Women might make up half the human race, but the games industry doesn’t often cater to them. Getting away from all the burly space-marines and vengeful greek demigods is Hanako Games, a small American indie outfit producing Japanese-style visual novels and adventures aimed squarely at a younger female audience. Magical Diary is the first of their games to get a release on Steam, immediately making it a more interesting mainstream proposition, but is it worth your time even if you don’t happen to be a teenage girl? Well, that’s a question and a half.
Owing more than a little to Harry Potter, Magical Diary tells the story of a 16-year-old girl enrolling into Iris Academy – an American mystical boarding school – in order to focus her new-found and wild magical powers into something a little more professional and constructive. It also says a great deal that the default protagonist name is Mary Sue. It’s fairly clear from the outset that this is a lightweight, breezy piece of storytelling. There’s no grand menaces (outside of a single potential ‘bad’ end in the final stretch) or ancient evils to worry about. The entire game covers a single school year, and focuses almost entirely on the friends you make, clubs you join and romances you might get involved in. It’s fluff, but it’s earnest, open fluff.
Presented largely as a visual novel – primarily pictures, music and text, with occasional decisions – Magical Diary works in some ‘life sim’ elements to the mix. Each week of your Freshman year, you get to pick which classes you work on specifically, each in turn raising a key statistic. Smarts (mana), Strength (HP), and classes in Red, Blue, White, Green & Black magic. Raising each of these also raises Stress, which can cause study to fail if it rises high enough, so you need to pick and choose when to push on in order to pass the occasional dungeon-delving exams, and when you just take a day off to rest. There’s definitely an element of planning in your progression through the game, but there’s no min-maxing needed. You only need a few core spells and some additional health and magic to make it through the end-of-year exam, so you can largely focus on the various little stories and dramas.
The writing is sharp and well-natured throughout. There’s plenty of friendly banter, school gossip and misunderstandings over relationships. There’s nothing more untoward to be found in Magical Diary beyond a kiss or two, and what faint romance there is tends to be PG-rated at worst. As mentioned, this is probably aimed at the same audience as 90s TV series Sabrina The Teenage Witch, with all the same level of peril and intrigue that it would entail. The presentation of the game betrays it’s low-budget nature, though. The soundtrack is fairly limited and repetitive, and there’s only a few sound effects. Unsurprisingly, there’s no voice-acting, and the art, while decent for the most part, occasionally falls into some amateur pitfalls. Characters hands and eyes, especially – it’s one of those things that you’ll notice a lot more if you’re actively looking for it, sadly.
There’s actually quite a lot of interplay between the dialogue sequences and your magical lessons. Various scenes will open up new branches if you know certain spells that could help or hinder other characters, and the exams in particular are very heavily stat-focused. Rather than being just another series of dialogue screens, the exams are set in dungeons in the style of Wizardry or other old-school RPGs. They’re short, though, only a few chambers long, and each exam usually only contains one real puzzle. Still, there are a good number of solutions to each challenge, and it’s fairly hard to end up completely unable to pass each test. There’s no particular reward for passing all the exams, beyond achievements and bragging rights. It’s a pity that it doesn’t do more with the dungeons, though, as there’s a surprising level of depth to the puzzling here, and I’d have liked to see them try that on a larger scale.
Scale is the one real problem with Magical Diary. While replay value is fairly high, it’s hard to shake the feeling that there isn’t enough of it. It ends with your first school year, which will take about 4-5 hours for a complete playthrough. Your ending is largely determined by who you go to the school dance with, but it’s done without any real pomp and circumstance. It’s just another dialogue sequence, and a brief picture of your paper-doll avatar standing next to your romantic interest, followed by your end-of-year achievement tally and an option to upload it to the official site for friends to admire and/or mock. It only feels like half the story has been told. There’s decent value for money here if you plan on playing through a few more times, but each successive time through the story can be truncated further by using the handy ‘skip dialogues already seen’ option.
Magical Diary isn’t bad by any means. Being a guy in his late 20s, I’m clearly not who it’s aimed at, but there was enough humor and innocent hijinks over the course of the game to keep me entertained as I clicked through the dialogues and picked the path for my personal Mary Sue to walk. There’s definitely issues with the production values to be raised (especially the art), and it ends too early for my tastes, but there’s an enjoyable little tale to be found here, especially if you fall closer to the particular target market. Perhaps we’ll see a sequel someday that lets us import our completion data from the first year. Magical Diary goes to great lengths to highlight just how much more interesting the lives – and magic – of senior students are over the course of the story. It’s just a shame you never get to experience it first-hand.[review pros="Fun, casual and non-condescendingly designed visual novel for girls, decent writing and likeable characters, good replay value, creative dungeon puzzles." cons="One school year just isn't enough. Art and general presentation wonky in places, only a handfull of dungeon puzzles, abrupt ending." score=71]