2024-03-07: Shining Resonance Refrain -- Not the Shining I Knew!

I finished Shining Resonance Refrain. I'm a fan of the Shining series; I've played a couple of entries in the Force SRPG bucket, the Soul duo, both dungeon crawlers, and I've loved all those. Resonance, that's a different far more confusing story. First of all, the Shining series has clearly changed a lot since Soul II. Soul II came out in 2004, and Resonance in 2014 (though it wouldn't see an English release until Resonance Refrain in 2018), so that's 10 years of series evolution I'm not brushed up on.

My understanding of "Shining" has a lot of specific keystones: Centaurs, Dragonutes, Birdmen, Pastes, small spell/skill lists with simple one-word names like "Fire" that have selectable power levels to give them variety, extremely storybook fantasy plots with simple blank self-insert protagonists... But apparently all of that ended after Soul II. Looking through various Wikipedia articles on the series, I pin most of this on the introduction of Tony Taka to the design team.

Tony Taka is not a name I've heard of before, but he's apparently been around the block a few times. He's a character artist and video game designer who mainly focuses on harem stories and has quite a few eroge titles to his credit. I don't know how much sway he had over overall design, but his introduction to Shining coincides with a shift in focus from storybook high fantasy to something a little more earthy and base.

This is a lot of words to run up to the point that Shining Resonance is a harem story game. This is a change I certainly wasn't prepared for. "Harem" in this sense refers to a plot where you have a protagonist who ends up surrounded by love interests and a part of that story is the protagonist dealing with sorting that out. Resonance dives into this pretty deeply while running a parallel thread of an over-the-top Exalted-tier high-powered battle fantasy story. The resulting blend doesn't quite hit it for me, and I don't think results in a good match for each other.

The most typical pejorative I see in criticism of the game's plot is "stereotypical anime". I don't even know what that's supposed to mean, frankly. Artistically though there's a fair amount of exposed skin and ample bosom but it doesn't tread into the realm of eroge, as one would likely expect a Sega game to not do.

The most surface brush of the story I can give is the protagonist is Yuma, a young man who through a twist of fate ended up the living vessel for the power and consciousness of one of the five godlike dragons that presided over the world in ancient times. To stop the Big Evil ages ago, the dragons rendered themselves down to energy and that energy ended up inside Yuma through a long contrived chain of events that gets revealed slowly through the course of the plot.

Because of his special talents, Yuma is brought before the king and asked to use his power to help save the local kingdom from an invading imperial army. Yuma though has no interest in using his dragon power to fight because, despite the dragon inside him being benevolent, it is so powerful that to unleash it may drive him to madness.

Most of the plot deals with, simultaneously, Yuma coming to grips with his powers and learning to control them while battling the invading imperial army and also navigating complex social interactions with a rather diverse cast of characters and personalities that join his group. Due to Yuma's nature of harboring the power of a literal god inside of him, the joining cast all orbit around him in some way, seeing him either as a deity, a powerful ally, or a potential threat that must be watched. All of these interactions form a basis for a social/romance engine that churns during the game's downtempo moments.

The game itself hinges around an action RPG combat system that's something like a late Tales game, late Star Ocean game, or Trials of Mana. I'd compare it most with the latter-most of those. Enemies are visible on field and when engaged you enter combat directly on the field with a glowing boundary around where you engaged to form a boundary you can freely move inside. You have a light and a heavy attack, can chain together combos, and unleash one of four hotkeyed abilities as part of that combo. Transitions in and out of combat are instantaneous and you have a variety of playstyle options depending on who you choose to directly control.

Yuma is a fairly quick heavy hitting bruiser, Rinna is a slow powerful caster, a later character is a glass cannon ranged attacker. These all combo differently, handle differently, and must be approached with different strategies and priorities. Each character can also be further customized in their stats and flow by selecting a specific "tuning" for their weapon. If you feel like combat is too heavy and clunky, you can try a faster character or take a tuning that ups attack speed. If you don't like mashing out combos, you can play a caster. There's probably something for everyone; when you get it is a question though. There's a cast of seven characters and you unlock some of them quite late in the game.

Aside from Yuma there's four ladies and two guys. When you return to town to recover, you can talk to any one of them and invite them for a night time chat while staying at the inn. These chats are fairly shallow and chosen from a short list at random so you can get repeats. Most of them are simple things like talking about your favorite book, or if you like animals or not. You get a choice in how to answer and your answer will possibly raise your relationship score with that character. Raise it high enough and you can start inviting that character on dates, which is the same but consists of longer conversations as you walk around the game's one town. You can date the guys, but it takes a spin of a "They're army buddies!" bromance rather than anything actually romantic.

They really seemed to go all in on providing some varied-but-stereotypical romance options from the ladies. One character literally idolizes you as a god-thing, one is just incredibly horny, one is naive, aloof and cold, and the last is fiery, competitive, and possessive. The guys on the other hand are a fire and ice combo of a hothead and a stoic wallflower. You have options but really they all fit into stereotypical harem story boxes and it comes off feeling a little skeevy. Also by "varied" I mean in the most simplistic of terms. Every character you can actually romance is a white medieval fantasy human (or elf who might as well be human) woman who is already completely devoted to you due to your powers and you're mostly just trying to pivot from "trusted battlefield companion" to love interest. It gets the feel of hitting on your coworkers.

All of this is supposed to pivot into the game's bond system, where you place characters on a grid and assign them primary traits, and based on locations, relationship level, and traits connections form. For example if you place Yuma and Sonia next to each other and give them compatible traits, they'll form a bond that allows them to automatically buff or heal each other in combat. This can swing the other way where very incompatible traits result in accidentally inflicting status ailments on each other.

However aside from avoiding negative connections, the entire bond system is both obtuse and makes such a small difference that it's not really worth engaging with. I got everyone in a position where their bonds created the chance to randomly heal each other and left it alone the whole game. If I'd played on hard mode or was going for the super high-level stuff maybe it'd be more important.

Aside from the romance stuff, a major component of the game is music. Every character has a single weapon that is also a musical instrument. These are called "Armonics", which is a comical enough turn of phrase. One character wields a bow-harp, another an organ-gun, yet another a flute-spear. Aside from physical combat, magic mostly manifests as song, and in some cases unleashing spells at the same time can cause "Harmony" effects like instant casting. It's neat, but the harmony stuff largely happens on accident because you can't directly instruct an AI controlled character to cast.

This is also where the "Tunings" come in. An NPC can retune your instrument and that in turn changes your stats. Tunings and characters level distinctly and really it seems like most of your power comes from your tuning level and not your character. It's a cool twist that, in essence, makes each character act more like one of a pool of six you can swap by swapping tunings.

There's also the BAND system. It's an acronym, I don't remember for what. BAND is limit breaks, but musical. You build a gauge up through combat and when it maxes out your entire party can play a song that makes some major change to the battlefield like granting all allies a huge attack bonus, or causing massive degen on the enemy. It also changes the combat music while it's in effect. It saved my butt a few times but, like most limit break systems, isn't mandatory because the game can't be designed around requiring it when it can't know when you'll have the meter for it. Also the little scene that plays when you activate BAND is a little ... awkward? Yuma can't dance. That's the crux of it.

Outside the music stuff, each character can modify their weapons with aspects, which are essentially materia but extremely basic things like "+20% Attack". This is the only equipment you have since each character is welded to a weapon. It's by far not the most important decider on a character's power, which was kind of a new experience for me since so many RPGs are all about that gear.

The music stuff is cool and the engine makes for a flavorful, fast, fluid combat experience. The core combat engine is the game's strongest point without a doubt.

The actual game loop on the other hand is a little rough. The game has eight chapters and each one follows a similar loop of powering up, setting out to do the quest events, hitting the inn from time to time to recover and do dating, and then fighting the chapter boss and watching a small cadre of cutscenes to progress the story to the next chapter. Except you never go to the inn because your MP regeneration is so powerful you have no attrition so you forget to do dating. Or at least I did.

Each chapter sets an expectation that you'll gain about 10 levels through it, a demand which starts easy enough but gets harder the later you go and the more party members you get. Most of this expectation will be filled in the Grimoire: a randomly generated dungeon you can enter from town.

The Grimoire is cool. An NPC opens the gate to one of about ten different dungeon tilesets, and you can slot sigils into three slots to modify the dungeon. Some of these sigils are quite rare and make massive sweeping changes like replacing the entire enemy family present in the dungeon, adding levels, or reducing the dungeon to one refight of a plot boss brought to level. The Grimoire itself though usually takes the form of two floors of randomly organized "room and hallway" space with enemies strewn through it and one gateway to the next floor, then a boss fight. It gets repetitive, but not fast enough to make getting to level for the plot a chore.

I can think of worse arenas for forced grind. The Grimoire scales with you, but won't scale past 10 levels per chapter. So in chapter 5 it won't spawn foes higher than level 50 and hence you'll cap out pretty quickly in there past that. For a first play you'll need to hit that cap each chapter before you can safely take the chapter's boss fight. More or less.

At least until you get the game's sixth character from chapter 4. I'll just call them "Six" because who they are might be a bit of a spoiler. Six can trivialize the rest of the game by just spamming three light attacks, a heavy attack, and a skill over and over again. If you don't want the difficulty to go in the bin, I recommend just not using Six; you're not forced to use them at any point in the game anyway.

In fact you're not forced to use anyone at any point beyond a couple of tutorial battles in the early half of the game. Even when characters say things like "We should take you out and train", you don't actually have to use that character for the resulting plot battles. There's one notable, frustrating exception: one of the final events of the game forces you to use the two not-Yuma men alone in a battle against a swarm of foes. The foes are leveled down a bit from typical content in this leg of the game, but still if you benched the guys (which I did, but not for any reason besides "I disliked their stats and kits"), you're in for pain. As a result of the two guys being divided from the rest of the squad, you have to use everyone but one character for a few battles on their side too. But with a team of four, you can afford some dead weight if you left someone riding the bench.

Hitting this moment where the game goes "We're going to punish you if you benched the dudes" kind of clinched for me they intended for this to be a harem game. Heh. I spent about two hours in the Grimoire shoring their levels up. This resulted in a massively over-leveled "Six" that just stomped the rest of the game on their own.

All in all I probably spent about half my playtime in the Grimoire. The game has a large sidequest system where clearly the intent was to provide something not the Grimoire for this leveling content, but it didn't gel with me. The sidequests were extremely "Bear ass" style. Things like "Go kill 10 slimes then come tell me about it". Each NPC that gives quests has a pool that gets bigger as you progress the plot, but you have to do each quest once to start getting the ones after it, then they get randomly assigned. So you end up with the same quest markers showing up over and over, and their rewards are quite trivial. Crafting materials mostly. The tuning NPC, a bard near the castle, and the actual player characters are exceptions: they'll give you aspects, tunings, and similar major rewards.

The odd thing about this loop though is chapter 1 doesn't have the Grimoire; you don't get it until the start of chapter 2. Chapter 1 also expects you to grind 10 levels and most players probably won't the first time through. As a result they'll get completely pasted by the game's very first boss. I got there at level 6 the first time, just to run face first into a level 14 proto-dragon that toasted my entire party instantly. I wonder how many people gave up right then and there.

I think a lot because finishing the game gives an achievement with a 7% acquisition rate. Completing chapter 1? 66%.

In any case without the Grimoire you pretty much just have to run in circles in the two fields you have access to in chapter 1, grinding on trash. It's probably the lowest point of the game, and it's right up front. Ouch.

With 8 chapters and maybe 4 plot events in each chapter, the game's core quest is pretty light. On top of the grind requirement, the game stretches this out by not having fast travel of any kind. Each time you set out from the one town in the game, you have to traverse the same starting field to get to where you want to go. There's only about twelve fields in total. It's not a big world. They form a big loop that only closes in the final two chapters. So for most of the game you're going to one far edge of your accessible world, doing an event, then being sent to the other edge for the next event, walking the entire world back and forth each time. It doesn't take long; the world doesn't hold a candle in size to a Tales, or a Star Ocean, but it's a very noticeable playtime padding.

The game tries to keep this traversal interesting by scaling enemy levels up but it's a far better flow and use of time to just grind to the chapter's level cap in the Grimoire, ignore field combat, and run from point to point in one shot. This isn't even over-optimizing in my view; it's genuinely more fun to do it this way. Especially since most of this scaling is in the form of palette swaps with maybe one new enemy type introduced per chapter.

For me at least, the plot was engaging enough to make it worth it. The evil empire has some very human characters and some very flawed ones that are undone by their flaws in some breathtakingly direct ways. Watching their seemingly disjointed machinations and divergent agendas all flow together into one coherent plot thread by the end was one of the unabashed joys of experiencing the game. Even if I was a little disappointed by some of what the protagonists just ignored or let slide by the end of the plot in the name of coming together for a common cause.

I ended up playing three glass cannon characters/tunings/builds and Yuma for most of the game. The amount of sheer unbridled power this brought let me just spread the three glass cannons out and whoever lived killed the enemy, even bosses, in seconds. Hard mode might let enemies live long enough to punish this strategy but normal certainly didn't. Most of the time the enemy would focus Yuma and would just get turned into dust by everyone else. "Six" was a permanent mainstay in my party from the time I got them and they ended up staying on pace with the "ten levels per chapter" thing on their own. The others fell behind but it didn't matter.

The "Refrain" in Shining Resonance Refrain represents its re-release, and it comes with a choice at the start of the game to play Original or Refrain mode, with nothing but a vague suggestion that first time players play Original. The difference is two characters from the plot are now playable and start in your party. There's no explained reason for this, and the plot doesn't change to account for them now being in your party; you just have them. That's the only difference.

Problem is, if you pursue their dating options, they start spoiling the plot of the game in their dialogue. A common suggestion is a first time play to be in refrain mode so you have them, then don't do their dating stuff til you beat the game. It's a suggestion I can get behind. On the other hand, two additional characters early in the game is a fair bit of added complexity and if you just want to do Original so you have two fewer characters to keep balanced out, that's completely valid too.

"Post-game" apparently raises the Grimoire level cap to 200 and gives you some additional sigil options, and also makes raising romanace scores easier in the form of letting you just buy gifts for your potential suitors. So you don't even really need to engage in the romance stuff during the game itself to see the dating stuff. Kind of weird that. You do have a special scene at the end of the game for each character you max out relationships with, so you'd need to see the ending seven (or nine?) times to see it all. When I got there, I hadn't gotten anyone's affinity high enough to see any scene so I guess I saw the default.

Honestly I might go for at least finishing the relationship stuff with one character just to see what changes. I did walk into the Grimoire and kill a boss 100 levels higher than me though, using Six and their ridiculous damage output and a special aspect that granted my healer effectively infinite re-raise.

I rag on the game a bit: its romance system feels vestigial, the world is small, the main game flow is pretty barren, they recycle a ton of content via retreading the same maps and palette swaps, you have to spend about half the game grinding, almost everything can be trivialized with one character, the first boss is the hardest part of the game and unfairly tuned, it's a harem game designed to cater to a guy's fantasy, they deliberately punish what they think the main character use choice is going to be... There's a lot of flaws and missed potential, but the combat is fast and fun, the story is kind of engaging, and the character personalities are at least not so flat as to just be a canvas to paint the romance plot onto, the antagonists are interesting. I actually had a good time with it. I just think it could have been even more.

Also wow, Shining changed in the ten years I wasn't looking at it, eh? I should go look at one of the entries closer to the Soul duo. Shining Tears maybe?

tags: game_writeup, rpg, shining