Shining Resonance Refrain PC Review

The Shining series is fondly remembered for its fantastic tactical role-playing games with the Shining Force releases. Over the years, Shining titles have mostly been RPGs. Although, with the last English release being way back in early 2007 with Shining Force EXA in the US for PlayStation 2, even further back to 2004 for the last PAL release with Shining Soul II on the Game Boy Advance, it’s fair to say that the general RPG fan has probably not seen much of the Shining series for quite some time and would not know that there have been many releases in Japan since then. This latest entry from Sega is actually a semi-remaster of the Japanese only, late 2014 PlayStation 3 title, Shining Resonance, meaning that not only is this the first Shining game in years to come out in English, but is also the first time Shining Resonance has seen an English release, and it even comes with full English voice over, along with the option of Japanese if desired.

Refrain has more meaning than just being a word attached to the end, as this release comes with additional content over the original PlayStation 3 title – some of this was originally DLC in Japan. When starting a new game there is a chance to start the Original story or the Refrain version. The plots are identical, so you would not miss anything by starting on Refrain, but since this mode is made for people who have already played the game, Refrain will offer some bizarre situations that don’t quite fit with what is happening with the plot. This is due to the inclusion of two playable characters, Jinas and Excella, that are added to the party in chapter 2. These two never originally joined the team, as they were big players in the original plot, so due to this, you can have situations where you are fighting against them, but because the story never accounts for them now being team members, they are fighting in your team as well. Special events with these characters are scattered around the main town, letting fans get to know more about the them, things that were only slightly teased in the normal story. It’s a neat inclusion for anyone who is a fan.

I found the story to be a stereotypical Japanese RPG tale. Those that are often full of clichés, anime tropes and predictable scenarios that a lot of Japanese RPG fans will pick up on if they have being playing for years. Still, that does not mean you cannot enjoy it, as there are some fun ideas thrown around in the story. Shining Resonance Refrain begins with two main characters, Sonia, a knight who is also the Princess of Astoria, and Kirika, a Diva Magica Dragoneer, who can communicate with dragons. These two are in the middle of breaking out a captive known as Yuma, a special young boy that has the ability to transform into a mystical being known as the Shining Dragon, the strongest dragon in the world. Players will follow these three as Yuma brings his strength to the kingdom of Astoria to help them overcome the invasion of the Empire across the game’s eight chapters.

Supporting the story are the rather likeable characters that help spice up some of the familiar narrative beats. Sure, there is reason to say you have seen it all before, since they follow a particular style of personalities that are present in a lot of Japanese animation and video games, but I still could not help but be entertained by the eccentric bunch, both those that form part of your battle team and key NPCs that appear and work off each for entertaining scenes. Characters are given more personality through their use of magical musical weapons called Armonics that enable the user to use the power of the dragons in battle. Each of these legendary pieces of equipment are distinctly recognisable, such as one of my favourite stars of the game, Agnam Bulletheart, who has a fiery guitar that helps him summon the power of fire as he plays, and he looks the part as well in his fire get up.

A plus is that if you do enjoy any of the characters that are featured in your party, then you can be involved in some light one-on-one couple time to learn more about them that builds their personality up away from the main plot. This is not as detailed or involving as taking part in a social link story that happens in some of the recent Persona games, but there is enough here to get an insight to team members and build up a relationship with them, maybe even with a few romantic events if the relationship goes that far.

Shining Resonance Refrain has a lot of talking sections, some can last over 20 minutes. If anyone has experienced any of the Idea Factory games, then you know exactly what to expect with the story presentation here. I do think the presentation can be seen as a relic from the PlayStation 3 era where it shows that this game had a reserved budget. It’s no demonstration for the power of the PlayStation 4, nor was it for the older sibling when it released initially. There is a night and day difference between games like Final Fantasy XIII, Ni No Kuni and even the later Tales of titles that Shining Resonance Refrain‘s shortcomings are much easier to see. The anime aesthetics do help it remain a strikingly colourful game, and being on PC means it can produce pristine image quality with rock solid frame rate (unlocked frame rate! Shame about the low image quality for some of the user interface art though), but the animations, graphical detail and constant use of dialogue text boxes with head and upper body shots do give it a low budget feel.

These shortcomings cross into the game’s world design and location progression. The story is set in the city of Marga, the game’s HQ, the centre point where these characters live. In here are where the stores and optional side quests (usually end up being some sort of fetch or kill quest) are situated. It’s a relative small place to explore, and every mission begins travelling from this location. It’s the only city place available to visit, with the rest of the map acting as small areas or dungeons to explore. All which are very bog standard in design, with simple directions, elevation and an environment theme giving them any characteristics. The standard environments are seen many times, as players travel to and from Marg, revisiting areas to get to the next destination. Enemies do become stronger in each of the game’s chapter, sometimes offering new enemies, but it becomes a drag seeing the same environment repeatedly. This game could have used some form of fast travel, because as it stands, the only feature of this is an item that returns the team back to Marga.

Familiarity is the key word when speaking about Shining Resonance Refrain, and while I’ve mentioned it about its story, the combat system is another that can be linked to a well-known RPG series, Bandai Namco’s Tales of games. Fights are initiated by contact, with the advantage gained when running into the back of enemies. There are no random battles, which gives the player the chance to avoid fights.

In battles, a ring represents the arena of combat, giving players 360 degree movement to run around and pick which enemy to attack in real time. A simple combo is performed on one button, with another button performing a special character attack that comes with some sort of additional trait – Yuma’s knocks down an enemy leaving them in a weakened state for a few seconds, while Agnam hits the ground with area of effect fire spell that burns foes who walk into it. Those two attacks use AP, highlighted with a ring around the active hero. Run out and no normal attacks can be performed until it charges, thankfully, this is extremely fast, leaving downtime to only a couple of seconds. Holding the left shoulder brings up the character’s force abilities (up to four can be equipped). These are various skills or abilities unique to that hero that use MP to activity, with more unlocked as they level up.

More advance techniques become available soon into the game’s story. One special move that is distinct to Yuma is his ability to transform into a Dragon during battle. This can be kept up as long as Yuma has MP available, but there is a weakness to this, because the more Yuma attacks during this form, the higher chance he has to become berserk. What this means is Yuma then becomes a liability as the player loses control of Yuma, shifting to another team member, as AI takes over and let’s the dragon attack whoever it likes. I never liked this aspect, because it’s too heavily weighted in chance. Sometimes only a couple of attacks would send Yuma berserk, while others would be more in the teens. It felt too restricted for the advantages gained with Yuma being in dragon form. The other technique, one I feel is more reliable, is B.A.N.D (I see what you did there, developers) mechanic and its effect on the battle. Once enough Battle Performance Mana (BPM) has been generated from fighting, B.A.N.D can be enabled with a quick press, which initiates a short scene where the team are playing their instruments before gaining a buff – more damage, better critical damage, more magic damage – which is determined by who the B.A.N.D leader is.

Modifying characters can be done through their Armonic tuning. Each character gains a few Armonic bars, with each one coming with their own ability buff and slot amounts that can take in tuning items that increase the percentage of a related statistic. Think of it as slotting in something like Final Fantasy 7‘s materia spheres in exchange for buffing attack, health or defence. As these armonics level up, they gain more percentage buffs, but the reason to switch them around is to make use of the skill the Armonic comes with. In the end, I just found one that was good and stuck with it to  gain more levels and stronger stat buffs. It’s a small thing that offers more for the combat, but I do not think it is enough to make it as reward as the Tales of combat systems. Also, these are the only way to change the attributes of characters, because this game offers no gear shops, meaning no new swords or armour for any of the characters. It’s weird to be playing an RPG that does this, and it did dampen my enjoyment that comes with seeing a character using a new piece of equipment.

Combat is never over complicated, and I do feel it could have had more built into it. There isn’t even options to change the basic combo by pressing a direction, something I liked in the Tales of games. This does mean it lets players easily get to grips with the tools available, but as the game continues on, I found combat began to bore me because of this lack of customisation with combos. There is also the occasional difficulty spike. General enemies are often easy to defeat, mindlessly hammering the attack button can get you through it, and due to the speed of the combat, fights don’t overstay their welcome. Bosses on the other hand can sometimes be a wake up call to get out of the mindless grind and make use of all the game’s available tactics. It was that or go back grinding to level up the characters. Sadly, unused characters do not gain experience, which means even more grinding if wanting to swap around team members to abuse their elemental strengths against enemies.

I am happy that Sega finally decided to translate a Shining game into English. I am always up for seeing more games readily available, even if Shining Resonance Refrain is one of those Japanese RPGs that I feel sells itself for the serious fans of the genre because of its quality. It’s a harder recommendation for people who only occasionally play JRPGs, because there is nothing here that it truly excels at compared to some of the recent better RPGs that have come to market. Shining Resonance Refrain plays it safe and by the books, taking ideas from other games and mashing it together over its 40 hour adventure to deliver something made up of exciting and stale moments. It’s not an awful game by any means, it’s just a fine JRPG, but with a predictable story and repeated backtracking, this is a game that is lacking any spark to be anything other than a local school orchestra rather than being the London symphony.

6 out of 10