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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Final Verdict: 9.45/10

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

Soul: Pixar’s Most Existential Film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

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

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

Dragon Quest Builders 2: The Best Minecraft Clone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Final Verdict: 9/10

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

Chainsaw Man: Too Seinen for Shounen Jump?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Final Verdict: 9.15/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Final Verdict: 8/10

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

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

The Adventurers Guild Trilogy: Social Commentary for Kids!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 6/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Final Verdict: 8.4/10

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

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.

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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.

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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.