When I look at Shining Resonance Refrain, i’m not reminded of the history of the Shining series, and there’s a lot of it; no, I’m reminded strongly of the Tales series, warts and all. This isn’t a bad thing, mind, Tales has brought me some of my greatest joys in recent JRPG memory, but it also has its faults: overly complicated mechanics, huge difficulty spikes, some cardboard character writing. I digress though, let’s talk about this game.
Shining Resonance Refrain tells the story of dragons, of music, and of an empire at war. Yuma, the main character has unfortunate memory loss and wakes up in a tower controlled by the bad guys, until two women come to save him. It’s pretty cliche, which is a trend that will continue throughout the entire game. Cliches are bad, in and of themselves. They’re lazy, but they can work. The story won’t blow you away, but it’s serviceable. The issue with the story though is pacing. You’ll often go through quite a few battle scenes back to back, then be hit with 10-15 minutes of exposition via cutscene, and it can drone on. More often than not I found myself wanting to skip a bunch of dialogue just go get back to the action.
Fighting enemies is the meat of this game, too. Running into an enemy on the field will encircle both you and the enemy, forcing you into a small arena. You pretty much always know exactly what you’re going up against and its level, which is nice. Combat boils down to using your attack button (which uses action points or AP), weaving in combos and break attacks. Combos use MP, which is recovered on every hit, and break attacks increase an enemy’s break gauge, until they fall over and their defense takes a hit. Thankfully, AP recovers very quickly, so you’re never waiting too long to get things going.
Of course, I’m simplifying a lot. You’ve got three other party members and they manage themselves…ish. AI is extremely poor, and the instructions you can give them are very limited. This is something that really comes into play for one chapter boss, which was made immensely more difficult because my entire party was useless and always ran to the boss, who has damaging effects around him. I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed. You can also turn into a dragon for increased attack, with a risk of going berserk early on and attacking everyone. Finally, you can also use B.A.N.D., an acronym it’s hard not to appreciate for how campy it is, where all Dragoneers in your party (people who can use Armonics [weapons that are also instruments]) sing together to provide buffs.
Many JRPGs stumble over similar systems, but Refrain never becomes a chore. Everything’s thoughtfully presented through clear menus, and gradually upgrading and refining your party is always a highlight. Much like the combat, it’s all very accessible, but there’s a good amount of depth to explore if you’re up for it. However, for as solid as it is, the combat does begin to drag later on in your adventure. You’ll be relying on your standard combos from the beginning of the game until the end, and they’re not exactly flashy. It helps that each playable character has a unique fighting style — so periodically swapping between them can certainly alleviate some of the tedium — but combat’s never going to give you any real thrill.
Speaking of thrills, there’s a dating sim element to Refrain that’s reasonably fun. As you fight alongside your allies and chat to them back in town, you’ll grow more and more friendly. Yuma’s your typical innocent anime hero, stuttering at the thought of even looking at a member of the opposite sex, but you can still take your favourite characters out on dates and eventually spark some romance.
On the surface, Shining Resonance Refrain is a largely unremarkable Japanese RPG, but dig a little deeper and fans of the genre will find an accessible adventure that comes together surprisingly well. Cliche characters and predictable plot elements prevent the story from really taking off, but there’s an endearing quality to how the game presents itself. Combat’s fun, progression is straightforward and rewarding, and dating sim elements add a certain charm. Refrain’s like a quick and easy summer anime — it’s certainly not a classic, but it’s good fun while it lasts.