Monday, January 28, 2019

My Favorite Anime of 2018

In the final installment of my 2018 entertainment round-up, let's cover my favorite TV anime of 2018, restricted to a list of my Top 10. I didn't watch any sequels this year, surprisingly enough, but there are spin-offs.

Unless mentioned otherwise, all series completed their runs in 2016. Anime listed are not ranked, but presented in the order I watched them. My top three picks of the year are marked with an asterisk (*).

Hakata Tonkatsu Ramens

In a city where organized murder is so prevalent that everybody seems to have a hand in it, a group of criminals themselves are just doing their jobs as they get pulled into various cases, usually involving the hitman, Lin. Despite their grisly line of work, most of the ensemble cast is upbeat and fun to be around. Don't go looking for an overarching plot, but each of the mini-arcs is well done.

Real Girl *

I thought I would dislike the idea of a nerd who prefers 2D women to meet a fashionable real girl who wants to date him, because it smacks of wish fulfillment, but this series isn't that kind of show at all. Rather, Iroha is an outcast in her own way (everyone assumes that with her looks she must have slept around) and Hikari is an outcast because he kept liking comics and children's anime long after it was socially acceptable to do so. The series is mostly about them learning how to date each other, and all the highs and lows that come with this being the first serious relationship for both of them. (Edit: I forgot that Real Girl got a second season this year! So it's still going.)

The Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Die Neue These

This series ends at a really uncomfortable spot, being that it's in the middle of a major battle. Unlike most anime where a battle is a one and done affair, this is "battle" on the scale of a war so it's the kind that lasts for weeks. If you like your space opera, this is a remake of the ten ton gorilla of anime space opera, but oddly doesn't finish covering the first book of the source material. It's supposed to wrap up in a trio of movies later this year, but I can't imagine how they'll cover all ten books when the TV series didn't cover one. It's an excellent appetizer, and the updated designs are really nice, but it can't stand on its own. Fortunately for the curious, the books are being translated.

Caligula

Caligula is a bit of a hot mess, but it's the rare RPG-to-anime adaptation that completely throws out the concept of watching the storyline of the game. You still have students trapped in a VR world trying to get home, but the series makes a lot of smart decisions in breaking up when everyone gets their powers and how Ritsu gets involved with the Go Home Club. Though I haven't played the game, I know enough about RPG tropes to realize where some of the changes had to have been, and I think more adaptations need to take those kinds of chances. Unfortunately, the second half of the series turns into a mess right up until a better than expected finale.

Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku *
This is a total guilty pleasure series. If you are a geek of some kind and have similarly geeky friends, you will probably see yourselves in this series. Narumi wants to start dating again, after getting dumped by a boyfriend who discovered her nerd life as a fujoshi. Fortunately she's reunited with her childhood friend Hirotaka at her new job, and he puts himself out there as a potential boyfriend, because he's a fellow nerd who is sympathetic to all the nerd problems she has (like helping her with a special event in an online game before it goes away).

Darling in the Franxx

I wanted to like Darling in the Franxx, and for the first half I really did. I liked the idea of mecha that had to be piloted in pairs, and the interesting worldbuilding where children didn't seem to exist outside of the pilots. It even raised the issue of what happens when the pilots aren't necessarily straight, but have to partner with the opposite sex (though it could have handled it much better). It was good, cheesy fun, especially since all the kids are on the verge of puberty with puberty problems, but aren't equipped to handle them. Unfortunately the tail end of the series gets really rushed and ends with more of a whimper than a bang.

Violet Evergarden

This was probably the most gorgeous animated series I saw all year. At its heart, it's a tale about an emotionally damaged girl learning how to grieve, but after a strong beginning, it sags in the middle, before coming back for a solid ending. I wanted to like it more, but I found the middle to be pretty forgettable and Violet's adjustment to normal life to be a little too easy from where she started in the beginning.

Persona 5: The Animation

I debated whether or not to include this since the series properly ends with the second TV special in March of this year, but I probably won't remember to include the series in next year's round-up. This is an adaptation of the Persona 5 video game and largely follows an identical plot. Some condensation is done where it makes sense, and Akechi's role in the story has been amped up. The TV series itself ends at a shocking point in the game (I'll refrain from spoilers), which I applaud since it could be an ending to someone who doesn't know better, but obviously the story continues. As an adaptation it's pretty vanilla and doesn't take too many risks. If you like the game you'll probably like the anime.

Today's Menu for the Emiya Family *

This series would make me hungry, so clearly the only solution was to watch it while I was already eating. It's a pretty fun short anime (each episode is less than 15 minutes) set in an alternate universe of Fate/stay night where masters and servants live relatively peacefully together and most of the characters are friendly if not actually friends. Each episode features a recipe that viewers can make at home, either by extrapolating from the instructions in episode or by following the directions on the series' web page (unfortunately only in Japanese).

Boarding School Juliet

Boarding School Juliet is unusual for a romantic comedy because Romio and Juliet get together in the first episode, but after that they need to hide their relationship from all the other kids at their school since they hail from rival nations and their campus is similarly fractured. There are one too many boob jokes, but I really like a teenage comedy where the fun isn't in seeing how the couple come together, so much as seeing how they learn to date each other. The fact that Juliet can more than hold her own against Romio and the rest of Black Doggy House is also a plus.

Monday, January 21, 2019

My Favorite Games of 2018

My gaming backlog is something impressive, as I typically buy a few more than I can play in any given year, and then those extras build up. The result is that I rarely play any game in its year of release unless it's a part of a favorite series, and even then, depending on how busy I am, a much anticipated game might get postponed.

But I'm not adverse to playing older games. As long as the gameplay is still there I generally don't care.

These are the 9 games I liked enough to finish for the first time in 2018, in the order I played them. If the game is available on multiple platforms, the one I played on is listed first. My top three picks of the year are marked with an asterisk (*).

Valentines Otome (PC)

This is a cute indie project primarily done by two people, and it shows. But even though it's a bit rough around the edges it has a lot of heart and is definitely worth checking out. Rough edges aside, it's better than some professional stuff I've played. Valentines Otome is pay what you want, and the developer is adamant that it's fine if you just download for free, but any funds paid will go towards the development of future projects. So if you like their work, please throw them a few bucks to help them on their way.

Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony (PS Vita, PS4, PC) *

Though the pacing is a bit off in this latest Danganronpa entry, it's a solid member of the series. It's difficult to talk about without giving away spoilers, so all I'll say is that if you liked the previous games, seriously, go play this one. While you supposedly can go in as a series newbie, the final twist at the end will have so much more impact for the series veteran. Definitely the most meta commentary of all the games thus far. It's probably my second favorite in the series, after the original.

PRICE (PC)

PRICE is a free to play gothic point and click mystery that will probably take one or two hours to finish depending on the player's speed at finding all the clues and putting them together. There isn't much to it beyond its moody atmosphere where the player is trying to get out of a locked room, but the mystery elements are quite good. While it's creepy, it is not outright scary (and I'm saying this as a person who hates jump scares).

Root Double: Before Crime * After Days (PC, PS Vita)

This was a cult hit in Japan, but barely made a splash stateside. It was particularly pitched to fans of the Zero Escape series, but only in the sense of its convoluted story. There aren't any puzzles to be found in this one, unless you're talking about figuring out the Sympathy Sensory System. (For your own sanity, use a spoiler free walkthrough.) There are definitely problems with this near future science fiction story, not the least of which is its patronizing view of women, but if you can get past that and the fact the narrative loves to remind you of previous events (before you have a chance to forget them), there's a surprisingly engaging story. Overall I liked it, but not without heavy caveats.

Code:Realize ~Future Blessings~ (PS Vita, also on PS4 as part of Bouquet of Rainbows compilation) *

This is a sequel/interquel to Code:Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~, which is my all time favorite otome game. If you liked the first game, chances are you'll like ~Future Blessings~ as well. However, I should note that despite the wedding themed opening movie, only one of the guys gets a wedding route in the sequel portion of the game. Sholm├Ęs gets his own romance route, running parallel to the original game and Finis gets a similar brother route, which clears up several unanswered questions from the first game. ~Future Blessings~ is rounded out by a Lupin's Gang side story (a missing chapter as it were) that takes place during the common route of the original game.

Lost Dimension (PS Vita, PS3, PC)

Though not promoted as such, given the difference in genres, Lost Dimension has a premise aimed at fans of series like Zero Escape or Danganronpa where you can expect to get stabbed in the back, and unless you erase the traitors first, they will betray you. There's a lot to like here with how the protagonist uses his precognition abilities to manipulate results and discover the traitors hiding within their the ranks. The mechanics of the strategy/combat segments are solid, but the story really falls on its face and is hampered by the fact it requires a minimum of two playthroughs to get to an underwhelming true ending. It's not a bad game, but it could have been great if more thought had been put into the plot.

7'scarlet (PS Vita, coming to Steam in the future) *

It's otome, but don't let that fool you. Unraveling the secrets of the rural town of Okunezato is every bit as much or more compelling than the romance aspects of the game. The romance options are also fairly linear since the game locks them roughly in order of who knows the most about what's really going on, which works for the mystery angle, but could be frustrating for those more interested in the dating aspect. The game gets a little spooky at times, and does a great job with tension (particularly on Sosuke's route). If it had just hammered out a few plot issues it probably would have become one of my all time favorite games of any genre, but it's still solid as is.

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (PS2, DS, PSP, PC, PS4, Switch)

This is an old one from my backlog that was mostly finished, but has been lingering for years. When Disgaea 1 Complete was released as the new definitive edition towards the end of 2018, my friend got it and that motivated me to dust off the PS2 and finish the original. The gameplay is a pretty hardcore tactical RPG and some level of grinding is necessarily to finish off the game, but it was still a fun ride in the end. The characters are endearing with their warped perspective of what it means to be a demon in a light-hearted version of the underworld. They also parody a lot of anime/tokusatsu tropes, so this works better if you have some grounding in Japanese pop culture.

Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight (PS4, PS Vita)

This was a total nostalgia trip, but I'm glad Atlus decided to take it. Persona 3 is still my favorite of the modern style of Persona games and was made before Persona 4 turned the series into the multi-genre franchise it is now. Because of that, any previous P3 spin-off material was done as a crossover with P4 (since they take place a few years apart in the same universe). Dancing in Moonlight is the first spin-off that is well and truly focused on the P3 cast. I'm not a great judge of rhythm games, but the gameplay is entertaining enough for a casual player and the nostalgia hits hard. My main complaint is that unlocking some of the social links is a little tedious.

Monday, January 7, 2019

My Favorite Books of 2018

I'm afraid I've mostly been reading series last year. Since I don't read as often as I used to, but I really like novel series, my reading is increasingly crowded by newer series and older series I'm trying to keep up with. That said, I did manage to squeeze in a couple of stand alones.

These are the twelve books I enjoyed enough to finish, and in the order I read them. Maybe you'll want to check them out too. My top three picks of the year are marked with an asterisk (*).

The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

I usually don't like pan-Asian fantasy worlds, because it feels like the mixing of real world influences is arbitrary, but that's not the case here, perhaps because JY Yang is Asian and lives in Asia where different Asian ethnic groups are able to meet without being viewed through the lens of an outsider. If you're looking for some queer Asian fantasy with prophecies and non-western technology you can't really do better than this, and it's the first in a series.

Murder of Crows by Annie Bellet

This is the second book in the Twenty-Sided Sorceress series and I've been reading it on-off since 2016. Contemporary urban fantasy isn't really my thing (especially something with pop culture references), but the story is entertaining enough that I intend to continue the series anyway. What's happened is that this series became my go-to "I have five minutes and I'm not at a computer, let's read off my Kindle" series because as long as you know the characters you don't need to remember a lot of other details. I can come back months after my last reading and pick up where I left off without rereading more than a page.

The Island Deception by Dan Koboldt

The sequel to The Rogue Retrieval. I got into this one easier than I did the last, and overall it was more entertaining, save that I have serious beef with the Quinn and Jillaine relationship. (I really hate relationships where we're supposed to be sympathetic to somebody who is also manipulating their love interest for outside gain.) If I could have just cut that out I would've had a massively better time.

Spice & Wolf Vol 12 by Isuna Hasekura

Another installment in the long-running Spice & Wolf series. Lawrence and Holo have postponed their journey to her homeland for the sake of enjoying each other's company while they can, but they finally receive a tip about a mapmaker who might be able to draw them a map to her long lost village. If you enjoy the series, this is one of the better volumes, featuring a mystery about a holy phenomenon and Fran Vonely is one of the more interesting side characters.

The Legend of the Galactic Heroes Vol 1: Dawn by Yoshiki Tanaka *

I forgot that I'd actually pre-ordered this when the series was first announced for English translation, but the 2018 anime reminded me that I had it, so I read through it after I finished watching. This has to be one of the best written Japanese novels I've read in translation so far and the best space opera I've read in a long time. If you like the new anime (which doesn't finish the book!), I'd recommend checking this out. While the anime is good, the source material gives a lot better context as to what's happening.

The Iron Beast by Andy Remic

This is the third and final novella in the trilogy that started with A Song for No Man's Land. Robert Jones is still stuck in the alternate world and spends almost the entire book there, so if you weren't won over by the change in setting in the second novella, the third isn't going to change your mind.

Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone

Second book in the Craft Sequence. I really liked the world building in this one, featuring a Mesoamerican-inspired setting, but modernized with the hallmarks of Gladstone's world of Craft. There's a lot to unpack here with themes of colonization with multiple perspectives from the POV of the colonized, who comprise most of the cast. I didn't like it as much as Three Parts Dead, mostly because Caleb did not click with me nearly as much as Tara, but his rocky relationship with his father is one of the highlights of the book.

Garrison Girl: An Attack on Titan Novel by Rachel Aaron

I'm surprised this book exists, as spin-off novels for Japanese properties rarely originate on this side of the Pacific, but Garrison Girl is an English language original, and because it's by an American author, it reads differently from a Japanese light novel and more like an American YA. It covers old ground as far as the source material is concerned (the Trost arc is the finale), but it's an engaging read with an original cast. You can tell that Aaron has an affection for the series and I feel like it fits in almost seamlessly with the greater Attack on Titan world. (Almost. A couple things will likely stick out for the lore nerds.) Though I would not call this a romance, for those who wished there was a little more of that in the main series, what's here might be enough to scratch that itch.

Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine *

I received this book as a gift from my dad, who heard it was good and thought it would give me more insight into my ancestral country. It's a middle grade book, but packs a punch even for adults, especially if you have or know someone with young children. Ling is growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution and doesn't understand why some things (and people!) are considered bad or have to be taken away. There are a couple things that stuck out as me as being concessions for the American audience, but for the most part the book is a chilling view of the revolution through the eyes of a child, and reading it as an adult is no doubt much different from reading it as part of the intended age group. It's not fantasy or science fiction, but worth checking out.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells *

Though I ended up enjoying this book tremendously, I had multiple false starts with it. Murderbot has an entertaining and relatable narrative voice, but I start my Kindle reads in short bursts (usually under five minutes and sometimes even less) and the personality was not enough to draw me in when Murberbot's job was still business as usual. However, given a longer reading period the situation quickly gets interesting and the rogue Murderbot tries to do its best at the job it actually doesn't like very much. Despite the name though, Murderbot doesn't do any murdering in this book.

Saga of Tanya the Evil Vol 1 by Carlo Zen

This was a really difficult read, which is a shame because there's a lot of nuance that the anime adaptation loses, primarily that the protagonist is well aware of the fact he's actually a thirty-something year old man reborn into the body of a little girl, and it's very clear that he does not consider himself and Tanya as one and the same. Unfortunately the author is also very intent on showing his homework, so there is a lot of rambling historical and tactical discourse in the book, which was mercifully cut in adaptation. It gets better towards the end of the volume, but I'm rather torn about whether to continue the series.

Baccano! Vol 4: 1932 Drug & The Dominos by Ryohgo Narita

I can't let the year end without getting another dose of Baccano!, which wraps up the last of the books adapted for the TV series. One of the main plots of this book (Eve looking for her brother) is lifted for the 1932 storyline in the anime, but the rest of it wasn't integrated into the series, probably for running time. Narita's penchant for simultaneously running multiple plot threads is in full force here, with a number of unrelated characters eventually all ending up in the same place through various circumstances. If you wanted more of the Gandor brothers and the reason why Claire Stanfield was recalled back to New York, this is the book to read. Several other leftover plot details from the Flying Pussyfoot arc wrap up here as well.