Ballad & Dagger: We Don’t Talk About San Madrigal

If you’re reading this post, then that means I have managed to complete the first YA novel published under Rick Riordan Presents: Daniel José Older’s Ballad & Dagger. But before we begin, we need to talk. No, I’m not breaking up with you! Anyway, the past two years have been really rough for me. COVID tore us apart physically, and the murder of George Floyd followed up on the mental side of things. The latter is what really broke me. Since his unfair death, some very influential, and politically extreme, individuals have been on a steady growth rate. And only a couple of months ago, I began to realize that almost my entire world—both I.R.L. and online—have been viewed through a lens provided by the political party that those aforementioned individuals follow. My parents insist that the followers of those people are few and far between. However, if they are really so few in numbers, how have they nonetheless influenced virtually every aspect of Western pop culture for the past two years? From South Park doing pandemic episodes, to childrens’ picture books teaching today’s generation how to be woke, the biggest conglomerates in the world now lick the boots of those people, regardless of their quantity. While I am struggling to comprehend life as I now understand it, one thing is certain: Ballad & Dagger will more than likely be the last novel of its kind I ever read.

In Ballad & Dagger, Mateo Matisse is a starving artist who just wants to play the piano. Sadly, fate has other plans for him. On a very special night for his little community in Brooklyn, someone announces that the long lost island of San Madrigal, where said community originated, will rise again. All it needs is the children who contain the three founding spirits’ souls. Naturally, Mateo is one of them. Oh, and some girl murders a guy for some reason.

Refreshingly enough, racism isn’t a big theme in this one. Or rather, you’re not constantly bludgeoned with it. The most brutal aspect of Ballad & Dagger is the fact that San Madrigal sank like Atlantis. As a result, the three big families that make up Brooklyn’s Little Madrigal are not inhabiting San Madrigal, and you’re supposed to feel miserable for them. The word “diaspora” is a favorite in the book, because apparently, the idea that home is where you’re surrounded by the people who love you is invalid. 

In case you’ve read some of the action-packed books from Rick Riordan Presents, just keep in mind that Ballad & Dagger is more like Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, in that it is way more slice-of-life oriented than other installments. While trying to find the two remaining demigods, Mateo lives his normal life, hanging out with his friend, Tams, and the famous folk rocker, Gerval. Without the occasional blurb of supernatural horror, it’s easy to forget there’s anything supernatural in the book.

Things do ramp up in the second half, though. Sh** hits the fan, to say the least, and Mateo’s little community starts crumbling out from under him. A lot of the sequences are legitimately powerful. However, you have to put up with a lot of fluff to get there. 

My biggest problem was that I couldn’t connect to almost anyone. Mateo is one of two characters who felt engaging at all. As narrator, his feelings come in full force, and he ends up with quite a lot of baggage in the second half. The female lead, Chela Hidalgo, is the aforementioned girl who murdered the dude in the beginning, and she’s alright. She gets some legitimate character development, but is a pretty standard YA protagonist through and through. And yes, their transition from friends to lovers is as sudden as any YA romance novel (oh spoilers, as if it wasn’t obvious enough that a YA novel has romance).

Everyone else felt like a plot device. Tia Lucia was there to be the wise old lady, Anisette was there to be the political extremist b****, etc. Gerval plays a pretty pertinent role, but in the end, his character arc will feel very familiar to anyone who’s seen a Saturday morning cartoon.

Sadly, I must also criticize the book’s worldbuilding. Riordan’s blurb says that San Madrigal is “as real as Wakanda or the Shire or Earthsea”, and I don’t get it at all. All that is divulged of the island, back when it wasn’t underwater, is that people worshiped the three gods who get trapped in the chosen ones’ bodies. Sure, its history plays a role in the plot, but that’s about it for the actual culture, beyond what you see preserved in Brooklyn. There is also next to no folklore present, except for some ghost who’s just there, and these weird mutant things.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 8.5/10

I do respect and admire Rick Riordan. If it wasn’t for him, I might’ve never gotten my fetish for Japanese culture and folk metal. However, almost every time I read one of the Presents books, I am utterly flummoxed at what he saw in it. Ballad & Dagger is a great read by the second half, but there are so many urban fantasies that are more than just fifty percent enjoyable. I don’t really know what to think about it, but I do know that I’m pretty much alone in my stance. Maybe you’d enjoy it more than I did!

RWBY Might Just be the Most Cynical Animated Program of All Time (Second Impressions, Volumes 1-8)

When I did my first review of Rooster Teeth’s RWBY, I watched the first five seasons and walked out of it pretty stoked to finish the series. It had flaws, but not enough for me to be leaning on the side of the series’ very loud critics. Now, as of being caught up with everyone else… I can finally say I am one of those critics. I touched upon my feelings regarding RWBY in my small dissertation on cynicism, but here, I will elaborate on my change of opinion in more detail.

In the world of RWBY, people rely on some magic junk called Dust, and that’s their only way to fight these monsters called Grimm. One night, a girl named Ruby Rose takes on some criminals with a crazy scythe-gun, and is sought out by Ozpin, the headmaster of Beacon Academy. He decides that “you’re a wizard, Ruby!” and instantly bumps her into the prestigious school, two years in advance. There, she meets three more color-coded girls (her older sister, a tsundere, and an emo girl) and they go on adventures together.

Like any show that’s entirely CG, RWBY takes a hot minute to get used to… especially the first season. The movements are janky and the backgrounds are dull. However, by the third or fourth season, the models get more polished, and the quality is substantially improved in all areas. Most importantly, they incorporate more of the subtle mannerisms that I actually give a crap about in animation as a whole. The fight scenes are also really appealing, even if they violate all forms of actual fight choreography, and have the camera swing like it’s attached to the end of a yo-yo.

The team at Rooster Teeth really understood what it takes to make a good battle shounen. The first two seasons are genuinely hilarious. The comedy is on point, and the spectacle-driven fight scenes really help sell the sense of fun that the show tries to provide. One of my favorite scenes was at the beginning of season two: an over-the-top, epic food fight in the school cafeteria. That scene really showed what a great gag shounen RWBY can be.

However, if you’re no stranger to shounen series, you know that RWBY wouldn’t be all about the LMAOnade forever. It happens to a lot of them, from Yuyu Hakusho to Dragon Ball. Around the halfway point of its third season, RWBY takes itself more seriously. MUCH more seriously. At the time, RWBY‘s original creator tragically passed away. And while I could just yell “They ruined Monty Oum’s legacy!”, I won’t do that because I don’t believe there was any documentation of what he actually wanted to do.

Fortunately, the show stays pretty consistent on committing to a more serious atmosphere, unlike series such as Re:ZERO. The plot does get more involved, but it maintains a relatively solid sense of cohesion, which is something that most shounen can’t do. With better animation, it’s much easier to take the show seriously because they actually have a good chunk of money to spend on it.

However, the transition isn’t made without a few bumps in the road. This is also common among shounen, but RWBY had it particularly rough. It didn’t just become a more involved version of what it already was; it tried to become a seinen. Seinen is a term used to describe manga and anime for mature audiences, and they tend to be everything that shounen is not. Taking a gag shounen and turning it into a seinen is literally like transforming an apple into an orange.

I sound like I’m just dissing it for being a genre change because it’s not goofy like it was before; a common criticism apparently. However, I’m someone who’s enjoyed something silly like Spy X Family about as much as something serious like Naoki Urasawa’s Monster. I’m not criticizing the change in RWBY because I’m not too big a fan of cynicism (even if that is a bit of a factor), but because it’s not… interesting. The story goes from novel to typical. It’s practically a generic YA fantasy with boring, ham-fisted social commentary on first-world problems. Oh, and the cherry on top is that any attempts at horror elements consist of predictable (but effective because eff the human mind) jumpscares. 

One example of this is the Faunus. They’re a race of animal people that are—surprise, surprise—harshly discriminated against. And, well, the symbolism with said discrimination is practically spoon-fed to you. They live on an island called Menagerie that segregates them from humans (Native American reservations),  they were used as slaves in the past (African slave trading), and there’s an anti-racism extremist group called the White Fang (oh, and by the way, Rooster Teeth didn’t predict the protests from two years ago because Black Lives Matter had already formed at this point). I mean, how much more ham can you pack into that fist of yours, Rooster Teeth?! I get that the issue of racism is important, but at this point in human society, what is the take-away of showcasing it for the billionth time (besides virtue signaling that is)?

No matter how awry the plot goes, what kept me going were the characters. And I’ll admit it: RWBY has a solid cast. To a point. The four girls are all likeable to some extent, plus they get genuine character development to boot. I liked Ruby the most because I tend to default to the “lovable idiot” trope of shounen protagonists. On the flipside, Blake ended up being my least favorite, because she does the most whining and brooding.

The side characters are a mixed bag. In my First Impressions, I stated that my favorite character was Ruby’s frequently-drunk uncle, Qrow (angstily misspelled of course). However, as the show went on, Qrow came off as less of the bad-ass old timer, and more of a Debbie Downer; the minute things don’t go the squad’s way, he’s all “We should give up and crap” and the girls have to pull a nakama power speech out of thin air to tell him otherwise (and don’t get me started on that “relationship” he has in the seventh season). My new favorite ended up being the underdog, Jaune. He literally begins the series being called “Vomit Boy”, but over the course of the story, he grows and matures into one of the best supports for Team RWBY. A kid named Oscar tags along as well, and while he starts out as baggage, he ends up growing into a man rather quickly.

Unfortunately, there are some less-than-remarkable folks on their team as well. Out of the main group, a stoic boy named Ren ended up on the bottom. He was pretty boring normally, and what little character development he has is covered in its entirety over the course of three episodes. And after that, the characters act like the experience never even happened. His companion, Nora, isn’t that much better. She’s likeable for the same reasons as Ruby; she’s ditzy and bouncy and fun, but it’s to the point where she basically is another Ruby. 

One of the worst is an android named Penny. You’re expected to fall in love with her as soon as you hear her first “Salutations!”, but remember that this is Rooster Teeth. They do that because she’s the punching bag of RWBY. She suffers to no end, being framed for crimes committed by the villains, discriminated against as an android, and even “killed” once in season three (before eventually being rebuilt of course). I’d feel bad for her, but RWBY sucked out any empathy I can have for anyone in it by this point. 

The following passage contains spoilers, because I can’t not bring up the squandered character arc of James Ironwood. He starts out as that gruff, military Mr. Magoo, but doesn’t return until the seventh season. By then, he has a slow descent into madness. At first, it’s compelling because there are necessary sacrifices to be made for an edge in the war against the Grimm. However, in between seasons seven and eight, someone didn’t get the memo that RWBY isn’t a shounen anymore. In the most recent season, Ironwood basically becomes Hitler, allowing for no fascinating moral debates; a decision that could’ve been made in part due to pandemic stress, and since it feels like all American media is politically charged these days.

And my disappointment doesn’t stop there. RWBY’s antagonists have the one-dimensionality of most shounen villains, but none of the appealing personality. The first antagonist introduced, a one Roman Torchwick, is a legitimately entertaining villain, but if you know anything about the first antagonist of a shounen, it’s that they don’t tend to last. A staple antagonist ends up being a woman named Cinder, and other than trying too hard to be sexy, she’s very boring with a really basic backstory that tries too hard to tie into the show’s uninteresting edgy fairytale symbolism. Cinder has minions in these two kids named Mercury and Emerald, and they have no personality other than owing their whole existences to Cinder because of their incredibly basic tragic backstories. Cinder reports to the main antagonist of the series, a witch named—get a load of how creative it is—Salem. She is also very boring; basically just Maleficent without any of the charisma. 

No shounen antagonist gets by with just three minions! In addition to Cinder and Co., Salem has three more cohorts… of lacking substance. In fact, I even forgot two of their names, and hereby designate them as Pedophile McSwordArtOnlineVillain, and Mustache. Those names are them in a nutshell, more-or-less. The third person, Hazel (henceforth known as Hazelnut), ended up being my favorite villain. He was just about as boring as the rest, but his voice actor’s performance was a hilarious to me. For some reason, American audiences seem to think that all male actors should speak in deep, gravelly voices. Hazelnut takes that mindset to such an extreme that I laugh every time he speaks! Oh, and for the record, all of the villains, except this umbrella lady named Neo, have the least interesting character designs in all of RWBY.

Current (Possibly Final) Verdict: 7/10

While I normally love hating popular things, I really didn’t want to do it to RWBY. To be honest, I think both its diehard fans and most toxic critics are in the wrong. However, in their defense, the way the series flops can catch you off guard if you’re not as familiar with battle shounen tropes as someone who’s seriously deep in the otaku hole. 

Unlike most battle shounens, however, I am particularly mad at RWBY for a unique reason. From the beginning, I could tell that Rooster Teeth weren’t “casuals” who watched Dragon Ball and the other internationally beloved anime. They really seemed to understand it on an intimate level. They should’ve seen how their favorite series drove themselves into the ground, and worked to avoid it. Maybe they could’ve taken inspiration from something like One Piece, which has only gotten better after twenty-plus years. But no, they followed the genre to the Nth degree. They didn’t only make the same mistakes; they did it with that distinctly American cynicism. 

To be clear, I am not mad at RWBY’s more serious arc because it’s darker. I’m mad at it because the ideas going into it become stale. They resort to contrived teen drama, smooth-brained judgements, and the writers being extremely arbitrary in various aspects of the story. After the tone shift, everything about RWBY feels meh. I. Stopped. Caring. 

RWBY, I just… don’t know. For what it was, it remained consistently cohesive and had great directing. But alas, it just didn’t feel like, well, anything. If you’re an adolescent teen, then you will probably think RWBY is the greatest thing ever, and you won’t even notice any of the mistakes it made. Otherwise… enter if you dare. Side effects include major depression and mood swings.

Eximius Blogger Award

Oh dear… it’s been a hot minute since this happened to me. Thank you, RiseFromAshes, for this tag! Without further ado, let’s dig into this thing! I’ll just Ctrl-C-Ctrl-V these rules real quick… 

  1. Use the official logo/graphic of the award and display it on your blog post
  2. List the rules (Oh hey! I’m doing it right now!)
  3. Tag the original creator, Riddhi of WhisperingStories, and the person who nominated me (did the latter already. Alright, I’m speedrunning this thing!)
  4. Mention the most exceptional thing about you and your blog (Oh… hm. Okay)
  5. Mention one thing exceptional about the blogger who nominated you
  6. Answer the three questions posed by the person who nominated you
  7. Share your favorite post from your blog
  8. Tag SEVEN people?! Because seven is such a magical number?! Well, SOMEONE hasn’t watched Schoolhouse Rock.

Exceptional Thing About Me

My statement here might sound pretentious, but from my perspective, I don’t know anyone else who possesses the following quality. The exceptional thing about me is that I’m restraintive, which is apparently a real word, since Google Docs didn’t put the red lines underneath it. I’ll keep it short for those who have already taken the time to read my various blurbs of emotional insecurity. Basically, I’ve been fighting to consume less media in this society where you have to consume all media, especially what’s popular. I’ve had a great time exercising this much restraint, although I still have anxiety over my tendency to take the path less traveled every. Single. Time. Well… A for effort, as they say!

Exceptional Thing About My Blog

This claim might be biased by my perspective as the writer of the posts on my blog, but here it goes anyway! In essence, my blog is not pretentious. One of my biggest issues as an autistic man is that I read other blurbs and blogs about stuff, and get taken in by some of the hyperbole they use. I go into the thing expecting literally what they said, I don’t experience it, and I end up feeling really salty… mostly about myself, since I take stuff too literally. In any case, other than some sarcastic humor, I try to refrain from phrases like “life-changing” or “transcendent” (the website J-rock News LOVES the latter). I feel like my writing style makes my blog more transparent than that of most people. 

Exceptional Thing About Rise

I say that not being pretentious is an exceptional thing about my blog… Yet, ironically, I feel the same way about Rise. Their posts are down-to-earth, and I’ve felt that they’ve been pretty consistent with the aforementioned unpretentiousness. Also, I have simply not seen anyone else on the Internet discuss Japanese dramas. It’s pretty fascinating that there’s a whole other industry of acting outside of anime, and that it doesn’t really seem to ever take off in the West at all. Availability is a problem too (fyi, Rise lives in Japan, where it’s easier to see that stuff).

Rise’s Questions

What medium (books, movies, etc) do you think is best for an immersive storytelling experience?

Well, I basically have this down to three candidates who all have different advantages, and those advantages only work out in the best case scenario for each thing. However, I feel like the one that’s easiest to strictly nail immersion is the realm of videogames. They have all the advantages of movies, but you’re an integral part of them. The right combination of artstyle, music, and ambience can really make you feel like you’re really there, no VR required.

Who is the blogger whose posts get you thinking the most?

I can’t answer this without spoiling someone whom I’m going to tag. Oh well! My answer is Irina, the drunken anime blogger. As if it was the late 1960s, her being so inebriated makes her smarter (I guess?)! She has a wide range of tastes, ranging from mainstream to off the beaten path. While she mostly posts anime reviews episode-by-episode, her little rants are her strength. She really cracks open the nut that is the anime community and digs deep into why it’s so depressing and horrible. It’s nice to hear a sane anime fan for once.

How often do you write for your blog in a given week?

Almost all the time. Whenever I have a thought, my phone, and a private place, I write away, right away (hooray, English puns). There are many posts you haven’t seen, and probably never will. 

Favorite Blog Post

For some reason, I’ve actually come to be the proudest of my retrospectives. I don’t do them too often, mainly because I have to both be willing to re-experience something, and not have re-experienced it in years. As much as I want to plug the Xenoblade X retrospective that I worked so hard on and got almost no views for, I kind of feel particularly proud of my Atlantis: The Lost Empire retrospective. While I ended up making a claim about its representation in Disney Parks that turned out to be incorrect, I feel like it has a good balance of love and criticism that isn’t blinded by nostalgia. Give it a read if you want to learn about one of Disney’s weirder movies from the 21st Century.

Seven Bloggers to Tag:

Questions for My Victims People I Tagged 

  1. What’s a mega-popular thing that you just cannot comprehend, and it makes you so mad to try and comprehend it?
  2. What is the most annoying contemporary music piece you have ever heard?
  3. On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you enjoy/wholeheartedly resent the digital world of social media platforms?

Conclusion

Well, that’s another tag done! Other than finding people to tag, I really do enjoy answering the questions. Thanks again for the shout-out, Rise!

The Pandava Novels: Rick Riordan Presents’ Wildly Inconsistent First Series

Rick Riordan’s new publishing imprint, Rick Riordan Presents, is a great chance for other cultures to shine in the arbitrarily all-important spotlight of American popular culture. It all started with Roshani Chokshi’s Pandava series. Is it a good first impression, or is it a hollow Percy Jackson knockoff? 

The Pandava novels begin  when the titular Aru Shah accidentally releases a villain named the Sleeper from a magic lamp in her mother’s museum. Fortunately, it turns out that she’s the reincarnation of one of five famous Pandava warriors, and she’s gotta go on a quest to whoop his booty before the Sleeper makes a big mess out of existence itself.

The writing of Pandava is a mixed bag. While the dialogue is fantastic (well, it’s fantastic if you like nonstop mainstream pop culture references), the descriptiveness of setpieces is a bit bare-bones, even if the ideas themselves show some level of passion and creativity. The action is exciting, which is at least something it has over the Storm Runner series. 

The characters are where Chokshi put most of the eggs into the basket, and they’re great, perhaps comparable to Percy Jackson’s cast. While Aru is a bit generic, everyone else is a real hoot. Her Pandava sister, Mini, is hilarious, due to her infinite knowledge of ways that they could die. Brynne is the typical, hot-headed, older-sister type, but she’s got a plethora of snide remarks to compliment her muscle. Brynn, introduced in book two, is a tomboy with some decent one-liners. Unfortunately, the weakest link ends up being the final two Pandavas: twins named Sheela and Nika. They occasionally move the plot forward, but when it comes to legwork, they do virtually nothing (and also have no personality).

The character who really won me over was Aiden, introduced in book two. As one of two lead male protagonists, he is super nonchalant, and he never fails to snap a cool pic with his camera, Shadowfax, regardless of the urgency of their situation. The other guyfriend is a naga prince named Rudy, who is as funny as his love for himself.

Sadly, that’s where the positives end. Oftentimes I found some aspects of Pandava to be… iffy. For starters, I felt like Chokshi was more concerned about putting as many characters from mythos in Pandava as possible. I get the excitement of wanting to share your culture with audiences, but cohesion comes first. If I was writing a book like this, I would’ve come up with the story first, then used my research to figure out which characters from mythos could appear at any given time.

There are also many, MANY times that Chokshi infodumps the actual tale of the folklore character instead of, you know, actually giving them a real character arc in the story. In doing this, she also fails to use the reliable technique of making us fall for plot twists through justified lying by omission. At least two developments are easily telegraphed because she tells us literally everything about them all too soon. In context, it’s probably meant to be a cruel irony; a major theme of the series tries to be how these characters don’t want to do what legends foretell and end up doing it anyway. However, I feel like that’s simply a poor excuse to use a smooth-brain twist on par with a Saturday morning cartoon.

While we’re on the topic of the characters from legend, i.e. what’s supposed to make us interested in the series to begin with, let’s talk about how awful they are. They are like Rick Riordan’s trope of “gods who could solve the problem but don’t” on steroids. They’re not only cynical and mean, but I forgot half of them over the course of me reading this series since 2019. Also, where was Best Girl Kali? You’d think that someone as mainstream-savvy as Chokshi would use one of the more iconic Hindu gods, but nope. Apparently that, of all things, would be selling out.

Another flaw is that I felt like Pandava got heavy-handed. From book two onward, Chokshi tried an interesting take on the portrayal of the antagonists of Hindu mythology, and created a morally ambiguous story. While the attempt is pretty good, the problem was how the results were handled, if that makes any sense. Basically, what I’m saying is that there are frequent instances of the narration itself telling the reader what questions they should be asking instead of letting them figure it out from context. I don’t know if Chokshi or the editors or someone else made this choice, but it definitely was a choice that comes off as undermining the intelligence of children. I’m sorry, but that’s something I cannot stand. Kids might be “dumb” at times, but that’s because of the many adults who numb their minds (and give them social media accounts).

And honestly, I felt like it went downhill from there (hot take, I know). There is just so much padding thanks to these numerous “trials” that keep getting shoved down the kids’ throats. With each book, I just cared less and less. And yes, it persists into the final book. Not gonna lie, I only resolved to finish Pandava because I wanted to roast the series on the Internet.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 7.5/10

The Pandava series is… fine. It has good humor, sometimes solid writing, and a metric-ton of love for itself and Hindu mythology. It’s just not the awesome thing that Riordan and a lot of people say it is. Like, have I been reading an alternate crappy version of it? At times, it’s ham-fisted, conceited, and has some annoying, smooth-brain plot developments. It would’ve been a rock solid trilogy, but as a quintet, it’s a slog. There’s no harm in reading Pandava, but I feel like it’s overall a net loss of time. 

Anyway, with that, I’m off to Disney AGAIN! Next post will be on May 7th, and it’s gonna be a doozie!

Blood Scion: This Might be the Most Brutal YA Novel of All Time

Other than the amazing cover art, I honestly don’t know why I decided to read Deborah Falaye’s Blood Scion. Sure, I’ve read many books that deal with the topic of racism. However, with the exception of Tristan Strong, I can’t tell you if my glowing reviews of books like Legendborn and Blood Like Magic were based on the actual quality, or the guilt-stricken White man who’s tried to run from his American heritage his whole life. Also, I’ve been getting more and more into folk metal. Thanks to this sub-genre of music, I’ve begun to feel like these diverse books give off an understandable but grim rage and hatred that have caused me extreme mental anguish these past two years. Yet, here we are, with you reading my review of this book.

Why do I even bother going over the premises of these kinds of books? If you’ve read any of the aforementioned books, this’ll sound familiar: a girl named Sloane Shade is Yoruba, a race of innocent folk whose lives were turned upside down by the White supremacist Lucis menace. What’s worse is that she’s additionally a Scion, descended from Shango, the Orisha of Fire; Scions are an extra no-no in this world, and the Lucis do not hesitate to off them. She, like her mother before her, has stripped herself of her culture and heritage to keep her rinky-dink little village (and grandfather) safe from the Lucis, who tend to execute the relatives of those they deem criminals. And if it couldn’t get any YA-er, she gets drafted into the Lucis military to fight as a child soldier against the Shadow Rebels, who are Scions that refuse to hide. Cool. Might as well infiltrate their archives and get to find out what happened to her presumably dead mom!

Are people so P.C. that everything has to give a disclaimer warning? This is the third book I’ve read that’s done it, and the other cases came out in 2021 at the earliest. Anyway, if you couldn’t tell, Blood Scion checks off a lot of items on humanity’s laundry list of social issues that give me despair from the fact that they’re all still ongoing. In case you’ve never read a YA novel that deals with these issues before, let’s go over them thoroughly. 

The big one is racism. The Lucis persecute the Yoruba, and treat them as slaves. Some are taken from their homes to rot on literal plantations. This also technically counts as colonialism, since the Lucis are invaders who happen to have better technology. On top of that, we also have what I believe is called internalized racism, since the Yoruba have been brainwashed into hating their own heritages. There’s also mysogyny and sexual assault, since the Lucis are very much portrayed as rapists, such as one who tries to do such a thing to Sloane in the first chapter before he gets burnt to death by her power.

There’s also the child soldier thing. Yeah, that’s a bit messed up, especially since Sloane has essentially been drafted to kill her own brethren. Anyone who goes A.W.O.L. gets shot dead, plain and simple. Basically, it’s Divergent but harsher. The final cherry on top is cultural appropriation, which is shown when the Lucis queen, Olympia, is casually wearing Yoruba garb for shits and giggles.

Despite how fascinating West African culture is, I feel like a lot of authors who dabble in it paint a pretty bland picture. In fact, Tristan Strong paints the only picture I would call lively. Fortunately, Blood Scion isn’t “just take typical Western fantasy tropes and change the name” like a lot of other novels. There is a bit of a science fiction spin on worldbuilding, since the Lucins have electricity and whatnot, while the dark skinned villagers don’t have crap. *Sniff* Aaaaaah… the fresh reek of colonialism. Thanks I hate it.

Blood Scion is written as you’d expect any YA novel to be; verbose, full of adjectives, and in the present tense. It’s effective, but doesn’t at all stand out from its contemporaries, especially when compared to Xiran Jay Zhao. Nonetheless, “effective” means “effective.” Blood Scion sinks the dagger into your heart and twists for maximum laceration. Falaye hams in the brutality of how Sloane’s people are treated; a brutality that you don’t have to look too hard to find in the real world.

I thought that with COVID, the war in Ukraine, and this being the eighth-or-so book of its kind that I’ve experienced, that I would be desensitized to Blood Scion. Nope, that didn’t happen. I found myself overcome with the all-too-familiar, soul-crushing despair caused by White supremacy.

Despite how brutal Blood Scion is, it still has a lot of the tropes that occur when the main protagonist is sent to some kind of disciplinary facility to train in some form. In order to make an underdog story, Sloane starts out as a bad apple in a bunch of cosmic crisps. On top of that, we have the “impenetrable fortress” with the most convenient blind spots. It takes suspension of disbelief when they have spotlights, guards, and trained jaguars patrolling the place, yet they magically don’t get caught when sneaking out one night. Also, everyone and their grandma has smuggled some kind of weapon into the camp, meanwhile when they see Sloane they’re like “Oh my god, TEA LEAVES?! Nope, we gotta confiscate that.” 

The biggest flaw of Blood Scion is its cast, in that if you’ve read any YA novel besides Iron Widow, you’ve seen them all before. Sloane is literally Bree, Zélie, Rue, and Voya; yet, to my luck, she’s probably the weakest among them. Like many YA girls, she’s all talk and next-to-no walk other than random, arbitrary spurts of badassery. Like I said before, she gets pummeled in camp in order to make her an underdog. On the other hand, Best Girl Zetian would’ve just torched the place and been done with it. Sure, there is an actual stipulation in that Sloane can’t risk getting caught, but she still ends up using her power at least once, to save someone who just so magically happens to be Yoruba as well. Most notably—minor spoilers—there is no catharsis with her character arc, at least not at present since there is a forthcoming sequel and all. The training regimen is meant to strip kids of their humanity, and sadly, that’s inevitable with Sloane. I don’t even want to say any more about this, lest I puke.

On to all the other relatable and wholly unremarkable characters! Malachi is a bully who at least has a believable motive to hate Sloane; his parents died in a fire she caused by accident. However, all that does for him is make him a Saturday morning cartoon bully who is interchangeable with literally any YA male of his kind. Sloane’s supporters are relatable teens named Izara, Nazanin, and Jericho. Beyond their tragic backstories, they’re kind of deadweights.

Among the White supremacist Lucis, we have the somewhat human Dane Grey. He isn’t the most racist guy at camp; instead of killing Sloane, he just humiliates her instead. The rest of the Lucis? From Lieutenant Faas Bakker, to Queen Facism herself, they’re monsters, and I hate them. I hate them because they exist in this world, and are running it to the ground.

There is a silver lining here. Blood Scion really goes off the rails toward the end. Falaye legitimately caught me off-guard with a lot of developments, and pulled off things that I didn’t think any YA author had the gall to do. It also really showcases how convoluted the issue of race has become.

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Final Verdict: 9/10

Is this even an impartial score? Despite its flaws, Blood Scion was pure pain and suffering for me. It was full of such sadness and rage, and Sloane didn’t even feel like a particularly empowering character (although that could be because any YA protagonist other than Zetian feels like crap). In all honesty, I don’t even know if I have the mental fortitude to read the sequel, let alone any more books on this topic. Is this really supposed to help with racial healing? If you wanna try and find out, then be my guest.

Core Keeper (Early Access): This Game Could be the Next Big Timesink

Playing games in Early Access is a natural risk. What’s even riskier is playing a game in Early Access as soon as it drops; in its buggiest, most unbalanced, infantile state possible. But you know what… I’m feeling risky. Besides, I was planning to do this when Forever Skies dropped on Steam, so I might as well get used to it. Let’s see if Core Keeper has any potential to be a really great game.

In Core Keeper, you end up getting teleported into a sprawling cave, with a mysterious object at its center. With nothing better to do, your goal is to power it up and see what it does. 

Like Grounded and Minecraft, that’s all there is to the story of Core Keeper; what matters is the gameplay. Right off the bat, the game is more like the latter than the former, because it’s set in a procedurally generated world. No two save files are exactly alike, allowing for a lot of replay value. However, this means you can have bad luck finding the biome that you want. 

Before we go into what biomes you want, let’s discuss the actual gameplay. If you’ve played Minecraft or Terraria, then Core Keeper will be easy to jump right into. And if you haven’t played them, then prepare to swim in the deep end with no floaties. There is next to no tutorial about how anything works, which might be a nice change of pace for “true gamers,” but a hindrance to others. 

Fortunately, the mechanics are simple and follow expectations for this kind of game. Ores can be smelted, seeds can be planted, food can be cooked, and equipment can be forged and repaired. As you unlock better workbenches, you’ll be able to make potions, railways for fast travel, and more.

The problem is getting there. Every game like this has an early-game hurdle in one way or another, either because you need to go to a place where the enemies are really strong for the point you’re at, or because an essential resource is scarce in the areas you’re realistically capable of handling. Core Keeper‘s case is the latter. Tin is one of the most important resources in the game, because it is needed to craft a Tin Workbench that unlocks most of the essential mechanics of the game… which also need tin to craft. If you can’t find the specific biome it’s common in, you’ll be hoping RNG spawned enough wooden crates containing it. If you think that’s stupid, then this type of game is not for you. The big hurdle for me personally is scarlet—which I still have yet to find. Both tin and iron were in biomes adjacent to the starting area, but I’ve done a lot of exploring and still haven’t found any scarlet ore. 

In any case, I’m not particularly fond of ore distribution. It’s nice that hidden ores have a sparkly effect to push you in a general direction, but having them tied to specific biomes feels kind of bleh to me. Technically, it’s better because that means less pockets of your inventory will be taken up by several varieties of items. I dunno… maybe I’m just being picky.

As if the game isn’t grindy enough, it has the Quest 64 skill system. In case you have never heard of that game, here’s what it boils down to: you level attributes by using those attributes… a lot. Core Keeper gets even grindier because you need to level up an attribute five times to get ONE point to invest into that attribute’s skill tree. The upgrades are worth it; however, it seems that there are finite attribute level-ups, which is also kind of crappy. Pick your upgrades wisely.

Also, the game’s Early Access-ness REALLY shows. While there’s a lot of fully-fleshed mechanics, it’s very… archaic. For example, everything you use can ONLY be used on the quick select; if you want to plant seeds, they gotta be in quick select, and so does your watering can if you want to water them. Also, crafting of any kind requires items to be on-hand; no pulling from storage. I’m going to hope that they intend to add the necessary quality-of-life features in future patches. Another thing I hope is rebalanced is durability. The armor durability seems manageable enough, but I feel like it’s not generous enough with tools. I have the third tier of pickaxe and it loses durability VERY fast for what it is; in most games like this, the third tier is the first point where you don’t have to worry about durability too much.

Difficulty-wise, Core Keeper is actually about as punishing as Terraria or Minecraft. Even with good armor, mobs can end you as quickly as they respawn. The bosses are very tough; in fact, I almost died at the first one, and I have no idea how you’re supposed to go about fighting the giant worm. There are also situations where a horde of enemies can go out of their way to hunt you down from well off-screen. As obnoxious as that sounds, the worst ones are the larva enemies simply because they destroy items such as torches; you’ll need to rely on glow buffs to explore those areas with any sense of visibility. 

Fortunately, Core Keeper is very generous compared to other games of its kind. If you die, your stuff will still remain in that location, but it’s ONLY the stuff that’s NOT on your quick-select. Because of this, you’ll still have your armor and tools, which mitigates those annoying situations where you can soft-lock yourself out of getting important equipment back because you had to go into dangerous territory naked while the mobs that killed you camp your corpse. Please don’t change this, Core Keeper people!

Sadly, the game oozes the intention to play with multiple people. While the combat seems balanced enough, there is an almost excessive amount of stuff to do. From exploring, to expanding your main base, to building tracks for fast travel… this will easily go beyond a hundred hours for a solo player, and whether or not that’s a worthy timesink will be entirely up to you. With that being said… 

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Current Verdict: 8.5/10

Core Keeper has potential to be a really great, and addicting, game. It’ll also be a lot of bang for your buck, especially if you go solo! However, it doesn’t really do anything new. I admit that, for me, it’s currently just scratching an itch while I wait on Forever Skies, and further updates for Grounded. I’ll continue to slowly work toward beating every boss to power up the core, but there’s no guarantee I’ll accomplish that. They’re going to need to roll out quality-of-life updates in order to keep my interest.

Top Five Upcoming Anime the Internet is Not Ready For

It’s been a while since I did an anime community-oriented post, on account of me abandoning said community. However, I still follow MyAnimeList on social media, mainly for news regarding manga. Speaking of manga (and light novels as well), North American publishers have really grown to the point where they’ll publish a lot of franchises well before they get picked up for anime. Because of that, I’ve had a great track record of predicting exactly how message boards will react to their anime adaptations. I’ve noticed that, for some reason, certain series with mature themes don’t get any controversy until after the anime in particular premieres; examples being Goblin Slayer and Interspecies Reviewers. It seems most anime fans are too young to comprehend anything other than a specific set of universally appealing tropes. 

With that in mind, boy oh boy! There have been some very… interesting adaptation announcements over the course of last year and this year. So, using my knowledge of my days in that community, how about I put together a fun list of upcoming series that I’m pretty darn sure will light a few fires in the digital world?


5: Jigokuraku

I never actually posted my final, full review of this manga following my First Impressions of it, mainly because said review was kind of awful. To reconcile that, I’ll basically state that Jigokuraku, after having finished it, remains a solid, edgy ride all the way through with a gaggle of likable characters. 

With this being at the bottom of the list, I don’t anticipate Jigokuraku being too controversial. MAPPA is a renowned studio, albeit pushed to unrealistic limits with having to animate this, the finale of Attack on Titan, and the most highly anticipated battle shounen anime of the year; at least the trailer shows promise.

Jigokuraku is a pretty straightforward battle shounen with seinen tropes. I imagine people will love Gabimaru for being edgy, and Yuzuriha for being sexy. There is some horror imagery with how the monsters look, as well as what happens to people who get consumed by the plants, but it’s not too bad, relatively speaking. Most of the controversy I anticipate is in Jigokuraku‘s antagonists. These androgynous superhumans can shift gender at will, and are bisexual as well. On top of that, they tend to be naked a lot. Any anti-LGBT people in the community will probably lash out unfairly at the show, and defending it will be a nightmare if that occurs.


4: Blue Lock

People familiar with Blue Lock might not agree with me putting it higher than fifth place, and to be honest, I feel like this should merely tie with Jigokuraku in terms of controversy. My logic with putting it here is based on the fans it will attract: those of sports anime, and probably yaoi to an extent. 

From watching Dr. Stone and The Rising of the Shield Hero as they aired, I noticed that a lot of people’s brains didn’t have the capacity to appreciate good anti-heroes, and more notably, well-written characters with bad personalities. As much as we don’t like Mary/Gary Sue, the trope’s existence makes sense because writers want young audiences to feel like they’re them; and they can’t do that if the main character isn’t “good” enough to connect with.

With Blue Lock, any semblance of teamwork and manly bromance that make other sports series appealing is thrown out the window. It is deeply psychological, with a training regimen oriented entirely around building the individual rather than the team. To top it off, it’s a battle royale, with the loser getting written out of the series permanently. Anyone who cries over Danganronpa is guaranteed to follow suit in Blue Lock. Conversely, astute observers might notice the appropriate flags. I’m a bit further in the manga from when I wrote my First Impressions, and it seems that they won’t kill off anyone until their character arc feels sufficiently resolved in some manner. Of course, the series is still young and my enjoyment of it is not dampered in the slightest. But knowing seasonals, critics won’t give it that chance.


3: The Executioner and Her Way of Life

This subversive isekai is going to be a doozie. The Executioner and Her Way of Life is a time-travel-driven murdering spree disguised as a yuri Isekai. People will cry as they draw fan art of Menou and Akari in an intimate relationship, knowing that said relationship canonically can never happen, since Akari is supposed to be murdered at the end of the story. 

On top of that, it’s very visceral. While not as horrific as Torture Princess or Roll Over and Die! (both of which have no anime adaptations, for obvious reasons), it has a lot of violence and gore. Plus, Princess Ashuna is a skank who will win the hearts of perverts, and be the target of just as many critics. 


2: Dead Dead Demon’s Dededededestruction

This is the most surprising for sure, because—to my knowledge—none of Inio Asano’s manga have been given a greenlight for a TV anime adaptation (Solanin might’ve gotten an OVA but don’t quote me on that), despite his popularity in Japan. The reason is simple to anyone familiar with his works: he’s brutal. I’ve actually read most of Dededededestruction myself, and I plan to publish my full thoughts on it once Viz published the rest of the series. In the meantime, I can say that it only got this adaptation because, at least compared to Goodnight Punpun, it’s the tamest of Asano’s projects. 

Of course, given some of the gratuitous content in Punpun, “tame” doesn’t mean squat for Asano. What can be—on the surface—described as “Slice-of-Life Meets Independence Day” is much more layered than that. It’s a bizarre and abstract social commentary on how humans are more of a threat than the imminent alien menace that looms over them. In addition, the forums can easily devolve into debates over whether or not the series is pretentious.

The big question manga fans might pose is: “How?” Asano’s style of storytelling is heavily reliant on the manga format. Plus, his backgrounds are intricate to the point where any studio would have a mass heart attack trying to draw them with a TV anime budget. If anything is certain, it’s that people will probably be horny over Oran’s really hunky, obese older brother.


1: Chainsaw Man

There is so much hype behind Chainsaw Man. Not only is the manga very popular, and deservedly so, but the manga’s sequel will also be launching later this year. To be fair, Tokyo Ghoul had some really messed up content. However, to my knowledge, none of the really heavy stuff—like the sex scene—was actually incorporated into the notoriously rushed anime. Conversely, if the adaptation of Chainsaw Man proves faithful, it will be one of the most brutal anime in recent years. Possibly ever.

Chainsaw Man has a pretty straightforward story, but twists shounen tropes into something more, well, twisted. All poor little Denji wants is a girlfriend, and a girlfriend he gets… sort of. He spends most of the story being exploited by older women in a harsh and psychological character study, while engaging in gore-infested battles with demons. And that’s just the tame stuff.

The last third or so of Chainsaw Man is a constant, visceral rollercoaster of nightmares. People are crumpled into distorted shapes, entire cities are gunned down, and more. It culminates in one of the most unusual and creative ways to defeat the main villain I have ever seen in a battle shounen. Lastly, I really hope “Halloween” becomes the meme I imagined it would be; liking cultural phenomena before it was cool always feels cathartic.


Conclusion

Not gonna lie, I’ve been tempted to dip back into the anime community to laugh while people lose their minds over these shows. More likely than not, however, I’ll just see the same robotic reactions I’ve had to sift through for years on MyAnimeList. Regardless, this year will be rather interesting in the anime world.

Turning Red: Kung-Fu Panda But Wholesome

Full transparency: Pixar’s Turning Red was the studio’s first movie since Toy Story 4 that I did NOT want to see. I know that they generally undersell their masterpieces in the trailer, but Turning Red didn’t even LOOK like a Pixar movie. The idea, the character design, the inclusion of at least one famous popstar in the music… It looked like Blue Sky Studios, or any of the non-Disney studios whose movies tend to ONLY appeal to kids. However, with the war going on, there is a chance this could be Pixar’s last movie ever made, on account of the possibility that we’re all going to be vaporized in a nuclear explosion. Also, these movies—regardless of quality—are important to support the Disney industries that I truly care about (that and the fact that I do not use Disney+ often enough). Let’s see if Turning Red describes what my face looks like after watching it!

In Turning Red, Meilin Lee enjoys a quaint life in Toronto, Canada. Unfortunately, she has the classic case of overbearing parent. Oh, and the classic case of turning into a red panda during heightened states of duress.

So… despite all my build up to a negative review, I ended up having my words eaten pretty thoroughly. Right off the bat, Turning Red has a lot of personality, from anime-like flourish, to watching Mei’s dad cook dinner. It also has the level of humor expected from Pixar; whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to your discretion.

Of course, the actual plot is more straightforward than a Saturday morning cartoon. When I said that the idea wasn’t interesting, I meant it. Turning Red is a classic story of a girl with an overbearing parent who inevitably learns to accept herself for who she is. The main “MacGuffin” is a K-Pop concert that Mei wants to attend without her mom’s permission (I know that band is multinational, but I don’t care; boy band=K-Pop). 

I don’t want to sound pretentious here, but I have to mention something that I’m pretty damn sure EVERY review of the movie will be incredibly hoity-toity about: Pixar acknowledges periods. This is the first time in the studio’s history, and it has absolutely no bearing on the quality of the movie to me. Maybe my opinion would be different if I was an actual woman, but I digress. Of course these days, when people have to constantly vomit their humanity to the world, this minor thing that comes up twice in whole movie is way more important than any of the other content.

The cast of Turning Red is as Pixar as you can expect. We already discussed Mei, but the real stars are her friends: Miriam, Priya, and Abby. Packing quirky personalities of their own, their chemistry with Mei is priceless. The mom is, more-or-less, the antagonist of the movie. If you’ve seen her type of character trope before, then you can probably guess how her arc resolves. However, the real MVP is the dad. He has one scene with Mei, and he basically tells her what’s important in life. If he had done it sooner, then a large portion of the conflict of the movie would have never had to transpire. Classic Saturday morning cartoon tropes.

If there is anything negative that I can actually say (other than the generic idea), it’s the setting. Canada is a really lovely place (at least according to its pavilion in EPCOT), but it’s really easy to forget that Turning Red is set in Canada at all. If it rained even one time, I would’ve assumed it was in Seattle. In fact, the movie frequently shows the Canadian flag on T-shirts and stuff, as if they knew you’d forget. In all honesty, I’m just salty that they didn’t set it in Quebec, where the beautiful French architecture is.

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Final Verdict: 8.75/10

Turning Red was way the heck better than I thought it would be. It’s a fun and cute movie to tide us over until Lightyear comes out. It’s no masterpiece like Soul, but it at least has some soul. 

Dr. Stone: Sid Meier’s Civilization Just Got a Lot More Anime

Dr. Stone is one of those manga that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It became exorbitantly popular (deservedly so) during its initial 2017 debut, even winning itself the 2018 Shougakukan Manga Award under the Shounen category. That same year, I got into the hype months before its anime adaptation was even announced, and it quickly became one of my favorite manga of all time. The anime was also very good for a TV anime, and I—along with many other people—watched it while it aired. However, it aired alongside Kimetsu no Yaiba. And as anyone who saw that nineteenth episode go viral and single-handedly put both the anime and its source material on the mainstream overnight, Dr. Stone—while still running for a perfectly respectable period of time afterwards—practically vanished off the face of the earth as a result. As the contrarian I am, I nonetheless committed to Dr. Stone, and—you know what—it’s still one of my favorite manga of all time. Let’s find out why.

In Dr. Stone, a boy named Taiju is about to confess his love to a cute girl named Yuzuriha. However, right at that moment, a bright light covers the earth, turning all humans to stone. Thousands of years later, thanks to his testosterone-fueled drive for the girl, he manages to break out of the stone shell, awakening in a world that has been reclaimed by nature. There, he sees his classmate, Senku, who promises to use his incredible wealth of knowledge to restart all of human civilization.

Dr. Stone is a science-themed adventure manga, which is a very unusual style for the shounen genre. But hey, the manga makes science fun. There’s a lot of cool and interesting things that happen throughout the story, and it’s all very engaging. The humor is ridiculously on point as well. However, Dr. Stone is a science FICTION manga, and thus, you can’t not have creative liberties taken. As many, MANY critics on the message boards pointed out back when the anime aired, the science isn’t 100% accurate. Sure, maybe some chemical or whatever took a bit faster than what it’s supposed to in order to finish cooking, but for the sake of pacing, would you want five chapters of waiting for a thing to be done brewing? There’s also the fact that Senku is literally reinventing the wheel when it comes to all this civilization stuff, so he won’t need to waste time making the mistakes that were made a million years ago because those people already made said mistakes.

Another criticism I’ve seen ad nauseum was the fact that it doesn’t go for any darker tones when the opportunities were present, and that “Dr. Stone would’ve been better if it was seinen”. Granted, Dr. Stone would be a GREAT seinen manga, but I think it’s perfectly fine as a shounen manga because of how hard it commits to being lighthearted. When presented with one of the potential dark questions regarding if it’s actually better to NOT bring back civilization, lest the world return to its old state of corruption and war, Senku literally says that he wants to bring back civilization because he thinks it’d be fun. Fun, that’s what Dr. Stone is at its core. THINGS DON’T NEED TO BE DARK TO BE GOOD *huff* *huff*…

Anyways, the characters are what makes Dr. Stone come to life. My boy, Senku, is insanely narcissistic and I love him. His cunning, as well as his tendency to count in increments of ten billion, make him one of Jump’s best heroes (or anti-heroes) ever. “BUT HE’S WAY TOO SMART FOR A HIGHSCHOOLER! THAT’S UUUUUUUNREEEEEEEEEEEAAAAALIIIIIIISTTIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIC!” you exclaim VERY loudly. I’m not going to get into the endless debate of the limits of suspended disbelief, but if you don’t like what you’ve read about Dr. Stone in this review, then it’s clearly not for you.

But hey, there’s still your fair share of idiots. After all, Taiju maintained consciousness for thousands of years on sheer force of will (“FORCE OF WILL?! ALSO UNREALISTIC!”). He’s always hilariously dumb, and his chemistry with Senku is great. Yuzuriha comes into the mix, but I’ll admit that she’s not too interesting outside of being super cute.

Fortunately, they aren’t the only ones who survive the apocalypse. There’s the super swole Tsukasa, who serves as the first major antagonist, and the charismatic pig-Latin-speaker, Gen. But in addition, there’s a whole tribe of primitive humans (whose existence gets explained). Among the villagers are Chrome, who is literally Taiju, but with a better knack for science. There’s also Best Girl Kohaku, a cute tomboy that you do NOT want to mess with, and the cute Suika, who literally wears a fruit on her head and rolls around in it. Later on is the rich boy Ryusui, whose talent as a navigator, coupled with his all-encompassing desires, make him a refreshing take on the greedy noble trope.

Of course, with Dr. Stone being a shounen manga, I have to put out the usual warning about the ending not being what you might want it to be. I have no idea what the manga’s state was at its end (I wouldn’t be surprised if it got axed), but… I would be lying if I said they didn’t jump the shark, even by Dr. Stone‘s own standards. At the same time, they almost make fun of critics who use the “realism” card, because you’d essentially have to know all the secrets in the cosmos to be able to declare if something is realistic or not. In any case, this manga is more about the journey than the destination. 

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Final Verdict: 9.85/10

The few hiccups in Dr. Stone don’t stop it from being one of my favorite manga of all time (although I’m probably the only human on Earth who gives it this rating). It’s a cute, non-cynical celebration of humankind and its evolution that actually shows some semblance of hope for once. I can’t really recommend Dr. Stone easily because of the kinds of buttons it pushes; you’ll have to decide if this is the kind of thing you’ll like.

Pokémon Legends: Arceus — Gotta Catch ‘Em All (About Twenty Times Each)!

Pokémon has not had a good run on Switch, and I of course mean that in terms of public consensus, because I still enjoy the series as is. People hated Let’s Go!, Sword and Shield, and the Sinnoh Remakes. Well, given the marginally better reception that the Mystery Dungeon remakes and New Pokémon Snap got, it looks like spin-offs are the way to go. Wow, that only supports my comparison of this series to Star Wars. Anyway, since I’m committed enough to follow this series into the fires of hell, I pre-ordered Pokémon Legends: Arceus with NO knowledge about it beyond the blurbs on Nintendo Switch News. Did I make a big mistake?

In Pokémon Legends: Arceus, the titular god of the universe speaks to you, and challenges you to seek it out (after giving you a slick new smartphone of course). With no clue what the hell is going on, you are plopped out of a rift in the space-time continuum and into a mysterious region called Hisui. The Pokémon Professor finds you immediately, and helps you get recruited to the Survey Corp. of… Team Galactic?! 

Okay, before we address that Mamoswine in the room, allow me to—for the first time in Pokémon’s life on the Switch—gush at the game’s visuals. Okay, well, maybe “gush” isn’t the right word; some areas, such as caves, look absolutely abysmal, and there are draw distance problems. However, when the game looks good, it looks real good. Pokémon Legends: Arceus borrows from Zelda, and makes a very picturesque world. In each region, Mt. Coronet—and the rift you fell out of—wait in the distance, and I find it awe-inspiring to look at. Also, this game has one of the best skyboxes I’ve seen in a long time; sometimes I just love looking up and vibing. 

Now that that diversion is over, we can finally talk about what’s going on in Hisui—or rather—Sinnoh. This region is the Sinnoh of the distant past, back when humans were first studying Pokémon. Team Galactic is actually good this time around! Anyway, the plot is pretty straightforward, but I love it. The reason behind it is quite simply the fact that we really haven’t gotten to experience the ancient Pokémon world firsthand. We get to learn so much about Pokémon lore, and as a long-time fan, it makes me fan-gush. There’s a chance that some stuff was retconned, but you could chalk it up to historical stuff having been lost to time.

The most important part of this being set in the past is that the Jubilife City of old looks a lot like Eurekatek; and that means Japanese culture! Kimonos are in fashion, and almost everyone has Japanese names. This even extends to the U.I. and the music (including the best evolution animation I have ever seen). If you couldn’t tell, my final score for this game will be biased.

Another thing I love about the story is the potential for this to be a full-on spinoff franchise. The Pokémon world has so much lore that’s only been alluded to in books, it would be so amazing to experience the franchise’s history using this game’s system. However, since Pokémon Snap took twenty years to get a sequel, we probably shouldn’t count on that.

Let’s talk about the characters next. Your main character is, as always, mute. Fortunately, no one else is. Professor Laverton will never be Oak, but he’s a pretty cool guy. Team Galactic has several captains, and the one you’ll report to is Cyrelle; let’s just say you can tell that her descendants will inherit her stoicness. We also have the Diamond and Pearl clans, two indigenous tribes who worship opposing gods (hm I wonder what Pokémon those would be). As cool as a lot of this stuff sounds on paper, I must admit that they have pretty basic tropes. There is character development, but most of it boils down to the Saturday morning cartoon arc of “really dense people learn that they shouldn’t be so dense.”

There are several things that Pokémon Legends: Arceus promises, and we’re going to need to go over all of them one at a time. Let’s start at Jubilife Village. This quaint little place has all the facilities you need. There’s crafting in this game, which is pretty self-explanatory. Pastures function as the PC, but this time, releasing Pokémon gives you EV-manipulating items. This swole lady named Zisu can help teach Pokémon new moves as well as master existing ones (more on that mechanic in a bit). She can also help you farm more of those same EV-manipulating items. You have to worry about inventory space, but you can upgrade it via training with the puntastically named Bagin. Crafting is an important mechanic for creating essential items, and while at the village (or a campsite), this can be done with the items in your storage.

You also—FINALLY—get dedicated sidequests. Obviously, these are worth doing. Also, make sure you hop into Galactic HQ to check Laverton’s bulletin board for requests. There’s a LOT of them, and doing them is very helpful. Some of them contribute to upgrading Jubilife, while others count toward a specific entry in the Pokédex. The latter ones are my favorite because it actually shows how people discovered a lot of well-known Pokémon facts for the first time.

When exiting Jubilife, you can travel to any unlocked region in Hisui, which is its own, self-contained area. Pokémon Legends: Arceus isn’t truly open-world, but these areas are expansive enough to feel like it, full of Pokémon and resources. As you progress, you unlock Ride Pokémon with all sorts of field abilities. Hisui’s overworld kinda-sorta falls into the realm of overly large and empty. However, I never really got mad at that, since there was some good variety in geography. They at least learned their lesson from Galar’s Wild Areas. 

Also, there’s actually stuff to do besides grinding (although you’ll be doing a fair share of that for completion), although most of it doesn’t open up right away. There are over one hundred ghostly wisps to find throughout the world… and series veterans would know exactly what they’re associated with. It’s more doable than Breath of the Wild’s nine hundred Korok Seeds, plus they are very easy to notice from afar at night. In addition to that, each form of Unown is hidden in a specific place, waiting to be caught. AND ON TOP OF THAT, there are Old Verses buried in the ground that need to be unearthed with the Ride Pokémon who can dig. Every so often, a Pokémon outbreak will occur, although it doesn’t tend to spawn anything exclusive to that area.

Here’s another fun fact: THERE’S STILL MORE TO FIND! One repeatable mechanic is the ability to find the satchels of people who have died in the overworld. I assume that you’re meant to have a Nintendo Switch Online feature to do this, but when offline, the game consistently spawns enough NPC satchels for you to find. Turning them in gives you Merit Points, which can be redeemed for exclusive items, including every evolutionary stone and trade evolution item. Also new are Linking Cords, which are a very welcome addition to the franchise. These will trigger any trade-based evolution without having to do any trading (hear that, fellow introverts? We can finally get Pokémon like Gengar!). This also applies to items like the Metal Coat and Reaper Cloth.

But wait, THERE’S MORE! One of the coolest and most terrifying mechanics is the Space-Time Distortion. Every so often, one of these will spawn in a set location in each region, affecting the area within. Once inside, you can find a load of rare items, such as Shards. However, more often than not, you’ll find many exclusive Pokémon. Here comes the rub: those Pokémon tend to be overleveled for the area, and spawn out of nowhere in large groups. It’s risk-vs-reward, baby!

A LOT of mechanics have been changed… and I mean that literally. Catching Pokémon is one of the biggest ones. Like in more recent games, they appear in the overworld, but they actually react to you this time. Sometimes, they flee, but most of them want to eat your face. When spotted, you’ll have to physically avoid their attacks. Unlike the main games, tall grass is your friend, for it hides you from the critters’ sight. You’ll also need to manually aim and throw Poké Balls, and your range will vary depending on their weight. Using berries to lure Pokémon, and hitting them from behind, greatly increases your catch rate, which always has a little visual indicator (green is the best odds). 

However, if you have to fight, throw one of your teammates at your challenger (the back attack technique stuns the opponent for a turn, which is really useful). In combat, the series more-or-less conforms to the traditional turn-based battle system. You can use items and try to catch Pokémon, under the same rules as before. This is where things get complicated. Speed works in an entirely different way than before. In addition to governing who goes first in battle, it also works like attack delay in Trails of Cold Steel; basically, some moves can increase the time it takes for your turn to come around. Conversely, priority moves will make your turn come around faster. If fast enough, a Pokémon can attack twice in a row, which is huge. Combat is the fastest it’s been in a long time, simply because they play battle animations AND textboxes at the same time. They also stop their nagging you about the weather; although that won’t help people who aren’t familiar with the series’ mechanics.

Priority moves aren’t the only change; in fact, the whole meta is basically changed. For starters, stat modifications are simplified, with both offensive and defensive stats able to be changed at once. For example, Sword Dance is for both Atk and Sp Atk… however, it doesn’t give +2 (in fact, I don’t even think there are stages to stat boosts this time around). Flinch doesn’t exist, and Sleep is replaced with Drowsiness, which is basically Paralysis but with an additional defense debuff. Entry-hazard moves now have 40 base power, and do residual damage over time based on Type effectiveness. Most importantly: ABILITIES AND HELD ITEMS DO NOT EXIST. By the way, this is just the tip of the iceberg with how changed the mechanics are.

There are two new aspects to moves that I absolutely love, and will dearly miss in subsequent Pokémon games. The first and most important thing is how moves are learned. Like in a traditional JRPG, all Pokémon moves are permanently remembered, and can freely be assigned as the Pokémon’s active attacks however you wish (have run REMEMBERING to do that). Another thing is that Pokémon can master moves as they level up. When mastered, you can use it in a Strong or Agile Style. These effects are pretty self-explanatory; more damage for increased delay, and less damage for decreased delay.

Since no one has been to this region before, there’s actually a reason for the Pokédex to be empty this time. As such, you have as good of an idea of what a Pokémon’s entry is as Laverton himself. To essentially build the Pokédex from scratch, you must accomplish research tasks for EVERY Pokémon. This includes catching multiple specimens, defeating them with certain types of moves, seeing them use certain moves, and more. This gets REALLY grindy. Fortunately, you don’t have to do all of it to fulfill the research requirements. Getting enough of these tasks done will contribute to raising your status in Team Galactic. These work like Gym Badges, so you better do that if you want more Pokémon than just the very first ones you ever find. The annoying thing with this mechanic is that your monetary payments are based on Pokémon caught, regardless of how much research you’ve done. Fortunately, there are other ways to get money, such as occasionally finding Stardusts and such in ore deposits.

Despite not being a Gen IX (that’s going to be later this year), there are a couple of new faces in Pokémon Legends: Arceus. One of the most iconic ones is Stantler’s evolution, Wyrdeer. In addition to new evolutions, there are new regional variants, such as Growlithe and Zorua. Each starter has a regional variant, in fact. Some of the new evolutions, such as the aforementioned Wyrdeer, are about as obtuse as recent Pokémon have gotten. However, the Research Notes know how to nudge you toward finding the conditions organically, as opposed to every main Pokémon game that isn’t Black and White 2.

Nuzlockes have become the new standard in Pokémon, so I doubt the community will ever concede that a new Pokémon game is difficult in its base state. However, Pokémon Legends: Arceus is probably the hardest that we’ll have for a while. As mentioned before, a lot of Pokémon want you dead; you can actually DIE. Fortunately, you have safety nets. An old lady sells charms that can help you survive, one of which is consumed in place of your inventory upon death. 

In any case, this game really taught me how terrifying Pokémon can be. Something as puny as Stunky can rain missiles of poison from the sky just like that… and it only gets worse from there. You also have to worry about Alpha Pokémon. They’re basically the Unique Monsters from Xenoblade Chronicles, and tend to be very overleveled. If you can catch one, though, it’ll be pretty helpful, since it knows rare moves right off the bat. 

There are also boss fights to account for, and I don’t mean Trainer fights (although there are some Trainer fights on occasion). The actual boss fights are against Noble Pokémon; beings worshiped by the local Hisuians. Strange happenings have made them go berserk, and you need to feed them a crap-ton of food to calm them down. In these fights, you must avoid their attacks, and figure out the strategy to stun them. Once you do that, you fight it in a Pokémon battle, and when you win that, they’ll be stunned further, and are open to a barrage of tasty treats. The fights are very straightforward, but are actually quite stressful because it’s pretty much programmed that you can barely dodge out of the way of their attacks. 

Okay… maybe I’m overselling it. Pokémon Legends: Arceus will not provide the challenge that the fandom wants out of the base-game mechanics. As long as you don’t overextend yourself by going into overleveled areas, there really isn’t any danger. Also, your Ride Pokémon can generally outspeed any Pokémon that wants to chase you out in the overworld; by endgame, they become more of an annoyance. Dodging, like in many games, gives you i-frames. It’s incredibly easy to become overleveled if you go after research tasks and optional stuff, but conversely, doing that too infrequently can make you dangerously underleveled. Due to the lack of many Trainer battles, wild Pokémon are your main source of XP. 

Because of that reason, I didn’t really feel like I had a team, compared to main Pokémon games. As I said before, there are next to no Trainer battles, and the open-ended world design allows you to traverse areas quickly, especially as you earn more Ride Pokémon. It is what it is, though.

As with any Pokémon game, Arceus has a truck-load of post-game… and it’s meaty, that’s for sure. In fact, this is one of those cases where the post-game is the true conclusion of the story. It opens up a lot of new Pokémon, and if you have save data from Pokémon Sword and Shield, you can catch Shaymin. Of course, the new objective is to catch these Pokémon and make the long grind to complete the Pokédex. And lemme tell you… it’s a real grind. While it’s not too tough to complete a Pokémon’s entry, the last hurdle to the maximum Team Galactic rank is insane; you pretty much have to complete more research tasks than what you need. Also, I don’t know about you, but a lot of Pokémon seemed arbitrarily elusive to me (*cough* Cherrim *cough*). Fortunately, one of the best aspects of the post-game is something that the main series desperately needs: being able to obtain the other two starters without having to trade for them!

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Final Verdict: 9.45/10

Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a massive leap in the right direction for Pokémon. In fact, I’m not technically finished with it yet; due to what I said in my post from last week, it’s more realistic for me to try to go for completion in this game, but it’d probably be next year if I waited until then to upload this post! My willingness to attempt Pokédex completion shows how much I loved it, although I will be very salty if they don’t continue to build off of what Arceus sets up. I recommend it to any Pokémon fan who needs a change of pace, and possibly, to other gamers who couldn’t get into Pokémon in the first place.