Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Love Live! Sunshine!! - Season 2 (2017)

The second season of Love Live!  Sunshine!! is once again at 13 episodes long.  After the first season ended with the characters competing in the regional finals of Love Live, this continues and completes their journey to revitalizing the popularity of their school.  The anime is a spin-off from Love Live!  School Idol Project but with a different cast of characters, who all look up to the original anime's μ's.  The key character is Takami Chika, joined with her best friends and a few other characters from different grades to form the nine-member idol group Aquors.

In the first season, Aquors is formed initially because they all want to be a school idol, based on the popularity of Love Live but eventually has the aim to prevent their school from shutting down.  Yes, this is exactly the same objective as μ's and the characters spend a lot of time comparing themselves to them and looking up to them.  The group is given an impossible objective in order to save their school.  The second season's main story arc isn't much better since it is still revolving around the group competing in Love Live and hoping to get the top spot.  Now that Aquors have formed and supposedly improved, the group's performances are stronger and their popularity is higher.

The anime tends to focus more on the characters' day to day activities rather than their efforts on practicing and getting better.  Thus, when they massively succeed in their performances it can seem contrived.  Once again, the group gets help from literally everyone from their school but at least this time, it is somewhat plausible given the situation.  The problem is that the anime never provides any tension or anticipation that comes with competing in such a large scale competition.  We're only ever given a random performance in the middle or end of an episode, and then we find out the result.  There's no suspense or commentary on how the rounds are going, and as a result, this whole aspect feels segregated and detached from everything else, like it was tacked on just for the sake of an excuse to have songs in the first place.  It should have been more central.  As the season goes on, the focus on Love Live actually decreases.

Given that we don't see the group do any practice at all or any of the events that were of such importance before like making costumes and creating the lyrics, you don't get a sense of pride when suddenly they have a song performance at the end of the episode, and by the next, we're told that they won and progressed to the next round.  A few episodes gives focus to some characters and flesh them out a lot more.  From Dia's awkward attempts to become friendlier with everyone else to Riko overcoming her fear of dogs.  These scenes are interesting but at the same time, can also feel dragged out when it goes for a whole episode and not much happens.  The episodes are bloated to stretch out the time into 13 episodes.

Aquors closest equivalent to a rival, Saint Snow, holds promise as they both compete to become the champions of Love Live.  Despite the buildup, the resolution is disappointing to say the least.  However, this did lend the series to explore a sadder and realistic aspect of members graduating and moving on (even though this was already done before in the original Love Live...).

Scenes with obvious 3D are frequent and they look out of place.  It's a bit more jarring when the 3D is on group shots but when the scene transitions during the song to show close ups of the characters, it is back to normal animation and then goes back to panning out and 3D models.  The second half starts to have cheesier and cheesier scenes, where it is too overly positive that it's implausible.

To be fair, season 2 is a lot better than the first even if only for the fact that they do not compare themselves to μ's anymore.  This allows the characters to stand on their own.  The final resolution is equal parts expected and unexpected.  It is a good thing that it differentiates itself from the original Love Live but at the same time, briefly covering the final Love Live finals is bizarre.  Overall, the second season of Love Live!  Sunshine!! improves upon the first.  Despite that, it still retains a lot of the flaws from the series, from the lack of showing the effort required for the characters to win each round, to the slow pacing of each episode.


For other anime reviews, have a look at this page.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Book Review: Sword Art Online - abec Artworks

Review:  #823
Title:  Sword Art Online - abec Artworks
Series:  Sword Art Online - companion book
Author:  abec
Comments:  abec Artworks is an artbook that covers the first nine volumes of the Sword Art Online light novels.  In addition to all the pieces of art used in those novels, there are various new pieces, sketches on alternate covers and commentary from the illustrator.  The commentary is insightful from the thought that went behind the design decisions to the software and process on how these pieces came to be.  Granted, as you go further into the book you’d notice that some of the commentary feels lackluster as the illustrator ran out of things to comment on and had to write something down.  The artbook collates the extra art that were published for promotion such as the blu-ray covers, magazine events and concept art for the animation models.  To round it off, there is a short story by Reki Kawahara (the author of the light novels) involving Kirito, Asuna and Yuuki.  It’s too short for things to develop but it is a nice addition since we see so little of Yuuki in the series.
Rating:  7/10

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Toy Review: Transformers Generations Prime Wars Trilogy Blast Off (Deluxe)

Review:  #489
Name:  Blast Off
Brand:  Transformers
Allegiance:  Decepticon
Line:  Generations - Prime Wars Trilogy
Year of Release:  2018
Size Class:  Deluxe
Mold Status:  repaint of Unite Warriors Shuttler


Hasbro's version of Blast Off (as in, the one that isn't a redeco) was released as a special edition exclusively at Amazon in the US.

Thus Blast Off comes in boxed packaging with a fancy artwork.  While officially part of the Prime Wars Trilogy (which comprises of Combiner Wars, Titans Return and Power of the Primes), it was released at a time when Power of the Primes was in full swing.

The front flap opens up to reveal the figure in robot mode, and while it is still cardboard packaging, the presentation is really nice.

The side of the packaging has the robot artwork.


The figure comes with a Prime Master, Megatronus.

Megatronus is no different to any of the other Prime Masters.  Only his torso is solid plastic, everything else is clear red plastic which is painted over.

While Megatronus is supposed to act as a power up, he can still attach as a head to any Titans Return Deluxe, Voyager of Leader figures.


As a return to form, Blast Off finally transforms back to a space shuttle.

The shuttle isn't without its flaws though since the arms are tacked onto the side which feels lazy and messy.

In terms of size, Blast Off is bigger than most Deluxes nowadays, and heftier too.  Above is a comparison against Titans Return Quake.

The robot weapon can attach on top of the shuttle.  Unfortunately, there is no way for Megatronus to store anywhere in this mode, since Blast Off was originally a Combiner Wars mold.

Despite the arms on the sides, this is a nice jet mode.


This is a Combiner Wars mold so the transformation is generic and laughably easy.  Downside is that is feels boring but the back extends to become the legs, arms lift out to the side and the front folds onto his back to reveal the head.


The robot mode is a cross between the original G1 toy and the animation model.  This is because he has the squared chest of the G1 toy but the blasters feet of the animation.

Unlike the Unite Warriors version where the front of the shuttle was used as the chest (although you can still do that), he has the underside as the chest.

The headsculpt is neat but the head is on a panel that doesn't peg into place.  It doesn't flop or anything but is a nagging doubt in your head.

Blast Off loses a chunk of the shuttle's length in robot mode, thus he is a little bit shorter here but still around the average height of a Deluxe.

As you'd expect, Blast Off's poseability is decent.  The best thing is that he has ankle joints to allow him to stand flat on the table in most poses.

The negative is that his hips, while on balljoints, are restricted in their outward movement.

Blast Off comes with two weapons, a small pistol and a bigger gun that is the combiner piece (that acts as a foot or limb).

He can easily hold the gun in either of his hands.

The combiner gun looks ridiculous and oversized but that is the price you pay and at least you can use the kibble for something.

One of the neat things about Blast Off is that he has 5mm posts at the end of his hands, giving him the option of having super big fists!

As if that wasn't enough, he has posts on the underside of his arms too, allowing him to carry his weapons in an underslung fashion.

Unfortunately, just like in jet mode, there is no way to incorporate Megatronus.  Since the combiner feet uses the older design, it doesn't have a slot for Prime Masters.

A great robot mode overall with more than expected weapon options.


It is nice to finally get the last version of a Combiner team member which didn't get a new mode in their original release, even if it took a few years and a special edition to do it.  Blast Off looks good in both modes and the mold is nice.  Megatronus is a superficial addition, particularly since Blast Off can't utilize him in any way.  Since Blast Off isn't that much more expensive than a normal Deluxe, this is great value.


For other Transformers reviews, have a look at this page.


As Blast Off was originally part of the Combiner Wars line, he can form either an arm or a leg.

Arm mode is the best since he has the iconic space shuttle cockpit as the shoulder.

While leg mode is fairly generic.  Note that since he uses the older style of the combiner pieces, the foot mode isn't as stable.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen (DS)

Dragon Quest IV:  Chapters of the Chosen is a remake of the original game for the Nintendo DS.  It features all the additions that the PlayStation had, but enhances the graphics even more.  The game is a typical NES JRPG with the player exploring towns, upgrading equipment, talking to NPCs for sidequests and fighting monsters to gain experience for leveling up.  There is a world map and of course, random battles.  The encounter rate is reasonable and it doesn't feel too high.  The menus are a bit old school and can be a bit fiddly to navigate.  Dragon Quest IV takes an unorthodox approach in its presentation compared to most JRPGs.  Instead of following the hero as they journey through the world, recruiting more characters into their party, the game is split into multiple chapters.  Each chapter will focus on one party member.

Once you have played through their solo chapters, the next chapter will have them band together and have the player finally gain control of a full party.  While this is an interesting take, in the end, it can feel cumbersome and repetitive.  The downside with a separate chapter for each party member is that they all start at level 1.  You will definitely have to grind because otherwise, the monsters will deal significant damage and kill you.  Upon death, you lose half your gold but don't lose anything else, a cheap price to pay compared to other older JRPGs.  The first character is Ragnar, whereby he is part of the royal guard and has heaps of experience as a soldier.  He is tasked with investigating why the children are disappearing from the kingdom.  His chapter is quite short, not only in terms of story but also in terms of dungeons.  The subplot is straightforward and isn't too thrilling.

The second chapter follows Alena, who is a princess and yearns to explore the world in order to grown stronger.  She is joined by two companions so you get to employ a little bit more strategy during battles.  Her chapter is longer than the previous, taking around 2.5 hours.  Naturally, grinding is required in order to comfortably beat monsters and bosses.  A good thing is that Alena gets to explore a bigger chunk of the world.  The third chapter follows Torneko.  He's not a typical protagonist, being a father who's a bit overweight.  He dreams of being a merchant and this makes the chapters a little bit different than the rest.  Instead of a focus on battling monsters, the focus is on earning enough money to fulfill his dream.  This makes the directions in how to progress the story a little bit more annoying and vague but is otherwise enjoyable.

The fourth chapter rounds out the party, following the twin sisters Meena and Maya.  They are dancers but leave town in pursuit of the one that had killed their father.  There's nothing special about this chapter since the twins travel around the land, get into towns and clear dungeons to obtain the items required to advance the story.  In total, it'll take around 7-9 hours to complete the first four chapters introducing you to the various party members before finally allowing you to gain control of the protagonist again.  Chapter 5 finally allows you to control the protagonist, as he finds out he is the chosen one and destined to defeat the great evil.  As he travels across the land, the characters from the previous chapters join him.  Unfortunately, they all join rather easily and abruptly, with no build up.  Thus it doesn't feel plausible at all that they suddenly just join a stranger and then travel with them.

The battle system is a simple turn-based system.  Your characters can attack, use magic or use an item.  There are no complex hidden mechanic but the simplicity works well.  If you set the battle message speed to its fastest setting (which is "1" by the way, not "5"), then battles are a lot more bearable and quicker to boot.  Once you have more than four characters, you can swap them in and out during battle in certain dungeons and on the world map, adding a layer of strategy.  There are some inconveniences to some battle commands.  Trying to escape battles will probably fail more often than not, but perhaps the most annoying thing is that even using a reviving spell can fail.  Considering that your character is usually dead in desperate situations, having it fail twice in a row is quite annoying, frustrating and cheap.  It is worse when, no joke, your revive fails five times in a row in a boss battle.  While this is a staple of the Dragon Quest series, it just feels terrible.

Surprisingly, the action takes place on the lower screen of the DS, while the upper screen will show the map on the overworld, and the character stats during battle.  More impressively is how it uses both screens while you're in a town or dungeon, allowing you to see and plan your path further.  While the game looks to be 2D, you can rotate the camera angle while in towns and dungeons.  The game uses the top-down perspective to hide doors and items from your view.  While you can rotate the camera in towns, you can only do so in specific dungeons.  Thus it can get annoying when the item required by the story is hidden this way and you are encountering random battles all the while trying to find the missing thing.  Despite the promising premise of dedicating a chapter to each party member and having them come together, the story ends up being a very simple affair.  It boils down to the protagonist being the chosen one (with the other party members also the chosens but not as important), travelling around the world to defeating the great evil that threatens the land.

The story has no nuances or any subplots but it works for the most part since the game is short for a JRPG and can be beaten in 20-25 hours.  To give you an idea, the average level of your party members will only be around 35-40 when you get to the final boss.  After you beat the final boss a postgame dungeon is unlocked, packed with more treasures and tougher bosses.  Overall, Dragon Quest IV:  Chapters of the Chosen is a very traditional JRPG, for better or worse.  However, the simplicity of the story and the battle system makes it a lot of fun and gives it a classic feel.  The requirement to grind your characters from level 1 multiple times can get annoying but the good far outweigh the bad in this installment.


For other game reviews, have a look at this page.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)

The fifth movie in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and it is more evident than ever that it is getting stagnant.  Jack Sparrow returns with his quirky behavior but this time more crude and lacking much of the charm that made him so memorable in the first place.  In true fashion of the film series, the beginning act is a large diversion that is unnecessary to the plot.  Yet when we do get into it proper with the introduction of Will Turner's son Henry, a clever lady Carina and the return of many previous characters including Captain Barbossa and most of Jack's crew, it never felt like it was building up to something.  The pacing was slow and a lot of the set pieces just never felt quite right.  Jack surviving all the things he had thrown at him with nary a scratch will irk you, including falling from multiple storeys to having a cannon hit him right into the chest through the wall of a ship.  The film relies heavily on special effects and while some scenes are impressive, others come across as cheap and tacky.  The plot itself is weak as the characters are searching for the Trident of Poseidon in order to break all the curses of the sea and this includes yet more retcons into Jack's past.  It tries to tie in previous characters more and it works to a degree there but since we haven't seen them in so long and them having such a small contribution to the film, we don't care about them.  Overall, Pirates of the Caribbean:  Dead Men Tell No Tales falls flat and feels overlong as a result.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Book Review: KonoSuba: God’s Blessing on This Wonderful World 5 – Crimson Magic Clan, Let’s & Go!!

Review:  #822
Title:  KonoSuba:  God’s Blessing on This Wonderful World 5 – Crimson Magic Clan, Let’s & Go!!
Series:  KonoSuba:  God’s Blessing on This Wonderful World - 5th volume
Author:  Natsume Akatsuki
Comments:  The fifth volume no doubt makes Megumin the star.  After the last volume ended on a shock announcement, we get more context here and exactly why Yunyun said what she said.  The party travels to Megumin’s village, home of the Crimson Magic Clan and the trouble they run into, and the hilarious nature of them, is the best yet in the series.  Defying your expectations from the monsters they run into such as this world’s version of orcs (Kazuma should really not expect anything here to conform to his understanding from video games) to what Megumin’s boasts which are technically true.  While it follows a similar structure in that one of the Devil King’s Generals appear and it is up to Kazuma and the party to defeat them, it feels as if the author has a much better handle at pacing.  Scenes flow more naturally and the volume is effectively a massive tease in the relationship between Megumin and Kazuma.  It rises to a melting point at the ending where it makes the characters shine and brings a smile to your face.  The antics of the Crimson Magic Village is hilarious and with all the backstory that we get from them, it’s clever how it intertwines with the existing lore that we already know.  Of note though is that a lot of the gags can be creepy if you are not already used to Kazuma’s perverse actions but overall, this is an enjoyable adventure and true to its nature, the epilogue makes you thirst for the sequel.
Rating:  7/10

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Love Live! Sunshine!! - Season 1 (2016)

Love Live!  Sunshine!! is a spin-off from the first Love Live.  The first season is 13 episodes long and takes place in the small seaside town of Uchiura.  Sunshine is pretty much a retread of everything School Idol Project was, with near exact same plot elements.  It follows Takami Chika, who attends Uranohoshi Girls' Academy (yes, the whole anime pretty much only has female characters).  She is a huge fan of μ's and is inspired by them to create her own school idol group at her school.  She is joined by her best friend Sakurauchi Riko.

Unfortunately, Sunshine is too familiar and does not feel like it makes any effort to differentiate itself more.  Chika encounters the same issues in starting up the club as Honoka did in the original.  From the resistant student council president (where it is obvious that she is a future group member) to a disastrous first concert.  Even the whole subplot of recruiting the other members to form their group of nine is similar, which feels lazy and disappointing.  It literally feels like they reskinned the original with new designs.

In terms of personalities of the characters, there are some similarities also.  Naturally, Chika is akin to Honoka, with an extremely positive attitude and at times, airheaded.  While Riko has a hint of Umi being the rational one and grounding the ideas that Chika has.  Ruby is a shy girl but has dreams of becoming an idol and with a little prodding, she joins.  The group frequently mentions μ's and their good traits.  Thanks to this, it feels that Sunshine is always living in the shadow of the original and that the characters can't stand on their own.  The group tries to copy μ's to help them stand out more.  Rankings on the idol website is a focus with the group starting at #4999 and of course, find themselves improving in rank fairly rapidly, even though we're shown nothing that suggests that this is reasonable.

However, the season redeems itself somewhat where despite their successes, the group still finds roadblocks on their journey to Love Live.  It is more like reality has finally caught up with them and as they try to cope with this, in particular, Chika, you feel that the characters have developed and grown.  Unlike μ's, the role that are placed upon each character, such as the composer, and the person writing the lyrics, don't seem to fit.  This is probably due to the characters initially stating that they have no experience and are just trying to wing it.

A surprising move is how late the full group gets together.  More than half the season goes by before the final few members join to form the group of nine.  Up until that point, it felt incomplete.  An improvement to the original is the animation quality of the performances.  While it still uses 3D, it matches the normal animation a lot better and doesn't look awkwardly different.  A rival group is introduced around midway in a very melodramatic way, where it can be hard to watch without cringing.  Similar to the purpose of A-Rise in the original, however, this rival group is not the top rank so it feels more realistically achievable for Chika and her group to catch up and surpass them.

Characters will sing insert songs from time to time and the quality of these are decent.  While not super catchy, there are a few good ones.  Like the original Love Live, sometimes these insert songs don't make a lot of sense considering the context of the scenes that they were played in.  The season ends with a crucial performance in the group's career but is obviously a setup towards a second season considering that it doesn't provide too much closure to their current predicament.  Depending on your tastes, their last performance can stray towards the more cheesy and cringy side.  They pretty much summarized the whole season's events in a few minutes, which both shows the small progress the group has made and how boring it was when you just wanted them to start singing.

Overall, Love Live!  Sunshine!! feels very familiar to its detriment.  It shares so much of the same plot points of the original that it feels like a shameless cash grab and very lazy.  That being said, the focus on the characters and their backstories feels a lot more interesting and stronger.  Whether you like this or not will really depend on whether you like the new characters.


For other anime reviews, have a look at this page.
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