I had an inkling to play the Monument Valley games, but I didn’t go through with it because they were mobile games. One hour on them would mean one hour of iPad life, period. I recently regained interest in them when they were ported to PC, with new, upscaled editions that include all the DLC. So, yeah, here’s my review of Monument Valleys 1 & 2, assuming that they play similarly enough to justify a single review of both.
In Monument Valley, you are a girl named Ida on a quest for forgiveness. In Monument Valley 2, a young mom named Ro takes her kid to the valley so she can be a better mom or something.
So… these games are gorgeous. Each level has a unique look, with the only consistency being in the minimalistic, abstract, isometric style. The music is really calm and ambient, perfect for puzzle-solving. The music is also very dynamic, adding little bits of flair as feedback when you solve a part of the puzzles, and when you interact with the environment. The Panoramic Editions, naturally, have a lot of negative space, since they were originally designed for portrait oriented screens, but it feels like that this enhances the artstyle they were going for; the levels feel like parts of their own little universes, cut off from everything else. Sometimes, I sat back and soaked in the game’s whimsical atmosphere.
You might as well, since they are both quite short. Even with the added DLC, each game is easily doable in under three hours. Fortunately, unlike other big indie games of similar length such as What Remains of Edith Finch, the Monument Valley games are much cheaper when it comes purely to the proportion of content versus dollar. The Panoramic Collection Bundle is less than 15USD as it is.
In any case, the basic gameplay boils down to optical illusion-based puzzles. Some components in each level can be manipulated, as indicated by some little nubs or by having a faucet thingy attached to them. By arranging them just right, you can build bridges and open pathways straight out of an M.C. Escher painting. The mechanic starts off simple, but gets more involved as you go on.
It sounds like the perfect game that requires inducing a migraine to beat, but it’s not. The experience with these games is really to be impressed by how well thought-out the levels are. Every single one of them feels iconic and memorable in some way, and boy, it must’ve been a real pain to program them. Most of the difficulty comes in just processing what you can interact with and going from there. The DLC chapters in the first game are probably the hardest, but even then, they aren’t too bad.
Overall, I feel like Monument Valley 2 is the better game. It has more of a story, and they really push the games’ artstyle in an even wilder direction. Things get much more abstract and weird. However, I almost feel like it’s the easier of the two. It might be because the game cared more about its story? I dunno, maybe I just got mad gamer skills (*sarcasm*).
Speaking of story, I might as well discuss the games’ narratives, or lack thereof. Similar to the aforementioned indie titles I’ve compared this series to, it doesn’t exactly take rocket science to understand what’s going on in either game. While light in dialogue, there are plenty of context clues that telegraph what the takeaway is, especially in the second game. Neither are groundbreaking, but you’ll probably cry if you’re the emotional type… especially in the second game. Gee, I wonder how much more ham-fisted I can be with the notion that the second game has a better story.
Final Verdict for Both Games: 9/10
There’s pretty much nothing wrong with the Monument Valley games (he says as he gives them an imperfect score). They’re short, but are a better value than a lot of other games on the market. While they aren’t as puzzle-y as Baba Is You, they manage to be very novel in their own right. There’s no harm in giving them a try.
Graci Kim’s The Last Fallen Star was one of the better series openers from Rick Riordan Presents. It’s only natural that I would be anticipating the sequel, The Last Fallen Moon. Let’s hope it doesn’t suffer the notorious sequel curse.
When we last left off, Riley narrowly managed to save the world from a vengeful goddess. However, it cost her whole clan’s ability to heal, and almost everyone’s memories of her existence! Now she’s as miserable as the main protagonist of a YA novel. After a brutal attack on her household, she’s fed up, and decides to take matters into her own hands. Riley ingests a potion that temporarily stops her heart, effectively rendering her dead, so she can go to the heavenly realm of Cheongdang and find Saint Heo Jun and convince him to become the new patron of her clan to restore their powers.
So, we have another installment set in the underworld. Classic. In Korean folklore, hell is known as Jiok, and to be honest… I wasn’t exactly impressed with Kim’s vision of it. If you’ve seen Coco, then it is basically the same idea, where modern bullcrap like customs and long lines are integrated into the mythological space. Jiok bears a striking resemblance to New York City, or rather vice-versa, which seems cool on paper, but the critic in me considers that Kim did this to avoid the logistics issues with figuring out where landmarks are relative to each other. The most creative aspect is how Kim retconned the crap out of the different punishments, where they go from chambers of torment to vacation getaways. It’s also a big aspect of the overall story, so it’s not just there for the lols.
Speaking of the story, the plot at least felt like a step up from before. There’s a lot of bobbing, weaving, sneaking, and stealing during the course of Riley’s journey through Jiok and Cheongdang. There’s also a lot more at stake this time around, although I cannot say exactly why, due to spoilers.
Unfortunately, any positives I might’ve had about the cast are kind of out the window. Three protagonists are in focus this time: Riley, Hattie—who is comatose and able to visit the spiritrealm as a result, and newcomer, Dahl. Is it just me or is it a trope for character arcs to reset in between books? Riley Oh is whinier than ever this time around! In fact, most of the book is basically the Riley Oh Torture Porn Train; a lot of it feels orchestrated specifically to dump on her.
We at least get some more screentime with Hattie, but she has some moments that I felt like were there for shock value. Dahl is perhaps the best character thus far. He’s slick and smooth, but has many, MANY secrets underneath. He was born in the spiritrealm, and naturally, he wants to be human because what else would an immortal being want? At least his fascination with toilets is adorable.
With this being the spiritrealm, we get a lot of exposure to characters from Korean folklore. Unlike the Cave Bear Goddess from the previous book, they have way more personality, and better dialogue to boot. Sadly, I can’t discuss any of them due to spoilers.
Final Verdict: 8.65/10
The Last Fallen Moon is a big step up from the previous book, even if it is still rough around the edges. Even as a Japanese culture nerd, who’s always been jealous of South Korean culture for being more accepted by the West, I’ve been able to enjoy this franchise quite a bit. Hopefully the next (and final?) book will be even better!
Well, this is a first for me! I have never read an independently published book before, and Evolution’s Hand Book 1: Executive Action is by the very same Crow from Crow’s World of Anime right here on WordPress! I had a Barnes & Noble gift card leftover from Christmas, and since I don’t read light novels on nook anymore, I basically got this for free. Well, what’s important is that this review is going to help spread the word. That makes up for it, right?
I can’t really discuss the premise of Executive Action in a single paragraph like I normally do. It’s structured like a good ol’ fashioned sci-fi novel. You’re thrown right into the story, and introduced to many characters all at once. You don’t know who’s a main character or not because they all have full first and last names. There are also many different plot threads and POVs introduced right out the gate, making it even harder to know what’s going on. I would’ve devoured this book back in my teen years when this genre was my jam, but now as a weeb reading books for children… yeah, “rusty” would be an understatement here.
If anything about Executive Action is simple, it’s that it’s got the classic cyberpunk trope of “conglomerates ruin everything.” The big, bad company this time around is Terra Consolidated Products. They’ve gained so much traction that even the United Nations is powerless against them. Meanwhile, one of our intrepid heroes—Melchizedek Conrad—is running a small outfit called TranStell. They have a secret technology called Fissures, which expedite space travel, and it is inevitably leaked to TCP very early on in the story.
Crow, despite being an anime blogger, definitely didn’t write Executive Action for anime fans; this is adult fiction, and the first rule of being an adult is no fun allowed. The pacing is deliberate, the characters are grounded, and the “action” boils down to various forms of big business and subterfuge instead of cyborg Hollywood actors gunning everything up. On top of that, there are about as many subplots as characters, and you gotta keep track of them all!
The worldbuilding also keeps in hard sci-fi tradition. In order to be immersive, none of the actual mechanics are explained to us in any way; it’s supposed to be imagined as a contemporary novel in the actual future, instead of a hypothetical future. There are many new ways to address workers, for instance. Also, the notion that America will one day split into several splinter nations comes true in the book’s worldbuilding.
The main plot starts in earnest when a crew goes on their first expedition to the star system on the other side of the Fissure. TCP sends a mole in the form of Quaid Atair, who I of course pictured as Randy Quaid, to sabotage the crew. At this point, Executive Action becomes a long game of Among Us where we already know who’s sus thanks to the power of dramatic irony.
I sure sound like I’m giving Executive Action some flack, but I really mean the opposite. What I’ve described may sound like negatives, but this is simply what this kind of book is. Crow, for all intents and purposes, did everything one hundred percent correctly. The plot and its subplots all progress organically, and it feels like if Fissures were actually discovered IRL, things would play out more-or-less how they did in Executive Action, for better or for worse. In my case, it would be that latter.
As for characters, it’s a huge cast, and you’re generally not given enough features to visualize them, let alone keep track of them (this is also a hard science fiction trope, so it’s not a flaw on Crow’s part either). I’m sure I’ve put my fifteen cents in when it comes to super-grounded characters, but in case you didn’t see it before, allow me to tell you now: I have autism, and thus I cannot understand the appeal nor nuances of “normal” characters who behave very much like real people. It’s why I hate it when reviewers praise a character for “feeling like a real person” because I cannot understand how to arrive at that conclusion. In any case, I did find Matsushita to be the Best Girl. She’s Conrad’s secretary, and to be honest, she should be having his job because she’s better at it and more. She also gets to beat the crap out of someone, which was fun to see.
Final Verdict: 8.35/10
Objectively, Executive Action should have a higher score than this. While not on the level of peak sci-fi like Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, I could definitely see the same level of quality as with any big contemporary franchise of the genre. However, when you start reading manga for children for a decade, you kind of become… er… stupider. I was unable to appreciate Executive Action for what it was, and it’s entirely my fault. If you enjoy business-y, dialogue-driven dramas, then Executive Action is an easy buy.
Oh, and Crow, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry for being harsh. I get the struggles of being a writer, and I truly wish you the best for your new career!
Welcome to yet another new attempt at formatting my blog! In case you couldn’t tell from reading my music reviews, I struggle hard with them. For some reason, other music reviewers can really break down each individual track, and provide distinct descriptions for each one, using terms that I don’t even understand. They’re super professional, and I am not. However, I was able to salvage two pretty meh reviews I did recently by combining them into one post. The reviews were still what they were, but for some reason, the post just felt more substantial by having two short reviews of those albums instead of me trying to replicate what I read on other sites. Mack’s Music Highlights is the same idea on steroids.
I plan to post this new series on a bi-annual basis. Like this, I can put short blurbs that more-than-sufficiently do the bands justice. More importantly, I can cram in as many bands as I want, as opposed to having to schedule one day for that one album review. I can also cover bands I wouldn’t normally talk about, due to my desire to prioritize more obscure bands over popular bands that I happen to like. Word of warning in case you’re new: I mostly cover metal here. I would call this “Mack’s Metal Highlights”, but there are a few non-metal bands I follow, and I love them just about as much as any metal outfit. Anyway, without further ado, let’s begin this… thing!
Power Paladin: With the Magic of Windfyre Steel
Power Paladin is my first ever impression of Iceland’s metal scene. The band consists of bassist Kristlefur þorsteinsson, drummer Einar Karl Júlíusson, guitarists Bjarni þór Jóhannsson and Ingi þórisson, keyboardist Bjarni Egill Ӧgmundsson, and vocalist Atli Guðlaugsson. Like with many new and obscure bands, that’s all I know about them. Holy crap, it took me at least five minutes to type the members’ names because of how many special characters I had to use!
What immediately jumps out is that Windfyre Steel is eighties A.F. Sure, I once said that DragonForce was “Survivor but with a touch of very fast metal” back before I knew what power metal was, but Windfyre Steel REALLY feels eighties. The tempo is a lot slower than DragonForce (i.e. normal, human speed), and the sound of the vocals is way more reminiscent of the time as well. In fact, the whole production has that tinny quality of a lot of hair metal, and it felt very nostalgic. There’s also the added benefit of it having nonsensical medieval theming versus the “I wanna grab that girl’s massively large posterior” that a lot of actual hair metal was about.
Vorga: Striving Toward Oblivion
I know nothing about Vorga other than that they’re from Germany. Don’t blame me; their label is literally called Transcending Obscurity, so this is one of those bands that’s proud to be underground. Unfortunately, here’s where it gets awkward. As of the release of Striving Toward Oblivion, their drummer has left the band. It must be really weird hearing an album that was recorded with the original lineup, but without that same lineup existing in the present. I wish them luck in finding a new member, or that one of the remaining members can play drums.
I wasn’t expecting much with Striving to Oblivion, but it ended up surprising me as one of the best black metal debuts of the year. As evidenced by other sci-fi black metal bands like Imperialist, the subgenre really conveys the darkness of space (which is ironic, considering that most sci-fi extreme metal bands are technical death metal). However, I found Vorga to really kick it up a notch. While you might not like their modern sound (versus the REALLY staticy old black metal), each song is engaging and powerful. It’s nothing new, but it’s something worth checking out!
Pure Wrath: Hymn to the Woeful Hearts
According to Encyclopaedia Metallum, Pure Wrath is an atmospheric black metal band run by a dude named Januaryo Hardy. Although, to make things more confusing, Pure Wrath considers itself to be “melancholic black metal” on its Facebook page. Cool. I love subgenres.
Pure Wrath’s basic style is that of a more aggressive Sojourner. There’s some fast tempos, but always time for some string and woodwind instruments to put the “atmospheric” in atmospheric black metal. However, Woeful Hearts is a lot more intense. Surprising, I know, considering the cover art is an old lady with her back to a burning house. Pure Wrath’s 2020 EP, The Forlorn Soldier, was about the dark side of Indonesian history, and I can only assume it’s a new lyrical theme for his career moving forward. With that in mind, it makes a lot of sense for this album to be so much heavier than the previous outings. Unfortunately, Hardy’s vocal performance isn’t the most fluent. Well, it’s the emotions that count, right?
Apparently, Bloodywood is this year’s Spiritbox; i.e. 2022’s most anticipated debut. However, unlike with Spiritbox, I was on the hype train for this as well, even though I barely managed to board it on time for the album release! All you need to do is look at the epic cover art (not pictured) to know exactly what Bloodywood is about: folk metal straight from India.
However, it’s so much more than that. Bloodywood incorporates electronics and rap in addition to the usual traditional instruments and multilingual lyrics. Unfortunately, that’s about all that can be described in words, because you have to listen to the embedded music video to get an idea of just how good this record is. I’m totally not just using that as an excuse to make you watch the video and give them YouTube money. I also won’t tell you to share the band’s existence with everyone you know, but I highly advise it.
The band’s best strength, other than its youthful energy, is its lyrical themes. Rakshak goes through a wide variety of emotions, from anger, to joy, to loss; mostly anger, though. Half the songs on here are brutally honest social commentaries, but for some reason, something is more cathartic from them than any other metal band that covers politics. Even their angriest song shows some hints of hope for a peaceful solution. The lyrics themselves are also clever; only they can roast politicians and WWE during the course of the same song. To be perfectly blunt, Bloodywood saved my life. Although for the sake of staying on topic, I’ll elaborate in a future post.
One of the worst aspects of this new series is that I really have no room to gush over cover art anymore. It sucks because I love showing my appreciation for a lot of the talented illustrators who make this artwork, especially whoever does Ghost’s art. This band’s album covers have been consistently getting better, and IMEPRA is a cut above the rest. It’s so intricate and detailed, yet not busy. I wouldn’t mind a mecha anime with this Papa Emeritus Gundam they got here.
For the past ten years, Ghost has employed an evolving but simple marriage of old-school metal and 1970s pop. However, IMPERA shows that they’re still capable of catching us off-guard. ‘Twenties’, for example, is just… really weird. Every time I hear the word I’m instantly going to think of the high-pitched “Twen-tieeeeees!” in the song’s chorus for the rest of my life (along with the “Yesssss” in ‘Griftwood’). Of course, there are some normal-er Ghost bangers, such as ‘Call Me Little Sunshine’, and ‘Hunter’s Moon’, the latter of which was wasted on Steven Spielberg’s “final” Halloween movie. Overall, IMPERA was well worth the wait.
Vanaheim: Een Verloren Verhaal
Bloodywood might be the big folk metal band everyone is talking about, but from within the Netherlands rose an underground sleeper hit: this debut album by Vanaheim. Ironically, I only found out about them by Googling Bloodywood and this having come up in the “people also search for” tab. With no real experience in Dutch folk metal, this was an easy impulse listen.
I’d say I made a great call. Basically, take the extreme metal elements of Hand of Kalliach—one of my favorite debuts from last year—add the catchy pagan anthems of Elvenking—one of my favorite folk metal bands of all time—and you get Een Verloren Verhaal. The lyrics are also sung in Dutch to boot. It’s a no-brainer that I love everything about this record.
Esprit D’Air: Oceans
I had tried to get into this famous Japanese-British soloist, but for some reason… their music just didn’t quite hit me. I liked about half the songs they had been putting out, but that’s not enough for me to be a fan. I wasn’t too excited for their new full-length, Oceans, but Esprit D’Air’s cover art is always so eye-catching that I just had to give it a whirl!
Surprisingly enough, I really enjoyed it. For a while, I felt like Esprit D’Air’s style was more of a poppy sound with metal instrumentation, but I didn’t get that vibe on Oceans at all. It’s much heavier, but with no shortage of the artist’s usual, whimsical synth sounds. There are also some growling guest vocalists to contrast mastermind Kaito Takahashi’s silky-smooth clean singing. Overall, it’s a solid record.
Angel Nation: Antares
Boy, I really shot myself in the foot with this one. In my review of Catalyst Crime’s self-titled debut from last year, I said I would cover Angel Nation’s third album, and here we are.
Angel Nation likes their music nice and simple. If you enjoy old-school, 1980s-pop-y metal, this band has it all, and Antares is a further step in the right direction. There are also plenty of synthesizers to boot.
Luminous Vault: Animate the Emptiness
I just learned of industrial metal, which is yet another of metal’s umpteen subgenres. I’ve apparently listened to a lot of bands considered industrial, and loved them without even knowing what it was. At first, I thought it was just a term used for high-synth elements in metal. Seems arbitrary.
However, on Luminous Vault’s debut, Animate the Emptiness, I learned of an important distinction that I would personally consider blasphemous: the drums are fake. I find percussion to be of utmost importance in music, and generally, those synthetic boots n’ cats just sound lifeless and wrong to me. Yet here we are with Luminous Vault, integrating that stuff with black metal.
Despite how much I don’t like not-drums, I actually found the album to be pretty solid. The sense of wrongness with the fake drums coupled with the actual guitars was very interesting. To give credit where credit is due, though, Luminous Vault is not remotely the first band to do this; apparently this style was pioneered by a band called Blut aus Nord from WAY back in the day (they just released a new album, and since they’re a popular band, I of course haven’t listened to it). In any case, this album’s pretty interesting.
Moonlight Sorcery: Piercing Through the Frozen Eternity (EP)
Hot take: I don’t exactly like old-school black metal. I tried with Behemoth, and I found myself pretty underwhelmed by them (well, there goes any qualifications as a metalhead that I could possibly have). However, I was still drawn into Finnish trio Moonlight Sorcery, on their compressed-as-all-get-out debut EP: Piercing Through the Frozen Eternity.
Moonlight Sorcery specializes in a rare subgenre called “melodic black metal”, which was apparently very criticized in the 1990s for no good reason. The icey-sounding synthesizers (which are the only other instruments that you can hear clearly besides the guitars) really sell the band’s brand, and make the album quite whimsical. What also stands out is hints of power metal melodies. This band has a lot of potential, hopefully to become the even rarer subgenre of “blackened power metal” in the future. We’ll have to see where their path leads them next!
Gloryhammer: Fly Away (Single)
I normally don’t talk about singles, but I REALLY feel like I need to discuss the current state of this band as soon as possible, just to get it off my chest. For those who don’t know, Alestorm vocalist Christopher Bowes has also been running a memey power metal band called Gloryhammer, chronicling the Scottish hero, Angus McFife, and his quest to defeat Zargothrax in the distant future of the 1990s. The band hadn’t done much after the third album, which ended with the presumed death of McFife. However, last year, they fired the charismatic Thomas Winkler, who had taken the role of McFife. Literally a day later, the band was accused of White Supremacy and misogyny, with evidence found in leaked private chats from several years ago.
They survived cancel culture by maintaining radio silence, and it somehow worked. Despite the possibly unjustified hatred (honestly, I didn’t read the source posts since they were supposed to be PRIVATE, so I don’t really know the truth), they were able to hire former Helion Prime vocalist Sozos Michael to assume the role of McFife. I didn’t exactly like his presence in Prime’s second album, since it was more sci-fi oriented than the band’s usual brand of real-world science. However, in an over-the-top sci-fi-fantasy metal band like Gloryhammer, Michael couldn’t be a better fit. While his tenor voice isn’t quite as good as Winkler’s, Michael has the passion and energy to be McFife. Oh, and the song’s great too. The only issue is that it doesn’t really seem to explain his situation. It seems to take place in McFife’s consciousness, moments before his death. We’ll have to wait for the actual fourth album to find out what actually happens next!
Planeswalker: Tales of Magic (EP)
Speaking of Sozos Michael, here’s his current band now! Alongside Jason Ashcraft—also of Helion Prime—these two have created an old-fashioned power metal band themed off of Magic: The Gathering. Everything about the sound production and composition has that same Prime energy, but with some fantasy whimsy instead of edutainment. This album helped me to appreciate Michael’s ability as a songwriter.
The highlight of the album is no doubt the twelve minute song shown in the embedded MV: ‘Oath of the Gatewatch’. It contains three guest vocalists: original Helion Prime vocalist Heather Michele, the iconic Brittney Slayes from Unleash the Archers, and whoever R.A. Voltaire is. While the whole album (other than an out-of-place KISS cover) is really good, this song is definitely a banger that’s worth checking out. Also, I really hope this band does more music please.
Well, I definitely feel like this is the way for me to cover music reviews moving forward. I don’t have to worry about making them poetic and verbose like most actual reviewers do. With that, let’s see if the rest of the year will be as good as this first half (music-wise)!
Well, aren’t we lucky this year? Pixar didn’t just give one movie; they gave us two! While Turning Red was great, all the hype was put into the in-universe first installment of the Buzz Lightyear franchise that spawned the popular Toy Story character whom we know and love: Lightyear. It sure looked like a departure from the formula, and those departures tend to be really something. Let’s hope this one meets the company’s high standards.
In Lightyear, the titular character crash lands his ship full of science crew on a hostile alien world. Traumatized from his eff-up, he insists on testing each attempt at reproducing hyperdrive technology. However, each time he does it, time on the planet passes several years because science. By the time he succeeds, everyone he knows and loves is dead, and there are killer robots running around. I feel like the latter is more pertinent.
Before talking about the movie itself, I kind of want to bring up something funny. The visuals, as always with Pixar, are stunning. It looks cartoony, yet photorealistic, as usual. However, keep in mind that in the Toy Story universe, this came out in the early 1990s. That means that CG movies looked better than reality itself, in that universe. I don’t know if that’s supposed to mean something for any Pixar theorists, but I’m just throwing it out there.
In terms of the movie itself, I’m going to be perfectly honest: I’m actually having a hard time trying to find an abundance of positives with Lightyear. For the record, I saw it in theaters, and I’m sure I made it clear how I feel about those. Also, the pre-show had a politically charged climate crisis commercial in it, which put my anxiety on edge for a lot of the beginning of the movie.
Lastly, I—for some reason—expected something with more nuance. Lightyear is not meant to be like Pixar’s usual introspective stuff; it’s a popcorn flick. I generally don’t do popcorn flicks at all, and I have only seen Disney and Pixar movies lately because I know they aren’t popcorn flicks. I’m just annoyed that I had to go through all the usual theater crap just to see a popcorn flick. I get that most people watch movies just like this all the time, and it’s a customary experience for them. Me being disappointed at Lightyear being overall very mindless and driven entirely by sensory-overloading spectacle is entirely my fault.
With all that being said, I’m going to try to discuss the story—without spoilers—in a scholarly way even though it’s simplistic enough to be described in one sentence. The story is, well, not too remarkable, and this is coming from a Disney fan, which is saying something. Although most of the company’s films are straightforward, there’s some kind of takeaway that only adults can really appreciate. The Incredibles, for example, is definitely a popcorn flick, but it’s one of Pixar’s best movies. In addition to pulse-pounding spectacle, we get the complexities such as Syndrome’s character arc, and clever interactions that I never noticed as a kid, such as when Helen and Bob are arguing about which directions to take to pursue the Omnidroid during the climax. Lightyear, as I’ve implied, has none of that. It’s a mindless action romp where Buzz and a ragtag team of textbook underdogs fight the evil emperor Zurg. The cherry on top is that time travel is involved; that rarely leads to a coherent narrative, and this is not one of those times.
I also found the cast to be among the lamest in a long time. Buzz is perhaps the worst of them all; when a toy version is better than the real thing, you know something is wrong. His obsession with getting everything done himself, and completing the mission, is the catalyst for the entire conflict of the movie. The epic, badass space ranger, whose toy counterpart has won the hearts of millions for decades, is a simple case of “you gotta rely on your friends” straight out of a Disney Junior program.
There are only four other protagonists who play a major role in the movie, three of which are those aforementioned underdogs, and I only caught one of their names: Izzy Hawthorne. She’s the granddaughter of Buzz’s idol, but she’s not as competent. There’s some skinny guy who’s scared of everything, and a mad convict grandma. Of these three, I only liked the mad convict grandma. She was the best. Everyone else felt like typical characters, whose arcs most people could predict in their sleep. The other character I enjoyed was a robot cat named Socks (or is it Sox?). He’s basically the comic relief, but he has some utility, such as vomiting tranquilizers.
Zurg in this movie is… er… well, he’s something. I can’t even discuss him without spoiling the movie. Basically, there’s a BS twist that is implied—in context with the universe—Andy, and even Toy Buzz, have known all this time. Since it’s Pixar, I can only assume that the reveal with him has been foreshadowed way back in Toy Story 1, and even the old Buzz Lightyear cartoon that I only remember because it had the voice actress of Shego from Kim Possible in it (MatPat will probably have a video about it if he hasn’t done so already). However, foreshadowing or not, the twist itself approaches Kingdom Hearts levels of nonsensical, and some of the important details are glossed over.
I’m really giving it some flack, so I should highlight some positives. Lightyear is, for all intents and purposes, a sci-fi spectacle drama whose main protagonist is named Buzz Lightyear. However, Pixar manages to really make it believable that it is a Buzz Lightyear movie. All the details are there in the right places, including each line that would inspire the toy’s iconic phrases. They at least did something right.
Final Verdict: 8.25/10
When Disney and Pixar travel off the beaten path, they tend to put out some of their best and weirdest stuff. Lightyear was not one of those times. In fact, this is the most disappointing Pixar movie I’ve seen in years, even if most of those feelings are on me. Regardless, it’s at least an enjoyable movie, especially considering the kind of “cinema” that most audiences have grown accustomed to by now. As long as you enjoy spectacle movies, Lightyear should be right up your alley.
I got a long story with this Crystal Project. Basically, I haven’t actually beaten it. I have played the vast majority of it, though; enough that I feel like I can write a final piece on it (also I’m a filthy casual so it’s not like I follow the standards of the gaming community anyway). Also, I really want to talk about it, but if I try to push myself to grind out the rest of it, I might end up hating it, because some of the side stuff in the game is utter BS. I might not even finish it at all because the kind of experiences I want in games is starting to change (which is my fancy way of saying I suck). So… yeah, here’s this mess of a review of a game I’ve only done about 75% of.
In Crystal Project, you and your fully customizable party find themselves in the land of Sequoia, looking for adventure, and Crystals that give you new jobs. This game fully embraces the core spirit of JRPGs of old, and as such, the story is almost non-existent.
Before getting into the gameplay, let’s look at Sequoia first. It doesn’t seem like much just from the game’s screenshots, but I found myself growing attached to the quaint and vibrant voxel-art style. It’s like Minecraft, but cozier. The character designs are a bit lifeless, but that’s probably because it REALLY wants to have the old-school vibes, including how sprites tended to not be very expressive back then. The soundtrack is also really good, plus the game shows the name of each song and credits its composer on the HUD whenever you enter a different area (this doesn’t happen for battle themes, though).
What might attract an RPG-aficionado to Crystal Project is its Elder Scrolls-like sandbox structure. You are thrown into the game with no sense of direction, and no motive other than the pure desire to explore the world. The game is almost self-aware of this during what little plot the game actually has. In any case, the world is fully non-linear. Not only that, but it’s actually a metroidvania. This is one of the things that stands out about Crystal Project, and lemme tell you, exploring Sequoia is its own reward, and that alone makes the game worth buying. Combining the design philosophy of metroidvanias in a fully 3D space is truly something. You never know when an unassuming little alcove will lead to a whole new part of the world (seriously, that happens a lot)!
The other standout feature is the game’s platforming aspect. There are no invisible walls; just geometry. And most of said geometry can be stood upon, including opened treasure chests, NPCs, and light fixtures. If you’ve played Crosscode, then Crystal Project makes a good competitor in this department.
Of course, just because it’s a competitor doesn’t mean it’ll win. While the platforming in Crystal Project is fun to figure out, there aren’t many instances of opening easy shortcuts back up. If you fall at any time, you more-than-likely have to walk all the way back to where you were…
Which brings us to one of the biggest turn-offs in Crystal Project: limited fast travel. Like many metroidvanias, you’re going to be backtracking a LOT. There are plenty of fast travel points scattered throughout the world, but only one can be assigned as active at a time (unless you enable the setting to activate three at a time), along with any number of Shrines that you find throughout the world. If there’s any pro-tips I can give, it’s to establish a warp point as high up as possible; no matter how far something is horizontally, descending is always faster than ascending. You will be able to earn various mounts, many of which allow for a LOT of developer-intended sequence breaking throughout the overworld.
What’s worse is that you can’t heal directly from the fast travel points themselves; you gotta find an inn or other source of healing. Fortunately, this can be offset with consumable items. I know what you’re thinking: “I’m not going to use consumables except on the final boss! But since I made such a habit of not using them, I forgot to use them on the final boss!” Well, too bad. With such limited means of recovery, you gotta do it. Fortunately, enemies universally tend to drop basic healing items very often for this exact purpose.
Another big caveat is the map. While the map itself is great, getting the maps of each area is not. Again, think of it as a metroidvania; you gotta earn the map. My advice is to simply explore, and talk to any NPCs you see; one might be hoarding a map or two to themselves.
Combat is nothing new, yet it feels fresh at the same time. Like in classic JRPGs, you have unlockable jobs. Level up those jobs, and carry those skills over by assigning it as a sub-job while you work on something else. Learn passive skills to equip your characters to mix and match many types of playstyles. Battles are your basic turn-bases format. However, you get to see a LOT more of the action than in perhaps any RPG ever. Crystal Project allows you to see your stats, enemy stats, what attack an enemy will do, how much damage it’ll do, how much damage you’ll do; literally every parameter that is calculated during an RPG battle. This gives combat a fun puzzle element that is truly unique to the genre. And most importantly… Bosses are susceptible to status ailments! This really showcases the focus on strategy in Crystal Project.
Difficulty-wise… holy crap this game is tough. Even if you had the fundamental knowledge of turned-based RPGs—which you’re definitely expected to have—there are a lot of intricate systems, such as how aggro works. Also, an ability as basic as using consumable items in battle is restricted to a specific job. But even when you get that job—and start finding pouches to increase inventory space—Crystal Project can still shred you. Although mobs in the overworld are color-coded to indicate their danger level, I’ve gotten destroyed many times by enemies that the game said I was on par with. There really is no advice but to master the system as soon as possible. It doesn’t hurt to grind either; money is quite necessary, after all.
One positive is that the dev of Crystal Project doesn’t hate gamers like how it feels with most indie games that try to be Dark Souls (which feels like at least 90% of them to be honest). The options menu contains customizable assists that make the game easier, and you’re not shamed for using them. You can increase the amount of XP, job points, and money you earn to save on grinding, for starters. You can also skip the game’s notoriously BS minigames that you need to win a lot in order to get everything (although I think you’ll be relying on RNG to win if you do that), and increase the maximum level cap, which I only feel would only be necessary for the superbosses.
Final Verdict: 9/10
Crystal Project can definitely be called unbalanced and unfair, but it’s still a very novel subversion of JRPG tropes, and one of the most underrated games of the year. I will probably use the minigame skip and increased level capacity as I work toward finishing it… much to the ire of the invisible people on the Internet. Anyway, you’ve been warned as to how brutally difficult it is. Proceed with caution (unless you’re a real gamer, in which case you can probably beat it with no assists).
One of the first things they teach you about the Internet is that anything you say on there is permanent. While I never made the mistake of giving away private information to strangers on social media, I have made posts that I now regret. One really damning post was my glowing review of Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow. Several months after reading the book, my outlook on it has completely changed. I could write a whole additional post about what I’ve been going through that made me love it at the time, and how I’m only just starting to face my personal issues head-on, but I won’t bore you (if you want context, you could read my other YA novel reviews and see how increasingly depressed I got over time).
In any case, I’m not going to hide what Iron Widow is anymore. I still stand by Wu Zetian being one of the few proactive YA protagonists, and the book overall being great as a mindless, anime-like romp. However, if taken with anymore than a grain of salt, it is a toxic and unhealthy tome of Feminism to the most violent, hypocritical extreme. Regardless, I still think Zhao is one of the most promising rookies in the field. With all that being said, let’s see if their middle-grade debut novel, Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, improves on their writing style while potentially being less of a loaded gun than Iron Widow was.
In Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, the titular Zachary is a passionate fan of Mythrealm, an AR-game that combines Pokémon Go with ancient mythology. One fateful day, he meets a boy named Simon Li, who is the host of the spirit of one of China’s past emperors. Zachary himself is also able to be possessed by the spirit of China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, via his AR headset. The timing of this couldn’t be better, because his mom is captured by demons and needs saving.
I hate that my blog has gotten so political lately, because I wanted to be a breath of fresh air from said politics. However, when you’re reading a book by Xiran Jay Zhao, it’s impossible to not get political. Unsurprisingly for a book published in 2020 onwards, Zachary Ying is a victim of racism; people assume things because he’s Chinese, and he’s even ashamed to eat his authentically homemade Chinese lunch at school. This means nothing for the plot, but it’s there anyway because it’s topical. To be fair, this is significantly tamer than Iron Widow. Of course, almost everything is tamer than Iron Widow in terms of political undertones, meaning that Zachary Ying will still feel very political in and of itself.
Let’s stop getting political for a bit and discuss what makes the book interesting in the first place: its very anime premise. Like in Iron Widow, Zhao is at least able to come up with creative ideas and execute them well. In a world where so many stories involve VRMMOs, the rare instance of an AR game is novel already. One of the biggest criticisms of Iron Widow was that the mechanics weren’t thought out well enough, and Zhao actually learned from that mistake! The basic principles of Mythrealm and the whole spirit thing are simple: the powers of the spirits are determined by how they’re thought of by people in the living world, including their portrayals in videogames. It’s an easy way for Zhao to go all-out and make Zachary Ying maximum anime.
In addition to being more anime, the book is significantly more action-driven than Iron Widow. There’s a fight scene in almost every other chapter, and said fight scenes are absolutely nuts. This is good because subtlety is about as good as it was in Iron Widow, i.e. non-existent. Zhao tells you exactly how to feel, from political views to how to view the spirits pulling the reins. They at least pull a moral ambiguity angle, something that was SORELY needed in Iron Widow, where a mass murderer was considered a messaiah.
So… the characters. Ohhhhh boy. Let’s discuss Zack first. He’s kind of a wimp, even when he has phenomenal cosmic powers. He’s meant to be an audience surrogate protagonist; the Asian-American who knows nothing about Chinese culture and history, and is therefore an incomplete human being. I’m not even exaggerating that last bit; part of today’s “woke” culture is the idea that every person is duty-bound to know and understand their “racial identity” to the Nth degree. Like almost all other books of this kind that I’ve covered, he gets stronger not by becoming more self-confident, but by learning random stuff about Chinese history.
Simon Li feels like he’s kind of there. He basically serves as an infodumper when the ghost of Huang doesn’t happen to be doing it himself. He has a brother in the hospital, but it feels like a shock value thing to make you like him. Oh, and here’s a kicker: the guy possessing his body is the real-life inspiration for Iron Widow’s drunk delinquent, Li Shimin.
Speaking of Iron Widow, recall its protagonist, Wu Zetian. She’s here too, and I honestly felt PTSD from her reappearance. Zetian possesses the body of Melissa Wu, and their personalities are so identical that you can’t even tell who’s speaking out of Melissa’s body at any given time. Surprisingly enough, she’s not as much of an extremist this time around. She’s still the Best Girl, though, if not better because she’s not yelling P.C. P.S.A.s every five seconds.
Every time I review an urban fantasy like this, I’ve said that the actual mythological characters are boring. Fortunately, the many mythological and historical figures that Zack encounters on his journey are some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. They are memorable and faithful to their sources, and have the self-referential humor that you’d think more authors would take advantage of but don’t.
If there’s anything I learned from Zachary Ying, other than a LOT of Chinese history, it’s that I still don’t get Xiran Jay Zhao at all. They say some things that are true, like how Chinese people aren’t all exactly the same as individuals, and a line about not caring about what other people think. However, they definitely portray Americans as a single, racist entity that hates Chinese culture, contrary to hard evidence that proves otherwise. Also, today’s culture literally revolves around people having to be “seen” by America in order to exist. Zhao seems to be establishing themself as a guru of Chinese history, but because of how political they are, and how things are in general these days, I don’t know if their interest is born of passion or civic duty. Their bio says they were “raised by the Internet”, which makes me feel like that their motives are purely the latter. Zack is often condemned for not knowing Chinese culture facts, and to be honest, I felt condemned by the author as well. That’s not how you should feel when learning about a foreign nation’s rich culture.
Final Verdict: 9.85/10
I think I really like this book. It’s a significant step up from Iron Widow, at the very least. Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is way more creative, and ties into Zhao’s vision to make the world learn Chinese history. It’s just a shame that it still has sprinkles of agenda throughout, otherwise it’d be almost perfect (although many would argue that the political aspects make it perfect).
Regardless, I need to stop getting political. Other than a few rants I may or may not publish, I’m going to try my damndest to stop being obsessed with politics, and to stop reading these politically charged books. I might still find myself consuming more of them (including but not limited to the sequels to books I’ve covered), but if I do, you won’t be seeing them. Anyway… Zachary Ying is great. Just be wary of the potential to get triggered.
The Owl House is a typical modern cartoon. It’s dumb and predicatble, but I like it just about as much as the next guy. Unlike a certain isekai show about frogs, this season has been quite the thing. After this is, apparently, a trilogy of two-parters to close off the show. But in the meantime, let’s talk about what happened.
So, family is a thing sometimes. It’s perfectly normal for sisters to cast curses on each other that sap their magic and turn them into monsters, just as Lilith did to Eda. Since it’s a Disney show, no one died, but Lilith now shares a bit of Eda’s curse. Also, Emperor Belos has a suitcase portal of his own for some reason, and we gotta figure out a way to stop him in the only way we know how…
…By solving self-contained conflicts that slowly build into the overarching plot! This season is where The Owl House starts in earnest. Luz tries to find her way home, we learn more about what’s going on in the Emperor’s Coven, and there’s even a sneak preview of what’s going on back on earth with Luz’s mom. A lot of crazy stuff happens this time around.
To be honest, this is a very character-driven season; most of the plot pertains to character development, for faces both new and old. Might as well start with the driving force of the entire series: Luz and Amity. If the basic signs weren’t present enough in season one, their inevitable romantic partnership is telegraphed so ham-fistedly that it initially comes off as self-aware cringe. Most of their scenes just had Love Handel’s “Don’t just stand there, kiss her!” in my head over and over again. Fortunately, they don’t tease it for as long as 90% of other romances do. Their relationship feels believable, like how they blush every time they hold hands or compliment each other. Plus, it has some legitimate bumps in the road; no ship is built perfectly.
The other residents of the titular Owl House get development as well, including (most importantly), our pal Hooty. I won’t spoil the greatness of his character arc; just see it for yourself (also, poor Hooty…). Eda learns, in the most cliché ways possible, to cope with her literal inner demons. And King, well, we finally learn the truth about him. In addition, Lilith gets her inevitable redemption arc. She learns to be a better person (which is pretty easy for her since she cursed her own sister once upon a time), and she shows emotions other than anger this time around.
But man, R.I.P. Gus and Willow. Gus gets some good character development in a couple episodes, but he’s still pretty much a third wheel. Willow hardly does anything. All of the eggs are in Amity’s basket. Her relationship with Luz pushes her to finally be the girl she always wanted to be. Classic tsundere. A nice touch is when she gets her hair dyed, and the opening sequence is changed to match.
Meanwhile, in the Emperor’s Coven, we learn some more about Belos, as well as his right-hand-man, the Golden Guard, a.k.a. Hunter. He’s one of those morally ambiguous antagonists who’s all edgy and brooding and stuff. Belos continues to be a knockoff Hollow Knight boss. Eda also has an ex named Raine Whispers. They used to be part of a rebel group, but now they’re in the Emperor’s Coven instead? Regardless, I didn’t particularly care for their arc because it’s a pretty uninspired instance of the “used to be good but now bad because reasons” trope.
Sadly, The Owl House is still quite predictable. I saw quite a few plot twists coming, including one of the really big ones that’s meant to absolutely blow your mind. Also, despite how it tries to be a horror show, it won’t seem like much compared to the crap Cartoon Network lets on its airwaves (especially back in the day).
The Owl House has surely established some sort of identity in the sea of childrens’ cartoons (which is hard to do these days when it’s not the 1990s). It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s good. Hopefully it’ll stick the landing!
Okay, so I MAY have said once that light novels are a pain in the ass to invest in and that I would never cover them on my blog ever again. However, that stress factor is almost negligent for standalones; it’s just one and done. I had planned to read The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes for some time, even before the anime movie announcement (that I will probably watch if GKids or Netflix gets it). With a title as weird-sounding as that, curiosity beckoned me into its pages.
In The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes, we enter the daily life of resident nihilist Kaoru Tono. He’s got about as much of a hard-knock life as you can get; a dead sister, no mother, and a mentally unstable dad. Perfect for making emotional youth be able to connect with him! Marketing aside, Kaoru finds a mysterious tunnel that can grant any wish, but causes time outside of it to move faster. Oh, and a mysterious girl named Anzu Hanashiro is involved.
The thing that jumps out about this book is that it’s not terrible; something I rarely feel in the light novel market. Its prose isn’t as excessively verbose as its contemporaries, which is likely due to the perks of being a standalone. The story it tells in what amounts, page count wise, to a little over two volumes of a regular light novel, feels more substantial than five volumes of most longer series (okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it sure feels like it’s not with the crap I’ve read over the years).
Unfortunately, it falls for the same trap that most supernatural romances fall for: not being very supernatural at all. Most excursions into the tunnel last mere minutes, thanks to its time-altering properties, and the vast majority of the book consists of pretty standard school life drama. There are many little subplots, such as the deal with the school bully, and Kaoru’s messed up family life, but it just doesn’t seem to matter in the end, since we know it’ll end with that final trip through the tunnel.
Naturally, the characters leave much to be desired; a fatal weakness of standalones. Kaoru is, sadly, a lot like me with some of the cynical stuff he says. I don’t like myself when I’m like that, so I naturally don’t like him either. And like I said in the premise, it feels like his family’s divorce is just a marketing scheme to make people sympathize with him.
Anzu is likable at first, because she deals with bullies with force, and looks great while doing it. However, as she gets to know Kaoru, she becomes less of a rebel, and more like the idealized waifu that is indistinguishable from the female lead in a Makoto Shinkai movie. And don’t get me started on Koharu, the aforementioned bully. Her arc is alright, but it doesn’t feel like it belongs in the story at all.
Final Verdict: 7.5/10
The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes is not the worst light novel ever, but that’s not saying much. The book is overwhelmingly okay, with its only novelty being that you can say you knew about the movie before it was cool. To be honest, I don’t even know if the movie is gonna do too hot either. As always, there’s better fish in the sea, especially in the world of light novels.
If you’re reading this post, then that means I have managed to complete the first YA novel published under Rick Riordan Presents: Daniel José Older’s Ballad & Dagger. But before we begin, we need to talk. No, I’m not breaking up with you! Anyway, the past two years have been really rough for me. COVID tore us apart physically, and the murder of George Floyd followed up on the mental side of things. The latter is what really broke me. Since his unfair death, some very influential, and politically extreme, individuals have been on a steady growth rate. And only a couple of months ago, I began to realize that almost my entire world—both I.R.L. and online—have been viewed through a lens provided by the political party that those aforementioned individuals follow. My parents insist that the followers of those people are few and far between. However, if they are really so few in numbers, how have they nonetheless influenced virtually every aspect of Western pop culture for the past two years? From South Park doing pandemic episodes, to childrens’ picture books teaching today’s generation how to be woke, the biggest conglomerates in the world now lick the boots of those people, regardless of their quantity. While I am struggling to comprehend life as I now understand it, one thing is certain: Ballad & Dagger will more than likely be the last novel of its kind I ever read.
In Ballad & Dagger, Mateo Matisse is a starving artist who just wants to play the piano. Sadly, fate has other plans for him. On a very special night for his little community in Brooklyn, someone announces that the long lost island of San Madrigal, where said community originated, will rise again. All it needs is the children who contain the three founding spirits’ souls. Naturally, Mateo is one of them. Oh, and some girl murders a guy for some reason.
Refreshingly enough, racism isn’t a big theme in this one. Or rather, you’re not constantly bludgeoned with it. The most brutal aspect of Ballad & Dagger is the fact that San Madrigal sank like Atlantis. As a result, the three big families that make up Brooklyn’s Little Madrigal are not inhabiting San Madrigal, and you’re supposed to feel miserable for them. The word “diaspora” is a favorite in the book, because apparently, the idea that home is where you’re surrounded by the people who love you is invalid.
In case you’ve read some of the action-packed books from Rick Riordan Presents, just keep in mind that Ballad & Dagger is more like Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, in that it is way more slice-of-life oriented than other installments. While trying to find the two remaining demigods, Mateo lives his normal life, hanging out with his friend, Tams, and the famous folk rocker, Gerval. Without the occasional blurb of supernatural horror, it’s easy to forget there’s anything supernatural in the book.
Things do ramp up in the second half, though. Sh** hits the fan, to say the least, and Mateo’s little community starts crumbling out from under him. A lot of the sequences are legitimately powerful. However, you have to put up with a lot of fluff to get there.
My biggest problem was that I couldn’t connect to almost anyone. Mateo is one of two characters who felt engaging at all. As narrator, his feelings come in full force, and he ends up with quite a lot of baggage in the second half. The female lead, Chela Hidalgo, is the aforementioned girl who murdered the dude in the beginning, and she’s alright. She gets some legitimate character development, but is a pretty standard YA protagonist through and through. And yes, their transition from friends to lovers is as sudden as any YA romance novel (oh spoilers, as if it wasn’t obvious enough that a YA novel has romance).
Everyone else felt like a plot device. Tia Lucia was there to be the wise old lady, Anisette was there to be the political extremist b****, etc. Gerval plays a pretty pertinent role, but in the end, his character arc will feel very familiar to anyone who’s seen a Saturday morning cartoon.
Sadly, I must also criticize the book’s worldbuilding. Riordan’s blurb says that San Madrigal is “as real as Wakanda or the Shire or Earthsea”, and I don’t get it at all. All that is divulged of the island, back when it wasn’t underwater, is that people worshiped the three gods who get trapped in the chosen ones’ bodies. Sure, its history plays a role in the plot, but that’s about it for the actual culture, beyond what you see preserved in Brooklyn. There is also next to no folklore present, except for some ghost who’s just there, and these weird mutant things.
Final Verdict: 8.5/10
I do respect and admire Rick Riordan. If it wasn’t for him, I might’ve never gotten my fetish for Japanese culture and folk metal. However, almost every time I read one of the Presents books, I am utterly flummoxed at what he saw in it. Ballad & Dagger is a great read by the second half, but there are so many urban fantasies that are more than just fifty percent enjoyable. I don’t really know what to think about it, but I do know that I’m pretty much alone in my stance. Maybe you’d enjoy it more than I did!