Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear Volume 2 and Infinite Dendrogram Volume 12 Reviews

Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear Volume 2

Last time on Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear, a girl named Yuna logs into her favorite MMO, World Fantasy Online, during a new update. She is given some game-breaking bear-themed equipment as a gift for playing for a long time, and is sent to an unfamiliar part of the game world in said bear equipment, with her level reset to 1. She saves a girl named Fina from wolves, and the two of them head to the nearest town with the mob loot. They sell it at the guild, and Yuna spends her hard-earned cash at the inn. The next day, Yuna- guess what- registers at the guild, but only after- guess what- beats some red-shirted upstarts. She then buys a ton of throwing knives, along with a sword and butchering knife, as well as some normal-people clothes. She also acquires bear-themed magic, which she practices on some wolves. She beats enough of them for it to instantly promote her to E-Rank at the guild. Some of the friends of that guy who she beat up start slandering her, and as a result, she is forced to undertake a goblin-slaying quest with them. The required amount is fifty, and she offers to fight them all herself and give them the credit so they stay off her back. She goes with the female adventurer, Rulina, defeats them all herself (double the required amount and a boss), and earns respect among the other group. Over time, Yuna defeats so many monsters that she becomes D-Rank with no effort, and hires Fina to butcher the spoils. They go on a quest to fight tigerwolves, which go down easily. Lastly, Yuna spends a heap of cash on an empty plot of land, and constructs a bear house to live in.

The bear-themed antics are just as bear-themed and… un-antic-y (professional term) as last time. Honestly, I struggled to write anything of substance in this post, and that’s why I’m pairing it with a review of Infinite Dendrogram Volume 12. The second volume of Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear is almost exactly the same as the previous one.

At the current rate, it seems that it’s going to commit to being an episodic CGDCT isekai, which for some (many) people, is enough (especially with the bear onesie). Yuna visits some noble guy, which- I’ll admit- her apprehensiveness to the request was actually kind of funny. But afterwards, Fina’s mom is sick, and Yuna- being the OP protagonist she is- restores her to perfect health almost instantly. Everything happens so unceremoniously that it bores me to tears. Furthermore, the “let’s tell you the same chain of events you just saw but from Fina’s perspective” thing does not die down in this volume.

The issue really is the bland and basic writing style. While there comes a point where TOO much finesse can make you sound like a pretentious hack, not enough will make your work seem lifeless. I couldn’t be immersed in any fashion, and I could barely visualize anything besides Yuna.

You know what, Yuna really is the only thing that matters, isn’t she? She doesn’t just look adorable, but she also helps people for no reason. WHAT AN AMAZING AND NOT-AT-ALL IDEALIZED PERSON. I feel like the author expects people to love her because of how good she is. Well, us critics got a name for girls like her: Mary Sue.

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Verdict: 6/10

Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear is so superficial. It’s cute, it’s relaxing, but it relies entirely on Yuna’s cuteness. If she didn’t have a bear onesie this thing would not sell. All of her powers are typical stuff, but they just have the word “bear” tacked on to them; they aren’t even puns! Compare it to Invincible Shovel, which actually uses shovel-like properties, such as “digging” through people’s memories, or “burying” entire castles. My chances of reading more Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear are next to nil. I’m going to be so salty when the anime airs because I KNOW that people are gonna be all over Yuna’s bear suit and her good will, WHILE SOMETHING LEGITIMATELY GOOD AND ORIGINAL LIKE TO YOUR ETERNITY WILL GET SHAFTED BECAUSE FUUUUUUUUU-! Anyway, if you like CGDCT and isekai, then Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear will do just fine.


Infinite Dendrogram Volume 12

Last time on Infinite Dendrogram (volume 10), Ray goes to college while also having a new accessory made for him that would help him resist poison. That’s it for him. In Caldina, Hugh Lesseps gets involved with some crazy woman named AR-I-CA on a quest to find a bunch of sealed boss monsters that were stolen from Huang He. A powerful mafia called Mirage goes after them, but they become a non-issue real fast when Dancing Princess Hiuli defeats them all by herself. Gerbera, in the Gaol, also gets stronger as she trains with her new friends in Illegal Frontier, led by the King of Crimes, who is incidentally involved in what is going on at Hugh’s end. Things are looking intense, AND WE FINALLY GET TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

Er, well… not quite? The stuff that happened last time felt like setup, and this volume feels like… more setup. The developments last volume end up being ignored in favor of some new ones. First off, Figaro’s yandere girlfriend, Hannya, is released from the Gaol. She hates couples… which is why it’s so perfect that she was released during the time of a lovey-dovey festival in Gideon.

There’s also some new political developments, mainly this arranged marriage with Princess Elizabeth and one of Huang He’s princes. In order to butter them up, they hang out during the aforementioned festival. They also hint at a potential alliance with Caldina in the future, but nothing seems to come of it yet. 

The volume starts with some more insight on Kashimiya, this iai-fighting dude that we only got to see a blip of once upon a time. But after that, the bulk of it is the lovey-dovey festival. And yeah, it kind of feels like a filler volume, even moreso than the Gloria prequel fight. The interactions between the characters are genuinely cute, but this is the first time I’ve seen the overarching story get backseated this violently in Dendro

Things do ramp up toward the end; Dendro always has to have a crazy fight scene or two. But as far as character development goes, it’s really only Figaro and Hannya who get it. We do get introduced to some new Dendro A.I. but we’re still kept in the dark; in fact, the prequel volume told us more than this one did! And as usual, we still don’t get to see any of Legendaria nor Ray’s sister. 

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Verdict: 7.5/10

I don’t know what it is, but this is probably my least favorite Dendro volume so far. It’s a cute little mini-arc that set some stuff up, but it’s been a long time since something intense happened. Something big needs to happen, and fast, or this great series could REALLY become the next SAO (and I mean that in a bad way).

Pokemon Sword and Shield: Isle of Armor DLC Campaign Review

The eight Generation of Pokemon has been perhaps the most controversial in the series’ history. Pokemon Sword and Shield has gotten a bad rap since they were first announced, when it was stated that there would be no National Pokedex for the first time in the franchise. And the games themselves have… issues. In my own review of Pokemon Shield, I praised the graphics, quality-of-life improvements, somewhat decent character development, and enjoyable difficulty level. However, it also had a lacking postgame, and perhaps the emptiest region design in the entire series. Plus, the Wild Areas- which could’ve made Pokemon a more open-world and grandiose JRPG- were just vast expanses of nothing. Despite all this, the new DLC might make Gen Eight more viable. Today, I cover the first part of the Sword and Shield DLC: Isle of Armor, specifically, the Shield version.

In this DLC campaign, your character is mysteriously given the Armor Pass, which allows them to go to the Isle of Amor. As you enter the train station, you end up fighting against a Galarian Slowpoke (unless you played the update beforehand in which case you already did that months ago), and catch a glimpse of a strange character heading off to the aforementioned Isle. When you arrive there yourself, you are challenged by this person and compelled to train at this Master Dojo place on the island.

With this being DLC, the story here can’t intrude on the main story; consider it filler in an old anime. The Pokemon here average at around level 60, and with battles exceeding level 70, making it seem like you are meant to go here during the postgame. But tbh, there really isn’t much of a story. You go there, fight some people, get a new Pokemon. The dojo master does foreshadow some kind of undisclosed event at the end, but I’m going to assume that’s Crown Tundra territory, since I couldn’t find anything of plot interest after the campaign.

This DLC does introduce some new faces, and one of them is determined by your version of the game. My new rival on the Isle of Armor was an eccentric, tye-dye-clad psychic named Avery. He is a lot like Kukui from Sun and Moon; someone with a secret other personality, and the tendency to use Pokemon moves’ names in their dialogue. His character arc was short, but sweet. The Dojo Master, Mustard, is also a great character with that lovable “old-fart-who’s-actually-really-strong” personality.

I don’t know about you, but I spent a lot of postgame doing Dynamax hunting, and since I was stuck with poopy A.I., I jacked up my team members’ levels to average at the mid seventies, way too high for the Isle of Armor. So, I made an entirely new team, with Pokemon caught specifically in the Isle. While some were carried over from the main overworld, there were definitely a lot of missed faces from previous Generations, such as Sharpedo and Jigglypuff. I was able to use Pokemon that I had never used myself in a serious campaign, and I was glad at this opportunity from the Isle of Armor. Since it’s short, I might just take the same team to Crown Tundra.

Design-wise, the Isle of Armor shows some great positives. After you fight your first battle, you’re told to head to the Master Dojo immediately. In most Pokemon games, you’d be blocked every which way various NPC, such as poachers who tried to force you to buy their Slowpoke Tails. But here, you are actually able to explore the whole perimeter of the island to your heart’s content. There’s also a lot more biomes in this area than in the main Wild Areas.

Unfortunately, the Isle of Armor is still an island, and an unsurprisingly small one. It only takes about a couple of hours to scope out the whole area, and that’s if you try to catch every new Pokemon as you see them. The individual biomes themselves are also similarly bland to the Wild Areas, with Pokemon placement just as haphazard as before.

But just because it’s small, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to do. Unfortunately, a lot of that “lot” is helping out the Diglett Trainer. There are ONE HUNDRED FIFTY Alolan Digletts all over this place, and he wants you to find them. It’s nowhere near as bad as the Red Lobster thing in Xenoblade Chronicles X, and for a number of reasons. For one thing, the game actually tells you how many are in each area. And more importantly, ALL OF THEM EXIST AT ONCE. But if you don’t have 20/20 vision, good luck finding them. Your only visual indication is the three little hairs that stick out of the ground, which blend in in a lot of places. You obtain a regional variant Pokemon for hitting certain milestones. I didn’t find all of them because my last reward was Alolan Eggxecutor and that was good enough for me. There is also a new mechanic with the Watts. After a certain point, you can donate them to spruce up the dojo. It takes HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS to get all the upgrades, and I honestly didn’t have that kind of time.

In addition to this is the Armorite Ore mechanic. You earn these by doing Dynamax battles on the island, and they can be used on this one dude to dig for more Watts, a guy at the dojo to teach some exclusive new moves (as in entirely new to the series), and on this one lady in an all-or-nothing gamble for additional Armorite Ore. The first and latter mechanics are all luck-based. Also luck-based is the Cram-o-Matic. You can insert items and pray that you get a better one. Using berries can make TRs appear. Additionally, Apricorns return to this game, and using them can get you a rare Poke Ball… if you’re lucky.

A welcome addition is Max Soup. This stuff can take any Pokemon whose species is capable of Gigantimaxing, and enable that to any of that species that can’t Gigantimax. This is a really good mechanic. However, it requires Max Mushrooms, which are easy enough to find, but only respawn after Dynamax Battles. And as someone who needs to rely on A.I. trainers to win them… I didn’t exactly get to use Max Soup too often.

The new Pokemon are the biggest reason to play Isle of Armor. First up is Galarian Slowbro. There are two reasons why it’s one of my favorite regional variants yet. The first reason is that I’ll never forget the time when Chuggaaconroy trollishly made Lucahjin and MasaeAnela draw it during TheRunawayGuys Colosseum Direct before it was ever revealed. The second reason is that it’s flat-out really good. It comes with the unique Poison-Psychic type, and the effect of the Quick Claw as an ability. I paired it up with an actual Quick Claw… and have no idea if the effects stack. But hey, it makes me feel good!

The other new Pokemon is Kubfu. It starts off as a typical Fighting-Type, but after MUCH level grinding, you can use it to take on one of two towers. Whichever one you beat determines which version of Urushifu it evolves into. Urushifu is definitely a great Pokemon, or at least my version is. It comes with an ability where it ignores Protect as long as it attacks with a direct contact move, plus a signature move with great base power that always crits.

As I said before, there isn’t anything of story interest after you finish Isle of Armor (unless I missed it). But there is one thing that does appear: Restricted Sparring. This is a competitive battle gauntlet, much like the Battle Tower, but you can only use teams with a matching Type. It’s really interesting, especially as someone who’s always wanted to do entire campaigns in this manner. But since it has teams built around competitive battling… yeah, I didn’t dabble in it too much.

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Final Verdict: 7.65/10

The Isle of Armor improves a lot of Sword and Shield mechanics, and shows the potential for what a hypothetical Generation Nine can hold. However, it’s short-lived and relies on grindy mechanics in order for you to get the bang for your buck. It’s worth playing if you’re a series’ veteran, but it’s more rational to wait and see if the Crown Tundra can justify the Expansion Pass’ cost.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II Full Game Review

PREFACE: In case you do not already know, I should warn you the Trails of Cold Steel Franchise is explicitly designed to be played in chronological order. No, it doesn’t have a stupidly convoluted plot like Metal Gear or Kingdom Hearts, but this is nonetheless a direct continuation of the first game. As such, this review will contain unmarked spoilers of the first game. I will also not explain any basic mechanics of the first game, as you are expected to know already from playing it. If you are interested in this franchise, click on this link to read my review of Trails of Cold Steel I.


Intro

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel has its strengths and weaknesses, but overall, it was never meant to be a full game; no, it exists solely to lay down the groundwork for a truly epic tale, spanning four massive games. I was more engaged in the story of Cold Steel than any JRPG I’ve ever played, and it was definitely one of the best turn-based JRPGs in terms of gameplay. With that ridiculous ending- Crow being one of the main antagonists, mechs existing, Crossbell’s declaration of independence, mechs existing, Ouroboros and Fie’s old squad have been helping the Noble Alliance pull all the political strings, MECHS EXISTING- my body was beyond ready for the sequel. The first Cold Steel set the expectations, now it’s up to The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II, to meet said expectations.

When we last left our intrepid hero, Rean Schwarzer, he- in his mech, Valimar- was forced to leave his buddies in Class VII behind during a losing battle against Crow, the leader of the Imperial Liberation Front. A month later, Rean wakes up on a mountain range with Emma’s mysterious cat, Celine. Now it’s time for him to make like a battle shounen protagonist and pick himself back off the ground and find what’s left of Class VII! 

Same World, New Problem

Immediately, the game starts off way sadder than Cold Steel I (even if the opening sorta ruins it a little by showing that EVERY student in Class VII is still alive). As soon as you start the game, the familiar title card appears dark, with the words singed by fire. A minor-key remix of the original game’s titlescreen music plays, and zooms in on Rean’s unconscious body. His voice actor sounds much more distraught than usual at first, and his portrait in the menu looks like someone who’s been through hell and back. Then, mere minutes after you find respite in his hometown of Ymir during the prologue, the town gets attacked. In most JRPGs, I’d say that an opening like this would constitute little more than shock value. But since this is a continuation of an existing story, it’s actually more effective, since you’re likely to be invested in the story if you’re picking up this game up after playing the previous one.

If you’re still new to the series, and you’re STILL reading this review anyway, I should SERIOUSLY warn you that the game basically gives you the finger for not starting from the beginning. There are two reasons why it’s seriously important to start from Cold Steel I, and the first of which is merely because it will be way too overwhelming if you don’t. The title screen does have a menu to read a recap of the first game, but honestly, the first game is so involved, you’d spend hours of Cold Steel II trying to memorize everything while trying to follow the present plot. 

But even for a returning player, it can be confusing knowing who’s on what team. So here, I’ll remind you. The Imperial Liberation Front is in cahoots with Fie’s old jaeger squad, Zephyr, who both report to Duke Ceyenne, the leader of the Noble Alliance. Ouroboros is with them as well, but Sharon seems to be a double agent; someone on both our and their side. Vita, the sexy sorceress lady, seems to be in a third group, containing space wizards (or something) who’ve been working on a completely separate thing. 

I pointed out that you need to keep in mind that Cold Steel I is the start of a larger story in order to enjoy it. In Cold Steel II, you need to keep in mind that it’s a continuation of a larger story. As a result, there are a lot of reused assets. While the world is big enough that you do get to visit areas that have only been mentioned, there are times where you return to old places. It really plays on your nostalgia bug, like at the start of chapter one, which has you go through a previous Field Study dungeon backwards.

Unfortunately, playing this game has kind of broken my immersion when it comes to Erebonia itself. Cold Steel I was split into multiple, self-contained areas, connected by long train rides. This was an effective way to make you use your imagination, and imagine the grandiose scope of the world. However, in Cold Steel II, you end up taking the roads that connect various areas in foot… and this is where the immersion breaks. It’s as soon as you set foot into Trista Highway for the first time that it’s made apparent; those train rides that took hours of in-game time were the alternative to roads that took minutes to traverse. It’s a nitpick, I know, but Erebonia definitely feels less Tolkienian since the world feels so much smaller now.

As far as the narrative is concerned, it’s actually… kind of lacking for a direct continuation, especially after an ending like Cold Steel I. Similar to how the first game’s purpose is to acquaint us with the world of Erebonia and all who inhabit it, Cold Steel II starts by reacquainting us with it, and seeing how much has changed as a result of the war. But even after the point where the story is supposed to ramp up, most of the game boils down to reclaiming areas from the first game, and gaining more support. It’s satisfying to do, but you don’t learn much about the core narrative, at least not until around the 75% point of the game, when it vomits information at you like any JRPG would.

The biggest issue with the narrative is that it never ends. After you defeat what is very much intended to be the final boss (which took me two and a half hours by itself because there’s, like, five phases), you end up playing a side section that serves no purpose other than to get players interested in another franchise set within the same universe (which, I’ll admit, was pretty darn effective, even if those games aren’t released in the U.S.). And then, you get an entire in-game day’s worth of content to do. AND AFTER THAT, the true final dungeon appears for no discernible reason. It got so annoying. The issue is that this game hypes itself up to be the conclusion of Cold Steel, and while it does a pretty good job at conveying that on an emotional level, it is very watered down by the known presence of two more games.

Same Faces… Plus a Few New Ones

Fortunately, there’s a surprising amount of stuff to learn from the characters. We get closer looks at characters like Claire and Sharon, and even deeper looks at the students of Class VII. I love them even more than I did before. To think that I brushed most of them off as bland anime tropes at first… that’s character development at its finest. I’ve grown so attached to them, that I even gave some of them nicknames, such as “Reany-Beany” and “Useless Jusis” (even though the latter is my favorite of the supporting male characters).

We also get more development on the antagonists, such as Crow. Plus, there are some interesting new antagonists with quirky personalities, such as the cocky yet socially awkward Duvalie, and the sleepy McBurn. Unfortunately, Duke Cayenne proves to be a pretty one-dimensional villain for the post part.

Audiovisuals

Unsurprisingly, Cold Steel II‘s graphics aren’t too different from the first game. I shouldn’t have expected them to be since it’s both the same system and the same world, but I still had to mention it. But one thing I didn’t acknowledge in my review of the first game is that a lot of the animations for attacks, especially S-Crafts, have aged very well. They look soooooooo animeeeeeee!

The soundtrack is also more-or-less the same. A lot of tracks are reused, but there are also some new, updated battle themes. Unfortunately, a lot of tracks overstay their welcome. One bad example is that there’s a point where you tackle four dungeons in quick succession, and music for all of them is some really grating opera. Furthermore, the previous game’s issue of “having the dungeon theme play over the battle theme because it’s INTENSE” comes back even more in this game. And similar to the other example, those themes get reused as well.

Gameplay (Intro)

For the gameplay section, I will still split it into Daily Life and Deadly Life. But like I said before, I will go over mechanics as if you’re already familiar with the first game. I will also bring up the fact that this version of the game, Relentless Edition, SPOILS you. First off, the amazing Turbo Mode feature is still present. Second off, you get WAY more items in the DLC than last time, including 99 U-Materials. 

Before we start, I must also bring up the other important reason to play Cold Steel I first. When starting a new game of Cold Steel II, you will be asked if you want to load Clear Save Data from Trails I on your system. Doing this will give you items based on Rean’s previous Academy Rank, and change dialogue based on various accomplishments, as well as the person you chose to dance with at the end of Cold Steel I (G.G. for anyone who chose Crow). It felt really satisfying to have my actions acknowledged, and it helped maintain a sense of continuity.

Daily Life

JRPGs Always Need an Airship

So, the first question I- and probably a lot of people asked- going into Cold Steel II was, “Without Thors, how’re we gonna have the same school mechanics?” Well, the answer is a minor spoiler, and one that is spoiled in the game’s intro at that. After a certain point, your main base of operations is on the Courageous.

But the problem with the Courageous is that it needs some help. Fortunately, scattered throughout the world are your fellow peers from Thors. Whenever you see them, it is encouraged to recruit them to the ship, as many of them unlock new facilities. Most of these are carry-over mechanics from Cold Steel I, so I will only discuss new things here.

For starters, there’s new training facilities. These are basically your Practical Exams from Cold Steel I, except you can do them whenever. They are split into Melee, Range, and Arts, where you are locked into using characters who are built around those fighting styles. The biggest issue with them (other than how stupid hard they get) is that you don’t get to prep anyone before the fight itself like you can in the first game. Furthermore, you don’t get to see the conditions until the battle starts, which can be annoying.

There’s also the new Triple Tri- I mean- Blade II. This game plays like the first one, but with meaner trap cards: Blast and Force. Blast Cards allow you to destroy a card in your opponent’s hand (but you can’t look at it), and Force Cards double your total. Even with how game-breaking these new cards are, I still lost 95% of the time because I suck. 

Once you recruit Munk, you are able to bribe him to apply to radio contests on your behalf. There’s a cheap one where you win a modest prize, and a high-risk, high-rewards one. The results come in after five battles (excluding the training facilities in the Courageous), so make sure you use it before you go out into a combat area.

“Hey, Rean! Have you finished those errands?”

Quests are pretty much unchanged, except with the added feature of reporting manually by Skyping Olivert. And despite the hard times, people can afford to pay up. In addition to the usual rewards for completing a quest, you get a monetary donation for reporting it. There are still hidden quests, and they are sneakier than ever. Some require you to have or not have certain people in your party (but I have no idea if the game indicates it to you because I was always lucky enough to already have met the conditions).

But unlike the first game, you cannot miss ANY quests if you want to max out your Academy Rank. Last time, I missed three and still barely got it. But now, even after doing every quest (with the trophy to confirm it), I ended the game with only ONE excess AP. There is only a sliver of leeway, as I didn’t get all S-Ranks despite getting all quests. I guess some of them had more favorable outcomes and I didn’t realize it. Fortunately, due to the game’s circumstances, there are no exams this time! Yay!

You Never Have Enough Sepith in This Game

One thing I noticed in Cold Steel II was that everyone’s Arcus slots are still fully opened. But that doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods. In this game, you spend Sepith to UPGRADE your slots, and I blew through most of my DLC Sepith just to be barely close to maxing out one character. If you don’t do this, you can’t equip rare quartz. It’s annoying, but they had to change it up somehow. As a side note, you eventually get the ability to create EX Orbs, which are equipped to Valimar to boost its stats.

Wow, this game has an actual overworld!

The most standout improvement in Cold Steel II is the ability to go to older areas at will. The Courageous makes it really easy to do so, and you can leave from almost any point on the map. There are times where you will be asked for specific party members, but fortunately, summoning the Courageous from the overworld allows you to reorganize your team without having to leave and come back.

So, what did Cold Steel II do to replace the Old Schoolhouse? Peppered throughout the world are these strange shrines. Gameplay-wise, they’re the same as the Old Schoolhouse; do the floor, beat the boss. You can’t complete them at first, but you obtain bonus AP for knocking out what you can early on (plus they got good loot in them).

The whole Courageous thing is the best and worst aspect of the game. It does open up a lot stuff, and adds much variety when you’re running errands for people. One thing I noticed is that there aren’t as many hidden quests once you obtain the Courageous (in fact, I only had one in Act 2 Part 4 and one in the Final Act), which is nice. However, this new level of accessibility makes it so that you can get said missable items out of sequence. And it’s not based on the order that the areas come up in the story; for example, a single shop can have both the first recipe and last book chapter of that particular time bracket. As a result, I think I spent even more time repeatedly talking to the same NPCs over and over again than I did last time.

Saving the World? Nah, I’d Rather Fish and Cook

Cooking and fishing have both been buffed since last time. While fishing is mechanically unchanged, fishing spots get marked on the map after being used once, which is nice. And due to the ability to travel to older areas, you get a lot more respawning fishing spots that you can use. Unfortunately, this also means completing the fishing is a nightmare. In Cold Steel I, all fish eventually end up in Trista. However, that’s not the case here. Furthermore, the fishing locations don’t respawn as quickly as they should, meaning that you’ll need more groundbait than ever (or save-scumming) if you want to get all the fish… on top of having to try each and every location without knowing which one has a fish you missed. In fact, I resorted to looking up the fish just to save time. But hey, at least recipes are only cooked by one character now, which simplifies the process of getting a specific type of dish.

Nakama Power, the Most Important Superpower in Any Anime

Bonding Events are much more important in this game. While there are some Bonding Events early on, the bulk of them take place on Stopover Days that occur at the end of a chapter once you obtain the Courageous. Unlike the first game, EVERY party member, as well as Alfin and Towa, are available to spend time with. While you get more Bonding Points than last time, it’s not enough to make it easier to decide. “We’ll, it’s not gonna kill me if I don’t know EVERYTHING about EVERYBODY,” you think. We’ll, you might just want to save-scum to view every event, because Bonding Events have a new and trollish effect. Some SPECIFIC events will allow a character to learn new abilities earlier than they would’ve from levelling up, which is kind of annoying. I only saw one of these particular events, and the game doesn’t even tell you about them in the first place.

There’s also the case of Final Bonding Events. These are exclusive scenes between Rean and assorted characters towards the end of the game. In order to unlock a character’s Final Bonding Event, you must get their link level to its second-highest level, which is now six out of seven (technically, it only needs to be up to five and a half or so since finishing Act 2 boosts everyone’s links by 1000), as well as fulfill specific other conditions. You can also have Towa and Alfin in line for this, but you will need to do every single Bonding Event with them in order to be able to satisfy the conditions with them. Fortunately, the game will tell you when you have an opportunity to satisfy one of said conditions, which is something much appreciated that most JRPGs don’t bother doing. Also, once you recruit Beryl, you can use her services to confirm with whom you have met the conditions for. Unfortunately, when the time comes, you can only do one per playthrough, so save-scumming at that point is essential. It is also impossible to meet the conditions with everyone at once. This means that you will have to play through again in New Game+ to see everything (which you would’ve had to do anyway to complete the character notebook entries).

What is this, Sonic Adventure 1?

A new mechanic is snowboarding. Throughout the story, you unlock new courses to snowboard in. Beating these gets you great prizes, but like in any videogame, it gets really difficult late on.  In addition to snowboards, you also get to ride Angelica’s bike. It can be used almost anywhere and greatly makes up for the lack of fast travel points on highways.

Deadly Life

A Steep Learning Curve Just got Even Steeper

Here’s the final reason as to why Cold Steel II does not like newcomers: All the combat mechanics learned over the course of more than half of Cold Steel I… is taught all at once during the Prologue. So seriously… if you’re somehow still reading this and not familiar with the series. FOR THE LOVE OF AIDIOS, PLAY COLD STEEL I

For returning players, this brings some immediate positives. In Cold Steel II, every character has all their Craft and S-Craft from the first game. Your Link levels are also higher at the start, with Rean starting at Link Level 2 with everyone. This at least makes it easier for returning players to get reacclimated to the game.

A new mechanic is Overdrive. Use this between a pair of Linked characters to give them a free heal, and a set of three free attack turns with no delay. This also guarantees Unbalancing. The gauge fills by doing things in battle, but it fills up much faster based on your tactical bonuses at the end of a battle. Unfortunately, only people paired with Rean can do it…

…at first. New to Cold Steel II are Trial Chests. These chests make a set pair of party members fight a tough battle. But as a reward, you get great items, a heap of Link XP for that pair, and unlock the ability for them to use Overdrive together. It’s a great way for characters that aren’t Rean to get large amounts of Link XP, since the bonding events from Cold Steel I kinda threw off the balance of everyone’s link levels (but it still ends up being way off-balanced).

Mech Battles Before Xenoblade X Made it Cool

My biggest concern when it came to combat was how Cold Steel II would expand on the Divine Knight (a.k.a. mech) battles. Introduced during the final boss of Cold Steel I, mech battles felt very stressful and iffy. Basically, mech battles were a game of rock-paper-scissors, where you had to attack a section of the target that was weak- the head, the body, or the arms. Attacking a weak point resulted in a crit, which allowed you to press X for an immediate Follow-up, and after obtaining three Bravery Points, you could use a powerful Finisher (basically an S-Craft). The catch is that the weakness changed based on the enemy’s stance, which resulted in having to memorize a lot of combinations. Attacking the wrong spot could result in getting the attack blocked, or worse, evaded. This, as always, gives enemies the chance to counter. You also couldn’t Impede attacks that enemies were charging up last time, even if you inflicted a crit, so you were basically screwed.

Fortunately, Cold Steel II greatly fixes some of these issues. The game adds a Defend command, which allows you to greatly reduce damage and recover a small chunk of HP. But one of the best additions by far is the fact they show the Unbalance Efficacy of each piece- in each stance- after you attack it once. THANK YOU.

Although Rean is on his own in mech battles, his buddies can at least help with EX Arts. Basically, you have another character who takes their own turn in the fights. When it’s their turn, you can have them cast some EX Arts, the nature of which are determined by the person. This greatly fleshes out the mech battles, plus every person has a charge function to restore Valimar’s EP (which doesn’t really justify the parts of the game where you wait for him to recharge…). You also have a Unity Attack that you can do with five Bravery Points.

Other Things to Keep in Mind

Rean also gets some significant boosts in this game. After a while, he is able to summon Valimar to regular battles for three turns, and is able to activate his Super Saiyan form at will. These can be very useful in some super-tough battles, especially if you play it on Nightmare difficulty.

One new feature is the optional bosses, the Cryptids. These enemies appear throughout the world after certain points in the story. Defeating them nets you a rare quartz containing a Lost Art. These Arts are really powerful, but consume all of a character’s EP. Fortunately, they are affected by the Zero-Arts turn bonus, which can seriously save your bum. I didn’t use them too often, but I imagine they are essential in Hard and Nightmare difficulties.

Either This Game is Hard… or I Suck

If it wasn’t obvious enough that this game alienates newcomers, they also make it much harder than Cold Steel I. I died way more often than before, and in this game I actually knew what I was doing. They really expect you to have mastered the turn order system, along with all the other mechanics, ‘cuz the kid gloves are off this time! The game also introduces a rare case of enemy attacks that ignore and remove all buffs, and some of these attacks happen to be their strongest attack. The Zeram Capsule + Moebius setup I utilized in the last game made its final dungeon a joke, but that same setup was a necessity in this game. If I hadn’t gotten forty of them as DLC, I would’ve been sunk.

Fortunately, I learned some important things about the series that I didn’t know last time. Stat changes do stack in Cold Steel, which I honestly should’ve noticed before. Also, Evasion is a broken stat in this series, especially if you give your most dodgy character (preferably Fie) the Wrath Quartz, which makes all counterattacks crit. I also had her paired with the Master Quartz, Mirage, which adds a good chance of evading magic. This game was my first time trying an Evasion build on a character; I’ve always prioritized defense in JRPGs in the past. Furthermore, Speed is immensely important, as it reduces characters’ Delay between turns, which again, is something I should’ve known last time.

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

Trails of Cold Steel II is a massive improvement over the first game in almost every way (except strictness, and knowing when to roll credits). At this point, I am hooked on this story and I fully intend to see it to its end (and pray that I get the True Ending of the fourth game). However, I am concerned about the third game. Based on the one thing I know about it, it feels like it will be a step backward for the series. Well, with my job opened back up, you won’t know how I feel about it for a while. Anyways, as far as recommendations for Trails of Cold Steel is concerned, I think it’s definitely worth giving a shot, even if you are uncomfortable with missing things. The game is good at letting you know when you’re at a cut-off point, making it a lot less stressful than most JRPGs.

Deathbound Duke’s Daughter: Erika Aurelia and the Seafarer’s Ruins Review

I have a confession to make: a couple of years ago, I read the first volume of My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom, and wholly disliked it. Maybe it improves, but all I saw was a typical, slow-paced, “grounded and realistic” slice-of-life fantasy that tried to hide that fact with an interesting premise. “Now what does that have to do with the topic at hand?” you ask. Well, you’ll see when I describe the premise of Deathbound Duke’s Daughter, published in English by J-Novel Club.

Deathbound Duke’s Daughter is a blatant clone of My Next Life as a Villainess. An unnamed character, who was apparently murdered at her workplace, is reincarnated as Erika Aurelia, the antagonist of her favorite otome game, Liber Monstrorum. Erika has a red shirt on, and is destined to die at the very beginning of the game. With her wits, the new Erika might be able to reverse her fate.

The immediate difference with Deathbound and Villainess is the world that the “games” are set in. In Villainess, Katarina is harassed by the student body, or accosted by bandits or something (I actually forgot because, to reiterate, I didn’t exactly like that series). On the flipside, Liber Monstrum proves to be the Dark Souls of visual novels; there’s vampyres, werewolves, and all kinds of Lovecraftian horrors that await. 

This gives Deathbound a much more adventurous vibe than Villainess, which automatically makes it a great light novel for me (even though “objectively” it’s bad because it doesn’t involve solving personal, human issues *sarcasm*). It wastes no time diving into the titular Seafarer’s Ruins, where Erika must save some kids from being King Midas’d to death, and more importantly, saving herself by having their hypothetical dead spirits not curse her.

However, the characters- like many-an isekai- leave much to be desired. Erika, despite supposedly being evil, is just about as un-evil and plain ordinary as Katarina from Villainess. The other major characters include Claus and Anne Hafan. The former is a typical overpowered self-insert protagonist (but he’s not the MAIN protagonist, which makes him subversive! *sarcasm*), and Anne is just a boring moe blob.

The art for this novel series is great, especially the cover art. It has a very whimsical look. However, the interior illustrations look kind of weird to me. It’s probably because it’s shoujo-looking, and I find that artstyle to be weird in general.

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Verdict: 7.5/10

Deathbound Duke’s Daughter is definitely a better version of My Next Life as a Villainess. However, it’s not perfect. If it doesn’t grow some personality soon, then I’ll end up dropping it just as hard as I did its clone. For now, I recommend it to fans of Villainess, as well as Ascendance of a Bookworm and Mushoku Tensei.

Sword Art Online: From Aincrad to Alicization (Volumes 1-18)

PREFACE: Most of this post, up to the second half of the Alicization Arc, is a reworked draft of an old MyAnimeList review that I had, at the time, written from memory. If I mention anything about the actual story that ends up being inaccurate, it’s entirely on me. I did NOT feel like rereading volumes of something I don’t even like (spoilers: I, an Internet critic, do not like SAO) when I’m already swamped enough as it is. I hope you can bear with me.


Light novels had definitely changed drastically at the start of the 2010s, and it can largely be traced to one source: Reki Kawahara’s Sword Art Online, published in English by Yen Press. It was the first light novel I’d ever read. I enjoyed it at first (key word: “at first”), but since joining the anime community, I’ve come to know full-well the criticism that the series has garnered over the years. Due to its episodic nature, I will be splitting this post by story arc. Apologies in advance… I’m not going to be bringing anything new to the table.


Volumes 1-2: Aincrad

The world’s first VRMMO, Sword Art Online, is released. However, the first players who log in are unable to log out, and death in-game becomes death IRL, which is evidently all according to the keikaku of the game’s original creator.

The main character, Kirito, is as blank-slate as his character design, and is insanely powerful for no reason (I get that he played the beta, but it doesn’t explain his equipment setup, that the game ISN’T EVEN PROGRAMMED TO ALLOW). The far better female lead, Asuna, doesn’t take long to become a inconsequential girl with untapped potential. Kawahara develops a running theme of reminding us just how much of a beauty she is and that she is Kirito’s and nobody else’s. It gets annoying, especially since I don’t consider her THAT attractive.

Due to the series originally being an entry to a writing contest, it kicks off with a decent setup volume before it immediately guns it to the final boss. The second volume is filler that serves no purpose other than to introduce new characters who do almost nothing in future arcs.


Volumes 3-4: Fairy Dance

After the SAO Incident, Kirito finds out that Asuna has been imprisoned in the final dungeon of the new hit VRMMO, Alfeim Online. He plays it immediately, with no PTSD whatsoever (of course) and goes on adventures. 

His sister Suguha (who gets her blandness from her brother) wants to commit incest with him for some reason, but she is ultimately another inconsequential female protagonist. Of course, the same happens to Asuna; here, she officially becomes a damsel in distress, instead of a strong, independent woman.

The story at this point is more focused than Aincrad, although there is padding. The arc is also notorious for a certain… choice scene in the climax, the likes of which WILL be rearing its ugly head again.


Volumes 5-6: Phantom Bullet

My personal least favorite arc. Because our Mr. Perfect, Kirito, is more powerful than the Japanese Self-Defense Force, he is given a secret mission (which takes all too long to explain even though we already see the incident told to us in the prologue) to find a serial killer in the new VRMMO Gun Gale Online.

Well, at least it’s a game that plays entirely different from SAO. Too bad he just uses a sword again and inexplicably dominates the best player in the game. Talk about beginner’s luck! That aforementioned best player in the game is a girl by the in-game name of Sinon, who would’ve had a decent character arc if she didn’t become another Kirito concubine. Sigh…

Despite its promising pulse-pounding action, the arc is somehow insanely slow. It has as much dialogue as a Monogatari novel minus all the charm of Monogatari.


Volumes 7-8: Mother’s Rosary and Filler

Kirito steps aside for Asuna to bond with a girl who’s first name is Asuna’s surname for some reason. Unfortunately, this other girl, Yuuki, is really uninteresting. While my Fault in Our Stars PTSD makes me hate Yuuki (since her whole character arc is her life-threatening disease), it is a decent look at Asuna as an actual PERSON. However, Volume 8 is filler, set in arcs that have ALREADY happened, making it irrelevant. And bad.


Volumes 9-18: Alicization

The most ambitious arc thus far, and the one that actually managed to curb some critics’ fervor against the series. However, I remain unchanged. After an IRL run-in with a Laughing Coffin straggler, Kirito is put into a coma… and strapped to another VR machine. Only this one takes him to a new project called the Underworld, a new type of virtual world with an overly long, complicated, and not at all engaging explanation as to how it brilliantly emulates real people… or something.

Unfortunately, while the ideas are amazing, the execution is still lacking. Despite how “human” the people in the Underworld are supposed to be, they’re just as boring and uninteresting as previously introduced characters. The ones who showed the most promise- more promise than anyone in SAO up to this point- are Eugeo and Alice, two “NPCs” who end up playing major roles. Kirito also has some genuine struggles, and Asuna shows some traces of her prideful, confident self from the beginning. But Kawahara’s old writing habits consistently get in the way to the point where it seems like he was actively TRYING to get in his own way.

While a good chunk of the second half of the arc is spent without Kirito onscreen, it’s not much better than what precedes it. A lot of the positive reviews of this section- the War of the Underworld, as it’s officially called- stated that it single-handedly redeems SAO as a whole by giving the side characters more development. One of my biggest pet peeves is the notion that character development alone, and always, equals good characters, period. Sure, on paper, it’s great that all those other people get fleshed out. But in the end, they were still boring, and I completely forgot who they were after finishing the arc.

As a final note, I’m not a fan of the art of SAO. While a lot of the characters do have the “overly complicated clothes” typical of a lot of JRPG characters, they’re facial expressions look generic and lacking. It also looks very shoujo-y, which earns even less points from me.

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Verdict (Average of All 18 Volumes): 6.25/10

I acknowledge that what I’ve said here  doesn’t bring anything new to the table. SAO has kind of become a rite of passage for any anime-related internet personality, so I decided to make my contribution now. I heard that Alicization marks the end of the stuff that Kawahara originally wrote when he was a teenager, so maybe it’ll actually get better moving forward. But for now, I can only recommend SAO for those who want a fun and mindless escapist experience.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel Full Game Review

Despite my love for JRPGs, story is ironically the one aspect of videogames that I care the least about. And yet, because of how much I enjoyed Ys VIII, I wanted to try another series by the same team, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. It is a single, mammoth, epic JRPG, spanning four entire games meant to be played in chronological order, and VERY story-driven. Let’s see if it’s good enough to stay in it for the long haul.

In Trails of Cold Steel, a boy named Rean Schwarzer begins his attendance at Thors Military Academy. But bizarrely enough, his uniform is different from everyone else’s. It doesn’t take long to find out that he’s in an experimental group called Class VII, the first class to have commoners and nobles both. Since this is part one of four games, it’s naturally going to spiral into something big.

By nature, the game can be slow at first, but it’s done thoughtfully, and tries to hook you. The game begins with a flash-forward that you play. It’s incredibly overwhelming, not just because you don’t know what’s going on, but because it gives you every party member at once, with every battle mechanic unlocked, with every characters’ abilities that they’ve learned at that point. This is to build anticipation of what’s to come in terms of both the story and the gameplay. Also, when it kicks into the proper opener, they make you do combat pretty regularly, so you can slowly become acclimated to your new life without being bored.

The story might have some common fantasy themes, such as “Ah, rich people crap on poor people. War is  helpful for the economy. Make America great again bwaaah!”, but they at least made the effort to submerge you neck-deep into it. There is a butt-ton of lore in this thing, and it shows in the various books you can read, which contain important foreshadowing for later, as well as in-universe fictional books (if you can find them).

The creators were also very thoughtful with the world from a design and visual storytelling standpoint. Early drafts of this review (I wrote it in bits and pieces as I played) stated the world felt small, compact, and segmented. The segmented style is, of course, an unavoidable consequence of the whole game’s structure, but the compactness is only early on. Each place you go to outside of the school is done in a specific order. You start out in small towns, then expand to bigger and bigger places (or at least, places that seem big thanks to out-of-bounds geometry). This further helps ease you into the world of Trails, as it starts small and gradually grows bigger and bigger. In this way, I am willing to claim that Trails is the most Tolkienian JRPG I’ve ever seen (yeah, I know a lot of poetic-waxers compare fantasy stuff to Lord of the Rings, but I think this is a somewhat fair comparison, since Lord of the Rings expands its scale in a similar way).

Unfortunately, the graphics don’t help. While I hate being a stickler, Trails is not the most visually appealing JRPG I’ve seen. While most of the towns appear pleasing enough, a lot of the combat areas are bland and samey. It’s similar to Ys VIII, but that game at least did more with angles and area continuity that made a lot better looking. Yeah, I get that this was 2013 and the game’s structure results in the whole thing being divided into segmented areas, but I digress. Also similar to Ys, the character designs are by far the most appealing, as they are very vibrant in color and have that classic anime style to them (except their hands look hideous). Fortunately, the soundtrack makes up some for the graphics’ shortcomings. While not as rocking as Ys VIII, it’s more than good enough. The towns all have their own unique atmospheres, and the battle music is pumping. 

As far as the overarching narrative is concerned, you can color me impressed. I’m used to having a ton of exposition dump forced down my throat in modern fantasy, but Trails is one that eases you into the plot organically. It’s pretty good at buildup, and maintaining interest, even when it’s boring school time. In fact, the boring school time tends to be a great change of pace, and doubles as a “calm before the storm”-type thing. Without spoiling much, the main narrative is divided into two main plot threads: one concerning the strange ruins of Thors’ Old Schoolhouse, and another involving a set of big political moves that slowly become more dire as the world moves towards collapse. How these two different things can possibly be connected is one of the many questions I anticipate to be answered in this series.

What you must keep in mind when playing this game is the fact that, like I said before, it’s not just the first installment of a series, but the first part of a bigger story. As a result, this game’s main narrative is all about laying the groundwork of the story and setting expectations for what’s to come. This means that it doesn’t quite rise to the fever pitch that most JRPGs would, even when you’re well past the halfway point, as well as the fact that some plot threads will be left unresolved at the end. But hey, the game does an excellent job at setting said groundwork, and this is honestly the most engaged I’ve ever been in a JRPG narrative. Now that I’m attached to the characters and the world, the later games will likely deliver the feels.

I was worried about the cast at first, because I figured that Class VII’s character development would only show during optional and limited social links. But no, they actually give a lot of time for these characters to grow on you (they better, since this is part one of four). While they do start off as typical anime tropes, the way that they’re slowly introduced is quite impressive. Also, the fact that it’s not a Persona game makes it relatively light on the teen angst. Just be wary that it has a LOT of the “I know important, plot relevant things, but I can’t tell you because reasons” trope (looking at you, EMMA).

But out of all those in this massive cast, the NPCs ended up surprising me the most. Due to how the game is structured, each and every NPC- from townsfolk to miscellaneous students- have their own character arcs that progress along with the plot, some of which even foreshadow future quests. I ended up liking a lot of these people, especially Best Girl Mint. The biggest issue with them is that there aren’t enough unique NPC models. That’s normally a given in JRPGs, but the fact that, for example, the sister of one of the Thors’ instructors who you meet late in the game doesn’t just look nothing like him, she looks like a lot of other generic women in the game.

My other issue is with the antagonists. The established villains of the game are a group of terrorists who, for some reason,only go by their initials. Their leader is incredibly generic, and his minions are, guess what: brainy guy, busty woman, and muscular idiot. Fortunately, the game makes it readily apparent that the REAL mastermind is operating behind the scenes, and the terrorists make up just a small part of those involved.

Story is all well and good. But what about gameplay, the most important thing in any videogame? Due to Trails’ nature, I will divide gameplay elements into “Daily Life” and “Deadly Life” segments, similar to Danganronpa games. But first, I must discuss one gameplay aspect that’s useful in BOTH school life and combat: Turbo Mode. This feature, exclusive to the PS4 port of the game (and pretty much the only one you can actually BUY these days), makes the game move twice as fast at the push of a button. It’s incredibly useful if you ever need to save-scum and rewatch a long string of cutscenes upon reloading the save.


Daily Life

Trails is set in a school, and like Chi-Chi always said in Dragon Ball: studying comes before saving the world. If you couldn’t tell, this series is structured very similarly to Persona, which was initially going to be a turn-off for me. I never played a Persona game, nor do I want to, simply because I’m anal about getting all the things done in a JRPG, and Persona is against that. In those games, you need to juggle your social life and actual combat, and you must plan an arbitrary route that can involve save-scumming in order to get everything, which ultimately makes the games extremely stressful. There are also some logic issues in Persona, such as, “Oh you chose to eat some ramen for lunch? Okay, BOOM! now it’s ten o’clock at night!”

Trails‘ way of doing it isn’t perfect, but it’s substantially better… or so it seems. First off, social links are triggered by spending Bonding Points on them. But in order to narrow down your inevitable dilemma between choosing which character to hang out with, a given day of Free Time only has set people available. Spending time with them does NOT make it instantly TOMORROW like in Persona, but you only get a certain amount of Bonding Points per day. These events get you a ton of Link Points, which are essential for a mechanic in battle. Furthermore, you are only allowed to have these events with plot relevant characters. This means that you won’t have to waste time hanging out with filler characters like in Persona (even if some of them are admittedly interesting), and if you feel uncomfortable about significantly older women taking a liking to the protagonist, that is also thankfully not the case in Trails.

Despite the fact that I played the game specifically because I figured it’d be more lenient than Persona, the social links are arguably far worse, not just compared to Persona, but Danganronpa as well. In those games, no matter when you started or continued a social link, it would be the same (except for some rare cases in Danganronpa). However, social links in Trails, while no different from a gameplay standpoint, are all unique BASED ON WHERE AND WHEN THEY ARE. It’s also not possible to view every event, as the game flips you a bird and consistently gives you one Bonding Point short of viewing all available events. If you really care about all the characters, you MUST save-scum in order to view all of them, and only save after the ones that you want the Link XP for. 

In addition, you have Academy Points. Most AP is done by completing quests, which comes naturally enough. Time doesn’t pass until you finish Required quests, and that’s one advantage Trails has over Persona. However, additional AP is earned for being an extra good pupil, and achieving an optimal outcome, such as riding a motorcycle without wrecking it. Advancing the story will IMMEDIATELY cause any incomplete optional quests and available events to expire, but the game is at least consistently good at warning you of these cutoff points.

However, this IS a school game, and that means being smart. And that means exams. Class VII has to take practical exams every month. These are basically mini boss battles that give you bonus AP if you meet certain conditions. The later ones can get pretty ridiculous…

…but even the hardest practical exam beats any written one. At first, I thought you could take pictures of every book in the library and you’d be fine. But no… it’s worse than that. Almost worse than Persona. In Persona, you merely had to remember any material gone over up to that point (which you can take pictures of as they come up), and then have your Academics stat above a certain threshold to get the highest grade. In Trails, you must make use of a special study day, which is a Free Day, but instead of Bonding Points, you spend Studying Points to go over test material with peers. Similar to Free Days, there are more events than what you could possibly view. HOWEVER, regardless of what NPCs actually imply as far as the relevance of what they’re studying, material from EVERY event WILL BE on the upcoming exam. Furthermore, you must also seek unmarked events that give you additional free knowledge (typically with instructors) in order to come out on top. As long as you save scum to view every event, and find the hidden knowledge blips, you should do fine…I think. The silver lining is that there’s only one of these exams in the game (excluding however many there are in subsequent games). But… you don’t know the exact outcome until after you’ve done the entire following Free Day, which includes your next run of the recurring monthly dungeon.

But just because you don’t need to memorize the books in the library for the exams doesn’t mean you don’t need to memorize them, period. Some quests result in you having to answer questions out of these books, so make sure you take time to jot down (or take pictures of) each and every page. Make sure you not only do the second floor of the library, but the recommended reading corner that gets updated every chapter. But even then it’s not enough. Some of these quiz quests require you to remember remote bits of dialogue from up to tens of hours earlier in the game (or from future chapters even). Fortunately, they’re few enough so that you can basically brute force those with save-scumming.

Save scumming might be dirty, but you should have no shame playing dirty because Trails does the same by giving you HIDDEN QUESTS. Not only will random, missable NPCs give random, missable items, but they can also give quests not marked on a given tasks envelope. Like I said before, since talking to every NPC at every opportunity is encouraged from a story standpoint, it’s not TOO bad. At least it’s not a Tails Of game which doesn’t even mark quests at all, regardless of if you found them, and some of them are the starts of chains but don’t continue until fifty hours later and by then you’ll FORGET you even STARTED it and- *huff* *huff* Just keep in mind that Trails does give a bit of leeway. You get 15 AP for beating the final dungeon, so you’ll need at least 415 by the time it opens up in order to get the highest rank at the end, which I BARELY got. 

In order to discuss other missable events, I must also briefly touch on combat, specifically the areas where it will occur. Most combat is fought in the Old Schoolhouse, which is literally Tartaros from Persona 3. As you progress the main story, more floors of this dungeon open up, and it’s encouraged to check it out (or grind). Just keep in mind that the day will advance to evening once you leave, so do it last. It pressures you to select a set team, but you can always change it by examining the exit of the dungeon.

While Trails proves to be just as stressful as Persona, it’s good to note that it feels much faster paced. Each chapter has one single Free Day, split into daytime and evening segments. So even though social links are just about as limited, you don’t have to worry about wasting 85% of them just to grind out enough personality stats to actually talk to girls. However, Trails still clocks in at eighty to a hundred hours of playtime, so it’s really just an illusion.

Similar to Persona‘s special story segments that happen on set dates (like the full moon, TV rescue, etc.), Trails has field studies. These are excursions to new areas with their own quests to do, along with new story developments. Finishing one gives everyone a heap of link XP (thank GOD). But as soon as you finish a story arc here, YOU CAN NEVER GO BACK. So make sure you do everything while you can.

The field studies locations can take a while to get to, even on express trains. This is plenty of time to… PLAY A CHILDREN’S CARD GAME. Fortunately, Blade is not even remotely as agonizing as Final Fantasy VIII‘s notorious Triple Triad (and the music is nowhere near as annoying). Blade basically plays like War, but with Trap Cards. It kinda sucks, honestly. I don’t entirely remember how War works, but Blade is basically decided entirely by the players’ starting hands. If you draw too many trap cards, not enough high value cards, and not enough 1 cards to counter one of the types of trap cards, you’ve pretty much lost. I’ve genuinely tried to win, but I’m pretty sure it’s impossible depending on the setup (obviously, the fact that I’m saying a card game is entirely reliant on luck means that I’m a filthy casual at card games, and lack the ability to read opponents and use basic logic to deduce their next move). Fortunately, you only need to fight every available character once to get link XP.

There’s a lot of things you can miss! Fortunately, the pawn shop in the main town can sell items from previous areas, including items found in the chests there, and book chapters. The pawn shop is also good if you have a surplus of crappy items that you can trade for a single better version.

Like in any JRPG, cooking and fishing are the most important things in the game. When it comes to cooking, you can somehow cook anywhere in the world as long as you have the ingredients. Depending on the skill levels of Rean and who you cook with, the dish could end up ranging from Regular, to Superb, to Peculiar, to Unique. Unique dishes can only be formed by someone who has a secret knack for cooking that particular item (but it’s always someone who shows a high likelihood for a good result). These are objectively the best, however there is an NPC who wants to see such dishes, so be frugal (and for the record, there’s someone who wants peculiar dishes as well). Most recipes can be learned by NPCs who will randomly give you one. And of course, these can be missed.

Of all the different school facilities, you’ll be visiting the Engineering department more often than any other. The guys here use variously colored Sepith earned from enemies and can mod your Arcus with them. You also earn generic Sepith Mass, which is exchanged at shops for actual money. Anyway, Sepith is used to unlock new slots on your Arcus, as well as craft new quartz (which I’ll get to later).

Fishing isn’t as exciting, though. Basically, you just fish and mash the prompted face buttons, and you get a fish. There are only a set amount of times you can fish per day, which means a finite amount of times you can fish total. You can use groundbait to make more spawn, but the only way to farm for it is to farm U-Materials off of assorted enemies, then trade them at the pawn shop for groundbait.

One final quip that I have in the Daily Life segment is fast travel. For some reason, fast travel is either excessively helpful, or nonexistent. Basically, if you’re in a town, you can fast travel to buildings that are, like, two feet from each other. But in a combat area, you can’t fast travel back to the hub. This becomes a big issue if you’re trying to talk to every NPC to find hidden quests (especially in chapter 3). 


Deadly Life

Combat is limited, but when it happens, it’s really good and really involved. Fortunately, Trails does a great job of easing you into all the different aspects as you go along. The main issue with it is the same issue as most JRPGs: that most characters have limited abilities and customization early game. But once you get more utility, it becomes incredibly rewarding.

For the most part, Trails operates like an old-school turn-based JRPG. Then turn order is displayed on the left, and it cycles through everyone. However, you will have to take Delay into account (which it’ll show on the turn order when selecting a target). Some attacks, mainly magic, will take a while to go through, and you will need to plan ahead in order to come out on top. There are also turn bonuses, which can give free heals and boosts just by it coming to your turn. Enemies can also get bonuses, requiring you to plan even harder. Sometimes, you’ll need to cast spells specifically to use the Delay to steel turn bonuses. The mechanics behind the turn order are very nuanced, and take a lot of self-teaching to figure out. It’ll make the difference if you desperately need to cast an Art in a pinch. 

For the first time since maybe Chrono Trigger, position matters. When using moves that have AOE, you need to carefully aim the attack in order to catch as many enemies in its range as possible. If you’re too far, you’ll have to waste a turn to move within range (which enemies might also have to do). Some attacks will also change a character’s position, and that must be taken into account as well.

What’s even more complicated is that you have two sets of special moves: Arts and Crafts. No, you don’t make paper peacocks by tracing your hand over construction paper; the different types are literally called Arts, followed by Crafts. Each consumes a separate stat, EP and CP. EP is traditional MP, and can easily run out if you get trigger happy. It can only be restored from turn bonuses or consumables. CP is like a Special gauge in an action game, and fills from dealing and receiving damage. Characters get 200 max CP that they can store. However, as abundant as it is, there are special S-Crafts that you learn over the course of the story. These take from 100 to all of a character’s CP, and are insanely powerful. It is more incentivized to use the 200, since it’s stronger. The most important part of S-Crafts is that they can be used out-of-turn. This causes an S-Break, which can be a lifesaver if used to steal a turn bonus that you don’t want the enemy to have. The issue with them is that recovering from them is ROUGH. For most of the game, the only good way to restore CP is with Alisa’s Blessed Arrow, which comes at the cost of some of her own. In a lot of boss battles, I’d end up having to whittle them down with regular attacks just to slowly regain it back.

The way each set of skills are learned is different. Crafts are learned by levelling up, and Arts are learned by setting quartzes to your Arcus thingy. First, you set a Master Quartz, which gives a set of stat boosts and bonus effect s. Each Master Quartz can be levelled up, and you’ll definitely be getting new ones to play around with. Additional quartzes can be set to learn new Arts, gain stat bonuses, or in rare cases, both in a single quartz. 

It’s generally a good rule of thumb to know your enemies in order to win, and it’s really important in Trails. By either battling a lot of the same enemy, or using an Analysis spell, you can find out a lot of stuff about them. The most important thing is not just their elemental resistances, but their status resistances as well. This is really useful when planning out attacks, especially with status ailments. Once you get the ability to inflict status ailments with your attacks, you will NEED them, for they will be your friend. Also, Trails is one of the few games where bosses are susceptible to status ailments, so make good use of them!

While the game is pretty good at holding your hand, there is one important mechanic that they don’t teach you, and that’s Impeding. Basically, certain specific Crafts will cancel an enemy when it takes a turn to cast an Art (indicated by a red glowy thingy). The game expects you to know about this, so just be aware of it. There are also quartzes that can give all a character’s attacks an Impede percentage, but the specific Crafts are guaranteed to do it.

The Ys series makes a crossover into Trails with the Unbalancing mechanic. Monsters can be staggered by hitting them with an effective weapon type, be it Slash, Thrust, Pierce, or Strike. Doing this allows for a Combat Link to work. Set a Link in the camp menu or during battle and linked characters can assist when the enemy is Unbalanced. After a certain time, you begin to earn Bravery Points through Link Attacks, and can spend them during an Unbalance to perform a stronger attack. Like in Miitopia, Link Abilities get better and better when you level up their link levels. Similar to Persona, crits will automatically Unbalance an enemy no matter what. 

If there is any flaw with the combat- and it’s moreso a nitpick than anything else- it’s that the difficulty is all over the place. You don’t need to grind in order to be able to beat the game smoothly, but it follows the JRPG rule of “equipment is everything” to the letter. When it comes to status ailments, any enemy that can inflict it WILL if you don’t have the equipment to make yourself immune to it. The early game is particularly rough because you won’t even have enough of this equipment to put on the whole active party. But when you do get the equipment, you’re gonna need it. A lot of bosses can wall you if you’re unprepared, and even if you are prepared, it can be rough. It’s also really bad that there are no multi-targeting healing items in the game without the use of a specific Master Quartz.

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Final Verdict: 9.15/10

It’s stressful, but Trails of Cold Steel is nonetheless a fantastic series opener. Since this is the first game, you have plenty of time to learn how it works. But as much as I’ve learned about the game, I don’t know how ready I am for the sequels.

One thing that I do know about this series is that Trails IV, the finale, has A TRUE ENDING. That is so mean… to make such a long story that people would need to spend at least 500 hours to see to its conclusion, just to troll them right at the end because they didn’t do enough stuff. It could be generous like in Ys VIII, but it could also require every single Academy Point in the game to get it. I could look up the conditions now, but I might spoil something for myself, which would be bad, since I actually LIKE this story so far.

Since this is just the hors d’oeuvres, and an incredibly stressful helping of hors d’oeuvres at that, I can’t recommend this series easily. I’m going to have to wait for Trails II, the first of a three-piece entree, to arrive at the metaphorical table first. For now, I recommend Trails of Cold Steel to any fans of Persona, Danganronpa, and Tails Of… since those fans are used to eighty hour games where you can miss a million things.

Reprise of the Spear Hero Manga First Impressions (Volumes 1 and 2)

Well, this is the most awkward way to introduce that I’m a big fan of the Rising of the Shield Hero franchise (I might have referenced it once but still). I started reading it in 2017, and loved it while also acknowledging its shortcomings (while hating the anime with a passion). Normally, I wouldn’t read a manga adaptation of a light novel, but I made an exception, due to One Peace Books’ offer for me to review the manga version of the spin-off series, Reprise of the Spear Hero, before volume two’s release. 

The hardest thing to figure out when it comes to Spear Hero is where it’s situated in the story. It immediately starts out with the Spear Hero, Motoyasu Kitamura, dying at an undetermined point in the main timeline (which may or may not be spoilers for an LN volume of Shield Hero that One Peace Books has yet to publish). It doesn’t show exactly what happened… but that’s beside the point, for it’s what happens NEXT that we need to discuss. You see, as soon as he dies, he returns to the very beginning of the Shield Hero series; a New Game+, to use videogame terms. All he wants is to have Filo-tan by his side, and for that, he needs to guide the Shield Hero, Naofumi Iwatani, to that point.

Since I didn’t remember him dying at all in the main story, it was difficult for me to get acclimated into Spear Hero. Also, alternate timelines are inherently VERY confusing. Based on the fact that he calls Naofumi his father at this point, it can’t be set any earlier than some time before the Q’ten Lo Arc. My theory is that Spear Hero will end with his return to the main timeline, with his brain in tatters (except he already calls Naofumi his father right out of the gate… so maybe his death is after that point? AAAGH, alternate timelines!).

Anyways, confusion aside, how’s the Reprise of the Spear Hero itself? For a spin-off, it’s pretty good. It’s hilarious seeing things from Motoyasu’s perspective (like with the women having pig heads), as well as seeing him slowly lose sanity. The story structure changes wildly, with Eclair being introduced super early on and Raph not even being included at all. There’s also the added complication that New Game+ gets reset every time any Hero dies, meaning that he has to baby Naofumi the whole way through.

Unfortunately, this does downgrade Naofumi as a character. With Motoyasu saving him from being cast out by the powers-that-be, he’s basically a wimp. He’s completely passive, and ends up just doing whatever Motoyasu says. He also lacks the sass and grit that makes Shield Hero such a standout isekai. Hey… at least he’s a good cook this time?

But this is probably just a way to put the shoe on the other foot. Despite my theory of how this will all turn out, Motoyasu is, for the time being, the most likeable he can possibly be in the Shield Hero universe. He’s wild and full of energy, and his love for Filo isn’t yet borderline psychotic. This is the first I’ve ever seen him and not wanted him to be wiped out of existence.

Other characters remain relatively unchanged. Eclair, Trash, Witch (who is now Crimson Swine in this timeline), Old Guy, and everyone are, well, themselves. Since this is Motoyasu’s story, they have surprisingly little impact on everything. 

Overall, the weirdest thing about Spear Hero is how different it is from the parent series. It’s significantly more lighthearted, with the original’s themes of slavery, politics, and the issue with the Waves being pushed aside. It’s almost a slice-of-life fantasy, with every other scene being an episode of How to E.V. Train Filolials, Hosted by Motoyasu. It’s definitely a strange companion to Shield Hero, that’s for sure.

Most manga adaptations of LNs that I’ve come across look really bad, but Spear Hero’s art is more than acceptable. While definitely dwarfed by the illustrator of the main series, the manga is simplistic, but charming. The characters are expressive, and the action scenes (well, for how infrequent they are), have some nice pop to them.

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Current Verdict: 8/10

Reprise of the Spear Hero is a surprisingly enjoyable spin-off. It’s also much faster paced than the main series light novels, which I can also assume is the case with the LN version of Spear Hero. Fans of Shield Hero can definitely enjoy Spear Hero (which I myself can’t believe I’m saying, since Motoyasu is so infamous in the main story). Unfortunately… the manga version of this isn’t available on BookWalker, so I’ll be forced to backtrack to the LN if I want to see this through to the end. But hey, if you like print, then the manga will be right there waiting for you (once COVID-19 ends, that is). Once again, I thank One Peace Books for their offer to review this title!

Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana Full Game Review

I can’t get enough of JRPGs. I love the idea of exploring vivid fantasy worlds, beating people up, and getting cool rewards that make me stronger. So, it was almost destiny that I found a franchise that has been under the radar for quite some time: the Ys series. Specifically, I found its most recent installment, Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, for the Nintendo Switch. 

In Ys VIII, a plucky teen named Adol is sailing away like Dennis DeYoung until a giant octopus attacks! The crew is then shipwrecked on the mysterious Isle of Seiren. It’s up to Adol and some other people to find a way off the island.

But this is a JRPG, and it’s never that simple… Except that it is. The story of Ys VIII is pretty tame for most of the playthrough. However, once you start the final chapter, it escalates to the genre’s usual ridiculousness. I didn’t really care for it (I almost never do), but it doesn’t intrude on you like some other games. The biggest story flaw is that there’s never a sense of anticipation for the final battle. The final boss is something that you never see until the moment you fight it, unlike- say- Xenoblade 2, where you very consistently see the final boss’ smug-ass face all the way through. 

The characters do leave something to be desired. The most interesting case is Adol, of all people. He seems like a pretty generic dude, but based on certain dialogue in the game, it seems that Adol is actually the staple main protagonist of the whole series. In that case, I was probably meant to have grown more attached to him over the course of the other seven games. Meanwhile, your other party members are basically a checklist of anime tropes- Laxia (tsundere), Sahad (down-to-earth old man), Hummel (mysterious guy), etc.- and are only likeable in terms of their use in battle. The side characters are more interesting, especially some of the optional castaways, and it also appears that at least two of them have been party members in past Ys games. 

Time for the longest section: gameplay! First off, I should complement how user friendly Ys VIII is. The map is very intuitive, and it tells you a LOT. It shows you where treasures are, how many treasures there are in an area, how much of an area that you’ve explored, and where draw points are. The best part about that last part is that hovering over each draw point on the map tells you exactly what materials it can contain. 

They also give you Adol’s journal, which is ridiculously useful. It catalogues EVERYTHING, from quests to tutorials, to monsters, items, and your game percentage. The items catalogue is extremely useful, because it tells you everywhere that you can find them, and even shows what you can get from using them and where to use it at. The only flaw is the fish section, because it only tells you where fish are AFTER you caught it once, making it hell to get 100% in fishing (which is one of the few things I didn’t get all of).

That’s all well and good, but what about combat? Combat is freakin’ lit. Ys VIII is one of those JRPGs where it plays more like a beat-em-up. Instead of random encounters, you fight dudes on the field whenever you see them, and you actually have to physically avoid attacks by moving, and consider the hitboxes of your attacks in order to hit them. Fortunately, enemies don’t have 500000 HP like in a Xenoblade game; in fact, it’s the opposite. Battles go by swiftly and never feel like they take forever, even if you do end up playing the long con. Oh, and make sure you lock-on by pressing X. Fortunately, there’s an option for the game to auto-lock-on, including the ability for it to auto-lock-on to the nearest additional enemy on the field after you kill your current one. Plus, a certain item in the game will have locked-on enemies DISPLAY THEIR DROP ITEMS ON THE HUD. I LOVE THIS FEATURE and more JRPGs need to do it!

Fighting itself is incredibly simple and fun. You choose three out of the six party members to have in your active party, and control one of them. The other two are A.I., but fortunately, they aren’t as bad as most JRPG A.I.s; in fact, they take a lot less damage that way (thank goodness!). You can also switch between them on the fly with the Y button, and good thing too, for enemies have many different strengths and weaknesses. Each character attacks with one of three elements across all of their moves: Slash, Pierce, and Strike. Enemies can be weak to any of these three elements. If you hit enemies with their weak points enough, it’ll inflict Break on them, which reduces their defenses to nothing (kind of like Octopath Traveler). There are some enemies that have no weaknesses, though, especially bosses. Don’t worry; there’s also the stun gauge. Hitting enemies with any attack will fill up their stun gauge, and when it’s full, they’ll be knocked out for a short time and you’ll be able to just wail on them. 

The combat is at its best when it comes to how skills work in the game. You have regular attacks that you do with A, and it builds up your SP meter shown on the bottom right. Mashing A sucks, though. In fact, it’s encouraged to wait until you build up a charged attack (indicated by glowing blue). These are a bit stronger, but most importantly, they fill up a TON of the SP meter. Skills are used by pressing R and whatever face button they are assigned to. The best part of skills in Ys VIII is that they have no cooldown; as long as you have SP, you can spam them like crazy. I LOVE doing this; it feels so stinking good to do, especially in a large group of enemies with a big AOE skill. There’s also the Extra Skill gauge, which fills up over time and by using attacks. By pressing R and L together will unleash your character’s big attack, and these can be lifesavers at the right time. But since L is dodge, you might accidentally use it in a panic of trying to move out of the way of an attack.

Whaling on people with skills feels good, but it doesn’t feel quite as good as Flash Move or Flash Guard. The former is done by pressing L to dash just before getting hit by an attack, which makes you briefly invincible, faster, and increases SP restoration. That’s all well and good, but the better of the two is Flash Guard. It also makes you invincible, but during it, all attacks become crits. It’s riskier to do, for you have to press the R button just before getting hit. Fortunately, you’re pretty likely to do it just by spamming skills like normally. Also, if the enemy uses a long-lasting attack, you can use Flash Move, then run into the attack and mash R to build up a stack of Flash Guards. 

If I have to give Ys VIII any props, it’s the amazing way they handle status effects. Instead of being based on RNG, status effects are based on cumulative hits. What this means is that in order to be, say, poisoned, you have to take enough hits from a poison-inflicting attack to get poisoned. This is a really brilliant way to do status effects that actually demands more skill from the player. You can also equip some items that allow you to inflict status effects on enemies as well (bosses are immune as always, though). The most helpful effect by far is freeze, for that keeps enemies frozen solid and makes all attacks on them into crits until they thaw out. Fortunately, there are items to defend against status effects, as there always are.

Ys VIII isn’t all beating people up; this is a JRPG after all. While the Isle of Seiren is disappointingly linear, they at least programmed it so that each area seamlessly transitions into another. Also, there’s the Adventuring Gear system. This is basically like having Zelda items in a JRPG: equip them and you can do things like climb vines or breathe underwater. You can easily open the menu for this by pressing ZL. While it’s not that tedious to reequip the different Gear repeatedly, there are items that increase your capacity, which is nice.

After whooping some butt, you probably gotta head back to Castaway Village to rest up. Fortunately, the game has plenty of skip travel points in the form of insta-healing crystals found everywhere, plus you can instantly warp back home by pressing + at any time on the map. Castaway Village is the only town, which does bug me as someone who loves the sensation of seeing what each new town in a JRPG has to offer. Fortunately, there’s more than enough to do here… as long as you save the Castaways.

Castaways are found all over Seiren, some of whom are required to find, some of whom are optional. It’s not difficult to actually look for them as long as you explore, and the captain’s parrot will go ahead and mark points of interest on the map regularly. These guys are really important, for a lot of them have rudimentary mechanics, such as smithing and brewing potions.

There’s also quests. These are your typical JRPG quests, but they can expire. Fortunately, as long as you’re diligent, you won’t miss any. They are important, for they also increase Approval, which is important for a mechanic I’ll touch on later. Maxing out people’s approval unlocks cute cutscenes with them as well. There’s also the mechanic of showing the world map to the captain, for each 10% increment of the world explored nets you an award. Obviously, you want to do this. Most notably, some quests allow you to explore previous locations at night. They might as well be entirely new areas, for they become chock full of newer and tougher enemies than in the daytime.

Doing quests boosts Adol’s Reputation, which you can check in his journal. This determines the ending you get. Yes, a 60-hour game, with missable sidequests, has multiple endings, one of which is the de facto True Ending. Like I said, being thorough will give you more than enough rep to get the True Ending. Keep in mind that the game scares you a lot with the sidequests. First off, some early quests can’t be done immediately, even when they’re unlocked, which can be scary (but rest assured, you’ll definitely be able to get them). Second off, the game holds you off until just before you enter the final boss’ door. The room that you fight him in also counts toward map completion, but fortunately, they let you warp out of there as long as you don’t trigger the fight.

Since Seiren is an island cut off from the rest of the world, there’s no money! Here, resources are money. Every material you can get is able to be traded up for something better, or traded down for a bunch of low-level materials. This really sells the immersion of Ys VIII, plus it also gives you more incentive to keep your crappy materials on you. There are also a lot of great exclusive items that are only found in trades, so be diligent!

But things aren’t always peas and carrots here; monsters are afoot! Every so often, Castaway Village will get Raided, and you gotta help. Raids are the most fun and most agonizing parts of Ys VIII at the same time. The mechanics for them are fun, at least. You fight off waves of enemies and keep them from attacking the village. Castaways can also assist with their own skills. They can be lifesavers, especially the one who temporarily makes all skills cost 0 SP, and they get boosted as their Approval increases. The people aren’t the only things supporting you; we have literal supports in the form of barricades and lures to draw aggro. There’s also a gong that inflicts stun to all enemies on the field when struck, and is a real lifesaver. You can also upgrade these barricades with resources, and IT’S IMPORTANT TO DO IT unless you hate yourself. 

In addition to Raids are Hunts, which is where the village goes on the offensive. It gets a lot more high-maintenance here. In Hunts, you gotta fight off infinitely spawning enemies and place torches to reduce their defense, while attacking their spawn points. Defeating all of them unlocks the boss, which can run away and waste time on the mission. These suck, honestly. This is also a case where auto lock-on can mess you up, because you’ll be fighting through one group of enemies, and after you kill them, it could lock-on to someone behind you and disorient you. Fortunately, the ones that actually count toward quests aren’t too bad; it’s the reduxes that spawn afterward that are REALLY bad.

Raids and Hunts are fun, but only if you want to just beat them at all. There are Sonic-style rankings, and it can get stingy sometimes. You gotta SERIOUSLY be good at the game in order to S-Rank some of these, which stinks, because you get REALLY good rewards for doing it. At the very least, none of the stupid hard Raids give you important rewards for S-Rank. Worst case, you can just do them stupidly overleveled in order to get an easy rank.

“Hang on a second,” you interrupt. “You’ve been talking about this game for how long, and you haven’t even mentioned the titular Dana! Who is that anyway?” Dana is the cute, blue-haired girl on the cover (who has way better character design than Adol). She’s my favorite party member in the game, but you don’t quite recruit her the same way; after all, she’s lived about a million years in the past. Like in Final Fantasy VIII, you can switch over to her and experience things in her era.

During these sequences, Ys VIII is almost an entirely different game. Dana is the only character you play as, and has mechanics exclusive to her era. Most notable is her ability to change fighting styles, which you unlock at specific points in the story. This is how you attack weaknesses as Dana by herself. It’s pretty simple; the DPS form, the tanking form, and the agility form. Periodically throughout her arc, you can slowly uncover more of the Sanctuary Crypt, an optional dungeon with several puzzle chambers, that give you a lot of context for the game’s lore. The game has a checklist for each task in the different sections of her story, and it’s recommended to do all of it (especially since it’s not that tough to do). 

If there’s any gameplay flaw, it’s that the difficulty spikes right at the end. The main story remains a fair challenge, but some of the side stuff expects a LOT out of you. The worst part is a series of Raids with enemies from level 70 to 85 that get unlocked when your party would be around 60. These are tough. VERY TOUGH. I can’t even imagine how to beat these Raids on the game’s highest difficulty. But like I said, they’re all optional. Just do them if you hate yourself.

But even after you beat the game, you are still encouraged to return to it for postgame junk! All you gotta do is save your clear data in a slot, and load the file from the title screen. It’ll give you the option to do New Game+, or do reload just before the final boss with all your stuff from after you beat it (good thing it actually gives EXP). After this, a couple of things open up. One is a bonus dungeon, which is a really fun challenge and a great grinding spot. There’s also… the final Raid, with enemies in the level 90s. I never did that Raid, for obvious reasons.

Ys VIII, visually, is a BIT behind on the times. I don’t know what this was ported from, but it’s not that great-looking. Artistically, it has some beautiful vistas and great vibrant colors. But the textures are very dated, and look pixelated at times. Normally, I don’t care about game resolution like Rock Star does, but the way Ys VIII looks can actually hurt your eyes. There is one room that has bad slowdown, and one single incident where the game froze on me. It’s not unplayable, though. Most of the time, the game runs at a stable frame rate.

One thing I seriously did not expect to enjoy was Ys VIII’s soundtrack. WOW, what an amazing soundtrack! This game has it all, from upbeat rockin’ tunes, to atmospheric stuff. The music for Raids and Hunts, as well as the special nighttime music, are among my favorite tracks in the game. If only they released this on iTunes and stuff!

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Final Verdict: 9/10

Ys VIII might not be very original, but the ball gets rolling at a fast enough pace to make it less of a chore than most JRPGs. I recommend it if you’re a JRPG fan who’s tired of the genre’s tedium, and just wants to break stuff.

Xenoblade Chronicles X Retrospective

Here’s my background on the Xenoblade Chronicles series. I remember back when they had the article on Xenoblade Chronicles for Nintendo Wii in an issue of Nintendo Power. It looked like the raddest game ever, but I was too intimidated by JRPGs (which, you know, would end soon enough; it IS my favorite genre) to give it a shot. Fast forward to when I watched Chuggaaconroy’s YouTube series on the game, and I realized what I had missed out on. I completely agree with his stance on it being the greatest videogame of all time. Beautiful setpieces, amazing combat, godlike music, and REYN TIME… what’s not to love? So, when I got the opportunity to play Xenoblade Chronicles X for the Nintendo Wii U… I had mixed feelings. But despite the trauma I initially had with the game, I had a hankering to play through it again. So, since it turns five this year, let’s rethink whether or not it was as big of a blemish on the franchise as it seemed at the time. This review is oozing spoilers!

But in all honesty… what spoilers? The plot for Xenoblade Chronicles X is practically nonexistent. Some aliens blow up the earth, and so what’s left of humanity flies off and settles on a planet called Mira. That’s all you get for premise, and most of what you get for narrative. I’ll explain why later, but let’s just discuss what IS there. The narrative of Xenoblade X explores a lot of sci-fi and cyberpunk themes, such as the question of the self. A big turning point in the story is when you realize that everyone is a robot, being remote controlled by their real bodies, which are stuck in the big MacGuffin of the game: the Lifehold Core. You gotta find it before a ragtag team of aliens called the Ganglion do. 

Xenoblade X just ends up being one of those generic “humans are bad” things that motivate the Ganglion, who I believe to be the weakest antagonists in the series. A lot of very arbitrary twists pop up at the end, such as the Ganglion’s motives being entirely because humanity’s ancestors blew up their people, and the fact that Elma is an alien who helped humanity for some reason. It all feels forced, and it’s boring to watch. 

In addition to that, Xenoblade X’s narrative leaves a lot of loose ends. For years, I thought I had actually gotten a bad ending, until in this playthrough, when I confirmed on the wiki that it wasn’t the case. There’s so many holes, I could spend an entire separate post ranting about them; the crap with Lao, or the fact that the Lifehold Core had already been ransacked since the beginning despite everyone being alive. All these loose ends make me think that Xenoblade X is meant to be a spin-off series to tide us over for each subsequent core installment, with a potential X2 coming out next instead of a Xenoblade 3. Lin does imply that the Earth is still out there, and that they’ll return to it someday. That sounds like perfect groundwork for a sequel to me!

So, why is there so little story in Xenoblade Chronicles X? Well, that’s because they tried something really “ballsy”: make the game an MMO and a JRPG all at once. For some reason, they tried to pander to the crowd of gamers that enjoys playing with strangers over the Internet and likes photorealistic graphics, all with a console that wasn’t even remotely powerful enough to handle it. In fact, they had to release DLC that came with assets preloaded that significantly reduced load times from their Sonic 06-like lengths (fortunately, it was free). Since the Miiverse feature is down, there’s a good chance that the servers themselves will follow suit. Going into this, I was actually glad for that, because it gets rid of Squad Missions, my least favorite mechanic in the game. I was actually able to do some Squad stuff at a limited capacity. In case the servers are still up while you’re reading this, I’ll clue you in on the absurd levels of grinding that the game expects from you in order to complete it.

Squad Missions were regularly occurring missions where multiple players on the server had to accomplish shared goals for Reward Tickets, which is what you redeem for most of the nye-impossible-to-obtain materials that you need to craft the best equipment. It was tedious to do, and you needed to do it for hundreds of hours in order to be able to 100% the game. This mechanic is what ultimately led me to feel burnt out in the later parts of the game, but of course, I still tried to do it because I actually wanted to try out the Superbosses. 

In order to accomplish Squad Missions, you had to defeat the specified amount of enemies or collect the specified resources, as shown in the HUD (use L and R to check for what exactly they are). The problem is that you only get an hour of real time to accomplish them, making them impossible to complete early game. You will need a full team of Skells in order to optimize the process. The worst versions of these missions are the ones that require you to defeat Uniques over and over again, which are a pain because you need to skip travel repeatedly to make them respawn. The worst set is one that’s all unique monsters, and one of the bosses in it is only accessible in a no-Skell cave that’s guarded by a bunch of enemies that are impossible to avoid (and you need to fight it six times, at night). 

But no, completing these isn’t enough. Finishing one of the scavenger hunt missions unlocks new ones that you access from the console in the Barracks, and you must complete all of THESE in order to truly complete the whole set. The missions range from easy to annoying, and you will need at least one other person active in the server to possibly be able to finish all of it. The best part is that they give you a bunch of enemy materials to save you from some of the grinding. Just be wary that they send you to places all over Mira, which is guaranteed to spoil later locations. Completing all the missions, in both the field and barracks, gives you a butt-load of tickets.

BUT NO, this isn’t enough either. A lot of the stuff you need will require tons of materials from story bosses as well. That’s why they have Time Attack Mode at the barracks for you to refight infinitely. Good thing that they aren’t guaranteed to drop the crap you need! Yippee! Oh, and add to the fact that the story bosses aren’t exactly the easiest enemies to take down. Good thing all this crap is optional…

At least they took offline playing into account. After beating the game, you unlock support missions, which you can play to grind specific types of rewards. They are pretty useful, but they don’t give reward tickets. Also, the best one for gaining experience and BP is stupidly tedious because you have to fight ten enemies, but only three spawn at a time, and you have to wait a FULL MINUTE for them to respawn and you need to this one the MOST to max out your avatar’s arts and skills and- *huff huff*

With this much grinding, Xenoblade X really does feel like an MMO, and as a result of the MMO-ness, the story is made even worse than it already was. Since they needed to make it into a monster-of-the-week formula in order to structure around the MMO-ness, the plot progression is about as disjointed as Octopath Traveler’s. Normally, I don’t mind the story being bad. In fact, the story being like this makes the game incredibly explorative. If you’re really skilled and stealthy, you can probably explore the whole planet once you get to the third chapter. Back to the negatives, though. I know that the following is a nitpick, but while I don’t need a good story, I want it to be a certain structure. I like a good, arduous journey in a JRPG. I tended to explore before doing a story mission, and as a result, I did most in places I’ve been to before, which kind of took out the enjoyment out of it. However, for a reason I’ll mention later, I recommend that you primarily explore in between chapters.

Although designed around an MMO premise, the story and what the game expects of you clash at times. There’s one cutscene toward the beginning of the game (I don’t remember which one it is; I think I skipped it) where Elma says that humanity needs to live with the land on Mira, and only kill when necessary, such as when something directly tries to attack the town. However, the heavy grinding involved in the squad missions, and in general if you want to actually level up, contradicts this a lot. Maybe it’s done on purpose for thematic purposes, but what’s not done well is the nonexistent tension in the narrative. A giant tower in the town shows a big fat percentage representing how much energy the Lifehold has left, and it only goes down in every chapter. An MMO- scratch that, any RPG in general- encourages you to take your time and do as much side stuff as possible before going on with the story, and the sheer amount of side stuff, plus the aforementioned grinding, make it all feel very inconsequential. Furthermore, due to the fact that side missions never expire (thank God), appropriate things need to be given plot armor and red shirts. You can easily tell that Lao will die or turn on you (the latter of which he does) late in the game because they require you to do certain quests with him before making story progress, as well as the fact that his Heart-to-Hearts suspiciously don’t contribute to 100% map completion. 

The exploration is a blessing and a curse. I didn’t give Mira enough credit back in the day. When I crawled out of that stupid rainy swamp area at the beginning, walked out into Primordia, and was welcomed by its natural splendor, I felt that Xenoblade whimsy all over again. Sure, it’s not shaped like an animal or humanoid, but it’s still an incredible world. There are so many nooks and crannies, gorgeous viewpoints, and an immersive atmosphere to boot. There aren’t enough purely sci-fi-themed JRPGs (that I know of), and Xenoblade X is one of the best in that specific category.

However, they let you know that Mira is a dangerous place. Like in the first Xenoblade, there are enemies of all different levels living together everywhere. In fact the Level 81 gorilla that gives newbs their first game overs is on Mira, in the first area, like in the previous game (and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 shows that he’ll likely remain a staple). But unlike the two core installments, where stronger enemies are designed to discourage too much exploration, Xenoblade Chronicles X demands you explore that high-level territory anyway. In fact, one REQUIRED Affinity Mission makes you infiltrate a Ganglion base FULL of Level 50+ enemies when you are NOT EVEN CLOSE to that level. I’ll admit that I don’t mind it that much in most cases, as the cruel enemy placement really sells the theme of survival on a truly alien world. It also encourages thinking outside of the box, requiring you to utilize the environment and know just how much attack range you have, in order to get out of some crazy battles. In my first playthrough, I remember one mission where they make you fight a really hard enemy in a cave that Skells couldn’t get into, and I beat it by telling my friends to enter their Skells, which they teleported into, and it caused the enemy to aggro to them. But since they were still outside the cave, it just got stuck in a wall, and I waited twenty minutes while my auto-attacks whittled it down to nothing. It was annoying, but it was also fun to think of such a solution in the first place. 

But sometimes it’s too much. A lot of stealth missions placed Target items DIRECTLY WITHIN ENEMY LINES OF SIGHT, and since you can’t pick up stuff while you’re engaged in battle, I was screwed. Also, there are really cheap ambush enemies that don’t show up on your minimap, some of which are Unique Monsters. There’s even a specific cave where a Unique is programmed to spawn in DIRECTLY BEHIND YOU after you walk in and get your bearings. What’s worse is that these enemies don’t ignore you when you’re higher leveled, so getting through places like Sylvalum that’re full of ambush enemies is not fun.

Let’s discuss the different regions. Primordia is the starting area, and it’s a nice, green biome that’s basic but still fun to explore, with most enemies docile to ease you in. Noctilum is my favorite area in the game, and has tons of variety in its biomes. Oblivia is a desert that has tons of mountains to scale (and that big wheel thing). Sylvalum is super pretty, but it’s my least favorite region in the game, for it’s split into an overly large frozen lake with nothing on it, and an overly large plain with nothing on it. Cauldros is loaded with tough enemies and tough platforming (rightfully so), and since it’s the most compact, it doesn’t have much in terms of scenic vistas. My only complaint with the region as a whole is that some of the enemy designs aren’t very inspired. While I certainly remembered them very well, they are mainly your typical, “let’s take earth animals and tweak them a bit, maybe add some extra limbs” designs that pepper the sci-fi world.

Nestled on the southern shores of Primordia is New Los Angeles, the hub. Normally, I don’t like it when JRPGs have only one town, for going into new towns is one of my favorite parts of those games. But NLA makes up for it in growing and developing more than most other JRPGs’ entire assortment of towns. It is a super-bustling area, and as you do more sidequests, it grows into a cultural melting pot, full of bizarre friendly aliens. I still loved running around this place, even with the memories of that stupid lobster bomb sidequest still burnt onto my brain.

Fortunately, the map makes full use of the Wii U Gamepad. While the maps themselves only show a shoddy satellite photo of areas in Mira, everything is divided into honeycombs. Once you unlock honeycombs, one tap will clue you in on stuff within that honeycomb, including Unique Monsters, future sidequests, and treasures. Fast Travel is also incredibly easy as well, thanks to this feature. They also tell you if you’ve completed a honeycomb, but I wish that they kept the specific icons instead of changing it to a gold medal, so it’s easier to know where everything is.

You also use the map to plant Probes. These unlock Skip Travel points and provide you with various perks. Mining Probes give you valuable Miranium and Ores at regular intervals, and Research Probes give you money. Storage Probes let you hold more Miranium, Combat Probes give helpful effects, Booster Probes enhance the others, and Duplicator Probes copy the effects of its neighbors. Each specific site has varying levels of what Probe does better, so read the info box before you plant them in. There are also Combat Probes, that can grant effects throughout the entire region they’re planted in (good luck rearranging all of FrontierNav each time you fight a tough enemy in a different region). I didn’t use any until the postgame just to test them out. Even with the highest effect I could get, it didn’t seem to help whatsoever, but maybe I’m just bad. They’re probably instrumental to fighting the superbosses.

Starting up Xenoblade Chronicles X made me remember one of its worst features: that the text was ludicrously small. “You need basic reading ability to fully enjoy this game,” my foot! You need 20/20 vision, man! This didn’t make the hour I spent in character creation any easier. You could spend a long time deciding who you want to be (the right answer is, of course, a thicc, sexy lady, since the shortest height is too tall for a loli). Fortunately, you can unlock a mechanic to redesign yourself, just in case.

But man… playing this again, I realized just how hard Xenoblade X is to get into on your first playthrough. I elected to skip a lot of cutscenes, especially tutorial stuff, which I think is one of the worst in all of videogames. To compare it to other installments of the series, Xenoblades 1 and 2 let you fully explore the first hub areas, and even had mini-dungeons, all while naturally easing you into the mechanics. Xenoblade X locks you into a specific route, and really infodumps the crap out of you. It’s overwhelming. One of the biggest offenders is when they show you a whole bunch of different terminals at a point where you can’t use them yet, which I believe is really dumb. Xenoblade X is definitely a “teach yourself” game with its mechanics, which there are a LOT of. To add insult to injury, there are tutorial pop-ups that appear well after you’re expected to know how those mechanics work, such as with Overdrive. 

They also have the Division mechanic, which is where you select a job class, and earn rewards from performing that Division’s tasks. This mechanic is awful for multiple reasons. They do acknowledge that it’s a dumb mechanic in the story, but it does little to justify it. The reason why these Divisions are dumb is because some Divisions only have a finite amount of tasks, making them objectively bad picks. Furthermore, picking one doesn’t affect what you’ll do in the story. You could be a Mediator, who focuses on helping people in town, and yet be the hero who saves the Lifehold Core in the end. Furthermore, the Skell exam is to do tasks of all eight Divisions at once anyway (and apparently, you don’t need to build actual driving skills or anything. That would be unrealistic), which further shows how dumb the system really is.

Let’s discuss characters next. As is expected with the MMO-ness, your avatar is by far the weakest main protagonist is the entire Xenoblade Chronicles series. You don’t speak in cutscenes, and you rarely show emotion. What’s worse is that supporting you is a harem called Elma and Lin. Xenoblade Chronicles X has, like, twelve playable characters, and these two are among my least favorite. Elma is sometimes a badass, or a cold-hearted b****, and I don’t really enjoy her in either states. Lin is kind of just a moe-blob mechanic who likes to cook Nopons. “Well, if you don’t like them, don’t play as them,” you suggest. Um, let me tell you one of the dumbest aspects of the game: The main story FORCES you to have those two on every story mission, leaving only one spare slot for someone else (thank goodness this game has four slots). And here’s the clincher, all other party members are OPTIONAL. While the girls are among the best party members in the game (Elma’s Ghost Factory is a lifesaver), I suggest exploring Mira using these other characters, so that when you do the story mission, you can just go straight there with the girls, and not gain excess Affinity, because the game also expects you to juggle all of the party members around in order to jack up their Affinity (and level ups. Get used to hearing people’s death cries a LOT when you decide to play as that one person you didn’t use for fifty hours). I like juggling a lot of characters, but when they make you use two of them so often, it gets tough to build Affinity with everyone without doing a lot of grinding.

And grinding Affinity in this game SUCKS. There are three ways to do it: battle, sidequests, and heart-to-hearts. Battle is self-explanatory, but it takes the longest. In sidequests, it’s not so simple. Every party member you’re with gets an Affinity up when you complete it, sure, but they also get Affinity ups depending on how you respond in certain cutscenes. The problem is that EVERY character has a DIFFERENT reaction to each and EVERY possible response in the game. I imagine that if you know these characters really, REALLY well, you could intuitively guess what they’ll like, but it would require note-taking and multiple playthroughs to know them THAT well (and if you did, you’d have a helluva lot of party shuffling to do). They also feel inconsistent. One example is Yelv’s first Affinity Mission; the guy’s a Reclaimer who’s looking for his friend’s missing pod, but when prompted to decide on a mission type, picking the Reclaimer mission makes him happy, but DOESN’T increase his Affinity. Do you need to know SOCIAL SKILLS too or something?!

On top of that, Heart-to-hearts are the worst in the series in Xenoblade X. Basically, you have to NOT have the person in your party, then go to the appointed area AT THE APPOINTED TIME, with only random NPCs giving you clues on where and when. Oftentimes, you will just simply try to recruit them to your party, find that they went to their heart-to-heart, and not know where they are. You also need to reach certain Affinity levels to even view most of them, so you’d still have to grind anyway. You will probably have to look them all up online to save yourself a headache. And to top it all off… there’s no gifting items in Xenoblade X! It’s almost as if they WANT you to grind in an MMO-like setting…

Of the other party members, the best of the best is L (not from Death Note). This guy is a weird alien who is not fluent in human language, and therefore minces his words a lot. His soul voices, such as “We’ll put a sock on them!” make him my favorite party member in the game. Other interesting characters are Boze, H.B., and Murderess (eff her quests, though). A lot of the best post-battle flavor text involves having parties consisting of these optional side characters.

Unfortunately, a lot of their character arcs leave much to be desired. Like with the main story, these guys don’t really get much closure when you do all that you can with them. Sure, Frye and Phog, as well as Hope, are exceptions. But a lot of it ends off on unfulfilled promises that further tease the possibility of a sequel, like H.B.’s journey to become BLADE commander, Murderess’ journey to restore her family name, or whatever in SAM HILL happened to Yelv at the end of HIS arc. Some people don’t even get a real arc, such as with Irina, whose arc ends with a mission that has nothing to do with her, or Doug; you do one mission with, he tells you about his dead dad, and never hear from him for the rest of the game.

Additionally, there aren’t as many likeable NPCs. Tatsu is the Nopon protagonist of Xenoblade X, but he is the weakest Nopon protagonist, for he doesn’t join your party and ultimately doesn’t even do much. One of the military commanders is Old Man Vandham, and he’s great. Oh, and he’s identical to the Vandham in Xenoblade 2. Hopefully, this indicates that there will be an instance of him in every future Xenoblade, kind of like Final Fantasy with Sid. 

But as I mentioned before with the Ganglion, they’re the least likeable antagonists in the series so far. The leader, Luxaar, has a lot of holes in his motives, such as how some random mech sitting in a pit on Mira is connected to some being he worships. His minions are just typical JRPG villain-minion tropes reworked as aliens: the thicc Goetia, the brawn-over-brain Dagahn, the bi***y Riiz, and the hyper-honorable Ga Jiarg (who, of course, becomes a good guy later).

Enough with characters already! So, sidequests are a thing. There are three types of sidequests: Basic Missions, Normal Missions, and Affinity Missions. Basic ones are accepted at a certain terminal, and respawn daily. Normal ones are your typical JRPG sidequests. Affinity Missions are more complex sidequests dedicated to character development, with a full arsenal of cutscenes to boot. You need to have specific Affinity levels and story progress to unlock them. Fun fact: most of the actual plot of Xenoblade X is in the sidequests. Additionally, most of the aliens you meet in the game are entirely optional, such as the sexy, shapeshifting Definians, or those tall things that give birth by splitting in half. There’s a whole B-plot involving racism that you’ll miss entirely if you don’t do the sidequests! Also, Affinity Missions don’t just explore most of the most interesting characters, but also some of the more interesting themes in the game, and really make it feel like you’re living in something more than a town of NPCs.

Just be careful which one you pick. Although they don’t let you do one unless it’s legitimately doable, doing one too early can be really bad, and since you can’t do any other Affinity Missions or the Story until the current one is finished, you can force yourself into some heavy grinding situations. One early struggle I had was Lin’s first Affinity Mission, The Repair Job. I didn’t recall struggling with this one in my first playthrough, but it took me over five hours to do it this time because it required resources you get from the Mining Probes. And for some reason, it just took forever for them to pop up, even though the ore is common, and I had Probes in three sites that had it.  Alexa’s first Affinity Mission is rough too, because there is an optional harder enemy you can fight, but it’s very powerful, and uses Spikes, which you can’t defend against at the point in which you’re able to do the mission. If you decide to fight this thing, then save, you’re not continuing the story until you kill that thing with the limited early game equipment you have.

That one’s not close to the truly ASS Missions that are in Xenoblade X. My least favorite sidequest is the Red Lobster Bomber thing, where you have to find 99 (technically 98) bombs in NLA, which only spawn in batches, and at specific times of day. I ultimately chose not to do it this time (I somehow did it without a guide in my original playthrough) because the reward is crap, and if I couldn’t 100% the game then, when I only had to go to high school, then I definitely can’t 100% it while I have a full-time job AND a blog to do. In fact, I left a number of quests unfinished, which is a bad sign for me, as someone who loves to do side stuff. I basically got sick of the game, just like I did five years ago.

Xenoblade X has one of the rarest things in all of JRPGs: postgame set chronologically after the final boss. This only unlocks some new quests and Skells, but it’s still neat that there’s a postgame at all. If you played it while the servers were still up, you probably spent the postgame grinding. Unfortunately, the story had to be written around this design choice. In my first playthrough, I had predicted the “soul-crushing” reveal in chapter 12: that you were never remotely controlling the robot bodies from your real ones in the Lifehold Core. The human race WAS completely wiped out, and the robot bodies just contain each person’s memories. It’s a common cyberpunk trope, but it’s super arbitrary when it only serves to have the idea of a postgame make sense. “Well, you could just have the same missions but in your real bodies,” you argue. But like I said, sidequests never expire, so they need to be contextualized so that they can be done at any time without contradicting story elements. They also have to keep all Ganglion bases and enemies in operation, justifying it as “Ganglion stragglers” for the same reason.

Holy crap, how did I go so long without talking about the aspect of videogames that I find most important, which is gameplay?! Well, let’s do it now. Xenoblade X has a run button, which I was sad to have seen removed in Xenoblade 2. It helps a lot, especially since the world has a lot of ground to cover. Combat is also very different from core games. Oh boy, I should start a new paragraph for this.

The basics of Xenoblade are pretty much the same. You have auto-attacks, which go off automatically, and Arts, which are what you will come to rely on. One thing I noticed in Xenoblade X is that you can auto-attack while you move, which is REALLY nice, and something I would’ve liked in Xenoblade 2. But the big difference is Soul Voices. If you use a specific type of art when prompted, you will have amazing bonus effects, from big damage, to big heals, to even brief invincibility. This starkly contrasts from core games, where you kept staring at your Arts as you waited for what seemed like an eternity for them to cooldown, but now expects you to save them for soul voices. It’s not always necessary to be compulsive with Soul Voices, however. Sometimes you’ll want to use an Art like normal. Look at the prompt at the bottom to see what the effect will be before you use it!

There are some problems with soul voices, though. One is that the A.I. spams Arts and wastes TP, and the commands you can give them with + are very limited. It definitely feels like a mechanic that works better in multiplayer, since you’d (supposedly) form groups with human players who don’t suck (too bad that’s pretty much impossible now). But nope, your allies are about as unreliable as ever.

The other issue is the game’s own issue of its voice acting. I think Xenoblade X has the worst voice acting in the series, or at least in the case of the dub (too bad you can’t set the Japanese voice acting in this installment… ). While there are exceptions (like L), the cast overall sounds really corny and annoying. The Xenoblade Chronicles series always had a bad issue of voice clips repeating themselves ad nauseum in battle, such as “You’ll pay for your insolence!” but it’s ramped up to fifty in this game. It feels like they tried to make every voice clip into a meme of its own, but with how incessantly you’ll be hearing all these clips, it’s more so something that sticks with you like that annoying pop song you can’t get out of your head, and not like something genuinely enjoyable. 

Also new to the game are appendages. These are cool, because they’re parts of the enemy’s body that you can target by pressing in the right analog stick, and destroy after dealing enough damage. These lead to some of the best soul voices, such as a free opportunity to inflict Topple. Speaking of Topple… man, it’s hard to go back to an old installment from Xenoblade 2, which showed the duration of the Break statuses and stuff on the HUD, and added the Launch and Smash combos to the deal. Anyways, while destroying appendages is fun, it can also make the enemy super pissed, and even unlock some seriously powerful attacks from them.

As great as the combat is, there are some issues, with the TP stat being one of them. TP is MP. It fills up on auto-attacks and by using certain Arts and soul voices, and it fills up too slowly. You need at least 1000 to do anything with it, and characters can only hold 3000, without equipment to increase the amount. Certain Arts need TP, and these Arts are really important to your strategy. When you die, you lose all TP, which means that you gotta waste time fighting random mooks to grind it back up. The stuff just doesn’t come fast enough. In my first playthrough, the only way I could consistently gain TP was to alternate between True Stream Edge- an AOE attack that gives TP per hit if you have morale (which you can get easily by successfully hitting B prompts to make your own Soul Voice)- and Last Stand- which at its max level, expends 1000 of your TP to give 2000 to your allies- constantly in battle. It took no skill, and I felt like I wasn’t properly understanding the game. What’s worse is that it takes 3000 to revive a party member, which is the equivalent of the ENTIRE PARTY GAUGE in core games. This doesn’t make using Overdrive any easier. 

Overdrive is the replacement of Chain Attacks. Basically, you expend 3000 TP to make your selected character go into Overdrive (fortunately, your allies will follow suit if you have the proper soul voices). In Overdrive, you use Arts to score hits and gain bonus effects that get stronger as you combo stuff. Using Melee and Range arts in succession will boost the count, while other types will act as wild cards and enable you to follow up with the opposite type. The method is to gain back all that TP and click on the Overdrive button again to extend its duration as long as possible. In this playthrough, I was pretty good at using TP conservatively, but I could never get a longer Overdrive without those broken strats. I believe that maintaining maximum Overdrive (I knew I should’ve gotten the turbo…) makes the party in Xenoblade X the most powerful in the series.

Another issue that I had to remember was the horrid lack of an Aggro system. Well, that’s not entirely true. There is definitely an Aggro system, but the problem is that they got rid of the symbol to indicate who is being targeted. It really sucks because a lot of strategy is built around knowing who’s being targeted at any given time. For example, Yelv has this ballsy Art called Essence Exchange, which swaps his HP and TP stats. This can be really useful, but also put him on death’s doorstep in .05 seconds. It’s risky to use, but deciding could be made a lot easier if you knew at a glance if he was being targeted.

Spikes return to Xenoblade Chronicles X. This unwritten and notoriously BS mechanic involves enemies who inflict counterattack or proximity damage whenever they darn well feel like it. The only way to avoid it is to have the right augments, and the augments for it in Xenoblade X suck. The best anti-Spike gear in any other game will basically grant one party member full immunity or reduce the damage to 1. But here, the best augment is merely a 50% evasion of Spikes. So, to give your whole party Spike immunity, you need at least EIGHT of the best anti-Spike augments, and that’s not even including the entirely separate ones for Skells. There’s also the new reflect damage BS. In this case, an enemy will take zero damage from a given element, and you’ll take the full hit yourself (and since some of your attacks do thousands of damage, you will die in less than a second). Fortunately, the augments to make yourself immune to this effect are pretty easy to make, you just gotta make them for EACH and EVERY element, and at least FOUR apiece.

Whenever the game decides to put up a legitimately fair fight, it does feel like a true Xenoblade Chronicles game. But like with any JRPG, you need to be outfitted properly to come out on top. Unfortunately, the equipment in Xenoblade X is too damn convoluted! Xenoblade X characters equip two weapons- one melee and one ranged- a headpiece, a top, two sleeves, and pants, each of which can have any out of, like, a BILLION augments added to them. There are also a TON of stats: HP, TP, Melee Attack, Melee Accuracy, Ranged Attack, Ranged Accuracy, Evasion, Potential, and Resistances for Physical, Thermal, Ether, Lightning, Beam, and Gravity attacks. The stats on equipment vary wildly, especially with clothes making you more resistant to one element, and more vulnerable to another, with no definitive combination for all situations (and don’t get me started on the many enemies that have powerful attacks two elements to where a given piece of equipment is strong against one but weak to the other, such as with Ether resistant clothes being weak to Physical). On top of that, you gotta outfit all ten+ party members, and EACH OF THEIR SKELLS. Oh, and the fact that there are entire sets of equipment made specifically for better fighting in Skells, but suck otherwise. Furthermore, there are limited ways to sort through the various equipment you’ll pick up, which makes it extra painful to find the specific ones you want. The miniscule text is icing on the cake here. But the good news is that there is still a cosmetic slot for your kit, enabling you to put your girls in skimpy clothes without giving them bad stats. Seriously though, this game NEEDED an ability to save preset equipment sets, since everything is so situational to the point where you need to reoutfit everybody from the ground up to take on specific tough enemies, like Superbosses. Scratch that, you need to reoutfit everybody to take on ANY enemy. Sometimes you won’t even be capable of getting the resources necessary to optimize your outfit because the materials are ludicrous levels of stingy. The Arms Manufacturer mechanic makes it worse. While it’s cool that you unlock companies that specialize in different things (which also makes the world feel more alive), as a consequence you end up unable to buy equipment for certain types of enemies. The worst offender is Six Stars, which defend against Thermal, that you can’t unlock until after Chapter TEN at the earliest. Money also tends to be scarce, as you’ll find yourself buying new equipment to update your team until you get the “Ultra” equipment as drops from enemies that are level 60 and over. Even though I made a good point to pick up any high level equipment I happened upon, I still ended up not having good equipment or enough of a specific elemental resistance, and my money got sucked dry every time I had to buy stuff.

Classes make things even more complicated. These dictate what weapons you can use. Each weapon has its own set of Arts, and mastering the class lets you freely equip the weapons even without being in that class. This leads to some very interesting combinations once you can master some stuff. To make things simpler, only your avatar can change classes, and I kind of find it to be a blessing. I ended up stubbornly focusing on one path at a time, but it might be better to spread out. There were so many times when I was like “If only I had that one Art…” and it was because I stuck to one Class path at a time.

Now let’s discuss the part that every mecha anime would love: Skells. These mechs, once unlocked, can be freely customized with their own equipment kit, color scheme, and name. They make getting around and fighting easier, and even allowing you to damage small enemies by walking on them. I love them and dislike them. While they are fun, they kind of ruin the thrill of discovery on Mira. Later on, you get the ability to fly with Skells, which I don’t really like. I loved looking at high places and thinking, “How will I get up there?” only to realize that you just fly up there with the Skell, instead of being able to hoof it on foot. I’m definitely nitpicking here, though, as someone who sometimes likes the journey over the reward.

Skells in combat also spice things up. Skells have even more equipment than humans. They get the usual armor, as well as the usual melee and ranged weapons. But they also get eight OTHER weapons. Don’t worry, though; these weapons dictate the Skell’s Arts. Each Skell Art consumes fuel (which isn’t really that much of an issue, since they regenerate from being stationary), and they have a lot of cool animations and effects. It’s fun to slide into a group of enemies and press a single button to unleash hell on them. Among these Skell Arts are superweapons that you get lategame, take up four Art slots, and hit like meteorites. However, due to the MMO nature of the game, getting some of these is no longer possible… Crap. 

When fighting in Skells, everything is mostly the same. However, instead of Topple, you Bind enemies. One Skell (probably yours) will press the ZL and ZR buttons on a staggered enemy to lock it into place, which also regenerates a bunch of fuel. You have to complete button prompts to keep them trapped for as long as possible, but sadly, they’re pretty much guaranteed to break out after a set amount of time. There is also a random chance of the camera zooming in on a P.O.V. shot inside your cockpit, which is disorienting at first but instantly recharges all of your arts. Overdrive is much simpler on Skells; it gives you temporary infinite fuel and increases the chance of the P.O.V. effect occurring. However, the mechanic seems luck based, as it seems to decide to give you more time whenever it feels like it, and I don’t know what dictates it. Each Skell’s Overdrive is also different, and it only shows you the effects in the tiny text that appears on the HUD for one second before it goes away forever.

I never enjoyed fighting in Skells during my first playthrough and I still don’t enjoy it now. A lot of the Skell Arts are very uninteresting and boring, and it never feels like there’s any strategy with them except to use brute force. Whenever I fought with Skells, instead of feeling empowered, I felt like I was giving up. There are a lot of tough battles that are trivialized by Skells. I felt like I didn’t have to be any good at the game when in Skells. Sure, there are still some enemies that can wipe an entire party of Skells, and some that you can’t even reach without them, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about the whole thing.

But man, they do make navigating a dream. Remember that Affinity Mission that forces you to go to high-level territory underleveled? Well, I have no clue what convoluted path they wanted you to take to stealth through there, but with my Skell I literally did a Hail Mary flying leap directly to the goal, and used the cutscene to avoid fighting any enemies who saw me! Skells are great if you want to expedite tasks, but they sure aren’t fun.

Speaking of not fun, enjoy the choir that plays every time you fight in a Skell. You thought repetitive voice clips in Xenoblade were bad? Well, fighting in Skells is the worst it’s ever been. They didn’t even bother recording voice clips for them saying the name of each Skell Art; they only did one voice clip per character per type of Skell Art. So whenever you fight in a Skell, get ready for tons of “MUST POWER UP!” and “I’M POWERING UP!” and “ONE BLOW TO END IT ALL!” and “SHIELDS DEPLOYED! TIME TO SIT BACK AND DRRRRINK!” and “PLEASE! WHY WOULD YOU FLEE?” and more! These memes put Kingdom Hearts III to shame.

If there are any Skells that break the game, it’s the ones that you can craft after beating the main story. These Skells are at level cap, and all have positive resistances, even to Gravity. But the most broken of all of them are the Ares Skells. Modeled off of the Prog Ares that you fight in Chapter 11, these things will rip the planet a new one (the edgy black one is the more powerful of the two, of course). They take a ton of crap to craft, including some drops from a specific Superboss, but it’s worth it. Since I still had the Squad Missions system up, I was able to create it in this playthrough. Design-wise, you were probably meant to use the regular postgame Skells to fight them, and the Ares is the reward for going through that struggle, because this thing is practically a GameShark code incarnate. It comes with four unique Arts, including the Something-or-other-Cannon (I forgot the name). I don’t remember that attack being so stinking powerful. It’s pretty much guaranteed to one-hit most enemies in the game, including some Superbosses. As result, it helps grinding for the other Skells immensely, as you need to fight tons of Xe-Doms, which are these giant robots that will murder you in any other circumstances, and obtain many rare drops from them. 

Also, I HATE that max level is 60. This makes it so that about one-fifth of all the enemies are Superbosses. I don’t feel incentivized to defeat them since they wouldn’t even be Superbosses in any other Xenoblade game. Furthermore, the fact that Uniques respawn naturally makes it feel like you never accomplished anything.

So, for the first time in my life, I tried to beat as many of Xenoblade X’s Superbosses as possible before I inevitably got sick of it. I was not able to fight that many of them; only two, and they weren’t even above level 90. However, I seemed to discover a way to defeat them that’s even more broken than the True Stream Edge/Last Stand combo I discussed earlier. Having Elma or your avatar with Ghost Factory, you build up a bunch of TP (preferably with a lot of Max TP up augments equipped) beforehand, begin the boss battle, and use Overdrive immediately (preferably with Phantom Counter to give you a free 12 combo). Use Ghost Factory next. That grants Decoy, which makes a set number of attacks miss, to the whole party. At this point, spam Sliding Slinger or any move that builds TP for free (debuff arts give free TP per hit, maxing out at 1000 per hit) to build Overdrive up to max while regularly refreshing Ghost Factory. As long as you always have Ghost Factory, you’ll essentially be invincible. And once you get max, Ghost Factory will be fully cooled down in like a second. With this strat, all you need to do is build your usual Night Vision augments and stuff. Of course, this strategy isn’t perfect against people like Dadaan the Strongest Prone, who summons eighty guys when he’s at half health, but it definitely helped me complete Elma’s final Affinity Mission with almost no preparation. Seriously… the preparation you need in order to fight all of them… Yeesh.

Let’s talk about the most divisive part of the game next: its soundtrack. While I do think it’s the weakest soundtrack in the series so far, I still love some of it. The area themes, in particular, are great. Each area theme sells the sci-fi theme, while keeping true to the Xenoblade music feeling. The daytime theme of Noctilum is my favorite theme in the game; it’s epic, grandiose, and adventurous, and sells the alien splendor of Mira the best. Unfortunately, the battle themes are kind of infamous. When I first heard the regular battle theme, I was like, “Well, this is a sci-fi setting, can’t expect an orchestra,” but then… the hip-hop came in. Although it can be interpreted as funny and memeable, Xenoblade Chronicles is the one game I do not want cheesy songs in its soundtrack. And it doesn’t stop there. The classic You Will Know Our Names, the theme when battling against Unique Monsters, is now a cheesy, High School Musical-esque track. It was so polarizing to me, that I felt the closest thing to PTSD in my life when it played during the Elma fight in Xenoblade 2. The Skell themes are even worse. The battle theme, which should make you feel strong and powerful, is a crappy techno-pop song, and the flight theme, which should feel adventurous, feels like it’s right out of Sonic R, which is not fitting at all (also, due to how fast the jetpack is, you’ll have the first 30 seconds of it loop in your head for eternity because that’s all you’ll ever hear of it). Speaking of looping forever, get ready to here the other crappy techno-pop song for ten hours when you use Overdrive and try to maintain its duration!

Lastly, the visuals. There’s nothing much to say, other than the game has its ambitions written on its sleeves. Although I prefer the artsy, anime style of most modern JRPGs, Mira is still gorgeous in its own right. If I wasn’t trying to get through this before the release of Remastered, I would’ve spent fifty hours in scenic viewpoints instead of accomplishing anything. Unfortunately, even with the preloaded assets DLC, a lot of enemies and NPCs will take awhile to spawn in. In the case of the former, you can get cheaply ambushed just by people “materializing” into existence.

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After All These Years: 9/10

I’ve been hard on Xenoblade Chronicles X. It has many, many, many issues, but at the same time, I still love it. I would 100% want to play a hypothetical Xenoblade X2 if one ever gets made. I recommend you give this game a whirl if the Wii U e-shop is still open, allowing you to download the pre-rendered assets (oh, and if you already have a Wii U as well). Also, if the online crap is down, you don’t have to worry about the hellish journey to 100% the game, because it’s no longer possible. Play it if you’ve got a hundred-odd hours to spare. But if you had to pick and choose, I’d still recommend Xenoblade 2, and hopefully Xenoblade Definitive, over this.

Outer Ragna Volume 1 Review

What if you had complete control over someone’s body and mind? Their movements, their thoughts, their own souls… are yours. Would you do something like that to a living, breathing human? Although that’s part of the premise of Outer Ragna, the latest Overlord wannabe published in English by J-Novel Club, that train of thought isn’t even remotely explored in the plot. I just wanted to make an interesting intro paragraph *smirks*.

In Outer Ragna, a (presumably) Twitch streamer by the username of PotatoStarch plays the new deluxe edition of Dragon Demon RPG on stream. This game is supposed to be Dark Souls of JRPGs (if Xenoblade Chronicles X wasn’t already that), and your race and abilities are all randomized. He ends up with the worst possible role: a human slave girl. But for some reason, the whole game world is an actual fantasy world (of course), and he’s controlling this girl, named Kuroi. Thanks to his veteran gamer skills, the humans actually have a shot at survival in the ongoing war of the elves and vampires that normally wipe humanity clean in a normal playthrough.

Confused? Despite the simple premise, I found Outer Ragna to be kind of hard to follow at first. The structure felt very disorienting to me for some reason… I actually took my darn time to read through this volume, yet I was still confused at times. A lot of scene transitions felt very abrupt.

The author definitely put a lot of effort into the game mechanics, which is good. But it’s only introduced in chunks of exposition dump from Starch, and scattered throughout the book. What you need to understand is that elves get magic from the Dragon God, Vampires get magic from the Demon God, and humans- who can only learn lousy fire magic- have no god. Or so they thought. In the deluxe edition, the humans have the Devil God on their side, who is presumed to be Starch himself. 

“Hang on!” you exclaim, “This guy can’t play this game 24/7, right?” Don’t worry; strange circumstances occur in the world that force him to play it, such as being given an indefinite paid vacation from his job. Obviously, this doesn’t make a lick of sense, but them’s the brakes with the genre.

The biggest problem so far is that I’m not a fan of the writing style. The descriptions are lacking in detail, and the many “torture porn” segments feel underwhelming (keep in mind that yours truly’s standards of torture porn have spiked recently, thanks to Torture Princess). I also had no sense of where anyone or anything was in 3D space. The writing is at its best when it strictly comes to action sequences, but those occur in rather low abundance.

Among the characters, Kuroi is the  one most worth mentioning. It’s hilarious to see NPCs react to her doing repetitive tasks from their perspective, while we as an audience know that it’s merely Starch grinding stats a la Quest 64. But otherwise, she’s just your typical deadpan loli. The other interesting character is the sorcerer, Odysson, who has cool fire magic, but is implied to have Ted Bundy’d a bunch of people in the past. But seriously… they introduce way too many characters to keep track of right off the bat. In addition to the characters I mentioned, there’s… *deep breath* The priest Felipo, the knight Agias, his brother Origis, some merchant lady, a loli named Sira, and more! What they all have in common is being boring dullards.

Outer Ragna is yet another LN with only cover art. While it is a step down from Isekai Rebuilding Project, it still has a nice, edgy style to it that makes it visually appealing all the same. Let’s just hope the series will get as intense as it looks on the cover moving forward.

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Verdict: 6.75/10

From the first impressions, Outer Ranga doesn’t seem to be anything spectacular. It sets up some good groundwork, but to what end? The structure felt very wonky, and the characters are bland. I’d recommend it to fans of Overlord and Sword Art Online. But otherwise, I might end up quitting while I’m ahead.