In the interests of full disclosure, this was a free review copy we were sent by indie developer and long-time reader Georgina Bensley, who thought this game would be a good fit for The Border House. There was, however, no editorial pressure, and we were free to say whatever we wanted about the game.
What do you get if you take Harry Potter, move it from Scotland to New England, give it an anime aesthetic, and make a socially conscious video game out of it? The answer is Magical Diary from Hanako Games (also available on Steam).
You play the role of a 16 year old girl who grew up in the non-magical world, accidentally does some magic, and gets an invite to a magic boarding school. Of course the “school for magic” idea wasn’t original to Harry Potter, but the similarities don’t stop there. You meet the siblings Virginia, Donald, and William. There’s an evil (or is he just misunderstood?) professor with black hair and a big nose. There’s a reference to a chamber of secrets. There’s even a reference to the fan-fiction, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality which I won’t elaborate on for fear of spoilers.
However, while this is definitely influenced and inspired by J.K. Rowling’s novels, it is far from being a simple rip-off. There are plenty of unique characters, and the storyline is entirely its own thing. Personally, I feel that it’s a bit of a shame that the game wasn’t willing to stand on its own two feet a little bit more. There was plenty there for it to be able to do so, and I found some of the more overt references to be a little immersion-breaking.
Anyway, Harry Potter aside, the game is a life simulator, with a heavy focus on character and relationship building. Imagine what Dragon Age or Mass Effect would be like if you took out the combat and the saving the world/galaxy and instead just got to spend the time talking with your team, and you aren’t that far away from how Magical Diary plays.
In addition to this core gameplay, you also periodically have to sit magic exams, which involve being teleported into a dungeon and having to find your way out in little puzzle segments. These are actually surprisingly clever, since you can choose which branches of magic to specialise in (out of five different schools), meaning that there are multiple solutions, and the ones available may vary from one playthrough to the next. As a simple example, if you’re faced with a monster, you may choose to blast it with fire, send it to sleep, or just teleport it away.
The big problem that I had with these sections is that it is possible to fail them, and you only get one attempt. If you fail, you’re whisked away to receive demerits (and possibly detention) and then carry on with the year. This was annoying because often I’d figure out “oh, I should have tried that instead” too late to go back and try again. I wound up save-scumming my way through these sections, not because I wanted to cheat, but because it felt like the only way to experience them fully. Overall, though, they did make a nice addition to the game, and definitely emphasised the whole “magic” element.
As you progress through the school year, you choose how to react to events, which characters you want to spend time with, which classes to take, and so on, and a story unfolds around you depending on your choices. While a single playthrough only takes a few hours, there’s plenty of replay-value here from going down different branches of the storyline, or befriending different people. As a simple example, Donald and Virginia have a sibling rivalry going on, and you can potentially see it from two different sides, depending on which of them you’re closer to.
Indeed, story elements will play out even if you aren’t involved with them at all. You might just see someone scowling and wonder what was going on, or you might see the aftermath of some event without really understanding it, which can be a good motivator to play more. It’s as if the game is saying “there’s something interesting going on here, but you don’t get to find out what unless you play again!”
One example of this was an abusive relationship that two NPCs were in. At first glance, it looks like a healthy romance, but during the game, you can see that something isn’t entirely right. One of the two claims that he is being ignored, and gets upset, but there’s nothing you can do… unless you’re friends with his partner, in which case you can see that his claims are overblown, that’s he’s demanding all her time, and embarrassing her in public to keep her in line. In other words, he’s a fairly typical abusive and controlling boyfriend, but – importantly – not the sort of abusive boyfriend you tend to see in games and media.
This is one of the game’s strong points. It respects the intelligence of its player by presenting things with nuance and with shades of grey. It features an abusive boyfriend who isn’t so over-the-top evil that you expect him to twirl a moustache and stroke a white cat while cackling about world domination.
In fact, the game ticks pretty much all the options when it comes to social justice. Character creation, for instance, doesn’t include a particularly large number of options, but the options it does include are diverse and not just variations on a theme. In an ideal world, I’d have preferred the addition of a truly fat body type, and possibly a few more hair styles that were appropriate for African American characters, but these are minor quibbles.
Sexuality is also handled well, with the player character free to pursue a relationship with another girl just as easily as with a boy, or with nobody at all. There’s even a (sort of) sex education class, in which it’s stressed that the students are free to do what they like with whomever they like provided that both (or all) parties are entirely consenting. This is a world that is sex-positive without being sexualised.
The NPCs are also not left out. Too many games seem to grudgingly say “well, you can be a lesbian of colour if you really insist, but all our NPCs are straight and white.” Not so, here. There are several NPCs of colour (literally in one case; blue is definitely a colour!) and at least two instances of students having same-sex romantic involvements, not to mention one kid who was raised by two dads.
The general tone and theme of the game is to have things be light and fluffy on top, but with a more serious and darker side hiding below the surface for anyone who digs deep enough. Issues covered range from the mystical to the mundane. In some cases you’ll discover shortcomings of the magical education system, or problems resulting from magic being kept secret from the non-magic world, whereas in others you might find yourself confronting the mistreatment of Native Americans by European immigrants or what it means to be a child of divorced and estranged parents. While none of these situations are covered in any great depth, they do all have enough substance to them to at least be thought provoking
There was even one scene where we get given a class about gender neutral pronouns. (To my great delight, they used the Spivak set, which have always been my gender neutral pronouns of choice.) The rationale given here is that in the magical world, there are many non-humans for whom our gender rules don’t apply, though it is also stressed that even among humans the gender binary can be a false dichotomy.
I have to admit that I’m a little bit conflicted about this. On the one hand, it’s absolutely amazing to see a game taking this sort of thing seriously, but on the other hand, it did feel a little bit forced. It would have been nice to meet a character – human or otherwise – who didn’t fit the gender binary, as without the practical element, that one lesson does seem a little incongruent. Still, overall, I was happy to see its inclusion, and I’m still holding out hope that there will be something along these lines in a story branch that I just haven’t played yet.
Overall, I’d definitely recommend Magical Diary as an enjoyable game in its own right, as a happy change of pace from shooting and killing, and as a game that gets an awful lot right when it comes to inclusivity and social justice.