Pokémon Scarlet & Violet: Is The Series Great Again?

The Pokémon series has suffered ever since its transition to the 3DS. With the exception of some spinoffs, opinions have gotten more and more divisive. It wasn’t until January 2022 when the series was saved by Pokémon Legends: Arceus. It changed a lot of mechanics while maintaining the franchise’s core philosophy: gotta catch ‘em all! It also has a decently seamless open-world design, and rudimentary JRPG mechanics that lay the groundwork for greatness. In that same year, GameFreak—in that classic Japanese overworkiness—had already released a new generation: Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. This is an important installment for the series, for it will ultimately cement whether or not Pokémon as a whole is great again, or if Arceus was a fluke. I decided to play Pokémon Scarlet, since I realized I’ve played the latter installments of dual Pokémon games way too often.

In Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, you sign up for the prestigious Naranja Academy. Time to catch Pokémon and make some friends, such as a mysterious red/purple dinosaur that possesses superhuman strength. Oh, and go to school.

I don’t mean to go critical right off the bat, but… I really don’t like the school theme in these games. While it’s neat that the Pokémon school has a real purpose for once, it’s the exact antithesis of what you’d want in an open world game, which emphasizes freedom. For a Persona-like Pokémon spin-off, school would work, but not here. In fact, the school seems like an afterthought, since as soon as you get there, they skip months of in-game time just so their workaround for the school setting in the open world game kicks in: the Treasure Hunt. This is an independent study where all students leave school and do literally whatever they want, as long as it leads to them finding their true calling. It’s a cool idea, but it would’ve been just as good of an idea to have your character think there must be more to this provincial life, and heads out into the great wide somewhere. Unfortunately, in order to be able to keep playing after you beat it, your character never finds their “treasure”, meaning that you’re to be left an empty shell after all that transpires.

Fortunately, if there’s a good side of the story, it’s that of the antagonists in Team Star. Instead of a criminal organization, you have a group of students who were just misunderstood. They are perhaps the most relatable Team in the entire Pokémon series. The other thing that stands out is having the box-art Legendary—Koraidon/[Insert Boxart Legendary from Violet Here]—as a permanent traveling companion. This sandwich-guzzling fiend is just cool, whatever it is. Although there aren’t many scenes where you interact with it, this is still perhaps the most intimate relationship that the player can ever forge with a Pokémon.

The characters in Pokémon have been getting better… right? Well, it’s kind of hit-or-miss this time. The teachers at the school are pretty great, although a lot of your interactions with them are entirely optional. Your rival, Nemona, is… alright. They definitely gave up on making your rivals jerks, but this time, her quirk is an obsession with battling. There is a whole backstory with her (that you don’t get until after beating the game), but I don’t believe it justifies her addiction with beating people up. This dude named Arven is pretty cool; he has a heartwarming story where he wants to find legendary herbs to cure his dog. The headmaster of Naranja, Clavell… I mean, he’s okay, but he doesn’t hold a candle to Clive, who aids you in your battles with Team Star. Clive is just the coolest, and I’m not at all doing a bit to pretend that I don’t know that he’s obviously Clavell in disguise, because he’s not. He’s Clive. 

Unfortunately, that’s about it for positives. Everyone else has been more dumbed down than ever, which stinks because their character designs are up to snuff as usual. The Professor, Sada, is just someone who phones in on you every so often regarding one of the major questlines, and that’s about it for a while. The Gym Leaders, due to structuring mechanics, have been downgraded once more. You don’t even see them outside the Gym, not once, which sucks because a lot of them are actually really good going off of what little you see of them. I mean—come on—one of them might as well be the famous V-tuber Gawr Gura!

Before we get to gameplay, I must address the one thing that GameFreak will clearly never learn: graphics. Man… they cannot make good environments! There’s numerous bad textures, lag, pop-ins, and whatnot. What’s worse is that character animations have taken a step back as well; almost to PS1-era jank. Movements are stiff and awkward, plus the textures are even inconsistent. While important characters look fine enough, a lot of NPCs have bad textures and pudgy fingers that look like they’re from two console generations ago. GameFreak needs to learn from Nintendo and Platinum Games, who have made beautiful games using the Switch’s inferior hardware. At least the Pokémon themselves still look good. Heck, the crystal texture from the Terastallize ability is straight-up gorgeous. If they can make something like that, then why can’t they follow through with everything else?

Fortunately, Scarlet and Violet are so damn amazing and addictive that you probably won’t notice the bad graphics for too long. Right off the bat, there are more quality-of-life improvements than ever. The U.I. is easy, the map has SO many details, nicknames can be changed at any time from the Pokémon menu, moves can be freely relearned from that same menu, and battles are even faster than ever. Pokémon Centers are just kiosks now, meaning no more loading zones just to heal or shop. However, the biggest, most important improvement of all is… THAT THEY FINALLY GOT RID OF THE TEN MINUTE POKÉBALL TUTORIAL! NOW IT’S JUST TWO TEXT BOXES THAT TAKE THIRTY SECONDS TO READ!

Of course, the elephant in the room with Scarlet & Violet is its full open-world map. While I bet there’ll be a lot of memes along the lines of “Is this Pokélder Scrolls?”, the region of Paldea doesn’t quite hold a candle to its open world contemporaries, especially Breath of the Wild. However, Paldea is easily the best region that the Pokémon series has ever had in and of itself. There’s tons of slopes, ledges, bodies of water… it only took three years for GameFreak to finally do it right! It’s a truly beautiful world… well, it would be if they understood the hardware, but you know what I mean.

There is a LOT to do in Paldea. For starters, there’s Pokémon, Trainers, and loot pretty much everywhere. There are also hidden Gimmighouls who give you their coins (that are really important for a specific purpose). Most importantly, however, are the three major quest lines. You not only have the classic Gym challenge, but you also have the five Titan Pokémon and the five admins of Team Star. It’s a lot, but for the first time, they can be tackled in any order.

Towns are the best they have ever been, at least in a long time. Each has unique characteristics, and thoughtful designs that make them feel live-in-able. I was concerned with them at first, since the early ones didn’t have good shop variety outside of food (which is a whole other thing). Fortunately, the later towns start having really powerful shops; you’ll be able to buy competitive hold items and even Nature-changing Mints, which you would otherwise have to grind BP. Unfortunately, they have something I really am torn on: Gym Tests. Instead of a puzzle room with Trainers, each town with a Gym essentially has the town become the Gym. It’s a cool idea, but I feel like some of them are just padding. 

The Team Star bases kind of suck, gameplay-wise. Basically, you assemble three Pokémon with an advantage over the Type that Squad uses, then mash R. It can only be hard if you don’t have an advantage, but they give you tons of time to defeat enough enemies. I can appreciate the streamlined process, but it still feels like a waste of time when there is almost no chance of failure. The boss fights themselves are great, at least.

The Titan Pokémon are the most straightforward. You go to their location and fight them twice, that’s it. The second time is fun because Arven assists with a friend of his own. Your reward for each is a new field ability for your steed. Unfortunately, the Titans don’t show their level, meaning if you get bodied by one, there’s no way to gauge if it was your fault or if it was just too strong.

Battling Pokémon is easier than ever. In addition to touching them in the overworld, Arceus mechanics return in full force. You can hide in the grass, and throw your lead Pokémon’s Pokéball to engage in battle. Also, like in Arceus, you can strike Pokémons’ backsides to give yourself a free turn. Do you not even want to bother fighting but still want XP? Simple! Just press R to send your lead Pokémon on a murder spree, where it’ll instantly destroy any opposition in its way, provided that it has the proper advantages. 

Unfortunately, TMs have been nerfed. They’re all back to being single-use again! That means doing an entire playthrough all over again just to teach a Pokémon Earthquake—Psyche! TMs are consumables, but they are REALLY easy to come by. They are lying just about everywhere in the world, and Pokémon also drop materials with which to make more. You can track up to five TMs whose materials you need.

In battle, everything is pretty much the same. Well, except for the latest gimmick: Terastallizing. Aesthetically, I love it. Pokémon become crystal, and it looks really pretty; like they’re unleashing their inner Magical Girl. Mechanically, it might actually be my new favorite gimmick; it’s not too broken, but can turn the tide if used wisely. Basically, what it does is change the Pokémon to its Tera Type, and give a STAB bonus much bigger than regular STAB. This is a meta mechanic for numerous reasons, such as changing the Pokémon’s type to something completely different in some cases. Also, all Tera Types are pure Types, meaning that this state can potentially erase a Pokémon’s quad-weaknesses. Just have fun building a competitive team around this, because the mechanic to change a Pokémon’s Tera Type requires farming for an obnoxious amount of Tera Shards.

Tera Raid Battles are also a big improvement over the Dynamax ones. The A.I. for people who have no friends is more competent, and the fights themselves are faster. There is no limit to Pokémon that can faint, but it does run down the time limit, which is not a limit on turns taken, but a literal clock that trickles away in real time. These battles encourage fast and smart plays, and the faster pacing complements this a lot. Unfortunately, they are kind of buggy, at least solo. Stuff happens so fast that the game can’t seem to keep up with it; sometimes a fainted Pokémon will continue to act, or it will faint while it still has health left. Still works better than Skyrim, at least.

My biggest concern with the transition to open world was that Scarlet & Violet would be a repeat of Gold & Silver: abysmal level scaling to account for doing things in any order because apparently programming enemies to grow dynamically with the player is impossible (obvious sarcasm there). Does that actually happen? Well… sadly… kind of. There is a clear recommended order to do things in, and as a result, your journey will be all over the place, with difficulty being anywhere from really challenging to a mind-numbingly easy victory. Nuzlockes are a must if you want actual difficulty, maybe even hardcore nuzlockes since the games give you so many free items in the overworld—including Ethers and Elixirs! However, that would of course ruin the sense of discovery in a new generation of Pokémon. Additionally, nuzlockes can be unfair, since unwittingly running into something above your pay grade will cut your run short, and you have to start the whole game all over again. I thought that asking Nurse Joy for advice would clue you in on the intended path, but she seems to recommend random events, regardless of if you’re actually capable of taking it on or not. The descriptions of some of these objectives can give you hints on the pathing, but the key word is “some”. It doesn’t help that the actual intended path makes absolutely no sense from a game design standpoint. Boy, I’m sure doing a good job making these games look appealing, aren’t I?

Well, I might as well commit. Furthermore, the cooking mechanic is worse than ever. I feel like they become more excessive and complicated with each Generation. On the positive side, the minigame is fun. You basically have to painstakingly build a sandwich piece-by-piece with the added challenge of no drop shadow. However, the foods themselves are where it gets excessive. There are hundreds of sandwiches, among other cuisines, sold at the many, MANY eateries and food carts throughout the world. The buffs from them apply to specific Pokémon Types, making each buff situational. The real kicker is that every item has several buffs and they’re distributed across the foods like a hodge-podge with no rhyme nor reason. While you don’t need these at all unless you want to min-max, it’s still sad that cooking in Pokémon has never once felt practical for core gameplay. There is also a washing mechanic for when Pokémon get dirty. However, I had no idea about this mechanic for the vast majority of the game, and when I used it for the first time, none of my party actually looked dirty. What doesn’t help is that some Pokémon don’t even want a bath at all, and there’s no way of knowing which ones that applies to!

Also, when I said that the school felt like an afterthought, I meant it. Although, that’s definitely because I’m biased against all school-based mechanics in videogames. Unfortunately, taking every single class is actually worth it. All you have to do is answer various quiz questions, and you get rewards for passing each class’ exams. The classes actually give you good hints on game mechanics (especially if you’re not a Pokémon veteran), plus the history class actually helps with foreshadowing and worldbuilding. Speaking of building, you can also build your relationship with teachers through special events (indicated by an exclamation mark over their rooms), thus allowing you to… fuse higher-ranked Personas? Well, you do get various rewards for seeing these events through to the end, and more time with the teachers whom I praise so much is definitely a good thing.

If there’s one thing that’s both a blessing and a curse, it’s that they have a really good selection of new Pokémon. I ended up shuffling my team a lot in my playthrough—mainly because I didn’t plan on replaying either of the games in the near future if at all—but also because a lot of the Pokémon are really good. They have great designs and work well in battle. Also, one other collectible in the overworld consists of thirty-two black stakes. They come in four sets of eight, and finding all of a set awards you with a Legendary Pokémon. That’s FOUR Legendaries that you can obtain before the credits roll!

However, there is one Pokémon in my playthrough whom I ended up feeling at odds with. So, spoiler warning for a whopping one Pokémon that was probably announced or showed off in the leak: Toedscool and Toedscruel. This is a Ground-Grass regional variant of the Tentacool family. Toedscruel is really fast and boasts the same great special defense as Tentacruel. It also learns Spore. However, its ability is what makes it really awkward as a team member: Mycelium Might. This ability gives it minus priority when using status moves, but those moves ignore abilities. This sounds great, but I feel like there are almost no situations where this works out in its favor. It doesn’t ignore Safeguard nor Misty Terrain since those aren’t Abilities, and I presume it won’t work when Uproar is in effect for the same reason. I also used Spore on a Pokémon with Vital Spirit. While the move successfully puts it to sleep, I learned that Vital Spirit also checks if the Pokémon is somehow put to sleep anyway, and thus makes it wake up immediately after the turn ends. The minus priority also means that Toedscruel’s opponent can attack, and potentially one-shot it since it’s physically squishy (quad weakness to Ice doesn’t help either). As a Spore user, it’s still great for catching Legendaries, but Mycelium Might is too situational for the minus priority to feel like a good trade-off. Who knows, maybe Chuggaaconroy will prove me wrong when he plays through these games on his channel in ten years.

In any case, another plus with the newcomers is that I feel like their evolutionary conditions aren’t as BS as Galar. I remember having to look up almost all of the evolution conditions for Sword and Shield. This time, however, I only looked up a few, and those cases were actually ones where I was doing the right thing but I just didn’t do it enough times. Most of them evolve from level up, and pretty early too. Unlike the usual throwaway early game Pokémon, a lot of these very quick evolutions are really good, including the new Wooper’s evolution. The only late boomer is—as tradition—the new Pseudo-Legendary. Fortunately, it’s no Hydreigon (and I hope nothing ever will be).

I always have to discuss the post-game last, because—well—it’s the last part of the game, and the post-game content of Pokémon is always VERY important. You start by fighting every Gym again (without having to take another test, thankfully), and they’re way harder. After that, you can unlock a boss gauntlet that refreshes daily. Once this is unlocked, beating enough 5-star difficulty Tera Raid battles will unlock EXTRA difficult battles indicated by black crystals; you WILL need a team of four human, M.L.G. gamers to take these on.. You can also catch a second instance of the box-art Legendary, which mainly serves to trade to someone who owns the other game and help complete each other’s Pokedexes.

Hey, that’s a perfect time to complain about Gen 9 not being Arceus! You don’t get the other box-art Legendary, you don’t get the other two Starters, you don’t get Link Cables… Nope, you’re back to completing the Pokédex the old fashion way: by—*gasp*—socializing with people, and hoping they like Pokémon (which is really hard for adults since a lot of them are still very harsh on the series). Boy… Arceus was really great.

With that little aside out of the way, there’s a bit of a caveat at this juncture. Every single time I think I’ve done all the post-game content, there’s something I miss and never find out about. This time, I’m dead certain that there’s more than what I wrote above. Scratch that, I KNOW there is because… sadly, I was spoiled of it in the thumbnail of one of Tom Fawkes’ stream VODs (however I still would’ve had a feeling based on the Scarlet Book (or presumably Violet Book?) containing Pokémon that you don’t see in the endgame). Anyway, as of this post’s publication, I have not started this remaining post-game content. I have a feeling that it might actually be an Oracle of Ages/Seasons situation where you need to beat both to unlock whatever this content is; if I’m right, then that’s just mean. If the prerequisite really has anything to do with playing the other game as well, then that would be kind of BS, since these are probably the longest main games in the series and I doubt a lot of adults would even have the time unless they were gamers by profession. Also, the target demographic—kids—would probably not be able to convince their parents to spend over $100USD on both games. Whatever it would’ve been, however, I would not want to discuss it due to spoilers, so it won’t change the review anyway. 

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Final Verdict: 9.35/10

Pokémon Scarlet, despite its ugliness and other issues, has perhaps been the greatest main series Pokémon experience I’ve ever had, at least since my nostalgic days of Black & White 2. It does a LOT right for the series, but sadly, I don’t think it’ll save Pokémon from its critics. People’s obsession with 8k 240fps graphics are already enough to give Gen 9 a bad reputation, but knowing the Pokémon fandom, they’ll take any flaw with these games and balloon them to make it sound like GameFreak are gaming blasphemers. In any case, I highly recommend you play at least one of these two games, provided that you are capable of enjoying Pokémon.

Shy (Volume 1): Introverts Can Be Heroes Too

Bukumi Miki’s Shy could be one of the most hyped and controversial upcoming anime, potentially warranting comparisons to My Hero Academia, and according to RiseFromAshes, people getting obsessed with whether or not girls kiss. Wow that was one sentence… Anyway, I’ve actually known about it for some time, since stumbling upon it back in my MAL days, being intrigued, and waiting for it to get licensed for Western consumption (since pirating is for bad noodles). Well, it’s finally here… goodbye, wallet. 

In Shy, the world is free of war, thanks to the appearance of superheroes. One of them is the titular Shy—a.k.a. Teru Momijiyama. In case you couldn’t tell, she’s insecure and socially awkward. However, when a strange boy starts messing with people’s hearts, she might end up being the key to saving the world from calamity.

Immediately, this manga showcases the pressure that heroes are faced with. Shy gets involved with a typical amusement park accident in the opening chapter. One person ends up injured, but that’s enough for the entire world to want to cancel her. What makes it even more awkward is that the same person—Iko Koshikawa—ends up transferring to Teru’s class on crutches. 

The main premise of the series sets itself up right off the bat. As I stated before, a very dubious boy—whom the heroes name Stigma—is able to amplify the darkness in people’s hearts and turn them into monsters. Iko is the first victim that we see in this volume. The fight is your classic “save the broken waifu” sequence.

It was then that I realized that Shy is really more like Kingdom Hearts than My Hero Academia. Instead of commentating on classism and societal pressures, Shy’s core theme seems to have to do with problems of the heart. Even planet earth has a heart… apparently?

So far, if there is any problem I have with Shy, it’s that… it’s not as creative as I thought it would be? So far, the ideas are all very simple. Each nation has one hero, and they report to a being named Unilord who lives in a space station. Stigma’s power has been seen a billion times in fiction, and—I dunno—the first encounter didn’t exactly wow me. It was good, but I guess it’s starting to get tiring to see the whole “people’s fears manifest into physical forms” trope. Aesthetically, the transformation wasn’t too interesting either. 

However, Shy does some great things right off the bat. So far, the cast of characters are very likable. Teru, as Shy, is going to have a lot of baggage moving forward. Poor thing… I can totally relate to being an introvert yet having the entire world forced onto your shoulders; I’m sure everyone can these days, with how aware we all are of discrimination and climate change. 

She’s nice and all, but I have a feeling that everyone is going to like Pepesha Andreianov, a.k.a. Spirit. She’s compassionate, perpetually drunk, and her physical qualities are above par with the base wants of the superficial man. Stardust (whose birth name I already forgot) is an eccentric rock star who has a bit of an anti-hero thing going on. Unilord is also unexpectedly quirky for what appears to be a god-like figure. Oh, and a fair warning here: so far, there has been no sexual tension among the overwhelmingly female cast.

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Current Verdict: 8/10

Shy is off to a good start, but it’s too soon to say if it’s actually really good or not (although I can presume that many people in the community will say that it’s better than My Hero Academia because no one but me likes that series anymore for some reason). It lays the groundwork for something, but there are a LOT of series where that something ends up being nothing. You might as well get on the bandwagon before it gets sardine-packed with himedanshi.

Wolfwalkers: An Example of Peak Animated Cinema

Is COVID STILL ongoing right now? Holy crap… that thing is immortal. Anyway, I’m bringing it up because today’s review is of a 2020 film: Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers, the final installment of their hit Irish Folklore Trilogy. It never got to see the big screen. GKids is a great license holder, but they make… decisions… when it comes to distribution of the products (either that or the original rights holder restricts them?). Wolfwalkers was an Apple TV+ exclusive! I say “was” because the only other way to watch it is on the trilogy Blu-Ray boxset, and that’s how I watched it for the first time!

In Wolfwalkers, a British girl named Robin and her dad move to Ireland (where no one likes them) to help take out a pack of wolves living in the nearby forest. Naturally, she’s not allowed to help even though she really wants to. Also naturally, she goes into the forest anyway. Still quite naturally, she meets a titular wolfwalker named Mave, and they hit it off. VERY naturally, this won’t exactly fly with the humans back in town!

Where do I start with this movie? Well, probably how it looks, since that’s the first thing you see. Like the Cartoon Saloon movies before it, Wolfwalkers is gorgeous. Also like the Cartoon Saloon movies before it, they don’t stick with the exact same look. For this movie, they use a more pencil-sketchy look—to the point where you can actually see some of the skeleton shapes for people’s bodies—that feels very much inspired by Disney’s xerox era films. However, while those Disney movies clearly scream budget cuts, this technique somehow makes Wolfwalkers Cartoon Saloon’s most breathtaking movie. They do some seriously crazy stuff in this one, and they already pushed the envelope before. 

“But how’s the story?” you ask. Well, it’s a Cartoon Saloon movie, so it’s not exactly avant-garde. Wolkfwalkers is a pretty typical story of friendship, self-discovery, the piousness of early Christians, their inability to understand nature, and the subtle nods to how our society is now. Okay, it’s not exactly the latter, and I—once again—appreciate that from Cartoon Saloon (clearly, they ran out of gut-crushers after The Breadwinner). For a 2020 film, I was dead certain that this would be about racism, and you can argue that it is with how humans’ fear of wolves is explored. However, it really isn’t (other than literally one scene with these Irish bullies), so you can just enjoy it for the Celtic escapism that it is and stop trying to take away the childlike wonder from the few people who still cling to it (looking at you, art critics).

Speaking of childlike wonder, that—like the other two films—is just how the movie feels. While visuals can just be used as sensory-assaulting fluff for the blockbuster-savvy, Cartoon Saloon always knows how to do the most without excession. Wolfwalkers never skipped a beat, advancing at a tight pace while having time for the details that matter. Most notably, this one is not only the longest (by about ten minutes); it also has the shortest resolution, coming down to the wire about as much as any Disney movie.

Oh, and speaking of “down to the wire”, Wolfwalkers hits the hardest of the Irish Folklore Trilogy movies (obviously, The Breadwinner will break your heart and subsequently annihilate the pieces at the subatomic level, so we don’t compare it to that). With multiple layers of conflict, from Robin’s dense dad to the mean Law Protector, there’s plenty of butt-clenching to be had throughout the movie. Though it’s rated PG, you might want to be cautious if you have young’uns. 

The characters, however, are kind of the weakest link in the movie. They aren’t bad per sé, but Cartoon Saloon is already showing its own brand of tropes. Robin—like Brandon and Ben—is a troublemaker, who learns valuable lessons of friendship and acceptance when she meets the aforementioned wolfwalker. Said wolfwalker, Mave, is—like Ashley and Cirsha—the unquestionably Best Girl, full of expressiveness and snark, who you want to root for but ends up suffering the most. Robin’s father, Mr. Goodfellow—like Uncle Abbot and Ben’s dad—is insufferably dense because of past trauma related to loss, and is just trying to keep his kid alive and healthy, but needs to have the truth of the matter drilled into his thick skull. There are also the usual several unnamed NPCs who serve as occasional comic relief. The similarities end, however, with the aforementioned Law Protector. Large, angular, and a devout Christian, he’s the only true villain in the Irish Folklore Trilogy. Unlike the complex, insecure parents of the main protagonists, he is just evil.

Small aside, though. Wolfwalkers was the only movie in this trilogy where the Blu-Ray Disc experienced hiccups. Honestly… it would’ve been better to rent the first two movies and do a free trial period with Apple TV+. I really don’t like Blu-Rays, or DVDs for that matter, at all. Fortunately, I discovered that GKids seem to have some contract with Apple, for a lot of anime movies I otherwise can’t watch are available for rent without having to also subscribe to Apple TV+. So… expect some more anime movie reviews on occasion.

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Final Verdict: 9.85/10

I thought Wolfwalkers would be the worst of these movies for very obvious reasons. However, it was actually the best. Thanks, COVID. I hope Cartoon Saloon makes more movies… because The Breadwinner is the only one left and I am too sensitive to watch it right now (or ever). In any case, I highly recommend this amazing company’s films to anyone. They’re that good (and better than live action).

Torture Princess: Fremd Torturchen is as Macabre as it Gets (Full Series Review)

I literally said I was never covering light novels again, yet here I am talking about Keishi Ayasato’s Torture Princess: Fremd Torturchen again. Because I can never be consistent, I had the thought of “Well, in the rare chance I manage to finish a light novel series, I can do a full series review of it as if it were a manga, right?” And so here we are. If this becomes a thing, it will be the only time I discuss light novels in any capacity (and if it did, it would be pretty rare because I haven’t had good experiences with most light novels, and all of them are massive money sinks). 

In Torture Princess, a young lad named Kaito Sena gets isekai’d, not through death by truck, but death by abusive relative. The world he ends up in is a hot mess to say the least. Oh, and here’s the kicker: he’s the servant of Elisabeth La Fanu, the Torture Princess who has been tasked with slaying a bunch of demons, afterwhich she is to be publicly executed. 

What immediately jumps out is how edgy Torture Princess is. No, “edgy” doesn’t even describe it. The world in this series is what H.P. Lovecraft would come up with if he was born and raised inside of a Hot Topic. It’s gothic and broken, full of innocent people being killed indiscriminately in over-the-top ways. 

Yes, “over-the-top.” That’s a term that comes up in criticisms of anything that has an excess amount of gore. Seriously, Torture Princess has gore in perhaps the most excess of anything I have ever experienced in my life (it’s at least up there with Chainsaw Man). But you know what, Ayasato commits to it. The prose is both poetic and misanthropic, and always finds creative ways to convey its despair and hatred for humanity. The ways that people are brutally destroyed are varied, creative, and wildly effed up. In fact, I might lose this blog if I listed an example.

However, the plot is perhaps Torture Princess‘s weakest aspect. It starts off straightforward enough, but in typical Japanese fantasy fashion, it goes down a road of conspiracy theories revolving around the in-universe religion that isn’t even subtle about it mirroring Western religions. You can even say that the novels have battle shounen-like escalation. To be perfectly honest, most of the story is pretty tropeish, and since I haven’t reread them since first starting the series, I can admit that I forgot most of the story itself.

However, there are still two things that make Torture Princess really good, one of which is its truly star-studded cast. Kaito is a legitimately complex isekai protagonist, full of insecurities and conflicting emotions. He’s edgy, sure, but having an abusive father who murders him is a pretty good justification this time around. When he confides in his waifus, it actually feels emotional this time, as opposed to fan-service.

Speaking of waifus, Elisabeth is a badass, who can bring on both verbal and physical assault with elegance that would make that old dude in Spy X Family kneel before her. She has tons of baggage, courtesy of society, which makes her an ideal waifu.

Of course, the best girl is the automaton, Hina. She’s perhaps the best yandere of all time, with her manufactured love for Kaito feeling more real than most actual human girls. She’s powerful and priceless in every way. Other waifus include a warrior named Izabella Vicker (whose story I won’t get into because of spoilers), and the rootin’-tootin’ Jeanne de Rais. 

From the peanut gallery is Elisabeth’s nonchalant, nihilistic father, Vlad. He is killed off early on, but his spirit sticks around for the bulk of the series. He’s an ass, but I still love him. Same goes for the demon known as the Kaiser. He just chills while watching the world burn.

The other thing that makes Torture Princess so enjoyable is that it’s actually well-written for a light novel. Like I said before, the prose is poetic. Everything is described in gruesome detail, especially the violence. There are some clever instances of redundant phrases and passages that actually help make the story have more impact. I can’t say why, though; you’ll have to experience it for yourself to see.

Of course, it’s not a review of any media franchise without saying it gets iffy toward the end! The first six volumes of Torture Princess are, for all intents and purposes, a perfect, complete story. However, the final third is a second act that is… weaker in some areas. The action and insanity are still high, but there’s a lot more dialogue, and the story isn’t that much better. I get that the second act is there as an allegory to how humans will keep wanting to destroy themselves for no reason, but it still puts a few knicks in the series’ armor.

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Final Verdict: 9.85/10

Torture Princess: Fremd Torturchen is one of the best light novel series I have ever experienced. It’s a dark take on isekai tropes I feel like actually works, and it has some of the best characters in the market. It’s also cartoonishly gorey enough for me to not be able to attribute it to the real world, allowing for some semblance of escapism. I recommend it if you’re sick of those typical harems.

Strange World: Disney’s Most Family-Savvy Movie

Here we go again, time to see another Disney movie on opening day (well, I know this post isn’t coming out on opening day… but you know what I mean). I’m gonna admit that I was worried about this one. Lightyear ended up being one of my biggest disappointments with Pixar in YEARS, and while Turning Red was great, it wasn’t meant to be better than Lightyear. Strange World also has something that always, ALWAYS sets the Internet on fire, even though it’s pretty commonplace nowadays. That’s why I try to watch movies I care about on opening day… even though I would prefer them to be on Disney+ as well (at least that’s something they did right with Disenchanted).

In Strange World, the famous explorer Jaeger Clade is ready to make the discovery of a lifetime on the other side of the unconquerable mountain range that looms over his hometown of Avalonea. He drags his son Searcher (and some other people) on this journey. Searcher discovers a radioactive green corn, dubbed Pando, that has enough power to jumpstart Avalonea to a new age. Jaeger, sadly, doesn’t take kindly to this and abandons his son. Twenty-five years later, Searcher starts his own life as a farmer, but must take on the explorer mantle again when Pando mysteriously starts dying off.

So, Strange World is a lot for a Disney movie. I can almost guarantee that kids will have no idea what’s going on until they’re eighteen. On the flipside, this is perhaps the most catered to adults that a Disney animated feature has ever been. As strange as the world in Strange World is, the real strange world is the strange world of family relationships. The entire plot revolves around Searcher, his son Ethan, and Jaeger, who is of course still alive in the titular strange world beneath the mountains.

Before continuing on, I might as well fan-gush over this strange world. Who needs Avatar, which just looks exactly like Earth but plants glow sometimes, when you have the surrealistic wonders put forth by Disney visionaries? The movie explodes with beautiful colors, odd creatures, and epic landscape shots. Too bad Avatar‘s going to eat this movie nonetheless…

Anyway, complaints about Hollywood being jury-rigged against animation aside, the story of the Clades is the heart of the movie. When the three generations of Clade meet for the first time, the drama goes through the roof. Ethan thinks Jaeger is cool, Searcher doesn’t like Jaeger, Searcher doesn’t want Ethan to be like Jaeger (and holds Ethan back in the process of protecting him from his grandpa), and Ethan just wants to be… Ethan. To be blunt, if you’re a seasoned veteran of fiction, Disney movies, and life in general, then you already know all three men’s character arcs from start to finish. Fortunately, this age-old theme is still relevant, as there are certainly plenty of Dead Poet Society-esque parents out there who need a wake-up call. Also, Strange World executes on it really well, not getting too manufactured in favor of shock value while managing to hit home all the same.

Oh, right, there is still the whole dying green corn thing… Well, that debacle ends up having a legitimately clever twist. I won’t spoil what it is, but it’s definitely not human machinations this time. The idea of humans not being a vile plague is always a novelty these days.

Based on how aggressively I talked about the three Clade men up to this point, it sure sounds like they’re the only real characters. Well, they’re the most fleshed out, that’s for sure. Jaeger might be a jerk, but he has some funny moments of being a real grandpa. Searcher is a classic dad character, wanting to protect Ethan and his home. Ethan is just a cool kid caught between a rock (Searcher) and a hard place (Jaeger).

Everyone else is still quite likable, regardless of screentime. This includes that one guy with glasses whose name I don’t know at all; he’s funny. However, he’s not the comic relief supporting character; that would go to Splat, a native of the strange world. Splat is your usual mute, marketable character, who speaks in its own sign language and is very bouncy all the time. Ethan’s mom, Meridian, is perhaps the best. She can do anything and everything, all while being a mom. 

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 9.25/10

Strange World has got to be one of the most intricate movies that Disney has put out (even though that’s not saying much). It deals with family… er… family… and… Actually, the entire thing is just one big commentary on families. Wow, good job contradicting yourself. Anyway, my love for it is NOT a contradiction, and I suggest you round up your father and/or son and watch this with them!

The Dragon Prince is FINALLY Back! (Season 4 Review with SPOILERS)

It’s been a long time coming for The Dragon Prince: one pandemic later. In any case, Netflix has given the show four more seasons; four more seasons of one of the best examples of a neo-retro fantasy epic, and one of the most I-feel-like-a-kid-again experiences outside of Disney. As you can see, I decided I’m going to go over it season-by-season. Since each season is only nine episodes, and the show has a really simplistic plot, this post, along with reviews of subsequent seasons, will contain unmarked spoilers so that the entire thing isn’t just “It’s good, I guess.” Read with caution!

Last time we left off, two human boys named Callum and Ezran (until the latter had to step away to be the youngest king ever), and an elf named Rayla, managed to escort (read as: “babysit”) the Dragon Prince, Zim, back to his home in Xadia. Ezran’s late father’s evil royal advisor, Verin, almost stopped them, by turning his followers into veiny-muscle-dudes. However, Verin was defeated thanks to the power of friendship. After a three-year cliffhanger for us and two-year timeskip in the show, we’ll finally get to see what happens next!

But not before I reverse a cardinal sin I committed in the previous review: I never ONCE mentioned the boys’ Aunt Amaya! She’s the Best Girl! She’s the typical Awesome Aunt trope: swole, and takes no prisoners, but loves her family to pieces. Speaking of loving someone to pieces… her ship with the swole elf, Janai, is officially set to launch this season. More on that later though.

This whole season has been built up as “The Mystery of Aaravos”. However, I’m pretty sure we knew one thing about him: he’s the Avatar. If I remember correctly (as someone who never bothered rewatching the previous seasons), Rayla mentioned an Aaravos who could control all six Primal Sources. What we learn of him in this season is that he’s the typical “bad guy who manipulates powerful people and causes wars from the shadows because evil”. There’s most likely more to his story.

Fortunately, despite the long break, the show hasn’t missed a beat. The Dragon Prince is still whimsical, funny, and epic. I couldn’t help but smile for most of the season, and that’s just how I like it. 

Of course, it’s not all roses and picnics, especially not considering what the real world has gone through in between seasons. Racism has always been a theme, but was played off as something with an easy solution; typical “kids are always right and adults are always wrong” kind of stuff. The inverse is evident when Amaya gets hitched with Janai; their ship sailing would spell disaster for what’s left of the proud Sunfire Elves. It doesn’t matter that they love each other. 

This is even more evident in the party that Ezran plans, in which the Dragon Queen herself visits Katolis (is that how you spell the place?), and ideally, no one tries to kill each other. His speech in episode three hit me harder than possibly anything else I’ve experienced in 2022. It was at that moment that I realized how much I relate to him; we’re both kids who believe in peace, and just cannot understand why hate comes so naturally to the vast majority of people. What he said in it really hit home for me. As much as I’ve gone with the logic of “all the people involved in those conflicts are dead now”, it really wasn’t true at all. Like Ezran said, we must keep the hatred within us alongside the love somehow. Unfortunately, as simple as The Dragon Prince is, even it knows that there is nothing simple about this. In fact, I understand humanity even less now, especially since no practical “how” for Ezran’s process is brought up whatsoever; it’s just something “you gotta do.”

Aaaaanyway, despite how complicated it is, Aunt Amaya makes it look easy. On her end, an ignorant human does something really offensive to a Sunfire Elf. Amaya, being the badass that she is, convinces them to reduce the perp’s punishment from death to community service. It’s a very powerful scene, and something that politically correct people should keep in mind. 

However, it doesn’t end there. The one universal constant with marriages is that in-laws are the worst, and in Amaya’s case, it’s Janai’s brother, Karim. He is basically the elf equivalent of that snobby guy from season three who wanted Ezran to declare war on Xadia for no particular reason, i.e. he’s an utter jackass. He’d rather humans and elves continue to be racist to each other. At first, it seems like he’s simply concerned about his people, considering that there aren’t too many of them left. However, as Amaya and Janai continue to move forward and do good things, he just wants to yank the whole encampment backwards. 

At the very least, he doesn’t try to kill her. Well, sure, he challenges her to a duel to the death, but he wanted her to forfeit so he can win by default. That’s exactly what happens, but he gets arrested instead because the duel is supposed to be illegal (his arc is definitely not over yet). Janai says this awesome thing about people’s history not defining how they are in the present, which—wait—isn’t that kinda the opposite of what Ezran said in episode three? Well, in any case, that’s also something that politically correct people need to keep in mind.

While that’s all nice and dandy, the overarching plot of the show at this juncture involves Claudia going through a whole rigmarole to release Aaravos. Callum and Co. literally catch wind of this, and that means it’s time for adventuring once more! Our old pals Callum, Rayla, Ezran, Zim, and now Sorin! What’s not to love?

Actually, the answer may surprise you: Callum and Rayla. Their ship sailed back in season three, but in the name of shock value, her metaphorical crew has a saboteur. In between seasons, Rayla left to find Verin’s body (or something?) but to no avail. Callum, naturally, is hit hard by this, since he loves her. However, when she returns, he… hates her guts? Well, he definitely behaves like an utter jackass, that’s for sure, suddenly acting like her ex and not her current partner. I really don’t get this AT ALL. I’m not sure if Rayla’s departure was shown at the end of season three (it definitely wasn’t in the recap), but there really is no context so I can’t tell who is more at fault. It’s one thing if she never told Callum, but it’s still indecent for him to be such a turd-monkey to the girl of his dreams. The cherry on top is that he’s set up to be one of Aaravos’ future thralls. Oh goodie.

Speaking of characters changing, no one changes more in this season than our antagonists. As I implied before, Sorin is a good noodle and he’s great as always. However, Verin and Claudia both do a big 180. Verin literally comes back to life after his big fall from season three, and he’s a mess. He doesn’t want to touch his staff or use dark magic, or be evil. He even has panic attacks and a new fear of heights. I was really surprised by this, because I was certain that he was the evil human mage shown in the very, VERY beginning of the series, staying young by snorting those butterflies as seen in season one. He might still have a connection with that dude, since his staff isn’t really his; Claudia uses it in ways that he never knew existed. 

Claudia, on the other hand, stops being the derpy, adorable teenage girl, and becomes quite cold. She has some of her charm, but she’s done a LOT of dark magic, and will cast as many spells as it takes to free Aaravos, who can make her father’s living-mumbo-jumbo spell permanent. Also, somehow, evil Claudia wins the heart of some elf named Terry. He’s cute and funny, and kills someone literally for the first time in his life this season. I bet he’ll be her moral compass for a while.

Let’s end this discussion by reflecting on how the season ended (since this is a spoiler-filled review after all). The teams on both sides journey to the mountain of Umber Tor to find Rex Igneous, who has a clue to Aaravos’ whereabouts. It’s literally carved into his tooth. To build tension, each party of course arrives at the same time, confronts each other, and the bad guys escape with the prize. Our heroes are safe from the grumpiest dragon ever (also I got the entire backstory of the series wrong in my first review apparently, even though I wrote that overview minutes after watching the first episode? Well, good thing I’m not official in any way), but they didn’t have silly putty nor the ability to obtain the map. So… they’re in a bind right now. Also, Verin uses his staff and seems to revert back to his old self, albeit with dark magic veins covering his face. Wait… IS he that dark mage from the VERY beginning? In any case, there’s still more to this that we don’t know, such as Ezran possibly having a connection with the human who thwarted Aaravos in the past, who is implied to have had the same Rubik’s cube that Callum has now. Also, that staff of Verin’s is referred to as “the Staff of Xiod” (I’m guessing that’s how it’s spelled). Xiod might be that dark mage, regardless of whether or not Verin and him are one and the same. 

In conclusion, this new season was as amazing as ever, and I already miss it. I’m not going to give a rating this time, because I feel like that won’t be necessary until the series as a whole is concluded (which, hopefully, will go swimmingly). If you haven’t watched The Dragon Prince, then I’m sorry for spoiling the entire series up to this point (don’t say I didn’t warn you). Also, if that’s the case, you should watch The Dragon Prince.

Song of the Sea: This Time WithOUT Feeling?

I finally got to see Cartoon Saloon’s The Secret of Kells after years of buildup. I loved it, so naturally, I did the next logical step: also watch their second film, Song of the Sea. Time to stop beating around the bush and discuss the movie already! 

In Song of the Sea, a boy named Ben is subject to the classic family tragedy: his mother runs away, and a new baby sister, Cirsha (is that how you spell her name?), is left behind. As you can expect, dad is depressed, and Ben hates Cirsha because he blames her for his mother’s presumed death. Well, things escalate when she starts playing with the magic conch that Ben inherited from mom, because she’s a magical child who’s destined to free all the Celtic spirits from their stony prisons caused by Macha the witch stealing their emotions.

Sound complicated? Well, Cartoon Saloon has clearly upped the ante since The Secret of Kells. The plot is more involved, there’s more at stake, more influenced from Celtic mythology, and they go RIGHT for the jugular, Disney-style. The movie has a much more adventurous feel, since they are shipped off to live with grandma in crappy London (well, that’s how it looks in the movie), and have to hoof it back to their secluded island to reunite Cirsha with her patented magic onesie. 

Oh, right, I almost forgot to remind you of the supremacy of hand-drawn animation. Man, I miss experimental Disney, but Cartoon Saloon at least shows some sign of trying different visual styles. Song of the Sea is set in the modern day, forcing them to use shapes and colors unlike what had been seen in The Secret of Kells. The characters are still made of simple shapes, but there’s a lot more roundness going on, versus the many polygons in the previous outing. As expected, they do wild things with shapes and depth that—not to sound redundant—showcase how awesome hand-drawn animation is. 

Anyway, back to discussing the plot! Despite it being more complicated than the other movie, Song of the Sea is still pretty straightforward for the little ones to follow. Just like last time, the artstyle lends itself to telegraph the mood of the given scene and what certain characters are like without them speaking a word (this helps since Cirsha can’t say anything anyway). Weirder stuff happens, like Ben navigating a tunnel made of facial hair, but it’s pretty standard fare for the most part. The most interesting aspect of the movie is a parallel that can be made between two different characters, and the movie never really states whether or not they are one and the same. It’s something that adults will probably notice their first time through, though.

There is a lot more suspense than last time, as well. The stakes aren’t just higher; Ben has some close shaves as well. When Macha’s owls get the memo about Cirsha being a selkie, they pursue quite relentlessly. There’s also the caveat of Cirsha’s life slowly draining away every second she’s not in her onesie. Good thing dad chucked it into the ocean!

As with the previous venture, the characters are kind of the weakest part. Simple and effective is once again the name of Cartoon Saloon’s game, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with the cast, I’m not entirely willing to slander strangers on the Internet in their names either. Ben is a classic piece of crap kid with a redemption arc who eventually warms up to his sister. Cirsha, on the other hand, is the second best character. She’s cute, and has a lot of character for a mute girl. The BEST character is the dog, Cū. He literally swims across the ocean to unite with the kids after they are taken to grandma’s house. 

Something I failed to comment on regarding The Secret of Kells, which is also consistent with Song of the Sea, is the perfect pacing. Both movies tell their stories effectively, and I never felt like they were rushed nor overstayed their welcome. It’s doubly impressive since they give a lot of time for resolution following the climax, unlike SOME studios. 

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Final Verdict: 9.65/10

Song of the Sea is really great. Cartoon Saloon does a fantastic job reminding me of that experimental phase of Disney from way back when. I have one movie of theirs left in this trilogy (and I don’t plan on seeing The Breadwinner because it will probably gut me into oblivion), and I will watch it… someday. When I have time.

MANY Can Play at that Game: First Impressions of Saturday AM’s Global Manga Scene

I learned of this magazine thanks to my local library stocking the first tankobons from them. Saturday AM is one of several magazines by a small outfit called MyFutPrint Entertainment, that publish manga made by people who aren’t Japanese. I thought it was a really good idea, but it’s not perfect. For starters, serialization is way slower than in Japan, either due to the company being smaller or because they treat their mangaka like humans. Also, my library didn’t bother to order some of the titles I was particularly interested in, which means I’ll have to subscribe. With no mention of a trial period, I decided to read the first volumes of several of the series that the library did have, to gauge whether or not such a risky investment would pay off in the long run. I don’t normally read manga when they only have their first volumes out, but I’m doing this because I also need to gauge whether or not it’s worth waiting for more volumes in the first place (given how slow serialization is). After all, my only other gaijin manga experience was Radiant, a manga that I found to be very middle-of-the-road, and haven’t resumed reading since that review was published. Anyway, preamble aside, let’s just hope that I don’t hold these titles in the same regard as Radiant.


Apple Black by Odzune Oguguo

Well, for a battle shounen, Apple Black is way more involved than expected. To put it simply, it stars a boy named Sano, whose left arm—Arodhis—is the last legacy of his late dad, Merlin. It’s the ultimate weapon that can trigger the cataclysmic Infinite Night. Sano, being a battle shounen protagonist, instead wants to end all war (and become the #1 Sorcerer Hokage of Pirates probably). However, there’s a lot more to it. A LOT more. There’s all these organizations, and not to mention, a magic school with its own intricacies. It took me an hour to read this volume, which is not at all the normal reading time for a shounen.

For a manga I wasn’t looking forward to, Apple Black has been much better than I initially thought. It definitely looks the part, with phenomenal artwork and spectacle. The ideas are also off-the-wall, and the humor checks out as well. The large cast of characters is quite good, but due to how many there are in this volume alone, I feel like I’ll only remember Sano and his classmates. Sano himself is a typical dumb shounen boy, but his upbringing in isolation justifies how dumb he is. Oguguo combines the nerd and the pervert tropes to make Symon, a sleazy four-eyes who likes the in-universe equivalent of Wonder Woman comics. Ryuzaki is a typical brash boy, but the end of the volume shows he’s more complicated than that. The female lead is a girl named Opal, who seems pretty awesome, but hasn’t gotten too much screentime yet. There are many other characters, including a very sexy grandma, but this post’d be too long if I discussed them all.

Unfortunately, the biggest flaw with Apple Black that I foresee is a matter of circumstance. It does appear to be one of the more consistent series, since it’s apparently a reprint of the series as of ten years ago. However, like I said before, Saturday AM is a lot slower than Jump. With how ambitious and complex Apple Black is, Oguguo better put recaps in future volumes, or people might forget MANY of the finer details. Sure, you can reread the older stuff, but I’m someone who rarely—scratch that, never—has the time. Sadly, this is something that’s going to bite the bums of every mangaka under this publisher. 

Current Verdict: 8.5/10


Titan King by Tony Dawkins

Titan King is significantly simpler than Apple Black: a boy named Eli Santos is abducted from Earth and forced to compete in an intergalactic tournament. The participants are able to summon a bonded titan to fight alongside them and have anime powers. Like I said, simple. 

With the entire manga being a tournament arc, there is a much higher focus on action than in Apple Black. I definitely enjoyed the artwork and fighting more. However, I don’t know if it’s because of being nervous to read these manga or what, but I didn’t enjoy it as much? Honestly, it was probably the nerves, because the manga is pretty damn great from an objective standpoint. The only real flaw is that the characters are way more by-the-book. They have awesome designs, but are everything you can expect from a battle shounen cast.

Current Verdict: 8.45/10


Saigami by Seny

Full transparency: I wanted this section to be The Massively Multiplayer World of Ghosts, which is the one I was looking forward to the most, but my library doesn’t have any copies. So, here we are with one of the titles I was least interested in: Saigami! Like Apple Black, it seems to be a flagship series, so I should probably give it a fair shot out of respect.

The reason why I wasn’t interested in it is because it’s a traditional isekai: a girl named Hanasaki Ayumi is miserable, and then gets sent into another world. She then discovers that she’s one of the titular Saigami for a hitherto unexplained reason. However, even with badass fire powers, her new life is hard as nails and a lot of folks don’t like her.

The idea of isekai where the other world isn’t exactly a bed of roses feels as dime-a-dozen as your typical harem power trip. However, Saigami was initially penned by Seny many years ago, so it’s technically one of the first instances or possibly THE first instance of this. However, given my timing with reading it, that whole aspect of Saigami lost its novelty fast.

In any case, there’s nothing overtly abhorrent about the manga so far. It looks like it’s going to be quite lengthy, with this volume just introducing the world, its characters, and setting up for the first major arc. It’s a slow start, but by being a manga, it’s SIGNIFICANTLY more tolerable and faster-paced than 99/100 isekai light novels. It could be a yuri, assuming that the RWBY reference at the beginning was foreshadowing, but for now, Ayumi is the only girl…

Which is a perfect transition into discussing the characters! Ayumi herself is what you’d expect: someone who constantly gets dunked on, and has to learn to embrace her inner power. She’s weak and whiny now, but I’m assuming she’ll be a badass down the road. The other three characters introduced are all boys. Sean is a silly, fun guy, who is basically Ayumi’s BFF in five seconds. Angsty Reyji doesn’t trust her at all, since she’s not from Saigami-land but has Saigami powers somehow. Last but not least is Daiszke, another underdog who gets treated like crap, this time because his powers were taken too far.

Sadly, I do find the artwork to be the weakest of what was discussed today. It hits all the right notes, sure, but compared to the others, it’s just the weakest. It has a shojo-y look to it, but thankfully, the characters actually look like people instead of Grey aliens wearing human suits; that’s one big positive at least. There haven’t been any major fights, so I can’t really say how good the action looks. In conclusion, this volume was the least impressive, but I imagine it’ll only get better with time.

Current Verdict: 8.25/10


Hammer by JeyOdin

Hammer is, believe it or not, EVEN SIMPLER than Titan King! It stars a boy named Stud Hammer, who has all the relatable quirks of being lonely, having a missing mother, and a dad who’s always going to work. In a depressed stupor, he finds his dad’s journal, and gets Blue-Skadooed into it. He then proceeds to have adventures.

The opening arc of Hammer revolves around the mysterious murder of the Ocean Kingdom’s king. It’s basically a setup volume, because it’s clearly implied that there’s more to this murder than meets the eye. Otherwise, it’s a very Dragon Ball-ish, comedic battle shounen with great fights.

Hammer is, visually, the one that stands out among the manga discussed today. That’s because its artsyle seamlessly blends American cartoon aesthetic with  monochromatic manga goodness. It looks awesome, and is by far its greatest strength. 

I don’t quite have an opinion on the characters because I really didn’t feel like I’ve gotten to know them well enough. They have memorable designs, but are pretty basic for the most part. Two of them, Stud and a young police officer named Dan (who I enjoyed imagining Dan from Game Grumps as his V.A.), currently rely on classic emotional hooks to get brownie points from you. Dan’s older sister, Diane, is cool, but she’s a pretty typical onee-sama trope herself (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Current Verdict: 8.5/10


So, Will I Be Subscribing to Them?

The answer, for the time being, is “undecided.” If I was richer, I’d do it in a heartbeat. However, I have hundreds of dollars worth of subscriptions, including a $300 annual fee for WordPress that I need to pay off, all off of minimum wage! Crunchyroll is something I’d be willing to abandon, since I have gone on record saying that I don’t enjoy anime outside of the movies, but I actually have a relative who’s using my account in my stead pretty consistently. 

Even if I could afford Saturday AM, I still don’t quite know what I’d be getting into. The website is pretty bare bones, and according to the description of their app, they don’t even have a series-by-series list like Viz; you still have to pay separate, flat rates for “chapter packs” specific to each series. Also, I’ve known about them for three months now, and they haven’t added a single new serialization since. There was a recent collection of one-shots, but I don’t know if they’re doing the Jump tradition of “the most popular one-shot gets to start as a full series” or not. Also, due to the aforementioned slow publication, I’d be flushing money down the toilet just playing the waiting game for more content. The other caveat is the world itself. Every day, we’re getting showered with news about global disorder, the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, China, etc. The talking heads estimate that we don’t even have a decade left before the next mass extinction. Saturday AM might not even be worth investing in, because there might not even be enough time for them to grow into something truly great; they’ve been doing this for almost ten years, and are only just now printing their first tankobons.

If I could find a way to get out of Crunchyroll, then I’d probably be subscribed to them now; the monthly rate—even if you factor in the chapter packs—is cheaper. However, whether or not I go through with it remains to be seen; after all, what if there’s a TV anime that’s actually good for once? In any case, if you’re reading this, and you have a much better income than me, then I implore you to check these guys out if you’re interested. I don’t want to sound like I’m forcing you… but this little team needs support, and the price of admission is peanuts. I hope you enjoyed this post, and that you highly consider subscribing to Saturday AM!

The Death Mage (Volume 1): I Don’t Think This was What they Meant by “Third Time’s the Charm”

This is a crucial post, for it is my second review of something that I have received an advanced copy of, and once again, it’s a One Peace Books publication! It’s got nothing to do with The Rising of the Shield Hero this time; yes, they publish other things, such as Densuke’s The Death Mage. I decided to give it a whirl, not only because it gives me brownie points, but because it actually looks good!

The premise of The Death Mage is extremely complicated for an isekai….so here’s a TL;DR version. Our main character, Hiroto Amamiya, dies along with his classmates in a terrorist attack. Everyone except for him gets second lives complete with superpowers. With nothing in store for him, Hiroto’s second life is as a subject of experimentation with death magic. After he dies again, he’s given a third round, as a half-dark-elf-half-vampire kid named Vandal. His death magic carries over by the way (this IS an isekai after all).

So… The Death Mage is a lot. In typical isekai fashion, Vandal is a baby who still has his memories of being Hiroto. Once he’s able to use his death magic, he’s able to summon an army of undead animals. I love this angle, because it basically makes him “Stewie Griffin but a necromancer”. After his mom, Dalshia, is killed, he saves her spirit, and plans to make a hot new body for her. So… he’s not really like Stewie because he actually loves his mom.

As far as the narrative is concerned, The Death Mage is a traditional isekai with a slow start. As with the start of Shield Hero, Vandal can’t do crap, and pretty much has to rely on his army to get tasks done. Unfortunately, for the many isekai critics, XP gained by his minions is shared with Vandal, circumventing his own inability to gain XP, which will inevitably make him into your typical overpowered protagonist. Despite how edgy it feels, with all this death magic and revenge narrative and whatnot, The Death Mage isn’t too edgy. For example, he exacts vengeance on the townsfolk who killed his mom not by murdering them all, but by destroying their economy. It’s a more creative play, and helps ground Vandal’s character (and critics like grounded characters, don’t they?).

Well, since I seamlessly segued from talking about the story to talking about the characters, I might as well discuss them next! For the most part, it’s just Vandal—whom I already discussed—and his mom. Dalshia is what you’d expect from the main character’s isekai mom; hot beyond all reason, and seemingly incapable of not loving her son no matter what he does. Fortunately, because she’s dead (wow, I never thought I’d use those four words in that order), we are freed from the usual… er… tropes that come with adult characters being reincarnated as babies pretty early on. Other than that, she’s basically the exposition dump character. Exposition is more justified this time, since Vandal grew up in the boonies, and has no other way to learn about the world, since his half-vampire-ness puts a target on his back. The best character by far is Sam, a spirit who joins Vandal and possesses a carriage, literally becoming Vandal’s own talking car.

The biggest problem with The Death Mage, as with Shield Hero, is the length of this volume, assuming that it’s the precedent for the rest of the series. It’s over four-hundred pages, and like Shield Hero, there’s a lot of fat that can afford to be trimmed. Painstakingly showing the different steps of Vandal’s journey is one thing, but in isekai tradition, it has too many POV swaps that tell the entire lifestories of characters that we don’t need to hear. Sure, some of these involve plot-relevant characters, unlike So I’m a Spider, So What? which literally gives useless NPCs the floor. However, a lot of what’s told us is simple enough to derive from context. Take Sam, for instance. We know that bandits killed his daughters and that Vandal avenged them; that’s his notice for joining Vandal. Yet, later on, he goes on this whole spiel about it, even though we already know all that’s necessary to know about him at that given time. Why do isekai love pulling crap like this?!

~~~~~

Verdict: 8/10

So far, The Death Mage is a pretty harmless isekai series. It sets the foundation for a solid story, and has some good worldbuilding. I am quite interested to see how Vandal’s abilities grow, even if I may not have the time to continue the series. If you wanna experience The Death Mage for yourself, then read the first volume when it comes out on September 27th!

Once again, I thank One Peace Books for its generous offer. 

CrossCode: Secret of Mana and 2D Zelda on Steroids

If there’s one variant of RPG I haven’t done much of, it’s the types like Secret of Mana, where you actually have to move and physically strike enemies to deal damage. Paper Mario: Sticker Star gave me PTSD with any RPG that has only one party member throughout the whole game. But, you know what, Sticker Star sucked. So today, I’m going to cover a retro RPG that gives a lot of bang for its buck: CrossCode for Nintendo Switch (I started playing this game before I got Steam)!

After a confusing opening sequence where you play as some angsty chick, CrossCode starts out when a girl named Lea logs into the high-tech MMO, CrossWorlds, in hopes of recovering her lost memories. CrossWorlds is set on an actual alien planet called Shadoon, and players have to travel the Track of the Ancients, in order to discover its secrets. If you’ve seen SAO, you know things are gonna get ugly.

This game sure knows how to hook players! They throw the intrigue right at you when some weird spaceman, who claims to know Lea, attacks during a tutorial. After that, however, it’s chill city as a lot of the early game is just getting acclimated to CrossWorlds itself. While I don’t normally care much for story in games, I must say that CrossCode nonetheless has a great story. It’s pretty straightforward, but is consistent at throwing you curveballs.

The story in CrossCode wouldn’t mean anything without its phenomenal writing. There’s your usual witty banter, but an indie game wouldn’t be an indie game if it didn’t break the fourth wall! As you can expect, CrossCode makes fun of RPG and videogame tropes. In fact, it even comes up with an actual justification for Lea being a silent protagonist! Since it’s an MMO setting, the meta humor feels much more natural in the context of the story than most indie games I know.

If you’re familiar with me, then you would know that I don’t care if there’s realism, especially when it comes to characters. However, CrossCode actually makes me proud to say that the characters are great because they’re realistic. Due to the setting, all the characters are, well, gamers. From the main cast, to random NPCs, the dialogue feels like how actual videogame nerds would discuss videogame stuff amongst one another, and it creates an intimacy with the player unlike any game I’ve played.

As mentioned before, Lea is a silent protagonist, and is one of the best I have ever seen. I’d dare say she’s the best next to Link himself. Over the course of the game, her friend who basically plays the role of Navi gradually unlocks more words for Lea. Despite her limited vocabulary, the writers give her tons of personality and emotion with what little they have to work with. Speaking of that Navi—i.e. Sergey—he’s also awesome. He’s smart and rational, but also has no shortage of quips.

The others are great as well. Her friend Emilie is a raucous tomboy who is just adorable when she’s dealing with her phobia of bugs, and her love for laser bridges. Along with her is C’tron, a nice, introverted boy who likes making fun of the game’s tropes. There’s also the egomaniac Apollo (who you’ll come to hate for gameplay-related reasons), and his down-to-earth partner, Joern. Even the Navi wannabe, Sergey, is a very likeable character. Unfortunately, a lot of characters don’t have enough eggs in their baskets. Most NPCs have their own stock designs, and even then, some named ones—specifically those involved in side quests—have no personality. It’s a real shame, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

Before getting to gameplay, I must praise the graphics. The game is beautiful and vibrant, as expected of a lot of pixel art games. The spritework is so good, some characters—like a giant whale you fight at one point—look three dimensional. CrossWorlds itself brims with life as you observe other players running around and doing parkour alongside you. It really helps the game feel like it’s set in a real MMO, but without the toxic fandoms and newbie PK’ing of actual MMOs. Somehow, this thing was made using HTML 5, and apparently, this made it very difficult to port to the Switch. It works fine, but can lag a bit during weather effects or if there are a lot of large AOE attacks going off at once.

The gameplay is, of course, the most important part, and CrossCode gets it right. The game has your typical skill tree, with several branches, each containing different abilities that you unlock by spending CP, which you earn on level up. It’s the usual stuff. However, you’re only able to outfit Lea in this game, and that’s because your party members aren’t always going to be there. While you can use them all you want when exploring, things like Dungeons and PvP are done solo. More on those mechanics later.

CrossCode handles Quests really well. There’s tons of them, but they make it really easy to cycle through them. You can favorite a Quest by pressing Y on them, which will display the tasks for it on the HUD. But the best part is that you can favorite multiple Quests at once, and cycle through each one by pressing the Left Analog Stick. It’s a phenomenal way to manage tons of Quests that most RPGs don’t do. The only real issue is that you can’t favorite them at the initial prompt when receiving it.

Quests are nice, but it wouldn’t be a true RPG if there weren’t a million things to do. The other monstrosity is the Encyclopedia, which fills up by talking to NPCs, playing the main story, and learning about the world. This is basically Character Notes in a Falcom game… with additional notes regarding in-universe terminology. I didn’t bother getting 100% on this because of Trails of Cold Steel PTSD, but like in that game, I assume that entries are permanently missable in CrossCode. Additionally, plants of all kinds populate CrossWorlds, and there is a whole section in your Encyclopedia called “Botanics” that records data. Getting an item drop from a given plant is what moves analyzation along, so don’t be afraid to spend hours and hours violating the ecosystem.

Before covering combat, I must praise CrossCode for having an amazing overworld. It’s not just beautiful, but it’s chock full of stuff. You will have to really study the land to figure out “Just how am I supposed to reach that?”, and it’s really fun to do. Every area is full of puzzles, some of which extend to adjacent rooms. Other than some specific instances, it’s pretty easy to get a grasp of planes of the z-axis despite the 2D graphics. But when you can’t, you can always use your projectile attack to get a feel for the depth. Also keep in mind that Lea’s jump is NOT to be underestimated; it puts Link to shame!

Speaking of Legend of Zelda comparisons, the dungeons in CrossCode are among the best I’ve seen in any RPG. CrossCode utilizes its mechanics to create an explicitly Zelda-like experience when going through them. They have seriously tricky puzzles that make use of all of the game’s mechanics, as well as the dungeon-specific mechanics that are taught to you organically with no intrusive textboxes. 

There are a couple of issues I have with them, however. While the puzzles are really great, a lot of them are extremely fickle, requiring pixel-precise setup. This leads into the other issue, which is Emilie’s addiction to racing you through the dungeon. Although it doesn’t seem apparent, you can actually try to win somehow. Unfortunately, if you’re going through the dungeon for the first time, as well as trying to get all the treasure before the boss, you’re NOT going to win a single dungeon race. Even if you were to speedrun it on a repeat playthrough, I imagine every single puzzle is a run-killer; it wouldn’t be an indie game if there was no “Hey do this thing with constant frame-perfect timing, please” BS. Since I’m a filthy casual, I have to accept being an absolute loser at everything.

Combat is a whole different story. When playing, you have your usual melee attacks, but Lea also has projectiles. To use projectiles, you have to move the right analog stick to aim while ALSO moving. Plus, there’s a dodge, but ALSO a guard. The latter won’t make you invincible from damage, but—naturally—there is a perfect guard that allows you to counterattack. Things can get ugly fast if you aren’t adept at all this. 

There’s also Combat Arts that are used with ZR. However, they work very strangely in CrossCode. Your arts aren’t mapped to ZR + a face button, but to ZR + a specific action. They come in four types: Melee Arts, Ranged Arts, Dash Arts, and Guard Arts. Pretty self-explanatory which is which. Note that you can only have one Art set to each action at a time. But fortunately, the skill tree allows you to freely switch between different branches with no CP loss, so there’s no consequence in learning an Art that you’re not sure about. As you find MacGuffins, you unlock further branches of the skill tree, which allow you to learn stronger Combat Arts that cost more SP.

As if things couldn’t get any crazier, there’s Elements. In CrossWorlds, players gradually acquire mastery of the Four Elements. As you unlock them, you can freely switch between them to give your attacks that property. This is great when fighting enemies with different resistances, so you’re not “Oh great, I’m fighting something weak to this and I can’t go into my inventory to equip my weapon with this attribute!” However, there’s Element Overload to watch out for. Basically, too much attacking with an element active can force you back into neutral for a while. It’s also important to know that attacking with no Element active will make your Elements cool down much faster. Each Element found opens up a new section of the skill tree, with their own Combat Arts (which means you’ll be able to have up to FORTY of them active once you gain all four Elements). The thing to notice is that each upgrade is only applied in that particular Element mode. For example, if you give yourself a bunch of base defense ups in Neutral, you will lose it when you switch to another Element. This needs to be kept in mind as you fight.

One mechanic that makes the game extra fun is Combat Rank. This is basically a combo system; defeat enemies in quick succession to increase your rank, which makes them drop better items. I only recommend it if you’re specifically grinding for rare drops, since the adrenaline rush can make you ignore loot your first time through an area. Fortunately, you can press minus after defeating all nearby enemies to end combat immediately if you don’t want to get that combo going. However, whenever you decide to go on a killing spree, Combat Ranks make it feel really good. It gets even better once you acquire equipment with the Botanist property, which causes plant item drops to be affected by Combat Rank. Thanks to this mechanic, I had more fun grinding for materials in CrossCode than in most other games I’ve played in my life.

There are also a lot of nuances that take much learning to figure out. The NPCs are very helpful in that regard, but there’s still some stuff you gotta figure out on your own. For example, when an enemy is glowing red, that means they’re charging up an attack that you can break them out of with a charged projectile attack. There’s also the dash cancel, where you use your dodge in order to prevent yourself from using a melee combo that has recovery lag in favor of continually dishing out damage, and more importantly, hit-stunning enemies repeatedly. Also, parrying with your guard ability becomes crucial if you want to be really good at the game.

You will need to learn these skills quickly; like most indie games, CrossCode wants to be on par with Dark Souls in terms of difficulty. Fortunately, unlike other hard-ass indie games, CrossCode actually considers EVERY POSSIBLE PERSON playing it. In the settings, you are able to freely tweak the amount of damage you take, as well as the frequency of enemy attacks and the leniency of puzzles. That last modifier is really good because you can mitigate the ridiculousness of the puzzles; you’ll still have to figure it out, but execution won’t be as much of a chore. Of course, these are at max by default. I had each setting one tick lower than max and it still gave me a consistently rough but fair time (maybe I just suck).

Despite how rough it was, I rarely felt truly frustrated. The game’s tough, but somehow, it makes the challenge feel fun. However, nothing’s perfect, and there are some specific points that can get VERY frustrating. One example is the case of Elite Quests. Most of them are harder versions of earlier quests. MUCH harder. For instance, the hard versions of these sadistic platforming gauntlets require the kind of frame-perfect perfection that most indie games have come to expect from gamers. There’s also some quests that have interesting ideas, but next-to-no leeway and require memorization of enemy formations. It’s also very easy to be walled by any of the game’s PvP battles. You can’t use items, and even if you could, your opponent is very capable of overwhelming you instantly, and tries various strategies built around stun-locking you until you go from full health to dead. It’s meant to teach you these strategies, but doesn’t mean they’re easy to implement yourself!

If that wasn’t scary enough, don’t get me started on the Arena. Late-ish into the game, you unlock the ability to challenge a preset of mobs from each region, as well as every single fixed encounter, miniboss, and major boss battle that you’ve been through. Beating the challenges is doable enough, but it’s getting the best scores that are insane. You need serious reflexes and ability to pay attention to multiple onscreen entities at once. And assuming you get platinum on each challenge? Well, guess what; you’re also going to have to do it again, but this time in Rush Mode. This is—you guessed it—every challenge within its given bracket in a row with limited healing. Yes, you’ll have to worry about getting platinum on this, and it’ll naturally be even worse to screw up.

I would’ve had this review out faster if it weren’t for the game’s long-awaited DLC: A New Home. It took until early 2021 to drop, and the wait for console users was even longer. However, it’s a bit complicated. The DLC, A New Home, is CrossCode’s post-game (I am unsure what happens if you beat the game before buying the DLC). To unlock it, you need to get the Good Ending. Now, before you assume that they pulled a Falcom by having a Good Ending in a long RPG, lemme reassure you: the sole condition that needs to be met is close to the end of the game. They’re very upfront once it comes up, so it’s not hard to miss. The problem is doing it right. I, thankfully, had managed to get the Good Ending in one try without even knowing that it was such an important thing. Fortunately, if you get the Bad Ending, you can warp right back to the start of the final chapter, retry the event, and then warp straight to the final boss at the point-of-no-return spot.

A New Home unlocks new quests, a new region, the true final dungeon, and resolves many unanswered plot twists. The new region, while beautiful, is kind of a disappointment considering how long I waited for it. It’s easily the smallest area in the game, and is very linear. On the plus side, you unlock special “ascended” equipment, whose base stats grow with Lea’s level, making them objectively better than anything else you can wear. A lot of these are upgrades from stuff you already have, so it’s easy for you to prioritize certain kits based on your playstyle. Also, the superboss at the end of the dungeon was probably the hardest fight I’ve experienced in my life, and taught me that my heart isn’t physically capable of handling that level of difficulty.

Unfortunately, there are some issues with A New Home. For completionists, you will need an excessive amount of materials found in the final dungeon in order to get all of the equipment. However, due to how dungeons work versus the overworld, you can’t take advantage of combat rank, making it one of the worst grinding spots in the game. Also, if you consider reaching level cap part of completion, grinding XP will be hard toward the end. The plus side is that the least amount you can earn is 1 per enemy, so finding a spot with a lot of enemies is the best strategy… but even spots with many enemies don’t exactly expedite this process. Also, the game doesn’t resolve EVERY plot twist, possibly intentionally so; it definitely baits a sequel, and there just so happens to be a very CrossCode-looking game, currently known as Project Terra, under development right now (that I hope has customizable difficulty and only one ending). Also, the final-FINAL segment is a bit anticlimactic. It doesn’t even take half an hour to get through despite the big buildup. Maybe it would’ve been better to have the final dungeon after it, since it’s a much better end to your journey. The cherry on top is that the game does the thing where it resets to right before the cutoff point after beating it, which is really arbitrary since not enough changes after finishing the DLC to warrant this.

How have I gone this long without talking about CrossCode’s soundtrack?! It is one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a videogame, and perhaps the best I’ve heard in an indie game. There is so much variety when it comes to atmospheres and moods. I could rock out to any of the awesome battle themes, or chillax to the serene tunes of Autumn’s Rise.

Final Verdict: 9.95/10

CrossCode is awesome. I’d give it a perfect ten, but some of the puzzles really do feel excessively savage. Ah screw it!

Actual Final Verdict: 10/10

CrossCode has become my favorite indie game of all time, and is sure as heck up there with my favorite games of all time. I recommend it to anyone who loves JRPGs, puzzles, pixel art, great story, and phenomenal gameplay.