In Magical Diary from Hanako Games and Spiky Caterpillar, you take on the role of a teenage girl who discovers she isn't as ordinary as she thinks. Your life changes seemingly in an instant when you are invited to enroll in Iris Academy, a secret school for young witches and wizards. There, you find yourself sorted into Horse Hall, where the more adventurous students are said to reside. Sound familiar? While this visual novel/RPG/life simulation may take a lot of structural cues from the Boy Who Lived, passing it off as a shameless clone will only do it a disservice and have you missing out on an extremely enjoyable adventure. Make friends and enemies, join a secret society or find romance, or just concentrate on your studies and expand your repertoire of spells. Trust me; when exams roll around, you're going to need them.
The game encompasses one year in your new life at the school, and gameplay is made up of classes, exams, and social interactions. At the start of each week, you'll have to choose your classes or activities for each day; there are five different magic classes to choose from, each of which focuses on a different colour, or you can choose to study, sleep to remove stress, or even go to the gym to work out. Different classes grant you different spells the more time you spend with them, so you'll definitely want to apply yourself more often than not. You can save your game at any time, and the game offers so many slots you'll really want to take advantage of it to revisit choices you might wish had gone differently, or challenges you failed.
Throughout the year, you'll have to take a number of exams, which are less pen and paper and more "stick you in a dangerous place and wait for you to think/magic your way out". Closely resembling escape games in their structure, each exam is different, but usually has the same basic structure; your goal is to find your way out, dealing with the various objects in your path in whatever way you see fit. Which, depending on how you've spent your time studying the different colours of magic, can be very different for each player. Just keep an eye on your health and mana; if the former runs out you'll fail the exam, and if the latter runs out you might find yourself stuck. If you can't figure out how to escape, you can click the button to give up and the game will still proceed, but you'll find you've failed for doing so.
Analysis: Where Magical Diary succeeds where other games in the genre fail is by bringing a lot of the story events to you; rather than relying on luck to be in the right place at the right time to trigger a story scene, most happen on their own either after or before class so that you never feel like you're missing anything. Stress, a statistic common in these games, is also a breeze to manage and usually only needs a nap every other week to keep in check. It's such a streamlined experience that it's a snap to jump into and find yourself engrossed before you know it. The writing is actually really good, and the characters pretty darn likable and interesting across the board. The soundtrack can be a little strange at times, with oddly inappropriate tunes chosen for specific characters (Professor Grabiner is a flamenco dancer?), and the character design as a whole tends to be more than a little androgynous, but on the whole it's a very cheery, bright game with a lot of visual appeal.
If there's one area that Magical Diary falters a little, it's in not having any real over-arching narrative or plot apart from your relationships with other students. Granted, most romances (more on this later) tend to have significant drama and intrigue that they might feel crowded by some big epic adventure happening at the same time, but if you're not interested in cozying up to anyone, you don't really get much of a plot beyond "you are at magic school, and occasionally some things happen". Yeah, okay, I admit it; I was hoping for a chance to save the world (or at least the school) from some Big Bad I would ultimately triumph over after learning the power of friendship and explosions. Fortunately, the little subdramas that happen with your fellow students can be pretty interesting and tends to flesh them out substantially as the game progresses. It's extremely refreshing to see whenever a popular character archetype turns into an actual person as you get to know them, and Magical Diary pulls this off with ease multiple times.
The exams actually wind up being a big part of the game's attraction, largely due in part to how many varied approaches you can take to each one. It makes you wish there were more of them, or that they were longer, since not only are they surprisingly fun, they're also essentially the only place you really get to use all the spells you learn. Oh, you'll get the odd chance to fire off a specific spell if you've learned it during a story event, but by and large magic only makes an appearance when you're being tested, and as a result, doesn't get the time in the spotlight it feels like it deserves. With the word "magic" right there in the title, you'd kind of expect it to have a bigger focus in the actual gameplay.
The romances fair a bit better than your magical talent in that if you decide to pursue one, they almost feel like they become the main focus of the narrative. There are five options, three males and two females, and while figuring out how to "start" a few of them can be tricky, once they have been triggered they're surprisingly complex. It helps significantly that the people you have the potential for muchas smooches with are pretty varied in personality, with even more depth as you spend time with them, so chances are good you'll find someone who appeals to you and get a nice long, well-written relationship arc in the process. (Some of which are healthier than others, I might argue, but I digress... )
One complaint about all this I do have is that as a player, when it comes to characterising your Sue, it feels like your choices are severely limited. You don't really get to decide how she reacts to most things; there's no dialogue wheel with options for being nice, a jerk, or anything in between. You just get presented with a problem, choose how you want to deal with it, and your Sue carries on. For a lot of people, this won't be a big issue, but for people hoping to role play a specific type of character, or someone they've created themselves, the Sue's stock, pleasant but somewhat weepy personality is a bit of a downer. Me? I would personally have adopted a more "HOLY JUICES YOU GUYS I AM DOING MAGIC HOW RAD AM I" approach, but not everyone can craft such subtleties into their narrative, I understand.
Despite a few hiccups and quibbles, Magical Diary: Horse Hall is probably the best visual novel/life simulation out there in its fantasy genre right now. It really feels like it could be the start of something big; through conversations with people and lessons during class, you get peeks at something that could expand into a remarkably big and well developed fantasy universe, and it seems we've only just dipped our toe into it. It's absolutely addicting and engrossing, but definitely leaves you wanting more; the game ends after the first year, and you may want to cross your fingers and hope for a "Year 2" expansion. (Currently, only a version for boys has been announced.) Still, the game has a remarkable amount of replay value, with what you thought were simple little scenes in one playthrough expanding into whole subplots on another depending on the choices you make. While it may cost a bit more than your average indie title, Magical Diary is a game I was more than happy to spend my money on, and my time with. Give the demo and try and see if there isn't a spot left open at Iris Academy just for you.