Blue Reflection marks a slight departure for Koei Tecmo’s generally JRPG-focused division Gust. It partially foregoes the fantastical setting of their previous titles like Atelier and Nights of Azure and instead opts to tell the bulk of its story via a high school in modern-day Japan.
Centred around Hinako Shirai – a troubled girl who is finally starting classes at high school after a lengthy rehabilitation period for a leg injury sustained during ballet – the game bounces back and forth between her daily student activities and trips to the Common, a magical world in which Hinako and her aides Yuzu and Lime assume the role of Reflectors (aka magical girls) and fight to relieve their classmates of their real life inner demons.
Although it likely only received a portion of the budget and development time that Atlus sunk into their blockbuster Persona 5, Blue Reflection takes similar strides in its attempt to breathe new life into the classic (and arguably outdated) JRPG model in 2017. The combat is routinely turn-based, but there’s a effort to spruce things up by adding a visual overlay of the ATB (Active Time Battle) system with knockback mechanics that allow you to strategise and plot your moves in a way that gives the enemy fewer chances to retaliate. The UI is sleek and supplemented with features geared towards offering a true 21st century RPG experience, including what is definitely not an iPhone decked with a F2P game and an instant messenger app that serves to provide both comical and heartfelt interactions between characters. They’re millennial equivalents to skits and textbooks that will feel warmly familiar to anyone who spends too much time dipping through various text conversations and sharing memes on social media sites.
Where Blue Reflection truly shines, however, are in the moments in which its setting and story structure grant it the opportunity to zero in on the real life pressures of young adulthood. Hinako’s struggle to accept that her injury spells the end of her ballet ambitions features prominently through the early hours of the game, and it’s a battle that closely mirrors one many young adults face growing up in today’s society. Her emotions might seem extreme and reactionary to some – she frequently mentions that she feels without ballet, she “might as well be dead” – but for those that invest their life’s work into achieving something only to be greeted by the mental image of a dead end, it’s a frightening storm of sensations that can takes its toll on both confidence and personal wellbeing. When you add the impact the incident has on her social standing – she’s denied access to the ‘special’ class for ‘gifted’ students as a result of her injury – it becomes a picture-perfect representation of the failings of today’s elitist schooling system. Some people might flock to games for escapism from their real world problems, but being able to work through similar situations and come out triumphant in a virtual environment can serve as the strength necessary to push on and attain their own aspirations – and the sincerity to which Blue Reflection offers that exact outlet is the game’s greatest asset.
In an ideal world, we’d be able to dub Hinako’s adventure a beacon of hope for JRPGs going forward – but given the weight of its flaws, it would be disingenuous and delusional to do so. Blue Reflection is admittedly a game of small disappointments, but the abundance in which they crop up is enough to put a severe dampener on the experience as a whole. Its art direction is pristine and aesthetically-pleasing, but the abrupt transitions between battles and moving between areas coupled with constant framerate drops persistently threatens to break all layers of immersion. It’s packed with thoughtfully composed cutscenes, but they’re interlaced with grossly voyeuristic shots of skirts and thigh-high socks that insinuate you’re watching events unfold from the perspective of some lecherous old man peeking on high school girls. It’s sadly not uncommon for copious amounts of sexualisation to appear within JRPGs, but its inclusion here is particularly unsettling given the grace in which it handles other sensitive issues.
Perhaps one of Blue Reflection’s most utterly exasperating moments comes towards the beginning of the game. There’s an incident in which you’re tasked with the responsibility of counselling a schoolmate drowning in the woes of teenage love. The dialogue in which she first reveals to you the nature of her crush notably doesn’t contain any indication towards their gender – at least in the context of the English translation – and there’s a glimmer of hope that it might be the start of a beautiful and rewarding character arc that ends with her and her upperclassman happily enamoured with each other on campus. Alas, the object of her affection turns out to instead be a guy who flits in and out of the school to help coach the tennis team – and the perfect location to explore the nuances of same sex relationships that is an all-girls high school is immediately discredited. Maybe the narrative redeems itself in its later chapters – there is an NPC who showcases a keen interest in another girl, albeit in an alarmingly more stalker-ish manner – but for a genre that infamously fails its LGBT audience more often than it provides for them, it’s frustrating to see such a golden opportunity for character development squandered for a worn-out cliche.
In a year where we’ve seen titles demonstrate the tremendous amount of potential for JRPGs as a genre – both in their reinvention of old mechanics and their determination to delve deep into societal issues – it’s sad to see that developers still refuse to weed out inconsistencies and representation issues. The inability to tackle the latter might be indicative of issues bigger than just the gaming industry, but it’s not naive to think that in the near future we could see a JRPG that learns from the positives of a game like Blue Reflection whilst remedying its failings.