SEGA's classic Shining series is back, and it's definitely not what old school fans may remember. Shining Resonance Refrain is an enhanced remaster of Shining Resonance -- a PlayStation 3 title that launched only in Japan almost four years ago. It arrives on Western shores with a full (and optional) English dub, as well as a fresh way to experience the story.
The main menu offers two options when you start a new game: you can either play through the original narrative, or you can jump into a kind of 'what if' storyline that follows two of the title's main antagonists. The game suggests that you leave the latter until you've completed the original story, and it's sound advice, as the additional plot elements won't make much sense unless you're already familiar with the events of the overall narrative.
Still, the additional scenario is a cool bonus for those who end up enjoying the core release. It's fair to say that Shining Resonance Refrain is heavy on cliches -- whether it's predictable story beats or tired anime character tropes -- but it never quite gets to a point where proceedings become obnoxious. There's just enough meaningful character development to keep things ticking along, and the cast usually bounce off one another quite nicely.
If there's one criticism we have to level at the story, it's that the pacing is a little off. Dialogue tends to come in large bursts following stints of gameplay, and at times you can find yourself listening to characters ramble on for upwards of 15 minutes. It can start to feel like the game's dumping too much exposition at once, and as such, you may find yourself tuning out.
And that's a shame, because the title's structure is straightforward and generally well worked. The city of Marga acts as your base of operations, and from here you'll adventure out into the wider world, which is made up of interconnected zones, not unlike the settings of Final Fantasy XII or Tales of Xillia. While this does mean that you'll be backtracking now and then, new enemy types are introduced to each environment as the story progresses, so you're never totally sure of what you'll find even if you've visited the same location numerous times before.
Fortunately, the combat system also holds up. If you've played a Tales game before then you'll quickly familiarise yourself with Refrain's action-based battles. You've got a basic combo string mapped to the circle button, and a tap of triangle activates a character-specific attack. Protagonist Yuma, for example, lunges forward with his oversized sword and knocks smaller opponents to the ground, leaving them defenceless for a short period. Meanwhile, plucky princess Sonia unleashes a barrage of stabs that pin enemies in place.
Along with blocking and dodging, the basics are very easy to master, but depth is added through 'force' abilities. Forces can be swapped in and out at your discretion, with characters learning new skills as they level up. There's enjoyment to be found in defining how your party fights based on the forces that you've equipped, and the system's bolstered by 'aspects' -- items that you can craft and slot into your weapons to provide passive 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.