I learned of this magazine thanks to my local library stocking the first tankobons from them. Saturday AM is one of several magazines by a small outfit called MyFutPrint Entertainment, that publish manga made by people who aren’t Japanese. I thought it was a really good idea, but it’s not perfect. For starters, serialization is way slower than in Japan, either due to the company being smaller or because they treat their mangaka like humans. Also, my library didn’t bother to order some of the titles I was particularly interested in, which means I’ll have to subscribe. With no mention of a trial period, I decided to read the first volumes of several of the series that the library did have, to gauge whether or not such a risky investment would pay off in the long run. I don’t normally read manga when they only have their first volumes out, but I’m doing this because I also need to gauge whether or not it’s worth waiting for more volumes in the first place (given how slow serialization is). After all, my only other gaijin manga experience was Radiant, a manga that I found to be very middle-of-the-road, and haven’t resumed reading since that review was published. Anyway, preamble aside, let’s just hope that I don’t hold these titles in the same regard as Radiant.
Apple Black by Odzune Oguguo
Well, for a battle shounen, Apple Black is way more involved than expected. To put it simply, it stars a boy named Sano, whose left arm—Arodhis—is the last legacy of his late dad, Merlin. It’s the ultimate weapon that can trigger the cataclysmic Infinite Night. Sano, being a battle shounen protagonist, instead wants to end all war (and become the #1 Sorcerer Hokage of Pirates probably). However, there’s a lot more to it. A LOT more. There’s all these organizations, and not to mention, a magic school with its own intricacies. It took me an hour to read this volume, which is not at all the normal reading time for a shounen.
For a manga I wasn’t looking forward to, Apple Black has been much better than I initially thought. It definitely looks the part, with phenomenal artwork and spectacle. The ideas are also off-the-wall, and the humor checks out as well. The large cast of characters is quite good, but due to how many there are in this volume alone, I feel like I’ll only remember Sano and his classmates. Sano himself is a typical dumb shounen boy, but his upbringing in isolation justifies how dumb he is. Oguguo combines the nerd and the pervert tropes to make Symon, a sleazy four-eyes who likes the in-universe equivalent of Wonder Woman comics. Ryuzaki is a typical brash boy, but the end of the volume shows he’s more complicated than that. The female lead is a girl named Opal, who seems pretty awesome, but hasn’t gotten too much screentime yet. There are many other characters, including a very sexy grandma, but this post’d be too long if I discussed them all.
Unfortunately, the biggest flaw with Apple Black that I foresee is a matter of circumstance. It does appear to be one of the more consistent series, since it’s apparently a reprint of the series as of ten years ago. However, like I said before, Saturday AM is a lot slower than Jump. With how ambitious and complex Apple Black is, Oguguo better put recaps in future volumes, or people might forget MANY of the finer details. Sure, you can reread the older stuff, but I’m someone who rarely—scratch that, never—has the time. Sadly, this is something that’s going to bite the bums of every mangaka under this publisher.
Current Verdict: 8.5/10
Titan King by Tony Dawkins
Titan King is significantly simpler than Apple Black: a boy named Eli Santos is abducted from Earth and forced to compete in an intergalactic tournament. The participants are able to summon a bonded titan to fight alongside them and have anime powers. Like I said, simple.
With the entire manga being a tournament arc, there is a much higher focus on action than in Apple Black. I definitely enjoyed the artwork and fighting more. However, I don’t know if it’s because of being nervous to read these manga or what, but I didn’t enjoy it as much? Honestly, it was probably the nerves, because the manga is pretty damn great from an objective standpoint. The only real flaw is that the characters are way more by-the-book. They have awesome designs, but are everything you can expect from a battle shounen cast.
Current Verdict: 8.45/10
Saigami by Seny
Full transparency: I wanted this section to be The Massively Multiplayer World of Ghosts, which is the one I was looking forward to the most, but my library doesn’t have any copies. So, here we are with one of the titles I was least interested in: Saigami! Like Apple Black, it seems to be a flagship series, so I should probably give it a fair shot out of respect.
The reason why I wasn’t interested in it is because it’s a traditional isekai: a girl named Hanasaki Ayumi is miserable, and then gets sent into another world. She then discovers that she’s one of the titular Saigami for a hitherto unexplained reason. However, even with badass fire powers, her new life is hard as nails and a lot of folks don’t like her.
The idea of isekai where the other world isn’t exactly a bed of roses feels as dime-a-dozen as your typical harem power trip. However, Saigami was initially penned by Seny many years ago, so it’s technically one of the first instances or possibly THE first instance of this. However, given my timing with reading it, that whole aspect of Saigami lost its novelty fast.
In any case, there’s nothing overtly abhorrent about the manga so far. It looks like it’s going to be quite lengthy, with this volume just introducing the world, its characters, and setting up for the first major arc. It’s a slow start, but by being a manga, it’s SIGNIFICANTLY more tolerable and faster-paced than 99/100 isekai light novels. It could be a yuri, assuming that the RWBY reference at the beginning was foreshadowing, but for now, Ayumi is the only girl…
Which is a perfect transition into discussing the characters! Ayumi herself is what you’d expect: someone who constantly gets dunked on, and has to learn to embrace her inner power. She’s weak and whiny now, but I’m assuming she’ll be a badass down the road. The other three characters introduced are all boys. Sean is a silly, fun guy, who is basically Ayumi’s BFF in five seconds. Angsty Reyji doesn’t trust her at all, since she’s not from Saigami-land but has Saigami powers somehow. Last but not least is Daiszke, another underdog who gets treated like crap, this time because his powers were taken too far.
Sadly, I do find the artwork to be the weakest of what was discussed today. It hits all the right notes, sure, but compared to the others, it’s just the weakest. It has a shojo-y look to it, but thankfully, the characters actually look like people instead of Grey aliens wearing human suits; that’s one big positive at least. There haven’t been any major fights, so I can’t really say how good the action looks. In conclusion, this volume was the least impressive, but I imagine it’ll only get better with time.
Current Verdict: 8.25/10
Hammer by JeyOdin
Hammer is, believe it or not, EVEN SIMPLER than Titan King! It stars a boy named Stud Hammer, who has all the relatable quirks of being lonely, having a missing mother, and a dad who’s always going to work. In a depressed stupor, he finds his dad’s journal, and gets Blue-Skadooed into it. He then proceeds to have adventures.
The opening arc of Hammer revolves around the mysterious murder of the Ocean Kingdom’s king. It’s basically a setup volume, because it’s clearly implied that there’s more to this murder than meets the eye. Otherwise, it’s a very Dragon Ball-ish, comedic battle shounen with great fights.
Hammer is, visually, the one that stands out among the manga discussed today. That’s because its artsyle seamlessly blends American cartoon aesthetic with monochromatic manga goodness. It looks awesome, and is by far its greatest strength.
I don’t quite have an opinion on the characters because I really didn’t feel like I’ve gotten to know them well enough. They have memorable designs, but are pretty basic for the most part. Two of them, Stud and a young police officer named Dan (who I enjoyed imagining Dan from Game Grumps as his V.A.), currently rely on classic emotional hooks to get brownie points from you. Dan’s older sister, Diane, is cool, but she’s a pretty typical onee-sama trope herself (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Current Verdict: 8.5/10
So, Will I Be Subscribing to Them?
The answer, for the time being, is “undecided.” If I was richer, I’d do it in a heartbeat. However, I have hundreds of dollars worth of subscriptions, including a $300 annual fee for WordPress that I need to pay off, all off of minimum wage! Crunchyroll is something I’d be willing to abandon, since I have gone on record saying that I don’t enjoy anime outside of the movies, but I actually have a relative who’s using my account in my stead pretty consistently.
Even if I could afford Saturday AM, I still don’t quite know what I’d be getting into. The website is pretty bare bones, and according to the description of their app, they don’t even have a series-by-series list like Viz; you still have to pay separate, flat rates for “chapter packs” specific to each series. Also, I’ve known about them for three months now, and they haven’t added a single new serialization since. There was a recent collection of one-shots, but I don’t know if they’re doing the Jump tradition of “the most popular one-shot gets to start as a full series” or not. Also, due to the aforementioned slow publication, I’d be flushing money down the toilet just playing the waiting game for more content. The other caveat is the world itself. Every day, we’re getting showered with news about global disorder, the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, China, etc. The talking heads estimate that we don’t even have a decade left before the next mass extinction. Saturday AM might not even be worth investing in, because there might not even be enough time for them to grow into something truly great; they’ve been doing this for almost ten years, and are only just now printing their first tankobons.
If I could find a way to get out of Crunchyroll, then I’d probably be subscribed to them now; the monthly rate—even if you factor in the chapter packs—is cheaper. However, whether or not I go through with it remains to be seen; after all, what if there’s a TV anime that’s actually good for once? In any case, if you’re reading this, and you have a much better income than me, then I implore you to check these guys out if you’re interested. I don’t want to sound like I’m forcing you… but this little team needs support, and the price of admission is peanuts. I hope you enjoyed this post, and that you highly consider subscribing to Saturday AM!
This is a crucial post, for it is my second review of something that I have received an advanced copy of, and once again, it’s a One Peace Books publication! It’s got nothing to do with The Rising of the Shield Hero this time; yes, they publish other things, such as Densuke’s The Death Mage. I decided to give it a whirl, not only because it gives me brownie points, but because it actually looks good!
The premise of The Death Mage is extremely complicated for an isekai….so here’s a TL;DR version. Our main character, Hiroto Amamiya, dies along with his classmates in a terrorist attack. Everyone except for him gets second lives complete with superpowers. With nothing in store for him, Hiroto’s second life is as a subject of experimentation with death magic. After he dies again, he’s given a third round, as a half-dark-elf-half-vampire kid named Vandal. His death magic carries over by the way (this IS an isekai after all).
So… The Death Mage is a lot. In typical isekai fashion, Vandal is a baby who still has his memories of being Hiroto. Once he’s able to use his death magic, he’s able to summon an army of undead animals. I love this angle, because it basically makes him “Stewie Griffin but a necromancer”. After his mom, Dalshia, is killed, he saves her spirit, and plans to make a hot new body for her. So… he’s not really like Stewie because he actually loves his mom.
As far as the narrative is concerned, The Death Mage is a traditional isekai with a slow start. As with the start of Shield Hero, Vandal can’t do crap, and pretty much has to rely on his army to get tasks done. Unfortunately, for the many isekai critics, XP gained by his minions is shared with Vandal, circumventing his own inability to gain XP, which will inevitably make him into your typical overpowered protagonist. Despite how edgy it feels, with all this death magic and revenge narrative and whatnot, The Death Mage isn’t too edgy. For example, he exacts vengeance on the townsfolk who killed his mom not by murdering them all, but by destroying their economy. It’s a more creative play, and helps ground Vandal’s character (and critics like grounded characters, don’t they?).
Well, since I seamlessly segued from talking about the story to talking about the characters, I might as well discuss them next! For the most part, it’s just Vandal—whom I already discussed—and his mom. Dalshia is what you’d expect from the main character’s isekai mom; hot beyond all reason, and seemingly incapable of not loving her son no matter what he does. Fortunately, because she’s dead (wow, I never thought I’d use those four words in that order), we are freed from the usual… er… tropes that come with adult characters being reincarnated as babies pretty early on. Other than that, she’s basically the exposition dump character. Exposition is more justified this time, since Vandal grew up in the boonies, and has no other way to learn about the world, since his half-vampire-ness puts a target on his back. The best character by far is Sam, a spirit who joins Vandal and possesses a carriage, literally becoming Vandal’s own talking car.
The biggest problem with The Death Mage, as with Shield Hero, is the length of this volume, assuming that it’s the precedent for the rest of the series. It’s over four-hundred pages, and like Shield Hero, there’s a lot of fat that can afford to be trimmed. Painstakingly showing the different steps of Vandal’s journey is one thing, but in isekai tradition, it has too many POV swaps that tell the entire lifestories of characters that we don’t need to hear. Sure, some of these involve plot-relevant characters, unlike So I’m a Spider, So What? which literally gives useless NPCs the floor. However, a lot of what’s told us is simple enough to derive from context. Take Sam, for instance. We know that bandits killed his daughters and that Vandal avenged them; that’s his notice for joining Vandal. Yet, later on, he goes on this whole spiel about it, even though we already know all that’s necessary to know about him at that given time. Why do isekai love pulling crap like this?!
So far, The Death Mage is a pretty harmless isekai series. It sets the foundation for a solid story, and has some good worldbuilding. I am quite interested to see how Vandal’s abilities grow, even if I may not have the time to continue the series. If you wanna experience The Death Mage for yourself, then read the first volume when it comes out on September 27th!
Once again, I thank One Peace Books for its generous offer.
If there’s one variant of RPG I haven’t done much of, it’s the types like Secret of Mana, where you actually have to move and physically strike enemies to deal damage. Paper Mario: Sticker Star gave me PTSD with any RPG that has only one party member throughout the whole game. But, you know what, Sticker Star sucked. So today, I’m going to cover a retro RPG that gives a lot of bang for its buck: CrossCode for Nintendo Switch (I started playing this game before I got Steam)!
After a confusing opening sequence where you play as some angsty chick, CrossCode starts out when a girl named Lea logs into the high-tech MMO, CrossWorlds, in hopes of recovering her lost memories. CrossWorlds is set on an actual alien planet called Shadoon, and players have to travel the Track of the Ancients, in order to discover its secrets. If you’ve seen SAO, you know things are gonna get ugly.
This game sure knows how to hook players! They throw the intrigue right at you when some weird spaceman, who claims to know Lea, attacks during a tutorial. After that, however, it’s chill city as a lot of the early game is just getting acclimated to CrossWorlds itself. While I don’t normally care much for story in games, I must say that CrossCode nonetheless has a great story. It’s pretty straightforward, but is consistent at throwing you curveballs.
The story in CrossCode wouldn’t mean anything without its phenomenal writing. There’s your usual witty banter, but an indie game wouldn’t be an indie game if it didn’t break the fourth wall! As you can expect, CrossCode makes fun of RPG and videogame tropes. In fact, it even comes up with an actual justification for Lea being a silent protagonist! Since it’s an MMO setting, the meta humor feels much more natural in the context of the story than most indie games I know.
If you’re familiar with me, then you would know that I don’t care if there’s realism, especially when it comes to characters. However, CrossCode actually makes me proud to say that the characters are great because they’re realistic. Due to the setting, all the characters are, well, gamers. From the main cast, to random NPCs, the dialogue feels like how actual videogame nerds would discuss videogame stuff amongst one another, and it creates an intimacy with the player unlike any game I’ve played.
As mentioned before, Lea is a silent protagonist, and is one of the best I have ever seen. I’d dare say she’s the best next to Link himself. Over the course of the game, her friend who basically plays the role of Navi gradually unlocks more words for Lea. Despite her limited vocabulary, the writers give her tons of personality and emotion with what little they have to work with. Speaking of that Navi—i.e. Sergey—he’s also awesome. He’s smart and rational, but also has no shortage of quips.
The others are great as well. Her friend Emilie is a raucous tomboy who is just adorable when she’s dealing with her phobia of bugs, and her love for laser bridges. Along with her is C’tron, a nice, introverted boy who likes making fun of the game’s tropes. There’s also the egomaniac Apollo (who you’ll come to hate for gameplay-related reasons), and his down-to-earth partner, Joern. Even the Navi wannabe, Sergey, is a very likeable character. Unfortunately, a lot of characters don’t have enough eggs in their baskets. Most NPCs have their own stock designs, and even then, some named ones—specifically those involved in side quests—have no personality. It’s a real shame, but hey, nobody’s perfect.
Before getting to gameplay, I must praise the graphics. The game is beautiful and vibrant, as expected of a lot of pixel art games. The spritework is so good, some characters—like a giant whale you fight at one point—look three dimensional. CrossWorlds itself brims with life as you observe other players running around and doing parkour alongside you. It really helps the game feel like it’s set in a real MMO, but without the toxic fandoms and newbie PK’ing of actual MMOs. Somehow, this thing was made using HTML 5, and apparently, this made it very difficult to port to the Switch. It works fine, but can lag a bit during weather effects or if there are a lot of large AOE attacks going off at once.
The gameplay is, of course, the most important part, and CrossCode gets it right. The game has your typical skill tree, with several branches, each containing different abilities that you unlock by spending CP, which you earn on level up. It’s the usual stuff. However, you’re only able to outfit Lea in this game, and that’s because your party members aren’t always going to be there. While you can use them all you want when exploring, things like Dungeons and PvP are done solo. More on those mechanics later.
CrossCode handles Quests really well. There’s tons of them, but they make it really easy to cycle through them. You can favorite a Quest by pressing Y on them, which will display the tasks for it on the HUD. But the best part is that you can favorite multiple Quests at once, and cycle through each one by pressing the Left Analog Stick. It’s a phenomenal way to manage tons of Quests that most RPGs don’t do. The only real issue is that you can’t favorite them at the initial prompt when receiving it.
Quests are nice, but it wouldn’t be a true RPG if there weren’t a million things to do. The other monstrosity is the Encyclopedia, which fills up by talking to NPCs, playing the main story, and learning about the world. This is basically Character Notes in a Falcom game… with additional notes regarding in-universe terminology. I didn’t bother getting 100% on this because of Trails of Cold Steel PTSD, but like in that game, I assume that entries are permanently missable in CrossCode. Additionally, plants of all kinds populate CrossWorlds, and there is a whole section in your Encyclopedia called “Botanics” that records data. Getting an item drop from a given plant is what moves analyzation along, so don’t be afraid to spend hours and hours violating the ecosystem.
Before covering combat, I must praise CrossCode for having an amazing overworld. It’s not just beautiful, but it’s chock full of stuff. You will have to really study the land to figure out “Just how am I supposed to reach that?”, and it’s really fun to do. Every area is full of puzzles, some of which extend to adjacent rooms. Other than some specific instances, it’s pretty easy to get a grasp of planes of the z-axis despite the 2D graphics. But when you can’t, you can always use your projectile attack to get a feel for the depth. Also keep in mind that Lea’s jump is NOT to be underestimated; it puts Link to shame!
Speaking of Legend of Zelda comparisons, the dungeons in CrossCode are among the best I’ve seen in any RPG. CrossCode utilizes its mechanics to create an explicitly Zelda-like experience when going through them. They have seriously tricky puzzles that make use of all of the game’s mechanics, as well as the dungeon-specific mechanics that are taught to you organically with no intrusive textboxes.
There are a couple of issues I have with them, however. While the puzzles are really great, a lot of them are extremely fickle, requiring pixel-precise setup. This leads into the other issue, which is Emilie’s addiction to racing you through the dungeon. Although it doesn’t seem apparent, you can actually try to win somehow. Unfortunately, if you’re going through the dungeon for the first time, as well as trying to get all the treasure before the boss, you’re NOT going to win a single dungeon race. Even if you were to speedrun it on a repeat playthrough, I imagine every single puzzle is a run-killer; it wouldn’t be an indie game if there was no “Hey do this thing with constant frame-perfect timing, please” BS. Since I’m a filthy casual, I have to accept being an absolute loser at everything.
Combat is a whole different story. When playing, you have your usual melee attacks, but Lea also has projectiles. To use projectiles, you have to move the right analog stick to aim while ALSO moving. Plus, there’s a dodge, but ALSO a guard. The latter won’t make you invincible from damage, but—naturally—there is a perfect guard that allows you to counterattack. Things can get ugly fast if you aren’t adept at all this.
There’s also Combat Arts that are used with ZR. However, they work very strangely in CrossCode. Your arts aren’t mapped to ZR + a face button, but to ZR + a specific action. They come in four types: Melee Arts, Ranged Arts, Dash Arts, and Guard Arts. Pretty self-explanatory which is which. Note that you can only have one Art set to each action at a time. But fortunately, the skill tree allows you to freely switch between different branches with no CP loss, so there’s no consequence in learning an Art that you’re not sure about. As you find MacGuffins, you unlock further branches of the skill tree, which allow you to learn stronger Combat Arts that cost more SP.
As if things couldn’t get any crazier, there’s Elements. In CrossWorlds, players gradually acquire mastery of the Four Elements. As you unlock them, you can freely switch between them to give your attacks that property. This is great when fighting enemies with different resistances, so you’re not “Oh great, I’m fighting something weak to this and I can’t go into my inventory to equip my weapon with this attribute!” However, there’s Element Overload to watch out for. Basically, too much attacking with an element active can force you back into neutral for a while. It’s also important to know that attacking with no Element active will make your Elements cool down much faster. Each Element found opens up a new section of the skill tree, with their own Combat Arts (which means you’ll be able to have up to FORTY of them active once you gain all four Elements). The thing to notice is that each upgrade is only applied in that particular Element mode. For example, if you give yourself a bunch of base defense ups in Neutral, you will lose it when you switch to another Element. This needs to be kept in mind as you fight.
One mechanic that makes the game extra fun is Combat Rank. This is basically a combo system; defeat enemies in quick succession to increase your rank, which makes them drop better items. I only recommend it if you’re specifically grinding for rare drops, since the adrenaline rush can make you ignore loot your first time through an area. Fortunately, you can press minus after defeating all nearby enemies to end combat immediately if you don’t want to get that combo going. However, whenever you decide to go on a killing spree, Combat Ranks make it feel really good. It gets even better once you acquire equipment with the Botanist property, which causes plant item drops to be affected by Combat Rank. Thanks to this mechanic, I had more fun grinding for materials in CrossCode than in most other games I’ve played in my life.
There are also a lot of nuances that take much learning to figure out. The NPCs are very helpful in that regard, but there’s still some stuff you gotta figure out on your own. For example, when an enemy is glowing red, that means they’re charging up an attack that you can break them out of with a charged projectile attack. There’s also the dash cancel, where you use your dodge in order to prevent yourself from using a melee combo that has recovery lag in favor of continually dishing out damage, and more importantly, hit-stunning enemies repeatedly. Also, parrying with your guard ability becomes crucial if you want to be really good at the game.
You will need to learn these skills quickly; like most indie games, CrossCode wants to be on par with Dark Souls in terms of difficulty. Fortunately, unlike other hard-ass indie games, CrossCode actually considers EVERY POSSIBLE PERSON playing it. In the settings, you are able to freely tweak the amount of damage you take, as well as the frequency of enemy attacks and the leniency of puzzles. That last modifier is really good because you can mitigate the ridiculousness of the puzzles; you’ll still have to figure it out, but execution won’t be as much of a chore. Of course, these are at max by default. I had each setting one tick lower than max and it still gave me a consistently rough but fair time (maybe I just suck).
Despite how rough it was, I rarely felt truly frustrated. The game’s tough, but somehow, it makes the challenge feel fun. However, nothing’s perfect, and there are some specific points that can get VERY frustrating. One example is the case of Elite Quests. Most of them are harder versions of earlier quests. MUCH harder. For instance, the hard versions of these sadistic platforming gauntlets require the kind of frame-perfect perfection that most indie games have come to expect from gamers. There’s also some quests that have interesting ideas, but next-to-no leeway and require memorization of enemy formations. It’s also very easy to be walled by any of the game’s PvP battles. You can’t use items, and even if you could, your opponent is very capable of overwhelming you instantly, and tries various strategies built around stun-locking you until you go from full health to dead. It’s meant to teach you these strategies, but doesn’t mean they’re easy to implement yourself!
If that wasn’t scary enough, don’t get me started on the Arena. Late-ish into the game, you unlock the ability to challenge a preset of mobs from each region, as well as every single fixed encounter, miniboss, and major boss battle that you’ve been through. Beating the challenges is doable enough, but it’s getting the best scores that are insane. You need serious reflexes and ability to pay attention to multiple onscreen entities at once. And assuming you get platinum on each challenge? Well, guess what; you’re also going to have to do it again, but this time in Rush Mode. This is—you guessed it—every challenge within its given bracket in a row with limited healing. Yes, you’ll have to worry about getting platinum on this, and it’ll naturally be even worse to screw up.
I would’ve had this review out faster if it weren’t for the game’s long-awaited DLC: A New Home. It took until early 2021 to drop, and the wait for console users was even longer. However, it’s a bit complicated. The DLC, A New Home, is CrossCode’s post-game (I am unsure what happens if you beat the game before buying the DLC). To unlock it, you need to get the Good Ending. Now, before you assume that they pulled a Falcom by having a Good Ending in a long RPG, lemme reassure you: the sole condition that needs to be met is close to the end of the game. They’re very upfront once it comes up, so it’s not hard to miss. The problem is doing it right. I, thankfully, had managed to get the Good Ending in one try without even knowing that it was such an important thing. Fortunately, if you get the Bad Ending, you can warp right back to the start of the final chapter, retry the event, and then warp straight to the final boss at the point-of-no-return spot.
A New Home unlocks new quests, a new region, the true final dungeon, and resolves many unanswered plot twists. The new region, while beautiful, is kind of a disappointment considering how long I waited for it. It’s easily the smallest area in the game, and is very linear. On the plus side, you unlock special “ascended” equipment, whose base stats grow with Lea’s level, making them objectively better than anything else you can wear. A lot of these are upgrades from stuff you already have, so it’s easy for you to prioritize certain kits based on your playstyle. Also, the superboss at the end of the dungeon was probably the hardest fight I’ve experienced in my life, and taught me that my heart isn’t physically capable of handling that level of difficulty.
Unfortunately, there are some issues with A New Home. For completionists, you will need an excessive amount of materials found in the final dungeon in order to get all of the equipment. However, due to how dungeons work versus the overworld, you can’t take advantage of combat rank, making it one of the worst grinding spots in the game. Also, if you consider reaching level cap part of completion, grinding XP will be hard toward the end. The plus side is that the least amount you can earn is 1 per enemy, so finding a spot with a lot of enemies is the best strategy… but even spots with many enemies don’t exactly expedite this process. Also, the game doesn’t resolve EVERY plot twist, possibly intentionally so; it definitely baits a sequel, and there just so happens to be a very CrossCode-looking game, currently known as Project Terra, under development right now (that I hope has customizable difficulty and only one ending). Also, the final-FINAL segment is a bit anticlimactic. It doesn’t even take half an hour to get through despite the big buildup. Maybe it would’ve been better to have the final dungeon after it, since it’s a much better end to your journey. The cherry on top is that the game does the thing where it resets to right before the cutoff point after beating it, which is really arbitrary since not enough changes after finishing the DLC to warrant this.
How have I gone this long without talking about CrossCode’s soundtrack?! It is one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a videogame, and perhaps the best I’ve heard in an indie game. There is so much variety when it comes to atmospheres and moods. I could rock out to any of the awesome battle themes, or chillax to the serene tunes of Autumn’s Rise.
Final Verdict: 9.95/10
CrossCode is awesome. I’d give it a perfect ten, but some of the puzzles really do feel excessively savage. Ah screw it!
Actual Final Verdict: 10/10
CrossCode has become my favorite indie game of all time, and is sure as heck up there with my favorite games of all time. I recommend it to anyone who loves JRPGs, puzzles, pixel art, great story, and phenomenal gameplay.
I’ve wanted to watch Cartoon Saloon’s Irish Folklore movies for a good while, even more so after getting into European folk metal. COVID is the reason why I took this long to get around to it! In case you didn’t know, the studio’s third movie never premiered in theaters. And so, GKids, for some ungodly reason, exclusively streamed it on Apple TV+, which—to be fair—I could’ve got a free trial and canceled it after watching the film. However, my consciousness didn’t want to. It also wouldn’t solve the fact that the other two movies aren’t up for streaming anywhere. So, I recently stumbled upon the environmentally friendly Blu-ray box set containing all three movies, and decided to get that through Amazon. Sure, Cartoon Saloon still wouldn’t get a cent of commission off of it, but I at least trust Amazon, for they seem to be the only ones capable of shipping anything in this day and age. Anyway, without further rambling, let’s review the studio’s first movie: The Secret of Kells!
In The Secret of Kells, a boy named Brendan lives in the titular town of Kells, run by his anal Uncle… uh… Abbot? Crap, I already forgot his name. Anyway, said uncle wants to build a wall that could trump Trump in order to protect them from Vikings. However, things get interesting when an old geezer named Aiden (and his cat) moves into town, with a magic book that is just one page short of completion. Aiden is too old to finish it. Guess who gets hoisted with the big responsibility.
Whenever I’ve reviewed Disney movies, I never know what to say about the visuals. As aesthetically striking as they are, I admit that the films are quite samey. The Princess and the Frog is probably better looking than most of the company’s films, and that’s because of something that a lot of millennials and boomers can agree on: hand-drawn animation. While it can look crappy and cheap (i.e. TV anime), Cartoon Saloon shows just what the art form is capable of.
There’s so much to say about it, I can dedicate a real paragraph to talk about it! While it’s not as anatomically correct as even Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, The Secret of Kells has its own sense of beauty. Characters are made of basic shapes, which allows them to get really creative with the designs. The way people look lends to their personalities; Brendan is small and cute, while you already know his uncle is a big fat meanie from his height and stiffness. Beyond the cast, the movie does some wild things with the backgrounds; stuff I don’t want to spoil for your sake. It’s colorful, whimsical, and in 2022, still looks timeless. The Celtic world of Ireland really shows through in the natural splendor of the forest outside of Kells. If only Disney kept at the hand-drawn biz; who knows how their newer movies would have looked then!
As my first ever film outside of a natively English-speaking nation other than Japan, I was curious about if there was a sub or dub, like with anime. The answer is that there’s no such thing; it’s English through-and-through, but thankfully, it’s authentically European. Over there, other countries are like states to them, and it’s easy to be exposed to a myriad of tongues. In essence, this means that they can speak English but still have the beautiful accents of their respective regions. It really helps make the movie awesome, although that could just be the pagan weeb in me talking.
Anyway, despite the movie being artsier than Disney, it’s got about as straightforward of a plot. It boils down to Aiden and Brendan working together, under Uncle’s nose, to finish the miraculous last page of the book, and with an inevitable Viking assault capable of occuring at any moment. That’s more-or-less it; Brendan is pretty much just Aiden’s errand boy. Someone probably has a deep analysis of how the movie is an allegory to chauvinist postmodernism (whatever that is), but I definitely didn’t notice it if it was there.
The hardest part of a feature film is writing characters that you’ll grow attached to in that short time, but thankfully, The Secret of Kells does a good enough job with that. Brendan has that childlike wonder, and also becomes like Crockett Johnson’s Harold at one point. He meets Best Girl Ashley, a strange child who lives in the forest and is quite the tomboy. Aiden is a fun and eccentric old man, and conversely, Uncle is—well—we’ve established him. Thankfully, Uncle isn’t exactly a bad Disney parent; in 2009, Cartoon Saloon subverted a trope that it took Disney until—what—Encanto to subvert themselves? Wow, way to sound pretentious. Look, I love Disney, but being the embodiment of the mainstream can bite them in the rumpus room sometimes.
Kind-of-spoiler here, but I’m at least glad that The Secret of Kells doesn’t take the obvious route of making humans evil. Sure, there’s Vikings, who are all polygonal, black, and have red fire, but they are clearly established as their own entity that don’t represent humankind as a whole. Also, this legendary monster that is supposed to be suffering and malice incarnate… most people would just make it a 40-something-year-old man. However, it’s actually just a monster… for once. I hope I’m not wrong about that, or else I’ll look stupid!
Final Verdict: 9.5/10
Surprise, surprise—The Secret of Kells is a really good movie, and I’m stoked to watch the other two. If I wasn’t already sold on Europe via its metal scene, then this might’ve been what did it instead. I recommend it to anyone who misses hand-drawn animated movies.
If you’re an anime nerd, you’ve probably heard of Taiyo Matsumoto’s classic manga Tekkonkinkreet; it was made into a critically acclaimed movie after all. Of course, me being me, I instead gained an interest in No. 5, a sci-fi manga of Matsumoto’s that I doubt any Westerner would’ve even heard of if it weren’t for Viz’s recent omnibus publication; it didn’t get adapted, so it might as well not exist over here. I don’t even know what it’s about, except that I should expect it to be weird because Matsumoto is famous for weirdness. Well, when it comes to Japanese literature, I shouldn’t expect anything less, should I?
No. 5 is set in the distant future, where the peace is protected by the Rainbow Peace Brigade, an elite squadron of genetically modified soldiers. The best of the best are designated under the numbers one through nine, and they all answer to an old man in a pair of bunny pajamas. Things aren’t so peaceful, however, when the titular No. 5 kidnaps and flees with a strange woman for no apparent reason. He travels with her as the rest of the Rainbow Brigade hunts him down.
Lemme tell you, this manga is as weird as it looks, if not weirder. Matsumoto’s art is strange and extraordinary, operating under no rules whatsoever; sometimes it’s detailed, sometimes it’s cartoony, and sometimes you don’t even know what you’re looking at. What’s even better is that panel changes tend to jump from POV-to-POV several times per page, all to maximize your confusion.
To add to that confusion, No. 5 doesn’t exactly give you exposition dumps. All the characters talk as if you—the reader—already understand how the world works, and you have to adapt fast. Everything is context-sensitive, and I’m sure as hell I missed a lot of important nuances during my read-through of the manga. There was probably some allegory to the true meaning of being human in there somewhere, and it flew right over my head.
Fortunately, this is a case where you don’t really need to know what’s going on. I was pretty damn engaged with the story despite being confused the whole time. The reason is all in the aforementioned art. Matsumoto really knows how to keep an audience on their toes no matter what’s happening, and there’s always something happening. The plot is followable on the most basic level, but good luck figuring out the purpose of any of it.
Because of how confusing the manga is, I don’t exactly know what to think of the characters in No. 5. The titular character is a very hard-boiled ex-cop-type, who doesn’t seem capable of any emotion except hard-boiled-ness. Unfortunately, we don’t exactly get the full details on why he wants to protecc the woman, Matryoshka, like an anime nerd’s favorite waifu; when we get the full backstory, it actually skips(?) the time between No. 5 first meeting her and ultimately kidnapping her.
It’s also not easy to tell why he loves Matryoshka so much, or rather, why everyone in-universe seems to loves her. You could argue that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, since she’s not the stereotypical ideal woman in terms of physical features. However… she’s kind of awful? She acts like the perfect picture of innocence, exclaiming everything she sees like a child, but it seems like she just follows whoever gives her food, as evidenced by a part where this one guy grabs her and she doesn’t resist at all.
The rest of the Rainbow Brigade are even more confusing. We get into the heads of every one of the numbered people. It’s natural to assume that the ones who die earlier are less impactful, but it doesn’t really matter. I don’t get No. 9, who dies first, any better than any of the others. I feel like the most impactful ones are the No. 4s, two twins who create hallucinations, and No. 1, who is… well, I probably shouldn’t spoil him.
Final Verdict: 8.75/10
No. 5 is really something. It’s surreal and intense, and always leaves more questions than answers. If you want to experience a weird, old manga, then No. 5 will serve that purpose well.
Pixar’s Brave turns ten this year. Who’da thunk that’d ever happen? Since I’ve done many-a Disney movie retrospective, I thought it’d be time for me to tackle Brave! It’s one I remember fondly, but as someone who hadn’t seen it in at least five years, I can’t exactly go off of that. As such, it’s time to see what it’s like from the perspective of a hyper-critical adult!
In Brave, we are taken back to the good old days in ancient… er… Scotland(?). Princess Merida learns to be a badass from her dad, much to the chagrin of her protective mother. Oh, and dad almost gets offed by a bear in that classic Disney fashion. When Merida becomes a teen, mom gets REAL overprotective. Merida hates this, and in her blind rage, makes a deal with a witch to change her fate (you of course have to read those last three words in a Scottish accent). The witch’s spell turns mom into a bear, and the only way to reverse it is to mend the bond torn by pride (oh, and same for those last six words as well).
I sure didn’t appreciate the Celtic atmosphere when I was younger, but for a pagan metal junkie like myself, I was able to enjoy Brave‘s setting more than I ever have. Europe really is something else, and Pixar—as always—knocks it out of the park when making magical locales. This is the perfect opportunity for some Celtic folk-inspired musical numbers…!
…All two of them. The first is a song I guarantee most Disney fans only know the chorus of; you know, it’s the one set of lyrics that they always use every time Brave comes up in a Disney park attraction. Unfortunately, upon hearing the full song for the first time in years, I found it to be one of Disney’s weaker numbers. The iterations of it that appear in the aforementioned Disney attractions have way more weight and impact than its original use in the movie. The other number is a cutesy, sentimental piece used during a mother-daughter bonding montage. I had completely forgotten about it until seeing the movie for this retrospective, and forgetting a Disney song ever existed is a sure sign that it’s not particularly likable. I really feel like they squandered an opportunity here. While their next Disney princess movie (which also turns ten next year) is set in Scandinavia, most of the songs in it aren’t exactly inspired by pagan folk music.
In case you couldn’t tell, the plot is pretty straightforward. While Merida struggles to mend the bond, she and her mom learn to get along with each other. Things go awry, the dad ends up rallying up the other clansmen to try and kill his own wife, mom realizes that she was being REALLY dense, and the power of love turns her human again. Oh, and they have a run-in with the evil bear from the beginning, who happens to have been a previous customer of the aforementioned witch. Like I’ve said numerous times, you generally don’t see Pixar movies expecting something mind-blowing.
However, there is something VERY unexpected that I felt quite flummoxed by. There’s implied nudity, including during the brief moment after Merida’s very young brothers turn back from bear to themselves, and even the old fart clan leaders ogling Merida’s naked mom when she turns back into a human. There’s also a scene of one of the brothers swan diving into a very traumatized maid’s cleavage. I’m not joking; there’s even a zoom in right into her bosom. If you’re familiar with hentai, this’ll seem like nothing. However… This is a movie for children; a Pixar movie. Man, how different things would become in just four years after Brave‘s release.
While the plot itself isn’t too interesting, it’s one of the more digestible Pixar movie plots thanks to the movie’s seriously star-studded cast. Most Disney characters are super expressive, but to be perfectly real, they were REALLY expressive in Brave. Every character, and every mannerism, were just so memorable. I enjoyed their interactions way more than when I saw the movie the first time!
Merida and her mom are the stars of the show, for they are the entire plot. Merida’s cool and all, albeit a bit immature, but her mom is actually one of the best Disney parents… eventually. She’s insufferable at the beginning, but has some amazing moments throughout, such as when she just ear-grabs her husband and the three clansmen to resolve a fracas. Also, the way she tries to act human even when she’s a bear is just perfect as well. Merida’s dad and her brothers are also very silly and rambunctious. The brothers don’t say a single word, and they’re just as bursting with character as everyone else.
The clansmen and their sons are additional comic relief. They all have very distinct character designs, and are—as expected—full of mannerisms. I wish they had more screentime, but it makes sense why they didn’t.
The weakest character is its main antagonist, Mordu the evil bear man. Like I said with The Princess and the Frog: Facilier was the last true Disney villain. In the transitional phase to Disney’s current system, we get some unremarkable Disney villains like Mordu who seem to exist just to spice things up (and we’ll be seeing another example in that other movie that I said would be turning ten next year). He’s at least got good foreshadowing, but he just seemed to be a plot device for the whole movie.
After All These Years: 9.35/10
I’m gonna be honest, I thought I was going to revisit Brave, and walk out of it thinking it wasn’t a particularly remarkable movie. However, it might be one of my favorite Pixar movies of all time. It’s not groundbreaking, but it just does what Pixar does really, REALLY well in sheer execution. It’s aged really well in every department. I recommend it to kids and Disney nerds.
I have the longest story with this book. I’ve been battling serious depression over the past two years (longer than that by the time the post actually goes out) because it feels like human civilization is falling apart. Heck, you could argue it’s been happening longer than that; since the #MeToo movement in 2017, it feels like violent protests have been a way of life. Of course, 2020 set a new precedent of despair, when COVID took the world, and simple matters of health became political. That same year, George Floyd was murdered, and divided the human race amongst itself overnight. 2021 began with a terrorist attack on Capitol Hill, organized entirely by American citizens with a political agenda. At the time of writing this paragraph, Russia is invading Ukraine, laying the groundwork for World War III. To top it off, earth is being ravaged by climate change, at a rate that keeps increasing at an exponential rate despite all the efforts that have been put in to delay it. As of completing the book, Ukraine is still at war, and abortion is now illegal on a constitutional level following the result of Roe v. Wade, not to mention a spike in mass shootings.
This is where Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged comes in. I was at a point when I finally figured out how to enjoy life, but now I’m drowning in despair. I can’t begin to list the violent emotions and twisted thoughts I’ve felt. To give you an idea, my mother has considered sending me to the psych ward numerous times. After some intense discussions with her, she offered up Atlas Shrugged. According to her, it would—at the very least—expose the media and these new-fangled activists as the BS-spewers that they allegedly are. I was skeptical, but Atlas Shrugged is apparently one of the most influential novels of all time; second only to The Bible.
Atlas Shrugged, however, is massive. This is the kind of book that I can only read with the new purging of pop culture media that I have committed to. One chapter can take about an hour, and there’s a lot of chapters; over a thousand pages’ worth. I started the book in February 2022, and you’re reading this post not long after I actually finished the book. That’s how much of an investment it is.
Like any hard SF novel, completing it is a monumental task. One aspect of these kinds of books is that merely figuring out the basic premise is a headache that you’re meant to experience, and thus, it feels like discussing any aspect of the novel is spoiler territory, even though it’s super old. So… Here’s a spoiler warning then. Read on if you wish.
Right off the bat, Rand’s prose feels like what a lot of modern writers, whom I consider pretentious, try to be. A lot of Atlas Shrugged is very verbose, and at first, it feels like nothing is happening. However, unlike books such as Monogatari, I wasn’t mad. A lot of passages give you hints pertaining to the book’s worldbuilding and how characters think and feel. The writing is also very poetic, describing things metaphorically but in a way that can be understood by anyone with a basic grasp of the English language; unlike a lot of YA and light novels that vomit nonsensical similes at everything.
You are given your first signs of how messed up the world of Atlas Shrugged is with the initial conflict centered around Taggart Transcontinental, a railroad company. The organization has always been run by Taggarts, and this generation is brother and sister James and Dagny Taggart. When one of their lines desperately needs fixing, Dagny is literally the only person to do anything about it. She orders an untested metal from a company that James doesn’t trust, while his “trusted” metals haven’t been delivered in over a year since being ordered. What jumps out is that she is the only one in the whole organization who’s proactive; everyone else, except a guy named Eddie Willers, sucks.
The story also involves the creator of the aforementioned untested metal, Hank Rearden. He went from slaving away in the mines to owning his own steel plant, an achievement that he knows he’s damn well earned. Dagny’s order for his metal is the first big order his company has ever received. The reason for this is because everyone else is afraid to risk using it.
Right off the bat, Atlas Shrugged should resonate with just about anyone alive, especially these days. Heck, a lot of the stuff brought up in this book is stuff I’ve had internal debates about for years. I one hundred percent relate to Dagny and Hank, who feel like they’re surrounded by morons at all times. Well, I say morons, but a more literal term would be sheep; they just stick to doing what they’re told, with no drive to make anything better. This isn’t even remotely a new trope, but in Atlas Shrugged, it feels more grounded and real. Every writer and their grandma these days would chalk this up to how humans are wired to behave and there’s nothing we can do about it. Good ol’ Ayn Rand, however, presents this behavior as an unnatural, conscious choice that most people—unfortunately—decide to make.
Words cannot describe just how vindicating Atlas Shrugged is. Every other scene, there’s something that feels like Rand literally wrote for me specifically. The inane ignoramity (professional term) of mankind feels like every day of my life since Donald Trump ran for President. On a side note, Atlas Shrugged is significantly easier to digest than what I thought going in. It’s lengthy, sure, but the actual content of the book is incredibly straightforward. If you could get through crap like Of Mice and Men in high school, then Atlas Shrugged will be no problem.
The plot starts off in earnest at the end of part one. Dagny and Hank go on a road trip and stumble upon a mysterious machine, abandoned in a junk heap in an equally abandoned factory. Turns out that this device, if seen through to the end, would literally solve all of humanity’s energy problems and save the world. However, its creator is unaccounted for, and she scrambles to find that creator or reverse engineer the machine, all while surviving the ignorant world she lives in. Survival is not easy, especially when the few smart people that remain start abandoning their businesses unannounced.
Of course, you could look at the publication year saying “1957” and chalk Atlas Shrugged up for yet another McCarthy-ist novel written during the Red Scare. The thing is, due to everything discussed up to this point, I would’ve never guessed this was a Red Scare book because it sure didn’t feel like it at all. Despite the difference in eras, I could attribute so much more about Atlas Shrugged to real life in this day and age than any other cyberpunk I’ve ever experienced. However, the fact that Atlas Shrugged feels even more relevant than it did at the time isn’t exactly a good thing.
If you couldn’t tell, Atlas Shrugged is meant to have only two likable characters, and they are Dagny and Hank. Let’s talk about Hank first, since I’m saving the best for last. He loves his career with Rearden Metal, especially more than the stupid people he’s surrounded by, including his stupid wife. He doesn’t let other people’s thoughts get in his way, including those in the media. It’s ironic that someone who cares so little about people contributes more to their lives than most… or at least he would be if there weren’t politically correct idiots trying to ruin his business.
Meanwhile, Dagny… ho-hoh boy, lemme tell you. I daresay that she is the Best Girl in all classic literature. She’s like Hank in not caring, only better. Her proactive personality feels so modern compared to any other character of classic literature. Dagny is unimaginably badass, and if you told me that girls like Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind or anyone from Little Women were better, I would absolutely not believe you.
Among these two awesome protagonists whom you’re meant to love, and these wingnuts that you’re meant to hate, there is an anomaly named Francisco d’Anconia. You could argue he’s the main villain of the book, despite him definitely not being an ignoramus like the rest of mankind. He has iconic and inspirational moments that feel amazing, like he really understands how life works, yet he seems to be working against the human race with most of his actions. I’d say he’s the extreme end of Dagny and Hank’s personalities, but at the same time, he could just be a massive troll.
If there are any flaws in the book’s writing, it’s that I always had trouble telling where anyone was in 3D space. The dialogue is the heart and soul of Atlas Shrugged, and it’s so easy to get absorbed in it that they can seemingly teleport to another location. You could also argue that some of the big long passages that convey the book’s themes get redundant (including a seventy page speech that is more-or-less a summation of all the themes explored), but the way Rand thinks is so unconventional, that you kind of need to see it multiple times to really process the full weight of her words.
Final Verdict: 10/10
Why does anyone bother with any classic literature other than Atlas Shrugged? I’ve read crummy books with blurbs that say “I’ll be thinking about these themes for a long time”, but Atlas Shrugged is the first time I truly feel that way about a book. It’s so insane that—scratch that—it’s saner than almost anything else out there. If Ayn Rand wrote and published it today, it would get canceled ten times over. Heck, the FBI would’ve personally hunted her down. Atlas Shrugged would be considered by many to be pure evil, and that’s precisely why it’s a must-read. Just keep in mind that it will not give you hope for mankind; it’s only meant to give you hope for yourself.
One of the most important YouTubers in my life is none other than Chuggaaconroy. I don’t just look up to him as a fellow autistic man, and as the man who introduced me to the TRG Community, the only community—physical and digital—where I’ve felt like I belonged; he also introduced me to the ding-dang greatest JRPG franchise of all time: Xenoblade Chronicles. Naturally, I had temptations to play the 2020 remaster, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition, for the Nintendo Switch. However, I held off on it because I was like, “You know what, I’ll save it for 2022 when the game turns ten.” The thing is, I’m an idiot. The 2012 release I had associated with Xenoblade Chronicles was for the North American release. The game actually turned ten in 2020, an anniversary which was probably overshadowed by assorted world events at the time. As a result, you’re going to read a two-year-belated tenth anniversary retrospective, featuring the Definitive Edition. So without further ado, I need to ask the question that starts every retrospective: Is it really as good as I remember it being?
For the record, I have not re-watched Chugga’s series, nor have I seen any gameplay of this game since then. I remembered the basic gist of the story, the party members’ playstyles, the enemy types (since they’re also in the sequel), the regions, and specific side stuffs. I don’t remember the layouts for any of the regions, nor the vast majority of heart-to-hearts and sidequests. Overall, excluding the Future Connect epilogue, at least 70% of this game will still feel new to me. Also, I noticed that this game came with the Japanese voice actors. While I do actually think the dub is great, I was deathly curious about the Japanese voices. At the very least, I wouldn’t have to worry about “You’ll pay for your insolence!”, even if it means I lose Reyn Time.
Before I even get to the premise, I must say: HOLY SHIT THIS GAME IS GORGEOUS. The area design and the various vistas were astounding in the original, but the game looked… kinda bad. Now, this world is truly done justice. Everything has so much more life, especially the characters. Maybe the original being impossible to find was worth something after all; I doubt this remaster would exist otherwise.
You know what—and I know that I’m stalling on getting to the GAME here—but this is not your usual retrospective (in case you couldn’t tell from the fact that it’s a ten year anniversary retrospective when the game is twelve). The problem is that, normally, a retrospective would be a spoiler-filled rant on a well-known thing that’s been around for more than a hot minute. However, the original Xenoblade Chronicles on Nintendo Wii was notoriously difficult for people to find. As such, Definitive Edition is likely a whole generation’s first ever experience with the game. So… should I really spoil the story? I kind of ended up going halfway; not straight-up analyzing everything, yet giving away the biggest plot twists in the game. As such: UNMARKED SPOILERS AHEAD.
In Xenoblade Chronicles, two Titans—Bionis and Mechonis—are locked in battle. Said battle literally ends in a stalemate, but the residents of these Titans are still up in arms at each other. The Bionis people’s only hope to fight Mechonis’ Mechons is the Monado, a sword that can see the future. A boy named Shulk inherits it after his childhood friend, Fiora, is given the Red Shirt treatment, and sets off to destroy all the Mechon (afterwhich he realizes that the Mechon were the good guys but that’s neither here nor there).
What jumps out immediately in Xenoblade Chronicles is its setting. In case you couldn’t tell, the overworld for this game is the aforementioned Bionis and Mechonis locked in time. This is probably one of the most creative worlds in a JRPG. There aren’t many ways to describe how great it is without examples. One area is a body of water resting inside a giant thing sticking out of its shoulder blades (Bionis must’ve been a hunchback). Oh, and the way you get to Mechonis? You literally walk across the sword it thrust into Bionis’ shinbone. They even went into so much detail as having the ice area be in the part of Bionis that gets the least amount of sunlight (thanks for that particular deet, Chugga).
Most people would say that Xenoblade Chronicles has a fantastic story, but honestly, I don’t feel as strongly about that. Everything is presented very powerfully and emotionally, but it’s pretty straightforward. I feel like the only development that can catch you off guard is the BIG twist where Shulk was actually the vessel of the final boss. Oh, and if you’ve played Xenoblade Chronicles 2, then you’d recognize the same scientist guy from the end of that game; this game’s world is the one that he ended up creating.
No matter how good the story is, it still has some developments that are way too easily telegraphed. First off, Metal Face being Mumkarr is obvious since they both use the same knuckle-claw-thing weapons, and more noticeably, they have the same voice actors. Also, the thing with Dickson… I feel like they could’ve been more subtle about it. He outs himself very easily in one specific scene in Satorl Marsh, and it’s quite easy to remember since he’s never acted sus up to that point.
At the very least, the game has surprisingly enjoyable cutscenes, and this is from someone who normally can’t stand cutscenes in a JRPG. There are a number of scenes where it’s like “Okay, we’re here, and we need to go over there,” but those—at least in the Definitive Edition—have advanceable text. The actual, cinematic, story-important cutscenes are very well-directed and never felt like they overstayed their welcome. This was a pleasant surprise, because in Xenoblade 2, I remember being frustrated to no end at the length and abundance of cutscenes. I recalled going through the Spirit Crucible and there being at least eight different cutscenes where they’re like “Oh man we’re all exhausted in here” over and over again. Well, I guess I’ll know for sure if I ever get to do a retrospective of that game (which won’t be this year because Xenoblade 3 is priority one).
What gives Xenoblade Chronicles heart is its cast (even if I (hot take) think that the sequel has a better cast). Your main party members, with the exception of one, all have incredibly defined personalities and are very lovable. Shulk is pretty much a shounen protagonist, albeit a well-realized one. One of the best parts about him is that he often gets called out for the “main character sees something VERY IMPORTANT and says ‘It’s nothing’” cliché. He still does it… a lot… but I can let it slide this time.
Reyn is a great best-friend-type of guy, whose Time is very honored. Fiora initially comes off as a Red Shirt, but becomes more fully fleshed out—or should I say—mechanized out, after you find her with a bit of Mechon implanted pretty much everywhere besides her face. Best Girl Melia is the better waifu, who sadly doesn’t get her man (but more on that much later). Dunban is literally Shanks from One Piece, complete with only being able to use one arm. He’s a freaking awesome dad-type character.
I don’t know about public consensus, but Chugga’s least favorite character was Sharla. What makes her a hard sell right away is her unusual battle style (sorry for getting to gameplay here but eeeeeeeeh), where her Talent Art isn’t an attack but a way to cool down her rifle when it overheats. To be honest, she’s not that bad in battle. You can use Cool Off before it overheats, and it’ll waste less time. There might be a possibility that Sharla’s A.I. was improved in Definitive Edition, because I recall Chugga saying it was awful. All that is well and good, but as a character, she’s about as much of a jackass as I remember. She has an unhealthy obsession with this Gadolt guy, to the point where it gets annoying. As soon as she says Reyn reminds her of a young Gadolt, you can see their ship coming from a mile away. Oh, and her betrayal of Melia in that one Heart-to-Heart? Big oof.
Obviously, the BEST character is Riki. This guy is a Nopon, a.k.a. the master race of the Xenoblade Chronicles series. With his typical Nopon broken grammar, he’s fun and cute and awesome and perfect. His only flaw is not being Tora from the second game.
Like I said before, I played through the game with the Japanese audio, like a weeb. This is going to sound crazy coming from someone like me, but here: the dub is actually better. I had a feeling it would be, since we have Reyn Time and all. The voice actors aren’t bad, but nothing stands out from them. The Japanese audio is more necessary in Xenoblade 2, which has more anime tropes, and thus more interesting voice actors like Aoi Yuki.
The chemistry between characters depends on you. Affinity is the bond between two characters, and is increased by actions in battle, among other things. Generally, you want to raise it as much as possible. One thing about Affinity that I’m glad has been simplified in the sequel is town Affinity. Unlike Xenoblade 2, where it was just the entire town as one entity, most NPCs have their own place on a massive Affinity tree. You’ll need to talk to them to get them to appear. And unfortunately, registering people on the Affinity tree is often a prerequisite for sidequests. Thankfully, the ones you need to worry about are green on the map. In any case, completing quests will increase the party’s Affinity with the respective town, allowing for even more quests.
Heart-to-Hearts are where it’s at for character development. However, in this game, bad choices can decrease affinity. As such, I ended up looking up every single one of them on the wiki. Some of the negatives can be funnier, plus there is an achievement for getting the worst outcome of a Heart-to-Heart. As expected, Heart-to-Hearts have various prerequisites, and you’ll have to remember them accordingly. On another note, one thing I don’t like about Affinity in this game is that certain party members will gain Affinity by being active when receiving given quests. There’s no way to tell who will react, but honestly, I didn’t worry about getting a reaction on EVERY quest, especially since some are from characters you don’t get until a significant time after the quest is available.
Speaking of quests… there are a ton. A good chunk of them are very simple and will auto-complete when accomplished, similar to the basic missions in Xenoblade X. As always, doing as many of them as possible is well-worth your time. Just be aware of Timed Quests. These will expire after certain story developments, but as long as you prioritize them, there’ll be nothing to worry about. One of the best parts of the game is that Shulk’s visions are more than just a plot device; they impact gameplay. A lot of quests, such as ones with multiple outcomes, show him what’ll happen with either option. Furthermore, you can even get visions of collecting materials for quests that you haven’t even started yet. New to the Definitive Edition, exclamation marks will appear for every quest, even if it’s not registered as the actively tracked quest. It will even highlight materials needed if any loaded in; great for not wasting time checking EVERY single item orb.
Unfortunately, the quests are kind of trollish at times. There is at least one case where one outcome of a multiple-outcome quest will open up a chain of future quests, but not the other. Also, some quests don’t appear on the map until you go up to them in the overworld, and yes, a number of these are timed. But in all seriousness, I really ended up hating the Affinity Chart in this game. It’s not just talking to people once to get them registered in it; you’ll also have to return to previous NPCs after registering new ones in order to get a status on their relationship with each other. Sometimes, you’ll have to talk to them after certain quests or story beats. All of these actions are often prerequisites to quests, and one in Colony 9 can be missed just by making the wrong decision with one of its residents. NPCs have very specific schedules, and there’s no way to really know if you have everyone in a given town. The Xenoblade wiki is a lifesaver for this, but having to use it at all honestly kind of sucks.
Anyway, the REAL rabbit hole when it comes to sidequesting is Colony 6. Starting from a certain point, you can relocate the residents of Colony 6 to, well, Colony 6. The place was ravaged by Mechon, and it needs rebuilding. In addition to a metric ton of quests and quest chains, you also have to make sizable donations in the form of rare materials found around the world in order to spruce it up. This would be the start of Xenoblade’s tendency to expect incessant and unfun grinding for completionists. Thankfully, they programmed it to where anything needed for Colony 6 in an area that expires will have an alternate solution after-the-fact.
One mechanic for collecting that has yet to return is trading. Named NPCs will be willing to trade for items, depending on your Affinity with the town. If you’re missing a material for a quest, then a trade might just come in clutch. Each item has a trade value, and you must give them something equal to or higher than it. There’s also the ability to overtrade, which nets you a bonus item if you give them something WAY more valuable. It’s a cool mechanic, but overtrading is tied to completing the “other” tab of the Collectopedia, and you have no hints on which NPC you have to trade with. I miss this mechanic, since it can save tons of material farming (maybe that’s why the other games are utter nightmares to complete?).
As far as the overworld is concerned, Xenoblade Chronicles has one of the best. There’s so much variety when it comes from the different areas, and the game does a great job in showing the scale of this game world. Even though I watched Chugga’s series years ago, I still remember seeing the Mechonis from exiting Tephra Cave for the first time. Bionis and Mechonis have a ton of stuff to do, from collecting materials, to mining regularly-spawning Ether deposits, to finding secret areas that net a ton of XP. It’s amazing how much there is when there aren’t any overworld chests!
So, what do you do with the aforementioned Ether deposits? The crystals you get from these—along with crystals from enemy drops—are used to craft Gems, which are stuck to equipment for added effects. The system is kind of complicated, and very random. Basically, you get one character to control the flames of the crafting machine, and someone else… to be honest I don’t know what the other person does. Basically, you insert crystals until one of the values exceeds 100%. Any Gem that’s over 100% is guaranteed to form, and any that fall short will be converted to cylinders for later use, depending on how much of the cylinder gauge fills up. Higher ranked crystals will form higher ranked Gems, but exceeding 200% will get you a higher rank.
Anyway, equipment is actually fun in Xenoblade Chronicles. I always felt like it was too complicated in Xenoblade X, but too simple in Xenoblade 2 (although that might change if I do a retrospective on the latter). In the original, it’s just right. Equipment comes in varying types: regular, slotted, and unique. Regular is self explanatory, while slotted equipment can be equipped with the Gems. Unique equipment has a predetermined Gem setup, and can be very helpful. The original game had a glitch where damage rolling went WAY lower than the maximum that a character’s stats said they could, and I couldn’t tell if it was fixed in this version. It was fixed in the 3DS port, so it’s natural to assume the same here.
Combat is what makes Xenoblade Chronicles as a whole feel action-packed… and it’s complicated. Your party members all use their standard attack commands automatically at regular intervals. Auto-attacks are really nice, because you can use them while moving as long as you stay in range of the target, whereas in Xenoblade 2, I recall that you moved insanely slow in battle and could only auto-attack while standing still. In addition to these standard attacks, you can select the various Arts of whomever you’re controlling. These have a wide variety of effects, as well as bonuses depending on your angle relative to the target. In the Definitive Edition, given Arts will have a blue exclamation mark when you’re in position to gain their bonus effect. Landing auto-attacks also fills up a gauge that—when full—allows you to use a fancy Talent Art. These are unique to the character, ranging from the Monado Arts to… Sharla cooling her stupid rifle. Arts need to be levelled up by consuming accumulated AP on them; this also includes each of Shulk’s Monado Arts. At first, you can only raise an Art to level four, but Art books can break that level cap… if you can find them! Most are available at shops, but those aren’t enough. You’ll need advanced Arts books to completely max out an Art. Unfortunately, these are only available as insanely low drops from random assortments of enemies late in the game. There’s no way to know which ones are where, but the higher leveled enemies that do have them give you the best odds.
Along with Arts, you also learn Skills. These are passive abilities that apply to the whole party or to the user. The system becomes kind of complicated with Skill Links, where you use Affinity Coins to give someone another party member’s Skill. Just experiment and see what works. Keep in mind that specific quests can reward a character with an additional skill tree that tends to be pretty powerful. If the game wasn’t ham-fisted enough with its ships, one of Fiora’s grants her all kinds of buffs as long as Shulk is fighting alongside her.
The main way to gain an advantage over enemies is to knock ‘em over. To do this, you hit them with a pink Break Art to unbalance them, then use a green Topple Art to literally trip ‘em up. You can extend the time they are down with a yellow Daze Art (which has yet to come back in the series). Topples and Dazes can be stacked, resulting in a technique called Topple-locking, but you don’t need to worry about that unless you’re fighting stupidly powerful foes (i.e. the superbosses). There are rare instances of being able to skip a step in the process, such as Melia’s Spear Break immediately followed by Starlight Kick. One great feature of the Definitive Edition is the visual indicator of these debuffs’ durations, similar to Xenoblade 2. Also, you can hit a target already suffering Break and Topple with another Art of the same type to refresh the status; something I DON’T remember in Xenoblade 2.
You also have to pay attention to Aggro. Whoever has the most Aggro has a red circle around them, and will have the attention of enemies. It’s optimal to keep it on people like Reyn, and not people like Shulk. There are various Arts dedicated to increasing and decreasing Aggro. Oh, and before I forget, I should mention Auras. These temporarily put the user in a unique state, and they can be VERY useful.
Just like with sidequests, Shulk’s visions help in battle, even when he’s not in the active battle party! When an enemy is about to use a powerful—usually fatal—attack, you see a Vision of it, with a timer of how long you have to stop it. More often than not, the attack will be the enemies’ own Talent Art, each of which has its own level. Use Shulk’s Monado Shield to protect from it, but the Shield needs to be levelled up enough in order to work. The Shield will not work on non-Talent Art attacks. There’s also the ability to consume a block of the Party Gauge by warning a fellow character, which gives you a chance to use an Art on the attacker. I don’t recall that being in the original, but it’s been years since I watched Chugga’s series so I don’t really know for sure.
The best part is the Chain Attack. Getting crits and Arts’ bonus effects fill the Party Gauge, which goes up to three bars. It takes one bar to revive a character, and the whole darn thing is consumed to execute said Chain Attack. Basically, you use Arts of the same color to boost damage. What’s really helpful is that enemy resistance to debuffs is nullified, which is where the Topple-locking strategy comes in. Unfortunately, Chain Attacks kind of suck early game, because their duration depends on your party members’ Affinities. Also, Sharla doesn’t learn a red Art for a long time, making it difficult to add to the multiplier with her in the party. In any case, I forgot how great this Chain Attack was versus the sequel’s. Like I said before, Chain Attacks in this game make Topple-locking viable. I’m stressing this because you can’t use Arts in Xenoblade 2’s Chain Attacks; they’re only good for sheer damage. Furthermore, the same actions that fill up the party gauge normally still apply during the Chain Attack itself; ANOTHER great thing I don’t recall in the sequel. Some setups can refill the entire party gauge instantly, allowing for an immediate follow-up Chain Attack. When your party’s Affinity gets high enough across the board, you can really spam these with little penalty. It’s so much better than Xenoblade 2, where I remember Chain Attacks being something you had to work for, not just by filling the party gauge, but also because you need at least six element orbs from six different types of Blade Combo for it to be worthwhile. Boy, I really sound like I hate Xenoblade 2. I swear, I love it! It just has… issues.
Another thing to keep in mind is quick time events. Don’t worry; they aren’t the BS that kills you during a cutscene if you don’t see it coming. Basically, you just need to press B when it lines up with the blue circle that forms. You need to do this to keep party morale up, which affects how good you do in battle. Also, hitting these prompts gives you the chance to extend your Chain Attack’s duration. Hitting these when prompted can fill up to a whole block of the party gauge, so… practice makes perfect.
One of the nicest new features is Expert Mode. Calm down; this is not a higher difficulty. Basically, what this option does is convert some XP earned from non-battle antics to reserve XP. In the Expert Mode menu, you can level up or level down party members, similar to how the inns worked in Xenoblade 2. If you’re worried about being overleveled from completing all the quests, then use this to even yourself out by levelling the party down. This is especially helpful in the endgame, which involves fighting enemies stronger than the final boss. You can do those quests and get up to Level 99 for the superbosses, then just level down afterwards for the final boss (if you want it to be a challenge of course; utterly wasting Zanza has its own catharsis).
In terms of difficulty, Xenoblade Chronicles can be rough if it’s your first Xenoblade ever. Conversely, if you’ve played Xenoblade 2, then this game is stupid easy. It’ll still feel easy even if you’re using Expert Mode. For me, that gave me the perfect level of challenge. I’ve even had multiple fights against monsters marked as “yellow”, meaning it would be pretty tough but not as hopeless as fighting a superboss. I would not have been able to get through it without my knowledge of Xenoblade fundamentals as well as knowing every party member’s battle style. There are quests that take you into high-level territory underleveled, but it’s not required like in Xenoblade X, nor is it as insane as Xenoblade X. There is a proper tutorial for Spikes, which I don’t recall being a thing originally. Plus, enemy health bars have a visual indicator if they have Spikes; a phenomenal improvement!
Oh, and f*** the Nebula enemies. These things can only take full damage from Ether, and usually have annoying status ailment Spikes that reduce tension, which you need to keep as high as possible over the course of battle (at the very least, you can farm Affinity by encouraging your allies over and over again). When the Nebulae are low on health, they self-destruct. Even if you survive it, they don’t actually drop loot, and if you could properly defeat one, the items that you actually need for stuff are quite rare. I’m glad that these aren’t in future games (and if they actually are, then they’re definitely not as bad).
The real challenge comes from Unique Monsters. These are tougher versions of regular enemies that take—and deliver—quite a beating. They drop super good prizes, and are worth taking on (plus, they’re really fun to fight). The superbosses are five Uniques over the level cap of 99, and suck. I never did them due to wanting to save time (thanks, both Great Ace Attorney games and my life), but you basically need a perfect setup to fight them… at setup that I vaguely know how to build but not enough to where it actually works (I tried on regular overleveled enemies and it didn’t go well). You also need to be in a situation to endlessly spam Chain Attacks and Topple-lock them, as well as regularly using Shulk’s Monado Purge to seal the VERY DANGEROUS counterattack Spikes they have on them. Since Topple-locking is a thing, they are probably the easiest superbosses of the series so far.
A much more consistent challenge is the A.I. of your other two battle party members. I remember Chugga specifically riffing on Shulk and Sharla, but I had some troubles with them across the board. While they are good at following up with the Break > Topple > Daze chain, they tend to use those Arts willy-nilly, and by the time I actually inflict something on the enemy, their Art is on cooldown. They are at least good at using Arts that work in tandem together, but that’s hardly an offset. Shulk will also spam Monado Arts (and use Monado Purge against enemies without Spikes or Auras), but that’s at least not too bad as long as he doesn’t use Monado Buster, which reduces the Talent Gauge by the highest amount. Sharla wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I recall Chugga saying. Maybe they rebalanced her in this version? In any case, you pretty much need to be in control of Shulk for the superbosses, since he NEEDS to be ever on point with his Monado Purges there.
Since everything in Xenoblade is so damn good, it’s no surprise that it has phenomenal music. I’m very attached to this soundtrack; it’s pretty much perfect. I even own an official copy of the OST, straight from Japan. In Definitive Edition, the soundtrack is ever-so-slightly altered. The basic ideas for the songs are still there, but if you’re really soft for the old OST, the new ones could sound jarring. At least it’s not made worse by this change. However, I did notice an issue that I don’t recall from Chugga’s series. You see, the battle music dynamically changes to some sort of “Oh crap!” music when you’re getting a nasty vision or if things aren’t going your way. However, the game consistently had trouble reverting back to the usual music, even after averting said crisis.
Oh, and one more thing new to the Definitive Edition is the Time Attack mode. This works like it does in Xenoblade 2, only it’s a lot easier. Unfortunately, from what I’ve tried, it doesn’t seem that practical. The rewards seem kinda useless for the most part, and you can’t even do most of the challenges right away. One big plus is that you can use it to obtain the super-rare materials for that gruesome final leg of Colony 6 reconstruction. Hallelujah!
Before getting to the final evaluation, I should list a couple of minor flaws in the game, for the sake of being comprehensive. Some enemies, specifically fish enemies, can be buggy and randomly disengage from battle for no reason. There are also at least two quests with multiple outcomes that will force the bad outcome if you have the necessary materials for it upon accepting the request. Also, I hate the quest where you get the weapon for Fiora right before taking on Mechonis Core, since you have to make a round trip through Central Factory with fast travel disabled; what’s worse is that it’s actually worth doing. And for some reason—I don’t know if it’s me having bad luck, but—I just could not get Chain Attacks to last very long. Maybe tension is involved in the calculations, but the prompt to extend was very rare even with characters who have maxxed out Affinity. This essentially means that the Superbosses are luck-based, but that’s just how the cookie crumbles in even the best JRPGs. Either that or I suck.
Final Verdict—Oh wait, there’s more!
Xenoblade Chronicles is over one hundred hours of top-notch JRPG gameplay. However, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition has one more addition in Future Connect, a post-game sidestory. Before evaluating the final product, we gotta play through Future Connect first!
In Xenoblade Chronicles: Future Connect, Zanza has been wiped from existence, and Shulk created a new world with no gods. Life is finally back to normal. A year later, Shulk and Melia pay a visit to Alcamoth, just to receive a giant laser blast to the face. Apparently, something called the Fog King has set up shop there and it needs to be taken out posthaste.
The story here is a pretty simple instance of the “we saved the world, but there’s still issues and junk” trope. It’s nowhere on the caliber of the base game. On the plus side, it basically serves as—after ten years since the original game came out on Wii—proper character development for poor Melia. She gets to spend quality time with Shulk, completely bereft of Fiora. Melia gets the full closure to her character arc that she deserved all this time. Accompanying the destined-to-be-friendzoned couple are two of Riki’s kids: Nene and Kino, who serve as your Reyn and Sharla respectively. They’re positively adorable, and that’s all there is to it; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Future Connect is set in the once-unused area known as Bionis’ Shoulder. For some reason, when Bionis fell over after beating Zanza… its shoulder decided to not fall? Why am I questioning JRPG tropes? In any case, there is a LOT to do on Bionis’ Shoulder! In addition to the Ponspectors, Heart-to-Hearts are replaced with Quiet Moments, of which there are many of. These don’t have any choices, and are fully voice acted; a nice change of pace from worrying that you could say the wrong thing. There is more incentive to defeat Unique Monsters, for they drop Art Coins, which are used to buy Arts Manuals now. Bionis’ Shoulder has a slew of optional quests, one of which is to find twenty of a certain Key Item scattered across the world.
A lot of mechanics have changed. Shulk can’t see visions, there is no more Skill Tree, and Chain Attacks are replaced with a special all-out attack. You also mine Gems directly from Ether deposits as you would for crystals in the base game. Anyway, the aforementioned special attack is a bit complicated. It’s unlocked by finding elite Nopons called Ponspectors throughout the world. With a full set of Ponspectors from the same team, your special attack can be performed based on that team’s specialities. Also, they autonomously assist in general, using Arts of their own.
Future Connected is also really hard. Everyone starts off in their sixties, but with crappy equipment and un-leveled-up Arts. With no Visions, big attacks can wipe your team instantly. Plus, the lack of Chain Attack makes it harder to Topple Lock (and the free Daze from the Ponspector attack can’t be refreshed by using a regular Daze Art). Shulk is pretty much essential, as Monado Armor becomes significantly more helpful than it was in the base game, but aggro management becomes difficult when you don’t have Aggro Up Gems on Nene.
After All These Years: 10/10
Thanks to the quality of life improvements in the Definitive Edition, Xenoblade Chronicles becomes the best game in the series for sure… at least until I finish Xenoblade 3 or have renewed thoughts on Xenoblade 2. It’s a no-brainer that I recommend it to anyone who owns a Nintendo Switch.
Graci Kim’s The Last Fallen Star was one of the better series openers from Rick Riordan Presents. It’s only natural that I would be anticipating the sequel, The Last Fallen Moon. Let’s hope it doesn’t suffer the notorious sequel curse.
When we last left off, Riley narrowly managed to save the world from a vengeful goddess. However, it cost her whole clan’s ability to heal, and almost everyone’s memories of her existence! Now she’s as miserable as the main protagonist of a YA novel. After a brutal attack on her household, she’s fed up, and decides to take matters into her own hands. Riley ingests a potion that temporarily stops her heart, effectively rendering her dead, so she can go to the heavenly realm of Cheongdang and find Saint Heo Jun and convince him to become the new patron of her clan to restore their powers.
So, we have another installment set in the underworld. Classic. In Korean folklore, hell is known as Jiok, and to be honest… I wasn’t exactly impressed with Kim’s vision of it. If you’ve seen Coco, then it is basically the same idea, where modern bullcrap like customs and long lines are integrated into the mythological space. Jiok bears a striking resemblance to New York City, or rather vice-versa, which seems cool on paper, but the critic in me considers that Kim did this to avoid the logistics issues with figuring out where landmarks are relative to each other. The most creative aspect is how Kim retconned the crap out of the different punishments, where they go from chambers of torment to vacation getaways. It’s also a big aspect of the overall story, so it’s not just there for the lols.
Speaking of the story, the plot at least felt like a step up from before. There’s a lot of bobbing, weaving, sneaking, and stealing during the course of Riley’s journey through Jiok and Cheongdang. There’s also a lot more at stake this time around, although I cannot say exactly why, due to spoilers.
Unfortunately, any positives I might’ve had about the cast are kind of out the window. Three protagonists are in focus this time: Riley, Hattie—who is comatose and able to visit the spiritrealm as a result, and newcomer, Dahl. Is it just me or is it a trope for character arcs to reset in between books? Riley Oh is whinier than ever this time around! In fact, most of the book is basically the Riley Oh Torture Porn Train; a lot of it feels orchestrated specifically to dump on her.
We at least get some more screentime with Hattie, but she has some moments that I felt like were there for shock value. Dahl is perhaps the best character thus far. He’s slick and smooth, but has many, MANY secrets underneath. He was born in the spiritrealm, and naturally, he wants to be human because what else would an immortal being want? At least his fascination with toilets is adorable.
With this being the spiritrealm, we get a lot of exposure to characters from Korean folklore. Unlike the Cave Bear Goddess from the previous book, they have way more personality, and better dialogue to boot. Sadly, I can’t discuss any of them due to spoilers.
Final Verdict: 8.65/10
The Last Fallen Moon is a big step up from the previous book, even if it is still rough around the edges. Even as a Japanese culture nerd, who’s always been jealous of South Korean culture for being more accepted by the West, I’ve been able to enjoy this franchise quite a bit. Hopefully the next (and final?) book will be even better!
One of the first things they teach you about the Internet is that anything you say on there is permanent. While I never made the mistake of giving away private information to strangers on social media, I have made posts that I now regret. One really damning post was my glowing review of Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow. Several months after reading the book, my outlook on it has completely changed. I could write a whole additional post about what I’ve been going through that made me love it at the time, and how I’m only just starting to face my personal issues head-on, but I won’t bore you (if you want context, you could read my other YA novel reviews and see how increasingly depressed I got over time).
In any case, I’m not going to hide what Iron Widow is anymore. I still stand by Wu Zetian being one of the few proactive YA protagonists, and the book overall being great as a mindless, anime-like romp. However, if taken with anymore than a grain of salt, it is a toxic and unhealthy tome of Feminism to the most violent, hypocritical extreme. Regardless, I still think Zhao is one of the most promising rookies in the field. With all that being said, let’s see if their middle-grade debut novel, Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, improves on their writing style while potentially being less of a loaded gun than Iron Widow was.
In Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, the titular Zachary is a passionate fan of Mythrealm, an AR-game that combines Pokémon Go with ancient mythology. One fateful day, he meets a boy named Simon Li, who is the host of the spirit of one of China’s past emperors. Zachary himself is also able to be possessed by the spirit of China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, via his AR headset. The timing of this couldn’t be better, because his mom is captured by demons and needs saving.
I hate that my blog has gotten so political lately, because I wanted to be a breath of fresh air from said politics. However, when you’re reading a book by Xiran Jay Zhao, it’s impossible to not get political. Unsurprisingly for a book published in 2020 onwards, Zachary Ying is a victim of racism; people assume things because he’s Chinese, and he’s even ashamed to eat his authentically homemade Chinese lunch at school. This means nothing for the plot, but it’s there anyway because it’s topical. To be fair, this is significantly tamer than Iron Widow. Of course, almost everything is tamer than Iron Widow in terms of political undertones, meaning that Zachary Ying will still feel very political in and of itself.
Let’s stop getting political for a bit and discuss what makes the book interesting in the first place: its very anime premise. Like in Iron Widow, Zhao is at least able to come up with creative ideas and execute them well. In a world where so many stories involve VRMMOs, the rare instance of an AR game is novel already. One of the biggest criticisms of Iron Widow was that the mechanics weren’t thought out well enough, and Zhao actually learned from that mistake! The basic principles of Mythrealm and the whole spirit thing are simple: the powers of the spirits are determined by how they’re thought of by people in the living world, including their portrayals in videogames. It’s an easy way for Zhao to go all-out and make Zachary Ying maximum anime.
In addition to being more anime, the book is significantly more action-driven than Iron Widow. There’s a fight scene in almost every other chapter, and said fight scenes are absolutely nuts. This is good because subtlety is about as good as it was in Iron Widow, i.e. non-existent. Zhao tells you exactly how to feel, from political views to how to view the spirits pulling the reins. They at least pull a moral ambiguity angle, something that was SORELY needed in Iron Widow, where a mass murderer was considered a messaiah.
So… the characters. Ohhhhh boy. Let’s discuss Zack first. He’s kind of a wimp, even when he has phenomenal cosmic powers. He’s meant to be an audience surrogate protagonist; the Asian-American who knows nothing about Chinese culture and history, and is therefore an incomplete human being. I’m not even exaggerating that last bit; part of today’s “woke” culture is the idea that every person is duty-bound to know and understand their “racial identity” to the Nth degree. Like almost all other books of this kind that I’ve covered, he gets stronger not by becoming more self-confident, but by learning random stuff about Chinese history.
Simon Li feels like he’s kind of there. He basically serves as an infodumper when the ghost of Huang doesn’t happen to be doing it himself. He has a brother in the hospital, but it feels like a shock value thing to make you like him. Oh, and here’s a kicker: the guy possessing his body is the real-life inspiration for Iron Widow’s drunk delinquent, Li Shimin.
Speaking of Iron Widow, recall its protagonist, Wu Zetian. She’s here too, and I honestly felt PTSD from her reappearance. Zetian possesses the body of Melissa Wu, and their personalities are so identical that you can’t even tell who’s speaking out of Melissa’s body at any given time. Surprisingly enough, she’s not as much of an extremist this time around. She’s still the Best Girl, though, if not better because she’s not yelling P.C. P.S.A.s every five seconds.
Every time I review an urban fantasy like this, I’ve said that the actual mythological characters are boring. Fortunately, the many mythological and historical figures that Zack encounters on his journey are some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. They are memorable and faithful to their sources, and have the self-referential humor that you’d think more authors would take advantage of but don’t.
If there’s anything I learned from Zachary Ying, other than a LOT of Chinese history, it’s that I still don’t get Xiran Jay Zhao at all. They say some things that are true, like how Chinese people aren’t all exactly the same as individuals, and a line about not caring about what other people think. However, they definitely portray Americans as a single, racist entity that hates Chinese culture, contrary to hard evidence that proves otherwise. Also, today’s culture literally revolves around people having to be “seen” by America in order to exist. Zhao seems to be establishing themself as a guru of Chinese history, but because of how political they are, and how things are in general these days, I don’t know if their interest is born of passion or civic duty. Their bio says they were “raised by the Internet”, which makes me feel like that their motives are purely the latter. Zack is often condemned for not knowing Chinese culture facts, and to be honest, I felt condemned by the author as well. That’s not how you should feel when learning about a foreign nation’s rich culture.
Final Verdict: 9.85/10
I think I really like this book. It’s a significant step up from Iron Widow, at the very least. Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is way more creative, and ties into Zhao’s vision to make the world learn Chinese history. It’s just a shame that it still has sprinkles of agenda throughout, otherwise it’d be almost perfect (although many would argue that the political aspects make it perfect).
Regardless, I need to stop getting political. Other than a few rants I may or may not publish, I’m going to try my damndest to stop being obsessed with politics, and to stop reading these politically charged books. I might still find myself consuming more of them (including but not limited to the sequels to books I’ve covered), but if I do, you won’t be seeing them. Anyway… Zachary Ying is great. Just be wary of the potential to get triggered.