Lovebites’ “Judgement Day” is out and it’s actually pretty good! Some of the songs are a bit pop-ish (“My Orion” with its “Ah oh, ah oh, oriiion” is uhh… well, a band can have its “Escape”, can’t it?), but overall it’s a very pleasant album that is varied enough so I can listen to it in its entirety and not get tired. If I had to pick the best song from the record it would probably be “Soldier Stands Solitary”, it’s such a banger! But as I said the entire album is quite good.

As a bonus — an old video with Dragonforce =)

Star Ocean The Divine Force

I think I wrote earlier that I wanted to get more familiar with Star Ocean games and in recent months I completed Star Ocean 1 and Star Ocean 4. The latter was supposed to be the topic of this post but… I had a lot of stuff to take care of and by the time I sat down to finally share my impressions of that, probably the most underappreciated, SO game, I had already finished The Divine Force. And damn, it’s such a good game that SO4 will have to wait a bit longer =)

Star Ocean 6 has some minor issues, for sure, but it does so many things right! It’s an incredibly fun game, that simultaneously feels like an old-school JRPG yet has all the bells and whistles you’d want to see in a game in the 21st century. I’m genuinely surprised to see that it got somewhat a mixed response online, so I can only pray to Aidios (or Tria?) that it’s sold well enough to keep Tri-Ace afloat.

Before I start singing praises to stuff I like in The Divine Force (and notice the present tense — I’m still playing it and currently aiming to get the platinum trophy) let me go over things that could be improved. The most obvious and the most annoying issue is the font size in menus. It’s awfully small and I have to squint all the time to read anything. I hoped it would get patched at some point but that doesn’t seem to be the case sadly. I’d say that the second most important issue is the game’s difficulty. It’s… weird. I started my playthrough on Galaxy difficulty, switched to Universe after the first boss fight I guess, because it was too easy. But Universe difficulty, frankly, didn’t feel very hard either, except for a few spikes. And I’m saying that as someone who didn’t even try to break the game with item creation. I blame Laeticia’s Determined Princess skill, which is ridiculously overpowered (x2 experience for the active party at a price of -100% DEF for the princess herself, a great deal whatever way you’re looking at it), it allowed me to breath through the entire game until the second fight with Gabriel Celeste. Which was the first real difficulty spike and forced me to create the best weapon and armor for Raymond. The second difficulty spike was that bird in the second optional dungeon, I had to level up everyone to level 255 but it’s a different story. I’m also not sure that I liked the idea that you can change the difficulty any time you want. I mean… I used it myself to “complete” the game on Chaos (you need only to kill the final boss on a particular difficulty to get the corresponding trophy) but still. The rest of the problems are really minor. I wish we could use the scanner during characters’ conversations, and these conversations themselves sometimes unfortunately follow the modern trend of beating you in the head with the not-so-subtle hints: “Ah, I think we need to go to seaport of Cotto, we could use the southern gate”. Another gripe I had is a weird one — several times Laeticia referred to D.U.M.A as “they”, something that’s been a thing in English for about 7 minutes, not to mentioned that, well, it’s a robot; that felt really off. That’s especially noticeable because by and large the dialogues are well-written (I assume? well-translated at least) and match the speaker’s personality.

Speaking of personalities — I really liked the characters of this game. There are some who might be a bit generic (Nina or Marielle) or under-developed (pun intended), as Chloe, but overall the cast is very good. Look at Elena, for example — I honestly thought that she would be a fanservice-first member of the party, because… well, just look at her goddammit! Yet she turned out to be a decently written character who just happen to be a walking sex bomb =) I’m surprised how much I enjoyed following Raymond as the protagonist. On paper he is just your average JRPG main character, but the fact that he is a laid-back strong guy, who doesn’t second guess his decisions, who is loyal to his friends and family to no end and has nothing suspicious in the past felt really refreshing. Yeah, I’m tired of the current trend that every character should be “deep and complex” =) It was amazing to see his brother and father later in the game, both look like cool dudes and I should’ve probably tried to find private actions with them (I think there should be some). Even Laeticia’s farther and head of his guard (Bertrand I think?) surprised me — I thought that one of them, or maybe even both, would turn out to be assholes but instead I ended up rooting for them and hoping that they wouldn’t die. I’m purposefully not writing anything about Laeticia — yeah, we spend a lot of time with her and she is a great character as well, but I want to go through the game for the second time to be able to competently judge whether she was worthy of getting Inori Minase’s voice =)

Yeah, seiyuu in Star Ocean The Divine Force are pretty good. As I said, Laeticia is voiced by Inori Minase (Altina in Trails of Cold Steel but her most famous role I guess is Rem), Nina is Rie Takahashi (!), JJ is Takaya Kuroda (Kazuma Kiryu) — honestly, I play mostly without sound because of the baby, but for Star Ocean using a pair of headphones looked like a must.

The story will not blow anyone’s mind but it was competent enough to keep my attention. The combination of fantasy and sci-fi in this game was done masterfully though. I know that some people praise The Last Hope for having multiple planets but, honestly, I think TDF did it better. You you spend most of the time on Aster IV, in your average fantasy setting, and you only have conversations about the outer space — it’s actually very Raymond-like that he is not shy about his status as an otherworlder =) If you think and see all this from the perspective of, say, Laeticia — you learned about the existence of other planets, then for about 40-50 hours you’ve been hearing about space ships and space travelling — and after that you actually get to teleport to a ship and travel to other places! It was so fun!

It’s good when a JRPG has a decent story and good characters, but gameplay is usually more important, right? Star Ocean 6 is pure crystallized fun when it comes to combat and exploration. I love AP system in this game, I love that it nudges you to switch who you’re controlling, the skill tree is done really well (if we forget about the ridiculous font size), every character plays very differently, and D.U.M.A makes combat feel very fresh comparing to other games. During my first playthrough I was trying to use a party of “aliens”: Ray, Elena, Marielle and well, Nina or Laeticia (should’ve been JJ but he joins so late in game, he was like 25 levels below the rest of the party) and it was a blast. Elena is not only hot, she is also the most fun to play character, hands down. She has attacks for every possible situation and by the end of the game hits like a truck. Also would highly recommend to at least try playing as Marielle — she is the Star Ocean 6’s Reimi. Aster IV boys and girls for the second route, yay!

Let’s talk about Welch and whether she is hot (goddamn Sergei, what’s with this attitude of a horny teenager? although I’d say that yes, yes she is) Item Creation is fun in The Divine Force. I read some complaints about the random nature of crafting in SO6 and having gotten the trophy for crafting 90% of all possible items I can see where the criticism is coming from. Getting random items is a double-edged sword for sure — it’s addictive and exciting most of the time. “Ah, I got an accessory that increases item drop by 180%, wow!” By the end of the game however, when you do want to get the ultimate weapons and armor for everyone (or aiming to get the item creation trophy) it becomes a save-load fest, because late game crafting is bizarrely expensive. Overall, I’d say that crafting can be ignored until the first post-game dungeon. Yeah, it’s nice to get something that increases the amount of Fol or EXP you gain, but my pet-peeve with crafting in most RPGs is that at every particular point in the game it’s really difficult to create a better weapon or armor than what you can buy and The Divine Force was not an exception. I used IC regularly throughout the game and unless I was really lucky with a factor I’d say it was not worth it. Take my words with a grain of salt though, I heard that it’s possible to break SO6 as early as you get access to alchemy — create philosopher’s stones and craft the best weapons for most of the party. I don’t understand how it’s possible, because I only could craft Philosopher’s stones using Meteorites which become available either in the very last dungeon or even during post game, but maybe I just missed something. You can craft a cat though. And I love new Welch’s design =)

The last thing I wanted to mention is Esowa (someone recently blew my mind by pointing out to the fact that it can be written as SOA — Star Ocean Anamnesis, the name of the mobile Star Oean game). It’s a great, simple and fun, mini-game! The entire idea to use characters from previous SO games as accessories-slash-game pieces is fantastic and whoever came up with it should get a promotion. The most satisfying result of crafting an item was to get a new Esowa piece I hadn’t gotten before. I wish I knew who all the characters were… =)

Tri-Ace surprised me and may’ve made me a Star Ocean fan with The Divine Force. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did and going to play it for the second time soon, the platinum trophy won’t achieve itself. If the studio survives, and oh boy I do hope they will, even though it’s unlikely that we’ll get a new Valkyrie Profile game now I will be looking forward to Star Ocean 7.

I usually don’t write anything about ongoing anime until the season is over but this time I simply have to vent. Trails of Cold Steel anime is bad. Yeah, we’re only 5 episodes in but I can’t imagine that all of a sudden this show will become better. It has no budget, the animation is atrocious, the way it’s directed you’d assume that it was made by a school anime club, the dialogues are poorly written, the plot is not there yet and the new cast of characters is so unlikeable that it’s simply insulting to any Kiseki fan (yeah Falcom spoiled us). Lavi is a watered down version of Fie who doesn’t have an ounce of Fie’s charm and the rest of the group doesn’t belong to anything with “Trails” in the name. I’m going to continue watching this… product only because I hope we’ll get a minute with the original characters here and there and pray to Aidios that their dialogue lines will be written by different writers.

And trust me, I had to work hard to capture a half-decently looking screenshot =(

So, I’ve been following that Japanese bassist girl, Fami, for a while (I’m starting to suspect that I’m a sucker for watching people who are more talented and put more effort into stuff than I do) and she had been, you know, that mysterious high school girl who never showed her face. Until recently! And turned out that she decided to reveal who she is for a good reason — she joined a band, Lovebites. I’m writing all this because even though I was kinda familiar with this band, for example they played an opening for the latest Mamoru Oshii’s anime Vlad Love, which of course no one watched — that was the first time when I decided to listen to their music more carefully and damn! They’re pretty good! I’m even surprised a little that they apparently are not popular in the West, considering that they play really well, look pretty cute and the songs’ lyrics are in English.

I don’t know if Fami is a good fit for them and whether they are a good fit for her, and how long this collaboration will last — but now I look forward to listening to their new album, Judgement Day, I think it’s coming out next month.

Chainsaw Man

I wrote the other day that Bocchi the Rock was a pleasant surprise this fall season, but actually Chainsaw Man was another one. By default I don’t believe that something that’s being hyped a lot is going to be any good (I’m a fucking elitist who prefers classics like Let’s Nupu Nupu to all your modern fancy shows) and Chainsaw Man was one of the most talked about manga recently. I didn’t follow the conversations too closely, but I saw that this name popped up here and there all the time. MAPPA had a tough job to satisfy people who were familiar with source material and, simultaneously, attract new viewers, and I think the studio did a pretty good job.

First of all — the quality of animation is top notch. During the entire season I was like “damn, they spent tons of money on that!” And tons of work. There weren’t any weak episodes animation-wise. To be fair, I can’t recall any anime MAPPA was responsible for that had awful animation, but this one may be their best work (it’s funny that it feels like MAPPA has been around forever, whereas this studio was founded like what, 10 years ago?) Lots of movement, lots of camera angles, lots of action sequences — yeah, it maybe doesn’t have that warm hand-drawn style some shows have but welcome to the 21st century I guess (not so fast, studio Orange, Trigun Stampede still looks questionable).

What Chainsaw Man really does right is its characters. Denji and Power are complete savages and I approve that wholeheartedly. They are the real reason to watch this anime, because, frankly, the plot here is non-existent. Ironically, that’s also why I think I will never watch this story entirely — sooner or later the characters should show some development and my guess is that they will become more “likeable”, meaning they’ll transform into your average shounen characters defeating demons for the goodness of their hearts and not because they want to touch some boobies.

However that will happen in the (probably nearest) future — for now let’s just enjoy a beautifully drawn anime about some insane guys smashing demons left and right =)

Bocchi the Rock

Bocchi the Rock was a pleasant surprise this fall season. Initially I had no idea what to expect. On one hand this is an anime about an all-girls band, so it could be a new K-ON and there’s no such thing as “too much K-ON”. On the other hand this is a yet another show where the main heroine suffers from severe social anxiety, so it could easily become a drag like “Komi-san Can’t Communicate”. Luckily, Bocchi the Rock doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are definitely some awkward moments related to Hitori’s behavior, but nothing facepalm-inducing — and the other characters mostly laugh it off, or even sometimes have fun at Hitori’s expense (even her parents) =) And it’s certainly not a music-first anime — yeah, the girls play some songs here and there, but mostly it’s a comedy with really likeable characters.

What I definitely didn’t expect from this show is how much experimental and weird animation CloverWorks would use. I don’t know if the manga was the same, but every time Hitori falls into depression or goes into her own world it looks like the animators are given a free rein. It’s not Pop Team Epic-level madness of course, closer to something I’d imagine old Gainax could try but it is pretty unusual for such a mainstream show.

To sum up — show good, me enjoyed, second season want =)

Kotobukiya wants me to go bankrupt, I can’t find another reason why it decided to release a new Kiseki figure every 3 months. Just pre-ordered this Renne, curious who’s going to be next — hopefully Tio. Or Alisa. Or Juna. Or Laura. Or Sarah. Or… Who am I lying to — I’m going to order a figure based on pretty much any girl in this series except maybe Millium and Angelica =)

God of War Ragnarok

God of War Ragnarok is a game that a lot of people will, doubtlessly, enjoy — just look at the trophies data, 41% (!) got the final battle trophy, that’s simply insane. For me personally though it was a mixed bag, I got really tired of GoW:R by the end and glad that I’m done with it for the time being.

I was absolutely in love with the visuals on the previous GoW but pretty neutral towards the rest of what that game had to offer. Ragnarok sometimes is better than its predecessor but sometimes, oh man, it is so much worse!

Let’s start with the good stuff. The game again looks incredible. I love the graphics from the technical standpoint; I love the art-direction; locations are fantastic — you can make an argument that it doesn’t look much better than GoW 2018 and that may be true, but that’s more of a compliment to the game that came out 4 years ago. I also played on ps5, so it was a 60FPS experience accompanied by haptic feedback =)

This time around I also, quite surprisingly, liked combat. I felt lukewarm about combat in the previous game, it was okay but never pulled me in. I bumped the difficulty this time (“Show me no mercy”, so “hard” I guess?) and maybe because of that the battles were much more satisfying. Hell, this may be the reason I will return to the game later to get the platinum! I still don’t like a lot of related things: all the tinkering with armor, the axe’s knobs and whatnot, the crafting and equipment system, all that frustrates me — but the actual process of swinging the blades, dodging, blocking, etc. was unexpectedly fun. I died dozens of times during my playthrough but thanks to the generously placed checkpoints I never felt an urge to lower the difficulty. This time I even fought a few Berserkers and planning on going back to challenge the rest of them — I skipped the Valkyries fights in the previous game entirely. But whereas the combat loop and locations where you’re tearing enemies apart are really good, the rest of the game, namely pacing, story and characters are bad at best and atrocious at worst.

I wouldn’t say that I’m a huge fan of Kratos or any other character from the original games. Their personalities are so-so and, overall, gameplay is the king in those games, everything else is secondary. Now it’s year 2022 though, so we can’t just play a videogame, we need to experience a Story with Well-Developed Characters who demonstrate their Growth by making Important Choices. Can you have too much of that in a game? Oh, turned out that you can, for sure. As I said I used to be neutral towards the characters of GoW 2018, now I really dislike all of them. No exceptions. Everyone is GoW:R is over-emotional, likes to butt into other people’s affairs and shares feelings when no one asks for this. And they. Are. Always. Talking. It’s frankly unbearable. Sometimes their chatter affects your gameplay, like if there’s a puzzle your companion will not give you even a fucking minute to come up with a solution: “Oh, maybe I should shoot an arrow into that spot? And you will throw the axe. What are you waiting for? Throw the axe. Let me shoot an arrow and you will throw the damn axe. This cliff looks climbable. Maybe you could climb up there? Doitdoitdoit. Listen to me!” It’s annoying and I hope that there’s an option to disable that but I couldn’t find it. Combat actually suffers from the same problem — each one of Kratos’ companions feels that it’s his or her sacred duty to yell at Kratos. “Parry! Use your shield! Dodge! Why are you not using you shield?!” Annoying and utterly ridiculous in the context of who Kratos is and who they are.

To add insult to injury, the non-stop exposition, lore drops and characters banter ruin the pacing of the game. Old GoW games barely had any dialogue in them, so the pacing was relentless, SSM tried to always keep you engaged by giving you something to do in the game. First you’re crashing a horde of weak enemies, then you solve a puzzle, then it will be a climbing section, then a couple of strong monsters will attack you… you get the idea. In the new God of War games we have large sections of walking/riding a sled and doing nothing but talking. “Sergei, but you’re playing JRPGs all the time and claim that Trails, the series based on unstoppable dialogues, is your favorite one, why are you so upset by conversations in God Of War Ragnarok?” Well, the answer is pretty simple — I really, really don’t like the writing in this game.

Whereas the main plot has some interesting points — for example the way Gram becomes Fenrir is pretty smart — overall I found myself not caring much about it. If you asked me what the plot was I would probably mumble something about defying the prophesy in… well… some way and ughh killing Odin for umm some reasons. Some episodes that look pretty good on paper, like when Atreus runs to Asgard, are actually not especially memorable. The what-a-twist about Tyr… well, I spoiled it to myself pretty early and overall it was kinda ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I know that I will remember a few levels but unfortunately that will happen for a different reason — they etched in my memory because of how bad they were. We spend a couple of hours in Ironwood, for example, doing mostly talking and other pointless stuff. Accompanied by a girl that serves no purpose in the game and who, as your companion, attacks monsters using… paints. Why?! Why, Aidios, why?! It’s such an alien idea for a God Of War game. Not to mention her constant “You’ve got this! I’ve got this! Have you got this?” This level also was the one where I realized that something felt off regarding dialogues in this God of War. That girl and Atreus talked the way modern teenagers would talk (or perhaps how the writers assume teenagers talk nowadays). After that I couldn’t unsee and unhear how contemporary, out-of-place and, frankly, bland most of the exchanges are. Such tone, jokes, everything really, could be found pretty much in any blockbuster movie or game that came out in the last 5-10 years or so. You know that Disney-style formula, when someone says a smart or stupid phrase and in the end another character repeats it either mocking the original speaker or showing the growth? Like, character A says “We’re doing this because we have to, not because it’s cool” and in the end character B says the same phrase and everybody hugs and goes to eat some muffins? Don’t worry GoW has such stuff as well. The couple of cool phrases from the first game (“Don’t be sorry, be better” and “In the direction of a deer”) are now said by Atreus and directed at Kratos. Fuck me. Not only phrases, moment-to-moment interactions between characters are also so weird here. You know these little nods characters give each other when they acknowledge something? You think that would look cringe in a God of War game? Oh, it does, but we still have them. Also Kratos is now brave enough to give other members of their posse touching pats on the shoulder and hug his annoying son.

The last thing I want to mention is a lack of epic scenes. That’s truly a shame because a decade after I played old God of War games I still remember some of the crazy, over the top episodes those games have. The fight against Ares in the first game, the very first battle against Poseidon in GoW III (which I personally consider peak GoW), that sex scene with Aphrodite — I can’t recall anything in the last two games that would be as memorable.

Maybe I finally hit the midlife crisis and just like to complain in general, but I was pretty upset by GoW: Ragnarok. Amazing visuals and pretty fun combat are mixed together with the dialogues and characters that I want to wipe from my memory and never see anything like that again. Oh well, looks like Kratos’ part of the saga is over now, my guess is that Atreus will be the main character of the next game and I can skip it with no regrets. In meantime… I bought the original two games of GoW and going to replay them =)