If there's one thing Gust's latest role-playing game has taught us, it's that life as a Japanese school girl is tough - especially if you moonlight as a 'magical girl'. If the term 'magical girl' means nothing to you, then you're not alone - playing Blue Reflection is pretty much the first we'd heard of what is a seemingly rather popular genre in Japan. At its most basic, 'magical girls' are nubile young girls who use magic - an almost Ronseal name, really - accompanied by flashy transformation sequences and cutesy outfits, a trope that's been done to death over the years, with Sailor Moon being one of the more notable examples. Blue Reflection attempts to game-ify the genre, combining magical battles with Persona-esque slice of life school days - and the result is interesting to say the least.
The star of the show is Hinako Shirai, a young Japanese school girl embarking on her first year at Hoshiomiya Girls' High School - or she would have been, had a leg injury not kept her from attending, and destroyed her dreams of becoming a top ballet dancer in the process. Catching up with her class part way through the year, she soon makes friends with some mysterious sisters who introduce her to a parallel world made up of folks' emotions, and one which they need her help to patrol. As is often the way, there's a dramatic plot here, with the survival of the world itself at risk - only this time, there's a bit of a twist, in that whomever saves the world is said to have a single wish granted. As Hinako's only real chance of healing her leg and getting back into ballet, she takes on her new role as a 'Reflector' with earnest.
In the world of Blue Reflection, essentially, whenever someone experiences particularly intense emotions, these emotions can crystallise into a solid form inside an alternate dimension - but at the cost of attracting a whole bunch of emotionally-hungry demons. Known in the trade as 'going rampant', if Hinako and her Reflector friends don't eliminate the demons and rescue the fragment of emotion under threat, then the owner of the feelings may end up emotionally damaged at best, or at worst, dead. And that would really put a downer on your school day.
You see, Blue Reflection is very much a game of two halves - by day, Hinako and her chums are normal school girls, chatting about boys, make-up and other such everyday things. There's cutscenes a plenty, which cover everything from organising school culture festivals and shower room discussions, to a swimming race against a friend, in what's very much a 'slice of life' role-playing game. When talking with friends after school, you can also initiate character-specific 'bond episodes', where choosing the right dialogue choices can improve your friendship - much like in the later Persona games, except here the relationships are purely platonic.
Then, also by day, the ladies live double lives as world-saving 'Reflectors', battling it out against creepy monsters in the girliest, frilliest outfits imaginable. Heading into dungeons in a place known as the 'Common', you'll brawl with demons in simple, turn-based battles. Together with the your classmates Yuzu and Lime, you and the demons take it in turns to duff each other up, choosing to perform various melee attacks, spells and special moves - and in the case of Lime, punching them with an oversized teddy bear come to life. There's also an 'Ether' system, where characters can forgo their turn in order to build up their stores of 'Ether', which can then be released in a string of more powerful 'Overdrive' attacks, back to back, preventing the enemy from getting a move in edgewise. Handy when it comes to a boss battle perhaps, but as combat is relatively easy even on the normal and harder difficulties, it's a feature you probably won't use very often.
However, Blue Reflection does take a slightly unorthodox approach toward upgrading characters, as the enemies you defeat don't reward you with experience points as per your average role-playing game. Instead, a 'Growth Point' is awarded every time you solve a friend's quest (be it just chatting to them, or beating a monster in the Common), which can then be sunk into one of four main stats - attack, defence, support (healing spells and the like) and technic (agility and speed, which unlocks various special moves). Hit a certain milestone in these departments, and you'll unlock new moves for use in battle, as well as bolstering your character's performance in said categories, letting you somewhat tailor your characters to how you play.
Your bonds with your friends also have another important part to them - while Hinako, Yuzu and Lime are the only ones able to enter the Common as Reflectors, your other friends can still root for you. Each friend-specific 'Bond Episode' you catch will reward you with a new 'Fragment' of your friends' feelings, which can then be attached to any one of your attacks or special moves for additional effects. For example, you can have a sword-swinging attack that restores a small portion of your health with each strike, give a boost to the damage dealt by a fire spell, or add a little defensive boost to a revival skill in the hope your party member may be a little less vulnerable next time. There's an almost endless combination of skills and fragments to try out, letting you tweak your characters even further. Your friends can even be called into battle for the odd special attack - a tennis star spiking a ball at an enemy, a ballet dance to buff your attack or the stereotypical glasses-wearing nice girl who pops in to heal everyone up.
That being said, the whole dungeon-crawling, enemy-whacking, world-saving aspect of Blue Reflection does kind of play second fiddle to the teen high school drama, where getting to know people better becomes your modus operandi. It almost feels more like a visual novel at times, with a smattering of turn-based battles thrown in for good measure - so it's just as well really, that Hinako's little story is a solid one. There's a whiff of Persona about the whole thing really, bonding with your friends in your down time between dungeon-crawling missions - although Blue Reflection is much more of a personal story than an epic world-saving one, with plenty in common with developer Gust's other girly alchemy adventures, the Atelier series.
On the downside, Blue Reflection's translation can be a little dodgy at times - there's a few typos in the dialogue, and a few clumsy translations such as "enter the bath" rather than "take a bath", although none of them are bad enough to totally confuse. What can be a little confusing, at least at first, is the game's tendency to swap between the girls' nicknames and real names on a whim - for example, Lime might be referred to as Raimu, with no explanation whatsoever, leaving you wondering who the conversation is meant to be about. Really, they should have picked one name or the other and stuck with it, or at least give you a briefing on each character when you first meet them - ditto for the monsters you're often asked to eliminate as part of a quest, where you're best off going by the thumbnail picture that accompanies the quest description, unless you happen to know that 'Sepulchres' and 'Boredom Skulls' are the same enemy, anyway. It's also pretty heavy on the fan service moments, with many a camera shot lingering over a character's backside, various shower scenes, and a few too many rainy day wet shirt moments, which feel somewhat at odds with the everyday school girl moments - but that's Japan for you, we suppose.
In all, then, Blue Reflection is a surprising Persona-lite adventure. While the dungeon-crawling and battle segments are a little underwhelming, the day to day school girl life is mostly well done, as you watch Hinako go from depressively suicidal about her leg injury to being a much more happy-go-lucky school girl, surrounded by a growing circle of friends. With a great "high school" feel, a unique way of introducing your friendships into the battles, and an uplifting tale to tell, this is well worth a look.