It’s been 10 years since SEGA’s Shining franchise has made an appearance on Western shores. Sadly, it’s been even longer since I’ve played a game in the series, which makes my time with Shining Resonance Refrain a less-than-triumphant experience. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the game, it doesn’t really do anything noteworthy, either. The bland combat system handles well, the by-the-numbers story is occasionally engaging, and there’s a wealth of optional content to keep you busy — including an entirely separate mode that changes the way you can play the game. However, after playing through a number of heavy-hitting JRPGs over the past year, I can’t help but feel that Refrain falls way short of the mark. In a market that’s crowded with wonderful and charming RPGs, SEGA’s latest endeavor doesn’t do enough to set itself apart from the pack. Should you consider picking it up if you’re a diehard fan of the series? I’d give this one a strong recommendation in that regard, but casual fans might find that this song falls a little flat when compared to its contemporaries.
As soon as Shining Resonance Refrain begins its tale of ancient dragons, impossibly busty warriors, and awkward dating (yes, awkward dating), you can tell you’re dealing with a game that’s almost four years old. And while some games hold their own despite their age, Refrain immediately feels dated. The landscapes and environments are sparsely decorated, characters pop in when you’re two feet away from them, and the animation often feels stiff as a board. That said, there’s a weird charm about the game that propels me to defend its shortcomings despite the fact that, yes, they are clearly shortcomings. There’s a genuine earnestness to the story and its host of archetypal characters that made me care for them despite the overall lack of bells and whistles of current-gen titles. The charm feels very peculiar, and it’s one that might not sink its claws into gamers who are looking for something that breaks new ground or pushes boundaries. What’s more, to really appreciate everything that’s happening in the game, Shining Resonance Refrain asks a lot from the player — a lot. In other words, break out your readers, old-school Shining fans, because you have a mountain of text to climb if you want to enjoy the tale in its entirety.
However, instead of smacking you with a ton of exposition right off the proverbial bat, the story kicks off during a daring prison rescue spearheaded by curvy Princess Sonia and an equally busty priestess named Kirika, who has the power to communicate with dragons. A young, willowy man named Yuma resides within this prison, where he’s subjected to unspeakable experiments by an unscrupulous villain who wants to harness dragon souls for all sorts of evil purposes. Sonia and Kirika manage to rescue Yuma, though their efforts ultimately fall short thanks to the interference of Excella Noa Aura, otherwise known as the Dragon Princess of the Holy Dirge. Much to the surprise of everyone, Yuma transforms into the Shining Dragon, a legendary beast who helped end a bloody war eons ago. Before Excella and her dragonmachina can react, the Shining Dragon and his companions are soaring into the heavens and heading toward Marga, Sonia’s home and the hub town where you’ll spend a ton of your time during the game. From that point, the story gets a little complicated… and predictable.
Since Yuma has a power that can literally wipe out an entire kingdom with little effort, everyone wants him to suit up and join their team so they can harness the Shining Dragon. Naturally, our hero decides to join up with the Dragoneers, who have deep connections with instruments that were once used to communicate with dragons. While the Kingdom of Astoria provides Yuma with friends and a pretty nice place to crash, the evil Empire and the Imperials begin putting its own plans into motion. Excella and a high-ranking member of the Sanguine Church, Georg, want to collect four crystallized dragon souls that will help heal the ailing emperor. The only thing that stands in their way: taming the ultra-powerful Shining Dragon, who proves to be a little too much for Excella and her crew to handle. Of course, that’s not going to stop them for long, especially when they have a reckless swordsman named Zest who’s anxious to prove he’s the strongest guy in the kingdom. Sound complicated? It is, to a degree. But you’ll soon figure out how this tale unfolds long before the beats and plot points show up.
During the many, many hours you’ll dump into Shining Resonance Refrain’s slightly generic tale of good versus evil, you’ll all learn about the game’s instruments/weapons (which were once part of the Shining Dragon himself) and the Dragoneers who wield them, an event called Ragnarok that pit the Shining Dragon against an evildoer named Deus, and a host of other interesting and not-so-interesting tidbits regarding the plot and its characters. Some of these wordy lectures are optional; you don’t have to talk to Kirika every time the chat icon pops up over her head while you’re out and about in Marga, but doing so will help flesh out the story quite a bit. These exchanges aren’t always the most engaging, and many of them boil down to awkward conversations (a little boy making fun of a little girl’s flat chest, for example) or what seems to be stories ripped from a dated JRPG self-help guide (do your best every day!). They’re amusing for a while, I suppose, but when you’re itching to knock around some monsters on the battlefield, reading a short story about the king’s insatiable appetite gets boring very fast.
Thankfully, the game’s battle system provides quite a bit of fun, despite the fact that it’s pretty simple compared to other action-RPGs. You split your attacks between heavy (which can break an opponent’s guard), normal, and magic. Although things can get hairy when you’re up against harder enemies during the early hours of the game, a little bit of old-fashioned grinding can take care of that problem. Spending time in the game’s optional dungeons (called grimoires) will help beef up your characters, allowing you to take down even the toughest bosses with little to no effort. And if you do find yourself up against a formidable foe, Yuma can transform into the Shining Dragon and help turn the tide in your favor. Should you need further assistance, your allies can harness the so-called B.A.N.D. system, which involves them using their respective instruments to play a tune that will provide everyone in your party with buffs and power-ups. It’s not a very involved system — stringing together simple combos requires nothing more than mashing the attack button — but it gets the job done. That said, I did experience some massive framerate drops when spells popped off at once, but it’s nothing game-breaking. Otherwise, fights are smooth and satisfying.
To gain ingredients and power-ups for your weaponry (you’ll have the same weapon for the duration of the game, though you can change up its capabilities with different tunings and aspects), you can undertake different quests from the citizens of Marga. However, these missions fit snugly into two different categories: fetch and kill. Some residents want you to collect items, while others request that you destroy a certain number of monsters. Again, it’s nothing JRPG fanatics haven’t seen before in a wide variety of different settings. A lot of these missions will respawn, giving you numerous opportunities to collect much-needed ingredients or XP to help your characters during the more involved story quests. About halfway through my playthrough, I gave up on most of these side missions and focused exclusively on the grimoires since they tend to offer rarer ingredients and items, as opposed to those you can find during your journeys through the world.
One of the biggest issues I had with Shining Resonance Refrain was the game’s map system. The overworld map is next to useless, and in order to find your way from one point to the next, you’ll need to use the mini-map while referencing where you are in the kingdom. At first, it’s maddening; getting used to jumping from one map to the next just to find the next quest inspires frustration, especially when you’re getting to know the lay of the land. Before long, however, it becomes second nature, but that doesn’t mean the system works. Far from it. There’s also a lack of fast-travel points, which becomes problematic when the quests take places farther and farther from Marga. Those of us who have to budget our time wouldn’t mind fast-traveling to a point that’s, say, halfway between the hub town and waypoint, instead of having to trek through the same regions over and over again to get there. Since camps and sprinkled around the map, why not allow players to jump to them? You can buy Marga stones to travel safely and quickly back home, so why make fast-travel stones for one of the nearby camps?
However, perhaps the most awkward and randomly included aspect of the game is its dating system. I’m not entirely sure why the developers chose to incorporate this into the game, as it really brings nothing to the table — except for tons of moderately interesting conversations where both parties end up embarrassed or indescribably nervous. Outside of some rudimentary dialogue choices, which rarely seem to matter in the long run, the “dates” consist of walking to points on the map and reading. And then when you’re done reading, you’ll read some more. I don’t have a problem consuming massive amounts of text — you’re talking to a guy who grew up playing Infocom adventure games — but when I’m dealing with anticlimactic and boring stories, it begins to feel like a massive chore. I ended up spending most of my time getting to know Sonia, and not because her ample cleavage protruded strangely from her armor. No, she seemed to have the most interesting backstory of the lot, and her conversations had more substance than the others. Thankfully, unless you want to add traits to the game’s relationship-oriented Bond Diagram, feel free to skip these dates if you just want to battle monsters and dragons.
It might seem as though I’ve unfairly kicked sand at Shining Resonance Refrain. Despite the number of problems and unnecessary systems included in the game, I did enjoy helping Yuma and the gang battle Excella and the collection of goons at the Sanguine Church. And even though I’ve worked my way through the story, I still have an entirely different mode to play that allows me to add different characters to my party. Although the built-in dating sim and the optional conversations add some backstory to the characters and their plight, you can easily skip these moments if you don’t feel like wasting your evening with text that doesn’t build to anything substantial. Shining Resonance Refrain’s return to the West after a decade isn’t the groundbreaking achievement that fans deserve, but it still provides plenty of fun and adventure for action-RPG fans who need another fix before the next big JRPG title comes along.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by Sega.