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...
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.)
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.