Review: Blue Reflection: Second Light
A little over four years ago, we took a look at Blue Reflection, a new IP from Gust (of Atelier fame) and Koei Tecmo. A JRPG set in the magical girl genre, it was something that seemed to have a lot of promise when I first booted it up. Unfortunately, I came away from it…less than impressed.
I wasn’t the only one, with this title receiving middling reception in the western press. Thinking that this was just going to be a one-off before Gust returned to pumping out more Atelier games, I moved on, completely forgetting about this game in a short time.
Enter 2021. Gust finally has my attention after the release of Atelier Ryza and its sequel, seeming that they’re aiming to expand their audience beyond their core niche. A sudden announcement that the studio will be revisiting Blue Reflection in a big way: an anime series, a mobile game, and the game we’re looking at today: a full sequel to the original.
Despite my issues with the first game, the welcome surprise Ryza and Ryza 2 gave me got my hopes up that Gust would put the same care and improvements into this game. The original Blue Reflection did have some interesting ideas (and an excellent soundtrack) after all, it just needed much more polishing.
…and much more polishing it did receive.
Developed by Gust and published by Koei Tecmo, Blue Reflection: Second Light was released on November 9th, 2021, for Switch, PS4, and PC via Steam. The PS4 version was played for this review through the use of PS5 backwards compatibility.
From The Heart
Second Light follows Ao Hoshizaki, a high school girl who suddenly finds herself somewhere mysterious. It seems like a normal high school…but it’s completely surrounded by water. There seems to be no way to leave. Its here that Ao meets three other girls, all of whom have apparently been in this world for quite some time. Also strangely, all three of them have completely lost their memories. All they know is living together in this strange school, foraging to get by.
Things begin to change, though, once Ao shows up. A mysterious AI begins messaging the girls on the cell phones. Strange things begin suddenly appearing in the water – locations that seem connected to the girls’ hearts and memories. And, through rings that the AI has given them, a few of the girls begin to awaken to new powers – the ability to become what’s called “Reflectors.”
Right out of the gate, Second Light sets out to tell a much different tale than the original Blue Reflection. The original was a more traditional anime school life tale with magical girl flavor. This one is more a mystery – what is this world, what is hidden in the memories of these girls, and how can they get back to the real world…whatever that may be.
And it’s this mystery that hooked me in. The game handles this story well, pacing its hints and reveals excellently through its runtime, leaving enough dangling threads between each chapter to encourage a “just one more hour” response from me while playing.
The setup also lends itself to some excellent character and relationship development, something that the original game was sorely lacking in. Second Light spends plenty of time diving into each of its main characters, their pasts and their thoughts, and creates a cast that I truly came to care for.
For the fans of the more social and relationship aspects of the original, these elements are present in Second Light as well. The game has a fairly even balance between dungeon crawling and spending time with the characters in the school. Running errands (read: side quests) for each girl, as well as going on “dates” with them (essentially story cutscenes that put the focus on the specific girl you’re on a “date” with) go a long way to building their characterizations, as well as establishing their growing relationship with Ao.
Truly, the way Second Light handles its cast of characters is a massive improvement over the original. Some of them do still have personality points that they lean a little too hard on (as much as I love Rena, I get it, game, she’s super into studying. You don’t need to keep reminding me), but they’re no longer their entire personalities.
Also of note, the story here doesn’t require experience with the original Blue Reflection to follow or enjoy. There are a few minor story beats that may go over your head without knowing the original, but nothing that will keep you from being able to follow the plot presented here.
Grind The Gears
If there’s one aspect that needed a completely overhaul in Blue Reflection, it was its battle system. Luckily, that’s exactly what it gets here in Second Light.
Battles see you controlling three characters at a time, eventually with a fourth as a “reserve” that can activate some passive abilities. Each character slowly builds “Ether” on a bar at the bottom of the screen, and when they have a certain amount, they can be activated and given commands. It’s somewhat similar to classic Final Fantasies and their ATB systems, waiting for a bar to fill up before you can act.
The little twists are what make it more interesting. Each character can be in one of three “Gears,” which determines how much Ether they can build up. A higher Gear means more Ether for more powerful attacks…but also a longer wait time if you want to use said attacks. Gears are increased simply by using attacks or skills, which each having a bearing on how fast the Gears increase. At third Gear, the character changes into her Reflector mode, granting access to even stronger attacks.
This is one of those systems that sounds more complicated in description than it is in action. Basically it’s a game of balance, finding the right times to let a character gather more Ether and Gear up while still dealing and mitigating incoming damage. It only took me a few battles to get a hang of, and I quickly found myself timing and activating each character without having to watch the Ether bar too closely.
There’s a few other engines in play too. There’s a hit counter that increases how much damage your attacks do as it goes up, and it can be reset by certain enemies if you don’t defend yourself. Major fights can find one of your team going one-on-one with an enemy, having to time button presses to attack and defend, again putting your combo at risk.
Generally, everything clicks together and flows incredibly well. Trash fights don’t overstay their welcome (often ending in under a minute if you have a good rhythm going), and bosses provide interesting challenges as you try to build your team up to their Reflector modes.
Outside of battle, Second Light has a much more involved crafting element, which will be very familiar to Atelier fans. There’s gathering points strewn all over each dungeon, and items gathered from these can be used at a crafting table in the school to create battle items and new fixtures for the school grounds. Battle items can receive buffs depending on aspects of the ingredients and which character is crafting, as well.
Now, the crafting is nowhere near as complex as Atelier can get. For battle items, I’d typically just unload my ingredients to make as many as I could without too much thought on the specifics. Crafting fixtures is even easier – these can be placed on the school grounds to give passive buffs to your team, and upgraded to create more buffs. They also have an affect on story, as these fixtures can unlock more Dates to get to know characters even more.
Unfortunately not everything new is perfect. Some dungeons and side quests occasionally have Stealth segments, where Ao has to hide and sneak around a glut of monsters to get to some point on the map. The sheer amount of enemies often on the map during these parts is frustrating, especially when many of them have completely randomize movement patterns. There’s no real way to stop and study what the enemy is doing to find an ideal path, since half of the enemies are literally just wandering wherever they want.
I also had some trouble with one or two sidequests being a bit vague on where I had to go. One early quest had me revisiting the first dungeon and completing one of the aforementioned stealth segments. Afterwards, the character with me told me our goal was “just ahead!,” and just ahead of me was a transition to another dungeon area. Naturally, I went through this…which turned out to be wrong. Easy, just transition back and go to the right place.
Nope, transitioning back restarted the side quest. So I had to do the stealth segment again.
…so I skipped that side quest.
A Fresh Reflection
While Second Light makes some massive positive changes when it comes to story and gameplay, it’s in the graphical presentation where the game actually meets what the original Blue Reflection set out to create. While the first game had some beautiful character and landscape designs, it was held back by terrible framerates and lackluster animations.
Second Light fixes all of these issues, letting you explore the ethereal worlds Gust has been creating for this series without any technical issues. And ethereal is the key word here, between the off-kilter school environment and the dungeons that cast real-world style locations in a fantastical haze. Even with all of the fighting against monsters going on, there’s something about the world design here that just…calming.
I did have an issue with excessive bloom, particularly on the character model’s faces when they are in bright areas. That, though, I’m willing to attribute to some wonky HDR that my PlayStation 5 and budget TV are casting on this game made for PS4.
The singular aspect that carries over from the original perfectly intact is the excellent soundtrack. Again, the name of the game here is piano and ambient synth, and the music is simply beautiful. Hell, I still have the strings riff that plays at the start of each battle stuck in my head. If there’s any issue I could take with it, its that there aren’t as many “aggressive” tracks here compared to the original, with this soundtrack opting to keep a mostly peaceful mood.
Second Light, Second Chance
I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a franchise take such a massive positive 180 as I’ve seen here in Second Light. What was easily one of the worst games I played in 2017 has received a follow-up that kept me coming back for more.
It really feels like Gust took the criticism of the original to heart here. We’ve gone from a massive stumble of a game with some good ideas to an incredibly solid JRPG that does just about everything it sets out to do correctly. From the character writing to the speedy gameplay, the world design to the excellent soundtrack, this is a game worth taking a look at.
If you are interested in jumping into this franchise, take my advise: just skip the first game completely. Start here with Second Light, it’s worth your time.
Review copy provided by Koei Tecmo for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.