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One of the things I find endlessly fascinating about Japanese popular media is how it blends disparate, seemingly incompatible things together to produce something altogether unique.
That’s certainly the case with Shade’s Bullet Girls Phantasia, a game which pops elements of Cute Girls Doing Cute Things, military action, fantasy fiction and Norse mythology into a big bowl and then whizzes it all around into a fine, blended paste.
It works. It really works. So let’s take a closer look at what you can expect from the narrative, themes and characterisation of this unusual game.
Bullet Girls Phantasia is actually the third Bullet Girls game, after two Japan-only installments for PlayStation Vita. Thankfully, there’s no need to have played the previous titles to appreciate Bullet Girls Phantasia, since it’s a standalone story in its own right, though those who have played the prior games will understand a little more about the background of the girls in question.
The Bullet Girls series as a whole revolves around a group of young women from Misakimori Academy, a well-established, affluent private girls’ school in Japan. Misakimori is established on the principles of both “duty” and “self-refinement”, meaning that its students are educated to be both dignified young ladies and ass-kicking heroines more than capable of taking care of themselves.
The latter part of the equation is taken care of by the fact that the school requires all students to participate in one of its self-defense clubs. And we’re not talking just the usual hand-to-hand martial arts clubs you find in educational establishments here; the titular Bullet Girls are members of the school’s Ranger Club, which makes use of a wide variety of military hardware (modified to be non-lethal, of course; this is Cute Girls Doing Cute Things, after all) and trains the girls in tactics, strategy, maintenance and even how to resist interrogation… though as we’ve previously seen, the latter tends to turn into an excuse for sexual shenanigans more than anything.
At the outset of the game, the girls are preparing for the “Blood, Sweat and Tears” athletic meet. Competitions of various descriptions were the setup for the previous Bullet Girls games, so it’s fitting that this game starts in a similar fashion. However, things quickly take a turn for the bizarre when a portal opens, pulling the girls (and, conveniently, most of their equipment) into another world.
The girls quickly find themselves besieged by armies of orcs, but they also discover that their training equipment appears to work as live ammunition in this other world, too, so they quickly set about establishing a suitable strategic foothold and investigating the situation in which they’ve found themselves.
They discover that the new world they’re in is called Midgard. According to Norse mythology, Midgard is one of the “Nine Worlds”, and the only which is completely visible to mankind. Traditionally, Midgard is regarded as being surrounded by an impassable ocean, and such would appear to be the case in Bullet Girls Phantasia; the girls arrive on a remote peninsula with ocean on most of its sides and a large imposing wall preventing them going further inland. Later in the game, the Misakimori girls’ world is referred to as Asgard (the home of the gods in Norse mythology), and a significant moment in the narrative sees them venturing into Helheim, another realm from Norse mythology associated with the underworld and the afterlife.
Upon encountering a member of the Cait Sith race named Merrina, the girls learn a little more about what is going on. It seems that this world, Midgard, is being constantly threatened by a phenomenon known as “Devyation”, where inanimate objects or even corpses are turned into vicious monsters. The most serious instance of this occurring is a deadly jet-black dragon which shows up at the most inconvenient moments, ruining pretty much everything in its path.
No-one seems to know why this is happening but, upon encountering the distinctly tsundere local princess Silvia, they develop a theory that it is likely something to do with the opening of the Spirit’s Gate — and that this may also be the reason that the Misakimori girls were brought to Midgard in the first place.
It appears that a dark elf stole a powerful magical grimoire and was chased down by Silvia’s father, the king, and his assembled forces… but all of them promptly vanished without trace, leaving Silvia all alone and her kingdom in ruins. What to do?
The story continues to develop from here as the Misakimori girls and their new allies encounter a number of others who also appear to be involved with the situation to one degree or another. There’s Hardina, an elven guardian who seemed to think she might be able to resolve the whole situation single-handedly; Faren, a dark elf that the group finds imprisoned in a dungeon; and Sarria, an amnesia wizard who thinks she may or may not have had something to do with the rituals that opened the Spirit’s Gate.
They also discover a mysterious, strange-shaped egg that turns out to be that of a Holy Dragon — though once it hatches, it’s clear that the baby they find themselves taking care of isn’t going to be much direct help in a fight. Moreover, it appears that the jet-black dragon is very much interested in wiping said baby off the face of the planet.
The girls are constantly up against increasingly challenging circumstances, then, but as the narrative progresses it becomes very apparent that both their training and the close personal bonds they’ve developed with one another allow them to take on pretty much anything the world(s) might care to throw at them — and between all of them, they have a variety of different perspectives, skills and attitudes, all of which are useful in different situations.
So let’s take a closer look at the core cast of the Misakimori girls and how they contribute to the group as a whole.
The ostensible “protagonist” of the series is Aya Hinomoto, a first-year at Misakimori Academy who apparently accidentally joined the Ranger Club back in the previous games by making a mistake on her paperwork; she’d originally intended to join the Relief Club to make use of her first-aid skills. As you might expect, however, the Ranger Club was more than happy to accept someone with such skills among their ranks — and Aya proves herself especially capable throughout the narrative of Bullet Girls Phantasia.
While Aya is by no means the centre of attention for the narrative, she acts as a good character for the player to latch on to, since she always has a slight element of bewilderment at what is going on and often needs things explaining to her. No-one ever resents her for this, however; her cheerful personality and uplifting demeanour is a pleasure to be around, making her an ideal mascot for the game as a whole.
Aya has developed a close relationship with Yurina Kanezono over the course of the three Bullet Girls games — even though Yurina was once a spy sent to inflitrate the group. This is one aspect where knowledge of the previous Bullet Girls titles might help you understand her a little better, since she only touches on it briefly in Bullet Girls Phantasia, but it’s clear she ultimately developed tight bonds with the girls who would ultimately become her peers and comrades.
Yurina is, in many ways, a motherly figure for the group; she has the most refined means of speaking, she has formidable domestic as well as martial skills, and she often acts as a voice of reason during emotionally charged situations.
Yurina is a particularly comforting presence to have around — both for the other girls and for the player — and a good contrast to Aya’s earnest determination and curiosity. It’s clear why the two are good friends; they complement one another extremely well.
Remi Kishino is a young-looking second-year who is apparently next in line to be in charge of the Ranger Club once the current crop of third-years leave. (Given that said third-years have remained resolutely third-years for three games now, however, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see that happen!) In contrast to both Aya and Yurina, Remi is energetic, rather impulsive, and habitually speaks with cat-style tics — which, naturally, makes her get on rather well with Merrina the aforementioned Cait Sith, who speaks almost exclusively in cat puns.
Remi is someone who often speaks her mind without really thinking as to whether or not she’s being particularly sensitive. As a result, she’s intimately familiar with a variety of “banned words” that none of the Ranger Club are permitted to say around certain other people — usually relating to age. This becomes especially relevant around Hardina, who is several centuries old and very conscious of it, despite only looking about 17.
Often seen with Remi is Saki Amamine, a girl who is very immature in both looks and attitude. She’s lazy, she often doesn’t turn up to Ranger Club Meetings if she doesn’t feel like it and she’s obsessed with snacks to such a degree that Remi often refers to her as “Snacky”.
Despite her numerous character flaws, however, there’s something very likeable about Saki, and she finds herself getting on particularly well with the similarly immature Merrina.
She’s also a great example of how Bullet Girls Phantasia as a whole makes excellent use of body language in its character models to add further personality. Saki has a very distinctive way of standing, dangling her arms in front of her in an expression of perpetual childish boredom, and the fact that this is about as far from “ladylike” as you can get — particularly when contrasted with someone like Yurina — really contributes to making her a memorable character.
In contrast to both Remi and Saki, Minagi Kamishiro is one of the most mature-seeming members of the Misakimori Ranger Club, both in appearance and mannerisms. Aya points out to us in the introduction that she “speaks rather like a samurai”, and indeed, throughout the narrative we constantly see Minagi carry herself with quiet grace and dignity.
Minagi is also clearly one of the most intelligent girls in the cast, often being the source of detailed strategic plans for the group to accomplish their objectives. She’s a comforting presence in a different way to Yurina; while you feel emotionally safe when Yurina’s around, you feel tactically and strategically safe when Minagi’s in charge.
Tsukiyo Takanashi is a bit of a dark horse among the cast. While she typically carries herself with a rather calm, determined — even stern — demeanour, making her eminently suitable for her role as the group’s main sniper, she’s also one of the cast members most prone to getting inappropriately touchy-feely with her peers. She’s positioned as being “like a ninja”, and indeed the contrast between the impression she initially gives off and what she’s really like suggests that she might actually be incredibly good at deception.
There’s a time and a place, though, and Tsukiyo knows this; she’s actually less prone to flights of fancy in Bullet Girls Phantasia than in previous games because, for the most part, the group is constantly embroiled in serious situations that don’t provide much opportunity for gratuitous boob and belly squeezing. She’s also clearly smart and perfectly comfortable with who she is, making her an oddly inspiring figure in a strange way.
The rather tomboyish Aki Saotome is the second in command of the Misakimori Ranger Club, and a reliable addition to the team. She is one of the most military-minded members of the group, having grown up hearing war stories from her grandmother, and carries herself with maturity and confidence.
Of all the cast, Aki is probably the most “meta”. She is the one who explains to Merrina why the girls, when naked, always have puffs of smoke, beams of light or lumps of dark matter in front of their naughty bits (it’s Misakimori’s guardian deity, “A Maiden’s Last Line of Defense”, of course, who “appears to cover [them] so that [they] comply with all the rules and don’t get in trouble with the ratings boards”.)
Being seemingly the cast member least concerned with being “girly”, too, Aki is often the one who ends up doing things that no-one else wants to do. In one particularly memorable sequence, the girls know that they want to get information out of a captured orc, but no-one can bring themselves to perform Intensive Drilling on a filthy monstrous man. Aki eventually volunteers to do it, knowing that they’re just not going to get the information otherwise.
Finally, we come to club president Mai Doiuchi. The daughter of a rich family, Mai is a strong leader figure who has great confidence in herself and in the capabilities of the club members under her care. She’s highly capable in her own regard, but also knows that everyone has their own strengths and thus is willing to delegate tasks where appropriate.
Mai also has an oddly distinctive design to her face when compared to her peers, which emphasises the fact that she believes her appearance to be a cut above that of the average high schooler’s. Her face is longer and thinner than many of the other cast members making her immediately stand out right from the moment you see her — well, that and her habit of running her hands up her curves to emphasise a point in a deliberately provocative manner!
An interesting aspect of Bullet Girls Phantasia when compared to other games with a similar structure to their cast — Senran Kagura is a good example — is that Bullet Girls Phantasia doesn’t spend a long time on these characters’ backstories or history. Instead, this is a cast that we get to know and understand in the here and now through their respective personalities, and it works well.
This isn’t to say the characters are shallow or poorly developed, either; it’s simply a different approach to characterisation. Rather than allowing events of the past to be defining aspects of who these characters are, instead we focus on how they are behaving around one another right now; how they interact with each other, how they respond to newcomers and how they approach the challenges in front of them.
While not having explicit “hello, I’m Aya and it’s time for my story arc” chapters may initially make it feel like it’s a little tougher to penetrate this pre-established group of friends and involve yourself with them, by the end of the game you’ll have a very good understanding of who they are — and of the fact that they’re welcoming and inclusive to newcomers, including the player.
This feeling is further enhanced by the fact that throughout the game, different characters have the opportunity to narrate the action and advance proceedings. It’s interesting to see how different characters understand and relate to what is going on, and what they all think about the situation in which they’ve found themselves.
It’s also intriguing to see so many different influences blend together. With the popularity of isekai fiction in modern Japanese popular media, this is something we’re starting to see with increasing frequency, but in Bullet Girls Phantasia, the idea of outsiders being able to successfully work together with natives is pretty key to the whole thing.
As Aya puts it, the fact that the Misakimori girls come from outside of Midgard means that they’re not beholden to the same seemingly world-ending prophecy that the Midgardian inhabitants are — and, given that their weapons are technologically far superior to those in Midgard, it’s not hard to see how their realm might be considered to be Asgard, or the home of the gods.
This is relevant to the whole “Devyation” thing, too; later in the game, Sarria defines Devyation as things that are “created by Midgard as it attempts to purify itself and get rid of the things that don’t belong here”, but quite rightly points out that getting rid of everything that “doesn’t belong” might not necessarily be the right thing to do.
“Would it really be so easy to get rid of them all?” she asks. “And even if it was, why shouldn’t we attempt to coexist with them? I truly believe that we should be able to coexist. No, I’d go as far as to say we should be able to live alongside them.”
That’s really an important thing to consider in this day and age. Who can really say who is and is not an “outsider” or who “doesn’t belong” somewhere? It’s something we should all be conscious of — in our personal lives, in our hobbies, in the communities that we are a member of and even on a broader scale when it comes to things like matters of national identity.
After all, if elves can get along with dark elves, and everyone can learn to work alongside orcs… surely we can manage to do a bit better here in Asgard, hmm?
More about Bullet Girls Phantasia
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