I saw a thread somewhere the other day that brought up an often asked question: has every genre in gaming been created already? The usual answer to things like this in really any fictional medium is a simple yes or the teen pretentious one of expanding that into “everything is a copy of something”. That view isn’t totally wrong, it’s very difficult for something truly different to be made these days or even just have a feature or two that doesn’t purely build upon other ideas to make something more fluid or sensible – but maybe it’s still possible to make something truly new even now.
I’ve been a fan of Gust for many years now and their Atelier franchise is one of my favorite of all time, aside that most of their releases are things I at least enjoy enough to play through at their worst – so Blue Reflection has been on my radar since it got announced. New IP, new concept for them to work with, and really kind of a genre that hasn’t been dealt with in gaming for the most part aside some anime tie-ins back on the SNES. If it was only “they made a mahou shoujo into a more legitimate video game than in the past” that’d be one thing (still a very unique game, but probably a typical JRPG in style), but it does so much more to the point that it really challenges the answer of innovation in gaming being dead. Honestly, Gust in general continues to fight against that idea with most of their releases in a way that should really be respected and admired but this one definitely stands out above all the rest when it comes to building something that to my knowledge kind of never existed prior.
What is it that sets Blue Reflection apart from everything else out there – it’s just some JRPG right? Well, no, in fact if you come to this game expecting a JRPG you’re going to be be very disappointed, it’d be an impossibly hard argument to actually convince anyone who has played it that it really fits into that mold. Yes, this has level ups, skill points, and so on but that’s about the closest it comes to a JRPG yet even those aspects aren’t handled in the way you’ve come to know them.
Blue Reflection takes on the very-Japanese ideology of “My Pace” as it’s primary focus when it comes to playing it, a concept that means what it says; taking life – and just doing things in general – at your own pace instead of worrying about anything at all and feeling anything beyond comfortable while doing it, sort of similar to the “donmai” attitude in some ways. This game is meant to be lacking anything that would be all that frustrating, annoying, or even overly exciting or something while giving a very specific feeling in their stead, and it can totally work if you play it right and don’t simply hate what it’s doing because you just do.
That concept is prevalent in almost every single aspect of the game, yet it revels in it instead of feeling boring or aimless. It’s to the point that for most things they didn’t even make trophies because the game isn’t really about that sort of thing. Blue Reflection wants you to pursue things for the purpose of pursuing them, not for a trophy, not for a cash reward or new equipment. Everything about this game exists to exist and for the player to enjoy the way they want to enjoy it – yet at the same time I’d say this is one of the rare situations where a game can be, and clearly has been many times, played “wrong”. If you just focus on the story and doing the bare minimum to progress it, then yes, not only will the game be fairly short but it’d also make sense to feel like it was incomplete and half-assed.
There’s a cute monster raising phone game you can dedicate time to and raise multiple types of monsters and see their little ending story of how their trip into the dungeon went – this serves literally no purpose. There is ONE trophy tied to it for raising a certain type of monster but that’s literally it. You can search around for “chat topics’ to bring up on the game’s fake-LINE app Table Chat which, again, serve no purpose – this time just getting you some extra talking to whichever friend that topic is aimed at. You don’t gain anything from it aside more messaging with them that has no relevance to even the slightest bit of anything except getting to know them better or having a fun little chat sequence.
There are a bunch of sidequests you don’t actually have to do (you need to do some, but not even close to all of them) that give you nothing but yet-another-item-you-won’t-use and points to progress the plot as well as a short (~5 lines maybe) little story for why these people need your help. You can take a bath at home and even spend time in the bath washing your face, humming, massaging your injured knee, or just sitting there even though NONE OF THOSE THINGS DO ANYTHING.
There’s a “hide and seek” thing featuring a little stuffed animal bear made by one of your friends who hides him around and posts a hint to where he is, you can go find him but that’s it. There’s no interaction with it, there’s no box to check, no trophy, no reward. It’s just there if you want to do it.
All of this stuff does a great job at bringing you back mentally to a place where you do something in a game because you feel like doing it, not because you’re carrot-and-sticked into it – and that applies to almost the ENTIRE game. Even fighting doesn’t really serve a purpose beyond getting items and fulfilling quest objective, there’s not a concept of currency or experience points in this game. You get crafting components from defeating monsters and gathering spheres but aside upgrading fragments and making a few items for some optional side quests they don’t serve any purpose.
You also do these things without any sort of limiting factor aside the game somewhat annoyingly asking you every day “do you want to report to Yuzu and Lime?” which you can – and should often – say no to in order to keep doing whatever the hell you want and continue on that My Pace pace of your own.
The biggest thing you can do is complete the supporting cast’s substories – it’s sort of like a very simplified version of social links from Persona. Each friend you make ends up having their own mini-story you can choose to go through by raising their “Feeling” level with you by talking to them and going out after school which involves going to them, picking to go out to do something, and the game randomly putting the two of you into one of the places off-campus for a short scene of dialogue (like going to a tomb in the middle of a park – no explanation, it’s just there and it’s hilarious every time you end up there). Eventually you raise the Feeling level enough and a few times per person’s story it gives you more legitimate full scenes and develops their character in a more meaningful way than the slow and gentle bits of learning about them on those short trips to places. It blocks you from finishing them until I think it was chapter 9, but then you can finally see the conclusions of their stories with the exception of Sarasa’s who’s final part is only viewable after a certain part in the story that happens relatively shortly after you can finish anyone’s.
(Warning – once you can finish them DO SO because I think once chapter 10 is over you can no longer do them at all and you’ll miss out on finishing their story as well as on their parts in the finale, and I think they aren’t finishable until 9, so the time you can is fairly limited if you skip to the next story beat. I’d recommend once you can finish one to finish all – and once Sarasa’s is clearly finishable to finish hers immediately as well. Also in general always check the map for …’s.)
These substories are not only important for learning about the cast – but are also the only way to level up your characters and upgrade your combat skills. Every “bigger” part in their story you gain another fragment which can be equipped to a combat skill and give it more power or new abilities, like making an attack also knock back the enemy’s turn in the timeline. They aren’t small boosts to things either, by the end of the game thanks to them I was even pushing 1500+ damage from basic attacks even if the enemy was resistant to that type of attack or otherwise being able to do massive timeline knockback to keep them from ever having a turn to attack me half the time. You can then further upgrade those fragments with items you gain in combat. As for level ups, they also come about from socializing in this same way and you’re free to put each point you gain into any of the 4 traits you want to raise stats and unlock more skills.
The only other thing that has an impact on the gameplay itself is preparing for the next day which can net you small but permanent stat upgrades like +5 luck or 5 more hit points but, more importantly in this game, these also come with short little scenes with Hinako interacting with other characters. You can also make lunch plans but, and this should go without saying at this point, that does literally nothing aside giving you another social scene as well. Again – things you should actively do, but that from a video game point of view don’t “do” anything, yet do plenty for the player.
When talking about all these small dialogue scenes from those stat ones to the “go around town” ones, you’d imagine the game would start repeating itself or run out of anything and put you into a generic one that ends quickly. The latter does eventually happen but it took me a very long time before that happened – they did an amazing job at writing through a bunch of scenarios for each character interaction and for every during-school activity you might end up seeing. Given it’s the point of the game it should be obvious they’d spend a lot of time on that aspect, but it’s just so unusual that it still stands out to me as important to mention.
Now, what exactly is the game? More than anything Blue Reflection is about people’s feelings, especially those of young teen girls going through a very big transitional part of their lives – this is kind of the biggest theme in the game. There’s certainly a story as well dealing with the magical girl stuff and the giant grotesque demons trying to destroy humanity and all that BUT the theme and focus is simply on emotion; in fact even that main story deals with emotion from start to finish to the point that all that leveling up from socializing is actually a canonical part of the narrative in that you become stronger through understanding and helping more people through their emotional troubles because you, as a “Reflector” are literally powered through accepting the extreme emotions of others.
It’s not just that though, even every side mission, every sub-story, it’s all about people’s feelings including a lot of teen problems – where maybe they don’t seem like that big of a deal but at that time in your life they really do matter, plenty of more legitimate bigger problems (for example Hinako’s permanently debilitating knee injury and loss of her dream or someone setting up hidden cameras in a locker room), and coming to understand yourself (Hinako) and everyone around her from learning what they feel.
By the finale this theme is at it’s fullest – especially if you’ve properly played and completed every friend’s side story. I won’t say what causes it but the tables turn; for once after like 50 hours or so of playing Hinako is finally the one who needs help and you go to all these friends you’ve helped in search of answers. None of them have them because the decision Hinako is trying to make is one she really does have to make for herself – but they do all have supportive words, reminders of what you’ve been through, what you’ve done, and how much they believe in you. It’s simple yet somehow very effective after a game that’s so long and so full of nothing but spending time with and helping these people for the most part. It turns what could easily be an ignorable bland attempt at creating emotion in the player to something that actually has some power behind it because of the way the overall game is, it was also a nice touch that it forces the music selection to stop and plays an updated version of the main theme during this part.
It is worth mentioning that this game is very simply made and in a lot of ways clunky and stiff, the translation also has plenty of typos and grammar errors. It definitely feels like what it is: an experiment. Yet at the same time I wouldn’t say it’s not a “real full game” for it – it’s just unusual to begin with and so some of Gust’s more clunkier aspects of all their games are more apparent in this one. You also absolutely have to play it with that “My Pace” attitude or else you will miss the point and probably really dislike it. There’s a real story, there’s fighting, there are bosses, but they really are just there to make it more of a video game. That isn’t to say those aspects are remotely bad, in fact I really enjoyed the combat even though it wasn’t very hard at all, and the bosses especially had a nice momentum to them once you unlock a few features. The story was also something I liked quite a bit – even though it was simple it executed on the importance of bonds and emotions that the game was so focused on very well.
The whole game brings me back to Rorona when Gust was learning how to work with new hardware and a new engine. There are plenty of issues that come up from certain aspects that feel like slightly amateurish work and that, while I don’t say this as a way to claim “it doesn’t count as bad then”, it does add some of that Gust charm. Gust is not exactly legendary for it’s development ability, they’re always behind like most Japanese developers and their games always have issues – in this case though it really stands out more. Almost all the cutscenes have some pretty weird slow-down that I’m not sure how to properly describe, it’s more like slowdown for the character models rather than FPS drop, it even rarely can get the voice audio out of sync. There are certainly flaws as well as just a feeling of being stiff and in many ways barebones, but it’s definitely a really good first step into this new direction they’re trying to take and while I had doubts at first of how much I could enjoy it, all these elements stopped really mattering to me in any way after the first handful of hours (much like how quickly the FUCK AWFUL UI of Persona 5 stopped bothering me in about the same period of time).
Speaking of which, as much as I ended up loving Persona 5 (review still unfinished but there you go), I still stand by the fact it’s presentation is complete shit yet the fans and staff never fucking shut up about it’s “style”. Unlike that mess of an aesthetic, Blue Reflection has an outstandingly stylish look to everything about it – not only the beautiful Mel Kishida character designs, but all the presentation of the UI and other elements is very “modern” and super sleek. Even by the end of the game I couldn’t get enough of how everything in this is presented, it’s gorgeous.
From the main menu to every single little aspect and detail like even just the way the pause menu opens the first time you do it after loading (and the fact they were smart enough to make it not do that longer animation every time) to the way the fucking map looks. The character models aren’t the best in the world but at the same time they are actually some of the best at looking like anime and, much like Kishida’s art in the Arland trilogy of the Atelier games, looking extremely similar to his actual drawings.
The music is also fantastic – typical of Gust’s releases. While it’s not nearly as top notch all the way through as an Atelier OST, there are a lot of tracks in this that are just fucking outstanding and fittingly very emotional. The main theme definitely stands out as a seriously beautiful song (the one near the start of this review), and the main combat theme is fucking cool and ALSO really beautiful (the one right there) – I think it might be one of my favorite general fight themes in a JRPG in many years and had me pumped the moment the first beats started to play even after hearing it so many times. The boss music, while being dubsteppy at times and so sort of ehhh, did a good job at evolving as the beasts would close-in on the party for a new “form” basically and still managing to sound cool for the most part. The final boss especially has a good song with a mix of the theme and the battle music along with the rest of the OST followed the concept of being much more gentle for the most part and is typically good to great.
There’s also something kind of odd to talk about for a video game, but the cinematography felt very “anime”. Thanks to the unique style of how the game works they were able to set up a lot of shots and things without worrying about player input due to how much of the game is just dialogue and simple cutscenes. That could go a lot of ways, but here it absolutely feels like someone who has worked on anime (or maybe wants to) was behind most of the visual composition of scenes which gives an already very anime-feeling game another push in that direction.
The story and characters are something that I really don’t want to get into specifics of, especially the latter because meeting and getting to know these girls is basically the whole game itself. I will say I actually ended up really liking every single story character, every multiple 1-line-that-changes-every-chapter background npc, and the main lead. I don’t think there was anyone I actually disliked with the exception of MAYBE the piano girl who is kind of annoying but also leads to fun moments from Hinako spewing dumb buzzwords thanks to her and Lime and Yuzu getting annoyed by it. It’s probably hard to make unlikable characters when the entire point is about understanding other’s and why they are who they are.
I also really liked how each of the friends you make doesn’t just give you all the content related to them as a ‘reward’, nor just their fragments, but they also help out during the boss fights with various personal skills from throwing a basketball or kicking a can to damage the enemy (which looks fucking silly when a girl kicks a can at a gigantic monstrosity) to using makeup to give you a stat-boost. Or in some hilarious cases, calling in a bunch of drones to bomb the boss or simply shooting the shit out of it with an assault rifle because this girl just happens to have one(?).
As for personalities and such, again, I don’t want to spoil even simple things like that but Hinako has some pretty early-on backstory stuff that I personally really like and also ended up enjoying how it was developed and focused on throughout the game. She’s permanently partially crippled in her left leg due to a knee injury she got from ballet, something I can 100% relate to aside the ballet part (football, in my case). Not only the injury but actually many of the specific elements of it too strangely enough – but none of that’s really relevant, what IS though is the state of mind she’s in because of what happened and how she’s incapable of handling it at all. At the start of the game she’s at a point where she’s near suicidally nihilistic because she identified so deeply with ballet that she thought nothing of herself beyond being someone who does ballet, and her skill level made that all the more doable. Then it was all taken away suddenly; her future, her dream, and her sense of self all vanished in an instant.
The game does a really great (and based on my personal experience, accurate – not exaggerated anime style like you’d expect) job with this huge aspect of her character and an equally great job at helping her face those feelings and figure them out through helping others with various problems of their own. She see’s bits and pieces of herself in many of them only to come to the realization that the things she’s trying to get across to them she needs to tell herself as well.
Her situation plays a pretty big role in how she gets involved in the story of course, both in very obvious ways and really impossible to see coming ones that are revealed later. However it’s also very relevant for some of the social bonding with other characters and is part of why she befriends certain people in the first place, and thanks to those same people why she’s able to overcome her own deflated feelings.
Another and more lighthearted element of Hinako comes from her lack of social experience. We get to experience her first time with something like a smart phone messenger app, a fake LINE chat called TableChat which – especially early on when she starts using it – has some real fun and cute bits. I won’t spoil how things go once she learns about the emote stickers…well maybe just one little image.
As for the former – the story – it definitely delivers on what it sets out to do. It’s about emotion, about understanding the importance of bonds with others and helping people and it does a really great job even with how simplistic most of it is at getting those things across in a meaningful and moving way for the player because of the way the game facilitates that so perfectly. The “My Pace” feeling was absolutely necessary in making the bonds you form and time you spend mean something to the player beyond progressing in a video game, if they made it more linear and forced it would change “I want to talk to this person more” to “The next objective says to talk to this person” which sounds irrelevant but it really is such a significant difference. The story itself also has some pretty sad and serious stuff in it that I think, just like I keep saying, was made in a way that really works extremely well with the overall theme and focus of the game making what sounds like a slice of life school story from my terrible explanation of it into something that’s extremely bittersweet in the final moments and clear through the epilogue in the credits all the way to the very last moments before the game kicks you back to the main start screen.
Blue Reflection is one of the very rare times that you could call a game important and it actually be fairly true – while the game is no masterpiece, no unmissable work of art…it does something you won’t find anywhere else and may well have established an entire new genre concept for the Japanese game market. While I can’t properly give it some super high rating due to it’s simplicity and various issues, I think I may have fallen in love with this game and what it is so I absolutely have to recommend it. It’s also probably the most wholesome game I’ve ever played, while things like Harvest Moon and such are absolutely in that territory it’s different – those are wholesome because, in that example, it’s just a farming and life simulator. This is wholesome in that it deals with a lot of serious stuff but in such gentle, genuine, and charming ways. I wouldn’t say it’s relaxing, but I would say it’s comforting in a way – not from any specific moment or character, but from the experience as a whole at any given time. There’s just something so honest and genuine about it, not just the content which is slathered in that as well but even the concept and the way it was designed – you can almost feel the love and honest work put in to this project from the dev team whenever you’re playing even in the jankier aspects.
And I mean, come on. How many games are out right now where you can be a magical high school girl posing like an action hero in front of an exploding giant demon you just killed?