime-ish. I actually felt bad when Max's dad died near the beginning. It's not a Hemmingway novel, but it's as good as you can expect from a video game. My only real complaint is the gameplay will frustrate you so much and the story won't keep you involved enough to keep playing.
The "team base" has been in all the Shining Force games and Neo's is particularly good. You can warp back at any time. Although there's very little in base the town attached to it has everything you need, from the "Force Art" engraver (along with levelling up this is how you increase your abilities) to the shop. Nice enough.
Main Character: 4/5
While the story-related aspects of Max are okay (he's the typical average hero) his gameplay-related aspects are also decidedly average. He can equip and use any weapon, cast any spell his weapon has, and equip any armor. It's a tad unrealistic but allows for a great deal of customization.
Shining Force Exa
Released in early 2007, Exa is Neo's successor. Unlike Neo, which got a T for Teen, Shining Force Exa is rated E for Everyone. Maybe it's because Toma's dad doesn't die. But I'd like to think the werewolf in bondage would be worth a few points. It doesn't help that the coloration of his facial fur kinda looks like he's wearing a muzzle. But if Xemnas can get past the censors I guess Duga can too.
Gameplay is vastly improved over Shining Force Neo. You'll find the same hack-n-slash combat on display here. While monster generators are still in use and prevalent there's nowhere near the numbers there were in Neo and they don't take as long to destroy. Unfortunately, there's your base. It's awesome, but it can be attacked. And it will be. A lot. And you have to switch to your second player to defend it. Sometimes this will even happen when you're in the middle of a boss fight. This gets very annoying.
It's possible the story is lighter here because people complained. Like how Aeris's death in Final Fantasy 7 caused Square to turn Final Fantasy 8 into a soap opera. Or how the unrelenting parade of tragedy and maddening despair that was Final Fantasy Tactics caused Square to release what was basically a childrens' book with swords. I don't know. But whatever the case, Exa is a lot lighter. Almost kiddy. Characters are a lot more cliche. Just...meh.
Your base is awesome. Everything you need is in the main room so there's no running around town. Better, your base is upgradeable, has a built-in special attack, and a built-in random dungeon generator for when you've played through the game already. Very nice.
Main Characters: 4/5
Your characters are not nearly as customizable as Max was. The boy, Toma, equips swords and the girl, Cyrille, equips crossbows and books and casts magic. On the plus side, you have armor that actually changes your appearance. It did in Neo too, but the change in appearance in Neo was like the change in appearance in Diablo. Barely noticable. It's a lot more noticable here.
Verdict: Shining Force Exa Wins!
It was close and in the end Exa was only one point ahead, but in the end Exa wins sheerly for having less monster generators, less annoying five-million-levels-ahead-of-you side areas, and generally just better gameplay. I'd recommend playing Neo for the story, but if you want a game to just play go for Exa.