I learned of this magazine thanks to my local library stocking the first tankobons from them. Saturday AM is one of several magazines by a small outfit called MyFutPrint Entertainment, that publish manga made by people who aren’t Japanese. I thought it was a really good idea, but it’s not perfect. For starters, serialization is way slower than in Japan, either due to the company being smaller or because they treat their mangaka like humans. Also, my library didn’t bother to order some of the titles I was particularly interested in, which means I’ll have to subscribe. With no mention of a trial period, I decided to read the first volumes of several of the series that the library did have, to gauge whether or not such a risky investment would pay off in the long run. I don’t normally read manga when they only have their first volumes out, but I’m doing this because I also need to gauge whether or not it’s worth waiting for more volumes in the first place (given how slow serialization is). After all, my only other gaijin manga experience was Radiant, a manga that I found to be very middle-of-the-road, and haven’t resumed reading since that review was published. Anyway, preamble aside, let’s just hope that I don’t hold these titles in the same regard as Radiant.
Apple Black by Odzune Oguguo
Well, for a battle shounen, Apple Black is way more involved than expected. To put it simply, it stars a boy named Sano, whose left arm—Arodhis—is the last legacy of his late dad, Merlin. It’s the ultimate weapon that can trigger the cataclysmic Infinite Night. Sano, being a battle shounen protagonist, instead wants to end all war (and become the #1 Sorcerer Hokage of Pirates probably). However, there’s a lot more to it. A LOT more. There’s all these organizations, and not to mention, a magic school with its own intricacies. It took me an hour to read this volume, which is not at all the normal reading time for a shounen.
For a manga I wasn’t looking forward to, Apple Black has been much better than I initially thought. It definitely looks the part, with phenomenal artwork and spectacle. The ideas are also off-the-wall, and the humor checks out as well. The large cast of characters is quite good, but due to how many there are in this volume alone, I feel like I’ll only remember Sano and his classmates. Sano himself is a typical dumb shounen boy, but his upbringing in isolation justifies how dumb he is. Oguguo combines the nerd and the pervert tropes to make Symon, a sleazy four-eyes who likes the in-universe equivalent of Wonder Woman comics. Ryuzaki is a typical brash boy, but the end of the volume shows he’s more complicated than that. The female lead is a girl named Opal, who seems pretty awesome, but hasn’t gotten too much screentime yet. There are many other characters, including a very sexy grandma, but this post’d be too long if I discussed them all.
Unfortunately, the biggest flaw with Apple Black that I foresee is a matter of circumstance. It does appear to be one of the more consistent series, since it’s apparently a reprint of the series as of ten years ago. However, like I said before, Saturday AM is a lot slower than Jump. With how ambitious and complex Apple Black is, Oguguo better put recaps in future volumes, or people might forget MANY of the finer details. Sure, you can reread the older stuff, but I’m someone who rarely—scratch that, never—has the time. Sadly, this is something that’s going to bite the bums of every mangaka under this publisher.
Current Verdict: 8.5/10
Titan King by Tony Dawkins
Titan King is significantly simpler than Apple Black: a boy named Eli Santos is abducted from Earth and forced to compete in an intergalactic tournament. The participants are able to summon a bonded titan to fight alongside them and have anime powers. Like I said, simple.
With the entire manga being a tournament arc, there is a much higher focus on action than in Apple Black. I definitely enjoyed the artwork and fighting more. However, I don’t know if it’s because of being nervous to read these manga or what, but I didn’t enjoy it as much? Honestly, it was probably the nerves, because the manga is pretty damn great from an objective standpoint. The only real flaw is that the characters are way more by-the-book. They have awesome designs, but are everything you can expect from a battle shounen cast.
Current Verdict: 8.45/10
Saigami by Seny
Full transparency: I wanted this section to be The Massively Multiplayer World of Ghosts, which is the one I was looking forward to the most, but my library doesn’t have any copies. So, here we are with one of the titles I was least interested in: Saigami! Like Apple Black, it seems to be a flagship series, so I should probably give it a fair shot out of respect.
The reason why I wasn’t interested in it is because it’s a traditional isekai: a girl named Hanasaki Ayumi is miserable, and then gets sent into another world. She then discovers that she’s one of the titular Saigami for a hitherto unexplained reason. However, even with badass fire powers, her new life is hard as nails and a lot of folks don’t like her.
The idea of isekai where the other world isn’t exactly a bed of roses feels as dime-a-dozen as your typical harem power trip. However, Saigami was initially penned by Seny many years ago, so it’s technically one of the first instances or possibly THE first instance of this. However, given my timing with reading it, that whole aspect of Saigami lost its novelty fast.
In any case, there’s nothing overtly abhorrent about the manga so far. It looks like it’s going to be quite lengthy, with this volume just introducing the world, its characters, and setting up for the first major arc. It’s a slow start, but by being a manga, it’s SIGNIFICANTLY more tolerable and faster-paced than 99/100 isekai light novels. It could be a yuri, assuming that the RWBY reference at the beginning was foreshadowing, but for now, Ayumi is the only girl…
Which is a perfect transition into discussing the characters! Ayumi herself is what you’d expect: someone who constantly gets dunked on, and has to learn to embrace her inner power. She’s weak and whiny now, but I’m assuming she’ll be a badass down the road. The other three characters introduced are all boys. Sean is a silly, fun guy, who is basically Ayumi’s BFF in five seconds. Angsty Reyji doesn’t trust her at all, since she’s not from Saigami-land but has Saigami powers somehow. Last but not least is Daiszke, another underdog who gets treated like crap, this time because his powers were taken too far.
Sadly, I do find the artwork to be the weakest of what was discussed today. It hits all the right notes, sure, but compared to the others, it’s just the weakest. It has a shojo-y look to it, but thankfully, the characters actually look like people instead of Grey aliens wearing human suits; that’s one big positive at least. There haven’t been any major fights, so I can’t really say how good the action looks. In conclusion, this volume was the least impressive, but I imagine it’ll only get better with time.
Current Verdict: 8.25/10
Hammer by JeyOdin
Hammer is, believe it or not, EVEN SIMPLER than Titan King! It stars a boy named Stud Hammer, who has all the relatable quirks of being lonely, having a missing mother, and a dad who’s always going to work. In a depressed stupor, he finds his dad’s journal, and gets Blue-Skadooed into it. He then proceeds to have adventures.
The opening arc of Hammer revolves around the mysterious murder of the Ocean Kingdom’s king. It’s basically a setup volume, because it’s clearly implied that there’s more to this murder than meets the eye. Otherwise, it’s a very Dragon Ball-ish, comedic battle shounen with great fights.
Hammer is, visually, the one that stands out among the manga discussed today. That’s because its artsyle seamlessly blends American cartoon aesthetic with monochromatic manga goodness. It looks awesome, and is by far its greatest strength.
I don’t quite have an opinion on the characters because I really didn’t feel like I’ve gotten to know them well enough. They have memorable designs, but are pretty basic for the most part. Two of them, Stud and a young police officer named Dan (who I enjoyed imagining Dan from Game Grumps as his V.A.), currently rely on classic emotional hooks to get brownie points from you. Dan’s older sister, Diane, is cool, but she’s a pretty typical onee-sama trope herself (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Current Verdict: 8.5/10
So, Will I Be Subscribing to Them?
The answer, for the time being, is “undecided.” If I was richer, I’d do it in a heartbeat. However, I have hundreds of dollars worth of subscriptions, including a $300 annual fee for WordPress that I need to pay off, all off of minimum wage! Crunchyroll is something I’d be willing to abandon, since I have gone on record saying that I don’t enjoy anime outside of the movies, but I actually have a relative who’s using my account in my stead pretty consistently.
Even if I could afford Saturday AM, I still don’t quite know what I’d be getting into. The website is pretty bare bones, and according to the description of their app, they don’t even have a series-by-series list like Viz; you still have to pay separate, flat rates for “chapter packs” specific to each series. Also, I’ve known about them for three months now, and they haven’t added a single new serialization since. There was a recent collection of one-shots, but I don’t know if they’re doing the Jump tradition of “the most popular one-shot gets to start as a full series” or not. Also, due to the aforementioned slow publication, I’d be flushing money down the toilet just playing the waiting game for more content. The other caveat is the world itself. Every day, we’re getting showered with news about global disorder, the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, China, etc. The talking heads estimate that we don’t even have a decade left before the next mass extinction. Saturday AM might not even be worth investing in, because there might not even be enough time for them to grow into something truly great; they’ve been doing this for almost ten years, and are only just now printing their first tankobons.
If I could find a way to get out of Crunchyroll, then I’d probably be subscribed to them now; the monthly rate—even if you factor in the chapter packs—is cheaper. However, whether or not I go through with it remains to be seen; after all, what if there’s a TV anime that’s actually good for once? In any case, if you’re reading this, and you have a much better income than me, then I implore you to check these guys out if you’re interested. I don’t want to sound like I’m forcing you… but this little team needs support, and the price of admission is peanuts. I hope you enjoyed this post, and that you highly consider subscribing to Saturday AM!
Well, time to read another isekai. What does this one try to do to stand out? If you couldn’t tell from the insanely long title, Reborn as a Space Mercenary: I Woke Up Piloting the Strongest Starship!, this one is in the dark void of space! Is that enough to make it good?
In Reborn as a Space Mercenary: I Woke Up Piloting the Strongest Starship!, a young man named Takahiro Saido (henceforth known as Hiro) wakes up in his Stella Online ship, the Krishna (PS: Stella Online is an MMO that he played to death, as per usual with this stuff). As expected, the Krishna is insanely strong and Hiro has no trouble becoming powerful. Typical stuff, really.
And I mean typical. His starship isn’t only super powerful, but he’s also amazing at piloting it. He aces the hardest test in the Merc guild without breaking a sweat. Also, he gets some early loot from pirates and it nets him a fat chunk of space smackaroos. And of course, he saves a young, exploitable girl with no more motive than an innocent pure heart.
So, the writing is the same as any light novel: if it’s not a girl, it’s not worth describing. Have fun trying to visualize the surely intricate sci-fi architecture, whatever it may look like. In any case, the story for this volume is a simple establishment of characters, with some space skirmishes to show how awesome Hiro is.
And while we’re on the subject of Hiro, let’s discuss the cast of characters. As expected, there isn’t much to them. You’d think that Hiro, being a space Merc, would make him morally ambiguous, but… it doesn’t. He’s your usual kind of guy, only interesting quirk being his deep desire for carbonated beverages. The first cute girl is a space elf named Elma, who at least has some kind of personality trait. The aforementioned girl he saves, Mimi, is the same waifu tragedy, straight from the book of tropes. The only notable thing about their chemistry is that they are very openly romantic with each other. And by that, I mean Hiro regularly alternates between the two of them in bed.
Reborn as a Space Mercenary: I Woke Up Piloting the Strongest Starship! is relatively harmless, but it’s about as unremarkable as a garden variety isekai (hence why this review is stupidly short). I don’t see myself committing to this one unless I magically obtain some bonus time when future volumes release. But who knows? Maybe you’ll like this one more than I did.
This was a spur-of-the-moment decision for me. Normally, I tend to have a bulk of blog posts ready to go well in advance. But at the start of this year, I really dropped the ball. I started a lot of reviews but had no intention to post until the respective series were finished, like The Owl House for instance. I decided to pick up Peach Boy Riverside for three reasons: it’s by the creator of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid (even if the artist is different), it’s getting an anime that I can hope to ride the hype of, and it’s about the legendary Momotaro… to an extent.
In Peach Boy Riverside, Princess Saltherine (henceforth known as Sally) wants to go on a journey, despite her overprotective dad. Fortunately, a pretty-boy named Mikoto shows up and sweeps her off her feet. The thing is that he’s someone who came from a peach, and killed a bunch of ogres (yes they localized the name “oni” for some reason).
Despite how shoujo the manga looks, Peach Boy Riverside ends up being very shounen, and surprisingly edgy. It’s pretty normal stuff for the most part, but when Mikoto gets serious, he gets all “SAO-villain-y” and has upside-down hearts in his eyes.
To be brutally honest, the manga up to what I’ve read has been a pretty typical shounen fantasy. It starts off with being completely aloof, then Sally is suddenly like “I’m going to end all racism!” The Momotaro aspect isn’t even evident, beyond the whole “boy who fights oni” thing. The world doesn’t feel defined enough to even tell if it’s an alternate Japan or a straight-up fantasy realm.
And, of course, I wasn’t particularly fond of the cast. Mikoto is the bread and butter of this thing, because pretty-boys are popular and he’s super strong. He is kind of an ass, which sets him apart from other men of his ilk, but that doesn’t make him any more remarkable. In addition to him is Sally, who is pretty much your typical power fantasy girl, and Frau, a bunny girl who’s basically one of those tragic waifus that you’re supposed to fry buckets for. Volume two introduces a female ogre who ends up being named Carrot after going through the whole shounen “from bad to good” thing, but so far, she’s merely been the peanut gallery.
The art, sadly, is not by Coolkyoushinja, but someone else who’s nowhere near as good. The manga has a very basic, standard look with very “stock”-looking character designs across the board. The action looks nice, but even that is outclassed by other series.
Current Verdict: 7.35/10
Peach Boy Riverside isn’t awful, but it’s not that engaging right now. Mikoto being a creep, and the unsubtle social commentary, are more-or-less what this manga is running on, and it could peter out at any moment. I recommend it if you like TenSura, since Mikoto is the same type of character as Rimuru.
It’s no secret that Weekly Shounen Jump has not had the best run in the late 2010s. The newest manga by Naruto’s author got axed, among MANY other 2019 and 2020 debuts. And when they actually had a good series, it would either end off on a bad note (Shokugeki no Soma), or one of its writers would end up being a felon (ACT-AGE). But one series managed to be a standout franchise until the bitter end: Chainsaw Man, published in English by Viz. I gave it a good word in my First Impressions. Let’s see if it’s held out.
In Chainsaw Man, a dreg named Denji makes a living by hunting devils, with the help of a chainsaw-dog-devil named Pochita. But “makes a living” can be read as “barely scraping by”, for he’s shouldering a serious debt from his late father. However, when he’s almost cut to pieces, he fuses with Pochita and becomes a chainsaw man, after which he is taken under the wing of Makima, a beautiful girl from an official team of devil hunters.
Chainsaw Man is, for the most part, a very straightforward manga. The plot is very traditional shounen at first: bad guy appears, kill it, then wait for the next one. Denji’s heart becomes a major MacGuffin, but we aren’t informed of why for a pretty long time. Things heat up in the second half, and by the final third, it goes absolutely berserk with insanity.
What makes Chainsaw Man a great manga is its characters. The mangaka takes common shounen tropes and puts a seinen twist on them with Denji and the people around him. Denji himself seems to be a generic, self-insert shounen protagonist, but he’s more complicated than that. He’s very attracted to women, but he at least tries to maintain his feelings for Makima, despite the amount of other beautiful women who tempt him. I don’t like using the word “human” to describe a character, but it’s done exceptionally well with Denji. He’s an innocent kid thrust into an adult world, and his simple-mindedness made me sympathize with him.
The other thing is that the women in his life subvert common conventions as well, especially with Makima. Us readers are informed very early on of how suspicious she is. But Denji doesn’t know any of it, and he’s naively in love with her. Unfortunately, she takes advantage of his love for her to essentially exploit him, which I think is a great commentary on the idea of waifus in general.
Of course, Makima ain’t crap compared to Best Girl Power. She’s just… effing awesome. She’s like the best friend that you’re so close to that you just start busting each other’s chops. Her chemistry with Denji is one of the best I’ve seen in all of Jump. Sadly, I didn’t really care for the rest of the protagonists. For one, I forgot a lot of their names, which is a bad sign for me. Fortunately, the antagonists are as fun as they are plentiful. They have some of the more memorable character designs and personalities, especially compared to the supporting protagonists.
Somehow, I went almost the entire review without discussing exactly why Chainsaw Man is big (or would be if it weren’t for Kimetsu no Yaiba). Weekly Shounen Jump has some cute girls with cleavage, but that’s usually about it; the magazine is for early-teens kids after all. Chainsaw Man, however, has R18+ stuff; pretty much everything except for female private parts are shown. The manga is full of extremely visceral gore, and one character just straight-up asks Denji if he wants to have sex. The fact that something like this ran in Jump is insane.
That’s where my biggest gripe with Chainsaw Man lies. Its whole thing is that it’s very mature for a Jump manga. But the thing is—and the reason why I’m posting this so soon—that Chainsaw Man is getting a part two in Shounen Jump+, home to a lot of seinen series, from Jigokuraku to World’s End Harem. As a result, Chainsaw Man loses the one thing that makes it stand out from its ilk. This was probably inevitable because, you know, minors.
Anyhow, the artwork is fantastic. It’s rough, and dirty, with some phenomenal action scenes, and a surprising amount of abstract panels late in the series. The managaka is also able to contrast such insanity with some genuinely heartfelt and emotional scenes. It’s going to be so sad to see this twisted beauty dumbed down in the upcoming anime.
Final Verdict: 9.15/10
Chainsaw Man is one of my favorite Jump manga of the 2010s. It’s over-the-top, with a lot of quirky characters, and a very alluring charm. Seriously, how in the world did Kimetsu no Yaiba beat this?! I highly recommend Chainsaw Man to anyone who likes their battle shounen super dark and edgy. Hopefully, if Viz licenses the sequel, I’ll be doing a post or two on that!
Spy X Family is a manga about a spy who makes a fake family, and that’s all well and good. But they’re not the only ones on the block. Mission: Yozakura Family has a family made entirely of spies. It’s managed to last a year in Jump’s ruthless gauntlet, so that means it must be doing something right.
In Mission: Yozakura Family, a shy boy named Taiyo Asano has been coping with the abrupt death of his parents and brother (which is not at all a cheap emotional hook). His only friend is this girl named Mutsumi Yozakura, the adorable school idol. When Taiyo is attacked by Mutsumi’s overprotective brother, Kyoichiro, he is introduced to the Yozakura family (of spies). Because he’s the ultimate husbando (and because he doesn’t want to get assassinated), he marries into the family and vows to protect Mutsumi with his life.
I don’t know of many manga attempting to combine gag shounen with battle shounen (apparently, Katekyo Hitman Reborn! is one example, but SOMEONE (*cough* Viz *cough*) doesn’t have the manga licensed), but Yozakura Family has been a real fun time. Of course, there really is no narrative to speak of. The death of Taiyo’s family is pretty much glossed over until it gets to the designated “It wasn’t really an accident” plot development (which, honestly, isn’t a spoiler because that pretty much always happens).
The sillies are what matter, though. Yozakura Family is loaded with bombastic, over-the-top comedy that completely disregards realism, including a literal spy magazine and social media group. I also have to post a trigger warning: there are cases of minors (and adults) carrying firearms to school, so if you have any memories tied to an actual school shooting, then this manga might not be for you. There haven’t BEEN any school shootings so far, but I doubt that’ll stop you from being triggered. Also, as of where I left off, the manga hasn’t gone straight-up full battle shounen, like many gag series do.
Unfortunately, Yozakura Family fubars one of the most important aspects of shounen: training. They show some of Taiyo’s training early on, but it’s gone over super-fast. It’s so abrupt that he goes from wimp to Bruce Willis overnight. Since this is primarily a gag shounen, I’m not too butthurt about it, but I’m definitely the minority in that.
This manga has a great cast of characters (for once). Taiyo is kind of that generic guy, like always, but the series isn’t called Yozakura Family for nothing. While Mutsumi herself is that “waifu” type, her siblings are where the personality comes in. Kyoichiro might (read as: “will”) annoy some people, but I think his ludicrous devotion to Mutsumi, plus his overly lacking subtlety of how much he hates Taiyo is hilarious. Her other siblings have very distinctive character design and memorable personalities, but sadly, they don’t have too much screentime. In any case, the antagonists are all fun, even if a lot of them (so far) have been in the throwaway category.
The art is great. It’s simple, but effective. The action scenes are swift and packed with line work, while the facial expressions are on point. It’s what you’d expect from a shounen manga.
Current Verdict: 9/10
Mission: Yozakura Family is starting off strong. I have no idea how popular it is, so I don’t know if it’s going to be ending soon, but I hope it has a solid run down the road. Of course, you can never truly know with a Jump manga.
Weekly Shounen Jump has had some really great manga, and it’s had some not so great manga. While they have a system to weed out the latter, cases like Kimetsu no Yaiba show that it’s not perfect. A little manga called Jujutsu Kaisen (published in English by Viz) has risen to a pretty high level of popularity, without the need of a successful anime adaptation (even though the anime will no doubt make it quite popular overseas). Let’s see whether or not it deserves its popularity.
In Jujutsu Kaisen, a high-schooler named Yuji Itadori has a run-in with Megumi Fushiguro, a student from the curse-fighting Jujutsu Highschool, when he seeks a cursed object that Yuji’s classmates have come across. Yuji helps him fight back the curses that attack them, but things get hairy. Yuji ends up eating the cursed object- a severed finger- and becomes more than powerful enough to fight the curse, but is nearly possessed by the finger’s owner, Ryomen Sukuna. Due to Yuji’s strange ability to suppress its power, he’s recruited as a new student of Jujutsu Highschool in order to collect and consume the rest of the fingers… after which he will be executed.
Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it; this is a First Impressions, after all. I had thought, based on Chainsaw Man, that Jump is trying to become more mature in order to recover from the slump it’s been in lately (a lot of series from 2019 onward have sold poorly), but alas, it seems that Chainsaw Man is an exception and not the rule. Despite how often it waxes poetic about life and death, Jujutsu Kaisen is a pretty typical shounen manga.
As expected of most Jump manga, Jujutsu Kaisen starts by getting us acquainted with the main characters as they fight random enemies in self-contained mini-arcs, followed by a training arc. For the most part, the ideas of cursed energy and techniques are pretty generic, but the neatest aspect of the combat in Jujutsu Kaisen is the domain techniques. These are basically field effects that look really cool, and add a bit of spectacle to the fights.
The manga picks up after twenty-odd chapters, which is when the first major arc starts. It introduces the main antagonist (who will likely get replaced by someone less memorable if the manga ends up running for eight more years), and ups the ante by a lot. And I mean A LOT.
Typical shounen manga means a pretty one-dimensional cast. Yuji is a pretty generic, brash idiot, and the thing with Sukuna seems more like something to make him edgy than to give him a moral crisis. His classmates, Megumi, and the female lead, Nobara, aren’t that interesting either outside of their fighting abilities. Fortunately, Jujutsu Kaisen at least tries with some of its characters. Yuji’s teacher, Satoru Gojo, has got a pretty good sense of humor, for instance. There’s also some other students in other classes who are pretty wild, such as a literal panda bear, as well as some interesting folks from their rival school in Kyoto (such as mah boy Toto).
The art of Jujutsu Kaisen is where it shines. It’s sketchy and dirty, but full of personality. The fight scenes are fast and spectacular, and really help the manga shine. The character design is also excellent, with a plethora of good-looking women.
Current Verdict: 8.75/10
Jujutsu Kaisen is indeed a very mainstream manga. However, with great art, and a number of admittedly creative ideas (such as a decrepit old geezer who fights with an electric guitar), it stands out from the rabble. I recommend it to any battle shounen fanatic.
Sometimes, I think the stuff I’ve read has caused me to lose brain cells. I used to be pretty good at handling some mature and complex themes, but nowadays, I want simple, dumb stuff. The new J-Novel Club publication, WATARU!!! The Hot-Blooded Fighting Teen & His Epic Adventures After Stopping a Truck with His Bare Hands!, is one of those braincell-killers. I am pretty damn sure that a monumental amount of people would hate this LN, and yet… I LOVE IT!
In WATARU!!!, the titular Wataru Ito is about to be hit by the Truck-kun that has sent many-a clueless adolescent male to another world. Due to his insane strength, he stops it with his bare hands. However, as to not kill the driver from the forced deceleration, he lets the truck hit him. Wataru is brought into another world, and sets off to fight the strongest opponent: the Demon Lord, Deus!
This… WATARU!!! is just something else. Okay, so if you’re looking into reading this, I recommend you watch two completely unrelated television shows. The first of which is The Legend of Korra. I made my case about how much of a hot mess it is, but the radio announcer guy who does the recap has a really good voice for reading WATARU!!! You see, ninety percent of the sentences are written with exclamation points, enough to put Elaine Benes to shame. It’s ridiculous and over-the-top, but I love it. The narrator even tells you how you feel, which I would normally find pretentious, but it’s done in a way that’s perfectly in tune with the LN’s personality. There’s also references to fake-real-world martial arts techniques, which the LN adds its own footnotes to. I recommend reading those in Siri’s voice to make it sound funnier.
The second show I think you should watch is Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Not only is it one of the few anime so good that I enjoy watching without reading the source manga (because half of it is unlicensed in English at this point), but it also has a sense of its own ridiculousness. The dramatic reactions to everything, plus the appearance of onomatopoeia onscreen, have been my reference for visualizing the cinematics of WATARU!!!, and I recommend you do the same.
In case you couldn’t tell, WATARU!!!’s sense of humor boils down to being dumb and overly meta while spamming exclamation points. It’s the kind of thing that you’ll know whether you like it or not within five seconds. It relies entirely on the quirky writing style which makes a big deal out of everything. And another tongue-and-cheek thing that WATARU!!! does is having modern facilities in a fantasy world. They have rock concerts, 1950’s-style diners, and even a gothic shop called “Tot Hopic”. Half the time, Wataru ends up fighting enemies through rap and cooking.
The characters are surprisingly enjoyable. Wataru himself is Gary Sue on steroids, and it makes the over-the-topness of the whole series feel complete. However, he doesn’t beat Best Girl Aria. She comes off as a typical heroine, but ends up playing the straight-man role (while frequently getting stabbed in the forehead). Aria also has weird quirks, such as completely disregarding her parents getting kidnapped by the Demon Lord in favor of knockoff Beyblades, and playing drums with her feet.
Along with them is Résistance, one of Deus’s minions who gets the Piccolo treatment and joins Wataru’s party. She’s not as great as Aria, but she’s still a fun character. Deus himself is hilarious; he just eats his pudding. The problem with him is that he has diabetes, and yet he keeps eating his pudding despite it. I have no idea if it would offend someone with diabetes, but knowing today’s culture, it probably would.
WATARU!!! is stupid, extremely stupid. And yet… it’s a masterpiece. This is starting out as one of the best gag isekai I’ve read, and it could become one of my favorite light novel series of all time. Reading WATARU!!! is truly an experience, but it’s not for everyone. I can only recommend it to fans of stuff like Konosuba and Cautious Hero.
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).
Last time on Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear, a girl named Yuna logs into her favorite MMO, World Fantasy Online, during a new update. She is given some game-breaking bear-themed equipment as a gift for playing for a long time, and is sent to an unfamiliar part of the game world in said bear equipment, with her level reset to 1. She saves a girl named Fina from wolves, and the two of them head to the nearest town with the mob loot. They sell it at the guild, and Yuna spends her hard-earned cash at the inn. The next day, Yuna- guess what- registers at the guild, but only after- guess what- beats some red-shirted upstarts. She then buys a ton of throwing knives, along with a sword and butchering knife, as well as some normal-people clothes. She also acquires bear-themed magic, which she practices on some wolves. She beats enough of them for it to instantly promote her to E-Rank at the guild. Some of the friends of that guy who she beat up start slandering her, and as a result, she is forced to undertake a goblin-slaying quest with them. The required amount is fifty, and she offers to fight them all herself and give them the credit so they stay off her back. She goes with the female adventurer, Rulina, defeats them all herself (double the required amount and a boss), and earns respect among the other group. Over time, Yuna defeats so many monsters that she becomes D-Rank with no effort, and hires Fina to butcher the spoils. They go on a quest to fight tigerwolves, which go down easily. Lastly, Yuna spends a heap of cash on an empty plot of land, and constructs a bear house to live in.
The bear-themed antics are just as bear-themed and… un-antic-y (professional term) as last time. Honestly, I struggled to write anything of substance in this post, and that’s why I’m pairing it with a review of Infinite Dendrogram Volume 12. The second volume of Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear is almost exactly the same as the previous one.
At the current rate, it seems that it’s going to commit to being an episodic CGDCT isekai, which for some (many) people, is enough (especially with the bear onesie). Yuna visits some noble guy, which- I’ll admit- her apprehensiveness to the request was actually kind of funny. But afterwards, Fina’s mom is sick, and Yuna- being the OP protagonist she is- restores her to perfect health almost instantly. Everything happens so unceremoniously that it bores me to tears. Furthermore, the “let’s tell you the same chain of events you just saw but from Fina’s perspective” thing does not die down in this volume.
The issue really is the bland and basic writing style. While there comes a point where TOO much finesse can make you sound like a pretentious hack, not enough will make your work seem lifeless. I couldn’t be immersed in any fashion, and I could barely visualize anything besides Yuna.
You know what, Yuna really is the only thing that matters, isn’t she? She doesn’t just look adorable, but she also helps people for no reason. WHAT AN AMAZING AND NOT-AT-ALL IDEALIZED PERSON. I feel like the author expects people to love her because of how good she is. Well, us critics got a name for girls like her: Mary Sue.
Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear is so superficial. It’s cute, it’s relaxing, but it relies entirely on Yuna’s cuteness. If she didn’t have a bear onesie this thing would not sell. All of her powers are typical stuff, but they just have the word “bear” tacked on to them; they aren’t even puns! Compare it to Invincible Shovel, which actually uses shovel-like properties, such as “digging” through people’s memories, or “burying” entire castles. My chances of reading more Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear are next to nil. I’m going to be so salty when the anime airs because I KNOW that people are gonna be all over Yuna’s bear suit and her good will, WHILE SOMETHING LEGITIMATELY GOOD AND ORIGINAL LIKE TO YOUR ETERNITY WILL GET SHAFTED BECAUSE FUUUUUUUUU-! Anyway, if you like CGDCT and isekai, then Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear will do just fine.
Infinite Dendrogram Volume 12
Last time on Infinite Dendrogram (volume 10), Ray goes to college while also having a new accessory made for him that would help him resist poison. That’s it for him. In Caldina, Hugh Lesseps gets involved with some crazy woman named AR-I-CA on a quest to find a bunch of sealed boss monsters that were stolen from Huang He. A powerful mafia called Mirage goes after them, but they become a non-issue real fast when Dancing Princess Hiuli defeats them all by herself. Gerbera, in the Gaol, also gets stronger as she trains with her new friends in Illegal Frontier, led by the King of Crimes, who is incidentally involved in what is going on at Hugh’s end. Things are looking intense, AND WE FINALLY GET TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.
Er, well… not quite? The stuff that happened last time felt like setup, and this volume feels like… more setup. The developments last volume end up being ignored in favor of some new ones. First off, Figaro’s yandere girlfriend, Hannya, is released from the Gaol. She hates couples… which is why it’s so perfect that she was released during the time of a lovey-dovey festival in Gideon.
There’s also some new political developments, mainly this arranged marriage with Princess Elizabeth and one of Huang He’s princes. In order to butter them up, they hang out during the aforementioned festival. They also hint at a potential alliance with Caldina in the future, but nothing seems to come of it yet.
The volume starts with some more insight on Kashimiya, this iai-fighting dude that we only got to see a blip of once upon a time. But after that, the bulk of it is the lovey-dovey festival. And yeah, it kind of feels like a filler volume, even moreso than the Gloria prequel fight. The interactions between the characters are genuinely cute, but this is the first time I’ve seen the overarching story get backseated this violently in Dendro.
Things do ramp up toward the end; Dendro always has to have a crazy fight scene or two. But as far as character development goes, it’s really only Figaro and Hannya who get it. We do get introduced to some new Dendro A.I. but we’re still kept in the dark; in fact, the prequel volume told us more than this one did! And as usual, we still don’t get to see any of Legendaria nor Ray’s sister.
I don’t know what it is, but this is probably my least favorite Dendro volume so far. It’s a cute little mini-arc that set some stuff up, but it’s been a long time since something intense happened. Something big needs to happen, and fast, or this great series could REALLY become the next SAO (and I mean that in a bad way).
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.