Brilliant Shadows – Part One of the Book of Gray Magic is a sweet VN about introspection and searching for identity while growing up in an ever-changing world. Also there’s magic, but mostly the introspection and searching thing.
Brilliant Shadows follows the story of Ash, a skilled necromancer living in a world of magic. Ash and her best friend Prudence (a paladin) have spent the past 14 years training in magic school to become part of a “pairing,” a lifetime bond between a necromancer and paladin to perform greater magic than what could be achieved by either party alone. The pairing is completed via an annual magic ritual, which determines a paladin or necromancer’s best partner based on overall compatibility. Prude and Ash have planned to be paired together since they started at the school and can’t imagine partnering with anyone else, yet the ritual not only pairs Prude with a completely different paladin but also pairs Ash with a completely unknown entity. The rest of the story focuses on trying to find Ash’s partner, resulting in her understanding of magic, love, and friendship being called into question.
The story in Brilliant Shadows can be divided into the magic stuff, which the writers handled in a so-so manner, and the interpersonal stuff, which was beautiful. Ash and Prude are incredibly close to one another and have been their whole lives. They can’t imagine not being together for the rest of their lives, which is why it comes as such a shock when the ritual partners each woman with someone else. The ritual is meant to be permanent, and can only be cancelled by one of the members of the pairing dying, so there’s no way to ask for a do-over and hope for better results the next time. This is a permanent, serious, and unexpected change for both of them. It’s like when you find out that you and your childhood best friend are going to different colleges, in the sense that you know you can still be friends, but something fundamental has changed in the relationship that neither of you were prepared for or really know how to handle.
At the same time, Prude’s new partner Hektor causes a further layer of tension in the ladies’ relationship. Prude and Ash live in a society where failure to pair in the annual ceremony is a great mark of shame, and Hektor failed to pair twice before he managed to get Prude as his partner. He’s so happy to be paired (and so intense as a person overall) that he throws himself headlong into Prude’s life and Ash’s pairing issue. He’s a constant representation of what Ash could have been for Prude but now can never be, and it grates on her like nothing else. Hektor and Prude are perfect partners that complement each other in ways that not even a lifelong best friend could hope to match. Ash doesn’t like Hektor, but even she can admit she’s not sure if that’s because there’s something wrong with Hektor or if her own jealousy is bleeding through into interactions that someone else wouldn’t even bat an eye at. She’s watching her longtime best friend enter into the magical equivalent of a serious relationship and feels like a third wheel. And because Ash and Prude were so certain of ending up together, neither of them bothered to form any meaningful relationships with other students, so Ash has no support network to fall back on. You can’t help but feel sorry for her.
As if she wasn’t going through enough, Ash is also grappling with her own sexual identity. *Minor spoiler* She’s been in love with Prude for years, but Prude does not return the sentiment because she’s straight. *end spoiler* After the pairing ceremony, Ash has to puzzle through whether she’s gay, bisexual, or something else in a society where non-heterosexual orientations are somewhat accepted but not openly discussed. Partners in pairings often end up in romantic and/or sexual relationships, but there’s no guarantee of that occurring in Ash’s pairing. On top of that, she has no idea who she’s been paired to for the majority of the game, and so her search for sexual identity is also getting tangled up with her struggle to try and find out who could possibly be magically, mentally, and emotionally compatible with her. And the more she tries to figure out who her partner could be, the more confused she becomes.
In the beginning of Brilliant Shadows, Ash assumes that she’ll be paired with the paladin Prude, because all pairings are made between the powers of Light and Shadow, taking the form of a paladin and a necromancer, respectively. But when she is paired with someone not from the paladins’ numbers, her search reveals that there are other magic users like witches and wizards that could have accidentally paired with her (depending on the range of the ritual), or possibly a gray witch who is capable of using both Light and Shadow, and thus could pair with anyone. Whoever it is, Ash can draw power from them, and it allows her abilities to evolve in ways that no necromancer has ever been able to achieve. It’s no surprise that she’s hesitant to show off a new spell that she develops, because unraveling the spell could reveal things about her partner that she’s not ready to face. What would it say about her as a person if her perfect partner uses types of magic that are unheard of in her home country, or relies on stealing power from other mages to further their own abilities? She’s simultaneously desperate to simply know who the other half of her pairing is, and terrified to find that answer.
The supporting cast are all going through their own issues as well: Prude is the kingdom’s princess and has to balance her desire to be a paladin against the knowledge that eventually she’ll have to take over the throne, while another necromancer named Belinda (arguably the worst magic user in the entire game) has decided to completely reject her upbringing in order to avoid being seen as spoiled and reliant on her family. Hektor’s intense personality doesn’t lend itself to any relationships (other than his pairing with Prude) and his status as a low-born orphan only further isolates him. Aelfnod is gay, older than all the other students by a good number of years, and spent the majority of his life living in a world of witches and wizards, where his magic was useless because his paladin-type powers were completely unknown to his people. None of the magic users allow their issues to define or hold them back, but you can clearly see the scars their histories have left on them. It makes the story feel more robust and developed, because although the others are following Ash on her adventure, each of them also has their own distinct issues to puzzle through.
It’s good that the relationships are so well flushed out, because the magical aspect of the story is kind of lackluster. Some elements of the magical world are explained very well, while others are only hinted at or briefly touched on, leading to some confusion down the line. Hektor mentioned that he wasn’t fond of healing magic because reasons, but after completing all three routes I’m not entirely sure what those reasons might be. The game starts with this assumption that paladin and necromancer magic is all that exists, but then at the end of the game you find out that everyone apparently knew about different kinds of magic among the non-human creatures outside of the country, but it just never came up because people assumed they were so far away that it didn’t matter? Someone developed a spell to restore plant life ages ago, and even though a character in-game explicitly states that such a spell could be a solution to widespread famine, apparently no one cared enough to research the spell’s uses and effects? It honestly feels like the writers wanted a magical world with a lot of mystery but didn’t edit carefully enough to tie up the loose ends that take the story from mysterious to confusing. This wasn’t a dealbreaker for me though because the characters were handled so well, and Brilliant Shadows is supposed to be the first part of a longer story, so hopefully those and similar issues will be cleaned up in later installments.
As a final gripe, there were a few hiccups throughout Brilliant Shadows. There were a few music loops that I could distinctly hear the cutoff for. At one point you encounter a character named Swan, but the voice actors call her Ashley when they speak. I’m guessing the name change happened after the lines were already recorded and no one caught it before launching the game. Lastly, Brilliant Shadows does something I haven’t seen since Shan Gui: when you hit the “Extras” tab in the main menu, it opens a webpage on the Ithaqa Labs website. It’s not something I was expecting, and a warning would have been nice. These are all minor issues though, and didn’t stop my enjoyment of the VN.
Overall, I really liked Brilliant Shadows. The art is really good, the music is nice, the voice acting is so-so, the universe could be better put together, but the characters and their search for identity within their social groups and themselves are fantastic and make this a definite buy for me.
Brilliant Shadows – Part One of the Book of Gray Magic is available on Steam for $7. Buy it.