This review took long enough to come, months after talk about the game died down, or what talk there was at least. But of course, my schedule being what it is, it took me three months to play through it once, so it wasn’t quite by choice. “Arrive late and look back” has become my style anyway, so it’s all right — and there are quite a few games that have waited far longer for that treatment (as the NieR Replicant box sits on my shelf. It would be looking at me reproachfully now if it had eyes. I promise I’ll get to you.)
Today my focus is on another game with a distinct art style and an unusual approach to storytelling. The difference here is that this one didn’t get the attention I think it deserved, at least here in the West, though maybe that was to be expected considering its genre and setting.
Blue Reflection: Second Light (titled Blue Reflection: Tie in Japan) is the sequel to not just one but two works, only one of which I’ve taken on: the PS4 game Blue Reflection, the first in the series released in 2017. My feelings about the original Blue Reflection were somewhat mixed, but positive on the whole — I felt the game was lacking in a few important areas, but I generally enjoyed the story and characters and loved the music and art style (headed up by composer Hayato Asano and artist Mel Kishida, both of who returned to work on Second Light.)
The other work that Second Light follows up on is the 2021 anime Blue Reflection Ray, which I started but never finished, again because of my shitty schedule. Getting through a 24-episode series feels like actual work to me sometimes, even when I like it, and that one unfortunately slipped through the cracks for me. If I’d known at the time that it was leading up to this sequel, I probably would have made more of an effort to stick with it.
Not a big deal, though, because while Second Light features both its own original characters and returning characters from the first game and the anime, it also does a pretty decent job of explaining these characters’ relationships to each other when they eventually show up. Not a perfect job — I had the benefit of knowing all about Hinako’s background and her own struggles from the first game with her friends Lime and Yuzu, but I still didn’t totally get the conflict surrounding the sisters Hiori and Mio from the anime Ray and their fight with Uta.
But it’s not realistic to expect a game to explain everything that came before it, and in any case it’s not necessary at all to play the first game or watch the anime to fully enjoy Second Light. At worst you can always just look up a plot synopsis. That warning/caveat/whatever aside, let’s get on to the game itself.
Second Light opens with its protagonist Ao Hoshizaki, a high school student trudging off to summer school in the early morning. She somehow loses her phone and recovers it in an empty parking lot, but she sees a strange message on the screen when she picks it up: “BE REBORN”. Looks like a prank or a stupid spam message of some kind, but shortly after seeing it, Ao passes out and wakes up in a new and unfamiliar world: a fully equipped but otherwise almost empty high school building on a small island surrounded by water in every direction, with no other land in sight.
Ao finds herself living in this strange school with only three other girls about her age: stern, serious Rena Miyauchi, her near-opposite, the mischievous Yuki Kinjou, and cheerful and always hungry hunting expert Kokoro Utsubo. These three, who had already created a makeshift home out of the school, welcome Ao and explain the situation, which they admit they barely understand themselves: they were all mysteriously transported to this place, and all with their memories wiped, aside from the knowledge that they were from a different world than this one.
The one aspect of life in this strange world that breaks up the monotony is a mysterious place the girls first name the Faraway, and later the Heartscape once they learn more about its true nature. This world seems to be distinct from but connected to the school and its island, sitting just off the island’s shore through a kind of magical portal. At first, the Heartscape consists only of a forest full of real-world items, including food and water that the girls forage for. However, very quickly they realize that this place is connected with them personally when they start to see some of Kokoro’s childhood memories played out in them.
After confirming with Kokoro that these visions aren’t just shared hallucinations and that they line up with her own slowly returning memories of her past life, the girls agree to explore deeper into the Heartscape in the hopes that they can turn up more memories and discover the mysteries of this new world and their places in it. This plan isn’t without risk, since the Heartscape is also full of bizarre-looking monsters. Fortunately, Ao, Rena, and Kokoro are all “Reflectors” with the power to fight these beings with magical weapons, and also transforming into elaborate costumes (of course — if you’re familiar with this power from the last game, Reflectors are magical girls.) Only Yuki doesn’t have this power, but she does her best to support the team by hanging back and working on essential housekeeping and food preparation tasks.
As the four girls explore the Heartscape and defeat the aggressive demons living in it, they find that their explorations are changing both the Heartscape and their home base back at the school. Every so often, one of them will discover a memory that summons still another girl into their realm, as usual with an erased memory and no idea of how she got there, shortly after which she usually discovers some memory of her own that summons her own Heartscape section into existence.
As their numbers grow, the team also finds that some of them inexplicably possess Reflector powers while others don’t. Yet as their memories are recovered, they all discover ties and relationships that bound them together from their past lives. The odd one out in this crowd is Ao, whose memory remains strangely blank, and who nobody else on the team remembers from their pasts. Despite this, Ao is a magnetic figure — not the brightest or toughest of the bunch, but the type who manages to attract everyone around her, and with a natural drive that puts her pretty clearly and without any dispute in the position of leader.
Ao and company do their best to create a comfortable and even a fun life at the school despite their situation. It’s not all fun and games, however. A mysterious blonde girl with a foreboding air shows up from time to time, the very first resident of this realm, but she can’t even remember her own name — yet she has knowledge of the place the others don’t, and she seems to hold at least part of the solution to that mystery. And every time a major event occurs in one of the Heartscapes, a giant crack appears in the sky surrounding the school, slowly widening. The girls aren’t sure what’s on the other side, but they’re certain it can’t be anything good.
When I wrote about Blue Reflection last year and speculated about a still unannounced but rumored sequel, I said I hoped for a more fully realized version of that game or something similar. Well the world in general might be a giant pile of shit, but sometimes good things happen, because Second Light is what I was hoping for in almost every way. Aside from a couple of complaints about how developer Gust handled its endings and difficulty settings that I’ll get into later, Second Light at least matches and in some areas surpasses the first game in the series.
First and perhaps most obvious is that music and art direction that everyone rightfully praised in the original. The best news that came out about Second Light early on was that Hayato Asano and Mel Kishida were attached to the project. Both contributed massively to the first game, and it would have been near impossible to imagine a sequel without their involvement (and totally impossible in Kishida’s case, since Blue Reflection never would have existed without him.)
And as expected, Second Light excels in the aesthetics area. It might not be your particular style — the magical girl theme is sure to turn off some players, after all. But if you were already a fan of Mel Kishida’s work on the other Blue Reflection titles, you won’t be disappointed by the art in this sequel. Drawing girls in stupidly frilly dresses with ribbons and bows all over them is one of his main things; you’ve already seen it if you’ve played Blue Reflection or one of the Atelier Arland games. Unfortunately about half of Ao’s crew lacks Reflector transformation ability, at least in this game, so there are fewer physics-defying magical girl costumes in Second Light than you might expect (and Kokoro’s outfit honestly looks ridiculous, and this is coming from a guy with no fashion sense beyond knowing what “business attire” is because I would have gotten yelled at in previous jobs pre-COVID without a suit on.) But even her outfit reflects her skill as a hunter, just like Hinako’s does hers as a dancer, and in general it’s pretty clear that Kishida paid his usual attention to detail here.
This attention extends to the environments in the game, and especially to the Heartscape, which is far more diverse than the Common of the first Blue Reflection. While the Common was themed around general human emotions and pretty well depicted them (red/orange lava and fire for anger, a blue cold-looking flooded cityscape for sadness, and so on) the Heartscape creates real-world environments that have personal connections to each character, warping them in ways that make sense given the otherworldly nature of the place. While each section of the Heartscape isn’t all that large, each one provides an appropriate atmosphere along with its in-game role as a dungeon/field area to fight enemies, gather items and ingredients, and advance the plot by discovering new memories.
The music contributes to this atmosphere as well, both back at home base in the school and out in the Heartscape. Asano’s compositions are written in a similar style to the first game’s music, with a mix of soft piano/synth-dominated tracks for the more pleasant environments and the slice-of-life stuff back at school and hard, driving electronic tracks for the tense situations and battles that come up every so often. Some of my favorites include Thorns That Still Sting, My REAL, Our Days (sounds more like a track from Atelier Ryza with the strings, which Asano also wrote the soundtrack for) and the romantically titled I Can Feel Your Body Heat (another take on the same theme as “Our Days”, and the title is very appropriate too considering the scenes it’s placed in.) But I could just as easily list half the soundtrack here, which I won’t do. As with the first Blue Reflection, I’d say its music alone is worth checking out even if you have no interest in the game.
But of course beautiful art and music aren’t enough to make a 40+ hour JRPG worth playing; it also needs a memorable, compelling story and set of characters, and better if there’s exciting gameplay to tie all that together. With one stumble (at least from my perspective; it might not be depending on yours, but I’ll get to it) Second Light provides those as well. The most immediately obvious change to the gameplay is the combat: while it’s still turn-based, the battle system in Second Light is more complex than in the first game while still being pretty intuitive to get down.
The Heartscape is the primary battlefield of the game as the girls make their way through its various environments and obstacles. However, much of my time in Second Light was spent back at that isolated island school, because the old social sim element from the first game was carried over, though in a way I could have never guessed. Blue Reflection had its protagonist Hinako hanging out with her non-magical-girl classmates in a real-world school and the surrounding town. While there is no real world in Second Light to speak of, Ao manages to do the same thing even harder than Hinako did by going on “dates” around the campus with all her friends. As in the first game, these outings provide in-game benefits to the party by creating magical fragments that grant battle advantages, but they also provide a lot of entertaining cutscenes showing Ao interact 1-on-1 with the rest of the cast.
If you see Second Light described as a yuri game, this is one of the two reasons why (the other being a relationship between two of the girls that’s undoubtedly romantic in nature and that figures into one section of the plot strongly, at least when said characters start to regain their memories.) It’s never stated outright, but if Ao isn’t exclusively into girls, she’s at least pretty bendy in terms of her interests because she flirts hard with every other girl in the game. While the dates she goes on with her friends are mainly very platonic, the player usually gets one or two dialogue options for Ao to choose from, and every so often one of these options (and sometimes both) is spicy as hell.
A lot of this stuff ends up coming off as friendly teasing, but then it’s hard for me to tell as a guy, honestly — it seems like women can be a lot closer physically and perhaps even emotionally without feeling like it has to be a romantic thing, whereas in my country at least, two guys even just holding hands is a pretty sure sign there’s more going on there. When I had a look at the anime The Aquatope on White Sand, there was a lot of speculation early on that it would have yuri themes for what I think were similar reasons, which didn’t play out at all as far as I could tell. Friendly intimacy doesn’t need to include or lead to romance, after all. But man, this stuff is way closer to that hypothetical line.
It’s not a big deal, really, but if the whole date thing might be an issue for you, it’s something to know. I liked how flirty Ao got myself, since it resulted in a lot of funny reactions from her friends. Especially when they reciprocate her teasing and end up getting her flustered. Don’t make those moves if you’re not serious, Ao!
Ao also spends time with her friends as a larger group. Some of these interactions involve strategy and planning meetings over how to approach the Heartscape, but most of them are about far more mundane subjects like what to make for dinner or how to arrange their sleeping quarters (one classroom on one floor for the quiet girls and another one below that for the noisy ones, seems fair enough.) All these in-school scenes contribute to the strong slice-of-life element of the game, which I think mixes just as well with the heavier plot stuff as it did in the first game.
Second Light even incorporates a bit of a town-building sort of element in the school’s joint kitchen/workshop area, where Ao and co. can use the ingredients they find around the Heartscape to make attack and support items to boost their battle abilities and build improvements to the school grounds. These improvements give Ao and her friends new opportunities to go on dates to check out/use the new attraction you’ve set up along with providing various combat benefits.
While some of them seem pretty realistic and doable, like a festival stand for making takoyaki (though where they got the octopus is another question, because I never found any myself) most are so improbable that you have to stop questioning it after a while. Like a fucking rocketship, you can just make one of those. Apparently life in this pocket dimension makes pretty much anything possible to do as long as it can be imagined.
The split between slice-of-life lightness and serious drama Second Light provides might feel weird to some, but it completely worked for me. It does a better job of that split than the first game did, though it also has the benefit of not being expected to explain why we never see a single adult or any trace of the characters’ home lives — this pocket dimension really is the perfect storytelling tool, though it’s not a trick that could easily be pulled off again, assuming a third Blue Reflection game might ever come out.
As a whole, I enjoyed Second Light, and I’d say even more than I did the first game. It ties up the purposely left loose ends from the original Blue Reflection, and presumably it does the same for the anime, though I can’t say that for sure not having watched it. I especially loved the setting and the slice-of-life element in the game — for someone who doesn’t much care for pure SOL anime, that might sound weird, but it’s different when you’re actively taking part in the story as the player character. And Second Light has all that end-of-world drama to go along with that lighter material anyway.
However, I did run into a couple of annoyances that I felt could have and probably should have been avoided. One of these had to do with the game’s difficulty. At the start of Second Light, the player has a choice between easy and normal mode. I wondered at the time where hard mode was — turns out it’s at the end of your first playthrough as a new game plus feature. I found this a bizarre choice, especially since other Gust games (say Atelier Sophie 2, which I started playing just after finishing Second Light) give you a wider range of difficulty modes than this right off the bat, with the additional option to switch freely between them during your playthrough in case the hard or very hard modes prove too much to handle.
This problem is made all the worse by the fact that Second Light starts out with a fair level of challenge on normal mode in the early to mid-game but becomes piss easy as you progress. I still enjoyed playing with the new combat system by the end, but it was more enjoyable when I had to use that system wisely to mind my team’s HP while doing damage to strong enemies and bosses. By the late game, there was no need for tactical thinking — I easily hit the game’s level 50 cap with all the girls before the final Heartscape area, and all without grinding (unless you count fighting in the course of fulfilling optional requests, which I don’t.) The game’s crafting option also allows you to create buff and debuff items that were so effective I thought I was playing a Megami Tensei game, only those bosses can still hand you your ass even when you’ve got all those skills. As a result of all this, the final boss was an absolute joke — it could barely scratch my party even in its menacing final form.
None of this would have been a big deal if I could have shifted over to hard mode to at least somewhat make up that difference, but for whatever reason, Gust decided not to let me do that.
This difficulty issue ties in with the other, larger problem I had with Second Light: the ending, or at least the ending you’re given after playing through the game once. I avoided spoilers completely before picking it up, so I didn’t know what to expect when I finished it, but I knew the ending I got wasn’t all that satisfying and that it sure as hell wasn’t the true ending. There is a true ending to Second Light, in fact, but you can only achieve it by completing a new game plus run.
Maybe I’m not being reasonable here. I’ve played other games with a similar setup that lock their true endings behind a second playthrough — for example Atelier Escha & Logy, which is currently my favorite in that series. But Escha & Logy had the excuse of featuring two protagonists with slightly different stories and paths, and all the carryovers you get in second Atelier playthroughs make that new game plus pretty easy to breeze through to achieve new endings if you want them. And in any case Atelier usually offers a lot more to uncover and explore the second time around.
I didn’t get that sense about Second Light — as much as I enjoyed those dates, I didn’t feel the need to play through the game a second time to see the ones I might have missed, The secret areas I couldn’t uncover my first playthrough didn’t entice me all that much either, even with the carryovers Second Light did grant me with my clear file. I also have a god damn life to live outside of video games, which means that given the choice between replaying this game, as much as I liked it, and jumping over to Sophie 2 — well, that choice was obvious. I watched the Second Light true ending recordings on YouTube and moved on.
This might just be me finally feeling my age. I’m still technically “young”, I guess (though the kids would call me an old man at this point, and certainly a boomer, since that term now seems to apply to anyone just out of their early 20s and even some still in them.) But I just don’t have time to run through typical JRPG-length games twice anymore. I’m lucky as hell that I can even play these games once each given how much else I have to do, and in the future I may not even have that kind of time left.
Considering that this might just be a personal problem, I can’t exactly condemn Gust for locking that true ending behind a second playthrough. But I can still be annoyed by it, and I am. I’m far more annoyed by it now than I am by the paid DLC, which I’ve more or less come to accept as inevitable since Gust now makes a habit of selling “season passes” for each game. And hell, I buy DLC on occasion myself (like the “night pool” above, that didn’t come with the base game) so I can’t exactly criticize them for that, though they could make the system a little less gougy.
Those complaints aside, Blue Reflection: Second Light gets my highest recommendation as long as you’re into the style and also into turn-based JRPGs, and specifically if you have the time free to really soak in it and enjoy that second playthrough, which I feel I don’t. Not sure how it did in Japan, but it’s a damn shame that Second Light seems to have flown so far under the radar here in the West. You’d think some of our pro journalists over here would tout a game with an exclusively female cast all about feelings and even featuring a clear same-sex romance that’s not simply hinted at. But when such things are featured in a JRPG that isn’t titled Final Fantasy, or in any visual novel at all, they go almost entirely ignored by our press outside of the few who reliably and thoroughly cover the niche stuff. God bless those few. As for the rest in the mainstream: bang up job you idiots are doing. Can you tell I’m bitter?