Gust, Co Inc. / Koei Tecmo
As a fan of a few magical girl series- Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Yuki Yuna is a Hero, and of course, Sailor Moon, come to mind- I’ve come to appreciate a number of tropes that they rely on to propel themselves forward. Frequently, you’ll see themes of friendship, self-empowerment, and drawing upon personal wellsprings of strength both physical and emotional to succeed. This has been a draw to them for me for some time and finding games that also rely on those themes usually means that they will be automatic successes for me.
Happening on Blue Reflection in a magazine review, it seemed to have all of the trappings that would bring me running: magical girls, modern day settings, and Gust (developers of the Atelier series, among others) at the helm. After receiving the game in my latest Christmas haul, I finally got to sit down and play it.
Did it live up the hype I created for it? Did the power of friendship win the day?
Find out on this episode of 3PStart!
Worth noting before going into an overview of the plot of the game, Blue Reflection is actually one of three games that makes up Gust’s “Beautiful Girls Festival”. Along with Atelier Firis, and Nights of Azure 2, the game was made to emphasize interactions and growth for young women through interactions with others. It’s an interesting concept, and definitely explains a lot about why Blue Reflection presents as it does.
Blue Reflection places the player in the shoes of Hinako Shirai, a young woman returning to school after taking an extended leave of absence having suffered an injury that has put an end to her ballet career. Depressed and lacking confidence, her return to school finds her feeling out of place and struggling to find her footing. Enter Yuzuki (Yuzu) and Raimu (Lime) Shijou, sisters who immediately take a strong affinity to Hinako and work to help her fit back into scholastic life. The sisters, however, have a strange vibe to them, and their interest in Hinako is suspiciously pointed.
It isn’t long before Hinako is faced with a fellow student acting strangely, seemingly out of control of her emotions. Voices call to Hinako and without warning, she finds herself transported to an ethereal landscape. The voices, of course, belong to Yuzu and Lime, who begint to guide her through this strange place simply labelled as “The Common”.
The girls explain to Hinako that The Common is linked to this girl’s emotional frenzy- along with many others that occur frequently- and that they are Reflectors, young girls with the magical power to save these girls before they fall victim to this otherworldly emotional manipulation. They have also granted Hinako the power of the Reflector. In true ‘magical girl’ fashion, Hinako has transformed into a stylish pink outfit, her eyes two different hues, and most importantly- her ability to move freely restored, as if she never incurred her injury in the first place.
Gladly accepting this new power due to her restored mobility while in her Reflector state, Hinako helps to keep the students of her school safe, as one by one, she connects with them and helps them deal with their issues before they can be overcome by this phenomenon. What is causing it, however, and why did the Shijou sisters choose Hinako to inherit the power of the Reflector? These are questions that are explored throughout the adventures that unfold throughout the narrative.
Mechanically, Blue Reflection feels a bit like a ‘lite’ version of a lot of games- and there are a lot of mechanics that are absolutely extraneous, adding flavor to the world and not much else.
At its heart, the game plays a lot like the modern Persona titles- during the day, Hinako attends school where she can bolster relationships with classmates or take on subquests between story advances. 95% of these subquests involve stopping the student body from going rampant once they have started to be overcome by the supernatural influence over the school by defeating a certain number of enemies or collecting an amount of emotional energy (‘fragments’, to use the game’s parlance) in the Common to bring them back to their senses. The occasional quest to turn in certain items also pops up, and they are usually related back to the simple crafting system the game has set up. By combining fragments you have collected, you can create items that will give your party stat bonuses or that can be turned in to complete sidequests.
After school, you can also strengthen bonds with girls you have made friends with through the story. Each of them have their own storylines that you can follow, and as Hinako becomes closer with them, the bonds will result in stat and ability boosts that can be equipped to the party members to strengthen and alter their abilities in unique ways- strengthening them, adding effects to attacks or healing abilities, or even changing how the ability works completely. Given that there is no equipment, this is where the bulk of character customization for combat lies.
Along with the twist of a lack of equipment options, there is a lack of experience levels, at least in the classical sense. Rather than leveling up after a certain amount of experience points, you receive Growth Points, allotted to your party usually after a notable story event or after performing enough subquests. These points can be granted toward four stats- Strength, Defense, Agility, and Support. Once these stats reach a certain level or a specific amount of Growth Points total have been assigned, corresponding abilities will unlock for the characters to use in combat.
Combat plays out like most turn-based role-playing games, through with a slant toward the Atelier style of combat where you can visually see who will be attacking when on a timeline, along with any ongoing effects. Not only does this help to strategize your party’s methods of attack, as each ability has a different amount that it will set the character back on the timeline, but it also helps to see when your opponent is attacking. As certain moves can create a ‘knockback’ to delay their turn, this can sometimes mean the difference between taking damage from an enemy or defeating them before they can get the shot off. As another deviation from the usual, your party’s hit points and magic points are restored after each battle, which helps keep them general combat sessions short. Exploiting enemy weaknesses is key to keeping battles timely, as well, though rather than having elemental weakness a la Persona, their weaknesses are to the manner of attack such as ‘Pierce’, ‘Strike’, or ‘Slash’.
Where the game really heats up is the battles with the Sephirot, the colossal mysterious beings who seem to be connected to the affliction overcoming the school, appearing every so often and freezing time for those not protected by the Reflectors’ power. These battles last some time and play out much like regular combat, but each girl can have up to four ‘Supporters’ aid them; specific girls who have been offered the protection of the Reflectors and due to being saved throughout the story. Every so often, they can be called upon to perform follow up actions to the main party’s attacks, resulting in another attack, healing, or temporary stat boosts. Wielding these follow up actions with strategic prowess becomes important, as the Sephirot battles are commonly multi-phase affairs where certain attacks can lay waste to your party if you aren’t careful.
There are a few other intricacies and mechanics to the game that aren’t quite as important- performing actions before bed to raise stats, checking your smartphone to keep up with girls you have connected with (or just to play a Tamagotchi type game called ‘Dark Cave’), and a hide-and-seek game that seems to just be for fun. Honestly, Blue Reflection has a multitude of trappings that complicate things just enough to be manageable but that make writing about them into a novella.
The Good, The Bad, and…
Customization is key in this game, and it feels like the game thrives on this. Mixing and matching talents that are bestowed upon you by your relationships with your fellow students is important and always feels productive. Changing a spell that heals your party to also include a defense boost or arranging your Supporters to get the perfect balance to compliment your battle strategy feels rewarding. While each girl falls into a certain archetype- Lime is an attacked by default while Yuzu acts as support and healing- it takes little effort to change the dynamics of the team. This went a long way to making me feel like I had complete control over my combat results, especially during the difficult Sephirot battles.
Unfortunately, those battles are the only time the game really becomes difficult. The rest of the game is a breeze, save for an optional battle or two toward the end of the game, and despite having many options for abilities and techniques, most battles by the endgame are won in a turn or two, making them feel more like a repetitive chore. This becomes especially true where the sidequests are concerned, as they tend to follow the same cadence mechanically that I outlined earlier. Blue Reflection clearly leans on story and exploring the connections between the characters, which creates a somewhat monotonous game to battle through and a sharp spike in difficulty anytime a Sephirot shows up to play.
While the game focuses on story over challenge, however, I feel like it’s important to mention another factor that might fall into the ‘and…’ part of this section. There is a ton of fanservice in this game. Lingering shots on particular body parts, excuses for characters to be in their bathing suits or undergarments, and even specific models to show off the characters in their soaked school uniforms (white button down shirts, of course) during rainstorms. You’ll see nearly everything the main cast has to offer just short of indecency, and it’s not subtle by any means. If you embarrass easily- well, you’ve been warned. I gave my fair share of eyerolls to the obvious pandering, but this is more of a ‘variation in mileage’ comment than a good or bad point.
As a side note, as well, there are a ton of typos in the subtitles which are pretty much mandatory due to Blue Reflection only having Japanese voice acting. They were frequent enough to become distracting a number of times, so I feel that at least giving a small heads up about this is worthwhile.
Plot- and Therefore Spoilers
Nearly everything about Blue Reflection sits on its surface. There are a few mysteries that crop up as the story unfolds- what is happening at Hoshinomiya High School? What exactly is Yuzu and Lime’s connection to the Common, and why did they choose Hinako? Honestly, explaining these ruin most of the appeal of going through the story. Gust does a fantastic job of relying on the bonds of Hinako and her friends to offer the meat of what the game has to offer as a story. I do want to go into one plot point that I felt set the game apart from what I was expecting, so if you’re trying to avoid spoilers, now is the time to skip ahead to the Presentation section!
Throughout the game, Hinako is told that by battling the Sephirot and finally bringing their reign to an end, the victor will be granted one wish. It is made clear that Hinako’s wish is to be able to dance and move as she did before her injury. Lime, and to a lesser extent Yuzu, use this to propel Hinako toward helping them with the troubles of the Common. This becomes her driving force, almost obsessively so. While there is some allusion that there is a secret being held by the Shijou sisters- and there are a multitude of them- their reluctance to speak on a certain subject is finally broken when they believe that Hinako needs to know the truth: there is no final wish.
This nearly breaks Hinako, and she seems like she is about to go rampant herself. This sends her into a spiral that involves her doubting that she even wants to resume her duties as a Reflector. While the plot of Blue Reflection isn’t Shakespeare, this plot point resonates with me in that in a rare turn, the main character’s personal goals conquer her desires to do good for her fellow students and, by extension, the world. It all plays out as you would expect in the end with the power of friendship bringing her back into the fold (not to mention the reveal that there actually is a wish in play, as Hinako originally believed). This brings about two things that are readily apparent throughout the entire tale: Hinako is a teenage girl, insecure and prone to rash decision making at times, much like any other teenager, and Yuzu and Lime are manipulators. While Yuzu is much more sincere, usually acting as the emotional half of the duo, it is Lime who sinks further and further into trying to acquire emotional fragments, even going so far as to suggest inciting emotional breakdowns in students to produce more fragments and become more powerful. The characters have dynamics and layers that are revealed as the plot unfolds, and like real people, not every layer is an attractive one.
Really, at the end of the day, Blue Reflection brings some new points of interest to an already well-trodden path. You’ll find a few concepts to keep you interested, but you’ve probably seen most of what the game has to offer in some medium or another.
Make no mistake- while the substance of Blue Reflection is hit or miss, the presentation is absolutely ace. The visuals are gorgeous, especially in the Common. The Common’s different areas, all delineated by emotions like Fear and Anger, are illustrated with vivid colors and fantastic landscapes. The Sephirot enemies especially are well designed, but all of the enemies are unique and pleasant to look at. If there is any complaint, it would be that the characters run into ‘dead eye’ syndrome, especially the Shijou sisters, when they attempt to show emotion. It’s such a small issue in the grand scheme of how the game looks, though, and every viewpoint feels picturesque.
The game’s music is phenomenal, as well, though it may not be for everyone. Most of the compositions strongly rely on piano and violin arrangement over accompanying instruments, and they lend themselves to feeling more arhythmic at times and ‘emotional’, as it were. On one hand, this makes it difficult to have any real catchy tunes to hang on to once the credits roll. On the other, the music feels more like an enjoyable experience rather than separate tracks to be taken beat by beat. Again, this may not work for everyone, but it really helped enhance the game as a whole for me.
At its core, Blue Reflection does do what it sets out to do by exploring the bonds and interactions of young women and exercising them as an emotional and physical leveling system. While adding elements of Persona, the Atelier games, and a couple of other titles, its fails to make much of any of them aside from what feels like hollow homages. With uneven difficulty and a number of elements that distract from the story at the heart of the game, if you aren’t up for the equivalent of an emotionally heavy visual novel with RPG elements, Blue Reflection may not be for you. I was so caught up in the presentation and sim-life aspects, though, that it drew me in and had my attention for the twenty to thirty hours I spent with it.
Honestly, if you can sit down and enjoy binge watching a magical girl series, Blue Reflection will be perfect for you. It has some unique aspects, it not a whole lot of them to keep track of, and while it certainly isn’t a game I will be coming back to anytime soon, the pros and cons weighed each other into a pretty average balance.