Blue Reflection: Second Light Review (Switch)
For ages, many have sought to understand the meaning of life. Why is everyone here, and what is our purpose? Ask a handful of people their response and you’re certain to receive many different answers. Developer Gust and publisher Koei Tecmo’s Blue Reflection: Second Light, a sequel to 2017’s Blue Reflection, takes the age-old question and makes it a bit more specific: what is the meaning of my life?
This inquiry is the foundation of everything that unfolds in this narrative-driven JRPG that spans multiple bizarre worlds. While the game makes a heck of a first impression, things do get shaky as the curtain is pulled back.
Ao Hoshizaki serves as the centerpiece of Blue Reflection: Second Light – an ordinary college student who, unbeknownst to her, is about to embark on an extraordinary adventure. She longs to exchange her dull, “meaningless” life for something with substance. While walking to summer class one day, she drops her phone and upon picking it up, everything goes white. Next thing she knows, she’s waking up to some new friends at an abandoned school in the ocean, where she has apparently been living for a few days.
Although the girls are in the same age range, Ao is the outlier because she’s the only one that still has her memories – her three new companions remember nothing prior to their arrival at the mysterious world. Feeling a true sense of purpose – perhaps for the first time in her life – Ao tries everything she can to jog the memories of her new friends. This ultimately results in the creation of Heartscapes, explorable worlds manifested through the emotions of each girl that are key to getting their memories back.
But do they really want their memories back? Were their pasts filled with things better left in the void? How will their future change when they are “made whole” again? This reflection may differ greatly from each girl, but one thing they certainly can agree upon is this: emotions are powerful, and all memories are worth holding onto as they help us learn from our past, help lead our present, and can ultimately shape our future.
Narratively speaking, Blue Reflection: Second Light is one of the most interesting and unique RPGs I’ve played in some time. On the surface, one could easily dismiss it all as “trope overload” – amnesiac characters are extremely common in RPGs after all, and ALMOST EVERYONE has lost their memory here – but that couldn’t be further from the truth. While Ao will help uncover the memories of close to a dozen girls, the team gets to experience those memories firsthand (and together) through the Heartscapes.
Having a front seat view to these important memories and seeing how they slowly shape each character is a genuinely interesting process. It’s a very raw, emotional point of view that simply cannot be replicated by more traditional memory reveals in other games. That’s not to say that every single character is interesting beyond a surface level, but there is some intriguing depth here either way.
Akin to Gust’s flagship franchise, Atelier, Blue Reflection: Second Light heavily emphasizes character development through tons of bite-sized sub events. Normally this is a good thing, but when certain gameplay imperfections are brought up later, it can often feel like the gameplay reins are rarely given to the player. This is especially true if you avoid doing some of the things back at the school and then return there after some time has passed.
Tons of events can trigger automatically when all you really want to do is craft and get back to the action – and I use “action” loosely here because as mentioned earlier, the game is still very much about storytelling and character development. Newly unlocked Heartscapes can also feel bloated with sub events, which can be distracting when trying to focus on the little bit of exploration available to the player.
Blue Reflection: Second Light features a large cast whose struggles and imperfections are mostly relatable, but almost to a detrimental degree. There are few genuinely interesting reveals because most of the memories are from, well, seemingly normal people dealing with normal situations (ie. bullying, friends moving away, etc.). While the player may be able to legitimately feel for certain characters in these situations, it also doesn’t inherently make their background stories interesting either (save for a couple that are pretty neat).
For these reasons, the main arc and general air of mystery surrounding it tends to carry most of the weight (rather than the characters themselves), which is a bit unfortunate since ¾ of the adventure is spent simply introducing the entire cast and finding their memories. The result is some of the excitement waning as layers are peeled back, but things do once again ramp up towards the story’s end (which, if you are brand-new to the Blue Reflection brand like I am, is pretty mind blowing).
For those concerned about missing context from not having played the first game or watched the anime, I didn’t even know all of it existed and still enjoyed most of what Blue Reflection: Second Light had to offer story-wise. There weren’t any standout events that went way over my head due to a lack of knowledge of its predecessor.
While the narrative undoubtedly takes center stage for most of Blue Reflection: Second Light, there are some interesting systems to explore within those moments. The core loop is this: find new friends in the mysterious world, draw their emotions out to unlock their heartscapes, explore and battle through each to uncover their memories, and finally return to school to regroup, refresh, strengthen relationships, and build stuff.
Blue Reflection: Second Light utilizes a real-time battle system that pauses the playing field while individual commands are dished out – basically “wait mode” in a traditional ATB system. Rather than expending MP, all actions require a certain amount of ether to use, which is naturally accumulated as time passes in a battle. Both sides of the battlefield have elemental strengths and weaknesses to take advantage of, and both are susceptible to being knocked down, which will stun the unit in question for a short time.
As more and more actions are taken, party members will raise their Gear Level, increasing their ether accumulation rate and opening up new attacks to use. Upon reaching Gear Level 3, they will visually transform into Reflectors, which are essentially superheroine forms powered by emotions. Sounds dumb to say, but when considering how emotions play a key factor in virtually everything in Blue Reflection: Second Light, it’s at least thematically sound.
While these transformations are neat to see the first few times, they quickly become annoying because they cannot be skipped (though the game will automatically skip them sometimes). This results in even the most trivial encounters having the potential to last much longer than they should, which can be especially frustrating when hunting weak enemies for certain crafting materials. It just tacks on a lot of additional time for no good reason at all.
Each successful attack landed on the enemy will increase the party’s combo meter, increasing the damage dealt of subsequent attacks. While the combo meter doesn’t normally reset when the enemy lands a blow on the player, more powerful enemies and bosses have abilities which CAN reset it to zero. Fortunately, Ao has an ability that can guard against this if the player times it properly.
Furthermore, powerful enemies that are knocked down and broken completely will initiate a temporary one-on-one fight between themselves and the party member that dealt the final blow. In this mode, actions made by the player are performed completely in real-time (as opposed to the wait mode in normal combat) but, if timed properly, can deal some serious damage. Screw up, however, and the party member in the one-on-one can be knocked out. Powerful enemies can also initiate a one-on-one randomly outside of the aforementioned conditions, but it is pretty rare.
Some crafted items can also be used in combat. Like skills, they expend ether (but also the item itself) upon use. All three active party members and single support member can use items as they see fit, though the latter may only use them on a periodic, cyclical basis. Additionally, this support member will automatically use various skills on the same cyclical basis as items, but these actions vary depending on the character in the support slot.
Exploration and Crafting
Despite the obvious Atelier inspiration, Blue Reflection: Second Light is far less about exploration and losing oneself in the intricacies of crafting. Each Heartscape features fairly linear maps with little to no explorative components.
Enemies can either be avoided (which can be difficult in certain areas due to narrow paths) or contacted to initiate a battle. Using Ao’s scythe to preemptively slash the enemy on the map will result in an ether advantage in battle, with an additional knockdown bonus provided if attacking from stealth mode. This “stealth mode” slows down Ao’s movement speed but allows her to see the aggro radius of every enemy on the map, making it much easier to avoid certain enemies in tight spaces and take advantage of the aforementioned preemptive striking bonuses.
Gathering ingredients on the map is simple and straightforward – touch a node to collect it. There are no tools that need to be used for certain types of gathering points (they all look like crystallized balls), and there are only a handful of remote locations that require specific on-use crafted tools in order to reach. Ao cannot jump and can only climb/interact with her surroundings at very specific points on the map, which can take some of the wind out of the explorative sails (the game even calls these spots “travel gimmicks,” which makes me think that the developers didn’t even like them).
If the player is making an effort to pick up everything along the way, there’s not likely to be anything that they lack component-wise for crafting with the exception of monster drops – more specifically, sand, which is apparently the rarest freaking thing in existence. This really only becomes an issue when upgrading the school (more on that later) but can be very frustrating when trying to focus on one or two specific ingredients to no avail.
Crafting is basic in Blue Reflection: Second Light, but is nonetheless integral in progressing the narrative and increasing the player’s prowess in combat. Subcomponents are selected and then combined by four girls of your choice, with the latter providing a bit of variance in the outcome of the final product. Each girl can also individually provide some crafting enhancements based on certain unlockable passives and while the added variance does make a difference, it isn’t very compelling or interesting from a gameplay/mechanical perspective. Eventually, school facilities can be created and placed around the lot that will lead to new character interactions and provide bonuses and perks to the team.
Home Base: The School
The mysterious school in the middle of the ocean serves as the base of operations in Blue Reflection: Second Light. From here, the player can craft, visit heartscapes, explore the school, and witness a metric ton of story events. During downtime at the school, Ao can opt to catch up with her girlfriends by taking on requests (or side quests) or periodically asking them on friendly dates (additional character development).
The former usually consists of creating items for the client, sneaking around in previous Heartscapes, or defeating certain enemies, the latter amounting to walking painfully slow to a certain location to view a cutscene (fast travel helps here). Neither of these features are bad, but the dates can be interrupted very easily should the player happen to walk upon another sub event while trying to reach the date location.
Blue Reflection: Second Light does, however, compensate the player well for partaking in these side activities – a bit too much, maybe. Ao and her companions can only be strengthened through traditional level ups, talents, and fragments; there is no traditional equipment system. Talents unlock various character-specific skills and passives, and its currency (TP) is almost completely accumulated through the aforementioned date and request systems. Fragments are quite similar to talents in that they unlock skills, passives, and are obtained through dates, but each character has a specific limit of fragments they can equip at any given time.
What this means is that if the player wants any degree of character progression beyond leveling up, they’ll have to do side content. Although this “optional content” is initially doled out at a reasonable pace, it quickly snowballs into an overwhelming amount of things to do as the team’s roster expands with new girls.
Going back to what I previously said, this leads to many moments where you just want to actually play the game, but instead are drowned in exposition. Ample side content is never a bad thing, mind you, but having it so deeply ingrained in character power and progression feels a bit odd. And that’s not even considering how annoying some of the side quests can be, like the stealth missions that really seem out of place here.All criticisms thus far may come across as splitting hairs, but the truth is that numerous minor issues can easily grow into a bigger concern.
Graphics and Sound
Blue Reflection: Second Light appears to piggyback off the Ryza engine, so it naturally shares some of the same qualities (and imperfections) of its cousins. The overall art direction and sound design are excellent and compliment each other quite well. The various Heartscapes created through individual character’s emotions have, well, a lot of character to them, blending some naturally beautiful scenery with twisted, bizarre elements appropriate to dream-like worlds.
This is backed up by many piano-led tunes that have been injected with quirky instruments and odd sound bits, such as static interference akin to adjusting a radio, that really help solidify a sense of “familiar unfamiliarity.” In battle, all the stops are pulled out when some extremely catchy, upbeat tunes that we’ve come to expect from Gust RPGs come out swinging. Honestly, this soundtrack is probably one of my favorites to release on the Switch this year – is this foreshadowing a future Bard Banter?!
Blue Reflection: Second Light also features many unlockable (and some paid) outfits for the ensemble of girls, as well as, uh, questionable camera angles and physics aplenty that are clearly aimed for fans of those kinds of things (though reportedly this version has been toned down compared to the original release). Blue Reflection: Second Light does have its share of visual flaws, though. The combat camera is pretty rough, and quickly goes between different angles during each attack.
Whether this was a stylistic choice or a way to hide imperfections (or the incompleteness) of certain skill animations is unknown, but it’s distracting. Sometimes, hair and clothing will become frozen in odd, unnatural positions before ragdolling back into their proper places (the short-haired girls do not have this problem, however). There’s also a bit of pop in here and there, but a certain level of that is to be expected in just about any Switch game at this point.
Blue Reflection: Second Light also lacks a deep variety of enemy assets, but that is a common issue amongst most Gust games. Boss variety fares a bit better, but they do suffer from feeling samey from a mechanical standpoint and also just feeling a bit generic design-wise. The team refers to enemies as demons, and while regular enemies do play into a style that most would consider demon-like, almost every boss is a more robotic, futuristic type demon that just feels a bit off. That said, this stylistic choice for bosses does compliment what is eventually revealed in the story quite well.
Finally, voices persist in and out of combat regardless of whether you turn voices off from the menu. I tell you what, the combat banter of these girls would rival any Tales game. Blue Reflection: Second Light also doesn’t feature an English dub and although this is pretty standard fare for newer Gust releases, you’d figure that with the recent international success of the Atelier series that there would be enough in the budget to make it happen. Regardless, issues aside, the game’s setting, theme, soundtrack, and narrative all line up in a very impressive way.
The thought-provoking narrative and surreal worlds found in Blue Reflection: Second Light are sure to captivate at first, but their charm does fade over time. Time causes various imperfect subcomponents to unravel, revealing an amalgamation of minor issues throughout. This isn’t the case of one or two major flaws affecting everything, this is death by a thousand little cuts.
In short, Blue Reflection: Second Light just lacks the same kind of polish and depth found in similar experiences at the same price point. Perhaps it’s aiming at the casual market, and in that case maybe it’s a little more understandable. But then there’s the problem with tying character progression deep into supposed optional content that could still leave some wondering whether it’s truly “casual” or not. There’s actually plenty of content here for those who have sustained enjoyment of all these systems – I finished the game in about 30 hours, and there’s NG+ and a true ending to pursue for those that want even more. Maybe it’s just not for me.
All that in mind, Blue Reflection: Second Light is by no means a bad game, nor is it necessarily broken. It has some impressive redeeming qualities, but not enough to outweigh the sum of its many minor issues under the hood. While I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it for these reasons, Blue Reflection: Second Light still could be worth checking out if you are okay with the gameplay taking a backseat to storytelling, don’t mind opening your heart and mind to a bunch of college anime girls, and can deal with a bit of jank along the way.