Blue Reflection was one of the most uplifting, joyous—dare I say wholesome—games of 2017, even if that point seemed to get lost on a lot of folks. A story about an aspiring ballet dancer who suffers a career-ending injury, and then finding new meaning in a life that she’s mostly given up on, is a journey from melancholy to pure, utter joy. Themes of friendship and support underpin everything, not just in the oft-ridiculed “power of friendship” JRPG trope way, but on a more substantial, foundational level—at the heart of everything else is a game about how much of a difference having a shoulder to lean on can make when you’re going through a difficult time.
Fast-forward four years, and Blue Reflection: Second Light is one of the most uplifting, moving—dare I say wholesome—games of 2021.
This time around, the story centres on Ao Hoshizaki. In a lot of ways, she’s the polar opposite of Blue Reflection’s Hinako Shirai: a bubbly, outgoing, happy-go-lucky young woman who’s biggest complaint is that she feels her life is too boring. Her wish for a more exciting life gets granted when she suddenly gets whisked away to a mysterious school in the middle of an endless sea, drenched in the haze of an endless. She’s not alone, though none of the three other girls who arrived before her have any memory of who they are or how they wound up here. Not that they’re concerned—a never-ending summer vacation in a school they have all to themselves isn’t such a bad way to live.
Things get stranger with the appearance of “Dreamscapes” within this “Oasis”—physical manifestations of the girls’ psyches and the key to unlocking their lost memories. But remembering only seems to bring forth more questions, and as other people from the girls’ pasts start showing up in Oasis themselves, their own Dreamscapes in tow, the unanswered questions keep piling on.
You might take this as the setup for some big mystery to unravel: a rollercoaster of twists and revelations, a web of pieces that seem mismatched until they finally all click into place. And yes, Second Light does have its surprises, but in the world of Blue Reflection—indeed, in much of Gust’s work—the mystery is almost tangential to a focus on quiet moments shared between friends. Sometimes they’re playful, sometimes they’re reflective, sometimes they’re flirtatious, sometimes they’re bittersweet, but it’s the friendship, love, and support shared between these girls, brought together by circumstance in a mysterious dream world, that sits at the heart of everything Blue Reflection: Second Light does.
This is a game about, more than anything else, companionship. From the cheerful, kindhearted Ao to the playful, mischievous Yuki Kinjou, from the studious, motherly Reina Miyauchi to the shy, creative Kirara Kuno, the range of personalities is as broad as any, but they’re united in how much their ability to see the best in people and in the care they show for one another. Seeing how that develops, from open arms to welcome new visitors to their little dreamy paradise to the deep bonds that form over time, is the driving force of Second Light.
Companionship doesn’t just mean friendship, either; romance is a big part of the stories that unfold, too. Playing as Ao, going on dates with the other girls is one of the main ways of deepening those bonds, and the gradual transition from nervous, playful flirting—the sort of gentle teasing and “jokes” about kissing and holding hands that typify youthful exploration of romantic feelings—to more genuine love is endearing to witness. Romantic themes extend to an important part of the main plot, too, just in case anyone was worried about Second Light taking a “queer content optional” path. It’s unapolagetically, wonderfully gay in its sincere exploration of romance and intimacy between young women.
Every facet of Second Light’s design feeds that sweet, sentimental tone, even as it touches on some darker ideas and sends you into surreal dungeons to fight bizarre demons. In the Dreamscapes, characters’ memories and mental states are laid bare as they fight (using weapons powered by their emotions) and delve into the inner workings of their minds. The Persona comparisons will be inevitable, even though “psychological RPG” is practically a genre in its own right these days, but Blue Reflection: Second Light walks its own path by, once again, being uplifting rather than focusing on trauma. Yes, each Dreamscape is characterised in part by its owner’s troubles, but only as a part of being built on an abstracted form of their forgotten memories, good and bad. Even as you open those wounds and battle physical manifestations of anguish and grief, there’s a persistent sense of calm, care, and support.
It’s there in the design of each dream world, most of which emphasise a serene, peaceful quality despite their surreal abstractions: railway tracks running across crystal clear water; a field of giant sunflowers and vegetable patches; a sprawling, sandy beach at the side of an old road, the very definition of taking the scenic route. It’s in the ethereal atmosphere, soft light, and warm colours that Blue Reflection: Second Light’s whole aesthetic is built upon, and in the comforting idle chatter between party members.
It’s even there in the battle system, which turns simple turn-based combat into an exercise in the girls building themselves and each other up. Encounters are driven by momentum: the ATB-like turn gauge starts slow, but each action increases a character’s turn speed, and crossing certain thresholds pushes them into a higher gear, in turn unlocking more powerful skills. Damage output starts small, but increases exponentially as the party racks up the combo counter, and enough repeated hits against a foe will temporarily stun it. All of these things work okay individually, but the best results lie in the cumulative effect of a party working together with well-timed buffs and coordinated attacks.
This is never more apparent than in boss fights: their hefty HP bars and the threats they pose to the combo counter mean a lengthy slog for an uncoordinated team, but for a group of girls lifting each other up, protecting each other, and supporting each other, the results are far more decisive. When your first attacks make a fight seem like it’s going to take an hour, and then you stand victorious a couple of minutes later after a finishing blow that knocked off half a health bar in one shot, you know you’ve done something right.
The only thing, reall, that seems slightly amiss is the ill-conceived stealth system. Being able to visualise enemy sight lines and attack them from behind to give yourself an advantage at the start of battle is handy, but when that turns into forced-stealth sequences that rely on trial and error—or, in later cases, dumb luck thanks to enemies with random movement patterns—all of Second Light’s soothing nature goes out the window, with frustration in its place. Thankfully, such moments are few, and mostly contained to optional side quests.
There overarching atmosphere of calm and peacefulness also comes through in how much of the game takes place in the school, despite it functioning as a sort of home base in between Dreamscape dives, makes up a large part of the game. The Oasis is a place frozen in time, and even with the looming mysteries that surround it, this is a place where this growing cohort of friends can just enjoy spending time together, without a care in the world. (Indeed, the question about whether they actually want to return to the “real world” at all is one that comes up often.)
Often, this takes the form of working together to construct new facilities to make their stay more enjoyable—everything from beachside snack stands to an outdoor cinema to a telescope for stargazing. Plans for new school improvement projects come from time spent together: just shooting the breeze, reminiscing about those reclaimed memories, and talking about life, hopes and dreams has a way of sparking ideas about what would make life in Oasis more breezy. They also provide some handy stat boosts for the combat side of Second Light, and in this way, the theme of companionship drives a big part of the central game loop, too.
Occasionally, as the girls regain their memories and get closer to one another, things can get a little more serious. Everyone has their struggles and fears, from being bullied as a child to the shattered hopes of a future that may never come, from feelings of isolation to difficulty connecting with other people on an emotional level. But even as it touches on some potentially heavy themes, it always does so gently, from a place of care and compassion. The specifics of a character’s troubles are never the focus; instead, Second Light is much more interested in exploring the ways in which the surrounding characters, and Ao in particular, offer comfort and create a safe space to open up and work through those issues.
People like to joke about “the power of friendship” as a trope in JRPGs, but Blue Reflection: Second Light takes that notion and, as earnestly and sincerely as possible, makes it the heart of a truly wonderful adventure. Gust’s sense of atmosphere and aesthetic is second to none, and that’s never been more apparent than it is here. With themes of friendship, love, and support at its core, and every aspect of the game’s design serving those ideas, Second Light is one of the most genuinely uplifting, heartwarming, wholesome games I’ve played in a long time.
Blue Reflection: Second Light
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Nintendo Switch, PC
Release date: 9 November 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.
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