You know how every so often you take a look at your Steam library and start to feel guilty about games you purchased because they sounded like just your sort of thing, but then you never got around to playing them? Well, that was the thought that was going through my mind this week when I decided to finally fire up Magical Diary, a game I’ve owned for well over a year but which I was yet to try.
Magical Diary, if you’re unfamiliar, is a visual novel by Hanako Games and Spiky Caterpillar. Despite the distinctly Japanese-style presentation, it’s actually a Western-developed game — Hanako Games’ founder Georgina Bensley has long been a big fan of anime, and this influence clearly and obviously shows through both in Magical Diary and her other games, all of which are marketed as “girl-friendly.”
Magical Diary casts players in the role of a 16 year old girl who, three years ago, discovered that she had latent magical abilities. She was presented with what the wizarding world calls The Choice, and chose to leave behind her family and attend a magical school — something like Hogwarts, but in the depths of New Hampshire rather than the idyllic British countryside. Upon arriving at her new school Iris Academy, the player then gets to take complete control over what happens next — and that’s where the story begins.
To call Magical Diary a visual novel in the traditional sense is perhaps not strictly accurate — while it still involves a lot of reading, looking at pretty artwork and making decisions, there’s a considerable amount more depth to the gameplay than in many other titles. The game takes what is typically called the “life sim” approach, where your various decisions throughout the game affect a bunch of numerical stats that help determine the way the story unfolds — and indeed the possibilities available to its heroine as events progress.
This isn’t your usual set of RPG-style stats, however. While Magical Diary does track how smart and strong you are (which, where appropriate, translates directly into how many magic points and hit points you have) it also tracks more esoteric characteristics such as how “cute” and “weird” your character is — attributes which can be further tweaked by buying various clothing items which, pleasingly, appear on your in-game avatar in story scenes.
The classes you choose to attend each in-game week help you build up the five different colors of magic that make up Magical Diary’s “pentachromatic” spell system and subsequently learn new spells, and doing anything that involves hard work increases your stress level. Conversely, sleeping reduces stress, as do vacations, hanging out with friends and doing other “fun” things. Finally, a sliding scale of “merits” determines how well (or badly) you’re doing at school — filling your merits bar means that you’re an excellent student; filling it in the other direction as “demerits” will see you expelled.
The magic system is used to let you learn various spells, which are used in the school’s dungeons. Yes, Iris Academy has its own set of monster-infested dungeons beneath its walls, and for the students’ various exams, they are expected to find their way out as creatively as possible using the spells they have learned. The wide variety of different spells you can learn mean that there are several ways to solve any given problem, whether that’s by brute force, lateral thinking, manipulation of matter or messing with the heads of sentient beings. These aren’t your usual boring elemental spells, either — here, you’ll be casting everything from a simple “push” spell to shove an object in a particular direction to manipulating the temperature of an area to your own advantage. At certain points throughout the story, you’ll have the opportunity to use your spells to do things like tell what other characters are feeling or see hidden spirits, too.
This abstract character development system helps you to have a much greater feeling of ownership over your player character than in many other visual novels. Rather than “riding along” with the protagonist, you are the protagonist — you even get to design and name her at the outset of the game, and beating the game allows you to upload a “yearbook” page to the Internet to commemorate your achievements and the path which you took through it. On subsequent playthroughs, you can roll up a completely new character and play in an entirely different manner — and the game’s achievements encourage you to do just that.
The story itself follows the protagonist’s attempts to understand her own abilities, make friends and perhaps find romance over the course of her first school year. There are a number of events that will happen regardless of which “path” you’re taking through the game, but other events are determined by hidden relationship values between the protagonist and the other characters. Initially, the story appears to be rather lightweight (albeit enjoyable and well-written) teen drama fluff, but there are a number of situations, particularly later in the game, where some challenging themes are explored, often in non-literal ways. One of the game’s love interests, for example, turns out to be an abusive partner, and the game explores several ways in which the protagonist could deal with this situation — turning to friends for support; submitting to his dark desires; or believing she can “change” him. One scene in particular with this character could quite reasonably be argued to be a rape allegory, particularly with the subsequent victim-blaming and the authority figures’ response that “no crime had been committed” because the protagonist had technically consented to the incident.
It’s surprisingly powerful stuff, and the game systems are used to good effect to complement the themes of the story nicely, too — quite understandably, the aforementioned incident causes the protagonist’s stress levels to go through the roof and for her to take a significant hit to her other abilities as a result of her physical and psychological injuries, too. Various events aren’t just swept under the carpet, in other words — most things have a tangible effect on your character development and the way the story will end.
Magical Diary, then, is a great title that is well worth checking out — particularly if you’re a fan of the “life sim” approach. While it initially may appear to be rather light in tone, it’s not afraid to tackle some tricky issues when the situation demands it, and the game systems are flexible enough to cater to most play styles. The characters you get to spend your time with are fun to be around and memorable, and very few fall back on predictable tropes to be interesting. Even the resident “tragic prince” character has plenty of depth to him, and the story takes great pains in a number of its paths to ensure that you shouldn’t always judge things at face value.
Magical Diary is available from Steam or direct from Hanako Games, so why not clear some space in your… you know where I’m going with that so I won’t insult your intelligence by finishing that sentence.
READ.ME is Games Are Evil’s weekly delve into the world of visual novels, a genre of interactive entertainment primarily developed in Japan which has carved out a small but dedicated niche in the West. Follow this column’s author Pete Davison on Twitter here.