"[...] the whole game feels very Tales of like, but with very little of the charm or polish that makes those games so fun for me."
Think about that series you love and haven't played an entry for over ten years. Are you worried it'll never see the light of day? Or are you concerned that what you might eventually get won't live up to your expectations? I imagine those questions arose when Shining Resonance was released in Japan back in 2014 on PS3. The Shining series had already faded in popularity at that point, so would we ever get this one? Fortunately, while we've had to wait an extra four years, Sega has finally delivered the goods with an enhanced port on all consoles called Shining Resonance Refrain. It's fantastic to finally get a new Shining game here — the first in ten years — but for many, the wait might not have been worth it.
You control Yuma, a boy who has the power to transform into the Shining Dragon, a mythical beast revered by many across the land. He fears this power but comes under the protection of a group of Dragoneers, warriors who have the power to wield musical weapons and use the dragon's power. As he becomes embroiled in a war between the Dragoneer's home of Astoria and the Empire of Lombardia, Yuma must decide whether to use his power to help save the world. It all feels very familiar, to a fault. Shining Resonance Refrain never strives to break away from tried and true JRPG tropes. Most of the cast also fit their respective tropes: Sonia, a knight of Astoria, is an all-around tough girl who is determined to save everyone; Kirika, a Dragoneer and Diva Magica (which means she can talk to the Shining Dragon), is serene and bashful; and Rinna, Kirika's servant, is chirpy, bubbly, and sometimes a little bit irritating. I struggled to remember most of their names throughout my playthrough, but even though their personalities don't shine in the plot, I want to credit the voice acting, which is mostly very impressive for a port. They managed to bring these cookie-cutter characters to life and helped me enjoy my time with them a little bit more than I expected.
When you first boot up the game, you have the choice to pick Original or Refrain mode right from the start. Original mode is the base game that Japan initially got. Refrain mode contains all of the DLC from the original PS3 release, including two new playable characters, but narratively there's no difference. If anything, Refrain mode makes things more confusing, as the two new characters do not add anything to the story at all, and as they're already part of the main game, there are instances where you'll be fighting the very same character that's in your party. It feels like a bizarre choice to have this as an optional mode; it should either be unlockable once you've beaten the game or simply just left as the sole choice. Still, it's nice to have all of the new additions, such as the post-game dungeon and new characters to interact with, straight off the bat.
Early on in the game, you'll set up base in the town of Marga, a bustling seaside city. When you're in Marga, you can do all of your shopping, pick up sidequests or talk to your friends. This leads into one of the better parts of the game: dating. Each of your friends is dotted around town, and Yuma can go up and talk to them or invite them out for the evening. When you speak to them during the day, they'll occasionally ask you a question, and your answers can either raise or lower your affinity with them. Going on evening dates also does this, and once you get very close to your companion, you can take them on a tour of the city. These little episodes are really sweet and actually give the characters some depth, as well as granting you in-game rewards such as items and boosts to the particular character you're dating. Yuma can also go on dates with his male friends, and while they get fewer scenes, they are equally enjoyable and very well handled.
While you'll spend a lot of time in Marga, there's an entire country waiting to be explored. Out in the wilds, the whole game feels very Tales of like, but with very little of the charm or polish that makes those games so fun for me. The world is a bunch of open fields and corridors, with patrolling monsters and gathering points sprinkled around, and there's no quick travel, so be prepared to spend a lot of time backtracking. This isn't helped by the fact that while the game is bright and colourful, locations are bland and do very little to blow you away visually, aside from the new coat of polish they've received for this port.
Battles do help break up the monotony of exploration somewhat. Combat reminds me very much of Tales of Zestiria, and while fun, it's vastly inferior. Characters can use weak attacks to do damage, strong attacks to break the enemy's defence and render them vulnerable — both of which use Action Points (stamina) — or use skills, which consume MP but don't waste AP. I found fighting hordes of enemies to be quite enjoyable early on, mixing up my actions and breaking down huge, towering enemies many levels above me just for fun. But by the time you hit the five-hour mark, you know nearly everything there is to know about combat, and even by the end of the game, strategies for normal enemies and bosses never need to change. Attacks and skills feel like they have an input delay too, and many of these need charging up, which slows the pace of combat. As spells get more powerful, the game suffers from some terrible slowdown, with some of the final battles crawling along just because there is so much going on on-screen at once. I feel like this is something that could've been ironed out for a port, and it made the later stretches of the game even more of a slog.
As music is such a big part of the Shining series, it's no surprise just how much this factors into Shining Resonance Refrain. The in-game music is pleasant to listen to, especially the songs sung by Elements Garden, but aside from these vocal tracks, very little stands out for me. I do, however, adore how music factors into the game mechanically. When characters cast their spells, you can hear them play their instrument weapons, and whenever you get a new Dragoneer with a new instrument, an extra instrument is added to the victory music at the end of battles. These little quirks really stuck with me throughout the game. There's also an additional battle skill you get early on called B.A.N.D., where your Dragoneers can gather together to play a song. Depending on who's at the centre of the band and what song you choose the play, the effect is different. This ranges from upping your defence and making you immune to ailments with one combination to raising your attack and movement speed for another. These buffs helped me get out of many a pinch during battle.
There's a bevy of skills for you to get to grips with too, and this can be a little overwhelming as the game isn't particularly good at explaining some of these. One of these is Traits — just like Titles in the Tales of series — which change your Bond with each of the main party members. These bonds act as support skills, and your party members can use them at random to either heal you or team up with you to cause havoc on the battlefield. The game doesn't explain what any of these bonds do aside from a few hints, and this caused me a lot of confusion early on. Another of these is the Tuning system: in Marga, there's a shop where you can tune your weapons, and this changes how your characters fights or the elements of their weapons. Some tunings can speed up characters while others will give their healing spells a boost, and all of them can be leveled up in battle. I loved this idea in practice, but you can only carry around one tuning per character at a time, and you have to go back to Marga and pay every time you want to change one. This really discourages you from experimenting with the system, especially because tunings also give attack bonuses as they level up, so changing from a level 20 to a level 1 tuning can severely decrease your offence.
I think some people will like Shining Resonance Refrain — the characters all fit a similar pattern of archetypes JRPGs are known for, and there are some amusing exchanges in some of the dating scenes. But for me, it's lacking a bit of heart. It doesn't do anything particularly badly, but all of the elements mashed together create an unremarkable final product. It feels every bit a budget PS3 Tales of game with very little to say for itself, aside from the dating elements and the musical quirks the Shining series is so well known for, and personally, that's the game's biggest issue.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.