Shining Resonance Refrain Reviewon July 9, 2018 by I love Japanese games
Even being able to type the words ‘Shining Resonance Refrain Review’ feels like a nice thing to do. It’s a series that the West has been under-served for far to long (over a decade has passed since we’ve been graced with it’s presence!) and it’s fair to say that there’s still a real desire to see Shining games make their way to us – thanks largely to the collective love of the Mega Drive/Genesis RPGs.
Truth is though, the Shining series has long since abandoned its origins. From 3D dungeon crawler, to turn based RPG to the (actually pretty decent) ARPG Shining Soul (which also happens to be the last Western Shining release I played) – the Shining games are now entirely different beasts to those I loved in the 16bit era. The same is true of Shining Resonance Refrain, a remaster of the 2014 Japan-only PS3 release.
Shining Resonance tells the tale of Yuma, a young man with self esteem issues who holds within him the power of the Shining Dragon – an ancient beast of legend that, in a cataclysmic event some 1000 years ago, saved the world from oblivion. As those of you who played the demo will know, the adventure starts with you in control of Sonia Blanche a Princess Knight tasked with saving Yuma from prison, where he is being experimented on by an evil empire.
This serves as the games tutorial, a chance for you to get to grips with the real-time battle system and a means of introducing you to the game’s main cast – your controllable-in-battle allies and the pantomime-like entourage that make up the villains.
An hour in and you find yourself in a sleepy little Inn, in the town of Marga – and firmly into cliched JRPG territory. A brief walk around town and the game’s story is laid bare. There’s an Evil Empire intent on the occupation of the lovely land of Alfheim – previously the domain of powerful (but since diminished) dragons and human settlers. The neighbouring Elves have allied with Alfheim in an attempt to slow the Empire’s advance, but it’s an uneasy stalemate and unlikely to hold.
What they need is a Hero with some kind of ancient power to stop them. Enter Yuma (aka, you) who has the most kick-ass power of them all, an ability to unleash the raw fury of the most powerful dragon in existence. Only snag is, you’re a bit unsure of yourself and scared that your power will do Very Bad Things – so you bottle it all up inside and whine a lot about it, while your new friends try to coax it out of you before they all die a horrible death. Good old JRPG times ahoy then.
Shining Resonance Refrain’s hook, then, is two-fold. One you can turn yourself into a Dragon for Massive Damage. Two (and this is where it gets weird) there’s a strong musical theme that’s central to the game’s mechanics. See, just before the Shining Dragon disappeared 1000 years ago, he… er… made a bunch of musical weapons called Armonics. Weapons shaped like a Harp or Guitar – as wielded by Kirika and Agnum respectively.
In Shining Resonance Refrain, you only get one weapon – instead of buying new kit, you basically ‘Tune’ your weapon to new scores, a process that bestows special base properties to your weapon – things like increased attack speed, elemental attacks, defensive properties and so forth. The more you use a certain ‘Tuning’ the stronger it becomes. You can change your Tuning by visiting the Atelier and submitting new ‘Scores’ (via quests, challenges or story events). Eventually you’ll end up with a range of possibilities to suit your play style.
It’s an interesting system which is further enhanced by Aspects. These are effectively different gems that you can socket into your weapon – increased Attack, Defense, Crit Rate, HP% up that sort of thing. More powerful Tunes allow you to socket more Aspects, further adding to the versatility of your character build.
Taking your weapon out into the field and you’re greeted with a nice, if somewhat simplistic battle system. You can see enemies roaming around, and you simply bump into them to trigger an encounter. Approach from behind for the advantage – get hit from behind for a movement penalty when the battle starts. Once triggered, battles take place in the exact spot you were in the overworld. Winning awards you a little slo-motion and victory chime interlude – but it’s otherwise seamless from exploration. It’s almost like an ARPG… almost... but battles are still effectively self contained, so it’s like a half-way house between the two.
In terms of attacks, you have normal attack, Break Attack (more on this later) and a choice of Forces to use – where hitting the left bumper opens up more powerful MP-consuming special attacks. Forces drain MP, while normal attacks replenish it. You’re also limited to how many attacks you can execute in a row, thanks to your rechargeable Action Point gauge.
Break attacks are the lynchpin to doing excessive damage. All enemies can be ‘broken’ using break attacks. The more powerful the enemy, the harder they are to Break. Essentially, you have to wail attacks on your enemy fast enough to break them, where upon all subsequent attacks do huge damage during this brief window. Enemies are more susceptible to break at different times (like during casting for example) so learning when to time your Break Attacks is going to be key to surviving boss battles.
The last two strings to the battle system bow are B.A.N.D and your Dragon Transformation. Theres a massive meter on the right hand side in three stages. Once a stage is full you can activate B.A.N.D, which whisks you off to a magical musical interlude which gives your entire party increased abilities, like MAD CRIT RATE or increased Magic Damage. Once your B.A.N.D meter runs out the effect runs out.
Lastly, by hitting both shoulder buttons you can turn into the Shining Dragon. This basically allows you to hit for more damage, but staying in this state for too long will make you go beserk, which can threaten the safety of your party – so must be used sparingly.
All told, the weapon and battle mechanics make for a pleasingly fun battle system. A little button-mashy for the most part, but interesting enough not to make the many encounters you face a chore. Given they’re practically seamless to the world’s exploration, it’s fun enough to ward off any long term annoyance as your adventure continues.
Perhaps the one criticism we do have is that battles are not overly strategic. Some of the boss battles, especially early on, were surprisingly easy to steamroll by hitting Kirika’s crit-enhancing B.A.N.D ability, immediately hitting the Dragon transformation, and then just mashing normal attack for their entire health bar. Not everything can be won this way (we did die a fair amount on some of the tougher encounters) but it is a strategy we found ourself over-using – which took the gravitas out of some story encounters which we felt should have been more poignant.
Initially I thought I’d be quite down on it for this Shining Resonance Refrain review – it’s not hard to pick out the game’s failings, particularly at a time when we’re spoiled with excellent JRPGs – in comparison Shining Resonance refrain feels distinctly simplistic and low budget.
There’s only one town for example, Marga is the hub from which all activity takes place. There are not many locations in the main town either – and there are no internal locations to explore, with only 2D artwork and Visual Novel style exchanges to signify you’re at the Inn or the Castle (basically the only two places in town you really go inside).
Cut-scenes are at a minimum too – with some battles being depicted by a black screen and coloured sword swipes to indicate some action has taken place. Side quests are also pretty uninsipred (kill X things! Bring me Y things!) and often repeat themselves and you’re often sent to the same locations on multiple occasions. Yup, make no mistake – this is not a game that Sega lavished attention on – it is very much a last-gen JRPG in every sense.
But you know what. I don’t really care – because somehow… despite its failings, low budget and avalanche of cliches I actually found myself enjoying it. Xenoblade 2, for all its majesty is a big, BIG game. So much detail, so much exploration – frankly so much time. That game ate my entire Christmas holiday. I loved it, and I love big JRPGs but sometimes I often don’t have time for them.
This Shining Resonance Refrain review has benefited from that fact. Yes it’s streamlined from budgetary constraints, but actually, in doing so it’s a JRPG that cuts out a lot of fluff and just cuts to the chase – and that is hugely convenient for me. It’s not overly bogged down with over-long dialogue exchanges.You’re never sitting through more cut-scenes than you’re comfortable with. Battles have no loading to speak of and you’re wasting time searching every house in ever town for pots, chests and herbs.
There’s another unexpected bonus too. Refrain also contains the original PS3 releases’ DLC – all the Uniform, Maid and Idol Costumes are in there form the word go (which is nice, of course) but also, something else, something very smart indeed – the Grimoire Dungeons.
By Chapter 3, right next to the save point in Marga, a woman, appears who can give you access to Distortions – basically randomised dungeons. But here’s the clever bit – from her menu screen, you can build your own themed dungeon. The basic template is a variety of Dungeon locations at E Rank. However, you can spend special Gems on the Dungeon template to, say, add a specific enemy type. Some special gems may give twice the Gold yield but penalise you with 2x AP or MP cost. Adding these gems with different effects plays around with the Dungeon’s attributes allowing you to increase the Dungeon rank from E to D to C and so forth.
The higher the Dungeon rank you make, the harder it is (it also scales with your level) but also the greater the reward from the chests at the end, when you beat all three floors. Now, normally I’m a big grinder in RPGs. To have this option, right next to your save point in the main town is amazing. The Grimoire Dungeons yield more XP than normal areas in the game, so it’s a great place to level up if you only have maybe 30 mins one evening to dip into the game.
It seems like a small thing, but in the same way that things like low budget, cliche-heavy, simplicity strives to work against it- there are enough nice bonuses that help tip the balance. The Grimoire Dungeons, the cute characterisation (I rather liked the simple dating mechanic for example) and, true-to-tropes though they are, the allied cast is certainly likeable in a sweet, naive kind of way – maybe I have simple tastes, but I really warmed to them!
Last but not least,and as a final sweetner, Jinas and Excella – secondary, but no less charismatic members of the original cast – become playable in the all new ‘Refrain Mode’ a nice little extra for those partial to a second playthrough, especiall if you find yourself particularly engaged in the characters and storyline first time around and want to experience an different facet to the game’s story.
All told, I struggled a little with this Shining Resonance Refrain review as it’s something of a mixed bag. The game design is stifled by an obvious lack of budget (it never proves to be as rich and polished as the likes of Persona 5) and it’s often very workmanlike and unremarkable. But even in the face of all that, I still found it be a highly enjoyable JRPG.
Bright and breezy in outlook it never takes itself too seriously, it’s just a lovely light-hearted, easy-to-play adventure.
If, like me, you often struggle to finish your JRPGs these days, then Shining Resonance Refrain offers something less dense, more manageable. It’s a simpler, more streamlined experience, yes – but in all honesty, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.