Bravely Default II: It’s… a Game

I was curious about Bravely Default ever since it came out. However, by the time I wanted to bite the bullet and try it, new copies somehow shot up to the triple digits, even before the death of the 3DS. I had also heard that the game ends on a whimper and that it had… microtransactions? Yeah, no thanks. Instead, I ended up jumping into the Bravely series with Bravely Default II for the Nintendo Switch.

In Bravely Default II, a young man is shipwrecked… somewhere. He runs into some lady named Gloria who is on a mission to find the four elemental Crystals (traditional MacGuffins). With the help of two other people, named Elvis and Adelle, he ends up helping Gloria find the MacGuffins. And yeah, that’s it.

Before covering the story, I need to lay down some groundwork. The game allows you to name the main protagonist, which is fun. Also, Bravely Default II has the option to play with the Japanese voice acting, like with most JRPGs these days. But for some reason, either variety or self-deprecation, I decided to play the whole game with the dub. Keep in mind that the dub might color my impression of the story and characters.

I’m not a big fan of Final Fantasy or Octopath Traveler’s plots, but at least they tried. Bravely Default II feels so half-assed it comes off as intentional. The story is so generic to the point of… nothingness. At least Dragon Quest has different dialects to give it more charm. I tried my darndest to give the writing a chance, but it didn’t take me long to start mashing A during cutscenes. Other times, I’d actually watch Twitch or YouTube while playing through; I was THAT uninvested in the story.

The game is also rather silly when it comes to chapter cutoff points. Normally, when you beat the boss of the current chapter, it starts the next one in the following cutscene. However, that’s not the case here. Instead, you have to be well on your way to the next town, and then randomly, the next chapter will start. And as you can expect, this will open up new quests in previous towns. As someone who prioritizes sidequesting, this really bothers me! Why couldn’t they have just ended the chapters right after the major boss fights like normal people?!

And to rub salt in the wound, the game has  next to no sense of accomplishment. You collect these MacGuffins that are messing up the various regions of the game, but it doesn’t fix anything. I know it’s really rare for a JRPG to allow you to explore the world after you’ve saved it, but Bravely Default II straight-up doesn’t care. For example, when you collect the Water MacGuffin flooding the one town, said town does not revert back to normal. Even having it gradually revert back as you advance through the game would be nice, but nope!

As far as the voice acting is concerned… Eh. I feel like the voices do fit the characters, but the performances themselves are inconsistent. When they’re being normal, it’s alright. However, a lot of the attempts at being emotional are about as effective as the one notorious instance of bad acting in the 1952 adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Of course, because I hate myself, I kept the dub on for the whole game. The only lines I enjoyed were some of the in-battle commentaries (like Adelle saying “What the?! You suck!” when inflicted with a debuff), but like any JRPG with in-battle commentaries (hi, Xenoblade), they got very grating. 

The characters are… meh. It’s not like there isn’t character development, but it is very bare-bones basic. There’s nothing that completely changes how I view a character, compared to—say—Sanji’s backstory in One Piece (the FULL backstory to be exact). The only remotely likeable character is Elvis, and that’s simply because it’s really hard to not like anyone with his dialect.

So, the gameplay. Since this is my first Bravely game, I have no idea what mechanics carry over from Bravely Default and what mechanics are new. As such, I’ll just explain everything! Hooray!

If you’ve played Final Fantasy and/or Octopath Traveler, a lot of mechanics will be super familiar. The stats are more-or-less self-explanatory. However, I must point out two outliers in the stats. For starters, aggro is a base stat that all characters have. Naturally, you want it to be higher on tanky people. There’s also a weight stat. All equipment increases weight, and if it goes over the maximum capacity, their base stats decrease even if the actual equipment is better than what they have.

In terms of combat, stuff if pretty self-explanatory. It plays more like classic Final Fantasy than anything else. You can toggle between single-targeting and multi-targeting for magic. Also, you can freely target enemies or allies with a move. Obviously, this means that zombies’ weakness to healing spells is accounted for. Enemies also have the annoying ability to counterattack, but thankfully, the game specifies if their attack is a counter. However, you’re going to want to have a plan to deal with counterattacks FAST. Eventually, it gets to the point where enemies—specifically bosses—will counter literally everything, and it’s obnoxious.

There are some new things, and by new, I mean things that were probably introduced in Bravely Default but since this is my first Bravely game it’s new to me. This game has BP, which sounds similar to the mechanic from Octopath Traveler. It’s not even remotely similar. Up to 3 BP can be used, sure, but instead of boosting one move, it adds multiple actions to a single turn. As much as I love the boosting in Octopath Traveler, this use of BP has a lot more utility; you can heal and then immediately attack an enemy, for instance.

The catch is that BP is not used in the same way as Octopath. Keeping in with the game’s title, every character has a Brave and Default action. Brave is what consumes BP, and Default is a defensive stance that gains BP. You more-or-less have to just spam Default, which can make battles kind of slow, especially early game. However, you don’t actually NEED BP in order to use Brave. You can go into the negatives with BP if you really want to. The risk is that the character will lose as many turns as they are in the negatives, and must wait until BP goes back to 0. To make things scarier, enemies can use Brave and Default, but are thankfully subject to the same penalties.

If there’s anything I don’t like about combat, it’s how stat modifiers work. Like in any good JRPG, stat buffs and debuffs can be stacked. The game makes sure to specifically tell you the maximum stacking effect, which is nice. But the problem is… it takes forever, and it feels like they don’t last long at all. Reusing the same buff does not add to the duration like in Octopath Traveler, so you have to constantly be watching for the visual indicator that the buffs are about to expire.

Although you only get four characters, jobs more than make up for it. The system works pretty much like it does in any JRPG with jobs. You have a main job and a sub-job. The important thing to know is that sub-jobs do not level-up in battle. What you’re encouraged to do is max-out a job, then make it a sub-job, since you’ll have all the abilities of that job no matter what. Every job has a passive skill that can be set to an ability list, even if you aren’t that job. The game straight-up recommends that you prioritize Freelancer, and use its JP-boosting skills to level up subsequent jobs.

Special moves are also different than in Octopath. Unlike in that game, where you learn the special after completely mastering the job, Bravely Default II‘s system has it to where each MacGuffin has to bless a character, allowing them to use the special of whatever job they have. The conditions to using a special are not by consuming 3 BP, but by using specific commands a LOT. They provide buffs to the entire party, but instead of lasting for a fixed number of turns, they expire in real time when the special theme that plays after using the move ends. These buffs aren’t helpful until more characters are blessed, in which case you can immediately use another special when the first one is about to end, to carry over the current buff along with the new one.

One problem I have with the jobs is that a number of them are… bad… ish. The Beastmaster, like Octopath Traveler, is capable of being really powerful, but I hate it. Just like in Octopath, you can capture weakened monsters to use in battle. Unlike Octopath, where you have a limited stock of monsters and a fixed amount of usages for them, Bravely Default II gives you unlimited stock, but only one use per monster. As such, you pretty much have to grind captures. It’s a pain to do, however. While you are able to see the monsters’ HP (unlike Octopath), your odds of capturing are pretty much impossible unless they have exactly one HP (which is easy to deal with thanks to the Mercy Strike move but it’s still annoying). Also, there are rare unique monsters that can be captured, and like Octopath, capturing them sucks. In fact, I couldn’t capture a single one of them! Since they’re rare, you probably would never use them, even when fighting the final boss. In the end, capturing monsters IS well worth it, for many bosses would’ve walled me if I hadn’t.

There are a few subtle distinctions that make this game different from classic Final Fantasy. For starters, gravity magic is real nasty because it does a fixed percentage of your MAX HP as opposed to your current HP. However, the most important distinction is weapons with special effects. For example, the staff that casts Cure is in this game, but unlike the classic games, where its attack is changed to Cure, you actually need to use it as an item to cast Cure in this game. This change does give these weapons more utility, but it would be nice if the game’s eighty thousand hints included one about that mechanic.

Just in case you didn’t want to finish the game in under a hundred hours, the protagonist has the ability to explore the seven seas on his own. To put it bluntly, this game has one of those “send characters off to do something then come back the next day for goodies” things. The thing about this mechanic is that it only works with the Switch in sleep mode while the game is running, meaning that you’ll be increasing playtime by a LOT. It’s a good mechanic if you have a full-time job that isn’t gaming; you can boot up Bravely Default II, have him shove off, and reap the rewards after work.

They also have a new Triple Triad: B ‘n’ D. It’s a simple yet insanely complex card game about occupying territories. I have accumulated many losses (since I suck at tabletop ANYTHING, even a fake tabletop anything). But in the end, it’s worth doing (even if it will gouge out your eyes). There is a “No Keepsies” rule that you can use so that you don’t lose cards when you are defeated, but you can’t dictate the rules until you obtain one of each card the opponent has. If there’s someone you really don’t want to fight multiple times, fight someone you can change the rules with to get extra card points, and then take all of the tougher opponent’s cards in one fell swoop after beating them once. As is Triple Triad tradition, make sure you save scum before a tough match!

As much as I loved Octopath Traveler visually and audio-ly, Bravely Default II disappoints by comparison. While the towns are created in beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds (which you can actually tell where to go since it’s not a PS1 game), the overworld is about as bare-bones as the story. There’s next-to-no variety in terms of landmarks and geography, plus dungeons tend to be very easy to get lost in. The soundtrack is one of the more forgettable I’ve heard in a JRPG. In fact, most of the songs are all remixes of a basic theme depending on the region.

In terms of difficulty, Bravely Default II is just like any JRPG, at least on Normal Mode; early game is rough because of a lack of options, then it steadily gets easier as you get more powerful. Also similar to the genre, most regular mobs won’t be that troublesome (as long as you don’t have too many jobs that clash with each other), but bosses can rough you up, even if the game considers you overleveled. There are superbosses on the world map, and those are what you’d expect them to be.

I was already over ninety hours by the time I beat this game, but guess what—it has a post-game. However, it’s not just a post-game, it’s the true endgame. Beating the “final boss” gives you a lousy ending, and reloading the save will grant the cast a premonition of that ending, triggering an entirely new chapter. There’s new quests and story beats, as well as the true final boss and ending. The big addition is the ability to go into portals where you fight past bosses to be able to raise corresponding Jobs three additional levels. They’re worth doing, but they SUCK. The past bosses attack in groups of several at a time, and all gain 1 BP as a counterattack for literally EVERY action. Even if you could use a move to reduce their BP, that move could in itself trigger the counterattack.

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Final Verdict: 7.35/10

Bravely Default II is a solid JRPG which harkens back to the good old days. But to be honest, I wasn’t entirely fond of it. I think Octopath Traveller—by comparison—would be a far better game if it weren’t for the invisible encounters and the tedium that comes with its Hunter job. Heck, part of me thinks Octopath is irrefutably better DESPITE those flaws. Double heck, I like DQXI better than this. I dunno, this could be the fact that I maranthoned Bravely Default II talking, but the game feels kind of just… there. To tell the truth, I didn’t even bother finishing the post-game content. I recommend Bravely Default II if you’re a diehard JRPG fan who doesn’t have a full-time job outside of gaming.

Attack on Titan: A Mainstream Series That I… Love?

Preface: If you’re wondering how I already have a review of Attack on Titan the day after it finished, don’t worry; I didn’t pirate it! There are official channels through which to finish this manga right now, at least in the U.S. One is to read the last leg of it on Crunchyroll’s manga tab that they actually updated after the death of Flash even though most people never use it. Alternatively, you can buy the remaining chapters on BookWalker for about 2 USD each. Of course, you’ll have to have read all thirty-two currently published U.S. releases for it to work. But you know what, at least you’d be supporting the actual creator!


There are types of stories that have existed since the dawn of man. Romance, for example, as full of BS as it is, is one of the most enduring story types of all time. Stories like Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan are insanely common; plucky teens thrust into a world of strife against some “mysterious enemy” that the main character “happens” to be “special” enough to save the world from. However, Attack on Titan is probably one of the best variations of this story ever created. And here’s why.

The plot is nothing new. We have the Titans—the “mysterious enemy”—ravaging mankind and driving them into hiding behind some walls (“But what about the possibility of an AERIAL ATTACK?!” Squidward Tentacles exclaims). After the designated first-chapter-death, the “plucky teens” join the designated “cool fighter people” and, well, fight the Titans.

I’m gonna tell you straight. You likely already know what’s going to happen, thankfully minus the dumb romance sideplot. As much as this series excels at foreshadowing and build-up, you don’t need it. If you’ve read stuff like this before, then you can probably make several ballpark guesses on what the low-down of this manga’s world is and at least one guess would probably be correct.

But you know what, strong execution beats lack of originality. The rules of how the different units of the military work are all thought out (even if the Survey Corps are the only ones who matter), the “parkour gear” or whatever it’s called is one of the coolest things I have ever seen, and there’s always something engaging going on in terms of plot progress. Even during a later arc that is notorious for its utter lack of Titan combat, the manga consistently keeps the momentum going.

Most of the time, I’m not a fan of “human” characters. But unlike cardboard boxes such as Rimuru Tempest from TenSura, Isayama actually seems to understand the definition OF a human being in the first place, especially what it’s like to be a teenager who has to live in a world of despair, and to have their perception of their established facts of life turned upside down numerous times. Wow, that was all one sentence…

First off, the three main characters—Eren, Armin, and Mikasa—somehow manage to maintain a relatively platonic relationship throughout the whole series. Two male characters and one female character, all of which are childhood friends, is a perfect love triangle, and any [bad] YA author would’ve done it in a heartbeat and ruined the story forever. Mikasa clearly has some level of “thing”-ness for Eren, but it’s seldom ham-fisted into your face but instead shown visually merely by the scarf that she wears; a gift from him when they first met. The fourth main character is Best Boy Levi, who is raw badassery and intellect rolled into one handsome boy. What’s there to dislike? The supporting cast is also phenomenal. From gambit-happy Erwin Smith, to potato-eating Sasha Blouse, to Actual Best Girl Krista, these kids are surprisingly easy to love.

This manga warrants a reread, because re-experiencing the story by watching the anime from the beginning, after having read past chapter ninety, really shows how organically they have developed over time. I cringed at the first episode, at Eren’s incessant whining, thinking, “Is this really the SAME GUY who I grew emotionally attached to?” THIS is character development at its finest.

“Rough around the edges” is an understatement for the art in this manga. Based on the “rules of art” that have been established over the years, Attack on Titan has “objectively” bad art. It’s not smooth nor crisp, but for me, it somehow “works” (It’s as if art was never meant to be assigned rules to begin with…).

If there is one “rule of art” that it follows, it’s gesture drawing. The many (MANY) tiny strokes in Isayama’s technique helps to convey motion in a spectacular fashion. I didn’t need the anime’s sakuga to feel the force of the parkour gear as our intrepid heroes flew through cities and forests, striking Titans as they went. All this in addition to his great sense of good panelwork makes Attack on Titan a tightly paced read. Not even the dialogue-driven chapters feel like a waste of time.

For the last paragraph, I’ll touch on the one thing that always ends up being divisive for long-running battle shounen series: the final act. Don’t worry; I’ll word it in the least spoilery way possible. Late-ish in Attack on Titan, an epic battle—one of the best in the series—unfolds in spectacular glory. But the aftermath opens up a can of worms that drastically changes the entire tone of the manga. Although it is still a great arc, the biggest problem is that it introduces a metric ton of new characters that I honestly didn’t care about, let alone remember their names in the first place. It also didn’t help that this was the arc where I had caught up on the most recent chapters, and ended up playing the waiting game most often. Since I’m always pressed for time, I can’t reread volumes to make sure I still remember stuff. 

And honestly, like a lot of long battle shounen, the plot gets pretty complicated. There’s even the possibility that it was retconned at some point. But you know what, I still love this manga to death. You gotta give mangakas some benefit of the doubt, since a lot of them are forced to make this stuff up as they go along. No matter how confusing it got, I still loved Attack on Titan all the way through. Isayama knows how to make a story feel engaging regardless of what’s happening. That takes talent.

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Final Verdict: 9.8/10

Attack on Titan is one of my favorite manga of all time. Isayama draws (no pun intended) influence from the very best of Western culture, without using any of the BS, to make a fantastic battle shounen series that miraculously maintains a consistent state of cohesion for a decade-long runtime. I’d recommend it if you want a shounen series that’s light on the fanservice, but I also just recommend it in general. The biggest issue will likely be the art if it doesn’t suit your tastes, but other than that this manga is a masterpiece through and through.

DuckTales 2017: The Reboot I Have Zero Nostalgia For

PREFACE: I know I’m supposed to be on hiatus, but I ended up backed up with way too many posts. I finished THREE more Oz books in this time, plus I decided to review Amphibia by each individual season. I also have a several that have been ready to go for months, but never had the time to publish them. Since I deactivated my Twitter, and don’t even read posts on my Facebook outside of the bands I follow (thank goodness they have a Favorites system), I should have no worries about spoilers for the Attack on Titan finale coming out very soon, especially since the final season of the anime is getting a part two.


Before we begin (Hooray! Another preface!), I have a confession to make. I was a sheltered nineties kid. I never watched Spongebob Squarepants until I was well into middle school because it and other cartoons were too extreme for me (and, well, because I would’ve probably mimicked some of the dangerous cartoon stunts and killed myself). As a result, there were a LOT of popular shows from the late 20th Century through the turn of the 21st Century that I never watched, and would always feel a little disconnected whenever my favorite YouTubers would discuss them at length. I never got to see Dexter’s Laboratory, Powerpuff Girls, Wild Thornberrys, Hey Arnold… and even as a budding Disney fan, I never got to see DuckTales (I was only allowed to watch Mickey’s House of Mouse, among some of the stuff on Disney Jr. back when it was Playhouse Disney). But because I heard good things, I reluctantly dove into the 2017 reboot of DuckTales without any of the nostalgia and prior experience that I would’ve wanted to have going into it. Well, I suppose I can view it OBJECTIVELY then. Oh, by the way, since I know nothing about the old DuckTales or the other ‘90s Disney shows, I don’t know what’s new or old (also, I didn’t bother looking any of it up).

In DuckTales, Donald Duck is unemployed (not surprising). So, he dumps his three nephews onto his rich Uncle, Scrooge McDuck. The guy doesn’t give a rat’s arse about them… at least not until after they end up accompanying him to the lost city of Atlantis. After that, the boys go on all sorts of wild adventures with Scrooge (and plucky girl-duck, Webbey), where all kinds of hilarity ensues.

But it sure doesn’t feel that way sometimes. Similar to Gravity Falls, DuckTales has some semblance of an overarching narrative, but it’s disjointed in season one. Some early episodes end in unresolved cliffhangers, and made me do a double-take a couple of times. Fortunately, once season two starts, it’s practically a straight-up linear narrative, with episodes picking up from where the previous ones left off. Sometimes.

Unfortunately, the context of the thing is also not entirely clear. I figured that, as a reboot, it would have a number of nods and carry-overs from the original show for the sake of being faithful. However, the way everything is all reintroduced leads me to believe it’s a sequel. The villains clearly already know Scrooge, after all. At the same time, it could be a prequel, because it’s established as the first time in a decade that Donald speaks to Scrooge, plus it’s the first time that the triplets see Scrooge at all. Also, Daisy Duck is introduced in Season 3, and it is very apparent that they had never met her before. But then… how do you explain the lack of Webby and others in stuff like Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas? OR MAYBE it’s in a different universe entirely?! Regardless, DuckTales definitely expects you to be acquainted with Donald Duck, his three nephews, and Scrooge McDuck at the very least. If you grew up with a TV, then you probably passed that part.

So, enough about structure… is the SHOW actually any good?! The answer is a resounding “Yes, Definitely, Absolutely!” (Oh wait, wrong show…). DuckTales has the same modern and clever sense of humor that Disney has consistently been able to nail since the start of the 2010s (knowing what audiences find funny is part of being as mainstream as Disney). There are also some great meta commentaries, like the first Darkwing Duck episode, which is a commentary on reboots of popular I.P.s (and a commentary on the show itself as a result). The show also sets out to answer some of the age-old questions surrounding the cast… such as the identity of the triplet’s mother, Della Duck. Additionally, I’m pretty sure that this is the first time in Disney history that they started making fun of Donald’s… er… accent. Unfortunately, there is some melodrama at various points in this series, but it’s a bit more justified than Gravity Falls, as it helps resolve flaws that these beloved characters have had for decades. It’s so weird seeing new developments for these characters who’ve been around for so long… and I love it (and they probably did half of this stuff in the old show).

As expected, DuckTales has a large ensemble of memorable characters. Scrooge is pretty much exactly the same as he always was: daft, yet a freaking bad-ass. Donald is also the same, which I’m not complaining about, because… well… he’s been my favorite out of the three O.G.s for twenty years. I know he can be a big S.O.B., but I dunno, I always loved the guy. Also, whenever he enters his berserker state, it’s a show of force that should place him on any Top Ten Most Powerful Anime Characters list. Like I said before, he gets amazing new character development thanks to the whole Della thing, but you also get inside Donald’s head on a much more intimate level than ever before, and possibly the most in Disney history.

Most surprisingly, the triplets are legitimately enjoyable… at times. Huey, Dewey, and Louie were once all little turds who always caused trouble, but now they’re little turds who always cause trouble while having defined personalities. Huey’s brainy, Dewey’s reckless, and Louie is… er… unchanged. They also must’ve entered puberty, because they actually sound like people instead of high-pitched Donalds. They get great character development that helps resolve their shortcomings, which is why I thought this was a sequel, because they’re definitely turds all the way through in older stuff. Unfortunately, due to the fact that this is a Saturday morning cartoon, it hardly feels like they really grow. Louie can learn to not be a greedy jerk in one episode, but then proceeds to keep being a greedy jerk in another episode. These characters need to have poor judgement, or else… Who can teach our kids important American values?!

In addition to the main ducks, we have some newcomers… I think (this is what happens when you don’t watch the old show!). One of them is Webbey (whose grandmother is swole as all heck, and may or may not be in a doujin with Donald). She is literally Mabel from Gravity Falls (down to having a grappling hook), so I have no complaints here. What I do have complaints about is a girl named Lena that she befriends early on. While I have no problem with her personality, the audience is shown that Lena is in cahoots with one of Scrooge’s old nemeses (who I presume is carried over from the old show?). This results in, yes, an American Dragon-type situation, and if you read my old review of Marissa Meyer’s Renegades, you’d know how I feel about that. (at least that whole arc concludes by the end of season 1). 

Fortunately, there’s always a silver lining, and that lining is Launchpad. He’s basically Soos from Gravity Falls, except even more brawn-over-brain. His dialogue and lovable idioticness is always entertaining. In addition, there’s Scrooge’s kind-of-evil mad scientist, Gyro Gearloose. Gyro has an intern named Fenton, who ends up becoming a tokusatsu hero named Gizmoduck. A ways into season 2, Della does return to the McDuck household. Other than being—pardon my French—a hot mom, she doesn’t have much experience at being a mom, and she has a lot of character development to go through. They also integrate some obscure characters, such as the aforementioned Darkwing Duck, as well as the Three Caballeros, to introduce them to a new generation (and me). 

Unlike Gravity Falls, DuckTales has some great antagonists (Oh snap). Flintheart Glomgold (who I assume is a carryover?) is basically the Scottish villain from Kim Possible combined with Drakken from Kim Possible, making him a fun guy with hilariously over-the-top plans—I mean—schemes. There’s also the Beagle Boys (who are all brothers from a single mother), and Mark Beaks, a living incarnation of social media and clickbait. Oh right, and there’s Magica de Spell, who is just Duck Maleficent.

Disney doesn’t cheap out (well, not always). The animation in DuckTales is fluid, vibrant, and appealing, with a neat, comic book aesthetic. The new designs aren’t as jarring to get used to as the thing that I refer to as “Modern Mouse” (unless you can’t handle Donald’s EDGY, BLACK sailor suit). The instances of CG are pretty obvious, but that’s probably my anime-watching PTSD talking.

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Final Verdict: 9.75/10

This version of DuckTales has been fantastic from start to finish. Of course, it’s not perfect, but it’s definitely my favorite Disney Channel program (sorry, Gravity Falls). I recommend it if you want to see classic Disney characters in a new, modern light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Final Verdict: 9.45/10

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

Soul: Pixar’s Most Existential Film

I’m not one of those vocal people who thinks things like “2020 is the year of suffering” because of the media’s scare tactics regarding COVID-19, and their ability to withhold anything legitimately positive. Despite me knowing the actual facts about COVID, it was hard on me as well. Even as someone who’s not active on social media, I am around a number of people who are, and they happen to only focus on one side of the story. So yeah, I’ve broken into tears at least once a week all year. Overly long preface aside, Pixar decided to give us a Christmas present: Soul. I didn’t know what it was about, but I had to see it.

Mild spoilers in this paragraph, if you have no idea what the movie is about. In Soul, a man named Joe Gardner dreams of playing jazz with the big boys—wait, wrong movie—some lady named Dorthea Williams. He manages to land a gig, but dies on the way over to the venue. Now that he’s in purgatory, he’s gotta find a way back into his body. And his only ticket is in a literal wayward soul named Twenty-Two, who wants nothing to do with life.

Boy, this movie is sure… something else. First off, it’s definitely a twist for Disney to have a movie about one of its many, many, MANY deceased characters instead of someone who’s, well, alive. It’s kind of hilarious, actually. In any case, Pixar’s interpretation of the afterworld is more than just a world of never ending happiness where the sun shines both day and night; it’s that usual Pixar sense of imagination. Also, this movie shows just how much more lenient we’ve become with cursing in front of kids. They say the words “hell” and “crap”, which were more than enough to earn you a trip to the former back when I was a kid. Well, Disney was also the first to depict a clergyman and humanity itself in villainous roles in animated media, so… yeah.

Soul has your usual Pixar magic in terms of the storytelling. It knows how to bounce between being hilarious and emotional without feeling inorganic. This one knows how to hammer in the feels, but it gets bizarrely terrifying at times. It’s not outright horror; think along the lines of one of those psychological indie games like Arise: A Simple Story

Like any Disney or Pixar movie, Soul is definitely not new in terms of social commentary. Not to spoil it, but the takeaway is definitely something you’ve seen before, unless you’re literally the target demographic of the movie and have never seen it before. Once again, it’s something that anyone can relate to. Unfortunately, due to the fact that we HAVE to go to work and pay our bills, Soul‘s message will probably be forgotten as easily as the other times the message has been communicated.

The characters are some of the better in Pixar’s filmography. Joe Gardner is an interesting case, not just because he dies, but because he’s the oldest lead protagonist I’ve seen in a Disney animated feature. Given the nature of the movie, his journey is a bit more spiritual than most Disney flicks; definitely keeping up the trend of abandoning the tired “good vs. evil” themes of their past. As you can expect, his father is dead. Big surprise for Disney. But honestly, I feel like this is the first time a Disney parent’s death actually meant something to the plot since Bambi. That’s something at least.

Other than Joe, we have the aforementioned Twenty-Two, who’s the sarcastic and rambunctious type. She and Joe end up learning the same life lesson through each other. Running purgatory is/are a bizarre being named Jerry, along with what serves as the main antagonist: Terry. They’re pretty deadpan, but have some of the better lines in the movie. 

I shouldn’t even bother discussing visuals because Pixar pretty much always nails it. Soul is simply stunning, as good at looking both photorealistic and undeniably cartoony as any Pixar film. The movie does, at least, showcase some of the most abstract and experimental visuals I’ve seen in their entire career. Soul honestly feels like a Pixar short but as a feature film instead. I’d say that they did a great job considering COVID separated the whole team, but this movie was probably in post production since 2018.

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

Soul is one of the best Pixar movies I’ve ever seen. Everything about it is impeccably executed, and is definitely what the doctor ordered for this year. I recommend Soul if you want a straight-up great movie, especially if you’re a Disney fan.

And P.S.: Disney, can you please do the whole “release movies on Disney+ the same day they would’ve come out in theatres” more often, maybe forever?

Dragon Quest Builders 2: The Best Minecraft Clone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Final Verdict: 9/10

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

Chainsaw Man: Too Seinen for Shounen Jump?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Final Verdict: 9.15/10

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

Crown Tundra Has Truly Legendary Levels of… Grinding (Pokémon DLC Review)

I’m a big Pokémon fan, but I’ll admit that the series has been incredibly inconsistent. Sword and Shield are games that do a lot right, while also doing some things bafflingly wrong, compared to previous generations. The very vocal critics on social media don’t help the series’ case either, especially nowadays. The Isle of Armor does make a lot of improvements over the core game, but we really can’t have a final say on Gen 8 without playing through its second wave of DLC: Crown Tundra.

In the Crown Tundra, your character boards a train to the titular location and finds itself confronting some person’s very energetic father. After whipping his butt, his disgruntled child uses the opportunity to skedaddle. You join up with dad, and he makes you catch some Legendary Pokémon.

This campaign somehow has even less story than Isle of Armor. Literally, the entirety of Crown Tundra revolves around catching Legendary Pokémon. A LOT of Legendary Pokémon. I don’t know if Sword has a different cast, but for characters, I got Peony and his daughter Peonia. Peonia is kind of a brat, but her father is a fun, energetic, wholesome guy. They imply that he’s related to Rose somehow, but I don’t care deeply enough about Pokémon lore to look into it.

Structurally, I think this is the better of the two Pokémon DLCs… to a point. At the start, Peony gives you three Legendary Pokémon quests, which can be done in any order (it’s been a while since they gave you that much freedom). They’re all introduced with a hilariously long title and a fanfare, giving Peony even more personality (although I think Looker has done the same thing once or twice?). 

The main quest is to help the Crown Tundra’s Legendary Pokémon, Calyrex, who possesses Peony in order to talk to you. I think this is the first time in the main series that you directly engage with a Pokémon. You also have a case where you have to pick one of two forms of Legendary Pokémon by planting a certain type of carrot to lure its steed, which further incentivizes spending the $180 on both Sword and Shield (with DLC) in order to get 100% completion in either game. Anyhow, Calyrex is a pure Pyschic-Type, and his steed is either Ghost or Ice-Type. Calyrex and the steed are an instance of a fusion Pokémon (the first since Gen 5), and it gets both of their Abilities at once. 

For the other quests, there is a return of the Regis. As expected, you have to solve riddles. They are nowhere near as obtuse as the Braille stuff in Gen 3, but in case you can’t solve one, Peony will give you some helpful advice (not that I actually used him because I was overthinking or anything >_>). Gathering all three regular Regis at the final door does not give you Regigigas, but a choice between brand-new Electric and Dragon-Type Regis. The third quest is the most interesting because you actually get to catch regional variants of Gen 1’s Legendary birds. They’re roaming Legendaries, but unlike in games of old, you simply just run into them as they fly around in the overworld and fight them straight-up; definitely an upgrade.

Unfortunately, they seem to be following Isle of Armor’s model of making incredibly grindy mechanics to actually give you bang for your buck. No matter what you do, 99% of your time on Crown Tundra will be spent in the Max Lair. It is both a fun and awful idea. Basically, the Max Lair is a gauntlet of randomly generated Max Raid battles. Your team (or just you if you play with A.I.) picks a path and fights whatever is there. You can run into berries or helpful people along the way; either a backpacker who can give you a selection of hold items or a scientist who offers a random rental Pokémon. You fight four consecutive Max Raid battles, ending with a random Dynamax Legendary Pokémon. The big plus is that the Dynamax Pokémon here are nowhere near as bad as in the overworld (mainly because they don’t have shields), but the fact that you have to fight four of them in a row is rough because the “if four Pokémon faint, you lose” rule applies to the entire thing instead of individual fights.

What spices things up is that everyone gets random rental Pokémon. These rentals are actually pretty good, and a lot of interesting strategies can come up. I imagine this mode is amazing with friends, but as a noob who doesn’t have friends or a Nintendo Switch Online subscription, well… Max Lair sucks. For starters, you can get a bad setup of rental Pokémon options versus the Pokémon you encounter in the actual dungeon. And while you can catch a beaten Dynamax Pokémon and switch it out of your team, the fifteen seconds you get to decide a path is nowhere near enough to optimize a root. And if you have A.I., one of them will always switch out for the newly defeated Dynamax Pokémon, even if you choose not to catch it, and even if it has a type disadvantage against a future opponent. Save-scumming works, but you eventually have to spend Dynite Ore for doing it too often. “What’s Dynite Ore?” you ask. Dynite Ore is your reward for playing Max Lair. Completing a run only nets you nine. NINE.  And to get the good stuff, including an item that gives your Pokémon its Hidden Ability, you need hundreds of the stuff. You do unlock an endless mode that gives you more Dynite Ore in exchange for not getting to keep any caught Pokémon, but I didn’t dabble in it. Overall, Max Lair WILL kick your butt, especially if you’re using A.I., and since you only have a vague idea of what Pokémon you’re up against, you won’t know if it’s worth save-scumming for a particular Legendary. The even better part is that you only keep one rental Pokémon at the end of a run. And guess what, some of the regular Pokémon you encounter are exclusive to Max Lair, which means you’ll still be playing through it even if you catch every Legendary! This also includes the opportunity to catch Ultra Beasts once you complete Crown Tundra, but I couldn’t find a single one in the attempts I made.

Other than that, I presume that completing both DLC campaigns unlocks the Galarian Star Tournament (since that’s how it happened with me), which is a repeatable team battle royale thing that will pit you and a partner against other Gym Leaders and characters. It’s easy if you have Hop, since he has his Gen 8 Legendary which can pretty much eat anything that isn’t Fire-Type. In other news, Peonia alludes to some weird woman who runs around at night, but I couldn’t get that to trigger. I tend to always miss some kind of post-game quest or whatnot in Pokémon games, so take this review with a grain of salt.

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Final Verdict: 8/10

While Crown Tundra is very small (and VERY grindy), I believe that it, along with the Isle of Armor, are a step in the right direction for Pokémon as a whole. They take the open-world mechanic of the Wild Area, but give it more variety and substance. Plus, the idea of putting dedicated sidequests in an area is cool. If they take these same ideas and integrate them into a future core game, then we might have something good. But of course, knowing the series’ trends, any new idea they implement will be discarded, regardless of how objectively good it is. 

Overall, I’m not entirely sure if the Expansion Pass is worth it. Obviously, you need it if you want completion, but both areas are still incredibly grindy. I kind of agree with the critics that the series hasn’t been the best it could be, but that’s mainly because I love Black and White 2 too much (maybe I’d do a retrospective on it if I had time or the willingness to erase either of my save files). Well, with Pokémon, I’m willing to pull a Star Wars fan and blindly hope that they’ll eventually release something really good despite them very consistently failing at every turn (Ooooh snap). Well, this got long-winded. Basically, I recommend the DLC if you’re a Pokémon veteran and just love the games in general.

The Adventurers Guild Trilogy: Social Commentary for Kids!

Sometimes, the title of a series is so generic and unremarkable that I almost feel like it’s a red herring. I ask myself, “It’s trying so hard to look boring, but does that mean it’s actually legitimately good?” That’s a gambit that I hoped would pay off when I read through The Adventurers Guild series, written by Zack Loran Clark and Nicolas Eliopulous.

A half-elf boy named Zed and a typical human named Brock are ready to join one of Freestone’s many Guilds. They are picked for the Mages and Merchants Guilds respectively; however, this series isn’t titled The Adventurers Guild for nothing. Alasabel Frond, the leader of the titular Guild, yoinks them right out of their respective Guilds and drafts them into the Adventurers Guild. Now they have to protect the world from monsters known as Dangers, and like true warriors, they get nothing for it!

The Adventurers Guild isn’t quite as generic as it looks (key words: “quite as”, but we’ll get to that later). They at least put some good effort into the magic system. Each element is tied to a specific spiritual plane (or something), and they all have a signature that Zed can detect. The writers also pull no punches when it comes to the Dangers’ designs; get used to tentacles coming out of faces and other areas. The prose is also all-around great, but V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic taught me that good writing and good storytelling are two completely different talents. 

A lot of things irked me about The Adventurers Guild. One is that—like every modern fantasy and its grandma—there’s social commentary on a lot of bad -isms in society (none of which are commercialism). In addition to my problem with how heavy-handed it gets, The Adventurers Guild makes it unrealistic. And while I normally don’t mind a lack of realism, this case isn’t merely “Ooooh, magic! What is physics again?”; it’s a clash with the human mind itself. 

You’d think that people’d get their sh** together to fight a one-dimensional evil alien threat to the whole species. And yet, the bad -isms are still in effect in the world of The Adventurers Guild! Every authority figure in Freestone tries to get Frond arrested because of sexism. And when a group of elves seeks refuge at the start of the second book, they’re treated with unconditional racism. It felt so arbitrary, that the bad -isms were only there for the sake of bad -isms. I’ll acknowledge that the hatred against Zed is justified to an extent. A half-elf warlock is what caused the Dangers in the first place, giving the whole race a bad rep. But that doesn’t excuse the cases of sexism or anything else, really. 

Alright, alright. For the sake of argument, let’s just take the bad -isms at face value: a conflict in the story that needs to be resolved. But what is there to talk about? The thing with The Adventurers Guild is that beyond the social commentaries, the main plot really isn’t that interesting. Dangers are out there, go kill ‘em. That’s really it. 

But it damn well tries to be different, that’s for sure. It succeeds to an extent in the two main characters, Zed and Brock. These two both have secrets that they keep from each other, and it’s all “Ooooooh” and stuff. Unfortunately, they have very plastic and flat personalities. The rest of the characters… are just as flat. They’re relatable, which—if you’re not anal about writing—would make them super-duper amazing and lovable. But besides the occasional dumb “kid-like” interactions they have with each during their down time, a lot of their dialgoue feels forced. For someone like me, who has grown to love narcissists like Senku from Dr. Stone, I couldn’t care less about the cast of The Adventurers Guild. I had to do ridiculous things like picturing a character as Lord Don’ator to not fall asleep! The third book does introduce a pretty witty new character, who exists for sarcastic comments, and shows up too late to offset everyone else. 

And speaking of the third book, let’s talk about it in the least spoilery way possible. Remember when I said “beyond the social commentaries, the main plot really isn’t that interesting”? Well, that shows. Night of Dangers completely does away with social undertones and becomes a tedious slog that’s just as cliché as anything else, despite how the trilogy desperately tried to avoid it. The only saving grace is the admittedly enjoyable climax, but saying that it offsets everything else is a stretch. One character even deflects from the main issue super intentionally and it’s never explained why. 

Speaking of intentionally, that word is everything wrong with The Adventurers Guild. Virtually none of it felt natural; each story beat was 110% deliberate. As much as having a plan for the narrative is good (in fact, it’s essential), you can’t plan literally everything. You need to have a stream of consciousness effect when writing, which allows some aspects of the story to tell themselves. And if you end up needing to pull something out of your ass, go back and edit earlier parts so that it has proper context. I can’t describe exactly why, but I just felt in my writer-brain that this whole series was… wrong.

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Final Verdict: 6/10

The Adventurers Guild tried a lot of things, and it all felt flat to me. In the end, I have no idea what the takeaway of this series is. Is it that racism is bad, or that you shouldn’t keep secrets? Whatever it is, there’s definitely something out there that’s conveyed it better. While this isn’t the worst series on the market, it is still just about as bland as its name implies.

Bug Fables Manages to Scratch that Paper Mario Itch… to a Point (Full Game Review)

Personally, I’ve always had a vendetta against indie games, not because I think a lot of them are bad, but because a lot of them are too inherently good, to the point where they can get away with having flaws. For example, many of them, such as Undertale or Fez, rely on unique aesthetics and gimmicks to stand out from the crowd (side note: ‘Megalovania’ is the most overrated videogame song of all time). Others, like What Remains of Edith Finch or Firewatch, completely disregard gameplay in order to appeal to raw human emotion in ways more intimate than most triple-A games. In addition to that, indie games having that inherent appeal of “the mom-and-pop business that does better than the corrupt, money-grubbing corporation”, and they sometimes have a better sense of what the market wants than actual triple-A companies. One example is the recent RPG, Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling, made to be a successor to the classic Paper Mario that we have wanted for over a decade and have yet to receive. Paper Mario: The Origami King is probably good for what it is (I heard mixed things), Bug Fables claims to be what the doctor actually ordered. Since it’s apparently pretty short (for an RPG), I decided to see how it measures up to classic Paper Mario.

In the kingdom of Bugaria, some ant queen lady wanted to find this MacGuffin called the Everlasting Sapling to become immortal. She failed, and so her daughter started the Explorer’s Association in order to hire adventurers to do the job for her. Three intrepid heroes, Kabbu, Vi, and Leif set out to find it and become heroes.

It takes only five seconds to see how influenced by Paper Mario this thing is. From the presence of Action Commands, to its art style, its writing, and… piss-poor inventory space, Bug Fables tries very hard to be the new Paper Mario. In order to find out if it succeeds, we need to cover one aspect of the game at a time (and, of course, compare them to Paper Mario).

The narrative is simple as all heck. In each chapter, you go to a dungeon, beat a boss, and get a thing. It comes off as predictable, but in actuality, does an admirable job of throwing curveballs at you. It is straightforward, though, and I didn’t really find it that gripping from a raw emotional standpoint. It has some cool lore, but I never found it particularly fascinating myself. What did surprise me was the cast of characters. The three bugs take advantage of all having dialogue (unlike Paper Mario with its silent protagonist), and use that to have a number of fun interactions with each other. 

But of course, Paper Mario fans care about the writing. Bug Fables‘ writing is definitely great. It even has a lot of characters muttering off-hand comments beneath the main speech bubble, just like in Paper Mario. The three main characters also share some chemistry that isn’t possible in a Paper Mario game (Best Girl Vi is especially a treat among the other characters). Unfortunately, the writing and characters don’t completely fill in the void for me. While both are great, there’s something special about the classic Paper Mario games, and even Super Paper Mario. Bug Fables’ doesn’t have anyone as lovable as, say, Koopa Jr., Pennington, Flint Cragley, Francis, and DEFINITELY no one like good ol’ Bowser. Additionally, the bug theming makes some character designs blur together for me.

Graphically, Bug Fables is beautiful. The game’s simple color palette and thick outlines scream that classic Paper Mario look; even the area transition paths have the same triangle pattern to them! Unfortunately, there isn’t much in terms of creative level design. I’m willing to give the game the benefit of the doubt in the event that there’s a sequel, but for now, the areas—while being creatively set in backyard objects like a sandbox and a tire—are your typical videogame biomes. Even the first Paper Mario, which had the most generic world, at least had something like the Toy Box. Eventually, Thousand-Year Door would go above and beyond by having places like a monochromatic forest with a Pikmin-related dungeon, an arena, and a luxury express train; even the main hub area is iconic for how slummy it is compared to other parts of the Mario universe. Bug Fables just doesn’t hit that nail on the head, except in the final area, but that place is unceremoniously short compared to Paper Mario final dungeons.

Furthermore, I didn’t find the soundtrack to be super amazing. It has a lot of great tracks, which feel retro in that uniquely indie-type way. But for me, they fall short of Paper Mario soundtracks, especially Thousand Year Door‘s. I get that it’s trying to be its own thing, but Paper Mario is so much more involved and varied than Bug Fables. I’m sorry, but that’s just how it is IMO.

Paper Mario is known for great puzzles, and Bug Fables steps it up a notch. At first, everyone only has one ability, but throughout the game, you get new powers which open up all sorts of possibilities. Unfortunately, there is one particular ability that I don’t like, and it’s Vi’s Beemerang. In theory, it serves as the Kooper or Koops of Bug Fables; you throw it, or hold it in midair and release it. Unlike Kooper or Koops, who only attacked left or right, the Beemerang can be thrown in eight directions. But due to the game’s own artistic style… THERE ARE ONLY FOUR DIRECTIONAL SPRITES FOR THE CHARACTERS. As a result, I found myself throwing it in the completely wrong direction at times, which bugged (HA) the living daylights out of me. 

Fortunately, Bug Fables excels with its combat, which has more depth than Paper Mario‘s system. The basic mechanics are the same: Each person has HP, TP which is shared, and MP used to equip medals (a.k.a. badges). Action Commands are a thing, and you’ll have to learn them from scratch regardless of your Paper Mario experience.

What’s most important is turn order. Each person gets one action in battle (unless you use field attacks to stun an enemy, in which case you’d get two attacks for whoever the leading character is), and you can attack in any order with B. Their position, from front to middle to back, is based on your formation in the field. Like Final Fantasy, people in front deal more damage and get aggroed by enemies, while the opposite is true for the back row. You can change your party’s turn order in battle as well. Oh, and a BIG improvement over Paper Mario is that anyone can Tattle (a.k.a. Spy on) an enemy; no need for that one party member who has no use other than to Tattle!

You will NEED to get used to manipulating who attacks in what order. A lot of your party’s attacks can exploit enemy weaknesses, such as using Kabbu’s horn to flip enemies over. There’s also the Turn Relay, which sacrifices a character’s turn to give someone else an additional one. However, one thing to be aware of is that a character’s damage output weakens if they have to attack more than once in a round (this also applies to starting out with advantage). Make sure you’re going to really benefit despite the decrease in power!

Another thing you NEED to be able to do is Blocking. The mechanic is just about the same as it is in Paper Mario: press A before an enemy attack lands and you’ll reduce the damage. Doing it with extra-perfect timing results in a Super Block that reduces the damage further. One good improvement over Paper Mario is that any party member who isn’t being targeted will turn transparent, making it easier to time your blocks. 

When it comes to the difficulty level of Bug Fables, ooooh… this is where it gets iffy. Right at the beginning of the game, you can obtain a medal called Hard Mode. It costs no MP to equip (thank goodness), but it boosts all enemies’ strength in exchange for more EXP and rewards. The game becomes VERY difficult in this state. You will need to not just get good at Blocks, but Super Blocks as well, otherwise, regular mobs will beat you within inches of your life. Bosses are… absurdly tough. They aren’t indie-game-tough, but they get an entire assortment of new moves and grant permanent buffs (I know because I accidentally beat a boss on normal and had to reload). The incentive is that beating bosses will earn you actual rewards beyond a lousy achievement, and these rewards tend to be really stinkin’ good. 

The big problem with Hard Mode is that the game’s own mechanics ends up making that medal shoot itself in the foot. Bug Fables has the same mechanics as Paper Mario when it comes to handing out EXP. When you’re considered overleveled, you only get one EXP per mob; i.e. per entire battle. The problem is that the game is NOT programmed to evaluate your level based on Hard Mode. As a result, I was able to reap the benefits of Hard Mode early on, but just by fighting enemies as they came, I became overleveled without grinding, and as a result, I’d end up going to main story locations, having to fight stressful battles against the mobs there, and getting NOTHING for it. Sure, the issue can be mitigated by equipping the Bug Me Not medal, which allows you to destroy enemies that are considered significantly weaker than you on the field, but it’s just plain stupid (and also dumb) that the high-risk-high-reward medal becomes high-risk-low-reward as a result of the game’s own mechanics. The only non-boss enemies that give you any EXP after a while are the rare Golden Seedlings. They function just like Amayzee Dayzees from Paper Mario; if they don’t run away, they can one-shot any party member from full health. 

Furthermore, leveling up just doesn’t do much of anything. Like in Paper Mario, leveling up allows you to choose one- and only one- stat gain in HP, TP, or MP. However, no matter how often you level up, it’ll never feel like enough. HP gains only provide one—ONE—Max HP to the party, and TP only gives three- THREE (MP is the same as Paper Mario’s BP). You need to use your TP-consuming skills, but it drains too quickly. You need HP to survive, because it doesn’t take long for enemies to do five to seven damage in a single attack (especially in Hard Mode). You also need MP to equip valuable medals, but you also need the other two stats! I get that the decision is supposed to be tough, but due to the overleveling mechanic, it never happens often enough. This really makes the game feel less fun to play. In fact, I hit max level before even starting the final dungeon, and I didn’t even grind except for money!

Another problem I had was with the Recipes. In Paper Mario, cooking stuff was definitely helpful, but you could still get by with just the Ultra Shrooms and Jammin’ Jellies that you find. Bug Fables doesn’t naturally give you higher-tier restoratives. Ever. You’re stuck with the lowest level healing items, and it is imperative to take them to chefs to make better ones. However, I just couldn’t figure out the recipes well; more than 90% of the combinations I would try would turn into Mistakes. For more than half of the game, my best healing items were Leaf Omelets and Glazed honey, which quickly became inadequate, especially on Hard Mode. While I wouldn’t mind trying every combination with brute force, cooking ingredients—naturally—destroyed them forever, even with incompatible ones. And with some rare items coming in finite supply if you don’t buy them off of sellers for an absurd amount of money, you’d have to save-scum a LOT to get all the recipes. Fortunately, the recipes that matter are learned naturally via quests, but they tend to be BIG investments. For example, one of said recipes is a collaboration between three different chefs that can be incredibly tedious to make. 

In the end, I didn’t enjoy it enough to do 100%. I did a good majority of it, but when I hit max level, I just wanted to be done (call me a filthy casual if you must). There’s even a whole children’s card game that I didn’t even bother with (it’s basically War meets Yu-Gi-Oh), as well as a casino area. I also didn’t dabble in the postgame whatsoever (so much for a Full Game Review, am I right?). There’s even what I presume to be a field ability that I never even obtained (whatever it is that lets you open wooden doors found throughout the game)! But like I said, I just wanted it to be done.

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Final Verdict: 8.4/10

I don’t care if one or one million people make a game; if it has issues, I WILL acknowledge them! Bug Fables is a great game, but it’s not perfect. And while it does nail some classic Paper Mario tropes, while also adding some interesting elements to combat, the risks-vs-rewards system with Hard Mode is a bit iffy. This game proves that only Nintendo can put out a 100% true, classic Paper Mario game, and we’ll just have to pray for the miracle of that happening. For now, Bug Fables is enough to tide us over (and lets hope it gets a sequel or five).