I don’t have a very long history with the “magical girl” genre of anime. I never got a chance to watch Sailor Moon or Cardcaptor Sakura on TV as a kid, but when I was older, Madoka Magica grabbed my attention and from there I began dipping my toes even further into the genre. Schoolgirls dealing with life issues while fighting demonic forces in secret, using dazzling transformations and vivid attacks, and learning a lesson at the end of the day that just might apply to the viewer, too. Similar to Power Rangers, these types of anime are usually kid-focused, but the best ones carry enough weight to be engaging and meaningful to adult viewers. It’s puzzling why a genre like this doesn’t get brought into the medium of video games more often, which is why I was so pleasantly surprised when I heard about Blue Reflection.
Blue Reflection is the latest joint by Gust, a Japanese developer known for their charming, comfy slice-of-life RPG series Atelier. Blue Reflection maintains a lot of the same charm as those games, but with a slightly more somber vibe. You play as Hinako Shirai, a ballet prodigy who was forced to give up dance and miss most of her first year of high-school after a serious leg injury. She’s finally able to attend school, but between arriving so late in the year and not being able to do ballet anymore, she’s very much struggling with her emotions. After meeting a pair of mysterious sisters, she’s recruited by them to be an emotion-mending magical girl who dives into an alternate world called The Common to fight mysterious creatures and purify the unstable emotion fragments left behind by her various classmates.
There’s a lot of intriguing aspects to the magical girl conceits of Blue Reflection, but all of the info about it is tossed at you like a wet sack of bricks. The mysterious sisters you team up with seemingly know everything about the rules of their powers and the enemies you’re facing, and explain it all in rushed exposition scenes. None of the elements are ever naturally introduced or built up to, and it almost makes it feel like most of the stuff is being made up on the spot.
Thankfully, the everyday school life elements of the story are handled a lot better. Much like an episode of Sailor Moon or Pretty Cure, Hinako spends just as much time exploring her school and meeting new people as she does busting weird dream monsters. The story is even split into chapters in a way that makes each one feel like an episode of an anime series. Hinako meets new people, and helps them solve their troubles both inside and outside of The Common, making a new friend along the way. It can feel a bit formulaic, but that formula, combined with the expanding roster and Hinako’s emotional development, make it a rewarding experience that perfectly mimics the writing of a magical girl show.
In-between these big story beats, you’ll be tasked with missions by your teammates that you’ll have to complete in order to progress the story. Most of the missions are fairly simple, like talking to a specific friend, visiting a few locations, or fighting a couple enemies. You keep track of these missions via your in-game cellphone, which also houses a weird monster raising mini-game and the ability to read all the texts between Hinako and her friends play out. So many great bits of characterization happen here, like watching Hinako go from barely knowing how to use a smartphone, to discovering chat stickers and ending every conversation with the same weird sticker of cut-off sandwich crusts and the “OK”.
Much like the Atelier series, there are standard JRPG elements in this game, but they’re not exactly the main focus. When you go to The Common or fight big bosses, you’ll be engaging in standard turn-based combat. A bar at the top of the screen counts down to the next characters move, and a lot of your attacks perform a knock back that delays the enemy’s own turn. You only have three main party members through the game and you meet them almost immediately, which is disappointing when most similar series feature bigger rosters and much of the fun is found in meeting them and seeing them become heroes in their own right.
Another very non-standard thing this game does is strip away the experience system entirely. To grow characters, you’ll receive a skill point every time you solve a friend’s emotional issues and recover their emotion fragment. It’s an interesting system that shifts even more focus onto the relationship building and narrative of the game, rather than the combat. Even the way you find fragments does this, as you walk around the level and collecting a certain number of floating items until the fragment reveals itself to you. The only times you truly need to engage in combat are if an enemy bumps into you, or if the mission or story force it on you.
Still, when you do engage in a battle, it can be pretty fun. It can also be very, very easy. Between high player damage and MP regenerating after every battle, boss fights were the only time I broke any kind of sweat in combat. I didn’t mind as the easy combat matched the laid-back atmosphere of the game, but for people who look for a challenge in their JRPGs, you may want to look elsewhere.
All of this is wrapped in a stunning audio-visual package. I can’t get over the graphics of Blue Reflection and the lighting in this game is probably the best I’ve seen of a JRPG on the PS4 outside of big budget behemoths like Final Fantasy XV. Characters all have a sharp anime style to them, but combined with the beautiful environments, vibrant colors, and depth of field, I was blown away whenever I walked around in the game. It’s a shame that this graphical fidelity comes at the price of encountering judder and stuttering in almost every cutscene and battle, which took me out of the moment every time.
Something that bummed me out even more was the unnecessary fan service in the game. Characters get caught in the rain and show off wet t-shirts a bit too often, cameras linger in some very specific places during any scene involving a swimsuit, and there’s an option to go into the bath when you return home that does nothing but show your protagonist sitting naked in a bathtub. The atmosphere of this game is so natural and relaxed, but jarring T&A like that always left a bad taste in my mouth.
- Beautiful visuals
- Great characters
- Chill, slice-of-life atmosphere
- Unique skillpoint system
- Some lazy writing
- Only 3 party members
- Constant stutters in cutscenes+combat
- Easy even on Hard difficulty
Blue Reflection is a good start for something even greater. It manages to perfectly capture the atmosphere of classic magical girl anime series, and does so with some of the prettiest visuals I’ve seen in a Japanese PS4 game. Unfortunately, it fails at making a truly engaging JRPG to go with it. The lack of a focus on combat is interesting, but it ends up making combat feel more like an afterthought than it ought to be. I hope Gust is willing to put out a sequel, because with some of these issues tackled, this could end up being my new favorite JRPG series.
Version tested: PlayStation 4