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Blue Reflection - Analytical PlayStation 4 Review

Blue-Reflection-Image-1-700x495 Blue Reflection - Analytical PlayStation 4 Review

The nostalgic past, as intimate and beautiful as it may seem, can hold us back from a greater happiness--growing up is knowing when to let go.

  • System: PS4
  • Publisher: Koei Tecmo
  • Developer: Gust Co. Ltd.
  • Release Date: Sept 26, 2017
  • Pricing: $59.99
  • Rating: Teen
  • Genre: Role-playing game
  • Players: Single player
  • Official Website: http://www.koeitecmoamerica.com/bluereflection/

Who it Caters to

Gust has made a bold move in recent years, pushing towards unfamiliar territory and new IPs. Azure Nights was their experiment at action RPGs while Blue Reflection is their attempt to tread new yet familiar ground. Blue Reflection is a recent addition to their lineup, and it continues their signature atmospheric music and beautiful visuals, keeping true to what fans of Gust’s beloved Ar Tonelico and Atelier series already know and love. Keeping their audience in mind while pushing a more personal tale of adolescent identity, Blue Reflection is a story that takes place in the nostalgic past: the memory, struggles, and bonds that we go through in high school. Using a familiar and conventional setting, Blue Reflection appears at first to be a rather safe take on the role-playing and magical girl genre, but a number of risks and decisions Gust employs should intrigue old and new audiences.

Blue Reflection - Story Teaser

What to Expect

Themes of Reflection: the Story, Visuals, & Audio

For those unaware of Gust games, it’s not peculiar for their stories to be intertwined with their visuals and audio. One example is Gust’s Ar Tonelico universe, where the very future, livelihood, and survival of its characters depends on the music you hear, the song the characters sing. Ar Nosurge/Ciel Nosurge, in particular, also play upon the visuals of the game medium, making the screen through which you’re watching an actual part of the story.

What some consider secondary to the story and gameplay, the music and visuals of Gust’s stories are so often intertwined with their works that to remove them would be like yanking the blue out of reflection. It’s not always explicitly obvious or stated within Gust stories, but there’s a very good reason why the music and visuals are such memorable parts of the experience for Gust fans.


Story

Blue Reflection takes place in a seemingly innocuous setting, Hoshinomiya Girls’ High School. The main character, Hinako Shirai, is a girl whose entire identity hinges on her ability to dance. Formerly a prestigious ballerina, a leg injury leaves her unable to move as she did in the past. No longer able to express herself through dance, Hinako is stuck in the past, unable to lift her feelings of regret. After an extended absence, she returns back to high school. Everything seems to be normal until a strange light flashes upon the two empty desks beside her, revealing two girls, Lime and Yuzu.

Yuzu and Lime are Reflectors, magical girls whose power allows them to battle demons in the Common, a world created by Humanity’s collective unconsciousness and emotions. By collecting fragments of human thoughts and emotions, Reflectors can fight back against the Sephira, colossal monsters that threaten to destroy life. Before the world is destroyed, Yuzu and Lime need someone else to join them. That person is Hinako, the third Reflector.

Art Direction and Thematic Qualities

To help convey its messages, Blue Reflection makes a deliberate attempt to convey its dialogue and cinematics through movie directing. In the film, “letterboxing,” is the transferring of film shots into a widescreen aspect ratio. This results in black bars below and above the visuals when movies become ported to videos or discs.
Blue-Reflection-Image-1-700x495 Blue Reflection - Analytical PlayStation 4 Review
If Blue Reflection is neither a film nor restricted by widescreen displays, the obvious question is “why the letterbox?” The obvious answer is that it serves a simple functional purpose. The black bars exist so dialogue and text can appear, relinquishing the need to design text boxes. This concern for budget might be a partial explanation, however, there is a more fundamental reason. Letterboxes, besides being a visual indicator of the film medium, also have a thematic quality: condensing the world we see.

When we look back upon our lives and examine our past, we’re looking at the past through a focused lens, a singular, condensed perspective of what life is. At some point or another, many people reflect on their childhood, and while not all memories of high school are fond, it’s certainly a time where much of our identity is developing. This is a time before we head into the real world, a time where our worldview has not fully developed. We’re children on the verge of becoming adults, and this closed world, while only one aspect of our lives, is a small and very personal one.

Blue Reflection, without a doubt, wants to conjure up feelings of nostalgia, and by associating itself during a time where we’re still growing up, it chooses to display a highly-condensed and focused narrative about youth. While nostalgia is itself a “rose-colored lens,” Blue Reflection is more than just a story about the past. It’s a story about someone so traumatized by her loss, she can’t give up the past--she is so trapped by the nostalgia of what once was, she’s unable to live in the present or dream of a future. While nostalgia can bring feelings of intimacy, obsessing over the past can be a trap. The letterbox the visuals brings us intimately close to someone who can’t escape it. We’re trapped alongside her, and this narrow, condensed world that we see on the screen is the same world she sees.

There are only two times the game opens up from this “letterbox framing,” and that’s when either the player controls Hinako or during very specific cutscenes when her identity expands.

Blue-Reflection-Image-1-700x495 Blue Reflection - Analytical PlayStation 4 Review
The magical girl genre is another deliberate decision. If Power Rangers are to boys then Magical Girls are too, well, girls. These stories commonly have themes about innocence, the bonds between family and friends, hesitations in growing up, and conquering fear through the support of your friends and understanding of your emotions. All of these themes help structure a perspective on a very complex issue: adolescent identity.

It’s no surprise that magical girls are often associated with adolescent growth and student life, and it’s this familiar combination is exactly what Blue Reflections wants to emphasize. The memories of high school share themes with the magical girl genre and by borrowing the magical girl genre, the game is given structure. The fights in the Common, the battle against demons to protect humanity’s emotions and thoughts, parallels the same demons we face in our lives. Rampant emotions break bonds, but by understanding them and resolving them, the protagonist’s powers and her sense of self-become stronger. To change the outside world, one must first reflect on themselves.

Blue-Reflection-Image-1-700x495 Blue Reflection - Analytical PlayStation 4 Review

Sound Direction and Thematic Qualities

Music is unquestionably one of Gust’s strongest points and Blue Reflection is no exception in the ever-growing library of Gust compositions. The composer and sound director of Blue Reflection is Hayato Asano. While he has worked on music before, his memorable work being on Atelier Shallie and Nights of Azure, this is his first time where he’s been given full creative direction for a Gust title--a very bold decision given that Blue Reflection is a new IP. However, this boldness is where Blue Reflection best shines. The risks shown in the art direction is mirrored here in the music.

If sound had wheels, then Hayato is the vehicle that drives the music forward. His ability to hone in on to the themes of Blue Reflection make for some of the most memorable soundtracks I’ve heard in any game, and coming from a company that has defined itself by its music, Hayato has more than proven himself as one of the industry’s best composers. I can think of no higher praise than to say Blue Reflection could not be improved by any other composer.

In Blue Reflection there are 3 areas where the music is explicitly different. These areas are the high school, the Common, and the boss fights against the colossal Sephira. In defining these areas distinctly, one begins to see the ingenuity in the sound direction.

Right from the title screen, we’re presented with a brief look into Hayato’s creative mind. A melody reminiscent of a graduation song is played, its voice characterized by a piano solo that echoes as if played in an auditorium. This piano keeps building itself, moving until it comes into contact with daily life. The sound of trains moving across train tracks and the ringing of the closing gates set the listener on a destination.

Continually building its presence, the piano gains momentum, it moves alongside the train until we’re close to people, their voices create an atmosphere, their voices adding a new layer of sound. The piano steps back from the melody. It plays chords to support the introduction of an unfamiliar sound. Without being jarring, synthesized music is eased into the song by the piano gently nudging it forward. Its introduction akin to a new student in the class, scared at first, but part of the nostalgia of school life. The sounds of the chalkboard being erased chime in, and we’re finally at our destination: high school.

Whereas synthesized music was less prominent before, in the Common, a world where the Reflectors fight against demons for humanity’s thoughts and emotions, explodes into fray. Electronic music quickly defines the Common’s battle music. The instrumentals, the clear piano, and violins are given willpower. It synergizes into a symphony against a present threat, a discord of sparse but strong bassline of dubstep. The battle music presents itself as hopeful, the battle favoring our protagonists, however...

Blue-Reflection-Image-1-700x495 Blue Reflection - Analytical PlayStation 4 Review

...The boss battles, a fight for survival, a violent clashing of good and evil. Each theme comes into play as the battle grows closer to its finish, each voice desperately trying to control the outcome and the direction of battle. The voice of everyday life (instrumentals) needs the hope of the future (electronic music) to combat an obstacle so colossal, its very movement, the Sephira’s heavy drumming of its steps, changes the music (dubstep). In the three phases, players go through to defeat a boss, the music evolves into a different rendition of the theme, a swaying back and forth between the hope and despair. As the Sephira gets closer, and you reach the final phase of the boss battle, the Reflectors no longer look ahead in the distance, they must look up and face the evil that towers over them.

In these moments, the very best moments of Blue Reflection, you truly feel a desperate sense of urgency: do or die. This moment defines everything you’ve fought to become, and whether your voice becomes quelled by the discord or becomes a symphony through which you become a hero, all of these racing thoughts and emotions must settle on your belief that you can brave through the fearful unknown. Blue Reflection’s music captures perfectly the internal struggle, the fight we take within to define ourselves and world.

Gameplay

Blue Reflection’s gameplay can roughly be divided into 12 chapters with in-between subchapters. As the player progresses through the story, the protagonist interacts and helps the supporting characters come to terms with their emotions, doing so helps her recognize the same emotions within herself. Chapters are usually divided between daily life as a student and fighting as a Reflector.
Blue-Reflection-Image-1-700x495 Blue Reflection - Analytical PlayStation 4 Review

Daily Life

The main aspect of daily life is structured around a mission system. Whenever you begin a new chapter, a plethora of missions will pop up and these are put into 5 categories:
  • Common Search: a mission where the player must defeat a specific enemy or gather items
  • Item: crafting a specific item will complete this quest
  • Important: missions that involve bonding with 1 of the 12 supporting characters
  • Location: Missions that require the player to visit a specific area in school
  • Vital: Missions that govern the leveling system
Vital missions are the most integral missions in the game. At the beginning, there are two vital missions. The first is “Let’s Aim for X Rating Points” and the second is “Let’s Deepen Our Bonds.” The former that lets you progress through a chapter and hitting certain milestones will give you growth points to invest in your attack, defense, support, or “technic.” The latter is the game’s way of incentivizing players to bond with 1 of the 12 supporting girls. Choosing to interact with these characters either prompts visual indicator of their affection, which you can raise by spending the day with them, or a cutscene. Either result will gift the player 1 bond point, 5 of which will grant you a growth point to invest in your stats.

It’s important to mention that level ups are limited and points you invest in your stats will give you different abilities. Luckily, the game displays the requirements needed to get certain skills, so players are able to plan ahead on how they build their characters. Raising the affection of the supporting cast also gifts the player with skill equipment. Attaching this equipment modifies the properties of the attack or support skills ranging from damage output to status-affliction. Carefully modifying your skills will enable multiple strategies to unfold in battle.

Blue-Reflection-Image-1-700x495 Blue Reflection - Analytical PlayStation 4 Review

Battle System

The battle system is an interesting mix of real-time and turn-based combat that’s governed by a timeline. Player characters are represented by moving portraits on the left while enemies on the right. Turn order is indicated by whichever character or enemy reaches the center first. When a character turn arises their options are as follows:
  • Attack: Your offensive skill selection of physical, magical, and turn order delay attacks
  • Support: Your defensive options like healing, buffs, debuffs, and ailment-affliction
  • Ether Charge: An option that puts your character into a charge stance. Characters during this state will continually recover their magic points while charging up the Ether Gauge, a bar that ranges from 0 - 100 that governs your option to use overdrive or additional skills while waiting for turns to arise
  • Overdrive: Characters are able to choose another attack or support skill for every 30% of the ether gauge spent
As the game progress, you will unlock options while waiting for your turn as well, all of which sacrifice the ether gauge for different effects:
  • Support (Healing): Holding up on the d-pad heals the supporting cast, which can be triggered when Reflectors choose to attack or support skills, giving additional damage or buffs to your characters. This option, as well as support attacks, are only available during boss fights
  • Guard: Holding right on the d-pad increases the guard gauge. By raising the guard gauge higher, damage inflicted is lowered or by timing your guard just as enemies attack, you can reduce damage
  • Timeline: Holding down on the d-pad increases the speed your characters reach the center of the timeline while slowing down the enemy
  • Recovery: Holding left on the d-pad heals HP and MP in slow increments
In general, the battle mechanics are well thought out. Decisions governed by the Ether Gauge will generally be the path towards victory, but spending too much time charging it will open you up to attacks. Utilizing attacks that delay enemy turns are powerful, but can only be done twice on an enemy before they are ineffective--the next opportunity arising only after they’ve finally taken their turn. Some skills are placed upon the timeline and have a delayed reaction, allowing players to plan ahead, while others are effective immediately. Overall, the battle system is free-form enough for players to experience a conceptually fun race to dominate the timeline.


Honey's Gameplay Consensus:

Blue-Reflection-Image-1-700x495 Blue Reflection - Analytical PlayStation 4 Review
Although so much of the visuals in this game help supplement the experience, there are some very unfortunate issues in the gameplay. While the battle system is innovative, the plethora of equipment you can attach to skills allows for a lot of battle strategies, the difficult setting of this game is extremely easy and enemy variety low, which is a huge shame given how free-form player strategies can be.

The daily life missions are also a bit of a hassle. While it’s praiseworthy to use a new leveling mechanic, especially since it synergizes with the idea of how Reflectors build strength from their bonds and emotions ties, it’s a little unfortunate that so many missions become a chore instead of an experience.

Scenes where voice acting takes place and camera angles are purposefully shot end up being the highlights of Blue Reflection’s story while the best battles are almost always the boss battles, the very rare time that players are challenged. Despite the flaws in gameplay, I think most of it is forgivable. The emotional journey ends up being a rather enriching one, and just as Blue Reflection took risks that failed in gameplay, it also took risks that certainly paid off in its story.

Honey's Pros:

  • A well-thought-out, familiar story of adolescent growth and identity
  • Music is astounding and easily among some of Gust’s best soundtracks
  • Great art direction that ties together and enriches the story and its themes
  • An interesting idea on a new leveling system that doesn’t involve fighting multiple battles

Honey's Cons:

  • An extremely easy difficulty setting that makes most battles far too short
  • A number of missions and their low variety end up making finishing missions feel like a chore

Honey's Final Verdict:

I think that whether players can enjoy this game hinges on how much they’re willing to accept Blue Reflection’s risks and flaws. Giving the entire OST to a new composer, structuring visuals through movie directing, creating a unique leveling system, and an open-ended battle system all have their merits, especially when the game seems to have budget constraints. While battles and missions are repetitive, I feel that a second addition to the series could reduce financial constraints while building upon an already amazing foundation. Hopefully, this won’t be the last of Blue Reflection. I truly wish to see more.

I really enjoyed writing this article, and although I wish I could say more, I think I’ll leave it open for future discussion. Feel free to comment below if you enjoyed the game or article. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Blue-Reflection-Image-1-700x495 Blue Reflection - Analytical PlayStation 4 Review

Writer

Author: Sean "Coopa" Hoang

A motivated writer hoping to share his passion for video games, literature, and visual media. I'm the main streamer of FinestKO, a variety game stream with roots in the fighting game community. Whenever there's time, you can usually find me broadcasting or writing for the next article.

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