Rosario Vampire Season II Volume 5 Review

“I bet it’s tougher than we can even imagine for a monster to live in the human world.”

Tsukune and friends try to take a break from the threat of Fairy Tale on a quiet beach vacation to a seaside inn. But It’s not just them that Fairy Tale is after, and shy former Yokai Academy student San Otonashi might need help from them in numerous ways.

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I generally enjoy Rosario Vampire for what it is: a formulaic, fanservice-heavy series that provides a light blend of action and humor. It cranks up the dramatic tension and intrigue in parts nicely, but overall it’s more “enjoyable” than “essential.”

However this is the volume where it transcends itself, and it’s perhaps the best stand alone story within any series I’ve read. Among all the expected fanservice (and there’s plenty) and normal ridiculousness is a wonderful, powerful story about acceptance/ rejection, fear in various forms, and appearance vs reality.

Our usual protagonists’ encounter with San Otonashi plays with the self-same expectations and cliches the series is steeped in, with wonderful results. I love the twist on classic story tropes, where certain ones are embraced to compliment story character development while others are tweaked for added depth. The mix of surprises with certain things unfolding as expected heightens the impact of the former and it all comes together to a strong crescendo to end the volume.

Tsukune is at an interesting point coming into this volume, where he’s training and pushing himself to be less of a burden to his friends, but doubting his ability to achieve that goal. His continued growth intertwines with a spotlight on a new character and related events to her introduction.

The best thing is that the way the story is told not only conveys nuances of San’s and Tsukune’s characters, but several of the other cast as well in the subtle ways they react and comment on what’s happening. San’s tale is masterfully told, with layers to her personality and motivations unveiled deftly , and in way that provokes introspection in everyone around her. Gin in particular gets a nice spotlight in parts.

While it is better to be familiar with the established cast, their powers and personalities, and what they’ve gone through to this point, I realize catching up on a series and a half of Rosario Vampire is a bit of an investment to get to a single story. There is a summary of the regular cast at the beginning of each volume, and I think enough is explained that this could be read on its own. It would be hard to pick up on all the underlying effects and ripples of the story, but the core elements and themes and the emotional resonance related to the two main subjects would come through.

Again, this little slice of Rosario Vampire is one of my personal favorite manga works ever. Push past the general trappings (if that’s not your thing) and enjoy an emotional, character driven ride that provides a lot to think about if you poke below the surface.

 

Pandora Hearts Volume 4 Review

“Something is different this time…”

Oz and Gil get a pleasant reminder of their past, but their momentary inattention to Alice is the opportunity something dangerous has been waiting for.

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Things start a little silly here to break up seriousness that is to come, and it proves wise as the majority of the volume is quite dark. This seems an important installment overall as there are a couple of potentially huge reveals (and associated maddening cliffhangers). The author is still balancing reveals and continued mysteries extremely well, continuing the more even pacing from last volume after a somewhat unbalanced start.

The growing suspense is well built and various characters’ differing agendas are starting to come up against each other in intriguing ways. Finer points of the growing mythology and name dropping are a little hard to track, but can be done with some reviewing of previous volumes and the careful foreshadowing that’s been laid in. The “Alice in Wonderland” ties jump right back to the forefront in major ways here after being somewhat subtler in volumes 2 and 3.

This finishes all I have to read of Pandora Hearts for now, but it’s really gaining momentum and I’m definitely planning on continuing at some point in the future.

 

Pandora Hearts Volume 3 Review

“If parents are the ones who give birth to life… are they also the ones who create a reason for your existence?”

Oz needs time to come to grips to the changes that occurred while he was in the abyss as well as his own new status quo, but those who wish to use him for their own ends won’t necessarily cooperate with his need for a respite.

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After the big reveal and somewhat overwhelming info dumps of last volume, this installment has much better pacing and does a better job of conveying important information clearly while still appropriately keeping certain things as lingering questions.

Mysterious elements and exploration of key background stories about the main characters are mixed nicely with action scenes and it’s all delivered with strong emotional impact. The supporting cast is becoming more well rounded and interesting, giving the manga more to entice the reader with than just Oz and his connection to the abyss.

I feel like these chapters hit all the right notes in terms of forwarding the story without giving too much away too soon, and if the author can keep it up going forward Pandora Hearts is going to be a thoroughly captivating and entertaining ride.

 

Scythe Board Game Review

I’m a big fan of Jamey Stegmaier’s previous games (Viticulture and Euphoria) and heard a lot of pre-release hype about his newest offering in Scythe, so had been eagerly looking forward to trying it out. It balances a lot of moving parts in a way that requires some getting used to, but provides a wonderful experience once things click in the players’ minds.

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Gameplay

I debated leaving this section out, as I feel I’d have to get into much more depth than I want to for it to be truly explanatory, but I do want to give an idea of Scythe mechanics so I’ll do my best to highlight the most important aspects of playing Scythe in a somewhat accessible way.

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Each player controls one of five factions (seven after the upcoming expansion) that starts in a specific area of the game board, and has a faction specific board that shows a unique faction power, some starting conditions, and slight variations on four additional abilities that will become available during the game if/when the player builds their four mechs.

 

In addition to a faction board, each player will use a separate, unique player board which with determine which actions can be taken during turns. Each board has a top and bottom row with four actions each, and on a turn you choose one “vertical” and do either or both the top and bottom action on that vertical. The top actions are identical across all player boards, including costs and benefits, but are in a different order from board to board. The bottom actions themselves are the same and they are in the same order on every board, but the costs and bonuses vary.

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The top row actions all involve things on the main game board and/or one of the game’s four “currencies” (explained below). They are:

1) Move: move units on the game board or gain money.

2) Bolster: gain power or draw a combat card.

3) Trade: collect a set number of resources from the bank or gain popularity.

4) Produce: generate resources on certain hexes where you have workers (new workers are also gained using this action).

 

The bottom row actions directly affect your player and faction board (as well as sometimes adding things to the main game board) and generally enhance your powers or make actions more efficient/beneficial. They are:

1) Upgrade (costs oil): move a small block from somewhere on the top of your player board to somewhere on the bottom. This makes the top action you are moving the block from more beneficial and reduces the cost of the bottom action you are moving it to.

2) Deploy (costs steel): move one of your mechs from your faction board to a spot on the main game board where you have a worker.

3) Build (costs wood): move one of your four buildings from your player board to a spot on the main game board where you have a worker (and no other buildings). Two of the buildings provide additional abilities on the game board, and two of them make player board actions more beneficial.

4) Enlist (costs food): Move one of your “recruits” (cylindrical markers) from the player board to your faction board.  This gives you a bonus when you (or any other player) does the bottom row action you moved the recruit from, and gives a one time bonus determined by which spot on the faction board the recruit was moved to.

Each bottom action will additionally give the player 0-3 money. The specific amount given for each action is what varies on the bottom row among the different player boards.

 

So the top actions generally increase things you can spend (besides move) and the bottom actions make taking individual actions better. The fact that each player’s board has different sets of these actions in each vertical along with different combinations of faction and player boards will force different tactics from game to game.

(For a small example, resources generated using the Produce top action can be used for that vertical’s bottom action the same turn. So if production is above Upgrade for me, I may be more likely to have my workers congregated on oil so I can produce it and upgrade in the same turn. If production is above Deploy for someone else, they may be slightly more interested in steel hexes early on.)

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The four “currencies” of the game are:

1) Popularity: measures how much your faction is beloved by the population. Can be spent or lost in certain situations, and determines how much stars, territory, and resources are worth in end game scoring.

2) Power: measures military might, and is used in combat and spent in certain situations.

3) Money: measures your wealth😉, and in addition to being spent for certain actions, acts directly as victory points at the end of the game. The person with the most money wins.

4) Resources: there are four types of resources that can be produced (oil, steel, wood, and food) using different hexes on the game board. Each one is used for a different bottom row action as marked above.

 

Throughout the game, players can earn stars (place their star tokens on a achievement track on the game board) for a variety of things, mostly related to placing all of a particular type of piece or maxing out certain currencies.

Stars can be earned by achieving maximum popularity or power (one star each), building all of your upgrades, mechs, buildings, or recruits (one star each), winning a combat (up to two stars), completing a mission card (one star). Whenever any player places their sixth star, the game immediately ends. All players earn end game money bonuses based on their popularity and the number of stars they’ve placed, territories they control, and resources they control. Most money (after bonuses) wins.

 

There are a lot of details I left out (like the importance and function of the “factory” space in the center of the game board, the encounter cards featuring interesting choices and Jakub Różalski’s incredible art, etc) that both tie the above together and provide additional depth, but hopefully I’ve given the flavor of the main moving parts. The key to the game is that while there are all of these elements working together and a lot of rules to explain and keep track of, each players’ turn is kept manageable by it always boiling back down to “choose a vertical, do one or both actions on it.” I found everything fit well once the game got going and I understood how it all worked in conjunction.

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General Thoughts

It did take me a full game to start to get an inkling of how to play strategically and our group was a bit split, with everyone enjoying it to some degree but some loving it right away and others finding it “one level of complexity too many.” I’d say there is a steeper learning curve than Viticulture and Euphoria. But my personal impression is there’s more depth too,  so I think it’s well worth the slightly higher “start up cost” and I feel it becomes more accessible on subsequent plays.

One things that helps immeasurably is the incredible graphic design. Everything you can do in the game and all effects are represented in symbols on the various boards, so once a player gets the gist of the symbols there are constant, unobtrusive gameplay reminders at hand at all times. The theme is also beneficial in that respect, with the interactions of desperate elements making sense within what they represent thematically.  I also find the theme/game world fun and immersive.

 

Having faction specific character and mech abilities that are separate from the slight variation in action costs and rewards on the player boards is a fantastic way to increase replayability and depth. The flip side of this is players must be willing to be open to letting player board (not just the faction board and special powers) guide strategy to some extent, which can take a little getting used to.

There are a lot of interesting choices to be made, and I love the mechanic of choosing one “vertical” on your player board per turn and concentrating on one to two key actions to keep things manageable yet complex. I found an unusual combination of planning and flexibility is needed to do well, and am enjoying that aspect immensely.

The game plays differently with more players, but retains the same general feel and atmosphere as it scales and the set board worked well at the 2 and 4 player level games I’ve played.

 

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I participated in the Kickstarter for Scythe and got the Collector’s Edition, so even beyond Stonemaier’s general excellent production quality, my version of Scythe shines even more with realistic resources, wooden stars, etc. None of it’s necessary, but I adore the extra layer of visual impact and the weight and feel of the tokens.

 

Overall

Scythe definitely has a learning curve and is Stonemaier’s heaviest game yet, but I was pretty well acclimated after a single game and I adore the way it comes together. This is a unique game that won’t necessarily appeal to all fans of Jamey’s other offerings, but players who can take it for what it is and enjoy adapting to (somewhat) constantly changing situations and balancing needed actions with required currencies will find a thoroughly enjoyable (and quite possibly addictive) experience here.

Seraph of the End Volume 1 Review

“You humans live solely at the mercy of us vampires.”

 

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Humans have caused an epidemic that kills every adult on earth, and vampires take advantage to emerge from the shadows and enslave what’s left of humanity.

Orphan Yuichiro and his friends are kept as little more than a food supply for the vampires, and he dreams of escape to the world above. But the cost of disobedience is high…

The core ideas and general world are interesting, but Vampire Reign fell into usual Shounen trappings very quickly after strong prologue. The”normal” school setting seems out of place and very forced, and it would have been more compelling to spend significantly more time in the Vampire world, which was intriguing and different.

There’s potential here, but the jury’s out so far. I have a few more volumes available, so we’ll see how it goes.

Kat and Mouse: Payback Review

“Follow her lead? What the hell kind of ronin are you?”

“The ‘still alive’ kind.”

Kat (self labeled Amazon) and Mouse (specialist of all things pointy) are a pair of street mercenaries/ronin who do jobs that take them to areas wiser, or at least less dangerous, people avoid and star in a webseries of fast paced hard boiled stories in a cyberpunk setting.

Payback is a collection of the “second season” of their web serial. The season stands well enough alone and important lingers plot points and characters are fairly well explained, but a lot of overarching plot continues from season one and Kat and Mouse: Guns for Hire is the better place to start.

 

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While Guns for Hire had overarching elements and plots that developed over the season interwoven with the largely stand alone individual segments (chapters), Payback presents an even tighter connected arc underlying its stories. It still has a focus for each part and a job or task to motivate the action, but almost everything connects to the larger unfolding story involving the pasts of both Kat and Mouse.

It’s nice to see the history of characters addressed, and Payback addresses all the questions raised in the first season, while setting up a few new mysteries to provide potential for more adventures going forward. As with season one a fun  and diverse supporting cast flushed out Kat and Mouse’s world nicely and provided needed levity here and there.

The reveals were suitably logical and dramatic, and for the most part felt like they grew organically from what came before. The conversational style of Kat’s narration from Guns for Hire was continued and fit the tone well while allowing Kat’s emotional state to guide the reader;s own.  The prose did get a bit cumbersome in parts (particularly some of the long explanations), but it wasn’t too often or too disruptive to the flow.

I enjoyed Payback and there were definite signs of writer growth and additional depth. If there ever is a season three I’ll be happy to revisit the world of these slightly off-beat but likable mercenaries.

 

Lucifer Season 1 Review

“You make a mockery of everything divine.”

“Thank you.”

 

Lucifer Morningstar has grown tired of “playing a part in his father’s play” and left hell to “vacation” in the mortal world. Now amusingly set up in the City of Angels as the owner of an exclusive nightclub, his adventures of indulgence are about to be interrupted by a callback to his old duties: a murderer needs to be punished.

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Lucifer starts with the general idea of the DC comic of the same name and immediately breaks off into different territory. While it’s debatable if a more “faithful” adaptation would have been suitable and/or better for a tv series, what’s here works surprisingly well. Tom Ellis is a delightfully playful Lucifer, which anchors the show excellently. He’s charismatic and a horrible influence at the same time and wrapped up in a thoroughly amusing bundle, but still conveys a curiosity and internal conflict that shows room for growth. And of course equally important to the part is his phenomenal ability to really channel anger, rage, and a dangerous edge convincingly when needed.

The writers balance Lucifer’s unusual partnership with a local homicide detective and the associated crime of the week structure with a strong overarching story that shows real character development and intrigue over the course of the season. The mythology is carefully built and slowly revealed in bits and pieces. Lucifer is given depth of character, along with legitimate gripes with his former life that underlie his issues and actions, that adds layers and plenty of themes and dilemmas for the viewer to get caught up in to the show.

Like the approach, the series’ success is two-fold. The individual episodes stand well as isolated stories, providing decent mysteries and reasonably accessible points of introduction. But beyond that is an amazing cast inhabiting compelling characters caught in the ripple effects of Lucifer’s actions and their consequences.

The acting, atmosphere, and little dramatic touches combine to make the first season of Lucifer an engaging journey that feels complete yet ends with a big development that will no doubt echo through season 2. This certainly is not the Vertigo comic of the same name, but anyone willing to go along in the direction this series takes the same core concept will find a dark, intriguing, and yes, entertaining journey.

This show features the devil himself consider his morality, which is a philosophical avenue well worth exploring.