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.

The Hero Is Overpowered But Overly Cautious Volume 4 Review

Last time on Cautious Hero, Rista and Seiya end up in Ixphoria, the SS Rank world that Seiya failed to save in a previous life. Rista opens a gate to make adjustments, but a werewolf breaks through. Adenela kills it, but it mutters something about having already left its mark. Seiya immediately heads to Ixphoria, saying “Everything’s going to be okay”. When they arrive, it turns out the werewolf’s attack left Seiya with amnesia, and a reckless personality. Rista manages to get him to hold back, then an old guy helps guide them to safety, where they encounter Braht, one of Seiya’s old buddies. After a bit of an argument, Seiya grabs a rusty sword and heads out to fight the boss, Bunogeos. Rista manages to turn the sword into a platinum sword, and Seiya is able to beat some of the enemies by using his high-level spells in ACTUAL combat. But Bunogeos shows up and captures them. Fortunately, Seiya is able to destroy the iron bars by headbutting them, and recovers his memory in the process. The refugees aren’t giving him a warm welcome, so Seiya beats them up (yep, he’s back alright). Unfortunately, he also hates Rista, because it was her fault that he couldn’t be perfectly prepared. He promises to defeat Bunogeos, so he changes his class to Jolly Piper, with Earth Mage as a secondary job. They sneak underground, and Seiya utilizes a makeshift spitball gun to take out the enemies. It’s super effective! They repeat this strat for a while, then seek out Bunogeos. Curiously enough, Seiya starts squealing like a pig while spying on Bunogeos. Unfortunately, they aren’t able to find a weakness before being detected, so they fight him head-on. But of course, Seiya learned the ability to change classes himself, and thus is able to make quick work of him, even when he tries to enter his second phase. When they head back to the spirit world, Seiya masters shape-shifting, turning himself into Bunogeos (the pig squealing was practice for this), and Rista into a fish beastkin. They head to Termine, where they shapeshift and join the beast squadron. Rista is sent to the former queen of Termine, Camilla (her mom), whom she is instructed to torture (she doesn’t though). The day of the ritual comes upon them, and Rista returns to her mom. However, Grandleon is there, holding a doll that Tiana (past Rista) made for her, and that’s what finally breaks her. Rista appraises it, and sees a memory of her past life. The queen is now about to be executed, and she interrupts Seiya’s ritual to get him to save her. And you know what, he decides to fight Grandleon on his own. It’s rough, but Seiya pushes his new Berserk skill to its utmost limits, and manages a narrow victory.

And guess what… there’s more where that came from! In this volume, the Machine Emperor Oxerio sends his machine corp to attack Termine. Seiya gets about as over-the-top as usual with his perfect preparedness, and disregards the public as he fortifies the city. But in addition to Oxerio, he has an evil sorceress named Celemonic to take care of in the latter half of the volume.

In fact, Seiya is more sadistic than ever. He genuinely trolls us- the readers- and shows complete disrespect towards literally everyone. When a disturbing secret regarding the killing machines is revealed, he doesn’t even bat an eye. Seriously, if you didn’t like Seiya before, then you’re only hurting yourself by continuing to put up with him. What do you think about Seiya at this point? Leave a comment with your thoughts!

As far as newcomers are concerned, we get introduced to a rogue killing machine named Kiriko, who has a kindhearted personality. There’s also the introduction of yet another goddess who continues to follow the trend of being an eccentric weirdo. As far as development of existing characters is concerned, everyone is more-or-less the same. You know the saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

I must still praise the author for not making the series so repetitive despite how simple it is. Seiya goes above and beyond, at one point showing us he doesn’t even need to be conscious in order to beat back his enemies. The solutions to problems get more over-the-top and creative than ever! But a seasoned reader like myself should know that this consistent rate in quality is likely too good to be true.

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Verdict: 9/10

Cautious Hero is on fire, as always. Bu according to the afterword, the Ixphoria Arc ends next volume. MyAnimeList still says this series is ongoing, but what could possibly happen after this? Well, I suppose the only solution is to wait and find out! 

Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear Volume 2 and Infinite Dendrogram Volume 12 Reviews

Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear Volume 2

Last time on Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear, a girl named Yuna logs into her favorite MMO, World Fantasy Online, during a new update. She is given some game-breaking bear-themed equipment as a gift for playing for a long time, and is sent to an unfamiliar part of the game world in said bear equipment, with her level reset to 1. She saves a girl named Fina from wolves, and the two of them head to the nearest town with the mob loot. They sell it at the guild, and Yuna spends her hard-earned cash at the inn. The next day, Yuna- guess what- registers at the guild, but only after- guess what- beats some red-shirted upstarts. She then buys a ton of throwing knives, along with a sword and butchering knife, as well as some normal-people clothes. She also acquires bear-themed magic, which she practices on some wolves. She beats enough of them for it to instantly promote her to E-Rank at the guild. Some of the friends of that guy who she beat up start slandering her, and as a result, she is forced to undertake a goblin-slaying quest with them. The required amount is fifty, and she offers to fight them all herself and give them the credit so they stay off her back. She goes with the female adventurer, Rulina, defeats them all herself (double the required amount and a boss), and earns respect among the other group. Over time, Yuna defeats so many monsters that she becomes D-Rank with no effort, and hires Fina to butcher the spoils. They go on a quest to fight tigerwolves, which go down easily. Lastly, Yuna spends a heap of cash on an empty plot of land, and constructs a bear house to live in.

The bear-themed antics are just as bear-themed and… un-antic-y (professional term) as last time. Honestly, I struggled to write anything of substance in this post, and that’s why I’m pairing it with a review of Infinite Dendrogram Volume 12. The second volume of Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear is almost exactly the same as the previous one.

At the current rate, it seems that it’s going to commit to being an episodic CGDCT isekai, which for some (many) people, is enough (especially with the bear onesie). Yuna visits some noble guy, which- I’ll admit- her apprehensiveness to the request was actually kind of funny. But afterwards, Fina’s mom is sick, and Yuna- being the OP protagonist she is- restores her to perfect health almost instantly. Everything happens so unceremoniously that it bores me to tears. Furthermore, the “let’s tell you the same chain of events you just saw but from Fina’s perspective” thing does not die down in this volume.

The issue really is the bland and basic writing style. While there comes a point where TOO much finesse can make you sound like a pretentious hack, not enough will make your work seem lifeless. I couldn’t be immersed in any fashion, and I could barely visualize anything besides Yuna.

You know what, Yuna really is the only thing that matters, isn’t she? She doesn’t just look adorable, but she also helps people for no reason. WHAT AN AMAZING AND NOT-AT-ALL IDEALIZED PERSON. I feel like the author expects people to love her because of how good she is. Well, us critics got a name for girls like her: Mary Sue.

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Verdict: 6/10

Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear is so superficial. It’s cute, it’s relaxing, but it relies entirely on Yuna’s cuteness. If she didn’t have a bear onesie this thing would not sell. All of her powers are typical stuff, but they just have the word “bear” tacked on to them; they aren’t even puns! Compare it to Invincible Shovel, which actually uses shovel-like properties, such as “digging” through people’s memories, or “burying” entire castles. My chances of reading more Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear are next to nil. I’m going to be so salty when the anime airs because I KNOW that people are gonna be all over Yuna’s bear suit and her good will, WHILE SOMETHING LEGITIMATELY GOOD AND ORIGINAL LIKE TO YOUR ETERNITY WILL GET SHAFTED BECAUSE FUUUUUUUUU-! Anyway, if you like CGDCT and isekai, then Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear will do just fine.


Infinite Dendrogram Volume 12

Last time on Infinite Dendrogram (volume 10), Ray goes to college while also having a new accessory made for him that would help him resist poison. That’s it for him. In Caldina, Hugh Lesseps gets involved with some crazy woman named AR-I-CA on a quest to find a bunch of sealed boss monsters that were stolen from Huang He. A powerful mafia called Mirage goes after them, but they become a non-issue real fast when Dancing Princess Hiuli defeats them all by herself. Gerbera, in the Gaol, also gets stronger as she trains with her new friends in Illegal Frontier, led by the King of Crimes, who is incidentally involved in what is going on at Hugh’s end. Things are looking intense, AND WE FINALLY GET TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

Er, well… not quite? The stuff that happened last time felt like setup, and this volume feels like… more setup. The developments last volume end up being ignored in favor of some new ones. First off, Figaro’s yandere girlfriend, Hannya, is released from the Gaol. She hates couples… which is why it’s so perfect that she was released during the time of a lovey-dovey festival in Gideon.

There’s also some new political developments, mainly this arranged marriage with Princess Elizabeth and one of Huang He’s princes. In order to butter them up, they hang out during the aforementioned festival. They also hint at a potential alliance with Caldina in the future, but nothing seems to come of it yet. 

The volume starts with some more insight on Kashimiya, this iai-fighting dude that we only got to see a blip of once upon a time. But after that, the bulk of it is the lovey-dovey festival. And yeah, it kind of feels like a filler volume, even moreso than the Gloria prequel fight. The interactions between the characters are genuinely cute, but this is the first time I’ve seen the overarching story get backseated this violently in Dendro

Things do ramp up toward the end; Dendro always has to have a crazy fight scene or two. But as far as character development goes, it’s really only Figaro and Hannya who get it. We do get introduced to some new Dendro A.I. but we’re still kept in the dark; in fact, the prequel volume told us more than this one did! And as usual, we still don’t get to see any of Legendaria nor Ray’s sister. 

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Verdict: 7.5/10

I don’t know what it is, but this is probably my least favorite Dendro volume so far. It’s a cute little mini-arc that set some stuff up, but it’s been a long time since something intense happened. Something big needs to happen, and fast, or this great series could REALLY become the next SAO (and I mean that in a bad way).

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.

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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.

Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash Overview (Volumes 1-8)

This is a review of a light novel that I had abandoned around two years ago: Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, one of J-Novel Club’s first publications. It looked great, then I read about two volumes and… just couldn’t get into it. I know that slow burns are a thing, but due to the sheer length of the series, plus me not yet having my IRL job at the time, I literally couldn’t afford to continue with it. But over the course of the last couple of months, I tried giving it a fair shot from where I left off.

In Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, twelve people end up in this world- all Breath of the Wild style (including the amnesia). But unlike Link, they just go to the nearest town and GET A JOB. That’s basically about it; a perfect opening for a sandbox JRPG. That analogy is pretty apt, because this world is- of course- run on videogame physics.

Since it IS a JRPG world, Grimgar operates like one, specifically by having a slow and boring start. Most of the first volume is them just getting acquainted with the world. It is generic and boring, and shouldn’t have taken so much time to get acquainted with in the first place. Grimgar reminds me a LOT of Goblin Slayer, one of my least favorite LNs of all time (the group even gets called Goblin Slayers), and it could’ve even inspired that cesspool of D&D tropes. 

“Well, that’s only an issue for the first few volumes, right?” you ask. I thought that would be the case at first. But Grimgar is a “realistic” isekai. That means no lofty goals, no big bads to take out, no nothing. The whole point of the story is just… to survive. For some people (*cough* critics *cough*), this sounds like the greatest thing ever. And for some, the idea alone is enough, based on the positive reviews I’ve read. But the idea alone is never enough for me. The execution is more important, and Grimgar’s execution isn’t exactly on point.

At first glance, it seems the author really shows how ruthless the world of Grimgar is. Plot relevant characters do actually die, and it’s not always obvious who’s wearing the red shirt at any given time. Furthermore, it does a great job at showcasing the team’s struggles and shortcomings. Unfortunately, there are a ton of tone shifts. You know, have a story that takes itself SO DAMN SERIOUSLY and then suddenly throws in an ecchi scene. NO, you’re doing it wrong! Golden Kamuy and One Piece are rare gems that can mesh opposing attitudes all too organically, but Grimgar is no such gem.

The cast is ultimately what made me abandon Grimgar two years ago. Having twelve main characters immediately can be overwhelming in a book. In something like Danganronpa, sure, you’re introduced to sixteen main characters, but you didn’t have to worry about picturing them. I remember taking half an hour at the prologue just because I had to establish an image of all twelve people simultaneously. Fortunately, the author had the courtesy to split them up. The main MAIN group consists of Haruhiro (the leading protagonist), Ranta, Yume, Shihoru, Moguzo, and Manato, with the addition of Merry later on. 

Sadly, they aren’t that interesting. Haruhiro genuinely cares about his comrades, almost to a fault. But other than that, he’s a typical, bland self-insert. They try to justify this by having characters say something like, “He should be the leader because he’s the most ordinary” or something… but I still didn’t give a rat’s ass about him.

Ranta is the best and worst character in the whole series. He’s the best character because he has the most personality, memorable scenes, and feels the most fleshed out. Conversely, he’s the worst character because he’s a perv and is responsible for pretty much every tonal clash in the whole series (oh, and this person named Anna, who comes up later, is the female version of Ranta). Besides him, most of the others fulfill typical tropes like “deadpan loli” and “gentle giant”. There is some semblance of character development, which is enough for some (i.e. most) people, but for me, it falls flat in the face of their already boring personalities.

Visually, Grimgar has a true JRPG look. Watercolor paint style with desaturated but appealing colors give it an Octopath Traveler vibe. It also makes me wish that the quality of the art matched the actual story (oooooooh snap). 

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Verdict (Average of All Eight Volumes): 6.85/10

Although I can appreciate what Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash sets out to do, I’m not one of those people who gives A’s for effort. From its boring characters, to dialogue that’s so far out of left field that it circumnavigates the earth and ends up back in right field, it’s just too many negatives and not enough positives. Grimgar feels like something meant to be inherently appealing to critics above all else. Maybe I’ll revisit it, but for now, I just can’t. If all you care about is that it’s “realistic”, “human”, and “poignant”, then you’ll probably enjoy Grimgar more than me.

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

PREFACE: In case you do not already know, I should warn you the Trails of Cold Steel Franchise is explicitly designed to be played in chronological order. No, it doesn’t have a stupidly convoluted plot like Metal Gear or Kingdom Hearts, but this is nonetheless a direct continuation of the first game. As such, this review will contain unmarked spoilers of the first game. I will also not explain any basic mechanics of the first game, as you are expected to know already from playing it. If you are interested in this franchise, click on this link to read my review of Trails of Cold Steel I.


Intro

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel has its strengths and weaknesses, but overall, it was never meant to be a full game; no, it exists solely to lay down the groundwork for a truly epic tale, spanning four massive games. I was more engaged in the story of Cold Steel than any JRPG I’ve ever played, and it was definitely one of the best turn-based JRPGs in terms of gameplay. With that ridiculous ending- Crow being one of the main antagonists, mechs existing, Crossbell’s declaration of independence, mechs existing, Ouroboros and Fie’s old squad have been helping the Noble Alliance pull all the political strings, MECHS EXISTING- my body was beyond ready for the sequel. The first Cold Steel set the expectations, now it’s up to The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II, to meet said expectations.

When we last left our intrepid hero, Rean Schwarzer, he- in his mech, Valimar- was forced to leave his buddies in Class VII behind during a losing battle against Crow, the leader of the Imperial Liberation Front. A month later, Rean wakes up on a mountain range with Emma’s mysterious cat, Celine. Now it’s time for him to make like a battle shounen protagonist and pick himself back off the ground and find what’s left of Class VII! 

Same World, New Problem

Immediately, the game starts off way sadder than Cold Steel I (even if the opening sorta ruins it a little by showing that EVERY student in Class VII is still alive). As soon as you start the game, the familiar title card appears dark, with the words singed by fire. A minor-key remix of the original game’s titlescreen music plays, and zooms in on Rean’s unconscious body. His voice actor sounds much more distraught than usual at first, and his portrait in the menu looks like someone who’s been through hell and back. Then, mere minutes after you find respite in his hometown of Ymir during the prologue, the town gets attacked. In most JRPGs, I’d say that an opening like this would constitute little more than shock value. But since this is a continuation of an existing story, it’s actually more effective, since you’re likely to be invested in the story if you’re picking up this game up after playing the previous one.

If you’re still new to the series, and you’re STILL reading this review anyway, I should SERIOUSLY warn you that the game basically gives you the finger for not starting from the beginning. There are two reasons why it’s seriously important to start from Cold Steel I, and the first of which is merely because it will be way too overwhelming if you don’t. The title screen does have a menu to read a recap of the first game, but honestly, the first game is so involved, you’d spend hours of Cold Steel II trying to memorize everything while trying to follow the present plot. 

But even for a returning player, it can be confusing knowing who’s on what team. So here, I’ll remind you. The Imperial Liberation Front is in cahoots with Fie’s old jaeger squad, Zephyr, who both report to Duke Ceyenne, the leader of the Noble Alliance. Ouroboros is with them as well, but Sharon seems to be a double agent; someone on both our and their side. Vita, the sexy sorceress lady, seems to be in a third group, containing space wizards (or something) who’ve been working on a completely separate thing. 

I pointed out that you need to keep in mind that Cold Steel I is the start of a larger story in order to enjoy it. In Cold Steel II, you need to keep in mind that it’s a continuation of a larger story. As a result, there are a lot of reused assets. While the world is big enough that you do get to visit areas that have only been mentioned, there are times where you return to old places. It really plays on your nostalgia bug, like at the start of chapter one, which has you go through a previous Field Study dungeon backwards.

Unfortunately, playing this game has kind of broken my immersion when it comes to Erebonia itself. Cold Steel I was split into multiple, self-contained areas, connected by long train rides. This was an effective way to make you use your imagination, and imagine the grandiose scope of the world. However, in Cold Steel II, you end up taking the roads that connect various areas in foot… and this is where the immersion breaks. It’s as soon as you set foot into Trista Highway for the first time that it’s made apparent; those train rides that took hours of in-game time were the alternative to roads that took minutes to traverse. It’s a nitpick, I know, but Erebonia definitely feels less Tolkienian since the world feels so much smaller now.

As far as the narrative is concerned, it’s actually… kind of lacking for a direct continuation, especially after an ending like Cold Steel I. Similar to how the first game’s purpose is to acquaint us with the world of Erebonia and all who inhabit it, Cold Steel II starts by reacquainting us with it, and seeing how much has changed as a result of the war. But even after the point where the story is supposed to ramp up, most of the game boils down to reclaiming areas from the first game, and gaining more support. It’s satisfying to do, but you don’t learn much about the core narrative, at least not until around the 75% point of the game, when it vomits information at you like any JRPG would.

The biggest issue with the narrative is that it never ends. After you defeat what is very much intended to be the final boss (which took me two and a half hours by itself because there’s, like, five phases), you end up playing a side section that serves no purpose other than to get players interested in another franchise set within the same universe (which, I’ll admit, was pretty darn effective, even if those games aren’t released in the U.S.). And then, you get an entire in-game day’s worth of content to do. AND AFTER THAT, the true final dungeon appears for no discernible reason. It got so annoying. The issue is that this game hypes itself up to be the conclusion of Cold Steel, and while it does a pretty good job at conveying that on an emotional level, it is very watered down by the known presence of two more games.

Same Faces… Plus a Few New Ones

Fortunately, there’s a surprising amount of stuff to learn from the characters. We get closer looks at characters like Claire and Sharon, and even deeper looks at the students of Class VII. I love them even more than I did before. To think that I brushed most of them off as bland anime tropes at first… that’s character development at its finest. I’ve grown so attached to them, that I even gave some of them nicknames, such as “Reany-Beany” and “Useless Jusis” (even though the latter is my favorite of the supporting male characters).

We also get more development on the antagonists, such as Crow. Plus, there are some interesting new antagonists with quirky personalities, such as the cocky yet socially awkward Duvalie, and the sleepy McBurn. Unfortunately, Duke Cayenne proves to be a pretty one-dimensional villain for the post part.

Audiovisuals

Unsurprisingly, Cold Steel II‘s graphics aren’t too different from the first game. I shouldn’t have expected them to be since it’s both the same system and the same world, but I still had to mention it. But one thing I didn’t acknowledge in my review of the first game is that a lot of the animations for attacks, especially S-Crafts, have aged very well. They look soooooooo animeeeeeee!

The soundtrack is also more-or-less the same. A lot of tracks are reused, but there are also some new, updated battle themes. Unfortunately, a lot of tracks overstay their welcome. One bad example is that there’s a point where you tackle four dungeons in quick succession, and music for all of them is some really grating opera. Furthermore, the previous game’s issue of “having the dungeon theme play over the battle theme because it’s INTENSE” comes back even more in this game. And similar to the other example, those themes get reused as well.

Gameplay (Intro)

For the gameplay section, I will still split it into Daily Life and Deadly Life. But like I said before, I will go over mechanics as if you’re already familiar with the first game. I will also bring up the fact that this version of the game, Relentless Edition, SPOILS you. First off, the amazing Turbo Mode feature is still present. Second off, you get WAY more items in the DLC than last time, including 99 U-Materials. 

Before we start, I must also bring up the other important reason to play Cold Steel I first. When starting a new game of Cold Steel II, you will be asked if you want to load Clear Save Data from Trails I on your system. Doing this will give you items based on Rean’s previous Academy Rank, and change dialogue based on various accomplishments, as well as the person you chose to dance with at the end of Cold Steel I (G.G. for anyone who chose Crow). It felt really satisfying to have my actions acknowledged, and it helped maintain a sense of continuity.

Daily Life

JRPGs Always Need an Airship

So, the first question I- and probably a lot of people asked- going into Cold Steel II was, “Without Thors, how’re we gonna have the same school mechanics?” Well, the answer is a minor spoiler, and one that is spoiled in the game’s intro at that. After a certain point, your main base of operations is on the Courageous.

But the problem with the Courageous is that it needs some help. Fortunately, scattered throughout the world are your fellow peers from Thors. Whenever you see them, it is encouraged to recruit them to the ship, as many of them unlock new facilities. Most of these are carry-over mechanics from Cold Steel I, so I will only discuss new things here.

For starters, there’s new training facilities. These are basically your Practical Exams from Cold Steel I, except you can do them whenever. They are split into Melee, Range, and Arts, where you are locked into using characters who are built around those fighting styles. The biggest issue with them (other than how stupid hard they get) is that you don’t get to prep anyone before the fight itself like you can in the first game. Furthermore, you don’t get to see the conditions until the battle starts, which can be annoying.

There’s also the new Triple Tri- I mean- Blade II. This game plays like the first one, but with meaner trap cards: Blast and Force. Blast Cards allow you to destroy a card in your opponent’s hand (but you can’t look at it), and Force Cards double your total. Even with how game-breaking these new cards are, I still lost 95% of the time because I suck. 

Once you recruit Munk, you are able to bribe him to apply to radio contests on your behalf. There’s a cheap one where you win a modest prize, and a high-risk, high-rewards one. The results come in after five battles (excluding the training facilities in the Courageous), so make sure you use it before you go out into a combat area.

“Hey, Rean! Have you finished those errands?”

Quests are pretty much unchanged, except with the added feature of reporting manually by Skyping Olivert. And despite the hard times, people can afford to pay up. In addition to the usual rewards for completing a quest, you get a monetary donation for reporting it. There are still hidden quests, and they are sneakier than ever. Some require you to have or not have certain people in your party (but I have no idea if the game indicates it to you because I was always lucky enough to already have met the conditions).

But unlike the first game, you cannot miss ANY quests if you want to max out your Academy Rank. Last time, I missed three and still barely got it. But now, even after doing every quest (with the trophy to confirm it), I ended the game with only ONE excess AP. There is only a sliver of leeway, as I didn’t get all S-Ranks despite getting all quests. I guess some of them had more favorable outcomes and I didn’t realize it. Fortunately, due to the game’s circumstances, there are no exams this time! Yay!

You Never Have Enough Sepith in This Game

One thing I noticed in Cold Steel II was that everyone’s Arcus slots are still fully opened. But that doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods. In this game, you spend Sepith to UPGRADE your slots, and I blew through most of my DLC Sepith just to be barely close to maxing out one character. If you don’t do this, you can’t equip rare quartz. It’s annoying, but they had to change it up somehow. As a side note, you eventually get the ability to create EX Orbs, which are equipped to Valimar to boost its stats.

Wow, this game has an actual overworld!

The most standout improvement in Cold Steel II is the ability to go to older areas at will. The Courageous makes it really easy to do so, and you can leave from almost any point on the map. There are times where you will be asked for specific party members, but fortunately, summoning the Courageous from the overworld allows you to reorganize your team without having to leave and come back.

So, what did Cold Steel II do to replace the Old Schoolhouse? Peppered throughout the world are these strange shrines. Gameplay-wise, they’re the same as the Old Schoolhouse; do the floor, beat the boss. You can’t complete them at first, but you obtain bonus AP for knocking out what you can early on (plus they got good loot in them).

The whole Courageous thing is the best and worst aspect of the game. It does open up a lot stuff, and adds much variety when you’re running errands for people. One thing I noticed is that there aren’t as many hidden quests once you obtain the Courageous (in fact, I only had one in Act 2 Part 4 and one in the Final Act), which is nice. However, this new level of accessibility makes it so that you can get said missable items out of sequence. And it’s not based on the order that the areas come up in the story; for example, a single shop can have both the first recipe and last book chapter of that particular time bracket. As a result, I think I spent even more time repeatedly talking to the same NPCs over and over again than I did last time.

Saving the World? Nah, I’d Rather Fish and Cook

Cooking and fishing have both been buffed since last time. While fishing is mechanically unchanged, fishing spots get marked on the map after being used once, which is nice. And due to the ability to travel to older areas, you get a lot more respawning fishing spots that you can use. Unfortunately, this also means completing the fishing is a nightmare. In Cold Steel I, all fish eventually end up in Trista. However, that’s not the case here. Furthermore, the fishing locations don’t respawn as quickly as they should, meaning that you’ll need more groundbait than ever (or save-scumming) if you want to get all the fish… on top of having to try each and every location without knowing which one has a fish you missed. In fact, I resorted to looking up the fish just to save time. But hey, at least recipes are only cooked by one character now, which simplifies the process of getting a specific type of dish.

Nakama Power, the Most Important Superpower in Any Anime

Bonding Events are much more important in this game. While there are some Bonding Events early on, the bulk of them take place on Stopover Days that occur at the end of a chapter once you obtain the Courageous. Unlike the first game, EVERY party member, as well as Alfin and Towa, are available to spend time with. While you get more Bonding Points than last time, it’s not enough to make it easier to decide. “We’ll, it’s not gonna kill me if I don’t know EVERYTHING about EVERYBODY,” you think. We’ll, you might just want to save-scum to view every event, because Bonding Events have a new and trollish effect. Some SPECIFIC events will allow a character to learn new abilities earlier than they would’ve from levelling up, which is kind of annoying. I only saw one of these particular events, and the game doesn’t even tell you about them in the first place.

There’s also the case of Final Bonding Events. These are exclusive scenes between Rean and assorted characters towards the end of the game. In order to unlock a character’s Final Bonding Event, you must get their link level to its second-highest level, which is now six out of seven (technically, it only needs to be up to five and a half or so since finishing Act 2 boosts everyone’s links by 1000), as well as fulfill specific other conditions. You can also have Towa and Alfin in line for this, but you will need to do every single Bonding Event with them in order to be able to satisfy the conditions with them. Fortunately, the game will tell you when you have an opportunity to satisfy one of said conditions, which is something much appreciated that most JRPGs don’t bother doing. Also, once you recruit Beryl, you can use her services to confirm with whom you have met the conditions for. Unfortunately, when the time comes, you can only do one per playthrough, so save-scumming at that point is essential. It is also impossible to meet the conditions with everyone at once. This means that you will have to play through again in New Game+ to see everything (which you would’ve had to do anyway to complete the character notebook entries).

What is this, Sonic Adventure 1?

A new mechanic is snowboarding. Throughout the story, you unlock new courses to snowboard in. Beating these gets you great prizes, but like in any videogame, it gets really difficult late on.  In addition to snowboards, you also get to ride Angelica’s bike. It can be used almost anywhere and greatly makes up for the lack of fast travel points on highways.

Deadly Life

A Steep Learning Curve Just got Even Steeper

Here’s the final reason as to why Cold Steel II does not like newcomers: All the combat mechanics learned over the course of more than half of Cold Steel I… is taught all at once during the Prologue. So seriously… if you’re somehow still reading this and not familiar with the series. FOR THE LOVE OF AIDIOS, PLAY COLD STEEL I

For returning players, this brings some immediate positives. In Cold Steel II, every character has all their Craft and S-Craft from the first game. Your Link levels are also higher at the start, with Rean starting at Link Level 2 with everyone. This at least makes it easier for returning players to get reacclimated to the game.

A new mechanic is Overdrive. Use this between a pair of Linked characters to give them a free heal, and a set of three free attack turns with no delay. This also guarantees Unbalancing. The gauge fills by doing things in battle, but it fills up much faster based on your tactical bonuses at the end of a battle. Unfortunately, only people paired with Rean can do it…

…at first. New to Cold Steel II are Trial Chests. These chests make a set pair of party members fight a tough battle. But as a reward, you get great items, a heap of Link XP for that pair, and unlock the ability for them to use Overdrive together. It’s a great way for characters that aren’t Rean to get large amounts of Link XP, since the bonding events from Cold Steel I kinda threw off the balance of everyone’s link levels (but it still ends up being way off-balanced).

Mech Battles Before Xenoblade X Made it Cool

My biggest concern when it came to combat was how Cold Steel II would expand on the Divine Knight (a.k.a. mech) battles. Introduced during the final boss of Cold Steel I, mech battles felt very stressful and iffy. Basically, mech battles were a game of rock-paper-scissors, where you had to attack a section of the target that was weak- the head, the body, or the arms. Attacking a weak point resulted in a crit, which allowed you to press X for an immediate Follow-up, and after obtaining three Bravery Points, you could use a powerful Finisher (basically an S-Craft). The catch is that the weakness changed based on the enemy’s stance, which resulted in having to memorize a lot of combinations. Attacking the wrong spot could result in getting the attack blocked, or worse, evaded. This, as always, gives enemies the chance to counter. You also couldn’t Impede attacks that enemies were charging up last time, even if you inflicted a crit, so you were basically screwed.

Fortunately, Cold Steel II greatly fixes some of these issues. The game adds a Defend command, which allows you to greatly reduce damage and recover a small chunk of HP. But one of the best additions by far is the fact they show the Unbalance Efficacy of each piece- in each stance- after you attack it once. THANK YOU.

Although Rean is on his own in mech battles, his buddies can at least help with EX Arts. Basically, you have another character who takes their own turn in the fights. When it’s their turn, you can have them cast some EX Arts, the nature of which are determined by the person. This greatly fleshes out the mech battles, plus every person has a charge function to restore Valimar’s EP (which doesn’t really justify the parts of the game where you wait for him to recharge…). You also have a Unity Attack that you can do with five Bravery Points.

Other Things to Keep in Mind

Rean also gets some significant boosts in this game. After a while, he is able to summon Valimar to regular battles for three turns, and is able to activate his Super Saiyan form at will. These can be very useful in some super-tough battles, especially if you play it on Nightmare difficulty.

One new feature is the optional bosses, the Cryptids. These enemies appear throughout the world after certain points in the story. Defeating them nets you a rare quartz containing a Lost Art. These Arts are really powerful, but consume all of a character’s EP. Fortunately, they are affected by the Zero-Arts turn bonus, which can seriously save your bum. I didn’t use them too often, but I imagine they are essential in Hard and Nightmare difficulties.

Either This Game is Hard… or I Suck

If it wasn’t obvious enough that this game alienates newcomers, they also make it much harder than Cold Steel I. I died way more often than before, and in this game I actually knew what I was doing. They really expect you to have mastered the turn order system, along with all the other mechanics, ‘cuz the kid gloves are off this time! The game also introduces a rare case of enemy attacks that ignore and remove all buffs, and some of these attacks happen to be their strongest attack. The Zeram Capsule + Moebius setup I utilized in the last game made its final dungeon a joke, but that same setup was a necessity in this game. If I hadn’t gotten forty of them as DLC, I would’ve been sunk.

Fortunately, I learned some important things about the series that I didn’t know last time. Stat changes do stack in Cold Steel, which I honestly should’ve noticed before. Also, Evasion is a broken stat in this series, especially if you give your most dodgy character (preferably Fie) the Wrath Quartz, which makes all counterattacks crit. I also had her paired with the Master Quartz, Mirage, which adds a good chance of evading magic. This game was my first time trying an Evasion build on a character; I’ve always prioritized defense in JRPGs in the past. Furthermore, Speed is immensely important, as it reduces characters’ Delay between turns, which again, is something I should’ve known last time.

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

Trails of Cold Steel II is a massive improvement over the first game in almost every way (except strictness, and knowing when to roll credits). At this point, I am hooked on this story and I fully intend to see it to its end (and pray that I get the True Ending of the fourth game). However, I am concerned about the third game. Based on the one thing I know about it, it feels like it will be a step backward for the series. Well, with my job opened back up, you won’t know how I feel about it for a while. Anyways, as far as recommendations for Trails of Cold Steel is concerned, I think it’s definitely worth giving a shot, even if you are uncomfortable with missing things. The game is good at letting you know when you’re at a cut-off point, making it a lot less stressful than most JRPGs.

Sword Art Online: From Aincrad to Alicization (Volumes 1-18)

PREFACE: Most of this post, up to the second half of the Alicization Arc, is a reworked draft of an old MyAnimeList review that I had, at the time, written from memory. If I mention anything about the actual story that ends up being inaccurate, it’s entirely on me. I did NOT feel like rereading volumes of something I don’t even like (spoilers: I, an Internet critic, do not like SAO) when I’m already swamped enough as it is. I hope you can bear with me.


Light novels had definitely changed drastically at the start of the 2010s, and it can largely be traced to one source: Reki Kawahara’s Sword Art Online, published in English by Yen Press. It was the first light novel I’d ever read. I enjoyed it at first (key word: “at first”), but since joining the anime community, I’ve come to know full-well the criticism that the series has garnered over the years. Due to its episodic nature, I will be splitting this post by story arc. Apologies in advance… I’m not going to be bringing anything new to the table.


Volumes 1-2: Aincrad

The world’s first VRMMO, Sword Art Online, is released. However, the first players who log in are unable to log out, and death in-game becomes death IRL, which is evidently all according to the keikaku of the game’s original creator.

The main character, Kirito, is as blank-slate as his character design, and is insanely powerful for no reason (I get that he played the beta, but it doesn’t explain his equipment setup, that the game ISN’T EVEN PROGRAMMED TO ALLOW). The far better female lead, Asuna, doesn’t take long to become a inconsequential girl with untapped potential. Kawahara develops a running theme of reminding us just how much of a beauty she is and that she is Kirito’s and nobody else’s. It gets annoying, especially since I don’t consider her THAT attractive.

Due to the series originally being an entry to a writing contest, it kicks off with a decent setup volume before it immediately guns it to the final boss. The second volume is filler that serves no purpose other than to introduce new characters who do almost nothing in future arcs.


Volumes 3-4: Fairy Dance

After the SAO Incident, Kirito finds out that Asuna has been imprisoned in the final dungeon of the new hit VRMMO, Alfeim Online. He plays it immediately, with no PTSD whatsoever (of course) and goes on adventures. 

His sister Suguha (who gets her blandness from her brother) wants to commit incest with him for some reason, but she is ultimately another inconsequential female protagonist. Of course, the same happens to Asuna; here, she officially becomes a damsel in distress, instead of a strong, independent woman.

The story at this point is more focused than Aincrad, although there is padding. The arc is also notorious for a certain… choice scene in the climax, the likes of which WILL be rearing its ugly head again.


Volumes 5-6: Phantom Bullet

My personal least favorite arc. Because our Mr. Perfect, Kirito, is more powerful than the Japanese Self-Defense Force, he is given a secret mission (which takes all too long to explain even though we already see the incident told to us in the prologue) to find a serial killer in the new VRMMO Gun Gale Online.

Well, at least it’s a game that plays entirely different from SAO. Too bad he just uses a sword again and inexplicably dominates the best player in the game. Talk about beginner’s luck! That aforementioned best player in the game is a girl by the in-game name of Sinon, who would’ve had a decent character arc if she didn’t become another Kirito concubine. Sigh…

Despite its promising pulse-pounding action, the arc is somehow insanely slow. It has as much dialogue as a Monogatari novel minus all the charm of Monogatari.


Volumes 7-8: Mother’s Rosary and Filler

Kirito steps aside for Asuna to bond with a girl who’s first name is Asuna’s surname for some reason. Unfortunately, this other girl, Yuuki, is really uninteresting. While my Fault in Our Stars PTSD makes me hate Yuuki (since her whole character arc is her life-threatening disease), it is a decent look at Asuna as an actual PERSON. However, Volume 8 is filler, set in arcs that have ALREADY happened, making it irrelevant. And bad.


Volumes 9-18: Alicization

The most ambitious arc thus far, and the one that actually managed to curb some critics’ fervor against the series. However, I remain unchanged. After an IRL run-in with a Laughing Coffin straggler, Kirito is put into a coma… and strapped to another VR machine. Only this one takes him to a new project called the Underworld, a new type of virtual world with an overly long, complicated, and not at all engaging explanation as to how it brilliantly emulates real people… or something.

Unfortunately, while the ideas are amazing, the execution is still lacking. Despite how “human” the people in the Underworld are supposed to be, they’re just as boring and uninteresting as previously introduced characters. The ones who showed the most promise- more promise than anyone in SAO up to this point- are Eugeo and Alice, two “NPCs” who end up playing major roles. Kirito also has some genuine struggles, and Asuna shows some traces of her prideful, confident self from the beginning. But Kawahara’s old writing habits consistently get in the way to the point where it seems like he was actively TRYING to get in his own way.

While a good chunk of the second half of the arc is spent without Kirito onscreen, it’s not much better than what precedes it. A lot of the positive reviews of this section- the War of the Underworld, as it’s officially called- stated that it single-handedly redeems SAO as a whole by giving the side characters more development. One of my biggest pet peeves is the notion that character development alone, and always, equals good characters, period. Sure, on paper, it’s great that all those other people get fleshed out. But in the end, they were still boring, and I completely forgot who they were after finishing the arc.

As a final note, I’m not a fan of the art of SAO. While a lot of the characters do have the “overly complicated clothes” typical of a lot of JRPG characters, they’re facial expressions look generic and lacking. It also looks very shoujo-y, which earns even less points from me.

~~~~~

Verdict (Average of All 18 Volumes): 6.25/10

I acknowledge that what I’ve said here  doesn’t bring anything new to the table. SAO has kind of become a rite of passage for any anime-related internet personality, so I decided to make my contribution now. I heard that Alicization marks the end of the stuff that Kawahara originally wrote when he was a teenager, so maybe it’ll actually get better moving forward. But for now, I can only recommend SAO for those who want a fun and mindless escapist experience.

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.

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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.

Reprise of the Spear Hero Manga First Impressions (Volumes 1 and 2)

Well, this is the most awkward way to introduce that I’m a big fan of the Rising of the Shield Hero franchise (I might have referenced it once but still). I started reading it in 2017, and loved it while also acknowledging its shortcomings (while hating the anime with a passion). Normally, I wouldn’t read a manga adaptation of a light novel, but I made an exception, due to One Peace Books’ offer for me to review the manga version of the spin-off series, Reprise of the Spear Hero, before volume two’s release. 

The hardest thing to figure out when it comes to Spear Hero is where it’s situated in the story. It immediately starts out with the Spear Hero, Motoyasu Kitamura, dying at an undetermined point in the main timeline (which may or may not be spoilers for an LN volume of Shield Hero that One Peace Books has yet to publish). It doesn’t show exactly what happened… but that’s beside the point, for it’s what happens NEXT that we need to discuss. You see, as soon as he dies, he returns to the very beginning of the Shield Hero series; a New Game+, to use videogame terms. All he wants is to have Filo-tan by his side, and for that, he needs to guide the Shield Hero, Naofumi Iwatani, to that point.

Since I didn’t remember him dying at all in the main story, it was difficult for me to get acclimated into Spear Hero. Also, alternate timelines are inherently VERY confusing. Based on the fact that he calls Naofumi his father at this point, it can’t be set any earlier than some time before the Q’ten Lo Arc. My theory is that Spear Hero will end with his return to the main timeline, with his brain in tatters (except he already calls Naofumi his father right out of the gate… so maybe his death is after that point? AAAGH, alternate timelines!).

Anyways, confusion aside, how’s the Reprise of the Spear Hero itself? For a spin-off, it’s pretty good. It’s hilarious seeing things from Motoyasu’s perspective (like with the women having pig heads), as well as seeing him slowly lose sanity. The story structure changes wildly, with Eclair being introduced super early on and Raph not even being included at all. There’s also the added complication that New Game+ gets reset every time any Hero dies, meaning that he has to baby Naofumi the whole way through.

Unfortunately, this does downgrade Naofumi as a character. With Motoyasu saving him from being cast out by the powers-that-be, he’s basically a wimp. He’s completely passive, and ends up just doing whatever Motoyasu says. He also lacks the sass and grit that makes Shield Hero such a standout isekai. Hey… at least he’s a good cook this time?

But this is probably just a way to put the shoe on the other foot. Despite my theory of how this will all turn out, Motoyasu is, for the time being, the most likeable he can possibly be in the Shield Hero universe. He’s wild and full of energy, and his love for Filo isn’t yet borderline psychotic. This is the first I’ve ever seen him and not wanted him to be wiped out of existence.

Other characters remain relatively unchanged. Eclair, Trash, Witch (who is now Crimson Swine in this timeline), Old Guy, and everyone are, well, themselves. Since this is Motoyasu’s story, they have surprisingly little impact on everything. 

Overall, the weirdest thing about Spear Hero is how different it is from the parent series. It’s significantly more lighthearted, with the original’s themes of slavery, politics, and the issue with the Waves being pushed aside. It’s almost a slice-of-life fantasy, with every other scene being an episode of How to E.V. Train Filolials, Hosted by Motoyasu. It’s definitely a strange companion to Shield Hero, that’s for sure.

Most manga adaptations of LNs that I’ve come across look really bad, but Spear Hero’s art is more than acceptable. While definitely dwarfed by the illustrator of the main series, the manga is simplistic, but charming. The characters are expressive, and the action scenes (well, for how infrequent they are), have some nice pop to them.

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Current Verdict: 8/10

Reprise of the Spear Hero is a surprisingly enjoyable spin-off. It’s also much faster paced than the main series light novels, which I can also assume is the case with the LN version of Spear Hero. Fans of Shield Hero can definitely enjoy Spear Hero (which I myself can’t believe I’m saying, since Motoyasu is so infamous in the main story). Unfortunately… the manga version of this isn’t available on BookWalker, so I’ll be forced to backtrack to the LN if I want to see this through to the end. But hey, if you like print, then the manga will be right there waiting for you (once COVID-19 ends, that is). Once again, I thank One Peace Books for their offer to review this title!

Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana Full Game Review

I can’t get enough of JRPGs. I love the idea of exploring vivid fantasy worlds, beating people up, and getting cool rewards that make me stronger. So, it was almost destiny that I found a franchise that has been under the radar for quite some time: the Ys series. Specifically, I found its most recent installment, Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, for the Nintendo Switch. 

In Ys VIII, a plucky teen named Adol is sailing away like Dennis DeYoung until a giant octopus attacks! The crew is then shipwrecked on the mysterious Isle of Seiren. It’s up to Adol and some other people to find a way off the island.

But this is a JRPG, and it’s never that simple… Except that it is. The story of Ys VIII is pretty tame for most of the playthrough. However, once you start the final chapter, it escalates to the genre’s usual ridiculousness. I didn’t really care for it (I almost never do), but it doesn’t intrude on you like some other games. The biggest story flaw is that there’s never a sense of anticipation for the final battle. The final boss is something that you never see until the moment you fight it, unlike- say- Xenoblade 2, where you very consistently see the final boss’ smug-ass face all the way through. 

The characters do leave something to be desired. The most interesting case is Adol, of all people. He seems like a pretty generic dude, but based on certain dialogue in the game, it seems that Adol is actually the staple main protagonist of the whole series. In that case, I was probably meant to have grown more attached to him over the course of the other seven games. Meanwhile, your other party members are basically a checklist of anime tropes- Laxia (tsundere), Sahad (down-to-earth old man), Hummel (mysterious guy), etc.- and are only likeable in terms of their use in battle. The side characters are more interesting, especially some of the optional castaways, and it also appears that at least two of them have been party members in past Ys games. 

Time for the longest section: gameplay! First off, I should complement how user friendly Ys VIII is. The map is very intuitive, and it tells you a LOT. It shows you where treasures are, how many treasures there are in an area, how much of an area that you’ve explored, and where draw points are. The best part about that last part is that hovering over each draw point on the map tells you exactly what materials it can contain. 

They also give you Adol’s journal, which is ridiculously useful. It catalogues EVERYTHING, from quests to tutorials, to monsters, items, and your game percentage. The items catalogue is extremely useful, because it tells you everywhere that you can find them, and even shows what you can get from using them and where to use it at. The only flaw is the fish section, because it only tells you where fish are AFTER you caught it once, making it hell to get 100% in fishing (which is one of the few things I didn’t get all of).

That’s all well and good, but what about combat? Combat is freakin’ lit. Ys VIII is one of those JRPGs where it plays more like a beat-em-up. Instead of random encounters, you fight dudes on the field whenever you see them, and you actually have to physically avoid attacks by moving, and consider the hitboxes of your attacks in order to hit them. Fortunately, enemies don’t have 500000 HP like in a Xenoblade game; in fact, it’s the opposite. Battles go by swiftly and never feel like they take forever, even if you do end up playing the long con. Oh, and make sure you lock-on by pressing X. Fortunately, there’s an option for the game to auto-lock-on, including the ability for it to auto-lock-on to the nearest additional enemy on the field after you kill your current one. Plus, a certain item in the game will have locked-on enemies DISPLAY THEIR DROP ITEMS ON THE HUD. I LOVE THIS FEATURE and more JRPGs need to do it!

Fighting itself is incredibly simple and fun. You choose three out of the six party members to have in your active party, and control one of them. The other two are A.I., but fortunately, they aren’t as bad as most JRPG A.I.s; in fact, they take a lot less damage that way (thank goodness!). You can also switch between them on the fly with the Y button, and good thing too, for enemies have many different strengths and weaknesses. Each character attacks with one of three elements across all of their moves: Slash, Pierce, and Strike. Enemies can be weak to any of these three elements. If you hit enemies with their weak points enough, it’ll inflict Break on them, which reduces their defenses to nothing (kind of like Octopath Traveler). There are some enemies that have no weaknesses, though, especially bosses. Don’t worry; there’s also the stun gauge. Hitting enemies with any attack will fill up their stun gauge, and when it’s full, they’ll be knocked out for a short time and you’ll be able to just wail on them. 

The combat is at its best when it comes to how skills work in the game. You have regular attacks that you do with A, and it builds up your SP meter shown on the bottom right. Mashing A sucks, though. In fact, it’s encouraged to wait until you build up a charged attack (indicated by glowing blue). These are a bit stronger, but most importantly, they fill up a TON of the SP meter. Skills are used by pressing R and whatever face button they are assigned to. The best part of skills in Ys VIII is that they have no cooldown; as long as you have SP, you can spam them like crazy. I LOVE doing this; it feels so stinking good to do, especially in a large group of enemies with a big AOE skill. There’s also the Extra Skill gauge, which fills up over time and by using attacks. By pressing R and L together will unleash your character’s big attack, and these can be lifesavers at the right time. But since L is dodge, you might accidentally use it in a panic of trying to move out of the way of an attack.

Whaling on people with skills feels good, but it doesn’t feel quite as good as Flash Move or Flash Guard. The former is done by pressing L to dash just before getting hit by an attack, which makes you briefly invincible, faster, and increases SP restoration. That’s all well and good, but the better of the two is Flash Guard. It also makes you invincible, but during it, all attacks become crits. It’s riskier to do, for you have to press the R button just before getting hit. Fortunately, you’re pretty likely to do it just by spamming skills like normally. Also, if the enemy uses a long-lasting attack, you can use Flash Move, then run into the attack and mash R to build up a stack of Flash Guards. 

If I have to give Ys VIII any props, it’s the amazing way they handle status effects. Instead of being based on RNG, status effects are based on cumulative hits. What this means is that in order to be, say, poisoned, you have to take enough hits from a poison-inflicting attack to get poisoned. This is a really brilliant way to do status effects that actually demands more skill from the player. You can also equip some items that allow you to inflict status effects on enemies as well (bosses are immune as always, though). The most helpful effect by far is freeze, for that keeps enemies frozen solid and makes all attacks on them into crits until they thaw out. Fortunately, there are items to defend against status effects, as there always are.

Ys VIII isn’t all beating people up; this is a JRPG after all. While the Isle of Seiren is disappointingly linear, they at least programmed it so that each area seamlessly transitions into another. Also, there’s the Adventuring Gear system. This is basically like having Zelda items in a JRPG: equip them and you can do things like climb vines or breathe underwater. You can easily open the menu for this by pressing ZL. While it’s not that tedious to reequip the different Gear repeatedly, there are items that increase your capacity, which is nice.

After whooping some butt, you probably gotta head back to Castaway Village to rest up. Fortunately, the game has plenty of skip travel points in the form of insta-healing crystals found everywhere, plus you can instantly warp back home by pressing + at any time on the map. Castaway Village is the only town, which does bug me as someone who loves the sensation of seeing what each new town in a JRPG has to offer. Fortunately, there’s more than enough to do here… as long as you save the Castaways.

Castaways are found all over Seiren, some of whom are required to find, some of whom are optional. It’s not difficult to actually look for them as long as you explore, and the captain’s parrot will go ahead and mark points of interest on the map regularly. These guys are really important, for a lot of them have rudimentary mechanics, such as smithing and brewing potions.

There’s also quests. These are your typical JRPG quests, but they can expire. Fortunately, as long as you’re diligent, you won’t miss any. They are important, for they also increase Approval, which is important for a mechanic I’ll touch on later. Maxing out people’s approval unlocks cute cutscenes with them as well. There’s also the mechanic of showing the world map to the captain, for each 10% increment of the world explored nets you an award. Obviously, you want to do this. Most notably, some quests allow you to explore previous locations at night. They might as well be entirely new areas, for they become chock full of newer and tougher enemies than in the daytime.

Doing quests boosts Adol’s Reputation, which you can check in his journal. This determines the ending you get. Yes, a 60-hour game, with missable sidequests, has multiple endings, one of which is the de facto True Ending. Like I said, being thorough will give you more than enough rep to get the True Ending. Keep in mind that the game scares you a lot with the sidequests. First off, some early quests can’t be done immediately, even when they’re unlocked, which can be scary (but rest assured, you’ll definitely be able to get them). Second off, the game holds you off until just before you enter the final boss’ door. The room that you fight him in also counts toward map completion, but fortunately, they let you warp out of there as long as you don’t trigger the fight.

Since Seiren is an island cut off from the rest of the world, there’s no money! Here, resources are money. Every material you can get is able to be traded up for something better, or traded down for a bunch of low-level materials. This really sells the immersion of Ys VIII, plus it also gives you more incentive to keep your crappy materials on you. There are also a lot of great exclusive items that are only found in trades, so be diligent!

But things aren’t always peas and carrots here; monsters are afoot! Every so often, Castaway Village will get Raided, and you gotta help. Raids are the most fun and most agonizing parts of Ys VIII at the same time. The mechanics for them are fun, at least. You fight off waves of enemies and keep them from attacking the village. Castaways can also assist with their own skills. They can be lifesavers, especially the one who temporarily makes all skills cost 0 SP, and they get boosted as their Approval increases. The people aren’t the only things supporting you; we have literal supports in the form of barricades and lures to draw aggro. There’s also a gong that inflicts stun to all enemies on the field when struck, and is a real lifesaver. You can also upgrade these barricades with resources, and IT’S IMPORTANT TO DO IT unless you hate yourself. 

In addition to Raids are Hunts, which is where the village goes on the offensive. It gets a lot more high-maintenance here. In Hunts, you gotta fight off infinitely spawning enemies and place torches to reduce their defense, while attacking their spawn points. Defeating all of them unlocks the boss, which can run away and waste time on the mission. These suck, honestly. This is also a case where auto lock-on can mess you up, because you’ll be fighting through one group of enemies, and after you kill them, it could lock-on to someone behind you and disorient you. Fortunately, the ones that actually count toward quests aren’t too bad; it’s the reduxes that spawn afterward that are REALLY bad.

Raids and Hunts are fun, but only if you want to just beat them at all. There are Sonic-style rankings, and it can get stingy sometimes. You gotta SERIOUSLY be good at the game in order to S-Rank some of these, which stinks, because you get REALLY good rewards for doing it. At the very least, none of the stupid hard Raids give you important rewards for S-Rank. Worst case, you can just do them stupidly overleveled in order to get an easy rank.

“Hang on a second,” you interrupt. “You’ve been talking about this game for how long, and you haven’t even mentioned the titular Dana! Who is that anyway?” Dana is the cute, blue-haired girl on the cover (who has way better character design than Adol). She’s my favorite party member in the game, but you don’t quite recruit her the same way; after all, she’s lived about a million years in the past. Like in Final Fantasy VIII, you can switch over to her and experience things in her era.

During these sequences, Ys VIII is almost an entirely different game. Dana is the only character you play as, and has mechanics exclusive to her era. Most notable is her ability to change fighting styles, which you unlock at specific points in the story. This is how you attack weaknesses as Dana by herself. It’s pretty simple; the DPS form, the tanking form, and the agility form. Periodically throughout her arc, you can slowly uncover more of the Sanctuary Crypt, an optional dungeon with several puzzle chambers, that give you a lot of context for the game’s lore. The game has a checklist for each task in the different sections of her story, and it’s recommended to do all of it (especially since it’s not that tough to do). 

If there’s any gameplay flaw, it’s that the difficulty spikes right at the end. The main story remains a fair challenge, but some of the side stuff expects a LOT out of you. The worst part is a series of Raids with enemies from level 70 to 85 that get unlocked when your party would be around 60. These are tough. VERY TOUGH. I can’t even imagine how to beat these Raids on the game’s highest difficulty. But like I said, they’re all optional. Just do them if you hate yourself.

But even after you beat the game, you are still encouraged to return to it for postgame junk! All you gotta do is save your clear data in a slot, and load the file from the title screen. It’ll give you the option to do New Game+, or do reload just before the final boss with all your stuff from after you beat it (good thing it actually gives EXP). After this, a couple of things open up. One is a bonus dungeon, which is a really fun challenge and a great grinding spot. There’s also… the final Raid, with enemies in the level 90s. I never did that Raid, for obvious reasons.

Ys VIII, visually, is a BIT behind on the times. I don’t know what this was ported from, but it’s not that great-looking. Artistically, it has some beautiful vistas and great vibrant colors. But the textures are very dated, and look pixelated at times. Normally, I don’t care about game resolution like Rock Star does, but the way Ys VIII looks can actually hurt your eyes. There is one room that has bad slowdown, and one single incident where the game froze on me. It’s not unplayable, though. Most of the time, the game runs at a stable frame rate.

One thing I seriously did not expect to enjoy was Ys VIII’s soundtrack. WOW, what an amazing soundtrack! This game has it all, from upbeat rockin’ tunes, to atmospheric stuff. The music for Raids and Hunts, as well as the special nighttime music, are among my favorite tracks in the game. If only they released this on iTunes and stuff!

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Final Verdict: 9/10

Ys VIII might not be very original, but the ball gets rolling at a fast enough pace to make it less of a chore than most JRPGs. I recommend it if you’re a JRPG fan who’s tired of the genre’s tedium, and just wants to break stuff.