I Miss Hard Science Fiction: A Rant

Honestly, I don’t even know if I wanna post this, but it’s something that’s bothered me for a couple of years and I wanted to get off my chest. If you’re familiar with my other rants, you’d know that I had very different tastes back when I was a teenager. I was SO edgy, I did things that not even edgy kids did. For music, I only listened to classic rock. For movies, I only watched old movies; from classics like Dead Poets Society to freaking Spellbound (which is a boring slog that’s only any good in the climax). And for books… I read hard science fiction. 

Hard? Haha, like a—

I know it’s a euphemism, but hard science fiction is a genre. Think of popular science fiction like Star Wars. Epic battles, witty dialogue, memorable characters, spectacular spectacle… Now, think of the opposite of all that; think of Star Wars’ rival older cousin, Star Trek. Slow pacing, tons of dialogue, tackling some very difficult ethical issues… That is hard science fiction. 

As implied by the title, hard science fiction is meant to read like a history book of the future. And also implied by the title, it’s difficult. Perhaps more difficult than any genre to comprehend. They really pour everything into trying to make their worlds as immersive as possible, and it’s a damn undertaking. Tolkein was impressive enough with his Middle Earth. But hard SF authors had to do the same thing, only with multiple star systems, each with as much history as Middle Earth itself. Most adults would have a hard time reading it, and as a teenager, well… Results varied.

Greg Bear

Okay, so, technically, my first hard SF novel was Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But, well, that one is just technically a satire and definitely not meant to read like a future history (right?). However, when I first bought it, I saw some books by a Greg Bear next to it. And, well, after finishing Hitchhiker’s (and almost having my brain fall out), I tried out some good ol’ Bear. You saw the last two words of the previous passage, right?

The first novel of his I read was called Darwin’s Radio. The premise was simple.: Sscientists discover ancient cave drawings (or something) that show that mankind has been slowly evolving into a new species. There was a lot of dialogue, a lot of which was just buildup to the revelation that mankind has been evolving in the first place (oops, spoilers).

As expected, racism is the immediate public response (side note: one of my most distinct memories is Bear actually writing in dialogue from a certain someone who I can’t name because he was a celebrity until people realized he was a rapist. But it’s still funny how it makes the novel dated due to whom Bear chose). This isn’t “racism” as we know it today; unlike people with other ethnicities, this is a legit new species. And another curveball is that mankind had a decent basis to become racist. Due to how evolution and natural selection works, Homo sapien was essentially going to go extinct due to this new species, and thus they respond in fear, which is expressed in the form of racism. 

I remember being both bored and engaged with the novel at the same time. It was weird, but I loved it. There was also a sequel, Darwin’s Children, but all I remember is that there’s some kind of concentration camp for kids of the new species and it’s supposed to make us, the readers, angry that they’re being treated that way. One big issue with both novels is that they had incredibly loose endings. To this day, I have no idea if Bear wrote a third book (or if he even still writes). 

The Bear doesn’t stop there! I was hooked enough on his writing prowess to read a rather thick standalone novel: The City at the End of Time. This book went places. What I remember most is that there were these people who had these emblems and had to stop… something from happening. It was nonsense for the sake of nonsense, from the objects getting folded and crumpled into incomprehensible shapes, to cats guiding some guy through some weird castle. Beautifully written, but with no purpose nor meaning. After this, I would read several pretty lackluster standalones from Bear, and then…

I read Queen of Angels. A lot of positive reviews consider this his best novel, and I definitely agree. It had two different plots going on at once. Half of the book focused on this old guy (that I remember picturing as Jerry Stiller for some reason) who was supposed to investigate a murder, which would eventually involve entering the accused’s consciousness, and the other half was about some other guy who had to help an A.I. attain sentience. It was an amazing mess, with themes focusing on mental health and what constituted as being sane in the first place. It iconically ends with an entire page of I’s spelling out a giant capital I. Hilariously enough, it’s actually part one (or even part two) of a four-book series, and I didn’t know that because it ended so loosely, like all of Bear’s other books. I have not read Queen of Angel’s sequels to this day.

Kevin J. Anderson and Stephen Baxter

I was mixed towards Greg Bear. Afterwards, I would try to read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and fail spectacularly. It was too large in scope for me to handle, and I have always wanted to re-attempt at reading it to completion someday. However, after having given up the ghost with Foundation at the time, Kevin J. Anderson and Stephen Baxter would help hook me on hard SF.

Anderson writes books closer to Star Wars in pacing and action, but with more hard SF scope and mind-bending concepts. His epic series, Saga of the Seven Suns, was the first long book series I was able to read to completion (yes, before Harry Potter), and I remember it being great. I also read the much more recent sequel trilogy, Saga of Shadows, but I don’t recall it being as good.

If Anderson was the weak attack that staggered me, Stephen Baxter was the heavy finishing blow. I only read two novels from him, but they were bangers. I forgot their names, but I definitely didn’t forget what they were about. In one, the main character is trying to find his missing ex (or something), and stumbles upon a secret cult of women who have lived underground for so long that they evolved into an entirely different species. The other one is supposed to have been that book’s sequel, even though it’s set about a million years in the future, and involves some guy who needs to fight aliens… of some kind. Baxter wrote a lot of wild stuff, but my library decided not to stock them. He would’ve become one of my favorites if I had more access to his bibliography.

Alastair Reynolds and Peter F. Hamilton

Now I was getting into the good stuff! I recall Alastair Reynolds and Peter F. Hamilton being real good at incorporating crazy ideas in ways that were relatively easy to comprehend thanks to their writing prowess. Their novels felt like narratives, and not history books. 

My library had a lot of stuff from Reynolds in particular, so I was more familiar with his works. He was definitely the more imaginative of the two authors discussed in this section. To list off a few examples, Reynolds’ novels include but are not limited to: a disease that fuses people with nearby machines, a mad scientist plan of reversing a planet’s rotation, someone getting cut into 150 individual pieces while still being alive (sort of like Law in One Piece), and some alien race’s simulation of an alternate 1950s where WWII never happened, which was also infested with mutant five-year-olds for some reason. 

Peter F. Hamilton is a guy who thinks big. He’s written a lot of books set in various eras of his fictional Commonwealth world. I mainly read the Void Trilogy. It was… complicated, but I remember it being about this guy who dreamt of a parallel dimension where some wizard boy is supposed to do… something. There was also some android girl being chased by an assassin, maybe? I always wanted to read his gigantic Night’s Dawn Trilogy. But since I have this blog, and that series is about 4,000 pages in total, I think I will not be able to fulfill that desire.

Kim Stanley Robinson

Things got iffy again with Kim Stanley Robinson. From a literary standpoint, his books are absolutely phenomenal (at least out of the ones I read). They are among the most realistic-feeling science fiction novels I’ve experienced. He’s most known for the Mars trilogy, which is an incredibly well-thought out epic showcasing mankind’s colonization of Mars. It felt so real it was like reading an actual history book from the future.

But given what I think about realism, Robinson’s books didn’t do it for me. They were so real, so human, so grounded in reality, that I couldn’t get emotionally invested. I just don’t like people very much, and the characters all felt like people. Also, the hypothetical politics regarding things like preserving the natural beauty of Mars, to a parallel of the United States declaring independence from Britain, felt so real that I hated them as much as regular politics. If you can get into this guy’s stuff, then you’re a lucky duck.

Ending on a Great Note

I read one or two books by several people for a while, all with varying degrees of success. The last hard SF media I’d consume would be the best of all of those previously discussed. It was written by Cixin Liu, a Chinese SF author. I know, controversial little China.

Yep, I’m talking about the Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy, better known by the individual novels: The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End. THIS was a thing! Remembrance of Earth’s Past is a simple first contact story, but with none of the tropes and all of the innovation. It begins when a Famicom-style adventure game is released, and is meant to test people on how to solve the titular Three-Body Problem. Those who solve it are roped into a secret first contact cover-up that ends up being publicly revealed anyway (I forgot exactly how). I will be spoiling the rest of the trilogy from here!

It starts off slow, but gets REAL crazy. In the second volume, the aliens have more-or-less announced their presence, and the government—in desperation—assigns five random people, offering all the resources that can be provided to stop the aliens. These people cannot actually communicate what they come up with, or else the aliens will know. Almost every single person comes up with something unethical, like destroying or brainwashing humanity along with the aliens. The one guy who spends most of his money on a summer home with his girlfriend (I think he actually bought the girlfriend too I.I.R.C.) comes up with the best solution. The basis for the solution is the Dark Forest theory, which I think deserves to be recognized as the best hard SF theory since Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. From what I recall, the Dark Forest states that all civilizations are hunters in a dark forest; they try to keep themselves hidden, and indiscriminately pick off any sign of life they see. In galactic terms, this means that aliens will not attempt first contact in the grandiose way you see in movies; no, they will fire a probe and end it stealthily. No peace, no war. The guy’s solution is a thing that will alert other aliens to Earth’s existence, which will scare off the current aliens, but doom mankind.

It’s cynical, and if you’ve read a lot of my blog, you’d know how I feel about cynicism. However, Liu does cynicism in a way that’s almost beautiful, and Death’s End shows it. It does start off confusing at first, because its main protagonist is a diplomat sent to the aliens during the events of The Three-Body Problem. All this time, he’s been schmoozing the aliens. But in the meantime, the aliens have pulled a 2112 and assumed control over humanity. A butt-ton of the human race gets killed off (by androids or something), and it’s at this point that the Dark Forest Flaregun thing is used. After a series of reality-bending events, we learn that the weapons that various alien civilizations have been using on each other have been slowly reducing the universe to nothing, one dimension at a time. Again, it’s cynical, but beautiful. This is hard SF at its finest. You should be able to see why I miss this genre so much. 

But… Do I Really Miss It?

I’ve been thinking of getting back into hard SF. But at the same time, I don’t know if I can. Since finishing Liu’s books, I have become fully immersed in the otaku world of manga and light novels, while also focusing on kids’ and teens’ literature in general. 

As an example, I already made an attempt to return to the genre as recently as 2019. I read the self-titled opener of Peter F. Hamilton’s newest series, Salvation, only a few months after it came out. I did not like it. It started out with your usual premise: aliens send spies to live among humans, yadda-yadda-yadda, and some ship crashes in Antarctica or something. I know that setup is a thing, but Salvation is 99% the backstories of the main characters with 1% alien intrigue, and only two of the characters’ stories are actually plot relevant I.I.R.C.! The reviews on GoodReads were smarter than usual, and they mostly checked out positive. As such, I blamed myself. I was dumbed down by otaku culture, and could no longer enjoy hard SF. I no doubt would have loved it if I had read it as a teen, but ironically, I didn’t love it as an adult.

The way I look at things from a writing perspective has changed. I attribute long bits of dialogue as infodumping, for example. I’ll criticize lack of action, too. Also, ever since reading stuff like Monogatari, I probably would attribute any themes explored in hard SF as pretentious bullcrap. But most importantly, I have realized that those books contained an excessive amount of… sex. People say ecchi is bad, but there’s entire markets here in the good ol’ US of A that revolve around sex. I hate confessing this, but, er… this is how I first learned about the process. It wasn’t like watching “that video” in health class, but it was pretty close. I recalled not being disgusted as much as confused.

But there is one glimmer of hope, that I probably shouldn’t bother hoping for, and that is the impossible union of hard SF scope with the youth and accessibility of children’s media. As far as I know, it has been attempted thrice. The first time is the famous Time Quintet, starting with the iconic A Wrinkle in Time. It’s kind of… something. While the application of hard science is good enough, it has some of the usual bullcrap. The main protagonist, Charles Wallace, is one of those “special-for-no-reason” characters, and good ol’ nakama power ends up winning the day. Other than that, there’s the usual ham-fisted commentaries against Communism that show that the author grew up during the Red Scare. I think the series has aged relatively poorly, overall.

However, the glimmer of hope shown once more in two obscure and modern series, the first of which is called Randoms. It was a trilogy that started off like a typical wish-fulfilment fantasy, but ends up going into Star Wars Episode I-levels of space politics. I was very interested, but a lot of very arbitrary and forced drama scenes would come up starting in the second book and make me really livid. I actually haven’t finished the series, but since book three is the shortest, I might just push myself for the sake of discussing it in more detail.

There was also hope in The Chronicle of the Dark Star Trilogy. I read this one to completion only a few months before starting this blog. It had scope, it had hard science, it had youth, it had ethical quandaries; this one was a winner! It handled the ideas of time travel and multiple universes in ways that made it easy for kids to grasp. It only had two problems, the first of which was that the main protagonist was just as special as Charles Wallace (the characters literally say stuff like “Wow, you’re the only human who can time travel without exploding!” and it never gets explained). I also did not like how the series resolved. In the final book, the plot basically becomes a Star Trek episode, where the characters find this weird thing, and endlessly discuss how weird the thing is. In the climax, it ends up being almost a clone of the climax of Wrinkle. And similar to that, the main character ham-fists those American values of “individuality is more important than survival of the whole race!”, and leaves no room for debate nor interpretation. And of course, everything ends happily for all those involved. This could’ve been something to raise ethical debates, but like in The Giver and Arc of a Scythe, it reinforces the same viewpoints that readers have grown to understand instead of making them question those viewpoints. I know of no other hard SF series for young’uns, and if there are any, tell me in the comments!

In conclusion, I—to this day—have no idea if I want to try hard SF ever again. It takes me all of my free time just to keep up with manga and light novels, even after I get more gung-ho with DNF’ing stuff. This is something that will haunt me to my dying day, that’s for sure. In any case, if you’ve made it here, you’re amazing! If you’d like, leave a comment on your sci-fi experiences and tell me if there’s anything in this ballpark you’d recommend.

Dual Alter World Continues to be One of Japan’s Most Underrated Prog-Metal Bands with their World Distonation EP

One of my first posts ever was introducing three new voices in Japanese music from 2019, with a very underrated metal duo aptly named Dual Alter World being one of them. Personally, I’ve changed a lot since that post; I cringe at having been a Queensrÿche OG lineup purist, now that I’ve grown to like the current lineup in its own way (which is why I’m NOT posting a link to the old post *shivers*). Also, Dual Alter World really isn’t that much like Queensrÿche. My tastes have expanded so much since then, that I now have a better idea of how to describe their style. So now, let me rectify what I said before by reviewing their new EP, World Distonation.

For those who don’t know what this band is (which you probably don’t because these bands don’t like marketing), Dual Alter World (henceforth known as DAW) is kind of a poppy prog-metal band that formed in Japan in 2019. I don’t know much about the members’ backgrounds, except that lead vocalist Kotori Koiwai is a voice actor, and the guitarist—simply named Ryu—is a veteran of the trade, having been in a band called Blood Stain Child, which dates back to the 1990s. DAW’s debut album, Alter Ego, was a concept album about an android (I think?) and it was actually really good and underrated. Think of Amaranthe meets Dream Theater and you’ll sort of get an idea of what DAW is like.

World Distonation has the same electronic metal style as before, but more refined. It also seems that the weird “futuristic record scratch” synth effect (whatever it’s called) is going to become a staple sound in their music. There is still that poppiness in their choruses, but the vibe is way more prog this time. They even went as far as to hire other voice actors to narrate and sing with Koiwai. I don’t know all of them, but people would definitely recognize Asami Imai, the voice of Best Girl Kurisu from Steins;Gate.

I really can’t say much more, other than World Distonation is really good, even more so than Alter Ego. Not only do you have your usual narration tracks, but they also have narrated bits at points in the actual songs. I have no idea who has the creative input here, but whoever it is knows what they’re doing. They’ve really been going all-out. 

It’s just a real shame that they don’t seem to be that big, even by “under the radar” standards. For starters, the official hashtag for them cannot be typed on a non-Japanese keyboard; it’s in hiragana, followed by the letters DAW. I know most Japanese labels don’t seek out international fans, but that’s just excessive. Also, the fact that this is probably a side project means that I have no idea how long it’ll last. From what I could glean of both members’ social media, they seem to act like DAW doesn’t even exist until a new release is announced. This could be their last album, or just the beginning; that’s the risk with following a young band like this.

Another big issue that only pertains to non-Japanese fans is the language. Normally, music itself is universal and transcends language. However, DAW’s albums aren’t just both concept albums, but possibly part of a linear story; the only other bands I know that do that are Gloryhammer and Dark Sarah. Concept albums are very heavily reliant on the lyrics, and without being able to know what they’re saying, DAW becomes a very hard sell. 

Overall, if you can at least appreciate the effort they put in, World Distonation is an incredible EP. Dual Alter World is a great little band that doesn’t get the traction it deserves, and probably never will. If they were more popular, there could even be an anime adaptation based off these albums (as if adaptations of concept albums have never failed before). I recommend checking them out, especially if you can fluently understand Japanese.

Weeb Reads Monthly December 2020

Well, this post’s a bit late. The reason is because the latest volume of Otherside Picnic came out too close to  the end of the year. But hey, at least I got this out on the same week as New Year’s Eve, right? Anyway, let’s do this.


Sorcerer King of Destruction and Golem of the Barbarian Queen Volume 2

I had a sliver of hope for this one. After all, it started out as a pretty lonely, post-apocalyptic isekai. However, it doesn’t take long for Nemaki to reach a town. At this point, Sorcerer King pretty much turns into your run-of-the-mill slice-of-life isekai.

If I was a more generous reviewer, I’d say it’s fascinating to see the fact that Nemaki doesn’t exactly understand Gol. She’s very trigger happy, and her clothes are more than just cosmetic. Nemaki genuinely does not know what she’s capable of, nor what makes her tick, giving a genuine sense of mystery and concern. Unfortunately, I’m not a more generous reviewer. From rubbing cheeks to looking at her underwear, Nemaki’s interactions with Gol are no different than that of a typical isekai waifu. It seems like she was made as a golem just to pretend that Sorcerer King is subversive. And with the usual stiff writing, I have little to no interest remaining in this series.

Verdict: 6.5/10


May These Leaden Battlegrounds Leave No Trace Volume 2

Before getting into this volume, I must clarify that I did not cover The Eminence in Shadow Volume 2 like I planned. First off, I ran out of money because, well, Christmas. Second off, I had too many doubts about that series. The fact that Cid’s made-up enemy turns out to be real, along with them actually skipping how his own organization comes about… It’s just plain stupid. Combine that with the subpar characters and you have another series that, in my opinion, does not at all deserve to place on the Kono Sugoi Light Novel rankings. 

I also had doubts about May These Leaden Battlegrounds Leave No Trace. Like most time travel narratives, Leaden Battlegrounds is kind of… iffy. But for some reason, I enjoyed it because I was curious as to how stupid it could get. So here we are!

The main premise of the volume is Rain and Air getting into a scuffle with some Western soldiers, one of whom is a cute girl named Deadrim, and the other person is… there. Once again, most of the volume proves to be boring, but there’s just enough intrigue at the end to make you wanna buy the next one. The only other noteworthy thing is that fact that Air should be using the Devil Bullet on Rain, but that whole aspect of their relationship goes in the direction you’d expect.

Verdict: 7.2/10


DanMachi Volume 15

It feels like it’s been forever and a day since we had a new DanMachi volume. Unfortunately, this one’s a filler volume. Sure, DanMachi has had some of the better filler in light novels, but not this time. We do get more backstory to some of our main protagonists, in addition to the backstory we already got, but it kind of feels excessive. For example, the first chapter is literally about the inn that Bell stayed at until he found out about Hestia. Do we really need that? In any case, most of the stories are pretty good, though not the best that DanMachi has to offer. 

Verdict: 7.9/10


Infinite Dendrogram Volume 13

After the relative nothing that happened last time, we finally have an event that’s been building up for a long time: a conference between Altar and Dryfe. In order to participate, Ray forms a clan with his friends and gets a new job. This new job, as always, is something wild that nobody likes which ends up being really useful for his build. In any case, it’s not even a spoiler to say that the conference goes south, and a big fight breaks out.

The one gripe I have is something that’s happened twice now in Dendro: withholding information from the reader that the main character, who’s narrating, happens to know. It’s a cheap way to build anticipation and I don’t know why any writer would ever think this is a good idea. Nemesis, once again, evolves into a new form after a small time-skip leading up to the conference. We also don’t get to see it, since this volume ends in the middle of the action. Other than that, Dendro still meets (and exceeds) expectations.

Verdict: 8.75/10


Otherside Picnic Volume 4

It feels like it’s been forever since we got some Otherside Picnic! With the anime in development, I cannot wait for yuri fans to get super toxic and scare off potential viewers. But in the meantime, we have this. As usual, it starts off [relatively] chill, with the girls going to the cult HQ from the previous volume to clear it of supernatural gook.

Other than that, it’s pretty typical stuff. Sorawo and Toriko’s relationship gets more intense, and we learn a bit of the former’s past, but that’s about it. There’s no new goal established. However, I’m fine with that, because Otherside Picnic is a CGDCT at heart, and core narrative doesn’t really matter in those. As long as the suspense is still off the rails (which it is in this volume HOLY CRAP), then I’m good.

Verdict: 9.3/10


Conclusion

Overall, we had a pretty good lineup of light novels to close off the year. Unfortunately, it looks like I’m going to be skipping this January’s Weeb Reads Monthly because there are only two volumes that I actually have interest in, excluding the upcoming debuts. February might be skipped too, because I only see ONE volume of interest on BookWalker’s Pre-Order page at the time of writing this post. Regardless, whatever I skip will all be lumped in with another month eventually!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Daily Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Deadly Life

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

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

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

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

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

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


Stressful Life

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

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

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

~~~~~

Current (Possibly Final) Verdict: 9.5/10

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

Crown Tundra Has Truly Legendary Levels of… Grinding (Pokémon DLC Review)

I’m a big Pokémon fan, but I’ll admit that the series has been incredibly inconsistent. Sword and Shield are games that do a lot right, while also doing some things bafflingly wrong, compared to previous generations. The very vocal critics on social media don’t help the series’ case either, especially nowadays. The Isle of Armor does make a lot of improvements over the core game, but we really can’t have a final say on Gen 8 without playing through its second wave of DLC: Crown Tundra.

In the Crown Tundra, your character boards a train to the titular location and finds itself confronting some person’s very energetic father. After whipping his butt, his disgruntled child uses the opportunity to skedaddle. You join up with dad, and he makes you catch some Legendary Pokémon.

This campaign somehow has even less story than Isle of Armor. Literally, the entirety of Crown Tundra revolves around catching Legendary Pokémon. A LOT of Legendary Pokémon. I don’t know if Sword has a different cast, but for characters, I got Peony and his daughter Peonia. Peonia is kind of a brat, but her father is a fun, energetic, wholesome guy. They imply that he’s related to Rose somehow, but I don’t care deeply enough about Pokémon lore to look into it.

Structurally, I think this is the better of the two Pokémon DLCs… to a point. At the start, Peony gives you three Legendary Pokémon quests, which can be done in any order (it’s been a while since they gave you that much freedom). They’re all introduced with a hilariously long title and a fanfare, giving Peony even more personality (although I think Looker has done the same thing once or twice?). 

The main quest is to help the Crown Tundra’s Legendary Pokémon, Calyrex, who possesses Peony in order to talk to you. I think this is the first time in the main series that you directly engage with a Pokémon. You also have a case where you have to pick one of two forms of Legendary Pokémon by planting a certain type of carrot to lure its steed, which further incentivizes spending the $180 on both Sword and Shield (with DLC) in order to get 100% completion in either game. Anyhow, Calyrex is a pure Pyschic-Type, and his steed is either Ghost or Ice-Type. Calyrex and the steed are an instance of a fusion Pokémon (the first since Gen 5), and it gets both of their Abilities at once. 

For the other quests, there is a return of the Regis. As expected, you have to solve riddles. They are nowhere near as obtuse as the Braille stuff in Gen 3, but in case you can’t solve one, Peony will give you some helpful advice (not that I actually used him because I was overthinking or anything >_>). Gathering all three regular Regis at the final door does not give you Regigigas, but a choice between brand-new Electric and Dragon-Type Regis. The third quest is the most interesting because you actually get to catch regional variants of Gen 1’s Legendary birds. They’re roaming Legendaries, but unlike in games of old, you simply just run into them as they fly around in the overworld and fight them straight-up; definitely an upgrade.

Unfortunately, they seem to be following Isle of Armor’s model of making incredibly grindy mechanics to actually give you bang for your buck. No matter what you do, 99% of your time on Crown Tundra will be spent in the Max Lair. It is both a fun and awful idea. Basically, the Max Lair is a gauntlet of randomly generated Max Raid battles. Your team (or just you if you play with A.I.) picks a path and fights whatever is there. You can run into berries or helpful people along the way; either a backpacker who can give you a selection of hold items or a scientist who offers a random rental Pokémon. You fight four consecutive Max Raid battles, ending with a random Dynamax Legendary Pokémon. The big plus is that the Dynamax Pokémon here are nowhere near as bad as in the overworld (mainly because they don’t have shields), but the fact that you have to fight four of them in a row is rough because the “if four Pokémon faint, you lose” rule applies to the entire thing instead of individual fights.

What spices things up is that everyone gets random rental Pokémon. These rentals are actually pretty good, and a lot of interesting strategies can come up. I imagine this mode is amazing with friends, but as a noob who doesn’t have friends or a Nintendo Switch Online subscription, well… Max Lair sucks. For starters, you can get a bad setup of rental Pokémon options versus the Pokémon you encounter in the actual dungeon. And while you can catch a beaten Dynamax Pokémon and switch it out of your team, the fifteen seconds you get to decide a path is nowhere near enough to optimize a root. And if you have A.I., one of them will always switch out for the newly defeated Dynamax Pokémon, even if you choose not to catch it, and even if it has a type disadvantage against a future opponent. Save-scumming works, but you eventually have to spend Dynite Ore for doing it too often. “What’s Dynite Ore?” you ask. Dynite Ore is your reward for playing Max Lair. Completing a run only nets you nine. NINE.  And to get the good stuff, including an item that gives your Pokémon its Hidden Ability, you need hundreds of the stuff. You do unlock an endless mode that gives you more Dynite Ore in exchange for not getting to keep any caught Pokémon, but I didn’t dabble in it. Overall, Max Lair WILL kick your butt, especially if you’re using A.I., and since you only have a vague idea of what Pokémon you’re up against, you won’t know if it’s worth save-scumming for a particular Legendary. The even better part is that you only keep one rental Pokémon at the end of a run. And guess what, some of the regular Pokémon you encounter are exclusive to Max Lair, which means you’ll still be playing through it even if you catch every Legendary! This also includes the opportunity to catch Ultra Beasts once you complete Crown Tundra, but I couldn’t find a single one in the attempts I made.

Other than that, I presume that completing both DLC campaigns unlocks the Galarian Star Tournament (since that’s how it happened with me), which is a repeatable team battle royale thing that will pit you and a partner against other Gym Leaders and characters. It’s easy if you have Hop, since he has his Gen 8 Legendary which can pretty much eat anything that isn’t Fire-Type. In other news, Peonia alludes to some weird woman who runs around at night, but I couldn’t get that to trigger. I tend to always miss some kind of post-game quest or whatnot in Pokémon games, so take this review with a grain of salt.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 8/10

While Crown Tundra is very small (and VERY grindy), I believe that it, along with the Isle of Armor, are a step in the right direction for Pokémon as a whole. They take the open-world mechanic of the Wild Area, but give it more variety and substance. Plus, the idea of putting dedicated sidequests in an area is cool. If they take these same ideas and integrate them into a future core game, then we might have something good. But of course, knowing the series’ trends, any new idea they implement will be discarded, regardless of how objectively good it is. 

Overall, I’m not entirely sure if the Expansion Pass is worth it. Obviously, you need it if you want completion, but both areas are still incredibly grindy. I kind of agree with the critics that the series hasn’t been the best it could be, but that’s mainly because I love Black and White 2 too much (maybe I’d do a retrospective on it if I had time or the willingness to erase either of my save files). Well, with Pokémon, I’m willing to pull a Star Wars fan and blindly hope that they’ll eventually release something really good despite them very consistently failing at every turn (Ooooh snap). Well, this got long-winded. Basically, I recommend the DLC if you’re a Pokémon veteran and just love the games in general.

Weeb Reads Monthly – September 2020

I definitely like this new monthly format for light novels. In fact, I’m going to keep at it for… er… ever. Since I’m doing this right out of the gate, there should be a lot more books to discuss in this post. So, bear with me as we tear through the month’s newest releases!


So I’m a Spider, So What? Volume 9

I discussed this series a long time ago, in a post where I compared it to Overlord and That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime. Since then… it’s been the only one of the three I haven’t dropped completely. The series has kind of been in a slump for me lately; after the twist in volume 5, we finally know what’s going on, but after that it’s been a bit of a trudge to get to the good stuff. Looking at the table contents, one chapter towards the end stands out like a sore thumb. Maybe this is when it gets its act back together?

Sadly, the first half of the volume is not particularly exciting. They FINALLY reach the demon realm, and they just cozy up in Ariel’s house. In fact, the interludes seem to have more plot relevance than the main story, such as some side chapters featuring Mr. Ogre-boy from the last volume.

Other than that, Spider is kind of hit-or-miss as always. The volume’s climax is a battle against Ogre-boy, but it’s marred by exposition, and I—to be honest—never really understood what his point in the story is. Anyways, like I mentioned earlier, one chapter stands out, and there is definitely a revelation. Buuuuuut, when we get the whole story, it’s kind of stupid (our girl even reacts as such). And as things stand at the end of the volume, it seems like the next one is going to be back to our regularly scheduled mundanity. I will not be counting these eggs before they hatch!

Verdict: 7.5/10


The Invincible Shovel Volume 3

Alright, it’s time for some more Invincible Shovel! This is about the point where the series ends up becoming repetitive. But if there’s one thing that’s interesting, it’s Catria of all people. She has fought tooth and nail to not fall victim to Lithisia, who has basically evolved into a half-human, half-shovel entity. Her sword has literally become a shovel. But in this volume, Catria starts to do shovel techniques, while still trying to deny that she’s getting shoveled.

Another interesting thing to note is that Invincible Shovel seems to be setting itself up for the endgame. MyAnimeList still says it’s publishing, but it could be wrong. I have a theory as to what a future arc could be, but we’ll have to wait for that point to find out. Otherwise, it’s the same shoveltastic comedy it always is!

Verdict: 8/10


Deathbound Duke’s Daughter: Erika Aurelia and the Angel’s Crypt

I gave the previous Deathbound Duke’s Daughter volume a lackluster score, but I had some semblance of hope for the future of the series. It had a very whimsical world, even if the characters were just about as plastic as any slice-of-life fantasy.

In this volume, Erika goes to Ignitia where she meets the city’s charming prince, August. The really long first chapter is basically to introduce us to the city and the fact that there’s this titular Angel’s Crypt. Erika knows that she is to be murdered by this beast in said Crypt, which August thinks can grant his wish to be better at dragon riding.

Overall, I felt like this volume was slightly better than the previous one. Once it picked up, things got pretty fast-paced and adventurous. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s good enough. August is a typical “bastard child trope”, and felt so manufactured to me; he has absolutely zero hesitation in selling his soul to a demon in order to get his wish. Also, they try to hide who the villain is even though the color pages straight-up tell you who it is (but it’s still predictable regardless). 

Verdict: 7.55/10


Combatants Will Be Dispatched! Volume 4

I’ve been loving Combatants Will Be Dispatched!, but the biggest issue with it has been trying to write a substantial review of the newest volumes. Fortunately, with this new format, I can put in a short blurb and it’ll be fine! Let’s see what Six’s latest adventure has in store for us.

This volume serves one purpose, and that’s to properly introduce a new waifu: Lilith. If you recall, she’s one of Six’s superiors; the mad scientist of Kisaragi. Sadly, she’s my least favorite protagonist so far. There’s nothing wrong with her, but she just falls short of Best Girl Alice and Besterest Girl Grimm. A lot of her lines are just her having straight-man reactions to how ridiculous the fantasy world is and not much else.

Overall, this is sort of a slice-of-life volume (as slice-of-life as Combatants can get). It’s funny, and there’s some good character interactions, but nothing much actually happens. The climax makes you think that they’re finally going to make a move on the Demon Lord, but it ends up getting put off. Maybe they’ll follow up next volume?

Verdict: 8.35/10


Torture Princess: Fremd Torturchen Volume 5

This has been one of my favorite isekai of all time. I won’t defend anyone who says it’s edgy, superficial, and trashy, but it has such chutzpah that I love it. The previous volume had the least amount of gore, yet it raised the bar for the story moving forward. Since I made sure this was the final volume we cover today, I saved the best for last! 

Volume five is even more of a departure from the over-the-top gore, and caffeine-fueled villains than volume four. Right away, Jeanne establishes a new goal: kill the Saint so that Diablos can never awaken. But since we have no idea where she is, the only choice is to ask the Saint’s BFF: the Butcher. Of course, it can’t be that easy; in fact, it takes most of the volume to reach the booger.

Just from reading the volume, I can easily assume that this is the point where people would really start hating on Torture Princess. I’m still loving this story, but the way things play out in this current arc really smells like milking the series (which is odd because I don’t think Torture Princess is that popular in Japan). It’s still relatively straightforward for now, but there’s no telling what it’s going to be like in the future. Furthermore, there’s a big scene at the end that will likely come off as contrived and/or predictable (which, let’s be honest, we critics only use those words when we’ve genuinely fallen for a plot twist and we want to write an excuse for it). But as far as this volume’s concerned, Torture Princess maintains its same sense of quality… for what it’s worth to you.

Verdict: 9.15/10


Conclusion

“There should be a lot more books to discuss in this post,” he says… yet he only discusses one more book than the last time. Well, that’s definitely going to change next month, especially if I can go to Disney this year (in which case I’d have to do a mega post for October and November). Anyway, good books this time around. Leave a comment for some feedback!

Now THIS is Yuri – ROLL OVER AND DIE Volume 1 Review

If you’ve read some of my previous posts, then you’ll be aware that I have not had the best track record with Seven Seas’ light novels; they just so happen to license some of the worst material I have ever read. The only one I’ve liked is The Invincible Shovel, and that’s in danger of becoming seriously repetitive. Other notable releases tend to be incredibly controversial, which would be good guilty pleasure, but some of them (such as Buck Naked in Another World) are so bare-bones and boring that I can’t enjoy them even for that! As a result, I had low expectations for one of their newest licences, a little series called *takes deep breath* ROLL OVER AND DIE: I Will Fight for an Ordinary Life with my Love and Cursed Sword. This was the needle in a haystack that I needed.

In ROLL OVER AND DIE (sorry, the official title is in all caps), a girl named Flum Apricot is chosen, among others, to defeat the Demon Lord. She has an ability called Reversal, which has all her stats locked in at 0. As a result, her party members treat her like crap until one of them sells her off as a slave. Just when she’s at the depths of despair, she stumbles upon a cursed sword, which- thanks to her ability- reverses its adverse effects and grants her massive stat buffs. With this power, she escapes captivity with a slave girl named Milkit, and sets off to live a normal life.

Critics have a word for scenarios in which an author tries so hard to make an underdog that it comes off as over-the-top and gratuitous: “torture porn”. That term is incredibly apt for ROLL OVER AND DIE.  Flum is constantly called weak, is unacknowledged by society, and is- multiple times- seen as a sex toy by random jerks. Everyone is out to get her, and when someone tries to be nice, it’s actually a Shield Hero-style ruse. It’s shock value, sure, but similar to stuff like Eighty-Six, it’s executed really well!

But a light novel is still a light novel. Instead of actually earning her keep through hard work like a real underdog, Flum has power thrown into her lap, free of charge. And it’s not only the sword; she frequently stumbles upon more cursed equipment by sheer coincidence. The story also does a good job at giving her plot armor. In one early fight, she’s literally cut to ribbons, but the reversed curse effect can heal her even from that. Typical OP protagonist stuff.

Despite this, there is one thing that saves ROLL OVER AND DIE from being your usual power fantasy romp, and it’s the fact that Flum is a girl. Let’s go over the basic premise again: Flum Apricot is given phenomenal cosmic power by pure happenstance. She befriends a slave girl named Milkit, who calls her “Master”, as if Flum owned her as a slave. Imagine Flum being a boy, and the whole tone of the LN completely changes. Because of how society is, we are more willing to sympathize with a woman who’s overcoming torment, but as a boy, she’d be a cringe-inducing overpowered protagonist. We’re more willing to look at a girl owning a younger female slave as two sisters, but as a boy, she’d be a misogynist taking advantage of an emotionally distraught young woman. Now you see just how important it is for Flum to be a girl!

Unfortunately, Flum being a girl doesn’t make her particularly interesting. For some reason, I have a track record of coming down hard on characters, and ROLL OVER AND DIE is no exception. Everyone involved is your typical fantasy trope, with not much personality, especially Flum’s ex-party members. Milkit is probably my least favorite character because she seems to only exist to be the dime-a-dozen “tortured waifu” that makes everyone cry when she says things like “Nobody’s given me positive feedback before” (so her name is Milkit because she milks the audience!). Her inability to contribute to battle seems to further cement this. The saving grace is a loli named Sara, who speaks in a Southern accent, and wields a mace even though she’s ten. She’s both cute and capable!

To offset the fairly lackluster cast, the plot has some serious momentum. It’s fast-paced, and neatly divided into “Episodes”. Developments that would normally be reserved for several volumes down the road are thrown at you right out of the gate. The tone of the whole series changes just as you’re getting acquainted with it, that’s for sure! There are a lot of genuinely great action and suspense sequences. And to top it off, excessive gore really brings the fun ridiculousness of the story together.

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Verdict: 8.75/10

I’ve finally found a light novel series that I think Seven Seas made a great call with licensing! ROLL OVER AND DIE is starting out to be a deceptively great franchise, and one that seriously needs an anime just to annoy people. Between this, Otherside Picnic, and Murcielago, I’m starting to consider the possibility that yuri is this secretly amazing genre… Anyway, I recommend ROLL OVER AND DIE if you fancy yourself some girl power!

Back to Usual Shenanigans – SAO: Moon Cradle Arc Review (Volumes 19 and 20)

Volume 18 of Sword Art Online marked the end of the massive Alicization Arc. Now, we can finally go to a new arc, in a new wor- wait, why is there a map of the Underworld inside volume 19? Oh my God. Of course… This is Kawahara. We can’t go to a new proper arc without some filler in between! This review covers the two-part filler arc: Moon Cradle.

Moon Cradle is set during the two hundred year time period that Kirito and Asuna are trapped in the Underworld, after they beat up Vecta and Poopoo (Laughing Coffin guy), and turn Alice into an android (or something). Everything’s all well and good, until a goblin is accused of murdering a civilian. It’s up to detective Kirito once again! After all, he’s solved a whopping one other mystery in his life; he’s perfect!

The first volume is basically figuring out who the murderer is, and the second volume is catching the booger. Like other SAO filler arcs (besides the Asuna one), Moon Cradle is incredibly boring. Furthermore, Kirito and Asuna get free plot armor, since we’ve SEEN them return from the Underworld in the previous volume. He also showcases more of his OP-ness from scenes like being able to force open a Vecta-only door with no problem. 

The characters don’t get much better either. Sure, Kirito and Ronie (who’s role in the Alicization Arc I completely forgot) get to spend some time together, but it’s more so a kick in her crotch, since Kirito and Asuna will always be THE couple. But hey, at least Kirito is as “good” and “inspirational” as he always is (*proceeds to wretch*).

And similar to most of SAO, despite the urgency of the situation (which ends up escalating to both a murder and a kidnapping), the characters find some time to goof off. “Should we solve this mystery?” “We should, but I think we should have a picnic lunch first!” This is almost Log Horizon level of characters actively choosing to not advance the plot. 

But the term “advance the plot” is applied loosely here. Most of the investigation is them discussing the nuances of the Taboo Index over and over and over again. And the one time they do something investigative, they just whip out some magic that allows them to witness the crime as it occurred! At this point, I’ve lost all knowledge (and care) of how the magic system in the Underworld works, so if you can prove whether or not the spell they did was possible within the world’s logic, then have at it and explain it to me in the comments section.

To end off the arc is a less-than-stellar climax. It builds up to the possibility of a team of two women fighting the bad guy, which would have been a nice change of pace. I say “would have been” because Kirito shows up right at the end and takes all the credit like the scientists who stole that one lady’s discovery of DNA. The actual conflict isn’t even resolved, and Kawahara even points that out himself in the afterword. But despite this, he’s chosen to start a completely new arc because… reasons?

Verdict: 5/10

Alicization was the first remotely descent arc in SAO, and now we have this. I’m sorry for being so rude, but I was seriously, lividly tired of that blasted Underworld! Well, it’s over now. So let’s hope beyond hope that Unital Ring is even worth half the pain of putting up with everything that leads up to it!

Weeb Reads Monthly – August 2020

Welcome to the first Weeb Reads Monthly post! If you don’t know how it works, I’ll explain it right here and now. Basically, all the light novel volumes I would’ve covered in a given month (with the exception of series debuts) will be covered here. The review of the individual volumes will be only one or two paragraphs each, but it’ll all be organized into this post. And don’t worry if you’re looking for a specific volume; each post will be categorized and tagged under the respective series covered, so you can just search for the tags. Without further ado, let’s see how good of an idea this was!


Eighty-Six Volume 5

We’re starting out strong with the newest volume of Eighty-Six, the game-changing military sci-fi epic that’s sure to become mainstream when the anime airs. Speaking of the anime, I really hope (even though it’s not going to happen) that it airs this fall. Given the core themes, the timing would be all-too perfect given the current circumstances. 

Anyway, this installment continues the train ride of win that was started in volume 4. First and foremost, we get some huge revelations regarding the Legion’s origins. You will have to suspend some disbelief, because the new character, Vika, basically developed the Legion’s AI when he was just about done wearing diapers. It’s dumb, but you know what, Dreamworks made a movie about a baby who runs an entire business, so pick your battles.

Eighty-Six enters cyberpunk territory with the introduction of Sirins. These are androids made using similar design principles that contribute to the Legion, and they are not exactly well received by the main protagonists. This brings up the expected ethical issues, which are all discussed ad nauseum in the actual story, so… Look, subtlety has NOT been Eighty-Six’s forte, alright?

Overall, this volume was great as usual. Also, the one scene during the climax has gotta be iconic for the entire series. Just wow… the amount of despair was beyond anything that Re:ZERO could possibly offer. Eighty-Six raises the bar, that’s for sure!

Verdict: 8.65/10


Rascal Does Not Dream of Petite Devil Kohai

I did not particularly enjoy the previous volume, Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai. While it wasn’t baaaaaad, it was still kind of pretentious, as it was like “Oh look at me and how symbolic I am! I studied quantum physics, love me, WAAAAANT ME!” (Okay, now I’m referencing Seinfeld but you get the point). But you know what, I had to give it another chance because I’m a glutton for punishment!

If you recall from the previous volume, our buddy Sakuta enters a Groundhog Day-like time loop. This is, of course, another case of Adolescence Syndrome, and the perp is Tomoe Koga. But unlike Mika, whose issue was at least something legitimately terrifying from a sociological standpoint, Tomoe’s issue boils down to dumb teen antics. The plot structure is also very similar to the previous book: Sakuta has a strange experience, gets confused, talks to Rio, Rio vomits quantum physics, and Sakuta’s like “Okay now I get it.”

Overall, my problems with Rascal as a whole still have not changed. I do not like the application of quantum physics at all; to me, it serves no purpose other than to make the story feel more profound than it is(n’t). The other reason is more so a problem I have with popular culture as a whole. For reasons I don’t quite understand, general consensus seems to be that individual personal problems are an objectively better story theme than problems of a grander scope. And by complaining about it just now, I lose all my credibility as an adult human being. *Sighs* Look, Rascal at least has some semblance of good writing and forward momentum, so I’ll keep my eye on it for now.

Verdict: 7.5/10


Do You Love Your Mom and Her Two-Hit Multi-Target Attacks? Volume 6

This is the first time I’ve covered this franchise on my blog. I didn’t want to review them volume-by-volume because, like with Cautious Hero, I’d have nothing of note to say. So now that I have this new formula, I can talk about it! 

Do You Love Your Mom and Her Two-Hit Multi-Target Attacks? (better known as Okaasan Online) is about a boy named Masato who gets to testrun a new VRMMORPG, but the twist is that his mother, Mamako, gets stuck with him! It gets a lot of criticism for being ecchi, but I love it. Mamako is a great twist on the overpowered protagonist, who- like any real mom- embarrasses her son nonstop. The supporting characters, like Best Girl Wise, are great as well. And after the previous volume’s introduction of this sort of Anti-Mamako character, named Hahako, I’ve highly anticipated this volume and how it might handle her character.

Unfortunately, we don’t get to see much of her until towards the end. In fact, the first half of the volume is filler. But once we get past that point, the series is at its usual antics. We also get introduced to a new Best Girl named Mone. She’s pretty much the yandere; if Masato doesn’t dote on her, everyone dies. There’s not much else to say about the volume, and that’s exactly why I made LN posts like this now!

Verdict: 8.45/10


Full Metal Panic! Volume 4

This is also the first time I’ve ever discussed Full Metal Panic!, mainly because I didn’t know if I would be able to commit to finishing it. I’m only including it here because the new So I’m a Spider, So What? didn’t come out on August 18th like I thought it would, and this was one of the few options that I didn’t outright hate. As you can see, I’m also WAY behind on the volumes, and that’s because too much comes out too quickly. And I’m sure I’m going to make a lot of retro anime fans livid when I say this, but… I haven’t exactly been liking FMP! as much as a lot of more modern stuff. It’s fun, but this could easily be the last volume of the series I read, since I only have so much time and money.

Anyways, for the uninitiated, Full Metal Panic! is about a secret agent named Sousuke Sagara who is charged with keeping his eye on a girl named Chidori Kaname, who is established in the first volume to have some secret brain knowledge that could be very dangerous in the wrong hands. So far, it’s been a series of episodic, Saturday Morning Cartoon-like escapades where Sousuke fights some people and Chidori is baggage because it was the 1990s back then.

It could be because it’s been more than a hot minute since I last read FMP!, but I didn’t exactly enjoy this volume too much. Basically, they capture this dude, and there seems to be no real purpose for capturing him other than the fact that he was a bad guy in the previous volume. Things pick up a lot towards the end, and some nasty cliffhangers are thrust in our faces. 

But even then, this series just has not grabbed me at all. A lot of critics would say that FMP! is automatically better than more recent stuff just because it’s not isekai, and while I do acknowledge that every one of the older series I’ve read has been radically different, I find that a of newer stuff- isekai included- are better (and before you accuse me of being a twelve-year-old, keep in mind that a lot of FMP! fans were twelve when it first came out). So far, I find Durarara! to be the only older series to still be really good to this day.

Verdict: 7.75/10


Conclusion

The first post of this series is pretty short, but that’s probably good; shouldn’t get too ambitious (it also doesn’t help that almost everything I covered came out in the second half of the month). Overall, this was a solid month of great reads, and I definitely prefer reviewing light novels in this manner. Leave me a comment on your thoughts of this new format!

No Guns Life First Impressions (Volumes 1-5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Current Verdict: 8.4/10

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