Magicami DX: Candy-Coloured Darkness

Following on from last week’s look at big-budget free-to-play city pop magical girls eroge Magicami DX, I’ve been spending a bit more time with the game.

At the time of writing, I’m over halfway through the current main story content (on the game’s Normal difficulty), so it’s that side of things I’d like to talk about today — with particular regard to how the 18+ version of the game handles things.

With that in mind, there will likely be mild spoilers ahead, along with NSFW images and graphic descriptions and depictions of sexual violence. You have been warned!

The magical girl genre as a whole has been adapting and evolving a great deal over the years. As we explored back when we looked at Gust’s excellent Blue Reflection, the genre has been around in one form or another since the 1950s, and has always been a subset of popular media that, either deliberately or indirectly, tends to challenge societal conventions while keeping its core messages accessible to a young (and often predominantly female) audience.

Osamu Tezuka’s 1953 manga Princess Knight (aka Ribon no Kishi), for example, is a series regarded as the progenitor of the modern magical girl genre. This explored the concepts of gender identity and expression, and the subversion of societal expectations with regard to gender norms. And while this subject matter may have been seen as somewhat challenging to the more traditional side of 1950s Japan, it kept things understandable and entertaining to its audience through its European-style fairy tale presentation.

Writing for Nippon.com in 2015, Akiko Sugawa conjectured that magical girl manga and anime resonated with youngsters because it represented a relatable, rather mundane fantasy: the ability to explore the world of being an “adult”, and all the responsibilities that comes with, but on a temporary basis. When the crisis of the week had been resolved, the magical girls would transform back into their normal selves and, I don’t know, go and get crêpes, probably.

Something interesting happened in the early 2010s, though: Puella Magi Madoka Magica was released, and brought with it an interesting fusion of the candy-coloured, high-energy positivity of magical girl shows with some dark, violent, emotional psychological horror. Commentators described it as a “deconstruction” and “subversion” of the conventions of the magical girl genre, it remains a highly regarded work to this day — and has spawned numerous imitators.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica

The fusion of the dark and the horrifying with the colourful is nothing new, mind. If you look back to the late ’80s and early ’90s, numerous anime series from that time featured a bright, “cartoony” aesthetic coupled with horrifying imagery. As anime was just starting to become understood and recognised in the West at this point, many of these shows were held up as prime examples of how the medium was unashamedly “animation for adults”, with some still being regarded as horrific masterpieces to this day.

One of the ways that dark, 18-rated anime from this period stood out was its level of violence. And we’re not just talking blood and gore here — though there was plenty of that, too. We’re also talking sexual violence; something that Western media often shies away from depicting, even to this day, but which Japanese media seemed to embrace wholeheartedly at the time, and still does. Director of formative, classic sexual horror anime Urotsukidōji: Legend of the Overfiend, Hideki Takayama, is often quoted as saying that “there is nothing that arouses a stronger response in human beings than either sex or violence; a mixture of the two is very powerful indeed” — though actually tracking down the original source of this quote has always proven to be a bit of a challenge.

Urotsukidōji 2: Legend of the Demon Womb

One part of this that it’s worth contemplating is the fact that there is often — though not always — a fantastic angle to depictions of sexual assault in Japanese popular media. The concept of “tentacle rape” by otherworldly, uncanny entities is, in fact, so common in Japanese popular culture that it is the subject of frequent parody; you’ll find references to it in the most unexpected places at times, without shame and without judgement.

And it’s been around for a long time, too; the original idea is most commonly attributed to an illustration called The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife by an artist called Hokusai from an 1814 novel, though tentacle erotica in its current, more modern form is regarded to have been popularised throughout the ’80s and ’90s by manga artist Toshio Maeda and his work such as the original manga version of the aforementioned Urotsukidōji.

Urotsukidōji: Legend of the Overfiend

Interestingly, despite Maeda fully embracing his position as “Tentacle Master” over the years — he supposedly wishes that phrase to be his epitaph — the manga version of Urotsukidōji was somewhat tamer than Takayama’s notoriously brutal anime adaptation. After appreciating the dark majesty of his work’s animated reimagining, however, Maeda started to explore tentacles in greater detail in his own work. And there were eminently practical reasons for doing so.

“At that time pre-Urotsukidōji, it was illegal to create a sensual scene in bed,” said Maeda, looking back on his work in conversation with the Sake-Drenched Postcards column from bigempire.com in 2003. “I thought I should do something to avoid drawing such a normal sensual scene. So I just created a creature. His tentacle is not a penis as a pretext. I could say, as an excuse, this is not a penis; this is just a part of the creature. You know, the creatures, they don’t have a gender. A creature is a creature. So it is not obscene – not illegal.”

So where does Magicami DX fit in with all this? Well, simply put, by blending everything we’ve just talked about — with a healthy dose of the modern moe aesthetic to tie it all together. We’ve got brightly coloured, huge-eyed, cute girls with strong personalities and a penchant for doing cute things. We’ve got a dark and ambitious narrative that contemplates subject matter such as determinism and nihilism through fantastic elements such as time travel and parallel worlds. And we have some highly sexualised body horror that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Maeda’s works from his heyday.

Magicami DX is a game that isn’t shy about doing some seriously horrible things to its main characters. This usually comes at significant story moments from about a third of the way through the main narrative as it exists at the time of writing, and typically involves the girls facing a seemingly hopeless situation — culminating in one of them ending up raped by a demon and, subsequently, transformed into an abomination. (As you might expect, the all-ages version leaves the “rape” bit out; for those whose stomach is easily turned, the overall narrative doesn’t suffer for this, though there’s a definite emotional impact to the explicitly sexual scenes.)

One interesting thing about this is that it does so with the player likely having full knowledge that the conventions of character-collecting free-to-play gacha games mean that it is narratively impossible for anything permanent to happen to any of the main cast. This is a uniquely “video game” consideration that is particularly pertinent to this sector — when you’re talking about a game in which it’s entirely possible (though, I hasten to add, absolutely not necessary) for a player to invest significant amounts of their real-world money into a character’s development, you’re damn sure they’re never going to accept something permanent happening to them. And so it doesn’t, via means we’ve already mentioned in passing.

Strangely, that doesn’t diminish the impact of these terrible things when they do happen. Even safe in the knowledge that, in the end, everything is going to be all right, it’s still painful, upsetting and horrifying to see such terrible things happen to these characters. You build up such a close connection with them over the course of the game’s visual novel sequences that it’s impossible not to feel something when you see them suffering. On a personal level, it’s the sight of seeing a “friend” in agony. On a more macro scale, it’s the sight of something pure and perfect being defiled, even destroyed.

In this sense, the combination of dark, horrifying, extreme imagery with bright, candy-coloured moe character designs is enormously effective. It’s a clear juxtaposition; when you first meet these characters, it’s easy to feel like nothing bad will ever happen to them, since they’re all perfect hair, broad smiles, expressive eyes and exaggerated anime-style characterisation. When those bad things do happen, it’s all the more impactful, even if you knew they were coming; it’s such a contrast from what has come before that you can’t help but feel something, whether that’s revulsion, fear, horror… or dark, morbid fascination, and an accompanying sense of deep discomfort.

Crass? Emotionally manipulative? Blunt? Exploitative? You could probably argue for all of those things. But this sort of hard divide between “bright” and “dark” is an established trope precisely because it’s so effective. You might know that something bad is going to happen — but when? How? And to whom? And the colourful, optimistic cheeriness that is inevitably just moments prior to the soul-crushingly bad things happening just makes it all the more uneasy the more times you experience this.

Magicami DX nails this side of things with confidence. It makes for a compelling, fascinating narrative to explore. And that in turn, keeps you playing in the long term as you’re eager to see what happens next — and how these characters you’ll come to love will escape the darkness that seems to be closing in on them.

If you’d like to 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.


More about Magicami DX

If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the site via any of the services below! Your contributions help keep the lights on, the ads off and my shelves stocked up with things to write about!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com PayPal

8 thoughts on “Magicami DX: Candy-Coloured Darkness”

  1. I’m two days into a two-week holiday, and my plans to spend it productively are already in jeopardy because all my brain wants to do is play this game. I’m afraid I can’t comment on much of your article; I’ve not allowed myself to read it as I think I’m behind you in terms of plot progression! I’ve not encountered any darkness yet, although the story hints at the possibility of it pretty much from the start.

    There’s just so many things to like. The writing is crisp and clean, the characters are likeable (even the MC, which is rare!), the lore dumps are mercifully brief and infrequent. The pacing is good, mixing up familiar beats with a few surprises and plenty of jokes (‘who are you talking to?’ being a favourite recurring gag.) The production values are stellar: it shows up much bigger games on more ‘proper’ platforms thanks to its clear, cohesive aesthetic style and the unerring quality of its designs. The 2D art is gorgeous and the 3D doesn’t let the side down at all. It sounds fantastic too.

    So why do I feel so uneasy, when there’s so much to like? It’s because I’ve never played one of these freemium games before. I didn’t think I ever would, but this one has its hooks well and truly into me. I’ve already experienced serious FOMO right from the start, with the game dangling time-limited purchases and events in front of me that created an immediate pressure to spend. The complex multitude of currencies, consumables and stores is unnerving.

    Don’t get me wrong: the free content is highly polished and certainly generous. If this was a game that came in a box and cost £50, I’d be sold, and I rarely pay full whack for anything these days. But I look at this game and I see the potential for it to cost far more than that. I know that with gacha you don’t pay for what you want, you pay for a chance at getting what you want. And even if/when you eventually get the thing you’re after today, the developers can manufacture theoretically limitless demand in your monkey brain simply by releasing an ever-changing menu of shiny new drops.

    That scares me. The game is quality enough that it deserves to make money, but I don’t want to become a whale, and I’ve heard about those studies that suggest how easy it is for spending to get out of control, as your psychological resistance lowers dramatically after even one purchase.

    I’m deeply ambivalent to say the least. At the moment I wonder whether it wouldn’t be better just to burn out on it entirely than to let myself get invested in it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I understand your concern 100%, believe me — it’s been my biggest barrier to getting truly invested in these games previously, too. But past experiences with some of the more popular examples of this kind of game have made me feel a lot better about it than in the past.

      The absolutely essential thing to remember with today’s gacha games is that they’re all designed to be perfectly playable as a free-to-play player these days. There is no real “pay to win” as such — instead, you tend to be offered the choice between paying money, or paying time. In other words, you’ll probably progress faster if you pay up, but you won’t necessarily end up “better”.

      Another key thing is to ask yourself why you’re playing. If you’re in it for the story, you’ll be able to get all the way through using what the game provides for free. These days, these games tend to be designed in such a way that only those who get invested in the endgame side of things will feel the need to pay up — and the grind-heavy nature of endgame isn’t for everyone.

      Would I prefer a standalone computer or console game featuring these characters? Absolutely hell yes. But this is what we’ve got for now, so I’m going to enjoy it — and hopefully if more people enjoy it, that standalone version might end up happening sometime. Stranger things have happened — look at Granblue!

      Like

      1. Thanks, that’s reassuring to hear. Incidentally, I’ve reached the end of chapter 4 now, so it’s safe to say my perspective on the game has taken a sharp turn! o_O

        I’ll play on, but it’ll be more out of the morbid curiosity that makes horror flicks so gruesomely compelling than the light-hearted adventure I was enjoying before. I was aware of the possibility that they’d pull a Madoka, and.. whew, did they ever.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Day three and progress is slowing considerably. The game actually gets really hard, especially if you don’t have the right kind of elemental dresses (I’ve yet to pick up any lightning).

    I enjoy the combat getting more tactical, but it’s frustrating when one character starts getting focussed down as you have very limited options for helping them out. Losing a character tends to snowball into inevitable defeat unless you’re in the final wave.

    I’m beginning to get a feel for the resource economy. You certainly have plenty of options. You can spend a combination of time, stamina and jewels trying to brute force your way through the story. Or you can spend time and stamina grinding previous story quests trying to fill out your roster of secondary dresses. Or you can spend bells, thread and exotic mats enhancing the dresses you have. Or you can spend jewels on the gacha and hope for some power ups. There’s probably a few things I’m missing.

    At the moment I’m feeling too underpowered to keep going with new story. I’m not sure whether to go back and try to get all the casual and track sub-dresses I’m missing, or to start spending my reserves of in game currency. I could blow all my jewels on gacha or all my bells on enhancing, but I’m not sure what’s optimal or whether I need to be saving for something down the line. Do you have any advice?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m up to chapter 9 now, and it does definitely get harder — interestingly, it’s not just a case of levelling up to keep pace with things, the fights just get genuinely more difficult.

      Buffs and debuffs are super-important. Kaori’s heal/attack up buff from her default dress should be applied whenever possible, and Seira’s stun is super-useful for taking a bit of pressure off yourself. Lilly should be used to cancel/steal enemy buffs whenever possible, too — her passive on her default dress does that, so she just needs to hit them.

      Depending on your jewel stocks, hitting up the gacha once or twice might be worthwhile — don’t forget you probably have some tickets from the tutorial, missions and gifts, too, so make sure you use those, as well. When assembling your party, you get significant bonuses if you match character and element of sub-dresses to the main dress. Some dresses have a passive that allow them to act as a “wild card”, meaning they can be used to get this bonus with any element.

      Blowing your bells on enhancing is a good idea. You can get everyone’s main dress up to 50 or so without having to break the bank, and perhaps even higher; my best Iroha is 58, I think. Don’t neglect levelling the sub-dresses, either; although they only contribute a fraction of their power (more so if they match element/character, as previously mentioned) it still makes a difference. One big yarn can generally get a sub-dress from 1 to nearly 20, so that’s definitely worth doing.

      Skills are worth enhancing, too, but that’s a slow process as it requires grinding the daily quests for the materials. So long as your girls are up to the job, you can always leave a daily on auto-repeat for a bit while you do something else.

      Don’t forget to do missions, and you can get a ton of gems from the bond/dress stories too, so don’t neglect those if you don’t mind sitting back for a bit of reading for a while.

      Hope that all helps! I’ll write something in more depth on the actual combat mechanics next week, in all likelihood.

      Like

      1. Thanks, I’m sure this will help a lot. I tried looking for some tips on reddit, there wasn’t much there, then 4chan, where the thread counts ran into the hundres and they all seemed to be talking in code. I think I might be way too casual for this sort of thing!

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.