Okay, sooooo I kinda said that I wouldn’t be covering light novel debuts for a while. However, at the time, I had completely forgotten that I was looking forward to The NPCs in This Village Sim Game Must be Real! (along with one other series). Look, Japan puts out thousands of these every year; I’m not the only one to completely forget something I knew I wanted. So, after this and that other series, I’m DEFINITELY not covering any light novel debuts for a while. I think?
In The NPCs in This Village Game Sim Game Must be Real!, a NEET named Yoshio receives a strange package, containing a game in its alpha build: The Village of Fate. He must test the game, but the fact that it’s classified is really weird. That, and the fact that it has the most realistic graphics ever despite how well it runs on his older computer. Oh, and the fact that the characters seem all too human.
Right off the bat, Village Game shows a lot of promise. The author clearly put a lot of thought into the game mechanics, but it’s definitely not something most people would play. Basically, imagine a village sim roguelite, which sounds pretty kickass just from that description. However, there are some things that seem like utter BS, and intentionally so. For starters, Yoshio gets only one run, and the game permanently soft-locks, in addition to the permadeath that can happen to the NPCs. Also, he cannot directly control them. The only way to command them is to write a prophecy as the villagers’ god. And this feature only refreshes once every twenty-four hours of real time. He can accumulate Fate Points (FP) to unlock powerful and necessary upgrades, but the upgrades are expensive, and—here’s the real kicker—the game has micro-transactions.
This series seems to be setting up a character study that can—hopefully in an intellectual manner—examine people and how easily they can lose their sense of reality to that of a game world. And in addition to that, Yoshio undergoes some real growth that most characters of his ilk do not. Since he’s stuck in the real world, he has to face his insecurities head-on. As questionable as The Village of Fate is, it has compelled him to go outside. He even has to get a job because, as expected in a game with microtransactions, The Village of Fate is pay-to-win. And I don’t even mean that from the standpoint of making a grindy game less grindy; it is simply impossible to gain enough FP to keep up with the crap the game throws at you.
The problem lies within The Village of Fate itself, and I don’t mean how intentionally sadistic its design is. The game’s worldbuilding and denizens are about as bland as any substandard isekai. Our cast of the game is a family of three, whose little daughter has an unhealthy crush on a fourth main character named Gams, a significantly older man. They’re… there. I don’t see how Yoshio got so invested in them outside of how realistic they look in the game.
I didn’t expect The NPCs in This Village Sim Game Must Be Real! to be good at all. And yet, it pleasantly surprised me. I highly anticipate how much more advanced the game will get as more stuff happens, and Yoshio’s character arc is very engaging. I recommend it not to isekai fans, but slice-of-life fans, since it’s pretty grounded for a fantasy series.
I don’t get romance. At all. That’s not a surprise if you’ve read any of my posts in the past. But manga usually convinces me to like something I normally wouldn’t. One of the most popular romance manga in recent years is Quintessential Quintuplets, published in English by Kodansha Comics. Did it win my heart? Find out!
In Quintessential Quintuplets, the five Nakano sisters are seriously failing at school. Fortunately, their filthy rich dad hires a tutor for them: the smart-talking Futaro Uesugi. One guy, one house, five cute girls. What could possibly go wrong?
While I don’t understand romance, it’s easy to understand why Quintuplets is popular. Chapter one concludes with a teaser of the series’ ending: Futaro marries one of the five sisters. This single decision is undoubtedly why Quintuplets is so big (or was so big- I’ll elaborate on that in a bit). The author knows exactly how fandoms work; with a canon ship built, it’s up to the fans to argue and banter over whom Futaro plans to set sail with.
It just boggles me that people can become so invested in these ships. Social media networks and subreddits of all kinds get ripped asunder, all over a fictional boy’s relationship with a fictional girl. They act like the entire world depends on him picking the right person. But is Quintuplets still enjoyable for those who don’t spend their free time fretting over ships?
The story is actually darn entertaining… for the most part. Quintuplets operates like a sitcom; when it’s just the main characters goofing around, it’s a pretty heartwarming good time. But once the drama kicks in, it’s an annoying, eye-roll-inducing slog. It’s tough to bring drama into something like this without making it a cringefest. Since it’s fictional, we know that everything that happens is entirely decided by the author; it’s really hard to make this kind of stuff seem natural, so I’m not too salty about it.
Unfortunately, it goes up in smoke at the end. The author does one of those stupid things where the story goes through several “what if” scenarios, none of which end up being canon, even in the case of the girl who actually wins. And when Futaro makes his decision, it feels arbitrary; all five girls more-or-less equally inspire him, and thus it feels like a roll of the dice. I’ve read discussions, and it seems that people really got into the nitty-gritty on the logic (or illogic) leading up the final decision, and as someone who has a hard time understanding relationships (let alone relationships between five siblings), I can’t vouch for ANY of those statements.
So how about the characters? Futaro is incredibly generic and unremarkable, but that’s okay, since the manga is called Quintessential Quintuplets and not One Essential Onetuplet (i.e. we only care about the Nakano sisters). I am baffled that people are meant to pick one of them and love them unconditionally, and that’s because they’re all kind of equal. I didn’t really like or dislike any of them. One standout thing about all five girls is that they’re female characters in a harem manga that actually get character development. And since character development is arbitrarily one of the absolute objectively good things in literature, I can definitely understand the girls’ appeal. But like I said before about human relationships, I never understood the logic behind any of the girls’ actions, which added to my not caring about them as characters.
The art is marketable and inherently appealing. Cute girls with blush cheek, check. Clip Studio backgrounds, check. The girls stand out thanks to their hair, and they take advantage of that to disguise themselves as each other (except they actually have varied hair colors in the color art. OOPS). It’s what you’d expect of a light and fluffy manga like this.
Final Verdict: 6.5/10
As far as romcoms go, Quintessential Quintuplets is a decent com, but a viscerally terrible rom. Also, and I’m sorry for this, but I’m docking points for this manga encouraging one of the most toxic mindsets on the Internet in the form of a shipping war. If you want Quintessential Quintuplets, then go for it, but as far as I’m concerned, there’s many better manga out there.
Last time on Re:ZERO, everyone gets attacked by Satella the Witch of Jealousy. Subaru and Garfiel (of all people) have to stop her. Fortunately, she can’t pass through the barrier due to her being a half-elf, and the trial being incomplete. But that doesn’t stop Garfiel from getting unceremoniously slaughtered by her. As she advances toward Subaru, he rejects her, and in response, her shadow swallows him to get him to love her. Fortunately, Echidna had a contingency plan: making Petra’s handkerchief a magic handkerchief that ends up saving him from the Witch. Also, the handkerchief turns into a dagger, which he promptly uses to kill himself and restart the loop. Back at the sanctuary, he’s comforted by Emilia. While Ram distracts Garfiel, Subaru recalls the memories he absorbed while in the shadow, and uncovers a secret room containing the real Ryuzu’s body. Apparently, the true purpose of the Sanctuary was to make Ryuzu clones that Echidna was able to possess, and effectively achieve immortality as a result. He also finds out that both Garfiel and himself have become Apostles of Echidna. His next task is the sitch at the mansion. He’s able to get Frederica and Petra to evacuate without a hassle, but Beatrice- as always- isn’t so easy to convince. He steals her “not-a-Witch-Cult” book and sees that it’s entirely blank inside. Apparently, Beatrice is a spirit contracted by Echidna to watch over the forbidden books in the mansion until “That Person” shows up. The moving scene that follows is, unfortunately, interrupted by Elsa’s arrival. Not even Beatrice can stand up to her, but Subaru manages to survive. Back at the Sanctuary, it’s already snowing, and Emilia shut herself in the tomb when he left. He goes in and finds her, and she starts getting unnaturally waifu-y with him. He leaves and confronts Roswaal- again- but this time Roswaal murders Ram and Garfiel before implying that he knows about Return by Death, and showing Subaru that he has the other version of the gospel that Beatrice had! He is also the culprit behind the snowfall, and it was all to break and isolate Emilia (a plan that had been in effect since the beginning, of course). Their conversation is interrupted when the Great Rabbit attacks again, killing Roswaal, and making the others burn themselves to death. Subaru flees to the tomb, where Emilia gives him a kiss… right as he dies again. After respawning, he seeks Echidna, but ends up taking the second trial instead, which involves seeing the outcomes of previous routes after he died. After all that, he encounters a spirit of Rem. But he knows better, and immediately recognizes her as an imposter, who turns out to be another Witch: Carmilla, the Witch of Lust. After almost suffocating for some reason, he ends up with Echidna, just like he wanted to! She offers to form a pact with Subaru, and all the other witches except Satellla show up! In all the confusion, Echidna has a grandiose speech detailing how Subaru’s ability to experience an infinite amount of outcomes turns her on. After her schpiel, Subaru asks her who Beatrice’s Person is… and, of course, Echidna has no clue… because Beatrice had to decide for herself the whole time. Subaru refuses the pact with Echidna, and the Witch’s tea party is joined by one more guest: Satella.
If you couldn’t tell from that paragraph, volume 12 was full of revelations and turning points. Based on my past experience with Re:ZERO, the next several volumes will be pretty boring before it picks up again. Does this volume follow the same trend?
Well… yes and no. It’s not a constant pelvic thrust of pain and torture like the previous volume, but there are definitely some highlights. One important thing is that Subaru gets some much-needed growth. He gets another helping of waifu-speech, but this time, he gains some self-worth. This is a big improvement for him, because his whole “Hey look at me I’m a martyr herp-a-derp” has been annoying for a while.
Speaking of annoying, we finally get to resolve Garfiel’s character arc in this volume! And thank goodness too; I never liked the guy. He was a whiny brat who felt like he made the arc 1.5x longer than it already was. Unfortunately, it doesn’t offset the fact that his personality is 100% abrasive and nothing else. But hey, backstory is backstory, and that’s what counts.
And speaking of backstory, we finally get some more background on Emilia. Unfortunately, that “some” is really “a bit”, since this volume loves Garfiel so much. Plus, the things we learn about Emilia only scratch the surface, and we are cliffhung right when we’re about to get the full serving.
Another issue is that Re:ZERO once again shows its bipolar identity. It tries its damndest to subvert the isekai formula, and ends up clashing with that mindset like it tends to. There’s an emotional scene between Subaru and Emilia in this volume, and similar to his scene with Rem, it’s ripped right out of the Book of Waifus. It doesn’t help that the climax of the volume is a one-v-one of Subaru against Garfiel that reeks of the “white knight” trope. Gotta love it when a series has a great idea that contradicts itself in its execution!
While not as turbulent as the last volume, Re:ZERO shows that it’s finally gaining momentum. This was a great volume, and it promises that the next one will be even better. If you’re reading ahead of the anime, what are your thoughts on this current arc and this volume? Re:ZERO is very complicated to evaluate, and I’d love to hear different perspectives.
I was apprehensive about sports manga at first. Whenever I saw my father watch football, I was like, “Why are so many Americans’ entire lives defined by a game made for entertainment purposes?” (he says despite how videogames and stuff define his life). As a result, I never chose to read sports manga… until I read Haikyuu!!, published in English by Viz. With its rather lengthy run in Weekly Shounen Jump, simple story, and massive fanbase, Haikyuu!! has definitely become mainstream. But despite my aversion towards said mainstream, I think it deserves the praise.
In Haikyuu!!, a short boy named Shoyo Hinata dreams of becoming a volleyball champion. Despite his height, he has great reflexes and jumping skills. Unfortunately, in junior high, he is utterly schooled in a match against setting prodigy, Tobio Kageyama. In the aftermath of this humiliating defeat, Hinata attends Kararsuno Highschool, the same as his idol, the Little Giant. However… Kageyama ends up attending the school as well! With their abilities, they just might bring the school back from its long volleyball slump.
Like I said, Haikyuu!! is simple; straight as an arrow. Since it’s a sports manga, it’s an underdog story about a couple of young upstarts and their volleyball team. Compared to Eyeshield 21 and Kuroko’s Basketball, it’s really nothing special. But I always believe the execution is more important than the idea, and the execution is where Haikyuu!! delivers.
The best thing the series does is buildup. Haikyuu!! is really good at creating anticipation for upcoming matches. From Karasuno’s rival school, Nekoma, to the powerful Shiratorizawa, there’s a reason behind every fight. Unfortunately, there’s only so much that can happen in a volleyball match. It’s an inherent problem with sports narratives, but volleyball is literally just hitting and blocking a ball. Basketball and football at least have different directions and formations, while in volleyball, players are stuck on set sides of the court, and in a set position that rotates throughout the match.
Furthermore, Karasuno’s team kinda sorta has plot armor in a sense, more so than in usual shounen manga. For the uninitiated to volleyball (myself included), the sport is played in sets. This basically means that all volleyball matches are a best two out of three (or three out of five in rare cases). From a writing standpoint, it’s a no-brainer for the really, really important matches in a volleyball narrative to last the full amount of sets. As such, I concede that the matches in Haikyuu!! aren’t too exciting during most of the early sets.
But once they hit that third set, it becomes a pure adrenaline rush. At that point, it’s easy to get fully immersed in Haikyuu!!, despite the pretty obvious plot armor. The climaxes of fights are when the manga is at its peak, and putting up with the other shounen tropes is well worth the payoff.
Even with the adrenaline rushes, Haikyuu!! wouldn’t have been the same if I couldn’t be invested in Karasuno’s volleyball team, which I’d consider to be one of the best teams in all of sports manga. Almost every one of its members has a definable personality trait, as well as some major hurdle to get over. This might be cliche, but the chemistry between Hinata and Kageyama is the best in the whole manga. Their clashing attitudes, and desire to one-up each other make them always entertaining to see.
I also must acknowledge some of Karasuno’s opponents. While the mangaka doesn’t flesh out every SINGLE member of those teams, they each have at least one or two memorable characters. They also go through the backstories of these teams during the matches with them, to hammer in the fact that Karasuno isn’t trying to beat an “evil volleyball team”, but a team of normal, likeable people who have the same aspirations that our protagonists do. It’s effective, but it gets kind of redundant over time.
Of course, no sports manga can be good without amazing art, and Haikyuu!! has some amazing art. While the artstyle looks disjointed and sketchy at first, the mangaka ramps it up to eleven when the emotional tensity warrants it. They’re also a master at gesture drawing, which really sells the power and speed of each shot. The panel flow is amazing, and always kept me on my toes; I never knew if a spike was actually going to count until the little scoreboard popped up in the panel.
However, there’s one last thing about Haikyuu!! that sets it apart from its contemporaries. But I can’t mention it without spoiling endgame content big time. On the flipside, it’s something that could make or break the entire series for you. As such, I made the following paragraphs the same color as the background. If you want to read the spoiler, then highlight the section of your own free will. Otherwise, skip to the end of the post.
A lot of sports manga- and Jump manga in general- are meant to be inspirational and lighthearted. They give hope to the underdogs out there, and have themes oriented around never giving up and achieving your dreams. However… Haikyuu!! is not a manga about success, but a manga about failure. Karasuno fails. Sure, they lose some early tournaments, but that always happens in sports manga. If the team loses, there’s usually some loophole in the tournament rules, or a magical secret tournament that they can use to reach some sort of glory. But that doesn’t happen with Haikyuu!! Karasuno FAIL-fails. Even after the third-years graduate, the first-years are not able to avenge them. Despite my aversion towards cynicism, I actually love that this happened. I have mad respect for the mangaka for taking such a big risk with a mainstream I.P. like this. I have no idea if any sports manga has ever done this before (except Hikaru no Go, but that manga doesn’t count because it’s not very good and it doesn’t go into any sort of aftermath either), but Haikyuu!! does it really well.
I know, I sound like a hypocrite, saying that this tonal shift is a good thing. It makes me sound like the people (*cough* Western critics *cough*) who say that cynical narratives are more “realistic” because “people don’t achieve their dreams by force of will alone” and that “life is meant to be miserable”. Normally, when we see a cynical narrative, it’s a long process of seeing the main character fall into pieces and wax poetic about how “suffering is the only truth in the world”. But Haikyuu!! takes cynicism and twists it into something truly unique. Instead of wallowing in misery, the cast of Haikyuu!! just… lives. Haikyuu!! is about being able to make like a cat poster and “hang in there” even if you never achieve your dreams. Sad to say, I do truly believe that a lot of people can never achieve their dreams, just because of how our society works. But that doesn’t mean you kill yourself. That’s the lesson. The final arc of Haikyuu!! is just adult Hinata having fun playing volleyball with new and old friends. Narratively, it’s not very exciting, but it ends in the best way possible: a rematch between Hinata and Kageyama, using all the skills they’ve learned throughout the course of the story.
Final Verdict: 9.25/10
Haikyuu!! is an amazing manga, and is definitely among one of my favorite Jump manga of all time. It’s more grounded than most shounen, so I can more easily recommend it to critics. For once, Haikyuu!! actually deserves swimming in the mainstream, and I’m glad that a lot of people love it.
This is a review of a light novel that I had abandoned around two years ago: Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, one of J-Novel Club’s first publications. It looked great, then I read about two volumes and… just couldn’t get into it. I know that slow burns are a thing, but due to the sheer length of the series, plus me not yet having my IRL job at the time, I literally couldn’t afford to continue with it. But over the course of the last couple of months, I tried giving it a fair shot from where I left off.
In Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, twelve people end up in this world- all Breath of the Wild style (including the amnesia). But unlike Link, they just go to the nearest town and GET A JOB. That’s basically about it; a perfect opening for a sandbox JRPG. That analogy is pretty apt, because this world is- of course- run on videogame physics.
Since it IS a JRPG world, Grimgar operates like one, specifically by having a slow and boring start. Most of the first volume is them just getting acquainted with the world. It is generic and boring, and shouldn’t have taken so much time to get acquainted with in the first place. Grimgar reminds me a LOT of Goblin Slayer, one of my least favorite LNs of all time (the group even gets called Goblin Slayers), and it could’ve even inspired that cesspool of D&D tropes.
“Well, that’s only an issue for the first few volumes, right?” you ask. I thought that would be the case at first. But Grimgar is a “realistic” isekai. That means no lofty goals, no big bads to take out, no nothing. The whole point of the story is just… to survive. For some people (*cough* critics *cough*), this sounds like the greatest thing ever. And for some, the idea alone is enough, based on the positive reviews I’ve read. But the idea alone is never enough for me. The execution is more important, and Grimgar’s execution isn’t exactly on point.
At first glance, it seems the author really shows how ruthless the world of Grimgar is. Plot relevant characters do actually die, and it’s not always obvious who’s wearing the red shirt at any given time. Furthermore, it does a great job at showcasing the team’s struggles and shortcomings. Unfortunately, there are a ton of tone shifts. You know, have a story that takes itself SO DAMN SERIOUSLY and then suddenly throws in an ecchi scene. NO, you’re doing it wrong! Golden Kamuy and One Piece are rare gems that can mesh opposing attitudes all too organically, but Grimgar is no such gem.
The cast is ultimately what made me abandon Grimgar two years ago. Having twelve main characters immediately can be overwhelming in a book. In something like Danganronpa, sure, you’re introduced to sixteen main characters, but you didn’t have to worry about picturing them. I remember taking half an hour at the prologue just because I had to establish an image of all twelve people simultaneously. Fortunately, the author had the courtesy to split them up. The main MAIN group consists of Haruhiro (the leading protagonist), Ranta, Yume, Shihoru, Moguzo, and Manato, with the addition of Merry later on.
Sadly, they aren’t that interesting. Haruhiro genuinely cares about his comrades, almost to a fault. But other than that, he’s a typical, bland self-insert. They try to justify this by having characters say something like, “He should be the leader because he’s the most ordinary” or something… but I still didn’t give a rat’s ass about him.
Ranta is the best and worst character in the whole series. He’s the best character because he has the most personality, memorable scenes, and feels the most fleshed out. Conversely, he’s the worst character because he’s a perv and is responsible for pretty much every tonal clash in the whole series (oh, and this person named Anna, who comes up later, is the female version of Ranta). Besides him, most of the others fulfill typical tropes like “deadpan loli” and “gentle giant”. There is some semblance of character development, which is enough for some (i.e. most) people, but for me, it falls flat in the face of their already boring personalities.
Visually, Grimgar has a true JRPG look. Watercolor paint style with desaturated but appealing colors give it an Octopath Traveler vibe. It also makes me wish that the quality of the art matched the actual story (oooooooh snap).
Verdict (Average of All Eight Volumes): 6.85/10
Although I can appreciate what Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash sets out to do, I’m not one of those people who gives A’s for effort. From its boring characters, to dialogue that’s so far out of left field that it circumnavigates the earth and ends up back in right field, it’s just too many negatives and not enough positives. Grimgar feels like something meant to be inherently appealing to critics above all else. Maybe I’ll revisit it, but for now, I just can’t. If all you care about is that it’s “realistic”, “human”, and “poignant”, then you’ll probably enjoy Grimgar more than me.
Despite my love for JRPGs, story is ironically the one aspect of videogames that I care the least about. And yet, because of how much I enjoyed Ys VIII, I wanted to try another series by the same team, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. It is a single, mammoth, epic JRPG, spanning four entire games meant to be played in chronological order, and VERY story-driven. Let’s see if it’s good enough to stay in it for the long haul.
In Trails of Cold Steel, a boy named Rean Schwarzer begins his attendance at Thors Military Academy. But bizarrely enough, his uniform is different from everyone else’s. It doesn’t take long to find out that he’s in an experimental group called Class VII, the first class to have commoners and nobles both. Since this is part one of four games, it’s naturally going to spiral into something big.
By nature, the game can be slow at first, but it’s done thoughtfully, and tries to hook you. The game begins with a flash-forward that you play. It’s incredibly overwhelming, not just because you don’t know what’s going on, but because it gives you every party member at once, with every battle mechanic unlocked, with every characters’ abilities that they’ve learned at that point. This is to build anticipation of what’s to come in terms of both the story and the gameplay. Also, when it kicks into the proper opener, they make you do combat pretty regularly, so you can slowly become acclimated to your new life without being bored.
The story might have some common fantasy themes, such as “Ah, rich people crap on poor people. War is helpful for the economy. Make America great again bwaaah!”, but they at least made the effort to submerge you neck-deep into it. There is a butt-ton of lore in this thing, and it shows in the various books you can read, which contain important foreshadowing for later, as well as in-universe fictional books (if you can find them).
The creators were also very thoughtful with the world from a design and visual storytelling standpoint. Early drafts of this review (I wrote it in bits and pieces as I played) stated the world felt small, compact, and segmented. The segmented style is, of course, an unavoidable consequence of the whole game’s structure, but the compactness is only early on. Each place you go to outside of the school is done in a specific order. You start out in small towns, then expand to bigger and bigger places (or at least, places that seem big thanks to out-of-bounds geometry). This further helps ease you into the world of Trails, as it starts small and gradually grows bigger and bigger. In this way, I am willing to claim that Trails is the most Tolkienian JRPG I’ve ever seen (yeah, I know a lot of poetic-waxers compare fantasy stuff to Lord of the Rings, but I think this is a somewhat fair comparison, since Lord of the Rings expands its scale in a similar way).
Unfortunately, the graphics don’t help. While I hate being a stickler, Trails is not the most visually appealing JRPG I’ve seen. While most of the towns appear pleasing enough, a lot of the combat areas are bland and samey. It’s similar to Ys VIII, but that game at least did more with angles and area continuity that made a lot better looking. Yeah, I get that this was 2013 and the game’s structure results in the whole thing being divided into segmented areas, but I digress. Also similar to Ys, the character designs are by far the most appealing, as they are very vibrant in color and have that classic anime style to them (except their hands look hideous). Fortunately, the soundtrack makes up some for the graphics’ shortcomings. While not as rocking as Ys VIII, it’s more than good enough. The towns all have their own unique atmospheres, and the battle music is pumping.
As far as the overarching narrative is concerned, you can color me impressed. I’m used to having a ton of exposition dump forced down my throat in modern fantasy, but Trails is one that eases you into the plot organically. It’s pretty good at buildup, and maintaining interest, even when it’s boring school time. In fact, the boring school time tends to be a great change of pace, and doubles as a “calm before the storm”-type thing. Without spoiling much, the main narrative is divided into two main plot threads: one concerning the strange ruins of Thors’ Old Schoolhouse, and another involving a set of big political moves that slowly become more dire as the world moves towards collapse. How these two different things can possibly be connected is one of the many questions I anticipate to be answered in this series.
What you must keep in mind when playing this game is the fact that, like I said before, it’s not just the first installment of a series, but the first part of a bigger story. As a result, this game’s main narrative is all about laying the groundwork of the story and setting expectations for what’s to come. This means that it doesn’t quite rise to the fever pitch that most JRPGs would, even when you’re well past the halfway point, as well as the fact that some plot threads will be left unresolved at the end. But hey, the game does an excellent job at setting said groundwork, and this is honestly the most engaged I’ve ever been in a JRPG narrative. Now that I’m attached to the characters and the world, the later games will likely deliver the feels.
I was worried about the cast at first, because I figured that Class VII’s character development would only show during optional and limited social links. But no, they actually give a lot of time for these characters to grow on you (they better, since this is part one of four). While they do start off as typical anime tropes, the way that they’re slowly introduced is quite impressive. Also, the fact that it’s not a Persona game makes it relatively light on the teen angst. Just be wary that it has a LOT of the “I know important, plot relevant things, but I can’t tell you because reasons” trope (looking at you, EMMA).
But out of all those in this massive cast, the NPCs ended up surprising me the most. Due to how the game is structured, each and every NPC- from townsfolk to miscellaneous students- have their own character arcs that progress along with the plot, some of which even foreshadow future quests. I ended up liking a lot of these people, especially Best Girl Mint. The biggest issue with them is that there aren’t enough unique NPC models. That’s normally a given in JRPGs, but the fact that, for example, the sister of one of the Thors’ instructors who you meet late in the game doesn’t just look nothing like him, she looks like a lot of other generic women in the game.
My other issue is with the antagonists. The established villains of the game are a group of terrorists who, for some reason,only go by their initials. Their leader is incredibly generic, and his minions are, guess what: brainy guy, busty woman, and muscular idiot. Fortunately, the game makes it readily apparent that the REAL mastermind is operating behind the scenes, and the terrorists make up just a small part of those involved.
Story is all well and good. But what about gameplay, the most important thing in any videogame? Due to Trails’ nature, I will divide gameplay elements into “Daily Life” and “Deadly Life” segments, similar to Danganronpa games. But first, I must discuss one gameplay aspect that’s useful in BOTH school life and combat: Turbo Mode. This feature, exclusive to the PS4 port of the game (and pretty much the only one you can actually BUY these days), makes the game move twice as fast at the push of a button. It’s incredibly useful if you ever need to save-scum and rewatch a long string of cutscenes upon reloading the save.
Trails is set in a school, and like Chi-Chi always said in Dragon Ball: studying comes before saving the world. If you couldn’t tell, this series is structured very similarly to Persona, which was initially going to be a turn-off for me. I never played a Persona game, nor do I want to, simply because I’m anal about getting all the things done in a JRPG, and Persona is against that. In those games, you need to juggle your social life and actual combat, and you must plan an arbitrary route that can involve save-scumming in order to get everything, which ultimately makes the games extremely stressful. There are also some logic issues in Persona, such as, “Oh you chose to eat some ramen for lunch? Okay, BOOM! now it’s ten o’clock at night!”
Trails‘ way of doing it isn’t perfect, but it’s substantially better… or so it seems. First off, social links are triggered by spending Bonding Points on them. But in order to narrow down your inevitable dilemma between choosing which character to hang out with, a given day of Free Time only has set people available. Spending time with them does NOT make it instantly TOMORROW like in Persona, but you only get a certain amount of Bonding Points per day. These events get you a ton of Link Points, which are essential for a mechanic in battle. Furthermore, you are only allowed to have these events with plot relevant characters. This means that you won’t have to waste time hanging out with filler characters like in Persona (even if some of them are admittedly interesting), and if you feel uncomfortable about significantly older women taking a liking to the protagonist, that is also thankfully not the case in Trails.
Despite the fact that I played the game specifically because I figured it’d be more lenient than Persona, the social links are arguably far worse, not just compared to Persona, but Danganronpa as well. In those games, no matter when you started or continued a social link, it would be the same (except for some rare cases in Danganronpa). However, social links in Trails, while no different from a gameplay standpoint, are all unique BASED ON WHERE AND WHEN THEY ARE. It’s also not possible to view every event, as the game flips you a bird and consistently gives you one Bonding Point short of viewing all available events. If you really care about all the characters, you MUST save-scum in order to view all of them, and only save after the ones that you want the Link XP for.
In addition, you have Academy Points. Most AP is done by completing quests, which comes naturally enough. Time doesn’t pass until you finish Required quests, and that’s one advantage Trails has over Persona. However, additional AP is earned for being an extra good pupil, and achieving an optimal outcome, such as riding a motorcycle without wrecking it. Advancing the story will IMMEDIATELY cause any incomplete optional quests and available events to expire, but the game is at least consistently good at warning you of these cutoff points.
However, this IS a school game, and that means being smart. And that means exams. Class VII has to take practical exams every month. These are basically mini boss battles that give you bonus AP if you meet certain conditions. The later ones can get pretty ridiculous…
…but even the hardest practical exam beats any written one. At first, I thought you could take pictures of every book in the library and you’d be fine. But no… it’s worse than that. Almost worse than Persona. In Persona, you merely had to remember any material gone over up to that point (which you can take pictures of as they come up), and then have your Academics stat above a certain threshold to get the highest grade. In Trails, you must make use of a special study day, which is a Free Day, but instead of Bonding Points, you spend Studying Points to go over test material with peers. Similar to Free Days, there are more events than what you could possibly view. HOWEVER, regardless of what NPCs actually imply as far as the relevance of what they’re studying, material from EVERY event WILL BE on the upcoming exam. Furthermore, you must also seek unmarked events that give you additional free knowledge (typically with instructors) in order to come out on top. As long as you save scum to view every event, and find the hidden knowledge blips, you should do fine…I think. The silver lining is that there’s only one of these exams in the game (excluding however many there are in subsequent games). But… you don’t know the exact outcome until after you’ve done the entire following Free Day, which includes your next run of the recurring monthly dungeon.
But just because you don’t need to memorize the books in the library for the exams doesn’t mean you don’t need to memorize them, period. Some quests result in you having to answer questions out of these books, so make sure you take time to jot down (or take pictures of) each and every page. Make sure you not only do the second floor of the library, but the recommended reading corner that gets updated every chapter. But even then it’s not enough. Some of these quiz quests require you to remember remote bits of dialogue from up to tens of hours earlier in the game (or from future chapters even). Fortunately, they’re few enough so that you can basically brute force those with save-scumming.
Save scumming might be dirty, but you should have no shame playing dirty because Trails does the same by giving you HIDDEN QUESTS. Not only will random, missable NPCs give random, missable items, but they can also give quests not marked on a given tasks envelope. Like I said before, since talking to every NPC at every opportunity is encouraged from a story standpoint, it’s not TOO bad. At least it’s not a Tails Of game which doesn’t even mark quests at all, regardless of if you found them, and some of them are the starts of chains but don’t continue until fifty hours later and by then you’ll FORGET you even STARTED it and- *huff* *huff* Just keep in mind that Trails does give a bit of leeway. You get 15 AP for beating the final dungeon, so you’ll need at least 415 by the time it opens up in order to get the highest rank at the end, which I BARELY got.
In order to discuss other missable events, I must also briefly touch on combat, specifically the areas where it will occur. Most combat is fought in the Old Schoolhouse, which is literally Tartaros from Persona 3. As you progress the main story, more floors of this dungeon open up, and it’s encouraged to check it out (or grind). Just keep in mind that the day will advance to evening once you leave, so do it last. It pressures you to select a set team, but you can always change it by examining the exit of the dungeon.
While Trails proves to be just as stressful as Persona, it’s good to note that it feels much faster paced. Each chapter has one single Free Day, split into daytime and evening segments. So even though social links are just about as limited, you don’t have to worry about wasting 85% of them just to grind out enough personality stats to actually talk to girls. However, Trails still clocks in at eighty to a hundred hours of playtime, so it’s really just an illusion.
Similar to Persona‘s special story segments that happen on set dates (like the full moon, TV rescue, etc.), Trails has field studies. These are excursions to new areas with their own quests to do, along with new story developments. Finishing one gives everyone a heap of link XP (thank GOD). But as soon as you finish a story arc here, YOU CAN NEVER GO BACK. So make sure you do everything while you can.
The field studies locations can take a while to get to, even on express trains. This is plenty of time to… PLAY A CHILDREN’S CARD GAME. Fortunately, Blade is not even remotely as agonizing as Final Fantasy VIII‘s notorious Triple Triad (and the music is nowhere near as annoying). Blade basically plays like War, but with Trap Cards. It kinda sucks, honestly. I don’t entirely remember how War works, but Blade is basically decided entirely by the players’ starting hands. If you draw too many trap cards, not enough high value cards, and not enough 1 cards to counter one of the types of trap cards, you’ve pretty much lost. I’ve genuinely tried to win, but I’m pretty sure it’s impossible depending on the setup (obviously, the fact that I’m saying a card game is entirely reliant on luck means that I’m a filthy casual at card games, and lack the ability to read opponents and use basic logic to deduce their next move). Fortunately, you only need to fight every available character once to get link XP.
There’s a lot of things you can miss! Fortunately, the pawn shop in the main town can sell items from previous areas, including items found in the chests there, and book chapters. The pawn shop is also good if you have a surplus of crappy items that you can trade for a single better version.
Like in any JRPG, cooking and fishing are the most important things in the game. When it comes to cooking, you can somehow cook anywhere in the world as long as you have the ingredients. Depending on the skill levels of Rean and who you cook with, the dish could end up ranging from Regular, to Superb, to Peculiar, to Unique. Unique dishes can only be formed by someone who has a secret knack for cooking that particular item (but it’s always someone who shows a high likelihood for a good result). These are objectively the best, however there is an NPC who wants to see such dishes, so be frugal (and for the record, there’s someone who wants peculiar dishes as well). Most recipes can be learned by NPCs who will randomly give you one. And of course, these can be missed.
Of all the different school facilities, you’ll be visiting the Engineering department more often than any other. The guys here use variously colored Sepith earned from enemies and can mod your Arcus with them. You also earn generic Sepith Mass, which is exchanged at shops for actual money. Anyway, Sepith is used to unlock new slots on your Arcus, as well as craft new quartz (which I’ll get to later).
Fishing isn’t as exciting, though. Basically, you just fish and mash the prompted face buttons, and you get a fish. There are only a set amount of times you can fish per day, which means a finite amount of times you can fish total. You can use groundbait to make more spawn, but the only way to farm for it is to farm U-Materials off of assorted enemies, then trade them at the pawn shop for groundbait.
One final quip that I have in the Daily Life segment is fast travel. For some reason, fast travel is either excessively helpful, or nonexistent. Basically, if you’re in a town, you can fast travel to buildings that are, like, two feet from each other. But in a combat area, you can’t fast travel back to the hub. This becomes a big issue if you’re trying to talk to every NPC to find hidden quests (especially in chapter 3).
Combat is limited, but when it happens, it’s really good and really involved. Fortunately, Trails does a great job of easing you into all the different aspects as you go along. The main issue with it is the same issue as most JRPGs: that most characters have limited abilities and customization early game. But once you get more utility, it becomes incredibly rewarding.
For the most part, Trails operates like an old-school turn-based JRPG. Then turn order is displayed on the left, and it cycles through everyone. However, you will have to take Delay into account (which it’ll show on the turn order when selecting a target). Some attacks, mainly magic, will take a while to go through, and you will need to plan ahead in order to come out on top. There are also turn bonuses, which can give free heals and boosts just by it coming to your turn. Enemies can also get bonuses, requiring you to plan even harder. Sometimes, you’ll need to cast spells specifically to use the Delay to steel turn bonuses. The mechanics behind the turn order are very nuanced, and take a lot of self-teaching to figure out. It’ll make the difference if you desperately need to cast an Art in a pinch.
For the first time since maybe Chrono Trigger, position matters. When using moves that have AOE, you need to carefully aim the attack in order to catch as many enemies in its range as possible. If you’re too far, you’ll have to waste a turn to move within range (which enemies might also have to do). Some attacks will also change a character’s position, and that must be taken into account as well.
What’s even more complicated is that you have two sets of special moves: Arts and Crafts. No, you don’t make paper peacocks by tracing your hand over construction paper; the different types are literally called Arts, followed by Crafts. Each consumes a separate stat, EP and CP. EP is traditional MP, and can easily run out if you get trigger happy. It can only be restored from turn bonuses or consumables. CP is like a Special gauge in an action game, and fills from dealing and receiving damage. Characters get 200 max CP that they can store. However, as abundant as it is, there are special S-Crafts that you learn over the course of the story. These take from 100 to all of a character’s CP, and are insanely powerful. It is more incentivized to use the 200, since it’s stronger. The most important part of S-Crafts is that they can be used out-of-turn. This causes an S-Break, which can be a lifesaver if used to steal a turn bonus that you don’t want the enemy to have. The issue with them is that recovering from them is ROUGH. For most of the game, the only good way to restore CP is with Alisa’s Blessed Arrow, which comes at the cost of some of her own. In a lot of boss battles, I’d end up having to whittle them down with regular attacks just to slowly regain it back.
The way each set of skills are learned is different. Crafts are learned by levelling up, and Arts are learned by setting quartzes to your Arcus thingy. First, you set a Master Quartz, which gives a set of stat boosts and bonus effect s. Each Master Quartz can be levelled up, and you’ll definitely be getting new ones to play around with. Additional quartzes can be set to learn new Arts, gain stat bonuses, or in rare cases, both in a single quartz.
It’s generally a good rule of thumb to know your enemies in order to win, and it’s really important in Trails. By either battling a lot of the same enemy, or using an Analysis spell, you can find out a lot of stuff about them. The most important thing is not just their elemental resistances, but their status resistances as well. This is really useful when planning out attacks, especially with status ailments. Once you get the ability to inflict status ailments with your attacks, you will NEED them, for they will be your friend. Also, Trails is one of the few games where bosses are susceptible to status ailments, so make good use of them!
While the game is pretty good at holding your hand, there is one important mechanic that they don’t teach you, and that’s Impeding. Basically, certain specific Crafts will cancel an enemy when it takes a turn to cast an Art (indicated by a red glowy thingy). The game expects you to know about this, so just be aware of it. There are also quartzes that can give all a character’s attacks an Impede percentage, but the specific Crafts are guaranteed to do it.
The Ys series makes a crossover into Trails with the Unbalancing mechanic. Monsters can be staggered by hitting them with an effective weapon type, be it Slash, Thrust, Pierce, or Strike. Doing this allows for a Combat Link to work. Set a Link in the camp menu or during battle and linked characters can assist when the enemy is Unbalanced. After a certain time, you begin to earn Bravery Points through Link Attacks, and can spend them during an Unbalance to perform a stronger attack. Like in Miitopia, Link Abilities get better and better when you level up their link levels. Similar to Persona, crits will automatically Unbalance an enemy no matter what.
If there is any flaw with the combat- and it’s moreso a nitpick than anything else- it’s that the difficulty is all over the place. You don’t need to grind in order to be able to beat the game smoothly, but it follows the JRPG rule of “equipment is everything” to the letter. When it comes to status ailments, any enemy that can inflict it WILL if you don’t have the equipment to make yourself immune to it. The early game is particularly rough because you won’t even have enough of this equipment to put on the whole active party. But when you do get the equipment, you’re gonna need it. A lot of bosses can wall you if you’re unprepared, and even if you are prepared, it can be rough. It’s also really bad that there are no multi-targeting healing items in the game without the use of a specific Master Quartz.
Final Verdict: 9.15/10
It’s stressful, but Trails of Cold Steel is nonetheless a fantastic series opener. Since this is the first game, you have plenty of time to learn how it works. But as much as I’ve learned about the game, I don’t know how ready I am for the sequels.
One thing that I do know about this series is that Trails IV, the finale, has A TRUE ENDING. That is so mean… to make such a long story that people would need to spend at least 500 hours to see to its conclusion, just to troll them right at the end because they didn’t do enough stuff. It could be generous like in Ys VIII, but it could also require every single Academy Point in the game to get it. I could look up the conditions now, but I might spoil something for myself, which would be bad, since I actually LIKE this story so far.
Since this is just the hors d’oeuvres, and an incredibly stressful helping of hors d’oeuvres at that, I can’t recommend this series easily. I’m going to have to wait for Trails II, the first of a three-piece entree, to arrive at the metaphorical table first. For now, I recommend Trails of Cold Steel to any fans of Persona, Danganronpa, and Tails Of… since those fans are used to eighty hour games where you can miss a million things.
The coronavirus of 2020 ended up giving me an opportunity to do something that I didn’t think possible: binge-watch an entire television show. I was going to settle for Avatar: The Last Airbender, but it turned out Netflix didn’t have it (thanks for sucking at having any animated programs as always (oh, and for the record, it wasn’t on Hulu either)). So instead, I chose Disney’s Gravity Falls. From what I know, Gravity Falls has become a modern cult classic; almost unanimous critical acclaim, but ultimately getting overshadowed by Phineas and Ferb and other, more “accessible” Disney IPs (the damn show doesn’t even have Disney Parks merch!). In this review, I see whether or not I made a mistake watching Phineas and Ferb while it aired instead of this.
In Gravity Falls, a pair of twin siblings by the name of Dipper and Mabel Pines are sent to the titular town in scenic Oregon to live with their great uncle, Stanford (known otherwise as Grunkle Stan). They mainly laze around his gift shop of urban legend junk, until Dipper finds some weird book detailing all kinds of strange phenomena in the town. Of course, it’s inevitable that they get involved in said phenomena.
The show follows the typical, episodic formula of any American, Saturday morning cartoon, but with a sense of chronology more befitting of a TV anime. The plot of each episode tends to be stand-alone, but it also lays the groundwork for a bigger story in the process (like when Grunkle Stan enters some secret base at the end of episode 1). They also make nods to earlier episodes throughout the show, further giving it a sense of continuity. One example is a piece of graffiti on the water tower; it’s only brought up once, but its image remains throughout the entire series.
Despite them frequently getting attacked by monsters, ghosts, manly minotaurs, and an evil visual novel that predicted the existence of Doki Doki Literature Club, Gravity Falls maintains a sense of lightheartedness, and I’m thankful for that. Based on the praise I had heard of the show, I thought it was going to be an incredibly pretentious, pseudo-intellectual cartoon with weird symbolism placed just to evoke a sense of deepness when there isn’t any.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t weird voodoo at all. First off, there are secret codes that appear in the end credits of each episode that apparently either foreshadow later stuff or bark nonsense. There was also a real-life scavenger hunt while the show was airing (or so I was told), but I can’t exactly do that now. I’m glad that this was all the show does in terms of secret hidden lore, instead of rubbing its “genius” in your face like Monogatari. Of course, that will probably not stop series’ fans from calling you (or me) a filthy casual for not “appreciating the genius hidden meeting that makes Gravity Falls transcend modern media and human comprehension” or whatever, but that’s a given with any fandom.
Gravity Falls also has a great sense of humor that’s just about on par with that of Phineas and Ferb. I actually found myself laughing pretty consistently throughout, which was a pleasant surprise. There are also some great humorous details, the most notable of which is the Mystery Shack that they live in. Grunkle Stan’s job is to scam people from within the rundown cottage. The S in “Shack” frequently falls off, which both gets across the fact that the building is old, as well as the fact that Stan is a “Mystery Hack”. I dunno, little things like that are just great to me. Just keep in mind that this show is early 2010s… and that some dialogue is not up to the standards of the new resurgence in feminism. Basically, there’s a lot of gender stereotyping in Gravity Falls. It’s just your usual “boys like punching sh**, girls like boys and shoes”, but hey, I don’t know what sets people off these days.
The characters are also surprisingly solid. Although Dipper only has his frequent sarcastic remarks to save him from being a generic adolescent male, Mabel is Best Girl for sure. Her ditziness and general weirdness make her incredibly entertaining. The issue with them is that they have some “eye-roll-worthy” flaws, such as Dipper’s love for Wendy, one of Stan’s employees, along with Mabel’s annoying ability to fall in love at first sight. There are also cases of sitcom-like melodrama that occur between them, and this is where Gravity Falls feels the most trope-ish (and for the record, such tween drama is the entire reason that the final arc of the series is even instigated in the first place).
Grunkle Stan is also a very entertaining fart with great character development late in the series (even if he single-handedly doubles the length of the final episode for similar drama reasons), along with his other employees, Soos and the aforementioned Wendy. They’re pretty typical “big brother” and “big sister” archetypes, but they’re still likeable and have a lot of memorable lines.
But hey, Gravity Falls is a town, and that means it has townsfolk. There are a number of very memorable, minor characters who appear at a very consistent rate, and make the area feel more like an actual community instead of an implied community. All these characters have quirky personalities and very distinct character designs, making their company very enjoyable. It’s amazing how much they all, including Toby, warmed up to me.
Unfortunately, the weakest link is in the antagonists. Gravity Falls has two major antagonists, the first of which is lil’ ol’ Gideon. He’s a posh, pompadour-wearing boy who is the Plankton of Grunkle Stan’s Krabs (wait, I think I messed up that analogy… ah, you get what I mean). Underneath his cheruby face is a conniving little turd who seriously wants Stan wiped off the face of the Earth.
Introduced at the end of season 1 is Bill Cipher, an Illuminati symbol with arms and legs. He has some strange motives that don’t come into play until pretty late into the series, well after his introduction. Just by looking at him, I can tell that most of the series’ hidden lore lies within him. I bet that the symbols on his “Illuminati Wheel” can be found in specific frames throughout the entire series, and reveal some sort of secret that will change all of humankind (and not at all mean what it’s intended to mean in the actual story).
Overall, these two are pretty entertaining, but ultimately fall short of beating villains like Heinz Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb (wow, I just made every fan of Gravity Falls angry). Doof comes off as a mad scientist trope, but becomes the most lovable character in the whole series as you progress through the later seasons. Gideon and Bill are just one-dimensional villains that are basically there out of obligation. Sure, maybe the “hidden lore” gives us more context for Bill than what they tell us, but it also might not at the same time.
The last point to discuss, as always, is the visual presentation. As expected, even for a TV show, Gravity Falls looks incredible. The animation is fluid (even if there are glaring cases of CG), and the color palette makes everything in the show pop. It’s definitely a nice step up from the hyper-budgeted TV anime that I’m used to.
Final Verdict: 9/10
It might not be quite as good as Phineas and Ferb (“Boo, you filthy casual!” you exclaim. Look, it’s only the musical numbers and the superior antagonist that makes Phineas and Ferb better, okay?), Gravity Falls is definitely a fantastic cartoon. I’m kind of glad I didn’t watch it while it was airing, or I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it from an adult standpoint. Regardless of if there’s some hidden metaphorical message in it, it’s still fun to enjoy at face value. I highly recommend it to anyone who has Disney Plus (as it’s probably not worth trying to catch it on reruns).
I know that working in the manga world can be harsh; I’m even aware of how it’s literally killed people. That’s why I never read through Bakuman (published in English by Viz) until just now. And wow… where has this been all my life?!
Bakuman stars Moritaka Mashiro, whose uncle died from overworking during his manga career. However, when he leaves his notebook at school one day, a starving writer named Akito Takagi sees it, and says that they should make a manga together. He refuses until the girl he likes, Miho Azuki, who’s trying to become an anime voice actor, promises to star in the anime of their manga. And just like that, boom! End goal established!
Despite my dislike of slice-of-life manga, I have to admit Bakuman does pretty much everything right. The story is fun and engaging, plus the characters are very expressive and have great personalities (more on that later, though). Despite the fact that Mashiro’s uncle died from overwork, which is a real life problem in Japan’s society, the manga is pretty lighthearted for the most part.
Naturally, the big appeal of Bakuman is its theme: manga publishing. This is one time where I’ll admit that I enjoyed something because I related to the characters, even though I hate factoring that into the actual final score of the story. Since they’re publishing manga, the characters of Bakuman spend a lot of time talking about all the topics that I think about everyday: tropes, marketing, mass appeal, and taking risks.
The cast is also surprisingly good. One of the biggest problems I have with slice-of-life is that writers seem to think that characters need to have dull expressions and no interesting personality quirks in order to seem more “human,” which isn’t really true. The characters in Bakuman are “human” done right. While Mashiro is a bit generic, he’s at least very expressive, along with everyone else. I knew that Takagi was going to be my fav the moment I saw him; he’s just so aloof yet driven. They work with one of two editors at any given time: Akira Hattori and Goro Miura. Although the latter is inexperienced as an editor, they both genuinely care about Mashiro and Takagi’s careers.
There are also a number of rivals in Bakuman. My favorite is Eiji Nizuma, who is a true prodigy, but is a total eccentric. He doesn’t seem to take his job seriously, or even know how Jump works, and he just draws whatever he wants and leaves the pages neatly lying on the floor. He also walks in Jojo poses, which you need to see in order to believe. Along with him are the brash Fukuda and the terminally antisocial Hiramaru, among other people. Although they’re competitors, they’re also good friends, and their chemistry with each other brings out the absolute best in all of them.
My least favorite characters are probably the two main characters’ love interests, the aforementioned Miho, and Takagi’s girl, Kaya Miyoshi. They’re good girls (Miyoshi’s the better of the two, though), but they kind of exist just for moral support. Sure, Miho has plot relevance, but you don’t really get to see her progress that much; you only see the results.
Now for the art. Holy crap. I think that is the best art Obata has ever provided. Sure, Bakuman isn’t as detailed or complex as Death Note or *shudders* Platinum Freaking End, but it brings the atmosphere of Bakuman and it’s characters to life. Also, he has to draw his own characters’ manga, which each have their own styles. This really showcases what an absolute mastermind of art Obata is, and I have the utmost respect for him. If you’re a fan of more chill, CGDCT-type stuff, then Bakuman’s cartoony art style will likely be a turn-off for you.
My one real complaint with Bakuman is the fact that the protagonists want an anime so badly. I get that there’s a specific context behind why they want to get an anime of their manga, but as someone who’s seen so many great works get horrible anime adaptations, I couldn’t help but cringe, especially since their storytelling style is just the kind of unconventional stuff that can only work in the manga medium. This whole thing is a big nitpick of mine, which is why it won’t affect the final score at all.
Final Verdict: 9.75/10
Bakuman is the best manga by the Ohba-Obata team. Yeah, I just said that. Everything about it is top-top-notch. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves manga in general, and heck, probably those who love anime too.
What happens when you read a story that cares more about its characters than its narrative, but YOU end up caring more for its narrative than its characters? Well, for me, that’s how I feel with the immensely popular and subversive Re:ZERO -Starting Life in Another World-, published in English by Yen Press. Even after eleven volumes, I am just at odds with this.
As much as I enjoy the story, I must preface this by vehemently saying that this is NO Steins;Gate. Steins;Gate was- and still is- a brilliant sci-fi thriller with weird characters, fascinating mechanics and powerful tension building. Why did I mention Steins;Gate? Well, that’s because our protagonist, Subaru Natsuki, is sent to an alternate world. But instead of being overpowered, all he can do is repeat events within a set time frame by dying and respawning, with a power called Return by Death. His incentive to actually use it is to help a cute waifu named Emilia (Oh Emilia…). Hence, the Steins;Gate comparison that I’m pretty sure EVERYONE’S made.
Anyhow, with a premise like this, there is plenty of time for the amazing and mature (and not at all try-hard) sensations of torture and despair, since- after all- our boy Subaru must retry the same events several times. Back when I had started this series, a year before I got into the superior Steins;Gate, I thought that this was a brilliant idea.
In execution, there is a rather big flaw. It’s not so much at the beginning, but the Return by Death premise has more and more come off as a devious plot to pad out the narrative to me. Not that there aren’t arcs where we gain valuable information about the world (such as the agonizingly long one that spans volumes 5-9), but a lot of times, the deaths of Subaru are really cheap. Oh, you didn’t know about this serial killer running around town? Sorry, die and try again. At least in Steins;Gate, it was obvious what points in the story caused the conflict to fester, but here it’s basically like playing an old-time videogame: Keep dying over and over again until you have the whole thing memorized.
I guess I’m not being fair because the two series’ have vastly different plot structure, but it’s just that Re:ZERO does seriously drag on. The worst example so far is having an entire mid-boss fight across ALL of volume 7, then when you think everything is resolved in volume 8, suddenly it throws in an extra wrench just to kill Subaru again and drag the arc a whole extra volume.
But when Re:ZERO actually feels like firing on all cylinders, it is a real pleasure to read. Well, at least in terms of the overarching plot. The first nine volumes are very psychological, and cover a theme that’s very unconventional for isekai. After that… well, I’ve only read two volumes of what I call the “season 2 material”, but it’s definitely a LOT different (but still really slow).
But as great as a plot can be, the cast ends up having a more lasting impression in most cases, especially in a character study like this. The characters of Re:ZERO are often a subject of very long and very heated debates. For me, I’m either in the middle with them or I don’t care about them whatsoever.
Subaru is okay. Sometimes. He has great character development (though it’s slow, like everything else), and there are times when he exudes some genuine badassery. But for the most part, he’s naive and annoying. The others don’t fare much better. Emilia is the textbook “perfect girl”, and like the textbook “perfect girl”, she has the fatal flaw of no substance whatsoever. She SOMETIMES has interesting interactions with Subaru, but those are few and far between.
Besterestereresteresteresterest Girl Rem is… well… not the best. She is the best, relatively speaking (within Re:ZERO itself), but I feel like she gets too much credit. To make another Steins;Gate comparison, she’s basically an inferior Kurisu but with a morning star.
The others aren’t worth discussing in depth. Ram only exists to mispronounce Subaru’s name, at least for the first couple of arcs, which stops being funny after a while. Roswall is cool, but he goes out of his way to contribute as little to the plot as possible, and even consistently manages to mar its progress. There are many other characters, but I won’t mention them due to spoilers. I will say that the antagonists have been interesting so far, though. In fact, I’ve basically been continuing this series just to behold the main antagonist whom they’ve been building up to since volume 1. But in all honesty, it’s a BIG problem when a primarily character-driven story has such forgettable characters. It’s one thing if you can give all their motivations the proper context so that it actually makes sense in some way, but if your reader is so bored that they won’t be able to appreciate it because they’ll probably have drifted off to sleep, then it kind ends up preaching to the choir. I even have notes that I always use for reference in any non-manga material I read, and I’ve rarely had to refer back to them as often as I had to for Re:ZERO. You gotta be REALLY sensitive in order to grow as attached to them as you’re expected to.
The art is very visually pleasing. The girls are all drawn in this cutesy-wutesy style, with very unique eyes and facial proportions compared to most anime girls, that likely serves to lure readers into a false sense of security before the sh** hits the fan (kinda doesn’t work anymore now that the series has gotten so notorious). The illustrations convey a lot of emotion in each given scene, whether it’s just a girl being cute or someone (namely Subaru) breaking down in despair.
Overall, Re:ZERO is nonetheless a great LN. Better than most on the market, at least. It’s slow in terms of plot progress, but it’s at least THERE as opposed to something like Overlord. I’ll definitely try to finish Re:ZERO for now. As far as recommendations go, while there are still a number of superior isekai series, Re:ZERO is still a great psychological drama with plenty of waifus.