What would happen if you gave more power to illustrators than to game’s directors? Blue Reflection gives a glimpse of the answer to that ludicrous interrogation, because the keyman of Gust’s JRPG is no other than Mel Kishida, the brilliant designer of the Arland part of Atelier games. Can the man lead Gust to success once more?
Hinako is discouraged : her dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer gets shattered when she suffers an incurable ankle injury. Wandering like a ghost in her new school, she’s bewildered when she realizes she has the power to enter her classmates’ mind to relieve their anguish. She’s a magical girl : she transforms and wears a frou-frou dress, gaining some magical abilities in the process.
Brought along by her magical girls comrades Yuzu and Raimu, Hinako will pursue this “career” for a reason : her dearest wish will come true when she achieves final victory against the genshu, demonic creatures at war with humanity since ancient times. Her dialy activities will always be to walk around within the school and help anxious pupils. Each time, the three heroines will be sent in the Comon, spiritual world built by the collective unconscious, a bit like the Mementhos in Persona 5. There, the game will simply ask you to defeat 1, 2, 3 or 4 enemies of the same type, or collect fragments here and there in super tiny maps. Sadly, it never gets more elaborated than that.
Blue Reflection is a turn-based JRPG, with a timeline on which the order of action of all characters and enemies is displayed in real time, like in Child of Light. Combat has 3 parameters : HP, MP and Ether. While the first two are well-known, Ether is the big particularity of Blue Reflection and does a lot of things. For example, Overdrive allows one of the girls to use several skills during the same turn, dream-like capacity because you can attack and heal in the same time.
By clearing secondary quests, you’ll be able to obtain fragments. The magical girls can equip those fragments and affect them to one particular skill in order to maximize their effect : better healing, absorb HP/MP or boosting attack power when Ether reaches a certain level (50, 40 or 30%). Those fragments work like passive abilities in Atelier, and thus allow you to build a general strategy, although less precise.
But the biggest innovation in Blue Reflection is undoubtly the Active Command. Between turns, you’ll have 1 or 2 seconds to hit one of the direction buttons, each of the 4 having a different effect. By keeping it pushed, you’ll boost defence, speed or heal the girls, but your Ether gauge will be depleted fast! Ether management is thus the cornerstone of the game, and you need to keep some characters in defence so that your Ether never dries up. Given how fast-paced it is, it’s dynamic enough to liven up boss fights.
Like Persona, Blue Reflection includes many secondary characters who can be invited by Hinako for a chat or a stroll in town. The game laso features a friend level for each girl which greatly depends on the answers you give, so there is a little yuri sim aspect in it. The problem is that unlike Persona, the girls in Hinako’s high school aren’t very charismatic in general, nor do they have a solid background or a strong personality.
The only exception to that was Yuri : gifted with off-chart IQ but suffering from a rare syndrome, she was by far the funniest characters and had the most touching story. I barely remember the others (maybe Shio and her bizarre humor) since their personality traits were thin. Voice acting was almost non-existent, which is a big mistake in this type of game. Reading all that leads to boredom and fatigue. Blue Reflection really would have needed that investment so that school life feel more lively and the characters more convincing.
On the plus side compared to Persona, the allies are with you during the boss fights. You can call them quite often and they show up in a funny little animation, granting immensely useful effect to your party. Those girls can attack, heal, resurrect, boost your stats and refill your Ether gauge! They also react to the evolution of the fight : they run away when they’re afraid that the boss might win, and they come back when you take the upper hand. It’s pretty enjoyable to have a real integration of secondary characters in gameplay.
Boss fights are the strongest aspect of Blue Reflection because they’re super well directed. At each key moment of the story, gigantic genshu will advance on the school to wipe it out, like Evangelion’s shito. The giant creature actually progress during the fight, and if it reaches our line of defense, it’s game over. As it gets closer, music changes, the facial expression of the characters also.That is extraodinary direction, in particular in the cutscenes that come just after, in which Hinako deals the final blow in pure magical girl style, living up to the best animes in the field. Very cool moments visually speaking but unfortunately the story fails to renew itself and find a new stage.
Those fights are rather long and complex because bosses have numerous parts that regenerate all the time : you need to manage your offensive to keep to parts in check, because they attack you too! Despite all that, battles are a bit simple, as the game is in a whole. Even difficult mode won’t resist very long to veteran JRPG players who’ll master the use of fragments and Active Command. Blue Reflection is in fact a light experience in terms of gameplay : no game over (except in boss fights), experience comes from completed quests and not from battles, and fighting in the Comon becomes soon tedious.
Blue Reflection is thus better felt by your eyes than by your hands, the 3D engine having been tailor-made for that. It’s astonishingly beautiful, so much that Blue Reflection feels like being that game passing the baton between PS3 and PS4. Not only for Gust who clearly here went to the next step, but also for the all the developers of similar scale who now have to keep up. The world in it may not be very large, but 3D modeling totally lives up to Mel Kishida’s wonderful designs, and battles are just breathtaking. Lightning, shading, reflects, textures… Blue Reflection sets a new technical record in everything. And that’s not all, because interface, monsters and bosses are classy. The illustrator certainly did a great job in supervising all this.
The PSVita has been somehow correct and I played via cross-save to the very end. Graphics were perfectly good in handhelds terms, except some really ugly decors here and there. The only issue was frame-rate during fights because there were significant drops when using flashy skills. It doesn’t replace the PS4 version of course since the interest lies in graphics, but it was cool in order to progress a bit on the go. Nothing at stake here however, since KoeiTecmo Europe abandonned the Vita overnight after years of boasting their support to the system. Sad but business is business…
Blue Reflection is a fetish-centric game. This had been suggested during the initial teasing so that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The extra care given to the graphics serve a purpose, which is staring at gorgeous bodies and sexy costumes from every angle. Funny enough, choosing the option “streching exercises” leads to a pool event with 100% probability! There are plenty in the same fashion, including showers, dressing room, drenched clothes, etc. The swimsuit (additional costume to wander in the school) was even offered as preorder bonus for every character! Clearly Blue Reflection sells its fan service and does it well.
Frankly, Blue Reflection is average as an RPG. This is what happens when the designer grows more important than the producer : the game is a great visual experience, but isn’t great in its writing or in its gameplay in a whole. You can feel that KoeitTecmo didn’t fully invest in it and that doesn’t help. It’s like a art gallery, some parts are good, some aren’t. Personally I was rather satisfied with it despite the drawbacks, given the art/graphic qualities, and Yuri’s part which was definitely memorable.