My Secret “Magical Diary” Diary

By Richard Cobbett on July 1st, 2011 at 9:00 am.

Welcome to the write-up, my little buggaboos!
Dear Diary…. wait, is that too formal? Yo, Diary? Wotcha, Mr. D? Never mind. Busy week, this week. I said goodbye to my parents, a demon made me write him a love letter, and I learned how to set people on fire with the power of my mind! Then… then things got weird.

P.S. Donald, if you’re reading this, you now have cooties. And give back my bra.

Weird barely begins to cover it. Magical Diary is an indie, Japanese style adventure (though not actually from Japan) that’s a little bit visual novel, a little bit RPG, and a whole heck of a lot of Harry Potter. Luckily, it’s also really good fun. You’re a young girl who’s just discovered she has magic powers, about to start your first year at the secret Iris Academy for witches and wizards. If you survive, you’ll graduate a powerful mage with the elements themselves at your disposal. If not, a firm but regretful mind-wipe awaits. So no academic pressure there…

Those who can conquer, conquer. Those who can't, teach upcoming supervillains,

Despite looking simple, Magical Diary can be disarmingly complex – not in terms of mechanics, which are mostly choosing an action from a list and watching scenes play out, but in how many choices you don’t realise you have. For example, in the intro you literally bump into the school’s resident nasty teacher, Professor Snape Grabiner, who slaps you with 10 demerits before you’ve even had a chance to make your first choice. Soon after, you’re told that there are elections for Class President and Treasurer, but you can only put your name forward if your slate is clean. On my first playthrough, having not even seen an option to win back some brownie points, I figured this was a cheap way of saying “Eh, maybe in our next game…” and went back to working out what to do about the bishie blue demon who kept trying to get into my pants.

Starting a second time though, taking different options, I lucked into finding a friend near the start of the game who hooked me up with a little community service. Now, not only could I put my name forward for either job, I got to lead a whole election campaign as “The Dragon”, demanding loyalty from my fellow students on a platform of A) Destroying my enemies, B) Intense discipline and C) Free pizza. Did it work? No! The fools! They would all pay. But it was great to have the option to at least try, regardless of whether you can actually win.

In most cases, it’s not worth thinking too hard about what might happen. Certain things will obviously have predictable results – refusing to take part in hazing rituals isn’t the best way to win new friends, nor is tearing up a love letter or standing up a date. Much of what happens though is unexpected, with you really just rolling the dice and seeing what transpires. Even getting a demerit doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve done something wrong, just that you got a demerit. Grabiner especially hands them out like fart-flavoured candy.

This frees you from worrying about screwing up. There’s no big story in Magical Diary, no shadow of Voldemort or whatever hanging over you. It’s just a regular year in an irregular school, yours to make of whatever you will. Honestly, the best way to play is not to keep abusing saves if things don’t go as planned, but just pushing on and seeing how things shake out.

So vote for me!

Most of your time can be spent however you want. Every week starts by picking which classes you want to go to each day, along with the option to hit the gym, do general studying, or just spend the day asleep. If you just sleep for the first couple of weeks, you will be politely expelled. Likewise, if you neglect some classes entirely, the friendly headmistress will politely suggest you broaden your outlook. Generally though, you can do whatever you want – and unlike many similar time-resource management games like Princess Maker, you won’t be punished for it. Can’t be bothered with the wussy natural wonders of Green Magic? Master the flames of Red Magic instead. They say every girl needs a role model? I choose Lina Inverse, bitch.

The really cool thing about the magic system is that the spells you learn appear in game. You can’t just cast them whenever you like, but if you have something that would help in a given situation, the option often appears. On a weekend trip to the mall for instance, you’ll find one of those claw games, and you can put a dollar of your ever-tight resources into it. If the toy doesn’t quite make it into your hand, who could begrudge you ‘helping’ it a little?

Darkness beyond twilight, crimson beyond blood that flows... buried in the flow of time... In thy great name, I pledge myself to darkness and... What? I REALLY WANT THAT BUNNY!

Exams are where you… mostly… get to put what you’ve learned to proper use. They all take place in the school’s dungeons (and yes, the school actually having dungeons is remarked on), with the goal being to use the spells at your disposal to solve relatively simple challenges, like getting across a chasm or beating a rival to the exit. What’s cool about them is that your spellbook is completely determined by which classes you’ve chosen to take over the last few months. This can lead to you not having any options open to you, at which point you might have to surrender and take some demerits (no real penalty). You probably won’t have much trouble though, for one reason that’s good… and another that’s disappointing as hell.

Good reason first. There’s never a single fixed solution to any of the exam problems. Instead of working out what you’re meant to do, the idea is to think on your feet, opening up your spellbook and figuring out what you have that could help. An early challenge for instance involves finding a way out of a sealed maze. If you’ve been paying attention in White magic class, you might be able to detect lingering traces of the tutor who set it up, showing you how he left the test area. If you prefer Green, a quick breeze may help you find the illusive wall directly.

You usually get bonus merits for solving problems without violence. Then you get a wedgie in the changing rooms for being a great big wimp.

Sound cool? In another challenge, you have to race an opponent to the exit. If you’ve specced Red magic, you can just beat him up and take your sweet time. Alternatively, you can be clever, let him waste his mana breaking down a door that’s in the way, then teleport his arse right back to the start of the maze and walk out. Or you can talk to him and maybe bribe him, seduce him, or challenge him to a game of wits, depending on where your strengths are. I love this concept. It reminds me of the old Quest for Glory games, where spells were puzzle-solving tools in your arsenal at all times, not just a few extra-flashy attacks to hurl in combat.

The disappointment is that such moments are in short supply. There aren’t many of exams, and they’re all dirt-simple. Almost every one is a single challenge, solved with at most a couple of spells, more like the tutorial to the RPG system than the actual game. By the final exam (which is bizarrely handled via dialogues instead), I was the mistress of fire and spirit magic, but had never even had the chance to duel another student properly. In fact I’m pretty sure I could have completed most of these dungeons in real life, no sparkly magic required.

By the confused balls of Issei Mataloun, don't you DARE start sparkling, buddy.

The meat of Magical Journey is in its visual novel sections though, which work great. At first glance, you don’t seem to have a lot of control over what your character does, with long, long sequences (that can be played in fast-forward if you’ve seen them) where she talks to characters or agrees to do things without bothering to check if you’re okay with her joining the sports team or penning a sloppy love-letter to her senior as part of freshman hazing.

The more you play though, and especially during a second run, the more it becomes obvious just how many freaking branches and sub-stories this game has, many of them not even hinted at. To go back to my first playthrough, mid-way through the year I was invited to join a revenge-focused secret society, the Rose and Wasp. The initiation ritual was simply to leave the room I shared with two other girls unlocked during classes, which resulted in one of them, Ellen, being humiliated when someone snuck in and stole her underwear. In my next life, not only did I not get an invitation, it quickly became clear by little implied details that Ellen herself had.

There are many, many similar paths, including multiple romances, scenes you won’t see because you were somewhere else when they happened, characters who react differently to you based on your stats… this is a short game to ‘win’, but one that more than justifies at least one return trip. At the end of my first game for instance, playing with the options that seemed ‘right’, I finished the year with good grades, little drama and absolutely no love life to speak of. Much like real school, then, with the exception of the whole ‘lightning from my fingertips’ thing.

Trying again from the start, this time picking some of the crazier options… well, I believe the key word is “Different”. But I’ve probably spoiled enough specifics already.

One thing I will add though is how refreshing it is to have a game with a young female lead who actually gets to do stuff. If you want to spend the whole game wearing cute sparkles and chasing boys, you can. If you want to focus on being a badass witch-in-training, that’s fine too. Or anything in between. The same goes for the rest of the cast. If you know your anime, you’ll know the archetypes as soon as you see the characters pop up on screen… and whether you do or not, expect some seriously odd, PG-rated fetishy stuff every now and again… but they’re more fun than the usual boxset of tsundere, moe and Yamato Nadeshiko types.

(For guys, it’s also worth pointing that this isn’t a ‘girl’ game, in the normal, sadly pejorative sense. You may or may not dig it, but your willy won’t shrivel up in its presence.)

...kindly keep it the **** to yourself.

Despite all the branching, you’re probably only going to run through Magical Diary a couple of times – and at $25, it is a bit pricey. Depending on how fast you read, you can quite easily blitz through the whole thing in a couple of hours, and it’d be easier to justify going back if there were more dungeons that actually made you experiment a bit, instead of simply enabling it, and provided more cool results when you did – more exams where you’re competing against people, proper dueling with other students and so on. Maybe in the planned sequels.

As it is, almost all the replayability is on the story side, especially on the romance side, and even with a fast-forward button to skip scenes you’ve already seen, you’ll be wading through a lot of the same text as you poke around. That’s standard practice for this kind of game though, and Magical Diary is better about it than many imported Japanese ones I’ve seen, offering not just lots of branches, but branches that don’t make you feel like you need a FAQ to work out what the bloody hell it wants you to do and where you need to go to do it.

Magical Diary’s style is definitely an acquired taste, and if you don’t like lots of reading, cutesy anime girls, or think you might need to have a syringe of insulin in a case marked “In Event Of Bishounen, Break Glass”, run far away. If it sounds at all interesting though, check out the demo here. Oh, and avoid the forums, where wild spoilers roam wild and free.

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71 Comments »

  1. amandachen says:

    So basically it’s a game for eight-year-old girls.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Only the cool ones.

    • tanith says:

      Everyone can play Visual Novels. Many of them are actually pretty decent.

    • pipman3000 says:

      just pretend it’s a video game choose your own adventure

    • LionsPhil says:

      It’s a game for twenty-year-old manchildren who like eight-year-old girls with hideously malformed heads.

      Good god that header image has some oversized, pupil-less eyes even for anime wannabes.

    • Blackseraph says:

      I don’t see how that is relevant Amandachen.

      My little ponies is one of the best tv shows these days. Same could aply here.

    • Shih Tzu says:

      The lack of pupils actually reminds me of Shoujo Kakumei Utena a bit. I gotta rewatch that one of these days.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Clamp in general, really. I think Magical Diary has less in the way of random carwashes transforming sword-fighting schoolgirls into giant pink cars for symbolism fueled lesbian races against deadly castles though.

      Unless there’s a seriously odd hidden path.

  2. McDan says:

    Someone from RPS should have that slayers opening theme song as their own personal one, just saying that’d be awesome.

  3. Aemony says:

    This seems genuinely interesting…

  4. Inigo says:

    [X] Genuflect

  5. STiger says:

    I can’t even comprehend that art.

  6. Xercies says:

    Sounds really interesting…but at that price point…eh NA!

  7. mueti says:

    That ugly knock-off Japanese art isn’t exactly a turn-on.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Yeah, it’s not great, especially if you’re used to individually drawn characters rather lots of small pieces in combination, and there aren’t many poses for them to react with either. You get used to it though.

    • mlaskus says:

      Yeah, I hate the art but Richard’s article definitely intrigued me. Will try the demo.

    • GHudston says:

      While the art in this game isn’t the best, the notion that someone can “knock off” an art style amuses me. That’s like calling something “knock off rock and roll” because it’s a derivative of music from the 50′s and 60′s.

  8. Jody Macgregor says:

    Thanks for bringing this game to our attention, Richard. I look forward to more pieces using the “here bishie bishie bishie” tag.

  9. Unrein says:

    Dear “artist(s)” of Magical Diary: Go fuck your weeaboo selves. Seriously.

    • Sardaukar says:

      Internet.
      Rejecting cross-culturalism.

      Welp.

    • Vague-rant says:

      Not even that. He’s personally attacking the artist rather than the art.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Insulting them for being anime geeks by unleashing an image board meme taken from a webcomic. I’m not sure they’ll ever get over the burn.

    • Nick says:

      go away.

    • gwathdring says:

      I’d like it if you stepped outside, Unrein, and recollected yourself while the rest of us engage a minimum standard of social awareness.

    • Keymonk says:

      Yeah, fuck open-mindedness. Who needs respect for other people and cultures anyway?

    • Wulf says:

      You personally embody what I hate about the Internet, Unrein, and thus I dislike you and find you very unpleasant. You’re not the first to do so, of course, and you certainly won’t be the last, but it’s always so nice to have a reminder that there are distasteful people like you out there.

      Thanks for that.

      Why does the gaming subculture seem to attract people like this? It baffles me and plays no small part as to why I generally feel uncomfortable and nervous around gamers.

      I mean, I can sum up Unrein’s post easily: Xenophobia ftw.

      How depressing.

    • pipman3000 says:

      Unrein more like Urine!

      fact: everyone who anything that looks even remotely anime is a big dumb manbaby who is probably almost guaranteed to be racist.

    • pipman3000 says:

      prove to me you aren’t a racist or i’ll never be your token minority friend ever again

  10. Handsome Dead says:

    forgive my bishie, my moe is augmented.

  11. Vague-rant says:

    $25 seems a bit too much for what I read as a OK review- especially in light of current sales. In any case, the art does put me off a little, and it sounds like the kind of thing in which I’d enjoy reading the diary more than playing the game itself.

  12. Zeno says:

    $25? Yeah I’ll pass.

  13. Wulf says:

    I absolutely love this sort of thing. The height of it being, for me, personally, Disgaea Infinite. There are precious few games I keep coming back to on the PSP. One of them is Gitaroo Man, it looks like another is becoming Jak & Daxter: Lost Frontier (which is the first time I’ve obsessed over 100% completion in ages, I love that game), and another is, as mentioned, Disgaea Infinite.

    If the characters are delightfully OTT and the script is funny then I love visual novels and I have a massive weakness for them. Still, $25 is a worrying price-tag. I’d like to be exposed to a portion of the writing before I put down more money than I did for VVVVVV. That’s why I wish things like this had a demo, since I can’t bring myself to part with $25 when money is as tight as it is (yes, I’m avoiding AAA games especially right now) when I’m unsure as to whether the game will click with me.

    This sort of thing needs a short demo. If only it had a little demo that I could test to ascertain whether I’d click with this. It probably doesn’t. That’s a shame. Still, visual novels are awesome. To be honest, I can’t help but wish that some of my favourite webcomic authors would try this. I donate to them anyway, but I’d buy a game featuring characters from Freefall, DMFA, or Schlock Mercenary at the drop of a hat.

  14. Drake Sigar says:

    I’m a little put off by anime, but it still looks like a good game regardless of how it’s dressed up. $25 though? Yeesh. I’m not short of a few bob, but this feels like throwing money away with all the Steam summer deals coming.

  15. Koozer says:

    …what the hell is wrong with their eyes in the header image?

  16. Kevin says:

    The one thing I’ve always hated about adventure games is how there’s only one rail-roaded path through the story and that the puzzles require moon logic that has more of a place in one of those lateral thinking puzzle books. Hopefully this would be the type of game that averts this hard.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      No ‘puzzles’ as such at all. There’s working out the right options if you want to follow specific paths, like romancing the blueballed-and-blue-everything-else demon, and moments where a professor might ask a trivia question about which colour magic to use to do a particular thing and similar, but that’s about it outside the much more open dungeon magic stuff.

  17. Jumwa says:

    Sounds absolutely adorable, and I want to play it. But for that price? Sorry. I have my (perhaps arbitrary) conceptions of game value, and I can’t bring myself to spend that much on a text based indy game.

    • LionsPhil says:

      If it were text-based, at least you wouldn’t have to look at the art.

    • Jumwa says:

      Well, poor phrasing on my part there.

    • Joyo says:

      Out of curiosity, what is the bigger factor: the text-based part, or the indie designation?

      My own metric for deciding what I think is “worth” $25 is bizarre and mysterious…even to myself. All that I know is that i am *hesistant* these days.

    • hanakogames says:

      There’s a discount available at the end of the demo.

      If you need a steeper one, make me an offer I can’t refuse. :)

  18. thebigJ_A says:

    Reminds me vaguely of a game I tried a while back called Academagia. It was far more complicated, and not anime, but it involved going to a wizard school and picking classes and things.

    For the life of me I couldn’t figure it out, though. If I ever find a proper tutorial video (there’s a developer-made one that’s not great) I may go back. It’s still on my hard drive.

    • Chris D says:

      I was playing that last night. Probably the best way to get into it is embrace the confusion and treat it as part of the experience. It’s a new school, you don’t know how anything works at first.

      The interface is horrible, it’s way overcomplicated and it never makes it easy to figure out what you’re supposed to do. But if you can get past all of that it’s actually pretty good.

      In an alternative universe, games about your first year at magic school are blockbusters and there are only two obscure indie games about shooting men in the face. It’s probably a happier world than this one.

    • Archonsod says:

      Yeah, I love Acadamagia. The confusion is often part of it’s charm.

    • hanakogames says:

      I love Academagia, it’s just not well suited to tutorials. Best suggestion is to update to the latest version (He’s constantly adding new content!) and flounder through it once having no idea what you’re doing. That one attempt should help get across some of the ground rules of the setting. THEN go check out the forums and the wiki and start getting ideas of how to do it right. Or at least righter.

      Eventually you’ll start stumbling over cool things and imagining how much easier your life would have been if you’d found said cool thing earlier in the year when it would be useful. Which will of course make you want to play again to try that.

  19. GHudston says:

    £25 is a bit steep for me, the game sounds interesting but it’d have to be a fraction of that before I’d buy it. Shame…

    • hanakogames says:

      Dollars, not pounds! Also there’s a discount available at the end of the demo.

  20. Vinraith says:

    Those are the staring-est eyes that have ever had the staring eyes tag. Those girls’ heads are like 60% staring eye. Is this a horror game?

  21. Robert says:

    Acadademagia is indeed awesome, if you can control the beast.

  22. Delusibeta says:

    Ehhh… Since my only experience on the genre is Phoenix Wright, I’d be inclined to wait for a discount on this. Spending $25 on “a couple of hours” does not seem like good value to me, especially with the Steam sale ongoing.

    Also, another vote for the continued use of the “here bishie bishie bishie” tag.

    • hanakogames says:

      There’s a discount available at the end of the demo.

      Since we’re not ON Steam you can’t wait for a discount there… unless you badger Steam to carry the thing. Then I’ll bake you cupcakes.

  23. Radiant says:

    If you like this sort of thing there is a WONDERFUL game for the psp called Persona 3.

    Essentially you’re part of a secret squad of school kids who fight demons at night.

    The hook is that you all have a secret magical ‘persona’ god who you unleash by shooting yourself in the head. This helps you fight the monsters in a fabulous progressive dungeon battle when it gets dark.

    In the morning you spend your time at school developing relationships with different types of people [recruiting some who have the persona power]; the more you develop a type of relationship the more powerful your persona demon becomes and you can even change persona demons by talking and developing your relationship with a wider range of people.

    It’s fucking brilliant.

    • steggieav says:

      I like Persona 3 and 4, but they’re better on the PS2. Also, they have a nice semi-realistic art style.

    • Reddin says:

      Persona 3 is better on the PSP just because I can control my bloody team.
      And if I want to play it another time, I can play as a woman for a different experience.
      Persona 4 sadly isn’t on the PSP. I like my console RPGs portable :)

      Also, make no mistake. While the social aspects of Persona 3&4 are a big part of the game, another large part is pretty standard JRPG dungeon crawling.

  24. K. says:

    Sold on the demo. Thanks for the writeup.

    I had not found Hanako Games before… anyone here got recommendations for any of the other games on offer?

    • pH-unbalanced says:

      Spirited Hearts was fun, and looks to be the closest game they have to this one.

      Cute Knight was, ummm, cute, but got annoying. Probably because they didn’t hide the math, so it was a lot easier to get upset when your progress was being held up purely by bad rolls.

      (Having said that, one of my favorite all-time endings is in Cute Knight. If you spend the first couple of weeks doing absolutely nothing but camping out in the town square, you end up as a Street Performer.)

  25. The Army of None says:

    Best usage of the Staring Eyes tag to date

  26. Kefren says:

    Just played the demo (downloaded it months ago after reading this). I’m quite charmed and seriously considering playing on. The jaunty music is playing as I type.