My whole life, I’ve lived with the baseless impression that Western culture- specifically that of the United States- looks upon Japanese culture with disdain. Part of this is from the factual translation and- in some cases- censorship issues that plagued Japanese media when it first came overseas (for example, the One Piece dub that shall not be named). For these reasons, I completely ignored Nickelodeon’s fantasy epic, Avatar: The Last Airbender, despite it being lauded for the past fifteen years- by devout anime fans- as a true bridge between Eastern and Western animation. Well, it’s on Netflix now. I have no more excuses.
The only thing I knew about this show going into it was its simple premise. Four nations, each of which control the elements of Water, Earth, Air, and Fire, have existed together just fine. Then- to quote the show’s intro- everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. The only one who could save the world was the Avatar, but he apparently disappeared because that ALWAYS happens in these kinds of fantasy series. Then everything changed when the Fire Nation- I mean- when two Water Tribe siblings, Katara and Sokka, found a balding boy named Aang, and his- giant pet platypus?- inside of a block of ice. Spoiler alert, he’s the last Airbender, and he embarks on a quest to become the Avatar and beat up the prepubescent prince of the Fire Nation, Zuko (among others). It’s pretty simple, tbh. I don’t know why they need to remind you in every single episode.
I guess it was a precaution for any kids who came into Avatar mid-season, but since it follows anime traditions, it has to be watched in chronological order (I get that newer cartoons have similar continuity, but I’m pretty sure that no other cartoon at THIS point in time had a continuous story). Wow, that was all one sentence. Anyhoo, the thing that’s impressive right off the bat is the fact that a large number of kids were able to put up with Avatar as it aired. It takes two episodes for any real action to occur, and for a kid, that’s like a year. I definitely would’ve turned away if I had seen the pilot episode on launch date. But at the same time, DBZ and Naruto were also airing, so relatively speaking, Avatar had to have felt like a rollercoaster ride.
Enough rambling! Since Aang needs to know all four elements to actually BE the Avatar, he’s gotta go to the other locations and learn them all! As such, the show is neatly split into a single “book” (season) for each remaining element to learn. The basic structure of Avatar is to go from Point A to Point B, train in Point B until he learns the element, fight something, and move onto the next one. Simple, right?
No, actually, it’s not. Appa Airlines (patent pending) is not a very efficient transportation service. And as such, the crew needs to make a number of stops along the way. This results in some episodes being less-than plot relevant. I can imagine that this was done with the intention of meeting viewers halfway, by marrying both the episodic and continuous narrative story structure of Saturday morning cartoons and anime, respectively. Look, I get that something like this had never been done before, but the execution still results in a very unfocused narrative. Sure, some of these stops are worthwhile, either for actual plot relevance, or giving us insight on one or more of the characters. But much of the time, it’s a series of self-contained, uninteresting plots.
Like any fantasy epic, Avatar doesn’t fire on all cylinders right away. My expectations for the show were shot by the end of season one. I’d even say that season one was straight-up bad overall. Fortunately, once season two starts, the show gets significantly more involved, with almost every episode having legitimate plot relevance.
The key word here is “almost”. While the story does follow a more coherent narrative after season one, there are still blips of those Saturday morning cartoon trappings. Due to how much more infrequent the filler gets, it stands out way more when it actually decides to rear its ugly head. These episodes can contain cute interactions, but break the pacing of the plot, especially when they occur immediately following a super intense episode with a cliffhanger (btw, who was the GENIUS who decided to put one of these episodes IMMEDIATELY before the FINAL ARC?! (but for the record, it was actually a pretty great episode)). But you know what, I’ll take even the worst episode of this series over the entire seasons’ worth of filler from the long-running anime that had been airing at the time.
I must say that the show’s worldbuilding surprised me a little. While I didn’t really care much about the lore, they do some cool, clever stuff with the elements. It’s simple enough for kids to understand, but flexible enough so that it doesn’t become repetitive. If there’s any problem I have with the world of Avatar, it’s the fact that the evil Fire Nation is likely to be based off of Japan (maybe my baseless impressions were right after all…).
My biggest concern going into Avatar was if I’d laugh at the comedic bits. After all, it’s been a decade and a half; our sense of humor has changed a lot, especially compared to the 2010s cartoons I’ve seen lately. Overall, I found the humor to be kind of hit-or-miss. While I acknowledged a lot of the humor as funny, I didn’t laugh out loud anywhere near as often as, say, Gravity Falls.
Another concern was that the cast wouldn’t be so great. I figured that it would take a while to get me warmed up to most of the characters, but I was afraid it wouldn’t be enough. While most of the cast did end up growing on me, the attempt wasn’t exactly as successful as with Gravity Falls or DuckTales.
I’ll admit that they did a good job making Aang conform to shounen protagonist tropes; he’s very aloof, and tends to let his body move ahead of his brain. Furthermore, the show consistently reminds you that he’s just a kid, and that he’s been forced to do something much bigger than what his bald head can comprehend. Conversely, the Western aspect of the show makes him fall for some of the sitcom-like tropes of cartoons, such as the classic “hears negative things from his peers, leaves the room, said peers immediately say a positive flipside to those negative statements, but since he didn’t hear that particular part, he does something stupid”.
The Water Siblings are worse. Sokka is the better of the two, since he brings the bulk of Avatar’s humor to the table, and is ironically the most rational of the group. But the biggest issue with him is how they handle his character arc. Everyone has their own shortcomings to work through, but Sokka’s issues feel the most arbitrary. The first big moment in his arc rides entirely on a ship that was intentionally built to sink, and it’s pretty uninteresting during the brief time that it stays afloat. I’m sure that Sokka must’ve felt like a pitiable, tragic hero to the ten-year-olds who all related to him back when the show aired, but once you get to my age- and more modern times- the telltale signs of a NOTP are too obvious to ignore. Fortunately, it becomes a non-issue by season three.
And Katara… I don’t know what they were trying to do with her. I feel like they wanted to make her into a tsundere, but had a hard time because they weren’t allowed to use ecchi in their relationship. I appreciate that she has multiple sides- from being an absolute b**** to a complete waifu- but overall, I didn’t really enjoy her company for some reason, making her my least favorite character overall.
If I was spoiled by anything in Avatar, it was the addition of a loli to the main troupe. I gotta say I’m impressed that they hit that particular anime nail on the head, since it’s more so a niche community trope than something prevalent in the mainstream battle shounen anime at the time. Anyways, said loli- introduced in season two- is named Toph, and she’s a real wild card. With sassy one-liners and the perfect height, Toph is easily the best of the main protagonists… at least after the others work out the major kinks with her at the start of their relationship.
Then there’s Zuko. Hoo boy. First off, I reaaaaaaally didn’t like how his voice actor portrayed him; I used the word prepubescent to describe him for a reason. As a result, I may be biased in my criticism of the boy. He beats your face in with his one-dimensional irritability. But me, I put up with Bakugo… so, I had a feeling that I’d eventually like him better over time. And that feeling was correct. By season two, there’s a lot of big turning points in his character arc that show he’s much more emotionally distraught than what it looks like at first glance.
Abrasiveness seems to run in the Fire Nation’s royal family. Introduced in season two is Zuko’s sister, Azula. She’s rude, but unlike Zuko, who’s misunderstood, she’s fully aware of it, and enjoys it. Azula also has help in Aang hunting with her buddies, Mei and Tai Li. These two have fun spats with each other, but other than a certain scene late in the series, they aren’t too remarkable.
I saved the best character for last. Out of all the characters, I grew attached to Zuko’s uncle, Iroh, faster than just about anyone else. Most of my favorite scenes in the series are, tbh, interactions between him and Zuko. He supplies some of the best humor, but he’s also great when it comes to being serious.
If there was one thing they got right when it came to anime, it was the following mindset: spend money when it counts. Similar to anime, a lot of the animation in Avatar is kind of lacking. But when actual fights are happening, it looks excellent. Battles are incredibly well choreographed, especially for a kids show, and they pretty much always use the environment in some way. I can imagine that parents got angry over this show when it was airing, and I probably would’ve killed myself pretending to be a bender if I had watched Avatar as a kid. The hand-painted backgrounds also have a weirdly nostalgic look to them. The biggest issue with the art style is that although the character design is memorable, it is a bit bland. They could’ve done a lot more combining cartoon and anime styles; in fact, a lot of manga out at the time- such as One Piece– did a great job in that regard. Oh well, it’s just a nitpick anyway. Overall, the show still looks great, even when watching it in 480p and 4:3 aspect ratio.
Final Verdict: 8.5/10
It’s predictable. It’s corny. Its sense of humor is dated as all heck, and it spews sappy lessons of friendship just as about as often as any battle shounen series. But despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Avatar: The Last Airbender for the first time (even if I must respectfully disagree with anyone who calls it one of the greatest fantasy epics of all time; One Piece is still higher up there). I must also give the team appreciation for creating what was perhaps the most loving marriage of cartoon and anime at the time. It must’ve been mind-blowing for kids watching this while it aired, since I’m pretty sure it was the first cartoon of its kind. As much as I don’t like saying America is better at something that originated in another country (what is this, Beat Bobby Flay?), I must concede that Avatar is among the better “anime” I’ve seen. I recommend it if you like battle shounen anime, and/or youthful, silly fantasy with a number of wholesome life lessons.
I’ve stated my disdain toward slice-of-life isekai in my reviews of Ascendance of a Bookworm, Mushoku Tensei, Buck Naked in Another World and Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear. There are exceptions, like Konosuba, but that one’s more of a screwball comedy that’s only technically a slice-of-life because of its general lack of plot progression. I have yet to like any of those chill fantasies that have the word “wholesome” slapped onto them when they try to sell their one-dimensional, superficially cute lolis to savvy audiences, such as If It’s For my Daughter, I’d Even Defeat a Demon Lord (a.k.a. one of the worst light novels of all time (side note: I know it gets darker later, but I got to that point and I still hate it)). But maybe, just maybe, The Extraordinary, the Ordinary, and SOAP! (published in English by J-Novel Club), will be the exception.
In a kingdom whose name I already forgot, a girl named Lucia Arca is living her life as a royal maid who washes clothes for the soldiers. Thanks to her only magic, Soap, she gets the tough stains OUT (R.I.P. Oxi-Clean…). But when monsters attack, she ends up using Soap against them in panic, and… it works! Now her whole lifestyle changes for the better.
But before that, there are definitely a number of hurdles to jump. This volume takes about 25% of its content to get to what’s mentioned in the product description, which also includes two side chapters. It is a pain, but thankfully, it doesn’t take long to get through.
Unfortunately, it is- surprise, surprise- a bit boring. The writing isn’t that interesting, and I found myself zoning out a few times (mainly because I was looking forward to resuming Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash for the first time in two years but that’s beside the point). The biggest issue is that- I’m gonna have a heart attack I’m so surprised!- the soap gimmick does not shake things up. Sure, it’s all neat and cool that Lucia has this unusual power, which could’ve made Extraordinary Soap a power fantasy combined with slice-of-life fantasy. But due to the fact that Lucia is a woman, she’s forced to stand aside and let the men handle things, in complete disregard of her overpowered ability. There’s also not much in the way of stakes, even though the volume tries to have them with its cliffhanger ending.
Also… the cast is boring. “Slice-of-life characters are more human,” you point out, “therefore they don’t need the unrealistic, over-the-top personalities of your battle shounen and power fantasy isekai trash!” Being human MEANS having quirky personalities, not being a blank slate (something I’ll get into more detail once a certain manga is complete). As I was saying, most of these characters are boring, “good” people. Lucia is the typical “poor girl who’s special for literally no reason” and this guy named Celes is the “perfect ideal boy-person that the aforementioned poor girl gets for literally no reason”.
“Hang on,” you say, “you compared this LN to isekai in the first paragraph, but it’s NOT isekai. Just because an LN is a fantasy doesn’t mean it’s an isekai!” I know that. However, Extraordinary Soap throws you a curveball; it IS an isekai, but Lucia is not the person from our world. The person from our world is Maria, who is admittedly the most fleshed out character. She’s got an abrasive side, an emotionally insecure side, and a weird yuri side. Perfect waifu material if I do say so myself! Unfortunately, she and Lucia are part of a sitcom-like love triangle, and Celes happens to be the unlucky third vertice.
The artwork for Extraordinary Soap looks more manga-y than light novel-y. It has nice, vibrant cover art, but overall, the grayscale illustrations are bland. Also, it looks like a shoujo manga, so it loses additional points from me.
TheExtraordinary, the Ordinary, and SOAP! is more ordinary than extraordinary, and soap not even a factor. It’s a typical, “WHOLESOME” isekai, falling for the genre’s typical trappings thanks to Middle Age misogyny (in Layman’s Terms, it would be better if Lucia actually got to USE Soap). It’ll likely become a sleeper hit if it ever gets an anime (and people are gonna LOVE Maria, I can tell). If you like any of the books I mentioned in the first paragraph, then this one should scratch the same itch.
Last time on Outer Ragna, Twitch streamer PotatoStarch booted up his new deluxe edition of the Dark Souls-ian JRPG called Dragon Demon RPG, where humans are caught in an unending war between elves and vampires. But unbeknownst to him, it’s actually a real alternate world, and his character, Kuroi the slave girl, is a real person whom he’s controlling. With his skills, she manages to defend the human village from monsters, learns some magic from an item drop, and acquires the rare job of Apostle. She is inevitably joined by the knight, Agias, the fire sorcerer, Odysson, and a loli named Sira. Things heat up when an Elven army (complete with its own Apostle) moves in and occupies the human territory, in preparation for a battle against the vampires. When the vampires actually appear, the humans and elves team up and manage to drive them away. Kuroi was MVP, of course, and she is turned into an object of worship: the Hare of Flame. Now humans are- for once- sitting pretty, and even joining Kuroi in her stat farming regimen. But it doesn’t stay that way for long when the vampires commence another attack, this time with one of their own Apostles. As you’d expect, Kuroi steamrolls the vampires with her flame sword and wrecks their Apostle, the Golden. In the aftermath, Starch gets a strange message…
…that is completely ignored, apparently. But there are more pressing developments to discuss, such as the world-changing exposition dump given to us during various chapters set in the real world. Apparently, Dragon Demon RPG was a computer virus disguised as a videogame that’s being used in cyber warfare? What’s happening in the game world is the Parallel World War, and if I’m understanding it correctly (which I have been consistently failing to do based off of the previous volume), the different races are all being run by various world powers. If this is correct, then I’ll admit that my interest is piqued for Outer Ragna.
However, despite how cool all of this stuff is, it doesn’t change much of the content within Dragon Demon RPG itself. The POVs are still all over the place. The descriptions of locations, characters and where they are in 3D space, etc. are still pretty lacking.
Furthermore, the characters are no better than last time. The existing characters still feel like cardboard cut-outs, and I completely forgot about a lot of them from the previous volume. The only new character who seems even remotely interesting is Shadow Tamika, a vampire person who seems to want to do away with all the gods in the world. However, she’s about as boring as everyone else.
And I still can’t seem to tell where anyone is at any given time. I’m really bad when it comes to large-scale military narratives, and I lose myself in all the different cardinal directions. “Oh this person’s this way, that person’s that way…” I can’t make any sense of it. That’s not a problem I can fault Outer Ragna for, but it’s definitely having an inverse effect on my enjoyment of it.
Outer Ragna has a lot of great ideas, but it’s all falling flat on its face. I don’t know what it is, but I just can’t get into this one at all. I might give it one more volume, but it’s likely that I’m not going to read Outer Ragna anymore.
Hopefully G-Kids will add more anime movies to Kanopy, because the ones I’ve watched have been fifty-fifty. Patema Inverted ended up being an E.T. ripoff on the most superficial, empty level. But conversely, Welcome to the Space Show– today’s topic- ended up being an E.T. ripoff with just the right amount of whimsy to become something with its own identity.
In Welcometo the Space Show, five kids- Natsuki, Amane, Noriko, Kiyoshi, and Koji- go out to search for their missing rabbit when they find an injured dog instead. Of course, this dog is actually a space dog named Pochi. As a reward for saving him, Pochi takes the kids to a massive alien city on the moon.
To briefly touch on the art style, Space Show has a lot of abstract and bizarre setpieces and scenes. This is where I would normally assume that there’s some pretentious pseudo-symbolism. However, based on the sheer off-the-deep-endness of the movie, that really isn’t the case. The basic theme of Space Show is just weird for the sake of weird, and it doesn’t care if you’re confused.
And it does get confusing. Although there is enough foreshadowing to have continuity, the way everything all comes together results in a massive “WTF?!” at the end. As expected, the climax is about as absurd and over-the-top as it gets. Saying that they fight a giant cyborg dragon above an autonomous salaryman planet during a livestream being broadcast to the entire universe isn’t even a spoiler, just because describing the plot of Space Show is impossible no matter how hard you try. I could be a critic, and say, “Oh, visual spectacle is technically impressive, but it doesn’t justify the mindless [insert smart-sounding word here] BS”, but I won’t.
It’s because of the main characters that the mindless BS is justified. While these kids aren’t particularly interesting, they are definitely kids at heart. Normally, I’d dislike any “human” protagonists, because of my fierce antisocialness, but kids are an exception. Children, when not tainted by the many adults who seek to manipulate them, are the most pure, innocent, and lovable by far. The other characters aren’t that interesting outside of their designs, and the relationship between Pochi and certain other individuals isn’t entirely clear (i.e. it’s interpretive).
Of course, I can only justify so much. The movie does have some of those eye-roll-worthy tropes that tend to be in a lot of family friendly movies. First off, Kiyoshi has a whole plot line with his dead dad that means absolutely nothing. Plus, there’s the typical “let’s be dejected for fifteen minutes and abruptly bounce back after we say some sappy junk as if we weren’t even drowning in despair in the first place.” It’s kind of something you can’t avoid in these movies, so you’ll just have to deal with it.
Finally, the visuals. Space Show is stunning in every sense of the word. It’s abstract and colorful, with tons of beautiful landscape shots with a myriad of bizarre vistas. The aliens are all kinds of weird shapes (and there are a LOT of kissy lips attached to things). The animation is smooth like water, and all the characters are super expressive. It holds up really well for a decade old movie. Just be wary of anthropomorphic stuff if you’re against furries.
Final Verdict: 9.15/10
Welcome to the Space Show is a great anime movie, and a great showcase of that childlike wonder that seven billion too many of us lose with age. Seeing it makes me wonder how A-1 Pictures became the mainstream-catering studio that they are generally known as today. I get that anime being by the same studio doesn’t really mean it’s the EXACT same team, but as far as I know, they haven’t made anything as bizarre as this at all in recent years. Well, regardless of the history of A-1 Pictures, Space Show is a fun film, and I recommend it to fans of E.T. and those who want something wiggety-whack.
This was honestly a very tough review to write. I got into Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba (published in English by Viz) months before the anime- that freaking anime- aired. At that time, it had a pretty niche fanbase, like any anime-less manga would in the West. But my whole perspective of it changed when the anime launched- especially the viral nineteenth episode- and made the franchise mainstream overnight. Kimetsu no Yaiba has become one of Jump’s bestselling manga in recent years, even overtaking One Piece as the #1 bestseller of 2019. It has now become the embodiment of everything I hate about mainstream culture and marketing, similar to how I feel about BABYMETAL (which I’ll cover in a future post). I was going to give it a relatively high-ish score at first, but how much will my contrarian-ness affect the score now?
So, Kimetsu no Yaiba’s premise is as simple and unoriginal as it gets. In Taisho Era rural Japan, Tanjiro Kamado lives a happy life with his mother and siblings. But of course, he comes home one day to find his whole family dead (easy emotional hook, check), i.e. slaughtered by a demon. Only his sister, Nezuko, has survived, but she’s become a demon herself (cute girl who needs to be protecc, check). He then goes on a journey to become the #1 Demon Slayer (lofty goal, check) and kill the guy who orchestrated it all.
If you couldn’t tell, Kimetsu no Yaiba is mainstream to the Nth degree, following each shounen trope with little to no deviation. Fortunately, the mangaka at least seemed pretty aware of this, and chose to breeze through a lot of training and entrance exams to get to the real demon-whooping that readers actually want. After Tanjiro joins the Demon Slayers, he basically goes out with Nezuko (who is conveniently small enough to carry in a box) and fights whatever demon is terrorizing whatever area. The only saving grace of the narrative is its fast pacing.
The characters aren’t much better. Tanjiro is your typical, wish fulfilment protagonist. He runs on plot armor, and is inexplicably loved by everyone, even the demons that he cuts down; every single one of them goes through their “tragic backstory” to make you sympathize with them at the last second before Tanjiro kills them, and then they thank him for being a good person in their final breath. His sister, Nezuko, is marketing incarnate. She basically exists to be cute (which works, as I have seen on the message boards when the anime aired). Sure, she can actually hold her own in combat, but her cuteness is definitely a higher priority and a big factor to the franchise’s success.
There are a couple of saving graces, however. Joining Tanjiro are Zenitsu and Inosuke. Zenitsu can be annoying, given that he’s a big fat wuss who exists to provide comic mischief, but when he falls asleep like Bodkin from Wizards of Once, he becomes a super powerful bad-ass. Inosuke is a buff chuunibyou who wears a cool boar mask. These two aren’t the best characters in the world, but they’re enough to make Kimetsu no Yaiba more enjoyable.
Given the traditional battle shounen structure, Kimestu no Yaiba is full of throwaway antagonists who rarely last more than an arc. But among them is the actual main antagonist, Muzan Kibutsuji. He is a legitimately intimidating villain who has a very suave aura about him. He might be an a-hole to his minions, but he’s at least dressed fabulously.
Sadly, that’s pretty much it for the cast. What remains to be discussed are the many other Demon Slayer people that Tanjiro looks up to. I always forget who they are almost immediately after every reading session of the manga, so that really speaks of how unremarkable they are. The only one I remember is Giyuu, but that’s just because he’s the first one encountered, and his name is funny.
In the end, the one thing I can appreciate about Kimetsu no Yaiba is the fact that it ends startlingly quickly; clocking in at 205 chapters despite its insane popularity. Out of everything in the manga, the best thing that could’ve happened was for it to end, so that the mangaka didn’t have to worry about shoehorning in unremarkable antagonists just to pad it out for ten more years (like DBZ and Naruto).
The art is, uh, an effort. I’m not gonna crap on the art like everyone did when the anime came out. Sure, it’s not as “clean and crisp” as the anime, but it has a unique charm to it. Also, the fights are more than visually appealing enough. But like what critics said about the anime, the great art can only go so far to offset such a cookie-cutter narrative.
Final Verdict: 6.75/10
Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba is a fairly enjoyable manga that managed to end on the best possible note. Is its popularity undeserved? Hell yes. Is it the worst thing ever? Not quite. Like I said in the beginning, I’m being extra harsh on the manga because the anime was insanely successful due to the inherent appeal of Tanjiro’s simple and idealized personality, Nezuko’s cuteness, the visual spectacle, and the presence of famed composer Yuki Kajiura. Raw, human emotion, not perturbed by critical thinking, is imperative in order to enjoy Kimetsu no Yaiba; enough to have your heart melt from the backstories of people that you know for five seconds. By now, it should be obvious if this manga’s your cup of tea, so decide accordingly.
Despite my love for JRPGs, story is ironically the one aspect of videogames that I care the least about. And yet, because of how much I enjoyed Ys VIII, I wanted to try another series by the same team, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. It is a single, mammoth, epic JRPG, spanning four entire games meant to be played in chronological order, and VERY story-driven. Let’s see if it’s good enough to stay in it for the long haul.
In Trails of Cold Steel, a boy named Rean Schwarzer begins his attendance at Thors Military Academy. But bizarrely enough, his uniform is different from everyone else’s. It doesn’t take long to find out that he’s in an experimental group called Class VII, the first class to have commoners and nobles both. Since this is part one of four games, it’s naturally going to spiral into something big.
By nature, the game can be slow at first, but it’s done thoughtfully, and tries to hook you. The game begins with a flash-forward that you play. It’s incredibly overwhelming, not just because you don’t know what’s going on, but because it gives you every party member at once, with every battle mechanic unlocked, with every characters’ abilities that they’ve learned at that point. This is to build anticipation of what’s to come in terms of both the story and the gameplay. Also, when it kicks into the proper opener, they make you do combat pretty regularly, so you can slowly become acclimated to your new life without being bored.
The story might have some common fantasy themes, such as “Ah, rich people crap on poor people. War is helpful for the economy. Make America great again bwaaah!”, but they at least made the effort to submerge you neck-deep into it. There is a butt-ton of lore in this thing, and it shows in the various books you can read, which contain important foreshadowing for later, as well as in-universe fictional books (if you can find them).
The creators were also very thoughtful with the world from a design and visual storytelling standpoint. Early drafts of this review (I wrote it in bits and pieces as I played) stated the world felt small, compact, and segmented. The segmented style is, of course, an unavoidable consequence of the whole game’s structure, but the compactness is only early on. Each place you go to outside of the school is done in a specific order. You start out in small towns, then expand to bigger and bigger places (or at least, places that seem big thanks to out-of-bounds geometry). This further helps ease you into the world of Trails, as it starts small and gradually grows bigger and bigger. In this way, I am willing to claim that Trails is the most Tolkienian JRPG I’ve ever seen (yeah, I know a lot of poetic-waxers compare fantasy stuff to Lord of the Rings, but I think this is a somewhat fair comparison, since Lord of the Rings expands its scale in a similar way).
Unfortunately, the graphics don’t help. While I hate being a stickler, Trails is not the most visually appealing JRPG I’ve seen. While most of the towns appear pleasing enough, a lot of the combat areas are bland and samey. It’s similar to Ys VIII, but that game at least did more with angles and area continuity that made a lot better looking. Yeah, I get that this was 2013 and the game’s structure results in the whole thing being divided into segmented areas, but I digress. Also similar to Ys, the character designs are by far the most appealing, as they are very vibrant in color and have that classic anime style to them (except their hands look hideous). Fortunately, the soundtrack makes up some for the graphics’ shortcomings. While not as rocking as Ys VIII, it’s more than good enough. The towns all have their own unique atmospheres, and the battle music is pumping.
As far as the overarching narrative is concerned, you can color me impressed. I’m used to having a ton of exposition dump forced down my throat in modern fantasy, but Trails is one that eases you into the plot organically. It’s pretty good at buildup, and maintaining interest, even when it’s boring school time. In fact, the boring school time tends to be a great change of pace, and doubles as a “calm before the storm”-type thing. Without spoiling much, the main narrative is divided into two main plot threads: one concerning the strange ruins of Thors’ Old Schoolhouse, and another involving a set of big political moves that slowly become more dire as the world moves towards collapse. How these two different things can possibly be connected is one of the many questions I anticipate to be answered in this series.
What you must keep in mind when playing this game is the fact that, like I said before, it’s not just the first installment of a series, but the first part of a bigger story. As a result, this game’s main narrative is all about laying the groundwork of the story and setting expectations for what’s to come. This means that it doesn’t quite rise to the fever pitch that most JRPGs would, even when you’re well past the halfway point, as well as the fact that some plot threads will be left unresolved at the end. But hey, the game does an excellent job at setting said groundwork, and this is honestly the most engaged I’ve ever been in a JRPG narrative. Now that I’m attached to the characters and the world, the later games will likely deliver the feels.
I was worried about the cast at first, because I figured that Class VII’s character development would only show during optional and limited social links. But no, they actually give a lot of time for these characters to grow on you (they better, since this is part one of four). While they do start off as typical anime tropes, the way that they’re slowly introduced is quite impressive. Also, the fact that it’s not a Persona game makes it relatively light on the teen angst. Just be wary that it has a LOT of the “I know important, plot relevant things, but I can’t tell you because reasons” trope (looking at you, EMMA).
But out of all those in this massive cast, the NPCs ended up surprising me the most. Due to how the game is structured, each and every NPC- from townsfolk to miscellaneous students- have their own character arcs that progress along with the plot, some of which even foreshadow future quests. I ended up liking a lot of these people, especially Best Girl Mint. The biggest issue with them is that there aren’t enough unique NPC models. That’s normally a given in JRPGs, but the fact that, for example, the sister of one of the Thors’ instructors who you meet late in the game doesn’t just look nothing like him, she looks like a lot of other generic women in the game.
My other issue is with the antagonists. The established villains of the game are a group of terrorists who, for some reason,only go by their initials. Their leader is incredibly generic, and his minions are, guess what: brainy guy, busty woman, and muscular idiot. Fortunately, the game makes it readily apparent that the REAL mastermind is operating behind the scenes, and the terrorists make up just a small part of those involved.
Story is all well and good. But what about gameplay, the most important thing in any videogame? Due to Trails’ nature, I will divide gameplay elements into “Daily Life” and “Deadly Life” segments, similar to Danganronpa games. But first, I must discuss one gameplay aspect that’s useful in BOTH school life and combat: Turbo Mode. This feature, exclusive to the PS4 port of the game (and pretty much the only one you can actually BUY these days), makes the game move twice as fast at the push of a button. It’s incredibly useful if you ever need to save-scum and rewatch a long string of cutscenes upon reloading the save.
Trails is set in a school, and like Chi-Chi always said in Dragon Ball: studying comes before saving the world. If you couldn’t tell, this series is structured very similarly to Persona, which was initially going to be a turn-off for me. I never played a Persona game, nor do I want to, simply because I’m anal about getting all the things done in a JRPG, and Persona is against that. In those games, you need to juggle your social life and actual combat, and you must plan an arbitrary route that can involve save-scumming in order to get everything, which ultimately makes the games extremely stressful. There are also some logic issues in Persona, such as, “Oh you chose to eat some ramen for lunch? Okay, BOOM! now it’s ten o’clock at night!”
Trails‘ way of doing it isn’t perfect, but it’s substantially better… or so it seems. First off, social links are triggered by spending Bonding Points on them. But in order to narrow down your inevitable dilemma between choosing which character to hang out with, a given day of Free Time only has set people available. Spending time with them does NOT make it instantly TOMORROW like in Persona, but you only get a certain amount of Bonding Points per day. These events get you a ton of Link Points, which are essential for a mechanic in battle. Furthermore, you are only allowed to have these events with plot relevant characters. This means that you won’t have to waste time hanging out with filler characters like in Persona (even if some of them are admittedly interesting), and if you feel uncomfortable about significantly older women taking a liking to the protagonist, that is also thankfully not the case in Trails.
Despite the fact that I played the game specifically because I figured it’d be more lenient than Persona, the social links are arguably far worse, not just compared to Persona, but Danganronpa as well. In those games, no matter when you started or continued a social link, it would be the same (except for some rare cases in Danganronpa). However, social links in Trails, while no different from a gameplay standpoint, are all unique BASED ON WHERE AND WHEN THEY ARE. It’s also not possible to view every event, as the game flips you a bird and consistently gives you one Bonding Point short of viewing all available events. If you really care about all the characters, you MUST save-scum in order to view all of them, and only save after the ones that you want the Link XP for.
In addition, you have Academy Points. Most AP is done by completing quests, which comes naturally enough. Time doesn’t pass until you finish Required quests, and that’s one advantage Trails has over Persona. However, additional AP is earned for being an extra good pupil, and achieving an optimal outcome, such as riding a motorcycle without wrecking it. Advancing the story will IMMEDIATELY cause any incomplete optional quests and available events to expire, but the game is at least consistently good at warning you of these cutoff points.
However, this IS a school game, and that means being smart. And that means exams. Class VII has to take practical exams every month. These are basically mini boss battles that give you bonus AP if you meet certain conditions. The later ones can get pretty ridiculous…
…but even the hardest practical exam beats any written one. At first, I thought you could take pictures of every book in the library and you’d be fine. But no… it’s worse than that. Almost worse than Persona. In Persona, you merely had to remember any material gone over up to that point (which you can take pictures of as they come up), and then have your Academics stat above a certain threshold to get the highest grade. In Trails, you must make use of a special study day, which is a Free Day, but instead of Bonding Points, you spend Studying Points to go over test material with peers. Similar to Free Days, there are more events than what you could possibly view. HOWEVER, regardless of what NPCs actually imply as far as the relevance of what they’re studying, material from EVERY event WILL BE on the upcoming exam. Furthermore, you must also seek unmarked events that give you additional free knowledge (typically with instructors) in order to come out on top. As long as you save scum to view every event, and find the hidden knowledge blips, you should do fine…I think. The silver lining is that there’s only one of these exams in the game (excluding however many there are in subsequent games). But… you don’t know the exact outcome until after you’ve done the entire following Free Day, which includes your next run of the recurring monthly dungeon.
But just because you don’t need to memorize the books in the library for the exams doesn’t mean you don’t need to memorize them, period. Some quests result in you having to answer questions out of these books, so make sure you take time to jot down (or take pictures of) each and every page. Make sure you not only do the second floor of the library, but the recommended reading corner that gets updated every chapter. But even then it’s not enough. Some of these quiz quests require you to remember remote bits of dialogue from up to tens of hours earlier in the game (or from future chapters even). Fortunately, they’re few enough so that you can basically brute force those with save-scumming.
Save scumming might be dirty, but you should have no shame playing dirty because Trails does the same by giving you HIDDEN QUESTS. Not only will random, missable NPCs give random, missable items, but they can also give quests not marked on a given tasks envelope. Like I said before, since talking to every NPC at every opportunity is encouraged from a story standpoint, it’s not TOO bad. At least it’s not a Tails Of game which doesn’t even mark quests at all, regardless of if you found them, and some of them are the starts of chains but don’t continue until fifty hours later and by then you’ll FORGET you even STARTED it and- *huff* *huff* Just keep in mind that Trails does give a bit of leeway. You get 15 AP for beating the final dungeon, so you’ll need at least 415 by the time it opens up in order to get the highest rank at the end, which I BARELY got.
In order to discuss other missable events, I must also briefly touch on combat, specifically the areas where it will occur. Most combat is fought in the Old Schoolhouse, which is literally Tartaros from Persona 3. As you progress the main story, more floors of this dungeon open up, and it’s encouraged to check it out (or grind). Just keep in mind that the day will advance to evening once you leave, so do it last. It pressures you to select a set team, but you can always change it by examining the exit of the dungeon.
While Trails proves to be just as stressful as Persona, it’s good to note that it feels much faster paced. Each chapter has one single Free Day, split into daytime and evening segments. So even though social links are just about as limited, you don’t have to worry about wasting 85% of them just to grind out enough personality stats to actually talk to girls. However, Trails still clocks in at eighty to a hundred hours of playtime, so it’s really just an illusion.
Similar to Persona‘s special story segments that happen on set dates (like the full moon, TV rescue, etc.), Trails has field studies. These are excursions to new areas with their own quests to do, along with new story developments. Finishing one gives everyone a heap of link XP (thank GOD). But as soon as you finish a story arc here, YOU CAN NEVER GO BACK. So make sure you do everything while you can.
The field studies locations can take a while to get to, even on express trains. This is plenty of time to… PLAY A CHILDREN’S CARD GAME. Fortunately, Blade is not even remotely as agonizing as Final Fantasy VIII‘s notorious Triple Triad (and the music is nowhere near as annoying). Blade basically plays like War, but with Trap Cards. It kinda sucks, honestly. I don’t entirely remember how War works, but Blade is basically decided entirely by the players’ starting hands. If you draw too many trap cards, not enough high value cards, and not enough 1 cards to counter one of the types of trap cards, you’ve pretty much lost. I’ve genuinely tried to win, but I’m pretty sure it’s impossible depending on the setup (obviously, the fact that I’m saying a card game is entirely reliant on luck means that I’m a filthy casual at card games, and lack the ability to read opponents and use basic logic to deduce their next move). Fortunately, you only need to fight every available character once to get link XP.
There’s a lot of things you can miss! Fortunately, the pawn shop in the main town can sell items from previous areas, including items found in the chests there, and book chapters. The pawn shop is also good if you have a surplus of crappy items that you can trade for a single better version.
Like in any JRPG, cooking and fishing are the most important things in the game. When it comes to cooking, you can somehow cook anywhere in the world as long as you have the ingredients. Depending on the skill levels of Rean and who you cook with, the dish could end up ranging from Regular, to Superb, to Peculiar, to Unique. Unique dishes can only be formed by someone who has a secret knack for cooking that particular item (but it’s always someone who shows a high likelihood for a good result). These are objectively the best, however there is an NPC who wants to see such dishes, so be frugal (and for the record, there’s someone who wants peculiar dishes as well). Most recipes can be learned by NPCs who will randomly give you one. And of course, these can be missed.
Of all the different school facilities, you’ll be visiting the Engineering department more often than any other. The guys here use variously colored Sepith earned from enemies and can mod your Arcus with them. You also earn generic Sepith Mass, which is exchanged at shops for actual money. Anyway, Sepith is used to unlock new slots on your Arcus, as well as craft new quartz (which I’ll get to later).
Fishing isn’t as exciting, though. Basically, you just fish and mash the prompted face buttons, and you get a fish. There are only a set amount of times you can fish per day, which means a finite amount of times you can fish total. You can use groundbait to make more spawn, but the only way to farm for it is to farm U-Materials off of assorted enemies, then trade them at the pawn shop for groundbait.
One final quip that I have in the Daily Life segment is fast travel. For some reason, fast travel is either excessively helpful, or nonexistent. Basically, if you’re in a town, you can fast travel to buildings that are, like, two feet from each other. But in a combat area, you can’t fast travel back to the hub. This becomes a big issue if you’re trying to talk to every NPC to find hidden quests (especially in chapter 3).
Combat is limited, but when it happens, it’s really good and really involved. Fortunately, Trails does a great job of easing you into all the different aspects as you go along. The main issue with it is the same issue as most JRPGs: that most characters have limited abilities and customization early game. But once you get more utility, it becomes incredibly rewarding.
For the most part, Trails operates like an old-school turn-based JRPG. Then turn order is displayed on the left, and it cycles through everyone. However, you will have to take Delay into account (which it’ll show on the turn order when selecting a target). Some attacks, mainly magic, will take a while to go through, and you will need to plan ahead in order to come out on top. There are also turn bonuses, which can give free heals and boosts just by it coming to your turn. Enemies can also get bonuses, requiring you to plan even harder. Sometimes, you’ll need to cast spells specifically to use the Delay to steel turn bonuses. The mechanics behind the turn order are very nuanced, and take a lot of self-teaching to figure out. It’ll make the difference if you desperately need to cast an Art in a pinch.
For the first time since maybe Chrono Trigger, position matters. When using moves that have AOE, you need to carefully aim the attack in order to catch as many enemies in its range as possible. If you’re too far, you’ll have to waste a turn to move within range (which enemies might also have to do). Some attacks will also change a character’s position, and that must be taken into account as well.
What’s even more complicated is that you have two sets of special moves: Arts and Crafts. No, you don’t make paper peacocks by tracing your hand over construction paper; the different types are literally called Arts, followed by Crafts. Each consumes a separate stat, EP and CP. EP is traditional MP, and can easily run out if you get trigger happy. It can only be restored from turn bonuses or consumables. CP is like a Special gauge in an action game, and fills from dealing and receiving damage. Characters get 200 max CP that they can store. However, as abundant as it is, there are special S-Crafts that you learn over the course of the story. These take from 100 to all of a character’s CP, and are insanely powerful. It is more incentivized to use the 200, since it’s stronger. The most important part of S-Crafts is that they can be used out-of-turn. This causes an S-Break, which can be a lifesaver if used to steal a turn bonus that you don’t want the enemy to have. The issue with them is that recovering from them is ROUGH. For most of the game, the only good way to restore CP is with Alisa’s Blessed Arrow, which comes at the cost of some of her own. In a lot of boss battles, I’d end up having to whittle them down with regular attacks just to slowly regain it back.
The way each set of skills are learned is different. Crafts are learned by levelling up, and Arts are learned by setting quartzes to your Arcus thingy. First, you set a Master Quartz, which gives a set of stat boosts and bonus effect s. Each Master Quartz can be levelled up, and you’ll definitely be getting new ones to play around with. Additional quartzes can be set to learn new Arts, gain stat bonuses, or in rare cases, both in a single quartz.
It’s generally a good rule of thumb to know your enemies in order to win, and it’s really important in Trails. By either battling a lot of the same enemy, or using an Analysis spell, you can find out a lot of stuff about them. The most important thing is not just their elemental resistances, but their status resistances as well. This is really useful when planning out attacks, especially with status ailments. Once you get the ability to inflict status ailments with your attacks, you will NEED them, for they will be your friend. Also, Trails is one of the few games where bosses are susceptible to status ailments, so make good use of them!
While the game is pretty good at holding your hand, there is one important mechanic that they don’t teach you, and that’s Impeding. Basically, certain specific Crafts will cancel an enemy when it takes a turn to cast an Art (indicated by a red glowy thingy). The game expects you to know about this, so just be aware of it. There are also quartzes that can give all a character’s attacks an Impede percentage, but the specific Crafts are guaranteed to do it.
The Ys series makes a crossover into Trails with the Unbalancing mechanic. Monsters can be staggered by hitting them with an effective weapon type, be it Slash, Thrust, Pierce, or Strike. Doing this allows for a Combat Link to work. Set a Link in the camp menu or during battle and linked characters can assist when the enemy is Unbalanced. After a certain time, you begin to earn Bravery Points through Link Attacks, and can spend them during an Unbalance to perform a stronger attack. Like in Miitopia, Link Abilities get better and better when you level up their link levels. Similar to Persona, crits will automatically Unbalance an enemy no matter what.
If there is any flaw with the combat- and it’s moreso a nitpick than anything else- it’s that the difficulty is all over the place. You don’t need to grind in order to be able to beat the game smoothly, but it follows the JRPG rule of “equipment is everything” to the letter. When it comes to status ailments, any enemy that can inflict it WILL if you don’t have the equipment to make yourself immune to it. The early game is particularly rough because you won’t even have enough of this equipment to put on the whole active party. But when you do get the equipment, you’re gonna need it. A lot of bosses can wall you if you’re unprepared, and even if you are prepared, it can be rough. It’s also really bad that there are no multi-targeting healing items in the game without the use of a specific Master Quartz.
Final Verdict: 9.15/10
It’s stressful, but Trails of Cold Steel is nonetheless a fantastic series opener. Since this is the first game, you have plenty of time to learn how it works. But as much as I’ve learned about the game, I don’t know how ready I am for the sequels.
One thing that I do know about this series is that Trails IV, the finale, has A TRUE ENDING. That is so mean… to make such a long story that people would need to spend at least 500 hours to see to its conclusion, just to troll them right at the end because they didn’t do enough stuff. It could be generous like in Ys VIII, but it could also require every single Academy Point in the game to get it. I could look up the conditions now, but I might spoil something for myself, which would be bad, since I actually LIKE this story so far.
Since this is just the hors d’oeuvres, and an incredibly stressful helping of hors d’oeuvres at that, I can’t recommend this series easily. I’m going to have to wait for Trails II, the first of a three-piece entree, to arrive at the metaphorical table first. For now, I recommend Trails of Cold Steel to any fans of Persona, Danganronpa, and Tails Of… since those fans are used to eighty hour games where you can miss a million things.
Normally, light novels get manga adaptations at some point after publication. However, the inverse is true for Buck Naked in Another World, adapted from a web manga (at least according to MyAnimeList). Seven Seas has had a great track record of publishing… divisive content (to the point where they have their own imprint for it), and this might (key word) be their most controversial release yet.
The premise is as simple as it gets. A thirty-two year-old part-timer named Shuta Yoshida is mysteriously reincarnated in another world. He’s in his full adult form, with all of his memories. However… he’s naked! As such, he has to do hard labor for scraps… while having his wee-wee barely blocked from view by a loincloth.
So… I got something to say. I always talk about how certain gimmicks don’t really bring any sort of interest to the table, such as the upside-down mechanic in Patema Inverted. And astonishingly, the naked gimmick is next to meaningless here in Buck Naked. Despite this, there still is a bit of controversy, laid bare for us to see. For example, Shuta is quickly forced to marry a girl who’s only in her teens that he’s just met minutes before. Other than a few unfunny jokes regarding “Shuta Jr.”, his nakedness doesn’t play into the plot whatsoever.
Buck Naked is yet another slow-paced, tensionless, slice-of-life isekai with not much of interest. There is a whole thing where the villagers have some arbitrary prejudice towards hunters (which Shuta ultimately becomes), but I see it becoming a non-issue in the future. The first half of this volume is basically hunting stuff. Seriously, if I wanted that, I would’ve read Cooking With Wild Game instead! (P.S. is Cooking With Wild Game any good? I’d love to hear some comments.)
Admittedly, it picks up a bit in the second half, but not by much. They end up going to the big city, where a number of more controversial things, such as slavery, and Shuta bathing with a girl that isn’t his wife, happen. However, that stuff’s also synonymous with almost every isekai on the market, which once again renders the naked aspect inconsequential.
Also synonymous with almost every isekai on the market, the characters aren’t so great. Shuta is basically Rudeus from Mushoku Tensei; sometimes has funny, snide remarks, but is overall a cardboard box. Most of the other characters are basically just there, especially the women. The only remotely entertaining character is this girl named Nishka, but that’s just because she’s the busty, drunk type.
The art is as painfully average as the story. While the cover art looks nice, the illustrations inside have a lot of simple gradients and not much linework. But hey, it’s still better looking than anything I could whip up.
I expected Buck Naked in Another World to be one of the most controversial new isekai, but it’s not even that; it’s just a typical, boring isekai with next-to-no substance. At least Mushoku Tensei managed to be consistently offensive in each volume! Well, my chances of continuing this thing are next to nil, so let’s hope Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear is better!
So, Buck Naked in Another World failed to capitalize on its gimmick so hard that I couldn’t even be minutely offended by it. Let’s see if slapping bear motifs onto everything is enough to change the isekai formula in Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear, also published in English by Seven Seas.
In Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear (protip to fellow bloggers: DO NOT abbreviate the title of this series if you want your American audience to like you), a young lass named Yuna has mastered the stock market, earning her enough money to live as a NEET and to bribe her parents to eff off. This enables her to play her favorite VRMMO, World Fantasy Online. In a new update, she receives some overpowered bear-themed equipment, and is sent to another world in said equipment.
The million dollar question is, once again, does this gimmick make it any different from your typical isekai? The answer is still a surprising “NO!”. Although Yuna starts at level 1, her bear suit is insanely OP, and gives her basically everything she could need and then some. She has no problem beating overleveled enemies in seconds, and as a result, she grows rather quickly. It bothers me because, as someone who looks at things from a marketing standpoint, having a cute loli in an animal onesie is somewhere in the book How to Make Tons of Money with no Effort.
But what Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear has that Buck Naked lacks is much more competent writing. The pacing is much tighter, and there is some decent humor, which makes it enjoyable for sheer entertainment value. It’s a lot more fun, and doesn’t beat around the bush, except in certain chapters that just retell what just happened from another person’s POV.
This is about the umpteenth time I’m saying this: the cast is lackluster! While Yuna is kind of funny at times, everyone else might as well be made of cardboard. Fortunately, the fast pacing makes it so that you don’t have to BEAR with them for too long.
The art is kind of average, but it suits the theme. Yuna looks very “cute” in her bear suit. But otherwise, it’s pretty typical stuff tbh.
While substantially better than Buck Naked, Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear is merely a decent-at-best isekai. Geez, laweez, I can’t seem to catch a break with the Seven Seas light novels AT ALL… why is that? Anyways, I’d recommend Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear if you’re willing to sell your soul to the nearest onesie-wearing loli on your block. Otherwise, there’s plenty of other, better isekai out there.
Well, this is the most awkward way to introduce that I’m a big fan of the Rising of the Shield Hero franchise (I might have referenced it once but still). I started reading it in 2017, and loved it while also acknowledging its shortcomings (while hating the anime with a passion). Normally, I wouldn’t read a manga adaptation of a light novel, but I made an exception, due to One Peace Books’ offer for me to review the manga version of the spin-off series, Reprise of the Spear Hero, before volume two’s release.
The hardest thing to figure out when it comes to Spear Hero is where it’s situated in the story. It immediately starts out with the Spear Hero, Motoyasu Kitamura, dying at an undetermined point in the main timeline (which may or may not be spoilers for an LN volume of Shield Hero that One Peace Books has yet to publish). It doesn’t show exactly what happened… but that’s beside the point, for it’s what happens NEXT that we need to discuss. You see, as soon as he dies, he returns to the very beginning of the Shield Hero series; a New Game+, to use videogame terms. All he wants is to have Filo-tan by his side, and for that, he needs to guide the Shield Hero, Naofumi Iwatani, to that point.
Since I didn’t remember him dying at all in the main story, it was difficult for me to get acclimated into Spear Hero. Also, alternate timelines are inherently VERY confusing. Based on the fact that he calls Naofumi his father at this point, it can’t be set any earlier than some time before the Q’ten Lo Arc. My theory is that Spear Hero will end with his return to the main timeline, with his brain in tatters (except he already calls Naofumi his father right out of the gate… so maybe his death is after that point? AAAGH, alternate timelines!).
Anyways, confusion aside, how’s the Reprise of the Spear Hero itself? For a spin-off, it’s pretty good. It’s hilarious seeing things from Motoyasu’s perspective (like with the women having pig heads), as well as seeing him slowly lose sanity. The story structure changes wildly, with Eclair being introduced super early on and Raph not even being included at all. There’s also the added complication that New Game+ gets reset every time any Hero dies, meaning that he has to baby Naofumi the whole way through.
Unfortunately, this does downgrade Naofumi as a character. With Motoyasu saving him from being cast out by the powers-that-be, he’s basically a wimp. He’s completely passive, and ends up just doing whatever Motoyasu says. He also lacks the sass and grit that makes Shield Hero such a standout isekai. Hey… at least he’s a good cook this time?
But this is probably just a way to put the shoe on the other foot. Despite my theory of how this will all turn out, Motoyasu is, for the time being, the most likeable he can possibly be in the Shield Hero universe. He’s wild and full of energy, and his love for Filo isn’t yet borderline psychotic. This is the first I’ve ever seen him and not wanted him to be wiped out of existence.
Other characters remain relatively unchanged. Eclair, Trash, Witch (who is now Crimson Swine in this timeline), Old Guy, and everyone are, well, themselves. Since this is Motoyasu’s story, they have surprisingly little impact on everything.
Overall, the weirdest thing about Spear Hero is how different it is from the parent series. It’s significantly more lighthearted, with the original’s themes of slavery, politics, and the issue with the Waves being pushed aside. It’s almost a slice-of-life fantasy, with every other scene being an episode of How to E.V. Train Filolials, Hosted by Motoyasu. It’s definitely a strange companion to Shield Hero, that’s for sure.
Most manga adaptations of LNs that I’ve come across look really bad, but Spear Hero’s art is more than acceptable. While definitely dwarfed by the illustrator of the main series, the manga is simplistic, but charming. The characters are expressive, and the action scenes (well, for how infrequent they are), have some nice pop to them.
Current Verdict: 8/10
Reprise of the Spear Hero is a surprisingly enjoyable spin-off. It’s also much faster paced than the main series light novels, which I can also assume is the case with the LN version of Spear Hero. Fans of Shield Hero can definitely enjoy Spear Hero (which I myself can’t believe I’m saying, since Motoyasu is so infamous in the main story). Unfortunately… the manga version of this isn’t available on BookWalker, so I’ll be forced to backtrack to the LN if I want to see this through to the end. But hey, if you like print, then the manga will be right there waiting for you (once COVID-19 ends, that is). Once again, I thank One Peace Books for their offer to review this title!
I can’t get enough of JRPGs. I love the idea of exploring vivid fantasy worlds, beating people up, and getting cool rewards that make me stronger. So, it was almost destiny that I found a franchise that has been under the radar for quite some time: the Ys series. Specifically, I found its most recent installment, Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, for the Nintendo Switch.
In Ys VIII, a plucky teen named Adol is sailing away like Dennis DeYoung until a giant octopus attacks! The crew is then shipwrecked on the mysterious Isle of Seiren. It’s up to Adol and some other people to find a way off the island.
But this is a JRPG, and it’s never that simple… Except that it is. The story of Ys VIII is pretty tame for most of the playthrough. However, once you start the final chapter, it escalates to the genre’s usual ridiculousness. I didn’t really care for it (I almost never do), but it doesn’t intrude on you like some other games. The biggest story flaw is that there’s never a sense of anticipation for the final battle. The final boss is something that you never see until the moment you fight it, unlike- say- Xenoblade 2, where you very consistently see the final boss’ smug-ass face all the way through.
The characters do leave something to be desired. The most interesting case is Adol, of all people. He seems like a pretty generic dude, but based on certain dialogue in the game, it seems that Adol is actually the staple main protagonist of the whole series. In that case, I was probably meant to have grown more attached to him over the course of the other seven games. Meanwhile, your other party members are basically a checklist of anime tropes- Laxia (tsundere), Sahad (down-to-earth old man), Hummel (mysterious guy), etc.- and are only likeable in terms of their use in battle. The side characters are more interesting, especially some of the optional castaways, and it also appears that at least two of them have been party members in past Ys games.
Time for the longest section: gameplay! First off, I should complement how user friendly Ys VIII is. The map is very intuitive, and it tells you a LOT. It shows you where treasures are, how many treasures there are in an area, how much of an area that you’ve explored, and where draw points are. The best part about that last part is that hovering over each draw point on the map tells you exactly what materials it can contain.
They also give you Adol’s journal, which is ridiculously useful. It catalogues EVERYTHING, from quests to tutorials, to monsters, items, and your game percentage. The items catalogue is extremely useful, because it tells you everywhere that you can find them, and even shows what you can get from using them and where to use it at. The only flaw is the fish section, because it only tells you where fish are AFTER you caught it once, making it hell to get 100% in fishing (which is one of the few things I didn’t get all of).
That’s all well and good, but what about combat? Combat is freakin’ lit. Ys VIII is one of those JRPGs where it plays more like a beat-em-up. Instead of random encounters, you fight dudes on the field whenever you see them, and you actually have to physically avoid attacks by moving, and consider the hitboxes of your attacks in order to hit them. Fortunately, enemies don’t have 500000 HP like in a Xenoblade game; in fact, it’s the opposite. Battles go by swiftly and never feel like they take forever, even if you do end up playing the long con. Oh, and make sure you lock-on by pressing X. Fortunately, there’s an option for the game to auto-lock-on, including the ability for it to auto-lock-on to the nearest additional enemy on the field after you kill your current one. Plus, a certain item in the game will have locked-on enemies DISPLAY THEIR DROP ITEMS ON THE HUD. I LOVE THIS FEATURE and more JRPGs need to do it!
Fighting itself is incredibly simple and fun. You choose three out of the six party members to have in your active party, and control one of them. The other two are A.I., but fortunately, they aren’t as bad as most JRPG A.I.s; in fact, they take a lot less damage that way (thank goodness!). You can also switch between them on the fly with the Y button, and good thing too, for enemies have many different strengths and weaknesses. Each character attacks with one of three elements across all of their moves: Slash, Pierce, and Strike. Enemies can be weak to any of these three elements. If you hit enemies with their weak points enough, it’ll inflict Break on them, which reduces their defenses to nothing (kind of like Octopath Traveler). There are some enemies that have no weaknesses, though, especially bosses. Don’t worry; there’s also the stun gauge. Hitting enemies with any attack will fill up their stun gauge, and when it’s full, they’ll be knocked out for a short time and you’ll be able to just wail on them.
The combat is at its best when it comes to how skills work in the game. You have regular attacks that you do with A, and it builds up your SP meter shown on the bottom right. Mashing A sucks, though. In fact, it’s encouraged to wait until you build up a charged attack (indicated by glowing blue). These are a bit stronger, but most importantly, they fill up a TON of the SP meter. Skills are used by pressing R and whatever face button they are assigned to. The best part of skills in Ys VIII is that they have no cooldown; as long as you have SP, you can spam them like crazy. I LOVE doing this; it feels so stinking good to do, especially in a large group of enemies with a big AOE skill. There’s also the Extra Skill gauge, which fills up over time and by using attacks. By pressing R and L together will unleash your character’s big attack, and these can be lifesavers at the right time. But since L is dodge, you might accidentally use it in a panic of trying to move out of the way of an attack.
Whaling on people with skills feels good, but it doesn’t feel quite as good as Flash Move or Flash Guard. The former is done by pressing L to dash just before getting hit by an attack, which makes you briefly invincible, faster, and increases SP restoration. That’s all well and good, but the better of the two is Flash Guard. It also makes you invincible, but during it, all attacks become crits. It’s riskier to do, for you have to press the R button just before getting hit. Fortunately, you’re pretty likely to do it just by spamming skills like normally. Also, if the enemy uses a long-lasting attack, you can use Flash Move, then run into the attack and mash R to build up a stack of Flash Guards.
If I have to give Ys VIII any props, it’s the amazing way they handle status effects. Instead of being based on RNG, status effects are based on cumulative hits. What this means is that in order to be, say, poisoned, you have to take enough hits from a poison-inflicting attack to get poisoned. This is a really brilliant way to do status effects that actually demands more skill from the player. You can also equip some items that allow you to inflict status effects on enemies as well (bosses are immune as always, though). The most helpful effect by far is freeze, for that keeps enemies frozen solid and makes all attacks on them into crits until they thaw out. Fortunately, there are items to defend against status effects, as there always are.
Ys VIII isn’t all beating people up; this is a JRPG after all. While the Isle of Seiren is disappointingly linear, they at least programmed it so that each area seamlessly transitions into another. Also, there’s the Adventuring Gear system. This is basically like having Zelda items in a JRPG: equip them and you can do things like climb vines or breathe underwater. You can easily open the menu for this by pressing ZL. While it’s not that tedious to reequip the different Gear repeatedly, there are items that increase your capacity, which is nice.
After whooping some butt, you probably gotta head back to Castaway Village to rest up. Fortunately, the game has plenty of skip travel points in the form of insta-healing crystals found everywhere, plus you can instantly warp back home by pressing + at any time on the map. Castaway Village is the only town, which does bug me as someone who loves the sensation of seeing what each new town in a JRPG has to offer. Fortunately, there’s more than enough to do here… as long as you save the Castaways.
Castaways are found all over Seiren, some of whom are required to find, some of whom are optional. It’s not difficult to actually look for them as long as you explore, and the captain’s parrot will go ahead and mark points of interest on the map regularly. These guys are really important, for a lot of them have rudimentary mechanics, such as smithing and brewing potions.
There’s also quests. These are your typical JRPG quests, but they can expire. Fortunately, as long as you’re diligent, you won’t miss any. They are important, for they also increase Approval, which is important for a mechanic I’ll touch on later. Maxing out people’s approval unlocks cute cutscenes with them as well. There’s also the mechanic of showing the world map to the captain, for each 10% increment of the world explored nets you an award. Obviously, you want to do this. Most notably, some quests allow you to explore previous locations at night. They might as well be entirely new areas, for they become chock full of newer and tougher enemies than in the daytime.
Doing quests boosts Adol’s Reputation, which you can check in his journal. This determines the ending you get. Yes, a 60-hour game, with missable sidequests, has multiple endings, one of which is the de facto True Ending. Like I said, being thorough will give you more than enough rep to get the True Ending. Keep in mind that the game scares you a lot with the sidequests. First off, some early quests can’t be done immediately, even when they’re unlocked, which can be scary (but rest assured, you’ll definitely be able to get them). Second off, the game holds you off until just before you enter the final boss’ door. The room that you fight him in also counts toward map completion, but fortunately, they let you warp out of there as long as you don’t trigger the fight.
Since Seiren is an island cut off from the rest of the world, there’s no money! Here, resources are money. Every material you can get is able to be traded up for something better, or traded down for a bunch of low-level materials. This really sells the immersion of Ys VIII, plus it also gives you more incentive to keep your crappy materials on you. There are also a lot of great exclusive items that are only found in trades, so be diligent!
But things aren’t always peas and carrots here; monsters are afoot! Every so often, Castaway Village will get Raided, and you gotta help. Raids are the most fun and most agonizing parts of Ys VIII at the same time. The mechanics for them are fun, at least. You fight off waves of enemies and keep them from attacking the village. Castaways can also assist with their own skills. They can be lifesavers, especially the one who temporarily makes all skills cost 0 SP, and they get boosted as their Approval increases. The people aren’t the only things supporting you; we have literal supports in the form of barricades and lures to draw aggro. There’s also a gong that inflicts stun to all enemies on the field when struck, and is a real lifesaver. You can also upgrade these barricades with resources, and IT’S IMPORTANT TO DO IT unless you hate yourself.
In addition to Raids are Hunts, which is where the village goes on the offensive. It gets a lot more high-maintenance here. In Hunts, you gotta fight off infinitely spawning enemies and place torches to reduce their defense, while attacking their spawn points. Defeating all of them unlocks the boss, which can run away and waste time on the mission. These suck, honestly. This is also a case where auto lock-on can mess you up, because you’ll be fighting through one group of enemies, and after you kill them, it could lock-on to someone behind you and disorient you. Fortunately, the ones that actually count toward quests aren’t too bad; it’s the reduxes that spawn afterward that are REALLY bad.
Raids and Hunts are fun, but only if you want to just beat them at all. There are Sonic-style rankings, and it can get stingy sometimes. You gotta SERIOUSLY be good at the game in order to S-Rank some of these, which stinks, because you get REALLY good rewards for doing it. At the very least, none of the stupid hard Raids give you important rewards for S-Rank. Worst case, you can just do them stupidly overleveled in order to get an easy rank.
“Hang on a second,” you interrupt. “You’ve been talking about this game for how long, and you haven’t even mentioned the titular Dana! Who is that anyway?” Dana is the cute, blue-haired girl on the cover (who has way better character design than Adol). She’s my favorite party member in the game, but you don’t quite recruit her the same way; after all, she’s lived about a million years in the past. Like in Final Fantasy VIII, you can switch over to her and experience things in her era.
During these sequences, Ys VIII is almost an entirely different game. Dana is the only character you play as, and has mechanics exclusive to her era. Most notable is her ability to change fighting styles, which you unlock at specific points in the story. This is how you attack weaknesses as Dana by herself. It’s pretty simple; the DPS form, the tanking form, and the agility form. Periodically throughout her arc, you can slowly uncover more of the Sanctuary Crypt, an optional dungeon with several puzzle chambers, that give you a lot of context for the game’s lore. The game has a checklist for each task in the different sections of her story, and it’s recommended to do all of it (especially since it’s not that tough to do).
If there’s any gameplay flaw, it’s that the difficulty spikes right at the end. The main story remains a fair challenge, but some of the side stuff expects a LOT out of you. The worst part is a series of Raids with enemies from level 70 to 85 that get unlocked when your party would be around 60. These are tough. VERY TOUGH. I can’t even imagine how to beat these Raids on the game’s highest difficulty. But like I said, they’re all optional. Just do them if you hate yourself.
But even after you beat the game, you are still encouraged to return to it for postgame junk! All you gotta do is save your clear data in a slot, and load the file from the title screen. It’ll give you the option to do New Game+, or do reload just before the final boss with all your stuff from after you beat it (good thing it actually gives EXP). After this, a couple of things open up. One is a bonus dungeon, which is a really fun challenge and a great grinding spot. There’s also… the final Raid, with enemies in the level 90s. I never did that Raid, for obvious reasons.
Ys VIII, visually, is a BIT behind on the times. I don’t know what this was ported from, but it’s not that great-looking. Artistically, it has some beautiful vistas and great vibrant colors. But the textures are very dated, and look pixelated at times. Normally, I don’t care about game resolution like Rock Star does, but the way Ys VIII looks can actually hurt your eyes. There is one room that has bad slowdown, and one single incident where the game froze on me. It’s not unplayable, though. Most of the time, the game runs at a stable frame rate.
One thing I seriously did not expect to enjoy was Ys VIII’s soundtrack. WOW, what an amazing soundtrack! This game has it all, from upbeat rockin’ tunes, to atmospheric stuff. The music for Raids and Hunts, as well as the special nighttime music, are among my favorite tracks in the game. If only they released this on iTunes and stuff!
Final Verdict: 9/10
Ys VIII might not be very original, but the ball gets rolling at a fast enough pace to make it less of a chore than most JRPGs. I recommend it if you’re a JRPG fan who’s tired of the genre’s tedium, and just wants to break stuff.
Last time on Torture Princess, Kaito and Elisabeth are dispatched to the capital to kill a giant mound of flesh, which happens to be the three remaining Demons fused together. There, they meet a powerful paladin named Izabella Vicker, who naturally does not like Elisabeth very much, as well as the not-exactly-dead Godd Deos, who’s using a mechanic similar to that of Vlad to project his soul throughout the world. In order to not have to rely on her, Izabella resolves herself to kill the mutants of the townsfolk that are spawned by the flesh blob (and is the only soldier who doesn’t get scarred for life). They manage to hold it back on the first day, at least. Later that night, Kaito overhears a conversation with Izabella and some other soldiers and realizes that the Knight was actually her brother, who was one of the many people that Elisabeth slaughtered in her backstory. The next day, the Church’s trump card appears: La Mules, a young girl who can vomit big birds. They manage to cut a big gash in the blob, causing the Monarch’s body to split off from it, which Kaito captures alive. Unfortunately, the blob forms the face of the King, and zaps La Mules with a mental attack that makes her kill herself. Elisabeth must finish it off tomorrow while it’s wounded. Since she’ll die no matter what tomorrow- either from the blob or being executed- Kaito goes on a wholesome date with her. Later that night, he uses pain-sharing magic to inflict massive pain on both the Monarch and himself, so that his magic is supercharged for the final battle. When the fated day dawns, they launch a full-on offensive (with the help of Hina, who just fully recovered), and infiltrate the flesh blob. Inside its core, they manage to destroy the King and Grand Monarch’s fused hearts, as well as the grotesque demon baby that they give birth to. With this, Elisabeth’s mission is complete. On the day of execution, she complies without resistance. However, Kaito shows up and attacks, threatening to destroy mankind. Yup, Kaito is now the fifteenth contractor, and he saved Elisabeth’s life by having her ordered to vanquish him.
Sure, this sounds like a cheap excuse to pad out a series that was CLEARLY over, and… well… it is. But hey, that doesn’t mean that the series is BAD. At least not for the time being, because this volume is the start of a rootin’ tootin’ new arc of Torture Princess!
One final warning before getting into the actual review: DO NOT READ THE CHARACTER BIOS at the beginning! It mentions a new character introduced in this volume, and spoils a very standout trait of theirs. It kinda-sorta ruined a good half of the book for me, so seriously, do what I said.
Kaito is on the run as usual, because he- you know- declared war on the world. Sadly, the series once again shows that it is indeed a generic wish fulfillment isekai in the fact that he doesn’t choose to kill anyone who goes after him (which is not bad, but it’s still worth pointing out). But on the way, he meets the designated beastfolk, who seek his aid. There’s been a series of massacres in their community, and Kaito needs to find the culprit.
This volume has a ton of new (and maybe kinda predictable) revelations about the overarching narrative as a whole. And most of it is provided courtesy of Jeanne de Rais, the new character whose trait I got spoiled of. Fortunately, I can tell you about her personality without spoiling anything. She’s an absolute lunatic, in the best way possible. She randomly swings from talking super politely to something a bit more… bold (literally; her text turns boldfaced in this state), and begins cursing people off.
But not a single character has yet to surpass Best Girl Hina (who has recently become my favorite character in the series). I get that her relationship with Kaito is a one-dimensional yandere-servant and self-insert-protag, but it’s an incredibly well-written one. Their chemistry is bubbling more excitedly than ever, and I’m loving every minute of it. And you know what… I’m officially going to declare that Kaito and Hina are a better Subaru and Rem than Subaru and Rem. THERE. I SAID IT. NO TAKESIES BACKSIES.
With the amazing character interactions, Jeanne’s entertaining personality, and the new plot developments, this may be my favorite volume of Torture Princess thus far. And the irony behind that is that this volume has the least amount of gore. As much as I was saying that the gore is what will carry this series, I was proven wrong. This volume shows that Torture Princess is a legitimately well-crafted masterpiece that stands out among other isekai rabble, and I’m hoping it continues to stay this way (and for the love of God never get an anime adaptation).
Normally, I’d give an overly detailed recap of a previous LN volume at the start of these posts. But I goofed this time… again, just like with No Game No Life Volume 10. I’m really sorry. But hey, maybe not having a recap is better? Well, the basic gist is that Iris is the Best Girl. That’s what’s important.
This volume is titled The Archwizard’s Little Sister. That means it’s all about Megumin’s sister, Komekko (who I had completely forgotten was introduced in volume 5 and thought that she was a brand new character), right? Heh-heh-heh, WROOONG. The book pulls a Monogatari and spends a third of itself with Kazuma lazing around at Iris’, which becomes its own mini-arc where they try to convince him to come home.
Unlike Monogatari, this part’s entertaining in its own right. He literally fights tooth and nail to stay with his little sister, Iris, and this causes the usual Konosuba Khaos (had to change the letter for alliteration) to ensue. It’s your usual Kazuma being a buttmonkey stuff that’s karried Konosuba (alliteration again) all this time… and it’s kind of getting old. I love these characters, but their comedy hasn’t really evolved. For example, the third volume of Cautious Hero introduces a lot of new abilities for Seiya that creates even more ridiculous scenarios than before. But here… Kazuma’s still being lazy, Aqua’s still being a whiny brat, Megumin’s still the Best Girl, and Darkness is still a punching bag.
Fortunately, this volume of Konosuba is a return to the series’ roots. For the first time in what feels like a long time, we have the cast doing just normal quests. We also have a reference to Combatants Will Be Dispatched!, with a brief mention of the goddess who is supposed to be the sister of Zenarith, the goddess of undeath that Grimm worships. Overall, the volume was pretty nostalgic in a way.
With six volumes left for us Westerners, Konosuba is still coming in strong. This volume is a nice little romp, and the twist ending definitely has me curious. Let’s hope it can stay good all the way through!
Boxing narratives are all well and good, but they kind of tend to be the same. The main character loses, trains, gets told by several peers that he’s killing himself, trains anyway, manages to beat the bad guy with sheer force of will, then lather, rinse, and repeat until the fanbase is tired. But can some cyberpunk overtones make it a bit more interesting? Let’s find out in the short manga, Levius, published in English by Viz.
In 19th Century… somewhere (lol I don’t actually know), the titular Levius Cromwell is constantly haunted by the scars of a cyber war, which resulted in his mother ending up in a coma. For reasons that are a combination of him wanting money to fund her recovery, mysteriously seeing her as a child, and the organization that caused her coma being involved, he takes up mechanical boxing.
It’s a bit hard to follow at first because it takes a while to get acclimated to how the world is, but overall it is as straightforward as boxing gets. Fortunately, it doesn’t beat around the bush, and starts the story off with Levius at the second highest grade of boxing. He also gets a head start to enter the highest grade once a famous boxer from that bracket passes away. The fight to see which person enters that bracket is basically the entirety of Levius.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Remember that organization I mentioned? It’s called Amethyst, and its people are quite mean. They create some emotionless cyborgs that specialize in killing. As expected of a boxing narrative, Amethyst is a pretty one-dimensional evil organization for the time being.
And the characters, sadly, match that description as well (the one-dimensional part, to be exact). If you’ve seen Rocky, you’ve seen the cast of Levius already. Levius is a typical, brash boy who’s AAAAANGRY at Amethyst and SO AAAAAANGSTY all the time. His uncle, Zack Cromwell, is the coach who constantly tells Levius to not kill himself. The female lead is an Amethyst machine: A.J. Langdom. She’s a cute girl who’s been heavily modded, and basically serves as a damsel in distress. The main villain, Dr. Clown Jack Pudding, is literally Battle Angel Alita’s Desty Nova cosplaying as Final Fantasy VI’s Kefka, and he’s pretty great.
The art for Levius is rather unusual. First off, the manga is published backwards (forwards in a Western sense). “CENSORING JAPANESE CULTURE, IN 2020?! TRIGGERED!” you exclaim. Look, I have no idea what the factual reasoning is, but according to a comment on Viz’s page for Levius, it was actually published backwards in Japan as well because it’s supposed to be set in the U.S.? I don’t know… But regardless of the direction, Levius is a manga through and through. The panel composition is still what you’d expect for a battle manga, so you don’t have to worry about it being too Westernized.
But it’s not just the format that’s unusual, it’s the actual drawings, too. Levius has a very sketchy and gritty style for a sci-fi manga, even more so than Attack on Titan. For what it is, it looks fantastic, with great action, and phenomenal close-ups. The color pages are also amazing as well (PS: nudity warning, by the way).
It might not be wholly original, but Levius is a pretty solid read. But notice that I don’t have “Full Manga Review” in the title or “Final Verdict” in this section? In case you haven’t noticed, Levius was not axxed; no, it’s only just beginning. There is an ongoing sequel, Levius/est, and I am hyped to read it. For now, I recommend Levius to fans of boxing, battle shounens, cyberpunk, and steampunk.