Demo mode: Blue Reflection: Second Light (PS4)

I have some actual time off for once, and not a moment too soon as I was feeling a bit run down. I hope this long weekend will help me recuperate mentally somewhat, since I have to dive right back into it on Monday.

That’s all the vacation I get. Enjoy your summers while you still can if you’re still in school.

Thankfully, I also have some interesting games to keep me occupied, including a demo for a very soon-to-be-released one. I mentioned Blue Reflection: Second Light just a couple of posts ago as a game I had preordered, but at the time of posting I didn’t realize that a free demo was also about to be put out. I don’t usually pay much attention to demos, since I’m generally pretty sure I’ll like the games I buy these days, but I was curious to know what Second Light might have to offer, assuming the demo wasn’t just a trailer with a few bits of gameplay slapped on.

And it’s really not. This is a legitimately good demo, with enough substance that I’m able to write in a meaningful way about what it presented. In fact, this piece will probably work well enough as a first impression post, unless the finished game is somehow very different from the impression its demo gave me.

The Second Light demo is divided into two parts: Prologue, consisting of an opening chapter lasting an hour or two and featuring the basic story setup and a series of battle tutorials, and Story Demo, which takes place in a short section around the middle of the game and shows off more of its character interaction mechanics.

Starting in the natural place with the prologue, we meet our protagonist, Ao Hoshizaki, waking up from her nap in what looks like a high school club room. Ao is indeed in a high school, together with three other students, Rena, Kokoro, and Yuki, none of whom she had ever met before mysteriously finding herself transported here a few days earlier. Because this isn’t her high school — in fact, as we can tell from their different uniforms, all four girls are from different schools, and they all found themselves also mysteriously transported to this strange school, which is fully furnished with all the stuff a school should have but is otherwise abandoned.

Stranger still, they seem to be completely cut off from the outside world. Their new school exists in its own small isolated dimension surrounded by water with the exception of a gateway leading to another world, a wilderness the girls have named “the Faraway”. This Faraway is full of useful materials that fortunately include food, but it’s also full of demons that attack Ao and friends if they’re detected. Luckily, Ao, Kokoro, and Rena all possess the power of Reflectors, giving them magical abilities that they can use in combat to defeat these demons.

While Ao and company are getting along all right, they’ve also committed to exploring the Faraway to try to discover some way back to their own world. Mysteriously, only Ao has retained all her memories of the life she left — her new friends are all more or less amnesiacs, so hopefully the Faraway and their Reflector powers can help them unlock their memories as well.

These guys will be familiar if you’ve played the first game. Combat in Second Light is turn-based, but again with some extra elements that set it apart. See also the crusty graphics with Ao out of focus in the foreground; not sure what that’s about, but everything looks great otherwise.

The prologue chapter runs up to a point just before what looks like a boss fight, where we get a “To Be Continued…” screen and a trailer for the game proper. As for the Story Demo, there’s not much to say — it’s a nice chance for the player to explore the school grounds and talk to various new characters who have apparently joined the crew (and one old character in Blue Reflection protagonist Hinako Shirai, though her presence here is still a mystery) and to get a feel for the slice-of-life aspect of the game.

It’s nice to see Hinako again. Hoping she’s here in a kind of “I’ve been through this kind of shit, I’ll help you out” mentor role.

My impression based on the demo is entirely positive. It does throw a lot of information at you, and it might help if you’ve played the first game and already know about Reflectors and how they’re given their power, how it works and all that, but it doesn’t seem necessary at all. Second Light looks like it’s carrying on the theme of power being attached to emotion, both positive and negative, and with a special emphasis on building relationships between the protagonist and her new friends. Reflectors aren’t really any different from magical girls aside from the fancy title, and if you can accept the weird premise of the game it’s pretty easy to get what’s going on (at least so far; hopefully it doesn’t get too convoluted in the game proper.)

Messing around in the Story Demo section that focuses on all that relationship stuff. Apparently there’s also a new school improvement mechanic that lets you build new structures and forms of amusement, but you can’t actually do anything with it at this point.

I especially like the isolated world featured in Second Light. I wrote in my review of Blue Reflection that I thought its world felt sparse and isolated despite the whole story taking place in a seemingly pretty normal town, with our characters doing their best to live their everyday school lives. Yet the game didn’t contain a single parent or teacher or any other figure onscreen aside from the school’s students and the otherworldly monsters Hinako, Lime, and Yuzu had to fight.

I wasn’t entirely sure whether that strangely sparse feeling was intentional in the first game, but it certainly is intentional this time around. And all the better, because I love games and series that throw its characters into these kinds of isolated, mysterious settings that they have to find their way out of (see the Infinity series of visual novels and Zero Escape for other examples.) Works for me — if you’re going to create a magical dream world full of demons anyway, why not create another magical pocket dimension with a fully furnished high school for our characters to camp out in?

I don’t know about this, though. A hamburger from a vending machine? Sounds like something Ashens would review on his channel.

The combat is again turn-based but feels a bit more challenging than in the first game if only because your health isn’t regenerated after each fight this time around. The system itself also seems more complex, though the demo only gets into the basics of battle with some grunt-level demons and one slightly stronger enemy who’s still pretty easily defeated.

Finally, there’s the art and music, which so far are at least equal to the high standards set by Blue Reflection. No surprise, considering both Mel Kishida and Hayato Asano worked on this sequel. As I wrote before, even if it’s lacking in other aspects, I’ll enjoy Second Light well enough if it maintains that quality in these areas — though it also looks like the sequel might improve on some or most of the other aspects of the first game based on this demo.

Mel Kishida is always a great character designer, but have you ever seen anyone in real life actually able to make that 3 mouth Yuki has here? I don’t think it’s possible.

Saying more than that would be speculating way too much, so I’ll leave it there. Credit to the publisher for putting out a free demo that actually has some substance, again, though I suspect I’ll be taking a lot of that credit away when they inevitably gouge players on DLC (at least if Atelier Ryza was any indication, and that was also put out by Koei Tecmo, so there might be reason to worry.) But DLC is just DLC in the end, and in any case the demo is free, so be sure to check it out if any of the above grabs you.

A review of Blue Reflection (PS4)

Here’s a post that’s been a long time coming. From the very back of my backlog, or at least the backlog I’m actively keeping track of, comes Blue Reflection, a JRPG developed by Gust and released in 2017. Gust is principally known for the extremely long-running Atelier series (see Rorona and Meruru and a bunch of others) but Blue Reflection was something very different — instead of the fantasy Renaissance European cities and towns we’re used to from that series, we get a modern Japanese high school setting, and instead of an alchemist for our protagonist, we get a magical girl. This game was created under the supervision of Mel Kishida, the character designer and artist who also worked on Gust’s Atelier Arland games, and apparently he really wanted to make a magical girl game.

And that’s just what Blue Reflection is. If you’re looking for a game that fulfills the requirements “turn-based JRPG” and “has magical girls” this is probably the title that will come up first. You likely won’t be disappointed with the result either, at least as long as you’re in that very specific demographic. Blue Reflection does feel like it has niche appeal, which might partly explain the mixed reviews and generally cold reception it seems to have gotten here in the US outside of the hardcore Gust fan circle; I don’t even see it brought up much among JRPG fans in general. Which is really too bad — it does have flaws, but I found Blue Reflection a unique and interesting game. At the very least, you can’t say it’s like any other game out there (barring some possible Japan-only games I’ve never gotten to play before.)

I’ll get into all that in depth below, however. And all without getting into plot/character spoilers beyond the basic story setup, so don’t worry about those this time around.

Japanese high school is no joke

This is our protagonist, Hinako Shirai. Before starting high school, Hinako had a promising future as a ballerina, but a leg injury has forced her to put those dreams on hold. Blue Reflection begins during her first year at the prestigious Hoshinomiya High School, a small all-girls school divided into special classes for those pursuing careers in the arts and sports and regular classes for everyone else. Now stuck in the regular class thanks to her injury, Hinako is understandably depressed about her situation.

Then she meets an unusual pair in her class, the twins Yuzuki and Raimu Shijou, or simply Yuzu and Lime. These two quickly befriend Hinako, and after hearing her story they decide to offer her a special gift: the power of the Reflector. Reflectors have the ability to enter the Common, a weird metaphysical mindscape full of demons that represent and are empowered by human emotions. When these emotions get out of control, the demons start to act up, and Hoshinomiya just happens to be on some kind of emotional fault line that’s causing its students to become especially distraught and wild. As a Reflector, Hinako will have the responsibility along with Yuzu and Lime to fight and subdue these demons, and by doing so they can help resolve their classmates’ emotional distress.

Hinako, Yuzu, and Lime in the only nice-looking section of the Common; the rest are pretty fucked up

And yeah, Reflectors are magical girls, complete with those transformation sequences you’ll know if you’ve watched any magical girl show ever made. Blue Reflection also features massive, monstrous bosses to battle in the form of the Sephira, who are trying to use all this emotional chaos to take over the world. So just like a proper magical girl, Hinako is now basically going to be tasked with saving humanity along with her new friends, assuming of course that she accepts the twins’ offer.

Hinako does accept, partly because Yuzu and Lime tell her by defeating the Sephira she’ll be able to gain a wish. For Hinako, this wish is obvious — in her current state, there’s no guarantee that she’ll ever be able to dance again, so she reasons that this is a sure way to heal her leg and get back on stage.

Hinako at home reflecting on her situation (get it?! …yeah, sorry.)

The game proceeds along this path, with Hinako spending her days at school studying, making new friends, and fighting shadow monsters using her magical girl powers. The story is broken into chapters, each of which starts out with some major event usually leading to a big boss fight, and then to a block the game calls “Free Time” in which you’re free to run around school talking to fellow students, solving their issues by fighting demons in the Common alongside Yuzu and Lime. Most of these chapters are also broken up by side character stories resulting in a new classmate for Hinako and co. to befriend.

This social element is only part of the game, however. Blue Reflection is still a turn-based JRPG and features plenty of fighting, mostly in the dreamlike world of the Common. Thankfully, this isn’t the plainest turn-based combat system around: Blue Reflection relies heavily on timing and using skills to slow down and knock back enemies. Hinako, Yuzu, and Lime also draw power from a common pool of “Ether” that they can charge up while fighting. Collecting enough Ether unlocks the massively powerful Overdrive ability, which allows the use of multiple skills in a single turn at reduced MP use rates.

The frilly dress is cool and all, but I wish I didn’t have to fight these weird deer monsters

Luckily for Hinako, the power of friendship isn’t just a metaphor for the happiness and fulfillment she gains from the confidants she makes throughout the game. It is that, sure, but it also adds to the magical girl trio’s actual strength in battle by manifesting as “Fragments” formed from said emotions that give various bonuses when equipped to skills. To that end, and also because it’s a good way to break up all the fighting, the player will spend most of the time they’re not fighting with their schoolmates, having lunch, playing sports, and going out to various spots in town to raise Hinako’s affection points.

Some of her friends are pretty damn weird, but they mean well. And despite the implications of the term “affection points”, no, there’s no dating in this game. Sorry if you’re a yuri fan; you’ll have to look elsewhere for that.

Now I might guess what some readers are thinking — isn’t this familiar? Isn’t there another series of games that are turn-based JRPG dungeon crawler/social sim hybrids and that use the protagonist’s links with their friends to support them in battle? Yeah, this game drew a lot of comparisons to the Persona series when it was released from what I remember. That it came out only months after the big hit Persona 5, which was still very much talked about at the time, probably contributed to those comparisons.

The Persona comparisons might have also led to some disappointment, because aside from their superficial similarities, Blue Reflection doesn’t feel at all like a Persona game. To its credit, it also doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be a pale imitation of Persona but rather to do its own thing entirely. Unlike Persona, which builds fairly realistic worlds full of people both in and outside the school setting to interact with, Blue Reflection concerns itself exclusively with Hinako and her classmates, ignoring almost everything else around them. Hoshinomiya High School is all filled out with students hanging around in classrooms, club rooms, the library, sports field, and courtyards, but the only points outside of school featured are the various hangout spots Hinako can visit with her friends and Hinako’s own room, where she prepares for her next day of school and goes to sleep. Though it’s implied that they are around, we never see any adults — not even a single teacher is seen at school, where almost every scene takes place after classes are out.

Hinako helping one of her generic non-story classmates through her existential crisis on the school roof. As you can see, there’s this whole town down there, but you never get to interact with anyone in it.

Moreover, unlike the calendars that the modern Persona games strictly follow, Blue Reflection doesn’t keep track of how many days you spend in free time hanging out with friends, going home, and returning to school. Unless it’s a lunch or school activity event, every one of these sends Hinako home when they’re finished, but the game doesn’t seem to mind if you spend a month or two during a chapter of free time (though I don’t think I ever got that far myself, just projecting based on what I did with Hinako’s schedule.) Eventually you’ll run out of events to watch in a given period anyway and will probably want to move on at that point by reporting your progress to Yuzu and Lime, but this quality gives Blue Reflection almost a strange Groundhog Day sort of feel even if that’s not what’s actually going on.

Another field in the Common, with enemies stalking around in the background.

However, it seems to me like that’s what the creators were going for. This might be a stretch, since I have no idea what their intentions actually were, but Blue Reflection has a dreamlike feel to me — everything from the weirdly sparse real world outside of the school to the surreal areas of the Common you have to visit to fight demons adds to that feel. Whether or not that was how they intended players to feel, Blue Reflection is clearly not trying to be a sort of budget Persona or anything like that. It’s too different in tone for me to get that impression.

The art and music in the game both contribute to that dreamlike feel as well. Mel Kishida seems to have had a huge influence on Blue Reflection as the supervisor, and a lot of the game feels like a showcase for his character and monster designs and his settings, which contrast strongly with each other in a way that I think works. The soundtrack by Hayato Asano, full of relaxing piano-based pieces and driving battle themes, is also excellent and enhances this feel. Even if you have no interest in this sort of game, I recommend at least checking out the OST.

If Yuzu and Lime’s constant social life management wears you out, at least you have nice music to listen to while you try to meet their demands before the story can progress.

I did bring up flaws at the top of this post, though, because Blue Reflection has some pretty glaring ones. The biggest issue I had with the game was its pacing, especially with a couple of seemingly major story beats that came up near the end and then resolved themselves so quickly they may as well not have happened. It’s strange to say, given how lenient the game is about letting Hinako take time out to hang around with her friends in between giant otherworldly monster attacks, but the story seemed very compressed by the end for this reason. These left me with a few gaps in characters’ judgments and reasonings, specifically in Hinako’s, that I think weren’t explained very well.

The game is also pretty damn easy. HP and MP are replenished after each encounter, so there’s no reason not to go all out in every fight you get into in the Common. After unlocking more advanced offensive skills, I was able to clean up most fights in the game with one massive all-enemy attack from Yuzu. And once you master the use of knockback skills, Ether collection, and Overdrive in battle, even end-game bosses become complete jokes. Hinako’s magical sword is the most powerful weapon in the world apparently. If she got to use it in the real world or while not fighting Sephira, she could probably take over the world herself (not that she’d really want to, though there is one character she’d definitely have to hide it from. If you’ve played Blue Reflection, you might know who I’m talking about.)

Hinako about to destroy another giant horrific world-eating monster

Finally, it generally feels like there was some untapped potential to expand the story and explore some of its characters and themes more deeply. Maybe there were budget or timeline issues in the game’s development. The translation is a bit sloppy with some typos left in the script, but that’s a localization problem, and Blue Reflection came out in North America six months after its Japanese release, so that doesn’t seem like it would indicate anything about the game being rushed out. So maybe there were no development issues and this game turned out exactly as the creators intended, though in that case I wish they’d added a bit more to the story and character interactions.

Even with these flaws, however, I liked Blue Reflection. The dreamlike, unreal nature of the whole experience was a positive in my mind. I thought it suited the story the game was telling, and it also set it apart from the other modern real-world setting JRPGs I’ve played. I haven’t seen much magical girl stuff really, so I don’t know if the story of Blue Reflection would be played out to someone who’s deep into that genre, but I also liked that the story dealt with themes of friendship that weren’t trite but actually dealt with loss of identity and sacrifice in a way that more or less worked.

Hey, I can read some of this finally. Not all, though. Thanks for reminding me I need to get back to my kanji studies, blackboard.

I get the feeling this is a highly personal sort of work. If you can’t get enveloped in the world and the atmosphere the game creates, or you’re just not into the style or look of it, you might just be bored and frustrated by it. I can understand why many players would feel that way about it, but I’m happy that I finally got around to playing Blue Reflection. There have been rumors of a sequel around for a few years now, and I hope if that happens that we get something even better, more polished and fully fleshed out.