Blue Reflection and Staying On-Message

Blue Reflection is available for Playstation 4 and on Steam.

Some of the most enduring games – and some of my personal favorites – are those that set their sights on a single idea and build the rest of their design around that one nugget. Shadow of the Colossus’ empty world and rough controls lend themselves to the deep sense of atmosphere and subtle storytelling that people commend it for. The Super Mario series’ recurrent tinkering with the singular “jump” action and revolving door of mechanics always feed into how the player traverses and interacts with the world.

Blue Reflection is frustratingly close to following in that vein.

This is the kind of concept for a game that immediately had its hooks in me. The strain of character-driven stories and cheesy idealistic speeches stereotypical of JRPGs as a genre seemed like a no-brainer matchup to deliver an interactive take on the magical girl subgenre, especially considering the its embracing of “social simulation” elements popularized by the Persona series. Unfortunately, while Japanese Role-playing Games have held on to much of their popularity over the decades, the broader appeal of “magical girl” shows has been a bit iffy since the airing of staples like Cardcaptor Sakura and Sailor Moon.

I say this as a preface to make clear that I’m delighted that a title like Blue Reflection can exist at all in an international market, let alone reach any sort of commercial success. My only wish in that regard was that it was confident enough in its inherent allure to establish ongoing trust with its audience.

One aspect in which Blue Reflection does lean into its nature is in its structure. For the most part, how the player is lead to approach the game seems built to serve the game’s identity as a video game presentation of a genre-standard Saturday-morning action show, starting from its narrative flow and ending in some of its system-level mechanics.

The story – a comfortingly recognizable setup wherein young heroines use magical power to defeat unsettling monsters – is divided cleanly into 12 “chapters” and about half as many “interludes”, each clearly made to parallel an episode of a TV show. Every one of these segments serves as a standalone story, focusing on one or two cast members’ interpersonal troubles and culminating in a showdown against a monster-of-the-week to cleanly wrap up both an emotional conflict and a physical threat. These even take roughly the same length of time it would to watch a cartoon episode (a touch under half an hour, depending on the player) and slowly begin tying together as the third act leads toward a “season finale”.

Even if this likely felt much more at home on the game’s original console (Blue Reflection was initially released as a Playstation Vita game in Japan), deliberately breaking up the flow of the story goes a long way toward emulating the feeling of a season of a series and creates obvious break, allowing players to step away content and without the feeling that they’re ever stopping in the middle of something important. Rather, every chapter ends itself so cleanly that playing more than one tends to feel like binge-watching, in a way.

The moment-to-moment play enforces this, as well, driving the player through each chapter by creating a path of least repetition. Health and energy are restored after every fight, and random encounters don’t provide anything worth a detour for, encouraging a bee-line path through story-driven segments. At the same time, this encourages you to burn through lesser monsters with powerful, flashy magic free of the burden of resource management until you reach the clearly-telegraphed boss encounters.

bears
Can’t go wrong with the Teddy Squad.

While you can tear through most common enemies on your way to the climax of a level, the bosses change the pace at which you approach combat in part because of your limited ability to “gear up” for them. Instead, the aim is to delay the enemy’s turns while minimizing your own cool-down time until you can deal that crucial blow that you’re building toward. This creates a natural arc of mounting tension and cathartic release within the space of one encounter, and engages you in the ebb and flow of what might otherwise be an unremarkable fight where you power through Aggressive Geometry Man #83.

The dialogue itself can be a mixed bag, on aggregate falling under the heading of “hokey-but-charming” – again, something perfectly characteristic of the child-oriented series that it’s emulating. That certainly doesn’t excuse the translation from being clumsy on a line-by-line basis or the nonsensical turns of a few character arcs, but the ideas behind these characters’ conversations always feel charmingly heartfelt and genuine. To that point, the cast themselves feel rounded and layered though both the main story and personal subplots for each one, which is an important aspect to get right when you’re leaning into personal struggles as a catalyst for conflict.

title.jpg
Maybe the real Blue Reflection was the friends we made along the way.

Speaking of, despite an initial show of aloofness that melts away in the first hour of play, the protagonist’s power as a magical girl is nearly-outright stated within the text to be her ability to empathize with and understand others. The idea of a character’s strength coming explicitly from their compassion is a delightful basis for any heroine and role model – it’s a road well-worn by magical girl series, such as with Sailor Moon’s powers of restoration and Takamachi Nanoha’s deep-seated habit of befriending her aggressors, but here the virtue of empathy is made clear to the point of aesop; again something that would seem right at home in a series targeted toward children.

This is where the one notable bit of resource management becomes relevant. There’s no time pressure to fulfill sidequests, as the apparently-infinite calendar in Blue Reflection will delay the return of the plot until the player deliberately chooses it. Rather, at key points in each, you’re prompted to make a dialogue choice in the form of advice or encouragement to the in-focus supporting character. This generates equipment subtly reflective of your relationship with that character – ones boosting your attacks’ power for enthusiastic answers, ones granting defensive benefits for more cautious dialogue, and miscellaneous passive abilities for interactions that don’t fit in either of the above categories. In this way, your battle capacity is molded slightly to be reflective of how you interact with other characters throughout the game in a relatively slower, emergent way.

twohalls
Same hall, two different days.

Everything about the presentation is as pleasant and sugary-sweet as Blue Reflection’s inspiration, too. From the lovely ambiance played out through the soundtrack’s wide repertoire of piano pieces and the soft-lighting engine casting warm, comely shadows across the school, the game world feels like a place you climb into and sit in beside a dear friend. The combat areas, being borne of emotions like fear and anger, mirror the same sentiment with a sinister bent as they can cast harsh and eerie lighting that puts you on edge just by looking at them. Granted, this can create an unfortunate dissonance when the current source of conflict is a misplaced outburst of joy and you’re made to do battle in a bright-and-cheery meadow of flowers, but seeing the same area in different ways on different days remains a delightful touch.

 

These points together paint the picture of a game with its eye set on one, unified experience: a lovely little episodic character-driven magical girl adventure with minimal muss-and-fuss in the main game itself. Strictly speaking, that’s true for the most part. In fact, if it were true for the whole part, I would call this game a personal favorite and a lovely change of pace from longer-tailed JRPG campaigns. Unfortunately, not everything about the game seems to be on the same page and driving toward the same goal.

The interface can be obtuse at times, which while admirable in its dedication toward putting on a mask of simplicity, can instead lead to frustrating confusion. Trying to quantify what your attacks do in any meaningful way is an exercise in futility, as you only have flavor text to go by; the spell descriptions seem allergic to numbers. It also makes no effort to indicate what certain day-to-day choices do (I had to work out for myself how equipment effects were associated with dialogue options or that turning in a specific recurring quest is what moves the story forward). Perhaps you could read this as your magical powers being beyond your understanding, but that doesn’t quite line up with how magic is presented anywhere else in the narration.

That isn’t the main bugbear dragging the game down, though. Nor are the tiny glitches and need for a script edit; these are problematic, sure, but not in a way that majorly detracts from the game’s charms. Rather, far and away Blue Reflection’s biggest issue is more systematic and run against the core ideas that drew me to it in the first place.

This game, to be blunt, has the worst hangup with the “male gaze” that I’ve experienced in any game in recent memory, and that’s in a year where the many Game-of-the-Year lists featured a protagonist deliberately designed to act as “fanservice”.

A representative example: every in-game night, you’re given a few options of how to prepare for the next day. Of the choices given, bathing seems like a questionable choice for a game starring a high-schooler, but others – stretching and prepping for a play rehearsal – sound relatively innocuous. Unfortunately, answering to either of those will result in a scene of the main characters in their swimsuits or changing into their underwear, respectively. Aside from “Go to Bed” (i.e. “do nothing”), every single option leads to voyeuristic behavior toward teenage girls on behalf of the player.

Other times, the game’s fixation on its own character models doesn’t even give the player an out. Aside from its costumes being unfortunately creative in what skin they can get away with showing while still appearing frilly (something apparent as early on as seeing the game’s cover art), it also employs a physics engine that seems entirely unnecessary in what’s effectively a turn-based game. Its motion simulation, of course, exists solely to work itself on the girls’ skirts and chests as they move around. In fact, I don’t believe I encountered any other application of object physics in the game outside the character models, which is about as blatant as you can get.

openback
Less an open-back dress and more of a no-back dress.

Then there are the rainy days that happen at certain intervals. On paper, it prevents the player from interacting with quest-initiating characters who regularly hang around outdoors. But since the game gives you infinite time to pursue their relationships, its actual function is to swap out the character models for the player and a randomly-chosen supporting character for a “wet shirt” version. Again, this is unavoidable on the player’s part and serves no mechanical or thematic purpose.

What irks me more than anything about the fetishization in Blue Reflection is how markedly unnecessary it is. The generally-light plot and moral anecdotes about empathy are gentler focuses that paint its story in an uplifting, sympathetic light. I’d even make the case that, with the complete removal of the few intrusive elements that exist solely to exploit its subjects, Blue Reflection could be well-suited to enjoying alongside a ten-year-old. With a simpler set of mechanics, it could even serve as an entry-level RPG with that subject matter.

As long as those few problematic elements remain, though, Blue Reflection is something I wouldn’t play under the same roof as a non-adult based on its attitude alone. Despite its “Teen” rating presumably based on the literal content, the way this game frames and bizarrely chooses to focus on those distasteful elements feels like it’s skirting the line against a “Mature” designation with its intent. This is a hard contrast when set against a script too tame to touch on topics past a PG level of subject matter.

The tendency toward ogling its own work begs the question of who Blue Reflection is even for. Especially in Japan, the magical girl genre has an older secondary market that would be happy to consume this sort of thing, but audience won’t reach far enough to support a major title, particularly not for a physical, international release. By deviating from the well-intentioned nature of its inspirations and cutting itself off from what would usually be its core market, Blue Reflection is left with a very narrow appeal at a set of people who:.

  • A – Don’t mind a heavy anime flavor in their media.
  • B – Are comfortable with stories flavored by a childlike sweetness and morality.
  • C – Can work around mechanics that are at times poorly-messaged.
  • D – Are also comfortable being shown scantily-clad teen girls with a knowing wink.

And that’s the most tragic problem – the last of these has no real connection to the rest of the core attraction of the title. Blue Reflection is so frustratingly close to a great realization of the promise that its premise implies. With a re-tuning of its presentation and the removal of a few extraneous aspects, you might get a perfectly-functional game focused on framing an iconic anime subgenre with a new context and presentation. But the game’s insistence on objectifying its protagonists, seemingly for no reason but self-indulgence, dilutes and distracts from what the majority of the rest of the game is building.

In some other world, Blue Reflection was a quaint little E-rated game serving as a great example of what can be done when you tool a unified design toward a certain feeling and impression. But in the actual state of things, it’s an uncomfortable mess through no fault but its own.

2 thoughts on “Blue Reflection and Staying On-Message

  1. Great write-up! I had gotten the impression before that you had a lot of thoughts on this game so it’s cool to see you get them out in blog form! I totally feel your frustration regarding the out of place fan service; it’s something that’s been bugging me in a lot of games and anime lately. That being said, based on the other aspects of this game that you covered, I’m still interested in trying out Blue Reflection if it goes on sale on Steam or comes out on Switch.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the kind words!

      There’s almost two levels of The Fanservice Problem; the “in poor taste” and the “tonally dissonant”. The latter may be more specific to Blue Reflection, but former is definitely a wider ongoing problem to contend with.

      Like

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