Critics of popular Asian free-to-play games often joke that those who invest money into their hobbies are “paying money for JPEGs of their favourite characters”.
While obviously a somewhat mean-spirited exaggeration, the truth of the matter is that, barring a few notable exceptions, free-to-play mobile games do tend to eschew flashy technical prowess in favour of a constant barrage of new playable storylines, special events and collaborations with popular franchises. And their players don’t seem to mind this relative lack of “wow factor”; the immensely popular and long-running Granblue Fantasy, for example, is little more than a collection of sluggishly loading HTML pages playing some low bitrate audio in the background, but it shows no sign of slowing down.
With all this in mind, though, wouldn’t it be nice to find a free-to-play game that combined the things people enjoy about this sort of experience with rather higher production values than usual? Well, enter Magicami DX, a game which came out in 2019 back home in Japan, and which has now found itself localised for the browsers and mobile devices of English speakers thanks to adult gaming specialists Nutaku, who you may recall I had a nice chat with a little while back.
Let’s take a first look!
Magicami DX is described as a “city pop magic girls” game, and exists in both all-ages and adults-only 18+ (with mosaic censoring) formats, and your progress persisting across both versions. Our exploration of the game today is based on the 18+ version, though in the couple of hours I played I only encountered one adult scene. Granted, this was the very first thing in the whole game, but it’s worth noting that this is a narrative-centric eroge rather than a sex-heavy nukige, and as such you should ensure your expectations are set appropriately!
Unlike many other free-to-play gacha-based games, Magicami DX thankfully eschews the time-consuming and rather patronising “big floating arrow” style of tutorial that some other games provide, and instead opens with a lengthy visual novel sequence that sets the scene for what is to come. In the 18+ version, the story opens with two people sharing an exceedingly well animated (and fully voiced) intimate moment, but their passionate shenanigans are seemingly interrupted when the girl, “Isana”, appears to be sucked into the heavens, melting into what looks like paint in the process.
After this seeming non-sequitur of an opening, we’re introduced to the main male protagonist, who is known as Tobio. Tobio has, in true anime style, forgotten who he is, and moreover is rather concerned the most recognisable parts of his bedroom now appear to be floating in some sort of cloud-filled void.
On top of that, there’s an overenthusiastic young woman in a natty Aran jumper who appears to know our hero, and who may or may not be God. In short order, she explains the situation to him: a demon invasion is threatening the general wellbeing of the world, and the only way to stop it is to make use of magical girls to battle said demons before they greedily devour humanity a piece at a time, erasing the entire existence of a person as part of said devouring process.
We’re subsequently introduced to Iroha and Kaori, the first two magical girl candidates — Iroha is thrilled about this, Kaori takes a bit more convincing — who, after a relaxing karaoke session, find themselves inadvertently stumbling into the demonic “Flux” dimension. Tobio, transformed into a floating cat-like thing known as “Omnis” (or “Om-Om” to the girls) comes to realise that his very presence allows the girls to take advantage of an app on their phones that not only allows them to transform into magical girls, it also changes their phone into a weapon that suits their personality.
From hereon, you work your way through a linear main story, alternating between visual novel-style storytelling sequences and turn-based RPG battle sequences, as you attempt to recruit more magical girls to the fold and do your best to drive back the demonic menace.
It’s pure anime, and it’s delightful. The fact that the “tutorial” episode unfolds primarily as story rather than dry mechanical explanations really helps you get invested into the game’s setting and develop a liking for the characters, but there’s enough interactivity to demonstrate that the game clearly has some depth to it.
And it’s presented well. The majority of the dialogue sequences feature well-detailed, enormously expressive cel-shaded polygonal characters, and this really brings the narrative to life. The whole thing is accompanied by some good quality voice acting — though not every line is voiced, sadly — and some absolutely banging music.
The music is of particular note to the game’s overall aesthetic, because it’s primarily through the excellent soundtrack that Magicami DX creates a wonderfully distinctive “punk pop” feeling through its thrashing guitars and lyrics that alternate between violent screaming and rather sweet, melodic passages. The music, in turn, is complemented by heavily stylised visuals and animations. The demonic enemies dance provocatively to the beat of the battle theme, and explode in showers of fluorescent paint when defeated, and the whole thing has an interesting combination of “anime perfection” and grotty punk grime going on.
This can perhaps be seen best in some of the backdrops to the visual novel sequences. In most circumstances, visual novel backdrops are very clean so as not to distract from the important things — the characters standing in front of them. You rarely see other characters in the background, and you’ll often see things like tabletops seem to be completely clear, pristine, unused.
Not so in Magicami DX. A great example of this is the karaoke booth the girls end up regarding as their home base; it has peeling wallpaper, dirty soundproofing and a table festooned with the detritus that follows a veritable feast of junk food that you’ll probably regret the next day. It’s a very human touch, and adds greatly to the sort of pop punk urban fantasy feel that the game appears to have going on.
But then all that is contrasted with the character designs, which all exhibit the sort of “anime perfection” we’ve come to expect from magical girls. They’ve all got huge eyes that often look directly out of the screen at the player; most characters’ default expression is a broad smile; and their outfits are absolutely pristine at all times.
There’s a very distinctive style to the character design, too. The character designer is known as “GSK” — check him out on Twitter — and the game is his first commercial project, but he certainly has a distinctive, recognisable style. It’s strongly reminiscent of both Yō Yoshinari’s work on Little Witch Academia for Trigger, and Kōhei Horikoshi’s designs for My Hero Academia, most clearly around the characters’ mouths when they’re doing open-mouthed smiles or shouting, and it’s one of many ways that the game stands out. (Thanks to “anonymous” in the comments for the clarification!)
Interestingly, unlike a lot of gacha games, Magicami DX is not based around amassing a huge collection of characters, most of whom you’ll never use; instead, various characters join the story over the course of the narrative, eventually providing you with a core cast of twelve magical girls. The gacha draws instead provide you with different outfits for the girls, which in turn can provide them with different stats, elemental affinities and abilities. Technically you can actually draw characters from later in the story before you’ve “met” them, but this is a bit of an established convention in gacha games that most people tend to look past. You can always deliberately not use those characters until you’ve “met” them, after all.
So what of the actual gameplay? Well, for the most part it’s as you’d expect for a gacha-based free-to-play RPG. You assemble a team of up to four characters, equip them with a main outfit and up to four “sub-dresses” to boost their stats, then take them into battle. Your party’s overall power level is measured numerically, so in the early game it mostly boils down to a numbers game; as you progress, however, you’ll probably want to start taking greater advantage of the elemental system to maximise your damage output.
Battle unfolds through a “time gauge” system, where characters each have a bar that gradually fills according to their speed. When it’s their turn, they can choose from the abilities their main dress makes available to them. These generally include one basic elementally attuned attack that can be used every turn, and two or more abilities that have a cooldown of a turn or more. It’s these abilities where things get interesting, as it’s clear that different dresses allow characters to perform different roles in combat.
For example, some characters’ abilities favour all-out offense; others provide buffs to themselves or the party as a whole; others still can act as healers. Like the elemental system, in the early game the combat is easy enough that you don’t need to engage with this in detail, but as the difficulty ramps up it will be in your interest to think about your party composition and set things up accordingly. Thankfully, as in most games like this, you can save several custom party setups and easily recall them if you find combinations that work well for specific encounters.
Since the game appears to have a focus on working together and competing as “clubs” once you’ve progressed into things a little further than I had time to explore in this initial look, it looks likely that there will be some interesting and varied encounters to challenge, and doubtless there will be some rewards on offer to bring your characters’ power levels up to astronomical heights. This sort of game lives or dies by its endgame, after all.
Since the game only came out today, I can’t comment on that as yet. What I can say, however, is that this game is off to a very strong start with its polished and distinctive presentation, some eminently likeable (and cute!) characters and a mysterious, compelling story that looks set to go in some rather dark directions. I haven’t jumped on board with a free-to-play game for quite a while now, but a couple of hours with Magicami DX today has piqued my interest sufficiently to make me want to play at least a little further.
If you’d like to join me and try the game for yourself, you can do so at Nutaku.com for the SFW version, or Nutaku.net if you want the full 18+ experience. There’s also an Android version available if you hit up Nutaku from your phone, though at the time of writing I couldn’t get this to advance beyond an initial loading screen; your mileage may vary, though, so give it a try for yourself if you prefer to play this kind of game on mobile.
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