It’s hard to call the Shining series a global phenomenon. Despite nearly 30 years of games spanning every console under the sun, the franchise has only occasionally appeared outside of Japan. A few Sega Saturn releases here, a GBA localisation there, and a couple of noteworthy PS2 titles are most of what makes up the legacy of the Shining franchise overseas. Despite a steady flow of games back in Japan, the last one to be localised was way back in 2007. Now in 2018, Sega is hopefully taking the first steps toward an overseas Shining revitalisation with the release of Shining Resonance Refrain.
While these games have taken on many forms and styles over the years, Shining Resonance Refrain is a fresh start for the series, and an easy jumping-in point for anyone unfamiliar with the games. The story revolves around an amnesiac anime boy named Yuma, who has an ancient all-powerful dragon sealed inside of his body. He’s thrust into the middle of a heated war between nations when this secret, and his ability to transform into said dragon, are revealed.
The story deals in a lot of cliches and tropes, but it still does enough differently from other JRPGs to feel like it’s own, special thing. Part of that unique charm comes from the large focus on music in the world of Shining Resonance. Powerful warriors called Dragonseers use musical weapons like bow-harps or magic horns to do battle, and the vast power of dragons can be channeled through these weapons by performing ancient dragon songs. Said ancient dragon songs always happen to be of the Japanese idol pop-rock variety, but don’t worry about that.
Another thing that helps the usually generic plot of the game shine through is the cast of characters. While most of them have foundations in the usual suspects of a JRPG cast, their personalities really shine through as the story develops, and especially if you engage in the side scenarios and bonus conversations. The characters all have sharp and vivid designs, thanks to crisp 3D models and incredible art by the legendary Tony Taka.
It’s worth noting that this game is actually a remastered version of the original 2013 PS3 release, which was just called Shining Resonance. While this re-release bundles in all the DLC from the original and spruces up the graphics and performance, it also adds a second mode to play through called Refrain mode. This mode lets the two main antagonists of the game join your party, and also adds a new ‘what if?’ story scenario detailing a mission Yuma goes on with said baddies.
While the game explicitly warns you that this is an alternate story only meant to be played after beating Original mode, you’re perfectly fine to start with Refrain mode if you want. Instead of a totally re-written story or some sort of sequel narrative, Refrain mode simply dumps these antagonists into your playable roster at the end of the first chapter. They give you a few lines of dialogue that reference a later event in the game, but beyond that, your experience of the narrative isn’t affected in any grandiose way. I vastly preferred Refrain mode because these antagonists were my favorite characters in the game, so being able to play as them, as well as get bonus conversations and date events with them, was a blast.
Oh yeah, Shining Resonance Refrain has some light dating elements. It’s all on the tame side, though, and is more comparable to the social link events of a Persona game than the horny shenanigans of other games in the genre. At campfires or in town, you can interact with your party members and ask them to join you at night for a conversation. Once you rest at the fire or the town’s inn, you’ll initiate a conversation event with that character. You can make dialogue choices to boost your relationship with them, gaining deeper insight into their personalities and eventually initiating some romantic events. Again, these characters are at their best when they aren’t spewing rote exposition in the ho-hum main story, so these dating events are some of the best ways to see what makes your party members tick.
Another great way to see how your party members differ or behave is by taking control of them in battle. Shining Resonance Refrain sees you operating from a main hub area and exploring branching environments to fulfill quests and encounter monsters on the field. Much like a Tales game or Ni no Kuni 2, once you bump into these enemies, you’re put into a battle zone and have to engage in some real-time action combat.
Characters have a basic attack string, a Break attack that can stun enemies, and an array of unlockable magic abilities. All of these can be stringed together into combos until your Action Points run out, but the attacks don’t quite flow together as seamlessly as you’d want them to, leaving animations looking a touch unpolished. There also isn’t a lot of variety to your attacks, which can make combat feel a little repetitive as the game goes on.
That repetition is remedied a bit by switching to different characters. Each character has a different fighting style, and some focus more on healing and ranged attacks while others are all about quick melee damage. It’s fun to swap around and change things up, but the lack of a quick swap button means you have to go into the pause menu and siwtch your party leader to actually change characters.
Other systems are also present to give you the upper hand in battle, like Yumas ability to do battle in dragon form as long as he has MP, or the Refrain and B.A.N.D. mechanics that give you massive team buffs and damage bonuses. These tools are much-needed, as the game is constantly spiking in difficulty, causing you to stay smart during boss battles and be efficient with your grinding.
It’s also worth noting how impressive this game is on the Nintendo Switch. Despite originally being a PS3 title, character models are as sharp and detailed as any current JRPG, and there isn’t a second of loading before or after battles. Performance never dips in docked mode, and it never faltered when I played the game in portable mode, either.
Shining Resonance Refrain is a triumphant return overseas for an iconic JRPG series. It has solid foundations in the usual JRPG business of fantasy kingdoms and amnesiac warrior boys, but it builds off of that foundation with charming characters and gorgeous art to create a pretty unique identity for itself. While some aspects of the game are a little unpolished, it’s still a standout JRPG worth standing alongside any of the other big players in that genre, and worth checking out by anyone who calls themselves a JRPG fan.
Version tested: Nintendo Switch – Also available for PS4, Xbox One & PC