Blue Reflection: An RPG Riddled With Lost Potential

It's always hard when you see footage for an amazing game that is already released in Japan and know that it isn't going to receive an English translation for months and months. The wait for Persona 5 was painful, and we've only just received Dragon Quest XI in the West after more than a year of waiting. I was really looking forward to Blue Reflection, a new IP from Gust, the developers of the Atelier series, that was released in the land of the rising sun back in March 2017. It was eventually brought over to us in the West by the end of September of the same year. Really not that much of a wait, but it still felt like a long one, especially for myself after seeing what this game had to offer. However when I finally received it in the post, I was greeted by a game that could not only have benefited from a longer localisation process, but a longer development too.

Blue Reflection has so much going for it on initial glance. It's a high school based RPG featuring magical girl heroines in the same vein as Sailor Moon or Cardcaptor Sakura, with cute hero transformations and over-the-top choreographed attack moves in battle. Players take on the role of Hinako Shirai, a new student at Hoshinomiya Girls High School. Hinako used to be a very good ballet dancer until she injured her knee, making her unable to dance. After meeting with two mysterious sisters Yuzuki and Lime Shijou, she is given the power to fight as a magical girl, or a "Reflector", as the game calls it, which grants her the ability to move freely despite her injury. 
An interesting concept, and one that is presented excellently. Blue Reflection has absolutely gorgeous visuals featuring airy, muted colours contrasted with striking accents of pink and blue and anime-style character models that would make anyone wonder if Hoshinomiya Girls High School was actually a school for pristine, porcelain dolls. And then there's the music. Damn, that music. Composed by Hayato Asano, Blue Reflection's soundtrack is all about atmosphere. For exploration, the music consists of dreamy melancholy melodies with stripped-back instrumentation that serve to perfectly capture the emotions and insecurities that Hinako and her classmates have to face on a daily basis, while the turn-based battles feature face melting, epic as hell electronica; a sonic metaphor for the free-moving badass Hinako becomes when she transforms into a reflector. Honestly, the boss battle themes in Blue Reflection have to be some of the best I've ever heard in a video game. Here, tell me that the song below doesn't make you want to charge head first into battle and kick the living shit out of some monsters:

Unfortunately that's where the good stuff ends for Blue Reflection, because its best qualities only run skin deep. While the visuals and the music are nothing short of jaw dropping, everything else is left feeling incredibly middle of the road. Blue Reflection brings forward a lot of great ideas but never fully commits to them, resulting in extremely shallow gameplay.
Something that attracted my attention from the offset was Blue Reflection's inclusion of social and time management simulation mechanics. E
ach day of Blue Reflection is segmented into sections, morning, after class, evening, etc., with various activities available depending on what time it is. Main story events will occur during the day, with various side missions and friendship events available after class. Main story events usually revolve around Hinako meeting a classmate for the first time, followed by something dramatic happening to them, with the results of the drama being the classmate letting their insecurities take over and Hinako having to travel to the "common" where they must seek out the classmate's emotion fragment that is causing their defect in the real world. Many side quests are more simplified versions of this, with the player having to defeat a certain amount of a certain type of monster, or finding a certain amount of smaller fragments. This, sadly, is as deep as Blue Reflection's main quest gameplay goes: very simple fetch quests. Also, the common is made up of three tiny two part areas, each representing a different type of emotion. These confined areas become repetitive fast, especially with little to no variation in the quests.

You fight monsters using the game's turn-based combat system. The combat is energetic and on the surface seems pretty decent, with an intuitive "knockback" system, which involves your party and the enemy monsters taking their turns in a numbered order. Using specific attacks that feature different levels of knockback can delay an opponent's turn, gaining you an advantage. However, aside from this clever battle mechanic, battles often just feel like a spamfest. Even though enemies are weak to different types of moves, just mindlessly spamming any type of move will eventually defeat the enemy and bring the battle to an end anyway. There is no consequence to this lack of strategy, as HP and MP is restored at the end of battle. HP and MP is basically pointless in Blue Reflection, aside from during the game's boss battles, where these "pure breed" enemies (as the game calls them) have large health pools and strong attacks, requiring you to actually strategise and heal your team regularly. For this reason, boss battles are one of the few moments where the battles of Blue Reflection actually feel genuinely exciting. In boss battles you are able to request help from friends you've met along the way, who can heal or inflict extra damage on the enemy. This mechanic is something I wish was available in regular combat too, due to its charm, as well as the fact that it actually shows some kind of meaningful development to Hinako's relationships. Also it's pretty funny seeing one of your classmates damage a skyscraper-sized boss with a tennis serve.

Blue Reflection wants to make you feel like Hinako's relationships can be explored further outside of the main story, but interactions between Hinako and her classmates are incredibly limited and completely lacking in any genuine personality. You can talk to friends and occasionally answer questions they ask. You can also spend time with them, which involves going to what feels like one of three different places and watching a cutscene of Hinako and her classmate having a pretty dull conversation about pretty pointless stuff. This increases the relationship stat with the respective character, and that's as deep as the relationship system goes. It's somewhat similar to the the social link system Persona offers but absolutely stripped bare. The only reason you'll ever need to bother with it is to earn enough points to advance the story, but that shouldn't be the only reason why players want to invest time into these characters.

Then there's evening events. Hinako returns home and has the option to do one of a few things that rarely vary. Do stretches, get in the bath (basically just an opportunity for the developers to show Hinako in her bare necessities) or prepare for the next day. These actions quickly turn out to be nothing more than superficial time-wasting filler, and have little to no impact on anything in the game, yet every evening, you've got to select something to do. One of the actions will lead to a cutscene at lunchtime where one of Hinako's classmates gets interviewed over the school tannoy, but upon introducing the character being interviewed, the scene skips to the end of the interview, resulting in the inclusion of this scene being utterly pointless. This is just an example of many occasions where it seems like the developers of Blue Reflection wanted to implement some kind of mechanic with actual depth, but had to cut it short due to time constraints (or were just too lazy to see it through).

The worst example of this is a particular mini game featured in FreeSpace, the OS that Hinako's mobile phone runs on. FreeSpace is actually really cool. It allows Hinako to message her friends (while fun to read, the messages scroll way too fast), change music (a welcomed feature), read journals, and even take care of what is effectively a Tamagotchi-style pet (this is actually pretty cool). However a few chapters in, you are introduced to an area of FreeSpace where one of the characters gives you a hint on where she has left a bear that she has made. Upon finding the bear, you can't interact with it, and you don't receive any kind of reward for finding it. I had to Google it to confirm, but yes, that's the extent of the mini game. You just locate the bear and look at it. That's it. While I initially tried to see past Blue Reflection's flaws because of its stunning presentation, its good story and its rather decent concepts (at least in theory), this mini game absolutely astounded me. To me it was probably the most blatant example of how shallow Blue Reflection really is. No element of its gameplay is ever seen to fruition, resulting in much of it feeling incredibly half-arsed. If the game had spent a longer time in development, Blue Reflection could've been something so much better. Sure it looks nice, really nice in fact, but even the game's strongest attribute - its presentation - takes a hit due to a rushed development. Cutscenes skip frames of animation and reuse character animations constantly, resulting in characters moving and popping out of nowhere in a somewhat jarring manner. Sometimes in battles the frame rate takes a hit too. Even the localisation seems rushed, with dialogue being occasionally riddled with spelling errors, which, at least for me, is incredibly immersion breaking. Was there no one in the localisation team who thought it might be a good idea to double check it before release? It's not just simple grammar errors, but full on spelling mistakes at times - some of which are in the menus!

Blue Reflection could've been so much more, and because I bought it day one, I've constantly felt an obligation to see past its pitfalls. I want to complete it because I would like to see the story (which is decent) through to the end, but I'm not sure I want to waste my time with it. The issues caused by Blue Reflection's rushed development and localisation are too blatant to ignore. It's such a shame because the few strong moments that Blue Reflection does have are a testament to its lost potential. Perhaps maybe one day Gust will revisit this franchise and give it a little more care and attention, but until then, Blue Reflection will just be mediocre at best. 

Alt:Mag © Kaizo Minds Collective 2023 | Layout designed by Rumah Dijual and Lewis Cox.