Shining Resonance Refrain Review (Switch)
Shining Resonance Refrain, developed by Media.Vision and published by SEGA, is a remastered version of a 2014 Japan-only release for the PlayStation 3. While being a visual remaster, many of the systems and mechanics can feel a bit older, which fortunately for the game actually adds to its charm. It’s a game that balances its flaws with a touching story and truly fun gameplay mechanics. This version of the game does include all the content released post-launch in Japan and includes two modes of play. It’s a game that will eat several dozen hours away in just story alone while also offering a bountiful amount of side content to consume.
I don’t normally do this with my reviews, but due to the sheer size of this one, I will list here all the sections I cover, so if you’re only wondering about certain aspects of SRR, feel free to scroll down to the section you want.
Is this a long review? Yes, but only because this game, with all its depths and complexities, deserves a certain amount of care and precision. If you’re with me for the long haul, welcome aboard. While it doesn’t necessarily boast many modern conveniences found in more recent JRPGs, Shining Resonance Refrain offers players an engaging story full of interesting characters in a world that’s as fun to play as it is pleasant to look at.
Shining Resonance Refrain follows the journey of a young man, Yuma, who holds the spirit of the ancient Shining Dragon within him as he faces a host of antagonizing forces including assassins, a villainous religious sect, and a treacherous empire. After being rescued from an empirical prison, he joins forces with a smaller rival kingdom which houses powerful individuals known as Dragoneers and Diva Magicas. Yuma will need all the help he can get against the Empire’s extremely deadly weapons known as Drachomachina, resurrected dragon souls from the ancient past. The story, as is common with JRPGs, throws a lot of terms at you and expects you to learn them on the go. However, it does a decent job at introducing you to them slowly enough that you don’t feel as if you’re drowning. While simple, the story provides a deep, lengthy and at times really dark adventure.
The fact that the plot doesn’t try to do too much works in its favor. Since it’s not attempting to win awards with twists and turns, it instead focuses on characters and character development. The connections between each person in the story stand front and center, and the payoffs are worth the time investment it takes to unravel some of those character moments. And character moments there are. One of the main non-combat features is a relationship mechanic where you have the opportunity to grow closer to a party member of your choice. You’ll start off with simple conversations that might require a timed response, but you can move on to bonus encounters with them by inviting them to a conversation either in town or at camp before bed. These conversations allow you to uncover personal aspects of a particular character. You’ll eventually be able to take on personal quests for your interested partner, all leading up to a date around the town. It’s a simple system but is both fun and entertaining, and at the end of the day serves as a way to learn more about the people inhabiting this world.
What SRR does wonderfully is tie the connections the player makes through action into an actual game mechanic through the Bond Diagram. While many of them are unlocked throughout the story, interacting with party members continuously unlocks an item called a Trait. In the Bond Diagram, you can assign these Traits to each party member, and assign that person a position on the diagram. Each trait has a certain reaction from other party members. These reactions can be really positive, can be a rival reaction, or can be outright negative. It’s up to you to decide how you want your Bond Diagram layed out, understanding that it has an effect on how your party members interact with each other during combat. It’s a neat system that once again hammers home the theme of connection displayed in all aspects of this game.
Regardless of if you’re trying to woo characters onto dates or not, you can roam around town and speak to NPCs. Most of them give you one or two scripted lines that add very little flavor or actual substance to the town or world. However, periodically you will see a speech bubble above certain important NPCs that will give you much more substantive dialogue. In fact, those scenes do a lot to give life to side characters and substories throughout the main plot.
As far as the main party members go, most of them are interesting and add a lot to the story. Not all of them are home runs, but that is to be expected with a playable character count of seven. Not everyone is able to get the same amount of screentime, which is okay. Those that don’t exactly carry the main story pop up in side scenes in humorous and otherwise interesting ways, so it’s a creative way to get everyone involved. In the end, the entire cast gels together to make a story worth investing time in and caring about for the full length of your playthrough.
As a side note specifically for this remastered version, the game ships with the Original story mode as well as the new Refrain mode. This Refrain mode compiles downloadable content released in Japan in the months after the game’s launch. It allows you to recruit characters to your party that are not playable in the Original version. While this mode is available from the start, the game advises play through the Original mode first as the recruited characters don’t have an actual story reason for being playable; instead, it’s just meant to be a fun “new game plus-ish” experience.
For the most part, the game appears to be a fairly normal-looking JRPG, but the way it tells its story harkens back to vintage RPGs instead of focusing on a cinematic approach. This is most apparent in the way cutscenes unfold. Instead of looking like a directed movie as seen in other modern RPG franchises, SRR presents its cutscenes with characters simply speaking to one another on a static background. The action, such as sword fights, explosions, and battles, are more suggested than shown. It uses timed blackouts and camera shakes to hint at those events.
On one hand, this makes the stakes feel much lower than they actually are at times, removing you from any intensity the story’s trying to build. But on the other hand, it allows the game to feel more classic, nearly SNES-era but with 3D modern graphics. Its simplicity is actually its beauty, and it’s interesting to see what the storytellers and animators are able to convey despite the presentation’s limitations. In a way, this is what makes it feel SNES-era the most.
When it comes to the actual dialogue, much of the writing feels like your standard JRPG. It feels light and almost too happy considering the circumstances within the story. This may be more of a symptom of the genre as a whole instead of an issue with just this title. Where this game does fall a bit short is in the delivery of those dialogue lines. The voice acting isn’t the best in the business, and while it may not be the worst on shelves right now, it’s closer to “forgettable” than “good.” The subpar voice acting is redeemed by one huge benefit: choice. You can download the Japanese voice track for the game, which I know will be a huge plus for a lot of gamers. Another option is to mute the voice acting altogether. While this option does exist in other games, I find many times it’s poorly implemented. Sometimes, you can still faintly hear the voice track, or other times the subtitles don’t label who’s speaking, therefore making it difficult to decipher the speaker when the camera includes multiple characters, or even worse doesn’t focus on the speaker at all. SRR’s simple cutscene presentation mentioned above alleviates all of these fears, however. The game does a beautiful job indicating the speaker alongside the lines, and feels just as natural (and sometimes even more natural) to play without voice acting as to play with it.
The art direction for the game looks really good on the Nintendo Switch. For being a game released in 2014, it’s hard to really tell. Between the quality of the remaster itself and the quality of the port to Switch, it feels at least on par with a certain other JRPG from Monolith Soft. The environments as a whole look crisp and varied. If you’re looking for open world environments, however, this isn’t the title to look at. Most of them are pretty small, and a single area can include three or four loading screens (thankfully, the loading screens are extremely manageable).
Both character models and monster designs are unique and diverse from an aesthetic standpoint (speaking of diversity, there is none of it to be found ethnicity-wise anywhere in the game). Each character in the main party and their accompanying weapons feel vastly different from the next, making controlling them around the world interesting to look at and play. The amount and type of monsters grow more and more as the game progresses, and makes the world feel alive and (later in the game) quite dangerous to run through.
One major aspect does make the world feel a bit cramped, and that’s the fact that there is only one main town you work from throughout your playthrough. And as there is no form of fast travel (something I wonder if is a holdover from being an older game), you will find yourself running through the same areas over and over and over again to traverse new lands and progress the story. You can either craft or purchase items to port you back to town, but once in town, you’re responsible for running to your next destination. So combining the smaller areas with multiple loading screens and the one hubtown, the world doesn’t feel as expansive as the map might make it seem in the beginning. Some of these “drawbacks” are countered by the fact that the game does a good job “updating” the areas as you progress in level. Environments scale with you, so every once in a while, you’ll enter a zone you’ve run through a dozen times but all of a sudden, not only will the levels of the monsters be higher, but you also might run into a new mix of monster types. This small touch does go a long way in making the area repetition easier to handle.
There are several types of quests in SRR, providing a wealth of content for the player. The main quest takes the player all over the world map, facing various types of bosses and unique enemies. Most of them involve investigating ruins for dragon souls only to find a big bad you have to take down to obtain your goal. It’s run-of-the-mill JRPG questing. The world map is quite specific as to where to go for advancing the story through these quests, so there’s never a chance of getting lost or not knowing where to go.
This luxury does not exist for side quests, however, adding to extra challenge in finding what type of monster to target for drops and where they’re located. In terms of the design of the side quests in general, they could have been a bit more inspired. All of them are kill quests or item fetch quests, either to simply slay a certain amount of enemies, to kill enemies for the items they drop, or to harvest materials from the field. Yes, all of them. There are no other kinds, such as escort, delivery, just quests for the sake of side story; instead, it’s all just going out and killing monsters. The dialogue you get for accepting the quest lacks inspiration just as much as the quest design itself. It gives you no reason to read through the lines since they don’t add to the lore or lives of the characters. On top of this, quests repeat over and over. You do eventually get new side quests thrown in the mix, but you can obtain the same items for the same NPC five, six, or maybe as many times as it takes you to finish the game. And the quest text is the same every time, once again adding to the fact that it’s meaningless dialogue in the long run.
Periodically, your party members will give you the chance to perform side quests for them, and this the type of side quest that truly adds to the world. While the style of quest is the same (kill or fetch quest), the dialogue is at least unique for the interaction. Each time, the quest tells a little bit about who the person is, what their responsibilities are within the world, and what their day-to-day needs are. The simple addition of personalized quest text here helps to flesh these characters out and flesh the overall experience out. SRR would have benefited in general if this kind of personalization and uniqueness had been attached to other NPCs as well to give the player a reason to care about all the people of the city, not just the main party members.
The dungeon-diving in SRR almost comes in the form of quests. You obtain access to them through one of the city’s NPCs. Once you talk to her, you have the ability to choose which dungeon you want to run, and there are several variables you can decide between to determine the types of enemies you will see and their strength. The difficulty of the parameters as you might assume changes the quality of the ultimate reward you’ll receive. The dungeons themselves are simple in design, taking the player through several floors before giving them a boss in the final floor. Before you can advance from one level to another, you might defeat a specific monster that holds the floor’s gate key. While not complex, the dungeons add a nice break of pace from the questing outside the city. As much of the early game feels easy, the encounters within the dungeons might be your first taste of difficult combat, which totally allows you to experience all the combat system has to offer.
All of the items you pick up throughout your travels would be useless if you had nothing to do with them. Fortunately, SRR offers a useful, two-pronged crafting system that gives you a reason to go out and grind mobs for certain materials. The first type of item you can craft is the usable kind for your character (health potions, mana potions, buffs, debuffs, town teleportation, etc). These items are so useful throughout the game that it’s imperative you stop by the crafting NPC every once in a while to stock up on these goodies. While you can buy them from the merchant, having the materials to craft them can save you loads of money over the course of your playthrough.
The second kind of craft comes in the form of equippable player boosts. You can attune each characters’ weapons to focus on certain passive abilities. Different attunements provide you with a varying number of Aspects slots. These craftable Aspects give your characters passive boosts and abilities that work to add flavor and customization to each party member. As you play, more and more of these aspects unlock for crafting, so checking back with the NPC often has its rewards. Your ability to match a character’s Aspects with their combat abilities and overall Attunement is a minigame all on its own, ready to be experimented with for hours and hours. Once again, these craftable Aspects are also available from a vendor but at a pretty penny; keeping an eye on what materials are needed for your desired Aspect makes a huge difference in the money department.
Many gamers argue that no matter how good a JRPG story is, it alone cannot necessarily save a game with a weak combat system. At first glance, you might think this a simple action system that allows players to sink back into a comfortable “press A to win.” This cannot be further from the truth, however, as the combat system in Shining Resonance Refrain exemplifies on a micro level the game’s MO of subtle complexity underneath the surface of simplistic harmony. Everything just works in this system, and it fits so well with the tone of the rest of the presentation.
For instance, the obvious motif throughout this title is that of music. The obvious connection here is the aesthetic of weaponized instruments, which looks cool, feels cool, sounds cool – it’s just cool (coming from a lifelong musician). But the connection to music that isn’t readily apparent is the fact that the combat itself is rhythmic. This is not to say this is a rhythm game – don’t misunderstand me. Rather, each attack has its own momentum, requiring you to press the successful attacks just right to keep your attack chain going. Press too early, and your combat flow will break, and your character will pause on the battlefield. Press too late, and the same result will occur, therefore completely destroying any chance of spamming the attack button to kill everything.
Not only are you balancing the times of your attack, but you’re managing what type of attack to do. You have two types of basic attack: (A) is your normal attack and (X) is your Break Attack. Flowing between these two types requires a rhythmic precision that you get used to over time, and where you might feel like the combat system is a bit jerky in the beginning, as you get used to the timing of everything, it will feel more like a well-crafted symphony (sorry for that reference – I know it was too easy). But what do these attacks do, you ask? The normal attacks do just that, nothing special other than chip away at the enemy’s health; Break Attacks, on the other hand, not only do damage but also add breakpoint damage to the enemy. Once you hit an enemy’s breaking point, they will fall prone for a period of time and will be susceptible to large amounts of damage. Break those enemies, folks. Each playable character (while you can only control one character in combat at a time, you can decide who the party leader is from the menu at any point) possesses their own style of Break Attacks and normal attacks. Controlling the battlefield feels completely different depending on who you’re controlling at any given time. The game does a nice job introducing you to each playable character one at a time and gives you the opportunity to control them as they join the party, allowing you to test and see if you like their fighting style.
You cannot rely on these two attacks alone, however, because the bar below your character model decreases with each action. This is your AP bar. Dashing and using normal and Break Attacks all consume AP which, when drained, prevents you from taking any more of those actions until the bar fills back up after a few seconds. To keep your flow going, you can turn to your Force Abilities. Holding (L) brings up your four Force Abilities, mapped to your four face buttons (these can be customized in the menu). Force Abilities range from extra powerful attacks to magical abilities to defensive abilities to useful buffs, and they use MP instead of AP. By the time you fire off one or two of these attacks, your AP will be back allowing you to return to your basic attack combos if you so desire (your basic attacks restore MP, completing the circular flow of combat). Being able to balance and manage these different types of abilities can lead to fun and useful combinations and combat flows.
As the party leader, you can conduct your other party members to either adhere to general instructions or carry out specific commands. Conduct, get it? Pressing up on the D-pad allows you to choose from four general party commands: focus on offense, focus on healing, do not attack, or choose freely. In addition, you can press any of the other three directional buttons to conduct a single party member, giving them a specific order instead of affecting the party as a whole. The only drawback to such an AI-driven combat system is that sometimes the AI just isn’t that good. The biggest offenders here are the healers. Keeping you healthy isn’t necessarily a problem, as they are good at spreading the heal ability around, but when it comes to curing ailments such as poison or burning, they are really slow to activate that ability. Or if a party member dies, it seems they are still focused on waiting for living party members to get hurt so they can heal them instead of resurrecting the dead member. Some sort of system to prioritize abilities would have been an appreciated addition here, but alas, we must spam healing items to fill the gaps in the healers’ intelligence. Fortunately, all items in your inventory can be reached and used through the menu at any time during combat.
On top of all this, throughout combat, you gain points toward a system known as B.A.N.D. (get it?) that allows your party members to act super for a period of time. Each party member can act as the center for the B.A.N.D. sessions and each member has their own passive buffs to provide the party while these sessions last. Once a session has begun, the B.A.N.D. bar in the UI slowly drains. There are certain items that can make the bar drain slower or fill up quicker. It’s not a system that completely transforms a combat encounter, but it’s definitely useful against some of the harder bosses as its passive abilities can become quite powerful.
The title of this game would not be complete without a mechanic known as Resonance, right? Well, it takes place in combat. Depending on the strength of your party members’ Bonds with you, they may Resonate with you in combat, performing a random, sometimes powerful, action. Remember, the strength of your bond can be affected by how much interaction you have with them in town or in camps as well as how you set up your Bond Diagram in the menu. As I said in the beginning of this section, all of the mechanics truly harmonize together to create an impressive, wonderfully complex system.
Rounding out combat, you can easily select what four Force Abilities your characters use. This allows you to put together the characters and team you want. They unlock more Forces throughout the story, so as you play, you’ll be able to experiment with what abilities combine well with other characters. As combat takes place in an arena that appears upon encountering an enemy unit, you can easily escape normal combat situations by running to the edge of the “arena” and waiting for the escape timer to fill. Combat can also be avoided altogether by making sure you’re not touched by enemy units in the field. If they can’t touch you, they can’t fight you.
In the early stages, combat might seem overly simple and easy, but don’t let this get you down. It gets harder over time as enemies get stronger with you. The scaling not only gives enemies more HP, but in some cases, it gives them new abilities. Plus, the more you level up, the more you’ll run into bosses throughout the world that offer a lot more challenge than simple trash mobs. These bosses test your positioning skills as well as your reflexes and combat flow management. Stick out those easy early fights, and you will be in for a combat treat before the end.
Coming into this review, my biggest concern was going to be how well the Switch could run a game that looks as good as this one. All of my fears were put to bed. The optimization for Shining Resonance Refrain on the Switch is pretty astounding. It runs butter smooth 99% of the time, and only ever stumbles ever so slightly when so many animations and particles fill the screen in the most chaotic fights. Even then, the dip in FPS is slight and not enough to stick out as an issue. Like I said, this was a huge concern for me, and I cannot be happier with its result.
For a game this size, the other concern I had was with loading screens. Although you’ll see your fair share of them throughout your playthrough, they never last longer than a few seconds. Not only am I impressed with how short they are, but I’m actually taken aback by how short they are. This area could have really harmed the overall player experience, but it absolutely passed the attention-span test with flying colors.
In a game that is so obviously based around the theme of music, had the actual soundtrack of the game fallen short, it would have ruined the entire feel of the game. This soundtrack does not fall short. I cannot stress this enough. Not only are many of the tracks memorable and moving and perfect tone-setters, but the way that music is implemented is nothing short of astounding. Shining Resonance Refrain does things with its music that I have rarely seen from other RPGs across the board.
First off, its battle themes are varied, distinct, and change contextually. Yes, as with other games, the boss themes are different from the normal battle theme. But here, the battle theme can change based on the map you’re in and change as you progress. I’m not sure if it’s based on story progression or level progression, but the battle music evolves with you. Also, speaking of evolution, the victory tune that plays after each battle changes as you add party members to your group. It’s small elements like this that add a flare and personality to the soundtrack that matches the tone of the world and its inhabitants. It’s like the music is just as much a character as Yuma is.
In addition to those battle music changes, each time you enter B.A.N.D. the music changes along with it. Each character has their own song, and so the tone of your battle can completely change based on who is the center of your B.A.N.D. Putting all these elements together, you never get burned out on battle music like you can in so many other RPGs because it’s always giving you something new to listen to.
While I could talk about the soundtrack in much greater detail, I will leave it to you to simply experience. It’s one of the best out there right now, and I will be finding a way to obtain it as soon as possible.
Despite its flaws, Shining Resonance Refrain is a game that’s easy to fall in love with. Whether it’s the connections you make with characters or the mastery you gain of its combat system, it grows on you over time. It’s a title that accomplishes a lot in terms of depth without ever looking too complicated on the surface. Some people might actually look at it and think it’s too simple, but its complexities lie under the surface, waiting for players to tinker and experiment with all it has to offer.
This is a title that, given enough patience and interest, could easily turn into a +100 hour experience, especially if you have your eyes set on the Refrain mode. It’s a game that just feels like everything fits and flows together in a well-crafted, harmonious experience – almost like a piece of music. How about that? In the end, much like a good best friend, Shining Resonance Refrain packs a handful of drawbacks, but exudes enough charm and downright fun to make you enjoy its company anyway.