Sometimes I like to step out of a comfort zone, challenge myself, try something a little different. So when I saw Blue Reflection a Jrpg about Schoolgirls and Ballet I figured “Why not?”. I’ve an experience of magic girl anime and various JRPGs I’ll be fine……
So as I go into this with only a faint understanding of what the game is I’m expecting Puella Magi Madoka Magica mixed with Persona and maybe FFX-2. The main story the main driving force to continue through the game. It focuses on Hinako a famous child ballet dancer who severely injured her knee and now as a teen struggles with losing her life goal with a limp (although the game seems to keep forgetting this) and crash course in surviving school. It’s established her ballet kept her largely out of school and only started attending properly after the injury but this doesn’t stop other elites who attend the same school. Still this is just dressing for newfound magic girl powers and excuses for finding other quirky characters in the school while saving it from a giant hulking monster every few weeks.
So far so good, when the game is serious the game shines, quite literally; The graphics are absolutely stunning but unfortunately with a huge caveat. There is a lot of slow down and slight stuttering in cutscenes, game, battles, you name it. Quite often in combat your searching for menus and highlighted options just to figure out what your targeting as the focus pans over the girls. Strangely the worst of this is at the start of the game and the further you get in the less it occurs. Everyone looks like they’ve been crying with a slight red around their eyes. All the girls look like dolls with strange proportions that only start to look stranger the more the game plays out. Still the games slow down is likely due to the insane level of detail and amount of transparency/refraction, almost every outfit seems to have plastic ribbons and particle hearts.
Combat is definitely not how it first appears and takes a little getting used to. It is your classic turn based JRPG in a sense but with a focus on knock-backs. You essentially queue up your attacks and try to delay the enemies as long as possible. Outside of school life the game is essentially a dungeon crawler with almost a unique boss rush focus. Battles being more about managing your party, using the ability to knockback the enemy and delaying the enemies attack. Throwing everything into each battle as after combat your HP/MP recovers and no items can be used in battle. This is where the most baffling design choice appears; there’s no experience points. You can gain growth ability points by quests and boost stats with out of combat items and events gained from school story tasks but grinding monsters nets no exp and only random item drops.
It’s strange as it actively encourages the player to avoid combat and simply look for items on the floor in an RPG situation that would typically demand it. It could have been an interesting mechanic to get the player into crafting and upgrading but instead you find yourself fighting harder monsters, getting zero items and wondering, “why did I just waste my time doing this?”. It does slowly evolve as the game progresses from simply repeating skills to get through missions to using your overdrive power for recovery or guard but given how mundane the combat is this was rarely useful and felt like an afterthought. The combat becomes even more clustered during the main giant boss battles with your school friends helping out causing a QTE to pop up mid attack for extra effects.
The strangest niggle is that the game feels like a vita JRPG port. There are plenty of moments in the school and common (the dungeon/magic girl world) where it feels like a polished PS4/PC title but there’s strange design choices that feel like many other Vita JRPGs (such as hyperdimension neptunia or Freedom Wars). The game is made up of lots of small areas both the school and common have you loading into each area be it the second floor/class room or the next section of the dungeon (typically looping you around to the start). This isn’t really a bad thing per se, the result is a really well designed interface and plenty of subtle nuances to the menus and world that makes it more accessible. There are also a lot of cutscenes, like a metal gear solid 4 level of cutscenes. When you first start a chapter it takes a good 40mins to get to any gameplay where you can chose your actions. The first hour of the game doesn’t do itself any favours in this regard with nothing but tapping x through dialogue and essentially dumping a lot of exposition.
The voice acting is high note to this and has a pleasingly diverse board of different voices (managing to avoid the typical annoying squeeky anime girl voice that follows JRPGs). The sounds and music is pleasant enough with melodic piano and not so annoying dubstep. It helps that the battle music is very final fantasy in a good way and I found myself playing it over and over long after stopping to play the game. Some of the boss battles dubstep drops the ball and sounds like a machine being re-purposed as a way to destroy your ear drums.
The friendship systems and options to speak to other people as the story progresses at first seems like a cool way to build up your fragments (materia for skills essentially that boost your characters stats) but slowly the more you try to focus on one person realise how limited it is. The game slowly changing from being a pleasant mix of school girl issues and drama with occasional dungeon runs to becoming a grind to figure out how to progress with some seriously lacking pointers. A few important story missions literally dumping you in the common and saying “find the fragment” with the item in question not being a unique pickup but a random monster or item on the floor. Essentially resulting in wandering about killing and looting until triggering a boss encounter which would usually be the same monsters you’ve just killed. What starts out as a nice feature of having the persona esque “chose a friend to hang out with and build up friendships” but without a timer quickly becomes a “damn I can’t progress this one until I progress the main story, how much more dungeon runs for non story characters is that?”
So many highlights, so many good things going for it and why am I stalling? Why did I struggle so much to write a view on if it’s good or if it’s bad? Well; Short skirts, pantie shots and a camera that is determined to show as much leg and boob as possible is why. The game can’t figure out if it’s going for a serious tale with some real issues and emotion or Senran Kagura levels of fanservice and cheesecake. Many serious moments are smashed into a million pieces as the camera just gets bored of the narrative and just nips for a quick look at some butt cleavage. Even the design of the main characters magic girl outfit is a mixed bag with some camera shots literally just a showcase for “hey you can see boob and butt cleavage at once!”.
So to get some perspective I asked for a second opinion on this from my wife who likes anime series along a similar vein to the story in this. Just to see if it was something she’d have enjoyed more and if I was literally having a hard time only because it wasn’t aimed at me. It turned out I was spot on and she was having the same issues I had. This game isn’t great because it’s trying to be two very different things. One half of the game wants to be a serious story about the loss of a dream, disability and dealing with the reality with others. The other half wants to be a fanservice extravaganza with justification for the £69 season pass of towels, bikinis and little left to the imagination.
So is it worth it? It’s fine for the story it’s telling and the issues it’s addressing when it’s not dropping the bar and the problem is the bar is dropped constantly. I just wish it would make up its mind between serious teenage drama and fanservice shots of butts and boobs. ‘I wish’ but it never will. Much like it’s main protagonist, It’s too busy trying to balance two worlds in it’s head when it really only needed one. Call me when there’s a sequel that ditches the letching, sorts out the framerate and tells more of the emotional drama. Apparently this is the final game in Gust’s “Beautiful Girls Festival” project and you get the feeling if it wasn’t Gust could have had a sleeper hit that would have a much larger audience on their hands rather than an awkward jittery niche mess that will likely fade into obscurity and only remembered for DLC.
5/10 – Reflections of cheesecake
*also note the KOEI TECMO GAMES logo is forced on the screenshots off the PS4.
Not cool KOEI TECMO, not cool.