Blue Reflection: Sword of the Girl Who Dances in Illusion Review
Blue Reflection is a new IP from game developer Gust (best known for their Atelier series, as well as games like Ar tonelico and more recently, Nights of Azure). The genre this time is Magical Girl RPG. Gust makes some departures from its usual RPG formula, many of which will be controversial and I have mixed feelings about, but also some which I thought were very good. I don't have a lot of experience with the magical girl genre - I've seen Nanoha and Madoka, that's about it. I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I got this game.
Our protagonist is Hinako Shirai, a first-year student at Hoshinomiya Girls High School. Her life passion is ballet, and she was very good at it - until she suffered a tragic permanent injury to her knee that left her unable to perform anymore. Hinako enters the school year late in a gloomy daze after rehab which failed to fix her knee, feeling devoid of purpose now that she's lost ballet. Her life is about to be turned even more upside down as she is approached by a girl who admired her back in middle school. Something seems wrong, and as the girl talking to her begins to seemingly lose control of her emotions, Hinako finds herself transported into a mystical dreamscape filled with monsters. Mysterious voices in this other world urge her to use a magic ring's powers to defend herself, and backed up against a wall, she uses the ring's power to transform - into a 'Reflector'. In typical magical girl fashion, her hair and outfit change and she gains immense fighting power (most excitingly for her, the pain from her knee is completely gone in this world) to defeat the monsters.
These mysterious voices turn out to belong to two of her new classmates - sisters named Yuzuki and Lime Shijou. Yuzuki (who goes by 'Yuzu') and Lime explain that the three of them are Reflectors - magical girls who are locked in a fight for humanity against the fearsome Origins (or 'pure breeds', 'primal ancestors', etc. there are a number of ways you could translate this...I'll update this when KT decides on their English word for them). Hinako is of course taken back and unsure of all this, but the sisters tell her something that settles the matter for her: the winner of this war will have one wish, any wish that they truly desire from the bottom of their heart, granted if they win. In order to heal her leg and become able to do ballet again, Hinako agrees to help. The source of power for Reflectors is human emotion, so the three of them need to jump to 'Common', a sort of shared human dreamscape subconsciousness, to stabilize and collect power from 'Fragments' of out of control emotions. As if high school wasn't an emotional enough time for most people, the students of Hoshinomiya are experiencing heavily amplified emotional distress thanks to the arrival of the Origins. Stabilizing their emotion fragments in Common not only restores their fellow students' sanity, it also provides more power for the Reflectors to use to combat the Origins.
What we basically have here is a plot flow where Origins will stage attacks outside of Common on Hoshinomiya itself periodically, and Hinako, Yuzu and Lime need to collect emotional power from their fellow classmates to drive the Origins back. Hinako has plenty of ties with old acquaintances, and Yuzu and Lime are always eager to push her into forming more bonds with new people as well so that they can find new sources of emotional energy to harvest. There is a bit of interesting tension between Yuzu and Lime over the ethics of what they're doing - by purposely letting bad situations worsen, the emotional suffering of the students will be increased (and thus, more powerful when collected). Yuzu feels bad about this, while Lime goes into the conflict with an ends-justify-the-means philosophy.
The gameplay involves receiving milestone targets from Yuzu and Lime periodically, which can be fulfilled by gathering points from various tasks. The tasks usually involve finding a student in the school experiencing an out of control emotion, and jumping to Common to fight monsters on their way to the fragment, which Hinako stabilizes. Each chapter also tends to focus on one or two of Hinako's classmates and what they're struggling with. At the end of each day, Hinako can choose to invite someone out to a variety of places (shopping malls, movie theatres, cafes, etc.) after school, which raises affection, unlocking more events and fragments later. Back at home, Hinako can study, stretch, or enter the bath (which seems to be purely fanservice - while studying or stretching provide some stat bonuses or events, the bath scenes are almost entirely pointless from a gameplay mechanic perspective). During school Hinako also has her smartphone, where she can play a pet raising minigame called Cave of Darkness, and participate in chats with her classmates through an SNS app.
The battle system is turn-based. The main 3 participants in every battle are the Reflectors: Hinako, Yuzu and Lime. Similar to the Atelier series, characters have various abilities that affect their own wait times (the time it takes them to be able to act again), but the battle display UI is much easier to understand and much more pleasant to look at. The 'timeline' bar at the top of the screen shows how much WT (wait time) until each ally and enemy character can attack, and makes it much easier than Atelier to visualize your choices and the effects of things that, for example, delay enemy actions. The menus also have a very snappy aesthetic and combine with the wonderful 3D character models to make for an extremely visually pleasing combat system. Shapes dance around the screen in response to your input, and the camera reorients itself automatically throughout the fight for maximum impact. It's difficult to capture in screenshots, you can't really appreciate the design without seeing it in motion. Besides attacking with skills, characters can also Ether Charge, which fills the Reflect gauge and can be used for a variety of actions such as guarding or reflecting enemy attacks, taking multiple turns in a row with the 'Overdrive' ability, or speeding up your turn on the timeline.
The usual experience system has been ditched in Blue Reflection - the three magical girls level up upon reaching certain milestones in the story and side-stories. When they level up, they get a point per level to assign to Attack, Defense, Support, or Technic, which skew the growth of character stats in specific directions. Reaching certain milestones in each category can unlock new skills. "If there are no experience points, what is the point of fighting normal enemies or grinding, then?", you might ask. Well, enemies drop items, which can be used to craft consumables that permanently boost character stats, and can also be used to fortify the Fragments that the magical girls have obtained. Fragments can be assigned to character skills and provide supplementary effects to the skill, such as making it cost less MP, adding damage under certain conditions, and more. The game also has three selectable difficulties which can be changed at any time: Easy, Normal, and Hard.
There is, unfortunately, a major flaw with the combat system in Blue Reflection. Simply put, the game is far too easy. I was happy to see a difficulty selection menu when I started and eagerly went in on Hard mode. When a game provides difficulty options, and especially when you can change the difficulty at any time (as you can in Blue Reflection), picking the hardest difficulty is telling the game "please kick my ass, I want a challenge!". The game obliged at first, and I was in heaven with the beautiful battle system mixed with a difficulty level that kept me on my toes and wiped me out a couple times. About a third of the way through the game though, it just stopped providing challenges in non-Origin fights altogether. Hopping to Common to find fragments became a chore - a very pretty looking one, but still a chore that provided no challenge, and no real motivation to even get into battles. Why bother gathering drops to craft stat-boosting consumables when every fight is a cakewalk even without them? This is even more tragic considering that the basics of the combat system are incredibly solid - a simple tweaking of numbers (enemy stats) would fix the problem. Perhaps Gust will fix it in a patch, or add in an even higher difficulty, as they did in Atelier Sophie. I will certainly keep my eyes out for updates and try to inform you all here if they do. The battles are so beautiful and pleasant that I would happily replay it a second time if they added a new difficulty or boosted Hard to actually be hard. In fact, I'm just going to be blunt: Gust should rip Blue Reflection's combat system and recycle it for their next Atelier game, because it's better in almost every way than Atelier's combat.
The one remaining source of kinda-sorta challenging gameplay (not really, but at least you have to pay attention a bit) are the Origin fights. These massive beasts freeze time in the normal world and attack Hoshinomiya High directly. These battles have wonderful choreography and music, and not just the Reflectors participate in them - normal students who our heroines have helped can provide backup in the form of extra attacks, buffs, healing, ether recovery, and more in support roles. A total of eventually 12 students can help Hinako, Yuzu and Lime, with some amusing support attacks that only make sense in a magical girl world where emotions equal power. These multi-stage battles have 3 phases each, with one huge enemy that has multiple regenerating parts. You can take the parts out to temporarily weaken it or focus fire on the main body, it's your choice. Once the third phase arrives, you'll be treated to some nice cutscenes of Hinako doing her magical girl thing once you've defeated the boss.
Regarding the story, I wasn't blown away by it, but it had its moments. JRPG cliches abound. There are some very silly tropes that maybe I just don't appreciate the magical girl genre enough to 'get', and I've never been a big fan of school settings. Each of the 12 main side-character classmates has their own sort of mini-stories you can progress in as you spend more time with them. Solving emotional problems by daylight, fighting monsters by...ah, also daylight, sorry. I'm a completionist at times, so I maybe brought some of the monotony onto myself by forcing myself to do every character's side-stories and complete all missions even for the generic students, which did get repetitive when I wanted to advance the plot. I'm not counting that against the game itself, since the chapter 'point targets' given to you by Yuzu and Lime are lenient and allow you to advance the plot without completing all quests and it's my fault for ignoring those targets and instead maxing everything I could out. It was pretty draining for me though when I needed to jump into Common for what seemed like the hundredth time to go fight some (again, unfortunately extremely easy) monsters to complete subquests. The biggest gripe I have with Blue Reflection that can't be fixed with a simple patch is probably Common itself. The map and areas in Common are very small, don't expect to do any exploring. Hop in, arrive at your objective a couple minutes later, hop out.
The fanservice in Blue Reflection must be mentioned. Gust went out of their way to develop state-of-the-art wet shirt technology and an odd penchant for girls getting caught out in the rain without an umbrella so that they're completely drenched. Having Hinako take a bath back home in the evenings is also pure fanservice with no gameplay component besides watching her submerge herself under water or lay against the side of the tub. I really, really wish the game would have been clearer about which nighttime actions actually matter, because their initial explanation is a vague 'the actions you take at night can sometimes affect the next day!' which had me obsessively performing every action available every night to make sure I didn't miss anything. I was a bit frustrated to find out eventually from a wiki that the only things you do at night that actually do anything mechanically (giving stat bonuses, showing extra scenes the next day) are studying, stretching, and practicing. I am absolutely not an opponent of fanservice (please give the titles on my reviews page a look, this site may as well be called 'Cute Anime Girl RPG Review'), but for the most part I felt like the fanservice detracted from the game. I say this mostly because I just didn't care much for Hinako's 3D model or seeing fanservice of her or most of her classmates - the 3D model style is very doll-like, which works well for some characters and not so well for others. I felt like the 3D style suited Yuzu and Lime very well, as well as a few of the students, but for many of them it just looked weird, especially when the backgrounds clashed with the 3D models (a problem especially apparent in the after-school events). It's a personal thing though, so I'm not adding or subtracting any points for it, and it's probably less annoying if you go into the game knowing that there is no actual gameplay point to repetitively getting in the bath every evening (you're welcome).
Blue Reflection is one of those games that makes me regret adopting a single rating system. As an RPG, it is lacking, and that's tragic because it could mostly be fixed with a simple difficulty patch and the combat's overall fundamental system is great. As a visual and audio experience, it is absolutely amazing at times. Especially the school fights against the Origins - the choreography, the stylistic UI, the beautiful characters, the amazing boss music in them, it all adds up to a great feel that proves turn-based games can still stay relevant if they make their UI feel good. I'll keep my eyes peeled for a difficulty patch from Gust and update this review if one arrives, but in the meantime I can only recommend Blue Reflection to people who like the look and setting of the game. The 3D models for the main 3 characters are amazing, and honestly looked even better in motion on my PS4 than I thought they would from viewing the trailers. The game length is a bit on the short side - probably 20 hours if you rush through it (or, god forbid, if you play on Easy/Normal), but my Platinum Hard run took around 30 hours. If you like magical girls and think these screenshots look as great as I do, then by all means go for it. If you don't care much for them and are just looking for a well mechanically balanced RPG, you may have to look elsewhere if Gust doesn't patch it. I want to believe they will, though, since they have a history of doing so for their other games. Let's hope.
Overall Rating: 8.6/10 B
Reviewer & Review Date: Mellow, April 6 2017
Version: Japanese (PS4)
Release Date: March 30, 2017 (JP), Unannounced (NA/EU)
See All Reviews
Version: Japanese (PS4)
Release Date: March 30, 2017 (JP), Unannounced (NA/EU)
See All Reviews