Shining Resonance Refrain is a rerelease of the action RPG Shining Resonance originally developed by Media. Vision and published by Sega on the PS3 in 2014. This new version, handled by O-Two Inc. features new content and was also published by Sega for PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC in 2018. Yuma Ilvern has been locked away by the Lombardian empire so that they may experiment on him due to his connection to the legendary Shining Dragon. But he is soon freed by the princess of Astoria and her loyal Dragoneer Kirika, who ask him to help them fight against the empire and restore peace.
The story of Shining Resonance is for the most part an exercise in laziness and lackluster worldbuilding with the odd nice part here and there. Simply put, it's set in a fantasy setting so bland that it'd fit right in with an Isekai parody anime. The only thing that sets it apart is its focus on music as sort of a primal part of the setting and its backstory, but even that feels a bit half-assed.
Our leading man Yuma is a Standard Anime Protagonist (a SAP) who just drains the story of appeal by being generally spineless in the face of adversity and clueless about woman for the sake of being an insert character for the intended male weeb player-base. That's not to say that he doesn't have an arc to deal with that and becomes a bit more enjoyable by the end, but the game is just so drenched in its waifu-ness that it's difficult to pretend that the arc came first and not the supposed easy-to-identify-with character traits. The rest of the party is pretty neat (though the over-protective brother character can shove off, since he is so damn one-note) as they have at least one decent scene to their name.
But those small decent moments are undermined a lot thanks to the budget. Don't be fooled by the game's origin on the PS3. This is a Vita game that escaped containment and is very much a shambling skeleton of a product. Every expense was spared (proably to simplify production and to leave enough money for the voice cast), so 98% of cutscenes are done through visual novel framing. Now, the Persona games show that this is a valid approach to cut costs in order to justify a lot of cutscenes. But Shining Resonance doesn't have high-detail sprites, nor any low-detail models set in an actual physical space to make the framing easier to accept. Instead, we get the high-detail character models barely animated against a few drawn backgrounds or a snapshot of the gameworld.
It doesn't sound like much of a difference, but I never found Persona cutscenes lackluster like the ones in Shining Resonance. What really drove home how much they suck is how much more invested I became as soon as the game switched to an actual cutscene. This game really taught me the value of camera angles and knowing where characters are standing during a scene. You don't know you need it until it's gone.
Another thing I miss is a decent gameworld scale to match the plot. Astoria is seemingly composed of a single city, which really makes it difficult to get into saving the whole country when people act like there's more to it than just the capital of Marga. I can't tell you just how many cutscenes are spent in the Astorian throne room and in the Lombardian doom cathedral. It just becomes so monotonous, since the writing isn't good enough to distract you from the low production values. A few more towns would do wonders for the game, as that would leave room for the story to do anything else besides having you hunt for dragon souls or butt heads with the empire.
The VN-cutscenes aren't just there to cut costs, but also because the game features a dating system. A really lame dating system, I might add. It works like this: As you use a party member, you fill up an invisible meter. Once that fills up, you can invite them to a Night Event, which fills up their affection. Get enough affection and you get to go on a date around town. Do enough of those and you can pick their ending later. The issue here is that both the night events and dates aren't that interesting, since the characters don't really open up enough. It's mostly just dumb surface-level stuff with the odd decent part. And to make things worse, they even repeat after a while! That really drops all pretense of this being about relationships and not just grinding for numbers.
The main characters are mainly good, but the way the game handles new party members is lazy. Beyond someone's introduction (which is usually good), there really aren't many good scenes between party members in the main story. All that is relegated to the events you can watch as they pop up around town. That's not a terrible compromise, but I get no sense of progression from it. It's as if the game skips ahead 3 months whenever you get a new party member and then randomly shows you scenes from that time frame, while in the main story stuff everyone is just best buddies with the new character all of a sudden.
It robs the party of friction it desperately needs to keep the story engaging. Fluff is lovely, but you can only appreciate it if you're a fan of the characters to begin with. And if that's gonna happen, their presence in the main story need to be good enough for the player to care. THEN you can throw them all into a hotspring and joke about boobs. See: Like half of the Tales of games for an example.
Now, I mentioned before that the music theming sets the game apart a bit from generic garbage. And that's true. Listening through the soundtrack, I find it pretty great. And personally, the fact that it features the talent from the people who made the Symphogear music AND has three of the voice actresses from the show doing songs is a nice bonus. And c'mon, a guitar axe that shoots fireballs and a gun keytar? Sign me the fuck up.
But the more I listen to the soundtrack, the more I realize that it's misused. In keeping with the non-existant direction for the cutscenes, the songs aren't used to their full potential. Music in a game is a tone setter and can elavate certain scenes to legendary status. But they can't do all the work, the rest of the game needs to pull its weight too. And since the major direction of the game is just "Whatever works", the songs fall mostly flat. The ending is a perfect example of this, which does things musically that are easy to predict, but still pretty awesome. But thanks to the budget being what it is, the music gets nothing to bounce off, which makes it less memorable. Which is a shame, because a musical JRPG holds so much potential that this one fails to realize.
As I said before, Astoria is comprised of a single town. Said town having two small districts and no interior environments. It's the bare minimum needed to house the various facilities required to support the game's systems. The rest of the game is a bunch of flat fields that branch out a bit into different environments. It reminds me a bit of FFXII, except like a fourth as big and a lot less interesting. I suppose it's more in line with something like Star Ocean 5, but that at least had the decency to feature multiple towns. It's just such a boring game world, which you have to run up and down a lot.
The game is structured so that every chapter or so, you go to a new area. But to get there, you have to trek deeper into the world and retread old ground. Now, since each area is so small, it's not a huge deal, but that doesn't stop the areas from being boring to begin with! There's barely any verticality, there are no puzzles and there aren't even any interesting treasures to find, nor any interesting side areas of note. There's not even a proper final dungeon! In a JRPG!
Of course, the game's quests are designed to work in tandem with this world, but they too are boring and repetetive. The quests are basically just bulletin boards of stuff people want you to kill or grind for, with next to no personality present in the ordeal. You get no fun scenes of party members interacting with kooky NPCs and they repeat themselves almost immediately to boot. It's just busywork
The one thing you could conceivably call interesting are the Distortion Dungeons, which are randomized dungeons following a few themes that scale with your level up to a certain point every chapter. It's essentially a place to grind for levels and materials if the main game (which scales up enemies every chapter) is beating you down. But if the leveling curve and material hunting was less grindy, then you could have cut them from the game entirely! It feels like an excuse for the game's absurd level cap of 200 (which not even the super boss needs you to be at).
Now, you can manipulate these dungeons to affect what monsters show up or what bonuses you get. But with how "expansive" the crafting system is, I just couldn't be arsed. There are just too many items to keep track of. Hell, you don't even get an indicator of how rare the stuff you find is. It's just stuff. It might be useful down the line. You don't know.
I think the combat is the thing that got me through this game. Just like I had hoped, it's somewhat derivative of other action RPGs, but it's not burdened by franchise legacy. So it manages to have its own feel.
You have a party of 4 active members, each with their special strengths and weaknesses. Most actions are tied to the AP meter, which acts as a small amount of stamina which recovers quickly. By using AP, you can do regular attacks, Break Attacks, dodge or absorb a few hits by blocking. You can also burn MP to do Force Attacks at no AP cost, which you assign to shortcut buttons.
Healing can be done outside of the action through items, which makes it easy to recover, but the game does limit your stock of healing items a bit, so you aren't effectively running around immortal with 99 potions.
Regular combat usually comes down to burning your AP and then popping a Force Attack while your AP recovers. The goal being to put an enemy into break status by attacking with Break Attacks during certain timeframes. A broken enemy has their defenses drop like a rock, meaning that they are probably dead as soon as you manage to break them.
Yuma can also Dragonshift into the Shining Dragon at the cost of MP for when you really need to lay down the hurt. But burn too much MP and he becomes enraged and starts attacking your party as well. To counter this, you use the B.A.N.D system to keep him calm. No, I am not going to tell you what it stands for, because the acronym tells you all you need to know. After filling the B.A.N.D meter by fighting, whoever you have picked as the B.A.N.D center plays the song you pick using their magical instrument weapon. This changes the song a bit depending on the instrument and gives you an assortment of defensive or offensive support effects depending on the song picked.
It's a fun combat system overall and I did find myself using different songs instead of just sticking to the same one all the time. Same goes for playing as the different characters, as even keeping everyone healed got pretty exciting at times. Even so, there are some blemishes here and there. There are only so many vocal performances in the game's battles (I'm pretty sure that B.A.N.D songs are instrumental-only as well) and it takes a while for the game to give you new songs, so I felt stuck with a very low-energy song for a while.
There are some FPS drops whenever fancy spell effects are in play, but otherwise the game is stable on PS4. Status effects are a bit all over the place, with most being trash and some being decent, especially when used against you. But what really got to me was how unbalanced the enemies felt. The grunts with crossbows are capable of just murdering your whole party in mere seconds, while the big scary mini boss monsters aren't that big of a deal, since they attack so slowly and can be kited. It makes sense (ranged weaponry is one hell of an advantage), but it felt incredibly backwards for a fantasy game. Especially since they game doesn't seem aware of this disparity, but I might have run around under-leveled at times.
With the game being as grindy as it is, it does of course feature a beefy equipment system. Though strangely enough, there are no weapons or pieces of armor to find or craft. Seeing as every party member has their own legendary weapon, I get why there are no weapons, but why there is no armor remains a mystery. Maybe to make the rest of the crafting easier to manage, both on the player side and the developer side.
First of all, let's get the useless Bond system out of the way. As you watch events (and pilfer treasure chests for some reason), characters earn traits that you can equip. Depending on who has what, bonds of certain categories form between characters. Depending on what bond they have, different effects will trigger in combat. The issue I have is that the effects aren't explained anywhere, so I just went with whatever and saw them trigger sometimes in combat. It makes me think that it's just a bunch of extra fluff put in to make you think that the dating stuff is more important than it is.
On a more interesting note, we have the Tunings and Aspects you slot into weapons. Tunings determine a character's stat spread, what special support ability they get (faster attacks, stronger fire damage, boosted Break attack and so on) and how many Aspects you can slot into the weapon.
Aspects are what you'll spend the majority of your materials on, as they offer even more specialized customization than Tunings do. There are stat boosts, passive effects, character-specific effects, resistances to status effects and everything else under the sun. It reminds me a lot of the Quartz system in Trails of Cold Steel.
But I do have some major gripes about the whole thing. First of all, Tunings level up, so it's very difficult to compare the stats they offer. This wouldn't be so bad if it didn't take FOREVER to level one up to max. I think I leveled up two to max per character and there are dozens of the damn things. And most of the Tunings offer garbage boons when compared to a select few amazing ones.
While the Aspects offer a good amount of customization, you can only slot in 2-5 of them depending on your current Tuning. Such a heavy restriction really limits what you can afford to equip without gimping a character. I went hard on min-maxing what I considered essential for a character and had barely any room left for anything situational or merely somewhat useful. Each Aspect take a single slot when many are nowhere near comparable in usefulness. There are also so many Aspects that finding what you want to equip is a real hassle. Some better filters would be very welcome.
Actually getting the damn things is pretty difficult. Unlike in Cold Steel, where every new chapter brings new Quartz to trade for easily aquired elemental gems, here you need very specific material either grinded from enemies or the environment. And to the surprise of no one, there is a metric fuckton of rare items that are very difficult to get unless you know what drops it.
The game offers a half-measure in the form of enemy statues (either as rare drops from enemies or from the figure gacha machine that's full of duplicates) that tell you where they are and what they drop. That's nicer than some games for sure, but at the volume the game operates on when it comes to recolours and items, it's very unlikely that you'll have the figure that tells you what enemy drops what. And even if you do, you have to guess what kind of monster it is and scroll through your figures to find the material youäre after. A search function that maps a recipe to your figure collection would be gold worth in thiis game. And even then, you still need to get the thing, which is a tall task unless you have a good setup for stealing items, which takes a bunch of rare items in the first place!
And to top it all off, you might as well not craft that many Aspects (at least until the lategame/postgame), since the basic (though still useful) Aspects can be bought for an admittedly hefty sum, but money is a much more reliable resource than random drops.