A Light on the Past
Sega’s Shining series is an interesting one – a long-running series of often wildly different games that are only really connected by having the word “shining” in the title. The series jumps between genres constantly, starting off in 1991 as a first-person dungeon crawler with Shining in the Darkness on the Genesis.
The very next game, and the one that most seem to have familiarity with, went in a completely different direction. Shining Force, coming out just a year after Darkness in Japan (and two years in North America and Europe), switching the now-series into the strategy RPG genre. Shining games would continue in this genre for a few years, developing a cult following here in the US.
Once 1995 rolled around, though, the series started going wild with genre changes. Shining Wisdom, Shining the Holy Ark, and Shining Force III all hit the Sega Saturn within four years of each other. These entries brought the series into Zelda-esque adventure, back to dungeon crawling, and then right back to strategy again, respectively. The series would then jump to the Game Boy Advance with a few titles, introducing more hack-and-slash style action to the series (along with another revisit to the strategy genre).
The series moved to the PS2 in 2004 with Shining Tears, and with it, another genre change to Action RPG. The series has mostly settled down in one genre at this point, although it had one more trick up its sleeve: after the release of Shining Force EXA in 2007, the series disappeared from western shores.
Of course, Shining would continue in Japan, with new entries nearly every year (some being mobile ports of older games). It even picked up yet another new genre, dabbling in fighting games with Blade Arcus from Shining for arcades. The Windows port of this fighting game would be what reintroduced the series to western shores, receiving a Steam release in 2016.
Now, in 2018, Sega has decided to bring one of its previously Japan-exclusive Shining titles over to the west in the form of an enhanced port. Originally released as Shining Resonance for the PS3 in 2014, Shining Resonance Refrain was released in North America on July 10th, 2018, for the PS4, XBox One, Switch, and PC via Steam. The Switch version was played for this review.
Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One
Refrain follows a young man named Yuma, who has been imprisoned, tortured, and experimented on by your standard JRPG evil empire. The opening of the game has him rescued by Sonia, a knight and princess of Astoria (your standard JRPG good-guy kingdom). While his escape is nearly thwarted, we learn what makes Yuma so special: his body is carrying the soul of the Shining Dragon, an incredibly powerful creature famous for ending a war long in the past.
Thus begins your standard JRPG story, as Yuma collects various new party members to fight alongside him (many of which are busty ladies that he can date) against the evil empire, who is trying to gain control of the Shining Dragon and other dragons souls to take over Astoria and, with it, THE WORLD!
Alright, terrible attempts at humor aside, the plot of Refrain really does follow some well-worn trails and doesn’t attempt to do much interesting with them. This is the kind of story I’ve read through numerous times before, and I can’t say I was really all that enthralled reading it again, just with triple the number of dragons over the usual.
For some, though, having a standard story like this may not be a negative. What really turned me off, though, were the characters. After all of my time with the game, I can’t say there’s a single character I came to care about. It’s not so much that they’re badly written, but rather they’re just straight-up uninteresting, often acting more as tools for exposition than having any real personality. Hell, I ended up being more invested in the antagonists and their actions than I ever did about the main party – which I suspect is a reason why Refrain contains a story mode that focuses more on these antagonists. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to dabble in this mode, as it’s recommended for people that already completed the original story, and I had nowhere near enough time to play through both.
Lastly, a modern JRPG would be nothing without a dating mechanic! Between missions, Yuma can flirt with and date various members of the main party. This mechanic surprisingly feels like it was handled well, fitting into the context of becoming closer with your party members rather than just tacked on for fanservice. On the other hand…I still didn’t care about these characters, so these often cutesy and romantic moments went right over my head.
Bonds Forged in Battle
Luckily, Refrain manages to make up for its plot shortcomings with its gameplay. This game is an Action RPG extremely reminiscent of the Tales series, which perhaps a bit of the modern Ys titles thrown in.
Battles take place directly in the environments you’re exploring – contact an enemy on the field, and the game immediately and seamlessly switches to battle mode. The switch out at the end of battle is just as quick, with statistics shown at the bottom of the screen as you immediately regain control of your party to continue exploring.
In battle, you directly control one character, while the other three active in your party are handled by AI. You can switch the character you’re controlling at any time via the main menu (even in the midst of battle), as well as give direct commands to your other party members. You also have the ability to give vague party-wide commands via a shortcut menu accessed by pressing ‘up’ on the D-Pad, which I found was the only way to convince my healers to actually heal the party.
Battle controls themselves feel very Tales-y. You have one button to perform a basic combo attack, and another which performs a “break” attack. These breaks are different for every character (Yuma’s is a single powerful strike that knocks enemies down, others fire volleys of motion-tracking arrows or place traps on the battlefield), and are mostly used to, as their name implies, break enemy defenses. The vague Ys relation comes in your special attacks or spells, of which you can have four equipped at a time, with them being accessed by holding a shoulder button and pressing the corresponding face button.
Despite looking like a discount Tales system, I actually had quite a bit of fun in battle. Refrain has presented one of the few times where I actually enjoyed grinding trash enemies to level up, as the system was smooth and just simply fun to use. Unfortunately, though, AI is often braindead, in both enemies and allies. Glass cannon healers would often run their faces directly into the strongest enemy in each fight…but, luckily, said enemy would often just be standing around staring at space, letting the healer bonk it on the head a few times before returning to WHAT THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO BE DOING.
Aside from the vague shortcut commands in battle, there really isn’t a way to tune the AI of each character like in Tales titles. Instead, the game has a “bond” system, where you can arrange portraits of each character on a grid to connect them in bonds, and assign each of them different earned titles to affect the bonds themselves. At least…that’s what I think it is. Refrain barely explains this system, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out exactly how to use it.
Outside of battle, the game world itself is set up around a single hub town…which really doesn’t have much to do in it. There’s an inn, a couple of shops, and NPCs that you can accept tedious fetch quest side-quests from. You can also talk to your party members here to initiate the dating mechanics. Most story missions originate from this town, and then require you to hike out to the area you’re required to be in. This mean repeatedly traversing early environments near town, which can get tedious. However, the enemies in these areas increase in level and difficulty with each passing chapter of the game, so this also presents a great opportunity to grind on your way to your next destination.
The last thing I want to say about the gameplay itself is about the equipment system…or, rather, the lack thereof. Refrain doesn’t have traditional weapons and armor. Instead, you are able to buy or craft “aspects,” which are various buffs that you can attach to slots on each character’s permanent weapon. You can also unlock different “tunings” for your weapon, which you can switch between in town for a fee to change the weapon’s innate abilities as well as the number of slots to use aspects on. While it took me a while to get used to this system, I can appreciate the heightened level of customization it brings to the table, as opposed to just buying the strongest weapons or armor I can currently afford.
Struggle and Pop
As Refrain is a remake of a PS3 game, I went in believing it would run perfectly fine on the Switch. Those hopes were somewhat dashed, though. The game does look decently detailed and attractive, and I quite liked the character designs (despite a number of the female characters being weirdly sexualized. Seriously, what’s up with the cleavage window in Sonia’s armor?). In action, however, things can get rough.
Every single boss fight was plagued with slowdown and dropped framerates. I rarely noticed it during random trash battles, but with all of the crazy effects being thrown off by bosses, things can begin chugging to an annoying degree. Weirdly enough, this was most noticeable when I called up the menu in the midst of battle.
There’s also annoyingly obvious character model pop-in while exploring. This is especially noticeable while running through town, as characters will just suddenly appear out of nowhere as you approach the area they should be standing in. The same often happens with enemies on the field.
The music and voice acting…well, it’s just as generic as the plot itself. Refrain includes voices in both English and Japanese, and I elected to play through in English. Really, my opinions of the acting match my opinions of the characters: the antagonists give expressive performances, while the main cast just falls flat. As far as the soundtrack, aside from a nice piano track that played during date sequences, none of it really stood out.
More Like a Tarnished Glare
Overall, Shining Resonance Refrain is the epitome of a standard JRPG. The plot is typical (although spiked with extra dragons), the environment is typical, even the gameplay is fairly standard for modern JRPGs. Aside from the painfully dull characters, though, none of this is actually bad.
What we have here is the video game equivalent of plain yogurt. There’s nothing really notable about it, but it’s perfectly edible and gets the job done if you’re hungry. If you’re really in the need to get your JRPG fix, there’s much worse you can play than Refrain. If you’re looking for something new and interesting, though, you’re not going to find it here.
~ Final Score: 6/10 ~
Review copy provided by Sega for the Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer.