Shades of Magic: More Londons, More Fun. Four Londons!

I’ve never had an interest in adult Western fiction, and I still don’t, mainly because a lot of it looks the same. I don’t know why people bother taking out books that all have the same back of a car, front porch of a house, or topless man enveloping a busty woman on the cover. But if one set of grown-up books stands out, it would have to be V.E. Schwab’s fantasy trilogy: Shades of Magic. I’ve actually known about its existence for a while, but it took me until the production of the movie for me to actually read through it. Go figure.

In Shades of Magic, a young magician named Kell is an errand boy who delivers mail to different versions of London in parallel universes. One day, he ends up with a very powerful and illegal magic stone. His fate then becomes intertwined with the tomboyish thief, Lila Bard, who goes on adventures with him to stop whatever inevitable mass conspiracy theory is threatening to tear the multiple Londons apart.

The big appeal in Shades of Magic is the worldbuilding. The four Londons are color-coded, based on various properties: Magicless Grey London, Relatively Okay Red London, Dystopian White London, and the source of all the trouble, Black London. The drawback with these worlds is that none of them is particularly interesting by themselves. Grey is just our world, Red is the Harry Potter world, and White is the Game of Thrones world. Black is by far the coolest, but it’s explored the least. In fact, the potential of the multiple Londons schtick is undermined by the fact that more than half of the story is set in Red London. I hate assuming the author’s intentions, but the worldbuilding feels like they just combined two inherently appealing things—parallel universes and the United Kingdom—just because those things are inherently appealing.

Fortunately, the writing is very elegant and makes the books addicting to read. If you’re intimidated by their length, they’re broken up into pretty short chapters, with many shorter subchapters in each. The action scenes are, for the most part, pretty darn good too.

But even with great prose, the characters leave something to be desired. They don’t really have much personality beyond their established archetypes. Kell is just… a dude, and Lila is just… a dudette. Sure, Kell has some kind of battle of temptation with the MacGuffin in book one, but it’s not particularly interesting. Lila has that YA protagonist trope of being a special snowflake for no reason, AND IT’S ANNOYING. Many reviews on Goodreads have riffed on her enough, so I’d only be repeating them if I elaborated on Lila in detail. Just know that she’s a pretentious, obnoxious brat. Of all the characters, Kell’s rival, Holland, is by far the most fleshed out, but he’s not quite enough to offset everyone else. If it wasn’t for the great writing of the actual story, these people would’ve made reading Shades of Magic very tedious.

Also be wary that Shades of Magic follows the tradition of “the second book being awful” very faithfully. A Gathering of Shadows was an absolute slog to get through. The whole thing revolved around some tournament that wasn’t even plot relevant in the first place, and was chock full of rushed and unexciting fights. Only the last sixty pages or so are important, as they lead into the events of the final book.

While the final book, A Conjuring of Light, is definitely an improvement, it isn’t that much better. Despite the urgency of the situation established at the beginning of the novel, a lot of it is spent wasting time with inconsequential characters that I didn’t even remember. One thing that blows my mind is how some authors are able to write entire chapters that serve no purpose to the main story. Fortunately, Shades of Magic is nowhere near as bad as Keeper of the Lost Cities, whose seventh book spends FOUR HUNDRED PAGES IN THE INFIRMARY, but it’s noticeable.

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Final Verdict: 7/10

I really wanted to like this series. But as the old saying goes: Quality over quantity. What’s the point of having four Londons, when they each have such empty design and worldbuilding? I’d rather read Lockwood and Co., which is set in one, fleshed-out London. Shades of Magic is an example of the sheer idea behind it being what sells, rather than the execution of that idea. It’s not the worst fantasy out there, but it’s VERY overrated and outclassed. You know what, the movie might end up being a better alternative, since it’ll probably only adapt the first book; the only one that matters.

The Ideal Sponger Life: The One with the Canonical Waifu (Volume 1 Review)

I’ve known about The Ideal Sponger Life for over a year now. The problem was that only the manga, published by Seven Seas, has been available in English. Fortunately, J-Novel Club has come through and FINALLY licensed the original light novel series for Western consumption. Has it been worth the wait?

In The Ideal Sponger Life, a salaryman named Zenjirou Yamai is summoned to another world, by a queen named Aura Capula. She wants a hubby, and Zenjirou fits the bill. Obviously, he decides to marry her.

However, it isn’t that simple. Zenjirou really thinks through with his decision, and it’s made readily apparent that there’s more to this arrangement than meets the eye. For some reason, Aura wants him to just lie around and occasionally have sex. The early chapters of the volume also showcase that fantasy worlds are great and all, but are incredibly uncomfortable if you’re too used to modern technology. Unfortunately, this aspect is quickly made a non-issue when Zenjirou is able to briefly return to earth to bring a generator back to the fantasy realm.

The big problem with this volume is that it’s not… wrong enough! I thought that this was going to be all about Zenjirou having sex with Aura and a bunch of maids; that would’ve made for some interesting debates and whatnot. In fact, this thing skips any raunchy content with a mere “After they had sex, blah blah blah…” I’m being adamant about this because Sponger Life isn’t that remarkable otherwise. The only real plus is that there’s an actual explanation for the “isekai language” trope, but that just results in some needlessly tedious language lessons that he doesn’t need because he can already speak their language AS A RESULT of the “isekai language” trope!

Sponger Life’s writing is about as problematic as most light novels. It HAS to be a translation issue, because they all (even the good ones) have bad grammar and redundant word usage. As a blogger, I’ve become less and less tolerant of that kind of stuff, and honestly, it’s really bad that it’s coloring what’s supposed to be the core content I cover. 

Speaking of redundant, guess who doesn’t like any of the characters: me! Zenjirou is kind of okay; too okay! He’s smart and composed, which some critics would respect, but he doesn’t help make this series controversial enough. Aura isn’t the iron-fisted lady I was expecting either. I was hoping she was more dominant, but due to the in-universe sexism, she’s actually incredibly awkward. One scene implies that she is very physically strong, but due to the aforementioned sexism, I doubt she’ll be showcasing her strength too often. Another case of Sponger Life trying to be as ethical as possible is when they introduce a private tutor named Octavia, a wife of some noble guy from another nation who would—in ANY other setting—be sent to seduce Zenjirou because of politics. Hopefully that’ll come up in future volumes.

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Verdict: 7/10

I probably shouldn’t have let multiple years build up to something like this. The Ideal Sponger Life has all the setup for an incredibly sexy isekai, but ends up being extremely typical. I can only hope that things ramp up from here, or else it’ll be ANOTHER drop on my part.

SAO’s Unital Ring Arc is Off to an Overwhelmingly Okay Start

Fans and critics of the massive and iconic Sword Art Online franchise can easily agree that it’s been a wild ride. From waifus to gratuitous sex to inherent appeal to contrived B.S., it’s been a very fascinating series of ups and downs. With the anime caught up to Alicization, only one arc remains exclusively in light novel territory: Unital Ring (I’m pretty sure it’s the final arc, too). I would normally wait until it’s finished and cover it in one post (since individual volumes tend to make no progress), but I just HAD to get my first impressions out, since there’s a ghost of a chance that this one is actually good.

In Unital Ring, Kirito is hanging out in Alfeim with his waifus, Alice and Asuna, when they suddenly find themselves playing Minecraft. Like, literally, the game just changes to something completely different. Since their stats also get reset, Kirito is no longer Mr. Perfect… right?

The titular new game is, for all intents and purposes, the most well-realized in the series (which isn’t saying much but still). The game is very intuitive since it plays like Minecraft; you find resources and build stuff. However, SAO is SAO, and Unital Ring has some issues. While a large number of items can be instantly crafted through the menu, as to be expected, the game tries to capitalize on its “V.R.” gimmick and makes it so some things have to be crafted by hand. This would sound cool, but the problem is that you need real-world knowledge on how to make this stuff, and there isn’t exactly anything in the game that can teach you. 

Unital Ring also has a weight system, where items in your inventory will actually, well, weigh you down. While this does allow for some creative situations in combat of all things, since you could drop materials from high up and let gravity take care of the rest, I feel like this mechanic was created solely to make Kirito have to spend the early parts of this arc in only his underwear (i.e. “manservice”). 

This volume is, as expected, merely the characters getting acquainted with the game world and its basic mechanics. Beyond that, there’s no real plot progression. Bizarrely enough, this is probably one of the best volumes of the series. The only sexualization is of Kirito, and there’s relatively low exposition dumping. Since Unital Ring seems to be all wilderness, it at least doesn’t look like there’ll be any rape-faced villains in this arc. The volume ends with the introduction of a new character and a returning character whom I don’t remember at all, and since it’s a cliffhanger ending, they’re likely to be important moving forward in this arc.

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Verdict: 7/10

SAO has really grown up. It’s gone from tedious and pseudo-intellectual to just above average. Unital Ring might not be as impressive of a start as Alicization, but since this is the first entirely new arc (as opposed to the original web novel), Kawahara will be going into it from scratch as a full-fledged adult with an adult brain who might actually be uncomfortable with sexual assault as a plot device. Next time I post about SAO, it’ll be a review of Unital Ring from start to finish, so stay tuned for that!

Dungeon Busters: Pokémon Go But You Don’t Get Hit by a Car (Volume 1 Review)

I love myself some JRPGs (even if I don’t have time to play a lot of them anymore). The fantasy settings are (usually) very vibrant and pretty (I wish I could sleep in some of these settings), and you can hunt animals for money without having to worry about a mass extinction! Dungeon Busters brings the idea of living in a JRPG to our world.

In Dungeon Busters, a middle-aged salaryman named Kazuhiko Ezoe finds a dungeon in his backyard. When he enters, he initiates the “Dungeon System”, which will cause dungeons to appear all over the world. In eleven years, all the monsters of any uncleared dungeons will destroy all life on Earth. Kazuhiko is determined to clear all the dungeons and save the world.

Well… technically, he doesn’t clear all the dungeons himself. His goal is to grind up enough money to start funding his own organization to take down dungeons. As someone who likes JRPGs, it feels good to see Kazuhiko evolve and gain skills (and min-maxing, of course). The “game” mechanics are also very well thought-out. It is quite repetitive with exposition dumps, but that’s because Kazuhiko kind of has to reiterate it a lot in the context of the story; it shouldn’t be like this moving forward.

Like any incomprehensible phenomena that impacts the whole world, the dungeons get political. As you can expect, all of the governments of the world respond less efficiently than one man’s individual efforts. At the very least, they tackle the real-world impact of an infinite source of money and energy, ordinary humans being able to grow stronger than a pro wrestler, potions that can restore body parts, and other videogame tropes. The weird thing, however, is the fact that every nation except for Japan has a different name (also, the president of the U.S. is based off of Trump, which will very shortly make this series quite dated). This could be foreshadowing a twist, since the opening chapter shows the world—curiously enough—already being destroyed. What if Dungeon Busters IS an isekai, only it’s an alternate version of our own sekai?

As someone who’s read so many light novels, the writing of 99% of them feel exactly the same. Despite that, there’s a wild sense of variance in quality. Dungeon Busters doesn’t feel like it does any writing differently, but it’s more than sufficient for some reason. There is one problem, however: the P.O.V. changes are awful, sometimes switching into a minor character who never appears again. They also don’t show you who they’re changing into after the first time shifting to that character. 

Of course, it wouldn’t be an issue if the cast had personality, but sadly… that’s not the case. Kazuhiko is likeable enough at least. He’s down-to-earth, as to not come off as a sociopathic a-hole, but he at has some definable personality quirks; he’s very composed and utilitarian, always considering all the possibilities of the situation. Kazuhiko is essentially a chiller version of Seiya from Cautious Hero.

Dungeon Busters wouldn’t be a light novel without some controversy, and this leads into the inevitable harem. There is a card mechanic where you can summon monsters and items and stuff. The rarest type of card summons a girl straight out of one of those “waifu mobile games”, and Kazuhiko gets two of them. His first, Akane, is a sexy ninja girl who’s constantly trying to have sex with him. She’s at least a legal adult, but Emily, his other waifu card, looks like a twelve-year-old. Both of these girl cards only serve to discuss dungeon mechanics and be waifus. And it gets worse with Kazuhiko’s niece, Mari. She seems harmless enough; just your typical moe blob who exists just to pander. However, there is one scene that implies that she might have a crush on her forty-year-old uncle. 

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Verdict: 8.5/10

Finally, a decent light novel debut! Dungeon Busters isn’t perfect, but it at least has standards (ooooh, burn!). I’m curious to see what direction this thing goes in (and how much more political it’ll get). I recommend it to fans of DanMachi and slice-of-life fantasies.

Weeb Reads Monthly December 2020

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


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

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

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

Verdict: 6.5/10


May These Leaden Battlegrounds Leave No Trace Volume 2

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

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

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

Verdict: 7.2/10


DanMachi Volume 15

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

Verdict: 7.9/10


Infinite Dendrogram Volume 13

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

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

Verdict: 8.75/10


Otherside Picnic Volume 4

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

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

Verdict: 9.3/10


Conclusion

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

Soul: Pixar’s Most Existential Film

I’m not one of those vocal people who thinks things like “2020 is the year of suffering” because of the media’s scare tactics regarding COVID-19, and their ability to withhold anything legitimately positive. Despite me knowing the actual facts about COVID, it was hard on me as well. Even as someone who’s not active on social media, I am around a number of people who are, and they happen to only focus on one side of the story. So yeah, I’ve broken into tears at least once a week all year. Overly long preface aside, Pixar decided to give us a Christmas present: Soul. I didn’t know what it was about, but I had to see it.

Mild spoilers in this paragraph, if you have no idea what the movie is about. In Soul, a man named Joe Gardner dreams of playing jazz with the big boys—wait, wrong movie—some lady named Dorthea Williams. He manages to land a gig, but dies on the way over to the venue. Now that he’s in purgatory, he’s gotta find a way back into his body. And his only ticket is in a literal wayward soul named Twenty-Two, who wants nothing to do with life.

Boy, this movie is sure… something else. First off, it’s definitely a twist for Disney to have a movie about one of its many, many, MANY deceased characters instead of someone who’s, well, alive. It’s kind of hilarious, actually. In any case, Pixar’s interpretation of the afterworld is more than just a world of never ending happiness where the sun shines both day and night; it’s that usual Pixar sense of imagination. Also, this movie shows just how much more lenient we’ve become with cursing in front of kids. They say the words “hell” and “crap”, which were more than enough to earn you a trip to the former back when I was a kid. Well, Disney was also the first to depict a clergyman and humanity itself in villainous roles in animated media, so… yeah.

Soul has your usual Pixar magic in terms of the storytelling. It knows how to bounce between being hilarious and emotional without feeling inorganic. This one knows how to hammer in the feels, but it gets bizarrely terrifying at times. It’s not outright horror; think along the lines of one of those psychological indie games like Arise: A Simple Story

Like any Disney or Pixar movie, Soul is definitely not new in terms of social commentary. Not to spoil it, but the takeaway is definitely something you’ve seen before, unless you’re literally the target demographic of the movie and have never seen it before. Once again, it’s something that anyone can relate to. Unfortunately, due to the fact that we HAVE to go to work and pay our bills, Soul‘s message will probably be forgotten as easily as the other times the message has been communicated.

The characters are some of the better in Pixar’s filmography. Joe Gardner is an interesting case, not just because he dies, but because he’s the oldest lead protagonist I’ve seen in a Disney animated feature. Given the nature of the movie, his journey is a bit more spiritual than most Disney flicks; definitely keeping up the trend of abandoning the tired “good vs. evil” themes of their past. As you can expect, his father is dead. Big surprise for Disney. But honestly, I feel like this is the first time a Disney parent’s death actually meant something to the plot since Bambi. That’s something at least.

Other than Joe, we have the aforementioned Twenty-Two, who’s the sarcastic and rambunctious type. She and Joe end up learning the same life lesson through each other. Running purgatory is/are a bizarre being named Jerry, along with what serves as the main antagonist: Terry. They’re pretty deadpan, but have some of the better lines in the movie. 

I shouldn’t even bother discussing visuals because Pixar pretty much always nails it. Soul is simply stunning, as good at looking both photorealistic and undeniably cartoony as any Pixar film. The movie does, at least, showcase some of the most abstract and experimental visuals I’ve seen in their entire career. Soul honestly feels like a Pixar short but as a feature film instead. I’d say that they did a great job considering COVID separated the whole team, but this movie was probably in post production since 2018.

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

Soul is one of the best Pixar movies I’ve ever seen. Everything about it is impeccably executed, and is definitely what the doctor ordered for this year. I recommend Soul if you want a straight-up great movie, especially if you’re a Disney fan.

And P.S.: Disney, can you please do the whole “release movies on Disney+ the same day they would’ve come out in theatres” more often, maybe forever?

Chainsaw Man: Too Seinen for Shounen Jump?!

It’s no secret that Weekly Shounen Jump has not had the best run in the late 2010s. The newest manga by Naruto’s author got axed, among MANY other 2019 and 2020 debuts. And when they actually had a good series, it would either end off on a bad note (Shokugeki no Soma), or one of its writers would end up being a felon (ACT-AGE). But one series managed to be a standout franchise until the bitter end: Chainsaw Man, published in English by Viz. I gave it a good word in my First Impressions. Let’s see if it’s held out.

In Chainsaw Man, a dreg named Denji makes a living by hunting devils, with the help of a chainsaw-dog-devil named Pochita. But “makes a living” can be read as “barely scraping by”, for he’s shouldering a serious debt from his late father. However, when he’s almost cut to pieces, he fuses with Pochita and becomes a chainsaw man, after which he is taken under the wing of Makima, a beautiful girl from an official team of devil hunters.

Chainsaw Man is, for the most part, a very straightforward manga. The plot is very traditional shounen at first: bad guy appears, kill it, then wait for the next one. Denji’s heart becomes a major MacGuffin, but we aren’t informed of why for a pretty long time. Things heat up in the second half, and by the final third, it goes absolutely berserk with insanity.

What makes Chainsaw Man a great manga is its characters. The mangaka takes common shounen tropes and puts a seinen twist on them with Denji and the people around him. Denji himself seems to be a generic, self-insert shounen protagonist, but he’s more complicated than that. He’s very attracted to women, but he at least tries to maintain his feelings for Makima, despite the amount of other beautiful women who tempt him. I don’t like using the word “human” to describe a character, but it’s done exceptionally well with Denji. He’s an innocent kid thrust into an adult world, and his simple-mindedness made me sympathize with him.

The other thing is that the women in his life subvert common conventions as well, especially with Makima. Us readers are informed very early on of how suspicious she is. But Denji doesn’t know any of it, and he’s naively in love with her. Unfortunately, she takes advantage of his love for her to essentially exploit him, which I think is a great commentary on the idea of waifus in general. 

Of course, Makima ain’t crap compared to Best Girl Power. She’s just… effing awesome. She’s like the best friend that you’re so close to that you just start busting each other’s chops. Her chemistry with Denji is one of the best I’ve seen in all of Jump. Sadly, I didn’t really care for the rest of the protagonists. For one, I forgot a lot of their names, which is a bad sign for me. Fortunately, the antagonists are as fun as they are plentiful. They have some of the more memorable character designs and personalities, especially compared to the supporting protagonists. 

Somehow, I went almost the entire review without discussing exactly why Chainsaw Man is big (or would be if it weren’t for Kimetsu no Yaiba). Weekly Shounen Jump has some cute girls with cleavage, but that’s usually about it; the magazine is for early-teens kids after all. Chainsaw Man, however, has R18+ stuff; pretty much everything except for female private parts are shown. The manga is full of extremely visceral gore, and one character just straight-up asks Denji if he wants to have sex. The fact that something like this ran in Jump is insane.

That’s where my biggest gripe with Chainsaw Man lies. Its whole thing is that it’s very mature for a Jump manga. But the thing is—and the reason why I’m posting this so soon—that Chainsaw Man is getting a part two in Shounen Jump+, home to a lot of seinen series, from Jigokuraku to World’s End Harem. As a result, Chainsaw Man loses the one thing that makes it stand out from its ilk. This was probably inevitable because, you know, minors.

Anyhow, the artwork is fantastic. It’s rough, and dirty, with some phenomenal action scenes, and a surprising amount of abstract panels late in the series. The managaka is also able to contrast such insanity with some genuinely heartfelt and emotional scenes. It’s going to be so sad to see this twisted beauty dumbed down in the upcoming anime.

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Final Verdict: 9.15/10

Chainsaw Man is one of my favorite Jump manga of the 2010s. It’s over-the-top, with a lot of quirky characters, and a very alluring charm. Seriously, how in the world did Kimetsu no Yaiba beat this?! I highly recommend Chainsaw Man to anyone who likes their battle shounen super dark and edgy. Hopefully, if Viz licenses the sequel, I’ll be doing a post or two on that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Daily Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Deadly Life

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

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

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

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

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

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


Stressful Life

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

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

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

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Current (Possibly Final) Verdict: 9.5/10

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

Vampires? Dystopia? Teen Angst? The Bloodline is Practically a YA Novel! (Volume 1 Review)

Sometimes it’s hard to write an intro. As I said in my review of Unnamed Memory, I’ve been disappointed with the new light novel releases pretty much all year. No one seemed to look forward to The Bloodline, published in English by J-Novel Club. And as someone who rarely posts about something popular, it seemed like a fitting choice for me. 

In The Bloodline, the world is ruled by vampires who feed off the common people’s blood. In the middle of some festival or whatever, a boy named Nagi breaks into some house and finds a girl named Saya. He saves her for no particular reason, and chaos ensues.

Sadly, there’s not much to say about the story thus far. The Bloodline is very generic across the board. Not only is it a typical “rob from the poor to feed the rich” dystopia (complete with vampires as if this was some YA novel), but it’s also a wish fulfilment fantasy. In about 30 pages, Saya thinks to herself: “I want to be with this boy.” I mean, sure, he saved you. But to be in love with him so impulsively? Not even Disney does it this fast anymore.

Time for me to sound like a broken record again. I don’t like the characters, not a single one of them! So far, Nagi is a typical whiny self-insert, and Saya is a typical damsel in distress. Keele is Nagi’s snarky brother, and this girl named Tess is the third wheel. I don’t even remember the names of everyone else, but they’re about as plastic as the rest of the cast.

But even with all these issues, The Bloodline is at least better than what I have read recently. Although the writing is about as negligent at describing people and places as a lot of light novels, the pacing and momentum is solid. There is some good entertainment value here, and honestly, that’s all I could ask for these days. Also, they don’t dump all of the lore on you at once in the beginning.

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Verdict: 7.75/10

Maybe I’m just desperate, but I actually have hope for The Bloodline. As bland as the story is idea-wise, it still appeared to be pretty well thought out by light novel standards. It’s no masterpiece at this juncture, but it could become close to one if it’s given enough love over time. If you like edgy dystopian novels, then this one’s for you.

Unnamed Memory is as Shoujo as it Gets (Volume 1 Review)

I feel like the light novel game hasn’t been strong lately, at least from the English-publication perspective. To be honest, WATARU!!! is the only new series that got me excited. And while I don’t mind having less titles to worry about, I still enjoy having new ones to look forward to. There are two new titles left on my list this month that seem promising, and today’s post covers the first: Unnamed Memory, published in English by Yen Press.

In Unnamed Memory, a Prince named Oscar Farsas has been cursed to where his boys can no longer swim without drowning. Since he’s an only child, he has to alleviate the curse or his family line ends. To do this, he visits Tinasha, the Witch of Azure. She says that she can’t undo the curse, but a woman with a uterus immune to the curse (apparently?) can birth his kid just fine. Oscar immediately proposes to Tinasha, and is rejected. But since he climbed her tower, she has to do something, and that something is to live with him while pretending to be an apprentice.

Does this light novel seem shoujo to you? Well, it is. This is one of those where the strapping young man sweeps the tsundere girl off her feet. However, this one takes its sweet ol’ time. That sounds all well and good, but there’s still a lot of the dumb shoujo clichés that make me want to rip my hair out.

This volume is all over the place, as it tries to set up multiple things at once with no rhyme or reason. For example, the second chapter is a literal murder case, and there are these very blatantly suspicious people at the scene of the crime (who, of course, knew that the crime was going to be committed before it even happened). The case itself is resolved very lackadaisically, as if it was just a Saturday morning visit to the park.

Because of this, I have no idea where the priority lies with the story. The murder case isn’t all that’s resolved super fast. They build up to this big ancient demon from a war that suspiciously happened at the same time that the Farsas family got cursed, and they just do away with it like it’s no big deal. It almost reminds me of Sailor Moon, which is actually a bad thing because I wholeheartedly dislike that series. 

Surprise, surprise, guess who didn’t like the characters whatsoever? Me! Oscar felt like a weird combination of genuinely caring for Tinasha while also being sexist? Based on the premise, you’d think she’d be the dominant member of the relationship, but nope, he still has to think he needs to swoop in and save her ass (but it doesn’t matter because their both overpowered protagonists). And to top it all off, he proposes to her on a daily basis and it’s ridiculously annoying. 

Tinasha is, so far, a cookie-cutter tsundere. Her identity gets revealed super early, which I can at least appreciate, but the fact that she’s accepted by everyone quite easily makes the whole thing seem pointless. The other characters are as “kinda just there” as any peanut gallery, and a lot of them are introduced quite suddenly.

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Verdict: 6.75/10

Unnamed Memory is a decent shoujo series I guess, but as someone who really doesn’t like shoujo, I can’t say I enjoyed even a lick of it. I’m not likely to commit to this series, but maybe you’ll like it if you’re a romance junkie.