Shining Force is the strategy-RPG series most closely tied to Sega, but they also had this more obscure little branch for handhelds that started with Crystal Warriors. It differs from Shining Force in that it hews closer to Fire Emblem's style and is much more stripped down aesthetically, focusing everything on chess-like combat and the strategic prep for it in between battles.

As far as story goes, you're only getting a brief text scroll at the outset, and then occasional text blurbs from NPCs in the villages between towns. It's about as generic as it comes, we're in Typical JRPG Fantasy World where the Gems of the Elements rule everything around us. Some dickhole evil empire is gathering up all the gems for unspeakable purposes, they have all but one in their possession, which is with our warrior-princess who is the main character. She leads a scrappy ragtag band through 16 maps en route to overthrow the Evil Emperor.

Though Crystal Warriors came out a year after Fire Emblem, it's more primitive in terms of interface and menus. There aren't a lot of the niceties you would expect from even the more advanced NES RPGs. For example, hovering over a character or enemy in battle just shows some portrait of them, you have to click through two screens to actually get their stats, elemental affiliation and current HP. You can cancel out after selecting a character to move, but if they move so much as a step, you can't undo it. And rather than having menu prompts for accepting or cancelling things, each button on the pad is just assigned that task ... except they switch functions in certain sub-menus, which can get really confusing when trying to prep your forces in between battles.

Though the menus can be irritating, the basic gameplay and combat are still pretty strong and well thought-out. Sega basically just straight copies Fire Emblem here - units perma-die when killed, and the rock-paper-scissors weapon system there is changed to a system using the four elements. Sega also added a new wrinkle to the battlefield; there are neutral monsters scattered around who won't attack unless you approach them, but the character who beats them "tames" them and adds them to their inventory. You can then call that monster out in battle until its HP is depleted. Monsters have their own elemental alignments, so a character can send one out to fend off an enemy they would otherwise get trashed by, or just use it as a meat shield when their HP is low.

Crystal Warriors requires much more planning and foreknowledge than the average SRPG, however. There's no grinding whatsoever; you get to play each of the 16 maps only once, and that's it. Your EXP and gold are limited to the enemies on each map. Characters also don't get EXP for attacks or casting spells, only for striking the fatal blow. Recruitable monsters on each map are also finite. It's crucial to wipe out every enemy to be strong enough to proceed, which means not killing enemy leaders until last, and not wiping out all the main enemies before getting to all the optional monsters, as doing either will automatically end the map.

The finite gold you get also doesn't go very far in the villages between maps, so you have to know how to spend it the right way. In between most maps there are one or two new characters hanging out at the inn; recruiting them means spending a big chunk of your change, which usually means a choice between either upgrading your existing troops or bringing on new ones.

All of this gives the game a bit of an unfair "trial and error" feel, as aside from one vague hint from a fortune teller in each town, you can't know what's coming in the next map and spending a huge hunk of change on an unneccesary character can really cripple your army. Fortunately, this was one of the rare Game Gear games with a battery backup, and you can distribute saves across three slots to help mitigate having to backtrack if you are playing on the actual cart and can't use save states.

Crystal Warriors isn't a bad little SRPG, but more of a pain in the butt to play than most for various reasons, and the threadbare story and total lack of character personalities gives you little reason to care about the proceedings. Don't expect the stirring tracks of a Fire Emblem or Shining Force either, the music is also pretty bad. I get the sense Sega churned this one out a little too quickly to get a Fire Emblem clone on the market; they would do much better in their second SRPG effort, partnering up with Climax to create Shining Force just a year later.
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