In 2014, Sega released Shining Resonance on the PS3 exclusively on Eastern shores, much to the chagrin of many overseas fans of the company’s long-running RPG franchise. Given the long history of Japan-only releases in the series, Shining Resonance seemed unlikely to receive a localisation, which made it all the more surprising when the company unveiled Shining Resonance Refrain, a current-gen remaster which would be receiving a worldwide release. The question is, has the wait for a new Shining game on western shores been worth it? Well, kind of.
The story opens with a prologue that’s as bombastic as it is derivative, foreshadowing much of the narrative elements that will follow over the next several dozen hours. An amnesiac main character with god-like power and a low sense of self-esteem? Check. A hot-headed warrior princess with a heart for helping the weak? Check. A conniving and impish mad scientist with a penchant for torture? Check. Just about every possible cliché anime trope you could think of is present and accounted for and seldom are these tropes presented in any memorable way; there’s very little to this story that you haven’t already heard or seen done elsewhere.
Yet despite the campiness, the story still does a decent job of building a convincing and detailed world that adds much-needed context to the gameplay. The wartime setting and the cultures of various races and religious orders are well thought out and consistent (if not very original), and party members have strongly defined personalities and organic interactions. There’s even a dating sim element to the plot, in which you can have optional late-night conversations with other characters to reveal more about their backstory and sometimes receive certain gameplay benefits, too. It’s all satisfactory, then, but there’s little to the plot or character interactions that sticks out as being truly memorable; it’s done well, but not exceptionally so.
Combat drops turn-based action in favor of a more action-oriented setup, much akin to the Tales series or the recent Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana. Upon engaging with a roaming enemy, a light blue ring encircles your party and your enemies, and everyone draws their weapons. You can control any character in the party and each one has two primary forms of attack: a basic attack and a break attack. The basic attack is exactly what it sounds like, while the break attack assists in building up an enemy’s break gauge, which disables the enemy and doubles the damage they take if it’s filled. These two basic attacks are governed by an AP ring that encircles your character’s feet; each attack takes a few AP points to use, and if you use too much, you’ll have to wait a few seconds for the gauge to refill.
Fortunately, the AP gauge fills up almost immediately, and but if you don’t want to wait to continue your assault, you also have a series of up to four Force Abilities that can be deployed at any time, at the cost of MP. These are more specialized attacks that can hit multiple enemies, imbue attacks with certain buffs or debuffs, or directly support allies with healing and other effects. Though it’s rather easy for MP to run low if you abuse these too much, it can easily be gained back by hitting enemies with normal attacks, which makes for a nice loop that encourages you to use all aspects of combat equally.
Later on in the narrative, a certain team based attack is introduced called B.A.N.D., which ties in nicely with the game’s overall theme of music. Each character wields a weapon (called an Armonic) that resembles a musical instrument, like an electric guitar that doubles as a battleaxe, and characters can come together for a team attack once a special gauge is filled that sees them using their instruments in concert to cast a team buff. This can do things like boosting critical hit rates or physical attack damage, and the effect is decided according to who you set as the 'Center' in the setup menu. Though it can seem rather overpowered at times, B.A.N.D. is a lovely inclusion to the combat system that helps break up the repetition a bit, while offering players more strategic options for harder battles.
On top of B.A.N.D., there’s another super attack option available to the main character, Yuma, which allows him to unleash the power inside him and take on the form of the Shining Dragon itself. As long as Yuma has MP he can unleash this power whenever he wants, and it slowly saps away at MP with each passing second. Though the additional firepower offered by the dragon is welcome, it’s balanced by the danger of the dragon becoming unstable, and the chances of this happening increase as Yuma’s MP lowers. If Yuma loses control, he’ll suddenly go on a rampage that can also damage party members, which can have catastrophic consequences to a fight that was otherwise going swimmingly. This ‘beast out’ mode is yet another welcome way to break up the repetition of combat, but once again, it feels like overkill for most of the fights that you’ll encounter and seems like a rather tacked on (though seriously cool) feature.
Refrain takes an interesting approach to leveling characters, offering up a slightly more dynamic means of character progression than rote level gains. Each characters Armonic can be given a certain 'Tuning', which levels separately from the character, and each Tuning gives certain percentage buffs to different stats, with these percentages being boosted higher by leveling the tuning. On top of this, Tunings each have skills attached to them, such as faster attack speed or a deeper MP pool, and this differentiation in different Tunings presents some nice strategic options. Do you keep a character using a specific Tuning and power it up considerably, or do you swap them out and take advantage of the different skills they possess? The Tuning system helps to elevate character progression to more dynamic heights, offering you the chance to mold and shape your team to whatever builds you desire.
To a lesser extent, character growth can also be impacted by the Bond system, which decides the frequency and type of 'Resonance' that takes place in battle. A Resonance occurs randomly during fights, and results when a party member chooses to buff your character or debuff the enemy you’re currently targeting. How you choose to link up your characters in the web-like Bond diagram dictates which Resonances take place, and the kinds of Bonds you can create are affected by changing the 'Trait' equipped on each character. Traits are obtained both in dungeon crawling and optional character interactions and provide a meaningful way of encouraging exploration beyond mere consumable items.
A key flaw that runs throughout all these interlocking systems, however, is the game’s failure to adequately explain how they all work. Granted, what’s here isn’t rocket science, but the tutorials for new systems feel rather rushed and the game seldom offers much more information to clarify. Learning by doing eventually teaches you everything that you need to know, but it’s the need for some extra trial and error that feels sloppy and lazy.
From a presentation perspective, Refrain manages to offer up a satisfying audiovisual experience, particularly in handheld mode, although it isn’t necessarily a showcase for the Switch’s abilities. The game’s roots as a PS3 title rear their head every now and then, especially in the simplistic and flat world design. As opposed to the verticality and depth of the worlds in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 or Ys VII, Refrain’s world feels distinctly lesser in scope. Though there’s plenty of cool details and features to decorate the world, like towering cliff faces or a thick canopy of trees, it all feels rather like superficial window dressing, as if each environment is the same room painted a different color.
Even so, the cel-shaded anime style is bright and cheerful, and there’s an impressively varied color palette to match the equally colorful characters. Though the world may feel a bit empty, it’s certainly easy on the eyes, and the true beauty of it really pops on the Switch’s portable screen. As with many Switch games, it never really gets old to be playing a game that looks like this on a train ride, and performance oddly seems to be even better in portable mode than docked. Framerates usually stay around a fairly consistent 30fps, but drops can be spotted here and there when there are lots of enemies or you’re fighting a large boss character, though we detected fewer drops in portable mode. Either way, the frame drops are never enough to impact the gameplay, things just get sluggish from time to time.
The music, on the other hand, does a fair job of setting the tone for scenes, but is oddly forgettable in a game with music as its central theme. Nothing in this soundtrack approaches what we would describe as bad, but much of it is forgettable and doesn’t do much to add to the overall experience. It’s a bit of a shame, especially given the potential that seems wasted with the game’s music theme, and it does lessen one’s enjoyment of the game somewhat, but it’s hardly a deal breaker.
As an enhanced re-release for the West, Refrain also comes with a wealth of additions to raise the overall value. New to this edition is the titular Refrain Mode, which takes the shape of a non-canon second playthrough that sees key villains joining the team for a 'what if' scenario. It’s a neat new feature and gives fans a compelling reason to play again after the credits have rolled, especially when taken with all the other inclusions. The original Shining Resonance had an eye-watering 150 distinct pieces of DLC, all of which have been included in this package. These can range from mostly insignificant things like new character costumes to a fairly sizable side mode which lets players explore optional dungeons for exclusive loot and enemy encounters. There’s no shortage of content in the base game as is, but the integration of all the DLC into the main package help to create a pleasingly well-rounded experience.
Shining Resonance Refrain is the kind of game that can put on a solid performance, but it’s also abundantly clear that it doesn’t quite have the pipes to hit the high notes; it’s a good game, but not a great one. A fascinating setting, live action combat system, and eye-catching cel-shade visuals are all balanced by a slightly dampening feeling of mediocrity that never seems to go away. Fans of RPGs will find plenty to love here, it’s a well-rounded, content-rich game that understands its audience well, but it’s also a very safe RPG. We’d ultimately give Shining Resonance Refrain a recommendation, especially if you’re a newcomer looking for a good RPG to show you what the genre is all about, but veterans may be a bit disappointed with the final product.