A Magical (Girl) Experience
I’ve been interested in Blue Reflection since I initially heard about its Western release. Having been a long-time fan of the Atelier series, It’s very much safe to say that I’m a Gust fan. However, since the Atelier series makes up the bulk of their products (no complaints here!), new Gust IPs are pretty few and far between. So, when a new IP does pop up, it’s always something to look forward to. And it just so happens that looking forward to Blue Reflection was the right call, because this game ended up being a lot of fun. Maybe not in the usual way Gust games are, though.
While definitely a Gust game through and through, Blue Reflection seems to be a step in a new direction. Surprisingly down-to-earth (an impressive feat, considering it’s a magical girl game), Blue Reflection‘s slice-of-life storyline explores the complexity of human emotions and what it means to be alive — and all of that is even further complimented by the game’s amazing audio and visuals. I can honestly say that I didn’t expect the game to be what it was. But because of that, I ended up liking it all the better.
Dancing Through Life
Blue Reflection follows the story of Hinako Shirai, a first-year at Hoshinomiya High School and ballet prodigy. Having suffered a knee injury, Hinako spent the first half of her freshman year in recovery. Unfortunately, her recovery isn’t complete. And it never will be. While she’s good to go when it comes to basic movement, and even light exercise, the extent of her injury was so severe that she’ll never be able to dance again. Her injury, and resulting inability to dance, also got her kicked out of her school’s gifted program. Talk about a rough start.
Fortunately, there won’t be any time for her to brood. Partway through her first day, Hinako finds herself sucked into “The Common” — a mysterious world built entirely by the physical manifestations of human emotions. It’s there that she’s informed by her classmates Yuzu and Lime Shirijo that she is a “Reflector” — a magical girl destined to fight off the oncoming creatures known as Sephira. She’s also told that, in order to become stronger. she’ll need to collect Fragments — artifacts that are created when people’s emotions emotions become extreme that they enter a state known as rampancy. Hinako, surprisingly, isn’t to happy with any of this, but decides to go along with it anyway. You know, since everyone will die if she doesn’t.
I’m sure that a plot like that has some of you hooked. I also know, however, that some of you out there reading this are rolling your eyes. Yes, Blue Reflection is a JRPG about magical girls in a school setting using the power of friendship and emotion to save the day. And yes, it’s a fairly common trope. There’s no getting around that. But it’s not Blue Reflection‘s story itself that drew me in so much as it’s handled. Because the plot is very slice-of-life, the game focuses more on your day-to-day actions. Sure, you do go into an alternate world and fight demons, but a lot of that is overshadowed by the relationships that you create with others at school. And, because the Fragments Hinako collects are born from strong emotions, these relationships have a very real impact on the game’s story.
In spite of everything that’s going on, Blue Reflection also manages to stay very down-to-earth due to its cast. Contrasting most JRPGs out there today (including many of Gust’s) that focus on filling their games with big personalities, Blue Reflection has a more lax approach. The end result of this is a game largely filled with characters who are actually believable, rather than characters all trying to be overly unique. I’m not saying that you won’t find tropes in this game, because you absolutely will, but things aren’t as in-your-face. Most (not all) of Blue Reflection‘s characters feel like people that you could meet in real life. And, while I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I find it to be refreshing.
A majority of Blue Reflection takes place within the hallowed halls of Hoshinomiya High. There are a few things that you can do in Hoshinomiya, but chatting with your friends is more important than anything else. You know, just like in real life! Tightening your bonds of friendship serves one main purpose; to help you kill demons better. Once again, just like in real life! As you become closer with your friends, you’ll receive Fragments which can be used in combat. Talking to your friends also levels your characters up and, since there’s no combat EXP in this game, this is where you’re going to be getting a good 90% of your levels from (the rest will be form plot progression).
Strengthening the ties that bind you is also very easy, thanks to the game’s complete lack of a time limit. Although spending time with a friend takes ends the day, you have an unlimited amount of days with which to do things. While the completionist in me is happy that I wouldn’t be missing anything, the lack of challenge was frustrating. Because of how leveling works, you can become insanely over-powered very easily. I like power-leveling as much as the next RPG fanatic, don’t get me wrong. But you can also have too much of a good thing. This is my biggest issue with this game. Time mechanics only work if the progression of time is actually there. When they aren’t, certain things are easy to exploit.
In addition to chumming it up with your pals, you can also complete quests. Quests come in two main varieties. The first, and most prominent kind of quest, involves locating a rampant student and diving into the Common. Going rampant may be a big deal, fixing them sure isn’t. All the player ever needs to do is either kill a certain kind of monster or collect a handful of items. You don’t get figments for these, although I’m not entirely sure why. You can also take on consultation quests. In order to complete these, you just need to talk to someone. That’s it. Given the name, I really would have liked some more player interaction. Even if there aren’t any dire consequences, “consultation” hints at you helping someone through their problem. The complete lack of player-based conversational input seems like an oversight.
Reflecting (hah, get it?) teenagers’ reliance on social media, Blue Reflection also has FreeSpace! — an in-game social network app. FreeSpace! gives you access to a number of apps, including a messenger, a jukebox, and a very easy but strangely addictive monster raising game. Much like real social media, FreeSpace! is entirely optional, but is ultimately too entertaining to mess around on to completely ignore it.
When you aren’t spending time at school, talking about things like ballet and the meaning of life, and constantly reminding your one friend that swapping the underwear you’re currently wearing is not a normal thing that friends do, you’ll be spending it in the Common. Serving as the other side of the proverbial coin to Hoshinomiya’s social-based gameplay, the Common is where you’ll be doing all of your RPG-ing. If you’ve played any of Gust’s newer Atelier games (excluding Firis), you should already be familiar with Blue Reflection‘s setup. Each explorable area is small, and features plenty of items to collect and demons to fight. The Common is made up of four main areas, based on joy, sorrow, anger, and fear, with aesthetics, items, and demons matching accordingly.
The Common is a really neat place. Sadly, it’s also very small. Carrying on with the previous example, take the first 4 – 6 areas in a game like Atelier Sophie or Atelier Shallie, and link them all together. That’s the entirety of the Common right there. Technically, this does end up working. Since so much of Blue Reflection is based around socialization, you don’t actually spend more than 10 minutes per visit (including battles). Still, I would have liked to see more. The Common is a lot of fun to explore, and it’s absolutely beautiful; it’s a shame that they don’t utilize it more than they do.
The Common may be pretty, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t dangerous. During your inward excursions, you’ll inevitably encounter plenty of creatures known as demons. Contrary to their name, demons aren’t actually evil. Much like each area within the Common, demons are just a product of human emotion. Unfortunately, while they aren’t necessarily malevolent, they are territorial. And, because you’re constantly marching around on their territory, they’ve got a bone to pick with you.
If exploration is similar to the Atelier games, then combat is… also similar to the Atelier games. Blue Reflection‘s turn-based combat system is very straightforward, so Gust fans should feel right at home on the battlefield. That being said, there are a few differences. Along with their individual bars, your party shares an Ether Gauge. Acting as a “collective MP bar” or sorts, the Ether Gauge can be used to provide passive bonuses to your party in-between turns. Additionally, you can use the Ether Gauge to go into Overdrive, allowing you to act several times at once. The Ether Gauge is incredibly helpful, but it’s also depleted very easily. The fact that you need to carefully manage Ether adds a nice, extra layer of strategy to combat which, depending on how over-leveled you are, can quickly become easy.
Most of the combat difficulty comes in with the Sephira — the big, bad, bosses of Blue Reflection. And I’ve got to say, that out of all of the bosses that I’ve fought throughout all of the video games that I’ve played this year, the Sephira are some of the coolest. Sephira battles are always multi-tier affairs, with each of the Sephira featuring unique attack patterns and multiple parts that, when broken, give the players a big advantage. Sephira also each display an exquisite amount of artistic detail, and each come with their own battle theme — some of which have become my new all-time favorite tracks for 2017. These guys are worth fighting for the aesthetics alone. I’m not joking.
You’re not alone during Sephira fights, either! Well, I guess you’re never alone during them because you have three characters. But you’re even less alone! During Sephira fights, Hinako, Yuzu, and Lime can receive backup from the girls that you’ve befriended by assigning them to each character’s team. Each teammate has a different method of support, including attacks, buffs, and heals. You can also chain skills consecutively, allowing you to turn the tide of battle when you need it the most.
A Beautiful Reflection
Much like its protagonist Hinako, Blue Reflection falters a bit here and there. But that doesn’t stop it from being a great game. I very much enjoyed my time with Blue Reflection. This game has some serious potential as a series, and I’m excited to see if Gust will take it anywhere. Blue Reflection may not be the most groundbreaking game to have come out this year (although its soundtrack is a top contender for best OST of 2017!), but it’s still very much worth any JRPG fan’s time — especially if you’re sweet on Gust.
FINAL VERDICT: 4/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Vita, PC ; Publisher: Koei Tecmo Games Co., Ltd. ; Developer: Koei Tecmo Games Co., Ltd., Gust Co., Ltd. ; Players: 1 ; Released: September 26, 2017 ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Blue Reflection given to Hey Poor Player by the Publisher