I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but feel at least a tiny bit victorious whenever a previously Japan-exclusive title finally manages to make its way on over to the West. Niche Japanese titles weren’t as always as free-flowing as they are now, so there was once a time where we basically had to take whatever we could get. Fortunately, that isn’t nearly as much of a problem today (although we’re still not all the way there just yet). Western fans of JRPGs — or any kind of Japanese game, really — are much more likely to find what they’re likely to looking for. But still, it’s a particularly special feeling when a game that missed us once before boomerangs back and finally lands in our laps. Especially when it’s a game like Shining Resonance Refrain.
A part of Sega’s iconic Shining series (Force, Soul, etc.) Shining Resonance Refrain is a remake of none other than the previously Japan-exclusive 2014 PlayStation 3 title Shining Resonance. Resonance isn’t the only game that we missed out on, though. As it turns out, we’ve been left in the dark on a number of recent Shining titles. And, after finally having played Shining Resonance Refrain, I have one question for Sega; why? Why didn’t this game, (and every other Shining title we missed) come to the West alongside its original Japanese debut? Honestly, this game is great. And it’s not even because it’s “groundbreaking” or “overly innovative”. On the contrary, it’s a fairly straightforward RPG. But there’s something about it that just makes it so darn satisfying to play. I guess it doesn’t matter that we never got the first run of this game — not anymore, anyway — because we’ve got the new and improved version now. And we’re all the better off for it!
Dragoneers and Dragon Tears
Shining Resonance Refrain’s story is one that shouldn’t sound all too unfamiliar to my fellow JRPG fans out there. It revolves around a timid young man named Yuma Illvern who, by means which aren’t revealed until later on, finds himself imprisoned within the Lombardian Empire’s Gaelritz Prison, where he is subjected to countless horrific experiments. Of course, Yuma isn’t just any ordinary young man. As it turns out, he has the power of the Shining Dragon — a being capable of supreme, deity-like power — slumbering within him, but chooses not to make use of it due to its instability and capacity for destruction. Although Yuma ends up resigning to his fate as a captive, he one day finds himself being freed by the Kingdom of Astoria’s army — lead by none other than the Astorian Princess Sonia Blanche herself — and, after a turn of events, teams up with them to take down the Empire once and for all.
I know that JRPG stories are supposed to be dramatic — and this game certainly has a lot of drama — but I couldn’t help but seeing Refrain‘s story as something more along the lines of being “feel-good”. The game never took its narrative anywhere that surprised me, but that didn’t stop it from telling a quality story. And I feel as though this is largely due to the characters within said story. More so than the story itself, I enjoyed watching the characters interacting with the story and, most importantly, with each other. Whether it was the loving relationship between Sonia and her father, the sister-like bond between Kirika and Rinna, or the whole team coming together to protect Yuma, there’s something incredibly heartfelt behind most interactions within this game, and I loved every minute of it.
Shining Resonance Refrain also features something known as “Refrain Mode” — a feature that I found to be both really cool, and somewhat funny in an ironic way. Refrain Mode is a re-telling of the game’s original story. While it obviously features quite a few differences from the game’s original story, the most noticeable one is the inclusion of Jinas — an enigmatic man keen on taking down the Shining Dragon — and Excella — Princess of the Empire, and previous primary antagonist — as party members. So, where’s the irony in that? Well, Refrain Mode was made for people who had already beaten the original Shining Resonance. Is it a big deal? No, not at all. In fact, it’s kind of like we Westerners are getting a 2-for-1 deal — and I’m all for that — I just couldn’t help but chuckle at how things turned out.
To the Ends of the Earth and Back
Shining Resonance Refrain is, for lack of a better term (if an official one exists, its name eludes me) a “hub-centric” JRPG, with a good chunk of the game’s progression revolving around Astoria itself. Because of this, the game plays out in what essentially amounts to a mission-based manner (although it doesn’t go so far that I’d call it a true mission-based game), with players needing to travel to a specific destination, progress the story, and head back to Astoria to progress it even more. It’s a progression formula that isn’t complicated in the slightest, but Refrain ends up being such a smooth experience overall that it’s enjoyable all the same.
I’ll admit that I was somewhat surprised (albeit not in a bad way) about the way this game presents its exploration mechanics to its players. Based on its “there-and-back” nature, I was expecting traveling to be a little more confined. But, as it turns out, Refrain’s world of Alfheim is a little more open-ended than I had first assumed it to be. Although comparably very small to the likes of games such as, say, Xenoblade Chronicles, Refrain still has its fair share of open fields and branching paths to explore, and materials and treasures to collect. Realistically, it wouldn’t actually take you that much time if you were making a mad dash from one end of the map to the other. However, thanks to the many monsters and items scattered throughout each area, you’re bound to find yourself getting sidetracked with at least a somewhat steady consistency.
Refrain is also one of the few games that I’ve seen grow alongside its player. Each time you complete one of the game’s chapters, both the world and its monster population undergo a growth spurt. I personally welcomed a mechanic like this quite happily. Having to run through the same fields with monsters that become increasingly weaker as you fight would be incredibly boring. By making sure that all of the areas in the game become more difficult as you progress through the story, you’re ensuring players an experience that is, at least in part, more balanced overall. On top of that, players will also be able to experience new kinds of weather — which change which monsters and items are available — diversifying the world even further.
Home is Where the Heart is
By now, we’ve already very clearly established that Refrain is a JRPG. And, do you know what every self-respecting modern-day JRPG has? Combat? No, that’s not what I’m looking for. A good story? Close, but that’s not it either. I’m talking about dating mechanics, duh! What good is saving the world if you can’t flirt with your party members while you’re doing it? Fortunately, Refrain’s got your back on that. As you stroll around Astoria, you’ll notice your fellow party members doing their own thing. By frequently engaging in conversation with them, you’ll be able to learn more about them, and at times even answer questions that, given the correct response, will bring the two of you closer together.
Oh-ho, but that’s not all my friends! You can also date your fellow party members — and it’s easy to do, too! Before heading off to bed at the local inn each night, you have the option to stay up a little later and shoot the breeze with the party member of your choice. These conversations (known as “Night Events”), while similar to those you have while talking to them in town, are often times longer and more in-depth. And, once you’ve cozied up to someone enough, you can even go on an actual date around town with them (and yes, that means that Refrain has special character endings for each party member).
Did I mention that getting to know your teammates better also has an effect on this game’s combat? No? Well, let’s take care of that right now. As you play through the game, you’ll begin to collect what are known as “Traits”. Traits can be obtained through a number of different means — through the main story, though dating events, and sometimes even within treasure chests — and are exactly what you think they are; personality traits. And what do these personality traits do? Well, they’re used for something called the “Bond Diagram”. The Bond Diagram is also exactly what it sounds like — a diagram depicting the bonds between each of your party members. By equipping various traits, you can change how your party members will treat each other mid-battle. Truthfully I liked the idea of the Bond Diagram, but I couldn’t help but feeling that it was a bit confusing. The game only provides vague hints on how each bond works, making it difficult to discern what exactly it was that I was supposed to expect from my comrades-in-arms as I was fighting. Still, it’s a neat idea. And I’m sure that, had the game been more clear about things, I would have absolutely loved it.
I won’t deny that dating mechanics in a JRPG has become a trope at this point. But it’s a trope that I don’t mind at all — especially if it’s done well. And, if you ask me, this game does it well. Refrain doesn’t market dating as something mandatory, but as a fun (and cute) side-task. Dating also helps the flesh out the game (no pun intended) in terms of its narrative aspects, as the player really does learn a lot about each party member as they spend more time with them respectively. And a lot of said character development goes beyond being superficial, either. Dates slowly help each of Refrain’s characters feel more complete. This is further complemented by both the game’s dialogue and voice acting, which make these scenes feel believable (as far as JRPGs go, anyway), and engaging. If a game can make you smile with idle chit-chat, then it’s doing something right. And the conversations between Yuma and his friends that occur during these times had me smiling quite a bit.
Battle of the B.A.N.D.s
Music also plays a big part in combat — and not in the “good music makes you play better” way. After a certain point in the game, players will have access to Rune Songs — songs that, when played, significantly power up your team for a duration of time. And, like any good song, Rune Songs must be played by a band! Or, in this case, a B.A.N.D.. Having your characters gather ’round and perform a song isn’t just to add an additional layer of anime-filled dramatic goodness though (although it does do that as well). The person in charge of your impromptu jam session also has an effect on what each song will do. Because of that duality, it becomes important to not only choose your song wisely but to choose who’s in charge of performing that song as well!
I feel like there’s something that I’m forgetting, here. Let’s see… basic combat, the B.A.N.D. System… oh, right! How could I forget the fact that Refrain lets players turn into a giant dragon on command? Remember how I mentioned that Yuma, the game’s protagonist, harbors the soul of the Shining Dragon within himself? Well, he does. And it’s not just there as a plot point, either. A short way into the game, for reasons that I won’t specify, Yuma gains the ability to transform into the Shining Dragon. And yes, it’s about as awesome as you’d expect it to be. The Shining Dragon towers over most enemies, making quick work with of them with his breath and claw attacks. There is a drawback to this, though. Yuma’s Shining Dragon transformation quickly depletes his MP. And, at low MP intervals, he has the chance of going berserk and rendering completely uncontrollable. This downfall isn’t something you need to worry about too much, though, as Rune Songs will calm Yuma down. And, later on in the game, Yuma loses his “berserk factor” entirely. The end result of this is something that’s powerful to the point of almost being unfair, but I mean how many games let you transform into a dragon at will? Unfair or not, the Shining Dragon is an incredibly fun addition to Refrain‘s combat overall.
Really, I don’t know what else to say about Shining Resonance Refrain that hasn’t already been said before within this review. It’s simple, it’s sweet, and it’s a whole lot of fun. It also features a story and cast of characters that, while not “new” or “unexpected”, are presented to the player so well that you can’t help but become wrapped up in its narrative. In a word, Shining Resonance Refrain is great. And if this game is indicative of the Shining series’ return to the West, then it’s safe to say that we have plenty to look forward to in the future.
FINAL VERDICT: 4/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PC ; Publisher: SEGA ; Developer: SEGA ; Players: 1 ; Released: July 10, 2018 ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: $49.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Shining Resonance Refrain given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher