Hentai Ouji to Warawanai Neko. (The Hentai Prince and Stony Cat)

This manga is an adaptation of a light novel that also received an anime, wherein the manga adapts exactly the same amount of content as and stops at exactly the same place as the anime. However, I would have to say the anime is a better adaptation than the manga. Thus, if one would have to choose between one or the other, I would highly recommend going with the anime. I also don’t really think there’s much of a point in reading the manga after you’ve seen the anime either.

The story is centered around a boy named Yokodera who is a massive pervert and the various connections he forms with others as a result of a cat statue, or rather a series of cat statues, that can grant wishes. The general structure of the plot involves one or more people making a wish on a cat statue, things going badly, and then Yokodera working to try to reverse the wishes. There some variety to how these wishes work. The first statue for example is limited in that it seems to only have the power to take things such as personality traits away from one person and give them to someone else, the reversing of which requires the person that received the trait to wish for it to be taken back. Thus, reversing this requires Yokodera to try to convince the girl that received his façade personality trait to no longer wish to have one and to be more true to herself. As one would expect, this results in the narrative going in depth into her background and motivations behind making a wish and character development in order to want to reverse it.

The plot itself was pretty interesting for the first arc wherein the mechanics to wishing actually felt like they mattered and things were pretty grounded. As the story progresses the following cat statues are a lot more flexible in that they seem to have the power to whatever they want without any requirements and grant completely absurd wishes like turning a school into little Italy without anyone questioning why or sending people back in time. It’s much rougher and random, and thus in terms of the wishes and lore it’s a lot less interesting. But the core of the plot generally remains trying to reverse one or more wishes with this serving as a vehicle for character stories, so that’s not too much of an issue.

The character stories are pretty solid. There’s a good variety to them and they can be far more serious than it may seem based on the premise and the title. The three most important characters are Yokodera and the sisters Tsukiko and Tsukushi. There’s a good amount of light romance as you would expect between Yokodera and the two girls, especially Tsukiko, but just as important is the bond between the two sisters in that they are both orphans living alone and that’s left both of them with some long standing issues they need to work through. The writing on this is pretty solid, especially the last arc which had some strong emotional beats and went in ways I really didn’t expect.

There are two other characters that also have arcs, Azusa and Ema. Azusa’s was centered around opening her true self up to others and was written pretty well. Her relationship development with Yokodera is also really solid. Ema’s on the other hand was much more nebulous and didn’t come across as well and her relationship development wasn’t that great either, so her arc largely didn’t come across all that well. Yokodera himself in standard harem protagonist fashion doesn’t really ever have an arc focused on him, and though he does get character development, it’s character development with the purpose of growing to be able to help the heroines with whatever issues they’re facing rather than to overcome his own issues. To that end, his character arc very much fulfilled it’s purpose, though ultimately I don’t think it mattered all that much.

It is at this point that I will note that the pacing of the plot is pretty bad. It rushes through certain things and thus certain things are somewhat confusing and certain beats don’t land as well. The ending especially is a total mess that goes through things way too quickly. The anime handles things much better, which is the main reason that I think the anime is better and why I would suggest watching that instead of reading this manga if you have the option to do so.

Also, while I may have made it sound like this is pretty serious manga, that’s probably me overcompensating for the title and premise which makes it sound like the complete opposite. While it does have more depth that one would expect, it is ultimately a pretty lighthearted manga with a heavy focus on comedy. The comedy is carried by the cast who can be incredibly fun together. Yokodera is a pervert with no shame that does completely ridiculous things constantly but is also really dense on certain matters. Tsukiko is a girl who literally can not express emotions, though she has very strong ones, which results in a very bizarre dynamic. Tsukushi is an incredibly overpowered airhead siscon that can be fooled incredibly easily into believing anything. And Azusa is a tsundere for whom the dere part actually stands out really strongly and who’s pride often results in her generally being the butt of the jokes rather than a pointless aggressor. Just the light hearted and comedic portions is enough to make the cast likable, which makes it a lot easier to be invested in the more serious parts. The comedy too I don’t think comes across as well as in the anime, though I think it was pretty solid in the manga too nevertheless.

The art has a nice style and is reasonably high quality. Character designs aren’t that interesting but work well enough for the setting. There weren’t that many panels that made great use of the art and designs though. Also, the manga is full of Oscar Wilde quotes and cat facts if you’re into that. The spin off Nya is just a series of short amusing side stories. There’s no substance whatsoever, but they’re humorous enough.

A manga with an amusing cast and surprisingly solid writing, though pretty bad pacing.

7/10

Saiteihen no Otoko (Scumbag Loser)

This manga is a three-volume length psychological thriller centered around supernatural beings that are killing and replacing people. It is from the point of view of Masahiko, a high school boy that one of said beings, Haruka, seems to grow fond of. Masahiko has always been near the bottom rung of the school hierarchy, and thus has come to be someone that’s very good at sniffing out the biggest losers through scent alone. The mysterious beings that are killing and replacing people are primarily after such losers, and thus Masahiko is given the job of selecting targets.

Through this set up it touches on various themes. The main one starting out is everyone’s obsession with social hierarchies. It doesn’t delve that much into it, basically showing off an example that’s supposed to be disturbing to try to convey how awful things can get, but to be honest it wasn’t all that bad relatively speaking and didn’t leave that much of an impression. As the series progressed it also touched upon the more interesting theme of how people don’t really view the inside of someone as who there are, wherein even if someone’s personality changes completely as long as they look the same and seem to be fitting into the same slot in society, they’ll be viewed as exactly the same person.

That in and of itself isn’t that interesting because it’s relying entirely on the supernatural aspect in order to work and thus doesn’t say much about real life, however tangentially it did bring up quite often the much more interesting point about the hollowness of unconditional love. In a conditional relationship, or at least a healthy one, those involved are in love with each other for who they are and want to be loved in a similar vein. There obviously will be things that one might wish were different about one’s partner, but in general one wouldn’t want them to change completely because they’re in love with them in the condition that they currently exist in and thus it is likely love would wane if said partner changes too much. On the other hand, unconditional love doesn’t really have any sort of foundation to it. There’s no real reason for it to exist, but it still has to exist. Thus, a parent will love their child regardless of how much they change over the course of their life. That’s generally a touching sentiment, but on the other hand it’s also not at all. The love isn’t of the person themselves but rather simple of the role they’re inhabiting, and thus they’d be perfectly fine with anyone else in that role. Rather, it would be perfectly reasonable to wish that the one fulfilling that role was essentially someone completely different. While this isn’t really anything more than stating the obvious I suppose, actually thinking about it somewhat depressing.

The plot was incredibly lacking. The first half is fine. It’s pretty typical psychological horror with inexplicable changes and the feeling of helplessness and solitude in the face of the mysterious that proceed in a pretty generic manner. It’s not all that unique, but it isn’t bad either, so it’s decent enough. The second half is where things go off the rails. It drops most of the psychological horror in favor of more in your face scares but isn’t all that good at it thus just isn’t scary at all, nor is there much in terms of good suspense. It begins focusing much more on two new characters, but in the end there was no thematic or plot purpose to either of them. This is the type of story where all the main characters are horrible and unlikable, which isn’t all that rare for psychological horror, but towards the end it felt like it was trying for beats that actually relied on having some investment in the main character and his struggles, but that just didn’t land at all considering it’s not like he went through any sort of character arc or anything like that. On top of that, the pacing is pretty bad with it wasting a bunch of time on the aforementioned pointless characters and then rushing a bunch during the ending. This results in a bunch of plot holes, some minor such as why a character looked like what they did, and some major, like characters seemingly knowingly allowing themselves to be killed off for no real reason.

The art was solid enough quality. Style wise it could be good at times, meaning both in terms of looking nice and in terms of looking horrific, wherein the looking nice aspect is important for helping the horrific parts stand out. However, most of the time it wasn’t either, it was just kind of meh in a way that didn’t enhance the tone or atmosphere at all, and design wise it was pretty dull in general.

A bit of an interesting take on the theme of unconditional love, but beyond that it’s either generic psychological horror or uninteresting nonsense.

6/10

Kannagi (Crazy Shrine Maidens)

Kannagi is a manga that begins by a boy named Jin carving a figure out of the wood from a fallen sacred tree, and a girl named Nagi popping out of that figure. She claims to be the god that was enshrined in said sacred tree, but now that the tree was chopped down the protection she had offered the town was also gone, thus resulting in bug like creatures called impurities to wreak havoc. However, she still had enough power in her new form to take them out manually and she wanted Jin’s help to do so. This is how the manga starts and I guess it serves as the overarching plot, but Jin and Nagi searching for a defeating impurities really isn’t focused on at all.

Rather, the focus immediately shifts to it being about Nagi and her sister Zange essentially becoming local idols doing their best to gain followers as that increases their divine power. This aspect isn’t all that serious, and the end result is mostly just Jin, Nagi, Zange, and their various friends hanging out and living as high school students with various comedic hijinks ensuing while also occasionally having some soul searching teen drama. The drama centered around Nagi is pretty different from what you’d usually get in such manga as she’s a divine being having somewhat of an existential crisis, but it still kind of fit into the mold in terms of flow and such. The drama felt overdramatic pretty often and made things feel like they were dragging on at times, but the parts that were more slice of life and comedy oriented were decent enough. The cast wasn’t amazing but it held its own.

About half way through the manga it starts shifting towards being more plot oriented with a larger emphasis on explaining Nagi and Zange’s divine background. There is still some light hearted and decent comedy, but it’s overall more serious too. I felt that the writing wasn’t anywhere near as good at handling this and overall things felt overtly messy and didn’t really flow well. It jumps around too much doing a bunch of random things but not committing properly and just kind of throwing away half of what it does. There’s certain value in doing something and reversing it at times and that works well enough when it happens with bigger story elements, but with a lot of the smaller details it feels like there was no point other than that the author changed her mind which cumulatively builds up to the story overall feeling really rough.

It’s pretty normal for authors in long running manga to not know where they’re eventually going to take things and have to change course often in a forced manner. In such cases, I generally judge the writing based on how well they were able to write around the inconsistencies as well as whether what they were shifting into was worth whatever issues may have arisen. The writing here generally seemed to always feel like it screwed up in one way or another for some reason, and I have no clue why it was written in such a manner.

There were instances where it would have been incredibly easy to write things in such a way that they didn’t really contradict what was already established but it did so anyway, such as the case where a girl that had been present from the beginning was suddenly revealed to not only have supernatural powers but to have had them from essentially the beginning but didn’t tell anyone because she was embarrassed, which largely doesn’t fit with the plot at all. While there certainly was value in her having powers at that point, I see no reason why they had to change the plot such that she had them from the beginning and show her getting them in a flashback, rather than just getting them when she’s shown to have them. It was going to be pretty abrupt either way, and how it was handled in the manga just added inconsistencies for no reason at all.

There were also instances where some forced writing is used to push the plot in random directions, but I don’t really understand why the author wanted to push things in such a direction. The biggest example of this would be the ending, where forced writing is used to lead it to what would be a pretty generic but solid ending, but it randomly adds one more unnecessary complication that I don’t see the point of at all as it just kind of muddles things at the end for no reason. It doesn’t really add anything plot wise as there isn’t enough time to do anything with it, it doesn’t add to anyone’s character arc, it doesn’t really build on any of the themes. The only point I can really see is to have it be a joke, but I feel that’s not really a good note to end the series on. The ending is still pretty solid, but I’m left with just as much confusion as satisfaction, as I simply do not get why the author chose to do what they did.

Character arcs were a mixed bag. Of the two main characters, Jin’s came across pretty well with slow and steady build up and a good pay off at the end. Nagi’s on the other hand was too tied into the messiness of the plot and didn’t work nearly as well. The best character arc though I would have to say goes to one of the side characters Hakua, in that it was built up and had just as strong of a payoff as Jin’s, but it also felt a lot more natural. The rest of the side character’s arcs were pretty weak. Zange’s was overtly messy because like Nagi the plot was constantly throwing her around so she felt kind of inconsistent. The protagonist’s childhood friend, Tsugumi, felt like her character arc was overtly abrupt because there was a long stretch where she had minimal presence and then too much happened near the end. With most of the rest of the main characters, Daitetsu, Meguru, and Shino, they all essentially just have a chapter dedicated to them and that’s it. Other character’s like Takako don’t even get that, and other characters like Shohou I have no clue what was going on as in the end things are written such that it feels like Shouhou should have gotten a character arc but I didn’t really see anything of the sort. In terms of relationship arcs the manga did a much better job and Jin’s relationship with Nagi, Hakua, and Tsugumi was each handled really well.

The art quality I think starts off decent but over the course of the manga I think it improved enough to be considered good. The normal character designs in general are pretty solid, especially Nagi and Zange’s, but I think the special outfits, such as the divine forms, were when the art really shone.

A manga that is solid in terms of its lighter portions but doesn’t handle most of its serious portions all that well.

7/10

Himouto! Umaru-chan

*Note: This is a review of the main series, the Ebina spin off, and the sequel G because the Ebina spin off and G are short enough that it doesn’t make sense to review them separately, but they are important enough that it doesn’t make sense to ignore them either. *

This series is one centered around a girl named Umaru who is a Himouto, which the series defines as “a lazy little sister who never lifts a finger around the house”, with the word’s origin being a “portmanteau of imouto (little sister) and himono (a woman who is elegant and polished in public, but secretly a slob at home)”. Though it’s actually a bit more complicated than that in that there are three Umaru’s, the inside Umaru who’s a lazy slob, the outside Umaru who’s majestically perfect, and UMR who’s an expert gamer. There’s a large focus on the imouto aspect in that she lives solely with her brother, Taihei, who has to deal with her nonsense but does so as well as he can in the straightforward and kind manner he lives his life. But there’s just as much focus on Umaru’s bonds with her friends, which ultimately have a very interesting dynamic in that most of her main friends are closest to different Umarus and she’s doing her best to keep it a secret that all of them are the same person.

Due to this, the manga is very careful about slowly and steadily introducing new characters and establishing bonds between them and the already introduced characters. This manifests in both development of new friendships, but also in terms of revealing that two characters were actually already friends or related. At times this may be revealed to the reader long before it’s revealed to Umaru or Taihei, but it still stresses it when it is revealed. This may sound exhausting, but because this is pretty much entirely a comedy focused manga it works surprisingly well. Though there aren’t that many characters, by focusing on so many connections separately on top of the general group dynamic, it results in it always feeling like it’s adding something new which keeps things fresh. These connections also being partitioned off from each other to a degree also results in it being able to swap around at will to keep things varied despite it featuring the same characters. Thus, while the range of the comedy is pretty narrow, it rarely feels like it’s getting repetitive. Combine that with how all the main cast members are all really colorful and pretty likable and the manga ends up being reasonably amusing from beginning to end.

However, it should be emphasized that there is very little in terms of substance. The relationship between siblings is a constant theme, but it never ultimately feels like it does much with it or hits any good emotional beats. There are some hints here and there of what feel like plot related things that it felt like it was going to tackle later, like going more in depth into what happened with their parents or certain characters acting mysteriously and knowing things that there’s no explanation for them knowing and this being highlighted, but it just never does. There’s an emphasis put on the relationship between Umaru’s friends Ebina and Sylphyn and their brothers throughout the manga, but in the end they just suddenly get resolved super quickly off screen essentially. I think it was trying to give a lot of the cast character arcs, but the only one that felt like she actually had proper character development was another of Umaru’s friends, Kirie, and even that was only decent. What was especially a letdown is that it constantly felt like it was teasing Umaru growing up or her personalities merging or her revealing the truth to her friends, but in the end that never happens, and the series ends with her being pretty much exactly the same as she started.

As such, neither the ending to both the main series the sequel G feel like proper endings, rather the manga just stops as it would with any other chapter basically, and it’s just suddenly over. Interestingly enough, the Ebina spin off is the one that felt like it tried to take things most seriously in that it puts a surprisingly strong emphasis on romance. It even gives a full on time skip epilogue proper ending that’s reasonably satisfying as a conclusion, though the fact that it’s pretty rushed, ambiguous, and only an ending for two characters without telling you anything about the rest of the cast diminishes that.

The art is decent but not particularly great. It works pretty well for the comedy, especially the visual gags involving chibi Umaru and manga logic, but I never really thought it looked all that good, even in the color pages or covers. The character designs were surprisingly varied and distinct, but also somewhat plain and not used particularly well I felt.

Decently varied and paced comedy, but lacking in substance even for a comedy manga.

7/10

Medaka Box

Medaka Box is a shounen manga written by NISIOISIN, an author well known for a number of novel series of which the most prominent is probably the Monogatari series. Those that are familiar with him know that though he does vary his genres quite a bit, he has a sort of style that permeates across all his works. This too falls into that style, though it takes quite a while before it gets there.

The manga begins with an arc that’s centered around introducing the main characters as they begin their high school lives at Hakoniwa Academy. The characters that are focused on vary quite a bit from arc to arc, but the main duo consists of the titular Medaka, the student council president and a girl that’s dedicated herself to helping others who has the abilities to pull off essentially anything, and her childhood friend Zenkichi, a guy that is pretty much normal but manages to somehow keep up with her and stay by her side anyway. This arc is carried by the comedy and fast moving mini-stories about Medaka helping out various others while being absolutely ridiculous. I consider the conclusion of this arc the fight between the student council and public morals committee because while it does start veering into being more action oriented, that’s just a backdrop to show off Medaka’s extreme personality and abilities. 

After that it shifts gears quite a bit into being a straight up battle manga, which is a path that’s pretty standard for Shounen Jump manga, start off with some interesting gimmick for some short stories that set things up and then go all in on the action. The problem is that it isn’t a particularly good one. The first fight is against a group called the Thirteen Party, and it involves the student council members going through floors of a building while fighting enemies to ultimately defeat the final boss. There’s some good content here that deals with themes relating to talent, ability, personality, and goals that also helps further flesh out Medaka and hits some good emotional beats, so it’s still solid enough. But the action itself is pretty generic and doesn’t really feel worth the time put into it.

The following arc ends up going even further down the generic battle shounen route, which is tremendously disappointing because it felt like it had the potential to be so much more. It involves fights against what are called Minus, the entire existence of which seems to clash with Medaka’s world view. Their leader, Kumagawa, is an incredibly interesting character that feels like he has a tremendous amount of depth to him in terms of personality and abilities. Unfortunately, it didn’t really feel like it used it all that well as though there were some interesting flashes, it felt like the narrative was being constrained in trying to fit within the mold of a battle shounen manga when it really shouldn’t have been. As such, I consider this the low point of the series.

This portion ends about half way into the series, and thankfully things start to turn around in a big way after that as it feels like Nisio just started doing whatever the hell he wanted with great success. The writing feels much more like what you would expect from Nisio. He flips the table on all the standard shounen tropes used and begins deconstructing them in a pretty elaborate manner. The story gets a lot more meta, at one point breaking the fourth wall so hard it wraps around to not breaking it at all. And the actual genre while all this is happening is random. At times it’ll be heavily character and drama focused, at times it’ll randomly break into playing random elaborate card games, and at times it’ll return to being a battle shounen. However, the key point about the battle shounen parts is that they involve characters that have powers centered around manipulating words, and thus the writing begin to involve another aspect Nisio’s writing is well known for, a steady stream of kanji puns, both comedic and serious, and though probably 90% went over my head and the other 10% I probably can’t appreciate fully, the end result certainly wasn’t generic shounen but something much more unique and interesting. 

All through this, the plot itself goes through a lot of unexpected twists and turns and ultimately manages to give both Medaka and Zenkichi really good character arcs. The rest of the cast starts getting somewhat bloated and ultimately I wouldn’t say any of the rest of the cast really had anything all that great, though there definitely were a lot of attempts and some of them were decent. Still, even if they didn’t really have any particularly interesting growth, the cast was still really interesting and had enough variety which combined with the comedy and craziness made it fun to just watch them and find a lot of them likable. The epitome of this is Kumagawa, whose character arc I don’t think was handled all that well, but whom after his first character shift became an incredibly fun and amusing character that it felt impossible not to like tremendously on every page he’s on. All of this ultimately builds up to an ending that drags on a bit, but that ultimately provides an incredibly strong multi-phase epilogue involving everyone that overall leaves a really satisfying aftertaste.

The art was pretty solid in terms of both style and quality. The character designs overall were pretty good though somewhat lacking in variety towards the later stages. Still, the color pages, covers, and some key panels showed off the characters quite well so I would still say the art was pretty good.

A manga that takes some time before it hits it’s stride, but that becomes a very unique and interesting take on shounen manga when it does.

8/10

Re:Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu 2nd Season (Re:ZERO -Starting Life in Another World- Season 2)

Note: This is for both cours of Season 2.

The second season of Re:Zero begins right where the previous season left off, properly wrapping up the cliffhanger left by the previous arc, though in a way that brings up more questions than answers and creates more issues than it resolves. Thus, I can certainly see why the previous season was chosen to end the way it was. This only takes a single episode though, and from there it moves on to a single very long arc, though one with a lot going on even compared to the final arc of the previous season.

While the core of the previous season was definitely Subaru’s character growth with Rem as a smaller secondary focus, here Subaru felt like just one of many characters whose growth was focused on. Emilia I would say ended up being a larger focus than Subaru, and a number of other characters got focused on essentially equally to Subaru, such as Beatrice and Garfiel. In addition to that, while not exactly growth, there was also more of an attempt at fleshing out certain side characters than with any side characters in the first season other than Rem. As such, the overall narrative felt a lot more complex, with a lot more motivations and backgrounds to keep track of, which felt pretty messy at times.

Still, all in all things came across pretty effectively. Subaru’s character growth was mostly just further cementing the growth that occurred in the first season, with him pretty explicitly confronting and overcoming what led him to develop the mindset he had to grow from in the first place. He then essentially takes the lessons he learned and passing them on to others but does so in a way that feels natural for him to do so, thus clearly showing how far he has come. The development of bonds between Subaru and each of Emilia, Beatrice, Otto, and Garfiel as a result of all this was handled really well and probably the highlight when it came to Subaru this season. There was also an attempt at trying to parallel Subaru with Rozwall to try to highlight the similarities and differences in both, but it felt kind of forced.

There was also what felt like a bit of course correcting, in that it tried to shift his mentality away from where it ended up in the previous season, wherein in the previous season he essentially acknowledges Return by Death as his main strength and does his best to use it in a realistic and pragmatic way to obtain his goals. This season felt like it was pushing in the direction of trying to minimize this ability both thematically in that it was writing in the direction of it not really being as in character for Subaru to rely on, and also in terms of plot with Subaru gaining major abilities beyond just Return by Death. I’m not really much of a fan of this to be honest, in that I feel that Return by Death being at the center of both the plot structure and Subaru’s ability set is a core part of what makes the series so good, and it would be a shame if that wasn’t the case in future arcs.

Emilia’s arc was lighter than Subaru’s was in the previous season, but still pretty strong. It primarily had to do with her confronting her past and in the process gaining more confidence. That’s pretty straightforward, but it ended up somewhat complicated due to how her past is pretty complicated, not to mention everything going on in the present. This brings up what I felt was a weakness in this arc, everything was somewhat scattered and thus things ended up muddled and not being able to have as much impact as the previous season did. The first season generally followed a structure of slow build up followed by things moving very quickly, all while mainly focusing on only a few characters. Here it’s much more scattered with pacing that rises and falls as well as jumping around between a lot of different characters with about equal levels of focus. Most character’s stories come out okay since the majority of their story is centered around key points, but Emilia’s especially was much more scattered and intermixed with other things going on and thus I don’t think it came through as well as it could have.

The world building is also getting a lot more interesting. During early parts of this season I started getting incredibly confused by a number of small and somewhat large details as they seemed to veer tremendously from how things seemed to be and where things seemed to be headed. However, as more was revealed it started becoming a lot clearer, though it seems to be more complicated than I expected, though I suppose that also makes things more interesting. The highlight is of course the witches, all of whom are very unique and all quite interesting, so I certainly hope they manage to stay a major presence, even if the main plot element they were tied to is no longer relevant. With all that said, beyond the first episode that wrapped up the previous arc, there wasn’t really any movement at all in terms of the overarching plot regarding the royal selection and the witch’s cult, but I suppose this arc managed to get a lot out of the way that needed to be dealt with at some point and now the narrative can move on that in a much more focused manner, or at least I hope it does.

The production values of this are a bit better than the first season, which was already pretty good, so pretty amazing overall. I would especially like to highlight how good the anime is with eyes, and especially reflections in eyes. The new major character designs were all pretty solid, and there was a surprisingly large amount due to the addition of the witches’ tea party. The soundtrack was also pretty great with really good use of insert songs. The OP/ED in the first cour had great visuals and music that fit really well. It’s a lot harder to judge the new OP/EDs in the second cour due to how few times they played, so I basically had to go back and rewatch them as I didn’t remember them properly, but I think they’re also pretty good, though not as good as the ones in the first cour.

A sequel season that doesn’t quite hit the perfect notes that the first season managed to, but is still fantastic overall.

9/10

Descend

Decend is a series that starts out about a group of one hundred people with a massive gender imbalance in favor of women suddenly waking up with game structured powers on an island where they are required to complete quests in a dungeon in order to obtain the necessities to survive. Pretty standard as far as harem LitRPG stories go. Still, it does a pretty decent job with the character focused stories within that. The protagonist, Jay, is a pretty decent guy that it’s pretty amusing to watch stumble through the various situations he does. The heroines at this point are pretty decent too, each having a reasonably fleshed out character. The actual dungeon diving is decent enough in terms of how the party uses their abilities and deals with the situations in the dungeon, but what makes this part interesting is that the narrative also seems to put an emphasis on focusing the interpersonal conflicts between people in the group and handles it pretty well. In combination, the two result in what feels like pretty good pacing despite the actual progress in the dungeon itself being pretty slow. The biggest issue during this portion I would say is the interludes, which end up describing in detail to the reader the exact circumstances of what is going on and why long before the protagonist or anyone in his party has any idea. It really didn’t feel like this knowledge gap was ever used properly to build up suspense or tension, rather it just seemed to take a lot of mystery out of things and made Jay finally figuring things out completely lack any impact.

The point where Jay finally figured things out, the end of the third book, is also where the series becomes terrible. Even before that, in the third book a shift away from focusing on dungeon diving in favor of essentially mediation and bond based cultivation for stat growth began. It was somewhat interesting at first, but the heavy focus on describing it in overt detail got old quickly and it quickly got pretty boring because the systems are incredibly basic, with all the extra detail just being a rambling word salad that is inconsistent and never has any significance on the plot. The fourth book focused even more on that, in addition focusing more on technological development that’s described in a pretty hand wavy way that uses too many words to say nothing, as well as adding in time control powers that allow a lot more growth to happen in what amounts to a short period of time in the story. It’s also at this point that the cast gets overtly bloated and all the new characters start blurring together as they all lack any major sense of presence or personality and the old cast also starts to behave increasingly inconsistently. Jay felt like he was having a decent character arc in the first three books, but in the fourth and fifth he just acts randomly in a much more generic and flat manner, with the author throwing around phrases in the vein of “the old Jay would have X, Y, Z” to contrast with an action he’s doing to make it seem like he’s grown, but the path from the old Jay to the Jay that’s performing whatever is being highlighted is too nebulous for it to stick. As a result, whatever investment had been built up in the cast over the course of the first three books just bleeds away to nothing by the end of the series.

It is also important to note the shift into a sci-fi like story in the last book. I say sci-fi like, because I feel it’s supposed to be sci-fi but the sci-fi aspect is so terrible that I feel actually calling it sci-fi is giving the series too much credit. There had been some sci-fi elements throughout, which had seemed interesting when they were mostly just hints, but when the narrative actually started using them in full it became clear the author has no idea at all how to do so because it’s just nonsense that just keeps dragging on and on. The shift is also really abrupt and kind of dumb. At the end of the fourth book, they’re still fighting standard dungeon enemies mostly. The first half of the fifth book is just a really long description of using time powers and cultivation abilities to push through decades of growth. However, spending all this time is a complete waste, because in the battles that follow very little of it matters. It feels like the book was actively trying to waste the reader’s time with the first half of the book, which is especially egregious because the final battles are all half assed, rushed, and unbelievably lame. The final villain straight up says, and I quote, “YOUR PUNY MIND CANNOT FATHOM THE DEPTHS OF MY INTELLECT. I ATTEMPTED TO REASON WITH YOU. NOW DIE.” And yes, it was in all caps in the book too. The epilogue is pretty weak too, with nothing surprising or interesting in the least, just basically being exactly what you’d expect without any particular details or description that stood out or made it satisfying at all.

As for general notes, the writing in general was really amateurish. The prose in general lacked flow and the dialogue was pretty stiff. The random throwing in of references also wasn’t handled all that well. There was a Japanese character named Meikiyo that was especially cringe worthily bad. The cover art was pretty good in the first three books, but strangely enough despite having a similar art style to the point I think it’s the same artist, the fourth and fifth books’ covers look pretty bad.

A decent dungeon diving LitRPG start that descends into terribly written sci-fi so bad that the whole series is not really worth reading.

6/10

Star Ocean: First Departure R

Star Ocean: First Departure R is a remastered version of the PSP remake of the original Star Ocean on SNES. From what I understand, though there were significant changes, the PSP remake essentially ported the original game into the engine of the second game, which was a PlayStation 1 title, so it should be no surprise that even though it got remade, it still feels really aged. This is both a good and bad thing depending on your point of view, and though I would say it handles things better than most games of around that time period, it still very much felt like it had issues.

As is the usual with JRPGs, gameplay ultimately comes down to exploration and combat. The exploration involves multiple cities, dungeons, and a world map, with the dungeons and world map having random encounters. The dungeons are decently designed and though there are only very simple puzzle and maze like elements, they’re varied enough that they keep things interesting. There is also a decent variety to the environments so for the most part the world seems interesting enough. However, there is a good amount of backtracking, which combined with the random encounters can get really annoying. There is a travel option that moves faster and allows you to avoid random encounters, but this is something that is very easily missable and may not be possible to obtain depending on the choices made in your playthrough, which feels like a pretty bad design choice.

On that note, there’s also not really all that much in terms of side content. There’s an arena and of course you can interact with NPCs, though nothing at the level of side quests. There are some optional dungeons, but they’re mostly centered around the choices made regarding what party members you want. There are also what’s known as private actions, which is a mechanic wherein when the player enters the town the party can be split up. In such a state, main story events can’t occur, however side events with party members can. This is simple enough, though how it handled left a lot to be desired. As is common for such systems at the time, everything is obtuse, providing no indications of when or where events are available and furthermore there are arbitrary cut off points for these that don’t really seem to have any sort of logic to them, and thus unless you’re following a guide you almost certainly will miss the majority. Furthermore, there’s only one event available per visit so you’ll constantly be leaving and reentering to see if there are any more, with a cutscene when doing either, both of which are short but build up to be quite frustrating. On top of that, since it’s not clear at all where the event is or if there’s an event at all, the only way to make sure is to enter the city and find each party member to make sure they aren’t the one with an event, which also doesn’t take too long since the cities are small, but it adds up to feeling like a lot of wasted time.

The combat in the game is incredibly simplistic with essentially no mechanical complexity. Four party members can be on screen at a time and can be switched between at any time. Items can be used as long as a character isn’t performing another action and in a short window after previous item use. Melee characters can use a regular attack and two special attacks that can be set. Casters have access to their entire skill set. It should also be noted that the abilities casters use all result in short cutscenes essentially which can’t be skipped or sped up at all, so combined with how repetitive the combat can get may push you to try to use casters as little as possible. This is entirely possible because the game isn’t all that hard and you should be fine with whatever composition you pack as long as you have someone that can heal. Enemies are all incredibly similar, and bosses don’t have much to them either. Thus, there doesn’t seem to be much need to vary things, so you’ll probably quickly hit on what characters and abilities you want to use and just stick to them. Thus, at it’s best the combat doesn’t detract from the game, while at it’s worst it’s just annoying.

The growth systems in the game are interesting. There’s the standard level up to increase stat and gain abilities/skills. Only active party members gain XP so logically you should prioritize four, though the game is easy enough you don’t have to so I didn’t and kept all characters about the same level to add some extra challenge. Combat abilities are unlocked purely through levelling up and are character dependent, but skills are much more interesting. You have to buy skill books to unlock all the basic skills and obtain what are called Secret Fighting Techniques through chests in dungeons mainly. But with that essentially every character can learn any skill and there are a lot of them. These skills generally come in two forms, the first being general improvements like stat increases, decreased casting time, the ability to guard break, etc. and the second being related to crafting. The crafting has a lot to it with a lot of different specialties that do different things and work in different ways. The crafting also relies way too much on RNG so it can get kind of cumbersome. Still, it was pretty interesting how much there was to it and it was kind of satisfying to get good items through it, so with everything else being so simple I was fine with it.

The story is also really simple. As with most of the Star Ocean games, it involves sci-fi characters getting pulled into dealing with an underdeveloped planet that is essentially medieval fantasy. This is probably one of the first games that did this, so it may have had value due to the novelty at the time, but at this point it’s been handled much better so the story didn’t do much for me. Beyond that it’s mostly just a simple story of a group of adventurers going to defeat the demon lord and save the world. There’s also some time travel, but honestly it wasn’t all that necessary seeing how little impact it had. There also some more engagement with the sci-fi aspects at the end, but it felt pretty weak as there was very little reaction from the characters from the fantasy side to the sci-fi. Thus it mostly just kind of felt like the aspects were just forced together.

The characters are fun and I feel it handled them reasonably well. The main choices that are made are those that involve which party members to obtain. Which party members join the party do effect the main script in noticeable ways so it does feel like the decisions have an impact on the story, though nothing too extreme as far as I can tell. The stories of certain party members also involve others so there’s some level of progression to things. The characters are also likable and their interactions are fun, which makes doing the private actions worthwhile. Still, in the end they have no depth and not really anything close to resembling a character arc, and thus it doesn’t really feel like they have much of a story.

The graphics are okay for what it is I suppose. The sprite work looks decent enough though not particularly exceptional, though I’m not much of a fan of low detail sprites so take that as you will. The new character art is much higher quality and also has pretty great designs overall. The anime cutscenes are also pretty solid. The problem is that these don’t match up. The designs of the sprites and anime cutscenes are clearly different from the designs in the new character art for some of the cast and it feels pretty low effort. The environments aren’t particularly good looking but varied enough that it’s fine. The soundtrack is also decently solid and works well enough. I really did like the OP song though. Performance wasn’t an issue at all on PS4 as expected.

A game that is decent enough that feels incredibly dated.

7/10

Re:Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu (Re:ZERO -Starting Life in Another World-)

Re:Zero is an isekai anime that features a protagonist with a special power that makes him very unique: Return by Death, which results in his mind being sent back to the most recent auto ‘save point’ whenever he dies. I in general prefer powers such as these, that play with information or manipulate the mind, over straight physical manipulation abilities, so from the outset this was one that I’m incredibly fond of. But just as importantly, I think the writing carried the anime incredibly well, going in places that isekai stories essentially never go because it’s quite dangerous to do so from a thematic point of view, but managing to pull it off beautifully.

The core of the anime is the protagonist Subaru. He’s just an ordinary person that suddenly appears in a fantasy world and gets pulled into a random situation, but what’s really important is that he remains ordinary. In the first two arcs, the first half or so of the season, despite being ordinary he just pushes through with will power. He can’t die so he just keeps trying and eventually comes out on top, with the only real limitation he needs to overcome being his instinctive fear of dying. Return by Death is an incredibly simplistic power so with everything revolving around that there’s just a nice flow and sense of cohesion to everything. There are some minor aspects that feel like they’re making things a bit too simple, such as how the save point he returns to is automatic and work perfectly for the plot as well as in how Subaru is unable to tell anyone he has this power, but both ultimately are used pretty well and feel justified from an overarching point of view. It could also be said that the fact that he can’t die and can reverse anything bad that happens makes it feel like there are no stakes to the plot, but honestly, that’s pretty much the case with the vast majority of stories like this even without such a power, so at least having a reason for it and having everything revolve around that feels better written. A larger issue was that Subaru also seems to be bizarrely slow on the uptake at times, but that ultimately also makes sense. Thus, these arcs overall are written well and it is satisfying to see him manage to pull things off through sheer persistence while also getting some basic world building.

The arc that follows, which composes the rest of the season, is where both he and the anime really shine though. It starts simply by exposing how lame Subaru is. It doesn’t hold back at all. While before, his actions manage to work out and make him heroic, here him acting just as he was before and in ways that feel consistent with how he’s been so far result in him looking really awful. So utterly awful that it was hard to watch. The only thing that made it bearable was that I thought it would all get reset but nope, the save point is after his first bout of incredible lameness. And it just keeps going downhill from there. He stays the same as he was before, someone powerless that just tries to power through things on pure will power. But it doesn’t work and he fails completely, suffering immensely while doing so. He returns and tries again, only to fail and suffer once more.

All the while, he’s in a downward spiral that emphasize the worst aspects of his character more and more. Just sheer persistence and will power isn’t enough, and he comes to realize how useless he is. He acknowledges that he’s just a normal person, rather he’s below average from the world he came from, and completely powerless. He straight up gives up, but with the help of another character he pulls himself together. And from there he goes through genuine growth. He begins actually using his power properly, making sure to properly use information he’s learned from previous cycles into implementing proper plans. He still pushes forward without any care, but it has a different feel to it from him just charging forward without thinking, but more so him coming to terms with what his power really is and how this is how he’s supposed to use it. And he genuinely does his best to improve and be a better person.

The growth itself is written incredibly well, but what makes it so much better is how the Return by Death power was used to facilitate it. A lot of times, when a character needs to go through major growth before key plot events, there’s just a major event and they are just suddenly a new person. This is satisfying in a way because of how others react to their growth, but it’s also kind of sudden and feels unnatural. On the other hand, there are slow growth arcs that have things fleshed out better, but they don’t have as much impact. Here, the writing holds no punches in putting Subaru through the grinder to the point it pretty much reaches horror anime levels, as it all gets reset anyway, but it all does have a clear effect on him and the growth feels earned. On top of that, due to how bad things get in the bad cycles, it’s cathartic when he finally gets things right, going through the same events but pulling everything together in ways that actually work. It tackles it’s themes head on in a way that’s even a bit too heavy handed, but in the end it just works.

The rest of the cast is pretty great too. The clear highlights are the main heroines I guess you would call them, Emilia and Rem, who have very fleshed out characters and solid backstories, as well as incredibly good chemistry with Subaru, not just in a sense that they get along, but that they’re really good at supporting each other. They’re also just in general really good people, so they’re really easy to get invested in. There aren’t any other characters that are as well established, but there were many that were amusing and felt like had a lot of potential with where they would go in future arcs. The villain was also a fantastic villain based purely on this villainous insanity based charisma. The plot and world building is also set up in a way that feels like it has a lot of potential to it, so just in general the ending while satisfying left me wanting more, and that’s not even considering the sudden cliffhanger. The magic system and such were also interesting and resulted in a lot of good action, though as of yet it’s more of a side thing than a focus I would say.

The art and animation were great and the production values overall were really solid. I would especially like to highlight how good it was at portraying expressions. I also really liked the world’s sense of style and character designs. The OPs and insert songs were great and the visuals in the OPs worked incredibly well with the arcs they were with. The first ED I also really liked the song of, though the song in the second main one I wasn’t especially fond of, though the visuals in both were both only okay. The soundtrack also had some great tracks and some really great sound effects too, such as the one where Subaru returns, which overall worked really well and build up a really strong atmosphere. The chibi shorts were also hilarious and really well made.

A very well written isekai that goes in very unique directions but manages to pull it off with really incredibly character growth in the main protagonist.

10/10

Horimiya

Horimiya is for the most part a pretty typical anime about high school romance between a mismatched couple. The main differentiating highlight is the main couple, Hori and Miyamura, being a bit different from the usual. While they do still play into the standard tropes of there being a guy that’s a loner that ends up getting pulled by his eventual girlfriend into being a more social person, both Hori and Miyamura are pretty different from the typical character types that fit into those slots. Miya is not an otaku or anything like that, he’s just really bad at socializing and also seemed to be somewhat of a rebel at first, though that just sort of fizzled out beyond the first episode. Hori also doesn’t really have any special plot forced reason for her to spend time with someone she’s mismatched with, she just kind of likes him and does because she wants to. It’s not that hard to see how a pair such as them would end up in a relationship based on the general way such stories go in anime, but I felt this anime had much better writing in regards to how it handled their relationship development and eventual relationship.

Their relationship is the focus of the anime at first, but they get together relatively quickly, and after that while there are some brief interesting highlights there’s nothing all that strong. It largely just felt like it was spinning its wheels but never going anywhere, and in the end it never did, nor was it particularly interesting or amusing, so it just felt like a pointless time sink. Hori didn’t really seem to have any sort of character arc at all. Miya definitely had one with him overcoming his past, but it wasn’t written all that well and in the end while it is clear what it was and that progress was made, the finer points weren’t focused on enough and felt badly conveyed.

The story instead focuses on the relationships of all the characters surround them, and those stories I felt were were for the most part lackluster. There are a number of relationships, but the one that took up the most time by far was one involving, Yuki and Tooru. It’s one of those relationships that moves incredibly slowly, or rather doesn’t really move at all, because one of the two is fine with how things are and doesn’t want to change things, and the other isn’t good at understanding their own feelings. It in and of itself is incredibly generic, but on top of that it ends up pulling in several side plot threads with each of the two having someone that’s interested in them which played out in an even more cliché manner.

As for the rest of the cast and their relationships, they’re comparatively minimal in term of content so it’s hard to really have all that strong of an opinion on them. They’re straight and to the point and generally pretty amusing, but in general it didn’t really feel like there was any sort of plan on where things would go, they would just kind of pop in and out at times without changing anything. Thus while I did like them, they were more the kind of thing that are used for pacing purposes and not the kind of thing that can hold up the narrative entirely, and thus they aren’t enough to make up for the failings of the narrative past the point where the relationship between Hori and Miyamura has been fully established.

I will also note that the ending felt incredibly rushed in that it just suddenly skips to graduation which it also rushes through. Graduation endings can certainly have incredibly strong emotional impact, but that requires being built up to properly, and to be honest I don’t think that’s possible to do in only 12 episodes. Thus, it should be no surprise that I don’t think the ending to this hit the mark at all. It was also surprisingly lacking in how little it actually said about anyone or anything. It just kind of showed the characters at graduation and that’s it. The only message I could really feel being conveyed was, “It’s nice things ended up like this, isn’t it?” It’s a really weak last impression. The episode before which focused on Christmas honestly handled things a lot better in terms of focusing on the relationships and especially the main relationship and I think would have been a better place to stop at to be frank. There’s also an extended metaphors involving the seasons and character’s names, and I’m not sure how well it came across in Japanese, but in English it felt incredibly forced at times.

The production values in general were excellent. The art and animation were really good. Character designs were simple as would be expected of the setting and realistic atmosphere, but each felt pretty distinct. The soundtrack wasn’t particularly standout but used really well. The OP and ED were both pretty unique and well made with songs that fit well.

An anime with good relationship development in the main couple, but that hit’s it’s peak pretty early and is largely unfocused and lacking afterwards.

7/10