The Secret of Kells: Yes, I’ve Finally Watched it for the First Time

I’ve wanted to watch Cartoon Saloon’s Irish Folklore movies for a good while, even more so after getting into European folk metal. COVID is the reason why I took this long to get around to it! In case you didn’t know, the studio’s third movie never premiered in theaters. And so, GKids, for some ungodly reason, exclusively streamed it on Apple TV+, which—to be fair—I could’ve got a free trial and canceled it after watching the film. However, my consciousness didn’t want to. It also wouldn’t solve the fact that the other two movies aren’t up for streaming anywhere. So, I recently stumbled upon the environmentally friendly Blu-ray box set containing all three movies, and decided to get that through Amazon. Sure, Cartoon Saloon still wouldn’t get a cent of commission off of it, but I at least trust Amazon, for they seem to be the only ones capable of shipping anything in this day and age. Anyway, without further rambling, let’s review the studio’s first movie: The Secret of Kells!

In The Secret of Kells, a boy named Brendan lives in the titular town of Kells, run by his anal Uncle… uh… Abbot? Crap, I already forgot his name. Anyway, said uncle wants to build a wall that could trump Trump in order to protect them from Vikings. However, things get interesting when an old geezer named Aiden (and his cat) moves into town, with a magic book that is just one page short of completion. Aiden is too old to finish it. Guess who gets hoisted with the big responsibility.

Whenever I’ve reviewed Disney movies, I never know what to say about the visuals. As aesthetically striking as they are, I admit that the films are quite samey. The Princess and the Frog is probably better looking than most of the company’s films, and that’s because of something that a lot of millennials and boomers can agree on: hand-drawn animation. While it can look crappy and cheap (i.e. TV anime), Cartoon Saloon shows just what the art form is capable of. 

There’s so much to say about it, I can dedicate a real paragraph to talk about it! While it’s not as anatomically correct as even Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, The Secret of Kells has its own sense of beauty. Characters are made of basic shapes, which allows them to get really creative with the designs. The way people look lends to their personalities; Brendan is small and cute, while you already know his uncle is a big fat meanie from his height and stiffness. Beyond the cast, the movie does some wild things with the backgrounds; stuff I don’t want to spoil for your sake. It’s colorful, whimsical, and in 2022, still looks timeless. The Celtic world of Ireland really shows through in the natural splendor of the forest outside of Kells. If only Disney kept at the hand-drawn biz; who knows how their newer movies would have looked then!

As my first ever film outside of a natively English-speaking nation other than Japan, I was curious about if there was a sub or dub, like with anime. The answer is that there’s no such thing; it’s English through-and-through, but thankfully, it’s authentically European. Over there, other countries are like states to them, and it’s easy to be exposed to a myriad of tongues. In essence, this means that they can speak English but still have the beautiful accents of their respective regions. It really helps make the movie awesome, although that could just be the pagan weeb in me talking.

Anyway, despite the movie being artsier than Disney, it’s got about as straightforward of a plot. It boils down to Aiden and Brendan working together, under Uncle’s nose, to finish the miraculous last page of the book, and with an inevitable Viking assault capable of occuring at any moment. That’s more-or-less it; Brendan is pretty much just Aiden’s errand boy. Someone probably has a deep analysis of how the movie is an allegory to chauvinist postmodernism (whatever that is), but I definitely didn’t notice it if it was there.

The hardest part of a feature film is writing characters that you’ll grow attached to in that short time, but thankfully, The Secret of Kells does a good enough job with that. Brendan has that childlike wonder, and also becomes like Crockett Johnson’s Harold at one point. He meets Best Girl Ashley, a strange child who lives in the forest and is quite the tomboy. Aiden is a fun and eccentric old man, and conversely, Uncle is—well—we’ve established him. Thankfully, Uncle isn’t exactly a bad Disney parent; in 2009, Cartoon Saloon subverted a trope that it took Disney until—what—Encanto to subvert themselves? Wow, way to sound pretentious. Look, I love Disney, but being the embodiment of the mainstream can bite them in the rumpus room sometimes.

Kind-of-spoiler here, but I’m at least glad that The Secret of Kells doesn’t take the obvious route of making humans evil. Sure, there’s Vikings, who are all polygonal,  black, and have red fire, but they are clearly established as their own entity that don’t represent humankind as a whole. Also, this legendary monster that is supposed to be suffering and malice incarnate… most people would just make it a 40-something-year-old man. However, it’s actually just a monster… for once. I hope I’m not wrong about that, or else I’ll look stupid!

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

Surprise, surprise—The Secret of Kells is a really good movie, and I’m stoked to watch the other two. If I wasn’t already sold on Europe via its metal scene, then this might’ve been what did it instead. I recommend it to anyone who misses hand-drawn animated movies.

No. 5: Spectacularly Weird

If you’re an anime nerd, you’ve probably heard of Taiyo Matsumoto’s classic manga Tekkonkinkreet; it was made into a critically acclaimed movie after all. Of course, me being me, I instead gained an interest in No. 5, a sci-fi manga of Matsumoto’s that I doubt any Westerner would’ve even heard of if it weren’t for Viz’s recent omnibus publication; it didn’t get adapted, so it might as well not exist over here. I don’t even know what it’s about, except that I should expect it to be weird because Matsumoto is famous for weirdness. Well, when it comes to Japanese literature, I shouldn’t expect anything less, should I?

No. 5 is set in the distant future, where the peace is protected by the Rainbow Peace Brigade, an elite squadron of genetically modified soldiers. The best of the best are designated under the numbers one through nine, and they all answer to an old man in a pair of bunny pajamas. Things aren’t so peaceful, however, when the titular No. 5 kidnaps and flees with a strange woman for no apparent reason. He travels with her as the rest of the Rainbow Brigade hunts him down.

Lemme tell you, this manga is as weird as it looks, if not weirder. Matsumoto’s art is strange and extraordinary, operating under no rules whatsoever; sometimes it’s detailed, sometimes it’s cartoony, and sometimes you don’t even know what you’re looking at. What’s even better is that panel changes tend to jump from POV-to-POV several times per page, all to maximize your confusion.

To add to that confusion, No. 5 doesn’t exactly give you exposition dumps. All the characters talk as if you—the reader—already understand how the world works, and you have to adapt fast. Everything is context-sensitive, and I’m sure as hell I missed a lot of important nuances during my read-through of the manga. There was probably some allegory to the true meaning of being human in there somewhere, and it flew right over my head.

Fortunately, this is a case where you don’t really need to know what’s going on. I was pretty damn engaged with the story despite being confused the whole time. The reason is all in the aforementioned art. Matsumoto really knows how to keep an audience on their toes no matter what’s happening, and there’s always something happening. The plot is followable on the most basic level, but good luck figuring out the purpose of any of it.

Because of how confusing the manga is, I don’t exactly know what to think of the characters in No. 5. The titular character is a very hard-boiled ex-cop-type, who doesn’t seem capable of any emotion except hard-boiled-ness. Unfortunately, we don’t exactly get the full details on why he wants to protecc the woman, Matryoshka, like an anime nerd’s favorite waifu; when we get the full backstory, it actually skips(?) the time between No. 5 first meeting her and ultimately kidnapping her. 

It’s also not easy to tell why he loves Matryoshka so much, or rather, why everyone in-universe seems to loves her. You could argue that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, since she’s not the stereotypical ideal woman in terms of physical features. However… she’s kind of awful? She acts like the perfect picture of innocence, exclaiming everything she sees like a child, but it seems like she just follows whoever gives her food, as evidenced by a part where this one guy grabs her and she doesn’t resist at all. 

The rest of the Rainbow Brigade are even more confusing. We get into the heads of every one of the numbered people. It’s natural to assume that the ones who die earlier are less impactful, but it doesn’t really matter. I don’t get No. 9, who dies first, any better than any of the others. I feel like the most impactful ones are the No. 4s, two twins who create hallucinations, and No. 1, who is… well, I probably shouldn’t spoil him. 

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Final Verdict: 8.75/10

No. 5 is really something. It’s surreal and intense, and always leaves more questions than answers. If you want to experience a weird, old manga, then No. 5 will serve that purpose well. 

Ten Years of Changing Fate and Mending Bonds!: Brave Retrospective

Pixar’s Brave turns ten this year. Who’da thunk that’d ever happen? Since I’ve done many-a Disney movie retrospective, I thought it’d be time for me to tackle Brave! It’s one I remember fondly, but as someone who hadn’t seen it in at least five years, I can’t exactly go off of that. As such, it’s time to see what it’s like from the perspective of a hyper-critical adult!

In Brave, we are taken back to the good old days in ancient… er… Scotland(?). Princess Merida learns to be a badass from her dad, much to the chagrin of her protective mother. Oh, and dad almost gets offed by a bear in that classic Disney fashion. When Merida becomes a teen, mom gets REAL overprotective. Merida hates this, and in her blind rage, makes a deal with a witch to change her fate (you of course have to read those last three words in a Scottish accent). The witch’s spell turns mom into a bear, and the only way to reverse it is to mend the bond torn by pride (oh, and same for those last six words as well).

I sure didn’t appreciate the Celtic atmosphere when I was younger, but for a pagan metal junkie like myself, I was able to enjoy Brave‘s setting more than I ever have. Europe really is something else, and Pixar—as always—knocks it out of the park when making magical locales. This is the perfect opportunity for some Celtic folk-inspired musical numbers…!

…All two of them. The first is a song I guarantee most Disney fans only know the chorus of; you know, it’s the one set of lyrics that they always use every time Brave comes up in a Disney park attraction. Unfortunately, upon hearing the full song for the first time in years, I found it to be one of Disney’s weaker numbers. The iterations of it that appear in the aforementioned Disney attractions have way more weight and impact than its original use in the movie. The other number is a cutesy, sentimental piece used during a mother-daughter bonding montage. I had completely forgotten about it until seeing the movie for this retrospective, and forgetting a Disney song ever existed is a sure sign that it’s not particularly likable. I really feel like they squandered an opportunity here. While their next Disney princess movie (which also turns ten next year) is set in Scandinavia, most of the songs in it aren’t exactly inspired by pagan folk music. 

In case you couldn’t tell, the plot is pretty straightforward. While Merida struggles to mend the bond, she and her mom learn to get along with each other. Things go awry, the dad ends up rallying up the other clansmen to try and kill his own wife, mom realizes that she was being REALLY dense, and the power of love turns her human again. Oh, and they have a run-in with the evil bear from the beginning, who happens to have been a previous customer of the aforementioned witch. Like I’ve said numerous times, you generally don’t see Pixar movies expecting something mind-blowing. 

However, there is something VERY unexpected that I felt quite flummoxed by. There’s implied nudity, including during the brief moment after Merida’s very young brothers turn back from bear to themselves, and even the old fart clan leaders ogling Merida’s naked mom when she turns back into a human. There’s also a scene of one of the brothers swan diving into a very traumatized maid’s cleavage. I’m not joking; there’s even a zoom in right into her bosom. If you’re familiar with hentai, this’ll seem like nothing. However… This is a movie for children; a Pixar movie. Man, how different things would become in just four years after Brave‘s release.

While the plot itself isn’t too interesting, it’s one of the more digestible Pixar movie plots thanks to the movie’s seriously star-studded cast. Most Disney characters are super expressive, but to be perfectly real, they were REALLY expressive in Brave. Every character, and every mannerism, were just so memorable. I enjoyed their interactions way more than when I saw the movie the first time! 

Merida and her mom are the stars of the show, for they are the entire plot. Merida’s cool and all, albeit a bit immature, but her mom is actually one of the best Disney parents… eventually. She’s insufferable at the beginning, but has some amazing moments throughout, such as when she just ear-grabs her husband and the three clansmen to resolve a fracas. Also, the way she tries to act human even when she’s a bear is just perfect as well. Merida’s dad and her brothers are also very silly and rambunctious. The brothers don’t say a single word, and they’re just as bursting with character as everyone else.

The clansmen and their sons are additional comic relief. They all have very distinct character designs, and are—as expected—full of mannerisms. I wish they had more screentime, but it makes sense why they didn’t.

The weakest character is its main antagonist, Mordu the evil bear man. Like I said with The Princess and the Frog: Facilier was the last true Disney villain. In the transitional phase to Disney’s current system, we get some unremarkable Disney villains like Mordu who seem to exist just to spice things up (and we’ll be seeing another example in that other movie that I said would be turning ten next year). He’s at least got good foreshadowing, but he just seemed to be a plot device for the whole movie.

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After All These Years: 9.35/10

I’m gonna be honest, I thought I was going to revisit Brave, and walk out of it thinking it wasn’t a particularly remarkable movie. However, it might be one of my favorite Pixar movies of all time. It’s not groundbreaking, but it just does what Pixar does really, REALLY well in sheer execution. It’s aged really well in every department. I recommend it to kids and Disney nerds.

The Genesis Wars: It’s More Anime Than Its Predecessor, Therefore It’s Better

Holy crap… I forgot that YA novels don’t always have social undertones. Well, technically, Akemi Dawn Bowman’s The Infinity Courts asked questions about the self and smartphone A.I., but since—like many cyberpunks—it comes off as pretentious and ham-fisted, the book ended up being a perfect mindless romp. Now, we have its sequel: The Genesis Wars. Let’s hope Nami actually lives up to the amazing One Piece character she’s named after!

When we last left our intrepid hero, Nami Miyamoto was betrayed and her friends were captured. Now she’s hanging out with a secret collective of different Clans (with a capital C) of warriors who have been hiding from the Residents. As you can expect, seventy-five percent don’t want to fight back because it’s too wisky-woo-woo. As such, she trains up to potentially go and save her old friends on her own. 

The Genesis Wars starts off kind of… badly. We are thrown right into her life in the Clans almost a year after she initially found them, because timeskips are fun. There are MANY characters casually introduced as if we’ve known them since the first book, and you have to adjust to these new faces on the fly. Seriously… is it just me or does this happen a LOT in sequels?

This seems like the perfect set-up for a boring sequel where Nami complains about them not doing anything, and we spend eighty percent of the book complaining that nothing happens. Fortunately, that’s not the case. Before long, Nami packs her bags and leaves the Clans behind, which honestly, makes the whole thing seem like padding in hindsight (at least you don’t have to worry about picturing most of the Clan people). In any case, she goes off to War, which is the kingdom of Prince Ettore that is basically every YA dystopian world all rolled into one.

It’s a nasty place, but for the story, it really takes off. Nami finds a group of rebellious humans camping around in War, and unlike the schmucks at the Colony and Clans, these people are actually DOING SOMETHING. Thanks to this, The Genesis Wars has actual wars in it, especially in a place called WAR. There is no end to anime-like, adrenaline-pumping action sequences once the ball gets rolling.

Naturally, the cast improves as well. Nami gets… better-ish. She’s still kind of whiny, but she’s much stronger. She can really pull her weight in Infinity, and most importantly, she looks awesome while doing it. Also, Nami gets a familiar whom she can telepathically control at will. That’s VERY anime, which is always good for YA novels.

We meet many new faces in War, the edgiest of whom is Ozias, a Clan turncoat who wanted to fight the Residents. Like many of the rebels, he is very proactive. Of course, he has some semblance of moral ambiguity so readers can be asked the classic question of “Are the [insert antagonistic entity here] or humans the real monsters?”

Oh, right, there’s Prince Caelan, and he’s still an enigma. We had no idea what his motives were back in The Infinity Courts, and we still don’t know them now. At least there’s a scene where he’s topless. That alone EASILY bumps up the score of the book by at least one point.

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Final Verdict: 9.65/10

The Genesis Wars is a rare sequel that’s better than the previous book. There’s more action and intrigue than before. Let’s hope beyond all reason that the forthcoming third—and presumably final book—will be great. If so, then this might become one of my favorite YA series of all time.

Atlas Shrugged: The Sci-Fi Dystopia Novel That’s Also a Self-Help Book

I have the longest story with this book. I’ve been battling serious depression over the past two years (longer than that by the time the post actually goes out) because it feels like human civilization is falling apart. Heck, you could argue it’s been happening longer than that; since the #MeToo movement in 2017, it feels like violent protests have been a way of life. Of course, 2020 set a new precedent of despair, when COVID took the world, and simple matters of health became political. That same year, George Floyd was murdered, and divided the human race amongst itself overnight. 2021 began with a terrorist attack on Capitol Hill, organized entirely by American citizens with a political agenda. At the time of writing this paragraph, Russia is invading Ukraine, laying the groundwork for World War III. To top it off, earth is being ravaged by climate change, at a rate that keeps increasing at an exponential rate despite all the efforts that have been put in to delay it. As of completing the book, Ukraine is still at war, and abortion is now illegal on a constitutional level following the result of Roe v. Wade, not to mention a spike in mass shootings.

This is where Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged comes in. I was at a point when I finally figured out how to enjoy life, but now I’m drowning in despair. I can’t begin to list the violent emotions and twisted thoughts I’ve felt. To give you an idea, my mother has considered sending me to the psych ward numerous times. After some intense discussions with her, she offered up Atlas Shrugged. According to her, it would—at the very least—expose the media and these new-fangled activists as the BS-spewers that they allegedly are. I was skeptical, but Atlas Shrugged is apparently one of the most influential novels of all time; second only to The Bible.

Atlas Shrugged, however, is massive. This is the kind of book that I can only read with the new purging of pop culture media that I have committed to. One chapter can take about an hour, and there’s a lot of chapters; over a thousand pages’ worth. I started the book in February 2022, and you’re reading this post not long after I actually finished the book. That’s how much of an investment it is.

Like any hard SF novel, completing it is a monumental task. One aspect of these kinds of books is that merely figuring out the basic premise is a headache that you’re meant to experience, and thus, it feels like discussing any aspect of the novel is spoiler territory, even though it’s super old. So… Here’s a spoiler warning then. Read on if you wish.

Right off the bat, Rand’s prose feels like what a lot of modern writers, whom I consider pretentious, try to be. A lot of Atlas Shrugged is very verbose, and at first, it feels like nothing is happening. However, unlike books such as Monogatari, I wasn’t mad. A lot of passages give you hints pertaining to the book’s worldbuilding and how characters think and feel. The writing is also very poetic, describing things metaphorically but in a way that can be understood by anyone with a basic grasp of the English language; unlike a lot of YA and light novels that vomit nonsensical similes at everything. 

You are given your first signs of how messed up the world of Atlas Shrugged is with the initial conflict centered around Taggart Transcontinental, a railroad company. The organization has always been run by Taggarts, and this generation is brother and sister James and Dagny Taggart. When one of their lines desperately needs fixing, Dagny is literally the only person to do anything about it. She orders an untested metal from a company that James doesn’t trust, while his “trusted” metals haven’t been delivered in over a year since being ordered. What jumps out is that she is the only one in the whole organization who’s proactive; everyone else, except a guy named Eddie Willers, sucks. 

The story also involves the creator of the aforementioned untested metal, Hank Rearden. He went from slaving away in the mines to owning his own steel plant, an achievement that he knows he’s damn well earned. Dagny’s order for his metal is the first big order his company has ever received. The reason for this is because everyone else is afraid to risk using it.

Right off the bat, Atlas Shrugged should resonate with just about anyone alive, especially these days. Heck, a lot of the stuff brought up in this book is stuff I’ve had internal debates about for years. I one hundred percent relate to Dagny and Hank, who feel like they’re surrounded by morons at all times. Well, I say morons, but a more literal term would be sheep; they just stick to doing what they’re told, with no drive to make anything better. This isn’t even remotely a new trope, but in Atlas Shrugged, it feels more grounded and real. Every writer and their grandma these days would chalk this up to how humans are wired to behave and there’s nothing we can do about it. Good ol’ Ayn Rand, however, presents this behavior as an unnatural, conscious choice that most people—unfortunately—decide to make. 

Words cannot describe just how vindicating Atlas Shrugged is. Every other scene, there’s something that feels like Rand literally wrote for me specifically. The inane ignoramity (professional term) of mankind feels like every day of my life since Donald Trump ran for President. On a side note, Atlas Shrugged is significantly easier to digest than what I thought going in. It’s lengthy, sure, but the actual content of the book is incredibly straightforward. If you could get through crap like Of Mice and Men in high school, then Atlas Shrugged will be no problem.

The plot starts off in earnest at the end of part one. Dagny and Hank go on a road trip and stumble upon a mysterious machine, abandoned in a junk heap in an equally abandoned factory. Turns out that this device, if seen through to the end, would literally solve all of humanity’s energy problems and save the world. However, its creator is unaccounted for, and she scrambles to find that creator or reverse engineer the machine, all while surviving the ignorant world she lives in. Survival is not easy, especially when the few smart people that remain start abandoning their businesses unannounced.

Of course, you could look at the publication year saying “1957” and chalk Atlas Shrugged up for yet another McCarthy-ist novel written during the Red Scare. The thing is, due to everything discussed up to this point, I would’ve never guessed this was a Red Scare book because it sure didn’t feel like it at all. Despite the difference in eras, I could attribute so much more about Atlas Shrugged to real life in this day and age than any other cyberpunk I’ve ever experienced. However, the fact that Atlas Shrugged feels even more relevant than it did at the time isn’t exactly a good thing.

If you couldn’t tell, Atlas Shrugged is meant to have only two likable characters, and they are Dagny and Hank. Let’s talk about Hank first, since I’m saving the best for last. He loves his career with Rearden Metal, especially more than the stupid people he’s surrounded by, including his stupid wife. He doesn’t let other people’s thoughts get in his way, including those in the media. It’s ironic that someone who cares so little about people contributes more to their lives than most… or at least he would be if there weren’t politically correct idiots trying to ruin his business.

Meanwhile, Dagny… ho-hoh boy, lemme tell you. I daresay that she is the Best Girl in all classic literature. She’s like Hank in not caring, only better. Her proactive personality feels so modern compared to any other character of classic literature. Dagny is unimaginably badass, and if you told me that girls like Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind or anyone from Little Women were better, I would absolutely not believe you. 

Among these two awesome protagonists whom you’re meant to love, and these wingnuts that you’re meant to hate, there is an anomaly named Francisco d’Anconia. You could argue he’s the main villain of the book, despite him definitely not being an ignoramus like the rest of mankind. He has iconic and inspirational moments that feel amazing, like he really understands how life works, yet he seems to be working against the human race with most of his actions. I’d say he’s the extreme end of Dagny and Hank’s personalities, but at the same time, he could just be a massive troll.

If there are any flaws in the book’s writing, it’s that I always had trouble telling where anyone was in 3D space. The dialogue is the heart and soul of Atlas Shrugged, and it’s so easy to get absorbed in it that they can seemingly teleport to another location. You could also argue that some of the big long passages that convey the book’s themes get redundant (including a seventy page speech that is more-or-less a summation of all the themes explored), but the way Rand thinks is so unconventional, that you kind of need to see it multiple times to really process the full weight of her words.

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Final Verdict: 10/10

Why does anyone bother with any classic literature other than Atlas Shrugged? I’ve read crummy books with blurbs that say “I’ll be thinking about these themes for a long time”, but Atlas Shrugged is the first time I truly feel that way about a book. It’s so insane that—scratch that—it’s saner than almost anything else out there. If Ayn Rand wrote and published it today, it would get canceled ten times over. Heck, the FBI would’ve personally hunted her down. Atlas Shrugged would be considered by many to be pure evil, and that’s precisely why it’s a must-read. Just keep in mind that it will not give you hope for mankind; it’s only meant to give you hope for yourself.

Still a Masterpiece JRPG: Xenoblade Chronicles Retrospective feat. The Definitive Edition

One of the most important YouTubers in my life is none other than Chuggaaconroy. I don’t just look up to him as a fellow autistic man, and as the man who introduced me to the TRG Community, the only community—physical and digital—where I’ve felt like I belonged; he also introduced me to the ding-dang greatest JRPG franchise of all time: Xenoblade Chronicles. Naturally, I had temptations to play the 2020 remaster, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition, for the Nintendo Switch. However, I held off on it because I was like, “You know what, I’ll save it for 2022 when the game turns ten.” The thing is, I’m an idiot. The 2012 release I had associated with Xenoblade Chronicles was for the North American release. The game actually turned ten in 2020, an anniversary which was probably overshadowed by assorted world events at the time. As a result, you’re going to read a two-year-belated tenth anniversary retrospective, featuring the Definitive Edition. So without further ado, I need to ask the question that starts every retrospective: Is it really as good as I remember it being?

For the record, I have not re-watched Chugga’s series, nor have I seen any gameplay of this game since then. I remembered the basic gist of the story, the party members’ playstyles, the enemy types (since they’re also in the sequel), the regions, and specific side stuffs. I don’t remember the layouts for any of the regions, nor the vast majority of heart-to-hearts and sidequests. Overall, excluding the Future Connect epilogue, at least 70% of this game will still feel new to me. Also, I noticed that this game came with the Japanese voice actors. While I do actually think the dub is great, I was deathly curious about the Japanese voices. At the very least, I wouldn’t have to worry about “You’ll pay for your insolence!”, even if it means I lose Reyn Time.

Before I even get to the premise, I must say: HOLY SHIT THIS GAME IS GORGEOUS. The area design and the various vistas were astounding in the original, but the game looked… kinda bad. Now, this world is truly done justice. Everything has so much more life, especially the characters. Maybe the original being impossible to find was worth something after all; I doubt this remaster would exist otherwise.

You know what—and I know that I’m stalling on getting to the GAME here—but this is not your usual retrospective (in case you couldn’t tell from the fact that it’s a ten year anniversary retrospective when the game is twelve). The problem is that, normally, a retrospective would be a spoiler-filled rant on a well-known thing that’s been around for more than a hot minute. However, the original Xenoblade Chronicles on Nintendo Wii was notoriously difficult for people to find. As such, Definitive Edition is likely a whole generation’s first ever experience with the game. So… should I really spoil the story? I kind of ended up going halfway; not straight-up analyzing everything, yet giving away the biggest plot twists in the game. As such: UNMARKED SPOILERS AHEAD.

In Xenoblade Chronicles, two Titans—Bionis and Mechonis—are locked in battle. Said battle literally ends in a stalemate, but the residents of these Titans are still up in arms at each other. The Bionis people’s only hope to fight Mechonis’ Mechons is the Monado, a sword that can see the future. A boy named Shulk inherits it after his childhood friend, Fiora, is given the Red Shirt treatment, and sets off to destroy all the Mechon (afterwhich he realizes that the Mechon were the good guys but that’s neither here nor there).

What jumps out immediately in Xenoblade Chronicles is its setting. In case you couldn’t tell, the overworld for this game is the aforementioned Bionis and Mechonis locked in time. This is probably one of the most creative worlds in a JRPG. There aren’t many ways to describe how great it is without examples. One area is a body of water resting inside a giant thing sticking out of its shoulder blades (Bionis must’ve been a hunchback). Oh, and the way you get to Mechonis? You literally walk across the sword it thrust into Bionis’ shinbone. They even went into so much detail as having the ice area be in the part of Bionis that gets the least amount of sunlight (thanks for that particular deet, Chugga). 

Most people would say that Xenoblade Chronicles has a fantastic story, but honestly, I don’t feel as strongly about that. Everything is presented very powerfully and emotionally, but it’s pretty straightforward. I feel like the only development that can catch you off guard is the BIG twist where Shulk was actually the vessel of the final boss. Oh, and if you’ve played Xenoblade Chronicles 2, then you’d recognize the same scientist guy from the end of that game; this game’s world is the one that he ended up creating.

No matter how good the story is, it still has some developments that are way too easily telegraphed. First off, Metal Face being Mumkarr is obvious since they both use the same knuckle-claw-thing weapons, and more noticeably, they have the same voice actors. Also, the thing with Dickson… I feel like they could’ve been more subtle about it. He outs himself very easily in one specific scene in Satorl Marsh, and it’s quite easy to remember since he’s never acted sus up to that point.

At the very least, the game has surprisingly enjoyable cutscenes, and this is from someone who normally can’t stand cutscenes in a JRPG. There are a number of scenes where it’s like “Okay, we’re here, and we need to go over there,” but those—at least in the Definitive Edition—have advanceable text. The actual, cinematic, story-important cutscenes are very well-directed and never felt like they overstayed their welcome. This was a pleasant surprise, because in Xenoblade 2, I remember being frustrated to no end at the length and abundance of cutscenes. I recalled going through the Spirit Crucible and there being at least eight different cutscenes where they’re like “Oh man we’re all exhausted in here” over and over again. Well, I guess I’ll know for sure if I ever get to do a retrospective of that game (which won’t be this year because Xenoblade 3 is priority one).

What gives Xenoblade Chronicles heart is its cast (even if I (hot take) think that the sequel has a better cast). Your main party members, with the exception of one, all have incredibly defined personalities and are very lovable. Shulk is pretty much a shounen protagonist, albeit a well-realized one. One of the best parts about him is that he often gets called out for the “main character sees something VERY IMPORTANT and says ‘It’s nothing’” cliché. He still does it… a lot… but I can let it slide this time.

Reyn is a great best-friend-type of guy, whose Time is very honored. Fiora initially comes off as a Red Shirt, but becomes more fully fleshed out—or should I say—mechanized out, after you find her with a bit of Mechon implanted pretty much everywhere besides her face. Best Girl Melia is the better waifu, who sadly doesn’t get her man (but more on that much later). Dunban is literally Shanks from One Piece, complete with only being able to use one arm. He’s a freaking awesome dad-type character. 

I don’t know about public consensus, but Chugga’s least favorite character was Sharla. What makes her a hard sell right away is her unusual battle style (sorry for getting to gameplay here but eeeeeeeeh), where her Talent Art isn’t an attack but a way to cool down her rifle when it overheats. To be honest, she’s not that bad in battle. You can use Cool Off before it overheats, and it’ll waste less time. There might be a possibility that Sharla’s A.I. was improved in Definitive Edition, because I recall Chugga saying it was awful. All that is well and good, but as a character, she’s about as much of a jackass as I remember. She has an unhealthy obsession with this Gadolt guy, to the point where it gets annoying. As soon as she says Reyn reminds her of a young Gadolt, you can see their ship coming from a mile away. Oh, and her betrayal of Melia in that one Heart-to-Heart? Big oof.

Obviously, the BEST character is Riki. This guy is a Nopon, a.k.a. the master race of the Xenoblade Chronicles series. With his typical Nopon broken grammar, he’s fun and cute and awesome and perfect. His only flaw is not being Tora from the second game. 

Like I said before, I played through the game with the Japanese audio, like a weeb. This is going to sound crazy coming from someone like me, but here: the dub is actually better. I had a feeling it would be, since we have Reyn Time and all. The voice actors aren’t bad, but nothing stands out from them. The Japanese audio is more necessary in Xenoblade 2, which has more anime tropes, and thus more interesting voice actors like Aoi Yuki. 

The chemistry between characters depends on you. Affinity is the bond between two characters, and is increased by actions in battle, among other things. Generally, you want to raise it as much as possible. One thing about Affinity that I’m glad has been simplified in the sequel is town Affinity. Unlike Xenoblade 2, where it was just the entire town as one entity, most NPCs have their own place on a massive Affinity tree. You’ll need to talk to them to get them to appear. And unfortunately, registering people on the Affinity tree is often a prerequisite for sidequests. Thankfully, the ones you need to worry about are green on the map. In any case, completing quests will increase the party’s Affinity with the respective town, allowing for even more quests.

Heart-to-Hearts are where it’s at for character development. However, in this game, bad choices can decrease affinity. As such, I ended up looking up every single one of them on the wiki. Some of the negatives can be funnier, plus there is an achievement for getting the worst outcome of a Heart-to-Heart. As expected, Heart-to-Hearts have various prerequisites, and you’ll have to remember them accordingly. On another note, one thing I don’t like about Affinity in this game is that certain party members will gain Affinity by being active when receiving given quests. There’s no way to tell who will react, but honestly, I didn’t worry about getting a reaction on EVERY quest, especially since some are from characters you don’t get until a significant time after the quest is available.

Speaking of quests… there are a ton. A good chunk of them are very simple and will auto-complete when accomplished, similar to the basic missions in Xenoblade X. As always, doing as many of them as possible is well-worth your time. Just be aware of Timed Quests. These will expire after certain story developments, but as long as you prioritize them, there’ll be nothing to worry about. One of the best parts of the game is that Shulk’s visions are more than just a plot device; they impact gameplay. A lot of quests, such as ones with multiple outcomes, show him what’ll happen with either option. Furthermore, you can even get visions of collecting materials for quests that you haven’t even started yet. New to the Definitive Edition, exclamation marks will appear for every quest, even if it’s not registered as the actively tracked quest. It will even highlight materials needed if any loaded in; great for not wasting time checking EVERY single item orb.

Unfortunately, the quests are kind of trollish at times. There is at least one case where one outcome of a multiple-outcome quest will open up a chain of future quests, but not the other. Also, some quests don’t appear on the map until you go up to them in the overworld, and yes, a number of these are timed. But in all seriousness, I really ended up hating the Affinity Chart in this game. It’s not just talking to people once to get them registered in it; you’ll also have to return to previous NPCs after registering new ones in order to get a status on their relationship with each other. Sometimes, you’ll have to talk to them after certain quests or story beats. All of these actions are often prerequisites to quests, and one in Colony 9 can be missed just by making the wrong decision with one of its residents. NPCs have very specific schedules, and there’s no way to really know if you have everyone in a given town. The Xenoblade wiki is a lifesaver for this, but having to use it at all honestly kind of sucks.

Anyway, the REAL rabbit hole when it comes to sidequesting is Colony 6. Starting from a certain point, you can relocate the residents of Colony 6 to, well, Colony 6. The place was ravaged by Mechon, and it needs rebuilding. In addition to a metric ton of quests and quest chains, you also have to make sizable donations in the form of rare materials found around the world in order to spruce it up. This would be the start of Xenoblade’s tendency to expect incessant and unfun grinding for completionists. Thankfully, they programmed it to where anything needed for Colony 6 in an area that expires will have an alternate solution after-the-fact.

One mechanic for collecting that has yet to return is trading. Named NPCs will be willing to trade for items, depending on your Affinity with the town. If you’re missing a material for a quest, then a trade might just come in clutch. Each item has a trade value, and you must give them something equal to or higher than it. There’s also the ability to overtrade, which nets you a bonus item if you give them something WAY more valuable. It’s a cool mechanic, but overtrading is tied to completing the “other” tab of the Collectopedia, and you have no hints on which NPC you have to trade with. I miss this mechanic, since it can save tons of material farming (maybe that’s why the other games are utter nightmares to complete?).

As far as the overworld is concerned, Xenoblade Chronicles has one of the best. There’s so much variety when it comes from the different areas, and the game does a great job in showing the scale of this game world. Even though I watched Chugga’s series years ago, I still remember seeing the Mechonis from exiting Tephra Cave for the first time. Bionis and Mechonis have a ton of stuff to do, from collecting materials, to mining regularly-spawning Ether deposits, to finding secret areas that net a ton of XP. It’s amazing how much there is when there aren’t any overworld chests!

So, what do you do with the aforementioned Ether deposits? The crystals you get from these—along with crystals from enemy drops—are used to craft Gems, which are stuck to equipment for added effects. The system is kind of complicated, and very random. Basically, you get one character to control the flames of the crafting machine, and someone else… to be honest I don’t know what the other person does. Basically, you insert crystals until one of the values exceeds 100%. Any Gem that’s over 100% is guaranteed to form, and any that fall short will be converted to cylinders for later use, depending on how much of the cylinder gauge fills up. Higher ranked crystals will form higher ranked Gems, but exceeding 200% will get you a higher rank.

Anyway, equipment is actually fun in Xenoblade Chronicles. I always felt like it was too complicated in Xenoblade X, but too simple in Xenoblade 2 (although that might change if I do a retrospective on the latter). In the original, it’s just right. Equipment comes in varying types: regular, slotted, and unique. Regular is self explanatory, while slotted equipment can be equipped with the Gems. Unique equipment has a predetermined Gem setup, and can be very helpful. The original game had a glitch where damage rolling went WAY lower than the maximum that a character’s stats said they could, and I couldn’t tell if it was fixed in this version. It was fixed in the 3DS port, so it’s natural to assume the same here. 

Combat is what makes Xenoblade Chronicles as a whole feel action-packed… and it’s complicated. Your party members all use their standard attack commands automatically at regular intervals. Auto-attacks are really nice, because you can use them while moving as long as you stay in range of the target, whereas in Xenoblade 2, I recall that you moved insanely slow in battle and could only auto-attack while standing still. In addition to these standard attacks, you can select the various Arts of whomever you’re controlling. These have a wide variety of effects, as well as bonuses depending on your angle relative to the target. In the Definitive Edition, given Arts will have a blue exclamation mark when you’re in position to gain their bonus effect. Landing auto-attacks also fills up a gauge that—when full—allows you to use a fancy Talent Art. These are unique to the character, ranging from the Monado Arts to… Sharla cooling her stupid rifle. Arts need to be levelled up by consuming accumulated AP on them; this also includes each of Shulk’s Monado Arts. At first, you can only raise an Art to level four, but Art books can break that level cap… if you can find them! Most are available at shops, but those aren’t enough. You’ll need advanced Arts books to completely max out an Art. Unfortunately, these are only available as insanely low drops from random assortments of enemies late in the game. There’s no way to know which ones are where, but the higher leveled enemies that do have them give you the best odds.

Along with Arts, you also learn Skills. These are passive abilities that apply to the whole party or to the user. The system becomes kind of complicated with Skill Links, where you use Affinity Coins to give someone another party member’s Skill. Just experiment and see what works. Keep in mind that specific quests can reward a character with an additional skill tree that tends to be pretty powerful. If the game wasn’t ham-fisted enough with its ships, one of Fiora’s grants her all kinds of buffs as long as Shulk is fighting alongside her.

The main way to gain an advantage over enemies is to knock ‘em over. To do this, you hit them with a pink Break Art to unbalance them, then use a green Topple Art to literally trip ‘em up. You can extend the time they are down with a yellow Daze Art (which has yet to come back in the series). Topples and Dazes can be stacked, resulting in a technique called Topple-locking, but you don’t need to worry about that unless you’re fighting stupidly powerful foes (i.e. the superbosses). There are rare instances of being able to skip a step in the process, such as Melia’s Spear Break immediately followed by Starlight Kick. One great feature of the Definitive Edition is the visual indicator of these debuffs’ durations, similar to Xenoblade 2. Also, you can hit a target already suffering Break and Topple with another Art of the same type to refresh the status; something I DON’T remember in Xenoblade 2.

You also have to pay attention to Aggro. Whoever has the most Aggro has a red circle around them, and will have the attention of enemies. It’s optimal to keep it on people like Reyn, and not people like Shulk. There are various Arts dedicated to increasing and decreasing Aggro. Oh, and before I forget, I should mention Auras. These temporarily put the user in a unique state, and they can be VERY useful. 

Just like with sidequests, Shulk’s visions help in battle, even when he’s not in the active battle party! When an enemy is about to use a powerful—usually fatal—attack, you see a Vision of it, with a timer of how long you have to stop it. More often than not, the attack will be the enemies’ own Talent Art, each of which has its own level. Use Shulk’s Monado Shield to protect from it, but the Shield needs to be levelled up enough in order to work. The Shield will not work on non-Talent Art attacks. There’s also the ability to consume a block of the Party Gauge by warning a fellow character, which gives you a chance to use an Art on the attacker. I don’t recall that being in the original, but it’s been years since I watched Chugga’s series so I don’t really know for sure.

The best part is the Chain Attack. Getting crits and Arts’ bonus effects fill the Party Gauge, which goes up to three bars. It takes one bar to revive a character, and the whole darn thing is consumed to execute said Chain Attack. Basically, you use Arts of the same color to boost damage. What’s really helpful is that enemy resistance to debuffs is nullified, which is where the Topple-locking strategy comes in. Unfortunately, Chain Attacks kind of suck early game, because their duration depends on your party members’ Affinities. Also, Sharla doesn’t learn a red Art for a long time, making it difficult to add to the multiplier with her in the party. In any case, I forgot how great this Chain Attack was versus the sequel’s. Like I said before, Chain Attacks in this game make Topple-locking viable. I’m stressing this because you can’t use Arts in Xenoblade 2’s Chain Attacks; they’re only good for sheer damage. Furthermore, the same actions that fill up the party gauge normally still apply during the Chain Attack itself; ANOTHER great thing I don’t recall in the sequel. Some setups can refill the entire party gauge instantly, allowing for an immediate follow-up Chain Attack. When your party’s Affinity gets high enough across the board, you can really spam these with little penalty. It’s so much better than Xenoblade 2, where I remember Chain Attacks being something you had to work for, not just by filling the party gauge, but also because you need at least six element orbs from six different types of Blade Combo for it to be worthwhile. Boy, I really sound like I hate Xenoblade 2. I swear, I love it! It just has… issues.

Another thing to keep in mind is quick time events. Don’t worry; they aren’t the BS that kills you during a cutscene if you don’t see it coming. Basically, you just need to press B when it lines up with the blue circle that forms. You need to do this to keep party morale up, which affects how good you do in battle. Also, hitting these prompts gives you the chance to extend your Chain Attack’s duration. Hitting these when prompted can fill up to a whole block of the party gauge, so… practice makes perfect.

One of the nicest new features is Expert Mode. Calm down; this is not a higher difficulty. Basically, what this option does is convert some XP earned from non-battle antics to reserve XP. In the Expert Mode menu, you can level up or level down party members, similar to how the inns worked in Xenoblade 2. If you’re worried about being overleveled from completing all the quests, then use this to even yourself out by levelling the party down. This is especially helpful in the endgame, which involves fighting enemies stronger than the final boss. You can do those quests and get up to Level 99 for the superbosses, then just level down afterwards for the final boss (if you want it to be a challenge of course; utterly wasting Zanza has its own catharsis).

In terms of difficulty, Xenoblade Chronicles can be rough if it’s your first Xenoblade ever. Conversely, if you’ve played Xenoblade 2, then this game is stupid easy. It’ll still feel easy even if you’re using Expert Mode. For me, that gave me the perfect level of challenge. I’ve even had multiple fights against monsters marked as “yellow”, meaning it would be pretty tough but not as hopeless as fighting a superboss. I would not have been able to get through it without my knowledge of Xenoblade fundamentals as well as knowing every party member’s battle style. There are quests that take you into high-level territory underleveled, but it’s not required like in Xenoblade X, nor is it as insane as Xenoblade X. There is a proper tutorial for Spikes, which I don’t recall being a thing originally. Plus, enemy health bars have a visual indicator if they have Spikes; a phenomenal improvement!

Oh, and f*** the Nebula enemies. These things can only take full damage from Ether, and usually have annoying status ailment Spikes that reduce tension, which you need to keep as high as possible over the course of battle (at the very least, you can farm Affinity by encouraging your allies over and over again). When the Nebulae are low on health, they self-destruct. Even if you survive it, they don’t actually drop loot, and if you could properly defeat one, the items that you actually need for stuff are quite rare. I’m glad that these aren’t in future games (and if they actually are, then they’re definitely not as bad).

The real challenge comes from Unique Monsters. These are tougher versions of regular enemies that take—and deliver—quite a beating. They drop super good prizes, and are worth taking on (plus, they’re really fun to fight). The superbosses are five Uniques over the level cap of 99, and suck. I never did them due to wanting to save time (thanks, both Great Ace Attorney games and my life), but you basically need a perfect setup to fight them… at setup that I vaguely know how to build but not enough to where it actually works (I tried on regular overleveled enemies and it didn’t go well). You also need to be in a situation to endlessly spam Chain Attacks and Topple-lock them, as well as regularly using Shulk’s Monado Purge to seal the VERY DANGEROUS counterattack Spikes they have on them. Since Topple-locking is a thing, they are probably the easiest superbosses of the series so far.

A much more consistent challenge is the A.I. of your other two battle party members. I remember Chugga specifically riffing on Shulk and Sharla, but I had some troubles with them across the board. While they are good at following up with the Break > Topple > Daze chain, they tend to use those Arts willy-nilly, and by the time I actually inflict something on the enemy, their Art is on cooldown. They are at least good at using Arts that work in tandem together, but that’s hardly an offset. Shulk will also spam Monado Arts (and use Monado Purge against enemies without Spikes or Auras), but that’s at least not too bad as long as he doesn’t use Monado Buster, which reduces the Talent Gauge by the highest amount. Sharla wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I recall Chugga saying. Maybe they rebalanced her in this version? In any case, you pretty much need to be in control of Shulk for the superbosses, since he NEEDS to be ever on point with his Monado Purges there.

Since everything in Xenoblade is so damn good, it’s no surprise that it has phenomenal music. I’m very attached to this soundtrack; it’s pretty much perfect. I even own an official copy of the OST, straight from Japan. In Definitive Edition, the soundtrack is ever-so-slightly altered. The basic ideas for the songs are still there, but if you’re really soft for the old OST, the new ones could sound jarring. At least it’s not made worse by this change. However, I did notice an issue that I don’t recall from Chugga’s series. You see, the battle music dynamically changes to some sort of “Oh crap!” music when you’re getting a nasty vision or if things aren’t going your way. However, the game consistently had trouble reverting back to the usual music, even after averting said crisis. 

Oh, and one more thing new to the Definitive Edition is the Time Attack mode. This works like it does in Xenoblade 2, only it’s a lot easier. Unfortunately, from what I’ve tried, it doesn’t seem that practical. The rewards seem kinda useless for the most part, and you can’t even do most of the challenges right away. One big plus is that you can use it to obtain the super-rare materials for that gruesome final leg of Colony 6 reconstruction. Hallelujah!

Before getting to the final evaluation, I should list a couple of minor flaws in the game, for the sake of being comprehensive. Some enemies, specifically fish enemies, can be buggy and randomly disengage from battle for no reason. There are also at least two quests with multiple outcomes that will force the bad outcome if you have the necessary materials for it upon accepting the request. Also, I hate the quest where you get the weapon for Fiora right before taking on Mechonis Core, since you have to make a round trip through Central Factory with fast travel disabled; what’s worse is that it’s actually worth doing. And for some reason—I don’t know if it’s me having bad luck, but—I just could not get Chain Attacks to last very long. Maybe tension is involved in the calculations, but the prompt to extend was very rare even with characters who have maxxed out Affinity. This essentially means that the Superbosses are luck-based, but that’s just how the cookie crumbles in even the best JRPGs. Either that or I suck. 

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Final Verdict—Oh wait, there’s more!

Xenoblade Chronicles is over one hundred hours of top-notch JRPG gameplay. However, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition has one more addition in Future Connect, a post-game sidestory. Before evaluating the final product, we gotta play through Future Connect first!

In Xenoblade Chronicles: Future Connect, Zanza has been wiped from existence, and Shulk created a new world with no gods. Life is finally back to normal. A year later, Shulk and Melia pay a visit to Alcamoth, just to receive a giant laser blast to the face. Apparently, something called the Fog King has set up shop there and it needs to be taken out posthaste.

The story here is a pretty simple instance of the “we saved the world, but there’s still issues and junk” trope. It’s nowhere on the caliber of the base game. On the plus side, it basically serves as—after ten years since the original game came out on Wii—proper character development for poor Melia. She gets to spend quality time with Shulk, completely bereft of Fiora. Melia gets the full closure to her character arc that she deserved all this time. Accompanying the destined-to-be-friendzoned couple are two of Riki’s kids: Nene and Kino, who serve as your Reyn and Sharla respectively. They’re positively adorable, and that’s all there is to it; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Future Connect is set in the once-unused area known as Bionis’ Shoulder. For some reason, when Bionis fell over after beating Zanza… its shoulder decided to not fall? Why am I questioning JRPG tropes? In any case, there is a LOT to do on Bionis’ Shoulder! In addition to the Ponspectors, Heart-to-Hearts are replaced with Quiet Moments, of which there are many of. These don’t have any choices, and are fully voice acted; a nice change of pace from worrying that you could say the wrong thing. There is more incentive to defeat Unique Monsters, for they drop Art Coins, which are used to buy Arts Manuals now. Bionis’ Shoulder has a slew of optional quests, one of which is to find twenty of a certain Key Item scattered across the world.

A lot of mechanics have changed. Shulk can’t see visions, there is no more Skill Tree, and Chain Attacks are replaced with a special all-out attack. You also mine Gems directly from Ether deposits as you would for crystals in the base game. Anyway, the aforementioned special attack is a bit complicated. It’s unlocked by finding elite Nopons called Ponspectors throughout the world. With a full set of Ponspectors from the same team, your special attack can be performed based on that team’s specialities. Also, they autonomously assist in general, using Arts of their own. 

Future Connected is also really hard. Everyone starts off in their sixties, but with crappy equipment and un-leveled-up Arts. With no Visions, big attacks can wipe your team instantly. Plus, the lack of Chain Attack makes it harder to Topple Lock (and the free Daze from the Ponspector attack can’t be refreshed by using a regular Daze Art). Shulk is pretty much essential, as Monado Armor becomes significantly more helpful than it was in the base game, but aggro management becomes difficult when you don’t have Aggro Up Gems on Nene.

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After All These Years: 10/10

Thanks to the quality of life improvements in the Definitive Edition, Xenoblade Chronicles becomes the best game in the series for sure… at least until I finish Xenoblade 3 or have renewed thoughts on Xenoblade 2. It’s a no-brainer that I recommend it to anyone who owns a Nintendo Switch.

Monument Valleys 1 & 2: What If Fez and Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker had Kids?

I had an inkling to play the Monument Valley games, but I didn’t go through with it because they were mobile games. One hour on them would mean one hour of iPad life, period. I recently regained interest in them when they were ported to PC, with new, upscaled editions that include all the DLC. So, yeah, here’s my review of Monument Valleys 1 & 2, assuming that they play similarly enough to justify a single review of both.

In Monument Valley, you are a girl named Ida on a quest for forgiveness. In Monument Valley 2, a young mom named Ro takes her kid to the valley so she can be a better mom or something.

So… these games are gorgeous. Each level has a unique look, with the only consistency being in the minimalistic, abstract, isometric style. The music is really calm and ambient, perfect for puzzle-solving. The music is also very dynamic, adding little bits of flair as feedback when you solve a part of the puzzles, and when you interact with the environment. The Panoramic Editions, naturally, have a lot of negative space, since they were originally designed for portrait oriented screens, but it feels like that this enhances the artstyle they were going for; the levels feel like parts of their own little universes, cut off from everything else. Sometimes, I sat back and soaked in the game’s whimsical atmosphere.

You might as well, since they are both quite short. Even with the added DLC, each game is easily doable in under three hours. Fortunately, unlike other big indie games of similar length such as What Remains of Edith Finch, the Monument Valley games are much cheaper when it comes purely to the proportion of content versus dollar. The Panoramic Collection Bundle is less than 15USD as it is.

In any case, the basic gameplay boils down to optical illusion-based puzzles. Some components in each level can be manipulated, as indicated by some little nubs or by having a faucet thingy attached to them. By arranging them just right, you can build bridges and open pathways straight out of an M.C. Escher painting. The mechanic starts off simple, but gets more involved as you go on. 

It sounds like the perfect game that requires inducing a migraine to beat, but it’s not. The experience with these games is really to be impressed by how well thought-out the levels are. Every single one of them feels iconic and memorable in some way, and boy, it must’ve been a real pain to program them. Most of the difficulty comes in just processing what you can interact with and going from there. The DLC chapters in the first game are probably the hardest, but even then, they aren’t too bad.

Overall, I feel like Monument Valley 2 is the better game. It has more of a story, and they really push the games’ artstyle in an even wilder direction. Things get much more abstract and weird. However, I almost feel like it’s the easier of the two. It might be because the game cared more about its story? I dunno, maybe I just got mad gamer skills (*sarcasm*).

Speaking of story, I might as well discuss the games’ narratives, or lack thereof. Similar to the aforementioned indie titles I’ve compared this series to, it doesn’t exactly take rocket science to understand what’s going on in either game. While light in dialogue, there are plenty of context clues that telegraph what the takeaway is, especially in the second game. Neither are groundbreaking, but you’ll probably cry if you’re the emotional type… especially in the second game. Gee, I wonder how much more ham-fisted I can be with the notion that the second game has a better story.

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Final Verdict for Both Games: 9/10

There’s pretty much nothing wrong with the Monument Valley games (he says as he gives them an imperfect score). They’re short, but are a better value than a lot of other games on the market. While they aren’t as puzzle-y as Baba Is You, they manage to be very novel in their own right. There’s no harm in giving them a try.

The Last Fallen Moon: The Main Protagonist Dies in this One

Graci Kim’s The Last Fallen Star was one of the better series openers from Rick Riordan Presents. It’s only natural that I would be anticipating the sequel, The Last Fallen Moon. Let’s hope it doesn’t suffer the notorious sequel curse. 

When we last left off, Riley narrowly managed to save the world from a vengeful goddess. However, it cost her whole clan’s ability to heal, and almost everyone’s memories of her existence! Now she’s as miserable as the main protagonist of a YA novel. After a brutal attack on her household, she’s fed up, and decides to take matters into her own hands. Riley ingests a potion that temporarily stops her heart, effectively rendering her dead, so she can go to the heavenly realm of Cheongdang and find Saint Heo Jun and convince him to become the new patron of her clan to restore their powers. 

So, we have another installment set in the underworld. Classic. In Korean folklore, hell is known as Jiok, and to be honest… I wasn’t exactly impressed with Kim’s vision of it. If you’ve seen Coco, then it is basically the same idea, where modern bullcrap like customs and long lines are integrated into the mythological space. Jiok bears a striking resemblance to New York City, or rather vice-versa, which seems cool on paper, but the critic in me considers that Kim did this to avoid the logistics issues with figuring out where landmarks are relative to each other. The most creative aspect is how Kim retconned the crap out of the different punishments, where they go from chambers of torment to vacation getaways. It’s also a big aspect of the overall story, so it’s not just there for the lols.

Speaking of the story, the plot at least felt like a step up from before. There’s a lot of bobbing, weaving, sneaking, and stealing during the course of Riley’s journey through Jiok and Cheongdang. There’s also a lot more at stake this time around, although I cannot say exactly why, due to spoilers.

Unfortunately, any positives I might’ve had about the cast are kind of out the window. Three protagonists are in focus this time: Riley, Hattie—who is comatose and able to visit the spiritrealm as a result, and newcomer, Dahl. Is it just me or is it a trope for character arcs to reset in between books? Riley Oh is whinier than ever this time around! In fact, most of the book is basically the Riley Oh Torture Porn Train; a lot of it feels orchestrated specifically to dump on her.  

We at least get some more screentime with Hattie, but she has some moments that I felt like were there for shock value. Dahl is perhaps the best character thus far. He’s slick and smooth, but has many, MANY secrets underneath. He was born in the spiritrealm, and naturally, he wants to be human because what else would an immortal being want? At least his fascination with toilets is adorable.

With this being the spiritrealm, we get a lot of exposure to characters from Korean folklore. Unlike the Cave Bear Goddess from the previous book, they have way more personality, and better dialogue to boot. Sadly, I can’t discuss any of them due to spoilers. 

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 8.65/10

The Last Fallen Moon is a big step up from the previous book, even if it is still rough around the edges. Even as a Japanese culture nerd, who’s always been jealous of South Korean culture for being more accepted by the West, I’ve been able to enjoy this franchise quite a bit. Hopefully the next (and final?) book will be even better!

Executive Action: When a WordPress Blogger Becomes a Published Author

Well, this is a first for me! I have never read an independently published book before, and Evolution’s Hand Book 1: Executive Action is by the very same Crow from Crow’s World of Anime right here on WordPress! I had a Barnes & Noble gift card leftover from Christmas, and since I don’t read light novels on nook anymore, I basically got this for free. Well, what’s important is that this review is going to help spread the word. That makes up for it, right?

I can’t really discuss the premise of Executive Action in a single paragraph like I normally do. It’s structured like a good ol’ fashioned sci-fi novel. You’re thrown right into the story, and introduced to many characters all at once. You don’t know who’s a main character or not because they all have full first and last names. There are also many different plot threads and POVs introduced right out the gate, making it even harder to know what’s going on. I would’ve devoured this book back in my teen years when this genre was my jam, but now as a weeb reading books for children… yeah, “rusty” would be an understatement here.

If anything about Executive Action is simple, it’s that it’s got the classic cyberpunk trope of “conglomerates ruin everything.” The big, bad company this time around is Terra Consolidated Products. They’ve gained so much traction that even the United Nations is powerless against them. Meanwhile, one of our intrepid heroes—Melchizedek Conrad—is running a small outfit called TranStell. They have a secret technology called Fissures, which expedite space travel, and it is inevitably leaked to TCP very early on in the story.

Crow, despite being an anime blogger, definitely didn’t write Executive Action for anime fans; this is adult fiction, and the first rule of being an adult is no fun allowed. The pacing is deliberate, the characters are grounded, and the “action” boils down to various forms of big business and subterfuge instead of cyborg Hollywood actors gunning everything up. On top of that, there are about as many subplots as characters, and you gotta keep track of them all!

The worldbuilding also keeps in hard sci-fi tradition. In order to be immersive, none of the actual mechanics are explained to us in any way; it’s supposed to be imagined as a contemporary novel in the actual future, instead of a hypothetical future. There are many new ways to address workers, for instance. Also, the notion that America will one day split into several splinter nations comes true in the book’s worldbuilding.

The main plot starts in earnest when a crew goes on their first expedition to the star system on the other side of the Fissure. TCP sends a mole in the form of Quaid Atair, who I of course pictured as Randy Quaid, to sabotage the crew. At this point, Executive Action becomes a long game of Among Us where we already know who’s sus thanks to the power of dramatic irony.

I sure sound like I’m giving Executive Action some flack, but I really mean the opposite. What I’ve described may sound like negatives, but this is simply what this kind of book is. Crow, for all intents and purposes, did everything one hundred percent correctly. The plot and its subplots all progress organically, and it feels like if Fissures were actually discovered IRL, things would play out more-or-less how they did in Executive Action, for better or for worse. In my case, it would be that latter.

As for characters, it’s a huge cast, and you’re generally not given enough features to visualize them, let alone keep track of them (this is also a hard science fiction trope, so it’s not a flaw on Crow’s part either). I’m sure I’ve put my fifteen cents in when it comes to super-grounded characters, but in case you didn’t see it before, allow me to tell you now: I have autism, and thus I cannot understand the appeal nor nuances of “normal” characters who behave very much like real people. It’s why I hate it when reviewers praise a character for “feeling like a real person” because I cannot understand how to arrive at that conclusion. In any case, I did find Matsushita to be the Best Girl. She’s Conrad’s secretary, and to be honest, she should be having his job because she’s better at it and more. She also gets to beat the crap out of someone, which was fun to see. 

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 8.35/10

Objectively, Executive Action should have a higher score than this. While not on the level of peak sci-fi like Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, I could definitely see the same level of quality as with any big contemporary franchise of the genre. However, when you start reading manga for children for a decade, you kind of become… er… stupider. I was unable to appreciate Executive Action for what it was, and it’s entirely my fault. If you enjoy  business-y, dialogue-driven dramas, then Executive Action is an easy buy. 

Oh, and Crow, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry for being harsh. I get the struggles of being a writer, and I truly wish you the best for your new career!

Mack’s Music Highlights: First Half of 2022

Welcome to yet another new attempt at formatting my blog! In case you couldn’t tell from reading my music reviews, I struggle hard with them. For some reason, other music reviewers can really break down each individual track, and provide distinct descriptions for each one, using terms that I don’t even understand. They’re super professional, and I am not. However, I was able to salvage two pretty meh reviews I did recently by combining them into one post. The reviews were still what they were, but for some reason, the post just felt more substantial by having two short reviews of those albums instead of me trying to replicate what I read on other sites. Mack’s Music Highlights is the same idea on steroids.

I plan to post this new series on a bi-annual basis. Like this, I can put short blurbs that more-than-sufficiently do the bands justice. More importantly, I can cram in as many bands as I want, as opposed to having to schedule one day for that one album review. I can also cover bands I wouldn’t normally talk about, due to my desire to prioritize more obscure bands over popular bands that I happen to like. Word of warning in case you’re new: I mostly cover metal here. I would call this “Mack’s Metal Highlights”, but there are a few non-metal bands I follow, and I love them just about as much as any metal outfit. Anyway, without further ado, let’s begin this… thing!


Power Paladin: With the Magic of Windfyre Steel

Power Paladin is my first ever impression of Iceland’s metal scene. The band consists of bassist Kristlefur þorsteinsson, drummer Einar Karl Júlíusson, guitarists Bjarni þór Jóhannsson and Ingi þórisson, keyboardist Bjarni Egill Ӧgmundsson, and vocalist Atli Guðlaugsson. Like with many new and obscure bands, that’s all I know about them. Holy crap, it took me at least five minutes to type the members’ names because of how many special characters I had to use!

What immediately jumps out is that Windfyre Steel is eighties A.F. Sure, I once said that DragonForce was “Survivor but with a touch of very fast metal” back before I knew what power metal was, but Windfyre Steel REALLY feels eighties. The tempo is a lot slower than DragonForce (i.e. normal, human speed), and the sound of the vocals is way more reminiscent of the time as well. In fact, the whole production has that tinny quality of a lot of hair metal, and it felt very nostalgic. There’s also the added benefit of it having nonsensical medieval theming versus the “I wanna grab that girl’s massively large posterior” that a lot of actual hair metal was about.

Verdict: 8.5/10


Vorga: Striving Toward Oblivion

I know nothing about Vorga other than that they’re from Germany. Don’t blame me; their label is literally called Transcending Obscurity, so this is one of those bands that’s proud to be underground. Unfortunately, here’s where it gets awkward. As of the release of Striving Toward Oblivion, their drummer has left the band. It must be really weird hearing an album that was recorded with the original lineup, but without that same lineup existing in the present. I wish them luck in finding a new member, or that one of the remaining members can play drums. 

I wasn’t expecting much with Striving to Oblivion, but it ended up surprising me as one of the best black metal debuts of the year. As evidenced by other sci-fi black metal bands like Imperialist, the subgenre really conveys the darkness of space (which is ironic, considering that most sci-fi extreme metal bands are technical death metal). However, I found Vorga to really kick it up a notch. While you might not like their modern sound (versus the REALLY staticy old black metal), each song is engaging and powerful. It’s nothing new, but it’s something worth checking out!

Verdict: 9.45/10


Pure Wrath: Hymn to the Woeful Hearts

According to Encyclopaedia Metallum, Pure Wrath is an atmospheric black metal band run by a dude named Januaryo Hardy. Although, to make things more confusing, Pure Wrath considers itself to be “melancholic black metal” on its Facebook page. Cool. I love subgenres.

Pure Wrath’s basic style is that of a more aggressive Sojourner. There’s some fast tempos, but always time for some string and woodwind instruments to put the “atmospheric” in atmospheric black metal. However, Woeful Hearts is a lot more intense. Surprising, I know, considering the cover art is an old lady with her back to a burning house. Pure Wrath’s 2020 EP, The Forlorn Soldier, was about the dark side of Indonesian history, and I can only assume it’s a new lyrical theme for his career moving forward. With that in mind, it makes a lot of sense for this album to be so much heavier than the previous outings. Unfortunately, Hardy’s vocal performance isn’t the most fluent. Well, it’s the emotions that count, right?

Verdict: 8.9/10


Bloodywood: Rakshak

Apparently, Bloodywood is this year’s Spiritbox; i.e. 2022’s most anticipated debut. However, unlike with Spiritbox, I was on the hype train for this as well, even though I barely managed to board it on time for the album release! All you need to do is look at the epic cover art (not pictured) to know exactly what Bloodywood is about: folk metal straight from India.

However, it’s so much more than that. Bloodywood incorporates electronics and rap in addition to the usual traditional instruments and multilingual lyrics. Unfortunately, that’s about all that can be described in words, because you have to listen to the embedded music video to get an idea of just how good this record is. I’m totally not just using that as an excuse to make you watch the video and give them YouTube money. I also won’t tell you to share the band’s existence with everyone you know, but I highly advise it.

The band’s best strength, other than its youthful energy, is its lyrical themes. Rakshak goes through a wide variety of emotions, from anger, to joy, to loss; mostly anger, though. Half the songs on here are brutally honest social commentaries, but for some reason, something is more cathartic from them than any other metal band that covers politics. Even their angriest song shows some hints of hope for a peaceful solution. The lyrics themselves are also clever; only they can roast politicians and WWE during the course of the same song. To be perfectly blunt, Bloodywood saved my life. Although for the sake of staying on topic, I’ll elaborate in a future post.

Verdict: 10/10


Ghost: IMPERA

One of the worst aspects of this new series is that I really have no room to gush over cover art anymore. It sucks because I love showing my appreciation for a lot of the talented illustrators who make this artwork, especially whoever does Ghost’s art. This band’s album covers have been consistently getting better, and IMEPRA is a cut above the rest. It’s so intricate and detailed, yet not busy. I wouldn’t mind a mecha anime with this Papa Emeritus Gundam they got here.

For the past ten years, Ghost has employed an evolving but simple marriage of old-school metal and 1970s pop. However, IMPERA shows that they’re still capable of catching us off-guard.  ‘Twenties’, for example, is just… really weird. Every time I hear the word I’m instantly going to think of the high-pitched “Twen-tieeeeees!” in the song’s chorus for the rest of my life (along with the “Yesssss” in ‘Griftwood’). Of course, there are some normal-er Ghost bangers, such as ‘Call Me Little Sunshine’, and ‘Hunter’s Moon’, the latter of which was wasted on Steven Spielberg’s “final” Halloween movie. Overall, IMPERA was well worth the wait.

Verdict: 10/10


Vanaheim: Een Verloren Verhaal

Bloodywood might be the big folk metal band everyone is talking about, but from within the Netherlands rose an underground sleeper hit: this debut album by Vanaheim. Ironically, I only found out about them by Googling Bloodywood and this having come up in the “people also search for” tab. With no real experience in Dutch folk metal, this was an easy impulse listen.

I’d say I made a great call. Basically, take the extreme metal elements of Hand of Kalliach—one of my favorite debuts from last year—add the catchy pagan anthems of Elvenking—one of my favorite folk metal bands of all time—and you get Een Verloren Verhaal. The lyrics are also sung in Dutch to boot. It’s a no-brainer that I love everything about this record.

Verdict: 9.5/10


Esprit D’Air: Oceans

I had tried to get into this famous Japanese-British soloist, but for some reason… their music just didn’t quite hit me. I liked about half the songs they had been putting out, but that’s not enough for me to be a fan. I wasn’t too excited for their new full-length, Oceans, but Esprit D’Air’s cover art is always so eye-catching that I just had to give it a whirl!

Surprisingly enough, I really enjoyed it. For a while, I felt like Esprit D’Air’s style was more of a poppy sound with metal instrumentation, but I didn’t get that vibe on Oceans at all. It’s much heavier, but with no shortage of the artist’s usual, whimsical synth sounds. There are also some growling guest vocalists to contrast mastermind Kaito Takahashi’s silky-smooth clean singing. Overall, it’s a solid record.

Verdict: 8.4/10


Angel Nation: Antares

Boy, I really shot myself in the foot with this one. In my review of Catalyst Crime’s self-titled debut from last year, I said I would cover Angel Nation’s third album, and here we are. 

Angel Nation likes their music nice and simple. If you enjoy old-school, 1980s-pop-y metal, this band has it all, and Antares is a further step in the right direction. There are also plenty of synthesizers to boot.

Verdict: 8.4/10


Luminous Vault: Animate the Emptiness

I just learned of industrial metal, which is yet another of metal’s umpteen subgenres. I’ve apparently listened to a lot of bands considered industrial, and loved them without even knowing what it was. At first, I thought it was just a term used for high-synth elements in metal. Seems arbitrary.

However, on Luminous Vault’s debut, Animate the Emptiness, I learned of an important distinction that I would personally consider blasphemous: the drums are fake. I find percussion to be of utmost importance in music, and generally, those synthetic boots n’ cats just sound lifeless and wrong to me. Yet here we are with Luminous Vault, integrating that stuff with black metal.

Despite how much I don’t like not-drums, I actually found the album to be pretty solid. The sense of wrongness with the fake drums coupled with the actual guitars was very interesting. To give credit where credit is due, though, Luminous Vault is not remotely the first band to do this; apparently this style was pioneered by a band called Blut aus Nord from WAY back in the day (they just released a new album, and since they’re a popular band, I of course haven’t listened to it). In any case, this album’s pretty interesting.

Verdict: 8.5/10


Moonlight Sorcery: Piercing Through the Frozen Eternity (EP)

Hot take: I don’t exactly like old-school black metal. I tried with Behemoth, and I found myself pretty underwhelmed by them (well, there goes any qualifications as a metalhead that I could possibly have). However, I was still drawn into Finnish trio Moonlight Sorcery, on their compressed-as-all-get-out debut EP: Piercing Through the Frozen Eternity.

Moonlight Sorcery specializes in a rare subgenre called “melodic black metal”, which was apparently very criticized in the 1990s for no good reason. The icey-sounding synthesizers (which are the only other instruments that you can hear clearly besides the guitars) really sell the band’s brand, and make the album quite whimsical. What also stands out is hints of power metal melodies. This band has a lot of potential, hopefully to become the even rarer subgenre of “blackened power metal” in the future. We’ll have to see where their path leads them next!

Verdict: 8.55/10


Gloryhammer: Fly Away (Single)

I normally don’t talk about singles, but I REALLY feel like I need to discuss the current state of this band as soon as possible, just to get it off my chest. For those who don’t know, Alestorm vocalist Christopher Bowes has also been running a memey power metal band called Gloryhammer, chronicling the Scottish hero, Angus McFife, and his quest to defeat Zargothrax in the distant future of the 1990s. The band hadn’t done much after the third album, which ended with the presumed death of McFife. However, last year, they fired the charismatic Thomas Winkler, who had taken the role of McFife. Literally a day later, the band was accused of White Supremacy and misogyny, with evidence found in leaked private chats from several years ago. 

They survived cancel culture by maintaining radio silence, and it somehow worked. Despite the possibly unjustified hatred (honestly, I didn’t read the source posts since they were supposed to be PRIVATE, so I don’t really know the truth), they were able to hire former Helion Prime vocalist Sozos Michael to assume the role of McFife. I didn’t exactly like his presence in Prime’s second album, since it was more sci-fi oriented than the band’s usual brand of real-world science. However, in an over-the-top sci-fi-fantasy metal band like Gloryhammer, Michael couldn’t be a better fit. While his tenor voice isn’t quite as good as Winkler’s, Michael has the passion and energy to be McFife. Oh, and the song’s great too. The only issue is that it doesn’t really seem to explain his situation. It seems to take place in McFife’s consciousness, moments before his death. We’ll have to wait for the actual fourth album to find out what actually happens next!

Verdict: 9/10


Planeswalker: Tales of Magic (EP)

Speaking of Sozos Michael, here’s his current band now! Alongside Jason Ashcraft—also of Helion Prime—these two have created an old-fashioned power metal band themed off of Magic: The Gathering. Everything about the sound production and composition has that same Prime energy, but with some fantasy whimsy instead of edutainment. This album helped me to appreciate Michael’s ability as a songwriter. 

The highlight of the album is no doubt the twelve minute song shown in the embedded MV: ‘Oath of the Gatewatch’. It contains three guest vocalists: original Helion Prime vocalist Heather Michele, the iconic Brittney Slayes from Unleash the Archers, and whoever R.A. Voltaire is. While the whole album (other than an out-of-place KISS cover) is really good, this song is definitely a banger that’s worth checking out. Also, I really hope this band does more music please.

Verdict: 9/10


Conclusion

Well, I definitely feel like this is the way for me to cover music reviews moving forward. I don’t have to worry about making them poetic and verbose like most actual reviewers do. With that, let’s see if the rest of the year will be as good as this first half (music-wise)!