I’m a big fan of the Magical Girl genre. American children’s cartoons, toys, and interests were incredibly gender segregated when I was a kid, and although progress has been made, this statement largely holds true to this day. So when I encountered Sailor Moon and Magic Knight Rayearth during my Great Anime Awakening in 1994, I was surprised and excited to see narratives in which girls went on epic quests and fought evil together. They were positive and heartening portrayals that exposed the inanity of the message that certain types of stories were for boys or girls exclusively. During the 21st century, the genre eventually became less and less popular; moe was the new norm, and when a new Magical Girl-focused work would appear, it was usually tropey, salacious, and marketable.
Keeping this industry shift in mind, along with Gust’s track record, I did not expect Blue Reflection to be the Magical Girl RPG I had been waiting for. It’s definitely salacious and tropey, but I was surprised to find just how uncommitted it is to its premise.
Set exclusively within Hoshinomiya Girls’ High School, Blue Reflection follows the school life of Hinako Shirai, an erstwhile ballet dancer forced to give up her passion following a severe knee injury. Soon, she befriends twins Yuzu and Lime Shijou and ends up inducted alongside them as the third Reflector, a Magical Girl tasked with eliminating Rampant Emotions. The Reflectors go about this by patrolling the school to identify which students have gone Rampant and then diving into a parallel world called The Common, where negative emotions are materialized as biomechanical demons.
Seeing The Common for the first time is pretty breathtaking: a lush green field extends out in all directions, dotted by disrupted concrete, broken street signs, impossible water features, and rocky platforms that levitate above the ground. Sadly, it’s all an illusion and the wonder wears off pretty quickly; each location in The Common functions as a location in one of Gust’s Atelier games: a single room with enemies to encounter, and hotspots to harvest items from. It’s not an offensive loop — in fact, it can be rather relaxing — though it was a little disappointing to find that each foray into this mysterious parallel world is the exact same affair. The game attempts to mix things up with a handful of different biomes, though there aren’t that many different looks, nor do they make any tangible difference; one Common may have stairs to jump up and down, while another might not.
The battle system is a straightforward turn-based affair in which the Reflectors and foes alike advance on a turn meter. Not unlike Grandia, turns can be manipulated through skills that delay foes or speed up allies, and it doesn’t really get much more complicated than that. There are about five different attack types which different foes have resistances or weaknesses to. Each character generally specialises in two, with the opportunity to unlock MP skills of the additional types depending on how you choose to build a character’s stats. Your team are fully restored at the end of each battle, both HP and MP, so there’s no consequence to going all out to quickly overkill a group of relatively weak demons. This makes Blue Reflection something of a cakewalk — I played on normal difficulty and didn’t suffer a single party wipe.
You don’t level up through combat in Blue Reflection, as enemies only bestow components for crafting. Levels are granted through plot beats and sidequests and come in the form of points to plug into one of four stats: strength, defense, support (magic), or technic (agility). Plugging in a point bestows a single level; this raises all stats slightly but gives an extra boost to your chosen category. Battle skills are gained at level thresholds, while a single stat’s milestone (5 points, 10 points, etc.) bestows an additional skill related to that stat. I found it a little unsatisfying to simply plug in one point at a time, so I’d undergo self-imposed challenge runs to accrue multiple levels and delight as my characters’ potentials leapt forward.
Every few chapters, the girls have to face off with a series of eldritch abominations called the Sephirot who encroach upon their school. Although lifted wholesale from Neon Genesis Evangelion and (especially) Puella Magi Madoka Magica, these encounters are where Blue Reflection shines its brightest. The Sephirot all boast incredibly creative designs, my favorite being a mobile cathedral on tank tread that uses its steeples as devastating cannons. They’re all gigantic and challenging encounters, and they entice the imagination as to where they’re coming from and what they want. The problem is they’re spread incredibly thin, sandwiched between the rest of Blue Reflection’s plot, which is positively mind-numbing.
Most glaringly, Blue Reflection’s characters are unbearable. Hinako, Yuzu, and Lime are milquetoasts: umming and ahhing shrinking violets who I found difficult to tell apart. They’re only empowered by their battle skills, which are exaggeratedly feminine, like showing off a teddy bear for massive damage. Its supporting cast are even worse. The dozens of characters you meet are all equally infantile: squealing, crying, stammering with shyness, or bizarrely eager to swap underwear with Hinako. You spend day after day with these people, doing nothing at all — the first half of the game is dedicated to planning the school play, in which the class sits around and twiddles their thumbs, not knowing what to do. Once the halfway point introduced an autistic character — an emotionless, scientific genius who doesn’t know how to use the supermarket — I knew there was no hope for this story. In addition to its meaningless plot, Blue Reflection is leery as hell. Cutscenes frequently employ a low-angle camera, framing the action between a character’s bare thighs. There are plenty of shower and bathtime scenes, and Hinako’s breasts wobble like Jell-O if she so much as takes her phone out of her pocket.
There are plenty of other issues that plague Blue Reflection: its framerate is choppy and its localization is typo-ridden and overly literal. I could go on, but I’d rather tell you where it absolutely kills: its music. Composer Hayato Asano brings an incredibly varied soundtrack in which he draws from decades of electronic music to create a collection of pieces that are thumping, atmospheric, and sometimes experimental. The tracks that play within The Common surprisingly reminded me of a pop take on Steve Reich, while the battle and boss themes steal the show by combining dubstep beats with glitchy chiptune synths. It’s easily one of my favorite soundtracks of the year, and demands to be heard — you could rave to this stuff.
Blue Reflection’s combination of suggestive imagery with childish, performative femininity makes it difficult to ascertain just who its audience is meant to be; it reads like a game about women by someone who’s never spoken to a woman before. In short, it’s boring, unambitious, and in a year filled with outstanding RPGs, your time is best spent elsewhere.