Lightyear: Pixar’s Simplest Movie

Well, aren’t we lucky this year? Pixar didn’t just give one movie; they gave us two! While Turning Red was great, all the hype was put into the in-universe first installment of the Buzz Lightyear franchise that spawned the popular Toy Story character whom we know and love: Lightyear. It sure looked like a departure from the formula, and those departures tend to be really something. Let’s hope this one meets the company’s high standards.

In Lightyear, the titular character crash lands his ship full of science crew on a hostile alien world. Traumatized from his eff-up, he insists on testing each attempt at reproducing hyperdrive technology. However, each time he does it, time on the planet passes several years because science. By the time he succeeds, everyone he knows and loves is dead, and there are killer robots running around. I feel like the latter is more pertinent.

Before talking about the movie itself, I kind of want to bring up something funny. The visuals, as always with Pixar, are stunning. It looks cartoony, yet photorealistic, as usual. However, keep in mind that in the Toy Story universe, this came out in the early 1990s. That means that CG movies looked better than reality itself, in that universe. I don’t know if that’s supposed to mean something for any Pixar theorists, but I’m just throwing it out there.

In terms of the movie itself, I’m going to be perfectly honest: I’m actually having a hard time trying to find an abundance of positives with Lightyear. For the record, I saw it in theaters, and I’m sure I made it clear how I feel about those. Also, the pre-show had a politically charged climate crisis commercial in it, which put my anxiety on edge for a lot of the beginning of the movie. 

Lastly, I—for some reason—expected something with more nuance. Lightyear is not meant to be like Pixar’s usual introspective stuff; it’s a popcorn flick. I generally don’t do popcorn flicks at all, and I have only seen Disney and Pixar movies lately because I know they aren’t popcorn flicks. I’m just annoyed that I had to go through all the usual theater crap just to see a popcorn flick. I get that most people watch movies just like this all the time, and it’s a customary experience for them. Me being disappointed at Lightyear being overall very mindless and driven entirely by sensory-overloading spectacle is entirely my fault.

With all that being said, I’m going to try to discuss the story—without spoilers—in a scholarly way even though it’s simplistic enough to be described in one sentence. The story is, well, not too remarkable, and this is coming from a Disney fan, which is saying something. Although most of the company’s films are straightforward, there’s some kind of takeaway that only adults can really appreciate. The Incredibles, for example, is definitely a popcorn flick, but it’s one of Pixar’s best movies. In addition to pulse-pounding spectacle, we get the complexities such as Syndrome’s character arc, and clever interactions that I never noticed as a kid, such as when Helen and Bob are arguing about which directions to take to pursue the Omnidroid during the climax. Lightyear, as I’ve implied, has none of that. It’s a mindless action romp where Buzz and a ragtag team of textbook underdogs fight the evil emperor Zurg. The cherry on top is that time travel is involved; that rarely leads to a coherent narrative, and this is not one of those times.

I also found the cast to be among the lamest in a long time. Buzz is perhaps the worst of them all; when a toy version is better than the real thing, you know something is wrong. His obsession with getting everything done himself, and completing the mission, is the catalyst for the entire conflict of the movie. The epic, badass space ranger, whose toy counterpart has won the hearts of millions for decades, is a simple case of “you gotta rely on your friends” straight out of a Disney Junior program. 

There are only four other protagonists who play a major role in the movie, three of which are those aforementioned underdogs, and I only caught one of their names: Izzy Hawthorne. She’s the granddaughter of Buzz’s idol, but she’s not as competent. There’s some skinny guy who’s scared of everything, and a mad convict grandma. Of these three, I only liked the mad convict grandma. She was the best. Everyone else felt like typical characters, whose arcs most people could predict in their sleep. The other character I enjoyed was a robot cat named Socks (or is it Sox?). He’s basically the comic relief, but he has some utility, such as vomiting tranquilizers. 

Zurg in this movie is… er… well, he’s something. I can’t even discuss him without spoiling the movie. Basically, there’s a BS twist that is implied—in context with the universe—Andy, and even Toy Buzz, have known all this time. Since it’s Pixar, I can only assume that the reveal with him has been foreshadowed way back in Toy Story 1, and even the old Buzz Lightyear cartoon that I only remember because it had the voice actress of Shego from Kim Possible in it (MatPat will probably have a video about it if he hasn’t done so already). However, foreshadowing or not, the twist itself approaches Kingdom Hearts levels of nonsensical, and some of the important details are glossed over.

I’m really giving it some flack, so I should highlight some positives. Lightyear is, for all intents and purposes, a sci-fi spectacle drama whose main protagonist is named Buzz Lightyear. However, Pixar manages to really make it believable that it is a Buzz Lightyear movie. All the details are there in the right places, including each line that would inspire the toy’s iconic phrases. They at least did something right.

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Final Verdict: 8.25/10

When Disney and Pixar travel off the beaten path, they tend to put out some of their best and weirdest stuff. Lightyear was not one of those times. In fact, this is the most disappointing Pixar movie I’ve seen in years, even if most of those feelings are on me. Regardless, it’s at least an enjoyable movie, especially considering the kind of “cinema” that most audiences have grown accustomed to by now. As long as you enjoy spectacle movies, Lightyear should be right up your alley.

RWBY Might Just be the Most Cynical Animated Program of All Time (Second Impressions, Volumes 1-8)

When I did my first review of Rooster Teeth’s RWBY, I watched the first five seasons and walked out of it pretty stoked to finish the series. It had flaws, but not enough for me to be leaning on the side of the series’ very loud critics. Now, as of being caught up with everyone else… I can finally say I am one of those critics. I touched upon my feelings regarding RWBY in my small dissertation on cynicism, but here, I will elaborate on my change of opinion in more detail.

In the world of RWBY, people rely on some magic junk called Dust, and that’s their only way to fight these monsters called Grimm. One night, a girl named Ruby Rose takes on some criminals with a crazy scythe-gun, and is sought out by Ozpin, the headmaster of Beacon Academy. He decides that “you’re a wizard, Ruby!” and instantly bumps her into the prestigious school, two years in advance. There, she meets three more color-coded girls (her older sister, a tsundere, and an emo girl) and they go on adventures together.

Like any show that’s entirely CG, RWBY takes a hot minute to get used to… especially the first season. The movements are janky and the backgrounds are dull. However, by the third or fourth season, the models get more polished, and the quality is substantially improved in all areas. Most importantly, they incorporate more of the subtle mannerisms that I actually give a crap about in animation as a whole. The fight scenes are also really appealing, even if they violate all forms of actual fight choreography, and have the camera swing like it’s attached to the end of a yo-yo.

The team at Rooster Teeth really understood what it takes to make a good battle shounen. The first two seasons are genuinely hilarious. The comedy is on point, and the spectacle-driven fight scenes really help sell the sense of fun that the show tries to provide. One of my favorite scenes was at the beginning of season two: an over-the-top, epic food fight in the school cafeteria. That scene really showed what a great gag shounen RWBY can be.

However, if you’re no stranger to shounen series, you know that RWBY wouldn’t be all about the LMAOnade forever. It happens to a lot of them, from Yuyu Hakusho to Dragon Ball. Around the halfway point of its third season, RWBY takes itself more seriously. MUCH more seriously. At the time, RWBY‘s original creator tragically passed away. And while I could just yell “They ruined Monty Oum’s legacy!”, I won’t do that because I don’t believe there was any documentation of what he actually wanted to do.

Fortunately, the show stays pretty consistent on committing to a more serious atmosphere, unlike series such as Re:ZERO. The plot does get more involved, but it maintains a relatively solid sense of cohesion, which is something that most shounen can’t do. With better animation, it’s much easier to take the show seriously because they actually have a good chunk of money to spend on it.

However, the transition isn’t made without a few bumps in the road. This is also common among shounen, but RWBY had it particularly rough. It didn’t just become a more involved version of what it already was; it tried to become a seinen. Seinen is a term used to describe manga and anime for mature audiences, and they tend to be everything that shounen is not. Taking a gag shounen and turning it into a seinen is literally like transforming an apple into an orange.

I sound like I’m just dissing it for being a genre change because it’s not goofy like it was before; a common criticism apparently. However, I’m someone who’s enjoyed something silly like Spy X Family about as much as something serious like Naoki Urasawa’s Monster. I’m not criticizing the change in RWBY because I’m not too big a fan of cynicism (even if that is a bit of a factor), but because it’s not… interesting. The story goes from novel to typical. It’s practically a generic YA fantasy with boring, ham-fisted social commentary on first-world problems. Oh, and the cherry on top is that any attempts at horror elements consist of predictable (but effective because eff the human mind) jumpscares. 

One example of this is the Faunus. They’re a race of animal people that are—surprise, surprise—harshly discriminated against. And, well, the symbolism with said discrimination is practically spoon-fed to you. They live on an island called Menagerie that segregates them from humans (Native American reservations),  they were used as slaves in the past (African slave trading), and there’s an anti-racism extremist group called the White Fang (oh, and by the way, Rooster Teeth didn’t predict the protests from two years ago because Black Lives Matter had already formed at this point). I mean, how much more ham can you pack into that fist of yours, Rooster Teeth?! I get that the issue of racism is important, but at this point in human society, what is the take-away of showcasing it for the billionth time (besides virtue signaling that is)?

No matter how awry the plot goes, what kept me going were the characters. And I’ll admit it: RWBY has a solid cast. To a point. The four girls are all likeable to some extent, plus they get genuine character development to boot. I liked Ruby the most because I tend to default to the “lovable idiot” trope of shounen protagonists. On the flipside, Blake ended up being my least favorite, because she does the most whining and brooding.

The side characters are a mixed bag. In my First Impressions, I stated that my favorite character was Ruby’s frequently-drunk uncle, Qrow (angstily misspelled of course). However, as the show went on, Qrow came off as less of the bad-ass old timer, and more of a Debbie Downer; the minute things don’t go the squad’s way, he’s all “We should give up and crap” and the girls have to pull a nakama power speech out of thin air to tell him otherwise (and don’t get me started on that “relationship” he has in the seventh season). My new favorite ended up being the underdog, Jaune. He literally begins the series being called “Vomit Boy”, but over the course of the story, he grows and matures into one of the best supports for Team RWBY. A kid named Oscar tags along as well, and while he starts out as baggage, he ends up growing into a man rather quickly.

Unfortunately, there are some less-than-remarkable folks on their team as well. Out of the main group, a stoic boy named Ren ended up on the bottom. He was pretty boring normally, and what little character development he has is covered in its entirety over the course of three episodes. And after that, the characters act like the experience never even happened. His companion, Nora, isn’t that much better. She’s likeable for the same reasons as Ruby; she’s ditzy and bouncy and fun, but it’s to the point where she basically is another Ruby. 

One of the worst is an android named Penny. You’re expected to fall in love with her as soon as you hear her first “Salutations!”, but remember that this is Rooster Teeth. They do that because she’s the punching bag of RWBY. She suffers to no end, being framed for crimes committed by the villains, discriminated against as an android, and even “killed” once in season three (before eventually being rebuilt of course). I’d feel bad for her, but RWBY sucked out any empathy I can have for anyone in it by this point. 

The following passage contains spoilers, because I can’t not bring up the squandered character arc of James Ironwood. He starts out as that gruff, military Mr. Magoo, but doesn’t return until the seventh season. By then, he has a slow descent into madness. At first, it’s compelling because there are necessary sacrifices to be made for an edge in the war against the Grimm. However, in between seasons seven and eight, someone didn’t get the memo that RWBY isn’t a shounen anymore. In the most recent season, Ironwood basically becomes Hitler, allowing for no fascinating moral debates; a decision that could’ve been made in part due to pandemic stress, and since it feels like all American media is politically charged these days.

And my disappointment doesn’t stop there. RWBY’s antagonists have the one-dimensionality of most shounen villains, but none of the appealing personality. The first antagonist introduced, a one Roman Torchwick, is a legitimately entertaining villain, but if you know anything about the first antagonist of a shounen, it’s that they don’t tend to last. A staple antagonist ends up being a woman named Cinder, and other than trying too hard to be sexy, she’s very boring with a really basic backstory that tries too hard to tie into the show’s uninteresting edgy fairytale symbolism. Cinder has minions in these two kids named Mercury and Emerald, and they have no personality other than owing their whole existences to Cinder because of their incredibly basic tragic backstories. Cinder reports to the main antagonist of the series, a witch named—get a load of how creative it is—Salem. She is also very boring; basically just Maleficent without any of the charisma. 

No shounen antagonist gets by with just three minions! In addition to Cinder and Co., Salem has three more cohorts… of lacking substance. In fact, I even forgot two of their names, and hereby designate them as Pedophile McSwordArtOnlineVillain, and Mustache. Those names are them in a nutshell, more-or-less. The third person, Hazel (henceforth known as Hazelnut), ended up being my favorite villain. He was just about as boring as the rest, but his voice actor’s performance was a hilarious to me. For some reason, American audiences seem to think that all male actors should speak in deep, gravelly voices. Hazelnut takes that mindset to such an extreme that I laugh every time he speaks! Oh, and for the record, all of the villains, except this umbrella lady named Neo, have the least interesting character designs in all of RWBY.

Current (Possibly Final) Verdict: 7/10

While I normally love hating popular things, I really didn’t want to do it to RWBY. To be honest, I think both its diehard fans and most toxic critics are in the wrong. However, in their defense, the way the series flops can catch you off guard if you’re not as familiar with battle shounen tropes as someone who’s seriously deep in the otaku hole. 

Unlike most battle shounens, however, I am particularly mad at RWBY for a unique reason. From the beginning, I could tell that Rooster Teeth weren’t “casuals” who watched Dragon Ball and the other internationally beloved anime. They really seemed to understand it on an intimate level. They should’ve seen how their favorite series drove themselves into the ground, and worked to avoid it. Maybe they could’ve taken inspiration from something like One Piece, which has only gotten better after twenty-plus years. But no, they followed the genre to the Nth degree. They didn’t only make the same mistakes; they did it with that distinctly American cynicism. 

To be clear, I am not mad at RWBY’s more serious arc because it’s darker. I’m mad at it because the ideas going into it become stale. They resort to contrived teen drama, smooth-brained judgements, and the writers being extremely arbitrary in various aspects of the story. After the tone shift, everything about RWBY feels meh. I. Stopped. Caring. 

RWBY, I just… don’t know. For what it was, it remained consistently cohesive and had great directing. But alas, it just didn’t feel like, well, anything. If you’re an adolescent teen, then you will probably think RWBY is the greatest thing ever, and you won’t even notice any of the mistakes it made. Otherwise… enter if you dare. Side effects include major depression and mood swings.

Blood Scion: This Might be the Most Brutal YA Novel of All Time

Other than the amazing cover art, I honestly don’t know why I decided to read Deborah Falaye’s Blood Scion. Sure, I’ve read many books that deal with the topic of racism. However, with the exception of Tristan Strong, I can’t tell you if my glowing reviews of books like Legendborn and Blood Like Magic were based on the actual quality, or the guilt-stricken White man who’s tried to run from his American heritage his whole life. Also, I’ve been getting more and more into folk metal. Thanks to this sub-genre of music, I’ve begun to feel like these diverse books give off an understandable but grim rage and hatred that have caused me extreme mental anguish these past two years. Yet, here we are, with you reading my review of this book.

Why do I even bother going over the premises of these kinds of books? If you’ve read any of the aforementioned books, this’ll sound familiar: a girl named Sloane Shade is Yoruba, a race of innocent folk whose lives were turned upside down by the White supremacist Lucis menace. What’s worse is that she’s additionally a Scion, descended from Shango, the Orisha of Fire; Scions are an extra no-no in this world, and the Lucis do not hesitate to off them. She, like her mother before her, has stripped herself of her culture and heritage to keep her rinky-dink little village (and grandfather) safe from the Lucis, who tend to execute the relatives of those they deem criminals. And if it couldn’t get any YA-er, she gets drafted into the Lucis military to fight as a child soldier against the Shadow Rebels, who are Scions that refuse to hide. Cool. Might as well infiltrate their archives and get to find out what happened to her presumably dead mom!

Are people so P.C. that everything has to give a disclaimer warning? This is the third book I’ve read that’s done it, and the other cases came out in 2021 at the earliest. Anyway, if you couldn’t tell, Blood Scion checks off a lot of items on humanity’s laundry list of social issues that give me despair from the fact that they’re all still ongoing. In case you’ve never read a YA novel that deals with these issues before, let’s go over them thoroughly. 

The big one is racism. The Lucis persecute the Yoruba, and treat them as slaves. Some are taken from their homes to rot on literal plantations. This also technically counts as colonialism, since the Lucis are invaders who happen to have better technology. On top of that, we also have what I believe is called internalized racism, since the Yoruba have been brainwashed into hating their own heritages. There’s also mysogyny and sexual assault, since the Lucis are very much portrayed as rapists, such as one who tries to do such a thing to Sloane in the first chapter before he gets burnt to death by her power.

There’s also the child soldier thing. Yeah, that’s a bit messed up, especially since Sloane has essentially been drafted to kill her own brethren. Anyone who goes A.W.O.L. gets shot dead, plain and simple. Basically, it’s Divergent but harsher. The final cherry on top is cultural appropriation, which is shown when the Lucis queen, Olympia, is casually wearing Yoruba garb for shits and giggles.

Despite how fascinating West African culture is, I feel like a lot of authors who dabble in it paint a pretty bland picture. In fact, Tristan Strong paints the only picture I would call lively. Fortunately, Blood Scion isn’t “just take typical Western fantasy tropes and change the name” like a lot of other novels. There is a bit of a science fiction spin on worldbuilding, since the Lucins have electricity and whatnot, while the dark skinned villagers don’t have crap. *Sniff* Aaaaaah… the fresh reek of colonialism. Thanks I hate it.

Blood Scion is written as you’d expect any YA novel to be; verbose, full of adjectives, and in the present tense. It’s effective, but doesn’t at all stand out from its contemporaries, especially when compared to Xiran Jay Zhao. Nonetheless, “effective” means “effective.” Blood Scion sinks the dagger into your heart and twists for maximum laceration. Falaye hams in the brutality of how Sloane’s people are treated; a brutality that you don’t have to look too hard to find in the real world.

I thought that with COVID, the war in Ukraine, and this being the eighth-or-so book of its kind that I’ve experienced, that I would be desensitized to Blood Scion. Nope, that didn’t happen. I found myself overcome with the all-too-familiar, soul-crushing despair caused by White supremacy.

Despite how brutal Blood Scion is, it still has a lot of the tropes that occur when the main protagonist is sent to some kind of disciplinary facility to train in some form. In order to make an underdog story, Sloane starts out as a bad apple in a bunch of cosmic crisps. On top of that, we have the “impenetrable fortress” with the most convenient blind spots. It takes suspension of disbelief when they have spotlights, guards, and trained jaguars patrolling the place, yet they magically don’t get caught when sneaking out one night. Also, everyone and their grandma has smuggled some kind of weapon into the camp, meanwhile when they see Sloane they’re like “Oh my god, TEA LEAVES?! Nope, we gotta confiscate that.” 

The biggest flaw of Blood Scion is its cast, in that if you’ve read any YA novel besides Iron Widow, you’ve seen them all before. Sloane is literally Bree, Zélie, Rue, and Voya; yet, to my luck, she’s probably the weakest among them. Like many YA girls, she’s all talk and next-to-no walk other than random, arbitrary spurts of badassery. Like I said before, she gets pummeled in camp in order to make her an underdog. On the other hand, Best Girl Zetian would’ve just torched the place and been done with it. Sure, there is an actual stipulation in that Sloane can’t risk getting caught, but she still ends up using her power at least once, to save someone who just so magically happens to be Yoruba as well. Most notably—minor spoilers—there is no catharsis with her character arc, at least not at present since there is a forthcoming sequel and all. The training regimen is meant to strip kids of their humanity, and sadly, that’s inevitable with Sloane. I don’t even want to say any more about this, lest I puke.

On to all the other relatable and wholly unremarkable characters! Malachi is a bully who at least has a believable motive to hate Sloane; his parents died in a fire she caused by accident. However, all that does for him is make him a Saturday morning cartoon bully who is interchangeable with literally any YA male of his kind. Sloane’s supporters are relatable teens named Izara, Nazanin, and Jericho. Beyond their tragic backstories, they’re kind of deadweights.

Among the White supremacist Lucis, we have the somewhat human Dane Grey. He isn’t the most racist guy at camp; instead of killing Sloane, he just humiliates her instead. The rest of the Lucis? From Lieutenant Faas Bakker, to Queen Facism herself, they’re monsters, and I hate them. I hate them because they exist in this world, and are running it to the ground.

There is a silver lining here. Blood Scion really goes off the rails toward the end. Falaye legitimately caught me off-guard with a lot of developments, and pulled off things that I didn’t think any YA author had the gall to do. It also really showcases how convoluted the issue of race has become.

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Final Verdict: 9/10

Is this even an impartial score? Despite its flaws, Blood Scion was pure pain and suffering for me. It was full of such sadness and rage, and Sloane didn’t even feel like a particularly empowering character (although that could be because any YA protagonist other than Zetian feels like crap). In all honesty, I don’t even know if I have the mental fortitude to read the sequel, let alone any more books on this topic. Is this really supposed to help with racial healing? If you wanna try and find out, then be my guest.

Dr. Stone: Sid Meier’s Civilization Just Got a Lot More Anime

Dr. Stone is one of those manga that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It became exorbitantly popular (deservedly so) during its initial 2017 debut, even winning itself the 2018 Shougakukan Manga Award under the Shounen category. That same year, I got into the hype months before its anime adaptation was even announced, and it quickly became one of my favorite manga of all time. The anime was also very good for a TV anime, and I—along with many other people—watched it while it aired. However, it aired alongside Kimetsu no Yaiba. And as anyone who saw that nineteenth episode go viral and single-handedly put both the anime and its source material on the mainstream overnight, Dr. Stone—while still running for a perfectly respectable period of time afterwards—practically vanished off the face of the earth as a result. As the contrarian I am, I nonetheless committed to Dr. Stone, and—you know what—it’s still one of my favorite manga of all time. Let’s find out why.

In Dr. Stone, a boy named Taiju is about to confess his love to a cute girl named Yuzuriha. However, right at that moment, a bright light covers the earth, turning all humans to stone. Thousands of years later, thanks to his testosterone-fueled drive for the girl, he manages to break out of the stone shell, awakening in a world that has been reclaimed by nature. There, he sees his classmate, Senku, who promises to use his incredible wealth of knowledge to restart all of human civilization.

Dr. Stone is a science-themed adventure manga, which is a very unusual style for the shounen genre. But hey, the manga makes science fun. There’s a lot of cool and interesting things that happen throughout the story, and it’s all very engaging. The humor is ridiculously on point as well. However, Dr. Stone is a science FICTION manga, and thus, you can’t not have creative liberties taken. As many, MANY critics on the message boards pointed out back when the anime aired, the science isn’t 100% accurate. Sure, maybe some chemical or whatever took a bit faster than what it’s supposed to in order to finish cooking, but for the sake of pacing, would you want five chapters of waiting for a thing to be done brewing? There’s also the fact that Senku is literally reinventing the wheel when it comes to all this civilization stuff, so he won’t need to waste time making the mistakes that were made a million years ago because those people already made said mistakes.

Another criticism I’ve seen ad nauseum was the fact that it doesn’t go for any darker tones when the opportunities were present, and that “Dr. Stone would’ve been better if it was seinen”. Granted, Dr. Stone would be a GREAT seinen manga, but I think it’s perfectly fine as a shounen manga because of how hard it commits to being lighthearted. When presented with one of the potential dark questions regarding if it’s actually better to NOT bring back civilization, lest the world return to its old state of corruption and war, Senku literally says that he wants to bring back civilization because he thinks it’d be fun. Fun, that’s what Dr. Stone is at its core. THINGS DON’T NEED TO BE DARK TO BE GOOD *huff* *huff*…

Anyways, the characters are what makes Dr. Stone come to life. My boy, Senku, is insanely narcissistic and I love him. His cunning, as well as his tendency to count in increments of ten billion, make him one of Jump’s best heroes (or anti-heroes) ever. “BUT HE’S WAY TOO SMART FOR A HIGHSCHOOLER! THAT’S UUUUUUUNREEEEEEEEEEEAAAAALIIIIIIISTTIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIC!” you exclaim VERY loudly. I’m not going to get into the endless debate of the limits of suspended disbelief, but if you don’t like what you’ve read about Dr. Stone in this review, then it’s clearly not for you.

But hey, there’s still your fair share of idiots. After all, Taiju maintained consciousness for thousands of years on sheer force of will (“FORCE OF WILL?! ALSO UNREALISTIC!”). He’s always hilariously dumb, and his chemistry with Senku is great. Yuzuriha comes into the mix, but I’ll admit that she’s not too interesting outside of being super cute.

Fortunately, they aren’t the only ones who survive the apocalypse. There’s the super swole Tsukasa, who serves as the first major antagonist, and the charismatic pig-Latin-speaker, Gen. But in addition, there’s a whole tribe of primitive humans (whose existence gets explained). Among the villagers are Chrome, who is literally Taiju, but with a better knack for science. There’s also Best Girl Kohaku, a cute tomboy that you do NOT want to mess with, and the cute Suika, who literally wears a fruit on her head and rolls around in it. Later on is the rich boy Ryusui, whose talent as a navigator, coupled with his all-encompassing desires, make him a refreshing take on the greedy noble trope.

Of course, with Dr. Stone being a shounen manga, I have to put out the usual warning about the ending not being what you might want it to be. I have no idea what the manga’s state was at its end (I wouldn’t be surprised if it got axed), but… I would be lying if I said they didn’t jump the shark, even by Dr. Stone‘s own standards. At the same time, they almost make fun of critics who use the “realism” card, because you’d essentially have to know all the secrets in the cosmos to be able to declare if something is realistic or not. In any case, this manga is more about the journey than the destination. 

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Final Verdict: 9.85/10

The few hiccups in Dr. Stone don’t stop it from being one of my favorite manga of all time (although I’m probably the only human on Earth who gives it this rating). It’s a cute, non-cynical celebration of humankind and its evolution that actually shows some semblance of hope for once. I can’t really recommend Dr. Stone easily because of the kinds of buttons it pushes; you’ll have to decide if this is the kind of thing you’ll like.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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After All These Years: 9/10

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

Slime Rancher: A Wholesome Management Game Draws Near!

I had known about Slime Rancher for a while thanks to StephenPlays’ First20 video he made years ago. I never watched the video, but it at least got me to acknowledge the game’s existence. And when I finally looked at its Steam page, I kind of wanted to try it. So, here we are. I just love making time management increasingly difficult.

Slime Rancher throws you in like cold turkey as you assume the role of Beatrix LeBeau, who runs a slime ranch in the Far, Far Range. Raise slimes and profit, basically. That’s it.

Like many games of its kind, Slime Rancher is complicated. The basic idea is to corral slimes, and feed them food to earn plorts, which are sold for money. However, you have to account for the many different slime types, as well as their behaviors and diets. Also, slimes can eat plorts, and eating a different type than their own turns them into a largo slime. These poop out plorts of both source types when fed, but eating a third type turns them into dangerous tarr slimes that can cause SERIOUS trouble.

The game doesn’t hold your hand, but in a good way. You get all the knowledge you need in your Slimepedia, and it’s up to you to figure out how to make all these different systems mesh. If you jump the gun trying to raise multiple types of slimes too soon, it’ll get ugly and high-maintenance. Also, if you place too many slimes without the higher wall and ceiling upgrade for their corral, they can pile up enough to escape pretty easily and eat your stuff (and each other’s plorts, creating more tarr). 

Fortunately, things really get going once you get cash. Spend it on various facility upgrades, as well as expansions of the ranch to allow more variety (and room) for slimes to be raised in. Essential upgrades include the jetpack, for exploring, and the ability to store and use water, ideally against tarr slimes. However, new upgrades seem to unlock completely at random. There are likely hidden prerequisites, but it’s not all clear what those are.

Exploration is the key here. There’s a LOT to the Far, Far Range. It’s full of presents, which are pretty useless as they only contain cosmetic items. The important stuff are the map stations and gordo slimes. The former is self-explanatory, but gordo slimes are large, stationary slimes that come in every type. Feeding them a lot of the favorite food of that slime type will give you important rewards, from keys to unlock new regions, to your source of fast travel from one region back to the ranch. While the world ends up being pretty small, there is a lot to it. The best aspect about it is that its design allows for sequence breaking in a lot of spots. With enough jetpack upgrades, you can fly up to the highest point in the level!

The lab opens up a massive portion of the game. With it, you can craft gadgets with Slime Science. These gadgets can place automated devices to find resources, and more importantly, the ability to create your own fast travel points for yourself and for items found while exploring. Simply deposit plorts and the various resources found with the automated devices into the refinery, and consume them in the fabricator to create your gadgets. Buy blueprints to get more rewards.

However, despite the “family friendly” tag on Steam, Slime Rancher can be tough. Not only will it be overwhelming at the beginning, but those tarr slimes are very scary early on. You can easily avoid them spawning on your ranch, but they can naturally spawn in the overworld (and I wasn’t willing to test if they can spread to your ranch from there). They can’t even be dealt with until you get the ability to store water, but once you do, they aren’t so bad.

You can disable them by playing the game in Casual Mode, but that doesn’t remove feral slimes. These guys will very aggressively hunt you down until you feed them something. Unfortunately, slimes are weird with acknowledging food. While not a problem on the ranch, since you can just vomit it into their corral and they’ll eat it eventually, but obviously feral slimes are a different situation. There were way too many times that I fired their preferred food directly at them, and had that food completely ignored, while I got bodied. Also, the Slime Sea is an instant death trap, and there are areas where you will have to platform over it. If you want a real challenge, play the game in Rush Mode, where you’ll need to be the best dang rancher you can be to make money fast.

In addition to a large world, there are side distractions, one of which is The Wilds. Here, you’re thrown into an area filled with feral slimes, and the entrance as well as the exit is in a random location. Collect as much of the special fruit found only in this area and redeem them for rewards to aid you in your ranch.

There’s also a fun challenge from this narcissist named Mochi. With her, you do a timed minigame where you collect lightning projectiles to shoot at an area-exclusive slime for their plorts. These plorts are automatically collected, and you turn them in for a lot of money as well as other perks.

The third and final side activity is the Slimulation. This is a virtual replica of the overworld. Vacuum up glitch slimes, which disguise themselves as regular slimes (but with Ditto faces), and as geometry that isn’t present in the real version of the world. After a while, glitch tarrs will appear to cause chaos. Once the exit portal appears, follow the guides to escape before you become a virtual snack. All glitch slimes are converted to bug reports, which are redeemed for an exclusive resource as well as other rewards.

The biggest problem with Slime Rancher is that completion, as is with most games like this, can be a hassle. While the map is good for your bearings, it’s not easy to find stuff in the world. Gordo slimes are marked off after you feed them once, and gadgets that you place get added to the map as well. But that’s it. Treasure pods—both unopen and otherwise—cannot be marked on here. In addition to a number of strange achievements, you must also earn a highscore in Rush Mode, which is a money-focused speedrun mode with a time limit.

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Final Verdict: 9/10

Slime Rancher is an addictive and wholesome management game that puts a smile on my face. I already have the sequel wishlisted, and hopefully it’ll expand on the established mechanics to make something even better than this. I recommend it if you like management games like Stardew Valley.

Belle: Modern Fairytale Tropes Meet Internet Allegories

How long has it been since I saw an anime movie in theaters?! Oh right, 2021… Completely forgot about Earwig and the Witch (for good reason). More importantly, however, how long has it been since I saw a Mamoru Hosoda movie?! I actually own Summer Wars, his only movie I ever saw, and that was years ago. I didn’t exactly love it, mainly because I’m an autistic person who doesn’t understand neurotypical family relationships (i.e. half the movie), but his artstyle is pretty novel and I always wanted to give his other films a chance. The problem was that he apparently hates streaming? Call me a Zoomer, but streaming is a crucial money-saver in this century (and it helps Earth because it saves on the resources used to make a physical copy). Fortunately, Hosoda’s newest film, Belle, premiered in theaters just recently. I was skeptical due to it being a romance, but if I didn’t see it now, I wouldn’t be able to see it ever! Was the risk still worth taking, though?

In Belle, a social media network known as U is spreading like wildfire, dethroning Zuckerberg and becoming the most popular platform of its kind. It’s a virtual network that connects directly to your body and creates an avatar called an AS based off of your innermost self. It’s the perfect hobby for motherless, socially depressed Suzu, who ends up becoming Belle, the world-famous virtual singing sensation. However, things get dicey when she has a run-in with the Dragon, a naughty-boy avatar with a lot of cryptocurrency (and probably NFTs) on his head. 

Holy crap… Where do I begin with this movie? While straightforward, it ended up being way more involved than I had ever expected, especially compared to Summer Wars. Let’s start with the first thing you notice: how it looks. It’s called Belle (the French word for beauty) for a reason, and I’m not talking about the main character’s name. The movie looks absolutely spectacular. Hosoda’s style involves trading texture for consistent fluidity; basically, imagine a TV anime’s artstyle but with actual animation. The CG in Belle is some of the best I have ever seen in an anime, massive in scope yet able to incorporate the most minute little mannerisms. I probably shouldn’t be surprised, since it’s been over a decade since Summer Wars. I’m immensely glad I saw it in theaters.

I should also talk about the soundtrack. A lot of it is made up of original musical numbers, which are very orchestral and surprisingly powerful (for not being metal). One of these songs is called ‘U’ (like the setting), and it’s composed by King Gnu vocalist Daiki Tsuneta’s side band, millennium parade. They’re a band I tried when they were first starting out, but ended drifting away from when I converted to metal. I had no idea which song happened to be ‘U’, but since the whole soundtrack was solid, I feel like it was one of their better songs. However, you’ll just have to wait for my review of their debut album from last year before you know if I meant that as a compliment. Yay, marketing!

So, when it comes to Belle, it boils down to two major components: one, it’s inspired by Beauty and the Beast. No shit, Sherlock. The other aspect is that it’s an allegory to the beautiful digital prisons of our creation. It’s not new nor cerebral, but Hosoda conveys the general feel really well. Textboxes tend to clutter the screen as people mutter their crap. People make up stuff about themselves as well as stuff about others, such as the Dragon. Rumors form, cancel culture takes hold. The main villain, named Justin, is an SJW running a squad of Ultra-Mans who can literally reveal someone’s personal information to the world. As a blogger with a pen name, I could feel that anxiety of letting your other self be traced back to you. 

Of course, what it boils down to is some good ol’ fashioned waifu power. Suzu has to find the Dragon (or Beast, in case the symbolism wasn’t obvious enough), and make him less emo because… love? I dunno, she just gets enamored by his naughty-boy-ness when he first shows up. The plot is very straightforward for the most part. Despite it being Allegories ‘R Us, there’s nothing really left up to interpretation. Despite that, I still found myself surprisingly engaged throughout the whole film.

This is especially surprising because the cast was… something. Suzu is extremely relatable; in fact, Hosoda didn’t need to pull the “kill the mom” trope at all to make a character that people will resonate with, especially in this day and age. She has the classic Internet celeb character arc of having to find her true self between her physical and virtual bodies. Most of the others are just plot devices. Her nerd friend Hiro does all the techy stuff when she has to, these old ladies at this choir club Suzu attends offer support when they need to, etc. There’s some cringe-inducing, very teenagery romance, including a subplot involving some saxophone-playing girl and these two studs from school, and it means absolutely nothing. Also, why does Suzu’s father exist? He is the most passive fictional parent ever, practically letting her do whatever she wants. 

Also, the Dragon doesn’t get much elaboration either. It’s sufficient if you understand visual storytelling, and narrative tropes in general, but a lot of his arc also feels very plot device-y. Minor spoilers, he ends up not being among the characters we discussed, making his big reveal anticlimactic. On the flipside, it is realistic with how kids these days lose their minds over people whose physical forms they’ve never seen in any capacity (plus, Dragon’s situation is pretty darn urgent). Of course, being a romance, the ends justify the means this time around. 

Justin, the aforementioned villain, doesn’t get much development either. There’s no big fight against him or anything; he just ceases to exist after some point. Maybe that’s an allegory to beating back cancel culture people: ignoring them. In addition, don’t expect anything regarding the reason why U exists at all. They simply say it was created by “The Voices,” but we never get any more than that. The main focus of the movie is the romance, and the lack of any explanation of U is something that needs to be shrugged off.

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Final Verdict: 8.65/10

I dunno why, but I really loved Belle. I was prepared to call its social commentary pretentious and its romance manufactured, which it arguably is, but I wasn’t mad for some reason. Hosoda has the same Disney-like vision that Miyazaki has, but he adds a lot more of that quintessentially anime nonsense that makes Japanese culture so exotic to Westerners. Most importantly, he’s a SIGNIFICANTLY better director than Makoto Shinkai! I’d recommend Belle, but by the time you’re reading this, you’d probably have to rent it off of Amazon Prime video. Hosoda movies on streaming services pleeeeeeeeease!

Disney’s REAL Edgiest Animated Feature: Treasure Planet Retrospective

The turn of the 21st Century wasn’t the worst era of the Walt Disney Company’s history, but it sure was one of the strangest. Following their Renaissance Era in the 1990s, they did some weird stuff. First off, they made a lot of cash-grabby, low-budget sequels to existing I.P.s that nobody asked for. In addition to that, any new I.P.s were serious departures from their classic formula, and it wouldn’t be until Princess and the Frog that they went back to the way things were. That era came with cult classics like Atlantis: The Lost Empire (which I covered on its twentieth anniversary last year), The Emperor’s New Groove (which I’d do a retrospective on if I didn’t have it memorized), and… an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Treasure Island. For the latter, they changed the genre to science fiction, and named it Treasure Planet, which I had not seen in over fifteen years until watching it for this post. Oh, and by the way, being someone who doesn’t read classic literature, I never read Treasure Island, so don’t expect any intellectuality whatsoever here.

Just in case you’ve somehow never heard of Treasure Island, allow me to give you a run-down. A boy named Jim Hawkins finds a map and is like, “Wow! Treasure Island!” He goes on a pirate expedition to find the place. And since the novel is super-old, the product description now spoils that one of the pirates, Long John Silver, is secretly the main antagonist. Treasure Planet is pretty much the same, except he has no dad, and his house burns down because it’s Disney (oh, and it’s in space).

There ended up being a lot more to say about Treasure Planet than I thought initially going into it, and it’s pretty much impossible for my train of thought to not go all over the place. What immediately stands out is that this is probably the edgiest core animated feature Disney has ever put out, even more so than Big Hero 6. This was the early 2000s, and everyone—even Disney—was embracing full edge culture. And as we discuss the various components of the movie, you’ll see just how edgy it is.

One thing I do remember as a kid is how much the setting blew my mind, which isn’t saying much, of course. To be honest, though, Disney was pretty creative with a lot of aspects of the movie. One example is a spaceport that’s literally in the shape of a crescent moon. Also, in trying to blend the pirate and science fiction themes, they ended up inadvertently predicting NASA’s Lightsail project. Just keep in mind that they do some things that require major suspension of disbelief, like when they survive a supernova and escape a black hole from well within the event horizon. The movie has some intense action sequences, in case you couldn’t tell from the aforementioned supernova and black hole. They are some of the most violent in Disney’s animated films, more so than in Atlantis.

Again, I have no idea what Treasure Island was like, but Treasure Planet definitely has some of those beloved Disney clichés. One of the worst is the case of Jim Hawkins’ father, who isn’t dead, but missing. It’s definitely different from Disney’s usual emotional hook of killing the parents, but it feels half-assed here. For starters, his dad doesn’t appear at all at the beginning when Hawkins is a toddler (before he left), so it’s kind of just thrown at you when he turns into an angsty teen. They also never explain what happens, which can technically be construed as something to leave up to interpretation. It’s possible that he tried to go to Treasure Planet on his own, or that Long John Silver could be his father. Since I don’t like to psycho-analyze and retcon Disney movies, it’s one of those things that has to be glossed over. There’s also some other silly hiccups, such as the death of this one red-shirt guy. He’s murdered by a lobster dude, and they pin it on Hawkins, which is later just overlooked (it’s as if that guy was killed for shock value). Lobster guy gets away with the crime, leaving Hawkins to have an abnormally easy time getting over what he thinks is him committing involuntary manslaughter. Other than that, Treasure Planet is pretty straightforward. They go to the titular planet, find the treasure, escape before it blows up, and learn that the real treasure is the friends they made along the way. That last part is quite literal, because the bread and butter of this movie is the relationship between Hawkins and Silver. Due to how I like to do things, we’ll get to that when we discuss the characters.

The worst part of the movie is probably the soundtrack. I don’t remember a single song in the movie, and that’s saying something for Disney. What stands out in Treasure Planet’s soundtrack is its one musical number. Remember ‘Immortal’ from Big Hero 6? That wasn’t the first edgy alt-rock song by a hired band for a core Disney movie, but the second. They have a montage/backstory for Hawkins, and just like everything in the early 2000s, it’s a sad and moan-heavy punk rock ballad that doesn’t fit at all with Disney, even more so than ‘Immortal’. Whatever this song is called, it’s now my least favorite Disney musical number of all time. 

Treasure Planet has a rather wild cast of characters; and unfortunately, a lot of them are now my least favorite Disney characters of all time. Jim Hawkins, for example, has become one of my least favorite—if not, straight-up least favorite—lead protagonists the company has ever put out. He’s brash, whiny, gullible, has no shortage of sarcastic comments, and has a frat-boy’s dream hairstyle. Disney tried way too hard to make an edgy teen protagonist, and I didn’t like him whatsoever. At the very least, one unique quality is that he’s a lead protagonist who gets no romance.

However, that doesn’t mean there is no romance in Treasure Planet at all. This movie’s lucky bachelor is a scientist named Dillbert who is stupid rich and associated with the Hawkins family for some reason. The fact that he’s rich means that he could’ve paid to have Mrs. Hawkins’ inn rebuilt, but he really wanted an excuse to go to Treasure Planet. Thankfully, Dillbert ended up being the best character in the movie. He comes off as the hoity-toity type, but he’s got an unexpectedly large amount of character that made him more fun than the actual comic relief characters (more on those two later). 

His wife ends up being… er… Look, I did a good job remembering the cast of Atlantis last year, but they literally use the lead female protagonist’s name once in the whole movie. And that’s because she’s the captain of the ship, and insists on being referred to as Captain or Ma’am. Whoever she is, imagine Mary Poppins as a pirate and that’s basically Captain Ma’am in a nutshell. On another note, she has either become more or less controversial over the years (I honestly don’t know which) because she’s a cat-girl. So uh yeah, if you’re offended by that kind of stuff, then this movie is not for you. 

Usually, Disney has a good track record of making cute characters who exist for gags, but Treasure Planet has two of my least favorites in that category. The first one is a blob named Morph. Imagine Figment but ten times more annoying. He shapeshifts and stuff, but that’s about it. Most of his attempts at being funny come off as incredibly annoying, and if I had ever found him funny as a kid, then shame on my house and my cow. 

Additionally, there’s B.E.N…. who isn’t much better. Fun Fact: for all this time, I had thought that this guy was voiced by Robin Williams. He has a spastic, spontaneous personality, much like the characters that Williams has played. However, B.E.N. is actually voiced by Martin Short, which was a huge mind-f*** for me. I must say… as much as I like Short, he was pretty screwed with this role. B.E.N. is just very boring. I don’t know, but none of his lines felt funny, even though Short tries his damndest to make them funny. One standout thing is that B.E.N. is a fully CG character among a cast of hand-drawn ones. For 2002, he moved better than something like RWBY, which is both impressive and sad. 

The problem with both Morph and B.E.N. is that they do that thing where they inadvertently work against the protagonists simply because they’re stupid. Well, the former was technically working with Silver, but it’s the same basic idea. Morph constantly busts Hawkins’ chops and steals the MacGuffin, while B.E.N. constantly gets the bad guys aggroing on Hawkins. I can’t really say anything else about them. They just really suck by Disney standards. 

At the very least, they have one of the most subversive—but tragically forgotten—Disney villains of all time: Long John Silver. I have no idea how Silver’s character arc is in the source novel, but Treasure Planet’s Silver is (I presume) the one Disney villain with a redemption arc. He pretends to give a crap about Hawkins, but then actually gives a crap about Hawkins, and years later, someone (probably) writes a long article about how the two are secretly gay for each other. Silver isn’t particularly interesting, and only stands out when compared to Disney villains. As a small side note, if this was how Silver’s character arc originally was, then I hate him because that probably makes him responsible for the whole “villains must be complex no matter what” stigma that everyone thinks is an absolute rule in storytelling. Thanks, Stevenson!

I always discuss visuals last for some reason, and the visuals in Treasure Planet are stunning. This thing has CG everywhere, and it’s aged pretty well. It doesn’t look as jarring as you’d think for something that turns twenty this year (eighteen as of when I actually watched it for the post). And as you’d expect, the characters have that Disney attention to detail which makes them feel alive, even if none of them are particularly interesting.

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After All These Years: 8.6/10

Other than a few dumb plot contrivances (and lackluster soundtrack), Treasure Planet is a tragically underrated Disney movie that deserves a bit more love. If you’re one of those people who only follows Disney because they own Star Wars and Marvel (which Disney didn’t ruin, because they were already ruined well before being bought out OOOOH SNAP), then Treasure Planet is an easy recommendation. Just don’t think you can use it to write a book report on Treasure Island without reading it.

Black Skylands: My First Early Access Experience

The idea of playing games in Early Access was always interesting to me. If you don’t know what Early Access is, allow me to define it: basically, you pay to play a partially finished game, and support it as it develops over time. Of course, the biggest risk is the possibility of the game having to be abandoned for whatever reason. One such thing apparently happened last November with Among Trees. However, there are a lot of popular Early Access games, such as Raft, Death Trash, and Satisfactory. There are also some that are more off the beaten path, such as Black Skylands.

In Black Skylands, you have your usual race of humanoids who live on sky islands (or skylands, hence the title drop). This world, known as Aspya, has been plagued by the Swarm (a common noun turned into a proper noun, as is tradition). The main protagonist is a girl named Eva, and her dad is captain of the Earners. He has a crackpot plan to journey into the Eternal Storm because he thinks the solution to beat back the swarm is there. However, when scientists bring back a sample of a Swarm creature, everything falls apart. Seven years later, Eva has to fix everything herself.

It’s easy to impulsively buy Black Skylands because it is gorgeous. I’ve grown to love pixel-art, and how deceptively versatile it is for conveying different artstyles. This game is vibrant, and full of color. As you sail on your skyship, you’ll see creatures of all sizes that are just there for cosmetics; from flying manta rays above you, to massive behemoths that thankfully hang at much lower altitudes. Unfortunately, the nature of the game’s top-down perspective can make characters look the same in the overworld. That’s why they have their portraits during dialogue.

The weakest part of the game is no doubt the story. A lot is thrown at you very fast, and the worst part is the catalyst of all of it: the aforementioned incident regarding the Swarm creature. In its aftermath, this dude named Kain turns into a maniacal sociopath, whose faction, the Falconers, pillage and murder the people of Aspya in some twisted sense of justice. It’s your usual “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and the worst part is why. He gets mad because his bird died in the incident. While I can’t imagine the grief from losing a pet animal, I don’t exactly think it’s a reason to form a dystopian government.

Fortunately, Black Skylands shows fantastic potential even in Early Access. In fact, I’ve played finished games that were worse. There’s a ton of stuff to do in the overworld, most of which is on the various skylands. These are full of resources, treasures, quests, and more. By defeating all enemies on a skyland, you reclaim it from the Falconers. Doing this rescues the population, who for some reason, act as a currency to enable special passive upgrades. Islands can be retaken, but it doesn’t happen that often, and the game at least shows a time limit on the HUD (something I’m pretty sure other games with similar mechanics don’t do).

Inventory management can be an issue. Your skyship can only hold twenty items at first, and they don’t stack. Quest-relevant NPCs you need to transport are stored in crates and count toward that inventory, which is admittedly pretty funny. The rub is that essentials for your ship to not go derelict, such as fuel canisters, repair kits, and ammo boxes, take up this space as well. 

There’s a lot to do in your main base of operations, the Fathership, as well. This place has seen better days, and it’s up to you to fix all of it from the ground up. Like in many games of this kind, you consume resources to build facilities that produce more important resources.

The best part is customization. There are a ton of weapon types and playstyles to pick from. Most weapons can have mods installed, which can be crafted or found in mod crates scattered across the world. Your skyships also have a wide variety of components to equip. Unfortunately, equipment tends to become useless fast, since you can level up facilities faster than you can get all the resources necessary to craft every piece of equipment, allowing you to get the next tier of equipment.  

Yes, I said skyships just now. Once you build the ship workshop, you can buy new types of ships and new parts for them and modify literally every aspect of them. As of this review, they only have four types of ships. From what I can tell, there are no cases where you need the little lightweight ship to fit into a narrow passage (although there are some really narrow passages that I have NO IDEA how to get through). 

There are also artifacts. By solving puzzles scattered throughout the world, you obtain crystals that grant you and your ship cool abilities. These are very helpful, and naturally, they can’t be spammed. Eva’s artifacts have a cooldown period, and the ship consumes energy, the latter of which can be replenished by destroying the many asteroids scattered throughout the world, or flying enemies. It doesn’t regenerate over time or when you take it to the shipyard, which kind of sucks, because I don’t think the asteroids respawn either.

Combat is where things get interesting. Black Skylands has a fun mix of range and melee combat. You have your arsenal of guns at your disposal, but it’s encouraged to use your grappling hook for sneak attacks, or to yeet people off of cliffs. Your only source of healing is medkits, but refills tend to be common enough.

Speaking of the grappling hook, you better learn that thing fast. It’s your main source of movement over the vast skies below. Fortunately, if you fall, you don’t immediately die. For some reason, you can somehow try to grapple the nearest grabbable ledge and save yourself. It’s really nice, especially when you’re learning to use the darn thing.

Skyship flying can be difficult at times. They seem to have so much momentum that once they hit top speed, I could let go of the gas and it would move forward perpetually until I hit the brakes. Also, the cannons on them are… interesting. They point at different angles depending on the ship, which makes combat a bit weird. Also, the controls are kind of bizarre; you can only shoot just the right cannon or all cannons. The Annihilator Beam artifact helps because it is a head-on frontal attack. 

So far, Black Skylands is surprisingly difficult for a chill sandbox game. Once you’re asked to go to the ice region, the game really starts to test your grappling and fighting abilities. Fortunately, dying has virtually no penalty… not that I would know that from experience, of course *sweating emoji*.

One thing that can end up being a downer is that fast travel costs money relative to the distance from point A to point B. This sucks because you need money for a lot of things. It’s plentiful enough in the overworld, but it’s amazing how fast you can empty your pockets. One protip that you’re never taught is that cabbage, the cheapest crop to grow, sells for an obscene amount of money for such a common resource. As far as I know, cabbage isn’t used for anything else, so they probably intended for them to be your main source of income.

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Current Verdict: 8.75/10

Black Skylands could become one of this year’s most underrated games once it’s complete. Hopefully, that’ll actually happen, considering that this isn’t as popular as the aforementioned Early Access titles. As fun as it is, the lack of many facilities, among other small things, betrays its incomplete state. If the game gets cancelled, I’ll update this post with that information. Otherwise, I highly recommend you give it a try if it strikes your fancy, and support its development by doing so.

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.