Shades of Magic: More Londons, More Fun. Four Londons!

I’ve never had an interest in adult Western fiction, and I still don’t, mainly because a lot of it looks the same. I don’t know why people bother taking out books that all have the same back of a car, front porch of a house, or topless man enveloping a busty woman on the cover. But if one set of grown-up books stands out, it would have to be V.E. Schwab’s fantasy trilogy: Shades of Magic. I’ve actually known about its existence for a while, but it took me until the production of the movie for me to actually read through it. Go figure.

In Shades of Magic, a young magician named Kell is an errand boy who delivers mail to different versions of London in parallel universes. One day, he ends up with a very powerful and illegal magic stone. His fate then becomes intertwined with the tomboyish thief, Lila Bard, who goes on adventures with him to stop whatever inevitable mass conspiracy theory is threatening to tear the multiple Londons apart.

The big appeal in Shades of Magic is the worldbuilding. The four Londons are color-coded, based on various properties: Magicless Grey London, Relatively Okay Red London, Dystopian White London, and the source of all the trouble, Black London. The drawback with these worlds is that none of them is particularly interesting by themselves. Grey is just our world, Red is the Harry Potter world, and White is the Game of Thrones world. Black is by far the coolest, but it’s explored the least. In fact, the potential of the multiple Londons schtick is undermined by the fact that more than half of the story is set in Red London. I hate assuming the author’s intentions, but the worldbuilding feels like they just combined two inherently appealing things—parallel universes and the United Kingdom—just because those things are inherently appealing.

Fortunately, the writing is very elegant and makes the books addicting to read. If you’re intimidated by their length, they’re broken up into pretty short chapters, with many shorter subchapters in each. The action scenes are, for the most part, pretty darn good too.

But even with great prose, the characters leave something to be desired. They don’t really have much personality beyond their established archetypes. Kell is just… a dude, and Lila is just… a dudette. Sure, Kell has some kind of battle of temptation with the MacGuffin in book one, but it’s not particularly interesting. Lila has that YA protagonist trope of being a special snowflake for no reason, AND IT’S ANNOYING. Many reviews on Goodreads have riffed on her enough, so I’d only be repeating them if I elaborated on Lila in detail. Just know that she’s a pretentious, obnoxious brat. Of all the characters, Kell’s rival, Holland, is by far the most fleshed out, but he’s not quite enough to offset everyone else. If it wasn’t for the great writing of the actual story, these people would’ve made reading Shades of Magic very tedious.

Also be wary that Shades of Magic follows the tradition of “the second book being awful” very faithfully. A Gathering of Shadows was an absolute slog to get through. The whole thing revolved around some tournament that wasn’t even plot relevant in the first place, and was chock full of rushed and unexciting fights. Only the last sixty pages or so are important, as they lead into the events of the final book.

While the final book, A Conjuring of Light, is definitely an improvement, it isn’t that much better. Despite the urgency of the situation established at the beginning of the novel, a lot of it is spent wasting time with inconsequential characters that I didn’t even remember. One thing that blows my mind is how some authors are able to write entire chapters that serve no purpose to the main story. Fortunately, Shades of Magic is nowhere near as bad as Keeper of the Lost Cities, whose seventh book spends FOUR HUNDRED PAGES IN THE INFIRMARY, but it’s noticeable.

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Final Verdict: 7/10

I really wanted to like this series. But as the old saying goes: Quality over quantity. What’s the point of having four Londons, when they each have such empty design and worldbuilding? I’d rather read Lockwood and Co., which is set in one, fleshed-out London. Shades of Magic is an example of the sheer idea behind it being what sells, rather than the execution of that idea. It’s not the worst fantasy out there, but it’s VERY overrated and outclassed. You know what, the movie might end up being a better alternative, since it’ll probably only adapt the first book; the only one that matters.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire — Twenty Years, and It’s Still One of Disney’s Most Unusual Films

Preface: I was going to post this sometime in June, when the movie would actually hit its twentieth anniversary. However, I feel like my posts have been getting awful lately. I’ve been running out of steam, and have been considering a hiatus. In other news, the Attack on Titan anime is slated to end before the manga. And since it looks like it’ll end with exactly one chapter left, Hajime Isayama will probably just tell MAPPA what happens, making it so that the anime will be one of the first to end before the manga while still being faithful all the way through. As such, to avoid spoilers, I will likely take a hiatus, not just from the blog, but from the Internet. It’ll be in early March, after whenever I publish a review of Raya and the Last Dragon. Well, with that out of the way, let’s get to the actual post!


The early 2000s was when I grew up, and as a result, a lot of Disney’s… er… projects at the time ended up being among my first impressions of the company. I mainly watched Disney Jr. back when it was called Playhouse Disney (nostalgia!), but I also watched some of the classics… sequels. Look, I was a kid, okay?! Fortunately, they didn’t solely focus on straight-to-VHS sequels. In fact, they followed-up their renaissance era of the 1990s by pulling a xerox era and COMPLETELY abandoning their typical formula. This led to what are considered the company’s biggest cult classics. I did say I was not going to do a retrospective of 2001’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire in my Three Musketeers retrospective, but you know what, it did turn twenty this year, so… Yeah. It’s been about three years since I last watched it, but to be honest, I’ve changed a lot even since then. So let’s see how it holds up (btw, unmarked spoilers abound in this one!).

In Atlantis: The Lost Empire, a nerd named Milo Thatch has had it rough. He’s been dead set on the idea that the waterlogged city of Atlantis is definitely real (which it is, since they show you a whole opening sequence of it sinking). Unfortunately, no one cares. Well… no one except for this old coot and his team of explorers who happen to be going on an expedition to find the place. 

Trying to do a fair review of this movie is hard, mainly because I have a lot more nostalgia for it than Three Musketeers. Even if I hadn’t last seen it three years ago, I would nonetheless have a dangerous amount of nostalgia going into it now. I rented Atlantis so many times from Blockbuster, I distinctly remembered a large number of scenes to this day, from Milo’s unique way of starting up a boiler, to Cookie making Rhode Island dance. I’m not a scholar, so all I can do is write about my experience at face value.

But where do I start? There’s a lot to say about Atlantis, mainly because of how different it is from most core Disney animated movies. It’s one of two with a heavy science fiction theme, plus it has no musical numbers, and it’s much more violent than most in the company’s filmography.

Despite that, Atlantis still has some of that Disney magic. It’s got high production values, charming characters, and a great sense of humor. It has one of the best feelings of pure adventuring spirit that I have seen in any Disney movie to this day, even if you know who’s going to survive due to a classic case of Red Shirts vs Not Red Shirts. The music is also great, with a main theme that actually gets played on the Walt Disney World status update channel on the resort room TVs, which is one of two times Atlantis has been acknowledged in Disney Parks (the other instance, unfortunately, no longer exists).

Of course, a consequence of having Disney magic is having those same old Disney tropes. As a kid, the movie felt as deep and layered as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. But as an adult, Atlantis is not only straightforward, but lightning fast. A lot of character arcs are rushed, to the point of being glossed over, and the same almost goes for specific plot points. 

For example, in the part when they get to Atlantis, Kida shows Milo around the city, and it looks pretty alright at a glance, but she goes on and on about how the city is dying. You don’t really get a sense of how much is at stake without her telling the audience, which is a case of the good old “tell don’t show”, instead of the more time-honored “show don’t tell”. It seems that the spinning face machine (a.k.a. the Heart of Atlantis) works perfectly fine as long as it’s in the city at all, whether in space or underground, since you don’t see Atlantis actually lose power until after Rourke takes it away. But even then, the fish planes still function perfectly fine (compete with lasers). Other than that overly-analyzed aspect, most of Atlantis‘ other flaws are minor logic hiccups. From the forced romance between Milo and Kida, to the fact that the entire population of Atlantis somehow becomes master pilots of machines that they never used before for convenience’s sake, there are a lot of those little things that you kind of have to laugh off. Perfect with some friends, pizza, and booze!

The cast of Atlantis is rather interesting for a number of reasons. Milo Thatch is one of the few male lead protagonists out of the core Disney lineup, and I still love him to death. He’s similar to Quazi Moto from Hunchback of Notre Dame in that he’s not exactly a strapping young man such as Prince Eric. But unlike Quazi, who is honestly the same overly ideal Disney man personality-wise, Milo is a lot more flawed. In his mock presentation at the beginning, where you see him struggling to lift a shield, getting chalk all over his shirt and having to make a funny pose to fill in the image on the chalkboard, it is readily apparent that he is one of Disney’s most socially awkward main protagonists, if not THE most socially awkward. As someone who is both lanky and socially awkward, I did relate to Milo as a kid. Because of that, I can’t tell if my continuing love for his character is impartial or not.

The female lead is Kida, who is technically the most forgotten Disney princess of all time. Introducing the female lead protagonist over halfway into the movie is an unusual move for Disney, which is yet another reason why Atlantis stands out. Unfortunately, this does make her the most forgotten Disney princess for a reason. She doesn’t exactly do much outside of a few charming interactions, and she’s not even present during the climax on account of turning into a cryogenically frozen Super Saiyan. With her late introduction, her romance with Milo is even more rushed (fortunately, they don’t have a gross kiss at the end). Disney was not yet at their ongoing feminist Disney princess phase, so Milo still has to save the “damsel in distress”.

Oh, but they aren’t the only characters, not by a long shot. At this point, I’d only have to go over the antagonist and the marketable comic relief character, but not with Atlantis. The rest of the crew that joins Milo is one of the largest in Disney history (and—for the sake of today’s era of P.C.—one of the most diverse). Fun fact: I’ve seen this movie so many times, but it took until I watched it for this retrospective to be able to commit their names to memory. Since there were so many of them, I could never remember them all as a kid.

Every single one of them, from Audrey the tsundere to Vinny the pyromaniac and Best Girl Mrs. Packard, all have personalities as distinct as their character designs. Unfortunately, there was no way to develop a cast this big in the timeframe of a typical Disney movie. As a result, their backstories are given a very rushed run-down during a camping scene (likely made for that specific purpose). Plus, the way they warm up to Milo is way too instantaneous. And of course, them magically going to Milo’s side after Rourke’s Top Ten Anime Betrayal is one of those “because Disney” things that you have to laugh off.

And speaking of Rourke, let’s talk about that sumbitch. Similar to Hans from Frozen, his antagonist role is introduced incredibly late into Atlantis. But unlike Hans, Rourke’s has much more impact because he’s someone who Milo actually bonds with throughout the journey. They go through the same obstacles with the rest of the crew, and it’s heartbreaking to see him betray Milo later.

…Is what I would be saying if it wasn’t an incredibly predictable character arc. I’ve seen a lot of people say that something was “mind-blowing to them as a kid” as if that’s supposed to showcase how good the story is. But honestly, I find that statement to prove the inverse true. Kids are pure and sweet, but very impressionable and gullible. So me saying that Rourke’s betrayal scene—one of my first introductions to a plot twist in my life—blew my mind as a kid means nothing. You don’t even need experience to tell. Veterans would likely figure it out by looking at him, but there are two dead giveaways that he’s bad: Helga telling him “There weren’t supposed to be people here” (which implies that he planned to yoink the spinning face machine right out of Atlantis), and a cutaway to his men arming themselves with shotguns (pretty self-explanatory). Furthermore, the fact that he goes from mourning the men lost to the lobster robot to not hesitating to throw Helga off of a hot-air balloon makes him come off as over-the-top. I don’t want to be that guy who says that “more human” antagonists are objectively better, but they kind of squandered that opportunity with Rourke. It’s a real shame, because he’s pretty up there with Hans for most lacking charisma out of all the Disney villains.

If you still aren’t convinced that Atlantis is one of the most unique Disney animated features, check out the visuals. The characters are much more angular in design than in other Disney movies, and it is very heavy on CGI. Like I said before, sci-fi is unusual for Disney, and there are a lot of setpieces that you do not see often.

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After All These Years: 8.6/10

Atlantis: The Lost Empire is a cult classic for a reason. It might be nostalgia talking, but I think this might be in my Top Fifteen (or Ten?) Favorite Disney movies of all time. It’s got a lot of personality and very unusual choices which make it stand out from the rest, especially in the current era of soul-searching stories that they’re doing. I’d recommend it to people who don’t like Disney, and also to Disney veterans who want something different.

Peach Boy Riverside: Not Your Grandma’s Momotaro (First Impressions, Volumes 1-3)

This was a spur-of-the-moment decision for me. Normally, I tend to have a bulk of blog posts ready to go well in advance. But at the start of this year, I really dropped the ball. I started a lot of reviews but had no intention to post until the respective series were finished, like The Owl House for instance. I decided to pick up Peach Boy Riverside for three reasons: it’s by the creator of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid (even if the artist is different), it’s getting an anime that I can hope to ride the hype of, and it’s about the legendary Momotaro… to an extent. 

In Peach Boy Riverside, Princess Saltherine (henceforth known as Sally) wants to go on a journey, despite her overprotective dad. Fortunately, a pretty-boy named Mikoto shows up and sweeps her off her feet. The thing is that he’s someone who came from a peach, and killed a bunch of ogres (yes they localized the name “oni” for some reason). 

Despite how shoujo the manga looks, Peach Boy Riverside ends up being very shounen, and surprisingly edgy. It’s pretty normal stuff for the most part, but when Mikoto gets serious, he gets all “SAO-villain-y” and has upside-down hearts in his eyes. 

To be brutally honest, the manga up to what I’ve read has been a pretty typical shounen fantasy. It starts off with being completely aloof, then Sally is suddenly like “I’m going to end all racism!” The Momotaro aspect isn’t even evident, beyond the whole “boy who fights oni” thing. The world doesn’t feel defined enough to even tell if it’s an alternate Japan or a straight-up fantasy realm.

And, of course, I wasn’t particularly fond of the cast. Mikoto is the bread and butter of this thing, because pretty-boys are popular and he’s super strong. He is kind of an ass, which sets him apart from other men of his ilk, but that doesn’t make him any more remarkable. In addition to him is Sally, who is pretty much your typical power fantasy girl, and Frau, a bunny girl who’s basically one of those tragic waifus that you’re supposed to fry buckets for. Volume two introduces a female ogre who ends up being named Carrot after going through the whole shounen “from bad to good” thing, but so far, she’s merely been the peanut gallery.

The art, sadly, is not by Coolkyoushinja, but someone else who’s nowhere near as good. The manga has a very basic, standard look with very “stock”-looking character designs across the board. The action looks nice, but even that is outclassed by other series.

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Current Verdict: 7.35/10

Peach Boy Riverside isn’t awful, but it’s not that engaging right now. Mikoto being a creep, and the unsubtle social commentary, are more-or-less what this manga is running on, and it could peter out at any moment. I recommend it if you like TenSura, since Mikoto is the same type of character as Rimuru.

A Perilous Journey of Danger and Mayhem: A Criminally Underrated Trilogy

American history can be one of the most boring subjects in school. If only there was a more fun way to learn about it, specifically about America in the late 19th Century. While not ENTIRELY accurate, Christopher Healy’s A Perilous Journey of Danger and Mayhem series is perhaps one of the best historical fictions ever.

A Perilous Journey of Danger and Mayhem stars Molly and Cassandra Pepper; a rare daughter and mother pair (respectively). Cassandra’s aspiring to be an inventor, and submit a machine to the 1883 World’s Fair. But you know, sexism, so… she’s SOL. When she and Molly break into the venue to sabotage a competitor’s machine, they discover a Dastardly Plot (book 1 title drop) to take over the world!

The story is incredibly simple. A Perilous Journey of Danger and Mayhem is more-or-less an episodic trilogy where Molly and Co. go on adventures to stop the Saturday morning cartoon villain. There’s no real depth, but unlike those cerebral critics, I’m fine with that. Children’s media has evolved to where people aren’t afraid to expose them to horrific things, from sexual assault to racism to PTSD to the Holocaust, etc. But seriously, sometimes we just need to be entertained, especially since this generation is being exposed to social media, allowing news networks to beat all the despair in the world into their innocent little skulls. 

What brings this series to life is the amazing writing. The descriptions are vivid, and it’s so freaking funny. I don’t think I’ve ever LOL’d so consistently in a kids’ book series ever in my life! The pacing is also lightning quick, with sequences that would normally mark the end of an installment happening less than halfway through instead. Most importantly, the humor is absolutely on fire. But if you don’t like sarcastic comments, you might not enjoy this one.

The characters are also some of the best I’ve seen in Western fiction. Molly and Cassandra have great chemistry together, instead of the mom normally holding the kid back. The male lead is Emmet Lee, and since this is an inventor-themed series, I had to picture him as my boy Senku from Dr. Stone. Healy could’ve made real torture porn out of him, because he’s a Chinese-American living in a country that would ban Chinese immigrants at that point in history, but thankfully he didn’t. The biggest issue with the cast overall is that they sort of have the same delivery when it comes to comedy, despite all being different people…

…Well, except for my favorite character, Robot. Due to story events, an automaton made by Bell ends up gaining sentience, and Molly adopts it and names it Robot. He delivers some of the best lines in the entire series, in that robotic deadpan manner. And by the way, I can’t actually discuss the main antagonist, since they’re identity is a spoiler for book one. Just know that they’re the silly, mad-scientist-type villain.

If there are any real issues, it’s that there are snippets of that Disney-movie-trope of character-drama-that-you-know-will-inevitably-resolve-itself-because-it’s-too-light-hearted-to-not-do-so. Every instance is very short-lived, making it feel like the author put them in as a formality. Regardless, as the reader, you can choose to blitz through that crap and get back to the good stuff in a jiffy. There’s also kind of a bad case of virtue signaling, specifically with Feminism. I wouldn’t normally bring it up, but the difference here is that the story is good enough to not need to rely on the “Secret Club of Empowered Female Historical Figures.”

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Final Verdict: 9.45/10

I know that this is a really short review given that I covered an entire trilogy of books, but like I said before, A Perilous Journey of Danger and Mayhem is a clear-cut, silly little ride. It’s absolutely fantastic (and most importantly, not pretentious… for the most part), and I loved it to the bitter end. I recommend it if you are uncultured enough to want to have fun.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps: A Beautiful, Death-Trap-Infested Game

I never played Ori and the Blind Forest, but I did watch Josh Jepson and ProtonJon play through it, hence my interest in the sequel: Ori and the Will of the Wisps. I needed a metroidvania to keep my mind off of the upcoming Ender Lillies. So yeah, that’s why I decided to buy this (also the fact that Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin had been murdering me at the time).

Ori and the Will of the Wisps picks up right where the first game left off. Ori and the gang watch over the bird egg that was left behind until it hatches into a baby crow named Ku. After much trial and error, Ori helps Ku learn to fly. And while flying, they happen upon some island that seems to be in a BIT of a bind.

Will of the Wisps is nowhere near the emotional gut punch that Blind Forest was. While the opening sequence is startlingly similar, the only emotional aspect is “Oh no our burb couldn’t fly” versus “Holy crap my mother just DIED”. There is a part at around the one-third point that is utter tonal whiplash. And five minutes after that, it’s like “OKAY BACK TO VIDEOGAME AGAIN”. We get to find out the identity of the super-deep narrator in this game, which is pretty cool. Other than that, it’s pretty typical videogame stuff.

The game has a LOT of character, thanks to how it presents itself. The hand-painted-like visuals and orchestral soundtrack give Will of the Wisps the same whimsical feel as the previous game. While none of the individual tracks really stood out to me, they do a good job dynamically changing as you go through a given area. The Switch version does have some loading issues if you move too fast (fortunately it doesn’t happen when speed matters), and takes over a minute to boot-up. But hey, at least it’s not Sonic 06.

If you’re wondering if you need to play Blind Forest in order to enjoy Will of the Wisps, don’t worry; the gameplay has changed a LOT. While Ori still gets his usual mobility options, combat is completely reimagined. Ori doesn’t have his Jiminy Cricket friend from last time, so instead, he gets a SWORD. Ori’s sword has great range, and moves fast; like the optimal melee setup in Hollow Knight but without the needed charms. This attack, along with many other abilities, need to be assigned to Y, X, and A. You find a lot of abilities, by either interacting with trees or straight-up buying them. Because of this, combat has a lot more depth than the previous game. Plus, your attacks pack a real wallop, which can stun enemies or send them flying. Uniquely enough, you can un-assign your standard attack if you so choose. But in any case, you can re-assign your moves instantly at any time, so it’s not that big of a deal.

But that’s not all! There’s also spirit shards. These are basically charms from Hollow Knight, but they all take the same amount of slots. They have perks, from being able to stick to climbable walls, to having applications in combat. Some of them can be upgraded, and it’s definitely worth doing (even if they cost more than a pretty penny). 

As far as being a metroidvania is concerned, Will of the Wisps does a great job. I still have doubts that any metroidvania could beat Hollow Knight in terms of exploration, but I had a great deal of fun running around this new world. The map marks off most points of interests for you, but if you want to know where everything is, you’ll have to pay the map guy. There is also a lot more to do compared to Blind Forest. In addition to the Life Cells, Energy Cells, and secret pockets of cash scattered about, you have to worry about fun combat shrines, less fun speedrunning challenges, and hidden spirits shards. You also have Wellspring Glades, the dedicated hub area. To spruce this place up, you need to find Gorlek Ore to fund various projects, and seeds to plant to allow access to other parts of town.

If you aren’t too familiar with Blind Forest, then you might be wondering what exactly makes Ori stand out from the other nine hundred ninety-nine metroidvanias out there. Pretty early on in the Ori games, you obtain the bash ability. At the push of a button, this move allows you to grab hanging lamps, enemy projectiles, and enemies themselves to literally yeet Ori in any direction of your choosing. You can use this to redirect projectiles back at the enemies, but more often than not, you use this for some straight-up ridiculous platforming. Will of the Wisps gets more insane when you obtain the new grapple ability. This thing has obscene range, able to grapple to targets practically offscreen. However, it’s a lot touchier compared to bash because this one doesn’t let you change the angle that Ori is launched in.

These crazy movement abilities allow the Ori games to have some really cinematic chase sequences. They were pulse-pounding in Blind Forest, and the ones in Will of the Wisps are no slouch. But as fun as they are, there are tons of chances for instant death. If you’re going for the no-death challenge, then… prepare to hate these sections of the game.

Blind Forest was notoriously difficult. By comparison, however, Will of the Wisps is significantly easier. The wider range of combat options make most enemies a joke, even with a shard that greatly increases their stats in exchange for more money. It is still easy to die, but the incredibly generous checkpoints kind of encourage more reckless play. The chase sequences are also a lot shorter and easier this time around. I haven’t played the game on hard mode, since it—you know—would require another playthrough, and I don’t exactly have the luxury to replay a game, but I imagine that veterans will want that mode right out of the gate.

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Final Verdict: 8.75/10 

Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a great metroidvania that’s much better than its predecessor. I recommend it if you like Ori and this type of game in general.

Weeb Reads Monthly December 2020

Well, this post’s a bit late. The reason is because the latest volume of Otherside Picnic came out too close to  the end of the year. But hey, at least I got this out on the same week as New Year’s Eve, right? Anyway, let’s do this.


Sorcerer King of Destruction and Golem of the Barbarian Queen Volume 2

I had a sliver of hope for this one. After all, it started out as a pretty lonely, post-apocalyptic isekai. However, it doesn’t take long for Nemaki to reach a town. At this point, Sorcerer King pretty much turns into your run-of-the-mill slice-of-life isekai.

If I was a more generous reviewer, I’d say it’s fascinating to see the fact that Nemaki doesn’t exactly understand Gol. She’s very trigger happy, and her clothes are more than just cosmetic. Nemaki genuinely does not know what she’s capable of, nor what makes her tick, giving a genuine sense of mystery and concern. Unfortunately, I’m not a more generous reviewer. From rubbing cheeks to looking at her underwear, Nemaki’s interactions with Gol are no different than that of a typical isekai waifu. It seems like she was made as a golem just to pretend that Sorcerer King is subversive. And with the usual stiff writing, I have little to no interest remaining in this series.

Verdict: 6.5/10


May These Leaden Battlegrounds Leave No Trace Volume 2

Before getting into this volume, I must clarify that I did not cover The Eminence in Shadow Volume 2 like I planned. First off, I ran out of money because, well, Christmas. Second off, I had too many doubts about that series. The fact that Cid’s made-up enemy turns out to be real, along with them actually skipping how his own organization comes about… It’s just plain stupid. Combine that with the subpar characters and you have another series that, in my opinion, does not at all deserve to place on the Kono Sugoi Light Novel rankings. 

I also had doubts about May These Leaden Battlegrounds Leave No Trace. Like most time travel narratives, Leaden Battlegrounds is kind of… iffy. But for some reason, I enjoyed it because I was curious as to how stupid it could get. So here we are!

The main premise of the volume is Rain and Air getting into a scuffle with some Western soldiers, one of whom is a cute girl named Deadrim, and the other person is… there. Once again, most of the volume proves to be boring, but there’s just enough intrigue at the end to make you wanna buy the next one. The only other noteworthy thing is that fact that Air should be using the Devil Bullet on Rain, but that whole aspect of their relationship goes in the direction you’d expect.

Verdict: 7.2/10


DanMachi Volume 15

It feels like it’s been forever and a day since we had a new DanMachi volume. Unfortunately, this one’s a filler volume. Sure, DanMachi has had some of the better filler in light novels, but not this time. We do get more backstory to some of our main protagonists, in addition to the backstory we already got, but it kind of feels excessive. For example, the first chapter is literally about the inn that Bell stayed at until he found out about Hestia. Do we really need that? In any case, most of the stories are pretty good, though not the best that DanMachi has to offer. 

Verdict: 7.9/10


Infinite Dendrogram Volume 13

After the relative nothing that happened last time, we finally have an event that’s been building up for a long time: a conference between Altar and Dryfe. In order to participate, Ray forms a clan with his friends and gets a new job. This new job, as always, is something wild that nobody likes which ends up being really useful for his build. In any case, it’s not even a spoiler to say that the conference goes south, and a big fight breaks out.

The one gripe I have is something that’s happened twice now in Dendro: withholding information from the reader that the main character, who’s narrating, happens to know. It’s a cheap way to build anticipation and I don’t know why any writer would ever think this is a good idea. Nemesis, once again, evolves into a new form after a small time-skip leading up to the conference. We also don’t get to see it, since this volume ends in the middle of the action. Other than that, Dendro still meets (and exceeds) expectations.

Verdict: 8.75/10


Otherside Picnic Volume 4

It feels like it’s been forever since we got some Otherside Picnic! With the anime in development, I cannot wait for yuri fans to get super toxic and scare off potential viewers. But in the meantime, we have this. As usual, it starts off [relatively] chill, with the girls going to the cult HQ from the previous volume to clear it of supernatural gook.

Other than that, it’s pretty typical stuff. Sorawo and Toriko’s relationship gets more intense, and we learn a bit of the former’s past, but that’s about it. There’s no new goal established. However, I’m fine with that, because Otherside Picnic is a CGDCT at heart, and core narrative doesn’t really matter in those. As long as the suspense is still off the rails (which it is in this volume HOLY CRAP), then I’m good.

Verdict: 9.3/10


Conclusion

Overall, we had a pretty good lineup of light novels to close off the year. Unfortunately, it looks like I’m going to be skipping this January’s Weeb Reads Monthly because there are only two volumes that I actually have interest in, excluding the upcoming debuts. February might be skipped too, because I only see ONE volume of interest on BookWalker’s Pre-Order page at the time of writing this post. Regardless, whatever I skip will all be lumped in with another month eventually!

Dragon Quest Builders 2: The Best Minecraft Clone

It might seem like I was pretty level-headed during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, but if you knew me in my personal life, you’d see that I was anything BUT that. I had literal panic attacks on a weekly basis, and in the aftermath, I’m now having to be practically held at gunpoint to remove my face mask, as opposed to putting it on. In addition to Covid anxiety, I realized that I didn’t have enough videogames that don’t stress me out . But then, I watched NintendoCaprisun’s Dragon Quest Builders video series, and saw what a great, superior clone of Minecraft it is. It didn’t take long for me to start playing Dragon Quest Builders 2 (henceforth known as DQB2), in hope of destressing my Covid woes.

In DQB2, a character that you name wakes up on a ship full of the Children of Hargon, a religious cult that formed in the aftermath of some other core Dragon Quest game. When you escape, you wash up on an island with a girl and this vampire-looking guy named Malroth. Since you have nothing better to do, you decide to turn the island into a pimp-ass kingdom.

I wasn’t fond of the story in the other Dragon Quest game I played, which  was Dragon Quest XI, but DQB2’s story made me LIVID. It has one of the tropes that triggers me with next to no exception: dramatic irony. Almost immediately, the game tells you that Malroth is secretly a bad guy, and it takes up to 80% of the game to reveal it. It’s so annoying, because they constantly have developments like “Whoa, why can’t Malroth build things? Everyone else and their grandma can build but not Malroth! How mysterious!” 

It gets worse than that. Based on DQXI, DQB1, and this game, Dragon Quest seems to love following clichés to the letter! While some of the dialogue is charming (specifically in the second chapter), it’s just… boring. The worst offender is the third chapter, where they’re all like “There’s a traitor here!” and stuff. At a certain point, it becomes incredibly obvious who it is, but they still play it off as if they were a galaxy-brain Impostor in Among Us. If there was a way to pre-emptively sus’ them out, that would be cool, but it seems that modern Dragon Quests do not care for multiple outcomes (which is ironic because Dragon Warrior had a very famous alternate outcome). 

The cast isn’t much better; DQB2’s characters make DQXI‘s look like Monogatari protagonists! The only character with any real arc is Malroth. And while I’d say his existential crisis is at least done relatively well, there is one annoying feature that offsets any good they did with him. Throughout the game, an omnipotent being screams “Haha you suck” in his head, and for some reason, you cannot advance its dialogue. These scenes objectively suck, and I have no idea why they had this unskippable dialogue that wasn’t even voice acted.

Well, I’ve been complaining about this game for three paragraphs, so let’s get to the good stuff already! DQB2 has some of the best Minecraftvania gameplay that I have ever experienced. There are so many different things you can build, it gets overwhelming at times. There’s also a lot of options to make it easier than in Minecraft. For example, you can learn a charged swing with your Hammer to take out big chunks at once, or use the Bottomless Pot to create bodies of water. You have the ability to switch between first and third-person perspective, which makes a difference when it comes to building. While you can use the L1 and L2 triggers to lock onto a position and hold R2 to make a lot of blocks in a row, first-person gives you more reach with your cursor. Furthermore, if you see an arrow appear next to a block, you can hold R2 to rapidly build a line of about eight blocks in that direction.

Another advantage that the DQB series in general has over Minecraft is Rooms. Placing objects in a closed off space can create a Room with a function built into the game. These really help make your bases feel alive and organic. DQB2 introduces the Fanciness and Ambience mechanics, which is determined by what items are placed in each room. They also add Sets, which are smaller, but serve their own functions. Some of them need to be placed within a Room to make a specific type of Room. There are some weird nuances with how the game considers Rooms, though. I learned that you can make the walls of a Room more than three blocks high, but any wall decoratives will only be considered part of the Room if they’re placed within the first two blocks up from the floor. It also acts weird if you have any part of the floor raised vertically, even if you put a staircase in front of it. 

Furthermore, the game has a better sense of progression than in DQB1. In DQB1, you had four self-contained islands where you started from scratch every time, down to your stats being reset to Level 1. Although someone confiscates your materials when advancing to a new story island in DQB2, you at least keep your stats and tools. Plus, the mechanics you learn have a much more cohesive sense of flow than in DQB1. In DQB1, there’s no real rhyme or reason; you get automated defenses and ores and have to re-gather existing ores and it’s weird. In DQB2, it’s more organized; the first island teaches you farming, the second teaches you mining, etc. I loved how this sense of progression was handled… to a point. As cool as the automated defenses are, they’re very short-lived. You go through a whole chapter to get them, but after that, you use them in a whopping ONE mob battle on your main island, and they’re never used again. Mob attacks on your main island straight-up STOP at this point, making them quite unnecessary.

Villagers also have a much more important role. A lot of rooms can compel them to do automated tasks, like cooking, and it really makes them feel like they’re working with you instead of you being their lapdog. This is further showcased when you inspire them to build things entirely on their own. And you’re gonna need that; you build some seriously colossal structures in this game compared to DQB1. Villagers are also more helpful in combat, plus you can give them weapons (which is your incentive to create multiples since they no longer break in this game). It can get annoying to keep track of who has what, but that’s alleviated once you can build an Armory, where they can automatically equip whatever item is stored in a chest. Also, whenever your base takes damage in a mob battle, they rebuild it in the aftermath.

Saving these other islands is well and good, but it’s all a means to an end; finding people to help build your main island. Between story bits, you help them with all sorts of tasks on your island to make it the kingdom of your dreams. In these sections, DQB2 feels like a sandbox game. I love combining mechanics from multiple islands into the same area (you get a total of three sections to manage on the main island). There’s also a ton of optional tasks that are well-worth your time. 

In addition to that, there are Explorer’s Shores. These are procedurally generated islands with exclusive resources. When arriving at one for the first time, you are tasked with examining specific objects. This can get frustrating, but a certain tool makes it relatively painless to find these objects. The issue with this is that finding more of those resources after-the-fact is a pain, because the aforementioned tool only works when the item is on your checklist. It’s annoying because one of the rarest ores in the game is hidden inside poison swampwater, which you can’t see through. I’ve had to painstakingly drain the whole thing with my Bottomless Pot, taking minutes just to find ONE deposit of that ore. In any case, your reward is an infinite supply of a certain resource, which is really helpful, mostly because that saves an inventory slot. 

And you NEED inventory slots. Colossal Coffers are nerfed, but early on, you obtain a Bag, which serves the Coffers’ function in DQB1. The Bag has seven pages of items, but it fills up shockingly fast. Even when being conscious of my inventory, I topped it off by the time I finished the final area. And as nice as these infinite items are, you have to constantly be aware of getting those items normally, in which you’ll have to open your Bag over and over again to delete them and save that inventory slot.

This is where some of the game’s issues come up. I love collecting resources, but I constantly felt overwhelmed with DQB2. You DROWN in resources in this game. When you have villagers doing multiple automated tasks, you end up having to check a lot of chests to see what they cooked up for you. The farm area of my island was always full of literally hundreds of crops. The only good way to get rid of some of these items is throwing them in Supper Sets, but I ended up having too many even with those in place. Even then, you never run out of Gratitude, which is earned by providing for your Villagers. You spend then on new recipes, but for a while, I still found myself well into the quintuple-digits with nothing to spend them on.

The big irony is that there are some resources you don’t have enough of. One thing I hated was raw meat. You can’t plant meat, so you have to kill these demon bunnies (among other things) to obtain it. They are common enough, but you need a LOT in order to cook food, or feed your pets (which can add up fast). Other things can be gathered in good quantities on trips to Explorer’s Shores, but meat always eluded me.

Let’s discuss combat now. DQB combat is pretty simple. You only have a sword slash, and a spin attack, and that’s it. While it can still get intense when they throw in specific mobs, DQB2 is pretty easy. The game also holds your hand on boss battles, but it’s not like it’s hard to figure those out anyway. The hardest parts of this game are likely the start of the story islands, since you have little resources and food. I wouldn’t complain about the game’s ease if it weren’t for the issue with your resource inflation. You get so many healing items because there’s two common enemies that frequently drop Medicinal Leaves, and you don’t NEED any healing items on the main island. While some of the later Explorer’s Shores do have pretty tough boss monsters, they’re not hard enough to justify having hundreds of Healing Herbs, nor taking the time to set up a ton of spike traps and stuff. Maybe there are secret optional mobs, but I could never find any such thing.

There are two more big flaws with DQB2, the first of which makes replay value a hard sell. At one point in the game, you are abruptly ejected from your main island and have to go through an agonizingly tedious segment that takes over an hour at best. While a similar arc in DQXI at least gives you some kind of story bits (even if it’s not much), the arc in DQB2 gives you nothing. It does give you some better context for the situation at hand, but it’s not really necessary information in the long run, plus it doesn’t develop any major protagonists involved.

The other flaw is that completion is asinine. One aspect is getting 100% on items; blocks, decoratives, cooking, etc. This gets crazy, because some items are blocks that you can’t obtain by mining them. You need to remember to use a specific tool to swap those blocks with blocks in your inventory to actually obtain them. Not only that, but there are a TON of Rooms and Sets that you aren’t told how to build. Despite how many options you have, some of them are pretty obtuse. While you are told what some of these optional Rooms are via Tablet Targets, it’s still not easy. There are also two cases of having to build a specific “place” in order to learn recipes, and since they aren’t Tablet Targets, you get no indication of what exactly the game wants. You can never tell if you are missing a decorative, or if you don’t have enough of a decorative that’s already in the room. Sometimes, one of your NPCs will occasionally tell you the requirements for a specific room, but it’s not enough to account for all the Rooms. The fun is in experimenting with stuff (I ended up building a Sculpture Gallery by accident during a story mission), but with how little time I have in my life, I don’t know how willing I am to complete the Builderpedia guideless. Also, I’m pretty sure the game has at least one missable item.

This game seems to borrow from DQXI and have a very substantial post-game. The world becomes your oyster, and you can build to your heart’s content. Three extra Explorer’s Shores are unlocked, and you get two new perks that really open things up. The first and most important one is the ability to spend that excess Gratitude to obtain any item you’ve collected before. This is a really good feature, and it can help with getting uncommon resources, as long as you’ve found it once. You also unlock the ability to craft the final Hammer upgrade, which has a very unique property. Basically, if it destroys an object that would turn into materials (like trees turning into wood), it will instead make the object itself into an item. This doesn’t really open much up in terms of crafting, plus you’ll also have to have your regular hammer take up a quick select slot if you actually want the materials. If you’re going for completion, keep in mind that you’ll need to strike crops with this hammer, for there’s a separate, decorative version of every single crop (including the rare ones) that count as different items. It does make your options extremely overwhelming, but it’s still a cool feature, and definitely helps if you really want to pimp up your island.

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Final Verdict: 9/10

Dragon Quest Builders 2 isn’t perfect, but overall, it’s a fantastic game. If you want a game that plays like Minecraft, but with more depth and the fact that the stuff you build matters, then this is the game for you. But seriously, if you want to go for completion, then godspeed, buddy.

Chainsaw Man: Too Seinen for Shounen Jump?!

It’s no secret that Weekly Shounen Jump has not had the best run in the late 2010s. The newest manga by Naruto’s author got axed, among MANY other 2019 and 2020 debuts. And when they actually had a good series, it would either end off on a bad note (Shokugeki no Soma), or one of its writers would end up being a felon (ACT-AGE). But one series managed to be a standout franchise until the bitter end: Chainsaw Man, published in English by Viz. I gave it a good word in my First Impressions. Let’s see if it’s held out.

In Chainsaw Man, a dreg named Denji makes a living by hunting devils, with the help of a chainsaw-dog-devil named Pochita. But “makes a living” can be read as “barely scraping by”, for he’s shouldering a serious debt from his late father. However, when he’s almost cut to pieces, he fuses with Pochita and becomes a chainsaw man, after which he is taken under the wing of Makima, a beautiful girl from an official team of devil hunters.

Chainsaw Man is, for the most part, a very straightforward manga. The plot is very traditional shounen at first: bad guy appears, kill it, then wait for the next one. Denji’s heart becomes a major MacGuffin, but we aren’t informed of why for a pretty long time. Things heat up in the second half, and by the final third, it goes absolutely berserk with insanity.

What makes Chainsaw Man a great manga is its characters. The mangaka takes common shounen tropes and puts a seinen twist on them with Denji and the people around him. Denji himself seems to be a generic, self-insert shounen protagonist, but he’s more complicated than that. He’s very attracted to women, but he at least tries to maintain his feelings for Makima, despite the amount of other beautiful women who tempt him. I don’t like using the word “human” to describe a character, but it’s done exceptionally well with Denji. He’s an innocent kid thrust into an adult world, and his simple-mindedness made me sympathize with him.

The other thing is that the women in his life subvert common conventions as well, especially with Makima. Us readers are informed very early on of how suspicious she is. But Denji doesn’t know any of it, and he’s naively in love with her. Unfortunately, she takes advantage of his love for her to essentially exploit him, which I think is a great commentary on the idea of waifus in general. 

Of course, Makima ain’t crap compared to Best Girl Power. She’s just… effing awesome. She’s like the best friend that you’re so close to that you just start busting each other’s chops. Her chemistry with Denji is one of the best I’ve seen in all of Jump. Sadly, I didn’t really care for the rest of the protagonists. For one, I forgot a lot of their names, which is a bad sign for me. Fortunately, the antagonists are as fun as they are plentiful. They have some of the more memorable character designs and personalities, especially compared to the supporting protagonists. 

Somehow, I went almost the entire review without discussing exactly why Chainsaw Man is big (or would be if it weren’t for Kimetsu no Yaiba). Weekly Shounen Jump has some cute girls with cleavage, but that’s usually about it; the magazine is for early-teens kids after all. Chainsaw Man, however, has R18+ stuff; pretty much everything except for female private parts are shown. The manga is full of extremely visceral gore, and one character just straight-up asks Denji if he wants to have sex. The fact that something like this ran in Jump is insane.

That’s where my biggest gripe with Chainsaw Man lies. Its whole thing is that it’s very mature for a Jump manga. But the thing is—and the reason why I’m posting this so soon—that Chainsaw Man is getting a part two in Shounen Jump+, home to a lot of seinen series, from Jigokuraku to World’s End Harem. As a result, Chainsaw Man loses the one thing that makes it stand out from its ilk. This was probably inevitable because, you know, minors.

Anyhow, the artwork is fantastic. It’s rough, and dirty, with some phenomenal action scenes, and a surprising amount of abstract panels late in the series. The managaka is also able to contrast such insanity with some genuinely heartfelt and emotional scenes. It’s going to be so sad to see this twisted beauty dumbed down in the upcoming anime.

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Final Verdict: 9.15/10

Chainsaw Man is one of my favorite Jump manga of the 2010s. It’s over-the-top, with a lot of quirky characters, and a very alluring charm. Seriously, how in the world did Kimetsu no Yaiba beat this?! I highly recommend Chainsaw Man to anyone who likes their battle shounen super dark and edgy. Hopefully, if Viz licenses the sequel, I’ll be doing a post or two on that!

Vampires? Dystopia? Teen Angst? The Bloodline is Practically a YA Novel! (Volume 1 Review)

Sometimes it’s hard to write an intro. As I said in my review of Unnamed Memory, I’ve been disappointed with the new light novel releases pretty much all year. No one seemed to look forward to The Bloodline, published in English by J-Novel Club. And as someone who rarely posts about something popular, it seemed like a fitting choice for me. 

In The Bloodline, the world is ruled by vampires who feed off the common people’s blood. In the middle of some festival or whatever, a boy named Nagi breaks into some house and finds a girl named Saya. He saves her for no particular reason, and chaos ensues.

Sadly, there’s not much to say about the story thus far. The Bloodline is very generic across the board. Not only is it a typical “rob from the poor to feed the rich” dystopia (complete with vampires as if this was some YA novel), but it’s also a wish fulfilment fantasy. In about 30 pages, Saya thinks to herself: “I want to be with this boy.” I mean, sure, he saved you. But to be in love with him so impulsively? Not even Disney does it this fast anymore.

Time for me to sound like a broken record again. I don’t like the characters, not a single one of them! So far, Nagi is a typical whiny self-insert, and Saya is a typical damsel in distress. Keele is Nagi’s snarky brother, and this girl named Tess is the third wheel. I don’t even remember the names of everyone else, but they’re about as plastic as the rest of the cast.

But even with all these issues, The Bloodline is at least better than what I have read recently. Although the writing is about as negligent at describing people and places as a lot of light novels, the pacing and momentum is solid. There is some good entertainment value here, and honestly, that’s all I could ask for these days. Also, they don’t dump all of the lore on you at once in the beginning.

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Verdict: 7.75/10

Maybe I’m just desperate, but I actually have hope for The Bloodline. As bland as the story is idea-wise, it still appeared to be pretty well thought out by light novel standards. It’s no masterpiece at this juncture, but it could become close to one if it’s given enough love over time. If you like edgy dystopian novels, then this one’s for you.

Mission: Yozakura Family is Literally All About the Waifu (First Impressions, Chapters 1-30)

Spy X Family is a manga about a spy who makes a fake family, and that’s all well and good. But they’re not the only ones on the block. Mission: Yozakura Family has a family made entirely of spies. It’s managed to last a year in Jump’s ruthless gauntlet, so that means it must be doing something right. 

In Mission: Yozakura Family, a shy boy named Taiyo Asano has been coping with the abrupt death of his parents and brother (which is not at all a cheap emotional hook). His only friend is this girl named Mutsumi Yozakura, the adorable school idol. When Taiyo is attacked by Mutsumi’s overprotective brother, Kyoichiro, he is introduced to the Yozakura family (of spies). Because he’s the ultimate husbando (and because he doesn’t want to get assassinated), he marries into the family and vows to protect Mutsumi with his life.

I don’t know of many manga attempting to combine gag shounen with battle shounen (apparently, Katekyo Hitman Reborn! is one example, but SOMEONE (*cough* Viz *cough*) doesn’t have the manga licensed), but Yozakura Family has been a real fun time. Of course, there really is no narrative to speak of. The death of Taiyo’s family is pretty much glossed over until it gets to the designated “It wasn’t really an accident” plot development (which, honestly, isn’t a spoiler because that pretty much always happens).

The sillies are what matter, though. Yozakura Family is loaded with bombastic, over-the-top comedy that completely disregards realism, including a literal spy magazine and social media group. I also have to post a trigger warning: there are cases of minors (and adults) carrying firearms to school, so if you have any memories tied to an actual school shooting, then this manga might not be for you. There haven’t BEEN any school shootings so far, but I doubt that’ll stop you from being triggered. Also, as of where I left off, the manga hasn’t gone straight-up full battle shounen, like many gag series do. 

Unfortunately, Yozakura Family fubars one of the most important aspects of shounen: training. They show some of Taiyo’s training early on, but it’s gone over super-fast. It’s so abrupt that he goes from wimp to Bruce Willis overnight. Since this is primarily a gag shounen, I’m not too butthurt about it, but I’m definitely the minority in that.

This manga has a great cast of characters (for once). Taiyo is kind of that generic guy, like always, but the series isn’t called Yozakura Family for nothing. While Mutsumi herself is that “waifu” type, her siblings are where the personality comes in. Kyoichiro might (read as: “will”) annoy some people, but I think his ludicrous devotion to Mutsumi, plus his overly lacking subtlety of how much he hates Taiyo is hilarious. Her other siblings have very distinctive character design and memorable personalities, but sadly, they don’t have too much screentime. In any case, the antagonists are all fun, even if a lot of them (so far) have been in the throwaway category. 

The art is great. It’s simple, but effective. The action scenes are swift and packed with line work, while the facial expressions are on point. It’s what you’d expect from a shounen manga.

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Current Verdict: 9/10

Mission: Yozakura Family is starting off strong. I have no idea how popular it is, so I don’t know if it’s going to be ending soon, but I hope it has a solid run down the road. Of course, you can never truly know with a Jump manga.