Looking out of the window right now, I half expect to see pigs flying around.
That’s because Shining Resonance?Refrain finally made it to Western shores more than three years after the game originally released on the PlayStation 3. Doth my eyes deceiveth me?
You can probably thank the resurgence seen in the JRPG genre for that. Of course, the question now is, was it worth the wait? I mean, 2014 might not seem that long ago but you’d be surprised how quickly a game can age, even if it resurfaces in the form of a PS4 remaster.
Personally, I never got a chance to play the original release on PS3. As someone who buys a lot of games every time I visit Japan, the demands of work have greatly expanded my backlog of unplayed games as my free time gets squeezed tighter. This means I’m approaching Shining Resonance?Refrain with a fresh set of eyes.
Folks who load up the game will immediately be faced with a couple of choices. Do you play the original mode or the new Refrain Mode? Honestly, it all depends on whether you want to play the game as originally intended or want to avail yourself of all the DLC and extras right off the bat at the expense of continuity issues with the story. If you plan to play the game more than once, then by all means, start with the original mode. Otherwise, you can go with Refrain Mode as long as you don’t mind the story inconsistencies, like using previously unplayable characters against their own selves as they appear in the story.
One of the things that still holds up for Refrain is its visuals. The game ascribes to a common approach used by many JRPGs, which is to really focus on the models for character and creatures. The downside is that some of the environs are not as detailed as they could be. Character models, however, are quite nice and should please folks who love that stylized anime look in their games. I’m one of those people by the way so I quite enjoyed the game’s visuals overall. It’s a look that is akin to a cross between the Tales series and Valkyria Revolution.
The story, meanwhile, has a heavy JRPG flavor to it. Refrain’s narrative centers around Yuma, a mysterious boy with the ability to summon the power of the legendary Shining Dragon. Despite his potentially unlimited power — or perhaps because of it — Yuma is reluctant to bring it to bear. As such, he falls under the familiar archetype of the reluctant hero, which admittedly bugged me at the beginning of the game. Admittedly, it provides more possibilities for character development as the game goes on. That being said, I’m just not a fan of wishy-washy characters. Yuma does have a strong sense of justice and at least isn’t, like, full emo. The proliferation of the latter in anime and games during the late 90s and the turn of the millennium honestly bothered the heck out of me, especially after my Japanese roommate told me that one reason was because young Japanese girls love that stuff. In fact, I consider the switch in tastes of today’s generation of young Japanese girls from brooding emo to yaoi a positive development. I mean, one brooding protagonist is one thing. But a bazillion of them is just way too much. So by all means, bring on the BL, ladies.
But I digress.
The rest of the game’s cast is rounded out by familiar character types to anyone who voraciously consumes manga or anime. You’ve got Sonia, who acts more like a girl-next-door type despite her lofty social status. You also have the socially awkward priestess type in Kirika and the mischievous tease in Rinna. Then there’s the hot-blooded big brother type character Agnum and male tsundere Lestin. Some might consider them tropish but I actually quite enjoyed the dynamic between the main cast, which typically play out not just through the main story but a multitude of skits. It actually made going through the story enjoyable. The antagonists, meanwhile, can be hit or miss. Ideally, you want opposing characters to evoke complex emotions, as opposed to simple anger. Although I felt empathy for characters such as Ette or Beatrice, for example, others felt like cookie-cutter bad guys.
Battling, meanwhile, is based on a real-time system that’s reliant on using combos to not just dish damage but also manage the synergy between physical attacks and spells. Basically, doing regular attacks helps replenish your mana pool while using spells fills up your action gauge for regular attacks. As such, you’ll want to effortlessly weave in and out of both attack types to ensure that you can always attack your foe. You’ll also want to aim for weak spots and mix in what are called “break attacks” to stagger your foe. You need to pay attention to combat synergies as well, such as following up a move that topples opponents with one that does extra damage on downed foes. Later on, you’ll unlock options such as B.A.N.D. attacks to trigger effects on the field and also helps better manage Yuma’s dragon form.
To add variety, each character has his own style, so you can switch between them to mix things up. Yuma, for example, is an easy-to-use all-rounder while Sonia is a quick striker that also has tank-style moves. The battle system can be fun once you get the hang of it and use the aforementioned synergies to full effect. At the same time, it can also feel cumbersome, especially when using the slower characters or fighting higher level foes. Speaking of enemy levels, I like how they typically scale with you. This means earlier areas in the game don’t end up as useless places with weak enemies as you get farther in the game.
The biggest issue with combat, though, is the partner AI, which can seem brain dead at times. While you can command allies to adopt certain behaviors on the field, they can still end up dying a lot unless you babysit them. The one thing that the AI is consistently solid at is healing, provided you command them, so I typically end up rocking two support characters at the same time during tougher fights and order them to prioritize healing so I have a more extended window to attack with whoever character I’m controlling.
Of course, while story and combat typically serve as the one-two punch that anchors any JRPG, side quests and activities act as the glue that binds those two together and rounds out the experience. This is probably the weakest aspect of the game. While strengthening the bonds between protagonists by spending time with them can be fun, villager side quests can end up as glorified fetch quests. It doesn’t help that they eventually repeat if you do them enough, making it feel like busy work. It makes me wish that more thought was put into making this aspect of the game more unique as properly done side quests can make a solid game turn into a stellar experience.
I do want to commend Sega for at least adding English voice acting to the game. Although I typically play games like this in Japanese, I can appreciate the addition of localized voice acting, which requires additional investment in terms of time and money. It would be easy to just go with the Japanese voice acting, which I liked, by the way, add the translated text and call it a day. In this case, though, at least Sega went the extra mile, which I appreciate.
All in all, Shining Resonance?Refrain is a solid effort that ticks off a lot of JRPG checkboxes. Admittedly, it has a by-the-numbers feel and doesn’t have that uniqueness seen in heavy hitters such as Persona 5. Its fetchy, repeating side quests also feel a bit long in the tooth. At the same time, I appreciate the game being brought over to our shores, which is hopefully a trend that continues as the genre sees a resurgence. The more JRPGs make it to the West, the better it is for fans.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10Cost: $49.99, PC, PS4 (reviewed), Switch, XB1http://shiningresonance.com/
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