When I think of “staple” genres that exist in the world of Japanese anime, one that instantly comes to mind for me is the magical girl story. From groundbreaking early-era releases like Creamy Mami and Fancy Lala, to later big-name franchises like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura, to more recent (and daring) looks at the idea like Puella Magi Madoka Magica, countless manga and DVD volumes have been filled over the years with girls (either on their own or as a team) being granted the power to save the world from evil—and doing so while looking stylish as hell in the process.
Gust’s latest game, Blue Reflection, is their own spin on that beloved idea. We catch up to our main heroine Hinako Shirai as she’s about to begin attending Hoshinomiya High School after an extended absence. Hinako’s life seemed on the road to stardom, as she had grown into a ballet prodigy destined to win a prestigious competition—until she injured herself bad enough that she could no longer dance. With her one love in life gone, Hinako disappeared from society for a while to deal with the pain. Now, as she returns, many parts of her have yet to heal—not just those physical, but also mental and emotional.
Nothing could have prepared her for her first day at school, however. Upon arriving at Hoshinomiya, she runs into Sanae, a former classmate of hers who had been wondering what happened to Hinako. As the two girls talk, Sanae suddenly beings to go crazy—and, next thing she knows, Hinako is whisked away to a beautiful fantasy world in a body (and clothing) not quite her own. Our heroine comes to meet a strange pair of sisters named Yuzu and Lime who explain that she is a Reflector, a type of magical girl who has the power to enter a dimension of humanity’s collective consciousness called the Common. There, Hinako must rescue the emotional Fragments of the other girls at her school, both to help them in their own personal struggles, and to strengthen herself in order to defend the real world against the coming attacks of beings known as Sephiroth.
Thus, both Hinako’s new life at Hoshinomiya and the game proper kick off. In concept, Blue Reflection could be described as sort of Persona-lite. At school, Hinako can talk to other students, craft friendships with a group of twelve other girls (who grow in importance as the story progresses), complete missions, delve into the Common to find Fragments and battle monsters, or partake in a small amount of activities at home every night.
Unfortunately, Blue Reflection cannot begin to compare to the latest batch of Persona titles when it comes to depth—and that is the game’s single biggest flaw. Relationship-building is minimal once you meet each friend, as hanging out means either a short conversation with a choice that may advance the friendship, or travelling to a random place and watching a cutscene unfold with zero interaction. Completing missions for the other girls at school usually involves solving their emotional problems by finding and purifying their Fragments, and they can get somewhat tedious due to the small amount of variety found in them (typically either killing X amount of a particular enemy or finding Y amount of item orbs). At-home choices like studying for a test, making a lunch date for the next day, or relaxing in a nighttime bath seem to serve no purpose in the bigger picture—they exist more to give players the sense of Hinako living a proper everyday life.
On a gameplay level, combat is where Blue Reflection shows the most depth, and I’ll say that I probably enjoyed the technical aspects of battles here more than I have in any of Gust’s modern-era Atelier games. Things start simple at first—you see an enemy, you attack and kill it—but the complexity grows at a natural and enjoyable pace. While you’re waiting for your next character’s turn, you can do things like burn “Ether” you’ve collected to restore HP/MP, or speed up when your next turns will come while slowing turns for the enemy. With enough Ether, you also have options like going into Overdrive, where Hinako, Yuzu, or Lime can then perform multiple actions on the same turn.
As well, as you solve the deeper issues of the game’s twelve main NPCs, you can bring them in as supporters for key fights, where each will perform a technique specific to their individual personalities. Those girls also assist in battles in another way: through their Fragments. Every time the bond between Hinako and another girl grows, you’ll gain a new Fragment of their emotion, each of which gives a particular type of boost when slotted into one of the main trio’s skills. (For example, one of Sanae’s Fragments will heal a character when they use the particular skill that Fragment is attached to.) In fact, deepening relationships is the only way Hinako, Yuzu, and Lime can level up—no amount of grinding in the Common will get you any closer to your next boost in stats.
I like a lot of aspects of Blue Reflection’s combat, especially those last two points. You’ll always have way more skills and skill slots than Fragments, so knowing what to use where—and which Fragments to buff once that ability opens up—is a nice mix of strategy and customization. I’m also a sucker for games that take a different approach to character progression beyond simple XP, and Blue Reflection makes me think back to other games like Chrono Cross, where I could just play at whatever pace I wanted and not worry if I’d be too low- or too high-leveled. Sadly, combat here is easier than it could have been, no doubt because this simply isn’t meant to be a knock-down-drag-out kind of RPG. So, if that’s what you’re looking for, definitely plan on bumping the game’s combat difficulty up to hard in order to offset that somewhat.
Blue Reflection is the kind of game that tempts you as a reviewer to knock it for its faults, give in a middling score, and call it a day—but doing that would make me feel like a horrible person to some degree. Yes, a chunk of what Gust attempted here either didn’t go far enough or came out a bit underwhelming, but there’s also some legitimate wonderfulness waiting below that unpolished surface. While this is the story of three magical girls trying to fight back an approaching evil, much more than that it’s the story of a regular everyday girl trying to fit in at her school and make those around her happy. Blue Reflection is far more engrossing in its quieter moments, when you’re learning about the other students at Hoshinomiya, who they are, and what problems they’ve buried deep inside themselves. I always cared about the other girls as I set out to find their Fragments, and I came to like every one of them as they integrated themselves deeper into my everyday life—including the ones I was certain I’d never get along with.
Blue Reflection reminds me so much of Japanese shoujo (girls) comics, even down to the way that each chapter is structured and the progression of the overall narrative. As a longtime shoujo manga fan, I understand why people may not like the stuff: stories can feel overly dramatic yet simplistic, characters can come off like stereotypes, and it can seem like more time was spent on drawing pretty pictures than coming up with ways to hold a wider audience’s attention. That isn’t actually the case with a lot of what I’ve read, however, and there’s more to it all if you just open your heart to what the story is trying to do—and the same can be said for Blue Reflection. That shoujo manga feel also heavily comes across in the game’s visuals, which are some of the most impressive I’ve ever seen come out of Gust. Now, let me be clear: on a technical level, I still think the developer is sorely behind many other teams in putting together anything I’d truly call impressive. Visually, however, the manga style they’ve gone with here works so perfectly, giving everything a softness and beauty like hand-drawn artwork that you don’t see a lot in other titles. Also, while they won’t put any fear into the folks at Atlus, user interface and menus are also extremely attractive. Its that blend of simplicity and style that I’m always so fond of.
Honestly, I’ve no clue how Blue Reflection ever got localized. It baffles me that Koei Tecmo even decided to take a chance on this one in the West, and while I’d love to complain about the missing Vita version or the at-times messy translations, the fact that this even exists in English—and in physical retail form, no less!—is kind of a miracle. This is a game that will definitely not be up the alley of a whole lot of players out there, and even for those who do like the idea of what’s essentially an interactive girls’ comic in RPG form, its weaknesses may be off putting at times. And yet, for that niche of people to whom Blue Reflection seems tailor-made, I encourage you to at least give it a chance at some point. I could write 1500 more words going into minute detail on everything I’d change or fix about what I played, but I would still be just as glad that I had played it rather than not.
|Publisher: Koei Tecmo • Developer: Gust Co. Ltd • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 09.26.2017|
Blue Reflection is a game that displays a heartwarming amount of beauty and grace even in the face of some tragically ugly flaws and mistakes. On a gameplay level, it never reaches the heights it wanted (or deserved) to, but as an overall experience, it feels like something special in a way few other games do.
|The Good||A charming and visually beautiful game about friendship and fighting evil of a type we don’t often get in the West.|
|The Bad||Too many of the great ideas put into the game never get fleshed out to the point they needed to be.|
|The Ugly||How often I was hoping Hinako and friends would end up meeting a Madoka-esque fate.|
|Blue Reflection is available on PlayStation 4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Koei Tecmo for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.|