Every Girl’s Dream
Magical girls – a genre of entertainment that maintains widespread popularity not only in its home of Japan, but all over the world. While most see the genre as one intended for young girls, there are many examples that were created to appeal to other demographics, including boys and adults.
At its most basic, magical girl stories tend to revolve around coming-of-age tales of young female protagonists. They follow these characters through various problems and issues, real and fantastical, that they face on the road to maturity.
The genre saw a shot of popularity amongst older audiences with the influx of genre deconstructions – highlighting the negatives of tropes commonly associated with magical girls, and often taking on an overall darker tone. I ended up personally being a part of that audience, counting the more somber tales of Madoka Magica and Yuki Yuna is a Hero amongst some of my favorite anime series.
Magical girl stories don’t seem to be as prevalent in the video game medium, especially in the west. Thus, when a friend introduced me to an upcoming game featuring the genre, with some of the darker aspects I’ve come to enjoy (and including Keiichi Sigsawa, the writer of my favorite anime series Kino’s Journey, on its staff), it quickly caught my interest.
Developed by Gust and published by Koei Tecmo, Blue Reflection was released in the west on September 26th, 2017, for the PS4 and PC. The PS4 version was played for this review.
How Does That Make You Feel?
Blue Reflection follows Hinako, a high school girl whose life has, until this point, completely revolved around ballet. Unfortunately, she has suffered a knee injury, leaving her unable to continue pursuing her passion. Becoming depressed and unmotivated, Hinako returns to school after taking some time off – and finds herself suddenly drawn into some kind of alternate world.
This place is known as the “Common,” a manifestation of humanity’s collective unconscious, given form by peoples’ feelings. Here, she learns that she has become a “Reflector,” a kind of warrior with the ability to calm peoples’ out-of-control feelings and turn them into “Fragments.” Teaming up with her classmates Yuzu and Lime (or, as I like to call them, the Citrus Sisters), who are experienced Reflectors, she works to calm the rampant emotions of those around her while building power to face a more dire foe – creatures known as the Sephirot.
Being themed around emotions and bonds of friendship, Blue Reflection attempts to present itself as a deep and serious tale. Unfortunately, despite some charm in its character interactions, it mostly misses the mark. Much of the cast has rather shallow characterization, with most of the secondary cast’s personalities consisting of a singular trait (this one is really competitive, this other one loves makeup!) and some kind of personal drama.
This isn’t assisted by how formulaic much of the story is. Meet some girls, solve their problems to get Fragments, socialize with them, repeat. The formula is occasionally broken up by a boss fight or plot development amongst the core three. Blue Reflection also suffers from some lazy writing, throwing in twists and turns out of absolutely nowhere, with little-to-no foreshadowing in the early story.
The game also seems to have an out-of-place obsession with showing the cast in various states of undress. A not-insignificant amount of story scenes take place in showers, baths, or at the pool. Now, I’ve never been one to really complain about fanservice (especially as a fan of the Senran Kagura series), but the amount and content here just feels extremely out of place in Blue Reflection. With as hard as it seems to be trying at a somber story, constantly showing these girls in suggestive scenes destroys any serious vibe earlier story beats manage to create.
Really, the only enjoyment I got out of the writing is when Hinako interacts with her friends on her phone. The quick text chats that open up as you advance the story are much more lighthearted and, surprisingly, manage to contain some good character development for Hinako. These moments show how she’s slowing opening up to all of these new friends, with a touch of humor and quite a bit of charm.
As a last aside on the writing, Blue Reflection is in serious need of an editing passthrough. While I can (and often do) forgive the occasional typo in text heavy games, the sheer amount of text mistakes here is staggering, and impossible to overlook.
Streamline to a Fault
This game is an ever-popular blend of JRPG and social sim, often feeling like a significantly distilled version of recent Persona titles. In between turn-based battles against creatures in the Common, you’ll be socializing with all the new friends you make, attempting to raise a relationship meter with them.
If there’s one thing I can say to sum up Blue Reflection’s gameplay, it’d be “extremely simple.” Enemies rarely, if ever, actually pose a threat. Each of your main trio gains access to a surprisingly varied amount of attacks as they level up, but there’s almost never a reason to not just spam your strongest AOE attacks.
What really surprised me, though, is the lack of battles. Each map in the Common has only maybe 3-4 enemies on it, and you don’t really enter the Common all that often (unless you’re grinding out the extremely repetitive side missions you get between story sequences).
Luckily, the lack of fights won’t affect the strength of your characters, as there are no experience points in this game. Leveling up occurs by performing specific tasks, like completing certain missions. So really, there’s even less fighting required, since there’s really no reason to ever engage random enemies.
There’s no currency either, no real equipment system, no real anything you’d find in a typical JRPG. The level of customization for your characters is extremely minimal. Fragments you collect in the story can be used to modify your various skills (adding MP recovery to a healing spell, for example), and there’s a crafting system to create items and other skill modifications. With how simple most of the game is, though, I never got any real use out of these systems.
Much like the story, there’s really only one aspect of the gameplay I enjoyed: the boss battles against the Sephirot. These fights are massive setpieces taking place in the real world, and actually require a bit of skill and tactical thinking. Your relationship with various characters also comes in to play here, as the girls you build relationships with help out in the fights with various attacks and stat boosts.
Through a Haze
At a glace, Blue Reflection is visually stunning. The characters are attractively designed, the Reflectors have an impressive amount of detail in their models, and the environments of the Common are simply beautiful. Look a bit deeper, though, and cracks begin to form.
The greatest and most noticeable issue is the atrocious framerate. The game slows down if you so much as sneeze too loudly, with even simple scenes in the school environment suffering. Speaking of which, the game is also very inconsistent with its scene transitions. Between cuts, characters will change position, pop in and out of existence, and follow no real logical performance flow.
The character models themselves aren’t much better. Awkward animations are often the name of the game here. Hair modeling especially is completely wild, although watching Yuzu’s pigtails contort themselves into split-second gravity-defying shapes is pure comedy. The lip syncing here is also some of the most horrific I’ve seen in a modern title, rarely matching the dialogue and often starting before anything is spoken. It’s like Gust watched those old Godzilla English dubs everyone cracks jokes on and proclaimed “THIS IS PERFECT! PUT IT IN OUR GAME!”
Out of Place
All of the above becomes even more disappointing upon hearing this game’s soundtrack. The music of Blue Reflection is completely stunning, and I wouldn’t call it hyperbole to say it’s one of the best gaming soundtracks I’ve ever heard.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m a sucker for piano-focused soundtrack, and the music here gives me all I want of that and more. Everything is piano and ambient synth here, from day-to-day music to the Sephirot battles. It captures everything that this game feels like it should be – the sense of wonder of the Common, the development of friendships in the face of various hardships, the horrors of facing an unknown enemy – it’s all communicated amazingly through the music.
I don’t really have as much to say about the voice acting, however. The performances here are perfectly decent. Not amazing, not horrible, but they fit the characters and get the job done.
Don’t Make This Common
Overall, Blue Reflection is an amazing soundtrack attached to an incredibly lackluster game. What feels like an attempt at streamlining the Social RPG formula ends up creating a title that just isn’t fun to play. The ambitions of the story mostly fall flat, although there is a small spark of charm in some of the characters.
Really, that would be enough to give the game a perfectly mediocre score. However, the sheer ineptitude of a text editing job and horrifying handling of what could’ve been beautiful graphics are major dealbreakers, driving this game down into the dirt.
To put it simply: listen to the soundtrack, but avoid this game. JRPG fans definitely deserve more care put into their games than this one received.
~ Final Score: 4/10 ~
Review copy provided by Koei Tecmo for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.