Shining Resonance Refrain Review (Switch, 2018)

Let me be honest and admit that I was really sceptical of this game. Early footage looked good enough to get me interested in this release, but fans of the franchise grumbled about how they couldn't understand that Sega chose "the worst in the franchise" to bring to the west. Then I read some opinions that made it clear this wasn't the classic JRPG I was expecting and hoping it to be. But I bought and played it anyways and there are no regrets.

Shining Resonance has some really flashy character designs. I've been playing colorful JRPGs for more than a decade and am used to a lot, but most character designs here made even me choose to play with less overdesigned alternative outfits. This issue aside the game looks really pleasing to the eyes. It's no AAA blockbuster that's pushing what can be done with today's hardware, but a game with an artstyle that makes it look good regardless. The colorful areas positively remind me of Arc Rise Fantasia. The music on the other hand doesn't stand out all that much, although it's good and fitting. Now the writing however is surprisingly good and probably the reason anyone should want to play this game.

The gameplay loop is fairly simple. After the tutorial you get access to a city that's pretty much the hub of the game. It's where you accept and finish quests, go around watching optional dialogue scenes in the style of a visual novel and get yourself ready for the next main story quest. Leaving the city brings you to a bunch of interconnected field maps that represent the game world, there is no classic overworld and no distinction between field and dungeon. As the story progresses you get to revisit previous areas multiple times, only having to visit a new place once in a while. The field maps aren't all that huge and moving from A to B usually doesn't take much longer than a few minutes. Since the whole game takes place in a limited set of maps monsters have their levels increased any time you finish a chapter of the main story.

'Wyndia plains', that a Breath of Fire reference?
The combat in action

Combat feels good. Shining Resonance implements a simple action battle system. As you travel around the field maps you'll encounter monsters that are visible. Touching one begins a battle on the same map screen, there is no transition to a separate battle scene. You can choose to play any character in your party and aren't limited to the game's main character. Combat is pretty hack and slashy, but has some depth to it that mostly manifests in boss battles and fights against monsters severeal levels above your own. You get to run around freely, your normal attacks limited by AP that regenerate on their own if you're not using them. Every character has combo string of regular attacks, a unique special move that also consumes AP and a set of Force skills that rely on MP and can be used at any time. Force skills are activated by pressing L1 and one of four face buttons, limiting you to a set of four skills. Opening the menu allows you to swap force skills any time you want to, even in battle. The slot limit of four is too low and late in the game I constantly found myself opening the menu mid battle to swap skills around. That's why I believe Xenoblade has the best action RPG combat to date with its pool of skills available without having to switch to a menu, but let's not digress further. Shining Resonance has some unique features to freshen the combat up. There's a B.A.N.D. gauge that fills up as you battle. If it's not empty pressing R1 opens a menu where you can let your characters play a song. Now of course that's not what actually happens, but this is how the developers decided to implement the music theme that's a big part of the game into the combat. There's one character that adds vocals to the songs if chosen as the center character. Using any other character only modifies the cutscene that plays when you start a song and determines what kind of effects the performance has on your party. It's basically a timed buff to your party that runs out when the B.A.N.D. gauge does. Furthermore if the main character is in your part pressing L1+R1 triggers him to tranform into a dragon that's way too overpowered for normal encounters, but just what you may need if you run into a semi boss that's ten to 20 levels above your party average.

As well implemented the combat system is technically, there's still a big problem with it, which for me is the biggest issue of the whole game. Grinding in this one is really no fun at all. There are no equipment items to discover or aim for. Each character has a fixed weapon with various tunings that can be swapped in the city. Tuning only affect a character's stats and have other effects in combat, so there's no way to customize characters visually beyond the alternative outfits as weapons are fixed to one graphic. Instead of accessoires you can fit skills with passive effects on a character. Some skills can be unlocked by completing quests, but most of them have to be created by crafting. I had a good set of skills by mid-game, without having done a whole lot of optional stuff. There's also a bunch of randomly generated optional dungeons that can be visited for extra exp and skills. At some point fighting enemies is only good, and somewhat required, to keep your levels up to match whatever is required for the current story chapter. However levelling in this game takes ages as beating enemies yields ridiculously low amounts of experience points. Shining Resonance is the complete opposite of games like Xenoblade 2 that are full of rewards to make the player feel good. I'm somewhat bitter about games being based on this concept to the point of being close to skinner boxes, but Shining Resonance manages to have too little rewards so the only incentive to fight is so that you can continue the story and unlock some more VN scenes.

So play this one for the story and dialogue scenes. The characters may look silly and the initial party members are somewhat boring, but the game's writing really picks up over its course. There may be nothing groundbreaking about it, but the story is as solid as it gets and the characters can really grow on you. The optional scenes are more often fun or interesting to watch than not. You can tell the writers put a lot of effort into their job. The game may only take place in a small portion of a world, with just one town, but characters often allude to the bigger scale of what's out there so the world potrayed by this games feels surprisingly real and alive.
Shining Resonance is kind of like Star Ocean V, but with much better story and characters, a more fleshed out world and a much better feel about it. Shame about the lack of rewards to make the grind more lucrative, but the writing more than makes up for this lack. Recommended for people who're into novels and RPGs.