MANY Can Play at that Game: First Impressions of Saturday AM’s Global Manga Scene

I learned of this magazine thanks to my local library stocking the first tankobons from them. Saturday AM is one of several magazines by a small outfit called MyFutPrint Entertainment, that publish manga made by people who aren’t Japanese. I thought it was a really good idea, but it’s not perfect. For starters, serialization is way slower than in Japan, either due to the company being smaller or because they treat their mangaka like humans. Also, my library didn’t bother to order some of the titles I was particularly interested in, which means I’ll have to subscribe. With no mention of a trial period, I decided to read the first volumes of several of the series that the library did have, to gauge whether or not such a risky investment would pay off in the long run. I don’t normally read manga when they only have their first volumes out, but I’m doing this because I also need to gauge whether or not it’s worth waiting for more volumes in the first place (given how slow serialization is). After all, my only other gaijin manga experience was Radiant, a manga that I found to be very middle-of-the-road, and haven’t resumed reading since that review was published. Anyway, preamble aside, let’s just hope that I don’t hold these titles in the same regard as Radiant.


Apple Black by Odzune Oguguo

Well, for a battle shounen, Apple Black is way more involved than expected. To put it simply, it stars a boy named Sano, whose left arm—Arodhis—is the last legacy of his late dad, Merlin. It’s the ultimate weapon that can trigger the cataclysmic Infinite Night. Sano, being a battle shounen protagonist, instead wants to end all war (and become the #1 Sorcerer Hokage of Pirates probably). However, there’s a lot more to it. A LOT more. There’s all these organizations, and not to mention, a magic school with its own intricacies. It took me an hour to read this volume, which is not at all the normal reading time for a shounen.

For a manga I wasn’t looking forward to, Apple Black has been much better than I initially thought. It definitely looks the part, with phenomenal artwork and spectacle. The ideas are also off-the-wall, and the humor checks out as well. The large cast of characters is quite good, but due to how many there are in this volume alone, I feel like I’ll only remember Sano and his classmates. Sano himself is a typical dumb shounen boy, but his upbringing in isolation justifies how dumb he is. Oguguo combines the nerd and the pervert tropes to make Symon, a sleazy four-eyes who likes the in-universe equivalent of Wonder Woman comics. Ryuzaki is a typical brash boy, but the end of the volume shows he’s more complicated than that. The female lead is a girl named Opal, who seems pretty awesome, but hasn’t gotten too much screentime yet. There are many other characters, including a very sexy grandma, but this post’d be too long if I discussed them all.

Unfortunately, the biggest flaw with Apple Black that I foresee is a matter of circumstance. It does appear to be one of the more consistent series, since it’s apparently a reprint of the series as of ten years ago. However, like I said before, Saturday AM is a lot slower than Jump. With how ambitious and complex Apple Black is, Oguguo better put recaps in future volumes, or people might forget MANY of the finer details. Sure, you can reread the older stuff, but I’m someone who rarely—scratch that, never—has the time. Sadly, this is something that’s going to bite the bums of every mangaka under this publisher. 

Current Verdict: 8.5/10


Titan King by Tony Dawkins

Titan King is significantly simpler than Apple Black: a boy named Eli Santos is abducted from Earth and forced to compete in an intergalactic tournament. The participants are able to summon a bonded titan to fight alongside them and have anime powers. Like I said, simple. 

With the entire manga being a tournament arc, there is a much higher focus on action than in Apple Black. I definitely enjoyed the artwork and fighting more. However, I don’t know if it’s because of being nervous to read these manga or what, but I didn’t enjoy it as much? Honestly, it was probably the nerves, because the manga is pretty damn great from an objective standpoint. The only real flaw is that the characters are way more by-the-book. They have awesome designs, but are everything you can expect from a battle shounen cast.

Current Verdict: 8.45/10


Saigami by Seny

Full transparency: I wanted this section to be The Massively Multiplayer World of Ghosts, which is the one I was looking forward to the most, but my library doesn’t have any copies. So, here we are with one of the titles I was least interested in: Saigami! Like Apple Black, it seems to be a flagship series, so I should probably give it a fair shot out of respect.

The reason why I wasn’t interested in it is because it’s a traditional isekai: a girl named Hanasaki Ayumi is miserable, and then gets sent into another world. She then discovers that she’s one of the titular Saigami for a hitherto unexplained reason. However, even with badass fire powers, her new life is hard as nails and a lot of folks don’t like her.

The idea of isekai where the other world isn’t exactly a bed of roses feels as dime-a-dozen as your typical harem power trip. However, Saigami was initially penned by Seny many years ago, so it’s technically one of the first instances or possibly THE first instance of this. However, given my timing with reading it, that whole aspect of Saigami lost its novelty fast.

In any case, there’s nothing overtly abhorrent about the manga so far. It looks like it’s going to be quite lengthy, with this volume just introducing the world, its characters, and setting up for the first major arc. It’s a slow start, but by being a manga, it’s SIGNIFICANTLY more tolerable and faster-paced than 99/100 isekai light novels. It could be a yuri, assuming that the RWBY reference at the beginning was foreshadowing, but for now, Ayumi is the only girl…

Which is a perfect transition into discussing the characters! Ayumi herself is what you’d expect: someone who constantly gets dunked on, and has to learn to embrace her inner power. She’s weak and whiny now, but I’m assuming she’ll be a badass down the road. The other three characters introduced are all boys. Sean is a silly, fun guy, who is basically Ayumi’s BFF in five seconds. Angsty Reyji doesn’t trust her at all, since she’s not from Saigami-land but has Saigami powers somehow. Last but not least is Daiszke, another underdog who gets treated like crap, this time because his powers were taken too far.

Sadly, I do find the artwork to be the weakest of what was discussed today. It hits all the right notes, sure, but compared to the others, it’s just the weakest. It has a shojo-y look to it, but thankfully, the characters actually look like people instead of Grey aliens wearing human suits; that’s one big positive at least. There haven’t been any major fights, so I can’t really say how good the action looks. In conclusion, this volume was the least impressive, but I imagine it’ll only get better with time.

Current Verdict: 8.25/10


Hammer by JeyOdin

Hammer is, believe it or not, EVEN SIMPLER than Titan King! It stars a boy named Stud Hammer, who has all the relatable quirks of being lonely, having a missing mother, and a dad who’s always going to work. In a depressed stupor, he finds his dad’s journal, and gets Blue-Skadooed into it. He then proceeds to have adventures.

The opening arc of Hammer revolves around the mysterious murder of the Ocean Kingdom’s king. It’s basically a setup volume, because it’s clearly implied that there’s more to this murder than meets the eye. Otherwise, it’s a very Dragon Ball-ish, comedic battle shounen with great fights.

Hammer is, visually, the one that stands out among the manga discussed today. That’s because its artsyle seamlessly blends American cartoon aesthetic with  monochromatic manga goodness. It looks awesome, and is by far its greatest strength. 

I don’t quite have an opinion on the characters because I really didn’t feel like I’ve gotten to know them well enough. They have memorable designs, but are pretty basic for the most part. Two of them, Stud and a young police officer named Dan (who I enjoyed imagining Dan from Game Grumps as his V.A.), currently rely on classic emotional hooks to get brownie points from you. Dan’s older sister, Diane, is cool, but she’s a pretty typical onee-sama trope herself (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Current Verdict: 8.5/10


So, Will I Be Subscribing to Them?

The answer, for the time being, is “undecided.” If I was richer, I’d do it in a heartbeat. However, I have hundreds of dollars worth of subscriptions, including a $300 annual fee for WordPress that I need to pay off, all off of minimum wage! Crunchyroll is something I’d be willing to abandon, since I have gone on record saying that I don’t enjoy anime outside of the movies, but I actually have a relative who’s using my account in my stead pretty consistently. 

Even if I could afford Saturday AM, I still don’t quite know what I’d be getting into. The website is pretty bare bones, and according to the description of their app, they don’t even have a series-by-series list like Viz; you still have to pay separate, flat rates for “chapter packs” specific to each series. Also, I’ve known about them for three months now, and they haven’t added a single new serialization since. There was a recent collection of one-shots, but I don’t know if they’re doing the Jump tradition of “the most popular one-shot gets to start as a full series” or not. Also, due to the aforementioned slow publication, I’d be flushing money down the toilet just playing the waiting game for more content. The other caveat is the world itself. Every day, we’re getting showered with news about global disorder, the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, China, etc. The talking heads estimate that we don’t even have a decade left before the next mass extinction. Saturday AM might not even be worth investing in, because there might not even be enough time for them to grow into something truly great; they’ve been doing this for almost ten years, and are only just now printing their first tankobons.

If I could find a way to get out of Crunchyroll, then I’d probably be subscribed to them now; the monthly rate—even if you factor in the chapter packs—is cheaper. However, whether or not I go through with it remains to be seen; after all, what if there’s a TV anime that’s actually good for once? In any case, if you’re reading this, and you have a much better income than me, then I implore you to check these guys out if you’re interested. I don’t want to sound like I’m forcing you… but this little team needs support, and the price of admission is peanuts. I hope you enjoyed this post, and that you highly consider subscribing to Saturday AM!

CrossCode: Secret of Mana and 2D Zelda on Steroids

If there’s one variant of RPG I haven’t done much of, it’s the types like Secret of Mana, where you actually have to move and physically strike enemies to deal damage. Paper Mario: Sticker Star gave me PTSD with any RPG that has only one party member throughout the whole game. But, you know what, Sticker Star sucked. So today, I’m going to cover a retro RPG that gives a lot of bang for its buck: CrossCode for Nintendo Switch (I started playing this game before I got Steam)!

After a confusing opening sequence where you play as some angsty chick, CrossCode starts out when a girl named Lea logs into the high-tech MMO, CrossWorlds, in hopes of recovering her lost memories. CrossWorlds is set on an actual alien planet called Shadoon, and players have to travel the Track of the Ancients, in order to discover its secrets. If you’ve seen SAO, you know things are gonna get ugly.

This game sure knows how to hook players! They throw the intrigue right at you when some weird spaceman, who claims to know Lea, attacks during a tutorial. After that, however, it’s chill city as a lot of the early game is just getting acclimated to CrossWorlds itself. While I don’t normally care much for story in games, I must say that CrossCode nonetheless has a great story. It’s pretty straightforward, but is consistent at throwing you curveballs.

The story in CrossCode wouldn’t mean anything without its phenomenal writing. There’s your usual witty banter, but an indie game wouldn’t be an indie game if it didn’t break the fourth wall! As you can expect, CrossCode makes fun of RPG and videogame tropes. In fact, it even comes up with an actual justification for Lea being a silent protagonist! Since it’s an MMO setting, the meta humor feels much more natural in the context of the story than most indie games I know.

If you’re familiar with me, then you would know that I don’t care if there’s realism, especially when it comes to characters. However, CrossCode actually makes me proud to say that the characters are great because they’re realistic. Due to the setting, all the characters are, well, gamers. From the main cast, to random NPCs, the dialogue feels like how actual videogame nerds would discuss videogame stuff amongst one another, and it creates an intimacy with the player unlike any game I’ve played.

As mentioned before, Lea is a silent protagonist, and is one of the best I have ever seen. I’d dare say she’s the best next to Link himself. Over the course of the game, her friend who basically plays the role of Navi gradually unlocks more words for Lea. Despite her limited vocabulary, the writers give her tons of personality and emotion with what little they have to work with. Speaking of that Navi—i.e. Sergey—he’s also awesome. He’s smart and rational, but also has no shortage of quips.

The others are great as well. Her friend Emilie is a raucous tomboy who is just adorable when she’s dealing with her phobia of bugs, and her love for laser bridges. Along with her is C’tron, a nice, introverted boy who likes making fun of the game’s tropes. There’s also the egomaniac Apollo (who you’ll come to hate for gameplay-related reasons), and his down-to-earth partner, Joern. Even the Navi wannabe, Sergey, is a very likeable character. Unfortunately, a lot of characters don’t have enough eggs in their baskets. Most NPCs have their own stock designs, and even then, some named ones—specifically those involved in side quests—have no personality. It’s a real shame, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

Before getting to gameplay, I must praise the graphics. The game is beautiful and vibrant, as expected of a lot of pixel art games. The spritework is so good, some characters—like a giant whale you fight at one point—look three dimensional. CrossWorlds itself brims with life as you observe other players running around and doing parkour alongside you. It really helps the game feel like it’s set in a real MMO, but without the toxic fandoms and newbie PK’ing of actual MMOs. Somehow, this thing was made using HTML 5, and apparently, this made it very difficult to port to the Switch. It works fine, but can lag a bit during weather effects or if there are a lot of large AOE attacks going off at once.

The gameplay is, of course, the most important part, and CrossCode gets it right. The game has your typical skill tree, with several branches, each containing different abilities that you unlock by spending CP, which you earn on level up. It’s the usual stuff. However, you’re only able to outfit Lea in this game, and that’s because your party members aren’t always going to be there. While you can use them all you want when exploring, things like Dungeons and PvP are done solo. More on those mechanics later.

CrossCode handles Quests really well. There’s tons of them, but they make it really easy to cycle through them. You can favorite a Quest by pressing Y on them, which will display the tasks for it on the HUD. But the best part is that you can favorite multiple Quests at once, and cycle through each one by pressing the Left Analog Stick. It’s a phenomenal way to manage tons of Quests that most RPGs don’t do. The only real issue is that you can’t favorite them at the initial prompt when receiving it.

Quests are nice, but it wouldn’t be a true RPG if there weren’t a million things to do. The other monstrosity is the Encyclopedia, which fills up by talking to NPCs, playing the main story, and learning about the world. This is basically Character Notes in a Falcom game… with additional notes regarding in-universe terminology. I didn’t bother getting 100% on this because of Trails of Cold Steel PTSD, but like in that game, I assume that entries are permanently missable in CrossCode. Additionally, plants of all kinds populate CrossWorlds, and there is a whole section in your Encyclopedia called “Botanics” that records data. Getting an item drop from a given plant is what moves analyzation along, so don’t be afraid to spend hours and hours violating the ecosystem.

Before covering combat, I must praise CrossCode for having an amazing overworld. It’s not just beautiful, but it’s chock full of stuff. You will have to really study the land to figure out “Just how am I supposed to reach that?”, and it’s really fun to do. Every area is full of puzzles, some of which extend to adjacent rooms. Other than some specific instances, it’s pretty easy to get a grasp of planes of the z-axis despite the 2D graphics. But when you can’t, you can always use your projectile attack to get a feel for the depth. Also keep in mind that Lea’s jump is NOT to be underestimated; it puts Link to shame!

Speaking of Legend of Zelda comparisons, the dungeons in CrossCode are among the best I’ve seen in any RPG. CrossCode utilizes its mechanics to create an explicitly Zelda-like experience when going through them. They have seriously tricky puzzles that make use of all of the game’s mechanics, as well as the dungeon-specific mechanics that are taught to you organically with no intrusive textboxes. 

There are a couple of issues I have with them, however. While the puzzles are really great, a lot of them are extremely fickle, requiring pixel-precise setup. This leads into the other issue, which is Emilie’s addiction to racing you through the dungeon. Although it doesn’t seem apparent, you can actually try to win somehow. Unfortunately, if you’re going through the dungeon for the first time, as well as trying to get all the treasure before the boss, you’re NOT going to win a single dungeon race. Even if you were to speedrun it on a repeat playthrough, I imagine every single puzzle is a run-killer; it wouldn’t be an indie game if there was no “Hey do this thing with constant frame-perfect timing, please” BS. Since I’m a filthy casual, I have to accept being an absolute loser at everything.

Combat is a whole different story. When playing, you have your usual melee attacks, but Lea also has projectiles. To use projectiles, you have to move the right analog stick to aim while ALSO moving. Plus, there’s a dodge, but ALSO a guard. The latter won’t make you invincible from damage, but—naturally—there is a perfect guard that allows you to counterattack. Things can get ugly fast if you aren’t adept at all this. 

There’s also Combat Arts that are used with ZR. However, they work very strangely in CrossCode. Your arts aren’t mapped to ZR + a face button, but to ZR + a specific action. They come in four types: Melee Arts, Ranged Arts, Dash Arts, and Guard Arts. Pretty self-explanatory which is which. Note that you can only have one Art set to each action at a time. But fortunately, the skill tree allows you to freely switch between different branches with no CP loss, so there’s no consequence in learning an Art that you’re not sure about. As you find MacGuffins, you unlock further branches of the skill tree, which allow you to learn stronger Combat Arts that cost more SP.

As if things couldn’t get any crazier, there’s Elements. In CrossWorlds, players gradually acquire mastery of the Four Elements. As you unlock them, you can freely switch between them to give your attacks that property. This is great when fighting enemies with different resistances, so you’re not “Oh great, I’m fighting something weak to this and I can’t go into my inventory to equip my weapon with this attribute!” However, there’s Element Overload to watch out for. Basically, too much attacking with an element active can force you back into neutral for a while. It’s also important to know that attacking with no Element active will make your Elements cool down much faster. Each Element found opens up a new section of the skill tree, with their own Combat Arts (which means you’ll be able to have up to FORTY of them active once you gain all four Elements). The thing to notice is that each upgrade is only applied in that particular Element mode. For example, if you give yourself a bunch of base defense ups in Neutral, you will lose it when you switch to another Element. This needs to be kept in mind as you fight.

One mechanic that makes the game extra fun is Combat Rank. This is basically a combo system; defeat enemies in quick succession to increase your rank, which makes them drop better items. I only recommend it if you’re specifically grinding for rare drops, since the adrenaline rush can make you ignore loot your first time through an area. Fortunately, you can press minus after defeating all nearby enemies to end combat immediately if you don’t want to get that combo going. However, whenever you decide to go on a killing spree, Combat Ranks make it feel really good. It gets even better once you acquire equipment with the Botanist property, which causes plant item drops to be affected by Combat Rank. Thanks to this mechanic, I had more fun grinding for materials in CrossCode than in most other games I’ve played in my life.

There are also a lot of nuances that take much learning to figure out. The NPCs are very helpful in that regard, but there’s still some stuff you gotta figure out on your own. For example, when an enemy is glowing red, that means they’re charging up an attack that you can break them out of with a charged projectile attack. There’s also the dash cancel, where you use your dodge in order to prevent yourself from using a melee combo that has recovery lag in favor of continually dishing out damage, and more importantly, hit-stunning enemies repeatedly. Also, parrying with your guard ability becomes crucial if you want to be really good at the game.

You will need to learn these skills quickly; like most indie games, CrossCode wants to be on par with Dark Souls in terms of difficulty. Fortunately, unlike other hard-ass indie games, CrossCode actually considers EVERY POSSIBLE PERSON playing it. In the settings, you are able to freely tweak the amount of damage you take, as well as the frequency of enemy attacks and the leniency of puzzles. That last modifier is really good because you can mitigate the ridiculousness of the puzzles; you’ll still have to figure it out, but execution won’t be as much of a chore. Of course, these are at max by default. I had each setting one tick lower than max and it still gave me a consistently rough but fair time (maybe I just suck).

Despite how rough it was, I rarely felt truly frustrated. The game’s tough, but somehow, it makes the challenge feel fun. However, nothing’s perfect, and there are some specific points that can get VERY frustrating. One example is the case of Elite Quests. Most of them are harder versions of earlier quests. MUCH harder. For instance, the hard versions of these sadistic platforming gauntlets require the kind of frame-perfect perfection that most indie games have come to expect from gamers. There’s also some quests that have interesting ideas, but next-to-no leeway and require memorization of enemy formations. It’s also very easy to be walled by any of the game’s PvP battles. You can’t use items, and even if you could, your opponent is very capable of overwhelming you instantly, and tries various strategies built around stun-locking you until you go from full health to dead. It’s meant to teach you these strategies, but doesn’t mean they’re easy to implement yourself!

If that wasn’t scary enough, don’t get me started on the Arena. Late-ish into the game, you unlock the ability to challenge a preset of mobs from each region, as well as every single fixed encounter, miniboss, and major boss battle that you’ve been through. Beating the challenges is doable enough, but it’s getting the best scores that are insane. You need serious reflexes and ability to pay attention to multiple onscreen entities at once. And assuming you get platinum on each challenge? Well, guess what; you’re also going to have to do it again, but this time in Rush Mode. This is—you guessed it—every challenge within its given bracket in a row with limited healing. Yes, you’ll have to worry about getting platinum on this, and it’ll naturally be even worse to screw up.

I would’ve had this review out faster if it weren’t for the game’s long-awaited DLC: A New Home. It took until early 2021 to drop, and the wait for console users was even longer. However, it’s a bit complicated. The DLC, A New Home, is CrossCode’s post-game (I am unsure what happens if you beat the game before buying the DLC). To unlock it, you need to get the Good Ending. Now, before you assume that they pulled a Falcom by having a Good Ending in a long RPG, lemme reassure you: the sole condition that needs to be met is close to the end of the game. They’re very upfront once it comes up, so it’s not hard to miss. The problem is doing it right. I, thankfully, had managed to get the Good Ending in one try without even knowing that it was such an important thing. Fortunately, if you get the Bad Ending, you can warp right back to the start of the final chapter, retry the event, and then warp straight to the final boss at the point-of-no-return spot.

A New Home unlocks new quests, a new region, the true final dungeon, and resolves many unanswered plot twists. The new region, while beautiful, is kind of a disappointment considering how long I waited for it. It’s easily the smallest area in the game, and is very linear. On the plus side, you unlock special “ascended” equipment, whose base stats grow with Lea’s level, making them objectively better than anything else you can wear. A lot of these are upgrades from stuff you already have, so it’s easy for you to prioritize certain kits based on your playstyle. Also, the superboss at the end of the dungeon was probably the hardest fight I’ve experienced in my life, and taught me that my heart isn’t physically capable of handling that level of difficulty.

Unfortunately, there are some issues with A New Home. For completionists, you will need an excessive amount of materials found in the final dungeon in order to get all of the equipment. However, due to how dungeons work versus the overworld, you can’t take advantage of combat rank, making it one of the worst grinding spots in the game. Also, if you consider reaching level cap part of completion, grinding XP will be hard toward the end. The plus side is that the least amount you can earn is 1 per enemy, so finding a spot with a lot of enemies is the best strategy… but even spots with many enemies don’t exactly expedite this process. Also, the game doesn’t resolve EVERY plot twist, possibly intentionally so; it definitely baits a sequel, and there just so happens to be a very CrossCode-looking game, currently known as Project Terra, under development right now (that I hope has customizable difficulty and only one ending). Also, the final-FINAL segment is a bit anticlimactic. It doesn’t even take half an hour to get through despite the big buildup. Maybe it would’ve been better to have the final dungeon after it, since it’s a much better end to your journey. The cherry on top is that the game does the thing where it resets to right before the cutoff point after beating it, which is really arbitrary since not enough changes after finishing the DLC to warrant this.

How have I gone this long without talking about CrossCode’s soundtrack?! It is one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a videogame, and perhaps the best I’ve heard in an indie game. There is so much variety when it comes to atmospheres and moods. I could rock out to any of the awesome battle themes, or chillax to the serene tunes of Autumn’s Rise.

Final Verdict: 9.95/10

CrossCode is awesome. I’d give it a perfect ten, but some of the puzzles really do feel excessively savage. Ah screw it!

Actual Final Verdict: 10/10

CrossCode has become my favorite indie game of all time, and is sure as heck up there with my favorite games of all time. I recommend it to anyone who loves JRPGs, puzzles, pixel art, great story, and phenomenal gameplay.

Battle Dragons: City of Thieves is basically a Fusion of How to Train Your Dragon and Blade Runner

I’ve known about Alex London’s Battle Dragons franchise since it was new. However, because of the ruthless march of time, I’ve only just gotten around to checking it out. I mean, it’s a cyberpunk with dragons. I know I’ve been disappointed before, but something like this—knock on wood—can’t possibly be crap! Well, let’s FINALLY read the first installment, City of Thieves, and confirm my wild claim. Hopefully.

In City of Thieves, a boy named Abel stays up late to watch the custodial dragons burn some trash. Instead, he sees his older sister parkour her way into his room, where she subsequently gives him a mysterious address and a secret to keep. Apparently, she’s a dragon thief, wanted by gangs and the secret police. Better yet, when Abel checks out this address, he finds—surprise, surprise—a rare dragon, smack dab in the middle of Thunder Wings territory. He is now forced to become its rider and fight illegal battles for the Thunder Wings.

Let’s address the elephant, or rather, dragon in the room: the worldbuilding in this series is actually kind of awesome. I’ve seen so many cases where a cool idea falls flat, and thankfully, this isn’t one of those times. Dragons are everything in the city of Drakopolis, including in the aforementioned illegal battles. Also, like in any cyberpunk works, gangs like the aforementioned Thunder Wings run the city. They aren’t even subtle about it; people in public jobs are openly showing their gangster imagery. Even Abel’s teacher is in a gang!

However, I don’t know what is with American literature in particular, or maybe it’s seriously bad luck on my part, but… well… London’s execution is—surprise, surprise—as aggressively safe as it could possibly be. City of Thieves has a mind-numbingly simple plot, and next to no battles, despite the series’ title. This sucks, since the worldbuilding is so well thought out.

I suppose the “risk” comes with some of the twists that come up. However, can you even call them twists? The story is framed to make you think everyone is a criminal, so when these twists happen, it feels more ridiculous than a case of “Wow! Moral ambiguity!” You might as well throw in one of Team Rocket’s famous disguises while you’re at it.

The story would’ve likely been better if Abel wasn’t the main character. He simply isn’t ABEL to do much of anything, and yet he’s the chosen one of the dragon Lina stole, explained simply as “it loves her so much that it loves her blood relative too.” I was spoiled when looking the book up on Goodreads that Abel has AD-HD (since Goodreaders cannot shut up about representation these days), which is something that is not overtly mentioned in the story. I don’t really know how much that justifies his stupid actions, but I do know that a kid with AD-HD once saved the Greek gods, so… it’s only so much of an excuse. Honestly, what really set me off about him above all else is that he never gets that everyone is a criminal.

This includes his best friend, Roa. In the first of many telegraphed betrayals, Roa reveals themself as a Thunder Wings member. However, it really doesn’t mean crap in the long run. They are still smart, supportive, and a much more capable human being than Abel. The aforementioned gangster teacher, Ally, is probably one of the best characters, but she doesn’t get enough screentime. Even Abel’s mom gets to show that she’s a better character than he is. His older brother, Silas the police officer, is… kind of unremarkable. He’s a one-dimensional stuck-up older sibling, and there’s a plot twist with him that’s so obvious that I legitimately thought it was something that had been established in the opening chapter. 

To be honest, Lina should’ve been the main protagonist. She’s cool, knows parkour, and gets to see so much more of the criminal underworld that readers probably want to see than Abel. London could’ve taken some real risks with her, since she would’ve made a great anti-hero. 

I sure bashed City of Thieves a lot, but it isn’t bad. It’s just, like a lot of American novels I’ve read, safe. The writing is good; it describes stuff well enough, there’s great humor, and the few battles that happen (all two of them) get pretty intense. The book is just not cyberpunk-y enough.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 8.5/10

The first book of Battle Dragons is better than I expected, but still not particularly amazing. I’ll probably read the sequel, since the books are short, and light novels eat wallets for breakfast. At least it’s not as pretentious as other cyberpunks. That’s something, right?

No. 5: Spectacularly Weird

If you’re an anime nerd, you’ve probably heard of Taiyo Matsumoto’s classic manga Tekkonkinkreet; it was made into a critically acclaimed movie after all. Of course, me being me, I instead gained an interest in No. 5, a sci-fi manga of Matsumoto’s that I doubt any Westerner would’ve even heard of if it weren’t for Viz’s recent omnibus publication; it didn’t get adapted, so it might as well not exist over here. I don’t even know what it’s about, except that I should expect it to be weird because Matsumoto is famous for weirdness. Well, when it comes to Japanese literature, I shouldn’t expect anything less, should I?

No. 5 is set in the distant future, where the peace is protected by the Rainbow Peace Brigade, an elite squadron of genetically modified soldiers. The best of the best are designated under the numbers one through nine, and they all answer to an old man in a pair of bunny pajamas. Things aren’t so peaceful, however, when the titular No. 5 kidnaps and flees with a strange woman for no apparent reason. He travels with her as the rest of the Rainbow Brigade hunts him down.

Lemme tell you, this manga is as weird as it looks, if not weirder. Matsumoto’s art is strange and extraordinary, operating under no rules whatsoever; sometimes it’s detailed, sometimes it’s cartoony, and sometimes you don’t even know what you’re looking at. What’s even better is that panel changes tend to jump from POV-to-POV several times per page, all to maximize your confusion.

To add to that confusion, No. 5 doesn’t exactly give you exposition dumps. All the characters talk as if you—the reader—already understand how the world works, and you have to adapt fast. Everything is context-sensitive, and I’m sure as hell I missed a lot of important nuances during my read-through of the manga. There was probably some allegory to the true meaning of being human in there somewhere, and it flew right over my head.

Fortunately, this is a case where you don’t really need to know what’s going on. I was pretty damn engaged with the story despite being confused the whole time. The reason is all in the aforementioned art. Matsumoto really knows how to keep an audience on their toes no matter what’s happening, and there’s always something happening. The plot is followable on the most basic level, but good luck figuring out the purpose of any of it.

Because of how confusing the manga is, I don’t exactly know what to think of the characters in No. 5. The titular character is a very hard-boiled ex-cop-type, who doesn’t seem capable of any emotion except hard-boiled-ness. Unfortunately, we don’t exactly get the full details on why he wants to protecc the woman, Matryoshka, like an anime nerd’s favorite waifu; when we get the full backstory, it actually skips(?) the time between No. 5 first meeting her and ultimately kidnapping her. 

It’s also not easy to tell why he loves Matryoshka so much, or rather, why everyone in-universe seems to loves her. You could argue that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, since she’s not the stereotypical ideal woman in terms of physical features. However… she’s kind of awful? She acts like the perfect picture of innocence, exclaiming everything she sees like a child, but it seems like she just follows whoever gives her food, as evidenced by a part where this one guy grabs her and she doesn’t resist at all. 

The rest of the Rainbow Brigade are even more confusing. We get into the heads of every one of the numbered people. It’s natural to assume that the ones who die earlier are less impactful, but it doesn’t really matter. I don’t get No. 9, who dies first, any better than any of the others. I feel like the most impactful ones are the No. 4s, two twins who create hallucinations, and No. 1, who is… well, I probably shouldn’t spoil him. 

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 8.75/10

No. 5 is really something. It’s surreal and intense, and always leaves more questions than answers. If you want to experience a weird, old manga, then No. 5 will serve that purpose well. 

The Genesis Wars: It’s More Anime Than Its Predecessor, Therefore It’s Better

Holy crap… I forgot that YA novels don’t always have social undertones. Well, technically, Akemi Dawn Bowman’s The Infinity Courts asked questions about the self and smartphone A.I., but since—like many cyberpunks—it comes off as pretentious and ham-fisted, the book ended up being a perfect mindless romp. Now, we have its sequel: The Genesis Wars. Let’s hope Nami actually lives up to the amazing One Piece character she’s named after!

When we last left our intrepid hero, Nami Miyamoto was betrayed and her friends were captured. Now she’s hanging out with a secret collective of different Clans (with a capital C) of warriors who have been hiding from the Residents. As you can expect, seventy-five percent don’t want to fight back because it’s too wisky-woo-woo. As such, she trains up to potentially go and save her old friends on her own. 

The Genesis Wars starts off kind of… badly. We are thrown right into her life in the Clans almost a year after she initially found them, because timeskips are fun. There are MANY characters casually introduced as if we’ve known them since the first book, and you have to adjust to these new faces on the fly. Seriously… is it just me or does this happen a LOT in sequels?

This seems like the perfect set-up for a boring sequel where Nami complains about them not doing anything, and we spend eighty percent of the book complaining that nothing happens. Fortunately, that’s not the case. Before long, Nami packs her bags and leaves the Clans behind, which honestly, makes the whole thing seem like padding in hindsight (at least you don’t have to worry about picturing most of the Clan people). In any case, she goes off to War, which is the kingdom of Prince Ettore that is basically every YA dystopian world all rolled into one.

It’s a nasty place, but for the story, it really takes off. Nami finds a group of rebellious humans camping around in War, and unlike the schmucks at the Colony and Clans, these people are actually DOING SOMETHING. Thanks to this, The Genesis Wars has actual wars in it, especially in a place called WAR. There is no end to anime-like, adrenaline-pumping action sequences once the ball gets rolling.

Naturally, the cast improves as well. Nami gets… better-ish. She’s still kind of whiny, but she’s much stronger. She can really pull her weight in Infinity, and most importantly, she looks awesome while doing it. Also, Nami gets a familiar whom she can telepathically control at will. That’s VERY anime, which is always good for YA novels.

We meet many new faces in War, the edgiest of whom is Ozias, a Clan turncoat who wanted to fight the Residents. Like many of the rebels, he is very proactive. Of course, he has some semblance of moral ambiguity so readers can be asked the classic question of “Are the [insert antagonistic entity here] or humans the real monsters?”

Oh, right, there’s Prince Caelan, and he’s still an enigma. We had no idea what his motives were back in The Infinity Courts, and we still don’t know them now. At least there’s a scene where he’s topless. That alone EASILY bumps up the score of the book by at least one point.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 9.65/10

The Genesis Wars is a rare sequel that’s better than the previous book. There’s more action and intrigue than before. Let’s hope beyond all reason that the forthcoming third—and presumably final book—will be great. If so, then this might become one of my favorite YA series of all time.

Atlas Shrugged: The Sci-Fi Dystopia Novel That’s Also a Self-Help Book

I have the longest story with this book. I’ve been battling serious depression over the past two years (longer than that by the time the post actually goes out) because it feels like human civilization is falling apart. Heck, you could argue it’s been happening longer than that; since the #MeToo movement in 2017, it feels like violent protests have been a way of life. Of course, 2020 set a new precedent of despair, when COVID took the world, and simple matters of health became political. That same year, George Floyd was murdered, and divided the human race amongst itself overnight. 2021 began with a terrorist attack on Capitol Hill, organized entirely by American citizens with a political agenda. At the time of writing this paragraph, Russia is invading Ukraine, laying the groundwork for World War III. To top it off, earth is being ravaged by climate change, at a rate that keeps increasing at an exponential rate despite all the efforts that have been put in to delay it. As of completing the book, Ukraine is still at war, and abortion is now illegal on a constitutional level following the result of Roe v. Wade, not to mention a spike in mass shootings.

This is where Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged comes in. I was at a point when I finally figured out how to enjoy life, but now I’m drowning in despair. I can’t begin to list the violent emotions and twisted thoughts I’ve felt. To give you an idea, my mother has considered sending me to the psych ward numerous times. After some intense discussions with her, she offered up Atlas Shrugged. According to her, it would—at the very least—expose the media and these new-fangled activists as the BS-spewers that they allegedly are. I was skeptical, but Atlas Shrugged is apparently one of the most influential novels of all time; second only to The Bible.

Atlas Shrugged, however, is massive. This is the kind of book that I can only read with the new purging of pop culture media that I have committed to. One chapter can take about an hour, and there’s a lot of chapters; over a thousand pages’ worth. I started the book in February 2022, and you’re reading this post not long after I actually finished the book. That’s how much of an investment it is.

Like any hard SF novel, completing it is a monumental task. One aspect of these kinds of books is that merely figuring out the basic premise is a headache that you’re meant to experience, and thus, it feels like discussing any aspect of the novel is spoiler territory, even though it’s super old. So… Here’s a spoiler warning then. Read on if you wish.

Right off the bat, Rand’s prose feels like what a lot of modern writers, whom I consider pretentious, try to be. A lot of Atlas Shrugged is very verbose, and at first, it feels like nothing is happening. However, unlike books such as Monogatari, I wasn’t mad. A lot of passages give you hints pertaining to the book’s worldbuilding and how characters think and feel. The writing is also very poetic, describing things metaphorically but in a way that can be understood by anyone with a basic grasp of the English language; unlike a lot of YA and light novels that vomit nonsensical similes at everything. 

You are given your first signs of how messed up the world of Atlas Shrugged is with the initial conflict centered around Taggart Transcontinental, a railroad company. The organization has always been run by Taggarts, and this generation is brother and sister James and Dagny Taggart. When one of their lines desperately needs fixing, Dagny is literally the only person to do anything about it. She orders an untested metal from a company that James doesn’t trust, while his “trusted” metals haven’t been delivered in over a year since being ordered. What jumps out is that she is the only one in the whole organization who’s proactive; everyone else, except a guy named Eddie Willers, sucks. 

The story also involves the creator of the aforementioned untested metal, Hank Rearden. He went from slaving away in the mines to owning his own steel plant, an achievement that he knows he’s damn well earned. Dagny’s order for his metal is the first big order his company has ever received. The reason for this is because everyone else is afraid to risk using it.

Right off the bat, Atlas Shrugged should resonate with just about anyone alive, especially these days. Heck, a lot of the stuff brought up in this book is stuff I’ve had internal debates about for years. I one hundred percent relate to Dagny and Hank, who feel like they’re surrounded by morons at all times. Well, I say morons, but a more literal term would be sheep; they just stick to doing what they’re told, with no drive to make anything better. This isn’t even remotely a new trope, but in Atlas Shrugged, it feels more grounded and real. Every writer and their grandma these days would chalk this up to how humans are wired to behave and there’s nothing we can do about it. Good ol’ Ayn Rand, however, presents this behavior as an unnatural, conscious choice that most people—unfortunately—decide to make. 

Words cannot describe just how vindicating Atlas Shrugged is. Every other scene, there’s something that feels like Rand literally wrote for me specifically. The inane ignoramity (professional term) of mankind feels like every day of my life since Donald Trump ran for President. On a side note, Atlas Shrugged is significantly easier to digest than what I thought going in. It’s lengthy, sure, but the actual content of the book is incredibly straightforward. If you could get through crap like Of Mice and Men in high school, then Atlas Shrugged will be no problem.

The plot starts off in earnest at the end of part one. Dagny and Hank go on a road trip and stumble upon a mysterious machine, abandoned in a junk heap in an equally abandoned factory. Turns out that this device, if seen through to the end, would literally solve all of humanity’s energy problems and save the world. However, its creator is unaccounted for, and she scrambles to find that creator or reverse engineer the machine, all while surviving the ignorant world she lives in. Survival is not easy, especially when the few smart people that remain start abandoning their businesses unannounced.

Of course, you could look at the publication year saying “1957” and chalk Atlas Shrugged up for yet another McCarthy-ist novel written during the Red Scare. The thing is, due to everything discussed up to this point, I would’ve never guessed this was a Red Scare book because it sure didn’t feel like it at all. Despite the difference in eras, I could attribute so much more about Atlas Shrugged to real life in this day and age than any other cyberpunk I’ve ever experienced. However, the fact that Atlas Shrugged feels even more relevant than it did at the time isn’t exactly a good thing.

If you couldn’t tell, Atlas Shrugged is meant to have only two likable characters, and they are Dagny and Hank. Let’s talk about Hank first, since I’m saving the best for last. He loves his career with Rearden Metal, especially more than the stupid people he’s surrounded by, including his stupid wife. He doesn’t let other people’s thoughts get in his way, including those in the media. It’s ironic that someone who cares so little about people contributes more to their lives than most… or at least he would be if there weren’t politically correct idiots trying to ruin his business.

Meanwhile, Dagny… ho-hoh boy, lemme tell you. I daresay that she is the Best Girl in all classic literature. She’s like Hank in not caring, only better. Her proactive personality feels so modern compared to any other character of classic literature. Dagny is unimaginably badass, and if you told me that girls like Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind or anyone from Little Women were better, I would absolutely not believe you. 

Among these two awesome protagonists whom you’re meant to love, and these wingnuts that you’re meant to hate, there is an anomaly named Francisco d’Anconia. You could argue he’s the main villain of the book, despite him definitely not being an ignoramus like the rest of mankind. He has iconic and inspirational moments that feel amazing, like he really understands how life works, yet he seems to be working against the human race with most of his actions. I’d say he’s the extreme end of Dagny and Hank’s personalities, but at the same time, he could just be a massive troll.

If there are any flaws in the book’s writing, it’s that I always had trouble telling where anyone was in 3D space. The dialogue is the heart and soul of Atlas Shrugged, and it’s so easy to get absorbed in it that they can seemingly teleport to another location. You could also argue that some of the big long passages that convey the book’s themes get redundant (including a seventy page speech that is more-or-less a summation of all the themes explored), but the way Rand thinks is so unconventional, that you kind of need to see it multiple times to really process the full weight of her words.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 10/10

Why does anyone bother with any classic literature other than Atlas Shrugged? I’ve read crummy books with blurbs that say “I’ll be thinking about these themes for a long time”, but Atlas Shrugged is the first time I truly feel that way about a book. It’s so insane that—scratch that—it’s saner than almost anything else out there. If Ayn Rand wrote and published it today, it would get canceled ten times over. Heck, the FBI would’ve personally hunted her down. Atlas Shrugged would be considered by many to be pure evil, and that’s precisely why it’s a must-read. Just keep in mind that it will not give you hope for mankind; it’s only meant to give you hope for yourself.

Still a Masterpiece JRPG: Xenoblade Chronicles Retrospective feat. The Definitive Edition

One of the most important YouTubers in my life is none other than Chuggaaconroy. I don’t just look up to him as a fellow autistic man, and as the man who introduced me to the TRG Community, the only community—physical and digital—where I’ve felt like I belonged; he also introduced me to the ding-dang greatest JRPG franchise of all time: Xenoblade Chronicles. Naturally, I had temptations to play the 2020 remaster, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition, for the Nintendo Switch. However, I held off on it because I was like, “You know what, I’ll save it for 2022 when the game turns ten.” The thing is, I’m an idiot. The 2012 release I had associated with Xenoblade Chronicles was for the North American release. The game actually turned ten in 2020, an anniversary which was probably overshadowed by assorted world events at the time. As a result, you’re going to read a two-year-belated tenth anniversary retrospective, featuring the Definitive Edition. So without further ado, I need to ask the question that starts every retrospective: Is it really as good as I remember it being?

For the record, I have not re-watched Chugga’s series, nor have I seen any gameplay of this game since then. I remembered the basic gist of the story, the party members’ playstyles, the enemy types (since they’re also in the sequel), the regions, and specific side stuffs. I don’t remember the layouts for any of the regions, nor the vast majority of heart-to-hearts and sidequests. Overall, excluding the Future Connect epilogue, at least 70% of this game will still feel new to me. Also, I noticed that this game came with the Japanese voice actors. While I do actually think the dub is great, I was deathly curious about the Japanese voices. At the very least, I wouldn’t have to worry about “You’ll pay for your insolence!”, even if it means I lose Reyn Time.

Before I even get to the premise, I must say: HOLY SHIT THIS GAME IS GORGEOUS. The area design and the various vistas were astounding in the original, but the game looked… kinda bad. Now, this world is truly done justice. Everything has so much more life, especially the characters. Maybe the original being impossible to find was worth something after all; I doubt this remaster would exist otherwise.

You know what—and I know that I’m stalling on getting to the GAME here—but this is not your usual retrospective (in case you couldn’t tell from the fact that it’s a ten year anniversary retrospective when the game is twelve). The problem is that, normally, a retrospective would be a spoiler-filled rant on a well-known thing that’s been around for more than a hot minute. However, the original Xenoblade Chronicles on Nintendo Wii was notoriously difficult for people to find. As such, Definitive Edition is likely a whole generation’s first ever experience with the game. So… should I really spoil the story? I kind of ended up going halfway; not straight-up analyzing everything, yet giving away the biggest plot twists in the game. As such: UNMARKED SPOILERS AHEAD.

In Xenoblade Chronicles, two Titans—Bionis and Mechonis—are locked in battle. Said battle literally ends in a stalemate, but the residents of these Titans are still up in arms at each other. The Bionis people’s only hope to fight Mechonis’ Mechons is the Monado, a sword that can see the future. A boy named Shulk inherits it after his childhood friend, Fiora, is given the Red Shirt treatment, and sets off to destroy all the Mechon (afterwhich he realizes that the Mechon were the good guys but that’s neither here nor there).

What jumps out immediately in Xenoblade Chronicles is its setting. In case you couldn’t tell, the overworld for this game is the aforementioned Bionis and Mechonis locked in time. This is probably one of the most creative worlds in a JRPG. There aren’t many ways to describe how great it is without examples. One area is a body of water resting inside a giant thing sticking out of its shoulder blades (Bionis must’ve been a hunchback). Oh, and the way you get to Mechonis? You literally walk across the sword it thrust into Bionis’ shinbone. They even went into so much detail as having the ice area be in the part of Bionis that gets the least amount of sunlight (thanks for that particular deet, Chugga). 

Most people would say that Xenoblade Chronicles has a fantastic story, but honestly, I don’t feel as strongly about that. Everything is presented very powerfully and emotionally, but it’s pretty straightforward. I feel like the only development that can catch you off guard is the BIG twist where Shulk was actually the vessel of the final boss. Oh, and if you’ve played Xenoblade Chronicles 2, then you’d recognize the same scientist guy from the end of that game; this game’s world is the one that he ended up creating.

No matter how good the story is, it still has some developments that are way too easily telegraphed. First off, Metal Face being Mumkarr is obvious since they both use the same knuckle-claw-thing weapons, and more noticeably, they have the same voice actors. Also, the thing with Dickson… I feel like they could’ve been more subtle about it. He outs himself very easily in one specific scene in Satorl Marsh, and it’s quite easy to remember since he’s never acted sus up to that point.

At the very least, the game has surprisingly enjoyable cutscenes, and this is from someone who normally can’t stand cutscenes in a JRPG. There are a number of scenes where it’s like “Okay, we’re here, and we need to go over there,” but those—at least in the Definitive Edition—have advanceable text. The actual, cinematic, story-important cutscenes are very well-directed and never felt like they overstayed their welcome. This was a pleasant surprise, because in Xenoblade 2, I remember being frustrated to no end at the length and abundance of cutscenes. I recalled going through the Spirit Crucible and there being at least eight different cutscenes where they’re like “Oh man we’re all exhausted in here” over and over again. Well, I guess I’ll know for sure if I ever get to do a retrospective of that game (which won’t be this year because Xenoblade 3 is priority one).

What gives Xenoblade Chronicles heart is its cast (even if I (hot take) think that the sequel has a better cast). Your main party members, with the exception of one, all have incredibly defined personalities and are very lovable. Shulk is pretty much a shounen protagonist, albeit a well-realized one. One of the best parts about him is that he often gets called out for the “main character sees something VERY IMPORTANT and says ‘It’s nothing’” cliché. He still does it… a lot… but I can let it slide this time.

Reyn is a great best-friend-type of guy, whose Time is very honored. Fiora initially comes off as a Red Shirt, but becomes more fully fleshed out—or should I say—mechanized out, after you find her with a bit of Mechon implanted pretty much everywhere besides her face. Best Girl Melia is the better waifu, who sadly doesn’t get her man (but more on that much later). Dunban is literally Shanks from One Piece, complete with only being able to use one arm. He’s a freaking awesome dad-type character. 

I don’t know about public consensus, but Chugga’s least favorite character was Sharla. What makes her a hard sell right away is her unusual battle style (sorry for getting to gameplay here but eeeeeeeeh), where her Talent Art isn’t an attack but a way to cool down her rifle when it overheats. To be honest, she’s not that bad in battle. You can use Cool Off before it overheats, and it’ll waste less time. There might be a possibility that Sharla’s A.I. was improved in Definitive Edition, because I recall Chugga saying it was awful. All that is well and good, but as a character, she’s about as much of a jackass as I remember. She has an unhealthy obsession with this Gadolt guy, to the point where it gets annoying. As soon as she says Reyn reminds her of a young Gadolt, you can see their ship coming from a mile away. Oh, and her betrayal of Melia in that one Heart-to-Heart? Big oof.

Obviously, the BEST character is Riki. This guy is a Nopon, a.k.a. the master race of the Xenoblade Chronicles series. With his typical Nopon broken grammar, he’s fun and cute and awesome and perfect. His only flaw is not being Tora from the second game. 

Like I said before, I played through the game with the Japanese audio, like a weeb. This is going to sound crazy coming from someone like me, but here: the dub is actually better. I had a feeling it would be, since we have Reyn Time and all. The voice actors aren’t bad, but nothing stands out from them. The Japanese audio is more necessary in Xenoblade 2, which has more anime tropes, and thus more interesting voice actors like Aoi Yuki. 

The chemistry between characters depends on you. Affinity is the bond between two characters, and is increased by actions in battle, among other things. Generally, you want to raise it as much as possible. One thing about Affinity that I’m glad has been simplified in the sequel is town Affinity. Unlike Xenoblade 2, where it was just the entire town as one entity, most NPCs have their own place on a massive Affinity tree. You’ll need to talk to them to get them to appear. And unfortunately, registering people on the Affinity tree is often a prerequisite for sidequests. Thankfully, the ones you need to worry about are green on the map. In any case, completing quests will increase the party’s Affinity with the respective town, allowing for even more quests.

Heart-to-Hearts are where it’s at for character development. However, in this game, bad choices can decrease affinity. As such, I ended up looking up every single one of them on the wiki. Some of the negatives can be funnier, plus there is an achievement for getting the worst outcome of a Heart-to-Heart. As expected, Heart-to-Hearts have various prerequisites, and you’ll have to remember them accordingly. On another note, one thing I don’t like about Affinity in this game is that certain party members will gain Affinity by being active when receiving given quests. There’s no way to tell who will react, but honestly, I didn’t worry about getting a reaction on EVERY quest, especially since some are from characters you don’t get until a significant time after the quest is available.

Speaking of quests… there are a ton. A good chunk of them are very simple and will auto-complete when accomplished, similar to the basic missions in Xenoblade X. As always, doing as many of them as possible is well-worth your time. Just be aware of Timed Quests. These will expire after certain story developments, but as long as you prioritize them, there’ll be nothing to worry about. One of the best parts of the game is that Shulk’s visions are more than just a plot device; they impact gameplay. A lot of quests, such as ones with multiple outcomes, show him what’ll happen with either option. Furthermore, you can even get visions of collecting materials for quests that you haven’t even started yet. New to the Definitive Edition, exclamation marks will appear for every quest, even if it’s not registered as the actively tracked quest. It will even highlight materials needed if any loaded in; great for not wasting time checking EVERY single item orb.

Unfortunately, the quests are kind of trollish at times. There is at least one case where one outcome of a multiple-outcome quest will open up a chain of future quests, but not the other. Also, some quests don’t appear on the map until you go up to them in the overworld, and yes, a number of these are timed. But in all seriousness, I really ended up hating the Affinity Chart in this game. It’s not just talking to people once to get them registered in it; you’ll also have to return to previous NPCs after registering new ones in order to get a status on their relationship with each other. Sometimes, you’ll have to talk to them after certain quests or story beats. All of these actions are often prerequisites to quests, and one in Colony 9 can be missed just by making the wrong decision with one of its residents. NPCs have very specific schedules, and there’s no way to really know if you have everyone in a given town. The Xenoblade wiki is a lifesaver for this, but having to use it at all honestly kind of sucks.

Anyway, the REAL rabbit hole when it comes to sidequesting is Colony 6. Starting from a certain point, you can relocate the residents of Colony 6 to, well, Colony 6. The place was ravaged by Mechon, and it needs rebuilding. In addition to a metric ton of quests and quest chains, you also have to make sizable donations in the form of rare materials found around the world in order to spruce it up. This would be the start of Xenoblade’s tendency to expect incessant and unfun grinding for completionists. Thankfully, they programmed it to where anything needed for Colony 6 in an area that expires will have an alternate solution after-the-fact.

One mechanic for collecting that has yet to return is trading. Named NPCs will be willing to trade for items, depending on your Affinity with the town. If you’re missing a material for a quest, then a trade might just come in clutch. Each item has a trade value, and you must give them something equal to or higher than it. There’s also the ability to overtrade, which nets you a bonus item if you give them something WAY more valuable. It’s a cool mechanic, but overtrading is tied to completing the “other” tab of the Collectopedia, and you have no hints on which NPC you have to trade with. I miss this mechanic, since it can save tons of material farming (maybe that’s why the other games are utter nightmares to complete?).

As far as the overworld is concerned, Xenoblade Chronicles has one of the best. There’s so much variety when it comes from the different areas, and the game does a great job in showing the scale of this game world. Even though I watched Chugga’s series years ago, I still remember seeing the Mechonis from exiting Tephra Cave for the first time. Bionis and Mechonis have a ton of stuff to do, from collecting materials, to mining regularly-spawning Ether deposits, to finding secret areas that net a ton of XP. It’s amazing how much there is when there aren’t any overworld chests!

So, what do you do with the aforementioned Ether deposits? The crystals you get from these—along with crystals from enemy drops—are used to craft Gems, which are stuck to equipment for added effects. The system is kind of complicated, and very random. Basically, you get one character to control the flames of the crafting machine, and someone else… to be honest I don’t know what the other person does. Basically, you insert crystals until one of the values exceeds 100%. Any Gem that’s over 100% is guaranteed to form, and any that fall short will be converted to cylinders for later use, depending on how much of the cylinder gauge fills up. Higher ranked crystals will form higher ranked Gems, but exceeding 200% will get you a higher rank.

Anyway, equipment is actually fun in Xenoblade Chronicles. I always felt like it was too complicated in Xenoblade X, but too simple in Xenoblade 2 (although that might change if I do a retrospective on the latter). In the original, it’s just right. Equipment comes in varying types: regular, slotted, and unique. Regular is self explanatory, while slotted equipment can be equipped with the Gems. Unique equipment has a predetermined Gem setup, and can be very helpful. The original game had a glitch where damage rolling went WAY lower than the maximum that a character’s stats said they could, and I couldn’t tell if it was fixed in this version. It was fixed in the 3DS port, so it’s natural to assume the same here. 

Combat is what makes Xenoblade Chronicles as a whole feel action-packed… and it’s complicated. Your party members all use their standard attack commands automatically at regular intervals. Auto-attacks are really nice, because you can use them while moving as long as you stay in range of the target, whereas in Xenoblade 2, I recall that you moved insanely slow in battle and could only auto-attack while standing still. In addition to these standard attacks, you can select the various Arts of whomever you’re controlling. These have a wide variety of effects, as well as bonuses depending on your angle relative to the target. In the Definitive Edition, given Arts will have a blue exclamation mark when you’re in position to gain their bonus effect. Landing auto-attacks also fills up a gauge that—when full—allows you to use a fancy Talent Art. These are unique to the character, ranging from the Monado Arts to… Sharla cooling her stupid rifle. Arts need to be levelled up by consuming accumulated AP on them; this also includes each of Shulk’s Monado Arts. At first, you can only raise an Art to level four, but Art books can break that level cap… if you can find them! Most are available at shops, but those aren’t enough. You’ll need advanced Arts books to completely max out an Art. Unfortunately, these are only available as insanely low drops from random assortments of enemies late in the game. There’s no way to know which ones are where, but the higher leveled enemies that do have them give you the best odds.

Along with Arts, you also learn Skills. These are passive abilities that apply to the whole party or to the user. The system becomes kind of complicated with Skill Links, where you use Affinity Coins to give someone another party member’s Skill. Just experiment and see what works. Keep in mind that specific quests can reward a character with an additional skill tree that tends to be pretty powerful. If the game wasn’t ham-fisted enough with its ships, one of Fiora’s grants her all kinds of buffs as long as Shulk is fighting alongside her.

The main way to gain an advantage over enemies is to knock ‘em over. To do this, you hit them with a pink Break Art to unbalance them, then use a green Topple Art to literally trip ‘em up. You can extend the time they are down with a yellow Daze Art (which has yet to come back in the series). Topples and Dazes can be stacked, resulting in a technique called Topple-locking, but you don’t need to worry about that unless you’re fighting stupidly powerful foes (i.e. the superbosses). There are rare instances of being able to skip a step in the process, such as Melia’s Spear Break immediately followed by Starlight Kick. One great feature of the Definitive Edition is the visual indicator of these debuffs’ durations, similar to Xenoblade 2. Also, you can hit a target already suffering Break and Topple with another Art of the same type to refresh the status; something I DON’T remember in Xenoblade 2.

You also have to pay attention to Aggro. Whoever has the most Aggro has a red circle around them, and will have the attention of enemies. It’s optimal to keep it on people like Reyn, and not people like Shulk. There are various Arts dedicated to increasing and decreasing Aggro. Oh, and before I forget, I should mention Auras. These temporarily put the user in a unique state, and they can be VERY useful. 

Just like with sidequests, Shulk’s visions help in battle, even when he’s not in the active battle party! When an enemy is about to use a powerful—usually fatal—attack, you see a Vision of it, with a timer of how long you have to stop it. More often than not, the attack will be the enemies’ own Talent Art, each of which has its own level. Use Shulk’s Monado Shield to protect from it, but the Shield needs to be levelled up enough in order to work. The Shield will not work on non-Talent Art attacks. There’s also the ability to consume a block of the Party Gauge by warning a fellow character, which gives you a chance to use an Art on the attacker. I don’t recall that being in the original, but it’s been years since I watched Chugga’s series so I don’t really know for sure.

The best part is the Chain Attack. Getting crits and Arts’ bonus effects fill the Party Gauge, which goes up to three bars. It takes one bar to revive a character, and the whole darn thing is consumed to execute said Chain Attack. Basically, you use Arts of the same color to boost damage. What’s really helpful is that enemy resistance to debuffs is nullified, which is where the Topple-locking strategy comes in. Unfortunately, Chain Attacks kind of suck early game, because their duration depends on your party members’ Affinities. Also, Sharla doesn’t learn a red Art for a long time, making it difficult to add to the multiplier with her in the party. In any case, I forgot how great this Chain Attack was versus the sequel’s. Like I said before, Chain Attacks in this game make Topple-locking viable. I’m stressing this because you can’t use Arts in Xenoblade 2’s Chain Attacks; they’re only good for sheer damage. Furthermore, the same actions that fill up the party gauge normally still apply during the Chain Attack itself; ANOTHER great thing I don’t recall in the sequel. Some setups can refill the entire party gauge instantly, allowing for an immediate follow-up Chain Attack. When your party’s Affinity gets high enough across the board, you can really spam these with little penalty. It’s so much better than Xenoblade 2, where I remember Chain Attacks being something you had to work for, not just by filling the party gauge, but also because you need at least six element orbs from six different types of Blade Combo for it to be worthwhile. Boy, I really sound like I hate Xenoblade 2. I swear, I love it! It just has… issues.

Another thing to keep in mind is quick time events. Don’t worry; they aren’t the BS that kills you during a cutscene if you don’t see it coming. Basically, you just need to press B when it lines up with the blue circle that forms. You need to do this to keep party morale up, which affects how good you do in battle. Also, hitting these prompts gives you the chance to extend your Chain Attack’s duration. Hitting these when prompted can fill up to a whole block of the party gauge, so… practice makes perfect.

One of the nicest new features is Expert Mode. Calm down; this is not a higher difficulty. Basically, what this option does is convert some XP earned from non-battle antics to reserve XP. In the Expert Mode menu, you can level up or level down party members, similar to how the inns worked in Xenoblade 2. If you’re worried about being overleveled from completing all the quests, then use this to even yourself out by levelling the party down. This is especially helpful in the endgame, which involves fighting enemies stronger than the final boss. You can do those quests and get up to Level 99 for the superbosses, then just level down afterwards for the final boss (if you want it to be a challenge of course; utterly wasting Zanza has its own catharsis).

In terms of difficulty, Xenoblade Chronicles can be rough if it’s your first Xenoblade ever. Conversely, if you’ve played Xenoblade 2, then this game is stupid easy. It’ll still feel easy even if you’re using Expert Mode. For me, that gave me the perfect level of challenge. I’ve even had multiple fights against monsters marked as “yellow”, meaning it would be pretty tough but not as hopeless as fighting a superboss. I would not have been able to get through it without my knowledge of Xenoblade fundamentals as well as knowing every party member’s battle style. There are quests that take you into high-level territory underleveled, but it’s not required like in Xenoblade X, nor is it as insane as Xenoblade X. There is a proper tutorial for Spikes, which I don’t recall being a thing originally. Plus, enemy health bars have a visual indicator if they have Spikes; a phenomenal improvement!

Oh, and f*** the Nebula enemies. These things can only take full damage from Ether, and usually have annoying status ailment Spikes that reduce tension, which you need to keep as high as possible over the course of battle (at the very least, you can farm Affinity by encouraging your allies over and over again). When the Nebulae are low on health, they self-destruct. Even if you survive it, they don’t actually drop loot, and if you could properly defeat one, the items that you actually need for stuff are quite rare. I’m glad that these aren’t in future games (and if they actually are, then they’re definitely not as bad).

The real challenge comes from Unique Monsters. These are tougher versions of regular enemies that take—and deliver—quite a beating. They drop super good prizes, and are worth taking on (plus, they’re really fun to fight). The superbosses are five Uniques over the level cap of 99, and suck. I never did them due to wanting to save time (thanks, both Great Ace Attorney games and my life), but you basically need a perfect setup to fight them… at setup that I vaguely know how to build but not enough to where it actually works (I tried on regular overleveled enemies and it didn’t go well). You also need to be in a situation to endlessly spam Chain Attacks and Topple-lock them, as well as regularly using Shulk’s Monado Purge to seal the VERY DANGEROUS counterattack Spikes they have on them. Since Topple-locking is a thing, they are probably the easiest superbosses of the series so far.

A much more consistent challenge is the A.I. of your other two battle party members. I remember Chugga specifically riffing on Shulk and Sharla, but I had some troubles with them across the board. While they are good at following up with the Break > Topple > Daze chain, they tend to use those Arts willy-nilly, and by the time I actually inflict something on the enemy, their Art is on cooldown. They are at least good at using Arts that work in tandem together, but that’s hardly an offset. Shulk will also spam Monado Arts (and use Monado Purge against enemies without Spikes or Auras), but that’s at least not too bad as long as he doesn’t use Monado Buster, which reduces the Talent Gauge by the highest amount. Sharla wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I recall Chugga saying. Maybe they rebalanced her in this version? In any case, you pretty much need to be in control of Shulk for the superbosses, since he NEEDS to be ever on point with his Monado Purges there.

Since everything in Xenoblade is so damn good, it’s no surprise that it has phenomenal music. I’m very attached to this soundtrack; it’s pretty much perfect. I even own an official copy of the OST, straight from Japan. In Definitive Edition, the soundtrack is ever-so-slightly altered. The basic ideas for the songs are still there, but if you’re really soft for the old OST, the new ones could sound jarring. At least it’s not made worse by this change. However, I did notice an issue that I don’t recall from Chugga’s series. You see, the battle music dynamically changes to some sort of “Oh crap!” music when you’re getting a nasty vision or if things aren’t going your way. However, the game consistently had trouble reverting back to the usual music, even after averting said crisis. 

Oh, and one more thing new to the Definitive Edition is the Time Attack mode. This works like it does in Xenoblade 2, only it’s a lot easier. Unfortunately, from what I’ve tried, it doesn’t seem that practical. The rewards seem kinda useless for the most part, and you can’t even do most of the challenges right away. One big plus is that you can use it to obtain the super-rare materials for that gruesome final leg of Colony 6 reconstruction. Hallelujah!

Before getting to the final evaluation, I should list a couple of minor flaws in the game, for the sake of being comprehensive. Some enemies, specifically fish enemies, can be buggy and randomly disengage from battle for no reason. There are also at least two quests with multiple outcomes that will force the bad outcome if you have the necessary materials for it upon accepting the request. Also, I hate the quest where you get the weapon for Fiora right before taking on Mechonis Core, since you have to make a round trip through Central Factory with fast travel disabled; what’s worse is that it’s actually worth doing. And for some reason—I don’t know if it’s me having bad luck, but—I just could not get Chain Attacks to last very long. Maybe tension is involved in the calculations, but the prompt to extend was very rare even with characters who have maxxed out Affinity. This essentially means that the Superbosses are luck-based, but that’s just how the cookie crumbles in even the best JRPGs. Either that or I suck. 

~~~~~

Final Verdict—Oh wait, there’s more!

Xenoblade Chronicles is over one hundred hours of top-notch JRPG gameplay. However, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition has one more addition in Future Connect, a post-game sidestory. Before evaluating the final product, we gotta play through Future Connect first!

In Xenoblade Chronicles: Future Connect, Zanza has been wiped from existence, and Shulk created a new world with no gods. Life is finally back to normal. A year later, Shulk and Melia pay a visit to Alcamoth, just to receive a giant laser blast to the face. Apparently, something called the Fog King has set up shop there and it needs to be taken out posthaste.

The story here is a pretty simple instance of the “we saved the world, but there’s still issues and junk” trope. It’s nowhere on the caliber of the base game. On the plus side, it basically serves as—after ten years since the original game came out on Wii—proper character development for poor Melia. She gets to spend quality time with Shulk, completely bereft of Fiora. Melia gets the full closure to her character arc that she deserved all this time. Accompanying the destined-to-be-friendzoned couple are two of Riki’s kids: Nene and Kino, who serve as your Reyn and Sharla respectively. They’re positively adorable, and that’s all there is to it; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Future Connect is set in the once-unused area known as Bionis’ Shoulder. For some reason, when Bionis fell over after beating Zanza… its shoulder decided to not fall? Why am I questioning JRPG tropes? In any case, there is a LOT to do on Bionis’ Shoulder! In addition to the Ponspectors, Heart-to-Hearts are replaced with Quiet Moments, of which there are many of. These don’t have any choices, and are fully voice acted; a nice change of pace from worrying that you could say the wrong thing. There is more incentive to defeat Unique Monsters, for they drop Art Coins, which are used to buy Arts Manuals now. Bionis’ Shoulder has a slew of optional quests, one of which is to find twenty of a certain Key Item scattered across the world.

A lot of mechanics have changed. Shulk can’t see visions, there is no more Skill Tree, and Chain Attacks are replaced with a special all-out attack. You also mine Gems directly from Ether deposits as you would for crystals in the base game. Anyway, the aforementioned special attack is a bit complicated. It’s unlocked by finding elite Nopons called Ponspectors throughout the world. With a full set of Ponspectors from the same team, your special attack can be performed based on that team’s specialities. Also, they autonomously assist in general, using Arts of their own. 

Future Connected is also really hard. Everyone starts off in their sixties, but with crappy equipment and un-leveled-up Arts. With no Visions, big attacks can wipe your team instantly. Plus, the lack of Chain Attack makes it harder to Topple Lock (and the free Daze from the Ponspector attack can’t be refreshed by using a regular Daze Art). Shulk is pretty much essential, as Monado Armor becomes significantly more helpful than it was in the base game, but aggro management becomes difficult when you don’t have Aggro Up Gems on Nene.

~~~~~

After All These Years: 10/10

Thanks to the quality of life improvements in the Definitive Edition, Xenoblade Chronicles becomes the best game in the series for sure… at least until I finish Xenoblade 3 or have renewed thoughts on Xenoblade 2. It’s a no-brainer that I recommend it to anyone who owns a Nintendo Switch.

Executive Action: When a WordPress Blogger Becomes a Published Author

Well, this is a first for me! I have never read an independently published book before, and Evolution’s Hand Book 1: Executive Action is by the very same Crow from Crow’s World of Anime right here on WordPress! I had a Barnes & Noble gift card leftover from Christmas, and since I don’t read light novels on nook anymore, I basically got this for free. Well, what’s important is that this review is going to help spread the word. That makes up for it, right?

I can’t really discuss the premise of Executive Action in a single paragraph like I normally do. It’s structured like a good ol’ fashioned sci-fi novel. You’re thrown right into the story, and introduced to many characters all at once. You don’t know who’s a main character or not because they all have full first and last names. There are also many different plot threads and POVs introduced right out the gate, making it even harder to know what’s going on. I would’ve devoured this book back in my teen years when this genre was my jam, but now as a weeb reading books for children… yeah, “rusty” would be an understatement here.

If anything about Executive Action is simple, it’s that it’s got the classic cyberpunk trope of “conglomerates ruin everything.” The big, bad company this time around is Terra Consolidated Products. They’ve gained so much traction that even the United Nations is powerless against them. Meanwhile, one of our intrepid heroes—Melchizedek Conrad—is running a small outfit called TranStell. They have a secret technology called Fissures, which expedite space travel, and it is inevitably leaked to TCP very early on in the story.

Crow, despite being an anime blogger, definitely didn’t write Executive Action for anime fans; this is adult fiction, and the first rule of being an adult is no fun allowed. The pacing is deliberate, the characters are grounded, and the “action” boils down to various forms of big business and subterfuge instead of cyborg Hollywood actors gunning everything up. On top of that, there are about as many subplots as characters, and you gotta keep track of them all!

The worldbuilding also keeps in hard sci-fi tradition. In order to be immersive, none of the actual mechanics are explained to us in any way; it’s supposed to be imagined as a contemporary novel in the actual future, instead of a hypothetical future. There are many new ways to address workers, for instance. Also, the notion that America will one day split into several splinter nations comes true in the book’s worldbuilding.

The main plot starts in earnest when a crew goes on their first expedition to the star system on the other side of the Fissure. TCP sends a mole in the form of Quaid Atair, who I of course pictured as Randy Quaid, to sabotage the crew. At this point, Executive Action becomes a long game of Among Us where we already know who’s sus thanks to the power of dramatic irony.

I sure sound like I’m giving Executive Action some flack, but I really mean the opposite. What I’ve described may sound like negatives, but this is simply what this kind of book is. Crow, for all intents and purposes, did everything one hundred percent correctly. The plot and its subplots all progress organically, and it feels like if Fissures were actually discovered IRL, things would play out more-or-less how they did in Executive Action, for better or for worse. In my case, it would be that latter.

As for characters, it’s a huge cast, and you’re generally not given enough features to visualize them, let alone keep track of them (this is also a hard science fiction trope, so it’s not a flaw on Crow’s part either). I’m sure I’ve put my fifteen cents in when it comes to super-grounded characters, but in case you didn’t see it before, allow me to tell you now: I have autism, and thus I cannot understand the appeal nor nuances of “normal” characters who behave very much like real people. It’s why I hate it when reviewers praise a character for “feeling like a real person” because I cannot understand how to arrive at that conclusion. In any case, I did find Matsushita to be the Best Girl. She’s Conrad’s secretary, and to be honest, she should be having his job because she’s better at it and more. She also gets to beat the crap out of someone, which was fun to see. 

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 8.35/10

Objectively, Executive Action should have a higher score than this. While not on the level of peak sci-fi like Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, I could definitely see the same level of quality as with any big contemporary franchise of the genre. However, when you start reading manga for children for a decade, you kind of become… er… stupider. I was unable to appreciate Executive Action for what it was, and it’s entirely my fault. If you enjoy  business-y, dialogue-driven dramas, then Executive Action is an easy buy. 

Oh, and Crow, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry for being harsh. I get the struggles of being a writer, and I truly wish you the best for your new career!

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.

~~~~~

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.