Strange World: Disney’s Most Family-Savvy Movie

Here we go again, time to see another Disney movie on opening day (well, I know this post isn’t coming out on opening day… but you know what I mean). I’m gonna admit that I was worried about this one. Lightyear ended up being one of my biggest disappointments with Pixar in YEARS, and while Turning Red was great, it wasn’t meant to be better than Lightyear. Strange World also has something that always, ALWAYS sets the Internet on fire, even though it’s pretty commonplace nowadays. That’s why I try to watch movies I care about on opening day… even though I would prefer them to be on Disney+ as well (at least that’s something they did right with Disenchanted).

In Strange World, the famous explorer Jaeger Clade is ready to make the discovery of a lifetime on the other side of the unconquerable mountain range that looms over his hometown of Avalonea. He drags his son Searcher (and some other people) on this journey. Searcher discovers a radioactive green corn, dubbed Pando, that has enough power to jumpstart Avalonea to a new age. Jaeger, sadly, doesn’t take kindly to this and abandons his son. Twenty-five years later, Searcher starts his own life as a farmer, but must take on the explorer mantle again when Pando mysteriously starts dying off.

So, Strange World is a lot for a Disney movie. I can almost guarantee that kids will have no idea what’s going on until they’re eighteen. On the flipside, this is perhaps the most catered to adults that a Disney animated feature has ever been. As strange as the world in Strange World is, the real strange world is the strange world of family relationships. The entire plot revolves around Searcher, his son Ethan, and Jaeger, who is of course still alive in the titular strange world beneath the mountains.

Before continuing on, I might as well fan-gush over this strange world. Who needs Avatar, which just looks exactly like Earth but plants glow sometimes, when you have the surrealistic wonders put forth by Disney visionaries? The movie explodes with beautiful colors, odd creatures, and epic landscape shots. Too bad Avatar‘s going to eat this movie nonetheless…

Anyway, complaints about Hollywood being jury-rigged against animation aside, the story of the Clades is the heart of the movie. When the three generations of Clade meet for the first time, the drama goes through the roof. Ethan thinks Jaeger is cool, Searcher doesn’t like Jaeger, Searcher doesn’t want Ethan to be like Jaeger (and holds Ethan back in the process of protecting him from his grandpa), and Ethan just wants to be… Ethan. To be blunt, if you’re a seasoned veteran of fiction, Disney movies, and life in general, then you already know all three men’s character arcs from start to finish. Fortunately, this age-old theme is still relevant, as there are certainly plenty of Dead Poet Society-esque parents out there who need a wake-up call. Also, Strange World executes on it really well, not getting too manufactured in favor of shock value while managing to hit home all the same.

Oh, right, there is still the whole dying green corn thing… Well, that debacle ends up having a legitimately clever twist. I won’t spoil what it is, but it’s definitely not human machinations this time. The idea of humans not being a vile plague is always a novelty these days.

Based on how aggressively I talked about the three Clade men up to this point, it sure sounds like they’re the only real characters. Well, they’re the most fleshed out, that’s for sure. Jaeger might be a jerk, but he has some funny moments of being a real grandpa. Searcher is a classic dad character, wanting to protect Ethan and his home. Ethan is just a cool kid caught between a rock (Searcher) and a hard place (Jaeger).

Everyone else is still quite likable, regardless of screentime. This includes that one guy with glasses whose name I don’t know at all; he’s funny. However, he’s not the comic relief supporting character; that would go to Splat, a native of the strange world. Splat is your usual mute, marketable character, who speaks in its own sign language and is very bouncy all the time. Ethan’s mom, Meridian, is perhaps the best. She can do anything and everything, all while being a mom. 

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

Strange World has got to be one of the most intricate movies that Disney has put out (even though that’s not saying much). It deals with family… er… family… and… Actually, the entire thing is just one big commentary on families. Wow, good job contradicting yourself. Anyway, my love for it is NOT a contradiction, and I suggest you round up your father and/or son and watch this with them!

The Dragon Prince is FINALLY Back! (Season 4 Review with SPOILERS)

It’s been a long time coming for The Dragon Prince: one pandemic later. In any case, Netflix has given the show four more seasons; four more seasons of one of the best examples of a neo-retro fantasy epic, and one of the most I-feel-like-a-kid-again experiences outside of Disney. As you can see, I decided I’m going to go over it season-by-season. Since each season is only nine episodes, and the show has a really simplistic plot, this post, along with reviews of subsequent seasons, will contain unmarked spoilers so that the entire thing isn’t just “It’s good, I guess.” Read with caution!

Last time we left off, two human boys named Callum and Ezran (until the latter had to step away to be the youngest king ever), and an elf named Rayla, managed to escort (read as: “babysit”) the Dragon Prince, Zim, back to his home in Xadia. Ezran’s late father’s evil royal advisor, Verin, almost stopped them, by turning his followers into veiny-muscle-dudes. However, Verin was defeated thanks to the power of friendship. After a three-year cliffhanger for us and two-year timeskip in the show, we’ll finally get to see what happens next!

But not before I reverse a cardinal sin I committed in the previous review: I never ONCE mentioned the boys’ Aunt Amaya! She’s the Best Girl! She’s the typical Awesome Aunt trope: swole, and takes no prisoners, but loves her family to pieces. Speaking of loving someone to pieces… her ship with the swole elf, Janai, is officially set to launch this season. More on that later though.

This whole season has been built up as “The Mystery of Aaravos”. However, I’m pretty sure we knew one thing about him: he’s the Avatar. If I remember correctly (as someone who never bothered rewatching the previous seasons), Rayla mentioned an Aaravos who could control all six Primal Sources. What we learn of him in this season is that he’s the typical “bad guy who manipulates powerful people and causes wars from the shadows because evil”. There’s most likely more to his story.

Fortunately, despite the long break, the show hasn’t missed a beat. The Dragon Prince is still whimsical, funny, and epic. I couldn’t help but smile for most of the season, and that’s just how I like it. 

Of course, it’s not all roses and picnics, especially not considering what the real world has gone through in between seasons. Racism has always been a theme, but was played off as something with an easy solution; typical “kids are always right and adults are always wrong” kind of stuff. The inverse is evident when Amaya gets hitched with Janai; their ship sailing would spell disaster for what’s left of the proud Sunfire Elves. It doesn’t matter that they love each other. 

This is even more evident in the party that Ezran plans, in which the Dragon Queen herself visits Katolis (is that how you spell the place?), and ideally, no one tries to kill each other. His speech in episode three hit me harder than possibly anything else I’ve experienced in 2022. It was at that moment that I realized how much I relate to him; we’re both kids who believe in peace, and just cannot understand why hate comes so naturally to the vast majority of people. What he said in it really hit home for me. As much as I’ve gone with the logic of “all the people involved in those conflicts are dead now”, it really wasn’t true at all. Like Ezran said, we must keep the hatred within us alongside the love somehow. Unfortunately, as simple as The Dragon Prince is, even it knows that there is nothing simple about this. In fact, I understand humanity even less now, especially since no practical “how” for Ezran’s process is brought up whatsoever; it’s just something “you gotta do.”

Aaaaanyway, despite how complicated it is, Aunt Amaya makes it look easy. On her end, an ignorant human does something really offensive to a Sunfire Elf. Amaya, being the badass that she is, convinces them to reduce the perp’s punishment from death to community service. It’s a very powerful scene, and something that politically correct people should keep in mind. 

However, it doesn’t end there. The one universal constant with marriages is that in-laws are the worst, and in Amaya’s case, it’s Janai’s brother, Karim. He is basically the elf equivalent of that snobby guy from season three who wanted Ezran to declare war on Xadia for no particular reason, i.e. he’s an utter jackass. He’d rather humans and elves continue to be racist to each other. At first, it seems like he’s simply concerned about his people, considering that there aren’t too many of them left. However, as Amaya and Janai continue to move forward and do good things, he just wants to yank the whole encampment backwards. 

At the very least, he doesn’t try to kill her. Well, sure, he challenges her to a duel to the death, but he wanted her to forfeit so he can win by default. That’s exactly what happens, but he gets arrested instead because the duel is supposed to be illegal (his arc is definitely not over yet). Janai says this awesome thing about people’s history not defining how they are in the present, which—wait—isn’t that kinda the opposite of what Ezran said in episode three? Well, in any case, that’s also something that politically correct people need to keep in mind.

While that’s all nice and dandy, the overarching plot of the show at this juncture involves Claudia going through a whole rigmarole to release Aaravos. Callum and Co. literally catch wind of this, and that means it’s time for adventuring once more! Our old pals Callum, Rayla, Ezran, Zim, and now Sorin! What’s not to love?

Actually, the answer may surprise you: Callum and Rayla. Their ship sailed back in season three, but in the name of shock value, her metaphorical crew has a saboteur. In between seasons, Rayla left to find Verin’s body (or something?) but to no avail. Callum, naturally, is hit hard by this, since he loves her. However, when she returns, he… hates her guts? Well, he definitely behaves like an utter jackass, that’s for sure, suddenly acting like her ex and not her current partner. I really don’t get this AT ALL. I’m not sure if Rayla’s departure was shown at the end of season three (it definitely wasn’t in the recap), but there really is no context so I can’t tell who is more at fault. It’s one thing if she never told Callum, but it’s still indecent for him to be such a turd-monkey to the girl of his dreams. The cherry on top is that he’s set up to be one of Aaravos’ future thralls. Oh goodie.

Speaking of characters changing, no one changes more in this season than our antagonists. As I implied before, Sorin is a good noodle and he’s great as always. However, Verin and Claudia both do a big 180. Verin literally comes back to life after his big fall from season three, and he’s a mess. He doesn’t want to touch his staff or use dark magic, or be evil. He even has panic attacks and a new fear of heights. I was really surprised by this, because I was certain that he was the evil human mage shown in the very, VERY beginning of the series, staying young by snorting those butterflies as seen in season one. He might still have a connection with that dude, since his staff isn’t really his; Claudia uses it in ways that he never knew existed. 

Claudia, on the other hand, stops being the derpy, adorable teenage girl, and becomes quite cold. She has some of her charm, but she’s done a LOT of dark magic, and will cast as many spells as it takes to free Aaravos, who can make her father’s living-mumbo-jumbo spell permanent. Also, somehow, evil Claudia wins the heart of some elf named Terry. He’s cute and funny, and kills someone literally for the first time in his life this season. I bet he’ll be her moral compass for a while.

Let’s end this discussion by reflecting on how the season ended (since this is a spoiler-filled review after all). The teams on both sides journey to the mountain of Umber Tor to find Rex Igneous, who has a clue to Aaravos’ whereabouts. It’s literally carved into his tooth. To build tension, each party of course arrives at the same time, confronts each other, and the bad guys escape with the prize. Our heroes are safe from the grumpiest dragon ever (also I got the entire backstory of the series wrong in my first review apparently, even though I wrote that overview minutes after watching the first episode? Well, good thing I’m not official in any way), but they didn’t have silly putty nor the ability to obtain the map. So… they’re in a bind right now. Also, Verin uses his staff and seems to revert back to his old self, albeit with dark magic veins covering his face. Wait… IS he that dark mage from the VERY beginning? In any case, there’s still more to this that we don’t know, such as Ezran possibly having a connection with the human who thwarted Aaravos in the past, who is implied to have had the same Rubik’s cube that Callum has now. Also, that staff of Verin’s is referred to as “the Staff of Xiod” (I’m guessing that’s how it’s spelled). Xiod might be that dark mage, regardless of whether or not Verin and him are one and the same. 

In conclusion, this new season was as amazing as ever, and I already miss it. I’m not going to give a rating this time, because I feel like that won’t be necessary until the series as a whole is concluded (which, hopefully, will go swimmingly). If you haven’t watched The Dragon Prince, then I’m sorry for spoiling the entire series up to this point (don’t say I didn’t warn you). Also, if that’s the case, you should watch The Dragon Prince.

Oni: Thunder God’s Tale is Baby’s First Crash Course in Shinto

I’ve known about Netflix and Tonko House’s project, Oni: Thunder God’s Tale, since its initial announcement in November 2019. Over the course of the three years it took for the show to drop… a lot has happened, on both a global and personal scale. We have at least seen an explosion in diversity lately, but I feel like a lot of it just becomes clout instead of doing anything substantial for the good of humanity. Despite that, I decided to watch Oni anyway; it’s short, so it’s not like I had to worry about time.

In Oni: Thunder God’s Tale, a bunch of yokai (who are actually kami because the terms are technically one and the same) live together to protect the world from the Oni. A large dude named Naridon enters their domain with a child. He lives there and raises his kid, Onari, who trains to fight the Oni. However, she doesn’t exactly have any powers (referred to as kushi) because Naridon is a bit of an oddball. Sounds like the perfect setup for a coming-of-age story!

Before discussing the story at all, I must praise Tonko House for their absolutely stunning job with the visuals. Tsutsumi brings that experience as a former Pixar animator to the table for sure. Oni, being in brand with the studio, is an ode to stop-motion animation, and simply put, it’s the most beautiful display of the style I have ever seen. Every motion and detail is perfect and full of life. I can’t really express how visually appealing the show is; you’ll have to watch it yourself.

Furthermore, the show does a better job presenting a mythological world than almost any other case I’ve experienced in Western culture, especially compared to the literature department. It hits all the right notes, and teaches you the basics of Japanese culture and Shinto folklore in memorable ways, instead of mindless exposition dumps that insult the viewer for not having encyclopedic knowledge of the stuff going into it. If only there was more soulful stuff like this out there to teach children about other cultures.

As far as the story goes, it’s pretty straightforward stuff. However, it’s told with much more chutzpah than a lot of the crap that spews out of our screens these days. Oni isn’t exactly deep or profound, but it’s not mind-numbingly predictable either. It showcases the strictness of Japanese society all too well, with how much pressure the children are given to excel, especially for poor Onari, who doesn’t know what her power is. It’s not heavy all the time, though; there’s plenty of adorable humor sprinkled throughout.

Being only a four episode miniseries, Oni doesn’t exactly have time to tell its story. While it kind of sucks that I waited this long for such a short show, the length is to its benefit; if it was allowed to go on longer, it could’ve easily gotten boring. Oni, especially in the first half, is basically a character study. There isn’t much adventuring whatsoever, and there’s a lot of dialogue. Honestly, it would have been a REALLY bad show if it went on for twenty-four-plus episodes. Fortunately, it does what it needs to do in the time given.

As you can expect from a program aimed at kids, the characters are quite simple, and are hard-carried by how they are presented in execution. Unsurprisingly, the studio did a great job making them memorable and likable (well, except for the people who aren’t meant to be likable). Onari herself is plucky and full of energy, and as the main character, is the one who must find herself. However, the real star of the show is the tragic hero, Naridon. Although he’s doofy and the least expressive character in the show, I was somehow able to tell that he carries a lot of baggage. If Tonko House actually meant for you to pick up on that, then kudos to them. 

Out of Onari’s classmates, the only one who isn’t a jerk is her kappa friend… Kappa. He’s the socially awkward and sensitive kid that you just want to hug all the time. Unfortunately, everyone kind of exists to fill the class and be, as I said, jerks. Even her teacher, Tengu-sensei, is kind of one too. Once it’s found out that Naridon is a big hotshot, he puts too an unfair amount of stock into Onari; they couldn’t give George Takei a better character to voice? Even Naridon’s brother, Putaro, is kind of your typical jealous younger sibling. Holy crap, I said the cast was great, but in retrospect, a lot of them really aren’t. Well, props to Tonko House for clearly telegraphing whom the audience is meant to root for. At least the school principal is a cool dude.

If there is anything of note to add, it’s what you could argue is the show’s biggest flaw. In essence, it loses its whimsy by the second half. While still excellent all the way through, it’s… well… how do I put it? Basically, in some regards, Tsutsumi isn’t that much different from typical modern writers. Oni has social undertones that have been around since humans put pen to paper, and it kind of sucks that this is just another one of those cases. Fortunately, it’s one of the more respectable instances of it, and they kind of—as the kids say it—jabait you in a way.

Sidebar: I swear if The Dragon Prince becomes darker next week, I’m going to be really angry and sad. However, you won’t be hearing my thoughts on it until November 19th since I’m going to Walt Disney World again!

Actually, hang on, there’s just another small nitpick, and it’s this weird case where subtitles appear to translate text on various background objects that don’t really matter whatsoever. Well, obviously, they do matter as little details to make the world feel alive, but you know what I mean; none of it matters to the plot. Ironically, this DOESN’T occur during the one instance of actually relevant onscreen text.

Well… okay, there’s one more issue I have with the show; not really the show but its circumstances I guess. While it’s nice and all, it doesn’t do Japanese culture any favors. In this age of inclusivity in American pop culture, people seem to think that nothing exists unless observed by the American mainstream. As someone who’s read manga for ten years and studied Japanese culture directly for four, Japanese mythology is alive and well in its actual origin point: you know, Japan itself. From Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan to In/Spectre and beyond, Shinto is everywhere, much to the locals’ famous claims of not being religious. It is odd that, with how common Shinto is, most of those I.P.s fail to break through into the mainstream, with Spirited Away being the only one to have managed it. Not even Oni is mainstream; Netflix really didn’t do much to promote it at all, and I spent two years thinking production was axed by COVID.

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Final Verdict: 9.75/10

As far as representation is concerned, Oni: Thunder God’s Tale is by far the best portrayal of Japanese mythology in all of Western entertainment (at least out of what I know of). To be less hyperbolic, it’s just a really cute, amazing show that doesn’t overstay its welcome. If you wanna raise a kid who will swim outside of the mainstream, then Oni is an easy must-watch. In fact, if you’re a parent, you should probably watch it with them.

Song of the Sea: This Time WithOUT Feeling?

I finally got to see Cartoon Saloon’s The Secret of Kells after years of buildup. I loved it, so naturally, I did the next logical step: also watch their second film, Song of the Sea. Time to stop beating around the bush and discuss the movie already! 

In Song of the Sea, a boy named Ben is subject to the classic family tragedy: his mother runs away, and a new baby sister, Cirsha (is that how you spell her name?), is left behind. As you can expect, dad is depressed, and Ben hates Cirsha because he blames her for his mother’s presumed death. Well, things escalate when she starts playing with the magic conch that Ben inherited from mom, because she’s a magical child who’s destined to free all the Celtic spirits from their stony prisons caused by Macha the witch stealing their emotions.

Sound complicated? Well, Cartoon Saloon has clearly upped the ante since The Secret of Kells. The plot is more involved, there’s more at stake, more influenced from Celtic mythology, and they go RIGHT for the jugular, Disney-style. The movie has a much more adventurous feel, since they are shipped off to live with grandma in crappy London (well, that’s how it looks in the movie), and have to hoof it back to their secluded island to reunite Cirsha with her patented magic onesie. 

Oh, right, I almost forgot to remind you of the supremacy of hand-drawn animation. Man, I miss experimental Disney, but Cartoon Saloon at least shows some sign of trying different visual styles. Song of the Sea is set in the modern day, forcing them to use shapes and colors unlike what had been seen in The Secret of Kells. The characters are still made of simple shapes, but there’s a lot more roundness going on, versus the many polygons in the previous outing. As expected, they do wild things with shapes and depth that—not to sound redundant—showcase how awesome hand-drawn animation is. 

Anyway, back to discussing the plot! Despite it being more complicated than the other movie, Song of the Sea is still pretty straightforward for the little ones to follow. Just like last time, the artstyle lends itself to telegraph the mood of the given scene and what certain characters are like without them speaking a word (this helps since Cirsha can’t say anything anyway). Weirder stuff happens, like Ben navigating a tunnel made of facial hair, but it’s pretty standard fare for the most part. The most interesting aspect of the movie is a parallel that can be made between two different characters, and the movie never really states whether or not they are one and the same. It’s something that adults will probably notice their first time through, though.

There is a lot more suspense than last time, as well. The stakes aren’t just higher; Ben has some close shaves as well. When Macha’s owls get the memo about Cirsha being a selkie, they pursue quite relentlessly. There’s also the caveat of Cirsha’s life slowly draining away every second she’s not in her onesie. Good thing dad chucked it into the ocean!

As with the previous venture, the characters are kind of the weakest part. Simple and effective is once again the name of Cartoon Saloon’s game, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with the cast, I’m not entirely willing to slander strangers on the Internet in their names either. Ben is a classic piece of crap kid with a redemption arc who eventually warms up to his sister. Cirsha, on the other hand, is the second best character. She’s cute, and has a lot of character for a mute girl. The BEST character is the dog, Cū. He literally swims across the ocean to unite with the kids after they are taken to grandma’s house. 

Something I failed to comment on regarding The Secret of Kells, which is also consistent with Song of the Sea, is the perfect pacing. Both movies tell their stories effectively, and I never felt like they were rushed nor overstayed their welcome. It’s doubly impressive since they give a lot of time for resolution following the climax, unlike SOME studios. 

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Final Verdict: 9.65/10

Song of the Sea is really great. Cartoon Saloon does a fantastic job reminding me of that experimental phase of Disney from way back when. I have one movie of theirs left in this trilogy (and I don’t plan on seeing The Breadwinner because it will probably gut me into oblivion), and I will watch it… someday. When I have time.

Dinkum (Early Access): A Farming Sim as Fresh as The Outback

One of the most contradictory genres in videogames is the farming/life sim. In theory, they are wholesome sandbox games with emphasis on relaxing and getting lost in their worlds. In practice, however, they are anything but that; instead, players must juggle massive laundry lists of daily tasks and NPC relationships with a suffocatingly tight in-game day/night cycle, all with the most punishing stamina system outside of Dark Souls. Animal Crossing in particular doesn’t quite suffer from these particular grievances, but thanks to real-world time being incorporated into gameplay, players are punished for not booting up the game EVERY SINGLE DAY, turning an escapist little world into the same stressful ritual you have to do IRL. However… one farming sim would appear in 2022, and win the hearts of thousands of users. Dinkum, while only in Early Access, is already being pegged as one of the highest rated games of the year. The reviews I’ve read seem to imply one thing: that it is, in fact, a farming sim that is ACTUALLY relaxing and quaint. I just had to know if this was true, so here we are.

In Dinkum, your customizable character notices an ad to accompany an eccentric old geezer named Fletch to an untamed land. Sensing your only opportunity to escape your dystopian life in South City, you join Fletch, and fly off to this land, seeking a better life. What awaits in the Australia-inspired wilderness?

What’s immediately noticeable about Dinkum is that it does absolutely nothing new for the genre in terms of gameplay. As a hybrid of Minecraft, Animal Crossing, and Stardew Valley, it has all the stuff you can expect. You gather resources, craft stuff, raise animals, plant crops, cook food, fight predators, bribe NPCs with presents, and try to fulfill a myriad of satisfying milestones as you do it all. There really isn’t much to say about these mechanics, since they’re more-or-less what you’d expect. The only novel thing are licenses, which are essentially your qualifications to buy and use various types of items. You spend Permit Points, earned through milestones and daily tasks shown in your journal, to obtain these Licenses. It sounds like an arbitrary gatekeeping mechanic, but I found them very satisfying to unlock over time. I’m looking forward to unlocking them all eventually. Keep in mind that the game has the time-honored tradition of setting yourself on fire if you touch a campsite.

What makes Dinkum so great is how all of these basic mechanics fit together. The most important aspect is how it handles the march of time. In-game days go about as fast as you can expect. However, here’s the real kicker. Similar to Garden Story, staying up past midnight FREEZES the in-game clock indefinitely, with the only penalty being a reduction in base stamina. Stamina, however, is much more tolerable. While it decreases in a manner similar to Stardew Valley, eating food will restore it, and unlike My Time at Sandrock, you have access to plenty of plants and cooking right out of the gate, so it’s no problem stockpiling a good amount of food. While it’s not recommended to do anything dangerous during the late night, it’s still a phenomenal security blanket for any last-minute tasks in town (even if your character looks miserable the whole time).

The other standout feature is its building mechanics. You decide the entire layout of the town, down to every single building and decoration. Right now, my town is a rinky-dink little splotch in the middle of nowhere, and I look forward to seeing it grow over time by my own hand. The building system is also intuitive and easy, plus you can relocate buildings and terraform the environment itself. 

As definitively amazing of a game Dinkum has been thus far, it’s actually tricky to recommend. After you recruit the first resident to the town, the game sets you free, which sounds great, but comes with the caveat of no more tutorials. This means you must learn how to do everything yourself. You pretty much need knowledge of games from three different genres; scratch that, it straight-up EXPECTS that knowledge. Fortunately, the brilliant design of the License mechanic is a great teacher. As you acquire licenses, new ones unlock in a logical order to introduce new mechanics organically. 

Unfortunately, there are still some early-game grievances. For starters, you can’t store most bugs and fish in crates (plus they don’t stack). Also, convincing visitors to move in permanently is an investment and a half. They only visit for one day, and since you can only do one favor a day, you’re not exactly going to win them over immediately, and have to wait until RNG decides their return. As per tradition, these guys can ask for items that are very rare or remote, plus they have specific food preferences that aren’t tracked in any way, shape or form, as far as I could tell.

Fortunately, these flaws actually feel justified ONLY in Dinkum. In fact, it might be programmed this way on purpose. Shops aren’t open 24/7, and they are always closed at least one day a week. Because of this, you can—and will—actually make mistakes in Dinkum; your only penalty is reduced efficiency. Because of how Dinkum is structured, you can actually take the time to learn its ins and outs (it took me over ten hours to learn how to grow trees). You have time to do things, or nothing if you really want to. Any frustration I felt from Dinkum was because the instincts from other games like it took over.

In any case, Dinkum wants you to take your time, so keep that in mind if you do gaming as a job, and are required to beat everything in a timely manner. Dinkum is straight-up not meant to be steamrolled through. Plants take a minimum of a week to grow, and those Permit Points don’t exactly grow on trees either. If you undertake this endeavor, you better prepare to enjoy a slow life of leisure! It’s actually quite the experience for me. Whenever I boot it up, I never really have a plan. Sure, there are goals to work towards in the long run, but because there’s no viable way to gun for those, I’m forced to take each in-game day as it comes. There’s something wonderful about it.

One of the objective flaws that I’m sure have been pointed out is that the NPCs are souless. They’re so unremarkable that they have the same EXACT text as one another. However, I kind of believe that’s a good thing. Romancing isn’t an option anyway, so why make NPCs likable enough in the first place? Also, again, the lack of depth in your relationships just removes another mountain of daily rituals that you would have otherwise had to do. Besides, is it even realistic in other games like this? All you do is grind up their favorite thing (which you generally need to find out through trial and error or a guide), and gift it to them over and over and over again, until—suddenly—they have enough of that same thing like Clark Griswold’s boss in Christmas Vacation to want to marry you. Platonic relationships are better!

Another caveat that I’m pretty sure is just unavoidable even for Dinkum is the inevitable emptiness from having nothing left to do. Eventually, you’ll be flush with cash that you have no use for, with crops and resources by the thousands that you don’t need to sell, and enough Licenses to fill a wardrobe. I’m pretty sure this will happen no matter what. The fun comes from progressing to reach that point more than anything, and it’s a journey I’m more than willing to make with Dinkum. Lemme tell you… it’s gonna be long. 

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Current Verdict: 9.65/10

Dinkum is well worth the hype and price. It’s the Animal Crossing/Stardew Valley that actually manages to be what it says on the tin. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it evolves over the course of its Early Access period, and I suggest you hop aboard as well, especially if you’re sick of those other games.

Usotoki Rhetoric Volume 1 (Advanced Review): Liar, Liar, Heard you Lie Sir

Aaaaah… shoujo. The manga term for romantic relationships, giant sparkling eyes, and hearts being set a-flutter. Every time I read a shoujo manga, I didn’t exactly like it, including some of the household classics. Well, maybe that’ll change, thanks to Ritsu Miyako’s Usotoki Rhetoric. I was offered an advanced copy of One Peace Books’ first published volume (you know, the small team built on The Rising of the Shield Hero and a dream?), and I took it. You’ll know why once I tell you its novel premise.

In Usotoki Rhetoric, Urabe Kanako exiles herself from her rural village, because everyone hates her due to her psychic power to hear lies. In the big city, she runs into a financially unstable detective named Iwai Soma. Naturally, he has her help him solve cases so he can make fat stacks. Presumably, they’ll fall in love.

Oops, I forgot to mention the setting: Japan during the Showa Era, i.e. the 1920s. If you’re a real weeb, then Usotoki Rhetoric will feel quite interesting. People have the old-school hair and the kimonos. It also makes sense for Kananko to be discriminated against, since people would’ve been more superstitious at the time. 

Unfortunately, nothing is perfect, especially if you’re not a shoujo fan. On the bright side, the art is more tolerable than other shoujos, where characters have gems surgically implanted into their eye sockets and chins that can impale someone. However, it’s still shoujo art, trading intricacy for intimacy. The humor feels identical to literally all other shoujo manga I have ever read. There are plenty of the “person says something stupid and begets an overeaction from someone else” trope, but being a shoujo, the energy and spontaneity is toned down a lot from what I’m used to in shounen. Also, the constant running joke of Soma being poor just feels kind of unremarkable.

Furthermore, as a caveat of reviewing just the first volume, the duo already seems—as the kids say it—dummy busted. Kananko’s power is limited only to people who lie on purpose, and when dealing with criminals themselves, it’s not really that vexing. So far, they run into the perp immediately, and it’s only a matter of acting accordingly. Meanwhile, Soma is—you know—a detective. He latches onto small details and is actually more competent than his pockets would lead you to believe. As it stands, Kananko just seems to be an insurance policy.

So far, Usotoki Rhetoric is set up to be an episodic mystery series. They solve a case, and since malt shops weren’t invented yet, they just move onto the next one. They vary wildly in urgency, from attempted arson on a child to petty theft. I was hoping for a murder case, but that does not occur in this volume.

As far as characters are concerned, there are only three mainstays: Kanako, Soma, and Soma’s friend, Hanasaki (I think that was his name?). Well, if you know your shoujo, then you might as well have met them. Kanako is that weak and awkward girl who has to get used to not being hated for being unique. She starts to get more confident in this volume alone. Soma is handsome and aloof. He’s kind of a troll, and his willingness to swindle people in between cases—such as by using Kanako so he can read minds as a street performer—is supposed to juxtapose his hunkyness with some flaws. Of course, if you’re familiar with a lot of shounen and seinen, he’s still a saint by comparison to some OTHER people. 

~~~~~

Current Verdict: 7.5/10

This volume of Usokoti Rhetoric lays the groundwork for what could be a decent mystery series, but that could easily fall apart if the cases don’t get complex enough. The portrayal of Showa Era Japan feels quite minimal to the point of seeming entirely irrelevant. The main characters’ relationship isn’t cringy, but I’m not exactly attached to them either. I’m sure shoujo aficionados would love Usotoki Rhetoric, but I am simply not that kind of person.

MANY Can Play at that Game: First Impressions of Saturday AM’s Global Manga Scene

I learned of this magazine thanks to my local library stocking the first tankobons from them. Saturday AM is one of several magazines by a small outfit called MyFutPrint Entertainment, that publish manga made by people who aren’t Japanese. I thought it was a really good idea, but it’s not perfect. For starters, serialization is way slower than in Japan, either due to the company being smaller or because they treat their mangaka like humans. Also, my library didn’t bother to order some of the titles I was particularly interested in, which means I’ll have to subscribe. With no mention of a trial period, I decided to read the first volumes of several of the series that the library did have, to gauge whether or not such a risky investment would pay off in the long run. I don’t normally read manga when they only have their first volumes out, but I’m doing this because I also need to gauge whether or not it’s worth waiting for more volumes in the first place (given how slow serialization is). After all, my only other gaijin manga experience was Radiant, a manga that I found to be very middle-of-the-road, and haven’t resumed reading since that review was published. Anyway, preamble aside, let’s just hope that I don’t hold these titles in the same regard as Radiant.


Apple Black by Odzune Oguguo

Well, for a battle shounen, Apple Black is way more involved than expected. To put it simply, it stars a boy named Sano, whose left arm—Arodhis—is the last legacy of his late dad, Merlin. It’s the ultimate weapon that can trigger the cataclysmic Infinite Night. Sano, being a battle shounen protagonist, instead wants to end all war (and become the #1 Sorcerer Hokage of Pirates probably). However, there’s a lot more to it. A LOT more. There’s all these organizations, and not to mention, a magic school with its own intricacies. It took me an hour to read this volume, which is not at all the normal reading time for a shounen.

For a manga I wasn’t looking forward to, Apple Black has been much better than I initially thought. It definitely looks the part, with phenomenal artwork and spectacle. The ideas are also off-the-wall, and the humor checks out as well. The large cast of characters is quite good, but due to how many there are in this volume alone, I feel like I’ll only remember Sano and his classmates. Sano himself is a typical dumb shounen boy, but his upbringing in isolation justifies how dumb he is. Oguguo combines the nerd and the pervert tropes to make Symon, a sleazy four-eyes who likes the in-universe equivalent of Wonder Woman comics. Ryuzaki is a typical brash boy, but the end of the volume shows he’s more complicated than that. The female lead is a girl named Opal, who seems pretty awesome, but hasn’t gotten too much screentime yet. There are many other characters, including a very sexy grandma, but this post’d be too long if I discussed them all.

Unfortunately, the biggest flaw with Apple Black that I foresee is a matter of circumstance. It does appear to be one of the more consistent series, since it’s apparently a reprint of the series as of ten years ago. However, like I said before, Saturday AM is a lot slower than Jump. With how ambitious and complex Apple Black is, Oguguo better put recaps in future volumes, or people might forget MANY of the finer details. Sure, you can reread the older stuff, but I’m someone who rarely—scratch that, never—has the time. Sadly, this is something that’s going to bite the bums of every mangaka under this publisher. 

Current Verdict: 8.5/10


Titan King by Tony Dawkins

Titan King is significantly simpler than Apple Black: a boy named Eli Santos is abducted from Earth and forced to compete in an intergalactic tournament. The participants are able to summon a bonded titan to fight alongside them and have anime powers. Like I said, simple. 

With the entire manga being a tournament arc, there is a much higher focus on action than in Apple Black. I definitely enjoyed the artwork and fighting more. However, I don’t know if it’s because of being nervous to read these manga or what, but I didn’t enjoy it as much? Honestly, it was probably the nerves, because the manga is pretty damn great from an objective standpoint. The only real flaw is that the characters are way more by-the-book. They have awesome designs, but are everything you can expect from a battle shounen cast.

Current Verdict: 8.45/10


Saigami by Seny

Full transparency: I wanted this section to be The Massively Multiplayer World of Ghosts, which is the one I was looking forward to the most, but my library doesn’t have any copies. So, here we are with one of the titles I was least interested in: Saigami! Like Apple Black, it seems to be a flagship series, so I should probably give it a fair shot out of respect.

The reason why I wasn’t interested in it is because it’s a traditional isekai: a girl named Hanasaki Ayumi is miserable, and then gets sent into another world. She then discovers that she’s one of the titular Saigami for a hitherto unexplained reason. However, even with badass fire powers, her new life is hard as nails and a lot of folks don’t like her.

The idea of isekai where the other world isn’t exactly a bed of roses feels as dime-a-dozen as your typical harem power trip. However, Saigami was initially penned by Seny many years ago, so it’s technically one of the first instances or possibly THE first instance of this. However, given my timing with reading it, that whole aspect of Saigami lost its novelty fast.

In any case, there’s nothing overtly abhorrent about the manga so far. It looks like it’s going to be quite lengthy, with this volume just introducing the world, its characters, and setting up for the first major arc. It’s a slow start, but by being a manga, it’s SIGNIFICANTLY more tolerable and faster-paced than 99/100 isekai light novels. It could be a yuri, assuming that the RWBY reference at the beginning was foreshadowing, but for now, Ayumi is the only girl…

Which is a perfect transition into discussing the characters! Ayumi herself is what you’d expect: someone who constantly gets dunked on, and has to learn to embrace her inner power. She’s weak and whiny now, but I’m assuming she’ll be a badass down the road. The other three characters introduced are all boys. Sean is a silly, fun guy, who is basically Ayumi’s BFF in five seconds. Angsty Reyji doesn’t trust her at all, since she’s not from Saigami-land but has Saigami powers somehow. Last but not least is Daiszke, another underdog who gets treated like crap, this time because his powers were taken too far.

Sadly, I do find the artwork to be the weakest of what was discussed today. It hits all the right notes, sure, but compared to the others, it’s just the weakest. It has a shojo-y look to it, but thankfully, the characters actually look like people instead of Grey aliens wearing human suits; that’s one big positive at least. There haven’t been any major fights, so I can’t really say how good the action looks. In conclusion, this volume was the least impressive, but I imagine it’ll only get better with time.

Current Verdict: 8.25/10


Hammer by JeyOdin

Hammer is, believe it or not, EVEN SIMPLER than Titan King! It stars a boy named Stud Hammer, who has all the relatable quirks of being lonely, having a missing mother, and a dad who’s always going to work. In a depressed stupor, he finds his dad’s journal, and gets Blue-Skadooed into it. He then proceeds to have adventures.

The opening arc of Hammer revolves around the mysterious murder of the Ocean Kingdom’s king. It’s basically a setup volume, because it’s clearly implied that there’s more to this murder than meets the eye. Otherwise, it’s a very Dragon Ball-ish, comedic battle shounen with great fights.

Hammer is, visually, the one that stands out among the manga discussed today. That’s because its artsyle seamlessly blends American cartoon aesthetic with  monochromatic manga goodness. It looks awesome, and is by far its greatest strength. 

I don’t quite have an opinion on the characters because I really didn’t feel like I’ve gotten to know them well enough. They have memorable designs, but are pretty basic for the most part. Two of them, Stud and a young police officer named Dan (who I enjoyed imagining Dan from Game Grumps as his V.A.), currently rely on classic emotional hooks to get brownie points from you. Dan’s older sister, Diane, is cool, but she’s a pretty typical onee-sama trope herself (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Current Verdict: 8.5/10


So, Will I Be Subscribing to Them?

The answer, for the time being, is “undecided.” If I was richer, I’d do it in a heartbeat. However, I have hundreds of dollars worth of subscriptions, including a $300 annual fee for WordPress that I need to pay off, all off of minimum wage! Crunchyroll is something I’d be willing to abandon, since I have gone on record saying that I don’t enjoy anime outside of the movies, but I actually have a relative who’s using my account in my stead pretty consistently. 

Even if I could afford Saturday AM, I still don’t quite know what I’d be getting into. The website is pretty bare bones, and according to the description of their app, they don’t even have a series-by-series list like Viz; you still have to pay separate, flat rates for “chapter packs” specific to each series. Also, I’ve known about them for three months now, and they haven’t added a single new serialization since. There was a recent collection of one-shots, but I don’t know if they’re doing the Jump tradition of “the most popular one-shot gets to start as a full series” or not. Also, due to the aforementioned slow publication, I’d be flushing money down the toilet just playing the waiting game for more content. The other caveat is the world itself. Every day, we’re getting showered with news about global disorder, the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, China, etc. The talking heads estimate that we don’t even have a decade left before the next mass extinction. Saturday AM might not even be worth investing in, because there might not even be enough time for them to grow into something truly great; they’ve been doing this for almost ten years, and are only just now printing their first tankobons.

If I could find a way to get out of Crunchyroll, then I’d probably be subscribed to them now; the monthly rate—even if you factor in the chapter packs—is cheaper. However, whether or not I go through with it remains to be seen; after all, what if there’s a TV anime that’s actually good for once? In any case, if you’re reading this, and you have a much better income than me, then I implore you to check these guys out if you’re interested. I don’t want to sound like I’m forcing you… but this little team needs support, and the price of admission is peanuts. I hope you enjoyed this post, and that you highly consider subscribing to Saturday AM!

The Death Mage (Volume 1): I Don’t Think This was What they Meant by “Third Time’s the Charm”

This is a crucial post, for it is my second review of something that I have received an advanced copy of, and once again, it’s a One Peace Books publication! It’s got nothing to do with The Rising of the Shield Hero this time; yes, they publish other things, such as Densuke’s The Death Mage. I decided to give it a whirl, not only because it gives me brownie points, but because it actually looks good!

The premise of The Death Mage is extremely complicated for an isekai….so here’s a TL;DR version. Our main character, Hiroto Amamiya, dies along with his classmates in a terrorist attack. Everyone except for him gets second lives complete with superpowers. With nothing in store for him, Hiroto’s second life is as a subject of experimentation with death magic. After he dies again, he’s given a third round, as a half-dark-elf-half-vampire kid named Vandal. His death magic carries over by the way (this IS an isekai after all).

So… The Death Mage is a lot. In typical isekai fashion, Vandal is a baby who still has his memories of being Hiroto. Once he’s able to use his death magic, he’s able to summon an army of undead animals. I love this angle, because it basically makes him “Stewie Griffin but a necromancer”. After his mom, Dalshia, is killed, he saves her spirit, and plans to make a hot new body for her. So… he’s not really like Stewie because he actually loves his mom.

As far as the narrative is concerned, The Death Mage is a traditional isekai with a slow start. As with the start of Shield Hero, Vandal can’t do crap, and pretty much has to rely on his army to get tasks done. Unfortunately, for the many isekai critics, XP gained by his minions is shared with Vandal, circumventing his own inability to gain XP, which will inevitably make him into your typical overpowered protagonist. Despite how edgy it feels, with all this death magic and revenge narrative and whatnot, The Death Mage isn’t too edgy. For example, he exacts vengeance on the townsfolk who killed his mom not by murdering them all, but by destroying their economy. It’s a more creative play, and helps ground Vandal’s character (and critics like grounded characters, don’t they?).

Well, since I seamlessly segued from talking about the story to talking about the characters, I might as well discuss them next! For the most part, it’s just Vandal—whom I already discussed—and his mom. Dalshia is what you’d expect from the main character’s isekai mom; hot beyond all reason, and seemingly incapable of not loving her son no matter what he does. Fortunately, because she’s dead (wow, I never thought I’d use those four words in that order), we are freed from the usual… er… tropes that come with adult characters being reincarnated as babies pretty early on. Other than that, she’s basically the exposition dump character. Exposition is more justified this time, since Vandal grew up in the boonies, and has no other way to learn about the world, since his half-vampire-ness puts a target on his back. The best character by far is Sam, a spirit who joins Vandal and possesses a carriage, literally becoming Vandal’s own talking car.

The biggest problem with The Death Mage, as with Shield Hero, is the length of this volume, assuming that it’s the precedent for the rest of the series. It’s over four-hundred pages, and like Shield Hero, there’s a lot of fat that can afford to be trimmed. Painstakingly showing the different steps of Vandal’s journey is one thing, but in isekai tradition, it has too many POV swaps that tell the entire lifestories of characters that we don’t need to hear. Sure, some of these involve plot-relevant characters, unlike So I’m a Spider, So What? which literally gives useless NPCs the floor. However, a lot of what’s told us is simple enough to derive from context. Take Sam, for instance. We know that bandits killed his daughters and that Vandal avenged them; that’s his notice for joining Vandal. Yet, later on, he goes on this whole spiel about it, even though we already know all that’s necessary to know about him at that given time. Why do isekai love pulling crap like this?!

~~~~~

Verdict: 8/10

So far, The Death Mage is a pretty harmless isekai series. It sets the foundation for a solid story, and has some good worldbuilding. I am quite interested to see how Vandal’s abilities grow, even if I may not have the time to continue the series. If you wanna experience The Death Mage for yourself, then read the first volume when it comes out on September 27th!

Once again, I thank One Peace Books for its generous offer. 

CrossCode: Secret of Mana and 2D Zelda on Steroids

If there’s one variant of RPG I haven’t done much of, it’s the types like Secret of Mana, where you actually have to move and physically strike enemies to deal damage. Paper Mario: Sticker Star gave me PTSD with any RPG that has only one party member throughout the whole game. But, you know what, Sticker Star sucked. So today, I’m going to cover a retro RPG that gives a lot of bang for its buck: CrossCode for Nintendo Switch (I started playing this game before I got Steam)!

After a confusing opening sequence where you play as some angsty chick, CrossCode starts out when a girl named Lea logs into the high-tech MMO, CrossWorlds, in hopes of recovering her lost memories. CrossWorlds is set on an actual alien planet called Shadoon, and players have to travel the Track of the Ancients, in order to discover its secrets. If you’ve seen SAO, you know things are gonna get ugly.

This game sure knows how to hook players! They throw the intrigue right at you when some weird spaceman, who claims to know Lea, attacks during a tutorial. After that, however, it’s chill city as a lot of the early game is just getting acclimated to CrossWorlds itself. While I don’t normally care much for story in games, I must say that CrossCode nonetheless has a great story. It’s pretty straightforward, but is consistent at throwing you curveballs.

The story in CrossCode wouldn’t mean anything without its phenomenal writing. There’s your usual witty banter, but an indie game wouldn’t be an indie game if it didn’t break the fourth wall! As you can expect, CrossCode makes fun of RPG and videogame tropes. In fact, it even comes up with an actual justification for Lea being a silent protagonist! Since it’s an MMO setting, the meta humor feels much more natural in the context of the story than most indie games I know.

If you’re familiar with me, then you would know that I don’t care if there’s realism, especially when it comes to characters. However, CrossCode actually makes me proud to say that the characters are great because they’re realistic. Due to the setting, all the characters are, well, gamers. From the main cast, to random NPCs, the dialogue feels like how actual videogame nerds would discuss videogame stuff amongst one another, and it creates an intimacy with the player unlike any game I’ve played.

As mentioned before, Lea is a silent protagonist, and is one of the best I have ever seen. I’d dare say she’s the best next to Link himself. Over the course of the game, her friend who basically plays the role of Navi gradually unlocks more words for Lea. Despite her limited vocabulary, the writers give her tons of personality and emotion with what little they have to work with. Speaking of that Navi—i.e. Sergey—he’s also awesome. He’s smart and rational, but also has no shortage of quips.

The others are great as well. Her friend Emilie is a raucous tomboy who is just adorable when she’s dealing with her phobia of bugs, and her love for laser bridges. Along with her is C’tron, a nice, introverted boy who likes making fun of the game’s tropes. There’s also the egomaniac Apollo (who you’ll come to hate for gameplay-related reasons), and his down-to-earth partner, Joern. Even the Navi wannabe, Sergey, is a very likeable character. Unfortunately, a lot of characters don’t have enough eggs in their baskets. Most NPCs have their own stock designs, and even then, some named ones—specifically those involved in side quests—have no personality. It’s a real shame, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

Before getting to gameplay, I must praise the graphics. The game is beautiful and vibrant, as expected of a lot of pixel art games. The spritework is so good, some characters—like a giant whale you fight at one point—look three dimensional. CrossWorlds itself brims with life as you observe other players running around and doing parkour alongside you. It really helps the game feel like it’s set in a real MMO, but without the toxic fandoms and newbie PK’ing of actual MMOs. Somehow, this thing was made using HTML 5, and apparently, this made it very difficult to port to the Switch. It works fine, but can lag a bit during weather effects or if there are a lot of large AOE attacks going off at once.

The gameplay is, of course, the most important part, and CrossCode gets it right. The game has your typical skill tree, with several branches, each containing different abilities that you unlock by spending CP, which you earn on level up. It’s the usual stuff. However, you’re only able to outfit Lea in this game, and that’s because your party members aren’t always going to be there. While you can use them all you want when exploring, things like Dungeons and PvP are done solo. More on those mechanics later.

CrossCode handles Quests really well. There’s tons of them, but they make it really easy to cycle through them. You can favorite a Quest by pressing Y on them, which will display the tasks for it on the HUD. But the best part is that you can favorite multiple Quests at once, and cycle through each one by pressing the Left Analog Stick. It’s a phenomenal way to manage tons of Quests that most RPGs don’t do. The only real issue is that you can’t favorite them at the initial prompt when receiving it.

Quests are nice, but it wouldn’t be a true RPG if there weren’t a million things to do. The other monstrosity is the Encyclopedia, which fills up by talking to NPCs, playing the main story, and learning about the world. This is basically Character Notes in a Falcom game… with additional notes regarding in-universe terminology. I didn’t bother getting 100% on this because of Trails of Cold Steel PTSD, but like in that game, I assume that entries are permanently missable in CrossCode. Additionally, plants of all kinds populate CrossWorlds, and there is a whole section in your Encyclopedia called “Botanics” that records data. Getting an item drop from a given plant is what moves analyzation along, so don’t be afraid to spend hours and hours violating the ecosystem.

Before covering combat, I must praise CrossCode for having an amazing overworld. It’s not just beautiful, but it’s chock full of stuff. You will have to really study the land to figure out “Just how am I supposed to reach that?”, and it’s really fun to do. Every area is full of puzzles, some of which extend to adjacent rooms. Other than some specific instances, it’s pretty easy to get a grasp of planes of the z-axis despite the 2D graphics. But when you can’t, you can always use your projectile attack to get a feel for the depth. Also keep in mind that Lea’s jump is NOT to be underestimated; it puts Link to shame!

Speaking of Legend of Zelda comparisons, the dungeons in CrossCode are among the best I’ve seen in any RPG. CrossCode utilizes its mechanics to create an explicitly Zelda-like experience when going through them. They have seriously tricky puzzles that make use of all of the game’s mechanics, as well as the dungeon-specific mechanics that are taught to you organically with no intrusive textboxes. 

There are a couple of issues I have with them, however. While the puzzles are really great, a lot of them are extremely fickle, requiring pixel-precise setup. This leads into the other issue, which is Emilie’s addiction to racing you through the dungeon. Although it doesn’t seem apparent, you can actually try to win somehow. Unfortunately, if you’re going through the dungeon for the first time, as well as trying to get all the treasure before the boss, you’re NOT going to win a single dungeon race. Even if you were to speedrun it on a repeat playthrough, I imagine every single puzzle is a run-killer; it wouldn’t be an indie game if there was no “Hey do this thing with constant frame-perfect timing, please” BS. Since I’m a filthy casual, I have to accept being an absolute loser at everything.

Combat is a whole different story. When playing, you have your usual melee attacks, but Lea also has projectiles. To use projectiles, you have to move the right analog stick to aim while ALSO moving. Plus, there’s a dodge, but ALSO a guard. The latter won’t make you invincible from damage, but—naturally—there is a perfect guard that allows you to counterattack. Things can get ugly fast if you aren’t adept at all this. 

There’s also Combat Arts that are used with ZR. However, they work very strangely in CrossCode. Your arts aren’t mapped to ZR + a face button, but to ZR + a specific action. They come in four types: Melee Arts, Ranged Arts, Dash Arts, and Guard Arts. Pretty self-explanatory which is which. Note that you can only have one Art set to each action at a time. But fortunately, the skill tree allows you to freely switch between different branches with no CP loss, so there’s no consequence in learning an Art that you’re not sure about. As you find MacGuffins, you unlock further branches of the skill tree, which allow you to learn stronger Combat Arts that cost more SP.

As if things couldn’t get any crazier, there’s Elements. In CrossWorlds, players gradually acquire mastery of the Four Elements. As you unlock them, you can freely switch between them to give your attacks that property. This is great when fighting enemies with different resistances, so you’re not “Oh great, I’m fighting something weak to this and I can’t go into my inventory to equip my weapon with this attribute!” However, there’s Element Overload to watch out for. Basically, too much attacking with an element active can force you back into neutral for a while. It’s also important to know that attacking with no Element active will make your Elements cool down much faster. Each Element found opens up a new section of the skill tree, with their own Combat Arts (which means you’ll be able to have up to FORTY of them active once you gain all four Elements). The thing to notice is that each upgrade is only applied in that particular Element mode. For example, if you give yourself a bunch of base defense ups in Neutral, you will lose it when you switch to another Element. This needs to be kept in mind as you fight.

One mechanic that makes the game extra fun is Combat Rank. This is basically a combo system; defeat enemies in quick succession to increase your rank, which makes them drop better items. I only recommend it if you’re specifically grinding for rare drops, since the adrenaline rush can make you ignore loot your first time through an area. Fortunately, you can press minus after defeating all nearby enemies to end combat immediately if you don’t want to get that combo going. However, whenever you decide to go on a killing spree, Combat Ranks make it feel really good. It gets even better once you acquire equipment with the Botanist property, which causes plant item drops to be affected by Combat Rank. Thanks to this mechanic, I had more fun grinding for materials in CrossCode than in most other games I’ve played in my life.

There are also a lot of nuances that take much learning to figure out. The NPCs are very helpful in that regard, but there’s still some stuff you gotta figure out on your own. For example, when an enemy is glowing red, that means they’re charging up an attack that you can break them out of with a charged projectile attack. There’s also the dash cancel, where you use your dodge in order to prevent yourself from using a melee combo that has recovery lag in favor of continually dishing out damage, and more importantly, hit-stunning enemies repeatedly. Also, parrying with your guard ability becomes crucial if you want to be really good at the game.

You will need to learn these skills quickly; like most indie games, CrossCode wants to be on par with Dark Souls in terms of difficulty. Fortunately, unlike other hard-ass indie games, CrossCode actually considers EVERY POSSIBLE PERSON playing it. In the settings, you are able to freely tweak the amount of damage you take, as well as the frequency of enemy attacks and the leniency of puzzles. That last modifier is really good because you can mitigate the ridiculousness of the puzzles; you’ll still have to figure it out, but execution won’t be as much of a chore. Of course, these are at max by default. I had each setting one tick lower than max and it still gave me a consistently rough but fair time (maybe I just suck).

Despite how rough it was, I rarely felt truly frustrated. The game’s tough, but somehow, it makes the challenge feel fun. However, nothing’s perfect, and there are some specific points that can get VERY frustrating. One example is the case of Elite Quests. Most of them are harder versions of earlier quests. MUCH harder. For instance, the hard versions of these sadistic platforming gauntlets require the kind of frame-perfect perfection that most indie games have come to expect from gamers. There’s also some quests that have interesting ideas, but next-to-no leeway and require memorization of enemy formations. It’s also very easy to be walled by any of the game’s PvP battles. You can’t use items, and even if you could, your opponent is very capable of overwhelming you instantly, and tries various strategies built around stun-locking you until you go from full health to dead. It’s meant to teach you these strategies, but doesn’t mean they’re easy to implement yourself!

If that wasn’t scary enough, don’t get me started on the Arena. Late-ish into the game, you unlock the ability to challenge a preset of mobs from each region, as well as every single fixed encounter, miniboss, and major boss battle that you’ve been through. Beating the challenges is doable enough, but it’s getting the best scores that are insane. You need serious reflexes and ability to pay attention to multiple onscreen entities at once. And assuming you get platinum on each challenge? Well, guess what; you’re also going to have to do it again, but this time in Rush Mode. This is—you guessed it—every challenge within its given bracket in a row with limited healing. Yes, you’ll have to worry about getting platinum on this, and it’ll naturally be even worse to screw up.

I would’ve had this review out faster if it weren’t for the game’s long-awaited DLC: A New Home. It took until early 2021 to drop, and the wait for console users was even longer. However, it’s a bit complicated. The DLC, A New Home, is CrossCode’s post-game (I am unsure what happens if you beat the game before buying the DLC). To unlock it, you need to get the Good Ending. Now, before you assume that they pulled a Falcom by having a Good Ending in a long RPG, lemme reassure you: the sole condition that needs to be met is close to the end of the game. They’re very upfront once it comes up, so it’s not hard to miss. The problem is doing it right. I, thankfully, had managed to get the Good Ending in one try without even knowing that it was such an important thing. Fortunately, if you get the Bad Ending, you can warp right back to the start of the final chapter, retry the event, and then warp straight to the final boss at the point-of-no-return spot.

A New Home unlocks new quests, a new region, the true final dungeon, and resolves many unanswered plot twists. The new region, while beautiful, is kind of a disappointment considering how long I waited for it. It’s easily the smallest area in the game, and is very linear. On the plus side, you unlock special “ascended” equipment, whose base stats grow with Lea’s level, making them objectively better than anything else you can wear. A lot of these are upgrades from stuff you already have, so it’s easy for you to prioritize certain kits based on your playstyle. Also, the superboss at the end of the dungeon was probably the hardest fight I’ve experienced in my life, and taught me that my heart isn’t physically capable of handling that level of difficulty.

Unfortunately, there are some issues with A New Home. For completionists, you will need an excessive amount of materials found in the final dungeon in order to get all of the equipment. However, due to how dungeons work versus the overworld, you can’t take advantage of combat rank, making it one of the worst grinding spots in the game. Also, if you consider reaching level cap part of completion, grinding XP will be hard toward the end. The plus side is that the least amount you can earn is 1 per enemy, so finding a spot with a lot of enemies is the best strategy… but even spots with many enemies don’t exactly expedite this process. Also, the game doesn’t resolve EVERY plot twist, possibly intentionally so; it definitely baits a sequel, and there just so happens to be a very CrossCode-looking game, currently known as Project Terra, under development right now (that I hope has customizable difficulty and only one ending). Also, the final-FINAL segment is a bit anticlimactic. It doesn’t even take half an hour to get through despite the big buildup. Maybe it would’ve been better to have the final dungeon after it, since it’s a much better end to your journey. The cherry on top is that the game does the thing where it resets to right before the cutoff point after beating it, which is really arbitrary since not enough changes after finishing the DLC to warrant this.

How have I gone this long without talking about CrossCode’s soundtrack?! It is one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a videogame, and perhaps the best I’ve heard in an indie game. There is so much variety when it comes to atmospheres and moods. I could rock out to any of the awesome battle themes, or chillax to the serene tunes of Autumn’s Rise.

Final Verdict: 9.95/10

CrossCode is awesome. I’d give it a perfect ten, but some of the puzzles really do feel excessively savage. Ah screw it!

Actual Final Verdict: 10/10

CrossCode has become my favorite indie game of all time, and is sure as heck up there with my favorite games of all time. I recommend it to anyone who loves JRPGs, puzzles, pixel art, great story, and phenomenal gameplay.

Battle Dragons: City of Thieves is basically a Fusion of How to Train Your Dragon and Blade Runner

I’ve known about Alex London’s Battle Dragons franchise since it was new. However, because of the ruthless march of time, I’ve only just gotten around to checking it out. I mean, it’s a cyberpunk with dragons. I know I’ve been disappointed before, but something like this—knock on wood—can’t possibly be crap! Well, let’s FINALLY read the first installment, City of Thieves, and confirm my wild claim. Hopefully.

In City of Thieves, a boy named Abel stays up late to watch the custodial dragons burn some trash. Instead, he sees his older sister parkour her way into his room, where she subsequently gives him a mysterious address and a secret to keep. Apparently, she’s a dragon thief, wanted by gangs and the secret police. Better yet, when Abel checks out this address, he finds—surprise, surprise—a rare dragon, smack dab in the middle of Thunder Wings territory. He is now forced to become its rider and fight illegal battles for the Thunder Wings.

Let’s address the elephant, or rather, dragon in the room: the worldbuilding in this series is actually kind of awesome. I’ve seen so many cases where a cool idea falls flat, and thankfully, this isn’t one of those times. Dragons are everything in the city of Drakopolis, including in the aforementioned illegal battles. Also, like in any cyberpunk works, gangs like the aforementioned Thunder Wings run the city. They aren’t even subtle about it; people in public jobs are openly showing their gangster imagery. Even Abel’s teacher is in a gang!

However, I don’t know what is with American literature in particular, or maybe it’s seriously bad luck on my part, but… well… London’s execution is—surprise, surprise—as aggressively safe as it could possibly be. City of Thieves has a mind-numbingly simple plot, and next to no battles, despite the series’ title. This sucks, since the worldbuilding is so well thought out.

I suppose the “risk” comes with some of the twists that come up. However, can you even call them twists? The story is framed to make you think everyone is a criminal, so when these twists happen, it feels more ridiculous than a case of “Wow! Moral ambiguity!” You might as well throw in one of Team Rocket’s famous disguises while you’re at it.

The story would’ve likely been better if Abel wasn’t the main character. He simply isn’t ABEL to do much of anything, and yet he’s the chosen one of the dragon Lina stole, explained simply as “it loves her so much that it loves her blood relative too.” I was spoiled when looking the book up on Goodreads that Abel has AD-HD (since Goodreaders cannot shut up about representation these days), which is something that is not overtly mentioned in the story. I don’t really know how much that justifies his stupid actions, but I do know that a kid with AD-HD once saved the Greek gods, so… it’s only so much of an excuse. Honestly, what really set me off about him above all else is that he never gets that everyone is a criminal.

This includes his best friend, Roa. In the first of many telegraphed betrayals, Roa reveals themself as a Thunder Wings member. However, it really doesn’t mean crap in the long run. They are still smart, supportive, and a much more capable human being than Abel. The aforementioned gangster teacher, Ally, is probably one of the best characters, but she doesn’t get enough screentime. Even Abel’s mom gets to show that she’s a better character than he is. His older brother, Silas the police officer, is… kind of unremarkable. He’s a one-dimensional stuck-up older sibling, and there’s a plot twist with him that’s so obvious that I legitimately thought it was something that had been established in the opening chapter. 

To be honest, Lina should’ve been the main protagonist. She’s cool, knows parkour, and gets to see so much more of the criminal underworld that readers probably want to see than Abel. London could’ve taken some real risks with her, since she would’ve made a great anti-hero. 

I sure bashed City of Thieves a lot, but it isn’t bad. It’s just, like a lot of American novels I’ve read, safe. The writing is good; it describes stuff well enough, there’s great humor, and the few battles that happen (all two of them) get pretty intense. The book is just not cyberpunk-y enough.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 8.5/10

The first book of Battle Dragons is better than I expected, but still not particularly amazing. I’ll probably read the sequel, since the books are short, and light novels eat wallets for breakfast. At least it’s not as pretentious as other cyberpunks. That’s something, right?