No Guns Life First Impressions (Volumes 1-5)

An unspoken tradition in the world of anime and manga is to make things into guns. Swords are among the first weapons to become guns, for example. Even Western anime like RWBY honor the tradition by turning scythes, boots, and even suitcases into guns. Honestly, it’s surprising that it took until the manga No Guns Life, published in English by Viz, to turn an entire person into a gun.

In No Guns Life, people get all kinds of augments. The people with these augments are called Extended. Juzo Inui is so Extended… his freaking head is a gun! Although there is no war, things are not safe in the city, and he does all sorts of odd jobs to get by. But one fateful day, a dude hires him to protect a child named Tetsuro Arahabaki. Turns out that the dude was being remote controlled by Tetsuro due to a special ability called Harmony. Because of this, the megacorporation known as Beruhren tries to climb up Juzo’s ass. But that doesn’t matter; if the client pays, he’ll do the job.

At first, it seems that No Guns Life is a typical “cyberpunk starring a hard-hearted war veteran who was used as a tool, is outcast by society now that he’s obsolete, and is sucked into a massive government conspiracy while he comes to terms with his past and makes us wonder what makes us human”. And, well, that’s because it’s just that. Like Levius, there really isn’t anything particularly special about the manga in terms of ideas.

Fortunately, it does have a good sense of momentum. So far, No Guns Life has behaved similarly to Ghost in the Shell, where we observe Juzo take on various jobs, each of which tells us a little more about the world and the overarching story. The plot is engaging, and full of intrigue, even if it’s all stuff we saw in every piece of cyberpunk media ever published. 

Unfortunately, its cast is not too special. Juzo is the most likeable by far; he’s that nonchalant bad-ass type. There’s a number of parts where he gets livid just for someone messing with his favorite brand of cigarettes (as a small side note, there is a chance that the fact that it is implied that his smokes are essential for his Extended body to function could be interpreted as the manga endorsing substance abuse. But I’m the last person who wants to be “that guy” so I’ll leave it to your discretion). But other than him, we have some typical cyberpunk tropes. Tetsuro is basically a shounen protagonist disguised as a supporting character, and his personal engineer, Mary, is the sisterly figure who exists to tune him up while sometimes being a waifu.

The antagonists aren’t much better either. If you couldn’t tell from the rundown of the premise, Beruhren is the typical evil, monopolizing conglomerate that “symbolically represents Apple and Google and their massive conspiracy to take over all our personal data and allow the world to be controlled by Chinese censorship since they’re the biggest market in the world and all they care about is money” (side note: I’m being sarcastic and I personally don’t believe any of that). There’s also the organization, Spitzbergen, that is against the Extended (and guess what: they use Extended to kill other Extended which represents “the hypocrisy of the government and/or every organized religion”). And as far as individuals are concerned, at this point they’ve mainly been war veterans who got all cuckoo as a result of PTSD which “represents what Juzo could potentially have become which makes them morally ambiguous for some reason”.

At the very least, No Guns Life has great art. It has a rough style, with plenty of action. Even if the antagonists are lackluster, they at least have some legitimately creepy character designs. And speaking of character designs, Juzo definitely stands out as a protagonist given his unique head shape.

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Current Verdict: 8.4/10

I hate saying this as a sci-fi fan, but cyberpunk has definitely lost its luster since the 1990s. At the time, sure, it was cool to be like “Whoa, what if we’re living in a simulation?” or, “Does pimping ourselves up with machinery make us no longer human?” But now, in this day and age, questions like that are about as cliche as a hentai protagonist being popular among cute girls. Despite how much the genre brings to the table, it’s deceptively restrictive. Personally, I believe that sheer entertainment value is all that cyberpunk has left in terms of appeal, and No Guns Life delivers (took me long enough to get to the topic at hand). I recommend it to any cyberpunk fans, as well as edgelords who think having a gun-head is cool.

May These Leaden Battlegrounds Leave No Trace Volume 1 Review

Time travel is always a contentious topic, both in real life and in writing. While scientists debate whether or not it’s possible, writers explore its ramifications. The results of the latter, well, vary wildly. But sometimes, you don’t need to travel in order to change the past, which is the case in May These Leaden Battlegrounds Leave No Trace, published in English by Yen Press.

In May These Leaden Battlegrounds Leave No Trace, two nations- one in the east and one in the west- are at war, with the latter on the winning side. For a cadet named Rain Lantz, everything changes when the Fire Nation atta- I mean- when he meets a girl named Air Arland Noah. The bullets she fires are special; a killshot from these bullets results in the target’s erasure from past, present, and future.

While not a particularly interesting concept, Leaden Battlegrounds is essentially Steins;Gate but in a military setting. It’s pretty easy to suspend disbelief, since it’s set in a sci-fi fantasy world. All bullets have magical properties, but Air’s are one of a kind. They are called Devil’s Bullets, which will henceforth be known as D-Bullets, since it would be way too coincidental if they weren’t an intentional reference to Steins;Gate‘s D-Mail.

And similar to Okarin, Rain spams the D-Bullets like a Smash player using Kirby’s Down Special. For the time being, there doesn’t seem to be many cases of time-f***ery like there usually is. That’s kind of bad because it makes the light novel have no stakes, given how serious it takes itself. The D-Bullets are almost an excuse for Rain to never have to face any form of consequence. 

There are also a couple of issues that tend to plague most light novels, especially isekai (even though this isn’t one). There is some tonal whiplash, an example being a whole chapter of typical school antics (i.e. ecchi) that have no place in the story whatsoever. The author also gets exposition-happy, oftentimes reminding us that the D-Bullets erase people from existence at least once per chapter. There are also some examples of cheap shock value that appear to just arbitrarily elicit an emotional response.

But all things considered, Leaden Battlegrounds has some solid momentum. Other than the stupid ecchi chapter, there’s always some kind of new development and intrigue. Of course, being somewhat of a time travel narrative, it could fall apart quickly. But for now, I’m curious as to how things can play out from here.

Unfortunately, it has the usual crapshoot of bland characters. Rain is a pretty generic teen who sometimes feels like he’s better suited to be in a gag shounen (which may be symbolic of militarism or something but I digress). Air is basically the highest selling point of the book; a cute loli with the out-of-left-field trait of wanting to show Rain her panties. Everyone else is kind of just… there.

The art is middle-of-the-road. It’s appealing enough to make someone at least look at it, and that’s really enough when it comes to selling a light novel. I’ve definitely seen better, but Leaden Battlegrounds still has respectable visuals.

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Verdict: 8/10

May These Leaden Battlegrounds Leave No Trace is off to a better start than most light novels I’ve read lately. But like I said before, there’s no telling where this story will go. For the time being, I recommend it to time travel and military science fiction fans. What are your thoughts on this volume? Leave a comment if you’d like!

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

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


Intro

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

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

Same World, New Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Same Faces… Plus a Few New Ones

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

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

Audiovisuals

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

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

Gameplay (Intro)

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

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

Daily Life

JRPGs Always Need an Airship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Never Have Enough Sepith in This Game

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

Wow, this game has an actual overworld!

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

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

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

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

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

Nakama Power, the Most Important Superpower in Any Anime

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

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

What is this, Sonic Adventure 1?

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

Deadly Life

A Steep Learning Curve Just got Even Steeper

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

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

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

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

Mech Battles Before Xenoblade X Made it Cool

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

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

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

Other Things to Keep in Mind

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

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

Either This Game is Hard… or I Suck

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

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

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

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

The Extraordinary, the Ordinary, and SOAP! Volume 1 and Outer Ragna Volume 2 Reviews

I’ve stated my disdain toward slice-of-life isekai in my reviews of Ascendance of a Bookworm, Mushoku Tensei, Buck Naked in Another World and Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear. There are exceptions, like Konosuba, but that one’s more of a screwball comedy that’s only technically a slice-of-life because of its general lack of plot progression. I have yet to like any of those chill fantasies that have the word “wholesome” slapped onto them when they try to sell their one-dimensional, superficially cute lolis to savvy audiences, such as If It’s For my Daughter, I’d Even Defeat a Demon Lord (a.k.a. one of the worst light novels of all time (side note: I know it gets darker later, but I got to that point and I still hate it)). But maybe, just maybe, The Extraordinary, the Ordinary, and SOAP! (published in English by J-Novel Club), will be the exception.

In a kingdom whose name I already forgot, a girl named Lucia Arca is living her life as a royal maid who washes clothes for the soldiers. Thanks to her only magic, Soap, she gets the tough stains OUT (R.I.P. Oxi-Clean…). But when monsters attack, she ends up using Soap against them in panic, and… it works! Now her whole lifestyle changes for the better.

But before that, there are definitely a number of hurdles to jump. This volume takes about 25% of its content to get to what’s mentioned in the product description, which also includes two side chapters. It is a pain, but thankfully, it doesn’t take long to get through. 

Unfortunately, it is- surprise, surprise- a bit boring. The writing isn’t that interesting, and I found myself zoning out a few times (mainly because I was looking forward to resuming Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash for the first time in two years but that’s beside the point). The biggest issue is that- I’m gonna have a heart attack I’m so surprised!- the soap gimmick does not shake things up. Sure, it’s all neat and cool that Lucia has this unusual power, which could’ve made Extraordinary Soap a power fantasy combined with slice-of-life fantasy. But due to the fact that Lucia is a woman, she’s forced to stand aside and let the men handle things, in complete disregard of her overpowered ability. There’s also not much in the way of stakes, even though the volume tries to have them with its cliffhanger ending.

Also… the cast is boring. “Slice-of-life characters are more human,” you point out, “therefore they don’t need the unrealistic, over-the-top personalities of your battle shounen and power fantasy isekai trash!” Being human MEANS having quirky personalities, not being a blank slate (something I’ll get into more detail once a certain manga is complete). As I was saying, most of these characters are boring, “good” people. Lucia is the typical “poor girl who’s special for literally no reason” and this guy named Celes is the “perfect ideal boy-person that the aforementioned poor girl gets for literally no reason”. 

“Hang on,” you say, “you compared this LN to isekai in the first paragraph, but it’s NOT isekai. Just because an LN is a fantasy doesn’t mean it’s an isekai!” I know that. However, Extraordinary Soap throws you a curveball; it IS an isekai, but Lucia is not the person from our world. The person from our world is Maria, who is admittedly the most fleshed out character. She’s got an abrasive side, an emotionally insecure side, and a weird yuri side. Perfect waifu material if I do say so myself! Unfortunately, she and Lucia are part of a sitcom-like love triangle, and Celes happens to be the unlucky third vertice.

The artwork for Extraordinary Soap looks more manga-y than light novel-y. It has nice, vibrant cover art, but overall, the grayscale illustrations are bland. Also, it looks like a shoujo manga, so it loses additional points from me.

~~~~~

Verdict: 7/10

The Extraordinary, the Ordinary, and SOAP! is more ordinary than extraordinary, and soap not even a factor. It’s a typical, “WHOLESOME” isekai, falling for the genre’s typical trappings thanks to Middle Age misogyny (in Layman’s Terms, it would be better if Lucia actually got to USE Soap). It’ll likely become a sleeper hit if it ever gets an anime (and people are gonna LOVE Maria, I can tell). If you like any of the books I mentioned in the first paragraph, then this one should scratch the same itch.


Last time on Outer Ragna, Twitch streamer PotatoStarch booted up his new deluxe edition of the Dark Souls-ian JRPG called Dragon Demon RPG, where humans are caught in an unending war between elves and vampires. But unbeknownst to him, it’s actually a real alternate world, and his character, Kuroi the slave girl, is a real person whom he’s controlling. With his skills, she manages to defend the human village from monsters, learns some magic from an item drop, and acquires the rare job of Apostle. She is inevitably joined by the knight, Agias, the fire sorcerer, Odysson, and a loli named Sira. Things heat up when an Elven army (complete with its own Apostle) moves in and occupies the human territory, in preparation for a battle against the vampires. When the vampires actually appear, the humans and elves team up and manage to drive them away. Kuroi was MVP, of course, and she is turned into an object of worship: the Hare of Flame. Now humans are- for once- sitting pretty, and even joining Kuroi in her stat farming regimen. But it doesn’t stay that way for long when the vampires commence another attack, this time with one of their own Apostles. As you’d expect, Kuroi steamrolls the vampires with her flame sword and wrecks their Apostle, the Golden. In the aftermath, Starch gets a strange message…

…that is completely ignored, apparently. But there are more pressing developments to discuss, such as the world-changing exposition dump given to us during various chapters set in the real world. Apparently, Dragon Demon RPG was a computer virus disguised as a videogame that’s being used in cyber warfare? What’s happening in the game world is the Parallel World War, and if I’m understanding it correctly (which I have been consistently failing to do based off of the previous volume), the different races are all being run by various world powers. If this is correct, then I’ll admit that my interest is piqued for Outer Ragna.

However, despite how cool all of this stuff is, it doesn’t change much of the content within Dragon Demon RPG itself. The POVs are still all over the place. The descriptions of locations, characters and where they are in 3D space, etc. are still pretty lacking. 

Furthermore, the characters are no better than last time. The existing characters still feel like cardboard cut-outs, and I completely forgot about a lot of them from the previous volume. The only new character who seems even remotely interesting is Shadow Tamika, a vampire person who seems to want to do away with all the gods in the world. However, she’s about as boring as everyone else.

And I still can’t seem to tell where anyone is at any given time. I’m really bad when it comes to large-scale military narratives, and I lose myself in all the different cardinal directions. “Oh this person’s this way, that person’s that way…” I can’t make any sense of it. That’s not a problem I can fault Outer Ragna for, but it’s definitely having an inverse effect on my enjoyment of it.

~~~~~

Verdict: 6.5/10

Outer Ragna has a lot of great ideas, but it’s all falling flat on its face. I don’t know what it is, but I just can’t get into this one at all. I might give it one more volume, but it’s likely that I’m not going to read Outer Ragna anymore.

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

Despite my love for JRPGs, story is ironically the one aspect of videogames that I care the least about. And yet, because of how much I enjoyed Ys VIII, I wanted to try another series by the same team, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. It is a single, mammoth, epic JRPG, spanning four entire games meant to be played in chronological order, and VERY story-driven. Let’s see if it’s good enough to stay in it for the long haul.

In Trails of Cold Steel, a boy named Rean Schwarzer begins his attendance at Thors Military Academy. But bizarrely enough, his uniform is different from everyone else’s. It doesn’t take long to find out that he’s in an experimental group called Class VII, the first class to have commoners and nobles both. Since this is part one of four games, it’s naturally going to spiral into something big.

By nature, the game can be slow at first, but it’s done thoughtfully, and tries to hook you. The game begins with a flash-forward that you play. It’s incredibly overwhelming, not just because you don’t know what’s going on, but because it gives you every party member at once, with every battle mechanic unlocked, with every characters’ abilities that they’ve learned at that point. This is to build anticipation of what’s to come in terms of both the story and the gameplay. Also, when it kicks into the proper opener, they make you do combat pretty regularly, so you can slowly become acclimated to your new life without being bored.

The story might have some common fantasy themes, such as “Ah, rich people crap on poor people. War is  helpful for the economy. Make America great again bwaaah!”, but they at least made the effort to submerge you neck-deep into it. There is a butt-ton of lore in this thing, and it shows in the various books you can read, which contain important foreshadowing for later, as well as in-universe fictional books (if you can find them).

The creators were also very thoughtful with the world from a design and visual storytelling standpoint. Early drafts of this review (I wrote it in bits and pieces as I played) stated the world felt small, compact, and segmented. The segmented style is, of course, an unavoidable consequence of the whole game’s structure, but the compactness is only early on. Each place you go to outside of the school is done in a specific order. You start out in small towns, then expand to bigger and bigger places (or at least, places that seem big thanks to out-of-bounds geometry). This further helps ease you into the world of Trails, as it starts small and gradually grows bigger and bigger. In this way, I am willing to claim that Trails is the most Tolkienian JRPG I’ve ever seen (yeah, I know a lot of poetic-waxers compare fantasy stuff to Lord of the Rings, but I think this is a somewhat fair comparison, since Lord of the Rings expands its scale in a similar way).

Unfortunately, the graphics don’t help. While I hate being a stickler, Trails is not the most visually appealing JRPG I’ve seen. While most of the towns appear pleasing enough, a lot of the combat areas are bland and samey. It’s similar to Ys VIII, but that game at least did more with angles and area continuity that made a lot better looking. Yeah, I get that this was 2013 and the game’s structure results in the whole thing being divided into segmented areas, but I digress. Also similar to Ys, the character designs are by far the most appealing, as they are very vibrant in color and have that classic anime style to them (except their hands look hideous). Fortunately, the soundtrack makes up some for the graphics’ shortcomings. While not as rocking as Ys VIII, it’s more than good enough. The towns all have their own unique atmospheres, and the battle music is pumping. 

As far as the overarching narrative is concerned, you can color me impressed. I’m used to having a ton of exposition dump forced down my throat in modern fantasy, but Trails is one that eases you into the plot organically. It’s pretty good at buildup, and maintaining interest, even when it’s boring school time. In fact, the boring school time tends to be a great change of pace, and doubles as a “calm before the storm”-type thing. Without spoiling much, the main narrative is divided into two main plot threads: one concerning the strange ruins of Thors’ Old Schoolhouse, and another involving a set of big political moves that slowly become more dire as the world moves towards collapse. How these two different things can possibly be connected is one of the many questions I anticipate to be answered in this series.

What you must keep in mind when playing this game is the fact that, like I said before, it’s not just the first installment of a series, but the first part of a bigger story. As a result, this game’s main narrative is all about laying the groundwork of the story and setting expectations for what’s to come. This means that it doesn’t quite rise to the fever pitch that most JRPGs would, even when you’re well past the halfway point, as well as the fact that some plot threads will be left unresolved at the end. But hey, the game does an excellent job at setting said groundwork, and this is honestly the most engaged I’ve ever been in a JRPG narrative. Now that I’m attached to the characters and the world, the later games will likely deliver the feels.

I was worried about the cast at first, because I figured that Class VII’s character development would only show during optional and limited social links. But no, they actually give a lot of time for these characters to grow on you (they better, since this is part one of four). While they do start off as typical anime tropes, the way that they’re slowly introduced is quite impressive. Also, the fact that it’s not a Persona game makes it relatively light on the teen angst. Just be wary that it has a LOT of the “I know important, plot relevant things, but I can’t tell you because reasons” trope (looking at you, EMMA).

But out of all those in this massive cast, the NPCs ended up surprising me the most. Due to how the game is structured, each and every NPC- from townsfolk to miscellaneous students- have their own character arcs that progress along with the plot, some of which even foreshadow future quests. I ended up liking a lot of these people, especially Best Girl Mint. The biggest issue with them is that there aren’t enough unique NPC models. That’s normally a given in JRPGs, but the fact that, for example, the sister of one of the Thors’ instructors who you meet late in the game doesn’t just look nothing like him, she looks like a lot of other generic women in the game.

My other issue is with the antagonists. The established villains of the game are a group of terrorists who, for some reason,only go by their initials. Their leader is incredibly generic, and his minions are, guess what: brainy guy, busty woman, and muscular idiot. Fortunately, the game makes it readily apparent that the REAL mastermind is operating behind the scenes, and the terrorists make up just a small part of those involved.

Story is all well and good. But what about gameplay, the most important thing in any videogame? Due to Trails’ nature, I will divide gameplay elements into “Daily Life” and “Deadly Life” segments, similar to Danganronpa games. But first, I must discuss one gameplay aspect that’s useful in BOTH school life and combat: Turbo Mode. This feature, exclusive to the PS4 port of the game (and pretty much the only one you can actually BUY these days), makes the game move twice as fast at the push of a button. It’s incredibly useful if you ever need to save-scum and rewatch a long string of cutscenes upon reloading the save.


Daily Life

Trails is set in a school, and like Chi-Chi always said in Dragon Ball: studying comes before saving the world. If you couldn’t tell, this series is structured very similarly to Persona, which was initially going to be a turn-off for me. I never played a Persona game, nor do I want to, simply because I’m anal about getting all the things done in a JRPG, and Persona is against that. In those games, you need to juggle your social life and actual combat, and you must plan an arbitrary route that can involve save-scumming in order to get everything, which ultimately makes the games extremely stressful. There are also some logic issues in Persona, such as, “Oh you chose to eat some ramen for lunch? Okay, BOOM! now it’s ten o’clock at night!”

Trails‘ way of doing it isn’t perfect, but it’s substantially better… or so it seems. First off, social links are triggered by spending Bonding Points on them. But in order to narrow down your inevitable dilemma between choosing which character to hang out with, a given day of Free Time only has set people available. Spending time with them does NOT make it instantly TOMORROW like in Persona, but you only get a certain amount of Bonding Points per day. These events get you a ton of Link Points, which are essential for a mechanic in battle. Furthermore, you are only allowed to have these events with plot relevant characters. This means that you won’t have to waste time hanging out with filler characters like in Persona (even if some of them are admittedly interesting), and if you feel uncomfortable about significantly older women taking a liking to the protagonist, that is also thankfully not the case in Trails.

Despite the fact that I played the game specifically because I figured it’d be more lenient than Persona, the social links are arguably far worse, not just compared to Persona, but Danganronpa as well. In those games, no matter when you started or continued a social link, it would be the same (except for some rare cases in Danganronpa). However, social links in Trails, while no different from a gameplay standpoint, are all unique BASED ON WHERE AND WHEN THEY ARE. It’s also not possible to view every event, as the game flips you a bird and consistently gives you one Bonding Point short of viewing all available events. If you really care about all the characters, you MUST save-scum in order to view all of them, and only save after the ones that you want the Link XP for. 

In addition, you have Academy Points. Most AP is done by completing quests, which comes naturally enough. Time doesn’t pass until you finish Required quests, and that’s one advantage Trails has over Persona. However, additional AP is earned for being an extra good pupil, and achieving an optimal outcome, such as riding a motorcycle without wrecking it. Advancing the story will IMMEDIATELY cause any incomplete optional quests and available events to expire, but the game is at least consistently good at warning you of these cutoff points.

However, this IS a school game, and that means being smart. And that means exams. Class VII has to take practical exams every month. These are basically mini boss battles that give you bonus AP if you meet certain conditions. The later ones can get pretty ridiculous…

…but even the hardest practical exam beats any written one. At first, I thought you could take pictures of every book in the library and you’d be fine. But no… it’s worse than that. Almost worse than Persona. In Persona, you merely had to remember any material gone over up to that point (which you can take pictures of as they come up), and then have your Academics stat above a certain threshold to get the highest grade. In Trails, you must make use of a special study day, which is a Free Day, but instead of Bonding Points, you spend Studying Points to go over test material with peers. Similar to Free Days, there are more events than what you could possibly view. HOWEVER, regardless of what NPCs actually imply as far as the relevance of what they’re studying, material from EVERY event WILL BE on the upcoming exam. Furthermore, you must also seek unmarked events that give you additional free knowledge (typically with instructors) in order to come out on top. As long as you save scum to view every event, and find the hidden knowledge blips, you should do fine…I think. The silver lining is that there’s only one of these exams in the game (excluding however many there are in subsequent games). But… you don’t know the exact outcome until after you’ve done the entire following Free Day, which includes your next run of the recurring monthly dungeon.

But just because you don’t need to memorize the books in the library for the exams doesn’t mean you don’t need to memorize them, period. Some quests result in you having to answer questions out of these books, so make sure you take time to jot down (or take pictures of) each and every page. Make sure you not only do the second floor of the library, but the recommended reading corner that gets updated every chapter. But even then it’s not enough. Some of these quiz quests require you to remember remote bits of dialogue from up to tens of hours earlier in the game (or from future chapters even). Fortunately, they’re few enough so that you can basically brute force those with save-scumming.

Save scumming might be dirty, but you should have no shame playing dirty because Trails does the same by giving you HIDDEN QUESTS. Not only will random, missable NPCs give random, missable items, but they can also give quests not marked on a given tasks envelope. Like I said before, since talking to every NPC at every opportunity is encouraged from a story standpoint, it’s not TOO bad. At least it’s not a Tails Of game which doesn’t even mark quests at all, regardless of if you found them, and some of them are the starts of chains but don’t continue until fifty hours later and by then you’ll FORGET you even STARTED it and- *huff* *huff* Just keep in mind that Trails does give a bit of leeway. You get 15 AP for beating the final dungeon, so you’ll need at least 415 by the time it opens up in order to get the highest rank at the end, which I BARELY got. 

In order to discuss other missable events, I must also briefly touch on combat, specifically the areas where it will occur. Most combat is fought in the Old Schoolhouse, which is literally Tartaros from Persona 3. As you progress the main story, more floors of this dungeon open up, and it’s encouraged to check it out (or grind). Just keep in mind that the day will advance to evening once you leave, so do it last. It pressures you to select a set team, but you can always change it by examining the exit of the dungeon.

While Trails proves to be just as stressful as Persona, it’s good to note that it feels much faster paced. Each chapter has one single Free Day, split into daytime and evening segments. So even though social links are just about as limited, you don’t have to worry about wasting 85% of them just to grind out enough personality stats to actually talk to girls. However, Trails still clocks in at eighty to a hundred hours of playtime, so it’s really just an illusion.

Similar to Persona‘s special story segments that happen on set dates (like the full moon, TV rescue, etc.), Trails has field studies. These are excursions to new areas with their own quests to do, along with new story developments. Finishing one gives everyone a heap of link XP (thank GOD). But as soon as you finish a story arc here, YOU CAN NEVER GO BACK. So make sure you do everything while you can.

The field studies locations can take a while to get to, even on express trains. This is plenty of time to… PLAY A CHILDREN’S CARD GAME. Fortunately, Blade is not even remotely as agonizing as Final Fantasy VIII‘s notorious Triple Triad (and the music is nowhere near as annoying). Blade basically plays like War, but with Trap Cards. It kinda sucks, honestly. I don’t entirely remember how War works, but Blade is basically decided entirely by the players’ starting hands. If you draw too many trap cards, not enough high value cards, and not enough 1 cards to counter one of the types of trap cards, you’ve pretty much lost. I’ve genuinely tried to win, but I’m pretty sure it’s impossible depending on the setup (obviously, the fact that I’m saying a card game is entirely reliant on luck means that I’m a filthy casual at card games, and lack the ability to read opponents and use basic logic to deduce their next move). Fortunately, you only need to fight every available character once to get link XP.

There’s a lot of things you can miss! Fortunately, the pawn shop in the main town can sell items from previous areas, including items found in the chests there, and book chapters. The pawn shop is also good if you have a surplus of crappy items that you can trade for a single better version.

Like in any JRPG, cooking and fishing are the most important things in the game. When it comes to cooking, you can somehow cook anywhere in the world as long as you have the ingredients. Depending on the skill levels of Rean and who you cook with, the dish could end up ranging from Regular, to Superb, to Peculiar, to Unique. Unique dishes can only be formed by someone who has a secret knack for cooking that particular item (but it’s always someone who shows a high likelihood for a good result). These are objectively the best, however there is an NPC who wants to see such dishes, so be frugal (and for the record, there’s someone who wants peculiar dishes as well). Most recipes can be learned by NPCs who will randomly give you one. And of course, these can be missed.

Of all the different school facilities, you’ll be visiting the Engineering department more often than any other. The guys here use variously colored Sepith earned from enemies and can mod your Arcus with them. You also earn generic Sepith Mass, which is exchanged at shops for actual money. Anyway, Sepith is used to unlock new slots on your Arcus, as well as craft new quartz (which I’ll get to later).

Fishing isn’t as exciting, though. Basically, you just fish and mash the prompted face buttons, and you get a fish. There are only a set amount of times you can fish per day, which means a finite amount of times you can fish total. You can use groundbait to make more spawn, but the only way to farm for it is to farm U-Materials off of assorted enemies, then trade them at the pawn shop for groundbait.

One final quip that I have in the Daily Life segment is fast travel. For some reason, fast travel is either excessively helpful, or nonexistent. Basically, if you’re in a town, you can fast travel to buildings that are, like, two feet from each other. But in a combat area, you can’t fast travel back to the hub. This becomes a big issue if you’re trying to talk to every NPC to find hidden quests (especially in chapter 3). 


Deadly Life

Combat is limited, but when it happens, it’s really good and really involved. Fortunately, Trails does a great job of easing you into all the different aspects as you go along. The main issue with it is the same issue as most JRPGs: that most characters have limited abilities and customization early game. But once you get more utility, it becomes incredibly rewarding.

For the most part, Trails operates like an old-school turn-based JRPG. Then turn order is displayed on the left, and it cycles through everyone. However, you will have to take Delay into account (which it’ll show on the turn order when selecting a target). Some attacks, mainly magic, will take a while to go through, and you will need to plan ahead in order to come out on top. There are also turn bonuses, which can give free heals and boosts just by it coming to your turn. Enemies can also get bonuses, requiring you to plan even harder. Sometimes, you’ll need to cast spells specifically to use the Delay to steel turn bonuses. The mechanics behind the turn order are very nuanced, and take a lot of self-teaching to figure out. It’ll make the difference if you desperately need to cast an Art in a pinch. 

For the first time since maybe Chrono Trigger, position matters. When using moves that have AOE, you need to carefully aim the attack in order to catch as many enemies in its range as possible. If you’re too far, you’ll have to waste a turn to move within range (which enemies might also have to do). Some attacks will also change a character’s position, and that must be taken into account as well.

What’s even more complicated is that you have two sets of special moves: Arts and Crafts. No, you don’t make paper peacocks by tracing your hand over construction paper; the different types are literally called Arts, followed by Crafts. Each consumes a separate stat, EP and CP. EP is traditional MP, and can easily run out if you get trigger happy. It can only be restored from turn bonuses or consumables. CP is like a Special gauge in an action game, and fills from dealing and receiving damage. Characters get 200 max CP that they can store. However, as abundant as it is, there are special S-Crafts that you learn over the course of the story. These take from 100 to all of a character’s CP, and are insanely powerful. It is more incentivized to use the 200, since it’s stronger. The most important part of S-Crafts is that they can be used out-of-turn. This causes an S-Break, which can be a lifesaver if used to steal a turn bonus that you don’t want the enemy to have. The issue with them is that recovering from them is ROUGH. For most of the game, the only good way to restore CP is with Alisa’s Blessed Arrow, which comes at the cost of some of her own. In a lot of boss battles, I’d end up having to whittle them down with regular attacks just to slowly regain it back.

The way each set of skills are learned is different. Crafts are learned by levelling up, and Arts are learned by setting quartzes to your Arcus thingy. First, you set a Master Quartz, which gives a set of stat boosts and bonus effect s. Each Master Quartz can be levelled up, and you’ll definitely be getting new ones to play around with. Additional quartzes can be set to learn new Arts, gain stat bonuses, or in rare cases, both in a single quartz. 

It’s generally a good rule of thumb to know your enemies in order to win, and it’s really important in Trails. By either battling a lot of the same enemy, or using an Analysis spell, you can find out a lot of stuff about them. The most important thing is not just their elemental resistances, but their status resistances as well. This is really useful when planning out attacks, especially with status ailments. Once you get the ability to inflict status ailments with your attacks, you will NEED them, for they will be your friend. Also, Trails is one of the few games where bosses are susceptible to status ailments, so make good use of them!

While the game is pretty good at holding your hand, there is one important mechanic that they don’t teach you, and that’s Impeding. Basically, certain specific Crafts will cancel an enemy when it takes a turn to cast an Art (indicated by a red glowy thingy). The game expects you to know about this, so just be aware of it. There are also quartzes that can give all a character’s attacks an Impede percentage, but the specific Crafts are guaranteed to do it.

The Ys series makes a crossover into Trails with the Unbalancing mechanic. Monsters can be staggered by hitting them with an effective weapon type, be it Slash, Thrust, Pierce, or Strike. Doing this allows for a Combat Link to work. Set a Link in the camp menu or during battle and linked characters can assist when the enemy is Unbalanced. After a certain time, you begin to earn Bravery Points through Link Attacks, and can spend them during an Unbalance to perform a stronger attack. Like in Miitopia, Link Abilities get better and better when you level up their link levels. Similar to Persona, crits will automatically Unbalance an enemy no matter what. 

If there is any flaw with the combat- and it’s moreso a nitpick than anything else- it’s that the difficulty is all over the place. You don’t need to grind in order to be able to beat the game smoothly, but it follows the JRPG rule of “equipment is everything” to the letter. When it comes to status ailments, any enemy that can inflict it WILL if you don’t have the equipment to make yourself immune to it. The early game is particularly rough because you won’t even have enough of this equipment to put on the whole active party. But when you do get the equipment, you’re gonna need it. A lot of bosses can wall you if you’re unprepared, and even if you are prepared, it can be rough. It’s also really bad that there are no multi-targeting healing items in the game without the use of a specific Master Quartz.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 9.15/10

It’s stressful, but Trails of Cold Steel is nonetheless a fantastic series opener. Since this is the first game, you have plenty of time to learn how it works. But as much as I’ve learned about the game, I don’t know how ready I am for the sequels.

One thing that I do know about this series is that Trails IV, the finale, has A TRUE ENDING. That is so mean… to make such a long story that people would need to spend at least 500 hours to see to its conclusion, just to troll them right at the end because they didn’t do enough stuff. It could be generous like in Ys VIII, but it could also require every single Academy Point in the game to get it. I could look up the conditions now, but I might spoil something for myself, which would be bad, since I actually LIKE this story so far.

Since this is just the hors d’oeuvres, and an incredibly stressful helping of hors d’oeuvres at that, I can’t recommend this series easily. I’m going to have to wait for Trails II, the first of a three-piece entree, to arrive at the metaphorical table first. For now, I recommend Trails of Cold Steel to any fans of Persona, Danganronpa, and Tails Of… since those fans are used to eighty hour games where you can miss a million things.

Xenoblade Chronicles X Retrospective

Here’s my background on the Xenoblade Chronicles series. I remember back when they had the article on Xenoblade Chronicles for Nintendo Wii in an issue of Nintendo Power. It looked like the raddest game ever, but I was too intimidated by JRPGs (which, you know, would end soon enough; it IS my favorite genre) to give it a shot. Fast forward to when I watched Chuggaaconroy’s YouTube series on the game, and I realized what I had missed out on. I completely agree with his stance on it being the greatest videogame of all time. Beautiful setpieces, amazing combat, godlike music, and REYN TIME… what’s not to love? So, when I got the opportunity to play Xenoblade Chronicles X for the Nintendo Wii U… I had mixed feelings. But despite the trauma I initially had with the game, I had a hankering to play through it again. So, since it turns five this year, let’s rethink whether or not it was as big of a blemish on the franchise as it seemed at the time. This review is oozing spoilers!

But in all honesty… what spoilers? The plot for Xenoblade Chronicles X is practically nonexistent. Some aliens blow up the earth, and so what’s left of humanity flies off and settles on a planet called Mira. That’s all you get for premise, and most of what you get for narrative. I’ll explain why later, but let’s just discuss what IS there. The narrative of Xenoblade X explores a lot of sci-fi and cyberpunk themes, such as the question of the self. A big turning point in the story is when you realize that everyone is a robot, being remote controlled by their real bodies, which are stuck in the big MacGuffin of the game: the Lifehold Core. You gotta find it before a ragtag team of aliens called the Ganglion do. 

Xenoblade X just ends up being one of those generic “humans are bad” things that motivate the Ganglion, who I believe to be the weakest antagonists in the series. A lot of very arbitrary twists pop up at the end, such as the Ganglion’s motives being entirely because humanity’s ancestors blew up their people, and the fact that Elma is an alien who helped humanity for some reason. It all feels forced, and it’s boring to watch. 

In addition to that, Xenoblade X’s narrative leaves a lot of loose ends. For years, I thought I had actually gotten a bad ending, until in this playthrough, when I confirmed on the wiki that it wasn’t the case. There’s so many holes, I could spend an entire separate post ranting about them; the crap with Lao, or the fact that the Lifehold Core had already been ransacked since the beginning despite everyone being alive. All these loose ends make me think that Xenoblade X is meant to be a spin-off series to tide us over for each subsequent core installment, with a potential X2 coming out next instead of a Xenoblade 3. Lin does imply that the Earth is still out there, and that they’ll return to it someday. That sounds like perfect groundwork for a sequel to me!

So, why is there so little story in Xenoblade Chronicles X? Well, that’s because they tried something really “ballsy”: make the game an MMO and a JRPG all at once. For some reason, they tried to pander to the crowd of gamers that enjoys playing with strangers over the Internet and likes photorealistic graphics, all with a console that wasn’t even remotely powerful enough to handle it. In fact, they had to release DLC that came with assets preloaded that significantly reduced load times from their Sonic 06-like lengths (fortunately, it was free). Since the Miiverse feature is down, there’s a good chance that the servers themselves will follow suit. Going into this, I was actually glad for that, because it gets rid of Squad Missions, my least favorite mechanic in the game. I was actually able to do some Squad stuff at a limited capacity. In case the servers are still up while you’re reading this, I’ll clue you in on the absurd levels of grinding that the game expects from you in order to complete it.

Squad Missions were regularly occurring missions where multiple players on the server had to accomplish shared goals for Reward Tickets, which is what you redeem for most of the nye-impossible-to-obtain materials that you need to craft the best equipment. It was tedious to do, and you needed to do it for hundreds of hours in order to be able to 100% the game. This mechanic is what ultimately led me to feel burnt out in the later parts of the game, but of course, I still tried to do it because I actually wanted to try out the Superbosses. 

In order to accomplish Squad Missions, you had to defeat the specified amount of enemies or collect the specified resources, as shown in the HUD (use L and R to check for what exactly they are). The problem is that you only get an hour of real time to accomplish them, making them impossible to complete early game. You will need a full team of Skells in order to optimize the process. The worst versions of these missions are the ones that require you to defeat Uniques over and over again, which are a pain because you need to skip travel repeatedly to make them respawn. The worst set is one that’s all unique monsters, and one of the bosses in it is only accessible in a no-Skell cave that’s guarded by a bunch of enemies that are impossible to avoid (and you need to fight it six times, at night). 

But no, completing these isn’t enough. Finishing one of the scavenger hunt missions unlocks new ones that you access from the console in the Barracks, and you must complete all of THESE in order to truly complete the whole set. The missions range from easy to annoying, and you will need at least one other person active in the server to possibly be able to finish all of it. The best part is that they give you a bunch of enemy materials to save you from some of the grinding. Just be wary that they send you to places all over Mira, which is guaranteed to spoil later locations. Completing all the missions, in both the field and barracks, gives you a butt-load of tickets.

BUT NO, this isn’t enough either. A lot of the stuff you need will require tons of materials from story bosses as well. That’s why they have Time Attack Mode at the barracks for you to refight infinitely. Good thing that they aren’t guaranteed to drop the crap you need! Yippee! Oh, and add to the fact that the story bosses aren’t exactly the easiest enemies to take down. Good thing all this crap is optional…

At least they took offline playing into account. After beating the game, you unlock support missions, which you can play to grind specific types of rewards. They are pretty useful, but they don’t give reward tickets. Also, the best one for gaining experience and BP is stupidly tedious because you have to fight ten enemies, but only three spawn at a time, and you have to wait a FULL MINUTE for them to respawn and you need to this one the MOST to max out your avatar’s arts and skills and- *huff huff*

With this much grinding, Xenoblade X really does feel like an MMO, and as a result of the MMO-ness, the story is made even worse than it already was. Since they needed to make it into a monster-of-the-week formula in order to structure around the MMO-ness, the plot progression is about as disjointed as Octopath Traveler’s. Normally, I don’t mind the story being bad. In fact, the story being like this makes the game incredibly explorative. If you’re really skilled and stealthy, you can probably explore the whole planet once you get to the third chapter. Back to the negatives, though. I know that the following is a nitpick, but while I don’t need a good story, I want it to be a certain structure. I like a good, arduous journey in a JRPG. I tended to explore before doing a story mission, and as a result, I did most in places I’ve been to before, which kind of took out the enjoyment out of it. However, for a reason I’ll mention later, I recommend that you primarily explore in between chapters.

Although designed around an MMO premise, the story and what the game expects of you clash at times. There’s one cutscene toward the beginning of the game (I don’t remember which one it is; I think I skipped it) where Elma says that humanity needs to live with the land on Mira, and only kill when necessary, such as when something directly tries to attack the town. However, the heavy grinding involved in the squad missions, and in general if you want to actually level up, contradicts this a lot. Maybe it’s done on purpose for thematic purposes, but what’s not done well is the nonexistent tension in the narrative. A giant tower in the town shows a big fat percentage representing how much energy the Lifehold has left, and it only goes down in every chapter. An MMO- scratch that, any RPG in general- encourages you to take your time and do as much side stuff as possible before going on with the story, and the sheer amount of side stuff, plus the aforementioned grinding, make it all feel very inconsequential. Furthermore, due to the fact that side missions never expire (thank God), appropriate things need to be given plot armor and red shirts. You can easily tell that Lao will die or turn on you (the latter of which he does) late in the game because they require you to do certain quests with him before making story progress, as well as the fact that his Heart-to-Hearts suspiciously don’t contribute to 100% map completion. 

The exploration is a blessing and a curse. I didn’t give Mira enough credit back in the day. When I crawled out of that stupid rainy swamp area at the beginning, walked out into Primordia, and was welcomed by its natural splendor, I felt that Xenoblade whimsy all over again. Sure, it’s not shaped like an animal or humanoid, but it’s still an incredible world. There are so many nooks and crannies, gorgeous viewpoints, and an immersive atmosphere to boot. There aren’t enough purely sci-fi-themed JRPGs (that I know of), and Xenoblade X is one of the best in that specific category.

However, they let you know that Mira is a dangerous place. Like in the first Xenoblade, there are enemies of all different levels living together everywhere. In fact the Level 81 gorilla that gives newbs their first game overs is on Mira, in the first area, like in the previous game (and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 shows that he’ll likely remain a staple). But unlike the two core installments, where stronger enemies are designed to discourage too much exploration, Xenoblade Chronicles X demands you explore that high-level territory anyway. In fact, one REQUIRED Affinity Mission makes you infiltrate a Ganglion base FULL of Level 50+ enemies when you are NOT EVEN CLOSE to that level. I’ll admit that I don’t mind it that much in most cases, as the cruel enemy placement really sells the theme of survival on a truly alien world. It also encourages thinking outside of the box, requiring you to utilize the environment and know just how much attack range you have, in order to get out of some crazy battles. In my first playthrough, I remember one mission where they make you fight a really hard enemy in a cave that Skells couldn’t get into, and I beat it by telling my friends to enter their Skells, which they teleported into, and it caused the enemy to aggro to them. But since they were still outside the cave, it just got stuck in a wall, and I waited twenty minutes while my auto-attacks whittled it down to nothing. It was annoying, but it was also fun to think of such a solution in the first place. 

But sometimes it’s too much. A lot of stealth missions placed Target items DIRECTLY WITHIN ENEMY LINES OF SIGHT, and since you can’t pick up stuff while you’re engaged in battle, I was screwed. Also, there are really cheap ambush enemies that don’t show up on your minimap, some of which are Unique Monsters. There’s even a specific cave where a Unique is programmed to spawn in DIRECTLY BEHIND YOU after you walk in and get your bearings. What’s worse is that these enemies don’t ignore you when you’re higher leveled, so getting through places like Sylvalum that’re full of ambush enemies is not fun.

Let’s discuss the different regions. Primordia is the starting area, and it’s a nice, green biome that’s basic but still fun to explore, with most enemies docile to ease you in. Noctilum is my favorite area in the game, and has tons of variety in its biomes. Oblivia is a desert that has tons of mountains to scale (and that big wheel thing). Sylvalum is super pretty, but it’s my least favorite region in the game, for it’s split into an overly large frozen lake with nothing on it, and an overly large plain with nothing on it. Cauldros is loaded with tough enemies and tough platforming (rightfully so), and since it’s the most compact, it doesn’t have much in terms of scenic vistas. My only complaint with the region as a whole is that some of the enemy designs aren’t very inspired. While I certainly remembered them very well, they are mainly your typical, “let’s take earth animals and tweak them a bit, maybe add some extra limbs” designs that pepper the sci-fi world.

Nestled on the southern shores of Primordia is New Los Angeles, the hub. Normally, I don’t like it when JRPGs have only one town, for going into new towns is one of my favorite parts of those games. But NLA makes up for it in growing and developing more than most other JRPGs’ entire assortment of towns. It is a super-bustling area, and as you do more sidequests, it grows into a cultural melting pot, full of bizarre friendly aliens. I still loved running around this place, even with the memories of that stupid lobster bomb sidequest still burnt onto my brain.

Fortunately, the map makes full use of the Wii U Gamepad. While the maps themselves only show a shoddy satellite photo of areas in Mira, everything is divided into honeycombs. Once you unlock honeycombs, one tap will clue you in on stuff within that honeycomb, including Unique Monsters, future sidequests, and treasures. Fast Travel is also incredibly easy as well, thanks to this feature. They also tell you if you’ve completed a honeycomb, but I wish that they kept the specific icons instead of changing it to a gold medal, so it’s easier to know where everything is.

You also use the map to plant Probes. These unlock Skip Travel points and provide you with various perks. Mining Probes give you valuable Miranium and Ores at regular intervals, and Research Probes give you money. Storage Probes let you hold more Miranium, Combat Probes give helpful effects, Booster Probes enhance the others, and Duplicator Probes copy the effects of its neighbors. Each specific site has varying levels of what Probe does better, so read the info box before you plant them in. There are also Combat Probes, that can grant effects throughout the entire region they’re planted in (good luck rearranging all of FrontierNav each time you fight a tough enemy in a different region). I didn’t use any until the postgame just to test them out. Even with the highest effect I could get, it didn’t seem to help whatsoever, but maybe I’m just bad. They’re probably instrumental to fighting the superbosses.

Starting up Xenoblade Chronicles X made me remember one of its worst features: that the text was ludicrously small. “You need basic reading ability to fully enjoy this game,” my foot! You need 20/20 vision, man! This didn’t make the hour I spent in character creation any easier. You could spend a long time deciding who you want to be (the right answer is, of course, a thicc, sexy lady, since the shortest height is too tall for a loli). Fortunately, you can unlock a mechanic to redesign yourself, just in case.

But man… playing this again, I realized just how hard Xenoblade X is to get into on your first playthrough. I elected to skip a lot of cutscenes, especially tutorial stuff, which I think is one of the worst in all of videogames. To compare it to other installments of the series, Xenoblades 1 and 2 let you fully explore the first hub areas, and even had mini-dungeons, all while naturally easing you into the mechanics. Xenoblade X locks you into a specific route, and really infodumps the crap out of you. It’s overwhelming. One of the biggest offenders is when they show you a whole bunch of different terminals at a point where you can’t use them yet, which I believe is really dumb. Xenoblade X is definitely a “teach yourself” game with its mechanics, which there are a LOT of. To add insult to injury, there are tutorial pop-ups that appear well after you’re expected to know how those mechanics work, such as with Overdrive. 

They also have the Division mechanic, which is where you select a job class, and earn rewards from performing that Division’s tasks. This mechanic is awful for multiple reasons. They do acknowledge that it’s a dumb mechanic in the story, but it does little to justify it. The reason why these Divisions are dumb is because some Divisions only have a finite amount of tasks, making them objectively bad picks. Furthermore, picking one doesn’t affect what you’ll do in the story. You could be a Mediator, who focuses on helping people in town, and yet be the hero who saves the Lifehold Core in the end. Furthermore, the Skell exam is to do tasks of all eight Divisions at once anyway (and apparently, you don’t need to build actual driving skills or anything. That would be unrealistic), which further shows how dumb the system really is.

Let’s discuss characters next. As is expected with the MMO-ness, your avatar is by far the weakest main protagonist is the entire Xenoblade Chronicles series. You don’t speak in cutscenes, and you rarely show emotion. What’s worse is that supporting you is a harem called Elma and Lin. Xenoblade Chronicles X has, like, twelve playable characters, and these two are among my least favorite. Elma is sometimes a badass, or a cold-hearted b****, and I don’t really enjoy her in either states. Lin is kind of just a moe-blob mechanic who likes to cook Nopons. “Well, if you don’t like them, don’t play as them,” you suggest. Um, let me tell you one of the dumbest aspects of the game: The main story FORCES you to have those two on every story mission, leaving only one spare slot for someone else (thank goodness this game has four slots). And here’s the clincher, all other party members are OPTIONAL. While the girls are among the best party members in the game (Elma’s Ghost Factory is a lifesaver), I suggest exploring Mira using these other characters, so that when you do the story mission, you can just go straight there with the girls, and not gain excess Affinity, because the game also expects you to juggle all of the party members around in order to jack up their Affinity (and level ups. Get used to hearing people’s death cries a LOT when you decide to play as that one person you didn’t use for fifty hours). I like juggling a lot of characters, but when they make you use two of them so often, it gets tough to build Affinity with everyone without doing a lot of grinding.

And grinding Affinity in this game SUCKS. There are three ways to do it: battle, sidequests, and heart-to-hearts. Battle is self-explanatory, but it takes the longest. In sidequests, it’s not so simple. Every party member you’re with gets an Affinity up when you complete it, sure, but they also get Affinity ups depending on how you respond in certain cutscenes. The problem is that EVERY character has a DIFFERENT reaction to each and EVERY possible response in the game. I imagine that if you know these characters really, REALLY well, you could intuitively guess what they’ll like, but it would require note-taking and multiple playthroughs to know them THAT well (and if you did, you’d have a helluva lot of party shuffling to do). They also feel inconsistent. One example is Yelv’s first Affinity Mission; the guy’s a Reclaimer who’s looking for his friend’s missing pod, but when prompted to decide on a mission type, picking the Reclaimer mission makes him happy, but DOESN’T increase his Affinity. Do you need to know SOCIAL SKILLS too or something?!

On top of that, Heart-to-hearts are the worst in the series in Xenoblade X. Basically, you have to NOT have the person in your party, then go to the appointed area AT THE APPOINTED TIME, with only random NPCs giving you clues on where and when. Oftentimes, you will just simply try to recruit them to your party, find that they went to their heart-to-heart, and not know where they are. You also need to reach certain Affinity levels to even view most of them, so you’d still have to grind anyway. You will probably have to look them all up online to save yourself a headache. And to top it all off… there’s no gifting items in Xenoblade X! It’s almost as if they WANT you to grind in an MMO-like setting…

Of the other party members, the best of the best is L (not from Death Note). This guy is a weird alien who is not fluent in human language, and therefore minces his words a lot. His soul voices, such as “We’ll put a sock on them!” make him my favorite party member in the game. Other interesting characters are Boze, H.B., and Murderess (eff her quests, though). A lot of the best post-battle flavor text involves having parties consisting of these optional side characters.

Unfortunately, a lot of their character arcs leave much to be desired. Like with the main story, these guys don’t really get much closure when you do all that you can with them. Sure, Frye and Phog, as well as Hope, are exceptions. But a lot of it ends off on unfulfilled promises that further tease the possibility of a sequel, like H.B.’s journey to become BLADE commander, Murderess’ journey to restore her family name, or whatever in SAM HILL happened to Yelv at the end of HIS arc. Some people don’t even get a real arc, such as with Irina, whose arc ends with a mission that has nothing to do with her, or Doug; you do one mission with, he tells you about his dead dad, and never hear from him for the rest of the game.

Additionally, there aren’t as many likeable NPCs. Tatsu is the Nopon protagonist of Xenoblade X, but he is the weakest Nopon protagonist, for he doesn’t join your party and ultimately doesn’t even do much. One of the military commanders is Old Man Vandham, and he’s great. Oh, and he’s identical to the Vandham in Xenoblade 2. Hopefully, this indicates that there will be an instance of him in every future Xenoblade, kind of like Final Fantasy with Sid. 

But as I mentioned before with the Ganglion, they’re the least likeable antagonists in the series so far. The leader, Luxaar, has a lot of holes in his motives, such as how some random mech sitting in a pit on Mira is connected to some being he worships. His minions are just typical JRPG villain-minion tropes reworked as aliens: the thicc Goetia, the brawn-over-brain Dagahn, the bi***y Riiz, and the hyper-honorable Ga Jiarg (who, of course, becomes a good guy later).

Enough with characters already! So, sidequests are a thing. There are three types of sidequests: Basic Missions, Normal Missions, and Affinity Missions. Basic ones are accepted at a certain terminal, and respawn daily. Normal ones are your typical JRPG sidequests. Affinity Missions are more complex sidequests dedicated to character development, with a full arsenal of cutscenes to boot. You need to have specific Affinity levels and story progress to unlock them. Fun fact: most of the actual plot of Xenoblade X is in the sidequests. Additionally, most of the aliens you meet in the game are entirely optional, such as the sexy, shapeshifting Definians, or those tall things that give birth by splitting in half. There’s a whole B-plot involving racism that you’ll miss entirely if you don’t do the sidequests! Also, Affinity Missions don’t just explore most of the most interesting characters, but also some of the more interesting themes in the game, and really make it feel like you’re living in something more than a town of NPCs.

Just be careful which one you pick. Although they don’t let you do one unless it’s legitimately doable, doing one too early can be really bad, and since you can’t do any other Affinity Missions or the Story until the current one is finished, you can force yourself into some heavy grinding situations. One early struggle I had was Lin’s first Affinity Mission, The Repair Job. I didn’t recall struggling with this one in my first playthrough, but it took me over five hours to do it this time because it required resources you get from the Mining Probes. And for some reason, it just took forever for them to pop up, even though the ore is common, and I had Probes in three sites that had it.  Alexa’s first Affinity Mission is rough too, because there is an optional harder enemy you can fight, but it’s very powerful, and uses Spikes, which you can’t defend against at the point in which you’re able to do the mission. If you decide to fight this thing, then save, you’re not continuing the story until you kill that thing with the limited early game equipment you have.

That one’s not close to the truly ASS Missions that are in Xenoblade X. My least favorite sidequest is the Red Lobster Bomber thing, where you have to find 99 (technically 98) bombs in NLA, which only spawn in batches, and at specific times of day. I ultimately chose not to do it this time (I somehow did it without a guide in my original playthrough) because the reward is crap, and if I couldn’t 100% the game then, when I only had to go to high school, then I definitely can’t 100% it while I have a full-time job AND a blog to do. In fact, I left a number of quests unfinished, which is a bad sign for me, as someone who loves to do side stuff. I basically got sick of the game, just like I did five years ago.

Xenoblade X has one of the rarest things in all of JRPGs: postgame set chronologically after the final boss. This only unlocks some new quests and Skells, but it’s still neat that there’s a postgame at all. If you played it while the servers were still up, you probably spent the postgame grinding. Unfortunately, the story had to be written around this design choice. In my first playthrough, I had predicted the “soul-crushing” reveal in chapter 12: that you were never remotely controlling the robot bodies from your real ones in the Lifehold Core. The human race WAS completely wiped out, and the robot bodies just contain each person’s memories. It’s a common cyberpunk trope, but it’s super arbitrary when it only serves to have the idea of a postgame make sense. “Well, you could just have the same missions but in your real bodies,” you argue. But like I said, sidequests never expire, so they need to be contextualized so that they can be done at any time without contradicting story elements. They also have to keep all Ganglion bases and enemies in operation, justifying it as “Ganglion stragglers” for the same reason.

Holy crap, how did I go so long without talking about the aspect of videogames that I find most important, which is gameplay?! Well, let’s do it now. Xenoblade X has a run button, which I was sad to have seen removed in Xenoblade 2. It helps a lot, especially since the world has a lot of ground to cover. Combat is also very different from core games. Oh boy, I should start a new paragraph for this.

The basics of Xenoblade are pretty much the same. You have auto-attacks, which go off automatically, and Arts, which are what you will come to rely on. One thing I noticed in Xenoblade X is that you can auto-attack while you move, which is REALLY nice, and something I would’ve liked in Xenoblade 2. But the big difference is Soul Voices. If you use a specific type of art when prompted, you will have amazing bonus effects, from big damage, to big heals, to even brief invincibility. This starkly contrasts from core games, where you kept staring at your Arts as you waited for what seemed like an eternity for them to cooldown, but now expects you to save them for soul voices. It’s not always necessary to be compulsive with Soul Voices, however. Sometimes you’ll want to use an Art like normal. Look at the prompt at the bottom to see what the effect will be before you use it!

There are some problems with soul voices, though. One is that the A.I. spams Arts and wastes TP, and the commands you can give them with + are very limited. It definitely feels like a mechanic that works better in multiplayer, since you’d (supposedly) form groups with human players who don’t suck (too bad that’s pretty much impossible now). But nope, your allies are about as unreliable as ever.

The other issue is the game’s own issue of its voice acting. I think Xenoblade X has the worst voice acting in the series, or at least in the case of the dub (too bad you can’t set the Japanese voice acting in this installment… ). While there are exceptions (like L), the cast overall sounds really corny and annoying. The Xenoblade Chronicles series always had a bad issue of voice clips repeating themselves ad nauseum in battle, such as “You’ll pay for your insolence!” but it’s ramped up to fifty in this game. It feels like they tried to make every voice clip into a meme of its own, but with how incessantly you’ll be hearing all these clips, it’s more so something that sticks with you like that annoying pop song you can’t get out of your head, and not like something genuinely enjoyable. 

Also new to the game are appendages. These are cool, because they’re parts of the enemy’s body that you can target by pressing in the right analog stick, and destroy after dealing enough damage. These lead to some of the best soul voices, such as a free opportunity to inflict Topple. Speaking of Topple… man, it’s hard to go back to an old installment from Xenoblade 2, which showed the duration of the Break statuses and stuff on the HUD, and added the Launch and Smash combos to the deal. Anyways, while destroying appendages is fun, it can also make the enemy super pissed, and even unlock some seriously powerful attacks from them.

As great as the combat is, there are some issues, with the TP stat being one of them. TP is MP. It fills up on auto-attacks and by using certain Arts and soul voices, and it fills up too slowly. You need at least 1000 to do anything with it, and characters can only hold 3000, without equipment to increase the amount. Certain Arts need TP, and these Arts are really important to your strategy. When you die, you lose all TP, which means that you gotta waste time fighting random mooks to grind it back up. The stuff just doesn’t come fast enough. In my first playthrough, the only way I could consistently gain TP was to alternate between True Stream Edge- an AOE attack that gives TP per hit if you have morale (which you can get easily by successfully hitting B prompts to make your own Soul Voice)- and Last Stand- which at its max level, expends 1000 of your TP to give 2000 to your allies- constantly in battle. It took no skill, and I felt like I wasn’t properly understanding the game. What’s worse is that it takes 3000 to revive a party member, which is the equivalent of the ENTIRE PARTY GAUGE in core games. This doesn’t make using Overdrive any easier. 

Overdrive is the replacement of Chain Attacks. Basically, you expend 3000 TP to make your selected character go into Overdrive (fortunately, your allies will follow suit if you have the proper soul voices). In Overdrive, you use Arts to score hits and gain bonus effects that get stronger as you combo stuff. Using Melee and Range arts in succession will boost the count, while other types will act as wild cards and enable you to follow up with the opposite type. The method is to gain back all that TP and click on the Overdrive button again to extend its duration as long as possible. In this playthrough, I was pretty good at using TP conservatively, but I could never get a longer Overdrive without those broken strats. I believe that maintaining maximum Overdrive (I knew I should’ve gotten the turbo…) makes the party in Xenoblade X the most powerful in the series.

Another issue that I had to remember was the horrid lack of an Aggro system. Well, that’s not entirely true. There is definitely an Aggro system, but the problem is that they got rid of the symbol to indicate who is being targeted. It really sucks because a lot of strategy is built around knowing who’s being targeted at any given time. For example, Yelv has this ballsy Art called Essence Exchange, which swaps his HP and TP stats. This can be really useful, but also put him on death’s doorstep in .05 seconds. It’s risky to use, but deciding could be made a lot easier if you knew at a glance if he was being targeted.

Spikes return to Xenoblade Chronicles X. This unwritten and notoriously BS mechanic involves enemies who inflict counterattack or proximity damage whenever they darn well feel like it. The only way to avoid it is to have the right augments, and the augments for it in Xenoblade X suck. The best anti-Spike gear in any other game will basically grant one party member full immunity or reduce the damage to 1. But here, the best augment is merely a 50% evasion of Spikes. So, to give your whole party Spike immunity, you need at least EIGHT of the best anti-Spike augments, and that’s not even including the entirely separate ones for Skells. There’s also the new reflect damage BS. In this case, an enemy will take zero damage from a given element, and you’ll take the full hit yourself (and since some of your attacks do thousands of damage, you will die in less than a second). Fortunately, the augments to make yourself immune to this effect are pretty easy to make, you just gotta make them for EACH and EVERY element, and at least FOUR apiece.

Whenever the game decides to put up a legitimately fair fight, it does feel like a true Xenoblade Chronicles game. But like with any JRPG, you need to be outfitted properly to come out on top. Unfortunately, the equipment in Xenoblade X is too damn convoluted! Xenoblade X characters equip two weapons- one melee and one ranged- a headpiece, a top, two sleeves, and pants, each of which can have any out of, like, a BILLION augments added to them. There are also a TON of stats: HP, TP, Melee Attack, Melee Accuracy, Ranged Attack, Ranged Accuracy, Evasion, Potential, and Resistances for Physical, Thermal, Ether, Lightning, Beam, and Gravity attacks. The stats on equipment vary wildly, especially with clothes making you more resistant to one element, and more vulnerable to another, with no definitive combination for all situations (and don’t get me started on the many enemies that have powerful attacks two elements to where a given piece of equipment is strong against one but weak to the other, such as with Ether resistant clothes being weak to Physical). On top of that, you gotta outfit all ten+ party members, and EACH OF THEIR SKELLS. Oh, and the fact that there are entire sets of equipment made specifically for better fighting in Skells, but suck otherwise. Furthermore, there are limited ways to sort through the various equipment you’ll pick up, which makes it extra painful to find the specific ones you want. The miniscule text is icing on the cake here. But the good news is that there is still a cosmetic slot for your kit, enabling you to put your girls in skimpy clothes without giving them bad stats. Seriously though, this game NEEDED an ability to save preset equipment sets, since everything is so situational to the point where you need to reoutfit everybody from the ground up to take on specific tough enemies, like Superbosses. Scratch that, you need to reoutfit everybody to take on ANY enemy. Sometimes you won’t even be capable of getting the resources necessary to optimize your outfit because the materials are ludicrous levels of stingy. The Arms Manufacturer mechanic makes it worse. While it’s cool that you unlock companies that specialize in different things (which also makes the world feel more alive), as a consequence you end up unable to buy equipment for certain types of enemies. The worst offender is Six Stars, which defend against Thermal, that you can’t unlock until after Chapter TEN at the earliest. Money also tends to be scarce, as you’ll find yourself buying new equipment to update your team until you get the “Ultra” equipment as drops from enemies that are level 60 and over. Even though I made a good point to pick up any high level equipment I happened upon, I still ended up not having good equipment or enough of a specific elemental resistance, and my money got sucked dry every time I had to buy stuff.

Classes make things even more complicated. These dictate what weapons you can use. Each weapon has its own set of Arts, and mastering the class lets you freely equip the weapons even without being in that class. This leads to some very interesting combinations once you can master some stuff. To make things simpler, only your avatar can change classes, and I kind of find it to be a blessing. I ended up stubbornly focusing on one path at a time, but it might be better to spread out. There were so many times when I was like “If only I had that one Art…” and it was because I stuck to one Class path at a time.

Now let’s discuss the part that every mecha anime would love: Skells. These mechs, once unlocked, can be freely customized with their own equipment kit, color scheme, and name. They make getting around and fighting easier, and even allowing you to damage small enemies by walking on them. I love them and dislike them. While they are fun, they kind of ruin the thrill of discovery on Mira. Later on, you get the ability to fly with Skells, which I don’t really like. I loved looking at high places and thinking, “How will I get up there?” only to realize that you just fly up there with the Skell, instead of being able to hoof it on foot. I’m definitely nitpicking here, though, as someone who sometimes likes the journey over the reward.

Skells in combat also spice things up. Skells have even more equipment than humans. They get the usual armor, as well as the usual melee and ranged weapons. But they also get eight OTHER weapons. Don’t worry, though; these weapons dictate the Skell’s Arts. Each Skell Art consumes fuel (which isn’t really that much of an issue, since they regenerate from being stationary), and they have a lot of cool animations and effects. It’s fun to slide into a group of enemies and press a single button to unleash hell on them. Among these Skell Arts are superweapons that you get lategame, take up four Art slots, and hit like meteorites. However, due to the MMO nature of the game, getting some of these is no longer possible… Crap. 

When fighting in Skells, everything is mostly the same. However, instead of Topple, you Bind enemies. One Skell (probably yours) will press the ZL and ZR buttons on a staggered enemy to lock it into place, which also regenerates a bunch of fuel. You have to complete button prompts to keep them trapped for as long as possible, but sadly, they’re pretty much guaranteed to break out after a set amount of time. There is also a random chance of the camera zooming in on a P.O.V. shot inside your cockpit, which is disorienting at first but instantly recharges all of your arts. Overdrive is much simpler on Skells; it gives you temporary infinite fuel and increases the chance of the P.O.V. effect occurring. However, the mechanic seems luck based, as it seems to decide to give you more time whenever it feels like it, and I don’t know what dictates it. Each Skell’s Overdrive is also different, and it only shows you the effects in the tiny text that appears on the HUD for one second before it goes away forever.

I never enjoyed fighting in Skells during my first playthrough and I still don’t enjoy it now. A lot of the Skell Arts are very uninteresting and boring, and it never feels like there’s any strategy with them except to use brute force. Whenever I fought with Skells, instead of feeling empowered, I felt like I was giving up. There are a lot of tough battles that are trivialized by Skells. I felt like I didn’t have to be any good at the game when in Skells. Sure, there are still some enemies that can wipe an entire party of Skells, and some that you can’t even reach without them, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about the whole thing.

But man, they do make navigating a dream. Remember that Affinity Mission that forces you to go to high-level territory underleveled? Well, I have no clue what convoluted path they wanted you to take to stealth through there, but with my Skell I literally did a Hail Mary flying leap directly to the goal, and used the cutscene to avoid fighting any enemies who saw me! Skells are great if you want to expedite tasks, but they sure aren’t fun.

Speaking of not fun, enjoy the choir that plays every time you fight in a Skell. You thought repetitive voice clips in Xenoblade were bad? Well, fighting in Skells is the worst it’s ever been. They didn’t even bother recording voice clips for them saying the name of each Skell Art; they only did one voice clip per character per type of Skell Art. So whenever you fight in a Skell, get ready for tons of “MUST POWER UP!” and “I’M POWERING UP!” and “ONE BLOW TO END IT ALL!” and “SHIELDS DEPLOYED! TIME TO SIT BACK AND DRRRRINK!” and “PLEASE! WHY WOULD YOU FLEE?” and more! These memes put Kingdom Hearts III to shame.

If there are any Skells that break the game, it’s the ones that you can craft after beating the main story. These Skells are at level cap, and all have positive resistances, even to Gravity. But the most broken of all of them are the Ares Skells. Modeled off of the Prog Ares that you fight in Chapter 11, these things will rip the planet a new one (the edgy black one is the more powerful of the two, of course). They take a ton of crap to craft, including some drops from a specific Superboss, but it’s worth it. Since I still had the Squad Missions system up, I was able to create it in this playthrough. Design-wise, you were probably meant to use the regular postgame Skells to fight them, and the Ares is the reward for going through that struggle, because this thing is practically a GameShark code incarnate. It comes with four unique Arts, including the Something-or-other-Cannon (I forgot the name). I don’t remember that attack being so stinking powerful. It’s pretty much guaranteed to one-hit most enemies in the game, including some Superbosses. As result, it helps grinding for the other Skells immensely, as you need to fight tons of Xe-Doms, which are these giant robots that will murder you in any other circumstances, and obtain many rare drops from them. 

Also, I HATE that max level is 60. This makes it so that about one-fifth of all the enemies are Superbosses. I don’t feel incentivized to defeat them since they wouldn’t even be Superbosses in any other Xenoblade game. Furthermore, the fact that Uniques respawn naturally makes it feel like you never accomplished anything.

So, for the first time in my life, I tried to beat as many of Xenoblade X’s Superbosses as possible before I inevitably got sick of it. I was not able to fight that many of them; only two, and they weren’t even above level 90. However, I seemed to discover a way to defeat them that’s even more broken than the True Stream Edge/Last Stand combo I discussed earlier. Having Elma or your avatar with Ghost Factory, you build up a bunch of TP (preferably with a lot of Max TP up augments equipped) beforehand, begin the boss battle, and use Overdrive immediately (preferably with Phantom Counter to give you a free 12 combo). Use Ghost Factory next. That grants Decoy, which makes a set number of attacks miss, to the whole party. At this point, spam Sliding Slinger or any move that builds TP for free (debuff arts give free TP per hit, maxing out at 1000 per hit) to build Overdrive up to max while regularly refreshing Ghost Factory. As long as you always have Ghost Factory, you’ll essentially be invincible. And once you get max, Ghost Factory will be fully cooled down in like a second. With this strat, all you need to do is build your usual Night Vision augments and stuff. Of course, this strategy isn’t perfect against people like Dadaan the Strongest Prone, who summons eighty guys when he’s at half health, but it definitely helped me complete Elma’s final Affinity Mission with almost no preparation. Seriously… the preparation you need in order to fight all of them… Yeesh.

Let’s talk about the most divisive part of the game next: its soundtrack. While I do think it’s the weakest soundtrack in the series so far, I still love some of it. The area themes, in particular, are great. Each area theme sells the sci-fi theme, while keeping true to the Xenoblade music feeling. The daytime theme of Noctilum is my favorite theme in the game; it’s epic, grandiose, and adventurous, and sells the alien splendor of Mira the best. Unfortunately, the battle themes are kind of infamous. When I first heard the regular battle theme, I was like, “Well, this is a sci-fi setting, can’t expect an orchestra,” but then… the hip-hop came in. Although it can be interpreted as funny and memeable, Xenoblade Chronicles is the one game I do not want cheesy songs in its soundtrack. And it doesn’t stop there. The classic You Will Know Our Names, the theme when battling against Unique Monsters, is now a cheesy, High School Musical-esque track. It was so polarizing to me, that I felt the closest thing to PTSD in my life when it played during the Elma fight in Xenoblade 2. The Skell themes are even worse. The battle theme, which should make you feel strong and powerful, is a crappy techno-pop song, and the flight theme, which should feel adventurous, feels like it’s right out of Sonic R, which is not fitting at all (also, due to how fast the jetpack is, you’ll have the first 30 seconds of it loop in your head for eternity because that’s all you’ll ever hear of it). Speaking of looping forever, get ready to here the other crappy techno-pop song for ten hours when you use Overdrive and try to maintain its duration!

Lastly, the visuals. There’s nothing much to say, other than the game has its ambitions written on its sleeves. Although I prefer the artsy, anime style of most modern JRPGs, Mira is still gorgeous in its own right. If I wasn’t trying to get through this before the release of Remastered, I would’ve spent fifty hours in scenic viewpoints instead of accomplishing anything. Unfortunately, even with the preloaded assets DLC, a lot of enemies and NPCs will take awhile to spawn in. In the case of the former, you can get cheaply ambushed just by people “materializing” into existence.

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After All These Years: 9/10

I’ve been hard on Xenoblade Chronicles X. It has many, many, many issues, but at the same time, I still love it. I would 100% want to play a hypothetical Xenoblade X2 if one ever gets made. I recommend you give this game a whirl if the Wii U e-shop is still open, allowing you to download the pre-rendered assets (oh, and if you already have a Wii U as well). Also, if the online crap is down, you don’t have to worry about the hellish journey to 100% the game, because it’s no longer possible. Play it if you’ve got a hundred-odd hours to spare. But if you had to pick and choose, I’d still recommend Xenoblade 2, and hopefully Xenoblade Definitive, over this.

Eighty-Six Volume 4 Review

Last time on Eighty-Six, Shin’s team sets out to fight the Morpho, the giant Legion that fired the railgun at the Federacy, and is controlled by the mind of one of Shin’s relatives, Kiriya Nouzen. Well, he beats it, to say the least (and by himself, of course). And just like it was foreshadowed in volume 1, Lena shows up and they meet IRL! Now we can FINALLY know what happens next!

So, I haven’t been enjoying the past two volumes of Eighty-Six. A lot of it felt like torture porn as Shin and the others get exploited, and have to fight to save people who treat them like crap, even in the Federacy. There were also a lot of boring military people who got all introduced at once and had really boring personalities. 

But now… hoo boy, Lena is back, making the power couple that carried Eighty-Six’s first volume so good! I know I normally don’t like romance, but these two established themselves as one of the most organic and interesting relationships out there, and it once again shows. They even had some great interactions together (even if it resulted in some misplaced comedy scenes).

Since this is the first volume with Lena in a while, this it’s going to be about her. As established, she transferred to the multicultural Federacy from the whi- I mean- Alba Supremacist Republic. The racist practices of the Republic are well known to the Federacy by now, and because of this, Lena gets crapped on from the powers that be. Fortunately, Shin exists as a cushion for her guilt complex. It’s actually something that I felt when I was a kid, when I first learned about Martin Luther King. I wanted the African-American kids in my class to bully me, so I could be punished for something that I didn’t even do, just because people from a generation ago did it.

But Lena doesn’t have much time to get used to her situation, for today’s mission actually starts pretty darn early (much sooner than taking a whole volume and a half in the previous arc). This mission involves going into what’s left of the Republic that got overtaken by the Legion and, well, taking it back. This means going back to Nazi-Germany-Meets-Overly-Patriotic-White-Supremacist-America once more.

And as you can expect, the only thing waiting for Shin, besides some angry Legion, is racism. While the racism came off as torture porn last time, this time we get some interesting and differing perspectives from Lena and Shin. The irony here is that Lena, a whi- I mean- Alba person is much more offended than the actual victims. It’s almost implying that certain people shouldn’t respond to certain other people who are just being jerks, or trolls.

Overall, the only problem I had was kind of telling where people were in 3D space. A lot of times, during the actual operation, the story would flip perspectives rapidly, and it confused me a lot. It also was pretty inconsistent with whether or not it wanted to mark transitional points with a simple page break, or an actual symbol. Maybe if they- say- used the symbol to transition between P.O.V.s in particular, I would’ve understood what was going on a lot better. 

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Verdict: 8.9/10

Finally, Eighty-Six is back with a vengeance! My interest in the story is reinvigorated, especially with the new development at the end, and now I can’t wait for the next volume. Here’s hoping that it stays strong all the way through!