Anime Review [Pre-Requisite Spoilers]: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd GIG

Aired: Jan 2004

Studios: Production I.G

Genres: Action, Military, Sci-Fi, Mystery, Police, Mecha, Seinen

This review contains spoilers from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex(review here). As I will refer to it quite a bit, the original will simply be referred to as SAC, so as not to be confused with 2nd GIG.

Summary

Following the events of the Laughing Man case, the now disbanded Section 9 is summoned once again to crack down on more cyberterrorism, this time dealing with a group of terrorists calling themselves the “Individual Eleven”, which calls for refugees to get more aid and rights.

Soundtracks

The talented Origa(rest in peace) once again lent her gorgeous voice for 2nd GIG’s soundtrack, most notably in the opening theme, “Rise”, and “Torukia”. The end theme “Living in the Shell” has a similar tone with SAC’s “Lithium Flower”, albeit less catchy and more sombre.

The soundtrack list also has a selection of background music for both idle, tense, and combat scenes. A good example is “Cyberbird.”

Soundtrack: 8.0/10

Animation Quality

There’s little difference when compared to the original SAC, though one thing’s for sure is that there are less of the computer-animated shots, such as the long hallway Togusa walked in, the bullet ricochet streaks.

Even so, some good panoramic scenes are still there, such as the re-development of New Tokyo after the war.

There’s also an episode taking place in Berlin, complete with the sepia aesthetic.

Model kits!

More optic camo shots as well.

Animation Quality: 7.5/10

Characters

Some familiar faces return to the scene, such as Intelligence Officer Kobuta, who occasionally provides Aramaki with info on operations.

Side characters get some love as well. With Section 9 being stretched for manpower, Borma gets more involved in the main case instead of just being a side grunt.

Paz and Saito get their own episodes which touch on their backstory.

There’s also the arrival of the enigmatic figure from Cabinet Intelligence Service, Kazunda Goda. He plays a major role in the coming the storm.

Major Kusanagi finally wears pants in her default uniform!

However, that’s the only thing going for her, I’m afraid.

You see, in the original SAC, Major Kusanagi is portrayed as someone who usually focuses on her work and little else, which is totally fine.

In 2nd GIG, the show attempts to paint Kusanagi as someone more “human”, which is very unlike her cold and focused personality.

Apparently she has friends outside of work now.

There’s an episode where she attempts to rescue a kid from the local Yakuza, despite it not having anything to do with her case.

If that wasn’t enough, she show tries to put her in this sappy love story as well.

She suddenly gets mopey over something we’re supposed to care about.

All while also portraying her as this invincible cyborg that’s not only capable of wrestling with helicopters…

…but also picking up the slack of her team mates.

Apparently even Batou can’t hold his own without getting help from the Major.

This is particularly frustrating, because one of the subplots of 2nd GIG is Section 9 attempting to re-establish itself without getting crushed like the the last time. This proves difficult because of their shortage of manpower(funnily enough, it’s the Major herself who says this).

Yet, we see the Major single-handedly keeping things afloat, which doesn’t jive at all with Section 9’s problems.

Characters: 7.0/10

Plot

The focus of 2nd GIG is Japan attempting to recovery from two world wars, including the refugees displaced by said wars.

Apparently Vietnam was involved yet again.

The episode format is similar to the original SAC, now with 3 desginations.

“…the second season has three designations denoting the type of episode: individual (IN), dividual (DI) and dual (DU). IN episodes tie in with the Individual Eleven storyline; DI episodes are stand-alone episodes that may still be tied into other storylines; and DU episodes tie in with the Cabinet Intelligence Service & Gohda story-line (though the two main storylines inter-relate). There are 11 individual, 11 dividual and 4 dual episodes.”

Wikipedia

I didn’t really like that format as splitting screen time between lone episodes and story episodes was distracting(covered in greater depth in my SAC review). I appreciate the Individual Eleven pun, at the very least.

Anyway, moving on. The main story’s elements involve the growing tension between refugees and citizens in Japan. The Individual Eleven case took the place of the Laughing Man case as the focus of the story, though it’s not so straightforward. As the team was brought back by the newly-elected Prime Minister, Section 9 finds itself getting taken for a ride as they try to do their job, such as being given tasks outside of their jurisdiction.

This is a good element to add in the story, because SAC, one of the things Section 9 was very clear about was whether or not a case would fall under their jurisdiction. They would hang back until they found clear evidence of needing to step in. Hence, Aramaki’s team getting yanked around further escalates the tension to the events unfolding, especially with their manpower shortages.

One of the strong points of SAC is its ability to intertwine various plot elements to tell this deep story without being too overwhelming. It rewards viewers who pay attention. This quality of SAC makes it a strong contender even to more modern cyberpunk titles such as Psycho Pass. When going through SAC, I at times went back to re-watch previous episodes to figure out the context of newer episodes. That’s perfectly okay because it didn’t happen too often.

In 2nd GIG, that was cranked up to 11, not the good kind. WAY too many plot points to keep track of. For a show with 26 episodes, it lost steam around Episode 19 or so. At that point I just went “Come on just arrest them already now that you know what’s going on”. Some plot elements aren’t even explained and just fade away from the main story, or get mentioned briefly later on before being discarded. To top it all, 2nd GIG pretty much relies on the viewers knowing exactly what a “stand alone complex” is.

SAC was originally about tackling cyberterrorism, hence most investigations involve hacking, assassinations, rogue androids, etc. Politics did come into the fray, but it was gradual and blended in with the previous elements. 2nd GIG on the other hand, is one big political kerfuffle, to a point where it overshadows the cyberpunk elements of the story.

Which sucks because the show clearly wants to explore themes about cyberbrains and connectivity. I much rather hear more about this “Socialization” theory that Goda was working on.

Even so, there’s still some good combat scenes and displays of military hardware. The final stretch of the series was a decent high-intensity fight between multiple factions, with a passable ending.

Plot: 6.75/10

Score Summary

Soundtrack: 8.0/10

Animation Quality: 7.5/10

Characters: 7.0/10

Plot: 6.75/10

Conclusion

While not as strong as its predecessor, GitS 2nd GIG is a decent cyberpunk title that offers various themes ranging from cyberterrorism to politics. Just don’t get too overwhelmed by said themes.

SiCET#4: Oresuki – Jekyll and Hyde

Welcome one and all, to another episode of Siv Can’t Enjoy Things. I was going to give the rom genre a much longer break, but this one Fall 2019 title by the name of Ore wo Suki nano wa Omae dake ka yo(shortened to Oresuki) or Are You The Only One Who Loves Me? had a premise that intrigued me, specifically its MAL synopsis.

Amatsuyu “Joro” Kisaragi is a completely average second-year high school student who has two dates over one weekend⁠—with the student council president Sakura “Cosmos” Akino on Saturday, then with his childhood friend Aoi “Himawari” Hinata on Sunday. Sadly for Jouro, both girls proclaim their love for his best friend Taiyou “Sun-chan” Ooga, the ace of the baseball team. Accepting each of their requests for advice and guidance, he is now responsible for helping the two girls win the heart of the same guy.

Unbeknownst to his friends, Jouro’s friendly and obtuse image is all but a ruse designed to cast himself as the clueless protagonist of a textbook romantic comedy. A schemer under his cheery facade, he makes the best of this unexpected turn of events with a new plan: get Sun-chan to fall for either Cosmos or Himawari and take the other as his own prize. But Jouro’s last-ditch effort is threatened by the gloomy, four-eyed Sumireko “Pansy” Sanshokuin, who surprises Jouro with not only her knowledge of his secret personality but also a confession to the true self he hid for all this time.

Source

So, from the get-go, we have a guy trying to set up two girls with his best friend, hoping to get lucky with the loser of the two. But, a wrench gets thrown into that plan, with the arrival of a third contender.

Surprisingly, Pansy tells Joro that she loves HIM instead, and wants him to spend lunchtime with her every day, else she’ll divulge his entire scheme to Sun.

Let the subterfuge and deception games begin.

~~~

Even before I watched it, scenarios are already playing in my mind. If Joro has a bird in the hand, why bother about the two in the bush? Just stop everything and take her. Alas, if that happened, we wouldn’t get a 12-episode anime. We’d get a 3-episode anime.

While this is mostly spoiler-free, I feel it’s important to briefly know some events in those first 3 episodes, and there’s a reason for that: On the surface, Oresuki seems like a full-blown harem. The harem vibes from this one are pretty strong.

BUT, all is not as it seems. First off, Joro is not a clueless protag. He simply puts on the facade of a clueless protag.

He does this in hopes of landing a girl by simply being a rom-com main.

He does use strategy in an attempt to help the two girls get Sun. Unfortunately, they’re dumber than a sack of bricks, posing quite a challenge to him.

If you thought playing both sides is not the smartest thing to do, you’re probably right.

It’s even dumber to divulge everything to the girl who threatens to spill the beans if you don’t comply to her demands.

Then, the trainwrecks start to happen, one after another, growing into a massive pile-up.

An entire 12-episode conflict gets condensed into a 3-episode lightning round! The battle is fierce. Joro quickly finds himself on the brink of losing everything.

BUT, he stands his ground, and stands up himself! (Which is more than what typical protags in his situation would do)

Even then, it seems like his fate is sealed… until a sudden plot twist happens, and Joro ends up with a resounding victory! (You’ll need to watch to see exactly how it happens. It’s worth it).

So, by the end of Episode 3, the winners walk free, and the losers limp away, licking their wounds.

All of that is JUST the beginning. The other 9 episodes involve Joro making new friends and navigating through all sorts of social minefields and feels trips.

Aside from being self-aware of itself, this anime regularly breaks the fourth wall.

Of course, the harem elements don’t go away. It’s dumbfounding how easily the other girls fall in love with Joro, and they always profess their love or make their moves at the worst times. It’s part of the harem parcel, really.

What kept me watching is Pansy being just the most sensible character around. She gives sound advice to Joro whenever he needs it, being a key supportive figure in most of the conflicts he goes through.

She’s another example of a tsundra. She’s nice to everyone yet acts coldly towards Joro, which plays into the duality of Jekyll and Hyde. She’s not that clingy to Joro, and this allows him to freely interact with other female characters.

The other characters who “lost” conflicts do feel remorseful as they go on their own redemption roads.

There’s one time where Joro uses the advice he got from Pansy to help someone, which I find endearing.

As the show goes on, he does quite a bit for those around him, becoming more than just a clueless protag.

Joro also learns to say “no” when some characters attempt to take advantage of him, thus reinforcing his spine.

Now, the height of Pansy’s performance is something so profound, I didn’t see it coming, despite the clues being obvious.

You see, although she’s been so helpful to Joro, he doesn’t openly reciprocate her feelings.

Two reasons for this. One is to have that ‘grey area’ so other girls can have a chance with him, eventhough the ones closer to them know of Pansy’s feelings for him.

The second is the important one: Pansy can see right through Joro’s facade that he put up, meaning she loves him for who he really is: someone who constantly looks out for the people around him.

That drives Joro so insane, he momentarily turns into a tsundere when she flirts with him. No I’m not kidding. That happened, and its hilarious.

There’s a deeper meaning to this. We all put up “masks” when we go out into the world, to hide our true selves, like a suit of armour. Joro’s mask is the clueless protag facade he puts up. Pansy’s mask is more literal i.e braiding her hair and wearing glasses.

This inferiority complex comes to bite Joro in the ass later on when he faces his own painful struggle.

But once again, Pansy comes to the rescue, telling him reassuring words, and that’s endearing.

~~~

Oresuki is a good example of the journey being way better than the destination. Even so, the destination isn’t that bad. Joro faces the “final boss” of the show, the “Perfect Protagonist” with defense nigh-impenetrable, so look forward to that one if you’re picking this up.

Just ignore the harem stuff. It pales in comparison to the good mix of laughs, rom elements, and the supportive presence that is Sumireko “Pansy” Sanshokuin.

SiCET#3: Evoking Discomfort in the Audience

Welcome to another episode of Siv Can’t Enjoy Things. Anime scenes that make the audience feel a range of emotions can help establish a connection and investment with the characters, and by extension, the story itself (as characters merely exist to convey tales and messages). On that note, making the audience feel especially uncomfortable not only helps build emotional investment, but has an added bonus of building tension. Feelings of anger and hatred can be just as strong (if not stronger) compared to positive feelings of love and triumph.

Spoiler Disclaimer – This write-up will contain spoilers from the following titles:
1. Re:Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu (anime S1)
2. Made in Abyss(anime S1)

With that out of the way, let’s begin.

When I first watched Re:Zero, the thing that really stuck with me is how uncomfortable that anime made me feel, especially during the first 10 episodes. Subaru just got mysteriously teleported into another realm, and he’s already dying left and right.

The anime starts off foreshadowing dark undertones, which is great.

Fortunately, therein lies his special ability, one he calls “Return by Death.”

While he did die a bunch of times in the early part of the anime, it’s completely undertsandable. Elsa, the first antagonist of that arc, is a trained assassin. He is a civilian. While watching him die horribly was uncomfortable, Subaru, to his credit, still tried to figure what was going on with what little knowledge he gathered. That is entirely justified.

That first fight was my fav, because it clearly showcases the skill difference between a civilian and a trained assassin. They’ll trade blows, but the assassin will land a fatal strike despite getting knocked back slightly.

However, it is the part after that which really got me, and not in a good way.

When Subaru finally survived an encounter with Elsa, he was still badly injured. Emilia took him back to the mansion, where he was introduced to new characters: the twin maid sisters, Rem and Ram, the witch Beatrice, along with the mansion’s owner, Rosawaal Mathers, who is also Emilia’s sponsor for the candidacy bid. For saving Emilia, Mathers decided to grant Subaru a reward, which he chose to be hired at the mansion. As a NEET, he is terrible at house chores, but doesn’t give up at learning.

And that’s when things start to awry. Subaru realizes that he’s been killed in the mansion, but has little recollection of it. Later on, he finds out that it was Rem who did it, right before he was, you guessed it, killed again.

Honestly, he’s as clueless as the audience at this point.

So, what’s the explanation for this?

Emilia has a bid for the throne. Subaru’s over friendliness towards her put him under suspicion of being a spy, especially when he wanted to work at the mansion. Despite Emilia’s very powerful familiar not detecting ANY sort of malice of ill-intent, Roswaal was conveniently unaware of this(because it’s implied that these two parties never talked or shared information), so he decided to take matters into his own hands and have Subaru dealt with.

Apparently this wasn’t enough to absolve him.

Subaru tried to best his assailant by spending the night at Beatrice’s library(since only he could find the Door Crossing into it). When he finally survives the night and emerges out of the library in the morning, he was greeted by Emilia beckoning him to follow her. Apparently, Rem lay dead, supposedly from a curse. Ram heavily suspects Subaru, despite him spending the night in Beatrice’s library (and the witch personally vouches for him).

Ram throws a spell at Subaru, but is deflected by Beatrice who entered a contract to protect him. Roswaal was enraged by this because a member of his staff died and that turned his magical spells onto Beatrice(eventhough that was unnecessary and unfounded). Things quickly spiraled into a heated argument when even Emilia chooses to trust Subaru, while still pleading for him to divulge any information he has. Of course, he can’t tell them of his special ability and the things he experienced.
Instead of just plainly saying “I honestly have no idea” (because that’s the logical thing to do), he says “I’m sorry” with an extremely guilty tone and runs out of the room, just before the stand-off goes full-blown, with Ram’s vows to kill him echoing in his ears.

Beatrice later finds him by a cliff. They discuss what to do next, just in time for Ram to show up with the intent of horribly murdering him. Subaru then decides confidently that he will find out more things before jumping off the edge to his death. Committing suicide to get a do-over, wew that’s rough.

All his painful deaths made for an uncomfortable experience, yes, but that specific part was needlessly uncomfortable. Subaru was under heavy suspicion for unfounded reasons, even when he was vouched by a witch who probably knew more about curses than anyone in the mansion. Everyone knows very little about the situation but seem intent on just killing him to make the problem go away.

A possible devil’s advocate for this entire kerfuffle is that audience is not spoonfed all the information needed to make sense of the rapidly devolving situation, as they’re expected to figure it out on their own, even with the characters’ highly irrational emotions thrown into the mix. Even so, that doesn’t exclude the sheer amount of happenstance that unfairly shifts the blame onto the protag for little to no reason.

~~~

That part of Re: Zero stuck with me for a while, as I was unsure if using such methods to create tension was the way to go. It did succeed at making me feel uncomfortable, at the cost of being lost as to what was going on.

However, I got my answer a few years later when I watched Made in Abyss, which had a brilliant solution to this specific conundrum.

Made in Abyss is an anime that excels at making its audience uncomfortable, but does so at incremental amounts. While the audience is getting invested with the characters and their experiences, the author takes this opportunity to slowly boil the frog. It starts off with a very lighthearted manner in the opening and ending themes. The tone is set for a grand adventure, eventhough the Abyss is known to be a very dangerous place.

Oh yes, that information is made known to the audience. Ample sketches and conversations are had about the creatures and hazards of the Abyss even before the adventure really kicks off. Riko attempts to get as much information as she can before setting off, and this information reaches the audience as well. By the time they do set off, she’s probably memorized every single field guide there is on the Abyss, not including the parchments at the Guild HQ from Lyza herself.

So, how exactly does the frog-boiling commence?

The earliest hint of discomfort is when Riko carelessly loses her compass while fiddling about with it. It’s one of her most treasured possessions, and it disappears down a waterfall, just like that.

I should point out that thing was a relic, and relics are extremely rare.

The next big hurdle was the Ozen encounter.

This applies discomfort by pitching a vicious battle that may hinder progress of the adventure, even hinting at the slight prospect that it may end there and then. Ozen can easily evoke feelings of anger and hatred especially when she “really gets into” the battle with Reg, nearly killing Riko as well.

Ozen pointing the live Incinerator at Riko’s unconscious body.

 Then, at its peak, the battle was revealed to be a mere test. Well played. Some respite and relief, for now…

And this point, the audience is given new information. Ozen not only reveals that the grave is empty, but also that the parchment that says “I’ll be waiting” is written in with older glyphs. The paper itself is an artifact, and can’t be damaged by even Ozen’s strength. This is enough to theorize that maybe, the message was not for Riko, but for Reg, which means it was not written by Lyza. This is not really spoonfeeding, rather, something to keep the audience making intriguing guesses.

The discomfort continues when Reg used his Incinerator in the Great Fault before going out cold for two hours, but it was oddly mitigated by him waking up just before the Srimson Splitjaw cornered Riko.

When they finally reached the Goblet of Giants, there was some brief tension when Reg sensed a presence, but could not ascertain what it was, or who it was.

Then, came the Orbed Piercer battle, and here is where things really heated up. First, they lost the Blaze Reap. One of the more potent items in their arsenal, and Lyza’s legendary weapon, gone just like that.

Reg deployed the Scaled Umbrella to defend the against the Piercer’s spines, but as he turned to face Riko, this sight greeted him.

Here is where panic sets in. While Reg has some quick-thinking and high agility, he easily loses his cool, especially when Riko is in trouble. He grabbed a flat creeper above, and propeled them upward to safety.

Let that sink in. He went up. In the fourth layer.

Yeah, what happened next wasn’t pretty, but also the second most powerful scene in that season (the biggest one comes much later, and nothing prepared the audience for that one. It was straight-up balls-to-the-wall, no-holds-barred. You know that one I’m talkin’ about).

That’s how Made in a Abyss pulled it off. It first turned the dial up slightly, then a bit more, and more. Some relief was provided here and there, but as they went lower, the dial went down less, with every action weighing more, and every mistake more punishing than the last.

~~~

Building tension and discomfort can be done without holding back information from the audience, provided it makes some sense. Leaving them too much in the dark can cause a loss of interest, hence it’s important to have just enough intrigue and curiosity for what comes next.

That wraps up another episode of SiCET. See you on the next one. Cheers.

SiCET#2: Love is War is Not a Romance Title (Spoiler-free)

Welcome to another episode of Siv Can’t Enjoy Things. Previously, I did some hot takes on the romance genre. Today, I’ll be using some of said hot takes to talk about Kaguya-sama wa Kokurasetai: Tensai-tachi no Renai Zunousen, or Kaguya-sama: Love is War.

A second season has been announced, so it’s about time I talked about this one in greater detail. The TDLR is about the two top students(Student Council President Miyuki Shirogane as the male lead, and Vice President Kaguya Shinomiya as the female lead) of a prestigious high school trying to get the other person to confess to them, because in their eyes, the person who confesses first becomes the lesser in the relationship. The common moniker used to describe the show is “What if there was a romance title where you put two tsunderes together?”

I watched the anime adaptation last year (review here), and later on checked out the manga, starting out at Chapter 45 where the first anime season ends. Boy, this thing goes and goes AND GOES. There are more than a 170 chapters and counting.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on the manga up to Chapter 115 or so. Hopefully this serves as good insight for those coming from the S1 adaptation and looking to read the manga.

I’ll start off with the series’ second strongest selling point: the characters.

The Return of Ishigami

In the adaptation, Yu Ishigami is the character who would end up going home every time something unfavourable to him happened. And for the times he does get to weigh in on situations, he’s portrayed as this otaku creep who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

But in the manga, he has a way bigger presence. Ishigami takes part in more conversations. There’s even a few chapters later on which focus on his past, which I’d say is one of the best arcs of the show. There was a scene that showed what happened before Shirogane recruited Ishigami as the treasurer, and that was a good precursor to a certain chapter where Ishigami solidified himself as a bro to Shirogane, and it was SO AWESOME that it completely overshadows everything else in the manga thus far.

From “HIT THE BRAKES, ISHIGAMI!” to “PIERCE THE HEAVENS, ISHIGAMI!”

Ishigami also gets along better with Shinomiya instead of her usually threatening him to do stuff. In Ishigami’s case, he definitely ticks the box of “character development.”

The Arrival of “Miss Justice”

This one appears later on, and she is by far the cutest in the show seconded only by Hayasaka. So, this girl (I call her “Miss Justice” because she values order above all) joins the main cast in their daily activities, and gets embroiled in the hilarity that ensues from said activities. Miss Justice also has a really hard time fitting in at first because the hilarious stuff that goes on in the student council room isn’t always within the rules or in best practice, which is even funnier. In addition, the more interesting aspect about Miss Justice is that eventhough she upholds the rules by catching couples behaving inappropriately on school grounds, she’s no less perverted or desiring for a partner than anyone else, which is a very human thing.

More Hayasaka

Shinomiya’s trusty friend and confidant returns and gets a few chapters in where she gets to break free from what her “master” tells her to do. My favourite girl in the series.

Miyuki Shirogane’s Dad

Undoubtedly the best dad at the moment. He has a sense of humor and is pretty laid back, and his openess is a source of both humor and profound conversation(especially with Shinomiya).

A Whole Lot of Non-Romantic Progress

Now we’re getting to the reason for the title. Love is War is not a rom title like how Oregairu is not a rom title. The romantic plot gets completely sidelined in favor of “other events” that take place. It’s hard to pin down a romantically significant event that happened in the first 100 chapters or so, so I’ll talk about some of the less significant ones. There is a scene where Shinomiya has a mental debate with two versions of herself. The Evil Shinomiya(born from the false aforementioned first-confession notion) is bent on making Shirogane bow to her by any means necessary. On the other hand, the True Shinomiya(a reflection of her actual feelings) focuses on maintaining a good rapport between herself and Shirogane. It’s a good to see them try to fight the nonsensical mental conditioning they have, something which they previously made little effort to.

A mental debate is something fresh in the series. It shows the characters thinking their actions through.

Alas, try as they might, the first-confession assumption is something that continues to plague them, and is simply much stronger than their willpower at the time. To make matters worse, we have slapstick stuff coming into play, such as trained medical personnel telling Shinomiya that she collapsed at school because she’s lovesick, and then asks about the person she likes, completely taking out any grounding in reality this show has.

Notice how Shinomiya is outright questioning the reality of the situation.

When someone asks Shirogane for advice, he’ll say “You shouldn’t waste time” or “You should talk to them” and a little text bubble will appear on the side panel saying “Shirogane doesn’t take his own advice.”

Yep. This bit of dialogue happened.
There’s also a scene where they think the other trapped them in the toolshed as a ploy…when the door handle is right there.

So yeah, not really working out well for them. While these two continue on with their zero-sum game, there are other characters around them who start to take notice of their weird behavior. There was one instance where Shinomiya and Shirogane were indirectly complimenting each other, and this random bystander character just thought “Huh, it seems like they’re actually flirting with each other.” I would think that after a hundred chapters of this back-and-forth with no result, they’d try something different.

Speaking of trying something different, they get do-overs on certain previous challenges. For example, when Shinomiya was scared to ask the President of something specific, she has another opportunity to do so, and she does it! Bravo for Shinomiya. Wait, why is she in some trance? Are you saying that she can only speak her mind when she’s not herself?

I mean she barely thinks logically anyway.

A few chapters past the 100 mark, something happens.

Shirogane suddenly goes “Oh shit! I’m running out of time! I should get Kaguya to confess before that chance sails away!” and he ups the ante. The chapters where launches his “offensives” had the Result scorecards changed to Shirogane’s Assault Round Results. There are certainly more effective, but not a game changer, unfortunately. I did mention in Episode 1 of SiCET that if a character says something significant but his actions don’t have the weightage to back it up, it can’t be taken seriously. That was the problem Shirogane suffered. He makes these “tough guy” statements of “I should be true to myself and my goals” but his actions rarely follow-up as such, outside of some rare scenarios like the fireworks chapter in Season 1.

I also mentioned that if the rom plot gets completely sidelined, a rom title is in danger of slippin’ n slidin’ into slice of life, and believe me, this show was dangerously close to falling into that pit multiple times. Entire chapters where nothing of note happened seemed like filler content to me. These two lovebirds were getting nowhere.

Edgy.

But to my surprise, it didn’t fall into that pit.

In fact, the show managed to stay afloat. I kept on reading.

So, what could possibly save this show when the rom plot gets sidelined?

The answer to that is the show’s strongest point: the ridiculous amount of humor it has.

While there are a ton of lame jokes in there, buried underneath are a few well-done ones which kept most chapters entertaining (excluding the slapstick stuff). Try as I could, I still burst out laughing when some of the punchlines dropped. They were well-placed, and well-executed.

The show brings in new elements into its bag of humor & hilarity, such as horror shots.
That’s a Monogatari reference!
Even memes find themselves in the arsenal of humor.

Chika Fujiwara (or “Pink Hair”) as I call her is still playing her role well in turning everything upside down, be it her games or her Love Detective shenanigans.

Remember when she dabbled in a bit of rap earlier? Well, there’s an entire chapter that’s just a rap battle! At first, I went “Jesus there’s no point to this”, but it actually wasn’t half bad.

Notice how she’s using political & legal terms in her speech. Runs in the family, I guess.

But since Pink Hair is an element of chaos, she can only go so far, and for when humor doesn’t cut it, Ishigami steps in. There are times where he completely destroys Pink Hair, and it’s so satisfying to see this happen.

Oof, BTFO’d.

How Ishigami tackles problems (especially after his big arc) becomes a source of intrigue, and a solid reason to keep reading. It’s no longer about this glorified “love battle” that Shinomiya and Shiorgane are pointlessly waging, it’s now about what Ishigami says or does in the next chapter. I have similar sentiments about watching Oreigairu as well. It’s no longer about which girl Hachiman(or Eight Man) gets, it’s just about how he navigates the next shitshow and comes out unscathed. The other characters simply lack the weight Eight Man has on subsequent events in the story, and I just kept watching to see what he’d do or say next.

To sum it up, when reading Love is War, just treat it as a high school anime without the rom plot in the picture. Its true source of enjoyment is the humor it brings (albeit under a ton of lame humor) and Ishigami taking center stage.

That’s it for this episode of SiCET. I wanted to release this one first, but I kept it second so I could reference stuff from my thoughts on the rom genre.

I am looking forward to the voice actors of Hayasaka and Shirogane’s Dad to reprise their roles in the second season. They’re my fav VAs in this lineup.

See you in the next one. Cheers.

SiCET#1: What the Anime Romance Genre Lacks and Could Use

Welcome to a new series called SiCET, or Siv Can’t Enjoy Things, where I pick apart anime titles to expose their flaws(and good points. I’m a fair person). It has a more loose format compared to my reviews and allows me to be more freeform in my critique and elaboration.

To kick off the series, let’s open up something big: what’s wrong with the romance genre. Boy, this is gonna be fun.

Before we begin, here’s the Spoiler List, with seasons where applicable:

Wotaku Koi ni wa Muzikashi / Love is Hard for an Otaku (anime)
Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata – Koisuru Metronome / How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend: Metronome in Love (manga)
Seishun Buta Yarou wa Bunny Girl Senpai no Yume wo Minai / Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai (anime)
Bakemonogatari (anime)
– Shakugan no Shana (anime, S1-S3)
Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata / How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend (anime, S1 & S2)
Zero no Tsukaima / Familiar of Zero (anime, S1-S3)

Alright, with that out of the way, let’s begin.

Why Rom Titles?

My usual bread and butter consists of sci-fi and dark fantasy titles. More specific tastes include giant robots and cyberpunk. These usually gravitate towards war/combat and its sub-components such as war-time politics, survival, and strategy.

With all of the above, the romance genre seems like an oddball, doesn’t it? It would make sense to say roms are a guilty pleasure of mine, but that’s simply not true.

When I watch a rom title, my focus is to see how HOW the guy gets the girl(or vice versa), i.e the level of effort put into the chase. That determines whether the victory is well-fought and earned.

Alas, this is not so straightforward, as there are numerous problems with the genre. They’re not challenges(I would welcome challenges), but they’re hindrances. They make romance shows less enjoyable instead of providing a satisfactory watch.

So, what are the more common problems in this genre?

1. The NCNPC and the Tsundere

NCNPC stands for No Confidence No Personality Character. It’s a name I give to characters who do not know how to stand up for themselves or be assertive.

Tsundere characters are often portrayed as immature and insecure(to be fair, their are in their teens when all sorts of hormones wake up). Even with puberty to deal with, they get upset over the protag for no reason, even when they didn’t do anything. When combined with the NCNPC, it’s like putting fire and gas together. The tsundere female continuously doubts and accuses him while clueless protag doesn’t do anything about it.

Of course, the NCNPC later on makes up for it with the only way they can: say cheesy one-liners or does heroic deeds, and then they make up.

An example of this is Familiar of Zero. The relationship between Saito and Louise never showed any sense of maturity or development as the seasons progressed from 1 to 3(I haven’t seen the last one, as I gave up after the third). They didn’t attempt to understand each other or relate to one another. Listening to Saito reassuring Louise that he loves her and ONLY her every season is painful. On the other hand, Louise physically abusing Saito because she found/heard him in a questionable situation is a running gag of the show, and by extension, the running gag of most rom titles Rie Kugimiya voiced the female lead. The only title to survive the Kugumiya-pocalypse was Toradora!, because the tsundere character in question was only half as annoying, which allowed the other half to be filled with meaningful emotions instead of confused screaming, which made the title a memorable one till today.

Thankfully, the Tsundere Age has come to an end, so that problem is less prevalent, though misunderstandings are still rampant in other forms.

In the absence of tsunderes, there is, however, a more dangerous foe the romance genre has to deal with.

2. Slip n’ Slide into Slice of Life: The Lack of Willpower

First, we’ll need to take a look at the definition of slice of life, which is “A realistic representation of everyday experience in a film, play, or book.”

That’s the actual definition, and here’s the slip n’ slide definition: “when the events/scenes stop weighing into the story’s direction.” This is a problem that even non-slice-of-life rom titles have a danger of falling into. Character choices and event consequences become near-non-existent. They may have a little sway such as a character remembering what happened before and not to repeat the same mistake, but it’s not significant enough to change the tide of things.

The slip n’ slide usually begins when the protag tries something to get the girl and it blows up in his face, or drama happens, putting him further away from the girl he likes. On the flip side, he may know the female lead but not make an attempt to approach her. The story then drags on with characters meandering about not doing much. Events happen and characters do things, but the rom plot takes a back seat.

An example of this is Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata / How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend. The jist of it is a bunch of students are making a dating game with the male NCNPC Aki Tomoya at the helm, so each of the other girls are in charge of different things such as the art and story. We get a tsundere lewd artist and a genius writer to fill in these respective roles. Changes happen along the game’s development and they have to deal with it. The female characters have their pros and cons, except for Kato Megumi, who is supposedly the titular “boring girlfriend” and main heroine of the game, and boiii is she the most normie-tier character to grace the show. At one point, she was even entitled enough to be upset at the protag because he witheld a problem he had, and didn’t speak to him for a while. Oh, so dramatic, yet utterly pointless. The other two main girls occasionally try to flirt with him but they end up just fighting amongst each other, and amidst these chaotic fights, Megumi somehow gets alone-time with the NCNPC male, thanks to Plot Armour-kun.

Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with slice of life parts. It provides an opportunity for characters to solve problems they have in a realistic manner, but if the events don’t weigh into the story or the characters don’t have the willpower to overcome their challenges, they are a waste of screen time. I don’t make this statement lightly. Anime is expensive enough to produce as it is, with animators getting abysmal pay for a ton of work.

3. Assumption of a Confession Being an End

This is the age-old trope that creates 11 episodes of “Will They Won’t They” and a final rushed episode of where the protag somehow gets the girl OR attempts to get her next season as the show draws to a hasty unsatisfactory close. This is common in adaptations as they have to follow the source material.

Because of the series-ending undertones a confession has, it’s understandable why such an event would be prolonged, especially for making a second season. That is fine if the second season isn’t ALSO written that way. Even if we get that confession scene, it happened as a final checkmark on the rom to-do list. There was no buildup or lead-up to the final stretch. Shakugan no Shana, another casualty of the Kugimiya-pocalypse, was an example of this. Consider it a “sister” series of Familiar of Zero with vastly better combat & story but with the same weaknesses. Shana constantly wailing on Yuuji for two seasons, before a confession during the last moments of the ultimate clash in the third is cliche as hell.

There are some titles who have managed to navigate or mitigate these problems. Before we get to those, there is one aspect that I’ve been seeing more and more recently, and I’d like to see this more in anime.

“Coolness” or Game

Some time ago, during a panel starring the voice actors from Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Comedy wa Machigatteiru when they were asked to make responses to certain scenes, Mai Nakahara(far right), who was considerably older than the others, had some pretty sleazy responses. The host would repeatedly say “Wow that’s a cool response!” or “What a cool-guy phrase!”

In reality, what Mai did was using game.

In the modern dating scene, “game” is using one’s confidence, flirting, & bantering skills to win a girl’s affection (in anime, this can be reversed if the girl is the dominant one).

Keep this in mind, because some examples below have characters using game to improve their romantic chances. It is realistic, and showcases confidence, which is attractive.

Right, let’s get to it. There are five examples of rom titles who have done well in a certain way, keeping the regular problems of rom at bay. Two are in this write-up, while the other three will be in part 2 i.e the wrap-up.

1. Bakemonogatari: Age of the Tsundra

With the age of the tsundere at an evolutionary dead end, it’s high time a new contender took center stage. When Bakemonogatari’s female lead, Hitagi Senjougahara (which I’ll refer to as “Crab Girl”) described herself as a “tsundere” in Episode 1, male lead Koyomi Araragi thought of her as more of a “tundra” i.e cold like a tundra. Hence, the term “Tsundra” was born.

True enough, that was Crab Girl’s life, especially with her traumatic past of being almost assaulted by someone. She mostly kept to herself at school. Even after she threatened Koyomi to leave her alone, he still tried to help her solve the problem/affliction she had.

To Crab Girl, this level of kindness was something else. Araragi melted the cold tundra, and she warmed up to him. After her ordeal was over, the entire first half of Episode 3 was Crab Girl telling Koyomi she wanted to repay him somehow, suggesting both cute and lewd rewards.

She later on admitted tantalizing Araragi that way because she wanted him to confess to her first. Funnily enough, this was after she herself said “I love you” to him.

As Bakemonogatari is Koyomi helping other characters deal with supernatural threats, Crab Girl often gives off this vibe of “If you don’t come back to me in one piece, I’ll kick your ass,” which is a departure from the actual ass-kicking during the Tsundere Age.

She mostly takes the lead in their interaction, whether it’s conversation or asking the other out on a date, though Araragi has this thing about responding in either a deadpan manner or exclaiming at the audacity of what Crab Girl and other characters suggest, a source of the show’s humor. He’s also prone to slapstick reactions such as falling on the floor at a dumb/bizarre statement. One example is when she asks him about what he plans to do after high school, either going to a university or just being a NEET. Koyomi asked “Who are you, my mom?” to which Crab Girl replied “Your Mom? I’m your lover, aren’t I?” to which he collapsed on the floor, his face red as a tomato. She later talked about easily getting into a university, but preferred to follow the same path as him, showing that she takes the relationship seriously and wants to be with him.

A tsundra is not without their weaknesses, such as going within an inch of harming the person they like.

An inch away from an eye-stab.

While this may seem very much like a yandere , a tsundra doesn’t actually follow through with their seemingly violent implications. Proof of this is Crab Girl later saying she’s acting that way because she’s lovesick. This level of self-restraint makes a tsundra superior to both tsundere and yandere types. This plays into another aspect of a tsundra. Since they tend to keep away or push people away, this makes them painfully lonely, so when they get companionship, they are afraid of losing it, being a bit possessive.

The entire flirtation sequence of Bakemonogatari is too long to be written here, and will get its own dedicated write-up in the future. The jist of it is a tsundra warms up to the person they like, and while they’re possessive, they don’t share the violent tendencies of a yandere, nor have the immaturity of a tsundere.

2. Rascal Does not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai: Using Game Well

Another series having a supernatural element in it. High school student Sakuta Azusagawa is a victim of an inexplicable phenomenon known as the Puberty Syndrome. The story follows him as he helps other people overcome this syndrome. Sakuta’s known as a “rascal” because of how he speaks his mind with no filter.

The female lead, Mai Sakurajima, is similar to Crab Girl. She has a problem, and tells the guy to forget about it. The guy helps her anyway, and she develops a liking to him.

However, unlike Koyomi who had a less dominant role in his relationship, Sakuta is very much the dominant one who uses game to tease Mai regularly. Here’s why this works so well: Mai is a popular TV star since she was young. She’s very used to being surrounded by people who treat her like the celebrity she is, and longs to be treated like a normal girl. Sakuta satisfies this emotional need she has, prompting her to come back for more.

Sakuta’s teasing also puts Mai on the defensive, as she needs to be on her best behavior to impress him, and girls love that.

The infamous counter-attack.

Another thing that Sakuta does really well is to ease back and say carefree things like “I’m the happiest guy in the world for being with Mai-san,” which Mai uses to poke him and reel him back. It is, in a sense, allowing her to dominate for a while, and it’s more satisfying to do so with a guy who has high confidence and self-esteem (because dominating a NCNPC is easy and unsatisfying). This concept was executed well, and it’s great.

Similar to Koyomi, Sakuta maintains his genuine nature in helping others, so characters do have a high degree of trust him.

Mai and Sakuta talk to each other often, even about problems they face (such the media discovering that Mai has a boyfriend). This also has some level of maturity.

My review on Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai can be found here.

3. How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend – Metronome in Love: Cranking up the Flirt Meter

Lap pillows with a side of handholding.

The manga spin-off of the mainline series of the same name, Metronome in Love removes the harem element from scene, leaving in genius writer Kasumi Utako and Aki Tomoya. The setting has also changed. Instead of making a dating game, Aki was hired by Kasumi’s manager to be an editor and help Kasumi write the sequel to her best-selling novel, “Metronome in Love.” Aki was chosen because of two reasons:1) Being a huge fan of the novel, he runs a fan-site dedicated to the novel, contributing a significant portion of sales to the publishing company, and 2) Because the manager knows Kasumi has feelings for Aki.

So far in the list, we have Koyomi Araragi with high trust and low game, Sakuta with high trust and high game. Now, there’s Aki Tomoya, high trust, and NO game. He is as clueless as he is in the main series (well, almost as clueless, but we’ll get to that later).

In the previous two examples, the protag won over the girl by helping her out with a predicament she had. So, how did Aki do it? It’s similar to the main series, where there’s a flashback scene when Kasumi wanted Aki to chose the ending of her novel’s finale, i.e which girl the novel’s character would pick. This was an indirect confession on her part, but Aki flat-out refused as didn’t want to tamper with the work of the idol he revered so much.

This “rejection”, instead of erasing the prospect of a relationship, actually made Kasumi’s feelings for him MUCH stronger. She went as far as to give him the playful nickname “Rinri-kun” or “Mr. Ethical” for his choice to not interfere with her writing.

Throughout the manga, Kasumi just tosses flirt after flirt his way, with Aki always going red and telling her to stop fooling around. Yep, he’s rather oblivious. The important thing of note is he doesn’t push her away, so she can just keep going. Of course, they do get serious on writing when needed.

There was one occasion when she could crack his defenses. When Aki said he was “too shy to meet her in person”, it means he did feel something at the time.

A headpat did the trick.

If they’re at this deadlock, just crank up the Flirt Meter. It’s like they’re already in a relationship, even if no one confessed.

That’s the appeal I got from the manga, the wholesomeness of just seeing her dote all over him every chance she gets. That’s what kept me reading on.

However, it’s not all flirting. At one scene, Kasumi does tell Aki that she wants him to keep up with her in his role as an editor, showing that she does care about his well-being and wants to see him get better at what he does.

Later on in the manga, Kasumi asks which university he plans to go to after high school, hinting that she wants to spend more of her life with him.

Koisuru Metronome is a good read, my review of it is here.

4. Wotaku Koi ni wa Muzikashi: Defeating Slice of Life / Confession is a Beginning, not an End

Wotakoi is a good example of a modern romance seinen done right. The series starts off Narumi Momose as she starts a new job, while trying to keep her otaku hobbies a secret from those in the office.

Romantic relationships are established within the first 2 episodes. The series then follows these couples and focuses on how they deal with problems in both their daily lives and relationships.

Now, this is a slice of life title from the get-go, BUT the difference here is the characters take an active role of solving whatever problems they’re facing. Characters talk to each other, which immediately clears up any misunderstandings. Effective communication would render large swaths of romance plots moot, because misunderstanding creates more drama, albeit immature and pointless drama.

When they finally solve whatever “slice of life dilemma” they have and things go back to normal, it FEELS GOOD, because it was earned.

The two main female characters are fujoshis. That was a mild annoyance at first, but I got used to it. These fujoshi shenanigans also make for some hilarious arguments and scenes later on.

Yep, this is the stuff of fujoshi fantasies.

A bonus to this being a seinen title is the show gives good examples on tackling relationship issues, such as the guy being the source of emotional complicity for a woman. The show also clearly illustrates that guys and girls do things differently, and think differently. That’s mature. I like maturity.

My review on Wotakoi can be found here.

5. Tsurezure Children – Cutting out all the Bullshit

Tsurezure Children is a show about following young students in their pursuit of a relationship, and it takes a rather radical approach to solving the “11 episodes of Will They/Won’t They” problem.

You guessed it: They cut out everything that’s irrelevant, and focuses only on the bits we want to see: conversations leading up to the confession, and what happens post-confession such as dates.

In fact, the series cut so much out, that each episode is cut down to 12 minutes, and rotates between FOUR couples. The comedy is no slouch either, making for some hilarious scenes characters are remembered for to this day.

I had a good time with this one. My review of Tsurezure Children can be found here.

~~~

So there, you have it. Five examples of romance done right, and how to solve various problems mentioned earlier.

– Tsundra trumps tsundere
– Basic game trumps cliches like heroic deeds and cheesy one-liners.
– When up against a clueless male protag, crank up the flirt meter. It’s like they’re already in a relationship.
– Slice of life is dealt with by characters being assertive enough to solve dilemmas, and they are well-earned victories.
– If all else fails, just cut out everything that’s irrelevant.

I will be talking about other bad rom examples in future write-ups, such as examples where rom titles attempted to mitigate shortcomings or do damage control, but didn’t quite work out.

Anyway, That’s all for now. Hope you enjoyed this as much as I did writing it. I’m excited for future episodes of this new series.

Cheers.

Update: The Importance of Criticism and the Direction of this Blog

This is a more freeform write up compared to my usual scribblings.

I’ve been writing on here on and off about games or anime, though I didn’t really think about the direction I wanted to take this blog. It’s just more of a platform to express what I feel about the content I consume.

I was contemplating if I was overly critical of the stuff I write about, especially anime (because I’ve been told that before in some form or other). Then, a thought hit me. I opened up a few Gigguk videos to confirm my suspicions, and yes, I was right.

To clarify, the thought that hit me was: When was the last time Gigguk expressed some negative criticism about something? I’m using him as an example because he’s one of the bigger names that come to people’s minds when they think “anime content creator”. Sure enough, from him pointing out the bad start of Aldnoah.Zero Season 2 or talking about Darling in the Franxx’s horrible final stretch, he didn’t seem to be negative at all. In fact, he turned those observations into memes. This is appeals to the masses and does not divide his audience, playing into his direction as an entertainer.

This got me thinking about my direction. What makes this blog special over thousands of other blogs who do the exact same thing?

I first examined how I use this blog. For those who remember, I started off this blog with the Tiberium Tuesdays series, where I would talk about random topics from the Tiberium universe. Over time, I accrued more and more write-ups on the subject, and since I spent my time in a few C&C Discord groups back then, whenever someone would talk about a certain topic I wrote about, I went “Oh, I actually wrote about that subject, let me pull it up.” I would then link the write-up, and that would enhance the conversation.

As for how the criticism plays into things, I don’t prefer to mince words when I talk about something. This goes both ways. If I like something, or dislike something, I can tell you exactly WHY, to provide context. That’s the rule of thumb that I go by. If the plot of an anime is crap, I will tell you “the plot is crap because of <this reason>, <this reason>, and <that reason>.” I understand that suspension of disbelief is a thing, but there’s no excuse for poor quality, especially in the writing.

Hence, going forward, the direction of this blog is the posts here would serve as conversation pieces. A new series is coming out SoonTM, where I talk about more specific topics (mostly on anime, but video games may find their way in there, who knows).

Cheers, and thanks for tuning in.

Video Game Review [Spoiler-Free]: Grim Dawn

Been a while since I did a game review. Not much stuff to catch my attention these days, but recently, one title succeeded in doing so.

When Grim Dawn first appeared a few yeas ago, I didn’t pay much attention to it. On the surface, it seemed like another Diablo clone, and since I’ve played Torchlight I & II and Path of Exile for a bit, I thought I saw all there was to see.

Recently, I heard a few Youtubers talk about Grim Dawn, on how it was “Diablo done right,” so when the game went on a 70% discount, I picked it up for a spin.

And let me tell ya, it was quite the adventure.

This is a review of the base game only and doesn’t involve the DLC content.

Summary

Grim Dawn takes place in the world of Cairn, where the titular event referring to the invasion of the Aetherials, claiming that Cairn was once theirs till the gods banished them. From the opening cinematic, a possessed or “Taken” human is hanged, but the spirit within leaves before its vessel chokes to death. Captain Bourbon shoots the noose, freeing the human. And so the tale of this Taken begins. Your tale.

Gameplay

Skills & Abilities

One of the cornerstones of any RPG game is the abilities & skills department, and Grim Dawn did a good job on making the abilities feel viable at all stages of the game.

This is achieved with the skill trees’s focus on improving basic abilities to make them stronger as the game progresses. For example, the Demolitionist’s basic ability, Fire Strike, starts off by adding Fire Damage to your base attacks. Later on, you can add explosive effects to it which have a small AoE damage with each hit. After that, Fire Strike can be further improved with lightning damage and a chance of knocking enemies down. The final ability in the Fire Strike branch causes ranged attacks to splinter into molten fragments upon striking enemies.

There is also a lot of fluidity in the skill tree, with some abilities simply reserving a portion of your mana when activated to bestow damage or defensive bonuses to your character. Multiple abilities can be toggled at once. This allows players to focus on the few active abilities that they have instead of juggling between 5+ abilities at once.

Quality of Life

Grim Dawn has a variety of nice QoL stuff that really oils the joints of the game.

  1. The health bar has a “vitality” bar over it. When out of combat for some time, this vitality will exhaust itself to replenish health. This significantly reduces reliance on healing pots and allows you to get back into the fight faster. Vitality is replenished by its own powerups either in chests or dropped by enemies.
  2. Healing/mana pots and money are picked up automatically as you pass by near them.
  3. Your Rift or “Town Portal” has unlimited uses, perks of being a former possessed human. Going back to town is hassle-free.
  4. Easy switching between character stashes and shared stash, allowing for newer characters to dip into the items gathered by other characters. There’s also an option to upgrade the space by spending iron.
  5. Materials for crafting can be used up directly from the inventory, so characters don’t need to carry them around.

Oh yeah, there’s crafting in this game.

Crafting

Some ways into the game, you’ll get access to blacksmiths. Bring them receipes and required materials, and they’ll be able to craft a whole bunch of items for you. I didn’t find the crafting to be rather cumbersome, but quite a bit of Aether Crystals are needed.

I set out to craft some Silvercore Bullets as I wanted a potent weapon against Ch’thonic creatures. It took a while to gather the materials needed, but once I finally crafted it and slotted them into my gun, boy was it satisfying to mow down a whole bunch of Ch’thons.

Easy Respecs

Respecing abilities can be done via Spirit Guides. The cost of respecs is very cheap, starting at 25 iron for the first 20 abilities, then it goes up to 50, 100, 150, 200, etc. As money is plentiful in the game, this allows players to easily experiment with and tweak their builds without needing to create a new character.

However, there is an interesting mechanic that encourages the creation of different characters.

Masteries

These are the “classes” of the game. The first mastery is chosen when players reach Level 2.

The base game has 6 Masteries to choose from:

  1. Soldier: Great survivability and handy with a shield, while adding buffs to allies. Your tank/paladin of the party.
  2. Demolitionist: Sets things on fire or blows them up. Has a variety of grenades and nasty traps at their disposal. Handy with guns.
  3. Occultist: Poster boy of the game’s promo art. Has an arsenal of curses to debuff enemies and amplify their occult spells, while being able to summon minions to fight and distract the enemy.
  4. Nightblade: Excels at dual-wielding melee weapons and fading in & out of combat to avoid damage. Has the most on-chance activation abilities. Your go-to rogue class.
  5. Arcanist: Can dish out a ton of elemental damage but has little defense. Even has your traditional magic missile ability, along with other large-scale devastation spells. Your go-to wizard class.
  6. Shaman: Handy with a two-handed blade and can summon savage beasts to fight for them. Skills deal predominantly lightning damage.

I should point that outside of some masteries having a specific weapon branch, most other skills do not restrict the player from using swords, bows, or guns. Also, while each mastery has some skills being similar, they’re unique enough to feel different. There are some pretty bizarre skills, such as the Occultist’s Blood of Dreeg that causes acid to spray out of your wouds when enemies try to attack you.

Grim Dawn has a very cool thing with masteries. When your character reaches Level 10, you can pick a second mastery from the list. This immediately opens up a new world of mix-and-match possibilities. While choosing a second mastery cannot be undone, this is where multiple characters can be created to try out different mastery combinations. So far, Occultist and Arcanist seem to be the most flexible when combined with others as they can add debuffing curses or an overflow of elemental damage respectively to your onslaught.

Breach-and-clear with a molotov cocktail, heh.

Damage Mechanics

Here’s where the game gets a little wonky. There are multiple damage types in the game. Physical damage is reduced by armour. There’s also Pierce damage which is not Physical Damage. It ignores armour but is reduced by Physical Resistance.

Elemental Damage is split into three: Fire, Cold , Lightning. 30 Elemental Damage means 10 Fire + 10 Frost + 10 Lightning Damage. However, there’s no discernible different between the three. Fire doesn’t burn enemies, Cold doesn’t slow enemies, and Lightning doesn’t arc between multiple enemies as you’d imagine. There are three other magic damage types which are Poison, Chaos, and Aether damage. Again, no discernible difference between them. They’re just different types of damage.

Some of these also have their “over time” counterparts, e.g Internal Trauma is the over-time variant of Physical Damage, and Acid is the same to Poison damage. There’s Bleeding damage which is exclusively over time, but is not Physical.

See how it gets confusing? Yeah. Seems like players are either meant to deal a combination of all/most damage types, or specialize into one type. It would be nice to have sensible effects of these damage types to make them feel more varied.

Another weird thing regarding damage is each main part of the character’s body has a chance to be hit, so if you find yourself suddenly taking a huge hit, it may be that they struck a less-armoured portion of your character. The silver lining (I guess) is that it adds an element of caution when going into a fight.

Veteran Mode

Enemies with the star above them denote hero creatures.

If you’re used to RPGs and want a head start in things, Veteran Mode is for you. This mode increases the amount of random hero enemies on maps, which give better loot, experience, and faction reputation. I didn’t find it too challenge and there was little reason to not pick this mode unless players are new to RPGs, but the option is there.

Skull icons denote boss creatures which are much stronger, but give better exp and loot.

Challenge Dungeons

Want even more challenge? These have you covered. Challenge dungeons require a skeleton key to open. Once inside, there is no way out (Rift Gates are disabled), except via death or killing the final boss of the dungeon. As each dungeon can only be opened once per session, you cannot recover your grave mark upon death to recover some lost experience. However, I didn’t find it too punishing. The dungeons have own individual rooms that may lock you in till you defeat that room’s mini-boss. It’s quite exhilarating when you beat the final boss and get a shower of loot. Crate did a decent job at capturing the rogue-like experience in these dungeons.

Loot & Experience

I didn’t feel like level progression was too grindy. I got levels and loot often enough (though that could be from Veteran mode). The only real “grind” I’d say is raking up faction reputation. Once you do enough quests (either main or side) involving a certian faction, you’ll unlock bounties. Higher reputation with a faction also allows purchasing of augments (which further add bonuses to weapons) and crafting recipes.

Multiplayer

I tried playing with friends. It works well, not a hassle to set up and join other players. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that if you have the expansions and want to play with friends without said expansions, you’ll need to disable them first before playing. This was intentional by Crate to prevent datasets being unlocked via a third party program.

Gameplay score: 8.0/10

Story

World-Building

The first taste of lore is in the skill tree. Based on the ability descriptions, it seems like the character actually draws upon powers of various gods to cast spells, except for abilities involving physical craft I.e setting up traps. Dreeg is one of the three Witch Gods with infinite eyes, which the Occultist summons to fire at enemies via the Dreeg’s Evil Eye ability. Ulzuin seems to be associated with fire, and is revered by demolitionists.

Various non-essential NPCs will talk about things going on if you ask them.

Crate left in some easter eggs in memory of the early Kickstarter backers who passed away. Pretty nice of ’em.

The part which really stands out lore-wise is discovering random books or text in the world. Some of these are final words of the dead, others are journal entries which span multiple parts, which is a great way to tell a story. If I find part 3 of a journal entry, you can bet I’ll search high and low for parts 1 and 2. There was one diary I read of a starving refugee family fleeing the capital as they slowly descended into madness and cannibalism, truly living up to the “grim” in Grim Dawn. There’s even a category called “Enemy Insight” for discovering text written by antagonists.

Reading stuff gives experience, but I feel the content within is far more valuable than the amount of experience given.

Also, unlike other games, the text section of the screen takes up very little space.

Aside from the Aetherials, there’s also another major antagonist faction in the game: The Cult of Ch’thon. You know the Chaos cultists from Warhammar 40,000? That’s them. It seems like they took advantage of the Aetherial invasion to recruit fleeing refugees to their banner. At later parts of the game, hordes of Aetherials and Ch’thonians can be seen fighting each other.

The various texts found in-game details how they recruit more people, initially with promise of food and shelter, with only a small amount of blood in return. Later on, some found out that more blood was asked for.

And they asked for a LOT of blood.
Not sure if coincidental, but the game seems to have quite a few Warhammar 40k references.

Plot

The plot of Grim Dawn follows humanity’s struggle to survive against the Aetherial invasion, starting with Devil’s Crossing, a prison turned into a bastion against the Aetherials. Captain Bourbon’s immediate concern is thinning out the Aetherial horde, and reclaiming the farms of Burwitch. Unfortunately, even then, it will still take time for the farmers to return to their crops, so I was sent westward to Homestead to see if they can spare food.

The game will take you through multiple environments, from fields to the desert mountains, rundown towns to old ruins. It really gives you the field of the land ravaged by war, conflict, and time itself.

Look at all that Tiberium.
Urban combat pushing through different houses.

Along the way, I encountered the ruins of old Arkovia, a once mighty kingdom that somehow fell to dust (that’s a whole lore drop by itself).

Now, I found myself being sent on other errands by the folk at Homestead(as they have their own set of problems and crop shortages), but the thought of sending food back to Devil’s Crossing was always at the back of my mind. It was quite a journey, but I eventually did get them to send the food, and heading back to get thanked by Captain Bourbon was quite a satisfying thing. Felt like I had come full circle, from a lowly Taken human, to a hero of Devil’s Crossing.

At various of the game, I found that my choices mattered more than I thought. For example, I reached a small village, and after looking around and speaking with the locals, found out that bandits have taken over and forced the locals to gather scrap for them. A woman I talked to asked me to help gather scrap and give it to the head bandit there. Instead, I just killed him off. The woman was enraged that I did so, claiming the gang will now make the village pay. I confidently said that I would kill them all.

Which I did. I killed off the bandit lieutenants, and even the big baddie at the top. When I came back to New Harbor, I found the village slaughtered. I did not expect a swift consequence like that.

The final arc of the game was satisfying. I could feel things heating up to a climatic battle. The campaign’s length of 4 Acts was long enough.

Story score: 7.5/10

Graphics

While the graphics aren’t spectacular, it feels adequate for this game. The spell effects aren’t too overwheling for you to forget where you are on the screen (at least not the ones I used).

I like how the chandelier casts an eerie wheel-like shadow on the ground. These are encountered often in the underground areas,

Graphics score: 7.0/10

Soundtracks

The tracks in the game are decent, both in and outside of combat. The town themes don’t get old, which is important as you’ll be spending time there turning in quests and sorting out your loot.

Here’s the theme for the Homestead town.

1:07 “I want to spend my lifetime loving you!”

“Remember the Dead” is my fav combat theme so far.

1:33 that beat drop

Soundtrack score: 7.0/10

Score Summary

Gameplay: 8.0/10

Story: 7.5/10

Graphics 7.0/10

Soundtrack score: 7.0/10

Conclusion

Grim Dawn is a game that doesn’t feel grindy and is fun to explore. I have three characters at the time of writing, and may even create a fourth. Replayability is definitely there. Experimentation is something that may keep you occupied for a while.

Highly recommended if you’re hungry for a good RPG.

Also, I have purchased the Ashes of Malmouth expansion. I look forward to diving head-first into it.

The Tiddies of Malmouth await!