The Patchwork Girl of Oz: The Best—I mean—Least Bad Installment Yet

Oz has had ups and downs. In fact, the previous two books, The Road to Oz and The Emerald City of Oz, were absolutely awful in my opinion. At the end of my rope, I turned toward The Patchwork Girl of Oz with next to no expectations. How much worse could it get?

In The Patchwork Girl of Oz, a munchkin boy named Ojo and his uncle(?), Unc Nunkie, head off to find food. On the way, they meet this magician, Dr. Pipt, who tries to bring a patchwork girl of his wife’s creation to life. He succeeds, but petrification juice gets splashed all over said wife and Unc Nunkie. With the help of the Patchwork Girl, named Scraps, and an incredibly sassy Glass Cat, Ojo sets out to find the ingredients for an antidote. 

When I asked “How much worse can it get?” in the intro, I was fortunate that that question would not be answered today. For you see, Patchwork Girl is actually pretty damn good. First off, CONTINUITY. The chemical that brings Scraps to life is, indeed, the same Powder of Life from book two, and Pipt is the very magician who created it. Finally!

There is also a drastic improvement in new characters. Ojo is unremarkable at first, but ends up being the first morally ambiguous character in the series (even if his arc is rather lackluster compared to more modern protagonists). By comparison, Scraps and the Glass Cat are on another level, at least for Baum. 

Scraps is bright, jovial, and very optimistic, like an innocent child. Unfortunately, she’s kind of a dichotomy. She’s created with the intention of being a servant, which is as sexist as you’d expect for the time. However, because Baum can never be consistent, she actually manages to become a strong, independent woman. The 19th Amendment wouldn’t come to pass for seven more years, but the movements in favor of women’s right to vote were probably present at the time. Was Baum the first author to be worried about political correctness?

In stark contrast to Scraps’ peppiness, the Glass Cat is very egotistical, always eager to remind you about her ruby heart and pink brains (you can see ’em work). Unfortunately, the Glass Cat ends up being annoying very quickly, and this is coming from someone who likes Senku from Dr. Stone. The Glass Cat’s entire personality is its catchphrase. Imagine a character with a catchphrase, then imagine that phrase being the ONLY THING THEY SAY. While I love it when Senku says “ten billion percent”, I only love it because it’s just one part of a very charismatic guy. The Glass Cat is fun at first, and then stops being fun.

Other than that, it’s the usual Oz antics. Like in many installments, there are random, self-contained encounters that have absolutely no significance to the plot and are not entertaining. This far in, it feels very clear that Baum has been pulling Oz out of nowhere since the very beginning.

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Final Verdict: 6.8/10

Geez, I’m awful. Halfway through one of the most beloved literature franchises of all time, and I still haven’t scored a single one higher than a 7/10! Hopefully, it’ll get better from here.

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.

When Disney Decided to Dig a Little Deeper: Princess and the Frog Retrospective

Well, I kind of cheated with this one. Basically, I got to rewatch Princess and the Frog during a movie under the stars event in Disney and decided to write a retrospective on it, in advance of its twentieth anniversary. However, I got impatient and instead decided to post it now. In any case, this review was written after watching the movie for the first time in over two years, so I should be able to break it down pretty impartially.

In Princess and the Frog, a girl named Tiana dreams of opening a restaurant in New Orleans. But since it’s Disney, her father dies early on and she gets screwed out of a vacant property right when she saves up enough money. What’s worse is that she runs into Prince Naveen (*smack* of Maldonia), a strapping prince who happened to be visiting the States, and the two of them turn into frogs.

Princess and the Frog was the start of a new trope for Disney’s female leads. They would no longer be damsels in distress who were swept away by some hunk. In fact, a lot of these Disney women would start off on bad terms with their husbando-to-be. Princess and the Frog also starts a trend of Disney lessons that are practical to real life, unlike previous ones which were like “If you cry hard enough some magic grandma will come save you.” The movie shows you the line between wants and needs, as well as work and play. I hate saying that something is good solely from being relatable, but Princess and the Frog is really easy to relate to, whether you’re some greedy hoarder, a workaholic, or anything in between. Heck, it’s something I still need to learn while juggling this blog and a full-time I.R.L. job.

But as far as the story itself, Princess and the Frog is about as straightforward as any mainstream Disney flick. The bulk of the movie is Tiana and Naveen goin’ down the bayou to reach Mama Odie, who supposedly has the ability to turn them human again. And of course, when they get to her, she’s all like “stuff Mufasa said probably” and sends them back to New Orleans so Naveen can make out with Tiana’s BFF. As you can expect, she gets the best of both worlds in the end. 

Fortunately, if you like classic Disney, then you’ll find Princess and the Frog to be one of their best. All the personality and Disney magic is still present, even though the behind the scenes for this movie has one of the producers saying “the world had grown too cynical for fairy tales” (which is more true now than ever thanks to social media and, well… last year). It’s lighthearted, funny, emotional, and bursting with color and heart.

The characters are among the most likeable in Disney’s repertoire. Tiana and Naveen aren’t that interesting by themselves, but it’s their relationship that brings out the best of them. They are two extremes; with Tiana being extreme work and Naveen being extreme play. To my knowledge, this is the second time in Disney history with a tsundere Disney Princess (the first being Belle). But unlike Beast, who saves Belle’s life and gives her Stockholm Syndrome as a result, Tiana and Naveen’s values clash in some bizarro way that results in the true wuv that we all care about (and them learning how to properly manage their lives).

Like I said in my Disney rant, people don’t care about the leads as much as the other characters. Louie the crocodile is your typical comic relief character. However, as lovable as he is, he’s not that funny. The most hilarious part about him is the sheer concept of a crocodile who wants to play jazz with the big boys, and the only funny bit is him not knowing “the geography and the topography” of the bayou. Of course, people (and myself) love Raymone to bits and pieces. The interesting part is that he’s one of the few Disney protagonists to die towards the end of the movie, as opposed to the parents who don’t even live for half an hour (such as Tiana’s dad). As desentized to Disney deaths as I am, I admit that seeing him be reincarnated as a star right next to his waifu in the sky is pretty moving.

A sadly unutilized character ends up being Best Girl Lottie. She’s loaded thanks to her father, John Goodman. Being a rich girl, her deep friendship with a low-income girl like Tiana could arguably inspire hope for  kids to this day. Regardless, she’s hilarious in every scene she’s in, even if those are low in number.

The antagonist, Facilier, is—to my knowledge—the last true Disney villain. After him, they would get less and less presence in the movies, and now, they pretty much don’t exist. With that in mind, what a banger to end on! He’s become a modern fan-favorite for a reason, and it’s because he’s constantly oozing charisma. He’s really intimidating for such a skinny guy, and his death is perhaps one of the scariest out of the Disney villains.

Being a Disney Princess movie, Princess and the Frog has a phenomenal soundtrack. I don’t like jazz at all, but I’m always surprised by how many different atmospheres and moods that they can convey with the genre in this movie. Also, Facilier’s number is probably one of the best villain songs in Disney history.

Princess and the Frog hasn’t aged a day, despite its use of traditional hand-drawn graphics. It’s a visually stunning film, with both nostalgia and modern flair. They make New Orleans look just about as fantastical as any Magic Kingdom, that’s for sure. The behind-the-scenes said that they’d occasionally like to return to hand-drawn graphics every now and then, but they still have yet to do it. WHY?!

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After All These Years: 9/10

Princess and the Frog is really damn good! There’s nothing else to say besides that. If you like Disney, then you should have no problem with this one.

The Emerald City of Oz: Somehow, a Volume with a Literal War in it Has Next to NO Action

L. Frank Baum’s Oz books had been steadily getting better, up until the fifth book, The Road to Oz. I really hope that it was just a fluke. Well, the only way to figure out if the series is getting better or worse is to continue it! Let’s jump into book six: The Emerald City of Oz.

In this installment, Dorothy’s aunt and uncle are S.O.L. And while a good therapist would tell you not to run away from your problems, Dorothy suggests to do just that! She has Ozma invite them to live in Oz forever. And what a time to move in, as the Nome King is planning to invade.

Up to this point, the government of the Emerald City has been well-established. However, when Baum gave us the recap of how it worked, I realized another prophecy of Baum’s. But this one, er… Well, to sum up, everyone has equal money in the Emerald City. Oz is a Communist kingdom. Aaaaah, American culture, you never cease to baffle me.

Anyway, the basic structure of this volume alternates POVs, from Dorothy showing her relatives around Oz, while the Nome King’s general recruits followers for his cause. I initially looked forward to this, because I thought, “Hey, we can reintroduce some of the minor antagonists from earlier in the series! Continuity!” However, I was once again an ignoramus for having hope in Baum. Instead of doing that, we are suddenly introduced to a number of one-dimensionally evil races, one of which is a literal race of furries (different from the ones in The Road to Oz). 

Not only are there new bad guys in this volume, but there are also brand new denizens of Oz. Classic Baum, constantly adding new things instead of expanding upon existing things. Because it’s whacky! The new races are as imaginative as usual, such as a race of people made out of puzzle pieces. There’s also a race of paper people, all created by a single girl—once again, Baum unwittingly stuffs sacrilege into kids’ brains. At least he has balls. 

But no matter how creative Baum gets, it seems I just cannot get immersed in this world. Everything in it is just distributed, and doesn’t feel… like anything. People still love this series so much? How? I can only see this being good at the time, before Tolkein raised the bar (a bar that is definitely not met even these days). It takes so much more than ideas to have good worldbuilding, and I expected more out of such a beloved series. I guess that’s one thing that it has in common with most modern stuff (Oooooh snap).

Honestly, I have nothing else to say. The climax is boring and rushed, possibly shoehorning in a new plot device that I’m supposed to have believed was in the Emerald City from the very beginning (I say “possibly” because it could’ve been mentioned and I forgot because I was bored). Oz researcher Peter Glassman, once again, acts as if this is the greatest thing since sliced bread. But this time, his reasoning seems to entirely rest on the fact that Emerald City has alternating POVs. This is what I hate about classic literature as a whole. People just laud them for being the first at doing something, as if that makes it better than any later stuff that does the same thing better. By comparison, I can at least say that Dracula is one of the best vampire stories ever. It was a no-nonsense thriller, where the vampires were real monsters that didn’t glow with shoujo sparkles. Oz is not Dracula.

It’s not all bad, though. There were a couple of interesting bits that I feel like should be brought up. First off, there is a place (I forgot what location was called), where its people had anxiety attacks over literally every possible negative eventually, even the super improbable ones. Baum, arguably, predicted the slowly deteriorating mental health of America. It’s exaggerated, but I actually related to these people, since I’m living in a world where the media will make everything out to be the end of days. There is also another case of Glinda the Good being not-so-good. They meet these rabbits who have been forcibly evolved to a civilized state completely against their will, and only because Glinda felt like it. That final book looms ever ominously before me, man.

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Final Verdict: 6.7/10

Emerald City of Oz gets a slightly higher rating since it has some of the more inventive ideas (even if they are superficial). Overall, this book sucks. I would be glad to be finished with it, as it was meant to be the final Oz book. However, we are not even halfway. I’m suddenly Han Solo, because I have a bad feeling about this.

The Last Fallen Star: My First Ever Impression of Korean Culture

As someone who’s been alive within the last ten years, I have borne witness to the sudden rise of South Korea’s influence on the world’s entertainment industry. And considering I’ve been into Japanese culture for a long time, I’ve basically been jealous of Korea to this day. Anime have been out internationally for decades, and only a handful of them are accepted by your garden variety “all-American”. In my experience, it feels like Japan has only gotten more disdain as facets of their culture continue to come into the fold. And yet, all it took was ‘Oppa Gangnam Style’ for South Korea to be welcomed with open arms. Nowadays, manhwa and webtoons seem to be eclipsing Japan’s manga industry, and BTS the biggest active music group in the world, with their other K-Pop compatriots not far behind. Eventually, I just lost it, and absolutely HAD to know if I was missing something. And my voyage into Korean culture begins with Graci Kim’s novel, The Last Fallen Star, one of two Korean I.P.s from Rick Riordan Presents.

In The Last Fallen Star, you have your usual secret coven of witches. I’ll give you three guesses as to what the main protagonist, Riley Oh’s, problem is. …Did you guess that she has no magic? Yep, that’s exactly the case. The other old beans in the clan try to act like they don’t think she’s just baggage, but it’s not a particularly good facade. So, what does Riley do? She and her sister, Hattie, perform an illegal spell that has a chance to give Riley temporary powers. I’ll give you three guesses as to what results.

If you guessed that it goes horribly wrong, then that would be correct, but also an understatement. In fact, Riley’s parents end up in a position where they decide if they or Riley get permanently ejected out of the clan. Riley decides for them, and boots herself out, afterwhich the sisters perform ANOTHER illegal ritual that puts Hattie’s life at stake. Of course, the solution is for Riley, and her friend Emmet, to find a MacGuffin. Why wouldn’t it be?

Positives first. The story, unlike other Presents books, doesn’t waste time. The premise being entirely centered around MacGuffin-finding screams padding, but it’s actually relevant to a much bigger plot. It’s much more dialogue-driven than other Presents books, but not having random Korean monsters attack just for the sake of action is another plus for the pacing.

Sadly, that’s about where the positives end. The Korean-mythology-based worldbuilding is pretty typical. It’s your garden variety urban fantasy, with the different portals to witch-land in the middle of unassuming public areas, various rituals, and really dense-headed coven bigwigs. The specific legends used in the story, such as Korea’s creation legend, are… alright, I guess. Even taking my Shinto bias in mind, it’s your usual “the world is created perfectly and then someone does something stupid.”

The cast also leaves something to be desired (big surprise coming from me). Riley, being adopted, magicless, and wanting to be included in social circles, ticks all the boxes on the “relatable” checklist. I also dislike her for using the word “amazeballs”. The male lead, Emmet, is your typical best friend, and his arc revolves entirely around his response to the inevitable big plot twist reveal. We don’t get to see many gods—in fact, we only see one—and she is not as memorable as she could’ve been.

The only other issue I have is with the climax. It’s a good climax from a sheer entertainment standpoint, but I feel like some stuff happened solely for shock value. Also, the final twist feels like Kim trying to make readers feel that participation-trophy-specialness, which—according to Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck—leads to mental health disorders.

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Final Verdict: 8/10

The Last Fallen Star is the second best Rick Riordan Presents book I have read thus far, which is not saying much considering that I don’t like most of them. And even then, I still didn’t love it like I do that one series I will be covering at some point. I’m willing to finish this series, but I don’t think I’m going to learn why people like this particular brand of mythology.

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: Read it Before Ragnarök

Lately, I’ve been questioning my admiration toward Rick Riordan, the author of Percy Jackson, a.k.a. “The Storyteller of the Gods”. I read Percy Jackson over ten years ago, and needless to say, it helped me become who I am today. I would’ve never wanted to study Japanese culture to the Nth degree if it weren’t for Percy. But I haven’t reread Percy to this day. In 2017, I attempted to read Trials of Apollo—completely skipping over Heroes of Olympus—and I never finished it. With every Apollo book, I liked it less and less. Furthermore, I kept getting disappointed at the books published under the Rick Riordan Presents imprint; books that all had to get his seal of approval. With me questioning the tastes and talents of one of the most defining people in my life, I was tempted to do a Percy Jackson retrospective. However, that series is five stinking books long, and I had so much crap to do as it was. Instead, I turned to another series of his: Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard. It was only three books, so it was doable. Although Norse mythology is the second most overused template for fantasy worldbuilding, I at least had some vague familiarity with some of its more nuanced aspects, thanks entirely to one of my new favorite bands, Brothers of Metal. Without further ado, let’s see if I can like something by Rick Riordan!

In Magnus Chase, the titular character has been homeless ever since his mom died in a fire. After living in the slums of Boston, he gets your typical visit by a long-lost, mysterious relative. This time, it’s his Uncle Randolph, who tells him the usual: he’s the son of a Norse god. Magnus gets this fancy sword thing that’s been lying in the Charles River, but then he dies. He awakens in Hotel Valhalla, where he must join the other halfbloods on adventures.

Rick Riordan is at least good at jumping into the action. All that I just described happens in the first forty-seven pages, when most books would take almost a hundred to start in earnest. And like in Percy Jackson, you get acclimated to Hotel Valhalla while everyone there shits on him and his Valkyrie friend, Sam. As expected from Riordan, he does a great job of blending Norse folklore with the modern day in his own signature style. Riordan’s snarky sense of humor is also very prevalent.  

While there are a number of obvious similarities to Percy, Magnus Chase is a bit different. Due to the power of red herrings, it’s never clear who’s on whose side. All we know is that Ragnarök = Bad, and that some people want it more than others. Sam ends up being the daughter of Loki, who’s supposed to be the bad guy, and she gets ejected from Valhalla for bringing Magnus in. Is she sus and working for Loki? Is Loki sus? Whoooooo knooooooooows?!

In terms of writing, Magnus is actually not bad. Riordan is about as talented of a storyteller as I remember, even if I didn’t take the story as seriously as my younger self did Percy. I could easily visualize everything as it appeared, which most authors fail doing. One thing I noticed is how wordy the books are most of the time. Well, it’s kind of a thing I’ve noticed in most Western literature, and it kind of fascinates me for some reason. I know that flavor text can bring more life to the story, but sometimes it feels excessive. As an aspiring writer, my problem ended up being that my stuff was too short. I’ve taken inspiration from the 1952 adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which Leonard Maltin described as “understatement and restraint.” That’s why I try to not go for BS hyperbole on my blogs. Anyway, sorry for that tangent; let’s get back to the review.

Since middle grade books have to be dummy thick, Riordan does have a number of scenes that don’t seem necessary. I had problems with this in The Storm Runner and a certain other Percy-influenced franchise that I’ll be reviewing in the foreseeable future. Fortunately, Riordan at least has the ability to make the filler fun in its own right. Instead of dumb, arbitrary trials that tell stuff about the characters that we already knew, Magnus has more fun and varied activities, like fishing up Jormungandr and bowling with giants.

If there was another thing I could always trust Riordan for was his research. Readers are expected to recognize Thor and Loki (thanks to the M.C.U.), and perhaps Yggdrasil and stuff since everything in every JRPG series is named after Norse mythology. But me, I had Brothers of Metal. I recognized the Norns, Heidrun, and more. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t help me pay attention to the story when they come up. I know it sounds bad, but I couldn’t help it. A lot of the time, I was just thinking of this:

And I may or may not have come up with the post just to plug the band.

Like with more-or-less everything I’ve ever experienced, the characters—once again—don’t quite win me over. There’s nothing particularly wrong with them. If you’re familiar with Percy Jackson, then you’d probably like them just fine. But that’s the thing; they pretty much are Percy Jackson characters in every way. I don’t 100% recall how the Percy characters were, but at least going off of my nostalgic memory, the cast of Magnus is inferior in a number of ways. Magnus himself is that typical wish fulfilment character, with his initial homelessness as an added bonus. At least he’s appreciative of being whisked away to the lap of luxury, for once?

Sam is pretty much Annabeth, which I suppose is inaccurate, since Annabeth herself is actually Magnus’ cousin (apparently, every religions’ gods coexist in the same universe?). Basically, she’s a tomboy and has not much else going for her. Sam’s sibling, Alex Fierro, ends up packing much more sass. As the offspring of good ol’ Loki, their whole character arcs revolve around getting over their abusive pa. Magnus’ other main cohorts end up being Blitz and Hearth, a dwarf and elf respectively. They’re good dudes.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t fond of everyone. There are several other kids in Magnus’…  er… class(?), but they have no presence at all. They crap on him super early on, but they just suddenly stop doing that, and I can only assume Riordan did that initially for shock value. Even with more of a role in the final book, they feel like half-assed characters, especially by Riordan standards. 

The assorted Norse mythology characters, as expected, end up being the cast’s strong suit. They’re full of sass, as well as having the duality of being ancient characters who are in touch with the modern world (something that would lose its novelty if someone were to write a series based on Japanese mythology, since that duality is already part of their culture). Sadly, I was the most disappointed in Loki. SPOILER ALERT, the god of tricksters is—in fact—the main antagonist. While he is an entertaining villain, his role doesn’t exactly shed a new perspective on Norse mythology in the way that other series try with their villains (even if those books fail at the attempt). The only attempt in Magnus’ case is made towards the end of the series, where Loki just says the same old “there’s no real good and evil” schtick that I’ve only seen in stories that fail to actually convey that through context. I’m sorry, but wanting to jumpstart the end of days for no reason seems to be pretty close to one-dimensional evil, just saying. 

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Final Verdict: 8.5/10

I don’t think Rick Riordan deserves to be hailed as the Storyteller of the Gods, but he is a very capable writer (even if his references are pander-ously mainstream). Magnus Chase isn’t life-changing, nor(se) does it subvert Viking culture, but it’s nonetheless a solid action-adventure trilogy. It’s also taught me how shallow a lot of the Rick Riordan Presents books feel by comparison, where they merely seem to emulate what people find appealing in Riordan’s books instead of finding their own voices. I recommend Magnus Chase if you like Percy Jackson, or if you want an actually good urban fantasy for once.

Luca: Kaiju Plus Italian Food Equals Success!

By this point in human history, most of the United States will have been freed from the pandemic that definitely warranted EVERY SINGLE mandate taken against it. Theaters are open, but despite that, Pixar once again elected to squander the chance to actually profit off of one of their movies. Yep, their newest film, Luca, is included with a simple Disney+ subscription, just like with Soul. At least one good thing came from that whole incident!

In Luca, the titular sea monster (or as I would prefer to call it, Kaiju) boy is having a crap life herding fish-sheep with a dream to see the human world. Naturally, he’s forbidden to live said dream. Fortunately, all it takes is a chance encounter with a sassy teenage Kaiju named Alberto for him to completely disregard his parents and head there anyway.

The first interesting thing about this movie is the setting: Italy. This is, to my knowledge, Disney’s first movie to represent Italian culture, and as an Italian myself, it feels… underwhelming? From what I understand, kids of different heritages are supposed to feel some sort of solace in learning about where they came from. And before you tell me that my apathy is because Italians are White, allow me to tell you that Italians were just as much victims of racism in the early 1900s as any minority group. In any case, you can probably chalk up my lack of an existential and cultural awakening to my neuro-atypical brain. If you’re Italian (and not me), you’ll probably fan-gush your butt off at this setting.

What brings said setting to life is Pixar’s long-running expertise in visual presentation. Outside of a few dream sequences, the movie isn’t as abstract as Soul, but it still looks beautiful. It blurs the line between cartoon and realism thanks to its noodly characters contrasting against the extremely detailed environments. The devil is in the detail as usual, especially when it comes to those quintessentially Italian hand gestures.

Also expected from Pixar is Luca‘s very simple plot. The main conflict is that Luca and Alberto want to obtain a motorcycle to travel the world with, the problem being that they need cash. The best opportunity to get cash is to win the Porto Rosso Cup, and luckily enough, they meet a human girl named Giulia who wants to win the Cup as well. Of course, the whole Kaiju thing complicates matters.

For me, the movie’s biggest strength is in its cast of characters. Luca is kind of generic, but he develops some interesting relationships with Alberto and Giulia. Alberto is an interesting case. He has an assertive policy that inspires Luca to explore the human world, but he does it a bit to the Nth degree. This is shown throughout the movie, and is—in recent memory—one of the few organic buildups to that classic “Disney argument”. Giulia is that best friend type who’s proactive and ambitious; she’s not complex but it’s hard not to like her. I have a strange feeling that, given the month that this movie came out in, people will not be pleased at how Luca and Alberto’s relationship turns out in the end.

The parents—for once—manage to both have proper arcs and not die. Luca’s parents are dense as you can expect at first, but eventually have to acknowledge that their little Kaiju’s grown up. In the meantime, they eventually head to the surface to search for him and have some hilarious escapades. Luca’s grandma is much more likable, but she doesn’t get significant screentime. Fortunately, Giulia’s awesome dad makes up for that lack.

The weakest character ends up being the main antagonist (whose name I’m probably spelling wrong), Erkele. He’s the first Disney “villain” in like a decade, and he kind of shows that maybe they should stick with not having villains. He’s very expressive and funny, but he gets no real arc other than to be a jerk and impede the protagonists.

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Final Verdict: 9.25/10

Luca is a great Pixar movie as usual. I don’t quite think it’s as good as Soul, but it’s definitely easier to rewatch since—for the time being—everything from last year is kind of cursed. In any case, Luca is great, and I want to stay at Disney’s Riviera Resort now.

A VERY BELATED Review of Amphibia’s Second Season

To Season 1 Review


I hate streaming sometimes. I don’t know if the whole season is out on Hulu right now, but for some unholy reason, it definitely wasn’t back when the season two finale of Disney’s Amphibia (created by Matt Braly) aired. I had to wait for it to come out on Disney+ to watch it! In any case, with all the pieces in place, it’s time for the show to begin in earnest. Let’s FINALLY get to it! Oh, and uh, spoilers from last season.

When we last left our intrepid heroes, Anne had a brief but tumultuous reunion with her friend Sasha, who is now buddy-buddy with an army of power-hungry toads. They fought, Anne stood up for her beliefs, and ‘Lean on Me’ ensued. Now separated again in good old Naruto and Sasuke fashion, the only thing left to do is haul ass to Newtopia and find out what to do with the MacGuffin that got Anne to Amphibia in the first place.

Right off the bat, season two is a major improvement. Since the crew is on the move, there is a much wider variety of setpieces. From sketchy inns, to a desert, and… Grunkle Stan?! If that wasn’t an indication of how creative the show gets, then I don’t know what is. In any case, the real treat is Newtopia itself, the biggest and most beautiful setting yet. It’s so big, that a hotel is enough for an entire episode. It is a vibrant and culture-filled location, which sadly lasts a mere five episodes before they must go a’questing again.

Just because there’s more cohesion doesn’t mean that there aren’t Saturday morning cartoon hijinks. Like Avatar, their travels take them on random detours, each with a self-contained conflict, most of which have no bearing on the plot. Even in Newtopia, they manage to cleverly find an excuse to put in filler episodes; stuff like waiting for someone else to analyze the important MacGuffin for them. There is also an issue of episode chronology. Exactly one episode was aired last October, outside of the proper order, just for them to work in a Halloween special. And to rub salt in the wound, subsequent episode broadcasts were delayed until March of this year right after that episode (I’ll give you three guesses why). It’s kind of stupid that it’s the one time that Amphibia goes out of chronological order (at least as of now). 

The characters have improved greatly since last season… to a point. Anne does get some huge growth as things get intense throughout this season, but she’s the same smooth-brain that she usually is. In fact, the characters don’t just continue to make poor judgements; it gets so bad that they start to become self-aware of it. Hop Pop eventually has to face the consequences of his hiding the MacGuffin in the garden at home (watched over by the guy who grows tulips), which leads to great development on his part. Sprig and Polly remain relatively unchanged, with the former being about as much of an ignoramus as ever.

Let’s finally discuss the other teenage girls who ended up in Amphibia along with Anne. As you know, Sasha ends up with the toads, the arch nemeses of the frogs. She aids their captain, Grime, and hits it off with him. Sasha seems like an abusive friend, but it also feels like she genuinely likes Anne and is only pushing her because of weird friend morals (at least through her perspective). As a small aside, Grime ends up being quite the likeable guy, and his chemistry with Sasha is some of the best in the series.

The other friend is Marcy Wu. She’s a strange combination of complete ditz and galaxy-brained, and is immediately way more likeable than Sasha. Similar to Sasha, Marcy ends up netting a fancy military job in the Newtopian Army. Good thing their King isn’t sus, or else we’d have something to worry about! All three girls’ character arcs get the bulk of this growth in the form of three temples, conveniently catered to their strengths and weaknesses.

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Verdict: 8.65/10

Amphibia clearly reinvents the wheel in every way. But for some reason, I still find myself thoroughly enjoying the show. This season was a big step up, and at least leaves me very much anticipating the next (and final?) season. Of course, I won’t be watching ANY of that season until the whole thing airs!

The Road to Oz: Worst Book Since the First Book

Well, time to head down the rabbit hole that L. Frank Baum created during the turn of the Twentieth Century! Today, I passed the one-third point (give-or-take, since they’re not a multiple of five) in the Oz series: The Road to Oz. Let’s see if I can be mildly impressed like the last couple books.

In The Road to Oz, we are thrown right into a conversation between Dorothy and a Shaggy Man who is lost. When trying to help him get un-lost, they both end up in some weird limbo that is neither our world nor Oz. And, well, they just wander aimlessly to find Oz.

One immediate plus is the new cast of characters… to a point. I only enjoyed the Shaggy Man because I decided to picture him as none other than the classic cartoon character, Shaggy from the Scooby-Doo franchise. As funny as that depiction is, the Shaggy Man himself is kind of a jackass (which becomes quite literal as the book goes on). They are also accompanied by Button-Bright, who doesn’t seem to know anything. Too bad Scrooge wouldn’t come out for forty-three more years, or I could’ve made a reference. In addition to that clod, we have a half-girl, half-rainbow(?) character named Polychrome. Unfortunately, the idea of her being “The Rainbow’s Daughter” is the only likeable thing about her; she’s pretty colorless in terms of personality.

Since we’re suddenly on the characters section, I might as well say this: I effing resent Dorothy. She doesn’t hesitate to call people stupid right to their faces. While I would normally like this in a girl, she’s still presented as a lovely bubbly little thing despite how condescending she is. I also want to bring up a quote from her, which was also quoted in the afterword so it’s more like quote-ception: “The queerness doesn’t matter, as long as they’re friends.” She says that despite her homophobic reaction to Billina, who’s queer in the most literal sense of the word (I know that “queer” meant something else back then, but it’s just ironic when you look at it nowadays). 

We can’t seem to have a Baum novel without an accidental prophecy! So far, he’s predicted the acknowledgement transgender people with Ozma’s character arc, and social media with the name of Tiktok. This time, he predicts… Furries. Yep, literal anthropomorphic animals. And to top it off, these animals transform the heads of some of our intrepid heroes into those of animals, making them look right at home in the world of Beastars! So yeah… if you’re triggered by Furries, then Oz is not for you.

As I alluded to in the title, Road to Oz, well, sucks. There are no real stakes in this one, beyond one random chapter where they have to fight these head-throwing men. The towns they visit are small and bland, nowhere near as neat as the previous book’s setpieces. Also, there’s a Deus ex Machina where the Shaggy Man is inexplicably able to summon a mechanic who can build anything, and it’s never foreshadowed nor explained.

Similar to the previous book, a good chunk of The Road to Oz is just hanging out in the Emerald City. It’s Ozma’s birthday, as a matter of fact. And while this would be a good time for someone to assassinate her, none of it happens, and the whole thing is just… there. Unlike the last hangout, this one has purpose. Baum invents crossovers and shameless plugs during Ozma’s birthday. He introduces us to characters from a whole slew of other books he wrote outside of Oz. But while people at the time would’ve been fan-gushing at this, there’s a darn good chance that we have no idea who the heck any of these assholes are. Hooray for the passage of time!

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Verdict: 6.65/10

The Road to Oz sucks. But you know what, with a fourteen-book series, at least one or two of them have to be utter crap. Hopefully, this is not an indicator for what the rest of the books are going to be, or else I’m in for a real treat.

Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz: In Which Baum Tries to be Jules Verne

The afterword of the previous Oz book stated that L. Frank Baum had finally gotten his act together and fully intended on making a whole franchise of Oz. Since they had been, weirdly enough, gradually getting better, I had a vague sense of hope. Let’s see what the fourth book, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, has in store for us.

In this installment, Dorothy visits California to see some other uncle of hers. However, she, her cat Eureka, and some kid named Zebediah (and his horse, Jim) get caught up in an earthquake. Said earthquake sends them falling straight to hell, which in Baum’s mind is apparently a glass city inhabited by vegetable people called Mangaboos.

Starting out, Wizard in Oz is actually not too bad. The setting is relatively creative, for starters. Plant people aren’t a remotely new concept, but it’s done so literally that it gives these plant people a complete disregard toward death; after all, you can just plant a new version of that person. 

To be honest, most of the book stays enjoyable. There’s no jarring smooth-brain plays nor outstanding cases of sexism and the like. Unfortunately, it still has Oz’s ongoing problem of having nonsense worldbuilding. While the setpieces are certainly imaginative, especially for the time, I don’t feel immersed or engaged in any of it. Sadly, I have a feeling that this issue will not be resolved, since Tolkein is the one credited for making the first believable fantasy world, and that wouldn’t be for forty-odd more years. 

Bizarrely enough, the characters are a bit more tolerable, and by “characters” I mean “the Wizard and literally no one else.” For some reason, it was weirdly cathartic to see him swoop in on his balloon, seeing him for the first time since the original classic. He’s quite the resourceful fellow, full of all kinds of tricks, and he comes off as more of a badass this time around. 

Of course, no Oz book can be flawless, and this one falls apart at the end. After their adventures in Baum’s version of hell, we see the first instance of some new plot armor: Ozma’s magic belt, which warps them out of danger and into Oz. And when they regroup, the book basically pads itself out. Baum throws together a contrived climax, which basically plays out like one of those Ace Attorney trial days where you spend ninety minutes figuring out something that the witness already knew the whole time. 

Lastly… Well, actually, it’s something about all the Oz books I’ve been hesitant to put out since it’s a referral to someone who might be still alive. The afterwords for these reprints of the Oz books have all been written by a Peter Glassman (whoever he is), with retrospective commentary on the corresponding book. And going off these, he seems like… kind of a Baum elitist. I first got pissed at him in the afterword for Ozma of Oz, when he referred to TikTok as literature’s first robot. That is wrong, for Frankenstein’s monster is literature’s first robot (thanks, Asimov). For Wizard in Oz, he starts by listing off the setpieces and acts like they are one-of-a-kind and could never be reimagined by someone else. How hero-worship-y must someone be to claim something like that, when you can’t possibly take into account the thousands of media that exist out there? Surely one of them must have something similar. In fact, the Koroks from Zelda are similar enough to the Mangaboos, the only difference being that they’re better (Oooooh snap!). The most elitist line yet is at the end of the afterword. During their recap of Ozma’s origin story, Baum—either by accident or design—retcons the story; he changes key points of it and acts like nothing changed whatsoever. And Glassman, well, he praises Baum for being inconsistent. It’s one of those go-to defenses against any sort of criticism: “You just don’t understand the genius at work!” 

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Final Verdict: 6.98/10

For all intents and purposes, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz is the best Oz book yet, and should be rated a 7. However, most of my enjoyment of the Oz books has been ripping into insignificant details as well as Baum’s unintentional power moves, such as Ozma’s gender-fluidity. And as such, I didn’t enjoy this one so much because it wasn’t “wrong” enough. To be honest, I can’t believe I made it this far. Let’s see how much longer I can go.