Blue Reflection is an unusual game in terms of its overall tone and how it “feels” to play, and a big part of this is due to its mechanics and structure.
If you had to pigeon-hole it into a specific mechanical genre, most people would describe it as a “JRPG”. But in many ways this isn’t a particularly accurate description, since although it features a number of common elements of the genre, it draws just as many influences from other types of game such as adventures and visual novels.
Whatever you want to call it, it’s certainly a pretty intriguing game from a mechanical and structural perspective. So that’s what we’ll be focusing on today.
Blue Reflection is split into two distinct components: protagonist Hinako’s daily life at school, and her “Reflector” duties alongside her new friends Yuzu and Lime in the manifestation of the collective unconscious known as “The Common”.
This might sound a little Persona-ish to those familiar with Atlus’ popular series but there are a few key differences here. Most notably, Blue Reflection unfolds on an even smaller scale to your typical Persona game, taking place pretty much entirely on Hinako’s school grounds, and it also eschews the Persona games’ calendar feature, in which you have a limited amount of days in which to accomplish your main goals and anything else that you want to achieve. Here, you have as long as you want between the main story beats, so you can make sure you’ve made as much progress as possible before advancing.
Playing as Hinako in the real world effectively takes the form of a teenage girl simulator. You can wander around the school, talk to friends, fiddle around with your smartphone and stumble across topics you might want to discuss with people.
Communication and empathy is a core concept of Blue Reflection as a whole, and these parts of the game are where this shines through most clearly. Mechanically speaking, you’re not doing much, but as you progress through the game you really get a sense that you’re getting to know not only the main cast, which gradually expands with each passing chapter, but also a number of incidental NPCs dotted around the school.
After the introductory chapters are over, each main piece of story begins with a chunk of free time for you to use as you desire. The only thing you have to do in these sequences is achieve a certain number of rating points by completing various missions. These can be as simple as going to establish a friendship with someone by talking to them, or later in the game they can involve defeating specific enemies in The Common, crafting specific items or making use of specific skills or game mechanics.
Once the requisite number of rating points is achieved, you report your activities to Yuzu and Lime, and then the next in-game day, the story progresses to the next chapter, at which point you can’t do any of the other free time activities until you’ve completed that particular episode.
Since Hinako is a teenage girl in the 2010s, her smartphone plays a key role in her daily life. Using it, she is able to send and receive chat messages with her friends — with additional topics appearing as collectible items at various points around the school throughout the game — as well as play an idle virtual pet game called Dark Cave. There’s little mechanical purpose to any of this, but it all adds to the overall atmosphere and the feeling that you’re living Hinako’s life.
Between each day, Hinako also has the option to do a few things at home. Studying, making lunch plans or doing exercises all triggers events at school the following day, some of which reward you with stat increases, while taking a bath allows Hinako to reflect on the day’s events and perhaps provide some clues on what to do next. Again, there’s little mechanical reason to do any of this, but it all fits together nicely to create that “teenage girl simulator” feeling without straying into either overblown parody territory or the complicated world of stat-heavy dating and life sims.
The main other thing you’ll be doing in the free time segments is strengthening your relationships with the main cast members that Hinako helps over the course of the various chapters. This can be done in two ways: you can invite them out after school, which picks a random location from around the town in which the game is set and shows you one of numerous conversations between Hinako and her partner for the evening, or at various relationship and story progress thresholds, you can trigger “Bond Episode” cutscenes that reveal more about the cast member.
During a Bond Episode, you’re often presented with a choice of responses; generally speaking, one of these will cause an additional increase in the character’s “feeling” meter towards you, but each will provide you with a different emotional Fragment — more on these later. There’s no way to mess up these relationships or cause the meter to drop; your choices generally just have an impact on how quickly they progress and which Fragments you acquire.
One important impact that these relationships have on the game as a whole is that they’re one of the main sources of levelling up. Blue Reflection completely lacks a traditional experience point system, instead rewarding you with skill points after significant progress in the story or development in your relationships. These points can then be invested in one of four areas: Attack, Defense, Support and Technic, and each point you invest causes the character’s level to increase by one, up to a maximum of 50. On levelling up, all the character’s stats increase somewhat, but with a particular emphasis on the area you chose to invest a point into.
You’re reasonably free to build each of the three playable characters how you wish, since there are skills to unlock at 5-point intervals in each of the four stats, and what these do generally correspond to the stats’ stated functions. Developing Attack gives you a broader range of skills with which to attack, obviously; Defense offers you healing abilities; Support provides buffs and debuffs; and Technic often relates to agility, luck and effects that are dependent on other factors such as current HP or MP levels.
This brings us neatly onto the other aspect of the game: exploring The Common. This occurs in several different scenarios: initially you’re simply thrown in there as part of the story, but as the game progresses you have the option to go in there voluntarily via a portal on the school’s rooftop, or to perform a “leap” into an individual’s subconscious by interacting with them as part of a mission.
There are four main areas to The Common, each of which is themed around a range of emotions. One is based around happiness and positivity, and is represented by a seemingly endless field of flowers; the rage zone is fiery and full of lava; the fear zone is a dark and mysterious forest; and the sorrow zone is a ruined, flooded city.
These zones aren’t your typical RPG dungeons or fields; for much of the game they’re reasonably open (albeit small) areas that can be explored freely, with monsters wandering around as well as “shards” that can be collected to yield crafting items. Leaving one of these areas by a portal either simply transports you back to the other side of the same map, refreshing the enemies in the process, or in some cases, advances you to a different map. There’s a feeling of dream-like detachment and borderline confusion to how this all works; a sense that you’re wandering around and around in circles through seemingly endless scenery, though it never becomes frustrating. It helps that each of the environments are absolutely beautiful to look at, though in the grand scheme of things you don’t actually spend long in The Common at a time and can leave at any time, so there’s no way to get “lost”.
This aspect of things might be disconcerting to those expecting a more conventional RPG experience with lots of exploration, but in practice it works in Blue Reflection’s favour, since the “RPG” aspects are clearly not intended to be the main focus. The tightly designed areas mean that you can get in, accomplish an objective and get back to living your life as a normal girl without wasting time. And the aforementioned lack of experience points means that it is impossible to “grind”, so enemies are often obstacles to negotiate rather than opponents to overcome — though that said, they often yield plenty of valuable crafting materials, particularly on the harder difficulties, so they’re still worth fighting.
Following a common convention of Japanese RPGs from the last couple of console generations, Blue Reflection eschews random combat in favour of enemies that are visible on the field screen, and which you can get the jump on by hitting them with your weapon before they touch you.
Battles are turn-based, but rather than being strict about this they make use of an enjoyable system with a bit of a resemblance to Game Arts’ classic Grandia. Both players and enemies are on a “timeline” which extends across the top of the screen — players on the left, enemies on the right — and their icons advance towards the centre at a constant speed. When an icon reaches the centre point, it is that unit’s turn, and everything else freezes while you either pick your action or the enemy does something.
Actions all carry a particular “wait time” that is both inherent to the skill you use and the character’s speed value, meaning that the icon will be set back on the timeline a certain distance after performing the action. As you might expect, more powerful abilities tend to have a longer wait time, but there are a few ways you can manipulate the flow of battle to your advantage.
An important ability to master is “Knockback”, which comes in a few levels of intensity and simply knocks a target back on the timeline, delaying their turn by a certain amount. If you characters are quick enough, you can effectively “juggle” an enemy so that they never get to act — though you have to balance this with making use of the right kinds of attack to be effective.
Attacks come in four main flavours: Impact, Slash, Heart and Pierce. Enemies can be very weak, weak, neutral, resistant or immune to each of these four types, and you can see which they are when picking a target for a skill. You also have access to area-effect skills that either hit all enemies around your main target or simply attack all enemies in the vicinity; these typically do full damage to the main target and half damage to the “sub-targets” caught in the blast. They’re especially useful during boss battles, which typically have a high-HP main target and lots of “limbs” of various descriptions that can be knocked down to seal various attacks. Hitting the central core with an AoE is generally a sound strategy.
Incentive to try the different skills is provided by the fact that they all behave differently as well as having their own unique animations. Some are a powerful single hit; others hit multiple times. Some are more effective when attacking an enemy with a status ailment; some inflict said status ailments. And perhaps the most tricky ones to use effectively are those that drop an icon on the timeline, with the actual skill’s main effect only firing when it’s this icon’s “turn”.
The dynamic feel that the timeline mechanic gives to combat is further supported by some additional features that unlock as you progress through the game. Most notable of these is the ability to use the accumulated Ether energy in the area (represented as a percentage gauge) to perform a powerful “Guard” manoeuvre, which significantly reduces damage from things like boss supermoves. The twist is that the actual amount of damage reduction is based on the physical amount of time you were able to hold down the “guard” button — and the Ether gauge continually drains while you’re holding it.
The reason why this is an issue is that Ether has another purpose: allowing the girls to use a feature called Overdrive, which lets them perform multiple actions in a single turn. This can be devastating when used effectively, but guarding too much won’t leave you with enough Ether to do this — and likewise, Overdriving too early will mean you won’t be able to guard if you need to!
Considering combat is not a central focus of Blue Reflection by any means, the battle system is extremely well fleshed out without being overly complex, and it’s highly enjoyable to engage with, making for some satisfying fights against trash enemies, and some really enjoyable encounters against bosses. These latter situations are also where the two discrete “parts” of the game come together for once.
As previously noted, each main story chapter sees Hinako, Yuzu and Lime help out an individual with a particular problem of some description. As a mark of the bond they share after this task is completed, they share a ring that connects them together. What this means in a practical sense is that any time a Sephirot shows up and starts trying to wreck shit, everyone in the vicinity is frozen and blissfully unaware of what is going on — apart from anyone with a ring. The three main magical girls go forth to fight off the enemy — and their new friends also participate in battle as support characters.
Hinako, Yuzu and Lime are each able to “equip” up to three of these support characters, and in simple terms each character provides a special ability that gradually charges up as the battle progresses, and which can subsequently be unleashed by hitting their corresponding button when a prompt appears in combat. The support abilities range from direct attacks to buffs and healing, and each provides a unique animation that is another means through which you can truly get a feel for each of these characters are — whether it’s tennis player Rin doing a formidable serve right into a boss’ face, or wannabe journalist Ako yelling into a microphone and jumping around like a crazy person to “motivate” the party.
So what of those “Fragments” we discussed earlier? Well, they’re what the game has instead of a conventional “equipment” system. Each Fragment acquired through the main story or progressing in a character’s Bond Episode has a specific effect, either as a passive upgrade to the character as a whole or an upgrade to a specific skill that you attach the Fragment to.
Every skill, be it attack or support-based, allows you to attach at least one Fragment to it, and in doing so you can create some interesting effects. For example, you can create a skill that simultaneously heals the party and buffs their attack or defense; you can make a potential debuff more likely to occur; you can even do things like self-heals and MP restoration with the right Fragments.
Fragments can also be upgraded with the game’s crafting system, increasing their effectiveness in some way. In some cases, this is a simple boost to the power of the skill the Fragment is attached to, but in others it may lower the threshold for a particular effect to activate — for example, some Fragments are dependent on the Ether gauge being above a certain value, and upgrading these reduces that minimum value, making it easier to take advantage of their effect.
Early in the game, Fragments can be upgraded simply with items you loot from monsters and pick up from the various areas of The Common. Later, however, you’ll have to combine these items in various recipes before they can be used to upgrade a Fragment, with some of these recipes only becoming available after you complete a particular mission in the “real” world. It’s by no means as in-depth a crafting system as that seen in Gust’s other series Atelier or even Ar Tonelico, but it provides another means of feeling like you are “progressing” through the game without relying on grinding for experience.
Blue Reflection is an interesting game on the whole because to a certain extent it is what you make of it. If anything, speaking as someone who is generally rather “thorough” when it comes to RPGs, it’s a little easy to get your characters well above the power levels they need to be to proceed through the story in the early chapters — but it’s also satisfying to be able to do this with minimal repetitive grinding.
At the same time, those who simply wish to focus on the narrative aspects of the game and treat it almost like a visual novel with occasional battles will have a good time without ever feeling like they’re hitting a roadblock.
And those who enjoy the experience of pretending to be a teenage girl will find plenty to enjoy, too; there are lots of incidental, optional conversations with the supporting characters, even outside of their main Bond Episodes, and this gives the game’s small-scale setting a nice feeling of “life” to it.
It’s perhaps not an experience that will click with everyone, particularly if you’re looking for a bit more in the way of action. But not everything needs to be over-the-top cinematic pomp and circumstance; sometimes it’s quite refreshing to come to a game that seemingly prides itself on a sense of gentleness and wistful melancholy. In Blue Reflection’s case, that feeling comes not only from the narrative and characterisation — which we’ll explore in greater detail shortly — but from the game’s own mechanics and structure, too.
I love Gust. It’s a company not afraid to experiment. And Blue Reflection is one of the best examples of that philosophy at work.
More about Blue Reflection
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