Shining Resonance Refrain Review
A JRPG that will mostly appeal to a certain niche of players
There are many great philosophical quandaries that video games attempt to answer. "I think, therefore I am". "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?". "Which waifu is best waifu?". Shining Resonance Refrain attempts to tackle one of these.
Shining Resonance Refrain (SRR) is a remaster of Shining Resonance for the PlayStation 3, released in 2014 exclusively in Japan. Over the years, publisher SEGA has brought a number of games over the pond, such as the Yakuza series, Valkyria Chronicles, and Shenmue. And developer Media Vision has a good stable of games under their belt - Wild Arms, Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth, and Valkyria Chronicles III. So, not a bad roster going out of the gate.
But let’s jump in a time machine for a moment and dial it back to nearly 30 years ago - 1991, when the Shining series began. The strange thing was, when I first heard the name of the game, I thought, "Hey, didn’t I play Shining Resonance years ago? Surely it can’t be the same series?" Turns out that yes, yes it can be.
That just means it’s a long-running series, right? Yes, but the first game, Shining in the Darkness, was a first-person dungeon crawler; Shining Force was a turn-based strategy game, and then it took to third-person action combat, with the latest installment being Shining Resonance Refrain. There’s been like 30 games under the umbrella. 30. That’s giving Sonic a run for his money.
So, here we are in 2018, with Shining Resonance Refrain. The skinny is that you are Yuma and have the soul of the Shining Dragon taking unwelcome residence within you like a squatter. This dragon was once the king of dragons, who fought for humans and bestowed them with the power of magic. Lucky for Yuma, however, the evil Empire are willing to evict said dragon from him - but he may die in the process. Before they get the chance, Princess Sonia from Astoria rescues Yuma, hoping he will help them in their battle against Empire.
In typical JRPG fashion, you can expect to be traveling across the world, upgrading characters in various ways, with some dating-sim and MMO features thrown in for good measure. Along the way, you will recruit new characters and flesh out your party.
SRR’s combat takes the third-person action route. As you travel the open fields of the world map and various dungeons, you’ll see clutches of enemies hopping and trotting about. When you enter their range, battle seamlessly begins. In battle you can attack, defend, employ skills/magic, charge up your special meter, and give simple tactical commands. One positive aspect the game takes to acclimatizing you to each character is, upon first meeting them, it forces you to play with them in battle. Funnily enough, I don’t recall many games with multiple characters doing this. I still only used Yuma throughout the game, but it’s the thought that counts.
The B.A.N.D. system functions like a limit break/special attack meter. You build it during combat - up to 3 levels - then unleash it. Because several characters’ weapons are based on instruments (as per the game’s lore), this special move has you arrange your characters in a band of up to four, with one in the center, determining the move’s effect. It’s an interesting take on the "limit break", but I found the fact it buffed rather than attacked (with my chosen characters at least) a bit of bummer because I didn’t notice much of a difference.
One big plus in favour of using the protagonist Yuma is his ability to transform into the Shining Dragon. Doing this opens up a more powerful moveset, including useful projectile attacks. This state consumes MP, however. When it nears its end, Yuma can go berserk, attacking friend and foe alike. I found the best time to employ the transformation was near the tail end (no pun intended) of boss battles, scything through their last portion of HP. Shining Resonance Refrain does a good a job of increasing the levels between each boss so that you have to do a bit of farming. When you combine this with the fetch quests and item hunts that NPCs and other protagonists bestow, it isn’t too much of a chore.
Each character has the ability to perform Skill Tuning. Think of this as archetypes you want to play as. You want your mage to have more MP and higher spell power, tune your skill this way. The same with your melee characters performing more damage, or making use of particular skills you use often. You can also equip Aspects, which are skills that increase your health, damage, the power of moves, etc. There are dozens of these, so good luck collecting them all.
However, when you strip Shining Resonance Refrain down to just combat, it is far from perfect. First off, the special moves you employ do not link, meaning you will be using the same combination again and again. While it tries to ape the "Tales of" series formula, the game hamstrings the combos you can execute. With only four possible special moves at your disposal, it gets tiresome very quickly. What is even more frustrating is that the AI-controlled characters can only have four moves as well, for reasons unbeknownst.
AI commands are also a real problem. In an action RPG like this, you need more control of what the others characters are doing. The paltry, underdeveloped quick commands are frustrating in battle. I can’t flip to put my team on the defensive during a powerful attack from a boss, or instruct them to heal when a character’s health is under a certain percent. Your AI help, a conductor-looking bird "Fromage", is equally useless. Intended to aid you by chirping out advice, his speech bubble is in the top right corner - away from all the things you’re whalloping, so you never see it.
As a short bit of trivia, I just need to mention that "fromage" is French for "cheese". Now, some of you will be aware of that. But further, one character is called "Primula", the name of a low-cost cheese spread that is sold in a tube in England. I pray that this is intentional.
Also annoying is the bond system the game employs. On the surface, it’s a really cool, interesting idea: the way you arrange your characters on a grid (in the menu), and the certain traits you assign them, affect inter-character relationships, bestowing buffs. There are tons of combinations for this. Sounds pretty cool, right? But no. SRR isn’t going to tell you what these buffs do, so you have absolutely no clue what effect they have. How am I supposed to build a preferred character type if I have no idea what each link does? Maybe I’m blind, but I could not find this explained anywhere in game.
You know what else I couldn’t find in the game? A monster bestiary. Oh, wait, I could. It’s a menu that I have to bring up when talking to the game’s innkeeper! So, I want to craft a new item. I find out what the ingredients are and then go to the innkeeper, open the bestiary and - no information for you. Its seems you have to unlock enemy statutes from a random drop machine to flesh out all the information on each enemy. Even when you have the information, you have to remember it for when you’re on the field. It is ludicrous.
The game’s UI is fine. I can set up characters okay, sort items, and the sub-menus don't become too annoying. Well, that’s so long as you’re not sifting through countless tutorial pages to find an explanation to one of SRR’s ill-explained mechanics. Then, when you find it, you remember that it was poorly explained from the start and still makes no sense. I count the accessibility of what I need to access within the umbrella of UI… so, you know what, it’s annoying. I take back what I said.
The narrative is typical shonen (teenager manga/anime) fare. The "timid boy archetype chosen by destiny, who’s afraid of his power" has been done to death. Obviously, it’s popular, seen as though the anime scene has been dominated by these types of shows for years now, so it works. I’m sure I would’ve gotten more of a kick out of the story as a kid, but the archetypes are just too played out. I didn’t really care about anyone. Yuma’s lot in life seems to be growing his pool of potential female love interests (and occasional blokes).
This leads to the "dating sim" mechanics in the game. Look, I don’t mind them, but I like them to be believable to a degree. Persona, Dragon Age, Mass Effect - at least they take their time and have good characterization. SRR just goes straight for the waifu jugular and it had me rolling my eyes. Especially when I can literally dress the female characters in what amounts to dental floss underwear. I just can’t take someone seriously when I’m afraid the wisp-thin piece of fabric holding their assets together could snap at any moment and give me a black eye. It’s all very trite.
Aside from cliché storytelling, SRR also falls into some repetitive, MMO-inspired game mechanics. However, this is a scourge on the entire RPG community and has been for a while. Quests for NPCs in town will repeat ad nauseum - collect this, kill that - and you get a potion or paltry number of coins at the end of it. The only worthwhile quests are for playable characters who will sometimes reward you with useful skills and items to upgrade yourself.
Graphically, it’s easy to tell this game was created for the last generation of consoles. The team that ported it did a satisfactory job. It doesn’t break. Characters still pop in several feet in front of you as you’re walking about town; levels and the world map are rather bland areas of grass or stone. Dungeon design has you wandering about, exploring every pathway. Again, it’s not endemic to SRR, but last- and current-gen JRPGs as a whole.
Cutscenes are nothing more than barely animated models talking back and forth at each other. I don’t mind games that are on a budget and don’t pump all their time into bombastic scenes, especially those games that have a lot of dialogue. I’m happy watching sprites hop back and forth. It’s just that if I’m not compelled by the narrative, I find myself smashing the continue button.
SRR’s sound design is competent. Your brain tunes out the repeated incantations of spells of the "you’ve just won a battle" sting as it plays for the millionth time. The title song is passable enough, as well as the short "diva/idol" songs that play when you execute a B.A.N.D. move. For dungeons and the like, I found myself turning on Spotify while I ground through missions to upgrade my abilities. Props must be given to both voice actors and translators because SEGA’s are constantly high quality.
I’ve found SEGA can be hit and miss with the games it brings to the West. Shining Resonance Refrain actually reminded me of another title the company published several years ago - Resonance of Fate - which, to me, just felt bang on average. SFF is not a bad game, nor is it a great game. If you’re looking for a new RPG to play on PS4, it's an option. The problem is, it does not introduce anything new. In fact, it feels like a game out of the PlayStation 2 era. Passable battles, typical story, mediocre dating sim components. Shining Resonance Refrain isn’t breaking the mold. It’ll certainly satisfy an itch for some JRPG aficionados, but it's not the game I’d whip out to convince someone who’s not a fan of the genre.