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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Current (Possibly Final) Verdict: 7/10

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

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

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

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

The Pandava Novels: Rick Riordan Presents’ Wildly Inconsistent First Series

Rick Riordan’s new publishing imprint, Rick Riordan Presents, is a great chance for other cultures to shine in the arbitrarily all-important spotlight of American popular culture. It all started with Roshani Chokshi’s Pandava series. Is it a good first impression, or is it a hollow Percy Jackson knockoff? 

The Pandava novels begin  when the titular Aru Shah accidentally releases a villain named the Sleeper from a magic lamp in her mother’s museum. Fortunately, it turns out that she’s the reincarnation of one of five famous Pandava warriors, and she’s gotta go on a quest to whoop his booty before the Sleeper makes a big mess out of existence itself.

The writing of Pandava is a mixed bag. While the dialogue is fantastic (well, it’s fantastic if you like nonstop mainstream pop culture references), the descriptiveness of setpieces is a bit bare-bones, even if the ideas themselves show some level of passion and creativity. The action is exciting, which is at least something it has over the Storm Runner series. 

The characters are where Chokshi put most of the eggs into the basket, and they’re great, perhaps comparable to Percy Jackson’s cast. While Aru is a bit generic, everyone else is a real hoot. Her Pandava sister, Mini, is hilarious, due to her infinite knowledge of ways that they could die. Brynne is the typical, hot-headed, older-sister type, but she’s got a plethora of snide remarks to compliment her muscle. Brynn, introduced in book two, is a tomboy with some decent one-liners. Unfortunately, the weakest link ends up being the final two Pandavas: twins named Sheela and Nika. They occasionally move the plot forward, but when it comes to legwork, they do virtually nothing (and also have no personality).

The character who really won me over was Aiden, introduced in book two. As one of two lead male protagonists, he is super nonchalant, and he never fails to snap a cool pic with his camera, Shadowfax, regardless of the urgency of their situation. The other guyfriend is a naga prince named Rudy, who is as funny as his love for himself.

Sadly, that’s where the positives end. Oftentimes I found some aspects of Pandava to be… iffy. For starters, I felt like Chokshi was more concerned about putting as many characters from mythos in Pandava as possible. I get the excitement of wanting to share your culture with audiences, but cohesion comes first. If I was writing a book like this, I would’ve come up with the story first, then used my research to figure out which characters from mythos could appear at any given time.

There are also many, MANY times that Chokshi infodumps the actual tale of the folklore character instead of, you know, actually giving them a real character arc in the story. In doing this, she also fails to use the reliable technique of making us fall for plot twists through justified lying by omission. At least two developments are easily telegraphed because she tells us literally everything about them all too soon. In context, it’s probably meant to be a cruel irony; a major theme of the series tries to be how these characters don’t want to do what legends foretell and end up doing it anyway. However, I feel like that’s simply a poor excuse to use a smooth-brain twist on par with a Saturday morning cartoon.

While we’re on the topic of the characters from legend, i.e. what’s supposed to make us interested in the series to begin with, let’s talk about how awful they are. They are like Rick Riordan’s trope of “gods who could solve the problem but don’t” on steroids. They’re not only cynical and mean, but I forgot half of them over the course of me reading this series since 2019. Also, where was Best Girl Kali? You’d think that someone as mainstream-savvy as Chokshi would use one of the more iconic Hindu gods, but nope. Apparently that, of all things, would be selling out.

Another flaw is that I felt like Pandava got heavy-handed. From book two onward, Chokshi tried an interesting take on the portrayal of the antagonists of Hindu mythology, and created a morally ambiguous story. While the attempt is pretty good, the problem was how the results were handled, if that makes any sense. Basically, what I’m saying is that there are frequent instances of the narration itself telling the reader what questions they should be asking instead of letting them figure it out from context. I don’t know if Chokshi or the editors or someone else made this choice, but it definitely was a choice that comes off as undermining the intelligence of children. I’m sorry, but that’s something I cannot stand. Kids might be “dumb” at times, but that’s because of the many adults who numb their minds (and give them social media accounts).

And honestly, I felt like it went downhill from there (hot take, I know). There is just so much padding thanks to these numerous “trials” that keep getting shoved down the kids’ throats. With each book, I just cared less and less. And yes, it persists into the final book. Not gonna lie, I only resolved to finish Pandava because I wanted to roast the series on the Internet.

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Final Verdict: 7.5/10

The Pandava series is… fine. It has good humor, sometimes solid writing, and a metric-ton of love for itself and Hindu mythology. It’s just not the awesome thing that Riordan and a lot of people say it is. Like, have I been reading an alternate crappy version of it? At times, it’s ham-fisted, conceited, and has some annoying, smooth-brain plot developments. It would’ve been a rock solid trilogy, but as a quintet, it’s a slog. There’s no harm in reading Pandava, but I feel like it’s overall a net loss of time. 

Anyway, with that, I’m off to Disney AGAIN! Next post will be on May 7th, and it’s gonna be a doozie!

Turning Red: Kung-Fu Panda But Wholesome

Full transparency: Pixar’s Turning Red was the studio’s first movie since Toy Story 4 that I did NOT want to see. I know that they generally undersell their masterpieces in the trailer, but Turning Red didn’t even LOOK like a Pixar movie. The idea, the character design, the inclusion of at least one famous popstar in the music… It looked like Blue Sky Studios, or any of the non-Disney studios whose movies tend to ONLY appeal to kids. However, with the war going on, there is a chance this could be Pixar’s last movie ever made, on account of the possibility that we’re all going to be vaporized in a nuclear explosion. Also, these movies—regardless of quality—are important to support the Disney industries that I truly care about (that and the fact that I do not use Disney+ often enough). Let’s see if Turning Red describes what my face looks like after watching it!

In Turning Red, Meilin Lee enjoys a quaint life in Toronto, Canada. Unfortunately, she has the classic case of overbearing parent. Oh, and the classic case of turning into a red panda during heightened states of duress.

So… despite all my build up to a negative review, I ended up having my words eaten pretty thoroughly. Right off the bat, Turning Red has a lot of personality, from anime-like flourish, to watching Mei’s dad cook dinner. It also has the level of humor expected from Pixar; whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to your discretion.

Of course, the actual plot is more straightforward than a Saturday morning cartoon. When I said that the idea wasn’t interesting, I meant it. Turning Red is a classic story of a girl with an overbearing parent who inevitably learns to accept herself for who she is. The main “MacGuffin” is a K-Pop concert that Mei wants to attend without her mom’s permission (I know that band is multinational, but I don’t care; boy band=K-Pop). 

I don’t want to sound pretentious here, but I have to mention something that I’m pretty damn sure EVERY review of the movie will be incredibly hoity-toity about: Pixar acknowledges periods. This is the first time in the studio’s history, and it has absolutely no bearing on the quality of the movie to me. Maybe my opinion would be different if I was an actual woman, but I digress. Of course these days, when people have to constantly vomit their humanity to the world, this minor thing that comes up twice in whole movie is way more important than any of the other content.

The cast of Turning Red is as Pixar as you can expect. We already discussed Mei, but the real stars are her friends: Miriam, Priya, and Abby. Packing quirky personalities of their own, their chemistry with Mei is priceless. The mom is, more-or-less, the antagonist of the movie. If you’ve seen her type of character trope before, then you can probably guess how her arc resolves. However, the real MVP is the dad. He has one scene with Mei, and he basically tells her what’s important in life. If he had done it sooner, then a large portion of the conflict of the movie would have never had to transpire. Classic Saturday morning cartoon tropes.

If there is anything negative that I can actually say (other than the generic idea), it’s the setting. Canada is a really lovely place (at least according to its pavilion in EPCOT), but it’s really easy to forget that Turning Red is set in Canada at all. If it rained even one time, I would’ve assumed it was in Seattle. In fact, the movie frequently shows the Canadian flag on T-shirts and stuff, as if they knew you’d forget. In all honesty, I’m just salty that they didn’t set it in Quebec, where the beautiful French architecture is.

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Final Verdict: 8.75/10

Turning Red was way the heck better than I thought it would be. It’s a fun and cute movie to tide us over until Lightyear comes out. It’s no masterpiece like Soul, but it at least has some soul. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Final Verdict: 9.85/10

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

Pokémon Legends: Arceus — Gotta Catch ‘Em All (About Twenty Times Each)!

Pokémon has not had a good run on Switch, and I of course mean that in terms of public consensus, because I still enjoy the series as is. People hated Let’s Go!, Sword and Shield, and the Sinnoh Remakes. Well, given the marginally better reception that the Mystery Dungeon remakes and New Pokémon Snap got, it looks like spin-offs are the way to go. Wow, that only supports my comparison of this series to Star Wars. Anyway, since I’m committed enough to follow this series into the fires of hell, I pre-ordered Pokémon Legends: Arceus with NO knowledge about it beyond the blurbs on Nintendo Switch News. Did I make a big mistake?

In Pokémon Legends: Arceus, the titular god of the universe speaks to you, and challenges you to seek it out (after giving you a slick new smartphone of course). With no clue what the hell is going on, you are plopped out of a rift in the space-time continuum and into a mysterious region called Hisui. The Pokémon Professor finds you immediately, and helps you get recruited to the Survey Corp. of… Team Galactic?! 

Okay, before we address that Mamoswine in the room, allow me to—for the first time in Pokémon’s life on the Switch—gush at the game’s visuals. Okay, well, maybe “gush” isn’t the right word; some areas, such as caves, look absolutely abysmal, and there are draw distance problems. However, when the game looks good, it looks real good. Pokémon Legends: Arceus borrows from Zelda, and makes a very picturesque world. In each region, Mt. Coronet—and the rift you fell out of—wait in the distance, and I find it awe-inspiring to look at. Also, this game has one of the best skyboxes I’ve seen in a long time; sometimes I just love looking up and vibing. 

Now that that diversion is over, we can finally talk about what’s going on in Hisui—or rather—Sinnoh. This region is the Sinnoh of the distant past, back when humans were first studying Pokémon. Team Galactic is actually good this time around! Anyway, the plot is pretty straightforward, but I love it. The reason behind it is quite simply the fact that we really haven’t gotten to experience the ancient Pokémon world firsthand. We get to learn so much about Pokémon lore, and as a long-time fan, it makes me fan-gush. There’s a chance that some stuff was retconned, but you could chalk it up to historical stuff having been lost to time.

The most important part of this being set in the past is that the Jubilife City of old looks a lot like Eurekatek; and that means Japanese culture! Kimonos are in fashion, and almost everyone has Japanese names. This even extends to the U.I. and the music (including the best evolution animation I have ever seen). If you couldn’t tell, my final score for this game will be biased.

Another thing I love about the story is the potential for this to be a full-on spinoff franchise. The Pokémon world has so much lore that’s only been alluded to in books, it would be so amazing to experience the franchise’s history using this game’s system. However, since Pokémon Snap took twenty years to get a sequel, we probably shouldn’t count on that.

Let’s talk about the characters next. Your main character is, as always, mute. Fortunately, no one else is. Professor Laverton will never be Oak, but he’s a pretty cool guy. Team Galactic has several captains, and the one you’ll report to is Cyrelle; let’s just say you can tell that her descendants will inherit her stoicness. We also have the Diamond and Pearl clans, two indigenous tribes who worship opposing gods (hm I wonder what Pokémon those would be). As cool as a lot of this stuff sounds on paper, I must admit that they have pretty basic tropes. There is character development, but most of it boils down to the Saturday morning cartoon arc of “really dense people learn that they shouldn’t be so dense.”

There are several things that Pokémon Legends: Arceus promises, and we’re going to need to go over all of them one at a time. Let’s start at Jubilife Village. This quaint little place has all the facilities you need. There’s crafting in this game, which is pretty self-explanatory. Pastures function as the PC, but this time, releasing Pokémon gives you EV-manipulating items. This swole lady named Zisu can help teach Pokémon new moves as well as master existing ones (more on that mechanic in a bit). She can also help you farm more of those same EV-manipulating items. You have to worry about inventory space, but you can upgrade it via training with the puntastically named Bagin. Crafting is an important mechanic for creating essential items, and while at the village (or a campsite), this can be done with the items in your storage.

You also—FINALLY—get dedicated sidequests. Obviously, these are worth doing. Also, make sure you hop into Galactic HQ to check Laverton’s bulletin board for requests. There’s a LOT of them, and doing them is very helpful. Some of them contribute to upgrading Jubilife, while others count toward a specific entry in the Pokédex. The latter ones are my favorite because it actually shows how people discovered a lot of well-known Pokémon facts for the first time.

When exiting Jubilife, you can travel to any unlocked region in Hisui, which is its own, self-contained area. Pokémon Legends: Arceus isn’t truly open-world, but these areas are expansive enough to feel like it, full of Pokémon and resources. As you progress, you unlock Ride Pokémon with all sorts of field abilities. Hisui’s overworld kinda-sorta falls into the realm of overly large and empty. However, I never really got mad at that, since there was some good variety in geography. They at least learned their lesson from Galar’s Wild Areas. 

Also, there’s actually stuff to do besides grinding (although you’ll be doing a fair share of that for completion), although most of it doesn’t open up right away. There are over one hundred ghostly wisps to find throughout the world… and series veterans would know exactly what they’re associated with. It’s more doable than Breath of the Wild’s nine hundred Korok Seeds, plus they are very easy to notice from afar at night. In addition to that, each form of Unown is hidden in a specific place, waiting to be caught. AND ON TOP OF THAT, there are Old Verses buried in the ground that need to be unearthed with the Ride Pokémon who can dig. Every so often, a Pokémon outbreak will occur, although it doesn’t tend to spawn anything exclusive to that area.

Here’s another fun fact: THERE’S STILL MORE TO FIND! One repeatable mechanic is the ability to find the satchels of people who have died in the overworld. I assume that you’re meant to have a Nintendo Switch Online feature to do this, but when offline, the game consistently spawns enough NPC satchels for you to find. Turning them in gives you Merit Points, which can be redeemed for exclusive items, including every evolutionary stone and trade evolution item. Also new are Linking Cords, which are a very welcome addition to the franchise. These will trigger any trade-based evolution without having to do any trading (hear that, fellow introverts? We can finally get Pokémon like Gengar!). This also applies to items like the Metal Coat and Reaper Cloth.

But wait, THERE’S MORE! One of the coolest and most terrifying mechanics is the Space-Time Distortion. Every so often, one of these will spawn in a set location in each region, affecting the area within. Once inside, you can find a load of rare items, such as Shards. However, more often than not, you’ll find many exclusive Pokémon. Here comes the rub: those Pokémon tend to be overleveled for the area, and spawn out of nowhere in large groups. It’s risk-vs-reward, baby!

A LOT of mechanics have been changed… and I mean that literally. Catching Pokémon is one of the biggest ones. Like in more recent games, they appear in the overworld, but they actually react to you this time. Sometimes, they flee, but most of them want to eat your face. When spotted, you’ll have to physically avoid their attacks. Unlike the main games, tall grass is your friend, for it hides you from the critters’ sight. You’ll also need to manually aim and throw Poké Balls, and your range will vary depending on their weight. Using berries to lure Pokémon, and hitting them from behind, greatly increases your catch rate, which always has a little visual indicator (green is the best odds). 

However, if you have to fight, throw one of your teammates at your challenger (the back attack technique stuns the opponent for a turn, which is really useful). In combat, the series more-or-less conforms to the traditional turn-based battle system. You can use items and try to catch Pokémon, under the same rules as before. This is where things get complicated. Speed works in an entirely different way than before. In addition to governing who goes first in battle, it also works like attack delay in Trails of Cold Steel; basically, some moves can increase the time it takes for your turn to come around. Conversely, priority moves will make your turn come around faster. If fast enough, a Pokémon can attack twice in a row, which is huge. Combat is the fastest it’s been in a long time, simply because they play battle animations AND textboxes at the same time. They also stop their nagging you about the weather; although that won’t help people who aren’t familiar with the series’ mechanics.

Priority moves aren’t the only change; in fact, the whole meta is basically changed. For starters, stat modifications are simplified, with both offensive and defensive stats able to be changed at once. For example, Sword Dance is for both Atk and Sp Atk… however, it doesn’t give +2 (in fact, I don’t even think there are stages to stat boosts this time around). Flinch doesn’t exist, and Sleep is replaced with Drowsiness, which is basically Paralysis but with an additional defense debuff. Entry-hazard moves now have 40 base power, and do residual damage over time based on Type effectiveness. Most importantly: ABILITIES AND HELD ITEMS DO NOT EXIST. By the way, this is just the tip of the iceberg with how changed the mechanics are.

There are two new aspects to moves that I absolutely love, and will dearly miss in subsequent Pokémon games. The first and most important thing is how moves are learned. Like in a traditional JRPG, all Pokémon moves are permanently remembered, and can freely be assigned as the Pokémon’s active attacks however you wish (have run REMEMBERING to do that). Another thing is that Pokémon can master moves as they level up. When mastered, you can use it in a Strong or Agile Style. These effects are pretty self-explanatory; more damage for increased delay, and less damage for decreased delay.

Since no one has been to this region before, there’s actually a reason for the Pokédex to be empty this time. As such, you have as good of an idea of what a Pokémon’s entry is as Laverton himself. To essentially build the Pokédex from scratch, you must accomplish research tasks for EVERY Pokémon. This includes catching multiple specimens, defeating them with certain types of moves, seeing them use certain moves, and more. This gets REALLY grindy. Fortunately, you don’t have to do all of it to fulfill the research requirements. Getting enough of these tasks done will contribute to raising your status in Team Galactic. These work like Gym Badges, so you better do that if you want more Pokémon than just the very first ones you ever find. The annoying thing with this mechanic is that your monetary payments are based on Pokémon caught, regardless of how much research you’ve done. Fortunately, there are other ways to get money, such as occasionally finding Stardusts and such in ore deposits.

Despite not being a Gen IX (that’s going to be later this year), there are a couple of new faces in Pokémon Legends: Arceus. One of the most iconic ones is Stantler’s evolution, Wyrdeer. In addition to new evolutions, there are new regional variants, such as Growlithe and Zorua. Each starter has a regional variant, in fact. Some of the new evolutions, such as the aforementioned Wyrdeer, are about as obtuse as recent Pokémon have gotten. However, the Research Notes know how to nudge you toward finding the conditions organically, as opposed to every main Pokémon game that isn’t Black and White 2.

Nuzlockes have become the new standard in Pokémon, so I doubt the community will ever concede that a new Pokémon game is difficult in its base state. However, Pokémon Legends: Arceus is probably the hardest that we’ll have for a while. As mentioned before, a lot of Pokémon want you dead; you can actually DIE. Fortunately, you have safety nets. An old lady sells charms that can help you survive, one of which is consumed in place of your inventory upon death. 

In any case, this game really taught me how terrifying Pokémon can be. Something as puny as Stunky can rain missiles of poison from the sky just like that… and it only gets worse from there. You also have to worry about Alpha Pokémon. They’re basically the Unique Monsters from Xenoblade Chronicles, and tend to be very overleveled. If you can catch one, though, it’ll be pretty helpful, since it knows rare moves right off the bat. 

There are also boss fights to account for, and I don’t mean Trainer fights (although there are some Trainer fights on occasion). The actual boss fights are against Noble Pokémon; beings worshiped by the local Hisuians. Strange happenings have made them go berserk, and you need to feed them a crap-ton of food to calm them down. In these fights, you must avoid their attacks, and figure out the strategy to stun them. Once you do that, you fight it in a Pokémon battle, and when you win that, they’ll be stunned further, and are open to a barrage of tasty treats. The fights are very straightforward, but are actually quite stressful because it’s pretty much programmed that you can barely dodge out of the way of their attacks. 

Okay… maybe I’m overselling it. Pokémon Legends: Arceus will not provide the challenge that the fandom wants out of the base-game mechanics. As long as you don’t overextend yourself by going into overleveled areas, there really isn’t any danger. Also, your Ride Pokémon can generally outspeed any Pokémon that wants to chase you out in the overworld; by endgame, they become more of an annoyance. Dodging, like in many games, gives you i-frames. It’s incredibly easy to become overleveled if you go after research tasks and optional stuff, but conversely, doing that too infrequently can make you dangerously underleveled. Due to the lack of many Trainer battles, wild Pokémon are your main source of XP. 

Because of that reason, I didn’t really feel like I had a team, compared to main Pokémon games. As I said before, there are next to no Trainer battles, and the open-ended world design allows you to traverse areas quickly, especially as you earn more Ride Pokémon. It is what it is, though.

As with any Pokémon game, Arceus has a truck-load of post-game… and it’s meaty, that’s for sure. In fact, this is one of those cases where the post-game is the true conclusion of the story. It opens up a lot of new Pokémon, and if you have save data from Pokémon Sword and Shield, you can catch Shaymin. Of course, the new objective is to catch these Pokémon and make the long grind to complete the Pokédex. And lemme tell you… it’s a real grind. While it’s not too tough to complete a Pokémon’s entry, the last hurdle to the maximum Team Galactic rank is insane; you pretty much have to complete more research tasks than what you need. Also, I don’t know about you, but a lot of Pokémon seemed arbitrarily elusive to me (*cough* Cherrim *cough*). Fortunately, one of the best aspects of the post-game is something that the main series desperately needs: being able to obtain the other two starters without having to trade for them!

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Final Verdict: 9.45/10

Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a massive leap in the right direction for Pokémon. In fact, I’m not technically finished with it yet; due to what I said in my post from last week, it’s more realistic for me to try to go for completion in this game, but it’d probably be next year if I waited until then to upload this post! My willingness to attempt Pokédex completion shows how much I loved it, although I will be very salty if they don’t continue to build off of what Arceus sets up. I recommend it to any Pokémon fan who needs a change of pace, and possibly, to other gamers who couldn’t get into Pokémon in the first place.

Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End is Exactly What it Says on the Tin (First Impressions, Volumes 1 & 2)

The combination of slice-of-life and fantasy seems to be a dream come true; basically, it’s a look at everyday life in a fantasy world, which is probably what a lot of us want. However, I’ve only seen it as a recipe for disaster. They’re slow, with boring characters, and fetishize women as much as any trashy isekai. Despite this, I had high hopes for the popular new manga, Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End

In Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End, the titular elf and her entourage have just defeated the Demon King. In the aftermath, they go their separate ways. Years later, and Frieren’s comrades die of old age, while Frieren still looks the same. 

Unlike other manga of this type, Frieren at least tries. In case you couldn’t tell, the main theme of the manga is death, which is particularly poignant through an elf’s perspective. Almost eighty years pass in the first volume alone, and the abruptness of the timeskips shows how little time that is to Frieren. More on that little aspect of the story later.

The main goal for Frieren is to head to the now-former site of the Demon King’s castle to perform a séance that’ll allow her to speak to one of her companions, Himmel, from beyond the grave. Because of this, the bulk of the manga is the typical, episodic, slice-of-life—well—slices that permeate this type of story to—well—permeate. Here comes the transparent honesty: I didn’t enjoy a lot of Frieren.

One reason is that I just simply don’t understand the theme of death. Of all the things humans have made overly complicated in this world, death remains the one, objective, simple truth. To quote what I’m sure is an old meme: “people die when they are killed.” While I do get the whole thing about Frieren not really knowing her old companions well enough during her original journey with them, I didn’t exactly care. Also, despite death being such a time-honored topic, it really doesn’t get to be as poignant as you’d think; a lot of the time, it just boils down to a running joke where someone says something in reference to a long passage of time and Frieren commenting on how it isn’t long at all. 

Something I will give the manga is that the demons are cut-and-dry cruel. They’re so cruel, that they trick people by playing the waifu/husbando card to gain humans’ trust, and then turn around to kill even more people. However, there’s a flipside to this. Once you learn this information, any plot twist to the effect of “the evil-looking guy was evil the whole time?!” is no longer a plot twist but something you’re made to expect. 

Slice-of-life is all about laid-back, grounded, nuanced characters. Even as someone who doesn’t always get hooked on this genre, part of me wonders if the cast of Frieren even qualifies by said genre’s standards (which they clearly do since people LOVE this manga). Frieren herself is basically a deadpan loli who cries a whopping one time at the beginning and then remains deadpan for the rest of the two volumes I read. She’s supposed to learn the meaning of life by watching everyone die of old age, which is another one of those weird human quirks that I don’t get at all. Also, it’s very explicitly explained that she’s insanely powerful, which makes any instances of action in the manga completely moot.

Her former companions basically have the same tired tropes, and this being their aftermath doesn’t really make them less tropey. The other lead protagonist is a fledgling mage named Fern who, well, exists. She learns magic, and gets really good at it. Say it with me: “Which means any instances of action in the manga are completely moot!”

To add to how flat Frieren feels, the art is flat as well. The setpieces are your typical Game of Thrones-type world which can easily be mistaken for medieval Europe if you take out the elves and dwarves. Also, the character designs are just… meh. Not even the demons look particularly sexy, which is really saying something.

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Current Verdict: 7/10

I really wanted to love Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End, but these two volumes didn’t sit well with me. It’s a case similar to Horimiya, where it takes a viewpoint of the human condition that I—as a man with autism—do not feel. Even with that being the case, there’s probably better you can do. 

The Night is Short, Walk on Girl: Monogatari But It’s Heavily Under the Influence

I read and wrote a review of the standalone Japanese novel, The Night is Short, Walk on Girl, a long time ago. It was a month before the lockdown that changed all of us. Now, what feels like a lifetime later, I found myself watching The Night is Short, Walk on Girl‘s 2017 movie adaptation, since it was on HBO Max. One of the reasons is that I reread my review of the novel, and realized that it was god-awful. My opinion on the work will probably remain unchanged, but I want to give a more professional dissertation all the same. Also, one thing I didn’t mention in the book review is that I had a bad feeling about it even before going into it. Back in the old days of MyAnimeList, the movie was often paired with Monogatari and the like as a profound and mind-blowing examination of the human condition; the kind of “elitist” stuff that you can’t criticize without risking an insult to your intelligence (even if that criticism is very intellectual in and of itself). So, without further ado, let’s get to reviewing The Night is Short, Walk on Girl!

In The Night is Short, Walk on Girl, a young college student is finally about to confess his love to the girl of his dreams! However, she manages to elude him without even trying. Will he be able to survive a long night in Kyoto, and meet up with her by chance?

Before getting into the movie, I need to confess my love for the movie’s setting. City nightlife is a real experience, even more-so in urban Japan. The night is a rare chance for Japanese people to be their true selves, especially when drunk (a major theme of this movie). In fact, one of my research books said “you don’t truly know a Japanese person until you see them drunk.”

The strangeness of the night is brought to life with the movie’s unique visuals. It’s minimalistic and abstract, with cartoony movements happening alongside Dali-like surrealness. Already, I found this to be my preferred version of Night is Short just from the visuals alone. It’s a real surprise that the same team would end up doing Ride Your Wave.

In case you couldn’t tell, the dude spends the entire ninety-minute movie just trying to talk to this girl. Visuals aside, the movie is a pretty simple rom-com. Both man and woman end up in ridiculously silly situations, all while in relatively close proximity to each other. Just like the book, the movie is split into four acts. 

Of course, it takes more than whacky visuals for the anime community as a whole to consider Night is Short profound. The movie is full of philosophical nonsense, and you can bet your ass that people take it way more seriously than how it’s framed in context. The main profoundity (new word) that’s explored is fate. It’s a major symbol for the whole movie. Elements of the many different stories all have some sort of connection, in order to provoke your thoughts into thinking that fate is a real thing. The amount of coordinating all of this is admittedly pretty impressive.

Sadly, like the book, I did not give a rotting carp about it. I personally call philosophy “overthinking mundane things, the job”, and it’s because none of it matters in the long run. Like, what is the takeaway supposed to be here? Is it open to interpretation? Am I supposed to look at the world differently? Is it all a vain attempt at pretending to be smart? 

To go at this from a more personal angle, well… let me begin by stating that I have autism (in case this is the first post of mine that you’re reading). As an outlier, I overanalyze mundane aspects of life all the time, and it’s only led to mental anguish. To be perfectly real, a lot of the stuff that comes up in philosophy is all in our heads. Morality, for instance, is an entirely human construct. Any other species would go extinct if they had to live by our rules, simply because they would all be guilty of murder. To paraphrase Temple Grandin, the best way to approach all the mysteries of the human condition is to not even bother trying to figure it out in the first place, and works like this movie are the exact antithesis of that mentality.

Surprisingly, I ended up liking the characters more this time around. The voice actors all do an exemplary job at giving everyone a ton of personality. When I reviewed the novel, I accused the girl of having no personality, when she’s actually got quite a bit going on. She’s got a childlike innocence, and is attracted to pretty much everything (read as: “booze”). She believes in fate, yet ironically dismisses her encounters with the dude as coincidence.

Speaking of the dude, he’s a classic underdog. All he wants is love, yet it seems like the world is against him. Surrounding them are a quirky cast of characters, from the tengu whose name I forgot, to the old cynicist Rihaku. 

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Final Verdict: 8/10

I enjoyed this version of The Night is Short, Walk on Girl more than the book. However, it’s still a pretty pretentious movie. I don’t know what it is, but a lot of Japanese writers have a real thing with trying to make the mundane feel otherworldly. Call me an uncultured swine, but I just don’t get it. In any case, I recommend this movie if you love Monogatari, or the novels of Haruki Murakami.

Belle: Modern Fairytale Tropes Meet Internet Allegories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Final Verdict: 8.65/10

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

Black Skylands: My First Early Access Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Current Verdict: 8.75/10

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

Iron Widow: To Make a Great YA Novel, Just Add Anime

There is no shortage of Feminist power fantasies these days. In fact, I read one such novel back before COVID broke out: part one of Suzanne Young’s Girls With Sharp Sticks trilogy. It was good, but it was so generic and predictable, I’d rather not spend my time finishing it, because I figured a better Feminist power fantasy would come up. Sure enough, that happened in 2021, when Xiran Jay Zhao published their debut novel: Iron Widow.

In Iron Widow, we are taken to an alternate version of China, set hundreds of years in the past but with futuristic technology (what is this, Star Wars?). The alien menace known as the Hundun threatens the nation of Huaxia. Fight fire with fire, as they say, and by “fire”, I mean they build Gundams out of defeated Hundun. These mechs, known as Chrysalis, must be piloted by a male and female team. However, unlike those anime where the mech is powered by sex, the Chrysalises are powered by sexism, and the woman pilot more-often-than-not can’t handle the strain of her husband’s qi. Wu Zetian’s older sister was killed, not in battle, but murdered by her husband Yang Guang. Naturally, Zetian voluntarily sells herself to him just for an opportunity to murder him. What could possibly go wrong?

Unlike Blood Like Magic, the disclaimer at the beginning is fully needed. No, that’s an understatement. The only other book this viscerally brutal that I read was Legendborn, and even then, the searing social commentary was only prevalent like 60% of the time. In Iron Widow, every page is a reminder of the twisted world in the book, not too different from the twisted world that men created. I won’t spoil anything more about this aspect of Iron Widow’s worldbuilding, but just know it’s beyond brutal.

The main draw with Iron Widow is the very anime-inspired SF world, versus Girls With Sharp Sticks’ nothing. Zhao did their homework with this one, that’s for sure. The terms are easy to follow, and there isn’t an overabundance of Things That Have Common Nouns With Capital Letters As Their Names. I admit that I was enthralled by the mechs, especially Guang’s, which is a kyubi; Zhao knows the fastest way to a weeb’s heart is to make a yokai Gundam. 

The writing is great to boot. I had a great sense of 3D space and what stuff looked like. Plus the battles were spectacular, with no shortage of anime flair. Like I said before, the portrayal of sexism is unrelenting and bludgeoning, written with exquisite and tormented poetry. The only problem I had is that I couldn’t quite picture the Hundun. They seemed to be a generic robot menace, though. 

Anyway, how’s the plot? Well, it’s a YA novel, so it’s predictable. However, Iron Widow manages to be one of the best YA novels of 2021 all the same. Like in Wings of Ebony, the book cuts out the fat to get to the good stuff. Exactly seventy pages in, Zetian successfully murders Guang during the first major battle. She then becomes the rare instance of an Iron Widow (title drop), which is something that is—naturally—covered up. In order to maintain control of her, she is paired with the strongest guy they got: Li Shimin, who happens to be a convicted felon. The bulk of the story is her building a relationship with Shimin, while trying to survive the system that’s so jerry-rigged against her.

Boy-o-boy, the cast is… something. Zetian is so manufactured it’s almost funny; but you know what, women get so much crap, I’m not even mad. She is as uncompromising and fierce as it gets. Nothing—and I mean NOTHING—breaks her. She’ll slander anyone who disagrees with her, and has no remorse when she murders Guang. Most of the men are one-dimensional sleazes, but like in Girls With Sharp Sticks, there’s that one likable guy. And it’s Shimin of all people. Whoda thought that the guy who’s hyped up to be a monster… isn’t? I never predicted that exact thing as soon as his name came up for the first time. Another predictable thing is Gao Yizhi. He’s the childhood friend, who spends a good portion of the book abandoned by Zetian so she can pursue her goal. However, he uses money to get into the camp, and exists as the good boy to contrast Shimin’s naughty boy. This sounds like the start of a cringy relationship, but to my pleasant surprise, these three protagonists’ relationships with one another ended up being one of the best takes of the love triangle trope I have ever seen.

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Final Verdict: 9.8/10

Xiran Jay Zhao has single-handedly made me give a crap about YA novels again. Iron Widow puts them in my book as one of the most promising new writers going into this decade. My butt’s already clenched waiting for the sequel, and more importantly, the possibility that Zhao can actually follow-up. If only they would write a middle-grade novel to tide me over… oh wait, they are, and it’s coming out later this year. Anyway, Iron Widow is my favorite YA novel of 2021 (too bad it isn’t 2021 anymore so no one cares), and I highly recommend it.