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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
I don’t know what compelled me to do this. Isekai is one of my favorite genres (even though 99% of them are ass), so it only made sense for me to read a classic isekai: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. I recall watching the movie in a film class. All I remember is that Judy Garland is adorable, and that the movie itself is incredibly lackluster with the exception of the [aged] technical effects. The books (yes, books. There are fourteen Oz books actually) are sure to have much more substance, right? After all; the book is better than the film.
In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a girl named Dorothy is just chilling at her rinky-dink home in Kansas when a CYCLONE LIFTS HER HOUSE. She is abnormally calm during the situation and falls asleep while still in the eye of the storm. Dorothy (with dog, Toto) wakes up in Oz, where she is praised for having murdered the Wicked Witch of the East with her house. In order to get home, she must find the titular Wizard of Oz.
Thanks to this, I finally know where most modern Japanese isekai get their lack of depth. The writing in this book is as archaic as the time period. We get the bare minimum description of anything, and no sense of scale for any architecture in this world (also, get used to some unexpected usage of the word “queer”). There is next to no worldbuilding; stuff is just there for the sake of being there. Also, Dorothy has plot armor out of her ass thanks to a kiss from the Witch of the North. It’s sad that a lot of literature has not evolved since the turn of the 20th Century.
At the very least, the book has momentum. It doesn’t waste any words, and scenes that would normally take ten years to read in a modern isekai can be completed in minutes. The Witch of the North would be an exposition dump character, but thankfully, she only tells Dorothy what’s actually RELEVANT to the plot at the current moment.
Unfortunately, the original source novel wasn’t as dark as I thought it would be. Normally, I don’t really care for super cynical stuff, but given the time period, I figured that the story would be really dark. But other than a few isolated scenes, such as the Tin Woodman’s backstory, it’s just about as lackadaisical as the movie. Oh, and in case you’re a fan of the movie, literally NONE of the famous lines are in the original. No “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” no “Lions and tigers and bears”; not even the cultic chant that the Witch of the West’s guards use when patrolling.
Furthermore, I did not like the cast of the book at all (surprise, surprise). They were not just boring but inconsistent. The worst of them is the Tin Woodman, who acts like he can’t kill anything but doesn’t hesitate to create an admittedly gorey mound of wolf corpses. And before you argue “Um people were super religious then and they didn’t really think animals have souls because God gave man dominion over animal”, just keep in mind that Mr. Woodman cries when accidentally stepping on a beetle. A beetle.
And holy heck, this is apparently where the “real treasure was the friends we made along the way” trope came from, because these characters are about as brainless as the Scarecrow. They all want these specific traits, but they end up already possessing said traits. Normally, this would be meant for an epiphany at the end, but it doesn’t turn out that way (it’s actually kind of weird what happens). I feel like Baum didn’t put any more thought into this than a typical crappy Japanese isekai author.
Another issue lies not just in the content of the story, but the publication. I got the 100th Anniversary edition, with gold pages, which made me think “This should be really well presented.” Wrong! This edition displays a large assortment of… uh… illustrations, but their placement is all wrong. Sometimes, you’ll see one before the actual depicted scene happens. But more often than not, they’ll SUPERIMPOSE TEXT over them. Who in their right mind thought this would be a good tribute to Baum’s legacy?!
Final Verdict: 6.75/10
Call me an uncultured swine, but I didn’t find The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to be all that wonderful. No worldbuilding, no consistency, no visual descriptions, flat dialogue… this might’ve been groundbreaking at the time, but things have changed in 120-odd years. While some classics, like Dracula, age pretty well, this one has not, and I hate it when people act like all literary classics are still objectively great even by modern standards.
However, I am at least curious as to what the rest of the series has to offer. Each installment seems to be pretty self-contained, so I hope to possibly review all fourteen books over a long course of time. I imagine that they get more and more effed up (the cover of the final book has people on fire in the background), and it might be fascinating to see. But as far as recommendations for the original classic are concerned… I’d hold off on it. There are better things out there, with better writing.
The Rick Riordan Presents publishing imprint has breathed new life into Western children’s literature. Debuting with the hit Pandava novels, Riordan has allowed writers to present other foreign cultures in a Percy Jackson-styled fashion to offset the overabundance of ancient Greek, Norse, and Egyptian mythology in popular culture. In today’s blog, I’m covering The Storm Runner trilogy, written by J.C. Cervantes and published by, well, I just told you.
The Storm Runner stars Zane Obispo, who is just about to enter Catholic school. But this plan gets turned on its head when he runs into a beautiful and enigmatic girl (like you do), named Brook. She tells Zane that he is apparently destined to release the Mayan god of death, Ah-Puch, and he needs to stop that from happening. Pretty simple, isn’t it?
While I was groaning at the whole, “unremarkable boy who gets bullied is approached by the cute girl who tells him he’s special” schtick, The Storm Runner manages to be pretty darn entertaining. The story has fast pacing as well as that great, sarcastic humor that Percy Jackson fans know and love. There’s also some unique meta aspects to the series as well. The first installment is actually an in-universe book that Zane writes in between that and the second installment. He publishes it as a means of bringing other demigods together to do plot stuff.
Unfortunately, I had some issues with it. The Rick Riordan Presents I.P. is meant to generate interest for other cultures in the minds of ignorant American children, but I didn’t find The Storm Runner that interesting. I’m sure the research is solid, but none of the Mayan gods themselves come off as particularly fascinating, nor do they feel creative in the context of the narrative. Sure, they integrate some modern elements into mythical locations, but that’s been done before numerous times.
This next problem is more-so a nitpick, because it’s entirely based on a single line of dialogue that really stood out to me, and because of it, I’ve wanted to assume that Cervantes thinks her audiences are actual idiots (since I take things literally on account of my autism). Basically, they end up in some city in Mexico at one point in the second book, The Fire Keeper. One of the characters doesn’t know which Mexican city it is at a glance, and in response, another character literally calls them “an uncultured swine”. I’m sorry, but that’s indirectly insulting the demographic. If they’re reading this to learn about another culture, then why berate them for not already knowing everything about it? I don’t know who the editor was, but this got past somebody at the publishing house, and it astounds me.
The Storm Runner is further marred by some seriously uninspired characters. While Zane has some good one-liners, he’s really generic. Plus, he makes a certain eye-roll-worthy decision early on that really reduced my initial enjoyment of the books. Also, I felt like his lame leg was a “shock value thing” meant to market the series toward physically disabled people. The reason is that he later gets a power that makes his leg normal, which oh-so conveniently saves the author from having to worry about his leg during any scene with urgency.
Meanwhile, Brook is that role model-esque tomboy, and her sister, Quinn, isn’t that much better. Uncle Hondo, the supporting male, is the best character of the bunch, since he takes the scenario of the series really well for a regular human, and offers some good comic relief. I also like Mrs. Cab, the designated person with the prophecy (but with how many eyeballs she has in her house, she might as well have a prophec-EYE (kudos if you get that reference)), but she doesn’t get much screentime. Book two introduces Renata Santiago, a cute demigod girl whose only personality trait is believing in Erik von Daniken’s alien conspiracy theories that are about as ancient as the Maya themselves at this point.
Normally, when I review these books series, I would discuss my thoughts on the final book in the last paragraph, since the ending is really important. But I’m gonna be honest, I lost interest in the story completely. When I had read book two, it was still new, so I had to wait for The Shadow Crosser to come out. And apparently, I just completely forgot a lot of the story. I know it makes me sound unprofessional, but that’s my honest experience. They kind of shoehorn in some MacGuffin (and these snarky twins) out of nowhere, while the characters spend a lot of time being all like “Oh my god the villains are so galaxy-brained what’re we gonna do!”
Final Verdict: 7/10
I’m sure that Cervantes put all her soul into this, but I don’t feel it. It’s even made me question whether or not I would still enjoy Percy Jackson if I reread it for the first time in over a decade! Honestly, I don’t know what The Storm Runner‘s many fans see in it. Like I said before, it does not give off a particularly fascinating impression of Mayan folklore. There’s no real harm in reading it, but I guarantee you that the Rick Riordan Presents I.P. has some way better stuff to offer (which I’ll get to when I get to it).
I’ve been using the extra free-time from COVID-19 to watch some TV shows for the first time in my life. I just finished watching stuff like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Steven Universe, and those had some pretty emotional baggage. I’m caught up to DuckTales, and I needed something “dumb and fun” to watch after the tumultuousness of Steven. So, I turned to the first and last Netflix Original I’ll ever watch, The Dragon Prince. Made by some of the original creators of Avatar, I hoped that it would be as dumb and fun as I wanted it to be (for the record, it’s apparently really popular but I only heard of it when Netflix recommended it to me after I started Avatar. Hooray for my patented living-under-a-rock powers!). I thought I had watched 75% percent of the show after the first three seasons; but apparently, there’s going to be seven. So, let’s see if the show is worth the big investment.
The Dragon Prince starts out with a truly draconic exposition dump. Basically, there was this land of Xadia that had all this cool magic and stuff. But once one single person discovered evil dark magic, the elves took it out on the ENTIRE human race and forced them to move west. A powerful dragon named Thunder guarded the border, but everything changed when the Human Nation attacked (had to; it’s supposed to be comparable to Avatar). They used dark magic to slay Thunder, and killed his little egg bearing his heir, the Dragon Prince. War between the two halves of the world was just a shot away.
In the present day, we have two princes who live in a fancy schmancy palace by the name of Callum and Ezran. Life is all well and good, but everything changed when the Moonshadow Elf Nation attacked. So, they get sent away for their own protection. Meanwhile, an Elf girl named Rayla whiffs the chance to kill a human and now all of her friends hate her. The three kids inevitably cross paths, and it is revealed that the Dragon Prince is miraculously still alive. I guess we’re hoofing it to Xadia, then!
Before we can discuss the content of the narrative, this is one of those shows where it’s important to discuss the visuals first. The Dragon Prince is a fully CG show, similar to RWBY, and that tends to put off a large number of people. As the first show of this type that I watched, I found it to be pretty tolerable. The backgrounds appear to be fully hand-painted, like with Avatar, and the lighting and particle effects really help the world pop. The real issue is the character design. They have a cel-shaded style that doesn’t look all that bad, but for some reason, everyone moves at a very choppy and inconsistent framerate. I imagine this must be a stylistic choice, since I figured Netflix being rich enough to allow for models to move at 60 fps (also the fact that most modeling software these days function at that rate as well). But regardless, it’s definitely better to look at than most CG I’ve seen in anime and stuff.
So, I wanted The Dragon Prince to be dumb and fun, and boy, did I get what I wished for! This show is a kind of adventure fantasy that just isn’t common enough these days; too many of them are busy being political, dark, brooding, and in a lot of cases, ripping off Harry Potter. But nope, The Dragon Prince is a good ol’, “ragtag team of kids against the world” kind of fantasy, just like Avatar, except with a more modern sense of humor. There are some politics, but it’s incredibly clear-cut as to what the correct solution is, and it’s very explicit as far as which figures are smart and which are manipulable idiots.
However, just because The Dragon Prince is both dumb and fun, that doesn’t mean the latter is enough to justify the former for some people. While I am enjoying the show a lot thus far, the story is simplistic on a near child-like level. While it does try to be morally ambiguous by having the war be kind of the fault of both races, individual characters’ moral structures are written all over their sleeves. They don’t even try to hide the evilness of The Dragon Prince’s main antagonist, which is definitely a turn-off to those who like those layer-caked villains. The show can also be hard to take seriously even when it tries to be serious. In fact, the episode loading screen on Netlflix shows a screenshot of the fully hatched Dragon Prince, which spoils that he survives almost dying of hypothermia at the end of season one.
I’ll at least give them some slack for even remotely original worldbuilding. Instead of the tired Four Good Ol’ Elements, the world of The Dragon Prince comes packed with the Six Primal Sources, such as the Moon and the Stars. But functionally, they really aren’t that much different from the same elements of Avatar. It’s similar to how Trails of Cold Steel calls dark magic “Time Magic” and stuff. Look, don’t expect super originality from this thing, okay?
Especially not the cast. The leading male protagonist, Callum, would be unremarkable if it didn’t sound like he was voiced by the voice actor of Sokka from Avatar (he even makes the same wry comments as Sokka at times). He’s the stepson of the king, which would normally make him the victim of many a bully, but the issue seems to have next to no plot relevance; I can at least be thankful that they didn’t paint by numbers THAT much. Meanwhile, his stepbrother, Ezran, is- despite being the youngest- the moral support of the trio. Whenever drama unfolds in the group, he makes things right, almost in an overly convenient, Steven Universe kind of way. Furthermore, Ezran gets some genuine growth starting in the third season.
The female lead is the elf, Rayla. She’s a typical tomboy, but she’s also a bit of Mary Sue, since her first revealed trait is the inability to take a life. She’s also tsundere to the max, and it’s almost too obvious that she and Callum are going to be lovers. But despite how brooding she can be, she has some cute interactions with the boys all the same.
But I don’t like the entire crew. My least favorite characters are the animals that tag along: Bait and Zim, the latter of which is titular Dragon Prince who is not at all named after a cult classic cartoon from the early 2000s. Bait is very inconsistent; he’s useful, thanks to his flash ability, but he also tends to be the direct cause of some conflicts. Zim is just ADORABLE, and I do not like him because of that. I can imagine that both of these characters have toys based off of them in shopping malls everywhere. And to top it all off, Bait and Zim sometimes engage in a shipping war over Ezran.
The main antagonist is a geezer named Verin, the king’s royal advisor. Spoiler alert, the royal advisor is a bad man! Never seen THAT before! Fortunately, he is actually pretty interesting, because all of the evil things he’s doing are out of an obsessive devotion to the kingdom, and he genuinely thinks it’s good. I do have some kind of theory about him that has not yet been confirmed, but if I’m correct, his whole character arc could be undermined and he’ll become a typical one dimensional villain.
Other antagonists include Verin’s kids, Sorin and Claudia. They aren’t inherently evil, but they are both very stupid, and end up being easily coerced into following the princes and “accidentally letting them die” without even knowing that it’s a bad thing. But despite their stupidity (or rather, because of it), they have some great spats with each other, which provides some of the best humor in the series, and plus, they are genuinely good kids at heart. Sometimes, I enjoy their scenes more than the main group’s. The second season also introduces an incredibly sexy villain named Aaravos, but there’s not much known about him at this time.
Current Verdict: 8.65/10
I know, I know… I just scored The Dragon Prince .15 points more than Avatar. I’m sorry. I know that Avatar is definitely a better crafted fantasy epic, yet this show was more fun to watch for whatever reason. It has its flaws, but it’s definitely shaping up to be something great. I recommend it to any fantasy fans (unless you like the dark and brooding stuff, in which case, stay the heck away from this show).
PREFACE: In case you do not already know, I should warn you the Trails of Cold Steel Franchise is explicitly designed to be played in chronological order. No, it doesn’t have a stupidly convoluted plot like Metal Gear or Kingdom Hearts, but this is nonetheless a direct continuation of the first game. As such, this review will contain unmarked spoilers of the first game. I will also not explain any basic mechanics of the first game, as you are expected to know already from playing it. If you are interested in this franchise, click on this link to read my review of Trails of Cold Steel I.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel has its strengths and weaknesses, but overall, it was never meant to be a full game; no, it exists solely to lay down the groundwork for a truly epic tale, spanning four massive games. I was more engaged in the story of Cold Steel than any JRPG I’ve ever played, and it was definitely one of the best turn-based JRPGs in terms of gameplay. With that ridiculous ending- Crow being one of the main antagonists, mechs existing, Crossbell’s declaration of independence, mechs existing, Ouroboros and Fie’s old squad have been helping the Noble Alliance pull all the political strings, MECHS EXISTING- my body was beyond ready for the sequel. The first Cold Steel set the expectations, now it’s up to The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II, to meet said expectations.
When we last left our intrepid hero, Rean Schwarzer, he- in his mech, Valimar- was forced to leave his buddies in Class VII behind during a losing battle against Crow, the leader of the Imperial Liberation Front. A month later, Rean wakes up on a mountain range with Emma’s mysterious cat, Celine. Now it’s time for him to make like a battle shounen protagonist and pick himself back off the ground and find what’s left of Class VII!
Same World, New Problem
Immediately, the game starts off way sadder than Cold Steel I (even if the opening sorta ruins it a little by showing that EVERY student in Class VII is still alive). As soon as you start the game, the familiar title card appears dark, with the words singed by fire. A minor-key remix of the original game’s titlescreen music plays, and zooms in on Rean’s unconscious body. His voice actor sounds much more distraught than usual at first, and his portrait in the menu looks like someone who’s been through hell and back. Then, mere minutes after you find respite in his hometown of Ymir during the prologue, the town gets attacked. In most JRPGs, I’d say that an opening like this would constitute little more than shock value. But since this is a continuation of an existing story, it’s actually more effective, since you’re likely to be invested in the story if you’re picking up this game up after playing the previous one.
If you’re still new to the series, and you’re STILL reading this review anyway, I should SERIOUSLY warn you that the game basically gives you the finger for not starting from the beginning. There are two reasons why it’s seriously important to start from Cold Steel I, and the first of which is merely because it will be way too overwhelming if you don’t. The title screen does have a menu to read a recap of the first game, but honestly, the first game is so involved, you’d spend hours of Cold Steel II trying to memorize everything while trying to follow the present plot.
But even for a returning player, it can be confusing knowing who’s on what team. So here, I’ll remind you. The Imperial Liberation Front is in cahoots with Fie’s old jaeger squad, Zephyr, who both report to Duke Ceyenne, the leader of the Noble Alliance. Ouroboros is with them as well, but Sharon seems to be a double agent; someone on both our and their side. Vita, the sexy sorceress lady, seems to be in a third group, containing space wizards (or something) who’ve been working on a completely separate thing.
I pointed out that you need to keep in mind that Cold Steel I is the start of a larger story in order to enjoy it. In Cold Steel II, you need to keep in mind that it’s a continuation of a larger story. As a result, there are a lot of reused assets. While the world is big enough that you do get to visit areas that have only been mentioned, there are times where you return to old places. It really plays on your nostalgia bug, like at the start of chapter one, which has you go through a previous Field Study dungeon backwards.
Unfortunately, playing this game has kind of broken my immersion when it comes to Erebonia itself. Cold Steel I was split into multiple, self-contained areas, connected by long train rides. This was an effective way to make you use your imagination, and imagine the grandiose scope of the world. However, in Cold Steel II, you end up taking the roads that connect various areas in foot… and this is where the immersion breaks. It’s as soon as you set foot into Trista Highway for the first time that it’s made apparent; those train rides that took hours of in-game time were the alternative to roads that took minutes to traverse. It’s a nitpick, I know, but Erebonia definitely feels less Tolkienian since the world feels so much smaller now.
As far as the narrative is concerned, it’s actually… kind of lacking for a direct continuation, especially after an ending like Cold Steel I. Similar to how the first game’s purpose is to acquaint us with the world of Erebonia and all who inhabit it, Cold Steel II starts by reacquainting us with it, and seeing how much has changed as a result of the war. But even after the point where the story is supposed to ramp up, most of the game boils down to reclaiming areas from the first game, and gaining more support. It’s satisfying to do, but you don’t learn much about the core narrative, at least not until around the 75% point of the game, when it vomits information at you like any JRPG would.
The biggest issue with the narrative is that it never ends. After you defeat what is very much intended to be the final boss (which took me two and a half hours by itself because there’s, like, five phases), you end up playing a side section that serves no purpose other than to get players interested in another franchise set within the same universe (which, I’ll admit, was pretty darn effective, even if those games aren’t released in the U.S.). And then, you get an entire in-game day’s worth of content to do. AND AFTER THAT, the true final dungeon appears for no discernible reason. It got so annoying. The issue is that this game hypes itself up to be the conclusion of Cold Steel, and while it does a pretty good job at conveying that on an emotional level, it is very watered down by the known presence of two more games.
Same Faces… Plus a Few New Ones
Fortunately, there’s a surprising amount of stuff to learn from the characters. We get closer looks at characters like Claire and Sharon, and even deeper looks at the students of Class VII. I love them even more than I did before. To think that I brushed most of them off as bland anime tropes at first… that’s character development at its finest. I’ve grown so attached to them, that I even gave some of them nicknames, such as “Reany-Beany” and “Useless Jusis” (even though the latter is my favorite of the supporting male characters).
We also get more development on the antagonists, such as Crow. Plus, there are some interesting new antagonists with quirky personalities, such as the cocky yet socially awkward Duvalie, and the sleepy McBurn. Unfortunately, Duke Cayenne proves to be a pretty one-dimensional villain for the post part.
Unsurprisingly, Cold Steel II‘s graphics aren’t too different from the first game. I shouldn’t have expected them to be since it’s both the same system and the same world, but I still had to mention it. But one thing I didn’t acknowledge in my review of the first game is that a lot of the animations for attacks, especially S-Crafts, have aged very well. They look soooooooo animeeeeeee!
The soundtrack is also more-or-less the same. A lot of tracks are reused, but there are also some new, updated battle themes. Unfortunately, a lot of tracks overstay their welcome. One bad example is that there’s a point where you tackle four dungeons in quick succession, and music for all of them is some really grating opera. Furthermore, the previous game’s issue of “having the dungeon theme play over the battle theme because it’s INTENSE” comes back even more in this game. And similar to the other example, those themes get reused as well.
For the gameplay section, I will still split it into Daily Life and Deadly Life. But like I said before, I will go over mechanics as if you’re already familiar with the first game. I will also bring up the fact that this version of the game, Relentless Edition, SPOILS you. First off, the amazing Turbo Mode feature is still present. Second off, you get WAY more items in the DLC than last time, including 99 U-Materials.
Before we start, I must also bring up the other important reason to play Cold Steel I first. When starting a new game of Cold Steel II, you will be asked if you want to load Clear Save Data from Trails I on your system. Doing this will give you items based on Rean’s previous Academy Rank, and change dialogue based on various accomplishments, as well as the person you chose to dance with at the end of Cold Steel I (G.G. for anyone who chose Crow). It felt really satisfying to have my actions acknowledged, and it helped maintain a sense of continuity.
JRPGs Always Need an Airship
So, the first question I- and probably a lot of people asked- going into Cold Steel II was, “Without Thors, how’re we gonna have the same school mechanics?” Well, the answer is a minor spoiler, and one that is spoiled in the game’s intro at that. After a certain point, your main base of operations is on the Courageous.
But the problem with the Courageous is that it needs some help. Fortunately, scattered throughout the world are your fellow peers from Thors. Whenever you see them, it is encouraged to recruit them to the ship, as many of them unlock new facilities. Most of these are carry-over mechanics from Cold Steel I, so I will only discuss new things here.
For starters, there’s new training facilities. These are basically your Practical Exams from Cold Steel I, except you can do them whenever. They are split into Melee, Range, and Arts, where you are locked into using characters who are built around those fighting styles. The biggest issue with them (other than how stupid hard they get) is that you don’t get to prep anyone before the fight itself like you can in the first game. Furthermore, you don’t get to see the conditions until the battle starts, which can be annoying.
There’s also the new Triple Tri- I mean- Blade II. This game plays like the first one, but with meaner trap cards: Blast and Force. Blast Cards allow you to destroy a card in your opponent’s hand (but you can’t look at it), and Force Cards double your total. Even with how game-breaking these new cards are, I still lost 95% of the time because I suck.
Once you recruit Munk, you are able to bribe him to apply to radio contests on your behalf. There’s a cheap one where you win a modest prize, and a high-risk, high-rewards one. The results come in after five battles (excluding the training facilities in the Courageous), so make sure you use it before you go out into a combat area.
“Hey, Rean! Have you finished those errands?”
Quests are pretty much unchanged, except with the added feature of reporting manually by Skyping Olivert. And despite the hard times, people can afford to pay up. In addition to the usual rewards for completing a quest, you get a monetary donation for reporting it. There are still hidden quests, and they are sneakier than ever. Some require you to have or not have certain people in your party (but I have no idea if the game indicates it to you because I was always lucky enough to already have met the conditions).
But unlike the first game, you cannot miss ANY quests if you want to max out your Academy Rank. Last time, I missed three and still barely got it. But now, even after doing every quest (with the trophy to confirm it), I ended the game with only ONE excess AP. There is only a sliver of leeway, as I didn’t get all S-Ranks despite getting all quests. I guess some of them had more favorable outcomes and I didn’t realize it. Fortunately, due to the game’s circumstances, there are no exams this time! Yay!
You Never Have Enough Sepith in This Game
One thing I noticed in Cold Steel II was that everyone’s Arcus slots are still fully opened. But that doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods. In this game, you spend Sepith to UPGRADE your slots, and I blew through most of my DLC Sepith just to be barely close to maxing out one character. If you don’t do this, you can’t equip rare quartz. It’s annoying, but they had to change it up somehow. As a side note, you eventually get the ability to create EX Orbs, which are equipped to Valimar to boost its stats.
Wow, this game has an actual overworld!
The most standout improvement in Cold Steel II is the ability to go to older areas at will. The Courageous makes it really easy to do so, and you can leave from almost any point on the map. There are times where you will be asked for specific party members, but fortunately, summoning the Courageous from the overworld allows you to reorganize your team without having to leave and come back.
So, what did Cold Steel II do to replace the Old Schoolhouse? Peppered throughout the world are these strange shrines. Gameplay-wise, they’re the same as the Old Schoolhouse; do the floor, beat the boss. You can’t complete them at first, but you obtain bonus AP for knocking out what you can early on (plus they got good loot in them).
The whole Courageous thing is the best and worst aspect of the game. It does open up a lot stuff, and adds much variety when you’re running errands for people. One thing I noticed is that there aren’t as many hidden quests once you obtain the Courageous (in fact, I only had one in Act 2 Part 4 and one in the Final Act), which is nice. However, this new level of accessibility makes it so that you can get said missable items out of sequence. And it’s not based on the order that the areas come up in the story; for example, a single shop can have both the first recipe and last book chapter of that particular time bracket. As a result, I think I spent even more time repeatedly talking to the same NPCs over and over again than I did last time.
Saving the World? Nah, I’d Rather Fish and Cook
Cooking and fishing have both been buffed since last time. While fishing is mechanically unchanged, fishing spots get marked on the map after being used once, which is nice. And due to the ability to travel to older areas, you get a lot more respawning fishing spots that you can use. Unfortunately, this also means completing the fishing is a nightmare. In Cold Steel I, all fish eventually end up in Trista. However, that’s not the case here. Furthermore, the fishing locations don’t respawn as quickly as they should, meaning that you’ll need more groundbait than ever (or save-scumming) if you want to get all the fish… on top of having to try each and every location without knowing which one has a fish you missed. In fact, I resorted to looking up the fish just to save time. But hey, at least recipes are only cooked by one character now, which simplifies the process of getting a specific type of dish.
Nakama Power, the Most Important Superpower in Any Anime
Bonding Events are much more important in this game. While there are some Bonding Events early on, the bulk of them take place on Stopover Days that occur at the end of a chapter once you obtain the Courageous. Unlike the first game, EVERY party member, as well as Alfin and Towa, are available to spend time with. While you get more Bonding Points than last time, it’s not enough to make it easier to decide. “We’ll, it’s not gonna kill me if I don’t know EVERYTHING about EVERYBODY,” you think. We’ll, you might just want to save-scum to view every event, because Bonding Events have a new and trollish effect. Some SPECIFIC events will allow a character to learn new abilities earlier than they would’ve from levelling up, which is kind of annoying. I only saw one of these particular events, and the game doesn’t even tell you about them in the first place.
There’s also the case of Final Bonding Events. These are exclusive scenes between Rean and assorted characters towards the end of the game. In order to unlock a character’s Final Bonding Event, you must get their link level to its second-highest level, which is now six out of seven (technically, it only needs to be up to five and a half or so since finishing Act 2 boosts everyone’s links by 1000), as well as fulfill specific other conditions. You can also have Towa and Alfin in line for this, but you will need to do every single Bonding Event with them in order to be able to satisfy the conditions with them. Fortunately, the game will tell you when you have an opportunity to satisfy one of said conditions, which is something much appreciated that most JRPGs don’t bother doing. Also, once you recruit Beryl, you can use her services to confirm with whom you have met the conditions for. Unfortunately, when the time comes, you can only do one per playthrough, so save-scumming at that point is essential. It is also impossible to meet the conditions with everyone at once. This means that you will have to play through again in New Game+ to see everything (which you would’ve had to do anyway to complete the character notebook entries).
What is this, Sonic Adventure 1?
A new mechanic is snowboarding. Throughout the story, you unlock new courses to snowboard in. Beating these gets you great prizes, but like in any videogame, it gets really difficult late on. In addition to snowboards, you also get to ride Angelica’s bike. It can be used almost anywhere and greatly makes up for the lack of fast travel points on highways.
A Steep Learning Curve Just got Even Steeper
Here’s the final reason as to why Cold Steel II does not like newcomers: All the combat mechanics learned over the course of more than half of Cold Steel I… is taught all at once during the Prologue. So seriously… if you’re somehow still reading this and not familiar with the series. FOR THE LOVE OF AIDIOS, PLAY COLD STEEL I!
For returning players, this brings some immediate positives. In Cold Steel II, every character has all their Craft and S-Craft from the first game. Your Link levels are also higher at the start, with Rean starting at Link Level 2 with everyone. This at least makes it easier for returning players to get reacclimated to the game.
A new mechanic is Overdrive. Use this between a pair of Linked characters to give them a free heal, and a set of three free attack turns with no delay. This also guarantees Unbalancing. The gauge fills by doing things in battle, but it fills up much faster based on your tactical bonuses at the end of a battle. Unfortunately, only people paired with Rean can do it…
…at first. New to Cold Steel II are Trial Chests. These chests make a set pair of party members fight a tough battle. But as a reward, you get great items, a heap of Link XP for that pair, and unlock the ability for them to use Overdrive together. It’s a great way for characters that aren’t Rean to get large amounts of Link XP, since the bonding events from Cold Steel I kinda threw off the balance of everyone’s link levels (but it still ends up being way off-balanced).
Mech Battles Before Xenoblade X Made it Cool
My biggest concern when it came to combat was how Cold Steel II would expand on the Divine Knight (a.k.a. mech) battles. Introduced during the final boss of Cold Steel I, mech battles felt very stressful and iffy. Basically, mech battles were a game of rock-paper-scissors, where you had to attack a section of the target that was weak- the head, the body, or the arms. Attacking a weak point resulted in a crit, which allowed you to press X for an immediate Follow-up, and after obtaining three Bravery Points, you could use a powerful Finisher (basically an S-Craft). The catch is that the weakness changed based on the enemy’s stance, which resulted in having to memorize a lot of combinations. Attacking the wrong spot could result in getting the attack blocked, or worse, evaded. This, as always, gives enemies the chance to counter. You also couldn’t Impede attacks that enemies were charging up last time, even if you inflicted a crit, so you were basically screwed.
Fortunately, Cold Steel II greatly fixes some of these issues. The game adds a Defend command, which allows you to greatly reduce damage and recover a small chunk of HP. But one of the best additions by far is the fact they show the Unbalance Efficacy of each piece- in each stance- after you attack it once. THANK YOU.
Although Rean is on his own in mech battles, his buddies can at least help with EX Arts. Basically, you have another character who takes their own turn in the fights. When it’s their turn, you can have them cast some EX Arts, the nature of which are determined by the person. This greatly fleshes out the mech battles, plus every person has a charge function to restore Valimar’s EP (which doesn’t really justify the parts of the game where you wait for him to recharge…). You also have a Unity Attack that you can do with five Bravery Points.
Other Things to Keep in Mind
Rean also gets some significant boosts in this game. After a while, he is able to summon Valimar to regular battles for three turns, and is able to activate his Super Saiyan form at will. These can be very useful in some super-tough battles, especially if you play it on Nightmare difficulty.
One new feature is the optional bosses, the Cryptids. These enemies appear throughout the world after certain points in the story. Defeating them nets you a rare quartz containing a Lost Art. These Arts are really powerful, but consume all of a character’s EP. Fortunately, they are affected by the Zero-Arts turn bonus, which can seriously save your bum. I didn’t use them too often, but I imagine they are essential in Hard and Nightmare difficulties.
Either This Game is Hard… or I Suck
If it wasn’t obvious enough that this game alienates newcomers, they also make it much harder than Cold Steel I. I died way more often than before, and in this game I actually knew what I was doing. They really expect you to have mastered the turn order system, along with all the other mechanics, ‘cuz the kid gloves are off this time! The game also introduces a rare case of enemy attacks that ignore and remove all buffs, and some of these attacks happen to be their strongest attack. The Zeram Capsule + Moebius setup I utilized in the last game made its final dungeon a joke, but that same setup was a necessity in this game. If I hadn’t gotten forty of them as DLC, I would’ve been sunk.
Fortunately, I learned some important things about the series that I didn’t know last time. Stat changes do stack in Cold Steel, which I honestly should’ve noticed before. Also, Evasion is a broken stat in this series, especially if you give your most dodgy character (preferably Fie) the Wrath Quartz, which makes all counterattacks crit. I also had her paired with the Master Quartz, Mirage, which adds a good chance of evading magic. This game was my first time trying an Evasion build on a character; I’ve always prioritized defense in JRPGs in the past. Furthermore, Speed is immensely important, as it reduces characters’ Delay between turns, which again, is something I should’ve known last time.
Final Verdict: 9.5/10
Trails of Cold Steel II is a massive improvement over the first game in almost every way (except strictness, and knowing when to roll credits). At this point, I am hooked on this story and I fully intend to see it to its end (and pray that I get the True Ending of the fourth game). However, I am concerned about the third game. Based on the one thing I know about it, it feels like it will be a step backward for the series. Well, with my job opened back up, you won’t know how I feel about it for a while. Anyways, as far as recommendations for Trails of Cold Steel is concerned, I think it’s definitely worth giving a shot, even if you are uncomfortable with missing things. The game is good at letting you know when you’re at a cut-off point, making it a lot less stressful than most JRPGs.
I can’t get enough of JRPGs. I love the idea of exploring vivid fantasy worlds, beating people up, and getting cool rewards that make me stronger. So, it was almost destiny that I found a franchise that has been under the radar for quite some time: the Ys series. Specifically, I found its most recent installment, Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, for the Nintendo Switch.
In Ys VIII, a plucky teen named Adol is sailing away like Dennis DeYoung until a giant octopus attacks! The crew is then shipwrecked on the mysterious Isle of Seiren. It’s up to Adol and some other people to find a way off the island.
But this is a JRPG, and it’s never that simple… Except that it is. The story of Ys VIII is pretty tame for most of the playthrough. However, once you start the final chapter, it escalates to the genre’s usual ridiculousness. I didn’t really care for it (I almost never do), but it doesn’t intrude on you like some other games. The biggest story flaw is that there’s never a sense of anticipation for the final battle. The final boss is something that you never see until the moment you fight it, unlike- say- Xenoblade 2, where you very consistently see the final boss’ smug-ass face all the way through.
The characters do leave something to be desired. The most interesting case is Adol, of all people. He seems like a pretty generic dude, but based on certain dialogue in the game, it seems that Adol is actually the staple main protagonist of the whole series. In that case, I was probably meant to have grown more attached to him over the course of the other seven games. Meanwhile, your other party members are basically a checklist of anime tropes- Laxia (tsundere), Sahad (down-to-earth old man), Hummel (mysterious guy), etc.- and are only likeable in terms of their use in battle. The side characters are more interesting, especially some of the optional castaways, and it also appears that at least two of them have been party members in past Ys games.
Time for the longest section: gameplay! First off, I should complement how user friendly Ys VIII is. The map is very intuitive, and it tells you a LOT. It shows you where treasures are, how many treasures there are in an area, how much of an area that you’ve explored, and where draw points are. The best part about that last part is that hovering over each draw point on the map tells you exactly what materials it can contain.
They also give you Adol’s journal, which is ridiculously useful. It catalogues EVERYTHING, from quests to tutorials, to monsters, items, and your game percentage. The items catalogue is extremely useful, because it tells you everywhere that you can find them, and even shows what you can get from using them and where to use it at. The only flaw is the fish section, because it only tells you where fish are AFTER you caught it once, making it hell to get 100% in fishing (which is one of the few things I didn’t get all of).
That’s all well and good, but what about combat? Combat is freakin’ lit. Ys VIII is one of those JRPGs where it plays more like a beat-em-up. Instead of random encounters, you fight dudes on the field whenever you see them, and you actually have to physically avoid attacks by moving, and consider the hitboxes of your attacks in order to hit them. Fortunately, enemies don’t have 500000 HP like in a Xenoblade game; in fact, it’s the opposite. Battles go by swiftly and never feel like they take forever, even if you do end up playing the long con. Oh, and make sure you lock-on by pressing X. Fortunately, there’s an option for the game to auto-lock-on, including the ability for it to auto-lock-on to the nearest additional enemy on the field after you kill your current one. Plus, a certain item in the game will have locked-on enemies DISPLAY THEIR DROP ITEMS ON THE HUD. I LOVE THIS FEATURE and more JRPGs need to do it!
Fighting itself is incredibly simple and fun. You choose three out of the six party members to have in your active party, and control one of them. The other two are A.I., but fortunately, they aren’t as bad as most JRPG A.I.s; in fact, they take a lot less damage that way (thank goodness!). You can also switch between them on the fly with the Y button, and good thing too, for enemies have many different strengths and weaknesses. Each character attacks with one of three elements across all of their moves: Slash, Pierce, and Strike. Enemies can be weak to any of these three elements. If you hit enemies with their weak points enough, it’ll inflict Break on them, which reduces their defenses to nothing (kind of like Octopath Traveler). There are some enemies that have no weaknesses, though, especially bosses. Don’t worry; there’s also the stun gauge. Hitting enemies with any attack will fill up their stun gauge, and when it’s full, they’ll be knocked out for a short time and you’ll be able to just wail on them.
The combat is at its best when it comes to how skills work in the game. You have regular attacks that you do with A, and it builds up your SP meter shown on the bottom right. Mashing A sucks, though. In fact, it’s encouraged to wait until you build up a charged attack (indicated by glowing blue). These are a bit stronger, but most importantly, they fill up a TON of the SP meter. Skills are used by pressing R and whatever face button they are assigned to. The best part of skills in Ys VIII is that they have no cooldown; as long as you have SP, you can spam them like crazy. I LOVE doing this; it feels so stinking good to do, especially in a large group of enemies with a big AOE skill. There’s also the Extra Skill gauge, which fills up over time and by using attacks. By pressing R and L together will unleash your character’s big attack, and these can be lifesavers at the right time. But since L is dodge, you might accidentally use it in a panic of trying to move out of the way of an attack.
Whaling on people with skills feels good, but it doesn’t feel quite as good as Flash Move or Flash Guard. The former is done by pressing L to dash just before getting hit by an attack, which makes you briefly invincible, faster, and increases SP restoration. That’s all well and good, but the better of the two is Flash Guard. It also makes you invincible, but during it, all attacks become crits. It’s riskier to do, for you have to press the R button just before getting hit. Fortunately, you’re pretty likely to do it just by spamming skills like normally. Also, if the enemy uses a long-lasting attack, you can use Flash Move, then run into the attack and mash R to build up a stack of Flash Guards.
If I have to give Ys VIII any props, it’s the amazing way they handle status effects. Instead of being based on RNG, status effects are based on cumulative hits. What this means is that in order to be, say, poisoned, you have to take enough hits from a poison-inflicting attack to get poisoned. This is a really brilliant way to do status effects that actually demands more skill from the player. You can also equip some items that allow you to inflict status effects on enemies as well (bosses are immune as always, though). The most helpful effect by far is freeze, for that keeps enemies frozen solid and makes all attacks on them into crits until they thaw out. Fortunately, there are items to defend against status effects, as there always are.
Ys VIII isn’t all beating people up; this is a JRPG after all. While the Isle of Seiren is disappointingly linear, they at least programmed it so that each area seamlessly transitions into another. Also, there’s the Adventuring Gear system. This is basically like having Zelda items in a JRPG: equip them and you can do things like climb vines or breathe underwater. You can easily open the menu for this by pressing ZL. While it’s not that tedious to reequip the different Gear repeatedly, there are items that increase your capacity, which is nice.
After whooping some butt, you probably gotta head back to Castaway Village to rest up. Fortunately, the game has plenty of skip travel points in the form of insta-healing crystals found everywhere, plus you can instantly warp back home by pressing + at any time on the map. Castaway Village is the only town, which does bug me as someone who loves the sensation of seeing what each new town in a JRPG has to offer. Fortunately, there’s more than enough to do here… as long as you save the Castaways.
Castaways are found all over Seiren, some of whom are required to find, some of whom are optional. It’s not difficult to actually look for them as long as you explore, and the captain’s parrot will go ahead and mark points of interest on the map regularly. These guys are really important, for a lot of them have rudimentary mechanics, such as smithing and brewing potions.
There’s also quests. These are your typical JRPG quests, but they can expire. Fortunately, as long as you’re diligent, you won’t miss any. They are important, for they also increase Approval, which is important for a mechanic I’ll touch on later. Maxing out people’s approval unlocks cute cutscenes with them as well. There’s also the mechanic of showing the world map to the captain, for each 10% increment of the world explored nets you an award. Obviously, you want to do this. Most notably, some quests allow you to explore previous locations at night. They might as well be entirely new areas, for they become chock full of newer and tougher enemies than in the daytime.
Doing quests boosts Adol’s Reputation, which you can check in his journal. This determines the ending you get. Yes, a 60-hour game, with missable sidequests, has multiple endings, one of which is the de facto True Ending. Like I said, being thorough will give you more than enough rep to get the True Ending. Keep in mind that the game scares you a lot with the sidequests. First off, some early quests can’t be done immediately, even when they’re unlocked, which can be scary (but rest assured, you’ll definitely be able to get them). Second off, the game holds you off until just before you enter the final boss’ door. The room that you fight him in also counts toward map completion, but fortunately, they let you warp out of there as long as you don’t trigger the fight.
Since Seiren is an island cut off from the rest of the world, there’s no money! Here, resources are money. Every material you can get is able to be traded up for something better, or traded down for a bunch of low-level materials. This really sells the immersion of Ys VIII, plus it also gives you more incentive to keep your crappy materials on you. There are also a lot of great exclusive items that are only found in trades, so be diligent!
But things aren’t always peas and carrots here; monsters are afoot! Every so often, Castaway Village will get Raided, and you gotta help. Raids are the most fun and most agonizing parts of Ys VIII at the same time. The mechanics for them are fun, at least. You fight off waves of enemies and keep them from attacking the village. Castaways can also assist with their own skills. They can be lifesavers, especially the one who temporarily makes all skills cost 0 SP, and they get boosted as their Approval increases. The people aren’t the only things supporting you; we have literal supports in the form of barricades and lures to draw aggro. There’s also a gong that inflicts stun to all enemies on the field when struck, and is a real lifesaver. You can also upgrade these barricades with resources, and IT’S IMPORTANT TO DO IT unless you hate yourself.
In addition to Raids are Hunts, which is where the village goes on the offensive. It gets a lot more high-maintenance here. In Hunts, you gotta fight off infinitely spawning enemies and place torches to reduce their defense, while attacking their spawn points. Defeating all of them unlocks the boss, which can run away and waste time on the mission. These suck, honestly. This is also a case where auto lock-on can mess you up, because you’ll be fighting through one group of enemies, and after you kill them, it could lock-on to someone behind you and disorient you. Fortunately, the ones that actually count toward quests aren’t too bad; it’s the reduxes that spawn afterward that are REALLY bad.
Raids and Hunts are fun, but only if you want to just beat them at all. There are Sonic-style rankings, and it can get stingy sometimes. You gotta SERIOUSLY be good at the game in order to S-Rank some of these, which stinks, because you get REALLY good rewards for doing it. At the very least, none of the stupid hard Raids give you important rewards for S-Rank. Worst case, you can just do them stupidly overleveled in order to get an easy rank.
“Hang on a second,” you interrupt. “You’ve been talking about this game for how long, and you haven’t even mentioned the titular Dana! Who is that anyway?” Dana is the cute, blue-haired girl on the cover (who has way better character design than Adol). She’s my favorite party member in the game, but you don’t quite recruit her the same way; after all, she’s lived about a million years in the past. Like in Final Fantasy VIII, you can switch over to her and experience things in her era.
During these sequences, Ys VIII is almost an entirely different game. Dana is the only character you play as, and has mechanics exclusive to her era. Most notable is her ability to change fighting styles, which you unlock at specific points in the story. This is how you attack weaknesses as Dana by herself. It’s pretty simple; the DPS form, the tanking form, and the agility form. Periodically throughout her arc, you can slowly uncover more of the Sanctuary Crypt, an optional dungeon with several puzzle chambers, that give you a lot of context for the game’s lore. The game has a checklist for each task in the different sections of her story, and it’s recommended to do all of it (especially since it’s not that tough to do).
If there’s any gameplay flaw, it’s that the difficulty spikes right at the end. The main story remains a fair challenge, but some of the side stuff expects a LOT out of you. The worst part is a series of Raids with enemies from level 70 to 85 that get unlocked when your party would be around 60. These are tough. VERY TOUGH. I can’t even imagine how to beat these Raids on the game’s highest difficulty. But like I said, they’re all optional. Just do them if you hate yourself.
But even after you beat the game, you are still encouraged to return to it for postgame junk! All you gotta do is save your clear data in a slot, and load the file from the title screen. It’ll give you the option to do New Game+, or do reload just before the final boss with all your stuff from after you beat it (good thing it actually gives EXP). After this, a couple of things open up. One is a bonus dungeon, which is a really fun challenge and a great grinding spot. There’s also… the final Raid, with enemies in the level 90s. I never did that Raid, for obvious reasons.
Ys VIII, visually, is a BIT behind on the times. I don’t know what this was ported from, but it’s not that great-looking. Artistically, it has some beautiful vistas and great vibrant colors. But the textures are very dated, and look pixelated at times. Normally, I don’t care about game resolution like Rock Star does, but the way Ys VIII looks can actually hurt your eyes. There is one room that has bad slowdown, and one single incident where the game froze on me. It’s not unplayable, though. Most of the time, the game runs at a stable frame rate.
One thing I seriously did not expect to enjoy was Ys VIII’s soundtrack. WOW, what an amazing soundtrack! This game has it all, from upbeat rockin’ tunes, to atmospheric stuff. The music for Raids and Hunts, as well as the special nighttime music, are among my favorite tracks in the game. If only they released this on iTunes and stuff!
Final Verdict: 9/10
Ys VIII might not be very original, but the ball gets rolling at a fast enough pace to make it less of a chore than most JRPGs. I recommend it if you’re a JRPG fan who’s tired of the genre’s tedium, and just wants to break stuff.
It’s been a hot minute since Disney came up with a new I.P. I didn’t know much about Pixar’s Onward, nor did I have high expectations, but I watched it because it was actually NEW. But hey, trailers for Pixar movies tend to not do the actual film justice. Is it the same case here?
In a fantasy world that’s evolved to the 21st Century, two brothers- emotionally insecure Ian, and history buff Barley- are given an ancient staff, complete with the instructions for a spell that can bring their deceased father back to life for twenty-four hours. Unfortunately, they do a bad, and dad only comes back as pants and a pair of ugly purple socks. Now they must take Barley’s beat up van on a quest to find the MacGuffin that’ll allow them to recast the spell before dad is lost forever.
The idea of a fantasy world with modern technology isn’t even remotely new, but Pixar pulled it off in a way that felt fresh in its own right. It’s hilarious to see centaurs having to drive cars, and pixies being swole and in biker gangs. But even then, this is probably one of the least interesting Pixar worlds. It’s not really the movie’s fault; this movie has Inside Out and Coco to compete with, and those movies were pretty darn inventive.
But in terms of narrative, Onward definitely exceeds expectations. There is a lot of great dialogue, and most action scenes make a surprising use of insignificant details peppered throughout the film. For the most part. Ian’s magic staff made me cringe, for it was another case of, “Okay, you can be good at magic now. No other time, though. Sorry, bub.” It does make one “death” later in the movie feel like a heap of shock value given the circumstances.
Of course, Disney and Pixar are still Disney and Pixar. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen this one. Onward doesn’t have one, but two of those out-of-left-field drama scenes that I always roll my eyes at. I get that it’s character building and crap, but you can only enjoy something so much after seeing it the thousandth time.
The characters are what you’d expect. Ian and Barley are a solid example of the “two-brothers-who-are-at-odds-with-each-other-then-realize-that-they’re-each-other’s-best-friend” trope. Sure, they’re no Edward and Alphonse, or even Mutta and Hibito, but they have some good chemistry with each other given the time restriction of a feature film. Dad is also enjoyable, despite never having a single line of dialogue beyond a cassette tape. Pixar’s prowess makes his mannerisms in such a way to where it’s easy to understand what he’s thinking.
Surprisingly, the best character ended up being the mom. She’s not an absolute a-hole, nor is she a burden on the main characters. When she finds out about their quest, she goes full Marlin and becomes a freaking bada** in the process of finding them.
The visuals are stellar as always. They always do such a good job with expressions and movement that it’s not even possible to be blown away by Pixar anymore. Because of that, Onward almost feels like a step backwards, visually. Disney in general is all about pushing the envelope, but in their defense, you can only push it so far until it’s just pushed all the way completely. Maybe they were using some [insert advanced 3D modeling mumbo jumbo here] that a pleb like me wouldn’t recognize.
Final Verdict: 8.5/10
Onward is a great movie, and a great NEW I.P. It’s not the best Pixar movie, but it’s still better than a lot of crap your kids could be consuming. I recommend it for any tier of Disney fan, and for anyone who likes a feel-good story.
How did this seemingly stupid series- titled Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? (published in English by Yen Press)- utterly sweep me off my feet and win my heart?! It’s a silly ecchi series with an overpowered, self-insert protagonist has no grounds through which to actually be taken SERIOUSLY. Yet here we are, after eleven volumes, and DanMachi has become one of my favorite light novel series of all time.
DanMachi‘s premise is dirt simple. Bell Cranell, the self-insert boy, has moved to the Dungeon City of Orario to become an adventurer for the sole purpose of picking up girls. This little fart of an idea would somehow spread into a massive cloud that covers the light novel market and never goes away no matter how much you wash it.
The backbone that forms DanMachi is its worldbuilding, or rather, citybuilding. But hey, Orario alone has more engaging worldbuilding than most entire WORLDS in modern fantasy. This city is built on top of the Dungeon, a sprawling labyrinth full of monsters that are constantly birthed from inside its walls. It’s dangerous as heck. Prep work is everything when going into that place, and it shows in the series’ opener when Bell almost gets gutted by a Minotaur.
Fortunately, people have the gods on their side. There are a myriad of gods who run little clubs called Familias, and they use a special power to record markings, called Falna, on their members’ backs. DanMachi runs on JRPG physics, and this is literally how they explain the existence of stats. The important thing to note is that characters can only gain stats by reporting to their god after gaining all the experience. There is a lot of depth to this system- including the rules and regulations regarding Familia themselves- and not letting you experience it all for yourself organically would be a disservice to DanMachi. Just note that it’s very intuitive and explained in a very engaging way compared to most other fantasy novels.
The city of Orario itself is insanely fascinating. The city has a lot of setpieces that help make it memorable. The best part is that it’s all introduced gradually; just when you think you’re familiar with the Orario, it throws you a curveball that hits you square in the bottom jaw.
But like in any city, the most important aspect of it is its people, which is my segue into discussing the large and amazing cast of DanMachi. Bell, as previously mentioned, is kind of a generic, “gotta-save-the-waifus” guy who has plot armor. However, due to the fantastic prose of the author, his nakama power actually feels like genuine accomplishments and moments of utter catharsis.
Meanwhile, we have Hestia. She’s one of the gods of Orario, and one of the worst in terms of social class. In fact, at the start of the series, Bell is the only member of her Familia! But not that far behind are Lily and Welf. Lily starts off as kind of damsel in distress, but her analytical nature makes her very resourceful when it comes to dungeon crawling. Welf is a blacksmith whose family is stained with tragedy. Naturally, both of these people enter spiritual awakenings when they meet up with Bell.
Outside of the main cast is a whole slew of important side characters. Notable characters include Eina, an elf who is charged with looking after Bell and making sure he doesn’t get killed. There is also Aiz Wallenstein, one of the strongest adventurers in Orario and Bell’s idol, as well as Freya, the goddess of beauty who is Bell’s stalker. The reason why someone like her is obsessed with Bell is actually contextualized as the narrative progresses. There are a ton of other characters but I won’t spoil them for you.
The art is the weakest aspect. It’s kind of bland and the character designs lack detail. When it comes to light novel art, I want more detail, mainly because they’re much more sparse, thus the illustrator has the time to make it stellar. But due to that sparseness, it’s not really an issue.
DanMachi is a series that’s meant to ease you in and let your guard down before it goes for the jugular. It begins as a decent, light-hearted comedy fantasy, but starting from around volume 5, it becomes so much bigger and more intense than ever before. If you love fun fantasies that also have great worldbuilding, then I HIGHLY recommend DanMachi, provided that you can get used to some of its tropes.