Iron Widow: To Make a Great YA Novel, Just Add Anime

There is no shortage of Feminist power fantasies these days. In fact, I read one such novel back before COVID broke out: part one of Suzanne Young’s Girls With Sharp Sticks trilogy. It was good, but it was so generic and predictable, I’d rather not spend my time finishing it, because I figured a better Feminist power fantasy would come up. Sure enough, that happened in 2021, when Xiran Jay Zhao published their debut novel: Iron Widow.

In Iron Widow, we are taken to an alternate version of China, set hundreds of years in the past but with futuristic technology (what is this, Star Wars?). The alien menace known as the Hundun threatens the nation of Huaxia. Fight fire with fire, as they say, and by “fire”, I mean they build Gundams out of defeated Hundun. These mechs, known as Chrysalis, must be piloted by a male and female team. However, unlike those anime where the mech is powered by sex, the Chrysalises are powered by sexism, and the woman pilot more-often-than-not can’t handle the strain of her husband’s qi. Wu Zetian’s older sister was killed, not in battle, but murdered by her husband Yang Guang. Naturally, Zetian voluntarily sells herself to him just for an opportunity to murder him. What could possibly go wrong?

Unlike Blood Like Magic, the disclaimer at the beginning is fully needed. No, that’s an understatement. The only other book this viscerally brutal that I read was Legendborn, and even then, the searing social commentary was only prevalent like 60% of the time. In Iron Widow, every page is a reminder of the twisted world in the book, not too different from the twisted world that men created. I won’t spoil anything more about this aspect of Iron Widow’s worldbuilding, but just know it’s beyond brutal.

The main draw with Iron Widow is the very anime-inspired SF world, versus Girls With Sharp Sticks’ nothing. Zhao did their homework with this one, that’s for sure. The terms are easy to follow, and there isn’t an overabundance of Things That Have Common Nouns With Capital Letters As Their Names. I admit that I was enthralled by the mechs, especially Guang’s, which is a kyubi; Zhao knows the fastest way to a weeb’s heart is to make a yokai Gundam. 

The writing is great to boot. I had a great sense of 3D space and what stuff looked like. Plus the battles were spectacular, with no shortage of anime flair. Like I said before, the portrayal of sexism is unrelenting and bludgeoning, written with exquisite and tormented poetry. The only problem I had is that I couldn’t quite picture the Hundun. They seemed to be a generic robot menace, though. 

Anyway, how’s the plot? Well, it’s a YA novel, so it’s predictable. However, Iron Widow manages to be one of the best YA novels of 2021 all the same. Like in Wings of Ebony, the book cuts out the fat to get to the good stuff. Exactly seventy pages in, Zetian successfully murders Guang during the first major battle. She then becomes the rare instance of an Iron Widow (title drop), which is something that is—naturally—covered up. In order to maintain control of her, she is paired with the strongest guy they got: Li Shimin, who happens to be a convicted felon. The bulk of the story is her building a relationship with Shimin, while trying to survive the system that’s so jerry-rigged against her.

Boy-o-boy, the cast is… something. Zetian is so manufactured it’s almost funny; but you know what, women get so much crap, I’m not even mad. She is as uncompromising and fierce as it gets. Nothing—and I mean NOTHING—breaks her. She’ll slander anyone who disagrees with her, and has no remorse when she murders Guang. Most of the men are one-dimensional sleazes, but like in Girls With Sharp Sticks, there’s that one likable guy. And it’s Shimin of all people. Whoda thought that the guy who’s hyped up to be a monster… isn’t? I never predicted that exact thing as soon as his name came up for the first time. Another predictable thing is Gao Yizhi. He’s the childhood friend, who spends a good portion of the book abandoned by Zetian so she can pursue her goal. However, he uses money to get into the camp, and exists as the good boy to contrast Shimin’s naughty boy. This sounds like the start of a cringy relationship, but to my pleasant surprise, these three protagonists’ relationships with one another ended up being one of the best takes of the love triangle trope I have ever seen.

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Final Verdict: 9.8/10

Xiran Jay Zhao has single-handedly made me give a crap about YA novels again. Iron Widow puts them in my book as one of the most promising new writers going into this decade. My butt’s already clenched waiting for the sequel, and more importantly, the possibility that Zhao can actually follow-up. If only they would write a middle-grade novel to tide me over… oh wait, they are, and it’s coming out later this year. Anyway, Iron Widow is my favorite YA novel of 2021 (too bad it isn’t 2021 anymore so no one cares), and I highly recommend it.

Starting off the New Year with a Mental Health Update!

Happy 2022, guys! Year three of COVID—let’s goooooooo! Anyway, today’s topic of discussion involves my obsession over the past two years: COVID-19. It has changed a lot—scratch that—it changed human society from the ground up. It changed how we see each other, how we communicate, and exposed all of the inequalities that have existed since the very beginning. As a fellow human, it has also changed me. It has rewritten my genetic code and my own memories. 

In case you couldn’t tell, my posts have been getting a bit messed up. If you read my cynicism post, you’ll have seen my obsession with not just COVID, but racism and climate change as well. It’s worse than that. I have had several drafts of different rants written in advance; none of them have been published, and for good reason. I had a post about the pointlessness of social commentaries; however, the latter half was full of what could be considered extremist propaganda. 

One of my problems since COVID is that I’ve been falling into extremes. Keep in mind, I hate politics and would never involve myself with either side in a billion years; yet these past two years, I’ve been tormented by extreme thinking.  

The bulk of my issues can be boiled down to activists, and the media. Today’s generation of activists for the causes of civil rights, LGBTQIA+ advocacy, and a better climate future might’ve been shrugged off as P.C. extremists as little as five years ago. However, more recently, they’ve gained a stranglehold on mainstream culture that’s starting to affect me; it’s even being taught to vulnerable kids in schools, with picture books to boot (at least in my state). They basically just “decide” for everyone what they have to do, without exception, to be a good person. As a person with autism, who takes things literally and has a hard time understanding the gray areas in life, this has caused me to fall apart at the seams.

In other news, I have—for the first time in my life—voluntarily put on the news. The idea that it really is constant, unrelenting misery is completely true. Five minutes, and I guarantee you’ll lose all hope in mankind. I’ve been so shaped by these past two years during this STILL ONGOING pandemic that I’ve been making irrational choices. I’ve even had brief episodes of unhealthy altruistic delusions, where I was more-than-willing to donate irresponsibly to charities and run myself into bankruptcy (and that’s in addition to regular delusions in the form of uncontrollable sobbing). My loving mother is the only reason why I’m still here.

Similar to how COVID has opened us like a book, it made me face something that I had been doing my whole life: running from my American heritage. My strange disdain towards most things American is because of this. It’s why I rarely watch movies, don’t like death or nu metal (both of which originated in America), prefer to watch anime subbed, and don’t own an Xbox (the one American console I know of). It’s time I stopped running. Starting today, I will be beginning a New Years’ resolution to help people in any way I can for the rest of my life (for the sake of anonymity, I will not blog about any specific deeds (that also helps me build an unsung hero image)).

There’s also changes coming to the blog… well, one change. If you’ve read my latest Weeb Reads Monthly post, and light novel posts in general, you’d know how emotionally draining they’ve become. In case you haven’t noticed, there hasn’t been a Weeb Reads Monthly for December. And there won’t be one this month, or ever. Light novels—the initial reason why I started this blog—will never be covered again, effective immediately. The posts were just not good enough; I have no idea how Justus R. Stone’s group can write massive dissertations about a single volume. In any case, I will be able to enjoy light novels at my leisure again. You just won’t know what I think about them.

Let’s look at some more positives. Some kick-ass-looking metal bands are gonna debut this year, plus we get some hype videogames. That definitely offsets all the horrible things happening, right? I dunno. Maybe not. I’m still going insane. How have these past years treated you, and how do you plan to survive the third year of COVID?

Cynicism in Entertainment: When is it Too Much? Can There be Too Much?

This is probably something you can type into Google and find a scholarly Harvard thesis on. But since this topic has been bugging me for quite some time, I thought I could put in my two cents. I feel like the amount of cynicism in entertainment, or lack thereof, has been largely under debate since forever. And it’s something that’s come to a head for me on a personal level since the start of the pandemic, and as of finishing Volume 8 of RWBY. For this post, I’ll try to lay down both sides of the coin in a civil manner. There will be spoilers for RWBY and Re:ZERO among others throughout this discussion.

The first thing to bring up is the fact that darker times are hard to face in real life. And for some people, the SOLE counter to that is in Escapist fantasies such as those put out by Disney. That company has continued to inspire hope for generations, and is almost at the one-century mark of its running. On the flipside, Disney doesn’t make the bad things go away in real life. You will not only be faced with personal issues, but societal ones as well (more on the latter later). Even if you watch something like Soul for example, which has the lesson of living life to the fullest, you’ll still have to toil at school or a job even if you take that lesson to heart. 

But let’s flip it back again, and discuss the question I asked at the beginning: When is cynicism too much? At the point I’m at in Re:ZERO and RWBY, there have been so many deaths that it has completely desensitized me. The fourth (or is it fifth?) arc of Re:ZERO starts with a child being thrown from the top of a building, after which an entire crowd of people explode into blood and guts. This happens after the main character has died and respawned after at least a dozen gruesome deaths, including being eaten alive by hundreds of demon rabbits. And RWBY? There’s death everywhere! RWBY is particularly controversial because it started off as a very silly battle shounen, then took an incredibly dark direction following the passing of its creator. And for the record, it has legitimately made me depressed. While I have no doubt that any American drama is still darker, RWBY is the most cynical work of fiction I have ever consumed. It has literally made me think to myself: “Life was not God’s gift to us; it was a punishment.”

To define how cynical a narrative work is, you should first find a definitive answer to how dark real life is. The problem is that everyone suffers in different ways and amounts. Re:ZERO seems exaggerated, since I definitely haven’t lived a life where I watch a close friend die right before my eyes every single day. But what about someone living in the Middle East? There are refugees for a reason, you know.

But here’s the kicker. While I have written off stuff as “torture porn”, and accused people of reading too much into social media, I must admit that I’ve become like that as well. The pandemic has affected the lives of pretty much every human, yet instead of bringing people together, it bolstered existing issues and—in essence—ruined everything. It doesn’t take long to find news about fully vaccinated people dying of COVID, countries re-entering lockdown (heck, the bands I follow are still having gigs cancelled left and right), governments stripping unvaccinated people of human rights, California slowly burning to the ground, the slaughterhouse that was Travis Scott’s Astroworld concert, and other human failures. You don’t even need these past couple of years to see how miserable life has always been. America has violated its own Constitution, and created racist and misogynist propaganda since its birth. How can I write off series as torture porn, when they seem perfectly apropos to actual life?

The argument I see the most in favor of cynicism is that it makes the story more mature and intellectual. But sometimes I feel like it’s actually more childish than even Disney. One example that comes to mind is Dungeon Busters, which is an urban fantasy that shows the political ramifications of RPG tropes existing in the real world. I want to say it’s a really thoughtful series, but I’m not sure I can. Trump is portrayed in it as a whiny brat who wants to nuke everything. I don’t know if that portrayal is actually mature, and since we’ll probably never know what Trump was truly like during his term, I can’t say that Dungeon Busters’ Trump is effective. Also, there’s a scene where a supporting protagonist shows a deep prejudice towards Americans entirely because of America’s past crimes against Japan, such as the atomic bombings at the end of WWII, decades before her birth. You’re meant to sympathize with her. However, in real life, Japan allows and welcomes American tourists with open arms (at least before COVID). I can’t judge if such deep-seeded grudges are actually mature or not. I just can’t.

Another example I can place is the famous videogame, A Way Out. I’ve seen three playthroughs of it on YouTube, and that final plot twist will always be infamous. You know, the one where Vincent was actually a police officer trying to nail Leo, and Harvey—the game’s villain—at the same time? It’s SUPER cynical, because it basically implies that your closest friend will stab you in the back someday, that no one can mutually agree on anything, and that there’s no point in ever trying to be nice to anyone. They completely throw away logic (such as parts where Vincent commits other crimes while undercover and endangers civilian lives) in order to make a purely cynical gaming experience, and cause mental whiplash for the people playing by turning the game from co-op to PvP right at the end, with a different—equally sad—ending based on who lives. Does that really make it better, though?

There is no end to different examples of arguments over whether or not cynicism is too much. But regardless, I’m starting to think that there can never be too much of it. Thanks to what COVID has done to me, in conjunction with social media being itself, I have lost all hope. How much cynicism can you handle? Let me know in the comments!

The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles: I MISS THIS SERIES SO MUCH

PREFACE: I originally split this review into two parts, the first of which I recently deleted. The reason was that I wanted to jump in on the hype of Great Ace Attorney, but I couldn’t possibly beat both games in time. I’m sorry for not keeping my usual standards to heart. My second part of the review was so awful, I decided to shift gears to a full, proper review. I hope you enjoy it!


Time for a long story. While this is the first Ace Attorney game I’m covering on my blog, this is definitely NOT the first Ace Attorney game I’ve played. In fact, I’ve played through these games with my sister for years. Thing is, that was way before I had this blog. We played up through Spirit of Justice (with the exception of the Edgeworth games, but thankfully NintendoCaprisun had his videos of them for us), but that was five years ago. Now, we both have jobs. However, that didn’t stop us from squeezing what little time we had for a massive and unexpected adventure: an official U.S. release of The Great Ace Attorney spinoff series, with HD remasters for the Switch. 

In The Great Ace Attorney, we turn back the clock to the early 1900s, to Phoenix Wright’s ancestor, Ryunosuke Naruhodo. His lawyering career begins when he has to defend himself after a man is shot to death while he happens to be holding a gun found at the scene. Thus starts a saga that continues for generations.

The story structure will seem pretty familiar; episodic cases that build up to a bigger plot. And similar to the Edgeworth spinoffs, this one plays with your expectations. In fact, despite the lack of returning characters, The Great Ace Attorney felt very emotionally tense, considering its entirely new setting and cast. Some cases feature a jury (who actually exist this time, unlike Apollo’s game), and they change their minds a lot, making trials even more nerve-wracking when the scale leans toward guilt. While there are no straight-up bad cases, the third case is definitely where the game starts in earnest.

The writing in The Great Ace Attorney is great as always. From wry humor, to raw emotion, and spine-tingling suspense, Capcom once again demonstrates their writing prowess (if only that carried over to other games (*cough* Monster Hunter Stories 2 *cough*)). However, there are some big changes in the overall feel, more so due to this localization. And if I may write one more sentence, I’ll have an excuse to elaborate in a nice and organized new paragraph.

First off, the localization retcons the Ace Attorney universe. The main games have been set in an ambiguous country that could pass as just about anywhere, with the U.S. localization being set somewhere in California. However, The Great Ace Attorney universe doesn’t just scream Japan, but other countries as well. Fortunately, you aren’t required to know anything about old-timey world culture in order to solve a case, but Japanese honorifics are used without explanation.

Furthermore, the humor is very… hm, at times. It’s the 1900s, which means… racism. Ace Attorney has never held back on stereotypes, but it’s really nasty here. Foreigners act like Japan is a massive sh**hole, like an anime fan who hates ecchi. Their culture is even insulted right in the middle of their most supreme courtroom. You’re meant to chalk it up to English people being hotiy-toity, but I actually own a Japanese mythology research book, written at around that time, by an Englishman who fell in love with Japan, even shaming his own culture in one chapter. But when the story shifts to the U.K. itself, even our Japanese intrepid heroes act as if their own nation is a sh**hole. The U.K. definitely has the more advanced technology, but they even imply that the country has a richer history, which is a very subjective thing that’s neither right nor wrong (and is probably just meant to hype up London in the context of the story and I shouldn’t be reading into it this hard). 

ANYWAY, the characters, despite being all newcomers, stand within Ace Attorney’s cast as my favorite in any visual novel franchise. Ryunosuke is another new face, and I mean NEW. The first case isn’t just his first case as a lawyer, but he’s also had no experience in law whatsoever. He has a really unique arc where he gradually acquires the confident Ace Attorney animations we know and love over the course of the first case, and it’s wonderful to see. The Maya Fey of this game is a waifu named Susato, who is a bit of a kuudere; she’s condescending in a deadpan way, but some Maya-like qualities shine through at times (and she often proves herself a better lawyer than Ryunosuke). The Gumshoe is none other than Sherlock Holmes. Yes, I know the text says “Herlock Sholmes”, but if you play with Japanese audio, he is referred to as Sherlock Holmes. Based on this, I assume the reason for a lack of localization was a copyright thing, similar to the Stands in Jojo. In any case, he’s as confident as he is wrong about his deductions, i.e. he’s wrong a LOT but loves himself nonetheless. As much as I love Gumshoe, this guy grew on me very quickly. Screw it; he’s my favorite detective in the series, second only to Gumshoe (sorry Ema). Our prosecutor is Barok van Zieks. As one of the hunkiest antagonists thus far, he behaves like a scarier, more aggressive Klavier Gavin, where he’s sometimes willing to help the defense if things happen to go a certain way in the trial.

While the first game is great, the second game—Resolve—is truly a work of art. It’s the first linear sequel in the series, being a direct continuation from the first game, Great Ace Attorney Adventures. Resolve is easily as intense as Edgeworth 2 and Spirit of Justice. Resolve introduces the designated “case from a long time ago that started everything”, and this latest—or rather, first—incident is of a serial killer called The Professor.

Whenever I think they have run out of ways to play Ace Attorney, Capcom manages to surprise me. The Great Ace Attorney tries (no pun intended) fun new ideas both in and out of court. For instance, multiple witnesses can take the stand at once, and have their own testimonies. As a result, one person can have a reaction to what the other person says, and naturally, it’s a good idea to pursue that nervous tick. Unfortunately, this mechanic might be one of my least favorite gimmicks in the series. With one exception, each instance has a big “!” pop up, so it’s not even a case of having to know their poses enough. Also, it requires suspension of disbelief because the court itself proves to be the most braindead it has ever been. One example is when a witness is seen practically strangling another witness right on the stand. I know that Ryunosuke is supposed to have powers of observation, but you don’t need that power to notice these tells.

In trials with a jury present, you also have the power of the Summation Exam. Basically, when the jury unanimously votes guilty (which, in series tradition, will happen often), you get to hear their reasoning. At this juncture, you take a pair of statements from the jurors’ that contradict one another, and reveal said contradiction. Ryunosuke paces like a badass when tearing their reasoning apart, and it feels really good. The one dumb thing about it is that you’re warned not to press anyone during the tutorial, but you actually will need to press jurors for every solution after the first examination.

What’s extra super fun is the Deductions. Sherlock has a ridiculously over-the-top routine where he makes a wildly incorrect series of statements about an NPC, and it’s up to you to correct them by examining the NPC, the location, or by presenting evidence. These sequences kind of take a while, since you basically have to go through them twice, one to hear the initial take and two to correct it, but they’re awesome.

As a spinoff, Great Ace Attorney proves to be very difficult because it plays with your expectations of the series’ tropes. If there’s any pro-tip I feel like I should give, it’s to REALLY examine any new evidence as soon as you receive it. There aren’t many times where they’re like “If you didn’t examine any evidence you should do it now”, either. Also, dialogue in a specific case is actually affected by whether or not you examined a piece of evidence at the earliest opportunity. 

For a port made from the ground up during a thing-I-should-probably-not-bring-up-because-you’re-probably-sick-of-seeing-it-attributed-to-things-that-shouldn’t-have-anything-to-do-with-it, The Great Ace Attorney looks beautiful. The models are as on-point as always, but the environments are lovelier than ever, thanks to the Switch. They even have light sources flickering just like they would be in that time period. 

Unfortunately, this game probably has the weakest soundtrack I’ve heard in the whole series. Some of the character themes are good, but by keeping true to the time, I feel like they might’ve trapped themselves. And worst of all, the “Pursuit” theme shows up the least often in this game. Maybe that’s because of Ryunosuke’s character arc, but it still stinks.

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Final Verdict: 9.75/10

The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles was a better duology than I could have ever imagined. And the worst part about it is that it’s over; no more Susato Takedown, and no more Holmes. And until the mysterious seventh core Ace Attorney game comes out, there’s no more of the series as a whole right now. But as much as I loved these games, finishing lifts a weight off me because of how much harder it is to schedule play sessions. Regardless, The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is a must for series veterans. That’s just elementary, my dear fellows.

Weeb Reads Monthly May 2021

Another month, another delve into the light novel hole! Just for the record (which applies with all of these), the stuff I cover is less than 1% of what comes out each month. And yet, it’s still somehow less than the amount of anime that comes out every season. Geez laweez, this hobby is not easy!


Torture Princess Volume 7

This is it. Usually, when we have a perfect ending to a series, yet the series continues, it falls apart. For all intents and purposes, Torture Princess ended when Kaito sacrificed himself to seal away God and Diablo, all because he wanted Elisabeth to live. As the new main protagonist, Elisabeth comes across a strange man who tries to create an artificial Torture Princess. This guy, however, realizes that the person needs to be from another world for the whole thing to work. And it just so happens that he—somehow—has a girl who fits the bill.

This is mainly a dialogue-driven volume, a very different change of pace from killing two of the main protagonists. It boils down to Elisebeth having confrontations with these new villains and trying to figure out their motivation. The big thing is that Elisabeth going along with their plan would allow her to reunite with Kaito.

Speaking of these new villains… hoo boy. The ringleader, Lewis, is a pretty typical edgy villain guy; sadly, the weakest antagonist thus far. Fortunately, Alice Carroll more than makes up for it (get the obvious symbolism yet?). She’s royally effed up. Like, beyond belief. She acts all happy when she’s walking on guts or ripping butterflies, yet you can tell that she’s been through things. She has this trauma associated with having to apologize to people and it’s really messed up. Lewis, well, he did a good job making a Torture Princess, that’s for sure!

Overall, it’s a tense volume, with some action on the side. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as others, but that could be because of the drastic change in insanity from the previous volume, as well as my worries that the series will suck by going into a second act. But for the time being, Torture Princess has yet to disappoint!

Verdict: 8.9/10


Dungeon Busters Volume 2

It’s been too long since we’ve had a new volume of this pleasant surprise of a political fantasy. I loved how JRPG mechanics were integrated into real life ethics and economics in the previous volume of Dungeon Busters. We only got the tip of the iceberg then. Hopefully, with the groundwork laid out, the LN can start in earnest.

After getting an infodump on the various world events associated with the Dungeon phenomenon, Ezoe celebrates his first Dungeon clear. This accomplishment makes him quite notorious, and helps further the development of Dungeon Busters, Inc. Things around the world get shaky as well, with countries that aren’t Japan making pretty much no progress. There’s also a preview of someone with their own waifu card abusing their dungeon powers and causing mayhem in South America.

The problems I had with the first volume look like they’re going to stick. As before, Dungeon Busters seems to take its sweet time. It’s necessary, sure, but it doesn’t help someone whose schedule is as tight as mine is. The characters are also quite unremarkable, with the exception of Ezoe, and this bland cast is only expanding. We get a large number of new faces thrown at us, and the end of the volume teases SIX new, plot-relevant characters to be introduced.

My other issue is with the politics, especially now that this aspect has gotten fleshed out drastically. I have no real authority to vouch for the accuracy of these politics. It feels accurate, but that’s only because of the negativity that I experience around me. Sometimes it feels mature, and sometimes it feels like a twelve-year-old with a false understanding of politics.

Because of how heavy the political aspect is getting, I see Dungeon Busters as a source of anxiety for me moving forward. I seem all cool and stoic on this blog, but in real life, I’m a basket case struggling to merely feel like I have a right to my own existence. I am pounded by so much contradictory information, and I am currently unsure how to even live my life. While this is an alternate universe, it still feels very true to real life, and some stuff in here is not helpful for someone who’s trying to make sense in the midst of all the noise.

Verdict: 8.65/10


Do You Love Your Mom and Her Two-Hit Multi-Target Attacks? Volume 9

It feels like there shouldn’t be much more to this series. After all, we beat the Libere Rebellion. And yet, there’s still more. What new plot thread could be woven now?

If you couldn’t tell from the cover, this is the Christmas special. In an attempt to give the three remaining Kings a redemption arc, they turn the Kings (along with Masato because of lolz) into babies. They must forge new memories with Mamako and Hahako as they experience the classic Christmas spirit.

The conflict in this volume revolves around our resident spoilsport, Mone. She goes a little bit crazy and ends up causing a big ruckus. The young’uns will have to reexamine the relationship between mother and child once more in order to resolve this one. Other than that, the ending teases the finale. However, the author’s plan to end this eleven-volume series at volume ten is worrying.

Verdict: 8.7/10


ROLL OVER AND DIE Volume 3

So, the last volume was insane. How are we going to top eyeballs that absorb into people’s skin and turn them into mangled scabby flesh blobs? The only way to find out is to read the third volume of one of the best yuri LNs on the market!

As usual, this volume starts off slow and dialogue-driven. We learn about Gadhio and his motive for trying to take out the Church. We also see some chemistry between Sara and Neigass, even if it’s for all of five seconds. 

The real premise of this volume is the Church’s Necromancy project. Plain and simple, their thing is using Origin cores to bring people back to life as their actual selves, as opposed to, well… you know. Of course, in keeping with series tradition, that goes in the direction you’d expect. I.e. Spoilers which aren’t really spoilers, the people brought back to life aren’t really their actual selves. WHO’DA THUNK IT. Anyway, this volume easily tops the previous one during the insanity and heightened emotion of the climax. The ending shows some big changes coming to town, none of which benefit our protagonists. I can’t wait for the next release!

Verdict: 9.8/10


Conclusion

Well, I barely got this done in time. I literally just finished that Dungeon Busters volume yesterday. And oh boy, it looks like everything I care about in June will be coming out within the last ten days of the month. Hooray!

The Ideal Sponger Life: The One with the Canonical Waifu (Volume 1 Review)

I’ve known about The Ideal Sponger Life for over a year now. The problem was that only the manga, published by Seven Seas, has been available in English. Fortunately, J-Novel Club has come through and FINALLY licensed the original light novel series for Western consumption. Has it been worth the wait?

In The Ideal Sponger Life, a salaryman named Zenjirou Yamai is summoned to another world, by a queen named Aura Capula. She wants a hubby, and Zenjirou fits the bill. Obviously, he decides to marry her.

However, it isn’t that simple. Zenjirou really thinks through with his decision, and it’s made readily apparent that there’s more to this arrangement than meets the eye. For some reason, Aura wants him to just lie around and occasionally have sex. The early chapters of the volume also showcase that fantasy worlds are great and all, but are incredibly uncomfortable if you’re too used to modern technology. Unfortunately, this aspect is quickly made a non-issue when Zenjirou is able to briefly return to earth to bring a generator back to the fantasy realm.

The big problem with this volume is that it’s not… wrong enough! I thought that this was going to be all about Zenjirou having sex with Aura and a bunch of maids; that would’ve made for some interesting debates and whatnot. In fact, this thing skips any raunchy content with a mere “After they had sex, blah blah blah…” I’m being adamant about this because Sponger Life isn’t that remarkable otherwise. The only real plus is that there’s an actual explanation for the “isekai language” trope, but that just results in some needlessly tedious language lessons that he doesn’t need because he can already speak their language AS A RESULT of the “isekai language” trope!

Sponger Life’s writing is about as problematic as most light novels. It HAS to be a translation issue, because they all (even the good ones) have bad grammar and redundant word usage. As a blogger, I’ve become less and less tolerant of that kind of stuff, and honestly, it’s really bad that it’s coloring what’s supposed to be the core content I cover. 

Speaking of redundant, guess who doesn’t like any of the characters: me! Zenjirou is kind of okay; too okay! He’s smart and composed, which some critics would respect, but he doesn’t help make this series controversial enough. Aura isn’t the iron-fisted lady I was expecting either. I was hoping she was more dominant, but due to the in-universe sexism, she’s actually incredibly awkward. One scene implies that she is very physically strong, but due to the aforementioned sexism, I doubt she’ll be showcasing her strength too often. Another case of Sponger Life trying to be as ethical as possible is when they introduce a private tutor named Octavia, a wife of some noble guy from another nation who would—in ANY other setting—be sent to seduce Zenjirou because of politics. Hopefully that’ll come up in future volumes.

~~~~~

Verdict: 7/10

I probably shouldn’t have let multiple years build up to something like this. The Ideal Sponger Life has all the setup for an incredibly sexy isekai, but ends up being extremely typical. I can only hope that things ramp up from here, or else it’ll be ANOTHER drop on my part.

Dungeon Busters: Pokémon Go But You Don’t Get Hit by a Car (Volume 1 Review)

I love myself some JRPGs (even if I don’t have time to play a lot of them anymore). The fantasy settings are (usually) very vibrant and pretty (I wish I could sleep in some of these settings), and you can hunt animals for money without having to worry about a mass extinction! Dungeon Busters brings the idea of living in a JRPG to our world.

In Dungeon Busters, a middle-aged salaryman named Kazuhiko Ezoe finds a dungeon in his backyard. When he enters, he initiates the “Dungeon System”, which will cause dungeons to appear all over the world. In eleven years, all the monsters of any uncleared dungeons will destroy all life on Earth. Kazuhiko is determined to clear all the dungeons and save the world.

Well… technically, he doesn’t clear all the dungeons himself. His goal is to grind up enough money to start funding his own organization to take down dungeons. As someone who likes JRPGs, it feels good to see Kazuhiko evolve and gain skills (and min-maxing, of course). The “game” mechanics are also very well thought-out. It is quite repetitive with exposition dumps, but that’s because Kazuhiko kind of has to reiterate it a lot in the context of the story; it shouldn’t be like this moving forward.

Like any incomprehensible phenomena that impacts the whole world, the dungeons get political. As you can expect, all of the governments of the world respond less efficiently than one man’s individual efforts. At the very least, they tackle the real-world impact of an infinite source of money and energy, ordinary humans being able to grow stronger than a pro wrestler, potions that can restore body parts, and other videogame tropes. The weird thing, however, is the fact that every nation except for Japan has a different name (also, the president of the U.S. is based off of Trump, which will very shortly make this series quite dated). This could be foreshadowing a twist, since the opening chapter shows the world—curiously enough—already being destroyed. What if Dungeon Busters IS an isekai, only it’s an alternate version of our own sekai?

As someone who’s read so many light novels, the writing of 99% of them feel exactly the same. Despite that, there’s a wild sense of variance in quality. Dungeon Busters doesn’t feel like it does any writing differently, but it’s more than sufficient for some reason. There is one problem, however: the P.O.V. changes are awful, sometimes switching into a minor character who never appears again. They also don’t show you who they’re changing into after the first time shifting to that character. 

Of course, it wouldn’t be an issue if the cast had personality, but sadly… that’s not the case. Kazuhiko is likeable enough at least. He’s down-to-earth, as to not come off as a sociopathic a-hole, but he at has some definable personality quirks; he’s very composed and utilitarian, always considering all the possibilities of the situation. Kazuhiko is essentially a chiller version of Seiya from Cautious Hero.

Dungeon Busters wouldn’t be a light novel without some controversy, and this leads into the inevitable harem. There is a card mechanic where you can summon monsters and items and stuff. The rarest type of card summons a girl straight out of one of those “waifu mobile games”, and Kazuhiko gets two of them. His first, Akane, is a sexy ninja girl who’s constantly trying to have sex with him. She’s at least a legal adult, but Emily, his other waifu card, looks like a twelve-year-old. Both of these girl cards only serve to discuss dungeon mechanics and be waifus. And it gets worse with Kazuhiko’s niece, Mari. She seems harmless enough; just your typical moe blob who exists just to pander. However, there is one scene that implies that she might have a crush on her forty-year-old uncle. 

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Verdict: 8.5/10

Finally, a decent light novel debut! Dungeon Busters isn’t perfect, but it at least has standards (ooooh, burn!). I’m curious to see what direction this thing goes in (and how much more political it’ll get). I recommend it to fans of DanMachi and slice-of-life fantasies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Daily Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Deadly Life

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

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

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

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

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

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


Stressful Life

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

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

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

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Current (Possibly Final) Verdict: 9.5/10

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

Spy X Family First Impressions (Chapters 1-17)

It’s pretty typical for some niche manga to make MyAnimeList’s Top 100. But it’s wild that Spy x Family (published in English by Viz), placed around the halfway point of the manga list in less than a year after its launch. Time for me to board this hype train and see if it’s worth it!

In Spy x Family, a spy named Twilight is among the best in the business. But when his latest mission requires him to marry and have a child, he’s positively flummoxed. His solution is to establish a pretend family, with an orphaned telepathic girl named Anya, and an assassin named Yor Briar.

The thing about Spy x Family is that it’s not a rom-com with spies, but a sitcom with spies. Twilight and Yor don’t know of each other’s professions, nor do they know about Anya’s telepathy. However, Anya does know both of her “parents’” professions due to her mind-reading ability. Normally, I’d cringe at such a dynamic, but the fact that it’s done in a comedic way instead of a romantic way (like in Marissa Meyer’s Renegades) makes it more enjoyable.

And seriously, this manga is enjoyable. Spy x Family’s formula is simple, but it somehow works wonderfully. The comedy is done seriously well, with almost every page making me laugh out loud. But it’s not just a gag manga; there’s an actual overarching story as well.

The main goal of the series is for Twilight to get close to this really important politician named Donovan Desmond, whose son, Damian, is attending a prestigious school called Eden Academy. Twilight’s solution is to have his “daughter” enroll in the school and get close to Damian. But Anya’s kind of a ditz… and getting by in such an elite school is considerably easier said than done.

What makes Spy x Family so great is its cast. Twilight comes off as rugged, but slowly warms up to the fake family that he makes. Yor is, besides being gorgeous, someone who genuinely wants to be a good mom for Anya. She does NOT hesitate to use her skills in public to help her daughter. But the piece de resistance is Best Girl Anya. She looks like one of those typical moe blobs who exist just to be cute, but she’s got a real personality. Since she’s aware of her father’s mission, she actually tries to do a good job for his sake… but ends up getting carried away very often. When this happens, hilarity and genuine adorableness ensue.

There’s a curveball in Yor’s brother, Yuri Briar. He’s a secret service officer, whose mission is to find Twilight. He doesn’t know that his target is pretending to be married to his sister, nor does he know that she’s an assassin. Just more layers onto the cake of secrets.

The art in Spy x Family is very cute and appealing. The characters are very expressive, and their designs are quite memorable. The action scenes also look great for a slice-of-life manga. But most importantly, the panel flow is spot-on, which allows the comedy to fire on all cylinders.

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Current Verdict: 9.75/10

Spy x Family is already one of my favorite comedy manga of all time. In fact, it’s probably the funniest manga I’ve read, more than my previous favorite comedy, Grand Blue Dreaming. Grand Blue’s comedy relies entirely on super visceral, over-the-top facial expressions, but Spy x Family is much more clever than that. I’d recommend Spy x Family to pretty much anyone!

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.

~~~~~

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.