If you know my blog, you know I tend to like a good sociopath. As a critic, I don’t like Mary/Gary Sue; sometimes I want a protagonist like Light Yagami, who smirks and says “All according to keikaku.” However, I know not everyone feels that way, and that’s why I anticipate that The Eminence in Shadow (published in English by Yen Press) is going to become one of the most contentious new isekai.
Our protagonist idolizes those who operate from behind the scenes, and he dreams of being a puppet master himself. The biggest thing standing in his way is the fact that magic isn’t real in our world. After years of training, he gets hit by a truck, and is reborn in a fantasy world as Cid Kagenou. With his wildest dreams now in his grasp, he (very quickly) builds a harem of cute girls, and calls said harem the Shadow Garden.
The Eminence in Shadow reeks of shallow wish-fulfilment, and not just because of the harem. Similar to the Secret Organization LN I reviewed (that got axed apparently), Cid pulls a non-existent enemy out of his ass by fabricating the Cult of Diablos. The women he meets fall for it hook, line, and sinker. Or at least… I think that’s the case? The opening lines in the volume are as follows: “The Cult of Diablos… That’s our enemy. Well… it’s not like they actually exist.” However, from pretty much the get-go, they’re already fighting evil scientists who seem to very much be real Diablos Cult members. I don’t know if it was implied that Cid bribed them into doing it or something, or if it was an oopsie on the author’s part (or option C: I didn’t notice it because I’m a dimwit).
Putting that logic issue aside, Eminence is pretty entertaining. It has a dark sense of humor, and that stupid level of teen angst that’s fun to cringe at. The story reads fast, and there’s plenty of gore and over-the-top action. There’s also some funny romcom-like antics that ensue as Cid tries to blend in as a side character at his school.
Speaking of characters, Cid is my favorite thus far; he’s a clever, conniving little sociopath. He’s also a pretty unique take on an overpowered protagonist, since he’s overpowered at techniques rather than, well, power. But other than him, everyone else is quite forgettable. His entourage of women are your typical tropes, and they’re all Cid’s lapdogs. The only other remotely likeable characters are this sadistic princess, Alexia, and Gamma, one of Cid’s women who is somehow both a mastermind and a ditz at the same time.
The art in Eminence is great. It has an edgy color palette which fits in perfectly with its image, and the characters at least look cool, even if they aren’t particularly enjoyable. I’ll definitely be looking forward to what the future volume covers look like.
Although it’s a bit confusing at times, The Eminence in Shadow is off to a great start. It’s edgy, trashy, and scandalous. For now, I recommend it to fans of similarly edgy franchises, like Persona.
I was apprehensive about sports manga at first. Whenever I saw my father watch football, I was like, “Why are so many Americans’ entire lives defined by a game made for entertainment purposes?” (he says despite how videogames and stuff define his life). As a result, I never chose to read sports manga… until I read Haikyuu!!, published in English by Viz. With its rather lengthy run in Weekly Shounen Jump, simple story, and massive fanbase, Haikyuu!! has definitely become mainstream. But despite my aversion towards said mainstream, I think it deserves the praise.
In Haikyuu!!, a short boy named Shoyo Hinata dreams of becoming a volleyball champion. Despite his height, he has great reflexes and jumping skills. Unfortunately, in junior high, he is utterly schooled in a match against setting prodigy, Tobio Kageyama. In the aftermath of this humiliating defeat, Hinata attends Kararsuno Highschool, the same as his idol, the Little Giant. However… Kageyama ends up attending the school as well! With their abilities, they just might bring the school back from its long volleyball slump.
Like I said, Haikyuu!! is simple; straight as an arrow. Since it’s a sports manga, it’s an underdog story about a couple of young upstarts and their volleyball team. Compared to Eyeshield 21 and Kuroko’s Basketball, it’s really nothing special. But I always believe the execution is more important than the idea, and the execution is where Haikyuu!! delivers.
The best thing the series does is buildup. Haikyuu!! is really good at creating anticipation for upcoming matches. From Karasuno’s rival school, Nekoma, to the powerful Shiratorizawa, there’s a reason behind every fight. Unfortunately, there’s only so much that can happen in a volleyball match. It’s an inherent problem with sports narratives, but volleyball is literally just hitting and blocking a ball. Basketball and football at least have different directions and formations, while in volleyball, players are stuck on set sides of the court, and in a set position that rotates throughout the match.
Furthermore, Karasuno’s team kinda sorta has plot armor in a sense, more so than in usual shounen manga. For the uninitiated to volleyball (myself included), the sport is played in sets. This basically means that all volleyball matches are a best two out of three (or three out of five in rare cases). From a writing standpoint, it’s a no-brainer for the really, really important matches in a volleyball narrative to last the full amount of sets. As such, I concede that the matches in Haikyuu!! aren’t too exciting during most of the early sets.
But once they hit that third set, it becomes a pure adrenaline rush. At that point, it’s easy to get fully immersed in Haikyuu!!, despite the pretty obvious plot armor. The climaxes of fights are when the manga is at its peak, and putting up with the other shounen tropes is well worth the payoff.
Even with the adrenaline rushes, Haikyuu!! wouldn’t have been the same if I couldn’t be invested in Karasuno’s volleyball team, which I’d consider to be one of the best teams in all of sports manga. Almost every one of its members has a definable personality trait, as well as some major hurdle to get over. This might be cliche, but the chemistry between Hinata and Kageyama is the best in the whole manga. Their clashing attitudes, and desire to one-up each other make them always entertaining to see.
I also must acknowledge some of Karasuno’s opponents. While the mangaka doesn’t flesh out every SINGLE member of those teams, they each have at least one or two memorable characters. They also go through the backstories of these teams during the matches with them, to hammer in the fact that Karasuno isn’t trying to beat an “evil volleyball team”, but a team of normal, likeable people who have the same aspirations that our protagonists do. It’s effective, but it gets kind of redundant over time.
Of course, no sports manga can be good without amazing art, and Haikyuu!! has some amazing art. While the artstyle looks disjointed and sketchy at first, the mangaka ramps it up to eleven when the emotional tensity warrants it. They’re also a master at gesture drawing, which really sells the power and speed of each shot. The panel flow is amazing, and always kept me on my toes; I never knew if a spike was actually going to count until the little scoreboard popped up in the panel.
However, there’s one last thing about Haikyuu!! that sets it apart from its contemporaries. But I can’t mention it without spoiling endgame content big time. On the flipside, it’s something that could make or break the entire series for you. As such, I made the following paragraphs the same color as the background. If you want to read the spoiler, then highlight the section of your own free will. Otherwise, skip to the end of the post.
A lot of sports manga- and Jump manga in general- are meant to be inspirational and lighthearted. They give hope to the underdogs out there, and have themes oriented around never giving up and achieving your dreams. However… Haikyuu!! is not a manga about success, but a manga about failure. Karasuno fails. Sure, they lose some early tournaments, but that always happens in sports manga. If the team loses, there’s usually some loophole in the tournament rules, or a magical secret tournament that they can use to reach some sort of glory. But that doesn’t happen with Haikyuu!! Karasuno FAIL-fails. Even after the third-years graduate, the first-years are not able to avenge them. Despite my aversion towards cynicism, I actually love that this happened. I have mad respect for the mangaka for taking such a big risk with a mainstream I.P. like this. I have no idea if any sports manga has ever done this before (except Hikaru no Go, but that manga doesn’t count because it’s not very good and it doesn’t go into any sort of aftermath either), but Haikyuu!! does it really well.
I know, I sound like a hypocrite, saying that this tonal shift is a good thing. It makes me sound like the people (*cough* Western critics *cough*) who say that cynical narratives are more “realistic” because “people don’t achieve their dreams by force of will alone” and that “life is meant to be miserable”. Normally, when we see a cynical narrative, it’s a long process of seeing the main character fall into pieces and wax poetic about how “suffering is the only truth in the world”. But Haikyuu!! takes cynicism and twists it into something truly unique. Instead of wallowing in misery, the cast of Haikyuu!! just… lives. Haikyuu!! is about being able to make like a cat poster and “hang in there” even if you never achieve your dreams. Sad to say, I do truly believe that a lot of people can never achieve their dreams, just because of how our society works. But that doesn’t mean you kill yourself. That’s the lesson. The final arc of Haikyuu!! is just adult Hinata having fun playing volleyball with new and old friends. Narratively, it’s not very exciting, but it ends in the best way possible: a rematch between Hinata and Kageyama, using all the skills they’ve learned throughout the course of the story.
Final Verdict: 9.25/10
Haikyuu!! is an amazing manga, and is definitely among one of my favorite Jump manga of all time. It’s more grounded than most shounen, so I can more easily recommend it to critics. For once, Haikyuu!! actually deserves swimming in the mainstream, and I’m glad that a lot of people love it.
The siren song of money is a powerful one. Additionally, said song can be applied to a specific site’s built-in currency that can help you SAVE money. I didn’t really want to read Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out! (published in English by Seven Seas), but I couldn’t resist the 70% Coin Back on BookWalker! So, let’s see what the cost of my stupid decision was.
In Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out!, Shichirin Sakurai is a typical, introverted college student. However, he is constantly approached by his kouhai, Hana Uzaki. She launches an all-out verbal assault on him until he, well, hangs out with her. And thus, various shenanigans ensue.
This manga is dumb, that’s pretty much intentional. There is no intention to have a complex plot or drama. While the premise is reminiscent of Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki, which- of all things- offended me on a personal level, the one distinction with Uzaki is that she’s forcing her way into Shichirin’s life because she’s stupid, instead of forcing him to date strange women just so that her preconceived image of him matches his actual image (seriously, why do people love Tomozaki so much?).
Unfortunately, the humor comes off as pretty dry. The basic formula is to take everyday activities, and add boobs and a lot of yelling. Most of the time, Uzaki acts like an idiot, and Shichirin ends up in an ecchi-like situation. Other than a few clever blips (such as an epic speech about mint chocolate), there’s not much finesse in the execution whatsoever. The manga also tries to have something called “Poop Cat” appear, but it’s not funny nor clever. But hey, I’m a tough nut to crack.
The characters are perhaps the weakest aspect of all. I tend to have a soft spot for some one-dimensional characters, but the cast of Uzaki-chan is- I don’t know- zero-dimensional?! Uzaki is incredibly marketable, what with her immense assets, and that weird canine-tooth-shaped protrusion on her upper lip that makes her stand out from the 99,999 other girls that look exactly like her. She seems like the type of character who comes off as funny as an extension of her being an idiot. This works on a case-by-case basis, and this is NOT one of those cases.
Meanwhile, Shichirin is a pretty typical dude. He definitely doesn’t hate Uzaki, but that doesn’t stop him from being the usual witty-comebacks-guy. Other than that, we have the audience surrogates; some friends who want Shichirin and Uzaki to be in bed together. HOW META AND RELATABLE. But in terms of personality, they were lacking by a large margin.
Speaking of lacking by a large margin… the art! The manga is very average and typical looking; that kind of super-simplistic style that’s so basic that the anime doesn’t look that much different by comparison. The panel flow is not taken advantage of for comedic effect. And furthermore, Uzaki-chan is somehow on par with Hunter X Hunter for the most amount of words on a single page.
Current Verdict: 5.5/10
Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out! is a cute, mindless manga, but there are way better of its kind out there! It feels like it follows the bare-bones basics of comedy and thinks it can use boobs to get away with it (which it seems to be succeeding at wildly, according to the anime episode discussion). Don’t bother reading this manga; if you want something better, read D-Frag or Grand Blue Dreaming instead.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Escapist fantasy is often panned by critics and cynics as “childish crap for babies who want to avoid their real life issues.” But, you know, sometimes it’s important to just turn your brain off and stretch your neural legs in some fantasy world. The Map to Everywhere series, written by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis and published by Hachette Book Group, is just that; escapism at its finest.
On paper, Map to Everywhere is a pretty generic isekai. Marill Aesterwest is worrying about her sickly mother when she follows her cat to an abandoned drug store. In the parking lot is a magic body of water called the Pirate Stream, and she ends up going on a journey with a cool wizard guy and the unremarkable Fin to find the pieces of the Bintheyr Map to Everywhere. And even when they complete the it, that’s only the beginning.
If you couldn’t tell from the names I mentioned, the Map to Everywhere has a lot of clever word puns in it. It doesn’t stop at the words either; the multiverse of this series is one of the most imaginative that I’ve seen in a while. The Pirate Stream connects a whole mess of different worlds together, and they’re all very interesting setpieces, including an ice cap that’s so cold your breath will freeze into the words you say, and a sinking city that’s constantly reconstructing itself. Additionally, the Map itself is also more than just a couple of MacGuffins. The pieces of the Map actually have very meta functions, such as the compass rose finding other pieces, or the margins being able to hold impossible structures together.
The characters are also pretty darn good. I’ll get to Marill later, so let’s discuss Fin first. Fin is generic, but the authors twist the trope by making his genericness into a superpower; everyone he sees forgets about him. However, Marill doesn’t forget about him because… of love, I guess (their dynamic is my least favorite in the entire series). Supporting them is the wizard Ardent, shipwright Coll, and eventually the sassy Naysayer. But out of the bunch, my favorite character is Remy, introduced in the second book, City of Thirst. Remy is Arizona’s best babysitter, and she ends up tagging along on the Pirate Stream. She is the only other person who remembers Fin, and it’s simply because she’s a babysitter and not something as contrived as love.
The writing is pretty solid, with a lot of dynamic font style changes to represent different things. However, the multiverse of Map to Everywhere also shoots itself in the foot. While the setpieces are inventive and descriptive, sometimes they’re just too insane to describe in human language. One of the worst offenders is a place that has chunks of land literally getting sucked into a whirlpool, and the gravity fields there make Super Mario Galaxy look logical.
The multiverse of Map to Everywhere itself also has issues. Magic in modern fantasy often violates its established ruleset, and they end up expecting you to suspend disbelief because “it’s magic.” Map to Everywhere constantly tells you that the Pirate Stream behaves however it feels, and this enables the authors to kind of do whatever they want and get away with it.
But the biggest problem is freaking Marill! She’s not just generic, she’s also annoying. Her entire driving force in this series is to be able to cure her dying mother’s sickness, but her drive gets way out of hand. There are a lot of times where she argues with Fin over whether or not the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and it’s as contrived as heck. It only gets more ridiculous in the final book, along with an additional Mary Sue stipulation, and ultimately solidifies how much I didn’t like her.
Final Verdict: 8.5/10
The Map to Everywhere is a flawed, but fun and corny fantasy romp that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s sure a heck of a lot better than stuff like Five Kingdoms! As long as you don’t require any insightful, intellectual life message to enjoy something, then there should be no harm in picking up the Map to Everywhere series.
Before I get into this post, I should remind you that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is one of the most popular franchises in the world. And popular means marketable. Therefore, many other authors have tried to duplicate the series’ success. Some of these Harry Potter wannabe cases have resulted in book series such as Keeper of the Lost Cities and The Unwanteds, which are only appealing on extremely superficial levels. But sometimes, a little touch of a thing called “thought” can actually give a Harry Potter knock-off some of its own merits. Let’s see if that’s the case with Holly Black and Cassandra Clare’s Magisterium series, published by Scholastic.
In the modern world, magicians select random adolescents to test for magic potential. Anyone who tests positive is taken to Magisterium to learn to fight the Enemy of Death and his Chaos magic. Callum Hunt is taught to fear Magisterium, and is compelled to throw the examination. But he doesn’t just fail; he fails so spectacularly, that he passes with flying colors, and it’s off to Magisterium for him!
As much as he’s told to resent Magisterium, it doesn’t take long at all for that Stockholm Syndrome to set in, for the school isn’t just “Hogwarts-again”. While it’s not as defined in terms of its layout, Magisterium at least has a well defined (and simple) system. The years are labeled Iron, Copper, Bronze, Silver, and Gold, in that order, which also happens to be the order of the books, making it easy to remember.
There is also the magic system: Fire, Water, Wind, Earth, and Chaos (spoiler, the fifth one is evil magic). It’s not very inventive, but it’s at least not like Keeper of the Lost Cities‘, “Hey, let’s have five billion different types of magic at once, because Sophie needs to be POWERFUL so that all the teenage girls will be inspired to be like her or whatever.” As you can expect, Chaos magic is the dark-type magic that can corrupt souls and junk.
The final decisive advantage that Magisterium has over the rabble is… that it’s SHORT! Hallelujah, holy shit! There are only five books in the series, at approximately 250 pages apiece, much better than Keeper’s “Lord of the Rings x10” length. This means that it can focus on just plot progression (i.e. what we actually care about), and not stuff like Keeper‘s stupid Sophitz Vs. Foster-Keefe drama, or Harry Potter‘s own #SaveTheDobbies subplot. And it’s actually a good plot to boot. The writing wasn’t the best, but it was at least enough to keep me wanting more.
Unfortunately, the short length also means that things end anticlimactically. Harry Potter had an epic final battle, involving so many characters that we’d seen since the very beginning finally duke it out with Voldy’s Death Pimps. But since the Magisterium books are so short, climaxes are here and gone. It’s not like Monogatari where they talk for so long that they forget to fight in the first place. There are battles, they’re just short and unceremonious. This also includes, sadly, the final battle, which I calculated to be around 15-20 pages in total. But hey… silver lining. Being short is still the better outcome.
In order to discuss the characters, I must spoil a reveal about our boy, Callum. This is a spoiler for the climax of the first book, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t wanna read it. The thing about Callum is that he does not exist. At the end of book one, he is told that he is harboring the soul of Constantine Madden, who happens to be the Enemy of Death. This puts him through quite the moral conundrum; something that not even Harry Potter had to go through. Being the “bad guy” would seem to make him super unrelatable, since the kiddies want to project themselves onto the “righteous hero”, but he’s actually relatable in a different way, as he’s constantly suffering an identity crisis (typical of most kids as well).
We also have Aaron, who isn’t actually a Ron Weasely clone. Aaron ends up being a Makar, which is not the guy from Wind Waker, but instead the term for a Chaos magic user. The policy in Magisterium is “fight fire with fire,” as only another Makar can fight the Enemy of Death (I guess?). Call has to be his counterweight, which basically means that he has to make sure Aaron doesn’t get consumed (easier said than done).
The female lead is Tamara, and she’s basically Hermione, minus being smart. She’s kind of a typical tomboyish girl who doesn’t really have anything interesting going for her. The final main character is Jasper, who is basically Malfoy, except he actually becomes an ally after a certain point. But other than his frequent, unfunny jabs at Call, he’s not too interesting either.
In the end, the moral conundrum that they try with Callum falls flat. Sure, he has to deal with his whole crisis, but there’s always a defined antagonist to make him look good. Like I said in my review of Arc of a Scythe, not having a villain that the readers can sympathize with makes writing morally gray narratives really hard. Because of this, it never really feels like Callum has any issues whatsoever. I’ll admit that they do some stuff with Aaron later that’s pretty interesting, but it feels meh in the long run.
The only reason why there’s a moral conundrum is because Magisterium is run by twelve-year-olds. I get that it’s intentional, but it’s still dumb how the faculty are next to worthless. When Callum’s issue is inevitably revealed, at least half of them are like, “He’s a murderer, throw him in jail, arrgh!” with no hesitation. It makes sense for other students to be jerks about it, but the adults should’ve had a more rational approach because they’re… ADULTS. There’s also the policy on the Devoured, which is when a person gets too into their element. The Magisterium says that being Devoured turns you into a rampaging monster, yet EVERY SINGLE Devoured that appears in the story is WELL in control of their humanity. I get that’s also intentional… but that just makes it arbitrary.
Final Verdict: 7/10
Despite all its flaws, Magisterium is still the best Harry Potter knockoff I’ve read to date. The authors try some interesting ideas, but once again, it seems that teaching young’uns about moral ambiguity is impossible. No! Kids must be raised believing that there’s only one-dimensional good and one-dimensional evil in the world! Well whatever… Magisterium has decent entertainment value. If you were threatened at gunpoint to read through all of a Harry Potter knockoff, then pick this one.
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.
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).
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.
This isn’t the first time I’ll say that I don’t like factoring relatability into quality, and it won’t be the last. And despite how much I can relate to the titular character of Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki (published in English by Yen Press), I will absolutely not factor it into the final score of this series. Well, assuming I even finish it, since there are a billion things out there right now..
Fumiya Tomozaki views life itself as the Dark Souls of… life itself (great analogy there)? Basically, he ranks humans in tiers, with higher tiers given an unfair advantage over bottom-tiers like himself. And as such, he just plays videogames, which make more sense to him. However, all of this changes when he meets a tough online opponent IRL, who turns out to be top-tier girl Aoi Hinami. After a serious argument, she convinces him to let her give him the “tutorial” for the game that is life, so that he can pick himself up and not be a piece of crap.
As someone who’s content as an introvert, this premise immediately made me uncomfortable on a personal level. While I don’t entirely agree with Tomozaki’s attitude, his viewpoints of life are undoubtedly true; after all, there are some individuals who have more net worth than entire nations in this world. But what bothers me the most is that whenever we have an introverted main character, they are forcibly put through the social wringer until they become an extrovert. I get that there wouldn’t be much of a narrative without the goal of making friends, that at least 99% of the human race actively seeks out relationships, and that Japan is really hypersocial, but the nature of the situation in Tomozaki really irks me.
But like I said, I’m not factoring all that personal-schmersonal crap into the score, no matter what.
The writing in Tomozaki is better than I expected. With the titular character as the narrator, you get a lot of videogame terminology lumped into aspects of everyday life. It’s not very descriptive, but it’s set in the real world, you can just picture where they are based on intuition.
Since this is technically a rom-com, the characters are gonna be the bread and butter. Unfortunately, they don’t give off a good first impression. Tomozaki is pretty passive; because of his situation, he just ends up getting strung along by Hinami every step of the way. He’s also treated like an idiot because he seriously knows NOTHING about social interactions, not even what one could glean from basic intuition (and I relate to him- Nice job giving yourself a good reputation, Mack). Hinami seems to be the Best Girl, because she is literally the best at almost everything. She has a funny quirk where she minces the word “exactly” and acts like nothing happened, but I see it becoming an old meme quick, especially when the anime airs. Although the interactions between Hinami and Tomozaki are where the series is at its best, the former sometimes comes off as a real b**** to me. The other characters aren’t even worth talking about yet; they are very one-dimensional, and some of them are kinda a**holes.
The art is pretty unremarkable. It’s a nice, tame style for a rom-com, but it’s not my cup of tea. It’s probably still more presentable than the anime will be.
Sorry, but this is the score I’m giving volume 1, even when I’m not factoring personal input. A lot of people on social media have hyped this thing to be an amazing masterpiece. But so far, Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki is a generic “degenerate boy meets perfect girl, who helps him become an upstanding person whether he wants to or not” but with videogame jargon thrown in for what seems like further pandering. It’s a solid rom-com for someone who’s been in Tomozaki’s position (and of course, wants wish fulfillment).