Magical Diary reviewed – why this game is truly magical

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.

Three young women, drawn in anime style, each wearing the same green robes. One is white with long purple hair, another appears Asian, has black hair worn in bunches, glasses, and a tiara, while the third is black with short hair, glasses, and an amulet.

An example of three player characters from Magical Diary. (Three young women, drawn in anime style, each wearing the same green robes. One is white with long purple hair, another appears Asian, has black hair worn in bunches, glasses, and a tiara, while the third is black with short hair, glasses, and an amulet.)

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.

About rho

Scientist, woman, lesbian, transsexual, gamer, geek, feminist, liberal, rationalist, and various other labels. Gamer since the days of the ZX81. Feminist since the time I realised that the label was not synonymous with transphobe. I keep a sporadically-updated personal blog about whatever's on my mind at the time.
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24 Responses to Magical Diary reviewed – why this game is truly magical

  1. Gunthera1 says:

    That review sold me on the game.

    It is also on sale until June 7th for those that might be interested (20% off/ $11.99 US). http://store.steampowered.com/app/211340/

  2. I’m probably not going to play this, so can you email me the HPMOR reference? Cuz that’s cool.

  3. Maverynthia says:

    Thanks for the review, I had seen it on Desura and was contemplating on buying it, but was unsure if it was another harem game like Kawata Shoujo, or a strict otome game or what.

  4. Klee says:

    I bought it and played up to the first exam and I am fairly sure it is impossible for me to pass the test because of my choice in magic classes. Other than that I am enjoying it so far.

    • Nezumi says:

      You need certain ranks in certain spells to “pass” (get merits for it), but as long as you make an appropriate choice in the very first exam, you don’t fail, either. That said, there are some that do seem to be unsolvable without certain magic choices. (At least one seems to absolutely need a spell that did something I couldn’t with my Blue/Green focused initial character… and one seemed to, but actually didn’t — but you were unlikely to guess this unless you were persistent with an inobvious approach or used a guide.)

      • Kaja Rainbow says:

        I was able to solve all of the exams with a Blue focused character, though I did broaden out. I don’t recall the full details, though. But this is making me want to give the game another play.

    • Meg says:

      I’ve played through this game a dozen times or so, although it was awhile ago, and yeah, depending on your choices you may be unable to complete a given exam. This was usually an issue for me if I completely ignored some of the magic classes in order to further ‘specialize’ in others. I would say for the first playthrough, try to get the first 2-3 spells in each colour, and then pick two colours of magic to specialize in instead of just one. That will make you much better prepared for whatever the dungeon throws at you. Subsequent playthroughs, since you know what the tests are, you can come up with more complicated builds that won’t leave you stuck in dungeons. Nearly all the dungeons can be solved using a combination of low-level spells, and I don’t think I’ve ever used a level 40+ spell, although I’ve learned them.

      The first exam, though, you don’t really need any points in any magic. The no pass/no fail thing is the normal result. You can successfully complete the exam, but it’s unusually difficult and there isn’t much in the way of reward for it. A few merits, which are a lot easier to earn through the exams & random ‘community service’ stuff.

  5. Kimiko says:

    I’d been looking into Hanako Games recently. Their titles do look interesting, even if I don’t have the time for more new games at the moment. I’ll have to bookmark the site so I don’t forget.

    Does Magical Diary work on Linux? The HP stuff probably won’t bother me because I was busy doing other things when that was popular.

  6. Kimiko says:

    BTW, does anyone know what the relationship is between Hanako Games and Aldorlea Games? They appear to be selling/promoting each other’s games. So, are they the same company under different names, have related owners, or what?

    • It’s common for indies in the RPG/Visual Novel side of things to promote each other’s games as affiliates. It doesn’t mean we’ve ever even met each other, though. Separate groups, not related.

      Amaranthia, for example, offers games from a huge range of other indies.

  7. Beth N. says:

    I happened to browse Steam for the first time a couple days ago, and came across Magical Diary while glancing through the RPGs. I gave it a pass because the promotional material made it seem sensational and not very shiny compared to the other games on offer, but this review could turn the tide. I really like the idea of learning about the different people in a relationship (sibling, romantic, etc.) on subsequent playthroughs.

  8. Klee says:

    I just got expelled for trying to be nice to a character. Really did not see that one coming. Looking forward to playing a little bit differently.

  9. Fractal says:

    I bought this game on your recommendation and I quite enjoyed it. The exams aren’t my favourite, they’re a bit too easy to fail, and the second one in particular can land you in a heap of trouble if you’ve been spreading your training around too much.

    There was one thing that really rubbed me the wrong way.

    [MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD! AWOOOOOOGAH! AWOOOOOGAH!]

    The problem is Damien.

    In my first play-through of these kind of games I typically take the path of least resistance, and as he’s on the cover art, I thought “OK. I’ll romance him. He probably has the most scenes.”

    The game sets him up as a social outcast. Most other characters treat him as a pariah, based mostly on the fact that he looks like a demon, and the fact that he refuses to discuss his family history. He has a reputation for breaking people’s hearts, but this doesn’t come up until you’re quite a ways down the romantic path with him.

    “OK”, thinks I, “So this is going to be something about bullying, prejudice, and rumours.”

    Turns out no.

    Turns out he actually IS a demon. The whole time he’s been romancing you, he’s actually just been manipulating you in order to take your soul. In the third act of the game he invites you to meet him alone and he tells you that he’s discovered he’s going to die unless someone who loves him gives up their soul for him. If you agree, he half eats you before getting chased off by the teachers, you lose a bunch of stat points and you’re told you’re an idiot by the teachers because technically he didn’t break any laws because you consented. If you choose to leave, he tries to take you into an alternate dimension to ‘make use of your flesh’.

    That’s… really weird.

    So the socially ostracized Outsider really IS trying to kill you. The vicious rumours are true! Shun the demon! Shun him!

    This left me scratching my head. In a game that apparently gets so much right they do this?

    I have no idea what they were even trying to say here, but the implications are really nasty.

    Were they really trying to say, “If your friends have unsubstantiated concerns about someone else based primarily on their race, and some third hand accounts of weird behaviour, always believe them! Otherwise you may get your soul eaten!”

    I’m not exactly sure, because I haven’t played the game through multiple times, but I don’t think there’s any way to figure out the he is actually bad news before that point. I took all the options I was presented to try to figure out what was going on, but none of the characters I was able to ask about him mentioned anything other then rumour and prejudice.

    The really dangerous people are typically not the victims of concentrated campaigns of rumours. Those people are typically victims.

    The dangerous people are the ones whom everyone seems to like, dangerous people are often the people who have arranged the situation so that nobody would believe that they could ever do something like that.

    He can’t have done something like THAT. SURELY you’re mistaken.

    But not here. Here they say “That guy is bad because he’s blue and has sharp teeth.” And apparently they’re right to do it.

    I’m really not sure what to think about that.

    [END SPOILERS]

    • Lima Zulu says:

      I spoil ahead, too.

      I took it as him, whether honestly or dishonestly (with himself) convincing others that he’s an outcast because people make assumptions about him. He wants people to think he’s not a terrible person, but they do because of his looks. He might’ve even spread some of the rumors himself, to help mold that image.

      His looks weren’t the problem, though. He was just a manipulative creep.

      Because he creates the outcast persona, he avoids scrutiny (“Oh, he’s just a scumbag philanderer”) while appealing to other legitimately vulnerable people. And should anyone attempt to disagree with him, he lashes out incredibly violently (Try rejecting the initiation; he freaks the hell out. Or betray his trust and tell your roomies about him, and he’ll go Amon on you and kill your magical powers entirely. At least you get an achievement for it).

      And yeah, it does send mixed messages. They try to impress upon the player that looks can be deceiving, et cetera, but then subvert that by having him actually turn out to be far worse than the rumors about them. I don’t necessarily think it’s problematic, but rather helped paint a more conspicuous picture of a specific kind of abuser, I suppose to contrast Kyo.

      • Fractal says:

        [SPOILERS]

        Eh… I guess I can kinda see your point. I went back through the early parts of the game again and he definitely IS abusive if you defy him.

        It still made me really really uncomfortable. People might try to cultivate a rebel persona because they’re a teenager and that’s what you do, but you don’t generally TRY to cultivate a persona where people are told ‘don’t talk to him because he’s an evil demon.’

        It felt like they were trying to portray a particular kind of abusive person, but I felt that they got the details dangerously wrong. People who are abusive and manipulative like that are generally GOOD at being manipulative. They aren’t the ones having rumors circulated about them, they’re the ones circulating the rumors about the people they’re being abusive too.

        Apparently there’s a ‘good end’ for him too, which I’m interested in trying to get because I want to see how they play it. Someone who is willing to kill and eat you, or sell your body to a spirit, should not -get- a good end.

        [/SPOILERS]

        • Nezumi says:

          [SPOILERS]

          You have a point, but you’re speaking in dangerous absolutes. The person who doesn’t seem dangerous and has a good reputation despite their true ugliness is a very dangerous person, but that doesn’t mean the person who’s very obviously dangerous is _not_ dangerous.

          Damien is an example of the fact that as nice as it’d be, not all loners are misunderstood, and not all people who are ostracized are unfairly ostracized. He sets himself up as a victim of racism and unfair distrust to lure in the vulnerable or sympathetic, when his bad reputation is actually wholly deserved. If you try to resist him, he quickly shows himself to be abusive and manipulative. If you avoid him entirely, he eventually gets expelled for trying to force himself on another student.

          This is not entirely unproblematic, though, since the same message of “be careful not to let sympathy outweigh rationality,” can be easily read as “the weird guy really is always evil. Destroy! Destroy!”

          It would have worked better with someone else to work as a counterbalance — someone to show “No, loners and ‘weirdos’ aren’t always evil. Damien is just an ass.”
          [/SPOILERS]

    • thank you so much for mentioning this. i reached that event last night and it was very upsetting and unexpected, given my own experiences with manipulation. its one of those things that i wish i had read further into before playing. i also wish that the developers had thought about this sort of thing further before implementing it. i have the same beef with Portal 2 and gladios’s character development.

      did awesome on the gender issue, not so much with the abuse issue. if folks are up for it (personal safety first, always!), i would recommend a few of us contact the developers and point out how this method is actually incredibly harmful for the players. i didn’t get flashbacks from it, but i very well could have. they need to know.

      • Hi! If you want to talk about this issue with me more over email I’m totally up for it.

        The motivations behind the Damien plot were to play with the “Twilight” style of romance. The fact that Damien is really bad news is hinted at many times throughout the relationship. Long before the big event happens, he acts in an emotionally abusive and manipulative way towards Mary Sue, running hot and cold, carefully undermining her confidence and intentionally causing trouble between her and her friends in order to isolate her and make her dependent on him. What I hoped was that people would be able to look back after the ‘reveal’ and start to recognise how they’d been played, in order to better resist those tactics themselves.

        I am aware that dangerous people are often the ones perceived to be above reproach – that’s the role Kyo fills, where no one will believe that something is wrong. However, for many people already in a relationship that’s going bad, you may have all your friends around you constantly telling you that your partner is bad for you and you should leave them… and that can actually be counterproductive. Badgering someone who isn’t ready to leave can make them more defensive, and many players on the Damien path go this way.

        Also, while Damien _claims_ he’s being ostracized and mocked just because he’s blue, it’s also clear that he’s had a LONG list of romantic relationships while he’s been attending the school. He’s not exactly an outcast. That ‘no one would ever send me a love letter’ thing? Is an obvious lie that he used to steer Mary Sue’s perceptions of him from the beginning.

  10. catfish says:

    I haven’t heard of this game at all. I wish there were more reviews on Border House!

  11. Sam says:

    I love that the Border House is reviewing this game! This is the game that got me into the indie game scene!

  12. Rakaziel says:

    Sounds interesting. I am not a very social person so I wonder if the magic system and overarching plot alone are worth it but I may try it.

    Also, a general suggestion: Buttons to show or hide spoilers would be useful.

  13. Seagloom says:

    After reading this article I downloaded the demo; which in turn led to my buying this game on Steam last Saturday. I’m surprised by how much it hooked me in. I’ve never been too into VN styles with an emphasis on romance. Magical Diary struck a nice balance between romance, storytelling, and character interaction. If anything, there could have been more done with the romance aspect. O.o There were times when it felt tacked on. Although that may have been because I chose Ellen first. Hard not to go for the nerd girl being a total nerd myself.

    Having completed Magical Diary twice over the weekend, and feeling pretty sad when it was over both times, it’s safe to say I loved this game. So definite rain of thankees for writing an article about it.

    I wasn’t bothered by the lack of a character outside the gender binary. While I’m all for positive representation being a trans woman myself, I would find it more artificial to have a character thrown in solely to meet a quota. Such a character is likely to be very minor and potentially one note.

    Now there needs to be a sequel! :p I’m aware of the Wolf Hall spin off a long ways off, and will almost certainly buy it; buuut I’m going to miss my version of Mary Sue terribly. >.<

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