CrossCode: Secret of Mana and 2D Zelda on Steroids

If there’s one variant of RPG I haven’t done much of, it’s the types like Secret of Mana, where you actually have to move and physically strike enemies to deal damage. Paper Mario: Sticker Star gave me PTSD with any RPG that has only one party member throughout the whole game. But, you know what, Sticker Star sucked. So today, I’m going to cover a retro RPG that gives a lot of bang for its buck: CrossCode for Nintendo Switch (I started playing this game before I got Steam)!

After a confusing opening sequence where you play as some angsty chick, CrossCode starts out when a girl named Lea logs into the high-tech MMO, CrossWorlds, in hopes of recovering her lost memories. CrossWorlds is set on an actual alien planet called Shadoon, and players have to travel the Track of the Ancients, in order to discover its secrets. If you’ve seen SAO, you know things are gonna get ugly.

This game sure knows how to hook players! They throw the intrigue right at you when some weird spaceman, who claims to know Lea, attacks during a tutorial. After that, however, it’s chill city as a lot of the early game is just getting acclimated to CrossWorlds itself. While I don’t normally care much for story in games, I must say that CrossCode nonetheless has a great story. It’s pretty straightforward, but is consistent at throwing you curveballs.

The story in CrossCode wouldn’t mean anything without its phenomenal writing. There’s your usual witty banter, but an indie game wouldn’t be an indie game if it didn’t break the fourth wall! As you can expect, CrossCode makes fun of RPG and videogame tropes. In fact, it even comes up with an actual justification for Lea being a silent protagonist! Since it’s an MMO setting, the meta humor feels much more natural in the context of the story than most indie games I know.

If you’re familiar with me, then you would know that I don’t care if there’s realism, especially when it comes to characters. However, CrossCode actually makes me proud to say that the characters are great because they’re realistic. Due to the setting, all the characters are, well, gamers. From the main cast, to random NPCs, the dialogue feels like how actual videogame nerds would discuss videogame stuff amongst one another, and it creates an intimacy with the player unlike any game I’ve played.

As mentioned before, Lea is a silent protagonist, and is one of the best I have ever seen. I’d dare say she’s the best next to Link himself. Over the course of the game, her friend who basically plays the role of Navi gradually unlocks more words for Lea. Despite her limited vocabulary, the writers give her tons of personality and emotion with what little they have to work with. Speaking of that Navi—i.e. Sergey—he’s also awesome. He’s smart and rational, but also has no shortage of quips.

The others are great as well. Her friend Emilie is a raucous tomboy who is just adorable when she’s dealing with her phobia of bugs, and her love for laser bridges. Along with her is C’tron, a nice, introverted boy who likes making fun of the game’s tropes. There’s also the egomaniac Apollo (who you’ll come to hate for gameplay-related reasons), and his down-to-earth partner, Joern. Even the Navi wannabe, Sergey, is a very likeable character. Unfortunately, a lot of characters don’t have enough eggs in their baskets. Most NPCs have their own stock designs, and even then, some named ones—specifically those involved in side quests—have no personality. It’s a real shame, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

Before getting to gameplay, I must praise the graphics. The game is beautiful and vibrant, as expected of a lot of pixel art games. The spritework is so good, some characters—like a giant whale you fight at one point—look three dimensional. CrossWorlds itself brims with life as you observe other players running around and doing parkour alongside you. It really helps the game feel like it’s set in a real MMO, but without the toxic fandoms and newbie PK’ing of actual MMOs. Somehow, this thing was made using HTML 5, and apparently, this made it very difficult to port to the Switch. It works fine, but can lag a bit during weather effects or if there are a lot of large AOE attacks going off at once.

The gameplay is, of course, the most important part, and CrossCode gets it right. The game has your typical skill tree, with several branches, each containing different abilities that you unlock by spending CP, which you earn on level up. It’s the usual stuff. However, you’re only able to outfit Lea in this game, and that’s because your party members aren’t always going to be there. While you can use them all you want when exploring, things like Dungeons and PvP are done solo. More on those mechanics later.

CrossCode handles Quests really well. There’s tons of them, but they make it really easy to cycle through them. You can favorite a Quest by pressing Y on them, which will display the tasks for it on the HUD. But the best part is that you can favorite multiple Quests at once, and cycle through each one by pressing the Left Analog Stick. It’s a phenomenal way to manage tons of Quests that most RPGs don’t do. The only real issue is that you can’t favorite them at the initial prompt when receiving it.

Quests are nice, but it wouldn’t be a true RPG if there weren’t a million things to do. The other monstrosity is the Encyclopedia, which fills up by talking to NPCs, playing the main story, and learning about the world. This is basically Character Notes in a Falcom game… with additional notes regarding in-universe terminology. I didn’t bother getting 100% on this because of Trails of Cold Steel PTSD, but like in that game, I assume that entries are permanently missable in CrossCode. Additionally, plants of all kinds populate CrossWorlds, and there is a whole section in your Encyclopedia called “Botanics” that records data. Getting an item drop from a given plant is what moves analyzation along, so don’t be afraid to spend hours and hours violating the ecosystem.

Before covering combat, I must praise CrossCode for having an amazing overworld. It’s not just beautiful, but it’s chock full of stuff. You will have to really study the land to figure out “Just how am I supposed to reach that?”, and it’s really fun to do. Every area is full of puzzles, some of which extend to adjacent rooms. Other than some specific instances, it’s pretty easy to get a grasp of planes of the z-axis despite the 2D graphics. But when you can’t, you can always use your projectile attack to get a feel for the depth. Also keep in mind that Lea’s jump is NOT to be underestimated; it puts Link to shame!

Speaking of Legend of Zelda comparisons, the dungeons in CrossCode are among the best I’ve seen in any RPG. CrossCode utilizes its mechanics to create an explicitly Zelda-like experience when going through them. They have seriously tricky puzzles that make use of all of the game’s mechanics, as well as the dungeon-specific mechanics that are taught to you organically with no intrusive textboxes. 

There are a couple of issues I have with them, however. While the puzzles are really great, a lot of them are extremely fickle, requiring pixel-precise setup. This leads into the other issue, which is Emilie’s addiction to racing you through the dungeon. Although it doesn’t seem apparent, you can actually try to win somehow. Unfortunately, if you’re going through the dungeon for the first time, as well as trying to get all the treasure before the boss, you’re NOT going to win a single dungeon race. Even if you were to speedrun it on a repeat playthrough, I imagine every single puzzle is a run-killer; it wouldn’t be an indie game if there was no “Hey do this thing with constant frame-perfect timing, please” BS. Since I’m a filthy casual, I have to accept being an absolute loser at everything.

Combat is a whole different story. When playing, you have your usual melee attacks, but Lea also has projectiles. To use projectiles, you have to move the right analog stick to aim while ALSO moving. Plus, there’s a dodge, but ALSO a guard. The latter won’t make you invincible from damage, but—naturally—there is a perfect guard that allows you to counterattack. Things can get ugly fast if you aren’t adept at all this. 

There’s also Combat Arts that are used with ZR. However, they work very strangely in CrossCode. Your arts aren’t mapped to ZR + a face button, but to ZR + a specific action. They come in four types: Melee Arts, Ranged Arts, Dash Arts, and Guard Arts. Pretty self-explanatory which is which. Note that you can only have one Art set to each action at a time. But fortunately, the skill tree allows you to freely switch between different branches with no CP loss, so there’s no consequence in learning an Art that you’re not sure about. As you find MacGuffins, you unlock further branches of the skill tree, which allow you to learn stronger Combat Arts that cost more SP.

As if things couldn’t get any crazier, there’s Elements. In CrossWorlds, players gradually acquire mastery of the Four Elements. As you unlock them, you can freely switch between them to give your attacks that property. This is great when fighting enemies with different resistances, so you’re not “Oh great, I’m fighting something weak to this and I can’t go into my inventory to equip my weapon with this attribute!” However, there’s Element Overload to watch out for. Basically, too much attacking with an element active can force you back into neutral for a while. It’s also important to know that attacking with no Element active will make your Elements cool down much faster. Each Element found opens up a new section of the skill tree, with their own Combat Arts (which means you’ll be able to have up to FORTY of them active once you gain all four Elements). The thing to notice is that each upgrade is only applied in that particular Element mode. For example, if you give yourself a bunch of base defense ups in Neutral, you will lose it when you switch to another Element. This needs to be kept in mind as you fight.

One mechanic that makes the game extra fun is Combat Rank. This is basically a combo system; defeat enemies in quick succession to increase your rank, which makes them drop better items. I only recommend it if you’re specifically grinding for rare drops, since the adrenaline rush can make you ignore loot your first time through an area. Fortunately, you can press minus after defeating all nearby enemies to end combat immediately if you don’t want to get that combo going. However, whenever you decide to go on a killing spree, Combat Ranks make it feel really good. It gets even better once you acquire equipment with the Botanist property, which causes plant item drops to be affected by Combat Rank. Thanks to this mechanic, I had more fun grinding for materials in CrossCode than in most other games I’ve played in my life.

There are also a lot of nuances that take much learning to figure out. The NPCs are very helpful in that regard, but there’s still some stuff you gotta figure out on your own. For example, when an enemy is glowing red, that means they’re charging up an attack that you can break them out of with a charged projectile attack. There’s also the dash cancel, where you use your dodge in order to prevent yourself from using a melee combo that has recovery lag in favor of continually dishing out damage, and more importantly, hit-stunning enemies repeatedly. Also, parrying with your guard ability becomes crucial if you want to be really good at the game.

You will need to learn these skills quickly; like most indie games, CrossCode wants to be on par with Dark Souls in terms of difficulty. Fortunately, unlike other hard-ass indie games, CrossCode actually considers EVERY POSSIBLE PERSON playing it. In the settings, you are able to freely tweak the amount of damage you take, as well as the frequency of enemy attacks and the leniency of puzzles. That last modifier is really good because you can mitigate the ridiculousness of the puzzles; you’ll still have to figure it out, but execution won’t be as much of a chore. Of course, these are at max by default. I had each setting one tick lower than max and it still gave me a consistently rough but fair time (maybe I just suck).

Despite how rough it was, I rarely felt truly frustrated. The game’s tough, but somehow, it makes the challenge feel fun. However, nothing’s perfect, and there are some specific points that can get VERY frustrating. One example is the case of Elite Quests. Most of them are harder versions of earlier quests. MUCH harder. For instance, the hard versions of these sadistic platforming gauntlets require the kind of frame-perfect perfection that most indie games have come to expect from gamers. There’s also some quests that have interesting ideas, but next-to-no leeway and require memorization of enemy formations. It’s also very easy to be walled by any of the game’s PvP battles. You can’t use items, and even if you could, your opponent is very capable of overwhelming you instantly, and tries various strategies built around stun-locking you until you go from full health to dead. It’s meant to teach you these strategies, but doesn’t mean they’re easy to implement yourself!

If that wasn’t scary enough, don’t get me started on the Arena. Late-ish into the game, you unlock the ability to challenge a preset of mobs from each region, as well as every single fixed encounter, miniboss, and major boss battle that you’ve been through. Beating the challenges is doable enough, but it’s getting the best scores that are insane. You need serious reflexes and ability to pay attention to multiple onscreen entities at once. And assuming you get platinum on each challenge? Well, guess what; you’re also going to have to do it again, but this time in Rush Mode. This is—you guessed it—every challenge within its given bracket in a row with limited healing. Yes, you’ll have to worry about getting platinum on this, and it’ll naturally be even worse to screw up.

I would’ve had this review out faster if it weren’t for the game’s long-awaited DLC: A New Home. It took until early 2021 to drop, and the wait for console users was even longer. However, it’s a bit complicated. The DLC, A New Home, is CrossCode’s post-game (I am unsure what happens if you beat the game before buying the DLC). To unlock it, you need to get the Good Ending. Now, before you assume that they pulled a Falcom by having a Good Ending in a long RPG, lemme reassure you: the sole condition that needs to be met is close to the end of the game. They’re very upfront once it comes up, so it’s not hard to miss. The problem is doing it right. I, thankfully, had managed to get the Good Ending in one try without even knowing that it was such an important thing. Fortunately, if you get the Bad Ending, you can warp right back to the start of the final chapter, retry the event, and then warp straight to the final boss at the point-of-no-return spot.

A New Home unlocks new quests, a new region, the true final dungeon, and resolves many unanswered plot twists. The new region, while beautiful, is kind of a disappointment considering how long I waited for it. It’s easily the smallest area in the game, and is very linear. On the plus side, you unlock special “ascended” equipment, whose base stats grow with Lea’s level, making them objectively better than anything else you can wear. A lot of these are upgrades from stuff you already have, so it’s easy for you to prioritize certain kits based on your playstyle. Also, the superboss at the end of the dungeon was probably the hardest fight I’ve experienced in my life, and taught me that my heart isn’t physically capable of handling that level of difficulty.

Unfortunately, there are some issues with A New Home. For completionists, you will need an excessive amount of materials found in the final dungeon in order to get all of the equipment. However, due to how dungeons work versus the overworld, you can’t take advantage of combat rank, making it one of the worst grinding spots in the game. Also, if you consider reaching level cap part of completion, grinding XP will be hard toward the end. The plus side is that the least amount you can earn is 1 per enemy, so finding a spot with a lot of enemies is the best strategy… but even spots with many enemies don’t exactly expedite this process. Also, the game doesn’t resolve EVERY plot twist, possibly intentionally so; it definitely baits a sequel, and there just so happens to be a very CrossCode-looking game, currently known as Project Terra, under development right now (that I hope has customizable difficulty and only one ending). Also, the final-FINAL segment is a bit anticlimactic. It doesn’t even take half an hour to get through despite the big buildup. Maybe it would’ve been better to have the final dungeon after it, since it’s a much better end to your journey. The cherry on top is that the game does the thing where it resets to right before the cutoff point after beating it, which is really arbitrary since not enough changes after finishing the DLC to warrant this.

How have I gone this long without talking about CrossCode’s soundtrack?! It is one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a videogame, and perhaps the best I’ve heard in an indie game. There is so much variety when it comes to atmospheres and moods. I could rock out to any of the awesome battle themes, or chillax to the serene tunes of Autumn’s Rise.

Final Verdict: 9.95/10

CrossCode is awesome. I’d give it a perfect ten, but some of the puzzles really do feel excessively savage. Ah screw it!

Actual Final Verdict: 10/10

CrossCode has become my favorite indie game of all time, and is sure as heck up there with my favorite games of all time. I recommend it to anyone who loves JRPGs, puzzles, pixel art, great story, and phenomenal gameplay.

Still a Masterpiece JRPG: Xenoblade Chronicles Retrospective feat. The Definitive Edition

One of the most important YouTubers in my life is none other than Chuggaaconroy. I don’t just look up to him as a fellow autistic man, and as the man who introduced me to the TRG Community, the only community—physical and digital—where I’ve felt like I belonged; he also introduced me to the ding-dang greatest JRPG franchise of all time: Xenoblade Chronicles. Naturally, I had temptations to play the 2020 remaster, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition, for the Nintendo Switch. However, I held off on it because I was like, “You know what, I’ll save it for 2022 when the game turns ten.” The thing is, I’m an idiot. The 2012 release I had associated with Xenoblade Chronicles was for the North American release. The game actually turned ten in 2020, an anniversary which was probably overshadowed by assorted world events at the time. As a result, you’re going to read a two-year-belated tenth anniversary retrospective, featuring the Definitive Edition. So without further ado, I need to ask the question that starts every retrospective: Is it really as good as I remember it being?

For the record, I have not re-watched Chugga’s series, nor have I seen any gameplay of this game since then. I remembered the basic gist of the story, the party members’ playstyles, the enemy types (since they’re also in the sequel), the regions, and specific side stuffs. I don’t remember the layouts for any of the regions, nor the vast majority of heart-to-hearts and sidequests. Overall, excluding the Future Connect epilogue, at least 70% of this game will still feel new to me. Also, I noticed that this game came with the Japanese voice actors. While I do actually think the dub is great, I was deathly curious about the Japanese voices. At the very least, I wouldn’t have to worry about “You’ll pay for your insolence!”, even if it means I lose Reyn Time.

Before I even get to the premise, I must say: HOLY SHIT THIS GAME IS GORGEOUS. The area design and the various vistas were astounding in the original, but the game looked… kinda bad. Now, this world is truly done justice. Everything has so much more life, especially the characters. Maybe the original being impossible to find was worth something after all; I doubt this remaster would exist otherwise.

You know what—and I know that I’m stalling on getting to the GAME here—but this is not your usual retrospective (in case you couldn’t tell from the fact that it’s a ten year anniversary retrospective when the game is twelve). The problem is that, normally, a retrospective would be a spoiler-filled rant on a well-known thing that’s been around for more than a hot minute. However, the original Xenoblade Chronicles on Nintendo Wii was notoriously difficult for people to find. As such, Definitive Edition is likely a whole generation’s first ever experience with the game. So… should I really spoil the story? I kind of ended up going halfway; not straight-up analyzing everything, yet giving away the biggest plot twists in the game. As such: UNMARKED SPOILERS AHEAD.

In Xenoblade Chronicles, two Titans—Bionis and Mechonis—are locked in battle. Said battle literally ends in a stalemate, but the residents of these Titans are still up in arms at each other. The Bionis people’s only hope to fight Mechonis’ Mechons is the Monado, a sword that can see the future. A boy named Shulk inherits it after his childhood friend, Fiora, is given the Red Shirt treatment, and sets off to destroy all the Mechon (afterwhich he realizes that the Mechon were the good guys but that’s neither here nor there).

What jumps out immediately in Xenoblade Chronicles is its setting. In case you couldn’t tell, the overworld for this game is the aforementioned Bionis and Mechonis locked in time. This is probably one of the most creative worlds in a JRPG. There aren’t many ways to describe how great it is without examples. One area is a body of water resting inside a giant thing sticking out of its shoulder blades (Bionis must’ve been a hunchback). Oh, and the way you get to Mechonis? You literally walk across the sword it thrust into Bionis’ shinbone. They even went into so much detail as having the ice area be in the part of Bionis that gets the least amount of sunlight (thanks for that particular deet, Chugga). 

Most people would say that Xenoblade Chronicles has a fantastic story, but honestly, I don’t feel as strongly about that. Everything is presented very powerfully and emotionally, but it’s pretty straightforward. I feel like the only development that can catch you off guard is the BIG twist where Shulk was actually the vessel of the final boss. Oh, and if you’ve played Xenoblade Chronicles 2, then you’d recognize the same scientist guy from the end of that game; this game’s world is the one that he ended up creating.

No matter how good the story is, it still has some developments that are way too easily telegraphed. First off, Metal Face being Mumkarr is obvious since they both use the same knuckle-claw-thing weapons, and more noticeably, they have the same voice actors. Also, the thing with Dickson… I feel like they could’ve been more subtle about it. He outs himself very easily in one specific scene in Satorl Marsh, and it’s quite easy to remember since he’s never acted sus up to that point.

At the very least, the game has surprisingly enjoyable cutscenes, and this is from someone who normally can’t stand cutscenes in a JRPG. There are a number of scenes where it’s like “Okay, we’re here, and we need to go over there,” but those—at least in the Definitive Edition—have advanceable text. The actual, cinematic, story-important cutscenes are very well-directed and never felt like they overstayed their welcome. This was a pleasant surprise, because in Xenoblade 2, I remember being frustrated to no end at the length and abundance of cutscenes. I recalled going through the Spirit Crucible and there being at least eight different cutscenes where they’re like “Oh man we’re all exhausted in here” over and over again. Well, I guess I’ll know for sure if I ever get to do a retrospective of that game (which won’t be this year because Xenoblade 3 is priority one).

What gives Xenoblade Chronicles heart is its cast (even if I (hot take) think that the sequel has a better cast). Your main party members, with the exception of one, all have incredibly defined personalities and are very lovable. Shulk is pretty much a shounen protagonist, albeit a well-realized one. One of the best parts about him is that he often gets called out for the “main character sees something VERY IMPORTANT and says ‘It’s nothing’” cliché. He still does it… a lot… but I can let it slide this time.

Reyn is a great best-friend-type of guy, whose Time is very honored. Fiora initially comes off as a Red Shirt, but becomes more fully fleshed out—or should I say—mechanized out, after you find her with a bit of Mechon implanted pretty much everywhere besides her face. Best Girl Melia is the better waifu, who sadly doesn’t get her man (but more on that much later). Dunban is literally Shanks from One Piece, complete with only being able to use one arm. He’s a freaking awesome dad-type character. 

I don’t know about public consensus, but Chugga’s least favorite character was Sharla. What makes her a hard sell right away is her unusual battle style (sorry for getting to gameplay here but eeeeeeeeh), where her Talent Art isn’t an attack but a way to cool down her rifle when it overheats. To be honest, she’s not that bad in battle. You can use Cool Off before it overheats, and it’ll waste less time. There might be a possibility that Sharla’s A.I. was improved in Definitive Edition, because I recall Chugga saying it was awful. All that is well and good, but as a character, she’s about as much of a jackass as I remember. She has an unhealthy obsession with this Gadolt guy, to the point where it gets annoying. As soon as she says Reyn reminds her of a young Gadolt, you can see their ship coming from a mile away. Oh, and her betrayal of Melia in that one Heart-to-Heart? Big oof.

Obviously, the BEST character is Riki. This guy is a Nopon, a.k.a. the master race of the Xenoblade Chronicles series. With his typical Nopon broken grammar, he’s fun and cute and awesome and perfect. His only flaw is not being Tora from the second game. 

Like I said before, I played through the game with the Japanese audio, like a weeb. This is going to sound crazy coming from someone like me, but here: the dub is actually better. I had a feeling it would be, since we have Reyn Time and all. The voice actors aren’t bad, but nothing stands out from them. The Japanese audio is more necessary in Xenoblade 2, which has more anime tropes, and thus more interesting voice actors like Aoi Yuki. 

The chemistry between characters depends on you. Affinity is the bond between two characters, and is increased by actions in battle, among other things. Generally, you want to raise it as much as possible. One thing about Affinity that I’m glad has been simplified in the sequel is town Affinity. Unlike Xenoblade 2, where it was just the entire town as one entity, most NPCs have their own place on a massive Affinity tree. You’ll need to talk to them to get them to appear. And unfortunately, registering people on the Affinity tree is often a prerequisite for sidequests. Thankfully, the ones you need to worry about are green on the map. In any case, completing quests will increase the party’s Affinity with the respective town, allowing for even more quests.

Heart-to-Hearts are where it’s at for character development. However, in this game, bad choices can decrease affinity. As such, I ended up looking up every single one of them on the wiki. Some of the negatives can be funnier, plus there is an achievement for getting the worst outcome of a Heart-to-Heart. As expected, Heart-to-Hearts have various prerequisites, and you’ll have to remember them accordingly. On another note, one thing I don’t like about Affinity in this game is that certain party members will gain Affinity by being active when receiving given quests. There’s no way to tell who will react, but honestly, I didn’t worry about getting a reaction on EVERY quest, especially since some are from characters you don’t get until a significant time after the quest is available.

Speaking of quests… there are a ton. A good chunk of them are very simple and will auto-complete when accomplished, similar to the basic missions in Xenoblade X. As always, doing as many of them as possible is well-worth your time. Just be aware of Timed Quests. These will expire after certain story developments, but as long as you prioritize them, there’ll be nothing to worry about. One of the best parts of the game is that Shulk’s visions are more than just a plot device; they impact gameplay. A lot of quests, such as ones with multiple outcomes, show him what’ll happen with either option. Furthermore, you can even get visions of collecting materials for quests that you haven’t even started yet. New to the Definitive Edition, exclamation marks will appear for every quest, even if it’s not registered as the actively tracked quest. It will even highlight materials needed if any loaded in; great for not wasting time checking EVERY single item orb.

Unfortunately, the quests are kind of trollish at times. There is at least one case where one outcome of a multiple-outcome quest will open up a chain of future quests, but not the other. Also, some quests don’t appear on the map until you go up to them in the overworld, and yes, a number of these are timed. But in all seriousness, I really ended up hating the Affinity Chart in this game. It’s not just talking to people once to get them registered in it; you’ll also have to return to previous NPCs after registering new ones in order to get a status on their relationship with each other. Sometimes, you’ll have to talk to them after certain quests or story beats. All of these actions are often prerequisites to quests, and one in Colony 9 can be missed just by making the wrong decision with one of its residents. NPCs have very specific schedules, and there’s no way to really know if you have everyone in a given town. The Xenoblade wiki is a lifesaver for this, but having to use it at all honestly kind of sucks.

Anyway, the REAL rabbit hole when it comes to sidequesting is Colony 6. Starting from a certain point, you can relocate the residents of Colony 6 to, well, Colony 6. The place was ravaged by Mechon, and it needs rebuilding. In addition to a metric ton of quests and quest chains, you also have to make sizable donations in the form of rare materials found around the world in order to spruce it up. This would be the start of Xenoblade’s tendency to expect incessant and unfun grinding for completionists. Thankfully, they programmed it to where anything needed for Colony 6 in an area that expires will have an alternate solution after-the-fact.

One mechanic for collecting that has yet to return is trading. Named NPCs will be willing to trade for items, depending on your Affinity with the town. If you’re missing a material for a quest, then a trade might just come in clutch. Each item has a trade value, and you must give them something equal to or higher than it. There’s also the ability to overtrade, which nets you a bonus item if you give them something WAY more valuable. It’s a cool mechanic, but overtrading is tied to completing the “other” tab of the Collectopedia, and you have no hints on which NPC you have to trade with. I miss this mechanic, since it can save tons of material farming (maybe that’s why the other games are utter nightmares to complete?).

As far as the overworld is concerned, Xenoblade Chronicles has one of the best. There’s so much variety when it comes from the different areas, and the game does a great job in showing the scale of this game world. Even though I watched Chugga’s series years ago, I still remember seeing the Mechonis from exiting Tephra Cave for the first time. Bionis and Mechonis have a ton of stuff to do, from collecting materials, to mining regularly-spawning Ether deposits, to finding secret areas that net a ton of XP. It’s amazing how much there is when there aren’t any overworld chests!

So, what do you do with the aforementioned Ether deposits? The crystals you get from these—along with crystals from enemy drops—are used to craft Gems, which are stuck to equipment for added effects. The system is kind of complicated, and very random. Basically, you get one character to control the flames of the crafting machine, and someone else… to be honest I don’t know what the other person does. Basically, you insert crystals until one of the values exceeds 100%. Any Gem that’s over 100% is guaranteed to form, and any that fall short will be converted to cylinders for later use, depending on how much of the cylinder gauge fills up. Higher ranked crystals will form higher ranked Gems, but exceeding 200% will get you a higher rank.

Anyway, equipment is actually fun in Xenoblade Chronicles. I always felt like it was too complicated in Xenoblade X, but too simple in Xenoblade 2 (although that might change if I do a retrospective on the latter). In the original, it’s just right. Equipment comes in varying types: regular, slotted, and unique. Regular is self explanatory, while slotted equipment can be equipped with the Gems. Unique equipment has a predetermined Gem setup, and can be very helpful. The original game had a glitch where damage rolling went WAY lower than the maximum that a character’s stats said they could, and I couldn’t tell if it was fixed in this version. It was fixed in the 3DS port, so it’s natural to assume the same here. 

Combat is what makes Xenoblade Chronicles as a whole feel action-packed… and it’s complicated. Your party members all use their standard attack commands automatically at regular intervals. Auto-attacks are really nice, because you can use them while moving as long as you stay in range of the target, whereas in Xenoblade 2, I recall that you moved insanely slow in battle and could only auto-attack while standing still. In addition to these standard attacks, you can select the various Arts of whomever you’re controlling. These have a wide variety of effects, as well as bonuses depending on your angle relative to the target. In the Definitive Edition, given Arts will have a blue exclamation mark when you’re in position to gain their bonus effect. Landing auto-attacks also fills up a gauge that—when full—allows you to use a fancy Talent Art. These are unique to the character, ranging from the Monado Arts to… Sharla cooling her stupid rifle. Arts need to be levelled up by consuming accumulated AP on them; this also includes each of Shulk’s Monado Arts. At first, you can only raise an Art to level four, but Art books can break that level cap… if you can find them! Most are available at shops, but those aren’t enough. You’ll need advanced Arts books to completely max out an Art. Unfortunately, these are only available as insanely low drops from random assortments of enemies late in the game. There’s no way to know which ones are where, but the higher leveled enemies that do have them give you the best odds.

Along with Arts, you also learn Skills. These are passive abilities that apply to the whole party or to the user. The system becomes kind of complicated with Skill Links, where you use Affinity Coins to give someone another party member’s Skill. Just experiment and see what works. Keep in mind that specific quests can reward a character with an additional skill tree that tends to be pretty powerful. If the game wasn’t ham-fisted enough with its ships, one of Fiora’s grants her all kinds of buffs as long as Shulk is fighting alongside her.

The main way to gain an advantage over enemies is to knock ‘em over. To do this, you hit them with a pink Break Art to unbalance them, then use a green Topple Art to literally trip ‘em up. You can extend the time they are down with a yellow Daze Art (which has yet to come back in the series). Topples and Dazes can be stacked, resulting in a technique called Topple-locking, but you don’t need to worry about that unless you’re fighting stupidly powerful foes (i.e. the superbosses). There are rare instances of being able to skip a step in the process, such as Melia’s Spear Break immediately followed by Starlight Kick. One great feature of the Definitive Edition is the visual indicator of these debuffs’ durations, similar to Xenoblade 2. Also, you can hit a target already suffering Break and Topple with another Art of the same type to refresh the status; something I DON’T remember in Xenoblade 2.

You also have to pay attention to Aggro. Whoever has the most Aggro has a red circle around them, and will have the attention of enemies. It’s optimal to keep it on people like Reyn, and not people like Shulk. There are various Arts dedicated to increasing and decreasing Aggro. Oh, and before I forget, I should mention Auras. These temporarily put the user in a unique state, and they can be VERY useful. 

Just like with sidequests, Shulk’s visions help in battle, even when he’s not in the active battle party! When an enemy is about to use a powerful—usually fatal—attack, you see a Vision of it, with a timer of how long you have to stop it. More often than not, the attack will be the enemies’ own Talent Art, each of which has its own level. Use Shulk’s Monado Shield to protect from it, but the Shield needs to be levelled up enough in order to work. The Shield will not work on non-Talent Art attacks. There’s also the ability to consume a block of the Party Gauge by warning a fellow character, which gives you a chance to use an Art on the attacker. I don’t recall that being in the original, but it’s been years since I watched Chugga’s series so I don’t really know for sure.

The best part is the Chain Attack. Getting crits and Arts’ bonus effects fill the Party Gauge, which goes up to three bars. It takes one bar to revive a character, and the whole darn thing is consumed to execute said Chain Attack. Basically, you use Arts of the same color to boost damage. What’s really helpful is that enemy resistance to debuffs is nullified, which is where the Topple-locking strategy comes in. Unfortunately, Chain Attacks kind of suck early game, because their duration depends on your party members’ Affinities. Also, Sharla doesn’t learn a red Art for a long time, making it difficult to add to the multiplier with her in the party. In any case, I forgot how great this Chain Attack was versus the sequel’s. Like I said before, Chain Attacks in this game make Topple-locking viable. I’m stressing this because you can’t use Arts in Xenoblade 2’s Chain Attacks; they’re only good for sheer damage. Furthermore, the same actions that fill up the party gauge normally still apply during the Chain Attack itself; ANOTHER great thing I don’t recall in the sequel. Some setups can refill the entire party gauge instantly, allowing for an immediate follow-up Chain Attack. When your party’s Affinity gets high enough across the board, you can really spam these with little penalty. It’s so much better than Xenoblade 2, where I remember Chain Attacks being something you had to work for, not just by filling the party gauge, but also because you need at least six element orbs from six different types of Blade Combo for it to be worthwhile. Boy, I really sound like I hate Xenoblade 2. I swear, I love it! It just has… issues.

Another thing to keep in mind is quick time events. Don’t worry; they aren’t the BS that kills you during a cutscene if you don’t see it coming. Basically, you just need to press B when it lines up with the blue circle that forms. You need to do this to keep party morale up, which affects how good you do in battle. Also, hitting these prompts gives you the chance to extend your Chain Attack’s duration. Hitting these when prompted can fill up to a whole block of the party gauge, so… practice makes perfect.

One of the nicest new features is Expert Mode. Calm down; this is not a higher difficulty. Basically, what this option does is convert some XP earned from non-battle antics to reserve XP. In the Expert Mode menu, you can level up or level down party members, similar to how the inns worked in Xenoblade 2. If you’re worried about being overleveled from completing all the quests, then use this to even yourself out by levelling the party down. This is especially helpful in the endgame, which involves fighting enemies stronger than the final boss. You can do those quests and get up to Level 99 for the superbosses, then just level down afterwards for the final boss (if you want it to be a challenge of course; utterly wasting Zanza has its own catharsis).

In terms of difficulty, Xenoblade Chronicles can be rough if it’s your first Xenoblade ever. Conversely, if you’ve played Xenoblade 2, then this game is stupid easy. It’ll still feel easy even if you’re using Expert Mode. For me, that gave me the perfect level of challenge. I’ve even had multiple fights against monsters marked as “yellow”, meaning it would be pretty tough but not as hopeless as fighting a superboss. I would not have been able to get through it without my knowledge of Xenoblade fundamentals as well as knowing every party member’s battle style. There are quests that take you into high-level territory underleveled, but it’s not required like in Xenoblade X, nor is it as insane as Xenoblade X. There is a proper tutorial for Spikes, which I don’t recall being a thing originally. Plus, enemy health bars have a visual indicator if they have Spikes; a phenomenal improvement!

Oh, and f*** the Nebula enemies. These things can only take full damage from Ether, and usually have annoying status ailment Spikes that reduce tension, which you need to keep as high as possible over the course of battle (at the very least, you can farm Affinity by encouraging your allies over and over again). When the Nebulae are low on health, they self-destruct. Even if you survive it, they don’t actually drop loot, and if you could properly defeat one, the items that you actually need for stuff are quite rare. I’m glad that these aren’t in future games (and if they actually are, then they’re definitely not as bad).

The real challenge comes from Unique Monsters. These are tougher versions of regular enemies that take—and deliver—quite a beating. They drop super good prizes, and are worth taking on (plus, they’re really fun to fight). The superbosses are five Uniques over the level cap of 99, and suck. I never did them due to wanting to save time (thanks, both Great Ace Attorney games and my life), but you basically need a perfect setup to fight them… at setup that I vaguely know how to build but not enough to where it actually works (I tried on regular overleveled enemies and it didn’t go well). You also need to be in a situation to endlessly spam Chain Attacks and Topple-lock them, as well as regularly using Shulk’s Monado Purge to seal the VERY DANGEROUS counterattack Spikes they have on them. Since Topple-locking is a thing, they are probably the easiest superbosses of the series so far.

A much more consistent challenge is the A.I. of your other two battle party members. I remember Chugga specifically riffing on Shulk and Sharla, but I had some troubles with them across the board. While they are good at following up with the Break > Topple > Daze chain, they tend to use those Arts willy-nilly, and by the time I actually inflict something on the enemy, their Art is on cooldown. They are at least good at using Arts that work in tandem together, but that’s hardly an offset. Shulk will also spam Monado Arts (and use Monado Purge against enemies without Spikes or Auras), but that’s at least not too bad as long as he doesn’t use Monado Buster, which reduces the Talent Gauge by the highest amount. Sharla wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I recall Chugga saying. Maybe they rebalanced her in this version? In any case, you pretty much need to be in control of Shulk for the superbosses, since he NEEDS to be ever on point with his Monado Purges there.

Since everything in Xenoblade is so damn good, it’s no surprise that it has phenomenal music. I’m very attached to this soundtrack; it’s pretty much perfect. I even own an official copy of the OST, straight from Japan. In Definitive Edition, the soundtrack is ever-so-slightly altered. The basic ideas for the songs are still there, but if you’re really soft for the old OST, the new ones could sound jarring. At least it’s not made worse by this change. However, I did notice an issue that I don’t recall from Chugga’s series. You see, the battle music dynamically changes to some sort of “Oh crap!” music when you’re getting a nasty vision or if things aren’t going your way. However, the game consistently had trouble reverting back to the usual music, even after averting said crisis. 

Oh, and one more thing new to the Definitive Edition is the Time Attack mode. This works like it does in Xenoblade 2, only it’s a lot easier. Unfortunately, from what I’ve tried, it doesn’t seem that practical. The rewards seem kinda useless for the most part, and you can’t even do most of the challenges right away. One big plus is that you can use it to obtain the super-rare materials for that gruesome final leg of Colony 6 reconstruction. Hallelujah!

Before getting to the final evaluation, I should list a couple of minor flaws in the game, for the sake of being comprehensive. Some enemies, specifically fish enemies, can be buggy and randomly disengage from battle for no reason. There are also at least two quests with multiple outcomes that will force the bad outcome if you have the necessary materials for it upon accepting the request. Also, I hate the quest where you get the weapon for Fiora right before taking on Mechonis Core, since you have to make a round trip through Central Factory with fast travel disabled; what’s worse is that it’s actually worth doing. And for some reason—I don’t know if it’s me having bad luck, but—I just could not get Chain Attacks to last very long. Maybe tension is involved in the calculations, but the prompt to extend was very rare even with characters who have maxxed out Affinity. This essentially means that the Superbosses are luck-based, but that’s just how the cookie crumbles in even the best JRPGs. Either that or I suck. 

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Final Verdict—Oh wait, there’s more!

Xenoblade Chronicles is over one hundred hours of top-notch JRPG gameplay. However, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition has one more addition in Future Connect, a post-game sidestory. Before evaluating the final product, we gotta play through Future Connect first!

In Xenoblade Chronicles: Future Connect, Zanza has been wiped from existence, and Shulk created a new world with no gods. Life is finally back to normal. A year later, Shulk and Melia pay a visit to Alcamoth, just to receive a giant laser blast to the face. Apparently, something called the Fog King has set up shop there and it needs to be taken out posthaste.

The story here is a pretty simple instance of the “we saved the world, but there’s still issues and junk” trope. It’s nowhere on the caliber of the base game. On the plus side, it basically serves as—after ten years since the original game came out on Wii—proper character development for poor Melia. She gets to spend quality time with Shulk, completely bereft of Fiora. Melia gets the full closure to her character arc that she deserved all this time. Accompanying the destined-to-be-friendzoned couple are two of Riki’s kids: Nene and Kino, who serve as your Reyn and Sharla respectively. They’re positively adorable, and that’s all there is to it; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Future Connect is set in the once-unused area known as Bionis’ Shoulder. For some reason, when Bionis fell over after beating Zanza… its shoulder decided to not fall? Why am I questioning JRPG tropes? In any case, there is a LOT to do on Bionis’ Shoulder! In addition to the Ponspectors, Heart-to-Hearts are replaced with Quiet Moments, of which there are many of. These don’t have any choices, and are fully voice acted; a nice change of pace from worrying that you could say the wrong thing. There is more incentive to defeat Unique Monsters, for they drop Art Coins, which are used to buy Arts Manuals now. Bionis’ Shoulder has a slew of optional quests, one of which is to find twenty of a certain Key Item scattered across the world.

A lot of mechanics have changed. Shulk can’t see visions, there is no more Skill Tree, and Chain Attacks are replaced with a special all-out attack. You also mine Gems directly from Ether deposits as you would for crystals in the base game. Anyway, the aforementioned special attack is a bit complicated. It’s unlocked by finding elite Nopons called Ponspectors throughout the world. With a full set of Ponspectors from the same team, your special attack can be performed based on that team’s specialities. Also, they autonomously assist in general, using Arts of their own. 

Future Connected is also really hard. Everyone starts off in their sixties, but with crappy equipment and un-leveled-up Arts. With no Visions, big attacks can wipe your team instantly. Plus, the lack of Chain Attack makes it harder to Topple Lock (and the free Daze from the Ponspector attack can’t be refreshed by using a regular Daze Art). Shulk is pretty much essential, as Monado Armor becomes significantly more helpful than it was in the base game, but aggro management becomes difficult when you don’t have Aggro Up Gems on Nene.

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After All These Years: 10/10

Thanks to the quality of life improvements in the Definitive Edition, Xenoblade Chronicles becomes the best game in the series for sure… at least until I finish Xenoblade 3 or have renewed thoughts on Xenoblade 2. It’s a no-brainer that I recommend it to anyone who owns a Nintendo Switch.

Crystal Project: An Unexpected Marriage of Hollow Knight and Final Fantasy V

I got a long story with this Crystal Project. Basically, I haven’t actually beaten it. I have played the vast majority of it, though; enough that I feel like I can write a final piece on it (also I’m a filthy casual so it’s not like I follow the standards of the gaming community anyway). Also, I really want to talk about it, but if I try to push myself to grind out the rest of it, I might end up hating it, because some of the side stuff in the game is utter BS. I might not even finish it at all because the kind of experiences I want in games is starting to change (which is my fancy way of saying I suck). So… yeah, here’s this mess of a review of a game I’ve only done about 75% of.

In Crystal Project, you and your fully customizable party find themselves in the land of Sequoia, looking for adventure, and Crystals that give you new jobs. This game fully embraces the core spirit of JRPGs of old, and as such, the story is almost non-existent.

Before getting into the gameplay, let’s look at Sequoia first. It doesn’t seem like much just from the game’s screenshots, but I found myself growing attached to the quaint and vibrant voxel-art style. It’s like Minecraft, but cozier. The character designs are a bit lifeless, but that’s probably because it REALLY wants to have the old-school vibes, including how sprites tended to not be very expressive back then. The soundtrack is also really good, plus the game shows the name of each song and credits its composer on the HUD whenever you enter a different area (this doesn’t happen for battle themes, though).

What might attract an RPG-aficionado to Crystal Project is its Elder Scrolls-like sandbox structure. You are thrown into the game with no sense of direction, and no motive other than the pure desire to explore the world. The game is almost self-aware of this during what little plot the game actually has. In any case, the world is fully non-linear. Not only that, but it’s actually a metroidvania. This is one of the things that stands out about Crystal Project, and lemme tell you, exploring Sequoia is its own reward, and that alone makes the game worth buying. Combining the design philosophy of metroidvanias in a fully 3D space is truly something. You never know when an unassuming little alcove will lead to a whole new part of the world (seriously, that happens a lot)!

The other standout feature is the game’s platforming aspect. There are no invisible walls; just geometry. And most of said geometry can be stood upon, including opened treasure chests, NPCs, and light fixtures. If you’ve played Crosscode, then Crystal Project makes a good competitor in this department. 

Of course, just because it’s a competitor doesn’t mean it’ll win. While the platforming in Crystal Project is fun to figure out, there aren’t many instances of opening easy shortcuts back up. If you fall at any time, you more-than-likely have to walk all the way back to where you were…

Which brings us to one of the biggest turn-offs in Crystal Project: limited fast travel. Like many metroidvanias, you’re going to be backtracking a LOT. There are plenty of fast travel points scattered throughout the world, but only one can be assigned as active at a time (unless you enable the setting to activate three at a time), along with any number of Shrines that you find throughout the world. If there’s any pro-tips I can give, it’s to establish a warp point as high up as possible; no matter how far something is horizontally, descending is always faster than ascending. You will be able to earn various mounts, many of which allow for a LOT of developer-intended sequence breaking throughout the overworld.

What’s worse is that you can’t heal directly from the fast travel points themselves; you gotta find an inn or other source of healing. Fortunately, this can be offset with consumable items. I know what you’re thinking: “I’m not going to use consumables except on the final boss! But since I made such a habit of not using them, I forgot to use them on the final boss!” Well, too bad. With such limited means of recovery, you gotta do it. Fortunately, enemies universally tend to drop basic healing items very often for this exact purpose. 

Another big caveat is the map. While the map itself is great, getting the maps of each area is not. Again, think of it as a metroidvania; you gotta earn the map. My advice is to simply explore, and talk to any NPCs you see; one might be hoarding a map or two to themselves.

Combat is nothing new, yet it feels fresh at the same time. Like in classic JRPGs, you have unlockable jobs. Level up those jobs, and carry those skills over by assigning it as a sub-job while you work on something else. Learn passive skills to equip your characters to mix and match many types of playstyles. Battles are your basic turn-bases format. However, you get to see a LOT more of the action than in perhaps any RPG ever. Crystal Project allows you to see your stats, enemy stats, what attack an enemy will do, how much damage it’ll do, how much damage you’ll do; literally every parameter that is calculated during an RPG battle. This gives combat a fun puzzle element that is truly unique to the genre. And most importantly… Bosses are susceptible to status ailments! This really showcases the focus on strategy in Crystal Project.

Difficulty-wise… holy crap this game is tough. Even if you had the fundamental knowledge of turned-based RPGs—which you’re definitely expected to have—there are a lot of intricate systems, such as how aggro works. Also, an ability as basic as using consumable items in battle is restricted to a specific job. But even when you get that job—and start finding pouches to increase inventory space—Crystal Project can still shred you. Although mobs in the overworld are color-coded to indicate their danger level, I’ve gotten destroyed many times by enemies that the game said I was on par with. There really is no advice but to master the system as soon as possible. It doesn’t hurt to grind either; money is quite necessary, after all. 

One positive is that the dev of Crystal Project doesn’t hate gamers like how it feels with most indie games that try to be Dark Souls (which feels like at least 90% of them to be honest). The options menu contains customizable assists that make the game easier, and you’re not shamed for using them. You can increase the amount of XP, job points, and money you earn to save on grinding, for starters. You can also skip the game’s notoriously BS minigames that you need to win a lot in order to get everything (although I think you’ll be relying on RNG to win if you do that), and increase the maximum level cap, which I only feel would only be necessary for the superbosses.

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Final Verdict: 9/10

Crystal Project can definitely be called unbalanced and unfair, but it’s still a very novel subversion of JRPG tropes, and one of the most underrated games of the year. I will probably use the minigame skip and increased level capacity as I work toward finishing it… much to the ire of the invisible people on the Internet. Anyway, you’ve been warned as to how brutally difficult it is. Proceed with caution (unless you’re a real gamer, in which case you can probably beat it with no assists).

Pokémon Black & White 2: Ten Years Later, Still One of the Series’ Best Main Installments (A Retrospective)

I’ve been playing Pokémon for a while (*understatement*). My first game was Pokémon Platinum (which I certifiably sucked at). But as good as that game is, it wasn’t until Pokémon Black and White 2 that I started to become a devout Pokémon fan. I know that people like the first Black and White better, but I definitely prefer Black and White 2 for a number of reasons. Since these games actually turn ten this year, I might as well do a retrospective on them. I have played through this game several times since I first got it in 2012, but this playthrough is the first time in at least one and a half years. I always had a copy of Black 2 so I wouldn’t have to nuke my original White 2 file. But you know what… I think it’s poetic to nuke that file now, just to showcase how much I’ve changed as a person.

When it comes to the second installment of a given generation, it’s usually a remake of the first with new content. Not here. Black and White 2 are—to this day—the only main game sequels. They take place chronologically after the events of the first Black and White. Everything starts off nice and campy, but the return of a new—and eviller—Team Plasma is afoot. Time to once again beat up criminals with our pet animals!

Pokémon Black and White are generally considered the best installments in terms of story. And, well, yeah… I can’t refute that. It’s a rare time where one of the main antagonists really builds a relationship with the player, and the ethics of Pokémon training are put into question. This time, it’s pretty standard. The new Team Plasma, led by the one-dimensionally evil Ghetsis, is bent on world domination. But instead of beating around the bush and manipulating the emotionally insecure N by sheltering him and crap, he just magically has the post-game Legendary from the previous game, Kyurem, and shoots ice lasers at cities.

So yeah, it really does stink. It’s not bad, but it’s a start to the wildly varying quality of Pokémon plots moving forward. There really was no one in this series quite like N, or the rivals from the previous Black and White. The gym leaders also lose the presence that they had before. You don’t really get to know them at all outside the gym, and there isn’t that awesome scene where they fight Team Plasma together. That scene with Elesa isn’t here either (and for the record, it’s not THAT great of a scene, but that’s probably because I’m an emotionless, un-altruistic monkeybutt). They also add Marlon, a gym leader with a very weird sense of neutrality, that ends up not being explored at all.

While we’re on the subject of characters, I might as well bring up the whole cast. The main character is, well, unchanged, but that’s not a surprise given their nature. Your rival is basically the Sinnoh rival, but instead of being constantly happy, he’s constantly angry. He gets less angry later, but I couldn’t—to this day—tell what changes him. Maybe it’s the power of Pokémon? 

Team Plasma has gotten a downgrade, but it at least introduced one of my favorite characters in Pokémon: Colress. He’s a scientist who’s as enigmatic as his hair. He’s also one of those neutral characters who will only side with knowledge, and that means he actually respects you as a person.

The Pokémon League isn’t too great either, and that’s for both games (fun fact: I never found the League members to be particularly great until Gen 7). As per usual, you NEVER see them until the actual fights (with the exception of a brief encounter with Marshal in the sequels). It’s a shame, because this League has some of the cooler designs. One of them is actually someone from the Battle Frontier in Sinnoh. 

Since the gameplay of Pokémon is expected to be understood when reading a spoiler-filled retrospective, let alone a review, of one of its main installments (also, it takes a while to explain it), the gameplay section will moreso be an evaluation of the games’ structure, as well as the capabilities of the Pokémon introduced during this generation. And the first thing to bring up is that Black and White 2 starts SLOW. It’s still faster than most games, but it doesn’t feel that way compared to the “superior” first games, where you get the starters IMMEDIATELY. Also, as the last game where the starters don’t have their first stab move immediately, it becomes an even harder sell. The first gym, being Normal-Type, is uncharacteristically difficult no matter which starter you pick. The only good way to do it is to find Riolu in Floccesy Ranch, and it happens to be a rare spawn. The starters of Unova are all more geared to defense and setup, making it a button-mashing game at the beginning, even with their stab moves. Oh, and even when you beat the first gym, you are forced to do the first segment of PokéStar Studios, which is painfully tedious (and an area that I—for the sake of this review—gave an honest college try to complete for the first time in my life). 

In fact, the definition of “slow burn” doesn’t just describe these games, but most Unovan Pokémon. A lot of level-up evolutions do not trigger until super-late into the story, some of which are even post-game at the earliest. This problem isn’t as bad in Black and White 2, since levels are much higher by the Pokémon league. One of the most notorious examples is Unova’s pseudo-Legendary: Hydreigon, evolving from Zweilous at LEVEL 64. Even with the better level scaling in the sequels, you will still not be getting this thing through level up until the post-game, or just before the Pokémon League at the earliest. The only way to straight-up catch it before the Pokémon League is for the infinitesimally small odds of a dust cloud in Victory Road spawning it. Of course, if you can get it, it’s a freaking BEAST. Hydreigon was at its prime in Gen 5, before the Fairy-Type gave it a nasty quad-weakness. 

Another Unovan powerhouse is one of its Fossil Pokémon: Archeops. Insane Attack and Speed, but an ability that hampers Attack and Special Attack if its HP goes below half. To be honest, it’s almost always going to go first in battle, and if its opponent survives and attacks, and Defeatist activates from the hit, the opponent should have low enough HP for the next attack to finish it off. And since Defeatist doesn’t lower Speed, Archeops will still go first and deliver the finishing blow. It also evolves from Archen at a very reasonable Level 37. Archeops is still one of the most powerful physical sweepers, but like with Hydreigon, it was also at its prime in Gen 5 thanks to the unique Gem items. These Gems each represent a Pokémon Type, and they get consumed as held items to boost their respective type of move once. When using the move Acrobatics, and consuming a Flying Gem, the game counts that as not holding an item. Thus, Archeops can benefit from the Flying-Type damage bonus as well as the 110 base power from not having an item when using the move. I wanted to use its defensive cousin, Carracosta, for the first time, but the Fossil guy isn’t in Relic Castle in the sequels. In fact, Fossils aren’t available until the post-game!

Unfortunately, not every Unovan Pokémon is as great as they could be. One example is Garbodor, who’s still a hard sell even to this day. It evolves at a reasonable level, is a great tank, with an equally great physical attack stat. The rub is that it doesn’t learn a single physical stab move through level up. Scratch that, it doesn’t learn a single physical stab move, period… with the exception of Gunk Shot. It has a respectable Special Attack stat, but it’s the principle of the thing. 

Another great Pokémon that can be handicapped is Golurk. It’s all around a great physical Ghost-Type, with a cool design and lore to boot. The thing actually has rocket feet, which is a detail that’s acknowledged by allowing it to learn Fly despite not being a Flying-Type. The problem with it is that it can either have the great ability Iron Fist—perfect for its punch-based movepool—or Klutz… an objectively awful Ability that prevents held item use. There is nothing more heartbreaking in Pokémon than having a Pokémon with the best possible nature, but not the preferred Ability. Sadly, due to Black and White 2’s structure, the earliest opportunity to get it is Victory Road.

On a better note, another great Pokémon is Bisharp. It hits like a truck, and is very scary to deal with thanks to its Defiant Ability; any stat reduction will be countered with a free +2 Attack buff. On the other side of the coin is one of Unova’s best special sweepers: Chandelure. Its awesome design isn’t for show; it hurts, plus it can learn Energy Ball to counter Water-Types.

Two more interesting Pokémon that I have never used and, sadly, can never use are Escavalier and Accelgor. They are evolutions of Shelmet and Kerrablast, obtained by trading one with the other (hence my lack of having them since I don’t have friends). Escavalier has the risky Bug-Steel typing, with great physical Defense to boot. On the flipside is the glassy Special sweeper, Accelgor. It has next to no defenses, but has unsurpassed Speed, moreso than Archeops. 

Unova also has two version exclusive birds: Ruflett and Vullaby, which evolve into Braviary and Mandibuzz respectively. Like most Unovan Pokémon, they take forever to evolve, and you can’t even encounter them until Victory Road. Fortunately, the sequels have a static encounter with the evolved form very early on, plus that encounter has its Hidden Ability. Fun fact: Braviary with Defiant is a good thing.

I suppose I should talk about the starters, right? Like I said before, Emboar, Samurott, and Serperior are some of the chunkier starters in the series. Emboar is the most brute force of them all. It learns Flame Charge very early on, and its guaranteed Speed buff is a great setup for sweeping. Samurott is the most well-rounded, and learns some unexpectedly great moves like Revenge, and an assortment of powerful Bug-Type moves. Serperior has powerful Grass-Type moves and the great setup move of Coil to boost its Attack, Defense, and Accuracy. Unfortunately, it has the weakest move pool, only able to learn Grass and Normal-Type moves. It’ll serve you well against pretty much anything except a Steel-Type… well, once it gets Leaf Blade.

If you didn’t think this game had any more tanks, don’t worry; there are more. Druddigon and Ferrothorn are particularly rude, because they both have an Ability that inflicts contact damage on opponents. And like with any Pokémon with those Abilities, the effect stacks with the Rocky Helmet equipped. Just be wary with Ferrothorn; being a Grass-Steel physical wall, one good special Fire-Type move will end it.

Last but not least are the Legendaries. The main two, Zekrom and Reshiram are—to my knowledge—the first and only plot-relevant Legendaries who cannot be caught until the post-game (at least in the sequels; in the originals, you catch your boxart Legendary right before the final boss). They are all around great Pokémon, bolstering strong attack and bulk. Kyurem, who’s also respectably strong by itself, is able to fuse with either of Zekrom or Reshiram. This replaces its signature move with a powerful two-turn attack that can inflict Paralysis and Burn respectively.

There are also the Swords of Justice, who are notably all obtainable before the post-game. They have VERY powerful attacks, but the best one defensively is Cobalion. It’s Steel-Fighting, which is awesome before Gen 6 nerfs Steel. There are also the Mythical Pokémon Victinni, Meloetta, Genesect, and Keldeo. Unfortunately, since those are Mystery Gifts that need to be obtained through an event during a specific time, I have only ever obtained Genesect and Meloetta. Genesect is basically a watered-down Arceus; a cool-looking Bug-Steel Type whose signature move changes based on the type of a hold item called a Drive that it holds (and I’ve only ever been able to find one anyway). Meloetta is a special attacker that alternates between Normal-Psychic and Normal-Fighting through use of its signature move.

Let’s get back to the actual structure of the game. Unova was already a very chunky region in the first game, but Black and White 2 has a LOT more. A LOT MORE. It has a whole bunch of new areas, and a much wider variety of Pokémon than in the previous venture (even if the Unova-only Pokémon idea was pretty fun in Black and White 1, and much appreciated compared to the more recent games where newer Pokémon tend to be rare). However, there wasn’t exactly much I didn’t remember, since I—you know—remember so much from loving these games to death.

When it comes to starting in earnest, I’d say that Black and White 2 opens up after the third gym. Route 4 is when you start getting a lot of interesting Pokémon, and get to explore a pretty big area with the Desert Resort. Unfortunately, there is some padding even still. While you aren’t forced to do the tutorial for the musical place (which… we’ll get to later), you are forced to do the Pokémon World Tournament after the fifth gym (in addition to the aforementioned PokéStar Studios). I don’t know if you have to win to advance, but it comes down to already knowing what your opponents have (fortunately, they’re always the same). There’s also a very late point in the game where you have to fight someone with four Roggenrolas. Since this is before they could have Weak Armor… you have to fight four Roggenrolas with STURDY. It’s stupid and pretty much impossible to lose; it’s just there to be annoying.

So, we’ve gone over a number of side areas with unique mechanics. Well, there’s still more. One of my favorites was always Join Avenue. Every day, you’d boot up the game and talk to NPCs walking along the street, where you’d either have them open a shop or recommend them to an already opened shop. This place sucked so much of my life away ten years ago, and it’s worth it. The raffle place has a Master Ball for the grand prize, and I—to this day—have never obtained it (if Chugga ever plays these games for his channel, he will probably get it very easily). The antique shop is a great place to obtain a lot of random and useful items (get ready to have a new hate for Hard Stones). There are also places to raise base stats, friendliness, and EVs. 

Full transparency here: I did some of these side mechanics in my copy of Black 2, since I already had grinded up some other Pokémon for post-game stuff. PokéStar Studios… I gave it half an hour before I gave up on it (yes, that’s more than I ever gave it). I like it, but even when watching Twitch in the background, I found it emotionally draining and mechanically stupid. In PokéStar Studios, you choose one out of a staggering number of movies to shoot. You are provided rental Pokémon and a script to follow. You generally want to follow the script… but the problem is that you’re actually encouraged to find a very obtuse and specific combination of deviations to make something more avant garde. Since Bulbapedia, the most trustworthy source of Pokémon info on the Internet, didn’t have a guide for this to my knowledge, I gave up pretty quickly. As much as I love the unusual scenarios it puts Pokémon in (which I would’ve loved to see done in the main games more often), it’s just too much.

And honestly, I didn’t really want to do the musical studio either. The fun part is dressing up your Pokémon in ridiculous ways with various props, and that’s about where the fun ends. On stage, you perform a number that takes about five whole minutes, and you’re supposed to have more pizzazz than the other performers. Sadly, I have no idea how it’s measured. I know that hand-held props can be used as one-time flourishes, but I—to this day—have never had any clue on the best timing. Also, you have to do this a massive number of times to get everything out of it, and there are not enough dances to select from for variety’s sake. It’s the kind of repetitious grinding that can drive a completionist insane.

To add to the unprofessional-ality of this retrospective, I couldn’t do the competitive battle areas for crap either. The Pokémon World Tournament starts off weirdly easy (at least it was for me). You go through a cup where all eight Gym Leaders of Unova are thrown in as contestants. If you win, you unlock similar cups featuring Gym Leaders from Gens 1-4. While this is no doubt really cool, it’s also really difficult. I just can’t wrap my head around the insanity of competitive Pokémon-ing. The Battle Subway, which features different types of battle gauntlets against random trainers, is more forgiving, but it’s also less exciting.

When it comes to overall difficulty, Black and White 2 can be nasty if you don’t know the series’ mechanics REALLY well. Levels tend to hike up when it comes to gyms, creating a lot of walls if you don’t have specific Pokémon to account for them. I enjoy playing Pokémon slightly underleveled, since knowing the mechanics tends to outweigh pure stats, but man, not having the Gen 6 and onward Exp. Share is… hard to go back to. And for anyone who thinks that particular mechanic in Gen 6 makes things too easy, well… I’ll elaborate on that if I ever do a 10th Anniversary X and Y retrospective next year. I don’t really know how hard mode is, but according to Bulbapiedia… yikes.

In case Black and White 2 didn’t seem long enough to you, then get ready for its massive post-game! This opens up a ton of new areas: the northwest and southeast corners of the map (i.e. the areas around Icirrus City and the starting area of the first games). It also opens up Clay Tunnel, where you can obtain the Regis. The thing is… they’re all in the same room, and require the Key System setting to change the room to accommodate each Regi. These Keys were obtained by beating the game and doing other stuff, and had to be shared with other versions of the game. One set of keys is a difficulty modifier, however, I don’t know if you can have it to where you start a new campaign with one of those keys right off the bat (I kind of wanted to play the game on hard mode). In any case, you need both versions to obtain all three Regis, and unlock Regigigas as well. There was also a mechanic that allowed you to see N’s past, and randomly spawn Pokémon formerly owned by him into the wild. However, I don’t remember much of that mechanic nor how to do it.

It also opens up the version-exclusive Black City and White Forest. The former represents corporate greed and is really miserable and ugly, while the latter is quaint and happy. However, unlike the previous games where White was objectively better, both areas are more balanced in Black and White 2. Both of these areas have a unique challenge dungeon. Each set of floors has you go through a procedurally generated dungeon, fighting random trainers for hints on where the gatekeeper trainer is. Beating the gatekeeper trainer opens the door to the boss. Items cannot be used, but levels aren’t fixed either, so you can theoretically grind to level 100 and have an easy time. In any case, making progress opens shops in Black City and White Forest, each with unique items, and beating the final boss gives you a Shiny Gible and Shiny Dratini respectively. There is also an area that opens up after completing the Unova Regional Pokédex, but to this day, I have never managed to get it, especially since this game doesn’t have two rivals to register all three starters with (and it’s not Sinnoh where it’s programmed to make Regional Dex completion easy). 

And here’s the cherry on top: the Medal system. This is technically not post-game content, but it is part of getting to rate these games as 100% completed in your book. There are Medals for everything, from basic stuff, to completing everything in the side areas such as PokéStar Studios. This also includes completing a Pokémon League run with a single-Type team for EVERY Pokémon Type (fortunately, dual-Types count as long as one Type matches across the board), as well as a run with a single Pokémon (shouldn’t be too hard for those very first fans who just used their starter for the entirety of Red and Blue as kids because they didn’t know how the game worked). It’s a tad bit excessive.

Some of this stuff seems like it requires monumental grinding, and it does. Fortunately, Unova is by far the best generation for this sort of thing. Every day, stadiums in Nimbasa city spawn trainer battles (as long as it’s the right time of the day, otherwise they’ll be closed off). By the post-game, there are TONS of battles, enough to take at least half an hour total. In addition to this is a fight with your rival, a tag-team battle involving the trio of Gym Leaders from the first game’s Gym, and a fight with Colress (if you’re willing to go through two routes to get to him every time). ALL of these respawn daily. Furthermore, a rare Pokémon named Audino can spawn in any light-colored Pokémon grass, and that thing drops a LOT of XP!

Generally, I consider Unova to have excellent design in terms of layout and stuff to do (especially the latter), but I do have one qualm with it: seasons. There’s a reason that this only occured in Gen 5, because it’s handled stupidly. Basically, the game will track the date and time on your DS, and dynamically change the overworld depending on the seasons. While this is a nice detail, it results in some areas that cannot be reached except on specific seasons. And what’s worse is that autumn and winter are—to my knowledge—the only ones that really matter in terms of gameplay. 

For this passage, I need to make something clear: for some reason, I really love the world of Pokémon. It does have questionable ethics (and a lack of law enforcement), but I always loved existing in it. It always felt like a lucid dream to me (which is ironic since dreams are a theme in this game), and Unova always felt like one of the dreamiest. Pretty much every town has some sort of personality that makes it stand out, and a lot of them have my favorite atmospheres in the series. One such example is Village Bridge, which is an area that you just go through, with no plot relevance in either games. As a result, I always felt like it was a place removed from the rest of society, and it had a sense of quaintness to it.

I also love the visuals of Gen 5. This was the first generation where the POKÉMONS’ NAMES WEREN’T ALL CAPS, and more importantly, the first where their sprites were animated, showing off their full bodies in battle. The 3D is also much more intricate than Sinnoh’s, and the games run better as well. It’s also the first game where Abilities have a flashy visual that appears when they are activated.

The soundtrack is also one of my favorites in the series, with awesome overworld and battle themes. People generally love Route 10 from the first game, but as great as that song is, I also love the Route 23 that replaces it in the sequels. Colress also has one of my favorite boss themes in the series, but Ghetsis’ ominous, minimalist theme gets a remix in the sequels which kind of kills the impact of the original. One thing that Gen 5 does that is never revisited until Gen 7 is dynamic themes. Gym Leaders play an alternate theme when on their last Pokémon, but it doesn’t stop there. Certain NPCs in towns can play music which adds to the actual town’s theme. The most prevalent example is the aforementioned Village Bridge, which becomes a fully composed song complete with lyrics after you talk to all the NPCs involved.

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After All These Years: 9/10

I love Pokémon Black and White 2, but since then, Game Freak has greatly streamlined gameplay. It’s just really nice that the newer games are programmed so that all your Pokémon will be fairly balanced for each challenge as long as you fight every regular trainer battle. Oh, and those side mechanics… ew. Since the DS is kind of dead, I obviously can’t recommend these games whatsoever. But hey, if you somehow have copies lying around that you bought ten years ago and never played, then I think you should play them.

Monster Hunter Stories 2 can Either be a Decent JRPG or a Min-Maxing Hellhole. Take Your Pick.

I was always interested in the Monster Hunter series ever since I watched one of my relatives play one of the 3DS installments. The problem is that I’m a filthy casual, and that franchise has way too much depth for my puny brain to comprehend (and for frame of reference, Pokémon is probably the most complicated franchise I have ever played). However, I did find out about the anime-AF spinoff series, Monster Hunter Stories, right on time for its sequel, Monster Hunter 2: Wings of Ruin, to come out. As such, I decided—spur of the moment—to try Monster Hunter Stories 2, my first ever Monster Hunter game!

In Monster Hunter Stories 2 (after some privacy policy mumbo jumbo, because that’s what gaming is these days apparently), the main protagonist and their tribe are enjoying some festivities, which happens to go south because videogames. Apparently, a flock of wild Rathalos decided to fly south for the winter… or something, and that means the titular Wings of Ruin is afoot… I guess? 

It’s a JRPG. Ergo, the story will take more than a hot minute to get started. Early on, most of it consists of required errands where you go to an area and fight a specific type of enemy. Before long, you will go to the actual main dungeon and fight the boss, where you get actual plot progression.

The actual plot involves you meeting a Wyverian waifu named Ena, who gives you a special Rathalos egg. This egg contains a Rathalos very similar to the Wings of Ruin, and everyone wants it dead because of Original Sin logic. And, well, that’s about as deep as it gets. This game really feels like it was meant for an audience much younger than the regular games, because it’s about as subtle as a Saturday morning cartoon, with predictable developments, and a lot of smooth-brain moments.

And it gets worse. The product tagline of “Will your bonds bring hope or destruction?” implies that you can make a series of decisions, and raise your Rathalos in a way to influence its power toward the light or dark side. Sadly, that doesn’t happen. In fact, there are ZERO prompts for your player to add to the dialogue whatsoever. Spoiler alert, they completely cop out on moral ambiguity by revealing the actual Wings of Ruin to be a completely different entity. There’s also a weird cult that never gets fleshed out at all; in fact, you only deal with them thrice in the game.

The cast, unfortunately, is the weakest aspect, and unlike my usual pickiness, I have a pretty darn good reason for it this time. Your main character, being fully customizable, is completely silent and reactionary. However, they did a good job at making them very expressive. Also, there is a nice detail where your grandfather, Red, will have the same type of eyes in flashbacks, taking into account how Wyverian NPCs mistake you for him because of your eyes. You also gain a talking cat follower in the form of Navirou, who has no shortage of funny lines. His arc, however, makes me feel like this is a direct sequel to the first game, because Navirou knows 80% of the plot relevant characters really well for no reason, and his own backstory is super glossed over.

Sadly, that’s where the positives end. Ena is pretty much there. She gives you the egg, and that’s about it. She’s not even a party member, and hangs out in the most recent town while you do all the legwork. And boy oh boy… it actually gets worse.

This game is structured like everyone’s definitely-not-least-favorite Final Fantasy game, Mystic Quest. Just like that game, you get one extra party member who sticks with you for a specific arc. And as such, the 100+ hours of bonding time you get with your crew is not in this game, resulting in some flat characters. You get their backstories at very arbitrary points, and they’re all very generic to the point where it doesn’t even feel like they tried. The sole ally I liked was Reverto, who had a Californian exterior but a very down-to-earth interior. 

Overall, there are a lot of character developments that happen way too fast, as if they were just checking off items on that list of tropes. Even things like discrimination against Monsties end in seconds flat. Ironically, the main protagonist actually gets the most character development out of anyone; they make mistakes, and learn to work through them. The issue is that a lot of those mistakes are really arbitrary things that don’t have to do with gameplay at all, and it just feels like they came up with any excuse for characters to dunk on you in order to act like they have an actual arc (Geez, way to dispute your previous statement, self). 

And the cherry on this smelly peanut-butter-ketchup-sundae is the voice acting. These gaming reviews have made me more willing to play JRPGs with the dub, and my ears have paid for it. Monster Hunter Stories 2 has a pretty bland dub, with characters sounding quite unremarkable. I only liked Navirou and Reverto’s voice acting and no one else’s.

Monster Hunter Stories 2 has your essential JRPG mechanics: questing, crafting, buying new gear, forging and upgrading gear, etc. Only, as with the main series, it’s insanely complicated. For starters, there are a LOT of weapon types, each catered to different playstyles. Forging and upgrading equipment is interesting, since each item requires a specific assortment of resources. There’s no specific quantities needed; you just need to use enough to gain the “points” needed to do the deed. Rarer materials get more points, but excess points are wasted completely. 

The thing to keep an eye on is armor. Each piece of armor can have its own passive skills. But more importantly, keep in mind that there is no base defense stat. The only defense you get from armor is some amount of resistance—and weakness—to one of the game’s many elements, including the non-elemental element. This causes every piece of equipment to become very situational. But unlike Xenoblade Chronicles X, you can save MANY equipment presets to be changed on the fly for their specific uses.

Exploration in Monster Hunter Stories 2 is both great and iffy. The positives consist of how chock full of stuff the world is. Every second is generally spent picking up materials or going into randomly spawning Monster Dens for eggs. There are also Everdens; fixed Monster Dens that contain Bottle Caps, which are exchanged for VERY worthwhile rewards.

However, that’s about where the positives end. Xenoblade really effing spoiled me on RPG worlds, because… maaaan… they just don’t make ‘em like Xenoblade anymore. The layouts in Monster Hunter Stories 2 are very basic and “videogamey”, with only one way to get from any point A to point B. What doesn’t help are the Ride Actions. These are field abilities that allow you to reach specific areas. While the game is nice enough to let you quick switch to a Monstie that has the ability when you’re at the area you can interact with, it is a pain to round out your party with varied Ride Actions and type coverages. And if you don’t have the ability, then you gotta go back to town and change out with a Monstie who does have it. 

Now, lett’s actually talk about Pokémon—I mean—Monsties. You obtain them by going into Monster Dens and sneaking off with an egg (child abduction is totes legit in this world). Hatched Monsties can be named and organized at the stable. Unfortunately, hatching is kind of a gacha system, where some Monsties will get better perks than others. You’ll have to learn various visual cues while kidnapping other monsters’ children in order to deduce how good it’ll turn out. Unfortunately, one thing you can’t predetermine is the bingo board of Monstie genes. This is a randomly generated 3×3 grid of abilities. The actual movepools of Monsties are the same, but a lot of other abilities are very random. Lining up genes of the same element and attack style gives the Monstie a permanent damage bonus, and the occasional rainbow gene acts as the free space in bingo.

Speaking of genes… oh boy. Prepare for one of the easiest to learn and hardest to master systems of min-maxxing I have ever seen (Pokémon’s still worse though). When you unlock the Rite of Channeling, you can choose to essentially kill a Monstie to allow one gene on its chart to be transferred over to another Monstie. Blank spaces are free to receive any gene, and copies of a gene can be stacked to upgrade it. Getting bingo bonuses will increase that attribute damage done by a Monstie. If you couldn’t tell, this gets insane and requires a LOT of grinding, since you will need to hatch Monsties just to level them up and learn the genes you want to transfer. Grinding gets easier as it goes, especially since a lot of bulletin board quests can be done over and over again for XP and money, and Monstie Expeditions become an important asset for those cooped up in the stable. 

So, combat is really complicated. You fight alongside your Monsties, and whoever your battle buddy happens to be. When attacking, you can use either the Power, Technical, or Speed style. If you’re attacking an opponent who will target you next, it’ll trigger a rock-paper-scissors match, with the victor gaining a damage advantage based on the matchup between who uses what style. This effect is even better if you and your Monstie both use an attack type that wins the rock-paper-scissors thing. Attacks, as well as successful rock-paper-scissor-ing, charges up the Kinship Gauge, which functions as MP. Most skills that consume this gauge can also be used in either of the three attack styles. Monsties run on A.I., and while you can consume Kinship to order them to use a move, there is no cost if they use it on their own.

Oh, and similar to the Ys games, enemies can have weaknesses and resistances to one of three weapon types, those being slash, blunt, and piercing (yes, there are less types of weapon damage than actual weapon types).  There are also the aforementioned elements to worry about, and getting hit by a supereffective element shows up as an orange number. Enemies can also change up their attack patterns and weaknesses mid-battle through actions, such as using a rock as a shield. Fortunately, this isn’t a problem since you can hold up to three weapons that can be switched mid-battle without using up your actual turn. Like with Xenoblade X, specific parts of an enemy can be broken to guarantee an item drop. Sometimes, breaking monster parts can topple them. Monsters that can be hatched have conditions to increase their chances of retreating, which spawns a small den that’s guaranteed to have that species’ egg. However, some exceptionally rare monsters can be hatched, but are unable to be retreated, meaning… good luck with that.

Things get even more complicated with the Ride On ability. This only activates when the Kinship Gauge is full. Using it restores a lot of HP to both rider and Monstie, and gives a stat buff. Kinship Skills in this mode are powerful, even moreso when your ally uses theirs in conjunction with you. Win rock-paper-scissors to level up the Kinship Gauge in this mode, allowing for even stronger moves. Unfortunately, your battle buddy always uses their Kinship Skill immediately, and you’ll have to work around that.

Despite being all cute and kiddy, Monster Hunter Stories 2 is tough. The first chapter is dirt easy, but after that, you’re pretty much expected to understand how the game works. This includes nuances that aren’t taught, such as the fact that Kinship Skills are guaranteed to cancel ANY enemy attack, including the yellow and brown ones that aren’t affected by rock-paper-scissors. If you’re unlucky on your first time, you could end up wearing armor that’s weak to whatever the next story battle is (that happened to me a lot). 

Another issue is your Rathalos. This is probably intentional for story reasons, but your Rathalos is baggage early on. It won’t learn certain abilities until much later in the game, even if it actually levels up enough to learn them. Plus, it has no Ride Actions starting off. One of the worst examples is in biomes where you’re inflicted with a permanent debuff. You’re encouraged to get Monsties that resist those debuffs, as well as armor yourself to protect from them, otherwise you need to buy and use specific consumables to mitigate it. The stupid thing is that you can’t box the Rathalos, so regardless of what you do to account for those debuffs… you still gotta use the items for the Rathalos! And it doesn’t even save on uses, since one is enough to apply to the whole team.

Oh, and being a turn-based RPG with A.I., expect your allies to be among your biggest enemies. Their behavior varies wildly. I’ve had them adapt perfectly to changes in enemy patterns, as well as picking the style with disadvantage after clearly establishing that pattern. They are also inconsistent as to when they decide to use a healing item. 

The biggest nuance I’ve had to get used to compared to most JRPGs is the Heart system. These are like lives in an arcade-style platformer. Instead of having to use an item to revive people, they just get back up and consume a Heart. You lose if either your team or your battle buddy’s is fully depleted of their Hearts. It becomes less of an issue once you’re able to freely obtain Vital Essences, which restore Hearts. Due to this system, fighting by yourself isn’t as nerve-wracking, but it’s still about as tedious as any JRPG not built around the idea of having one character.

You’d think it’d be time to give the final score, right? Well, too bad; I forgot to go over audio and visual presentations. Being an anime-style JRPG, it’s kind of… eh, especially since it’s a studio as beloved as Capcom. The areas don’t just look basic, but similar to games of this kind (*cough* Ys *cough*), they chug despite the lesser textures. Of course, if you’re a proud Switch owner, you’d be used to it, but considering that games like Smash run way better with more intricate visuals kind of says something about this game. To make up for this, the Monsters have a ton of personality in them, especially with the special moves (which, for some reason, are when the game runs the smoothest). Oh, and the equipment has some of my favorite equipment designs in all of videogames because of how much thought is put into them making them actually LOOK like the monster materials they’re built from. The music is sufficient, but there really isn’t any one song that I would be willing to bop to (Xenoblade has REALLY spoiled me). The overworld has no music, but unfortunately, there really isn’t enough ambience to make an immersive atmosphere. 

JRPGs have at least gotten better at having substantial postgames. After beating Monster Hunter Stories 2, it gets a lot longer… but in a bad way. You unlock the Elder’s Lair, which is a ten-story dungeon where you have to accomplish various tasks in order to advance. At the end is the game’s superboss. The thing is that the prep-work is where it gets obnoxious. High-Rank Monsters spawn in new high rank Dens, marked by red crystals covering the entrance, which gives you the ability to infinitely farm Bottle Caps. Thanks to this, you will be able to purchase unlimited amounts of Stimulants and Nutriments used to min-max stats. Also, High-Rank materials… *sigh* allow you to get better versions of EVERY EQUIPMENT PIECE IN THE GAME. And the best part? They all require Weapon and Armor Spheres, found only through Monstie Expeditions, and rarely in High-Rank areas. I might slowly work toward finishing this monstrosity (haha pun), but I’m not making any promises, especially since this game is no Xenoblade.

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Final Verdict: 8.45/10

Monster Hunter Stories 2 has a lot going for it: great combat, great replayability, an extremely customizable playstyle, and PLENTY to do. However, that’s about it for positives. The story isn’t that epic either. Plus, a lot of dungeons—even story ones—recycle room layouts like nobody’s business. I only recommend it if gaming is your job, otherwise there are plenty of other super-long JRPGs to devote your precious time to.

Miitopia (Switch): Your Most Insane Fanfic Come to Life

If you’re reading this, then I’m a time masochist. When you’re working a full-time job along with running a blog, you don’t exactly have much time left. All of the precious recreational time I have is spent working on the blog. Every single piece of media I select must now serve some purpose for it. It’s hard. I’ve had to veto a lot of stuff. There are a lot of videogames that I’ve been juggling, and instead of playing them based on mood, I play them based on a number of factors too convoluted to go into right now. But a wrench was thrown in when Nintendo re-released the insane 3DS RPG, Miitopia, on Switch, with an improved character creator and FREAKING HORSES. I loved the crap out of the old one, but I was hesitant to play this new one ONLY because I never had raw desire take hold. So of course, this post (with an overly long preamble) is my only justification for playing Miitopia AGAIN. On Switch.

In Miitopia, the Dark Lord steals the faces from everyone in the titular kingdom of Miis. You, along with a vast number of intrepid heroes, set forth to whoop his butt and get everyone’s faces back. 

If you know RPG basics, then you know that this game has a simple and predictable plot. But unlike most RPGs, which pretend to be something they’re not, Miitopia spoofs them up. It is chock full of hilarious, tongue-and-cheek dialogue. The charm oozes out of every pixel, and we’ll get to more on that when we cover some of the gameplay elements.

I’d normally discuss the cast of the story here. However, every copy of Miitopia is kind of like a snowflake; no two are alike. This is because of the game’s main selling point: the Miis themselves. The identity of literally every character is decided by you. They can be your closest friends, or—if you’re like me and have no friends—fictional characters. You can be a light novel protagonist and insert yourself into the story, fighting alongside your favorite waifus. You can ship Arin and Dan from Game Grumps, or ship either of them with Markiplier and PewDeePie. You can even dictate the villain; take out your hatred on your most hated person by making them the Dark Lord. Hate mainstream culture? Then make the Dark Lord Billie Eilish. You also get other allies, like the Great Sage and the three Fairy Sisters. Just keep in mind that—SPOILER ALERT even though it’s a common RPG trope—whoever your Great Sage is will end up being the true final boss. If you didn’t have online in the original, you’d be given some lousy presets for non-plot-relevant characters. But in this version, you can freely dictate their identities as well, but you’d have to take the time to make them from scratch (or, you know, have an online subscription). Although the game doesn’t tell you this, you can preemptively add Miis—complete with makeup and wigs—from the Mii Characters database on the title screen. Use this if you have a plan on who to include in the story. Oh, and when it comes to your party members, you can change their in-battle phrases. 

For some reason, however, it doesn’t quite work in the Traveler’s Hub area. Every visit spawns a random, non-plot-relevant set of NPCs, and ideally, these would pull from Miitopia’s save data just like anyone else.  You can still go into the record menu and change that, but you’d have to do it every time the area reshuffles, and it kind of gets annoying. I’ve noticed that it has higher odds of pulling from the data if you have more characters with no assigned roles already made, but if that was the case, you’d have to make a LOT of Miis for it to pull from there every time.

Regardless, improvements to Miitopia’s customization mechanic are, well, massive. The Mii making system seems pretty normal at first. But when you go to the Mii Characters tab on the title screen, you can add makeup and wigs. With these, the sky’s the limit. You can make an anime character, and have it be accurate for once. Just a couple things to keep in mind. First of all, the sky isn’t quite the limit. For instance, there are no pompadours, nor any hairdos that defy gravity. More importantly, the quiz NPC doesn’t take makeup or wigs into account during the minigames. This means if you have an advanced character, like Darth Vader or something, it’s going to be tough to recognize him.

The icing on the cake is the amount of personality that oozes out of Miitopia. There are so many little charming details that make it hilarious and fun. One example is this derpy tuba-like jingle for literally EVERY new character as they show up. When the Dark Lord first appears, you hear this ominous choir, abruptly cut off by that sound, causing intentional tonal whiplash. Beyond that, there are too many examples to list, like the occasional Psycho bit after character interactions or the fact that every ability has this fancy, anime-like cinematic for it when it’s used for the first time.

The personality is also present in the game’s visual and audio presentation. Miitopia has a quirky and cartoony vibe, which is basic yet appealing. The Switch’s superior power adds lighting effects that help give it a more whimsical vibe. The soundtrack is also surprisingly fantastic. The battle theme and the titlescreen music are unique to each area in the game, and the boss track is a real bop that still lives in my head rent-free.

Although combat would be an afterthought in a game like this, Miitopia manages to have legitimately fun combat. The battles are your basic JRPG turn-based formula, but there are a number of factors to add spice (and chaos) to this formula. First off, you get to choose everyone’s personality quirk. They all have advantages and disadvantages, that range from free evades to refusing a much-needed heal. They trigger randomly, and as a result, a lot of battles end up being luck-based to an extent. The game is balanced enough around this fact… well… to a point (we’ll discuss that later).

A much more important factor is Affinity. Characters can build relationships through various, self-explanatory methods, from battle, to being roomies at the inn, as well as other means. Levelling Affinities up can cause some powerful effects to happen, some of which can turn the tide of battle in your favor. Of course, these are also luck-based, but they feel awesome when they happen. However, random events, as well as certain moves and personality traits, can cause a rift in two characters’ relationship. When this happens, you need to keep them together until they make up, or use the Popstar’s insanely powerful skill that instantly resolves their argument (this doesn’t work if the Popstar is involved in said rift; something that happened to me way too often in my playthrough).

Exploration in Miitopia is divided into automated traveling courses. If a path splits off, you get to dictate where they go, and you’ll need to take EVERY PATH if you want to get everything. It can get repetitive, but using the ZR button speeds up gameplay and saves BUTTLOADS of time. It even works in cutscenes! Random events occur, from stumbling upon loot to characters suddenly being fed up with each other. It’s generally rare for these events to lead to an unfair game over, but it can happen in VERY specific circumstances.

In between each course, the party rests up at the Inn. Unlike most JRPGs, this is where the action occurs. Here, you arrange characters’ living spaces so that they can bond with one another. While in the Inn, you can feed characters food obtained throughout the adventure to permanently increase their stats. They have very random tastes, and more often than not, they will hate the food most tailored to their build. You can also gamble any Arcade Tickets found from adventuring to get money or items. I always did the latter, since you will always get something from the item roulette. These range from a random equippable item, to rare food, to a boost of XP or Affinity between two people. Spending money is another mechanic based on luck. You need to see if a character wants something, and give them the money to grab it. Equipment for characters come in tiers, which means that if a chest contains equipment, it will always be the next step up from whatever you have. Oh, and keep in mind that characters will sometimes fail to buy the equipment that you loaned them the cash to buy. New to the Switch version are Outings. These are fun little events that give sizeable Affinity boosts and are quite charming as well as varied. Also new to the Switch version is the Horse. This adorable, customizable companion is basically a fifth party member. By raising Affinity between your Horse and other characters, you can trigger new, unique assists in battle. These are insanely helpful! One of them is basically an ultimate move. It requires all MP, and has a unique effect depending on the class of whoever uses it. However, there’s one unwritten nuance that I learned the hard way: the horse will only assist as long as a character is in the stable with it, regardless of Affinity and if it accompanies you to battle.

Well, I ended up deviating from battle for a while. Anyway, though the amount of luck in this game appears daunting, Miitopia does allow some divine intervention. Sprinkles can be used to restore HP, MP, to revive a party member, and more. Your carrying capacity with these Sprinkles increases as you defeat enemies, but keep in mind that they don’t refill until after a course is done. There is also the Safe Spot, where one character can use their turn to rest and heal a percentage of HP and MP as well as cure any debuffs. Of course, this puts your party at three, so careful planning is needed.

I talked about pretty much every element in battle before the bread and butter of RPGs: classes! You can assign a class to each new party member, and after a certain point in the story, can freely change said class. They range from your usual Mage and Cleric, to the unusual Popstar, Chef, Cat, Flower, etc. For the most part, they all have good enough strengths to win no matter what. The exception is the Tank. I don’t mean the high-aggro defensive class; I mean a literal Tank. This class has high defense and high damage, but most of the latter are used at the detriment of the Tank’s Affinity. Its low base MP doesn’t help either. 

In terms of difficulty, Miitopia is surprisingly balanced. Like with any JRPG, you’ll be pretty frail at the beginning, but be relatively okay at taking control as the game goes on. Bosses, and this one type of enemy with an insta-kill attack, are pretty much the only real challenges in the main story. Unfortunately, Miitopia is one of those annoying games where three party members are A.I. despite the fact that this is a turn-based RPG and that A.I. shouldn’t be necessary. They don’t spam useless moves like Marin Karin, at least. In fact, the A.I. is pretty good at making choices that a real gamer would make. Unfortunately, the A.I. fails to take turn order into account, and will use HP Bananas even if a healer was going to go immediately after them.

The real difficulty is in the post-game. In addition to new and tougher quests, the post-game unlocks three secret areas, two of which have the secret Vampire and Elf classes (for all I know, there could be a third one because I still have yet to do everything in this game). I usually like to make new party members dedicated to these, but keep in mind that they’ll have a whole game’s worth of Affinity, equipment buying, and permanent stat building to catch up to!

The third and most involved post-game area is a massive city, split into EIGHT sectors, teeming with the most powerful mobs in the game. Each sector has a stronger version of a previous boss, all of which HURT. This place sucks, and is probably the one place where Miitopia’s chaoticness loses its novelty. It’s hard enough on its own, but when you have to worry about relationships failing, or a Stubborn character refusing to be healed, it becomes beyond irritating. And don’t get me started on the U.F.O. enemies! They can use an attack that steals all of a character’s HP Bananas, which cannot be evaded no matter what. You also don’t get the Bananas back when defeating them. This causes your coffers to be sucked DRY,  to the point where you can’t organically regain them within the game’s parameters as long as you proceed through that area; you actually need to grind for them. I can’t even imagine how it feels when you get to the end of the boss rush tower, just for a few, RNG-based boo-boos to kick in and cost the whole run. And according to the Medal list, there’s a second tower that I actually have never seen before. Who knows what that could be!

The post-game has one more nice unlock: the villa. With this, you can house a massive number of party members all at once, and freely create new ones. This helps alleviate the issue of there being more classes than party members in the main story. Unfortunately, the inn capacity doesn’t account for the addition of the horse stable, meaning that one person will always be alone if you want to build Affinity with the horse.

Oh, and one warning for true completionists: the Medals. These are in-game achievements, and the Traveler’s Hub guy tracks your progress with them. Getting all of these requires getting every class to the max level of fifty, maxing out Affinities, getting all of the different equipment items for every class, and more. This is where grinding becomes a must, and that kind of sucks. But to be honest, you’ll probably need to do it anyway to take on the aforementioned boss rush. I have never completed Miitopia, but I might make an attempt if I ever feel the need to veg out with something mindless. But if you undertake this task, do it with some music or Twitch streams in the background.

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Final Verdict: 8.75/10

An already great game is better than ever on the Switch! Miitopia is a quirky, fun adventure, perfect for relieving stress (as long as you don’t try the really BS stuff). I recommend it to anyone who just wants to be happy.

Bravely Default II: It’s… a Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Final Verdict: 7.35/10

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

Trails of Cold Steel III is so Stressful I Don’t Know if I can Finish It (let alone the Series)

When I first saw the announcement of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III coming to the Nintendo Switch, I was flabbergasted. They are all part of a continuous narrative, so why push people to play a game in the latter half of the story? Well, given how Cold Steel II ended, Cold Steel III is revealed to be a much more viable entry point than I thought. HOWEVER, I will be spoiling plot aspects of both previous games, as well as expecting you to know basic gameplay mechanics. Read my review of the first game if you are interested in the franchise. Unfortunately, if you couldn’t tell from the title of the post… I have some issues with this one.

When we last left our intrepid hero, Rean Schwarzer, he concluded his first year at Thors Military Academy by fighting a palette swap of the first game’s final boss that LITERALLY HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THE OVERARCHING PLOT (sorry, still salty about that). With the war over (at least as far as Erebonia is concerned), what could possibly go wrong? Well, a year later, in a suburban town west of Heimdallr called Leeves, Rean becomes an instructor of a new Class VII to take on an old threat: literally Ouroboros again.

Cold Steel III comes off as fanfic-like at the start. In fact, things wind down so much that this is perhaps the slowest opening—narrative-wise—in the series so far. The war is over, people have graduated… if it weren’t for the flash-forward intro, similar to the first game, I wouldn’t have been willing to believe that III had a plot at all. Fortunately, it does do some good things, one of which is including tons of areas entirely new to the franchise. From Sutherland Province, to Crossbell (which has a lot of references to the Japan-only Crossbell games that Western players will be hopelessly confused by), you will be visiting locations that have been merely mentioned in previous games. Erebonia feels bigger than it ever did before! 

Furthermore, there are a number of new, big plot developments. Thanks to being able to experience Crossbell firsthand, we finally get to see just how much weight Erebonia has been placing on the small province. It is quickly made apparent that the war is far from over, and things ramp up like they never have before. We also get some much-needed insight on the Gnomes, Black Workshop, and Hexen Clan.

But at this point, the series starts to become more like its JRPG cousins, and by that, I mean it has more of the soap-opera-like plot twists that make no sense (For example (SPOILERS): Crow is alive, and George is evil (END SPOILERS)). Also, I realized that you can’t really get by with Cold Steel alone. I began to lose track of all the different terms and factions, and it got to the point where I was straight-up lost in the plot. Whatever they’ve been building up to is something that began since the first Trails of Heroes (or whatever it’s called). If I actually played all—what, ten?—of these 80+ hour apiece JRPGs, I’d probably have all the familiarity I need to truly understand the series.

New school means an entirely new student body, and new towns means entirely new NPCs. Since you’re expected to have grown attached to the cast of the first two games over the course of 160-200 hours, Cold Steel III has the hardest cast of characters to like. Fortunately, it does a good job of distributing familiar faces. For example, one of the new Class VII members is actually Altina from the second game. Also, the Principal is the sexy General, Aurelia le Guin. People like Alfin, Elise, Sharon, and more all appear (and Prince Cedric actually DOES stuff for the first time in the series). For the record, I ended up really not liking—or rather, not understanding—Alisa’s mom more than ever. While she always had a weird way of loving her daughter even though she seemed like a crappy parent, Sharon’s backstory (SPOILERS) that she actually murdered Alisa’s dad, Alisa’s mom knew this, and yet… raised Sharon as her own? God, even by JRPG standards that’s a leap in logic… (END SPOILERS)

In any case, a Cold Steel game is a Cold Steel game, and the new faces end up being loveable enough. Overall, it was hilarious to see Rean’s new students react to all the different tidbits about him, such as all the famous people (and women) he knows. Juna is an interesting case; she’s from Crossbell, which doesn’t exactly have the best impression of Erebonia. However, Altina and Kurt ended up being kind of underwhelming by the series’ standards. The former comes off as a PTSD waifu that the MC has to teach to “have a soul” through “wove”, and Kurt is basically a combination of Cold Steel I Rean and Machias. Also, a lot of the other students outside of the new Class VII were pretty unremarkable as well. Fortunately, my favorite quickly ended up being Freddy. Who doesn’t love a beady-eyed weirdo who cooks bugs?

Many Thors alumni appear in the game. We get to see the adult forms of the old Class VII, as well as other students. The thing that they all have in common is that they haven’t changed, and they’re all very physically attractive (seriously freaking adult Elliot is a smexy boy right out of Liberty’s Kids). Surprisingly enough, the OG Class VII still has some new stuff for us to learn, even after all this time. The game makes up for its low amount of total party members by having some of the old gang appear as temporary party members.

Unfortunately, I had some issues with the way the characters were handled (other than the fact that you get way too many character notes). Character development was all over the place. A lot of the time, it felt like the game actively disliked the main party members. Like I said before, old characters become guest party members throughout the game. However, they always end up at higher levels, with more well-rounded abilities, as well as the whole “temporary” thing adding incentive to use them. New players will likely gravitate to them just for the manpower, and it kind of undermines the actual new characters. You could argue that it’s symbolic; it shows that new Class VII has a long way to go before they can match O.G. Class VII, but it doesn’t help that there are entire in-game days that are spent entirely with members of the original gang.

Furthermore, I feel like they mucked up Reany-Beany a bit. First off, a major event happens in between Cold Steel II and III: the Northern War. You get to see a bit of this at the end of Cold Steel II, but it’s basically a hostile takeover of a country called Northern Ambria. It’s such an important event, and it’s mentioned so often that I thought it was its own game. I came to realize that the whole thing was made to justify re-learning Rean’s Spirit Unification (okay maybe it’s not the WHOLE reason), and it felt kind of weak.

Things have improved substantially in terms of audio and visuals. With this being the first game in the series released on PS4, the visuals have the stylized look that has become the standard for anime JRPGs. The models are all updated, and they look amazing. From the fabrics of clothing, to lighting, I can finally feel truly immersed in the world Zemuria. The soundtrack is around the same quality, but it feels much less intrusive than in previous games.

Before we get into gameplay, I must make a quick declaration. If you are marathoning this on PS4… BUY THE DIGITAL GAME FROM THE PLAYSTATION STORE. The physical edition of Cold Steel III does not give you the DLC, unlike the digital version (and MacBurn taught me that I NEED all fifty Zeram Capsules if I’m gonna beat all four of these games). The Switch version does have the DLC, but I read (on an Amazon question) that the fourth game will include the same save data carryover mechanic from Cold Steel II, but APPLIED TO ALL THREE PREVIOUS GAMES. Use these factoids to decide which version you want. If you do buy the game digitally, keep in mind that the stupid expensive deluxe edition only comes with exclusive cosmetic DLC, but none of the item-based DLC (yours truly learned that the hard way). So if you only want your fifty Zeram Capsules, buy the standard version. Also, it’s sad to say that Turbo Mode is no longer with us. Press F for respect. To compensate, you can use the Options button to skip cutscenes.


Daily Life

There is one immediate difference with your Orbment settings: the ability to have two Master Quartzes at once… sort of. The second Master Quartz slot is for a Sub-Master Quartz. Whatever Master Quartz is set to the Sub slot will be much weaker, but still immensely helpful, especially since there seem to be less slots for regular Quartz in this game. The cool thing is that you can equoi something as a Sub-Master Quartz while it’s equipped as someone else’s main Master Quartz without actually taking it OFF of that person. It helps streamline Quartz management and makes it a LOT easier to level up multiple Master Quartz at once. Another thing about Master Quartzes is that there are a lot of new ones (fortunately, Moebius is still in this game. Thank Aidios). Heck, there aren’t just new Master Quartzes, but new Arts as well. It was really jarring to relearn all of this stuff. In fact, it might’ve been easier if this was my first game in the series. 

Since we’re back at square one, we have to open slots on the Arcus units all over again. Fortunately, as long as you get Septium Vein as soon as possible, you can easily max out everyone’s slots. But… that doesn’t mean you’re done with Sepith. Not even close. All Quartzes can now be used at an Orbment facility to be upgraded into their rarer form with the usual stat boosts. You need three regulars to get a rare, and three rares to get a super-rare. That’s a lot, especially if you want more than one. Also, U-Materials are needed to this, making them more valuable than ever. The other thing is that you can trade rare Quartzes at the pawn shop to get one-of-a-kind Quartzes that are usually obtained in quests… including duplicates. I was able to get three Septium Veins pretty quickly (which only needs a rare Crest and a few U-Materials) and have the amount of money I normally have by endgame by the end of the third chapter. This is an interesting system because it makes you decide if you want to grind to get a powerful Quartz early, or wait until you get it for free. It’s a tough call, especially when you unlock the ability to obtain the Gem series of Quartzes, which are more broken than ever.

In addition to the usual junk, scenes called Sub Events now need to be sought out. They’re generally marked on the map, unless there are hidden ones I don’t know about. The bathhouse in the dorm always triggers one such event, so use it whenever it’s available. While some of them seem meaningless, I like doing all of them because it feels good.

Just because you’re an instructor now doesn’t mean you don’t have to worry about AP anymore. In fact, you also have to worry about the academy’s Campus Enhancement Rating. Basically, completing quests specifically related to the school (which have their own section titled “Branch Campus Quests”) as well as doing the aforementioned bathhouse events increases this number. AP and CER contribute to two separate ranking systems, which doubles the rewards as well as the stress.

Speaking of extra rewards and stress, reporting character notes, battle notes, and book notes now nets you rewards. As usual with the games, some Bonding Events yield character notes and some do not, making save-scumming a must if you want to get 100% (btw one person’s character notes are obtained out of sequence for no reason). I literally drove myself insane making sure I talk to everyone, and even with save-scumming for Bonding Events, I missed several notes. Since the final reward is most likely a Master Quartz, I will never get 100% in those either. Oh, and milestones also increase Campus Enhancement, making a THIRD thing I couldn’t 100%!

Bonding gets more complicated than before. In addition to your disgustingly limited Bonding Events, Cold Steel III adds Gifts. These are sold in various shops, and can be given to a specific character directly from the inventory screen. to increase your Bond with them. Some of these Gifts expire, so I’d make sure you have a pretty far wad of cash on you at all times. Also, the nakama power you get from bonding no longer goes to your link level; instead, it goes to a separate Bond Level, which measures just how 007 you are. Okay, maybe that last part was a joke… In actuality, increasing Bond Levels does… nothing? Kind of a disappointment. But at the very least, this new way of handling relationships finally gives an even balance between Rean and everyone else’s link levels.

Fishing has changed substantially. First off, instead of Angler Points, you trade specific species of fish for goods. Plus, you can buy upgrades to your fishing capabilities. “But fishing is easy in these games!” you think. Well, the mechanics are a lot newer and a lot harder now. The amount of fish you can get is based solely on your bait count (which can FINALLY be purchased for Mira instead of five U-Materials). When you fish, you must press the circle button when the arrow points to a specific line on the circle. The great thing about this is that you have to press the circle button when it lines up with a line that has blue, green, and yellow sections (in order of difficulty to hit). At first, I thought the smaller, yellow section meant rarer fish. But no, this part determines the rarity of what the fish drops, which I found to be a great improvement. Instead of mashing face buttons, you hold the circle button to reel the fish in. The line can break if you hold it for too long, especially if the fish is mad while you’re doing it. But since you’re able to catch such wildly different fish at once, knowing if you have caught all the fish you can at a given point in the game is next to impossible.

Recipes get a new upgrade as well. In addition to finding books, you are able to try a restaurant’s recommended dish. This allows you to learn new recipes that way too. But the best improvement is that you can have people cook from outside of your party! Now you don’t have to reorganize everybody just to make a specific Unique Dish.

If things in this game couldn’t get any newer, Blade falls by the wayside like any fad among elementary schoolers and is replaced with Vantage Masters. This game is… a lot. It’s basically Yu-Gi-Oh meets Triple Triad meets Pokemon TCG. It would take a whole separate review to describe the rules, and even then it won’t make sense to you. You just gotta experiment, and find those exploits that every card game has. But since there are now visible penalties to losing, save-scumming is recommended. 

Field studies return in the form of field exercises. They’re basically exactly the same, but the entire student body goes to the location. In addition to the quests you’ll receive, the students that come with you can give additional quests that go towards the Campus Enhancement Rating. Unfortunately, they follow a much tighter formula than the first game. Basically, you start Day 1 by going down the highway to receive your requests, then you do those requests, along with an investigation report, to finish the day. The bad guys of that particular arc attack at the end of the first day, and then Rean is forced to spend Day 2 fighting those bad guys with several Old Class VII members. While there is a little variance, I did not welcome this dip in variety.

Just when they couldn’t add any more to do, they did. Munk is now working at Radio Trista, Rosine is apparently a secret service nun (which is a scene I missed in the previous game?), and Vivi is a journalist. Munk wants material for his radio shows, which are obtained from NPCs that have Sub Event icons over them. Rosine wants the Black Records, which are found as treasures. Vivi wants photogenic, well, photographs of nature. Turn these in by calling them on the ARCUS, which can also be used to check mail and stuff.


Deadly Life

Many new mechanics are introduced right off the bat. One is the new Charm status effect. It’s like Confuse, except that they ONLY attack allies. Obviously very sexy and very dangerous. Also new is the Break system. This functions just like the Ys series and Octopath Traveler; hit people enough it reduces their defenses to nothing while stunning them for a turn. Inflicting Break will make enemies lose their next turn, guarantee item drops, and make every regular attack and Craft Unbalance them. 

Ever feel like you have too many Bravery Points? Well, now you can spend them on Brave Orders on any character’s turn. They don’t actually use that turn, so it’s objectively good to do. They provide all sorts of useful effects to the whole party, after all. Also, you can earn Bravery Points as turn bonuses now, as well as receive a bonus that lets you use Brave Orders for free. This makes it much more difficult to decide if you want to use Burst. Fortunately, using Burst does increase Break damage by 900%, making it a good panic button if you just need to Break something fast. An ideal strategy is to save up for Burst, use it at the start of a battle to Break all the enemies instantly, and then wail on them with attacks and/or Crafts to get the guaranteed Unbalance and gain back all five Bravery Points. But sometimes, the Brave Orders can turn the tide of a fight in an instant… which is why Overdrive is no longer with us.

I never mentioned the mechanics of breaking crates before, but it’s really important to do it in Cold Steel III, not that they weren’t great for grinding items in the previous games. In this game, breaking crates fills up a little charge meter. When it’s filled up enough, you can perform Assault Attacks, which greatly damage all enemies’ Break meter and give you a big advantage. The same actions that fill up the assault meter also restore CP, so make sure you always break stuff!

Mech battles are better than ever. Thanks to Mr. Schmidt, a whole slew of Panzer Soldats are now distributed to students. This means that *foams at the mouth* you get to fight with multiple mechs at once. The mechanics are largely unchanged, but it’s good to know that there are now consumable items that can be used specifically for restoring mechs. Fortunately, the EX Orb mechanic isn’t any more complicated than it was before; any EX Orb applied to Valimar affects the whole team.

The few changes that are present serve to make these fights much more difficult. Charge only restores 500 EP instead of the full thousand, for one thing. The most stressful aspect is how it handles partners. All selected partners alternate between each other. This means that you can’t have Altina spam her physical reflect shield and win every fight; you actually have to think now. My brain welcomed this change, but my heart sure didn’t. For the record, these take the place of practical exams, both on dedicated Panzer Soldat days and on optional battle during Free Days which increase Campus Enhancement.

Enemies get some new toys as well. Some can enter an Enhanced state, which comes with boosted stats at the expense of a weaker Break meter. YOU NEED TO BREAK THEM IN THIS STATE ASAP, unless you WANT your face to get ripped off. In fact, I died to the FIRST BOSS because my normal defensive plays just didn’t work. But as soon as I prioritized inflicting Break, I was able to do it. It gets much easier when everyone learns their S-Crafts. One helpful thing is that it seems like bosses can’t use S-Crafts unless they’re in their Enhanced state, allowing you to stop what are usually instant game overs.


Stressful Life

I knew it was a risk trying Trails of Cold Steel, due to the length and amount of missable content. The first two games felt manageable enough, but III pushed me over the edge. They really don’t want you to earn AP in this game. From Chapter 3 onwards, there’s a serious spike in the amount of quests with multiple outcomes. Some of them aren’t so bad, such as “win this tough battle”. But some of them are really arbitrary, such as a bike chase quest that doesn’t actually have you race with the bike but instead do a series of adventure game logic bull. Also, you will be expected to have knowledge of previous Cold Steel AND Legend of Heroes games (gee good thing they’re trying to get Switch players into the series STARTING with III), as well as some remote real-world stuff. In addition to that, some AP events feel like they require trial and error (unless I’m as dumb as a ignoramus). But hey, at least hidden quests are no longer a thing (which is ironic because this is the first time they actually warn you about them even though they’re all marked on the map)!

When I say it pushed me over the edge, I mean it. I mentioned this once on the mystery award blog, but I got autism. I’m gonna be real, when I had a rough time with AP throughout the series, I had an honest meltdown. It was about the level of a Getting Over It or Cuphead rage video. I would hit myself and the floor of my house, and it was not a good time. Normally, I wouldn’t be so salty about it, but Trails of Cold Steel IV has a true ending, and I probably need AP past a certain threshold to get it. 

“You’re not finishing a game?” you ask, “Filthy casual…” Look, I’m not a professional gamer. I rarely have time to game versus my other stuff, and so, I need to choose wisely. I need to choose something that won’t drive me to drink (since the real world is perfectly good at doing that on its own). I just don’t know if Trails of Cold Steel is worth it. What also made me consider this possibility was an even more obscure RPG, which has become one of my favorite games of all time: CrossCode. It’s tough. It has its issues (like really picky puzzle execution), but it’s a game that I can deal with. The combat is more fun to boot, and the combat was my one incentive to finish Cold Steel. Well, I still have my PS4, so if I want to finish it someday… it’ll be there.

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Current (Possibly Final) Verdict: 9.5/10

Trails of Cold Steel III is definitely the best installment thus far. However, things are getting more stressful than ever. Going into this series without a guide is suicidal if you want to get 100%, but I should at least be proud of managing as much as I could (Oh, and since these games are so niche it’s questionable whether or not there is a good enough guide to begin with). I come off as a hypocrite, potentially dropping a game I gave such a high score. I don’t want to undersell what a well-made series Trails of Cold Steel is, it’s just not the kind of game for me. With my new gaming-oriented schedule, I’ve been branching out the different types of game I play, but ones where you can miss a lot of stuff, on top of having to worry about getting a good ending, are not ones I can tolerate. Reading this, you’ll know exactly what you’d be getting into with Cold Steel. So, look at yourself and judge accordingly.

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!