Can’t stop, won’t stop! Finally got all 4 Trails of Cold Steel games on discs. Had to order the first and second game from the US because seems that all copies in Canada are sold out for some reason (and on ebay people ask simply ridiculous prices).

British thrashers Evile reminded everyone that it doesn’t matter how many or who of Drake brothers play in the band. Ol left, Ol returned, Matt left, Ol took over vocal duties and Evile released the best album since the debut one. I stumbled upon “Enter the Grave” by accident but it immediately became one of the albums I always had on my player. Good old times, when mp3 players were a thing. That was a great record, even though it was a bit naive and raw. “Hell Unleashed” is everything but naive. It’s even faster than “Enter the Grave”, very straightforward and absolutely ferocious. It’s brutally hammering you for half an hour and if I had to compare this album to something — it would be “Arise”. Ol Drake shamelessly said himself that “Arise” and “Beneath the Remains” were a huge inspiration for him while he was writing songs and that’s noticeable.

P.S. And while I’m on it… Cannibal Corpse also released a fantastic album, “Violence Unimagined”. I was kind of lukewarm about this band for a long period of time but “A Skeletal Domain” made me change my mind and every next record is only getting better.

Trails in the Sky FC

This one didn’t take long =) It was actually pretty interesting and a bit scary to go from modern (haha) Trails of Cold Steel to Trails in the Sky FC, the game that started this amazing journey and has made quite a few people around the world Falcom fans =) There are dozens of us! Dozens!

Not going to lie, I’m not sure I would’ve finished Sora FC if I hadn’t played CS III & IV. The first and most obvious reason is that the game is not as streamlined as other JRPGs nowadays. For example, I’m okay with the idea that points of interest are not shown on the minimap but for Aidios’ sake! Show there at least the people who’re dying to get some help from Estelle and Joshua! It’s not super exciting to have to talk to every single NPC assuming they might have a quest. It also would be nice to have some kind of fast-travel instead of dashing back and forth across 3-4 maps trying to get an ingredient or kill yet another monster.

I hadn’t played on PC for a few years, so my first several hours of Trails in the Sky were filled with frustration. I couldn’t get how anyone could play such a game using keyboard and mouse. Turned out that modern technology is amazing and PS4 controllers work with computers without any problems — I almost teared up when I finally could rotate the camera using R1 and L1 and control the characters using an analog stick

But enough of technicalities! Certainly it wouldn’t hurt if this game had a few quality-of-life improvements but overall it was a smooth sailing. So it’s time to begin ranting about other things =) Worry not though! This “other things” list is going to be short actually, just a single line — the game kicks off really slow. This is a well known fact and a general suggestion is to soldier through the first couple of acts. If you don’t know that eventually the game will change the scale dramatically — it’s hard to motivate yourself to go and complete those stupid first requests. Find a shining stone. Find a cat. Get rid of critters at a farm. So awesome. Yay. Even amazingly written dialogues are not going to help. The first several hours of gameplay are quite tedious and not very rewarding. Luckily I knew what I was getting myself into.

Because despite all that nitpicking, despite the fact that the plot could’ve been better, despite the goddamn tournament in the final chapter — Trails in the Sky is a great game that has so many fantastic moments! Which I’m going to remember for the rest of my life. Or at least for some, longer than usual, time, considering how awful my memory is =) Joshua playing “The Whereabouts of Light” for the first time, the scene when our heroes get acquainted with Olivier, the school festival and, of course, the epilogue — just to name a few. The cast of characters is great, even though many of them don’t get enough screen time (Zin, what do we know about him?). I also must say a couple of words about Estelle personally. I wholeheartedly support the idea that she is a much better main character than Rean. He is fine, I don’t hate him, but he’s soooo standard! Not that Estelle Bright was a type of person we’ve never seen in anime or other games but she’s as realistic and likeable as it can get. She’s not as well-rounded as Rean or, let’s say, Persona protagonists — who are smart and sexy, get along with everybody and leaders from the get-go. No, even with such a family name she is definitely not a genius, she doesn’t like tests and not especially fond of history. Estelle is pretty short-tempered and she won’t hold back if she thinks she’s had enough. Estelle is 16 years old and she acts like a normal (though pretty strong physically) girl her age. That’s why it’s always fascinating to see how she interacts with other people, we can always expect that it’s going to be something more than yet another “oh, we still have a lot to learn”. She and Olivier are two main starts in this game and it’s not even a close competition. Kloe and Shera don’t have enough time to show themselves and Joshua more works as a tool to bring Estelle down to earth (and yeah, there are also those occasional hints that he has a Suspicious Past).

While I’m on the topic of characters… I’m a pervert who’s playing the series out of order and in my case I bet it helps to think about Trails games better. To tell the truth, I’m not a huge fan of the idea of bringing back characters and referring to previous games all the time. I likely would’ve been very angry at the scene in the beginning of CS III when Tita joins the branch campus, if I had known who she was. For me she was just a cute calm girl from a different county, who is crazily good with orbal technology. She wasn’t that Tita =) Now, because I have already seen her when she’s older — I can just just say something like “Oh, that’s where she’s from!” and try to figure out how her personality changed between the two arcs, instead of yelling at the clouds that I’m sick and tired of Trails’ self-referencing.

I read that combat in Trails in the Sky is more difficult than in Sen games, so I prepared for the worst — that every other monster is going to kick my ass and then triumphantly piss on the characters’ sprite grave, because that’s how it works. Battles are indeed a bit more complicated and I had to re-play them more often than I did in Cold Steel, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought. The roughest part of the game is arguably the first and, maybe, second act. At this point Estelle and Joshua simply don’t have any powerful crafts (which in general have questionable usefulness, unless we’re talking about buffing or de-buffing) and almost all arts hit a single enemy. Life becomes easier when you get abilities like Joshua’s Flicker (it has delay) and arts like Aerial or Hell Gate. After that I didn’t have too many problems until the last boss, who’s pretty fat and has a cheat craft one-shooting a party member.

I’m hyped now because from what I’ve heard Trails in the Sky SC may be the best game among all 10 in the series. Even if it’s not true (probably not true — I’m a picky bastard), I’m sure it will be a great adventure. With more Olivier than ever =) That fact alone would make it totally worth playing =)

The older our cat gets the weirder his behavior becomes. Recently he decided that drinking from his regular bowl is not cool, so instead we have to observe something like that every evening. He drinks from literally everywhere — the bathtub, sink, our mugs, you name it — so we kind of gave up and just leave him a glass of water on the desk. A normal cat would just jump on the desk but this moron prefers to do it in this questionable pose

電波女と青春男

I know that I’m sounding like an annoying old uncle re-telling the same stories from his youth again and again but I really like studio Shaft. They replaced Gainax as the must-watch-the-entire-filmography studio (sorry Gainax, but what was the last anime you released that was good? Damn, when was the last time you released anything?!) and I’ve been slowly catching up with shows and movies made by Shaft and directed by the lord of head-tilts and grandmaster of questionable camera angles Shinbo Akiyuki. A fun fact — back in the day he used to work on hentai anime and some people could probably say that it’s noticeable =) Ahem, anyway. 電波女と青春男 might be not as eccentric as Pani Poni Dash but still, it’s good. Also — I must watch everything made by Shaft.

Honestly, it would be much easier to write something if “Ground Control to Psychoelectric Girl” was bad. Because even though this anime is good it’s just kind of uneventful. Most of the time we witness how all involved do normal things — they play baseball, celebrate birthdays, go to the beach, launch bottle rockets and enjoy a festival. It’s not boring to watch — but it’s boring to read about! Yet this show has its fair share of weirdness, mostly related to the characters. Does the main heroine, who prefers to be wrapped in a futon all the time, has to be carried in a bicycle’s basket and claims to be an alien look like an average girl? If yes — we have a real (probably) ESPer living under hanging decks; a girl who cosplays, cosplays a lot and cosplays mostly food; and the airheaded mother of the futon girl. That’s a bit harem-ish but this element isn’t too prominent. The cuteness aspect is over the top though. Cute and weird, what an amazing combination! Because of the characters, any, even absolutely normal event, can turn into something out-of-this world =) Of course, dialogues, direction and animation are also great — it’s a Shaft’s show we’re talking about. The last but not least — the ending is second to none, I didn’t skip it even once.

電波女と青春男 is not the best anime made by Shaft but it’s scary how much better it is than lots and lots of isekai nonsense we watch every season and thanks Aidios that Shinbo’s been pretty productive during his career. Even when the day comes when he decides that enough is enough and it’s time for retirement — we’ll be left with a vast library of movies and TVs he’s created or helped with =) But hopefully he’ll direct more.

I usually watch about two movies a year and I just wasted half of the 2021 budget on Tenet, which might be one of the most boring films mankind has ever created. Yeah, I know the argument that I may be not smart enough to understand how deep and innovative Tenet is and that it requires at least 4 re-watches to even begin recognizing its magnificence but oh boy! For 2.5 hours a bunch of totally unlikable characters, who can’t be bothered to even try to move their facial muscles, are pouring insipid dialogues on the unsuspected audience. They could’ve been easily replaces by 3D models or even cardboard cutouts, that wouldn’t have changed much. Why should we care about any of them? Why should we be interested in what they’re trying to achieve? The action and visual in general are not much better. Yah, I see, a bird is flying backwards, cool. Time manipulations may be one of the most beaten topics of all times in sci-fi and my rule of thumb says that usually it’s very difficult to build both complex and logical world using the premise that the flow of time is not linear. Is Tenet an exception? I would say that no — in its core it’s pretty standard. However, I must confess that I didn’t think about it too much and was just patiently waiting for the film to end. The mind-numbing story ended with a mandatory Final Battle, which felt like it was dragging on forever, so at least Tenet was consistent, it was equally boring at the end as it was at the beginning. I had a moral obligation to finish it (because I paid $7 to rent the movie and I’m a cheapskate) but it was a pretty questionable experience that proved one more time that Hollywood movies (and live action movies in general) should be approached very, very cautiously =)

Horimiya

Hori-san to Miyamura-kun was one of the shows I looked forward to watching last season and it didn’t disappoint.

There’s actually not much to write about it because this anime is just a well done romantic comedy. In the first episode this show might remind of KareKano, just a little bit — both main characters look and, in the case of Hori-san, behave differently in school and when they are at home but this impression doesn’t last long. Horimiya is probably more chaotic and light-hearted than Gainax’ classic and that’s not a bad thing. It has lots of characters (I honestly sometimes had to ask my wife who this guy or that girl were) and lots of love triangles but somehow manages to avoid paying attention to Tragedies of Unrequited Love more than necessary and instead focuses on the bright side of relationships. Speaking of Horimiya I’d say that maybe not even “bright” but “warm” =) Some people might even find the anime boring — what the hell, a couple doesn’t have any serious conflicts during the entire show?! They get together in the first episode and doesn’t temporarily break up because of a misunderstanding?! Well, yeah. Instead we learn that Hori-san has questionable ideas of how her boyfriend should treat her. I’ll take it =)

Trails of Cold Steel IV

Kiseki is a very addictive series of games. I loved CS III a lot but intended to take a small break before starting the last game in the arc, honestly, even though I had already bought a disc. Yet, I gave up to the addiction in less than a week and I have no regrets =) Even though now, having finished Trails of Cold Steel IV, I can see why there are so many polar opinions on this game. Despite still being a great JRPG, the end of saga could’ve used some improvements.

First things first. CS IV is a veeeeery long game. I finished the third Cold Steel in about 130 hours, that’s considering my lack of experience and that I watched all arts and crafts animations. This time I knew, more or less, how to play; was skipping combat animations a lot and… I clocked 170 hours before the final battle. The length by itself is not an issue — the problem is that the game is padded more than Eris’ chest! This comes from the plot structure, which I didn’t like and think it could’ve and should’ve been much better. So, to show what every part of the game looks like, a quick example: “Oh, we need to find <insert a name>. Hmm, the spirit veins analysis/our agents in various parts of the country said that you’re going to have to visit this 5 parts of Erebonia you have already visited before and we can reuse locations. To get access to every one of them you’ll need to collect 3 special keys. To get every key 7 monsters have to be defeated.” This is a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but this it’s pretty much how the game works. The new class VII is searching the place where Rean is kept — the witches tell them a few locations they should check out. Then Rean and others are going to somehow determined cities to free and pick up their allies. Then you have 7 Rivalries. I didn’t initially like the idea of field exercises in CSIII, but during my Cold Steel 4 playthrough my opinion on them changed. It is logical that a class in a military academy is sent to some arbitrary locations, you don’t need a great explanation for that. The problem is that the places you have to visit in this game feel to be chosen equally at random, even though you’re provided with an “explanation” every time. Instead of having this sense of immersion, when you understand why you’re doing what you’re doing and flow with the plot, this rigid structure didn’t allow me to forget that it’s a video game. It doesn’t help that every sub-chapter is built using exactly the same pattern. At your base you go and talk to everyone, then you buy the best available weapons and armor, then you go to every spot on the map marked that it has new events or dialogues, then you complete optional side-quests, then — trial chests, then — the main quest. That simply doesn’t get along with the idea that the war is about to begin, that you must hurry. Oh, I have 3 hours to complete the Rivalries and, maybe, save the world. I guess I will go and finish 54 side-quests all over the continent including fetching ingredients for a harvest festival, because that’s what you do when the world is on the verge of collapse. I swear, I spent a week of real world time on these last 3 “in-game” hours. How is that supposed to build that sense of urgency the game implies should be there?

To add up, half of the game, instead of relentlessly pushing forward and fighting bad guys, you “prove your resolve and determination” in battles with people who have no reason to be against you whatsoever. I frankly don’t know what’s worse — that or fighting the same several “bosses” multiple times, until they get tired and either lose interest (Ouroboros) or switch sides (SHARON!)

My last complaint is going to be about the plot. Yeah, it ties loose ends and explains everything or almost everything but I can’t help but think that the idea of a mysterious entity that corrupted Chancellor Osborne and Alisa’s father is a bit shallow. I do like that Rean’s father had his reasons to do what he was doing, that he wasn’t just evil for the sake of being evil — but, eventually, what the game did was switching from “Osborn is bad” to “Ishmelga is bad”. It might’ve been better to leave the focus on humans and what they try to achieve, to show that a person might have to go down a morally questionable and bloody path even if his or her intentions are noble, instead of laying the blame on a supernatural creature. CS IV touches this subject with Musse and her vision of how to stop the curse but this plot line is always on the background.

One more thing I have to mention is the cast of characters. It’s huge but manageable — during pretty much the entire game I used the same party of Rean, Juna, Kurt, Laura, Alisa and Altina. Trial Chests is an exception (on top of just being a meh mechanics), where you are forced to use specific characters, but I didn’t have too much troubles with them anyway. I read claims (again) that it’s impossible to play CS IV without having finished the previous arcs, because this game “is like the Avengers”. I’ve no idea what these Avengers is, whether it’s edible and whether it’s tasty but I’d say that everyone will be totally fine with very basic knowledge of who Estelle and Lloyd might be. There are some references to other arcs here and there but I can’t recall anything important to the plot. All these guys are just guests here, both story-wise and gameplay-wise.

Okay. Despite all my whining Trails of Cold Steel IV has fantastic moments. Like when you see completely possessed Rean for the first time. Or I almost teared up when, after 100 maybe hours of cruising the country, you return to Leeves and get to see the academy dorms again. That was done masterfully — to roam from one empty room to another and remember how many heart-warming moments you had there in the previous game. The evening Rean spends in Mishelam is also amazing and yeah, I was happy that he finally has an official partner. Who was that lucky lady in my case? Of course, Alisa! Although I was almost ready to make Rean confess to Laura. I mean… Altina is super cute and she and Juna are probably my favorite characters but let’s be serious here.

If I started talking about favorite characters and all that… In the end, the game gives you a chance to control groups consisting of the entire Stahlritter, Victor Arseid, Aurelia, Vita, Crimson Roselia and not going to lie, it was pretty cool — especially when you hit shit out of enemies with the dynamic duo of Victor and Principal Le Guin. I probably laughed like a madman every time selecting an action for these two =)

Because I was almost a pro this time — it was my second Kiseki game after all, I should’ve selected a higher difficulty. Normal turned out to be closer to hmmm easy than normal =) I still don’t know how to make optimal builds but very simple ones, like Laura+a lot of strength+str buffs or Juna+almost 100% evasion, worked pretty well. The battle mechanics were nerfed a little bit but even I broke the game a few times with a combination of Juna’s BO, then break, then Kurt’s BO and a couple of Chrono Bursts, shame on me. I still think that the combat system is great and I hope it won’t be smashed too much in next titles. Kuro No Kiseki is going to experiment with two togglable systems, with one being more action-based. That sounds like a recipe for a disaster but we’ll see.

Whereas I was not too happy with the plot in CS IV, dialogues and characters is something I can’t praise enough. The writing is superb and I think the translators did an amazing job. I was genuinely happy every time when new conversations with the allies became available and I got to observe and participate in their interactions. Yeah, often these conversations were, let’s say, cringy, when I wanted to cover my ears and be like “C’mon Rean, maybe enough inspirational speeches for one day?” But very often they were unexpected, funny and cute. I already said that Juna and Altina may be my personal favorites in the game and I still prefer new Class VII to the original one, but many other characters also grew on me. Fie, for example. Or Emma. Unfortunately, at this point the characters don’t change much but that’s understandable, we’ve had 3 games showing how they were becoming who they are now.

I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on just two damn games and now it’s very difficult to leave this world. Why should I when it’s so cozy and familiar? Heh, I said that it’s an addiction, didn’t I? =) I felt almost empty when the final credits roll and this time, instead of even trying to pretend that I’m going to play something else — just got the game where everything started, Trails in the Sky. Who doesn’t like a good JRPG with a romance between siblings? =) The perspective of having to catch up with 7 more games (8 with Hajimari No Kiseki) has become exciting instead of daunting. What has my life become!?

It’s been more than a year since COVID epic started and now, celebrating yet another Ontario lockdown that began yesterday, it’s fascinating to realize that it’s still a complete mess when it comes to understanding what the virus does and, what’s probably more important, what we do about it. In Ontario and, as far as I can tell, in entire Canada, the government’s actions have been all over the place. Let’s close pubs and hair salons but keep huge stores open at 75% capacity. Does anyone need a dentist? You’re out of luck. Someone has been referred to a surgery? Oh, it can wait, what can possibly go wrong? More interestingly, the same set of rules is applied to the entire province. Yeah, because GTA is in the same situation as Huntsville. In London, before the lockdown, new restriction had been added “depending on the trend in cases”. I mean, the idea of limiting how businesses work was based on the fear that hospitals would be overwhelmed, doesn’t look like the cases are directly related to that. Here, for instance, I think a good chunk of new positive cases come from students whose risk to be hospitalized is minimal. Considering that it’s been a year how we leap from one lockdown to another — I think it’s fair to question how much the mandates we have to comply with work, if eventually everything is still closed down. And our situation here, in London, wasn’t even that bad comparing to Toronto; or Montreal, where (if I recall correctly) there’s still curfew in effect.

I’m a pessimist and whereas I’m not entirely sure how reasonable the limitations are, I’m fairly confident that we’ll see new taxes, lots of closed businesses and increased cost of everything. Oh well, we are already witnessing that, two places we used to visit regularly have closed for good and one of few music clubs in the city also gave up. That’s only about places I know and have been to multiple times. In general the downtown had been in decline for a while, for reasons, and now there is quite a few buildings with boarded windows and “for lease” signs. So I doubt that the idea that your business can be closed any moment will inspire lots of potential owners. We’ll probably hear and read articles how the pandemic destroyed small stores and restaurants but maybe it’ll be more correct to say that the government response hit them harder than the virus itself. A couple of years ago, when PCP got the power in the province, they picked “Open for Business” as the slogan. Ironic eh?

What’s even more interesting is that I didn’t believe that people would get used to the current situation so quickly. Last year we’re drinking beer with some guys and, of course, were talking about covid, which had been around for a few months back then. I was telling them that everything would return back to normal sooner or later — simply because people would want that. People would want to go to hockey games, get a few shots at a pub or just smile at each other on the street. Now I’m not so sure. A few people I know basically haven’t left their homes during all this time, only going out to buy groceries. London was a super friendly city, on average — it still is, I’m sure! But now you can meet people who’re willing to climb a tree or jump in front of a car only to avoid a stranger passing by. It’s an anecdotical experience, for sure — but it feels like older folks, who should be more worried about the virus, are often calmer than people my age or younger. For example, last year once we went to listen to some live music in a small tavern, and we were the youngest guys there, most other people there were in their 70s. Maybe it was a specific of that particular place, who knows. But again, I’m a pessimist and if we’re ready to redo everything in life because of a bad, but not the-end-of-the-world-bad virus — what’s going to happen when we get hit by another, more dangerous, one?