Dragon Quest XI Shows that Simplicity is a Double-Edged Sword (Full Game Review)

JRPGs are my favorite genre of videogames by far. Even though I understand that a lot of them are time sinks and take a long time to really strut their stuff. Just how much benefit of the doubt should they get? After my first impressions of Dragon Quest XI… about a year ago, I finally managed to finish the game. Let’s see how it measures up now.

Hopefully you don’t play JRPGs for the story because DQXI goes out of its way to be a bog-standard JRPG. The plot is about the main character, whom you get to name whatever you want. He is a special hero guy who needs to fight a big bad atop the same World Tree that’s been ripped from Norse mythology for about the 12,221st time to date. 

First things first, I do get that this game is meant to be an homage to simpler times. JRPGs these days get so layered that it’s near impossible to keep up (looking at you, Trails of Cold Steel), and DQXI is a good break from that. However, cliche is cliche.

But of course, I believe in execution over ideas. And for DQXI, I feel kind of mixed. At first, the cutscenes seemed pretty short and sweet; enough to get the point across since they know you’ve seen all this before. But in the second half of the game, it started to take itself super seriously, and the cutscenes got more abundant. The cinematics felt bog-standard, and even half-assed at times. I felt like this game didn’t know if it wanted to provide a streamlined narrative or if it wanted to pass itself off as something more epic.

And to be honest, it’s more so me instead of the game. In my life, I’ve seen variations of the same lines of dialogue hundreds, if not thousands, of times. I decided that I needed to pick my battles when it came down to if I wanted to be emotionally invested in a story, and DQXI did not make the cut. I see comments like “It’s cliche, but it has a ton of heart” for stuff like this, and that’s when I realized that the appeal of Dragon Quest as a whole is that human emotional mindset that eludes me to this day.

In addition to the narrative, the characters embody JRPG tropes at their most uninspired and cliche; the very definition of by-the-book. The only character that I liked was Sylvando, but that’s more so because his archetype is inherently difficult to mess up compared to everyone else. And Toriyama… I’m sorry, but it feels like this man’s finally starting to run out of steam as an artist. While the art style itself is timeless, after this many years, one can only come up with so many ideas. Either a character is more or less ripped straight from Dragon Ball (like the main character, who looks too much like Android 17), or it appears Toriyama just took a stock fantasy design and slapped his signature face style on it.

I am ragging on the story and characters a lot, but if there’s one positive, it’s… the fact that this game came out in the 2010s. If anyone’s familiar with the good ol’ days (or watches a lot of YouTubers who play old games), you’d know that localization was a BIT terrible back then. They botched numerous translations, and straight-up censored any presence of Japanese culture (which Yo-Kai Watch does anyway *grumble* *grumble*), and anything that Westerners would consider taboo. As a result, it’s weird to see a lot of old tropes not censored in DQXI. We have plenty of porno mags, actually translated as such, and the game’s weird obsession with trying to involve the main character and his older half-sister in an incestuous relationship. They do censor prostitution with the onomatopoeia “*puff* *puff*”, but that could be chalked up as a timeless Dragon Quest meme that just stuck over the years. Another BIG distinction is that this is the first JRPG I have ever played that refers to KO’d party members as “dead”. SO EDGY. The story writing might be meh, but at least the flavor text isn’t!

And even then, sometimes the flavor text has TOO much personality. For example, if there’s anything you are unable to do in the game, the text is arbitrarily read as “You can’t currently do XYZ yet”. As a writer, I learned to not have such redundancy in text, and it bothers me that it’s in an official game; it felt like they were just bragging about how good their localization is. Another standout feature is that every area has its own [racist] dialect. While some of them are cute, these accents are often so thick that I had legitimate trouble reading them. Sometimes, too much of a good thing is bad.

Fortunately, what I really care about is gameplay. DQXI is a good, old fashioned, rootin’ tootin’, retro JRPG. When battle starts, you pick your character’s command when it’s their turn, and do the move. Everything is as it says on the tin. If you’ve played a JRPG, you’ve played this one. Battles can also be set to go extra fast, just in case you need to grind, but this game isn’t designed to be grindy (but that doesn’t mean grinding isn’t encouraged, like for materials and stuff). 

Thankfully, DQXI has a lot of modern quality-of-life mechanics. For example, you can press Y on the pause menu to instantly heal every party member in the most MP-friendly way possible (THANK YOU). Also, whenever you sell an item, the shopkeep will warn you if you’re about to sell something one-of-a-kind. 

Conversely, there is a very Earthbound-like inventory management mechanic. Each party member can carry only so many items, including equipment. Fortunately, there are infinitely large bags for excess items, equipment, as well as a slot for key items. Transferring items is pretty easy, but you gotta remember to do it, or else you’ll be thirty-plus hours into the game, in a tough battle, and only have poop-tier healing items.

The modern twist that Dragon Quest XI uses to stand out is Pep Powers. With Pep Powers, your character basically goes Super Saiyan (since this is an Akira Toriyama game, after all), and if the right party members are Pepped, you get access to what essentially are Dual and Triple Techs from Chrono Trigger, and as expected, being able to try out all these combinations is no doubt the best aspect of the game. However, there are a number of issues. Although the game says that Pep kicks in after your character takes a lot of damage, similar to a Tales Of game’s Overlimit, in my experience it seems to be purely random. Furthermore, the Pep status goes away as soon as you use one Pep Power, or after a certain number of turns, which the game thankfully gives a visual indication on the last turn that it’s available on. What sucks is that the Pep Powers are the coolest aspect of the game, yet you cannot control the conditions at which you use them other than with items that you don’t get until AFTER YOU BEAT THE FINAL BOSS. Fortunately, ending a battle in the Pep state causes it to carry over, which can help in a tougher battle; but at the same time you’d have to grind battles if you wish to rely on Pep for said situations. 

Another thing I find tedious is the game’s skill tree. Normally, I love skill trees in JRPGs, however, Dragon Quest XI‘s is really stingy. You only get skill points on level up, which starts off small but comes in bigger chunks at higher levels. This is good because most skills require 6, 10, or even more skill points each. There is a mechanic to unlearn skills, but it can only work on entire categories, which is a pain if you only want to drop one skill.

One of the most interesting aspects of the game is that everyone has different weapons they can use, such as a regular sword or a greatsword for the main protagonist. Each section of their skill tree is devoted to one of the weapon styles, plus an additional style that’s unique to them only. I’ve been doing skill trees by committing to a single section at a time, which is likely not the way the game intends, since skills are pricier the further out from the center you go, and it’s a real pain. The game lets you re-equip different weapons mid-battle without taking up your turn, which is nice, so it’s possible that the game wants you to fill in multiple branches at once.

The crafting system in Dragon Quest XI is really fun. With the Fun-time Forge, you can craft new equipment with materials you find around the world (as well as their recipes). This starts a minigame where you have a limited number of strikes to fill up gauges on different areas of the equipment. You want to fill it up to the green section, but REALLY want to fill up to the arrow on each gauge (which will be indicated by it turning yellow). The closer you get, the better the final product will be, with the best being a Perfection. Forging things successfully gives you Perfectionist Pearls, which can be consumed to reforge something to make it stronger. Make sure you reforge as many things as possible, because it doesn’t just increase stats, but the power of bonus effects, like elemental and status resistances. Levelling up the main character also boosts your forging skills, which can increase your Focus and allow him to learn Flourishes, which are special moves that make the minigame even more interesting than before. Options are limited early on, but it gets rather interesting on the tougher equipment.

The world of DQXI is- although colorful and vibrant- very large and bland. I get that this world was designed with the ability to be played in old school top-down style or 3D, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less uninspired. Also, the game’s soundtrack is kind of meh, but it doesn’t grate on you unless you start doing tedious stuff like material farming. The towns have the best personality and the most thought put into them, but they seem to act like vehicles for padding the game more than anything else.

Oh, speaking of padding: get used to that a lot. Like I said before, each first arrival in a new town has you running around towards numerous objectives that take place throughout the town itself. The worst case is the interlude in between the first two acts of the game. In it, you have to play through four consecutive scenarios, each starting a party member by themselves, and none of them are even remotely enjoyable besides the first one. You can also potentially permanently miss collectibles during these scenes, and I only say “potentially” because it’s not entirely clear if optional stuff done in these scenarios has impact for later (if this was a Final Fantasy or Tales Of game, it definitely would). 

But after that agonizing section, the game truly starts. It sucks that it takes about thirty-five hours, but it really does go from a slightly-above-average JRPG to a straight-up great JRPG. There is so much more depth, and each party member gets a ton of new abilities after going through huge epiphanies in their character arcs. Once you start this part of the game, it appears that you can tackle things in any order you choose… until you are gated time and time again by several annoying prerequisites. I hate it when games do this, and DQXI is no exception.

As far as side quests go, there aren’t as many as most JRPGs. However, there is also a side section where you find weird ghosts that unlock different areas of past Dragon Quest worlds in a special, 2D only zone. The biggest problem with 2D mode is that the text box color and font color can be very straining to read. Plus, you can’t save in this place at all, which reduces the incentive to knock out many quests at once. These never expire, so it’s ideal to do them all at onces towards the end of the game (also, you don’t have to gouge your eyes out at the freakin’ UI for as long since you’d be higher level).

The game also has a Draconian Quest setting, which lets you custom set some handicaps which will make the game harder. I chose one where NPCs can sometimes lie, because I thought they would give me false game advice, such as, “Use this ability on this enemy, whoops that actually does the opposite of killing them,” but the lies are all gobble-di-gook and the game plays a jingle whenever one actually occurred. It’s funny if it happens with a story-important NPC, but I imagine it gets really hard if you have tough enemies and no armor handicaps. The later parts of the game would be nightmarish like this.

When it comes to a casual campaign, DQXI is relatively tame. As long as your party is at its proper level, and you understand the mechanics, it isn’t too difficult. There are some dumb quirks, however, such as the fact that enemies can randomly start with an advantage even when you get a pre-emptive strike. Another really stupid thing is the case with any status that can be cured by attacking the afflicted person. If you use an attack that targets all enemies, you will target the person with the status as well. I have gotten characters killed because of this. Also, I have a pet peeve for any JRPG where you can’t see the turn order in battle, and DQXI is one such case.

Like any JRPG, DQXI has gambling. Fortunately, DQXI has one of the most generous cases of gambling in any JRPG. The game has two casinos, the second of which comes up during the second act. Naturally, the latter casino has the better prizes. In fact, the first casino doesn’t have anything worth buying long term, except for some recipe book. The other casino has a great weapon for Sylvando, some really useful equipment, and the only purchasable MP restoratives in the game. 

The only method I used to earn tokens was the good old slots. I wasn’t old (read as: stupid) enough to gamble IRL, so I never got to understand how things like blackjack and roulettes work. The Slime Quest slots had twelve pages of instructions, and I couldn’t understand crap. I presume the regular slots are the least lucrative method, but they’re reliable. Use save scumming often, and build up enough tokens off of the low paying machines to bet big on the red, high paying machines. The slots are very generous; once you build two of a kind, the game is likely to indulge and complete it for you. You also have a chance of a Mrs. Slime giving you a push if you’re one away from completing a combination. The best thing that can happen is Metal Mode, which will temporarily double the value of everything. Generally, I had much more luck during this state than regular slots. Earning Free Spins is also great because it prioritizes using them over Silver Spins. Thus, earning them during Metal Mode will effectively give you extra Silver Spins. Getting five 7s in Metal Mode gives you the jackpot, and I’ve earned around seven of them during my gameplay. This is by far the easiest gambling area in any JRPG.

If there’s anything I’ll give props to Dragon Quest XI for, it’s perhaps having one the most substantial post-games of any JRPG I’ve ever played. It doesn’t just open up an entirely new story arc, but it gives you tons of new quests, the Ultimate Key to help access new areas, and more. Unfortunately, the whole premise of the post-game is so bad that it makes any remotely salvageable aspect of the main story null and void.

To sum up the post-game, you basically travel back in time to pre-emptively defeat the final boss (don’t worry; it’s a completely different fight the second time), which causes an EVEN EVILER EVIL to appear. While it’s typical for new villains to show up for no reason in battle shounen, the time travel aspect is what kills it. Toriyama is no stranger to the trope, but in this particular instance, a lot of the genuine struggles of the latter half of the game are completely wiped off the slate. One of your main party members dies, and is brought back with no consequence. Any amount of character development is out the window. With the exception of two party members, you just experience abridged versions of those same struggles that feel way stiffer than the first time around. And all the new abilities that they awakened at that point? Mr. Popo just waves some pixie dust and they learn it all back instantly! I was willing to give the plot some sort of benefit of the doubt, but this post-game arc crosses the line. I mean, wow.

One final confession before I give the final score: I’m publishing this review without having completely completed the post-game. I’m sorry, but I have next to no time in my life. I simply do not like DQXI enough to effectively double the length of the game (yes that’s how much there is to do after the final boss). But honestly, I doubt that beating the final FINAL boss will single-handedly change my opinion of the WHOLE game.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 8/10

Dragon Quest XI is a great JRPG, but it’s not the best. I find it baffling that a lot of people in the community seem to absolutely adore this game, as if it was one of the greatest JRPGs ever. Maybe they figured out how to manipulate the Pep Powers, which could’ve enhanced the experience. It could be a generational thing; it borrows elements from Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger, and while veterans might see an inferior variant, kids who’re playing DQXI as their first ever JRPG would have their minds blown nonetheless. Overall, I’d recommend DQXI if you’re a JRPG junkie, but there are a lot of other things that outclass it.

A Shipping Battle Royale for the Ages – The Quintessential Quintuplets Full Series Review

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.

How to Get Weebs into Western Pop: milet – eyes Album Review

Notice that I didn’t title this post “How to Get Japanese People into Western Pop”; after all, Western culture is already incredibly popular over there (*cough* for some ghastly reason *cough*). I specifically used the word “Weeb” because I imagine that a lot of non-Asians who love Japanese culture don’t exactly love Western music (as much). However, what happens when a J-Pop star feels very, very Western? Welcome to milet, Generation Z’s equivalent of Hikaru Utada.

I don’t know much about milet, but Apple Music shows a number of singles and EPs dating to 2019. However, almost all the songs in those EPs, and new ones, end up on milet’s first album, eyes (not to be confused with MYTH & ROID’s eye’s), released in June of 2020. She has become extremely popular already, with her album surpassing King Gnu’s smash hit album, Ceremony, on Japan’s Billboard (and btw, King Gnu is hugely popular in Japan, so that’s a big deal) and ranking in 1st place for a good while.

This milet album was incredibly challenging to get through. Something about the use of synth, sound production, and milet’s singing voice felt like the Western pop that I hate. “How can you hate it if you never listened to it, weeb?” you ask. Oh, I listened to it. Throughout high school, it played on the radio that they happened to have in classrooms on Pandora, and during various social gatherings that I begrudgingly attended (specifically in vocational school). Being exposed to this stuff was traumatizing. The annoying repetitiveness and lack of variety drove me insane, and defined my distaste of mainstream hits. From what I call “The Happy Song”, to “I Think We Can be Something for Real Yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-uwu”, to “The One That Sounds Like it’s Saying ‘Jar Jar Binks’”, these… tracks are the reason that I eventually got into J-Pop. While not perfect (looking at you, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu), Japan has some amazing and varied music, a lot of which I ranked above many classic Western bands of old. It was my perfect escape.

But then milet… ugh. I didn’t really mind the music of her songs, but what triggered me the most was her singing. She sounds exactly like a lot of those Western singers I didn’t like, whose names I cannot say because it was on the radio and I never knew who they actually were. milet’s voice is… how do I even say it? I don’t at all mean to be hurtful with the following statements; I legitimately cannot think of a better way to describe her voice. milet comes off as nasally, whiny and like she’s constipated. Look up the song that’s like “Hello from the other side” or something like that in the chorus… that’s basically how milet sings. 

After getting through a third of her album, I was actually able to tolerate milet. Some of the songs have genuinely good atmospheres and melodies that aren’t ear-grating like the aforementioned “Happy Song”. Despite the album reeking of mainstream, there was still a decent amount of variety and experimentation. Also, from watching anime and actually meeting Japanese people in person (in Epcot), they seem to have an inherently pleasant way of speaking, which makes milet a better singer. I know it sounds stereotypical, but there truly is a visible difference in timbre between her and whoever does “Yer Guhna Hear Me Rooooa-oh-oh-oh-oh-ohar”. 

Overall, I found her album surprisingly enjoyable. Maybe someday, I’ll actually try to listen to people like Adele and Taylor Swift (or I won’t). With milet’s rising success and admirable English-speaking ability, I could see her being cast as the lead in a hypothetical Japanese Disney Princess movie (even though Mili’s singer, Cassie Wei, would be way better), and having listened to her music before it was cool would make me the hippest guy on the block. If you’re someone who’s trying to convince your J-Pop loving friend that there’s another hemisphere of music out there, then milet’s a good transitional point.

Pokemon Sword and Shield: Isle of Armor DLC Campaign Review

The eight Generation of Pokemon has been perhaps the most controversial in the series’ history. Pokemon Sword and Shield has gotten a bad rap since they were first announced, when it was stated that there would be no National Pokedex for the first time in the franchise. And the games themselves have… issues. In my own review of Pokemon Shield, I praised the graphics, quality-of-life improvements, somewhat decent character development, and enjoyable difficulty level. However, it also had a lacking postgame, and perhaps the emptiest region design in the entire series. Plus, the Wild Areas- which could’ve made Pokemon a more open-world and grandiose JRPG- were just vast expanses of nothing. Despite all this, the new DLC might make Gen Eight more viable. Today, I cover the first part of the Sword and Shield DLC: Isle of Armor, specifically, the Shield version.

In this DLC campaign, your character is mysteriously given the Armor Pass, which allows them to go to the Isle of Amor. As you enter the train station, you end up fighting against a Galarian Slowpoke (unless you played the update beforehand in which case you already did that months ago), and catch a glimpse of a strange character heading off to the aforementioned Isle. When you arrive there yourself, you are challenged by this person and compelled to train at this Master Dojo place on the island.

With this being DLC, the story here can’t intrude on the main story; consider it filler in an old anime. The Pokemon here average at around level 60, and with battles exceeding level 70, making it seem like you are meant to go here during the postgame. But tbh, there really isn’t much of a story. You go there, fight some people, get a new Pokemon. The dojo master does foreshadow some kind of undisclosed event at the end, but I’m going to assume that’s Crown Tundra territory, since I couldn’t find anything of plot interest after the campaign.

This DLC does introduce some new faces, and one of them is determined by your version of the game. My new rival on the Isle of Armor was an eccentric, tye-dye-clad psychic named Avery. He is a lot like Kukui from Sun and Moon; someone with a secret other personality, and the tendency to use Pokemon moves’ names in their dialogue. His character arc was short, but sweet. The Dojo Master, Mustard, is also a great character with that lovable “old-fart-who’s-actually-really-strong” personality.

I don’t know about you, but I spent a lot of postgame doing Dynamax hunting, and since I was stuck with poopy A.I., I jacked up my team members’ levels to average at the mid seventies, way too high for the Isle of Armor. So, I made an entirely new team, with Pokemon caught specifically in the Isle. While some were carried over from the main overworld, there were definitely a lot of missed faces from previous Generations, such as Sharpedo and Jigglypuff. I was able to use Pokemon that I had never used myself in a serious campaign, and I was glad at this opportunity from the Isle of Armor. Since it’s short, I might just take the same team to Crown Tundra.

Design-wise, the Isle of Armor shows some great positives. After you fight your first battle, you’re told to head to the Master Dojo immediately. In most Pokemon games, you’d be blocked every which way various NPC, such as poachers who tried to force you to buy their Slowpoke Tails. But here, you are actually able to explore the whole perimeter of the island to your heart’s content. There’s also a lot more biomes in this area than in the main Wild Areas.

Unfortunately, the Isle of Armor is still an island, and an unsurprisingly small one. It only takes about a couple of hours to scope out the whole area, and that’s if you try to catch every new Pokemon as you see them. The individual biomes themselves are also similarly bland to the Wild Areas, with Pokemon placement just as haphazard as before.

But just because it’s small, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to do. Unfortunately, a lot of that “lot” is helping out the Diglett Trainer. There are ONE HUNDRED FIFTY Alolan Digletts all over this place, and he wants you to find them. It’s nowhere near as bad as the Red Lobster thing in Xenoblade Chronicles X, and for a number of reasons. For one thing, the game actually tells you how many are in each area. And more importantly, ALL OF THEM EXIST AT ONCE. But if you don’t have 20/20 vision, good luck finding them. Your only visual indication is the three little hairs that stick out of the ground, which blend in in a lot of places. You obtain a regional variant Pokemon for hitting certain milestones. I didn’t find all of them because my last reward was Alolan Eggxecutor and that was good enough for me. There is also a new mechanic with the Watts. After a certain point, you can donate them to spruce up the dojo. It takes HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS to get all the upgrades, and I honestly didn’t have that kind of time.

In addition to this is the Armorite Ore mechanic. You earn these by doing Dynamax battles on the island, and they can be used on this one dude to dig for more Watts, a guy at the dojo to teach some exclusive new moves (as in entirely new to the series), and on this one lady in an all-or-nothing gamble for additional Armorite Ore. The first and latter mechanics are all luck-based. Also luck-based is the Cram-o-Matic. You can insert items and pray that you get a better one. Using berries can make TRs appear. Additionally, Apricorns return to this game, and using them can get you a rare Poke Ball… if you’re lucky.

A welcome addition is Max Soup. This stuff can take any Pokemon whose species is capable of Gigantimaxing, and enable that to any of that species that can’t Gigantimax. This is a really good mechanic. However, it requires Max Mushrooms, which are easy enough to find, but only respawn after Dynamax Battles. And as someone who needs to rely on A.I. trainers to win them… I didn’t exactly get to use Max Soup too often.

The new Pokemon are the biggest reason to play Isle of Armor. First up is Galarian Slowbro. There are two reasons why it’s one of my favorite regional variants yet. The first reason is that I’ll never forget the time when Chuggaaconroy trollishly made Lucahjin and MasaeAnela draw it during TheRunawayGuys Colosseum Direct before it was ever revealed. The second reason is that it’s flat-out really good. It comes with the unique Poison-Psychic type, and the effect of the Quick Claw as an ability. I paired it up with an actual Quick Claw… and have no idea if the effects stack. But hey, it makes me feel good!

The other new Pokemon is Kubfu. It starts off as a typical Fighting-Type, but after MUCH level grinding, you can use it to take on one of two towers. Whichever one you beat determines which version of Urushifu it evolves into. Urushifu is definitely a great Pokemon, or at least my version is. It comes with an ability where it ignores Protect as long as it attacks with a direct contact move, plus a signature move with great base power that always crits.

As I said before, there isn’t anything of story interest after you finish Isle of Armor (unless I missed it). But there is one thing that does appear: Restricted Sparring. This is a competitive battle gauntlet, much like the Battle Tower, but you can only use teams with a matching Type. It’s really interesting, especially as someone who’s always wanted to do entire campaigns in this manner. But since it has teams built around competitive battling… yeah, I didn’t dabble in it too much.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 7.65/10

The Isle of Armor improves a lot of Sword and Shield mechanics, and shows the potential for what a hypothetical Generation Nine can hold. However, it’s short-lived and relies on grindy mechanics in order for you to get the bang for your buck. It’s worth playing if you’re a series’ veteran, but it’s more rational to wait and see if the Crown Tundra can justify the Expansion Pass’ cost.

The Legend of Korra Full Series Review

Before I get into this review, I must say that the fact that I watched Legend of Korra is super ironic. I specifically waited for Avatar to come out on Netflix so I didn’t have to pay Amazon to watch one show. Now, I ended up doing just that to watch one show, when I could’ve used it to watch two shows months ago. Sure, I could’ve watched the first half of Korra on CBS All-Access, but I just didn’t feel like relying on two services to watch a single show (let’s see how long it takes for them to announce Korra coming to Netflix).

While I didn’t think Avatar: The Last Airbender deserved to be lauded as one of the greatest fantasy epics of all time, I nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed it when I recently watched it (link to that review here). I enjoyed it enough to watch the sequel series, The Legend of Korra, the day after. But one difference in my experience was that I had some basic idea of what Avatar would be like. As for Korra, all I’ve seen is one screenshot- with no context- that looked like it was trying to reference Steins;Gate. The 2010s were the start of an ongoing point in time where cartoons became more naturally influenced by anime (perhaps thanks to Avatar), so I was really curious as to how this show would play out. Let’s see if it improves upon its predecessor or suffers from the timeless “sequel curse”.

In Legend of Korra, set seventy years after the original Avatar, Aang inevitably bites the dust. Replacing him is a new Avatar named Korra, who already knows three of the elements. When Korra follows Aang’s son, Ten Zin, to the futuristic Republic City, she gets more than she bargains for!

I went into Korra expecting it to be so anime, that it wouldn’t be a cartoon. But when I saw the updated version of Avatar’s classic opening, I was surprised by how familiar it felt instead. However, that doesn’t mean Korra is a repeat of the original Avatar. In fact, season one starts with her having to learn Airbending, the one element that has not been touched upon before. They also try some genuinely interesting new ideas, including telling the backstory of the entire Avatar world from the perspective of the first ever Avatar (which ends up retconning the whole lore of the animals being the first benders and stuff but I won’t discuss that at length).

To be brutally honest, Korra is definitely a lot more anime than Avatar ever was. First off, the plot is much more focused right away. While most episodes have self-contained narratives, each of them has a fluid connection to the overarching story. This means less filler, woohoo! 

The show is also more anime in terms of its visuals. While it still behaves like a Saturday morning cartoon, a lot of aspects- from the textures, to color palettes, to lighting effects, etc.- feel very distinctly anime. It also helps that they outsourced the show to some actual Asian studios (I know I always talk about visuals last but it just flowed better for me to put it here, okay?). But in the end, the facial expressions and mannerisms show that this is the same Avatar that we’ve always known; it’s just a more organic union of Eastern and Western animation.

But sometimes, it does lean too far into the anime territory. On paper, that’s not inherently bad. However, in Korra‘s case, it ends up falling for some battle shounen shortcomings. Specifically, there are times where the show abandons the well-choreographed fights based in real-world martial arts for pure visual spectacle. This has happened in stuff like Dragon Ball and Naruto before, much to many people’s dismay. I’m pretty tolerant of mindless spectacle (“Boo, you filthy casual!” you think), but that’s only the case if the show sets that as an expectation. It’s jarring to go from the kind of battles in Avatar to stuff that resembles a Godzilla film in Korra. Also, I’ve never cared much for spectacle in TV form; animation doesn’t move me like really good manga art does.

When it comes to worldbuilding, the world of Avatar has definitely changed. There’s a lot of modern technology and politics in the  world now (typical fantasy mumbo jumbo). Even the recaps are done through early 20th Century-style radio broadcasts. But despite this, a lot of familiar elements, from the White Lotus, to bison, to- well- the elements, are still present and accounted for. They even found a way to integrate the cabbage guy meme into Korra!

On the flipside, it could be argued that they tried too hard to make the world feel like that of the original series. While the visuals are still a better marriage of anime and cartoon, the writers seemed to not know if they wanted to make the show feel profoundly different or nostalgic. At times, the results make Korra come off as a fanfic, especially with the cabbage reference I mentioned earlier. There’s also a lot of contrived throwbacks, like having characters such as Ten Zin’s brother, Bumi- named after Aang’s old friend- who happens to have the exact same personality as the original Bumi, or having a minor character voiced by Zuko’s actor. The occasional flashback to future Aang’s past (wow, that sounded like an oxymoron), where you see characters like Sokka and Toph as adults felt really cringey, and made me ask, “Was this really made by the same team?” 

As much as we can argue about Korra’s worldbuilding, there’s still the story itself to get into. With no Fire Nation, who’s there to fight? Well, in Korra, it just so happens that everything changed when the Equalists attacked. The Equalists are muggles, led by a masked man named Aman, who wants to do away with benders for good. Yes, this is the same “rich vs poor” theme that’s been in 999/1000 fantasy narratives, but it’s been a timeless theme for a reason (that reason being that it’s an overly-obvious parallel to our own society, and social commentaries are always “smart”). But that’s just season one. 

Another battle shounen trope Korra pulls is the “well that was a pretty satisfying conclusion to end on, but hang on this series is actually pretty popular, so I guess I gotta just keep it going somehow” that’s prevalent in many manga of the genre. I suppose that contradicts what I said about there being more focus, but that statement more so applies to the individual arcs themselves. This is due to circumstances around Korra’s development. The show was put through production hell, to the point where Nick ended up airing the final season online instead of TV. They did the show in this arc-based structure because if they didn’t, the show could’ve gotten axxed without warning, with cliffhanger endings unresolved.

This immediately makes Korra‘s narrative inferior to Avatar’s for one reason: lack of anticipation. The finale of Avatar was exciting because the show built things up over the course of its three seasons. But due to the episodic structure, Korra couldn’t do that. None of the final battles felt particularly exciting to me, even if they excelled in the visual department. Fortunately, the show somehow manages to maintain a consistent theme: balance. Like Ten Zin says in the intro, “Only the Avatar can master all four elements, and bring balance to the world.” It was pretty cut-and-dry what Aang had to do to restore balance, which was to get rid of Zuko’s bad dad. But in Korra, it’s not as clear. Every antagonist’s motive revolves around bringing the world into a new era that they genuinely think will be good (well, maybe not as much in the case of the season two villain…), and the show tries to make the villains more complex than Ouzai. There are two issues with this. One, like with the Equalists Arc I mentioned earlier, these narratives aren’t particularly original. And two, like in many battle shounen, the villains’ sound arguments are rebutted by the typical “No, that’s wrong!” of the nakama-powered protagonist, which doesn’t exactly leave stuff open to interpretation. But hey, kudos to them for working with what little they had.

They do go off the rails in the final season (which, by the way, has a recap episode almost identical to its counterpart to The Ember Island Players episode of Avatar). Despite the season being titled “Balance”, a lot of it tackles PTSD, in addition to a conflict formed by perhaps the most unsubstantiated antagonist in the entire Avatar universe. Seriously… this antagonist was a random guard in season three who didn’t even have a name, and that’s assuming they weren’t a random shoehorn. But like any shounen manga that loses its way, I found the final season to be an utter slog, which culminates in a theatrical, but unsatisfactory finale that felt empty due to the aforementioned lack of proper buildup.

In addition to the narrative, the cast shows more immediate issues than the previous Avatar. Korra starts off as a muscular Katara (which would be a more apt analogy if Katara wasn’t still alive as a gram-gram); a brash, overly tomboyish girl who thinks entirely with her stomach. Furthermore, she acquired a classic reverse harem in Bolin and Mako. Bolin is the cute, down-to-earth, funny guy (basically a Sokka clone but with less character development). Meanwhile, Mako is a dream boat that Korra likes, yet he friend-zones her for a Twinkie from the city.

Said Twinkie is a broad named Asami Sato. She’s a typical empowered, gorgeous, and idealized woman. There is NOTHING wrong with her, whatsoever, at least in terms of her personality. While she is very plot relevant, she happens to cause an annoying shipping war that governs much of seasons one and two. I would believe that her main purpose in Korra was specifically to trigger said shipping war… except her REAL purpose is not evident until the end of the series (and no, it didn’t make me like her any more as a character).

“Now, now,” you say, “don’t jump to conclusions. You yourself said in your own Avatar review that the characters started out lackluster, but became a lot better in later seasons. These same issues with the cast of Korra are no doubt minor kinks that they need to work out.” I was perfectly aware of that possibility, so I was willing to give Korra the benefit of the doubt. However, the cast doesn’t exactly work through their shortcomings. While Korra’s shipping war with Asami does conclude by the end of season two, she remains a brash, reckless drama queen to the bitter end. They tried to give her character development in season four, but they waited too long to do it, and thus it felt crammed in at the last minute to me. And while we learn more things about Mako and Bolin, they remain very unentertaining characters (and the latter is still a Sokka clone).

Another issue is that I never felt a sense of growth in terms of power. The original Avatar always made sure we saw some good training every so often. But in Korra, it feels like she just gets new powers thrown in her lap without her having to work for it. It’s typical plot armor, and I definitely acknowledge that Aang had some on him as well. In Avatar, the plot armor was from something that was established ahead of time, like Katara’s special water. But in Korra, there are some cases of random BS magic, and it’s definitely a step backwards from Avatar.

Fortunately, there is a silver lining. One of Japan’s rules is to respect your elders, and this shows in some of the older folk. Ten Zin comes off as a rigid sensei who screams “Don’t do this reckless thing!” while the main protagonist proceeds to do it anyway, and to an extent, he is. But he’s a great family man and has a surprising sense of humor who also learns some lessons of his own. We also have a hot grandma named Lin Beifong. Yes, she’s Toph’s daughter, and she packs the same sass and power as her mom. There’s also the aforementioned Bumi, whose eccentric personality- inspired by his namesake- makes him a chuunibyou; very anime. And while not technically elderly, an eccentric entrepreneur by the name of Varrick proves to be quite the wild card… and ended up being my favorite character in the series.

Final Verdict: ??/10

Writing everything in this review up until now was easy; after all, I’m merely just listing the pros and cons of the topic like I always do. But never in my not-even-one year of blogging have I ever had such a hard time giving the final score. My feelings about The Legend of Korra were divided well after the final episode’s credits rolled, even when taking the circumstances into consideration.

Recall how I kept saying that certain aspects of the show didn’t stack up to Avatar; some of the fights went for spectacle over choreography, there was no long buildup, there wasn’t as much character development, etc. One of the biggest arguments when critiquing a sequel is how to properly compare it to its predecessor. After all, some shows, like Steins Gate 0, explicitly went for entirely different vibes than the original, but because it wasn’t exactly like the original, it got burnt by some critics (for the record, criticizing a sequel for retcons is an exception). I was essentially doing the same to Korra. Is that really fair? If Korra wasn’t the sequel to Avatar, I’d view it as a typical shounen anime, complete with all the genre’s shortcomings. But because its predecessor had character development and great fights, I criticized Korra despite it being, ironically, more within my ballpark than Avatar.

Sequel or not, there are some elements of Korra that are bad in any context, and ones that Avatar did not have. First off, the shipping was awful. Even when the Korra-Asami-Mako thing was resolved, more ships took its place. Bolin has ships with SEVERAL women throughout the course of the series, as well as one of Ten Zin’s daughters. The one thing that they have in common is that they’re constructed too hastily; for the most part, characters are pretty much dating within the same episode or the following episode after they meet. Sure, this is another consequence of the production issues, but bad romance is bad romance.

There’s also the fact that I’m an adult man who’s been spoiled by a lot of the really good content I’ve seen over the years (and by watching it in 2020), and have not touched modern cartoons, a medium with entirely different standards than what I’ve been used to. Apparently, a lot of the appeal of Korra was that it did a lot of controversial stuff (at least according to an old article in Vanity Fair published the day after the finale aired). A lot of Korra felt typical to me, but apparently, cartoons sucked at that time; after all, a lot of the other influential cartoons of the decade, like Gravity Falls and Steven Universe, had only just begun. However, I don’t factor a show doing something for the first time in a given medium into the final score; I rate based on entertainment value alone. It’s the same issue I had with Chainsaw Man: the medium it’s sold on versus the medium that it behaves as. What I mean is as follows: my thing with Chainsaw Man was that it was super-gorey, with layered characters, and one scene where its main protagonist is straight-up offered free sexual intercourse. All of these are typical of seinen manga, which are targeted toward older teens, but because the manga is in Weekly Shounen Jump, a magazine for preteens, it felt a lot wilder as a result. In Korra’s case, a lot of tropes typical of anime, JRPGs, and even some children’s novels, are included in a cartoon. Should it be given a higher score just because cartoons in particular wouldn’t normally have content like that? Anyways, this post has gone on long enough. After much deliberation, I decided to give this show a…

Final Verdict: 7/10

Regardless of it being a sequel, The Legend of Korra had a lot of flaws that cannot go unpunished. And the reason why I don’t give it the benefit of the doubt as much as my favorite shounen manga is that Korra is a TV show. In a manga, a lot of shounen tropes are trivialized by the sheer fact that manga are books. If an arc is boring, I can speed through it. But in a TV show, I cannot. This applies to anime too, and why I watch them so infrequently. But in the end, Korra did enough good to earn a slightly-above-average score. I recommend it to battle shounen fans as well as fans of Avatar.

Luigi’s Mansion 3 Full Game Review

Luigi’s Mansion is one of those series that I love to pieces, but cannot play well to save my life. In my years, I’ve only managed to beat the original with one of the worst ranks (something that you need to go out of your way to be so bad at), and never even finished Dark Moon. So, I was in for a rude awakening when a fellow associate (who’s just as bad as me) and I played through Luigi’s Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch.

The premise, as always, is pretty simple. Mario, Luigi, Peach, and a couple of toads are invited to stay in a five-star hotel called the Last Resort, which is managed by the big-haired, hoity-toity Hellen Gravely. Turns out that she and the hotel staff are all ghosts working under- surprise, surprise- King Boo, and now Luigi has to save his friends again.

It didn’t take long to realize that this is the best game in the Luigi’s Mansion series thus far. First off, the Last Resort has an amazing atmosphere, and the ghosts are as brimming with personality as they were in Dark Moon, if not more (for example, each boss ghost has its own unique animation when you defeat them). This is further enhanced by the suave soundtrack. While not something I’d listen to in my free time, the soundtrack sells the hoity-toity atmosphere of the hotel really well. 

Furthermore, with only one titular “mansion” again, this game returns to the Metroid-vania format of the original classic. There’s a lot of incentive to backtrack to grab goodies, even if E. Gadd yells at you to go toward your objective. Unfortunately, the actual game progression is a bit linear, but it’s still better than the mission-based format of Dark Moon.

The Last Resort has some of the best level design in the whole Luigi series. Each story of the hotel has a unique vibe to it. From the fancy lobby, to the overgrown garden suites, this place has it all; even a movie studio and a natural history museum! I’d sleep in a lot of places in this game if they weren’t haunted. They pulled out all the stops with the creativity in this one.

The gameplay of Luigi’s Mansion has been constantly evolving, and here it is at its peak. Not only do you have the charge-shot with the flashlight, but sucking up ghosts enough will allow you to repeatedly slam them on the ground for a brief time, doing more damage to them than ever before. And you better get used to it, for now the littlest mooks have a whopping 100 HP, and they only get chunkier from there. There’s also a shockwave you can activate, by pressing the triggers together, which pushes ghosts back and can easily be followed up with a stun. It also allows Luigi to jump, and you will need this to avoid certain hazards.

The whatever-it’s-called that lets you reveal invisible objects returns, and it’s accompanied by a host- a ghost host- of new powers. For starters, you obtain a plunger that you can fire ahead of you. Due to the power of levers and fulcrums, you can suck on the plunger when it’s stuck to something, which enables you to pull heavier objects that you couldn’t pull otherwise.

But of course, the biggest new addition is Gooigi. When obtained, this guy can split off from Luigi and slip through bars and stuff. He dies in water, which is pretty much how they stop him from being OP. Gooigi can be controlled by a player 2, instead of leaving Luigi out like a sitting duck. The game is definitely more fun with a second person to be Gooigi, but be wary of player 2’s skill level, for Gooigi will sometimes have to fight tough battles all on his own. Fortunately, you don’t get an instant game over if he dies, and he can spawn back in really quickly at any time. Player 2 can also choose to warp back into Luigi at any time in order to not have to do extraneous tasks such as walking. Just be extra careful with whom you play with, because occasionally, Gooigi will have to save Luigi from certain death, which gives your friend the opportunity to not save Luigi just to be a troll.

Unfortunately, all of these mechanics are given to you within the first hour and a half of the game. After this is a whopping ONE upgrade, which is obtained practically at the end of the game, and is only used three specific times. This game definitely has the worst sense of power progression in the series.

Another flaw is that there is some required backtracking (i.e. padding). There are several instances where you have to go back to a previous floor and go through it again with no new mechanics (the second time takes you to a new room, but it’s like two minutes long). It’s annoying and destroys the pacing, but it’s not as bad as some of the stuff they pull in the Paper Mario games.

But hey, you’ll have to backtrack to all the floors anyway for the Boos. Finding Boos requires you to go to a room in a completed floor and examine the right object, similar to the first game. Gooigi vibrates in response to a Boo’s presence, plus, a room with a Boo will play a sick pipe organ tune to clue you in as well. But Boos are extra stingy this time. You only get one shot to examine the Boo’s hiding spot, and if you get it wrong, it’ll go to a different room and hide there. Pay close attention to Gooigi’s vibrations, and once you find them, the combat is the same as Dark Moon (except that you get to repeatedly slam them into the floor in an “Ora-Ora!” style). 

As is with series’ tradition, there’s money. TONS OF MONEY. But in addition to money, there are also five gems per floor. Most of these can be found on the very first visit to the floor, except for one that requires a later upgrade. A number of them are pretty stinking clever, but as long as you’re an experienced Luigi-er, it shouldn’t be too hard. There is apparently a true ending, but I have no idea what the condition is, besides presumably collecting every gem and Boo. Oh, and there’s a point of no return at the end of the game, and the game autosaves once you go through it. Make sure you copy your save file or make sure you have everything you need!

In terms of difficulty,  the game is about as inconsistent as a Super Mario game. Most of it is pretty tame, but sometimes it likes to thrust instant death traps in your face (looking at you, floor 10). Health pickups are pretty generous, but almost every attack does a fifth of Luigi’s HP, making him perhaps the most frail he’s been in the series. Also, the difficulty spikes right at the end of the game for some reason. The only time me and my associate died was during the final boss (and yes, it made me salty to not have a perfect run). While the penultimate battle is one of the best in the series, the final boss is a much poorer note to end the game on (which I’m probably only saying because it killed our perfect run).

On a last note, I must say that the graphics for Luigi’s Mansion 3 are amazing. Sure, I miss the survival horror look of the original. But this game expands off the cartoony style of Dark Moon and uses the Switch’s superior hardware to create some great moods with the lighting effects.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 8.85/10

Luigi’s Mansion 3 is a great game, but it’s not one I’d play again. There’s also the Scarescraper and Scream Park, but we felt content just beating the story mode (also, based on how it was in Dark Moon, the Scarescraper is rude). I recommend it to fans of the series, or anyone who’s wanted to get into it.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel Full Game Review

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.


Daily Life

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). 


Deadly Life

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.

Levius Manga Review

Boxing narratives are all well and good, but they kind of tend to be the same. The main character loses, trains, gets told by several peers that he’s killing himself, trains anyway, manages to beat the bad guy with sheer force of will, then lather, rinse, and repeat until the fanbase is tired. But can some cyberpunk overtones make it a bit more interesting? Let’s find out in the short manga, Levius, published in English by Viz.

In 19th Century… somewhere (lol I don’t actually know), the titular Levius Cromwell is constantly haunted by the scars of a cyber war, which resulted in his mother ending up in a coma. For reasons that are a combination of him wanting money to fund her recovery, mysteriously seeing her as a child, and the organization that caused her coma being involved, he takes up mechanical boxing.

It’s a bit hard to follow at first because it takes a while to get acclimated to how the world is, but overall it is as straightforward as boxing gets. Fortunately, it doesn’t beat around the bush, and starts the story off with Levius at the second highest grade of boxing. He also gets a head start to enter the highest grade once a famous boxer from that bracket passes away. The fight to see which person enters that bracket is basically the entirety of Levius.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Remember that organization I mentioned? It’s called Amethyst, and its people are quite mean. They create some emotionless cyborgs that specialize in killing. As expected of a boxing narrative, Amethyst is a pretty one-dimensional evil organization for the time being. 

And the characters, sadly, match that description as well (the one-dimensional part, to be exact). If you’ve seen Rocky, you’ve seen the cast of Levius already. Levius is a typical, brash boy who’s AAAAANGRY at Amethyst and SO AAAAAANGSTY all the time. His uncle, Zack Cromwell, is the coach who constantly tells Levius to not kill himself. The female lead is an Amethyst machine: A.J. Langdom. She’s a cute girl who’s been heavily modded, and basically serves as a damsel in distress. The main villain, Dr. Clown Jack Pudding, is literally Battle Angel Alita’s Desty Nova cosplaying as Final Fantasy VI’s Kefka, and he’s pretty great. 

The art for Levius is rather unusual. First off, the manga is published backwards (forwards in a Western sense). “CENSORING JAPANESE CULTURE, IN 2020?! TRIGGERED!” you exclaim. Look, I have no idea what the factual reasoning is, but according to a comment on Viz’s page for Levius, it was actually published backwards in Japan as well because it’s supposed to be set in the U.S.? I don’t know… But regardless of the direction, Levius is a manga through and through. The panel composition is still what you’d expect for a battle manga, so you don’t have to worry about it being too Westernized.

But it’s not just the format that’s unusual, it’s the actual drawings, too. Levius has a very sketchy and gritty style for a sci-fi manga, even more so than Attack on Titan. For what it is, it looks fantastic, with great action, and phenomenal close-ups. The color pages are also amazing as well (PS: nudity warning, by the way).

~~~~~

Verdict: 8.75/10

It might not be wholly original, but Levius is a pretty solid read. But notice that I don’t have “Full Manga Review” in the title or “Final Verdict” in this section? In case you haven’t noticed, Levius was not axxed; no, it’s only just beginning. There is an ongoing sequel, Levius/est, and I am hyped to read it. For now, I recommend Levius to fans of boxing, battle shounens, cyberpunk, and steampunk.

Gravity Falls Full Series Review

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).

The Witch Boy Full Trilogy Review

I said in my 5 Worlds post that I haven’t had the best track record with Western graphic novels. But you know what, I’m still trying my best to understand the appeal of the medium. Today’s [hopefully not] victim is The Witch Boy series, written by Molly Knox Ostertag and published by Scholastic (the same publisher as Amulet… good sign already).

A boy named Aster comes from a long line of magic, demon-fighting wizards. The men of the family are good at turning into magic, the girls are good at literally everything else. Young Aster sucks at shapeshifting, but he happens to have a knack for girl magic. Too bad it’s forbidden.

The Witch Boy is an episodic trilogy where Aster hangs out until some conflict rears its ugly head, and thank goodness it is! If this was a stand-alone graphic novel, it would’ve felt rushed. While it does spend a decent amount of time setting things up, the plot suddenly kicks into high gear out of nowhere, and the entire conflict of the first book is resolved in a very anticlimactic matter.

It doesn’t get much better later on, though. The other two books, The Hidden Witch and The Midwinter Witch, are presented in a similar manner. There isn’t enough time to really grow attached to any characters before sh** hits the fan. Each of these arcs would’ve been two or three volumes in a manga. “They would be three or four volumes in a manga, because manga suck and waste time with filler,” you point out. That’s not an inaccurate point; I hate the stupidly long cavalry battle in Prison School as much as the next guy. But a truly good manga will give you the right amount of time to get immersed in the world and the characters in a way that feels organic.

To be brutally honest, I don’t think I would’ve grown attached to the characters even if The Witch Boy was three times longer. They’re all my least favorite character trope; normal human beings. And despite the series being called The Witch Boy, the titular witch boy’s entire arc is concluded in just the first book. The second and third books tackle the character arc of Ariel Torres. She’s better than Aster, but not by a wide margin. While she’s given the most development by far, there is a disconnect because it’s all from the perspective of Aster- an observer, so you never really get to see her tragic backstory in its full crotch-kickedy-ness (professional term). Maybe the series would’ve been better if Ariel was the main character the whole way through?

If there’s any character I disliked the most, it was freaking Charlie. She’s the embodiment of that slice-of-life equivalent of wish fulfilment fantasies: the magical, down-to-earth, hyper-supportive friend who just appears to “save” the depressed main character. In this case, she saves Aster in the first book, and Ariel in the second book, by just compulsively wanting to help them for an undefined reason. While it’s certainly possible for someone this compassionate to exist, it’s not likely- given how unstable most teens are- and as indicated in my Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki post, I don’t think it’s a good element for a narrative.

I don’t feel like there’s any substance put into these characters, but that’s- again- a consequence of how short the whole series is. Also, like with the other Western comics I’ve read, you don’t get any monologue to really know how they feel. “Monologues waste time, like in those stupid battle shounen manga,” you argue. Again, in a bad manga, monologues can get excessive. But sometimes, it’s necessary in order to really get in people’s heads. “How about understanding basic human emotions and non-verbal cues?” Well, in that case, I’m sorry for not being good at social skills.

I get that there’s some underlying theme with genders, given the whole “boys do this, girls do that.” I don’t mean to sound ignorant, but as someone who had a My Little Pony doll for each of his LEGO sets, I couldn’t take such rigid labeling seriously, despite the fact that I do know it’s sadly commonplace. But due to Ariel’s priority over Aster, the series doesn’t even explore that theme in much depth to begin with.

In the end, my biggest issue- like with the other GNs I’ve read- lies in the artwork. I don’t really mind the simplistic, cartoony character designs, but I do mind the sparse use of motion lines. There are some motion lines, but they’re used for very trivial things, like hand gestures, and not during more urgent scenes, such as- you know- fighting a demon or something. “Use your imagination, you piece of crap,” you assert. Look, I read regular novels- which are almost entirely words- every day, and provided that the writing is good enough, I can paint a pretty vivid picture in my brain. The Witch Boy is targeted toward elementary schoolers, and going off of my experience as one, no kid would have the capacity to just “imagine” stuff with so little visual information.

My biggest issue with the art is how it’s used to tell the story, or lack thereof. I could’ve downed each volume in under an hour, but I took my sweet time and really tried to understand how the composition was supposed to, you know, work. But even with how much I stared at pages of this thing, I just couldn’t see it. 

Like with other GNs, The Witch Boy uses half a page- or even an entire page- with a mere establishing shot. Otherwise, most panels are rectangular and arranged in uninteresting patterns. But the author at leasts goes a couple of extra miles; by changing the negative space around the panels to black when it’s dark, and by having “slime-shaped” panels whenever something eerie is occurring. Unfortunately, I still couldn’t get immersed in the story, its characters, or its world.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 5.75/10

I didn’t enjoy The Witch Boy. I don’t know what it is, but trying to understand and appreciate these comics has been an absolute hassle for me. I exited my comfortable zone of Japanese culture and busty waifus, tried something unfamiliar, and it didn’t pay off. I’ll admit it, this negative review is entirely my fault. I apologize to the author for insulting something that they poured their heart into. Maybe someday, if I ever can enjoy a Western comic, I’ll come back to The Witch Boy, and realize just how great it truly was.