Trails of Cold Steel III is so Stressful I Don’t Know if I can Finish It (let alone the Series)

When I first saw the announcement of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III coming to the Nintendo Switch, I was flabbergasted. They are all part of a continuous narrative, so why push people to play a game in the latter half of the story? Well, given how Cold Steel II ended, Cold Steel III is revealed to be a much more viable entry point than I thought. HOWEVER, I will be spoiling plot aspects of both previous games, as well as expecting you to know basic gameplay mechanics. Read my review of the first game if you are interested in the franchise. Unfortunately, if you couldn’t tell from the title of the post… I have some issues with this one.

When we last left our intrepid hero, Rean Schwarzer, he concluded his first year at Thors Military Academy by fighting a palette swap of the first game’s final boss that LITERALLY HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THE OVERARCHING PLOT (sorry, still salty about that). With the war over (at least as far as Erebonia is concerned), what could possibly go wrong? Well, a year later, in a suburban town west of Heimdallr called Leeves, Rean becomes an instructor of a new Class VII to take on an old threat: literally Ouroboros again.

Cold Steel III comes off as fanfic-like at the start. In fact, things wind down so much that this is perhaps the slowest opening—narrative-wise—in the series so far. The war is over, people have graduated… if it weren’t for the flash-forward intro, similar to the first game, I wouldn’t have been willing to believe that III had a plot at all. Fortunately, it does do some good things, one of which is including tons of areas entirely new to the franchise. From Sutherland Province, to Crossbell (which has a lot of references to the Japan-only Crossbell games that Western players will be hopelessly confused by), you will be visiting locations that have been merely mentioned in previous games. Erebonia feels bigger than it ever did before! 

Furthermore, there are a number of new, big plot developments. Thanks to being able to experience Crossbell firsthand, we finally get to see just how much weight Erebonia has been placing on the small province. It is quickly made apparent that the war is far from over, and things ramp up like they never have before. We also get some much-needed insight on the Gnomes, Black Workshop, and Hexen Clan.

But at this point, the series starts to become more like its JRPG cousins, and by that, I mean it has more of the soap-opera-like plot twists that make no sense (For example (SPOILERS): Crow is alive, and George is evil (END SPOILERS)). Also, I realized that you can’t really get by with Cold Steel alone. I began to lose track of all the different terms and factions, and it got to the point where I was straight-up lost in the plot. Whatever they’ve been building up to is something that began since the first Trails of Heroes (or whatever it’s called). If I actually played all—what, ten?—of these 80+ hour apiece JRPGs, I’d probably have all the familiarity I need to truly understand the series.

New school means an entirely new student body, and new towns means entirely new NPCs. Since you’re expected to have grown attached to the cast of the first two games over the course of 160-200 hours, Cold Steel III has the hardest cast of characters to like. Fortunately, it does a good job of distributing familiar faces. For example, one of the new Class VII members is actually Altina from the second game. Also, the Principal is the sexy General, Aurelia le Guin. People like Alfin, Elise, Sharon, and more all appear (and Prince Cedric actually DOES stuff for the first time in the series). For the record, I ended up really not liking—or rather, not understanding—Alisa’s mom more than ever. While she always had a weird way of loving her daughter even though she seemed like a crappy parent, Sharon’s backstory (SPOILERS) that she actually murdered Alisa’s dad, Alisa’s mom knew this, and yet… raised Sharon as her own? God, even by JRPG standards that’s a leap in logic… (END SPOILERS)

In any case, a Cold Steel game is a Cold Steel game, and the new faces end up being loveable enough. Overall, it was hilarious to see Rean’s new students react to all the different tidbits about him, such as all the famous people (and women) he knows. Juna is an interesting case; she’s from Crossbell, which doesn’t exactly have the best impression of Erebonia. However, Altina and Kurt ended up being kind of underwhelming by the series’ standards. The former comes off as a PTSD waifu that the MC has to teach to “have a soul” through “wove”, and Kurt is basically a combination of Cold Steel I Rean and Machias. Also, a lot of the other students outside of the new Class VII were pretty unremarkable as well. Fortunately, my favorite quickly ended up being Freddy. Who doesn’t love a beady-eyed weirdo who cooks bugs?

Many Thors alumni appear in the game. We get to see the adult forms of the old Class VII, as well as other students. The thing that they all have in common is that they haven’t changed, and they’re all very physically attractive (seriously freaking adult Elliot is a smexy boy right out of Liberty’s Kids). Surprisingly enough, the OG Class VII still has some new stuff for us to learn, even after all this time. The game makes up for its low amount of total party members by having some of the old gang appear as temporary party members.

Unfortunately, I had some issues with the way the characters were handled (other than the fact that you get way too many character notes). Character development was all over the place. A lot of the time, it felt like the game actively disliked the main party members. Like I said before, old characters become guest party members throughout the game. However, they always end up at higher levels, with more well-rounded abilities, as well as the whole “temporary” thing adding incentive to use them. New players will likely gravitate to them just for the manpower, and it kind of undermines the actual new characters. You could argue that it’s symbolic; it shows that new Class VII has a long way to go before they can match O.G. Class VII, but it doesn’t help that there are entire in-game days that are spent entirely with members of the original gang.

Furthermore, I feel like they mucked up Reany-Beany a bit. First off, a major event happens in between Cold Steel II and III: the Northern War. You get to see a bit of this at the end of Cold Steel II, but it’s basically a hostile takeover of a country called Northern Ambria. It’s such an important event, and it’s mentioned so often that I thought it was its own game. I came to realize that the whole thing was made to justify re-learning Rean’s Spirit Unification (okay maybe it’s not the WHOLE reason), and it felt kind of weak.

Things have improved substantially in terms of audio and visuals. With this being the first game in the series released on PS4, the visuals have the stylized look that has become the standard for anime JRPGs. The models are all updated, and they look amazing. From the fabrics of clothing, to lighting, I can finally feel truly immersed in the world Zemuria. The soundtrack is around the same quality, but it feels much less intrusive than in previous games.

Before we get into gameplay, I must make a quick declaration. If you are marathoning this on PS4… BUY THE DIGITAL GAME FROM THE PLAYSTATION STORE. The physical edition of Cold Steel III does not give you the DLC, unlike the digital version (and MacBurn taught me that I NEED all fifty Zeram Capsules if I’m gonna beat all four of these games). The Switch version does have the DLC, but I read (on an Amazon question) that the fourth game will include the same save data carryover mechanic from Cold Steel II, but APPLIED TO ALL THREE PREVIOUS GAMES. Use these factoids to decide which version you want. If you do buy the game digitally, keep in mind that the stupid expensive deluxe edition only comes with exclusive cosmetic DLC, but none of the item-based DLC (yours truly learned that the hard way). So if you only want your fifty Zeram Capsules, buy the standard version. Also, it’s sad to say that Turbo Mode is no longer with us. Press F for respect. To compensate, you can use the Options button to skip cutscenes.


Daily Life

There is one immediate difference with your Orbment settings: the ability to have two Master Quartzes at once… sort of. The second Master Quartz slot is for a Sub-Master Quartz. Whatever Master Quartz is set to the Sub slot will be much weaker, but still immensely helpful, especially since there seem to be less slots for regular Quartz in this game. The cool thing is that you can equoi something as a Sub-Master Quartz while it’s equipped as someone else’s main Master Quartz without actually taking it OFF of that person. It helps streamline Quartz management and makes it a LOT easier to level up multiple Master Quartz at once. Another thing about Master Quartzes is that there are a lot of new ones (fortunately, Moebius is still in this game. Thank Aidios). Heck, there aren’t just new Master Quartzes, but new Arts as well. It was really jarring to relearn all of this stuff. In fact, it might’ve been easier if this was my first game in the series. 

Since we’re back at square one, we have to open slots on the Arcus units all over again. Fortunately, as long as you get Septium Vein as soon as possible, you can easily max out everyone’s slots. But… that doesn’t mean you’re done with Sepith. Not even close. All Quartzes can now be used at an Orbment facility to be upgraded into their rarer form with the usual stat boosts. You need three regulars to get a rare, and three rares to get a super-rare. That’s a lot, especially if you want more than one. Also, U-Materials are needed to this, making them more valuable than ever. The other thing is that you can trade rare Quartzes at the pawn shop to get one-of-a-kind Quartzes that are usually obtained in quests… including duplicates. I was able to get three Septium Veins pretty quickly (which only needs a rare Crest and a few U-Materials) and have the amount of money I normally have by endgame by the end of the third chapter. This is an interesting system because it makes you decide if you want to grind to get a powerful Quartz early, or wait until you get it for free. It’s a tough call, especially when you unlock the ability to obtain the Gem series of Quartzes, which are more broken than ever.

In addition to the usual junk, scenes called Sub Events now need to be sought out. They’re generally marked on the map, unless there are hidden ones I don’t know about. The bathhouse in the dorm always triggers one such event, so use it whenever it’s available. While some of them seem meaningless, I like doing all of them because it feels good.

Just because you’re an instructor now doesn’t mean you don’t have to worry about AP anymore. In fact, you also have to worry about the academy’s Campus Enhancement Rating. Basically, completing quests specifically related to the school (which have their own section titled “Branch Campus Quests”) as well as doing the aforementioned bathhouse events increases this number. AP and CER contribute to two separate ranking systems, which doubles the rewards as well as the stress.

Speaking of extra rewards and stress, reporting character notes, battle notes, and book notes now nets you rewards. As usual with the games, some Bonding Events yield character notes and some do not, making save-scumming a must if you want to get 100% (btw one person’s character notes are obtained out of sequence for no reason). I literally drove myself insane making sure I talk to everyone, and even with save-scumming for Bonding Events, I missed several notes. Since the final reward is most likely a Master Quartz, I will never get 100% in those either. Oh, and milestones also increase Campus Enhancement, making a THIRD thing I couldn’t 100%!

Bonding gets more complicated than before. In addition to your disgustingly limited Bonding Events, Cold Steel III adds Gifts. These are sold in various shops, and can be given to a specific character directly from the inventory screen. to increase your Bond with them. Some of these Gifts expire, so I’d make sure you have a pretty far wad of cash on you at all times. Also, the nakama power you get from bonding no longer goes to your link level; instead, it goes to a separate Bond Level, which measures just how 007 you are. Okay, maybe that last part was a joke… In actuality, increasing Bond Levels does… nothing? Kind of a disappointment. But at the very least, this new way of handling relationships finally gives an even balance between Rean and everyone else’s link levels.

Fishing has changed substantially. First off, instead of Angler Points, you trade specific species of fish for goods. Plus, you can buy upgrades to your fishing capabilities. “But fishing is easy in these games!” you think. Well, the mechanics are a lot newer and a lot harder now. The amount of fish you can get is based solely on your bait count (which can FINALLY be purchased for Mira instead of five U-Materials). When you fish, you must press the circle button when the arrow points to a specific line on the circle. The great thing about this is that you have to press the circle button when it lines up with a line that has blue, green, and yellow sections (in order of difficulty to hit). At first, I thought the smaller, yellow section meant rarer fish. But no, this part determines the rarity of what the fish drops, which I found to be a great improvement. Instead of mashing face buttons, you hold the circle button to reel the fish in. The line can break if you hold it for too long, especially if the fish is mad while you’re doing it. But since you’re able to catch such wildly different fish at once, knowing if you have caught all the fish you can at a given point in the game is next to impossible.

Recipes get a new upgrade as well. In addition to finding books, you are able to try a restaurant’s recommended dish. This allows you to learn new recipes that way too. But the best improvement is that you can have people cook from outside of your party! Now you don’t have to reorganize everybody just to make a specific Unique Dish.

If things in this game couldn’t get any newer, Blade falls by the wayside like any fad among elementary schoolers and is replaced with Vantage Masters. This game is… a lot. It’s basically Yu-Gi-Oh meets Triple Triad meets Pokemon TCG. It would take a whole separate review to describe the rules, and even then it won’t make sense to you. You just gotta experiment, and find those exploits that every card game has. But since there are now visible penalties to losing, save-scumming is recommended. 

Field studies return in the form of field exercises. They’re basically exactly the same, but the entire student body goes to the location. In addition to the quests you’ll receive, the students that come with you can give additional quests that go towards the Campus Enhancement Rating. Unfortunately, they follow a much tighter formula than the first game. Basically, you start Day 1 by going down the highway to receive your requests, then you do those requests, along with an investigation report, to finish the day. The bad guys of that particular arc attack at the end of the first day, and then Rean is forced to spend Day 2 fighting those bad guys with several Old Class VII members. While there is a little variance, I did not welcome this dip in variety.

Just when they couldn’t add any more to do, they did. Munk is now working at Radio Trista, Rosine is apparently a secret service nun (which is a scene I missed in the previous game?), and Vivi is a journalist. Munk wants material for his radio shows, which are obtained from NPCs that have Sub Event icons over them. Rosine wants the Black Records, which are found as treasures. Vivi wants photogenic, well, photographs of nature. Turn these in by calling them on the ARCUS, which can also be used to check mail and stuff.


Deadly Life

Many new mechanics are introduced right off the bat. One is the new Charm status effect. It’s like Confuse, except that they ONLY attack allies. Obviously very sexy and very dangerous. Also new is the Break system. This functions just like the Ys series and Octopath Traveler; hit people enough it reduces their defenses to nothing while stunning them for a turn. Inflicting Break will make enemies lose their next turn, guarantee item drops, and make every regular attack and Craft Unbalance them. 

Ever feel like you have too many Bravery Points? Well, now you can spend them on Brave Orders on any character’s turn. They don’t actually use that turn, so it’s objectively good to do. They provide all sorts of useful effects to the whole party, after all. Also, you can earn Bravery Points as turn bonuses now, as well as receive a bonus that lets you use Brave Orders for free. This makes it much more difficult to decide if you want to use Burst. Fortunately, using Burst does increase Break damage by 900%, making it a good panic button if you just need to Break something fast. An ideal strategy is to save up for Burst, use it at the start of a battle to Break all the enemies instantly, and then wail on them with attacks and/or Crafts to get the guaranteed Unbalance and gain back all five Bravery Points. But sometimes, the Brave Orders can turn the tide of a fight in an instant… which is why Overdrive is no longer with us.

I never mentioned the mechanics of breaking crates before, but it’s really important to do it in Cold Steel III, not that they weren’t great for grinding items in the previous games. In this game, breaking crates fills up a little charge meter. When it’s filled up enough, you can perform Assault Attacks, which greatly damage all enemies’ Break meter and give you a big advantage. The same actions that fill up the assault meter also restore CP, so make sure you always break stuff!

Mech battles are better than ever. Thanks to Mr. Schmidt, a whole slew of Panzer Soldats are now distributed to students. This means that *foams at the mouth* you get to fight with multiple mechs at once. The mechanics are largely unchanged, but it’s good to know that there are now consumable items that can be used specifically for restoring mechs. Fortunately, the EX Orb mechanic isn’t any more complicated than it was before; any EX Orb applied to Valimar affects the whole team.

The few changes that are present serve to make these fights much more difficult. Charge only restores 500 EP instead of the full thousand, for one thing. The most stressful aspect is how it handles partners. All selected partners alternate between each other. This means that you can’t have Altina spam her physical reflect shield and win every fight; you actually have to think now. My brain welcomed this change, but my heart sure didn’t. For the record, these take the place of practical exams, both on dedicated Panzer Soldat days and on optional battle during Free Days which increase Campus Enhancement.

Enemies get some new toys as well. Some can enter an Enhanced state, which comes with boosted stats at the expense of a weaker Break meter. YOU NEED TO BREAK THEM IN THIS STATE ASAP, unless you WANT your face to get ripped off. In fact, I died to the FIRST BOSS because my normal defensive plays just didn’t work. But as soon as I prioritized inflicting Break, I was able to do it. It gets much easier when everyone learns their S-Crafts. One helpful thing is that it seems like bosses can’t use S-Crafts unless they’re in their Enhanced state, allowing you to stop what are usually instant game overs.


Stressful Life

I knew it was a risk trying Trails of Cold Steel, due to the length and amount of missable content. The first two games felt manageable enough, but III pushed me over the edge. They really don’t want you to earn AP in this game. From Chapter 3 onwards, there’s a serious spike in the amount of quests with multiple outcomes. Some of them aren’t so bad, such as “win this tough battle”. But some of them are really arbitrary, such as a bike chase quest that doesn’t actually have you race with the bike but instead do a series of adventure game logic bull. Also, you will be expected to have knowledge of previous Cold Steel AND Legend of Heroes games (gee good thing they’re trying to get Switch players into the series STARTING with III), as well as some remote real-world stuff. In addition to that, some AP events feel like they require trial and error (unless I’m as dumb as a ignoramus). But hey, at least hidden quests are no longer a thing (which is ironic because this is the first time they actually warn you about them even though they’re all marked on the map)!

When I say it pushed me over the edge, I mean it. I mentioned this once on the mystery award blog, but I got autism. I’m gonna be real, when I had a rough time with AP throughout the series, I had an honest meltdown. It was about the level of a Getting Over It or Cuphead rage video. I would hit myself and the floor of my house, and it was not a good time. Normally, I wouldn’t be so salty about it, but Trails of Cold Steel IV has a true ending, and I probably need AP past a certain threshold to get it. 

“You’re not finishing a game?” you ask, “Filthy casual…” Look, I’m not a professional gamer. I rarely have time to game versus my other stuff, and so, I need to choose wisely. I need to choose something that won’t drive me to drink (since the real world is perfectly good at doing that on its own). I just don’t know if Trails of Cold Steel is worth it. What also made me consider this possibility was an even more obscure RPG, which has become one of my favorite games of all time: CrossCode. It’s tough. It has its issues (like really picky puzzle execution), but it’s a game that I can deal with. The combat is more fun to boot, and the combat was my one incentive to finish Cold Steel. Well, I still have my PS4, so if I want to finish it someday… it’ll be there.

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Current (Possibly Final) Verdict: 9.5/10

Trails of Cold Steel III is definitely the best installment thus far. However, things are getting more stressful than ever. Going into this series without a guide is suicidal if you want to get 100%, but I should at least be proud of managing as much as I could (Oh, and since these games are so niche it’s questionable whether or not there is a good enough guide to begin with). I come off as a hypocrite, potentially dropping a game I gave such a high score. I don’t want to undersell what a well-made series Trails of Cold Steel is, it’s just not the kind of game for me. With my new gaming-oriented schedule, I’ve been branching out the different types of game I play, but ones where you can miss a lot of stuff, on top of having to worry about getting a good ending, are not ones I can tolerate. Reading this, you’ll know exactly what you’d be getting into with Cold Steel. So, look at yourself and judge accordingly.

Pokemon Shield First Impressions

You’d think that with eight whole generations of Pokemon, that Game Freak would be out of ideas. However, the latest installments, Sword and Shield, might just be the best games yet. I will be covering my impressions of Shield on today’s blog.

So, the premise is a return to form; no more having to “make the Pokemon League” crap (although it was pretty interesting conceptually). In this instance, your rival character, Hop (who, unfortunately, still chooses the Starter with a disadvantage against yours), is the younger brother of the Champion, and said Champion gives you your Starters. You and Hop also have a run-in with some weird Pokemon that is immune to all attacks, and it is most likely a pre-evolution of your game’s titular Legendary. But hey, Gyms are back! Thank Arceus! 

Every new Generation feels like it has a billion new mechanics and changes, so it’s overwhelming to talk about stuff… Gah, I guess I’ll just go off of whatever comes to mind first. Let’s talk Pokemon Centers. These things baby you; allowing you to buy each type of healing item other than Full Heals and REVIVES before your first Gym Badge. But other than that, these are the best Pokemon Centers ever because they EACH come with a Name Rater, Move Reminder, AND Move Deleter; no Heart Scales required!

On the field, Gen 8 borrows from Pokemon Let’s Go!, and shows wild Pokemon in the overworld. However, it’s a bit confusing. While some appear visibly on the field, there are still old-school random encounters, except those tend to have completely different Pokemon. Intuitively, the invisible Pokemon are ones that are too small to actually be seen above the grass, which makes sense, but it’s still annoying. Also, the Pokedex yet again does not have the Habitat List from Black and White 2. Instead, the Pokedex tells you what Pokemon you can catch in a given area, but it only shows one area at a time, and in chronological order, meaning that you have to catch EVERYTHING as you go along in order for it to actually show the next place.

Another noticeable thing is that all Pokemon naturally gain battle EXP together from the get-go. Also, there’s the Pokemon Camp ability, which allows you to play with your Pokemon and cook Curry (which is this game’s version of the crap you make with Berries in past games, and it’s just as convoluted as ever). This gives them even more EXP and increases their affinity towards you. So far, it seems that they at least got rid of the EXP boost from affinity, but kept the more luck-based perks. I’m sure you’re looking at this and thinking, “Oh my God the game’s even EASIER than ever! 0/10!” I thought that too, but this game’s actually proven to be reasonably difficult so far. You really need to know your stuff (fortunately, they still have the Battle Info button for noobs). Even with the bonus EXP from catching Pokemon (which I’ve been doing pretty liberally), fighting Trainers, and using the Camp, I’ve been cutting it close, with major bosses being the exact same level as my strongest Pokemon. They finally designed those Pokemon-helping mechanics around the actual challenge factor (as long as you don’t grind). Speaking of Pokemon-helping mechanics, you also have PokeJobs. These are accessible from the PC and are basically Merc Missions from Xenoblade 2. You send out boxed Pokemon for a set period of time, and they come back with a chunk of EXP (with bonuses for the Types specified on the request). This will be important for breeding tons of Pokemon at once. You can also farm new EXP Candies, which do exactly what they sound like. They are much more powerful than they look; only 5 or 6 of the smallest units can level up a Pokemon early game.

Overwhelmed yet? Well, there’s also the addition of Wild Areas. These are where Pokemon becomes a true JRPG; they are vast, open, and have tons of Pokemon of wildly varying levels and draw points to get items from. The most important materials are Watts, which are obtained by visiting glowing red Pokemon Dens and pressing A on them. These can be exchanged for items, such as the new/old TR items. TRs are like TMs of old, use it once and they break. They are much more common, and generally contain better moves (seriously, most of the TMs are going out of their way to give you crap moves), plus they can be obtained multiple times, such as from Pokemon Dens…

…which segues into the BIGGEST (pun intended) change made in Gen 8, Dynamax Pokemon. Inside some Pokemon Dens are Dynamax Pokemon, giant versions of regular Pokemon who are much stronger than regular ones; so strong, that four Trainers need to band together to take one down. So that means that you have to subscribe to Nintendo Switch Online and connect to the Internet and fight them alongside some randos, right? Fortunately, no; you can play offline and you’ll be joined by some fairly competent A.I. trainers. When fighting against Dynamax Pokemon, you’ll be able to Dynamax the Pokemon you chose to fight in these battles, turning them gigantic as well. Dynamax is basically a fusion of Mega Evolution and Z-Powers. When your Pokemon are Dynamaxed, they get a big stat boost, and their moves are modified. Offensive moves become a much stronger move of the same type, and leave a free effect like a multi-target stat buff on your team, a multi-targeting debuff on the enemy team, or a Weather effect, and Status moves just become a stronger version of Protect. Dynamaxing lasts for three turns (and I assume you can only use it once per battle?), so coming out swinging isn’t always the best. A lot of battles were decided by me timing my Dynamax so that the opponent’s would run out while mine was still going. Overall, Dynamaxing is by far the most gimmicky and least necessary mechanic in the game, but they made a good decision in restricting it to Pokemon Dens and Gym Battles.

Hey, another segue! Gyms are back and, well, the same, really. They build up Gyms as this whole extravagant thing, just for them to be the same. The problem with this is that you basically have to go through a whole extra step for no reason. When you enter a Gym, you now have to go to some receptionist and change into a tokusatsu uniform before actually starting the Gym in earnest. Also, when you actually get to the boss, the cutscene leading up to the fight is really long. But hey, I’d take this over those stupid Trials in Gen 7. 

But unfortunately, the Gym Leaders have taken a downgrade again. In Gen 8, they’re once again one-note characters that you talk to a single time outside of the Gym, then fight back inside the Gym. And it doesn’t end there; the whole cast is as one-note as ever. Hop shows that they gave up at making the rival anything more than free EXP. They tried to give him a defined character arc by making him edgier later, but it feels very cliche and contrived. Meanwhile, the cloud-headed Bede is a return of the obnoxious rival of old, but this guy is at least obnoxious as part of his job, working for Chairman Rose, the guy in charge of Galar’s biggest source of energy. Rose is at least kind of funny, as he comes of as this business-y guy, but spends more time wearing summer casual clothes than taking his job seriously (*cough* totally not the bad guy *cough*). Team Yell is our new mischief-making group this time around. Despite their similarities to Best Team Skull, they seem pretty unremarkable, and only seem to serve as justifying the game walling you with NPCs at the exits of towns (which seriously needs a new approach; it’s getting old).

Let’s discuss cutscenes next. These have been a replay-killer in Pokemon for a while, and it was OBNOXIOUS in Gen 7. In Gen 8, it’s at least been far better than Gen 7, but still kind of bad. The Poke Ball tutorial is still forced, but they at least not bother telling you to weaken it first. However, to be honest, the cutscenes here aren’t actually terrible. With the more cinematic camera angles and more expressive character models, the cutscenes have a lot more personality. For example, the cutscene that introduced the Starters might be overly long, but it gives off a subtle visual cue of their Type matchups, to save from people actually having to tell you in a forced tutorial. Also, to make the game more anime, bosses offer comments during battle. While they are cool and will no doubt give later fights much more emotion, you can’t skip them, and are onscreen for what feels like ten whole seconds. Curiously, there is a setting to skip cutscenes. However, it is a toggle to automatically skip all cutscenes, not a button prompt to skip them, which is kind of stupid. Most modern JRPGs at least give you a button prompt… I guess in Gen 9, then.

Next, I’ll give my impressions on the new Pokemon. Thankfully, they actually made them pretty common out in the wild, unlike Gens 6 and 7, where you’d be hard-pressed to find actual NEW Pokemon. Regional Variants return, but this time it’s not limited to Gen 1. The best one I’ve found is a Ground-Steel version of my boy Stunfisk, and it’s freakin’ great. But as far as the new-new Pokemon, I’ll say that I’m not screaming “WTF?!” as consistently as I was in Gen 7, but overall Game Freak’s still got it. The starters seem to continue the trend of being unremarkable until their final form, which in my case is my water Starter that ended up evolving into Michael Phelps the Pokemon. I have a Pokemon that I really like, design-wise, but it only knows Withdraw and Astonish. This is a sign that it will evolve into something amazing, but when and how? What if it’s a trade evolution?

Speaking of trading, the fact that this game is on the Switch has a down side for me. As someone who is uncomfortable around people, I just used two DSs to exploit trading in the past. Since I believe that Gen 8 is the first game in a LONG time to let you ACTUALLY complete the Pokedex, I’d like to be able to do that. The problem is of course, the other two starters, trade evolutions, and the opposite game’s titular Legendary. While I do have a copy of Sword that I would love to play in the future (any%, of course), I only have one Switch. I have no idea if you can trade between save files. But if I can’t, I’d have to subscribe to Nintendo Switch Online, and see if randos are willing to give up a Legendary just so someone else’s Pokedex can be completed. You can also use Link codes to trade with a specific someone, but that requires real, human friends.

Lastly, I will discuss the visuals. The Switch has made Pokemon look like a true JRPG, or to be more specific, those new-fangled “animu” JRPGs, with cel-shaded anime kids, vibrant colors, and amazing lighting effects. This is definitely the best-looking that Pokemon has ever been.

But despite how glowing this review has been, I do have some concerns. According to the Map, there only seems to be two Wild Areas in the game, which feels like a vat of wasted potential (maybe they’ll abolish Routes entirely in Gen 9). Also, I didn’t notice a Victory Road AT ALL on the Map, which is really bad, especially since the lack of one in Gen 7 sucked ass. And if that wasn’t enough, Gen 8 could have the worst postgame yet, since the Map doesn’t show anything interesting past what I assume is the Pokemon League. The only thing of note is a mysterious dot adjacent to the foggy area that you couldn’t do much in at the beginning, but that would make it even more miserable than vanilla Gen 7, which would be quite impressive in of itself. But alas, these are just concerns formed just by looking ahead at the Map.

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Current Verdict: 9.25/10

Despite the alarming possibility of a weak postgame, Sword and Shield are looking to be the quintessential Pokemon games. They’re not perfect, obviously, but like Disney Parks, perfection would mean no more strives for further improvement. The game’s options for different Pokemon you can use are a bit overwhelming, so I’d still recommend noobs start with Gen 7 (or Gen 5’s sequel, Black and White 2, if you don’t mind those stupid HMs). But seriously… Pokemon Sword and Shield is lit.

Dragon Quest XI S First Impressions

The game's box art

JRPGs are my favorite genre of videogames by far, even though a lot of them are time sinks and take a long time to really strut their stuff. I’ve been meaning to get into the Dragon Quest games for a while, and I finally got that chance with Dragon Quest XI S for Nintendo Switch.

So far, at about ten hours in, it seems to be almost going 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, 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. However, the cutscenes never feel like they’re more than two minutes long, and most of them can be A-mashed through, plus you can skip them by holding Y.

As for the gameplay, this 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 it isn’t outright).

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 going to be 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‘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 in which you use them. 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. I’m hoping that there will be ways to make Peps happen more frequently later.

Another thing I find tedious is the game’s skill tree. Normally, I love skill trees in JRPGs; however, Dragon Quest XI‘s looks really stingy. You only get skill points on level up, which so far has been only 2 or 3 each time. Most skills require 6, 10, or even more skill points each, meaning you gotta level up several times to get one skill unlocked.

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, and you can change equipment mid-battle without taking their turn. 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, which might not be the way the game intends, since skills are pricier the further out from the center you go, and it’s a real pain. Maybe you get more skill points at once upon further level ups?

Fortunately, the crafting system in Dragon Quest XI seems to be a lot of fun, so far. 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 if successful). 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. Your forging skills will also level up, allowing you to learn Flourishes, which are special moves that make the minigame even more interesting than before. Options are limited early on, but one can only imagine how ridiculously hard- and rewarding- some of those late-game equipments will be to make.

I’m kind of split on the aesthetics of the game right now. Although it’s pretty hard to be angry at Toriyama’s timeless art style on the characters, the world itself 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 it’s still kind of jarring to see the latter. 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.

As far as side quests go, the overworld only has a whopping 26, which is way less than a lot of JRPGs I’m used to. 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. This looks like it’s going to be a pretty fun thing to work towards completing, however it seems arbitrary that you can’t save in this zone, since I assume that some of the later ones are going to get really long and difficult.

The game also has a Draconian Quest setting, which lets you custom set some handicaps to 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 occurs. It’s funny if it happens with a story-important NPC, but I might remove it later, since it doesn’t actually make for a greater challenge (and since I’m a filthy casual, I don’t think I want to play a game blind on its highest difficulty). Speaking of difficulty, the game shows signs of steadily getting tougher, but it seems like one of those where you’ll breeze through standard battles, and only struggle on bosses.

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Current Verdict: 8/10

Dragon Quest XI is off to a shaky start, more than most JRPGs I’ve played. I truly do see potential for this to become a great JRPG, but it definitely wants you to make those risky early investments. At the point I’m at, I at least managed to obtain the designated sea vehicle, which usually marks a big turning point in quality for JRPGs in general. Probably by this time next year, you’ll hear my final thoughts on the game!