RWBY Might Just be the Most Cynical Animated Program of All Time (Second Impressions, Volumes 1-8)

When I did my first review of Rooster Teeth’s RWBY, I watched the first five seasons and walked out of it pretty stoked to finish the series. It had flaws, but not enough for me to be leaning on the side of the series’ very loud critics. Now, as of being caught up with everyone else… I can finally say I am one of those critics. I touched upon my feelings regarding RWBY in my small dissertation on cynicism, but here, I will elaborate on my change of opinion in more detail.

In the world of RWBY, people rely on some magic junk called Dust, and that’s their only way to fight these monsters called Grimm. One night, a girl named Ruby Rose takes on some criminals with a crazy scythe-gun, and is sought out by Ozpin, the headmaster of Beacon Academy. He decides that “you’re a wizard, Ruby!” and instantly bumps her into the prestigious school, two years in advance. There, she meets three more color-coded girls (her older sister, a tsundere, and an emo girl) and they go on adventures together.

Like any show that’s entirely CG, RWBY takes a hot minute to get used to… especially the first season. The movements are janky and the backgrounds are dull. However, by the third or fourth season, the models get more polished, and the quality is substantially improved in all areas. Most importantly, they incorporate more of the subtle mannerisms that I actually give a crap about in animation as a whole. The fight scenes are also really appealing, even if they violate all forms of actual fight choreography, and have the camera swing like it’s attached to the end of a yo-yo.

The team at Rooster Teeth really understood what it takes to make a good battle shounen. The first two seasons are genuinely hilarious. The comedy is on point, and the spectacle-driven fight scenes really help sell the sense of fun that the show tries to provide. One of my favorite scenes was at the beginning of season two: an over-the-top, epic food fight in the school cafeteria. That scene really showed what a great gag shounen RWBY can be.

However, if you’re no stranger to shounen series, you know that RWBY wouldn’t be all about the LMAOnade forever. It happens to a lot of them, from Yuyu Hakusho to Dragon Ball. Around the halfway point of its third season, RWBY takes itself more seriously. MUCH more seriously. At the time, RWBY‘s original creator tragically passed away. And while I could just yell “They ruined Monty Oum’s legacy!”, I won’t do that because I don’t believe there was any documentation of what he actually wanted to do.

Fortunately, the show stays pretty consistent on committing to a more serious atmosphere, unlike series such as Re:ZERO. The plot does get more involved, but it maintains a relatively solid sense of cohesion, which is something that most shounen can’t do. With better animation, it’s much easier to take the show seriously because they actually have a good chunk of money to spend on it.

However, the transition isn’t made without a few bumps in the road. This is also common among shounen, but RWBY had it particularly rough. It didn’t just become a more involved version of what it already was; it tried to become a seinen. Seinen is a term used to describe manga and anime for mature audiences, and they tend to be everything that shounen is not. Taking a gag shounen and turning it into a seinen is literally like transforming an apple into an orange.

I sound like I’m just dissing it for being a genre change because it’s not goofy like it was before; a common criticism apparently. However, I’m someone who’s enjoyed something silly like Spy X Family about as much as something serious like Naoki Urasawa’s Monster. I’m not criticizing the change in RWBY because I’m not too big a fan of cynicism (even if that is a bit of a factor), but because it’s not… interesting. The story goes from novel to typical. It’s practically a generic YA fantasy with boring, ham-fisted social commentary on first-world problems. Oh, and the cherry on top is that any attempts at horror elements consist of predictable (but effective because eff the human mind) jumpscares. 

One example of this is the Faunus. They’re a race of animal people that are—surprise, surprise—harshly discriminated against. And, well, the symbolism with said discrimination is practically spoon-fed to you. They live on an island called Menagerie that segregates them from humans (Native American reservations),  they were used as slaves in the past (African slave trading), and there’s an anti-racism extremist group called the White Fang (oh, and by the way, Rooster Teeth didn’t predict the protests from two years ago because Black Lives Matter had already formed at this point). I mean, how much more ham can you pack into that fist of yours, Rooster Teeth?! I get that the issue of racism is important, but at this point in human society, what is the take-away of showcasing it for the billionth time (besides virtue signaling that is)?

No matter how awry the plot goes, what kept me going were the characters. And I’ll admit it: RWBY has a solid cast. To a point. The four girls are all likeable to some extent, plus they get genuine character development to boot. I liked Ruby the most because I tend to default to the “lovable idiot” trope of shounen protagonists. On the flipside, Blake ended up being my least favorite, because she does the most whining and brooding.

The side characters are a mixed bag. In my First Impressions, I stated that my favorite character was Ruby’s frequently-drunk uncle, Qrow (angstily misspelled of course). However, as the show went on, Qrow came off as less of the bad-ass old timer, and more of a Debbie Downer; the minute things don’t go the squad’s way, he’s all “We should give up and crap” and the girls have to pull a nakama power speech out of thin air to tell him otherwise (and don’t get me started on that “relationship” he has in the seventh season). My new favorite ended up being the underdog, Jaune. He literally begins the series being called “Vomit Boy”, but over the course of the story, he grows and matures into one of the best supports for Team RWBY. A kid named Oscar tags along as well, and while he starts out as baggage, he ends up growing into a man rather quickly.

Unfortunately, there are some less-than-remarkable folks on their team as well. Out of the main group, a stoic boy named Ren ended up on the bottom. He was pretty boring normally, and what little character development he has is covered in its entirety over the course of three episodes. And after that, the characters act like the experience never even happened. His companion, Nora, isn’t that much better. She’s likeable for the same reasons as Ruby; she’s ditzy and bouncy and fun, but it’s to the point where she basically is another Ruby. 

One of the worst is an android named Penny. You’re expected to fall in love with her as soon as you hear her first “Salutations!”, but remember that this is Rooster Teeth. They do that because she’s the punching bag of RWBY. She suffers to no end, being framed for crimes committed by the villains, discriminated against as an android, and even “killed” once in season three (before eventually being rebuilt of course). I’d feel bad for her, but RWBY sucked out any empathy I can have for anyone in it by this point. 

The following passage contains spoilers, because I can’t not bring up the squandered character arc of James Ironwood. He starts out as that gruff, military Mr. Magoo, but doesn’t return until the seventh season. By then, he has a slow descent into madness. At first, it’s compelling because there are necessary sacrifices to be made for an edge in the war against the Grimm. However, in between seasons seven and eight, someone didn’t get the memo that RWBY isn’t a shounen anymore. In the most recent season, Ironwood basically becomes Hitler, allowing for no fascinating moral debates; a decision that could’ve been made in part due to pandemic stress, and since it feels like all American media is politically charged these days.

And my disappointment doesn’t stop there. RWBY’s antagonists have the one-dimensionality of most shounen villains, but none of the appealing personality. The first antagonist introduced, a one Roman Torchwick, is a legitimately entertaining villain, but if you know anything about the first antagonist of a shounen, it’s that they don’t tend to last. A staple antagonist ends up being a woman named Cinder, and other than trying too hard to be sexy, she’s very boring with a really basic backstory that tries too hard to tie into the show’s uninteresting edgy fairytale symbolism. Cinder has minions in these two kids named Mercury and Emerald, and they have no personality other than owing their whole existences to Cinder because of their incredibly basic tragic backstories. Cinder reports to the main antagonist of the series, a witch named—get a load of how creative it is—Salem. She is also very boring; basically just Maleficent without any of the charisma. 

No shounen antagonist gets by with just three minions! In addition to Cinder and Co., Salem has three more cohorts… of lacking substance. In fact, I even forgot two of their names, and hereby designate them as Pedophile McSwordArtOnlineVillain, and Mustache. Those names are them in a nutshell, more-or-less. The third person, Hazel (henceforth known as Hazelnut), ended up being my favorite villain. He was just about as boring as the rest, but his voice actor’s performance was a hilarious to me. For some reason, American audiences seem to think that all male actors should speak in deep, gravelly voices. Hazelnut takes that mindset to such an extreme that I laugh every time he speaks! Oh, and for the record, all of the villains, except this umbrella lady named Neo, have the least interesting character designs in all of RWBY.

Current (Possibly Final) Verdict: 7/10

While I normally love hating popular things, I really didn’t want to do it to RWBY. To be honest, I think both its diehard fans and most toxic critics are in the wrong. However, in their defense, the way the series flops can catch you off guard if you’re not as familiar with battle shounen tropes as someone who’s seriously deep in the otaku hole. 

Unlike most battle shounens, however, I am particularly mad at RWBY for a unique reason. From the beginning, I could tell that Rooster Teeth weren’t “casuals” who watched Dragon Ball and the other internationally beloved anime. They really seemed to understand it on an intimate level. They should’ve seen how their favorite series drove themselves into the ground, and worked to avoid it. Maybe they could’ve taken inspiration from something like One Piece, which has only gotten better after twenty-plus years. But no, they followed the genre to the Nth degree. They didn’t only make the same mistakes; they did it with that distinctly American cynicism. 

To be clear, I am not mad at RWBY’s more serious arc because it’s darker. I’m mad at it because the ideas going into it become stale. They resort to contrived teen drama, smooth-brained judgements, and the writers being extremely arbitrary in various aspects of the story. After the tone shift, everything about RWBY feels meh. I. Stopped. Caring. 

RWBY, I just… don’t know. For what it was, it remained consistently cohesive and had great directing. But alas, it just didn’t feel like, well, anything. If you’re an adolescent teen, then you will probably think RWBY is the greatest thing ever, and you won’t even notice any of the mistakes it made. Otherwise… enter if you dare. Side effects include major depression and mood swings.

Top Five Upcoming Anime the Internet is Not Ready For

It’s been a while since I did an anime community-oriented post, on account of me abandoning said community. However, I still follow MyAnimeList on social media, mainly for news regarding manga. Speaking of manga (and light novels as well), North American publishers have really grown to the point where they’ll publish a lot of franchises well before they get picked up for anime. Because of that, I’ve had a great track record of predicting exactly how message boards will react to their anime adaptations. I’ve noticed that, for some reason, certain series with mature themes don’t get any controversy until after the anime in particular premieres; examples being Goblin Slayer and Interspecies Reviewers. It seems most anime fans are too young to comprehend anything other than a specific set of universally appealing tropes. 

With that in mind, boy oh boy! There have been some very… interesting adaptation announcements over the course of last year and this year. So, using my knowledge of my days in that community, how about I put together a fun list of upcoming series that I’m pretty darn sure will light a few fires in the digital world?


5: Jigokuraku

I never actually posted my final, full review of this manga following my First Impressions of it, mainly because said review was kind of awful. To reconcile that, I’ll basically state that Jigokuraku, after having finished it, remains a solid, edgy ride all the way through with a gaggle of likable characters. 

With this being at the bottom of the list, I don’t anticipate Jigokuraku being too controversial. MAPPA is a renowned studio, albeit pushed to unrealistic limits with having to animate this, the finale of Attack on Titan, and the most highly anticipated battle shounen anime of the year; at least the trailer shows promise.

Jigokuraku is a pretty straightforward battle shounen with seinen tropes. I imagine people will love Gabimaru for being edgy, and Yuzuriha for being sexy. There is some horror imagery with how the monsters look, as well as what happens to people who get consumed by the plants, but it’s not too bad, relatively speaking. Most of the controversy I anticipate is in Jigokuraku‘s antagonists. These androgynous superhumans can shift gender at will, and are bisexual as well. On top of that, they tend to be naked a lot. Any anti-LGBT people in the community will probably lash out unfairly at the show, and defending it will be a nightmare if that occurs.


4: Blue Lock

People familiar with Blue Lock might not agree with me putting it higher than fifth place, and to be honest, I feel like this should merely tie with Jigokuraku in terms of controversy. My logic with putting it here is based on the fans it will attract: those of sports anime, and probably yaoi to an extent. 

From watching Dr. Stone and The Rising of the Shield Hero as they aired, I noticed that a lot of people’s brains didn’t have the capacity to appreciate good anti-heroes, and more notably, well-written characters with bad personalities. As much as we don’t like Mary/Gary Sue, the trope’s existence makes sense because writers want young audiences to feel like they’re them; and they can’t do that if the main character isn’t “good” enough to connect with.

With Blue Lock, any semblance of teamwork and manly bromance that make other sports series appealing is thrown out the window. It is deeply psychological, with a training regimen oriented entirely around building the individual rather than the team. To top it off, it’s a battle royale, with the loser getting written out of the series permanently. Anyone who cries over Danganronpa is guaranteed to follow suit in Blue Lock. Conversely, astute observers might notice the appropriate flags. I’m a bit further in the manga from when I wrote my First Impressions, and it seems that they won’t kill off anyone until their character arc feels sufficiently resolved in some manner. Of course, the series is still young and my enjoyment of it is not dampered in the slightest. But knowing seasonals, critics won’t give it that chance.


3: The Executioner and Her Way of Life

This subversive isekai is going to be a doozie. The Executioner and Her Way of Life is a time-travel-driven murdering spree disguised as a yuri Isekai. People will cry as they draw fan art of Menou and Akari in an intimate relationship, knowing that said relationship canonically can never happen, since Akari is supposed to be murdered at the end of the story. 

On top of that, it’s very visceral. While not as horrific as Torture Princess or Roll Over and Die! (both of which have no anime adaptations, for obvious reasons), it has a lot of violence and gore. Plus, Princess Ashuna is a skank who will win the hearts of perverts, and be the target of just as many critics. 


2: Dead Dead Demon’s Dededededestruction

This is the most surprising for sure, because—to my knowledge—none of Inio Asano’s manga have been given a greenlight for a TV anime adaptation (Solanin might’ve gotten an OVA but don’t quote me on that), despite his popularity in Japan. The reason is simple to anyone familiar with his works: he’s brutal. I’ve actually read most of Dededededestruction myself, and I plan to publish my full thoughts on it once Viz published the rest of the series. In the meantime, I can say that it only got this adaptation because, at least compared to Goodnight Punpun, it’s the tamest of Asano’s projects. 

Of course, given some of the gratuitous content in Punpun, “tame” doesn’t mean squat for Asano. What can be—on the surface—described as “Slice-of-Life Meets Independence Day” is much more layered than that. It’s a bizarre and abstract social commentary on how humans are more of a threat than the imminent alien menace that looms over them. In addition, the forums can easily devolve into debates over whether or not the series is pretentious.

The big question manga fans might pose is: “How?” Asano’s style of storytelling is heavily reliant on the manga format. Plus, his backgrounds are intricate to the point where any studio would have a mass heart attack trying to draw them with a TV anime budget. If anything is certain, it’s that people will probably be horny over Oran’s really hunky, obese older brother.


1: Chainsaw Man

There is so much hype behind Chainsaw Man. Not only is the manga very popular, and deservedly so, but the manga’s sequel will also be launching later this year. To be fair, Tokyo Ghoul had some really messed up content. However, to my knowledge, none of the really heavy stuff—like the sex scene—was actually incorporated into the notoriously rushed anime. Conversely, if the adaptation of Chainsaw Man proves faithful, it will be one of the most brutal anime in recent years. Possibly ever.

Chainsaw Man has a pretty straightforward story, but twists shounen tropes into something more, well, twisted. All poor little Denji wants is a girlfriend, and a girlfriend he gets… sort of. He spends most of the story being exploited by older women in a harsh and psychological character study, while engaging in gore-infested battles with demons. And that’s just the tame stuff.

The last third or so of Chainsaw Man is a constant, visceral rollercoaster of nightmares. People are crumpled into distorted shapes, entire cities are gunned down, and more. It culminates in one of the most unusual and creative ways to defeat the main villain I have ever seen in a battle shounen. Lastly, I really hope “Halloween” becomes the meme I imagined it would be; liking cultural phenomena before it was cool always feels cathartic.


Conclusion

Not gonna lie, I’ve been tempted to dip back into the anime community to laugh while people lose their minds over these shows. More likely than not, however, I’ll just see the same robotic reactions I’ve had to sift through for years on MyAnimeList. Regardless, this year will be rather interesting in the anime world.

The Night is Short, Walk on Girl: Monogatari But It’s Heavily Under the Influence

I read and wrote a review of the standalone Japanese novel, The Night is Short, Walk on Girl, a long time ago. It was a month before the lockdown that changed all of us. Now, what feels like a lifetime later, I found myself watching The Night is Short, Walk on Girl‘s 2017 movie adaptation, since it was on HBO Max. One of the reasons is that I reread my review of the novel, and realized that it was god-awful. My opinion on the work will probably remain unchanged, but I want to give a more professional dissertation all the same. Also, one thing I didn’t mention in the book review is that I had a bad feeling about it even before going into it. Back in the old days of MyAnimeList, the movie was often paired with Monogatari and the like as a profound and mind-blowing examination of the human condition; the kind of “elitist” stuff that you can’t criticize without risking an insult to your intelligence (even if that criticism is very intellectual in and of itself). So, without further ado, let’s get to reviewing The Night is Short, Walk on Girl!

In The Night is Short, Walk on Girl, a young college student is finally about to confess his love to the girl of his dreams! However, she manages to elude him without even trying. Will he be able to survive a long night in Kyoto, and meet up with her by chance?

Before getting into the movie, I need to confess my love for the movie’s setting. City nightlife is a real experience, even more-so in urban Japan. The night is a rare chance for Japanese people to be their true selves, especially when drunk (a major theme of this movie). In fact, one of my research books said “you don’t truly know a Japanese person until you see them drunk.”

The strangeness of the night is brought to life with the movie’s unique visuals. It’s minimalistic and abstract, with cartoony movements happening alongside Dali-like surrealness. Already, I found this to be my preferred version of Night is Short just from the visuals alone. It’s a real surprise that the same team would end up doing Ride Your Wave.

In case you couldn’t tell, the dude spends the entire ninety-minute movie just trying to talk to this girl. Visuals aside, the movie is a pretty simple rom-com. Both man and woman end up in ridiculously silly situations, all while in relatively close proximity to each other. Just like the book, the movie is split into four acts. 

Of course, it takes more than whacky visuals for the anime community as a whole to consider Night is Short profound. The movie is full of philosophical nonsense, and you can bet your ass that people take it way more seriously than how it’s framed in context. The main profoundity (new word) that’s explored is fate. It’s a major symbol for the whole movie. Elements of the many different stories all have some sort of connection, in order to provoke your thoughts into thinking that fate is a real thing. The amount of coordinating all of this is admittedly pretty impressive.

Sadly, like the book, I did not give a rotting carp about it. I personally call philosophy “overthinking mundane things, the job”, and it’s because none of it matters in the long run. Like, what is the takeaway supposed to be here? Is it open to interpretation? Am I supposed to look at the world differently? Is it all a vain attempt at pretending to be smart? 

To go at this from a more personal angle, well… let me begin by stating that I have autism (in case this is the first post of mine that you’re reading). As an outlier, I overanalyze mundane aspects of life all the time, and it’s only led to mental anguish. To be perfectly real, a lot of the stuff that comes up in philosophy is all in our heads. Morality, for instance, is an entirely human construct. Any other species would go extinct if they had to live by our rules, simply because they would all be guilty of murder. To paraphrase Temple Grandin, the best way to approach all the mysteries of the human condition is to not even bother trying to figure it out in the first place, and works like this movie are the exact antithesis of that mentality.

Surprisingly, I ended up liking the characters more this time around. The voice actors all do an exemplary job at giving everyone a ton of personality. When I reviewed the novel, I accused the girl of having no personality, when she’s actually got quite a bit going on. She’s got a childlike innocence, and is attracted to pretty much everything (read as: “booze”). She believes in fate, yet ironically dismisses her encounters with the dude as coincidence.

Speaking of the dude, he’s a classic underdog. All he wants is love, yet it seems like the world is against him. Surrounding them are a quirky cast of characters, from the tengu whose name I forgot, to the old cynicist Rihaku. 

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 8/10

I enjoyed this version of The Night is Short, Walk on Girl more than the book. However, it’s still a pretty pretentious movie. I don’t know what it is, but a lot of Japanese writers have a real thing with trying to make the mundane feel otherworldly. Call me an uncultured swine, but I just don’t get it. In any case, I recommend this movie if you love Monogatari, or the novels of Haruki Murakami.

Belle: Modern Fairytale Tropes Meet Internet Allegories

How long has it been since I saw an anime movie in theaters?! Oh right, 2021… Completely forgot about Earwig and the Witch (for good reason). More importantly, however, how long has it been since I saw a Mamoru Hosoda movie?! I actually own Summer Wars, his only movie I ever saw, and that was years ago. I didn’t exactly love it, mainly because I’m an autistic person who doesn’t understand neurotypical family relationships (i.e. half the movie), but his artstyle is pretty novel and I always wanted to give his other films a chance. The problem was that he apparently hates streaming? Call me a Zoomer, but streaming is a crucial money-saver in this century (and it helps Earth because it saves on the resources used to make a physical copy). Fortunately, Hosoda’s newest film, Belle, premiered in theaters just recently. I was skeptical due to it being a romance, but if I didn’t see it now, I wouldn’t be able to see it ever! Was the risk still worth taking, though?

In Belle, a social media network known as U is spreading like wildfire, dethroning Zuckerberg and becoming the most popular platform of its kind. It’s a virtual network that connects directly to your body and creates an avatar called an AS based off of your innermost self. It’s the perfect hobby for motherless, socially depressed Suzu, who ends up becoming Belle, the world-famous virtual singing sensation. However, things get dicey when she has a run-in with the Dragon, a naughty-boy avatar with a lot of cryptocurrency (and probably NFTs) on his head. 

Holy crap… Where do I begin with this movie? While straightforward, it ended up being way more involved than I had ever expected, especially compared to Summer Wars. Let’s start with the first thing you notice: how it looks. It’s called Belle (the French word for beauty) for a reason, and I’m not talking about the main character’s name. The movie looks absolutely spectacular. Hosoda’s style involves trading texture for consistent fluidity; basically, imagine a TV anime’s artstyle but with actual animation. The CG in Belle is some of the best I have ever seen in an anime, massive in scope yet able to incorporate the most minute little mannerisms. I probably shouldn’t be surprised, since it’s been over a decade since Summer Wars. I’m immensely glad I saw it in theaters.

I should also talk about the soundtrack. A lot of it is made up of original musical numbers, which are very orchestral and surprisingly powerful (for not being metal). One of these songs is called ‘U’ (like the setting), and it’s composed by King Gnu vocalist Daiki Tsuneta’s side band, millennium parade. They’re a band I tried when they were first starting out, but ended drifting away from when I converted to metal. I had no idea which song happened to be ‘U’, but since the whole soundtrack was solid, I feel like it was one of their better songs. However, you’ll just have to wait for my review of their debut album from last year before you know if I meant that as a compliment. Yay, marketing!

So, when it comes to Belle, it boils down to two major components: one, it’s inspired by Beauty and the Beast. No shit, Sherlock. The other aspect is that it’s an allegory to the beautiful digital prisons of our creation. It’s not new nor cerebral, but Hosoda conveys the general feel really well. Textboxes tend to clutter the screen as people mutter their crap. People make up stuff about themselves as well as stuff about others, such as the Dragon. Rumors form, cancel culture takes hold. The main villain, named Justin, is an SJW running a squad of Ultra-Mans who can literally reveal someone’s personal information to the world. As a blogger with a pen name, I could feel that anxiety of letting your other self be traced back to you. 

Of course, what it boils down to is some good ol’ fashioned waifu power. Suzu has to find the Dragon (or Beast, in case the symbolism wasn’t obvious enough), and make him less emo because… love? I dunno, she just gets enamored by his naughty-boy-ness when he first shows up. The plot is very straightforward for the most part. Despite it being Allegories ‘R Us, there’s nothing really left up to interpretation. Despite that, I still found myself surprisingly engaged throughout the whole film.

This is especially surprising because the cast was… something. Suzu is extremely relatable; in fact, Hosoda didn’t need to pull the “kill the mom” trope at all to make a character that people will resonate with, especially in this day and age. She has the classic Internet celeb character arc of having to find her true self between her physical and virtual bodies. Most of the others are just plot devices. Her nerd friend Hiro does all the techy stuff when she has to, these old ladies at this choir club Suzu attends offer support when they need to, etc. There’s some cringe-inducing, very teenagery romance, including a subplot involving some saxophone-playing girl and these two studs from school, and it means absolutely nothing. Also, why does Suzu’s father exist? He is the most passive fictional parent ever, practically letting her do whatever she wants. 

Also, the Dragon doesn’t get much elaboration either. It’s sufficient if you understand visual storytelling, and narrative tropes in general, but a lot of his arc also feels very plot device-y. Minor spoilers, he ends up not being among the characters we discussed, making his big reveal anticlimactic. On the flipside, it is realistic with how kids these days lose their minds over people whose physical forms they’ve never seen in any capacity (plus, Dragon’s situation is pretty darn urgent). Of course, being a romance, the ends justify the means this time around. 

Justin, the aforementioned villain, doesn’t get much development either. There’s no big fight against him or anything; he just ceases to exist after some point. Maybe that’s an allegory to beating back cancel culture people: ignoring them. In addition, don’t expect anything regarding the reason why U exists at all. They simply say it was created by “The Voices,” but we never get any more than that. The main focus of the movie is the romance, and the lack of any explanation of U is something that needs to be shrugged off.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 8.65/10

I dunno why, but I really loved Belle. I was prepared to call its social commentary pretentious and its romance manufactured, which it arguably is, but I wasn’t mad for some reason. Hosoda has the same Disney-like vision that Miyazaki has, but he adds a lot more of that quintessentially anime nonsense that makes Japanese culture so exotic to Westerners. Most importantly, he’s a SIGNIFICANTLY better director than Makoto Shinkai! I’d recommend Belle, but by the time you’re reading this, you’d probably have to rent it off of Amazon Prime video. Hosoda movies on streaming services pleeeeeeeeease!

Iron Widow: To Make a Great YA Novel, Just Add Anime

There is no shortage of Feminist power fantasies these days. In fact, I read one such novel back before COVID broke out: part one of Suzanne Young’s Girls With Sharp Sticks trilogy. It was good, but it was so generic and predictable, I’d rather not spend my time finishing it, because I figured a better Feminist power fantasy would come up. Sure enough, that happened in 2021, when Xiran Jay Zhao published their debut novel: Iron Widow.

In Iron Widow, we are taken to an alternate version of China, set hundreds of years in the past but with futuristic technology (what is this, Star Wars?). The alien menace known as the Hundun threatens the nation of Huaxia. Fight fire with fire, as they say, and by “fire”, I mean they build Gundams out of defeated Hundun. These mechs, known as Chrysalis, must be piloted by a male and female team. However, unlike those anime where the mech is powered by sex, the Chrysalises are powered by sexism, and the woman pilot more-often-than-not can’t handle the strain of her husband’s qi. Wu Zetian’s older sister was killed, not in battle, but murdered by her husband Yang Guang. Naturally, Zetian voluntarily sells herself to him just for an opportunity to murder him. What could possibly go wrong?

Unlike Blood Like Magic, the disclaimer at the beginning is fully needed. No, that’s an understatement. The only other book this viscerally brutal that I read was Legendborn, and even then, the searing social commentary was only prevalent like 60% of the time. In Iron Widow, every page is a reminder of the twisted world in the book, not too different from the twisted world that men created. I won’t spoil anything more about this aspect of Iron Widow’s worldbuilding, but just know it’s beyond brutal.

The main draw with Iron Widow is the very anime-inspired SF world, versus Girls With Sharp Sticks’ nothing. Zhao did their homework with this one, that’s for sure. The terms are easy to follow, and there isn’t an overabundance of Things That Have Common Nouns With Capital Letters As Their Names. I admit that I was enthralled by the mechs, especially Guang’s, which is a kyubi; Zhao knows the fastest way to a weeb’s heart is to make a yokai Gundam. 

The writing is great to boot. I had a great sense of 3D space and what stuff looked like. Plus the battles were spectacular, with no shortage of anime flair. Like I said before, the portrayal of sexism is unrelenting and bludgeoning, written with exquisite and tormented poetry. The only problem I had is that I couldn’t quite picture the Hundun. They seemed to be a generic robot menace, though. 

Anyway, how’s the plot? Well, it’s a YA novel, so it’s predictable. However, Iron Widow manages to be one of the best YA novels of 2021 all the same. Like in Wings of Ebony, the book cuts out the fat to get to the good stuff. Exactly seventy pages in, Zetian successfully murders Guang during the first major battle. She then becomes the rare instance of an Iron Widow (title drop), which is something that is—naturally—covered up. In order to maintain control of her, she is paired with the strongest guy they got: Li Shimin, who happens to be a convicted felon. The bulk of the story is her building a relationship with Shimin, while trying to survive the system that’s so jerry-rigged against her.

Boy-o-boy, the cast is… something. Zetian is so manufactured it’s almost funny; but you know what, women get so much crap, I’m not even mad. She is as uncompromising and fierce as it gets. Nothing—and I mean NOTHING—breaks her. She’ll slander anyone who disagrees with her, and has no remorse when she murders Guang. Most of the men are one-dimensional sleazes, but like in Girls With Sharp Sticks, there’s that one likable guy. And it’s Shimin of all people. Whoda thought that the guy who’s hyped up to be a monster… isn’t? I never predicted that exact thing as soon as his name came up for the first time. Another predictable thing is Gao Yizhi. He’s the childhood friend, who spends a good portion of the book abandoned by Zetian so she can pursue her goal. However, he uses money to get into the camp, and exists as the good boy to contrast Shimin’s naughty boy. This sounds like the start of a cringy relationship, but to my pleasant surprise, these three protagonists’ relationships with one another ended up being one of the best takes of the love triangle trope I have ever seen.

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Final Verdict: 9.8/10

Xiran Jay Zhao has single-handedly made me give a crap about YA novels again. Iron Widow puts them in my book as one of the most promising new writers going into this decade. My butt’s already clenched waiting for the sequel, and more importantly, the possibility that Zhao can actually follow-up. If only they would write a middle-grade novel to tide me over… oh wait, they are, and it’s coming out later this year. Anyway, Iron Widow is my favorite YA novel of 2021 (too bad it isn’t 2021 anymore so no one cares), and I highly recommend it.

Weathering With You: 2019’s Best Collection of Desktop Wallpapers

Anime movies are pretty hard to watch sometimes. While HBO Max has everything by Ghibli, they don’t have much of anything else. Streaming services are all missing a lot of movies by various people, especially Mamoru Hosoda. The Fathom Events screenings courtesy of GKids is the only option I have to see a movie when it’s new. Or… I could watch Weathering With You on HBO Max. Its famous creator, Makoto Shinkai, directed 2016’s Your Name, Japan’s highest grossing animated feature ever (unless the Kimetsu no Yaiba train movie beat it). I’m also pretty sure he’s the only anime movie director besides Miyazaki to get nominated for the Academy Awards’ Best Animated Feature (even if, like Miyazaki, he’ll never win because the Academy is the Academy). While not as popular as Your Name, Weathering With You was still immensely successful, both commercially and critically. With a new Shinkai movie in the works, I might as well watch one of his movies now to see what the hubbub’s all about.

In Weathering With You, a boy named Hodaka runs away to Tokyo. He lands a job with a single dad named Suga, who is sent to investigate an urban legend regarding the recent emergence of strange weather patterns. The source ends up being a McDonald’s employee named Hina, who has the power to make it sunny whenever she wants.

I already knew that Shinkai’s movies had impressive visuals, but seeing is believing. Weathering With You is gorgeous, sporting impressive feats such as individually animated raindrops. Even in crappy weather, Tokyo looks like an exotic paradise. No wonder why this man’s been nominated for the Academy Award.

The plot is a lot simpler than the actual animation work, though. When people start catching wind (or rather, catching sun) of Hina’s power, they pay her fat stacks to make it sunny all the time. In case it wasn’t obvious enough, her power will cost Hina her life. Oh, and the police get involved because Hodaka just so happened to have stumbled upon a loaded handgun.

The main philosophy of Weathering With You (besides “love trumps all”) is that the weather creates a placebo effect in humans’ moods. I don’t know if it’s because of the pandemic, but I found that belief to be a bit on the “dead wrong” side. There really is nothing else to the lore of the movie, except the apparent fact that cumulonimbus clouds all have golf courses atop the big flat bits that are home to magic water-fish.

Look, in case you couldn’t tell, I didn’t exactly enjoy the movie. That is also evident in the fact that I didn’t remember anyone’s surnames (their first names took everything I had). Naturally, I didn’t like a single person. Weathering With You has every appealing trope, presented in super-stock-looking characters. While Shinkai movies know how to have splendid backgrounds, these characters have the least style out of any anime movie I have ever seen. Sure, Ghibli and Hosoda’s tend to have same-face syndrome, but there’s at least a style. There is nothing in the cast that can even mildly perturb anyone.

That basically leads into my core gripe with the movie. I expected something that was at least so laughably bad, and manufactured, that I would enjoy roasting it. However, Weathering With You isn’t even that. Like Ride Your Wave, it is completely and utterly devoid of risk. Everything about the movie is precisely and perfectly set up. The commissioned musical numbers are also timed perfectly based on the mood to provide maximum emotion. Add the visuals to all this, and I completely understand how Shinkai works his magic. However, Weathering With You was still not an awful movie. I liked it more than Ride Your Wave and SIGNIFICANTLY more than Patema Inverted. The compliments end there, though. 

Be forewarned of the typical logistics issues that exist by nature in movies like this. I didn’t find them funny because… I guess I just expected them to exist, and they exist with no flare whatsoever. In essence, it’s a lot of the whole “kids constantly one-up the police” a la E.T. What makes this particularly stupid is that Japan has an uncompromisingly powerful police force when they’re actually needed, and it shouldn’t have been possible for anyone to oppose them. Also, at some point, Hodaka gets like a billion yen as “severance” pay. Yeah, sure, okay. Whatever, Shinkai.

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Final Verdict: 7/10

Weathering With You is very manufactured and accessible, and like many mainstream things, I do not understand why people think Shinkai is a genius. Yes, he knows how to pluck at your heartstrings, but I don’t consider that a compliment. This was extremely middle-of-the-road, and I can only be glad that I saw it included with a streaming subscription.

With that being said, I will probably pay to see his upcoming movie, Suzume’s Locking Up, in theaters when it comes around. I’m at least putting faith in Shinkai that his formula has some amount of variation. If not, then I disrespect him on an artistic and professional level. You, on the other hand, may enjoy Weathering With You to an extent, because it was tailor-made that way, but if you want a better anime feature with similar philosophies and actual balls, then watch the tragically underrated Children of the Sea instead.

One Piece Pirate Warriors 4: A Great Game… for Fans

Hoooooo-doggie! If you’re reading this, then I’ve either completed (or, more likely, gotten tired of completing) one of the latest of the grind-heavy Dynasty Warriors crossovers: One Piece Pirate Warriors 4. I had loved the third game (to a point), and a relative gave the newest installment to me for Christmas. So, after about eight hundred hours, here we go!

One Piece is my favorite manga of all time, so I naturally knew the story going into Pirate Warriors 4. And you better know too, because you are spoiled to death regarding everything from the beginning up to Whole Cake Island. The Wano portion is game original, but you will still be spoiled on where the climax of the actual manga arc takes place (I had luckily just started that part when I played the game).

Honestly, with the amount of One Piece videogames out there, you can almost tell that they’re tired of telling the same story over and over again. The Japanese voice actors are excellent, but they even seem more “oh boy this line again” than the previous game. The dialogue is stiff and awkward, but that could be because of the localization. The cutscenes are also half-assed, even reusing some pre-rendered cutscenes from Pirate Warriors 3. Fans buy this game for the gameplay.

All five thousand hours of it!

If you haven’t played a Dynasty Warriors game, the idea is simple: you vs. eight million enemies. Maps are pretty simple, split into different rooms. There’s your allied force, the enemy force, and an occasional rogue force. Every playable character has an elaborate combo system that can be expanded upon (and you will have to memorize every single one of them). One Piece is a series where the protagonists have gone head-to-head against entire armies by themselves, so the Dynasty Warriors system works perfectly. 

In addition to your usual combos, you have JUMPING. If you jump after landing a hit, you launch nearby foes into the air and can unleash an ENTIRE EXTRA SET of midair combos. These can get absolutely obscene if performed well, but you seriously gotta memorize the moves. There are also four different special moves you can equip at once for each character. There are many types of special moves beyond the ones that freeze time and have a cinematic cutscene. Ones that provide buffs (including transformations like Gear Two) are tied to this system. There is also a Power Dodge that sends you forward and deals damage, making it a good panic button; just be wary of stamina.

The game also introduces different “types” of characters, which honestly, makes it way more complicated than it should be. All the types are pretty self-explanatory, and since you’re expected to be familiar with these guys, it’s not really an important detail. The only stand-out is Sky-types. These characters specialize in air combos, and most importantly, their Power Dodge can be used in one constant burst until stamina runs out. This can be a lifesaver since Dynasty Warriors games tend to have important events take place at opposite ends of the stage.

Like most Warriors games in general, mooks are utter jokes that you can basically look at and kill instantly. Tougher enemies have an armor gauge that must be drained to get them into a temporary vulnerable state, where they glow purple and can be comboed more easily. Of course, actual bosses are even tougher. They can have a temporary “super-shield” that doesn’t drain. But honestly, you just have to do what you always do in these games: smack it a lot!

They pretty much abandon the XP system from Pirate Warriors 3 to introduce the Growth Maps. Each “island” on them needs a lot of Beris and Coins to give them stat boosts, new abilities, and more. There’s a beginner map that applies to all characters. It’s important to prioritize getting the big stat boosts here so that new unlocks aren’t insanely weak right off the bat. In addition to the beginner map, EVERY PLAYABLE CHARACTER has TWO unique Growth Maps! I prefer this change because getting everyone to Level 100 is a far worse undertaking than maxing out all the Growth Maps. Other than these changes, Pirate Warriors 4 runs pretty much the same as others.

The environments have never been the strong suit of these games, but they at least go to lengths to make them feel more organic. The layouts, for example, are no longer sectioned into square-shaped keeps, but territories. These function the same, but can be any shape and size. The most important aspect of this is that they can get pretty large, which makes capturing them easier. They also add the ability to destroy environmental objects, which can help make navigating easier since you won’t have crap in your way.

In terms of difficulty, Pirate Warriors 4 is a bit tougher than Pirate Warriors 3 for a number of reasons. You can get juggled a lot more easily, especially in Treasure Log where you’ll be fighting more boss characters simultaneously (especially against Ace and Law). I’ve also had less luck with healing item drops, even with the skill that allows little mooks to drop items. Fortunately, min-maxing the Growth Maps helps make things easier. The Indomitable Spirit skill is a lifesaver, and it can be obtained very early on in Treasure Log. What it does is cause health regeneration during a buff, and at max level, you can heal back to full from the brink of death. With Concentration to fill up the special gauge faster, you can basically never die, even on the toughest missions.

Sadly, that does not stop the bosses from being absolutely obnoxious to fight. It could be because I use this game to veg out, thus refusing to learn the nuances of the game, but it’s also a license tie-in, so… Anyway, when you destroy the armor gauge, the meter turns purple and slowly fills up. Obviously, you have until it’s full to combo them before it refills. However, when fighting bosses specifically, they have a completely random ability to use a shockwave attack which instantly frees them from your combos AND immediately recharges their armor. It’s stupid and you just have to deal with it (or, you know, actually know how the game works).

Pirate Warriors 4 has three modes, just like the previous game. Dramatic Log is the main campaign, which has all the stiff cutscenes and stuff (seriously, these games probably made us desensitized toward Ace’s death). The missions are shorter and more numerous, allowing for a more accurate experience of the story arcs as they actually happened. But sometimes, it gets a bit much. Why is there an entire stage just for the first battle against Sir Crocodile? The Free Log is the ability to replay story stages, but since they no longer have Treasure Events or that stupid grid thing (THANK GOD), there isn’t much of a point. S-Ranks are as easy as ever to obtain, and there’s no reward for playing on Hard Mode, except maybe a trophy in the PS4 version.

My personal favorite mode is Treasure Log. Similar to Pirate Warriors 3’s Dream Log, Treasure Log is a series of short, semi-random missions. I love it because there’s no boring cutscenes; just straight gameplay. Also, you get to live a number of impossible, fan-fic like scenarios, such as getting to beat the crap out of that sumbitch Akainu, or winning a 2-v-1 against Big Mom and Kaido as someone like Bartolomeo. It’s also a lot harder, doing crazy things like pitting you against the entire Straw Hat Crew at once. Unfortunately, you still need to progress in Dramatic Log to unlock the Straw Hats’ later move sets, like Gear Four and all that. But bizarrely enough, I actually look forward to these games for playing as anyone OTHER than the Straw Hats. I love the crew, but there’s a weird charm to being able to play as one of the villains, or characters with interesting abilities, such as Bege. Of course, if you want to get 100%, you’ll be playing as the Straw Hats in this mode a lot, along with everyone else. Just be wary of playing as Sanji in this mode, since female enemies can spawn in for random side missions even if it’s a stage that guarantees all male opponents.

I didn’t actually complete the game as far as maxing out everyone’s stats and doing every stage, but this game is pretty reasonable by comparison to others of its kind; it’s no Hyrule Warriors that’s for sure! As long as you have the Coin Collector and Cat Burglar skills and do the most of your grinding in the New World-tier Treasure Log stages, it doesn’t seem like it’d take that long. Maybe 100-odd hours, which is—yes—shorter than the previous Pirate Warriors, and WAY shorter than Hyrule Warriors (that goes to show you the standard that the Warriors games set). If you wanna complete one of these games, do this one!

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Final Verdict: 8.35/10 if you’re a fan

One Piece Pirate Warriors 4 feels great if you really love and understand the series. The combat is fun and over-the-top, and the way they handle special moves give it a lot of depth and customizability. In case I didn’t make this clear, ONLY play this if you’re a diehard fan of One Piece!

Copy Kitty: Megaman Meets Bullet Hell Meets Kawaii Neko-Chan

I owe 100% of my knowledge of this game to one of my favorite YouTuber/Streamers, ProtonJon. The game is VERY under-the-radar on Steam, but someone was able to donate for it during Jon’s 2020 BCRF Charity Stream. The game looked insanely fun, but brutally hard. I’ve played a number of games considered tough, but I have not bested them at their pinnacle. Copy Kitty may or may not cause me to hate myself.

In Copy Kitty, you are the kawaii cat-girl, Boki. She wants to be a superhero, but has to be content with the next best thing: a simulation game made by her uncle Savant. Only one thing left to do: blow up a LOT of robots.

This is a shooter-platformer, so the story is simple, really. But to be honest, who cares about the story in a game WHERE YOU BRING ABOUT CYBER-CARNAGE EVERYWHERE?! The thing with Copy Kitty is that Boki, well, copies the powers of defeated enemies, Megaman-style. Boki has limited ammo, but can replenish it by collecting more of the same drop from other enemies of that type. In addition to that, any of the three weapons you can have on-hand (with the exception of Solo Weapons) are automatically combined into another, more powerful weapon type. 

With this incessantly simple idea, Copy Kitty becomes one of the most intricate and insane shooters I’ve seen. The different weapon combos all have unique effects, all of which look ridiculously cool. Take time learning them because the game will require different combinations to get through certain stages. 

Of course, the thing I was worried about the most was the game’s difficulty level. The campaign is pretty balanced for the most part. However, the controls took getting used to for me. You’re locked into eight-directional aiming, and you cannot move and shoot at the same time. Even worse, your very helpful dodge ability cannot be used in midair. As someone who’s played a lot of games where you COULD do that, well… just be glad I don’t stream videogames.

But here’s the catch. What I described before was just the standard playthrough. Beating the game as Boki is just the beginning. After that, you unlock Hard Mode. It’s not just a harder version of the game, though; it might as well be a completely different game, continued directly after the main story. The stage layouts are the same, but enemies and bosses are way different. Hard Mode is, to put it lightly, push-you-to-your-limits-ridiculous. I haven’t even beaten it yet, and I probably never will.

And even if I did, I would have to do it again (along with Normal Mode) as Savant, who has his own unique playstyle! Seriously, the guy’s a savage! He has less health than Boki, but his perks more than make up for that little detail. First off, he can freely fly, which makes a lot of things (like a certain recurring miniboss) easier, plus his dodge is a lot better (even if it has a stamina meter). The problem is mastering his method of attack. Savant’s weapons fire out of a little window, which is manipulated by the player at the same time as Savant himself. Only two weapons can be combined, and it has to be done manually. To offset an otherwise lack of variety, the order in which weapons are combined produces different results. Depending on the weapon used, Savant’s window will either follow him, cling to walls, and more. Coordination (and a lot of mashing the B button to reset his window) is key to mastering Savant.

However, the game still isn’t done yet! There’s also Endless Mode, which is, actually, one of the more forgiving modes of its kind. Healing is pretty generous, and you can start from every five waves. There is a LOT to it, though. Each set of ten waves is contained within a specific biome, of which there are thirty-seven. Beat the biomes on Normal Endless Mode to unlock additional, harder variants with the other biomes. Also, try Pandemonium, where every enemy attack pattern is randomized. Plus, a rare enemy encountered only in this mode will unlock the secret 13th world in Story Mode.

If this game didn’t seem enough like capital punishment for completionists, then here’s more. There are also marathon and boss rush modes, which are self-explanatory enough. Also, every state of the campaign has a Target Damage limit, and not taking more than the indicated amount of damage gets you a gold star for the stage. Fortunately, this condition doesn’t exist whatsoever in Hard Mode, which still makes Copy Kitty more lenient than what you’d expect. And one more thing that I can’t dedicate to a new paragraph, the Steam Page implies there’s a level editor. I couldn’t find it; it’s probably locked behind some insanely hard prerequisite.

As far as looks are concerned, Copy Kitty is very appealing. Although the 3D textures look a bit bare-bone, the character designs are quite memorable. Plus, the sensory-overloading violence, especially if particle effects are set to the highest intensity, is extremely pretty. The backgrounds are very cool and cyber-y as well.

The soundtrack is very EDM-heavy, with some rock elements. Despite how little I care about either of those types of music, Copy Kitty’s soundtrack is solid, with good enough variance. The problem is that I consistently ran into a bug where the sound effects would just die, and I would have to lower the game audio to insanely low levels to barely hear them. And since I got so used to it like this, the occasion they came back on made the game feel really overwhelming and it was hard to concentrate. It’s a shame, since the sound effects are really satisfying. I’m new to PC gaming, so it might be a problem with my sound card (I know ProtonJon didn’t have that issue when he streamed this).

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Final Verdict: 9.25/10

Copy Kitty is a fantastic, replayable arcade shooter that’s well worth the money. Just keep in mind that, depending on how non-gamer you are, a lot of it could be above your paygrade. 

Monster Hunter Stories 2 can Either be a Decent JRPG or a Min-Maxing Hellhole. Take Your Pick.

I was always interested in the Monster Hunter series ever since I watched one of my relatives play one of the 3DS installments. The problem is that I’m a filthy casual, and that franchise has way too much depth for my puny brain to comprehend (and for frame of reference, Pokémon is probably the most complicated franchise I have ever played). However, I did find out about the anime-AF spinoff series, Monster Hunter Stories, right on time for its sequel, Monster Hunter 2: Wings of Ruin, to come out. As such, I decided—spur of the moment—to try Monster Hunter Stories 2, my first ever Monster Hunter game!

In Monster Hunter Stories 2 (after some privacy policy mumbo jumbo, because that’s what gaming is these days apparently), the main protagonist and their tribe are enjoying some festivities, which happens to go south because videogames. Apparently, a flock of wild Rathalos decided to fly south for the winter… or something, and that means the titular Wings of Ruin is afoot… I guess? 

It’s a JRPG. Ergo, the story will take more than a hot minute to get started. Early on, most of it consists of required errands where you go to an area and fight a specific type of enemy. Before long, you will go to the actual main dungeon and fight the boss, where you get actual plot progression.

The actual plot involves you meeting a Wyverian waifu named Ena, who gives you a special Rathalos egg. This egg contains a Rathalos very similar to the Wings of Ruin, and everyone wants it dead because of Original Sin logic. And, well, that’s about as deep as it gets. This game really feels like it was meant for an audience much younger than the regular games, because it’s about as subtle as a Saturday morning cartoon, with predictable developments, and a lot of smooth-brain moments.

And it gets worse. The product tagline of “Will your bonds bring hope or destruction?” implies that you can make a series of decisions, and raise your Rathalos in a way to influence its power toward the light or dark side. Sadly, that doesn’t happen. In fact, there are ZERO prompts for your player to add to the dialogue whatsoever. Spoiler alert, they completely cop out on moral ambiguity by revealing the actual Wings of Ruin to be a completely different entity. There’s also a weird cult that never gets fleshed out at all; in fact, you only deal with them thrice in the game.

The cast, unfortunately, is the weakest aspect, and unlike my usual pickiness, I have a pretty darn good reason for it this time. Your main character, being fully customizable, is completely silent and reactionary. However, they did a good job at making them very expressive. Also, there is a nice detail where your grandfather, Red, will have the same type of eyes in flashbacks, taking into account how Wyverian NPCs mistake you for him because of your eyes. You also gain a talking cat follower in the form of Navirou, who has no shortage of funny lines. His arc, however, makes me feel like this is a direct sequel to the first game, because Navirou knows 80% of the plot relevant characters really well for no reason, and his own backstory is super glossed over.

Sadly, that’s where the positives end. Ena is pretty much there. She gives you the egg, and that’s about it. She’s not even a party member, and hangs out in the most recent town while you do all the legwork. And boy oh boy… it actually gets worse.

This game is structured like everyone’s definitely-not-least-favorite Final Fantasy game, Mystic Quest. Just like that game, you get one extra party member who sticks with you for a specific arc. And as such, the 100+ hours of bonding time you get with your crew is not in this game, resulting in some flat characters. You get their backstories at very arbitrary points, and they’re all very generic to the point where it doesn’t even feel like they tried. The sole ally I liked was Reverto, who had a Californian exterior but a very down-to-earth interior. 

Overall, there are a lot of character developments that happen way too fast, as if they were just checking off items on that list of tropes. Even things like discrimination against Monsties end in seconds flat. Ironically, the main protagonist actually gets the most character development out of anyone; they make mistakes, and learn to work through them. The issue is that a lot of those mistakes are really arbitrary things that don’t have to do with gameplay at all, and it just feels like they came up with any excuse for characters to dunk on you in order to act like they have an actual arc (Geez, way to dispute your previous statement, self). 

And the cherry on this smelly peanut-butter-ketchup-sundae is the voice acting. These gaming reviews have made me more willing to play JRPGs with the dub, and my ears have paid for it. Monster Hunter Stories 2 has a pretty bland dub, with characters sounding quite unremarkable. I only liked Navirou and Reverto’s voice acting and no one else’s.

Monster Hunter Stories 2 has your essential JRPG mechanics: questing, crafting, buying new gear, forging and upgrading gear, etc. Only, as with the main series, it’s insanely complicated. For starters, there are a LOT of weapon types, each catered to different playstyles. Forging and upgrading equipment is interesting, since each item requires a specific assortment of resources. There’s no specific quantities needed; you just need to use enough to gain the “points” needed to do the deed. Rarer materials get more points, but excess points are wasted completely. 

The thing to keep an eye on is armor. Each piece of armor can have its own passive skills. But more importantly, keep in mind that there is no base defense stat. The only defense you get from armor is some amount of resistance—and weakness—to one of the game’s many elements, including the non-elemental element. This causes every piece of equipment to become very situational. But unlike Xenoblade Chronicles X, you can save MANY equipment presets to be changed on the fly for their specific uses.

Exploration in Monster Hunter Stories 2 is both great and iffy. The positives consist of how chock full of stuff the world is. Every second is generally spent picking up materials or going into randomly spawning Monster Dens for eggs. There are also Everdens; fixed Monster Dens that contain Bottle Caps, which are exchanged for VERY worthwhile rewards.

However, that’s about where the positives end. Xenoblade really effing spoiled me on RPG worlds, because… maaaan… they just don’t make ‘em like Xenoblade anymore. The layouts in Monster Hunter Stories 2 are very basic and “videogamey”, with only one way to get from any point A to point B. What doesn’t help are the Ride Actions. These are field abilities that allow you to reach specific areas. While the game is nice enough to let you quick switch to a Monstie that has the ability when you’re at the area you can interact with, it is a pain to round out your party with varied Ride Actions and type coverages. And if you don’t have the ability, then you gotta go back to town and change out with a Monstie who does have it. 

Now, lett’s actually talk about Pokémon—I mean—Monsties. You obtain them by going into Monster Dens and sneaking off with an egg (child abduction is totes legit in this world). Hatched Monsties can be named and organized at the stable. Unfortunately, hatching is kind of a gacha system, where some Monsties will get better perks than others. You’ll have to learn various visual cues while kidnapping other monsters’ children in order to deduce how good it’ll turn out. Unfortunately, one thing you can’t predetermine is the bingo board of Monstie genes. This is a randomly generated 3×3 grid of abilities. The actual movepools of Monsties are the same, but a lot of other abilities are very random. Lining up genes of the same element and attack style gives the Monstie a permanent damage bonus, and the occasional rainbow gene acts as the free space in bingo.

Speaking of genes… oh boy. Prepare for one of the easiest to learn and hardest to master systems of min-maxxing I have ever seen (Pokémon’s still worse though). When you unlock the Rite of Channeling, you can choose to essentially kill a Monstie to allow one gene on its chart to be transferred over to another Monstie. Blank spaces are free to receive any gene, and copies of a gene can be stacked to upgrade it. Getting bingo bonuses will increase that attribute damage done by a Monstie. If you couldn’t tell, this gets insane and requires a LOT of grinding, since you will need to hatch Monsties just to level them up and learn the genes you want to transfer. Grinding gets easier as it goes, especially since a lot of bulletin board quests can be done over and over again for XP and money, and Monstie Expeditions become an important asset for those cooped up in the stable. 

So, combat is really complicated. You fight alongside your Monsties, and whoever your battle buddy happens to be. When attacking, you can use either the Power, Technical, or Speed style. If you’re attacking an opponent who will target you next, it’ll trigger a rock-paper-scissors match, with the victor gaining a damage advantage based on the matchup between who uses what style. This effect is even better if you and your Monstie both use an attack type that wins the rock-paper-scissors thing. Attacks, as well as successful rock-paper-scissor-ing, charges up the Kinship Gauge, which functions as MP. Most skills that consume this gauge can also be used in either of the three attack styles. Monsties run on A.I., and while you can consume Kinship to order them to use a move, there is no cost if they use it on their own.

Oh, and similar to the Ys games, enemies can have weaknesses and resistances to one of three weapon types, those being slash, blunt, and piercing (yes, there are less types of weapon damage than actual weapon types).  There are also the aforementioned elements to worry about, and getting hit by a supereffective element shows up as an orange number. Enemies can also change up their attack patterns and weaknesses mid-battle through actions, such as using a rock as a shield. Fortunately, this isn’t a problem since you can hold up to three weapons that can be switched mid-battle without using up your actual turn. Like with Xenoblade X, specific parts of an enemy can be broken to guarantee an item drop. Sometimes, breaking monster parts can topple them. Monsters that can be hatched have conditions to increase their chances of retreating, which spawns a small den that’s guaranteed to have that species’ egg. However, some exceptionally rare monsters can be hatched, but are unable to be retreated, meaning… good luck with that.

Things get even more complicated with the Ride On ability. This only activates when the Kinship Gauge is full. Using it restores a lot of HP to both rider and Monstie, and gives a stat buff. Kinship Skills in this mode are powerful, even moreso when your ally uses theirs in conjunction with you. Win rock-paper-scissors to level up the Kinship Gauge in this mode, allowing for even stronger moves. Unfortunately, your battle buddy always uses their Kinship Skill immediately, and you’ll have to work around that.

Despite being all cute and kiddy, Monster Hunter Stories 2 is tough. The first chapter is dirt easy, but after that, you’re pretty much expected to understand how the game works. This includes nuances that aren’t taught, such as the fact that Kinship Skills are guaranteed to cancel ANY enemy attack, including the yellow and brown ones that aren’t affected by rock-paper-scissors. If you’re unlucky on your first time, you could end up wearing armor that’s weak to whatever the next story battle is (that happened to me a lot). 

Another issue is your Rathalos. This is probably intentional for story reasons, but your Rathalos is baggage early on. It won’t learn certain abilities until much later in the game, even if it actually levels up enough to learn them. Plus, it has no Ride Actions starting off. One of the worst examples is in biomes where you’re inflicted with a permanent debuff. You’re encouraged to get Monsties that resist those debuffs, as well as armor yourself to protect from them, otherwise you need to buy and use specific consumables to mitigate it. The stupid thing is that you can’t box the Rathalos, so regardless of what you do to account for those debuffs… you still gotta use the items for the Rathalos! And it doesn’t even save on uses, since one is enough to apply to the whole team.

Oh, and being a turn-based RPG with A.I., expect your allies to be among your biggest enemies. Their behavior varies wildly. I’ve had them adapt perfectly to changes in enemy patterns, as well as picking the style with disadvantage after clearly establishing that pattern. They are also inconsistent as to when they decide to use a healing item. 

The biggest nuance I’ve had to get used to compared to most JRPGs is the Heart system. These are like lives in an arcade-style platformer. Instead of having to use an item to revive people, they just get back up and consume a Heart. You lose if either your team or your battle buddy’s is fully depleted of their Hearts. It becomes less of an issue once you’re able to freely obtain Vital Essences, which restore Hearts. Due to this system, fighting by yourself isn’t as nerve-wracking, but it’s still about as tedious as any JRPG not built around the idea of having one character.

You’d think it’d be time to give the final score, right? Well, too bad; I forgot to go over audio and visual presentations. Being an anime-style JRPG, it’s kind of… eh, especially since it’s a studio as beloved as Capcom. The areas don’t just look basic, but similar to games of this kind (*cough* Ys *cough*), they chug despite the lesser textures. Of course, if you’re a proud Switch owner, you’d be used to it, but considering that games like Smash run way better with more intricate visuals kind of says something about this game. To make up for this, the Monsters have a ton of personality in them, especially with the special moves (which, for some reason, are when the game runs the smoothest). Oh, and the equipment has some of my favorite equipment designs in all of videogames because of how much thought is put into them making them actually LOOK like the monster materials they’re built from. The music is sufficient, but there really isn’t any one song that I would be willing to bop to (Xenoblade has REALLY spoiled me). The overworld has no music, but unfortunately, there really isn’t enough ambience to make an immersive atmosphere. 

JRPGs have at least gotten better at having substantial postgames. After beating Monster Hunter Stories 2, it gets a lot longer… but in a bad way. You unlock the Elder’s Lair, which is a ten-story dungeon where you have to accomplish various tasks in order to advance. At the end is the game’s superboss. The thing is that the prep-work is where it gets obnoxious. High-Rank Monsters spawn in new high rank Dens, marked by red crystals covering the entrance, which gives you the ability to infinitely farm Bottle Caps. Thanks to this, you will be able to purchase unlimited amounts of Stimulants and Nutriments used to min-max stats. Also, High-Rank materials… *sigh* allow you to get better versions of EVERY EQUIPMENT PIECE IN THE GAME. And the best part? They all require Weapon and Armor Spheres, found only through Monstie Expeditions, and rarely in High-Rank areas. I might slowly work toward finishing this monstrosity (haha pun), but I’m not making any promises, especially since this game is no Xenoblade.

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Final Verdict: 8.45/10

Monster Hunter Stories 2 has a lot going for it: great combat, great replayability, an extremely customizable playstyle, and PLENTY to do. However, that’s about it for positives. The story isn’t that epic either. Plus, a lot of dungeons—even story ones—recycle room layouts like nobody’s business. I only recommend it if gaming is your job, otherwise there are plenty of other super-long JRPGs to devote your precious time to.

Raya and the Last Dragon: Disney’s Equivalent of Dr. Stone

If anything good came out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that movie studios have started streaming premieres. And one quarter into 2021,with the vaccine still underway (which is totally necessary and definitely not a moneymaking scheme), it looks like they’re going to keep at it. At least Disney is, because Raya and the Last Dragon IS STREAMING ON DISNEY+ WITH PREMIER ACCESS AND I GOT TO WATCH IT AT FIVE IN THE MORNING! Let’s effing GO with this review!

In Raya and the Last Dragon, we are taken to the formerly great realm of Kumandra. There was a big plague called the coronav—I mean—the Droon, which turned people to stone. When the titular last dragon, Shisudato, used some gem thing to imprison the Droon, people went batshit crazy over it, and divided Kumandra. When the Droon is unleashed once more (because of course it would be), Raya has to find the last dragon and fix the MacGuffin.

Since the turn of the 21st Century, Disney has had a track record of making several movies that adhere to their traditional “movie musical” formula, then breaking it up with something darker, more violent, and with no singing. Raya is the latest in the latter part of the equation. The world here is effed up beyond belief. Everywhere she goes, there’s strife and discourse. 

It’s also cynical, very cynical. Raya, narrating the opening exposition, straight-up says that the fighting over the gem started because of “people being people”, as if humans are born evil (instead of being influenced by lousy parents and the media). There’s a load of Top Ten Anime Betrayals, just to shape what a hopeless mess everything is.

As I said before, Raya is also quite violent. There’s martial arts, swordfighting, and more throughout the movie. But compared to Atlantis and Treasure Planet, Raya is perhaps one of the most anime Disney movies ever; probably more than Big Hero 6. There’s crazy jump-cuts, parkour, and a sword that’s also a grappling hook. 

Anyway, since American cinema just HAS to be influenced by its social climate, Raya is more about racism than the coronav—I mean—the Droon. Sure, the actual source of the conflict, in the context of the movie, is greed or whatever, but that’s just what you call “subtlety”. Throughout the movie, there’s a consistent theme of “Hey maybe if we just shut up and talk to each other”, which Raya ignores, and resorts to violence instead. It’s a symbolic, hopeful message that more-or-less applies to every problem that humanity has had with itself. But of course, considering what happened last year (and the fact that constantly talking about the issue of racism is why it’s still ongoing), even Disney should know that it’s not THAT simple. 

But of course, it’s a Disney movie. Even their darker animated features adhere to the usual traditions to an extent. If you have experience with their filmography, then you know how Raya will turn out, start to finish. It tries to be grimdark, but it still has the marketable mascot, along with explosive diarrhea beetles and kung-fu babies. Also, there’s still humor, even though it’s all dark and stuff.

Keeping all that in mind… I’m just gonna be frank: I LOVE THIS MOVIE. It goes completely off the rails in every way. There is personality injected into every single shot. Honestly, it’s redundant having to keep reiterating Disney’s unique attention to detail when it comes to animation. I’m just going to put that paragraph here, since I’m sick of making a separate one for it. Anyway, the movie is gorgeous yadda-yadda, it’s Disney.

Normally, I resent most of the characters in anything, but not this time (what a surprise!). Raya herself is a fierce, but still relatable, young girl who fits almost too perfectly with the current month (Disney, are you being P.C.?). She has a real arc where she’s all like, “Distrust and violence will never end bleeeeeeh”, and inevitably has to learn how life actually works (and by “life”, I mean that sentimental crap that’s in those hopelessly optimistic self-help books that aren’t The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (which you should buy because it’s really good)).

Raya finds Shisu very early on, and good thing, since Shisu is Best Girl. She has a lot of the funnier lines in the movie, and is a hopeless optimist who clashes with Raya’s mindset. The two also gain a number of really lovable allies,of wildly varying age ranges. I kinda don’t want to talk about any of them, just so you can experience them for yourself. Unfortunately, the weakest character in the movie is the mascot, Tuk Tuk. Eff that thing. Disney, just stop making these, please. You already reached the zenith of mascot with Hei-Hei from Moana; there’s no point in making any more!

Last, but definitely not least, is Nemari, with her Cammie Gilbert hairdo. Disney movies might have abandoned villains, but they haven’t abandoned antagonists. Like a lot of characters in the movie, Nemari loves her people and wants to protect them from the Droon. She’s just about as much of a badass as Raya is. But sadly, her character arc is quite predictable, if you have experience.

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Final Verdict: 9.1/10

Raya and the Last Dragon is a really great movie. It has definitely and absolutely dethroned Atlantis: The Lost Empire as my favorite of the darker variations of Disney animated features. It might go over your young ‘uns heads, but since this generation is being forced to become adults overnight (thanks COVID), Raya will probably help them with that transition instead. It goes without saying that any diehard Disney fans should watch it, just for the sake of completion (and the fact that it’s a banger of a film).