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Bug Fables Manages to Scratch that Paper Mario Itch… to a Point (Full Game Review)

Personally, I’ve always had a vendetta against indie games, not because I think a lot of them are bad, but because a lot of them are too inherently good, to the point where they can get away with having flaws. For example, many of them, such as Undertale or Fez, rely on unique aesthetics and gimmicks to stand out from the crowd (side note: ‘Megalovania’ is the most overrated videogame song of all time). Others, like What Remains of Edith Finch or Firewatch, completely disregard gameplay in order to appeal to raw human emotion in ways more intimate than most triple-A games. In addition to that, indie games having that inherent appeal of “the mom-and-pop business that does better than the corrupt, money-grubbing corporation”, and they sometimes have a better sense of what the market wants than actual triple-A companies. One example is the recent RPG, Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling, made to be a successor to the classic Paper Mario that we have wanted for over a decade and have yet to receive. Paper Mario: The Origami King is probably good for what it is (I heard mixed things), Bug Fables claims to be what the doctor actually ordered. Since it’s apparently pretty short (for an RPG), I decided to see how it measures up to classic Paper Mario.

In the kingdom of Bugaria, some ant queen lady wanted to find this MacGuffin called the Everlasting Sapling to become immortal. She failed, and so her daughter started the Explorer’s Association in order to hire adventurers to do the job for her. Three intrepid heroes, Kabbu, Vi, and Leif set out to find it and become heroes.

It takes only five seconds to see how influenced by Paper Mario this thing is. From the presence of Action Commands, to its art style, its writing, and… piss-poor inventory space, Bug Fables tries very hard to be the new Paper Mario. In order to find out if it succeeds, we need to cover one aspect of the game at a time (and, of course, compare them to Paper Mario).

The narrative is simple as all heck. In each chapter, you go to a dungeon, beat a boss, and get a thing. It comes off as predictable, but in actuality, does an admirable job of throwing curveballs at you. It is straightforward, though, and I didn’t really find it that gripping from a raw emotional standpoint. It has some cool lore, but I never found it particularly fascinating myself. What did surprise me was the cast of characters. The three bugs take advantage of all having dialogue (unlike Paper Mario with its silent protagonist), and use that to have a number of fun interactions with each other. 

But of course, Paper Mario fans care about the writing. Bug Fables‘ writing is definitely great. It even has a lot of characters muttering off-hand comments beneath the main speech bubble, just like in Paper Mario. The three main characters also share some chemistry that isn’t possible in a Paper Mario game (Best Girl Vi is especially a treat among the other characters). Unfortunately, the writing and characters don’t completely fill in the void for me. While both are great, there’s something special about the classic Paper Mario games, and even Super Paper Mario. Bug Fables’ doesn’t have anyone as lovable as, say, Koopa Jr., Pennington, Flint Cragley, Francis, and DEFINITELY no one like good ol’ Bowser. Additionally, the bug theming makes some character designs blur together for me.

Graphically, Bug Fables is beautiful. The game’s simple color palette and thick outlines scream that classic Paper Mario look; even the area transition paths have the same triangle pattern to them! Unfortunately, there isn’t much in terms of creative level design. I’m willing to give the game the benefit of the doubt in the event that there’s a sequel, but for now, the areas—while being creatively set in backyard objects like a sandbox and a tire—are your typical videogame biomes. Even the first Paper Mario, which had the most generic world, at least had something like the Toy Box. Eventually, Thousand-Year Door would go above and beyond by having places like a monochromatic forest with a Pikmin-related dungeon, an arena, and a luxury express train; even the main hub area is iconic for how slummy it is compared to other parts of the Mario universe. Bug Fables just doesn’t hit that nail on the head, except in the final area, but that place is unceremoniously short compared to Paper Mario final dungeons.

Furthermore, I didn’t find the soundtrack to be super amazing. It has a lot of great tracks, which feel retro in that uniquely indie-type way. But for me, they fall short of Paper Mario soundtracks, especially Thousand Year Door‘s. I get that it’s trying to be its own thing, but Paper Mario is so much more involved and varied than Bug Fables. I’m sorry, but that’s just how it is IMO.

Paper Mario is known for great puzzles, and Bug Fables steps it up a notch. At first, everyone only has one ability, but throughout the game, you get new powers which open up all sorts of possibilities. Unfortunately, there is one particular ability that I don’t like, and it’s Vi’s Beemerang. In theory, it serves as the Kooper or Koops of Bug Fables; you throw it, or hold it in midair and release it. Unlike Kooper or Koops, who only attacked left or right, the Beemerang can be thrown in eight directions. But due to the game’s own artistic style… THERE ARE ONLY FOUR DIRECTIONAL SPRITES FOR THE CHARACTERS. As a result, I found myself throwing it in the completely wrong direction at times, which bugged (HA) the living daylights out of me. 

Fortunately, Bug Fables excels with its combat, which has more depth than Paper Mario‘s system. The basic mechanics are the same: Each person has HP, TP which is shared, and MP used to equip medals (a.k.a. badges). Action Commands are a thing, and you’ll have to learn them from scratch regardless of your Paper Mario experience.

What’s most important is turn order. Each person gets one action in battle (unless you use field attacks to stun an enemy, in which case you’d get two attacks for whoever the leading character is), and you can attack in any order with B. Their position, from front to middle to back, is based on your formation in the field. Like Final Fantasy, people in front deal more damage and get aggroed by enemies, while the opposite is true for the back row. You can change your party’s turn order in battle as well. Oh, and a BIG improvement over Paper Mario is that anyone can Tattle (a.k.a. Spy on) an enemy; no need for that one party member who has no use other than to Tattle!

You will NEED to get used to manipulating who attacks in what order. A lot of your party’s attacks can exploit enemy weaknesses, such as using Kabbu’s horn to flip enemies over. There’s also the Turn Relay, which sacrifices a character’s turn to give someone else an additional one. However, one thing to be aware of is that a character’s damage output weakens if they have to attack more than once in a round (this also applies to starting out with advantage). Make sure you’re going to really benefit despite the decrease in power!

Another thing you NEED to be able to do is Blocking. The mechanic is just about the same as it is in Paper Mario: press A before an enemy attack lands and you’ll reduce the damage. Doing it with extra-perfect timing results in a Super Block that reduces the damage further. One good improvement over Paper Mario is that any party member who isn’t being targeted will turn transparent, making it easier to time your blocks. 

When it comes to the difficulty level of Bug Fables, ooooh… this is where it gets iffy. Right at the beginning of the game, you can obtain a medal called Hard Mode. It costs no MP to equip (thank goodness), but it boosts all enemies’ strength in exchange for more EXP and rewards. The game becomes VERY difficult in this state. You will need to not just get good at Blocks, but Super Blocks as well, otherwise, regular mobs will beat you within inches of your life. Bosses are… absurdly tough. They aren’t indie-game-tough, but they get an entire assortment of new moves and grant permanent buffs (I know because I accidentally beat a boss on normal and had to reload). The incentive is that beating bosses will earn you actual rewards beyond a lousy achievement, and these rewards tend to be really stinkin’ good. 

The big problem with Hard Mode is that the game’s own mechanics ends up making that medal shoot itself in the foot. Bug Fables has the same mechanics as Paper Mario when it comes to handing out EXP. When you’re considered overleveled, you only get one EXP per mob; i.e. per entire battle. The problem is that the game is NOT programmed to evaluate your level based on Hard Mode. As a result, I was able to reap the benefits of Hard Mode early on, but just by fighting enemies as they came, I became overleveled without grinding, and as a result, I’d end up going to main story locations, having to fight stressful battles against the mobs there, and getting NOTHING for it. Sure, the issue can be mitigated by equipping the Bug Me Not medal, which allows you to destroy enemies that are considered significantly weaker than you on the field, but it’s just plain stupid (and also dumb) that the high-risk-high-reward medal becomes high-risk-low-reward as a result of the game’s own mechanics. The only non-boss enemies that give you any EXP after a while are the rare Golden Seedlings. They function just like Amayzee Dayzees from Paper Mario; if they don’t run away, they can one-shot any party member from full health. 

Furthermore, leveling up just doesn’t do much of anything. Like in Paper Mario, leveling up allows you to choose one- and only one- stat gain in HP, TP, or MP. However, no matter how often you level up, it’ll never feel like enough. HP gains only provide one—ONE—Max HP to the party, and TP only gives three- THREE (MP is the same as Paper Mario’s BP). You need to use your TP-consuming skills, but it drains too quickly. You need HP to survive, because it doesn’t take long for enemies to do five to seven damage in a single attack (especially in Hard Mode). You also need MP to equip valuable medals, but you also need the other two stats! I get that the decision is supposed to be tough, but due to the overleveling mechanic, it never happens often enough. This really makes the game feel less fun to play. In fact, I hit max level before even starting the final dungeon, and I didn’t even grind except for money!

Another problem I had was with the Recipes. In Paper Mario, cooking stuff was definitely helpful, but you could still get by with just the Ultra Shrooms and Jammin’ Jellies that you find. Bug Fables doesn’t naturally give you higher-tier restoratives. Ever. You’re stuck with the lowest level healing items, and it is imperative to take them to chefs to make better ones. However, I just couldn’t figure out the recipes well; more than 90% of the combinations I would try would turn into Mistakes. For more than half of the game, my best healing items were Leaf Omelets and Glazed honey, which quickly became inadequate, especially on Hard Mode. While I wouldn’t mind trying every combination with brute force, cooking ingredients—naturally—destroyed them forever, even with incompatible ones. And with some rare items coming in finite supply if you don’t buy them off of sellers for an absurd amount of money, you’d have to save-scum a LOT to get all the recipes. Fortunately, the recipes that matter are learned naturally via quests, but they tend to be BIG investments. For example, one of said recipes is a collaboration between three different chefs that can be incredibly tedious to make. 

In the end, I didn’t enjoy it enough to do 100%. I did a good majority of it, but when I hit max level, I just wanted to be done (call me a filthy casual if you must). There’s even a whole children’s card game that I didn’t even bother with (it’s basically War meets Yu-Gi-Oh), as well as a casino area. I also didn’t dabble in the postgame whatsoever (so much for a Full Game Review, am I right?). There’s even what I presume to be a field ability that I never even obtained (whatever it is that lets you open wooden doors found throughout the game)! But like I said, I just wanted it to be done.

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Final Verdict: 8.4/10

I don’t care if one or one million people make a game; if it has issues, I WILL acknowledge them! Bug Fables is a great game, but it’s not perfect. And while it does nail some classic Paper Mario tropes, while also adding some interesting elements to combat, the risks-vs-rewards system with Hard Mode is a bit iffy. This game proves that only Nintendo can put out a 100% true, classic Paper Mario game, and we’ll just have to pray for the miracle of that happening. For now, Bug Fables is enough to tide us over (and lets hope it gets a sequel or five).

Two Muscular, Magical Reviews in One Post!

I had every intention of reading Mashle: Magic and Muscles since its debut in Weekly Shounen Jump. But then, Seven Seas came out of nowhere and licensed a light novel with an extremely similar title: Muscles Are Better Than Magic! Since they seemed so identical, I decided to review them both in this post. Although Mashle came out in the U.S. before Muscles, the latter actually predates the former by three years. So naturally, I’ll go over it first!


Muscles Are Better Than Magic! Volume 1

In Muscles Are Better Than Magic!, a boy named Yuri lives in the forest alone. He has managed to train himself to the point where he’s super ripped, and can take on anything. When he finds an elven girl named Filia Windia, he decides to go on adventures with her, for no reason whatsoever.

If Muscles appears to be a run-of-the-mill, typical shounen fantasy light novel to you, that’s because it is! The whole darn thing is the two of them hanging out. A lot of the interactions are just him using his muscles and freaking people out. And like I said in the premise, there’s no purpose to anything that happens. They just go on adventures that are no different from your typical slice-of-life fantasy with no real spice beyond Yuri’s muscles.

The mostly boring cast doesn’t help either. While Yuri and Filia have some legitimately cute and funny interactions, they are surrounded by idiots. All the other characters are inconsequential NPCs who have no personality other than being shocked by Yuri’s muscles. That’s literally it! But even then, Yuri is also incredibly bland, with Filia being the only remotely likeable character.

The biggest issue is the writing. Muscles is one of those light novels that feels like a rough draft and not a publication. Although the action scenes are pretty good, descriptions of locations are as bare minimum as they typically are in these series. I get that writing is really hard but that doesn’t excuse when it’s bad in a published work!

Verdict: 5.75/10

Muscles Are Better Than Magic! is no better than your typical blazé fantasy. Similar to Buck Naked in Another World, Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear, and others, it uses some defining character design trait to pretend that it’s subversive. My chances of reading more are pretty low. But let’s see whether or not it’s the lesser of two evils when I review Mashle!


Mashle: Magic and Muscles First Impressions (Chapters 1-15)

In Mashle: Magic and Muscles, a boy named Mash Burnedead lives in the forest with an old wizard guy. He was born in a world of magic, but has no magic himself, making him an easy target of the police. When he bests the police with his bare hands, he is given a deal: enroll in Magic School and graduate at the top of his class or be pursued by the law forever. He accepts the deal, and attends the school with no magic power whatsoever.

I made a big deal about how Muscles and Mashle are the same, but… it turns out that Mashle resembles Black Clover more than anything else (oops). In any case, Mashle already shows greater personality than Muscles. Not only is the humor (and its delivery) much more substantial than in Muscles, but there’s also a purpose to the shenanigans that ensue.

So far, Mashle’s biggest issue is its simplicity. While I love a good, clear-cut Jump manga, a lot of [very vocal] people don’t. Because of this, there’s no rhyme or reason to the magic that gets used; they don’t even bother to explain the rules. And of course, let’s not forget the magic word, “unrealistic”, because of how impossibly strong Mash is for a teenager.

Mashle has a similar issue to Muscles: everyone other than the main character exists just to react to how swole said main character is. Furthermore, the lead girl is less remarkable than Filia, to the point where I already forgot her name. But unlike Yuri, Mash is a significantly more likeable character. In fact, he’s the bread and butter of this whole manga. While he’s completely devoid of personality, the author somehow makes that lack of personality into its own personality quirk. Also, his inane obsession with cream puffs makes him even more hilarious.

The art doesn’t look like much, but it’s more than enough. The panel composition expertly sells the humor, while also delivering the appropriate amount of punch to Mash’s attacks. If there are any issues, it’s that the black wizard robes make a lot of the foreshortening shots look kind of weird.

Current Verdict: 9.35/10

Muscles might be better than magic, but Mashle is far better than Muscles. It’s a risk investing in a new series when you don’t know whether or not it’ll get axed, but here’s hoping that Mashle stays for a couple of years at least. I recommend it to people who like battle shounen and fun (i.e. not cynical).

I’m In Love with a Villainess Killed My Love for Yuri (Volume 1 Review)

One genre I did not expect to consistently blow me away was yuri; a genre that mainly focuses on a romantic relationship between two women. I just kept getting bombarded by these super entertaining and engaging stories. Murcielago, Otherside Picnic, Sexiled, and ROLL OVER AND DIE! have been real pleasures. So when Seven Seas published their edition of I’m in Love With the Villainess, and it became a #1 bestseller on Amazon and BookWalker, I was excited. However, like with virtually all media I’ve consumed other than One Piece

I CANNOT LIKE ANYTHING POPULAR.

In I’m in Love With the Villainess, a girl named Rae is transported into the setting of her favorite otome game, Revolution, with literally no explanation. She can date anyone she wants, but chooses the main antagonist, Claire Francois. Since Claire is a conceited noble girl, “tsundere” doesn’t even begin to describe her relationship with Rae.

From the first chapter, all the way to the end, I was flabbergasted. First off, the writing was abysmal. They don’t even go out of the way to describe the setting, not even in enough detail for you to get a sense of 3D space. Heck, I couldn’t even find a description of what Rae looked like; you literally have to take the part where it says Clair is blonde, and deduce that Rae has black hair by looking at the cover art and using the process of elimination! And despite being yuri, I felt no sexual tension between them, even when they’re naked.

And boy, the relationship between those girls was just lacking in… everything! Most of their interactions consist of Rae showering Claire with compliments, who responds by shouting witty comebacks. I understand that this comedic style is common in Japanese media, but it was so frequent that it literally felt like 19/20 of their interactions. Not even D-Frag!, which makes fun of it, was that bad.

The other bad thing was that the entirety of I’m in Love With the Villainess is Rae being in love with the villainess! “Well, duh,” you say, “it’s yuri.” No, you don’t understand. The other yuri I’ve read up to this point have something more. Murcielago had over-the-top gore and visual spectacle, Sexiled was crazy committed to Feminism, and both Otherside Picnic and ROLL OVER AND DIE! had high-tension suspense and action. Rae does kind of resort to tricks, like making up ghost stories just so Claire can cling to her, but compared to the sociopaths I’ve seen, that amounts to mere childish pranks. The only real scheme I could gather from I’m in Love With the Villainess was that Rae tries to build a ship between Clair and some guy. I’m anticipating that she’s doing this just to break them up, then swoop in and take Claire for herself while her guard is down. Even if that does happen down the road, it still leaves much to be desired compared to the other examples. 

Do I even need to discuss the characters? They’re all as flat as boards. Rae’s doting on Claire comes off as childish and annoying instead of seductive and sexy, plus she has no other personality quirks to speak of. Claire is just a boring tsundere; Rae even says that she never goes over-the-top. There’s also these three princely brothers, and why are they even in this LN at all?! This is yuri for crying out loud!

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Verdict: 5/10

I’m in Love With the Villainess is an empty husk of ideas, none of which are executed well. I am absolutely astounded that something like this has been so commercially successful compared to the other yuri series I mentioned. At this point, I have come to question the genre’s sense of quality. Was this series the exception, or the rule? In any case, just save yourself the pain and read any yuri series other than this one!

Jujutsu Kaisen is at least Better than Kimetsu no Yaiba (First Impressions, Chapters 1-75)

Weekly Shounen Jump has had some really great manga, and it’s had some not so great manga. While they have a system to weed out the latter, cases like Kimetsu no Yaiba show that it’s not perfect. A little manga called Jujutsu Kaisen (published in English by Viz) has risen to a pretty high level of popularity, without the need of a successful anime adaptation (even though the anime will no doubt make it quite popular overseas). Let’s see whether or not it deserves its popularity.

In Jujutsu Kaisen, a high-schooler named Yuji Itadori has a run-in with Megumi Fushiguro, a student from the curse-fighting Jujutsu Highschool, when he seeks a cursed object that Yuji’s classmates have come across. Yuji helps him fight back the curses that attack them, but things get hairy. Yuji ends up eating the cursed object- a severed finger- and becomes more than powerful enough to fight the curse, but is nearly possessed by the finger’s owner, Ryomen Sukuna. Due to Yuji’s strange ability to suppress its power, he’s recruited as a new student of Jujutsu Highschool in order to collect and consume the rest of the fingers… after which he will be executed. 

Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it; this is a First Impressions, after all. I had thought, based on Chainsaw Man, that Jump is trying to become more mature in order to recover from the slump it’s been in lately (a lot of series from 2019 onward have sold poorly), but alas, it seems that Chainsaw Man is an exception and not the rule. Despite how often it waxes poetic about life and death, Jujutsu Kaisen is a pretty typical shounen manga. 

As expected of most Jump manga, Jujutsu Kaisen starts by getting us acquainted with the main characters as they fight random enemies in self-contained mini-arcs, followed by a training arc. For the most part, the ideas of cursed energy and techniques are pretty generic, but the neatest aspect of the combat in Jujutsu Kaisen is the domain techniques. These are basically field effects that look really cool, and add a bit of spectacle to the fights.

The manga picks up after twenty-odd chapters, which is when the first major arc starts. It introduces the main antagonist (who will likely get replaced by someone less memorable if the manga ends up running for eight more years), and ups the ante by a lot. And I mean A LOT.

Typical shounen manga means a pretty one-dimensional cast. Yuji is a pretty generic, brash idiot, and the thing with Sukuna seems more like something to make him edgy than to give him a moral crisis. His classmates, Megumi, and the female lead, Nobara, aren’t that interesting either outside of their fighting abilities. Fortunately, Jujutsu Kaisen at least tries with some of its characters. Yuji’s teacher, Satoru Gojo, has got a pretty good sense of humor, for instance. There’s also some other students in other classes who are pretty wild, such as a literal panda bear, as well as some interesting folks from their rival school in Kyoto (such as mah boy Toto). 

The art of Jujutsu Kaisen is where it shines. It’s sketchy and dirty, but full of personality. The fight scenes are fast and spectacular, and really help the manga shine. The character design is also excellent, with a plethora of good-looking women.

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Current Verdict: 8.75/10

Jujutsu Kaisen is indeed a very mainstream manga. However, with great art, and a number of admittedly creative ideas (such as a decrepit old geezer who fights with an electric guitar), it stands out from the rabble. I recommend it to any battle shounen fanatic.

The Mystery Blogger Award!

So I learned that there’s not just a blogger recognition award, but also a mystery blogger award! It was created by this blogger named Okoto Enigma. And guess what, RisefromAshes nominated me. Thanks for the love, buddy! Anyways, the rules for this one are much more complicated than the other one… which is why it took me a whole week to come up with this post.

Rules:

  • Display the award logo on your blog
  • Thank the blogger who nominated you and provide a link to their blog
  • Mention Okoto Enigma, the creator of the award
  • Tell your readers three things about yourself
  • Answer five questions from whoever nominated you
  • Nominate… ten to twenty bloggers?! I don’t even follow that many people!
  • You’re also supposed to comment on your nominees’ blogs, but Rise just tagged them instead, which I think is a lot easier to do tbh
  • Ask your nominee five questions, with one of the five being weird or funny
  • Share a link to your best post

About Me:

  1. I love Japanese culture a whole bunch, but ironically, I’m not a big fan of anime. Movies are fine, but I can’t stand how low budget the TV ones are (also, the most popular ones are available in another medium anyway).
  2. I have a good track record of not liking anything mainstream.
  3. Well, I didn’t want to divulge the following information this early in my career, but for the sake of the award, I’ll say it: I have high-functioning autism.

Rise’s Questions:

  1. What type of driver are you? If you don’t drive, what type of driver do you think you would be? I do not drive. But if I did, I would be one of those old people who moves at two miles per century. 
  1. If you could give any series of your choice (anime, manga, books, etc.) a reboot, which would you pick?Soul Eater herpaderp!” J.K. that’s the easy answer that everyone gives. I sifted through about ten thousand options, and decided to answer with “The Legend of Korra” because my reasoning is the most simplistic out of the rest.
  1. As a follow-up to #2, what would you change about the series in your reboot/re-write? All I’d do to fix Korra is to expand upon the Equalists storyline from season one and have it be, you know, the whole story. I’d also flesh out the PTSD aspect of Korra’s character arc and not shoehorn it in right at the end.
  1. What’s your opinion on apples, the fruit? I think apples are hit-or-miss. If you have a really good, crunchy apple, then you’re set. However, they will not excuse you from going to the doctor. Damn the lying turd who told us that.
  1. Do you like blogger tags? I’m pretty new at this and uh… I don’t actually know what blogger tags are? If you just mean the literal tags you put on your post, then yeah, I like them just fine.

Oh boy, my nominees. Well, if Rise didn’t nominate ten, then I sure don’t have to! I nominate I drink and watch anime and Takuto’s Anime Cafe (wow, repeating two of my nominations from last time). 

Questions for my Nominees:

  1. Do you listen to Japanese music outside the sphere of anime? (What I mean by “the sphere of anime”: people like LiSA, Konomi Suzuki, ReoNa, etc.)
  1. What is your track record of agreeing with mainstream trends?
  1. Seriously, how do you put up with the low-budget aspects of anime?
  1. What is the most underappreciated media (anime, manga, book, music artist, etc.) that you have ever come across in your life?
  1. Is mayonnaise an instrument?

My Best Post?

I’ve been working on a two-part Top Twenty Favorite Music Artists of All Time (which could end up becoming a three-part Top Thirty because I LOVE MUSIC DAMMIT) that I anticipate to be my best post, but that’s not going to be ready for quite some time. So instead, here’s a link to a very recent post: Mack’s Top Ten Favorite Japanese Music Artists (updated from my Top Five from last year). Most of what I cover are manga and light novels, making this very much not the norm. But man, I’m sick of crap like BABYMETAL and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu getting all the love! Sorry, but I’m using this award to spread awareness of some very underrated Japanese bands.

With that, I’ve (hopefully) met all of the mystery blogger award’s conditions. Hallelujah, holy sh**!

Weeb Reads Monthly – September 2020

I definitely like this new monthly format for light novels. In fact, I’m going to keep at it for… er… ever. Since I’m doing this right out of the gate, there should be a lot more books to discuss in this post. So, bear with me as we tear through the month’s newest releases!


So I’m a Spider, So What? Volume 9

I discussed this series a long time ago, in a post where I compared it to Overlord and That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime. Since then… it’s been the only one of the three I haven’t dropped completely. The series has kind of been in a slump for me lately; after the twist in volume 5, we finally know what’s going on, but after that it’s been a bit of a trudge to get to the good stuff. Looking at the table contents, one chapter towards the end stands out like a sore thumb. Maybe this is when it gets its act back together?

Sadly, the first half of the volume is not particularly exciting. They FINALLY reach the demon realm, and they just cozy up in Ariel’s house. In fact, the interludes seem to have more plot relevance than the main story, such as some side chapters featuring Mr. Ogre-boy from the last volume.

Other than that, Spider is kind of hit-or-miss as always. The volume’s climax is a battle against Ogre-boy, but it’s marred by exposition, and I—to be honest—never really understood what his point in the story is. Anyways, like I mentioned earlier, one chapter stands out, and there is definitely a revelation. Buuuuuut, when we get the whole story, it’s kind of stupid (our girl even reacts as such). And as things stand at the end of the volume, it seems like the next one is going to be back to our regularly scheduled mundanity. I will not be counting these eggs before they hatch!

Verdict: 7.5/10


The Invincible Shovel Volume 3

Alright, it’s time for some more Invincible Shovel! This is about the point where the series ends up becoming repetitive. But if there’s one thing that’s interesting, it’s Catria of all people. She has fought tooth and nail to not fall victim to Lithisia, who has basically evolved into a half-human, half-shovel entity. Her sword has literally become a shovel. But in this volume, Catria starts to do shovel techniques, while still trying to deny that she’s getting shoveled.

Another interesting thing to note is that Invincible Shovel seems to be setting itself up for the endgame. MyAnimeList still says it’s publishing, but it could be wrong. I have a theory as to what a future arc could be, but we’ll have to wait for that point to find out. Otherwise, it’s the same shoveltastic comedy it always is!

Verdict: 8/10


Deathbound Duke’s Daughter: Erika Aurelia and the Angel’s Crypt

I gave the previous Deathbound Duke’s Daughter volume a lackluster score, but I had some semblance of hope for the future of the series. It had a very whimsical world, even if the characters were just about as plastic as any slice-of-life fantasy.

In this volume, Erika goes to Ignitia where she meets the city’s charming prince, August. The really long first chapter is basically to introduce us to the city and the fact that there’s this titular Angel’s Crypt. Erika knows that she is to be murdered by this beast in said Crypt, which August thinks can grant his wish to be better at dragon riding.

Overall, I felt like this volume was slightly better than the previous one. Once it picked up, things got pretty fast-paced and adventurous. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s good enough. August is a typical “bastard child trope”, and felt so manufactured to me; he has absolutely zero hesitation in selling his soul to a demon in order to get his wish. Also, they try to hide who the villain is even though the color pages straight-up tell you who it is (but it’s still predictable regardless). 

Verdict: 7.55/10


Combatants Will Be Dispatched! Volume 4

I’ve been loving Combatants Will Be Dispatched!, but the biggest issue with it has been trying to write a substantial review of the newest volumes. Fortunately, with this new format, I can put in a short blurb and it’ll be fine! Let’s see what Six’s latest adventure has in store for us.

This volume serves one purpose, and that’s to properly introduce a new waifu: Lilith. If you recall, she’s one of Six’s superiors; the mad scientist of Kisaragi. Sadly, she’s my least favorite protagonist so far. There’s nothing wrong with her, but she just falls short of Best Girl Alice and Besterest Girl Grimm. A lot of her lines are just her having straight-man reactions to how ridiculous the fantasy world is and not much else.

Overall, this is sort of a slice-of-life volume (as slice-of-life as Combatants can get). It’s funny, and there’s some good character interactions, but nothing much actually happens. The climax makes you think that they’re finally going to make a move on the Demon Lord, but it ends up getting put off. Maybe they’ll follow up next volume?

Verdict: 8.35/10


Torture Princess: Fremd Torturchen Volume 5

This has been one of my favorite isekai of all time. I won’t defend anyone who says it’s edgy, superficial, and trashy, but it has such chutzpah that I love it. The previous volume had the least amount of gore, yet it raised the bar for the story moving forward. Since I made sure this was the final volume we cover today, I saved the best for last! 

Volume five is even more of a departure from the over-the-top gore, and caffeine-fueled villains than volume four. Right away, Jeanne establishes a new goal: kill the Saint so that Diablos can never awaken. But since we have no idea where she is, the only choice is to ask the Saint’s BFF: the Butcher. Of course, it can’t be that easy; in fact, it takes most of the volume to reach the booger.

Just from reading the volume, I can easily assume that this is the point where people would really start hating on Torture Princess. I’m still loving this story, but the way things play out in this current arc really smells like milking the series (which is odd because I don’t think Torture Princess is that popular in Japan). It’s still relatively straightforward for now, but there’s no telling what it’s going to be like in the future. Furthermore, there’s a big scene at the end that will likely come off as contrived and/or predictable (which, let’s be honest, we critics only use those words when we’ve genuinely fallen for a plot twist and we want to write an excuse for it). But as far as this volume’s concerned, Torture Princess maintains its same sense of quality… for what it’s worth to you.

Verdict: 9.15/10


Conclusion

“There should be a lot more books to discuss in this post,” he says… yet he only discusses one more book than the last time. Well, that’s definitely going to change next month, especially if I can go to Disney this year (in which case I’d have to do a mega post for October and November). Anyway, good books this time around. Leave a comment for some feedback!

Mack’s Top Ten Favorite Japanese Music Artists

I’ll always love the classic rock of yesteryear more than anything. But over the last several years of my life, I’ve realized the greatness of contemporary Japanese music, and want to spread the awareness of these artists as wide as possible. In this blog I’ll discuss my favorite Japanese music artists… for the second time, since things have changed a bit. In fact, there’s so many that I wanted to talk about that I had to double the length of the list! 

10) Kenshi Yonezu

One immediate difference between this list and the previous one is that Dempagumi.inc is not on here anymore. I still stand by everything I said originally; they are definitely the best idol group and one of the best examples of mainstream pop out there. However, I am biased toward rock and innovation (plus, Dempa’s newest album was pretty lackluster). As a result, someone else has snuck onto the list: Kenshi Yonezu.

Yonezu is a strange case. He seems to be one of the most popular singers in Japan… and only in Japan. I have no idea how someone as famous as he is has not gone global at this point, but that’s just Japanese marketing I guess! Anyways, while I’d normally be against someone so popular, the reason that I like him is that he’s not as mainstream as you would think. In fact, his music is very abstract and strange.

Why is his music strange? Er… it just is. Yonezu’s music falls into a weird, Beatles-esque prog-soft-pop-rock style (confused?), and it’s something you just gotta try. You never know what he will pull out of his eccentric butt. 

While I don’t love ALL of his songs (hence his position at the bottom of the list), he’s definitely a man who seems to care about quality over quantity. Since his 2012 record label debut, the man has only put out three studio albums. And it’s not like he’s an anime singer, like- say- Konomi Suzuki, who can only put out singles when they’re hired for an anime. He clearly invests all of his brain meats into his music, and I commend the guy for it. Yonezu’s music has been getting better and better over time. While I find his first album, Diorama, to be hit-or-miss, his second album, Bootleg is all-around great, and his newest album, Stray Sheep, is utter “Wow”. I put him on here in anticipation that he’ll evolve to levels beyond what anyone can predict (and maybe go global?). 

9) Hysteric Panic

Hysteric Panic is a very underrated J-rock group that I love because of their simple, primal energy. Songs fall within the hard rock category, but border on metal after their fourth album, Hypnotic Poison. For some reason, I want to describe their style as “memey” because of how nonsensical they sound at times. 

They also have a wide range of vocals, from a high-pitched, Axl Rose-sounding guy, to a guy who sounds like a constipated alligator (and on occasion, what sounds like a choir of Japanese school girls). Regardless of if it’s multiple guys or the same guy, this wide range of screams makes Hysteric Panic stand out as a thrash band. At present, their original guitarist has left (I think?), and they haven’t shown any signs of a new release. I’m concerned with how they will move from here, but if they’ve truly been acknowledged by the spirit of rock, they’ll party till they’re purple!

8) Gacharic Spin

I had a debate over Gacharic Spin or RAISE A SUILEN from Bang! Dream (which I discussed in my review of the latter’s first album). But in the end, I chose Gachapin. But even then, I was hesitant. I am fully aware that they have changed a lot since their initial formation, especially after their original drummer tragically passed away. The problem in my case is that Apple Music didn’t exactly HAVE the band’s older stuff, and as a result, I’m ONLY familiar with their newer, more electronic sound (side note: I’ve also just started listening to Galneryus, and they will probably replace Gachapin in a third version of this post).

But you know what, sometimes that’s them apples. Why would I not be qualified as a fan just because I never heard the original lineup? In any case, the Gachapin I know has garage-style jams featuring various auto-tuning and synth effects for style. 

The one problem I have with them is that they are pretty inconsistent. When they go full-on, they are fricking serious electronic metal. However, a lot of their stuff feels like typical rock and kind of… there. I get that not all songs can be bangers, but that really shows at times in Gachapin. But you know what, the great thing about rock bands is that if you don’t like them, then they can just say “Eff you!” and go about their day. Anyway, if you like rock with punch, then check out Gachapin.

7) Crossfaith

I dropped MIYAVI after two albums, Hikaru Utada after one and a half, and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu after just half of a compilation album. I’ve made my peace with them, but there’s always the classic counterargument for any critic who doesn’t finish a thing: “It gets way better later!” As much as you can argue about that defense until the cows come home, it is partially true, and Crossfaith is such a case.

I royally disliked them at first. I started from the very beginning: 2009’s The Artificial Theory of Dramatic Beauty. I loved the idea of thrash with a techno atmosphere, but it sounded bad. They only used one or two synth effects, and the singing was awful. Kenta Koie sings entirely through the type of throaty scream that I only previously heard as backing vocals (like Hysteric Panic), and in English. Oof. 

But hey, Crossfaith wouldn’t be on here without a reason. I was about to give up on them after 2011’s The Dream, the Space. However, I gave them one more chance on their 2012 EP, Zion. It ended up being a marginal improvement, and enough of one for me to try their 2013 album, Apocalyze. That album instantly changed my views of the band. As soon as I heard the intro track, ‘Prelude’, followed by ‘We Are the Future’, I went from a critic of Crossfaith to a fan in the span of a single song. I can’t describe exactly what it was, but they seemed to have a better sense of how to combine metal and synth to make a truly futuristic metal band THAT SHOULD’VE DONE THE BOSS MUSIC IN XENOBLADE X *grumble grumble*. 

As good as Apocalyze was, they kept growing. Koie’s singing goes from bearable to straight-up good, and they start experimenting with songs like Wildfire, a groovy fusion of disco and metal featuring the band Skindred (whom I know nothing about other than that song). Their 2018 concept album, EX_MACHINA, and 2020 EP, SPECIES, are great showcases of how much they’ve grown over the years. My only issue with them (besides their first two albums) is that they don’t really do guitar solos. Normally, I’d find that disgraceful, but when I’m listening to their raw cyberpunk rage, it never bothers me.

6) Wagakki Band

Before I start talking about these guys, I shall have you know that I was an avid fan of this group well before their collaboration with Evanescence. That being said, onto the actual discussion!

I know I shouldn’t make a post about “how wild and weird Japan is”, but Wagakki Band is something that could only be formed in Japan. And I’m saying that because their… equipment is much more accessible in Japan than anywhere else.

Wagakki Band is a massive group, and that’s because there’s a LOT of instruments (and yet Slipknot somehow has more members). Along with the usual rock instruments, such as guitars and drums, they also have some very vintage instruments. Specifically, wagakki instruments (which literally means traditional Japanese instruments). They are a true East Meets West rock band! But of course, I do not want to give them credit where it isn’t due; I’m pretty sure at least two bands have done the same thing way earlier. However, those bands are old, and older Japanese bands are shaky at best when it comes to licensing in my region, so… I’m gonna stick with Wagakki Band for pretty much forever.

In any case, the way they combine the two styles of music is so good it’s almost creepy. My favorite aspect is how well the *insert name of old-timey Japanese drum here* works for hard rock. What’s even weirder is the fact that their vocalist, Yuko Suzuhana, sings in an old-timey style, and it also doesn’t feel like it clashes. Whether it’s a head-banger or a power ballad, Wagakki Band delivers. Japan has always had a knack for seamlessly integrating its modem culture with its traditional culture, and Wagakki Band is one such integration.

5) MYTH & ROID

Led by TomH@ck of OxT, MYTH & ROID was originally my favorite Japanese band, and was in 1st on early drafts of the original post. Although they are a solid prog-rock band that has more of an identity than most people in the ainsong industry, I realized that I find the artists in the Top 3 more irreplaceable. I don’t know if it’s because MYTH & ROID has way less discography or what, but them’s the brakes.

But hey, they’re still in Top Five for a reason. MYTH & ROID has managed to craft a distinct style that basically allows them to do whatever they want, as long as they maintain one consistency: MAKE. IT. AWESOME. Out of all the artists on this list, I have always exclaimed “WTF?!” with every song of theirs the first time I heard it.

At the time, I remember when I threw on ‘Styx Helix’ because it was a Re:ZERO song, and thought it was decent techno-chill. I later noticed that they also did OP 2 of the same show. I put on that song, ‘Paradisus Paradoxim’, and it completely blew me away with how different it was. I fell in love with MYTH & ROID right then and there, making them the first Japanese rock band I ever seriously tried to get into. While they are no longer my favorite, they are still a great band that stands out from the rest. I recommend giving them a listen if you’re tired of that mainstream crap.

4) BAND-MAID

This is a band I literally found out of nowhere. Although they’ve grown substantially more popular with their most recent album, I was a fan since summer 2019- snug within the range of “before it was cool.” When I made the life-changing decision of subscribing to Apple Music, one of the first bands I got into was- no, not BAND-MAID- but Passcode. Passocde’s great and all, but in the similar artists tab, I couldn’t help but notice BAND-MAID. And the rest is history.

BAND-MAID, whose claim to fame comes from their maid cafe-like attire, is a hard rock band that skirts the line of metal. And they’re a damn powerful one at  that. One distinct vibe I get from their music is something I rarely feel in any other J-Rock bands: Classic Rock. It’s not as prevalent as a certain other band on this list, but they definitely have an old-school, garage-y style reminiscent of stuff like AC/DC. “You only like them because they’re mimicking Western culture, you traitorous lech!” you exclaim. Well… I don’t define rock by any nationality. Sorry, bub.

I had some concerns when I first started listening to their breakthrough 2019 album, CONQUEROR, but it has definitely grown on me in the latter half. In conclusion, BAND-MAID is a ludicrously good group. Apple Music doesn’t have their very first album, but it has everything else. I personally started with their third studio album, Brand-New Maid, but you can honestly start anywhere.

3) nano

I can’t believe nano is not in first anymore. It was already surprising when I docked her to second place, but as you can see, she’s actually in third now. But why? After all, she is one of the few people in the anisong industry who really has a true style that is entirely her own. But hey, she’s still great, and here’s why…

nano generally does very aggressive hard rock and metal tracks, but also throws in electronic, or even in the case of one particular song, combines rock with traditional Japanese instruments. I find her older stuff to be rough around the edges, but from her third album, Rock On, and onwards, she’s gotten better and louder. Her albums are one of the best showcases of the evolution of an artist that I’ve ever heard. A lot of credit goes to whoever produces and mixes the music in order to bring out the best of her powerful voice and the instruments that her buddies play.

nano’s music is divided into two distinct types: Regular J-rock that’s used as assets for anime and such, and straight up Western-influenced hard rock, complete with English singing. The latter is typically used in albums, as the designated deep cuts. However, I find those to be some of the best filler, and oftentimes among nano’s best songs. I recommend going through all of her albums, or at least starting with Rock On and going chronologically from there.

2) Mili

I never liked pop music. I always associated the pop genre with mainstream. But out of nowhere, a pop band took my heart and almost sniped first place on this list. I present to you: Mili.

I have never been surprised by a 21st Century artist more than Mili. The idea of pop not having to be mainstream was legitimately mind-blowing to me. Normally, I can compare an artist to someone else; you saw that in this post. But I can’t compare Mili to anyone. They are unlike anything I’ve ever heard in my life. 

Their music is otherworldly. They use a combination of piano and synth that just has an air of uniqueness to it. While all their albums are great, they get better and better, to the point where it outclasses their older stuff by a lot. 2018’s Millennium Mother is such a good album I haven’t actually gone back to their first album, Mag Mell.

I can’t praise Mili without giving kudos to their vocalist, Cassie Wei (a.k.a. momocashew). Her voice is just absolutely phenomenal. Her English, along with the lyrics she sings, are great. Her voice can be both soothing and terrifying depending on the mood of the song. She’s truly one of the best Asian singers I’ve ever heard.

1) Lovebites

Mili was originally first on this list until just earlier this week. While they are definitely the most unique band I’ve heard from Japan, it’s still technically pop (or soft rock?). I like the heavy stuff, and that’s why Lovebites took first place.

If BAND-MAID is classic rock, then Lovebites is classic metal. They aren’t just my current favorite J-Metal band of all time; they’re among my favorite metal bands of all time. Underrated doesn’t even begin to describe them. They deserve way more than their puny five-digit amount of followers, that’s for sure.

Immediately, Lovebites comes off as similar to DragonForce, with their orchestral synth in a lot of their songs, and their multi-minute guitar solos. However, they have much more variety in terms of tempos and melodies, which- IMO- makes them better than DragonForce in a way. They have a venomous and aggressive aura that reminds me of none other than Judas Priest, and they ALSO have a level of simplicity that’s similar to Iron Maiden. This is no coincidence, because (unless they’re faking it), at least one of the members is a classic metal fanatic. And by the way, their vocalist, Asami, is amazing…. For the most part. Like Crossfaith’s Kenta Koie, she sings in Engrish, and I admit she doesn’t sound too great. However, it’s still easy to tell that she has amazing talent when it comes to singing itself. It took Koie a decade to sound good in English, and it’ll probably take Asami about as long to do the same.

If there’s any remaining issue, it’s that Lovebites needs a bit of experimentation. While their fast-paced music is about as good as similar songs from Priest and Maiden, that isn’t all that those two bands can do. In Lovebites’ case, that kind of music makes up the bulk of their career, and I know that they are more capable. But hey, they’ve pretty much just started. 2020’s album, Electric Pentagram, already sets a new standard of quality for them. It took Priest and Rush a decade to cement themselves into rock history. Where will Lovebites go in 2030? I can’t wait to find out.

Conclusion

I feel pretty safe saying that this is my definitive list for Japanese music artists. The only one I see changing the list is Galneryus, but I don’t know if it’d be worth making a third, identical post just for them. Japan might come off as a country full of dainty, yukata-wearing tea-sippers, but rock is a language that anyone can learn. And hopefully with this, you can see that Japan has a genuine sense of metal that isn’t fake and superficial like BABYMETAL. If you have a hankering for this stuff, give it a try (and follow the artists’ on social media because you’re not going to have any other source of news from them because Japan doesn’t want you to know they exist).

Talentless Nana Will Teach You to Not Trust Your Resident Moe Blob (First Impressions, Chapters 1-41)

Crunchyroll has never had the most… comprehensive catalogue of manga included with the premium subscription. Sure… I’ll be able to at least finish Attack on Titan on the same day as Japan without getting into legal trouble, but that’ll be beside the point when Adobe Flash Player dies this December without them updating the actual reader (assuming that I can’t alternatively use the mobile app, but I heard it was as buggy as heck). So, why not read one of the bizarre exclusives, that has all of the chapters up, while I can? Ladies and gentlemen… let’s check out Talentless Nana.

In Talentless Nana, a bunch of kids who have talents (i.e. superpowers) are sent to an academy on a deserted island to train, in order to fight the enemies of humanity. Our main protagonist, Nanao Nakajima, becomes quick friends with a new student named Nana Hiiragi, who has the ability to read minds. With the power of their inevitably blooming love for each other, they’ll learn and grow until they fight the enemies of humanity once and for all!

“Hey, wait a second!” you point out. “If the manga’s called Talentless Nana, then how come the titular character can read-?” Yeah… you noticed that too, didn’t you? *sigh* Look, I’m not gonna BS you. In order to properly review this manga, I must spoil the ending of chapter 1, because it’s a crucial tone setter that could make or break the whole manga to you. I could write the review without spoiling it, but I’d be glossing over something crucial to helping you properly decide if you want to read it, and that goes against what I want to be as a blogger. So, starting the next paragraph, I will be spoiling the end of chapter 1. Skip to the end of the review if you want a basic gist of the manga’s quality.

In the ACTUAL premise of Talentless Nana, the titular Nana Hiiragi is sent to the island where the enemies of humanity, those with talents are kept under the guise of training to fight an ersatz enemy, without them knowing they are their own enemies. Her mission is to use her wits to kill all the talented students without them finding out, and Nanao Nakajima is her first victim.

See how divisive this makes Talentless Nana? In a brilliant troll move, the manga begins in Nanao’s perspective, and aims to get you attached to the super adorable and compassionate Nana in record time. And just when you’re writing your fanfic about the two, Nanao is murdered, destroying your brain as a result (since you, hypothetically, imagined yourself as Nanao so you can pretend that you’ll find a significant other in life). It’s a perfect crotch-kick that takes advantage of a waifu-driven market.

So, besides breaking your heart and force-feeding you the shards, what does Talentless Nana have in terms of entertainment value? Basically, the main focus of the manga is that Nana befriends each student one at a time, pretending to be a ditzy moe blob. With each new victim, the rest of the group becomes more and more suspicious, and it’s pretty engaging to see her try to avoid having that suspicion turned on her.

Unfortunately (at least for some), the manga lacks the one thing that psychological thrillers “absolutely must have”, and that’s realism. Due to the superpowers, a lot of things that happen don’t make any sense, more so when Nana somehow manages to talk her way out of incriminating scenarios, like when people catch wind of a psychic’s photograph of her killing people in the future. Between this and the polarizing plot twist, I can totally see this getting widespread criticism when the anime airs: the lack of realism will perturb analytical viewers, and the twist will do the same to casual viewers.

Additionally, the manga has a pretty bland cast of characters. The only ones even worth discussing are Nana, who is actually pretty entertaining for the most part (at least until she starts sympathizing for her classmates which becomes kind of annoying), and Kyoya Onodera. Kyoya is a transfer student who arrives alongside her, but he’s not a spy like her; he’s one of her enemies. However, he’s actually smart, and he actually tries to, you know, investigate his classmates’ deaths. If this was a YA novel, Kyoya and Nana would end up making out by the end (hopefully they don’t).

The art is kind of average. While it captures motion pretty well, the character designs are incredibly bland, with Nana being the only standout character thanks to her hair. While it’s decent at making some scary closeups, it’s not really much in comparison to other manga art.

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Current Verdict: 7.5/10

While it has a number of issues, Talentless Nana is a decent guilty pleasure. I don’t normally “command” viewers to consume certain media, but due to the inevitable controversy the anime will cause, along with the death of Flash Player, I highly recommend at least reading a bit of the manga in order to be hip. Oh, and also, the fact that it will not be possible to read for much longer.

WATARU!!! The Divisive New Gag Isekai! (Volume 1 Review)

Sometimes, I think the stuff I’ve read has caused me to lose brain cells. I used to be pretty good at handling some mature and complex themes, but nowadays, I want simple, dumb stuff. The new J-Novel Club publication, WATARU!!! The Hot-Blooded Fighting Teen & His Epic Adventures After Stopping a Truck with His Bare Hands!, is one of those braincell-killers. I am pretty damn sure that a monumental amount of people would hate this LN, and yet… I LOVE IT!

In WATARU!!!, the titular Wataru Ito is about to be hit by the Truck-kun that has sent many-a clueless adolescent male to another world. Due to his insane strength, he stops it with his bare hands. However, as to not kill the driver from the forced deceleration, he lets the truck hit him. Wataru is brought into another world, and sets off to fight the strongest opponent: the Demon Lord, Deus!

This… WATARU!!! is just something else. Okay, so if you’re looking into reading this, I recommend you watch two completely unrelated television shows. The first of which is The Legend of Korra. I made my case about how much of a hot mess it is, but the radio announcer guy who does the recap has a really good voice for reading WATARU!!! You see, ninety percent of the sentences are written with exclamation points, enough to put Elaine Benes to shame. It’s ridiculous and over-the-top, but I love it. The narrator even tells you how you feel, which I would normally find pretentious, but it’s done in a way that’s perfectly in tune with the LN’s personality. There’s also references to fake-real-world martial arts techniques, which the LN adds its own footnotes to. I recommend reading those in Siri’s voice to make it sound funnier.

The second show I think you should watch is Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Not only is it one of the few anime so good that I enjoy watching without reading the source manga (because half of it is unlicensed in English at this point), but it also has a sense of its own ridiculousness. The dramatic reactions to everything, plus the appearance of onomatopoeia onscreen, have been my reference for visualizing the cinematics of WATARU!!!, and I recommend you do the same.

In case you couldn’t tell, WATARU!!!’s sense of humor boils down to being dumb and overly meta while spamming exclamation points. It’s the kind of thing that you’ll know whether you like it or not within five seconds. It relies entirely on the quirky writing style which makes a big deal out of everything. And another tongue-and-cheek thing that WATARU!!! does is having modern facilities in a fantasy world. They have rock concerts, 1950’s-style diners, and even a gothic shop called “Tot Hopic”. Half the time, Wataru ends up fighting enemies through rap and cooking.

The characters are surprisingly enjoyable. Wataru himself is Gary Sue on steroids, and it makes the over-the-topness of the whole series feel complete. However, he doesn’t beat Best Girl Aria. She comes off as a typical heroine, but ends up playing the straight-man role (while frequently getting stabbed in the forehead). Aria also has weird quirks, such as completely disregarding her parents getting kidnapped by the Demon Lord in favor of knockoff Beyblades, and playing drums with her feet.

Along with them is Résistance, one of Deus’s minions who gets the Piccolo treatment and joins Wataru’s party. She’s not as great as Aria, but she’s still a fun character. Deus himself is hilarious; he just eats his pudding. The problem with him is that he has diabetes, and yet he keeps eating his pudding despite it. I have no idea if it would offend someone with diabetes, but knowing today’s culture, it probably would.

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Verdict: 9/10

WATARU!!! is stupid, extremely stupid. And yet… it’s a masterpiece. This is starting out as one of the best gag isekai I’ve read, and it could become one of my favorite light novel series of all time. Reading WATARU!!! is truly an experience, but it’s not for everyone. I can only recommend it to fans of stuff like Konosuba and Cautious Hero.

Dragon Quest XI Shows that Simplicity is a Double-Edged Sword (Full Game Review)

JRPGs are my favorite genre of videogames by far. Even though I understand that a lot of them are time sinks and take a long time to really strut their stuff. Just how much benefit of the doubt should they get? After my first impressions of Dragon Quest XI… about a year ago, I finally managed to finish the game. Let’s see how it measures up now.

Hopefully you don’t play JRPGs for the story because DQXI goes out of its way to be a bog-standard JRPG. The plot is about the main character, whom you get to name whatever you want. He is a special hero guy who needs to fight a big bad atop the same World Tree that’s been ripped from Norse mythology for about the 12,221st time to date. 

First things first, I do get that this game is meant to be an homage to simpler times. JRPGs these days get so layered that it’s near impossible to keep up (looking at you, Trails of Cold Steel), and DQXI is a good break from that. However, cliche is cliche.

But of course, I believe in execution over ideas. And for DQXI, I feel kind of mixed. At first, the cutscenes seemed pretty short and sweet; enough to get the point across since they know you’ve seen all this before. But in the second half of the game, it started to take itself super seriously, and the cutscenes got more abundant. The cinematics felt bog-standard, and even half-assed at times. I felt like this game didn’t know if it wanted to provide a streamlined narrative or if it wanted to pass itself off as something more epic.

And to be honest, it’s more so me instead of the game. In my life, I’ve seen variations of the same lines of dialogue hundreds, if not thousands, of times. I decided that I needed to pick my battles when it came down to if I wanted to be emotionally invested in a story, and DQXI did not make the cut. I see comments like “It’s cliche, but it has a ton of heart” for stuff like this, and that’s when I realized that the appeal of Dragon Quest as a whole is that human emotional mindset that eludes me to this day.

In addition to the narrative, the characters embody JRPG tropes at their most uninspired and cliche; the very definition of by-the-book. The only character that I liked was Sylvando, but that’s more so because his archetype is inherently difficult to mess up compared to everyone else. And Toriyama… I’m sorry, but it feels like this man’s finally starting to run out of steam as an artist. While the art style itself is timeless, after this many years, one can only come up with so many ideas. Either a character is more or less ripped straight from Dragon Ball (like the main character, who looks too much like Android 17), or it appears Toriyama just took a stock fantasy design and slapped his signature face style on it.

I am ragging on the story and characters a lot, but if there’s one positive, it’s… the fact that this game came out in the 2010s. If anyone’s familiar with the good ol’ days (or watches a lot of YouTubers who play old games), you’d know that localization was a BIT terrible back then. They botched numerous translations, and straight-up censored any presence of Japanese culture (which Yo-Kai Watch does anyway *grumble* *grumble*), and anything that Westerners would consider taboo. As a result, it’s weird to see a lot of old tropes not censored in DQXI. We have plenty of porno mags, actually translated as such, and the game’s weird obsession with trying to involve the main character and his older half-sister in an incestuous relationship. They do censor prostitution with the onomatopoeia “*puff* *puff*”, but that could be chalked up as a timeless Dragon Quest meme that just stuck over the years. Another BIG distinction is that this is the first JRPG I have ever played that refers to KO’d party members as “dead”. SO EDGY. The story writing might be meh, but at least the flavor text isn’t!

And even then, sometimes the flavor text has TOO much personality. For example, if there’s anything you are unable to do in the game, the text is arbitrarily read as “You can’t currently do XYZ yet”. As a writer, I learned to not have such redundancy in text, and it bothers me that it’s in an official game; it felt like they were just bragging about how good their localization is. Another standout feature is that every area has its own [racist] dialect. While some of them are cute, these accents are often so thick that I had legitimate trouble reading them. Sometimes, too much of a good thing is bad.

Fortunately, what I really care about is gameplay. DQXI is a good, old fashioned, rootin’ tootin’, retro JRPG. When battle starts, you pick your character’s command when it’s their turn, and do the move. Everything is as it says on the tin. If you’ve played a JRPG, you’ve played this one. Battles can also be set to go extra fast, just in case you need to grind, but this game isn’t designed to be grindy (but that doesn’t mean grinding isn’t encouraged, like for materials and stuff). 

Thankfully, DQXI has a lot of modern quality-of-life mechanics. For example, you can press Y on the pause menu to instantly heal every party member in the most MP-friendly way possible (THANK YOU). Also, whenever you sell an item, the shopkeep will warn you if you’re about to sell something one-of-a-kind. 

Conversely, there is a very Earthbound-like inventory management mechanic. Each party member can carry only so many items, including equipment. Fortunately, there are infinitely large bags for excess items, equipment, as well as a slot for key items. Transferring items is pretty easy, but you gotta remember to do it, or else you’ll be thirty-plus hours into the game, in a tough battle, and only have poop-tier healing items.

The modern twist that Dragon Quest XI uses to stand out is Pep Powers. With Pep Powers, your character basically goes Super Saiyan (since this is an Akira Toriyama game, after all), and if the right party members are Pepped, you get access to what essentially are Dual and Triple Techs from Chrono Trigger, and as expected, being able to try out all these combinations is no doubt the best aspect of the game. However, there are a number of issues. Although the game says that Pep kicks in after your character takes a lot of damage, similar to a Tales Of game’s Overlimit, in my experience it seems to be purely random. Furthermore, the Pep status goes away as soon as you use one Pep Power, or after a certain number of turns, which the game thankfully gives a visual indication on the last turn that it’s available on. What sucks is that the Pep Powers are the coolest aspect of the game, yet you cannot control the conditions at which you use them other than with items that you don’t get until AFTER YOU BEAT THE FINAL BOSS. Fortunately, ending a battle in the Pep state causes it to carry over, which can help in a tougher battle; but at the same time you’d have to grind battles if you wish to rely on Pep for said situations. 

Another thing I find tedious is the game’s skill tree. Normally, I love skill trees in JRPGs, however, Dragon Quest XI‘s is really stingy. You only get skill points on level up, which starts off small but comes in bigger chunks at higher levels. This is good because most skills require 6, 10, or even more skill points each. There is a mechanic to unlearn skills, but it can only work on entire categories, which is a pain if you only want to drop one skill.

One of the most interesting aspects of the game is that everyone has different weapons they can use, such as a regular sword or a greatsword for the main protagonist. Each section of their skill tree is devoted to one of the weapon styles, plus an additional style that’s unique to them only. I’ve been doing skill trees by committing to a single section at a time, which is likely not the way the game intends, since skills are pricier the further out from the center you go, and it’s a real pain. The game lets you re-equip different weapons mid-battle without taking up your turn, which is nice, so it’s possible that the game wants you to fill in multiple branches at once.

The crafting system in Dragon Quest XI is really fun. With the Fun-time Forge, you can craft new equipment with materials you find around the world (as well as their recipes). This starts a minigame where you have a limited number of strikes to fill up gauges on different areas of the equipment. You want to fill it up to the green section, but REALLY want to fill up to the arrow on each gauge (which will be indicated by it turning yellow). The closer you get, the better the final product will be, with the best being a Perfection. Forging things successfully gives you Perfectionist Pearls, which can be consumed to reforge something to make it stronger. Make sure you reforge as many things as possible, because it doesn’t just increase stats, but the power of bonus effects, like elemental and status resistances. Levelling up the main character also boosts your forging skills, which can increase your Focus and allow him to learn Flourishes, which are special moves that make the minigame even more interesting than before. Options are limited early on, but it gets rather interesting on the tougher equipment.

The world of DQXI is- although colorful and vibrant- very large and bland. I get that this world was designed with the ability to be played in old school top-down style or 3D, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less uninspired. Also, the game’s soundtrack is kind of meh, but it doesn’t grate on you unless you start doing tedious stuff like material farming. The towns have the best personality and the most thought put into them, but they seem to act like vehicles for padding the game more than anything else.

Oh, speaking of padding: get used to that a lot. Like I said before, each first arrival in a new town has you running around towards numerous objectives that take place throughout the town itself. The worst case is the interlude in between the first two acts of the game. In it, you have to play through four consecutive scenarios, each starting a party member by themselves, and none of them are even remotely enjoyable besides the first one. You can also potentially permanently miss collectibles during these scenes, and I only say “potentially” because it’s not entirely clear if optional stuff done in these scenarios has impact for later (if this was a Final Fantasy or Tales Of game, it definitely would). 

But after that agonizing section, the game truly starts. It sucks that it takes about thirty-five hours, but it really does go from a slightly-above-average JRPG to a straight-up great JRPG. There is so much more depth, and each party member gets a ton of new abilities after going through huge epiphanies in their character arcs. Once you start this part of the game, it appears that you can tackle things in any order you choose… until you are gated time and time again by several annoying prerequisites. I hate it when games do this, and DQXI is no exception.

As far as side quests go, there aren’t as many as most JRPGs. However, there is also a side section where you find weird ghosts that unlock different areas of past Dragon Quest worlds in a special, 2D only zone. The biggest problem with 2D mode is that the text box color and font color can be very straining to read. Plus, you can’t save in this place at all, which reduces the incentive to knock out many quests at once. These never expire, so it’s ideal to do them all at onces towards the end of the game (also, you don’t have to gouge your eyes out at the freakin’ UI for as long since you’d be higher level).

The game also has a Draconian Quest setting, which lets you custom set some handicaps which will make the game harder. I chose one where NPCs can sometimes lie, because I thought they would give me false game advice, such as, “Use this ability on this enemy, whoops that actually does the opposite of killing them,” but the lies are all gobble-di-gook and the game plays a jingle whenever one actually occurred. It’s funny if it happens with a story-important NPC, but I imagine it gets really hard if you have tough enemies and no armor handicaps. The later parts of the game would be nightmarish like this.

When it comes to a casual campaign, DQXI is relatively tame. As long as your party is at its proper level, and you understand the mechanics, it isn’t too difficult. There are some dumb quirks, however, such as the fact that enemies can randomly start with an advantage even when you get a pre-emptive strike. Another really stupid thing is the case with any status that can be cured by attacking the afflicted person. If you use an attack that targets all enemies, you will target the person with the status as well. I have gotten characters killed because of this. Also, I have a pet peeve for any JRPG where you can’t see the turn order in battle, and DQXI is one such case.

Like any JRPG, DQXI has gambling. Fortunately, DQXI has one of the most generous cases of gambling in any JRPG. The game has two casinos, the second of which comes up during the second act. Naturally, the latter casino has the better prizes. In fact, the first casino doesn’t have anything worth buying long term, except for some recipe book. The other casino has a great weapon for Sylvando, some really useful equipment, and the only purchasable MP restoratives in the game. 

The only method I used to earn tokens was the good old slots. I wasn’t old (read as: stupid) enough to gamble IRL, so I never got to understand how things like blackjack and roulettes work. The Slime Quest slots had twelve pages of instructions, and I couldn’t understand crap. I presume the regular slots are the least lucrative method, but they’re reliable. Use save scumming often, and build up enough tokens off of the low paying machines to bet big on the red, high paying machines. The slots are very generous; once you build two of a kind, the game is likely to indulge and complete it for you. You also have a chance of a Mrs. Slime giving you a push if you’re one away from completing a combination. The best thing that can happen is Metal Mode, which will temporarily double the value of everything. Generally, I had much more luck during this state than regular slots. Earning Free Spins is also great because it prioritizes using them over Silver Spins. Thus, earning them during Metal Mode will effectively give you extra Silver Spins. Getting five 7s in Metal Mode gives you the jackpot, and I’ve earned around seven of them during my gameplay. This is by far the easiest gambling area in any JRPG.

If there’s anything I’ll give props to Dragon Quest XI for, it’s perhaps having one the most substantial post-games of any JRPG I’ve ever played. It doesn’t just open up an entirely new story arc, but it gives you tons of new quests, the Ultimate Key to help access new areas, and more. Unfortunately, the whole premise of the post-game is so bad that it makes any remotely salvageable aspect of the main story null and void.

To sum up the post-game, you basically travel back in time to pre-emptively defeat the final boss (don’t worry; it’s a completely different fight the second time), which causes an EVEN EVILER EVIL to appear. While it’s typical for new villains to show up for no reason in battle shounen, the time travel aspect is what kills it. Toriyama is no stranger to the trope, but in this particular instance, a lot of the genuine struggles of the latter half of the game are completely wiped off the slate. One of your main party members dies, and is brought back with no consequence. Any amount of character development is out the window. With the exception of two party members, you just experience abridged versions of those same struggles that feel way stiffer than the first time around. And all the new abilities that they awakened at that point? Mr. Popo just waves some pixie dust and they learn it all back instantly! I was willing to give the plot some sort of benefit of the doubt, but this post-game arc crosses the line. I mean, wow.

One final confession before I give the final score: I’m publishing this review without having completely completed the post-game. I’m sorry, but I have next to no time in my life. I simply do not like DQXI enough to effectively double the length of the game (yes that’s how much there is to do after the final boss). But honestly, I doubt that beating the final FINAL boss will single-handedly change my opinion of the WHOLE game.

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Final Verdict: 8/10

Dragon Quest XI is a great JRPG, but it’s not the best. I find it baffling that a lot of people in the community seem to absolutely adore this game, as if it was one of the greatest JRPGs ever. Maybe they figured out how to manipulate the Pep Powers, which could’ve enhanced the experience. It could be a generational thing; it borrows elements from Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger, and while veterans might see an inferior variant, kids who’re playing DQXI as their first ever JRPG would have their minds blown nonetheless. Overall, I’d recommend DQXI if you’re a JRPG junkie, but there are a lot of other things that outclass it.