Shining Force Exa was more or less the same as Shining Force Neo.
I can't say Shining Force Exa was a better game than Neo because it didn't really improve much. Only the graphics were improved in my eyes. The battle system was nearly untouched (not that it was bad to begin with), the story felt a little worse. I really hated the gimmick of two characters only for the fact that they ruin your dungeon crawling pacing. The framerate drops was slightly fixed, never problematic but still noticeable.
Besides all of that, Shining Force Exa is still a decent game. The hacking and slashing can get old, but atleast they give you the option to use a magic user, or to switch your skill set with new weapons. I enjoyed dungeon crawling and I loved the massive amounts of sidequests they offer you. Compared to the limp Dark Alliance games or the overrated Champions of Norrath games, you'll get a VERY meat single player experience out of these games with more dungeons, more skills, and more loot that's actually useful.
Shining Force Exa is a action RPG hack and slasher. You play as Toma, the sword wielder and Cyrille the magic user. You can play as either character at a time, but you can't play as both at the same time. For example, you can take Toma out on a dungeon raid, but Cyrille will have to stay at the base to protect it. While on a dungeon raid, no matter who you choose to take, you'll eventually be interrupted by a warning. This means your base is under attack. Whoever you left behind will have to defend it from in coming attacks. There are four areas around your base, and a power supply. You can take 2 extra characters with you, and as many robot helpers as you're allowed to fight off incoming enemies, and defeat the boss.
Your base getting attack happens ALL the time, sometimes it seems random, other times it seems placed. They do it to keep the playable characters at a near equal level, but it's still frustrating when all you want to do is search around in a dungeon and then you have to warp back in a flash.
You gain experience for each kill. Sometimes an enemy will drop loot, often times it's money, items or weapons. Hidden in dungeons you'll find Mythril supplies. If you take this you can go back to your base and upgrade you massive display of skills. The skill tree is huge in this game. It puts Champions of Norrath to shame. You can buy atleast 100 to 150 skills over the course of the game. Skills range from defensive skills, magic skills, and offensive skills. All of these skills just boost your stats and abilities, none of them give you any actual moves in battle. Only Toma and Cyrille can learn these skills.
All special attacks are attached to your weapons. If you want Cyrille to use Ice Magic, then she needs to equip an Ice Tome. Cyrille has the bulk of the special magics since shes a magic user. Toma has a few special skills but they're only attached to small swords and not the large ones. Each character can use a special melee attack however. It's the same no matter what weapon or character you use. If you bash the X button 3 or so times, then hold it, you can charge for an attack. If you hold it after that attack, then you can pull off an even bigger attack, this attack uses magic but you can continue using it as long as your magic doesn't run out.
You can take up to 2 partners with you on a quest. They can gain experience, but no new skills, weapons or armor. This saves money and time without having to worry about their armor and junk. You can find special scrolls that boost their AI and possibly special attacks.
Dungeons are rather long mazes with alot of branching paths and hidden items. Within some dungeons and fields you'll find special Prison Blocks, these hold mini-bosses. When defeated you'll gain a new skill you can add to a weapon or armor piece. You can also find Ancient Arena. These hold special pit battles against 50 or so of one type of enemy. If you win, you get a special item, money, loads of Mythril, a special skill, a scroll and a Core Metal. These sidequests can be very helpful but often times difficult if you attack them early on.
----------Characters / Story----------
You play as Toma and Cyrille. Toma is a spunky native / hunter that grew up in the wilds. While he's always ready for action, Cyrille isn't. She grew up in a nice home with lots of books. She's a somber character. Their personalities often clash when their lives became connector after Toma pulled the Shining Force from it's resting place. In the middle of this, there is a war brewing between the Humans and the Magnus races. The ruler from each country want Toma's power to crush their foes.
I don't think I was drawn into the story as much as I liked the first one. There was some aspects I liked about it, otherwise Neo seemed like it had more twists and turns that kept things always interesting. I like Exa was broken up into chapters. This made the game feel like it was moving at a faster pace.
The main Gamespot review claims that Shining Force Exa is completely self contained. The main story has no real connection, so if you want to start on this one, then you won't be confused. However, the game is featured within the same world as Shining Force Neo, so you'll be visiting almost all the same towns and even dungeons. You'll even run into some of the same character's as well. For example, Chip from Canote village is in both Neo and Exa. The party members that join your party are also rehashes from Shining Force Neo, swordsman, magic user, wolf warrior, robot protector, dragon, centaur, blah blah blah.
Compared to Shining Force Neo, the graphics are a nice step up. The character models look much more detailed. The dungeons/fields seem more thought out and less "random". They got rid of the nice anime cutscenes and replaced them with awesome celshading cutscenes using the game engine. The enemies seem bigger and more detailed.
Shining Force Exa suffers from framerate problems if there's to many enemies on the screen, however it's still a large step up from Neo, which had twice as much of a problem with it. Other than that, there really wasn't any bugs I encountered or any other problems.
All main character's are voiced out with full dialog, the only characters in the game without voices are the town villagers and robots, which are few and far between. The voices are inconsistent at times. Sometimes they're really loud, other times they're really low, like they're recorded at different times and not mixed equally. This could even be in mid-dialog with one single character too. It's weird. The voice actors are good and fit the character's, so no complaints about the actual acting though.
The playable character's have battle cries they use during battle, which is a big thumbs up from me. However they only have ONE of them and they say it ALOT. The music is good but mainly forgettable.
The world map is a fairly open world of connection dungeons, towns and fields. It's so open, you could probably walk from one end of the world to the other without having to warp or use any special feature, this is after all barriers are unlocked of course.
Your home base is in the middle of the world. Your base stores all your characters, a shop for buy items and weapons, plus selling items and identifying items. You can also upgrade your weapons and armor with a blacksmith. There's a warp machine that allows you to warp to any previous warp location that you've found on the map. There's 4 exits which allows you to run around the world in four different directions (mostly unlocked towards the end). There's also barracks for your teammates, a library, weapon storage and various other little things to keep you busy. At your base you can switch characters and upgrade your skills.
In your base is also a machine that you will upgrade over time. This machine will grant you the power of a powerful laser that you can use to obliterate your enemies, or to blow up rocks blocking a path. You can upgrade your robot defensive power but leveling up robots, getting new robots or repairing them. You can build your base defenses and repair ability. On top of all that you can use a Radar and a random dungeon generator.
----------Time to Complete Game----------
Shining Force Exa as a VERY long game for this type of genre. Thankful the ending was fairly easy because I was starting to get tired of the game near the end. After you beat the game you unlock a New Game+ feature.