Magical Diary: Wolf Hall—a game that combines elements of stat-raising and puzzles with a visual novel format and a plot about solving mysteries and getting dates at a magical boarding school—was my personal most highly anticipated release of 2020. It’s a follow-up to 2012’s Magical Diary: Horse Hall, which played a big role in my becoming the voracious visual novel reader that I am today, as well as making me a lifelong fan of developers Hanako Games. I rushed to back the kickstarter just over a year ago, and started playing as soon as it was released. I’ve had a lot of fun with it over the past little while, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who likes the idea of simulating student life in a modern fantasy setting, whether you’ve played the first one or not. It includes several well-written and intricate storylines starring a diverse and compelling cast of characters, and while its mechanics can start to get a bit frustrating over multiple playthroughs, they also add a lot of unique complexity to the narrative. I’ll go into a bit more detail about all of that in this spoiler-free review.
The first Magical Diary game cast the player as a customizable female protagonist, default named Mary Sue, with the choice between two male and three female love interests: her roommates Ellen and Virginia, Virginia’s brother Donald, Professor Grabiner, and a demon upperclassman named Damien. Wolf Hall stars Mary Sue’s male counterpart Gary Stu, who lives in a different dormitory during the same year as the original story; Ellen and Damien return to the list of love interests alongside Virginia and Donald’s final sibling William, and two new female students of other houses named Minnie and Barbara. The variety in the romance options is part of what drew me to the original game, and I was especially happy to see it carried over into a sequel with a male protagonist. While it seems to be becoming relatively popular for English visual novels to provide a female protagonist with love interests of more than one gender, or to provide a completely customizable protagonist with the same options, it’s still uncommon to see a character explicitly written as a bisexual man. One of my friends who had never even played the first Magical Diary was really excited to get this one because of how rarely he gets the opportunity to see himself represented in media. Wolf Hall‘s supporting cast also includes a few non-binary characters, including a shapeshifter named Blaise whom I would have loved to read an extra route for. I really appreciate that Hanako Games included this representation that you don’t often see elsewhere.
I was also really impressed by the organization and attention to detail in the writing. Alongside the five main romance routes, there are several side routes and subplots, but choosing to focus on one of those doesn’t mean that the others will just fall by the wayside. Throughout the school year, little events that occur all over campus will remind you that there are other stories happening, with or without your actions influencing them, in the background. On my first playthrough, I loved getting so many brief glimpses of other things I could try to learn more about next time. It almost felt like the other students at Iris Academy were real people living their own lives, and I couldn’t wait to get to know them all more. And I was also motivated to keep replaying and experimenting with the simulation and puzzle mechanics of magic classes and exams, which encourage you to learn and try out different combinations of spells. The only unfortunate side of all this was that I ran out of viable new strategies long before I ran out of character routes, and I started to get really tired of repeating the same exams over and over again. The first few times that I tested out new ways to beat, bypass, or negotiate with a giant magic frog were a lot of fun, but by the sixth or seventh time I was getting really sick of seeing its stupid frog face. I would pay Hanako Games extra to give me a “skip previously passed exams” button.
But one way that the game’s mechanics really shine is in how they make a lot of choices more complex and interesting than in your average VN. The spells you’ve learned in your choice of classes, as well as the personality traits you’ve gained through earlier dialogue options, will often come back later on to expand or limit the ways in which you can advance the narrative. For instance, not long into your school year, you’ll have two opportunities to investigate what sounds like someone sneaking around the halls after lights out. But if you choose to stay in bed the first time, the game takes that lack of curiosity into account, and immediately ignores the second time for you too. And you’ll also need to have specialized in the right kind of magic to have learned a “silence” spell if you want to follow the person who’s sneaking out the second time and find out what they’re up to. While these complexities can sometimes make it a little frustrating to figure out how to get certain routes, it’s really interesting and immersive to have a wide variety of your actions influencing the story other than just what you choose to say. And even outside of major events, your skills and personality often change little bits of dialogue or internal monologue in ways that give different types of playthroughs a bit more flavour.
Overall, I’ve had a great time playing Magical Diary: Wolf Hall. I wish I could skip past some of the gameplay sometimes, but it only started to get on my nerves after multiple playthroughs, and it’s a testament to how enjoyable the writing is that I kept replaying it long enough to get to that point. It’s been fun and very nostalgic to play the follow-up to a game that meant a lot to me several years ago, revisiting old characters as well as getting to know some new ones. I hope this review will inspire a few more people to check it out—especially if some of you can come back and report to me on how to get those elusive side routes! I still have five achievements left and I’m determined to get 100%.