Tales of Symphonia Has Aged in All of the Worst Ways

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I have been playing Tales of games for the past few years after ignoring the franchise for the vast majority of my gaming life. During that time, Tales of Symphonia has lingered over my head like a dark cloud because of its status as not only a beloved title, but arguably as the most well-known standalone game in the entire series. Since beginning, I leaned more heavily towards newer games because they were more accessible. However, after obtaining the PS3 port, it sat in my backlog collecting dust, until I decided to finally push through and complete it. Sitting on the opposite end after sinking forty plus hours into the game, I wholeheartedly regret my decision.

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The Tales of series is most notably defined by its hack ‘n’ slash gameplay. When Tales of the Abyss was released, it introduced a feature that changed the direction of the series: free roam. Prior to Abyss, gameplay was restricted to moving between enemies that were being attacked, in straight lines. With free roam, players were finally able to move about the battle arena at their leisure. It was a fresh of breath air in a franchise that badly needed a shake-up. Playing Tales of Symphonia is similar to revisiting your old high school and realizing that all of the bad elements you experienced in the past are still present. Without free roam, Tales of Symphonia sorely suffers from button mashing, even more so than other games in the franchise. I often found myself running to the nearest enemy and spamming the attack command as soon as battle started. There is very little incentive to find different ways to attack. The game heavily favors melee users because spell animations not only take long, but offer little in the way of extra damage compared to physical attacks. The simplicity of the battle system wears away its welcome rather quickly. Furthermore, there is very little in terms of additional systems to enhance it. There is something called the EX Gem system that gives each party member some additional abilities both inside and outside of battle, but it is simply not enough to hold one’s interest over the course of the lengthy adventure.

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Tales of Symphonia holds true to standard JRPG conventions and doesn’t take too many risks when it comes to overall presentation. You begin in a small town and venture out from your simple beginnings and discover a storyline that goes above and beyond your immediate dilemma. There is a world map to explore and varied locations and dungeons to visit. At times however, these conventions hold the game back. For the first half of the game, you are relegated to travel by foot. The biggest issues are that not only does Lloyd, the protagonist, move excruciatingly slow on the world map; the camera takes a weird angle as you move about the world map. The game attempts to alleviate these problems by providing a minimally faster method of transportation in the way of a dog like companion. If you unlock gravestone looking nodes scattered around the world, it will unlock the use of the companion for that specific area. It can be troublesome at times getting to these nodes because the high enemy encounter rate will bog you down. Symphonia does provide you with what essentially amounts to an airship approximately halfway into the adventure, but the snail’s pace for the first half kills any momentum the game might build through other areas. To add insult to injury the game’s conventions work against in so far as the locales are very limited and don’t allow for much in terms of exploration. Even the complex puzzle dungeons are relatively small in scope and are usually made up of only a few screens. Given today’s gaming landscape, it is difficult playing a game like Symphonia that relies too heavily on doings things the expected way. The only saving grace is the story that attempts to challenge the normal standard, but trips over itself in doing so.

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Much like the presentation, the biggest obstacle against becoming invested in the story and characters is the pacing. The story takes an incredibly long time to get moving and arrive at answers, as the main cast is left in the dark for the vast majority of the game. There is a twist when you arrive at the Tower of Salvation, at about a quarter of the way through the story. While it is mildly interesting, it doesn’t give any momentum to the story going forward. In fact, things return to normal rather quickly for the party, and the pace remains uneventful until near the end. Even then, I didn’t find the payoffs particularly meaningful, and it was difficult to see the characters changing all that much over the course of the adventure. In fact, some of the characters have very short arcs, and are rather forgettable overall. Most of them also fall into your typical JRPG tropes, and save for a couple of them they lack any and all depth. Tales of Symphonia is plagued by the cheerful protagonist and power of friendship bylines, and it is disappointing considering the attempts the game makes at telling a different story during other parts of the adventure.

Tales of Symphonia tested my patience to the utmost limit. Admittedly, I had to force myself to see the end considering the amount of time I invested into it. I was hoping for more, but the reward never came. The battle system was a repetitive exercise in frustration and the slow character movement and slow story only hamper the overall experience. Tales of Symphonia will be that one game that is almost universally praised that I won’t quite be able to see eye to eye with no matter how hard I look. Tales of Symphonia is a product of its time, and it has aged poorly. There are a lot better RPGs that are more worth your time. Go seek those out and save yourself the trouble.

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The No Game No Life Movie Probably Isn’t What You’re Expecting

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No Game No Life made a name for itself in 2014 with its vibrant art style, interesting world building, and most notably the interesting matches of mental acuity between its titular heroes and the inhabitants of the new world in which they found themselves. While the humor was a bit too perverted at times for my personal taste, the other elements carried the show, and it is considered one of the most notable standouts in Japanese animation over the course of the past five years. After its initial run, fans started to clamor for a second season because not only does it end with the clear possibility for it, the world itself is well constructed for further adventures and games. After no news of a second season for years, interest picked up quickly enough when a movie tie-in was introduced. After having seen it over the weekend, the movie might not be exactly what you’re looking for if you’re a fan of the original series.

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Officially titled No Game No Life: Zero, the movie explores how the world came to be as you know it in No Game No Life. The world in the original series is characteristically defined by different races. In the beginning, these races are destroying the world by engaging in a devastating war. Amidst the chaos is a young human man by the name of Riku, who had a fateful encounter with an android when he was a child. Years later, after having grown up, he again meets this android, a member of the Ex-machina race, who goes by the name of Shuvi. While she previously caused him pain and suffering years prior, they form an unlikely bond and this relationship is the main crux of the movie.

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It can be argued that the relationship between Sora and Shiro defined the original series as well. While that is certainly true, the show had a lot of supporting elements going for it. These other aspects such as the different games played are sorely lacking in No Game No Life: Zero. While that is to be expected up to a certain point given the movie’s prequel status, it is difficult to reconcile when games are in fact featured, albeit barebones. The vast majority of the film focuses on specific scenes between Shuvi and Riku as they build chemistry. They experience a lot of hardship together, which is one of the reasons why it is so easy to become invested in their relationship. With that said, I would argue the film spends too much time only showcasing these two specific characters. For characters to truly shine an engaging setting must exist around them and that is lacking. Being caught in the middle of the war, the world itself is your typical drab post-apocalyptic standard and it doesn’t engage the audience very well. The art style remains the same, but given the choice in setting, the colors remain drab and you don’t get the sense of a vibrant spectrum until the movie’s ending.

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Despite the slow moving story, the battle scenes are not only impactful, but also very well done. One comment that can be made about No Game No Life was that by focusing so much on games, there was a distinct lack of action overall. Being in the middle of a war has the benefit of providing a way to show battle scenes. Shuvi shines during these moments as you can see the entire extent of her abilities as an android. There is one fight in particular near the film’s end that is a pleasure to watch from beginning to end. I only wish there were more of these scenes sprinkled throughout.

No Game No Life: Zero is an interesting deviation from its predecessor. It chooses to focus almost entirely on a single personal relationship between two characters. It is slow moving for a large portion of the film, but that might be well suited for some fans that are more appreciative of character studies. Ultimately, I would classify Zero as a character study that serves the dual purpose of providing a way for the audience to better understand the overall setting. If you are looking for more of the same in terms of games being played, then you might want to pass on this. With that said, it is very exciting to see more No Game No Life content and it bodes well for the future of the franchise moving forward.

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A Guide to Buying Figures in Japan

  1. Akihabara (Tokyo) – When a typical fan thinks about buying figures and other related anime merchandise in Japan, he or she probably first thinks about Akihabara. It is often hailed as the anime mecca of the world, and in many ways it absolutely fits the bill. When I first visited Akihabara, in January 2013, I was thrilled with the adventure and sense of exploration. I plunged head first into buying all the figures that interested me at the time. What I did not realize however, was the truth that it is incredibly expensive and overpriced. In fact, you can be hard pressed to find a good deal at any of the stores located there. Years later, I am convinced Akihabara is a tourist trap for foreign visitors and an escape for local citizens. It serves two very different purposes depending on the demographic. There are much better alternatives to Akihabara when you are looking for a discount.

 

  1. Den Den Town (Osaka) – Den Den Town can be best described as a smaller version of Akihabara that is located in Osaka. It resembles Akihabara in that it is lined with many different figure stores and arcades. While it is generally less expensive across the board compared to its counterpart, the figures are still overpriced. It is absolutely worth visiting for the experience alone, but it is plagued by the same problems as Akihabara. It provides real locations where a fan can hunt for figures, but it does very little in terms of making you feel as if you found a good deal.

 

  1. Various Secondhand Stores – Having been in Japan for almost two years now, I never get sick of the sheer number of palaces where you can find anime merchandise. What is especially nice is the fact that secondhand stores in Japan will almost always have a section dedicated solely to figures. Oftentimes I was pleasantly surprised at the selection available. The two downsides are that the figures will not be new and the selection is incredibly random because it is entirely based on what the seller brought to that particular store. With that said, it is a nice feeling finding something that you want to buy that you didn’t expect to find at a good price.

 

  1. Amazon Japan – Arguably the single greatest avenue to purchase figures is Amazon Japan. If you currently reside in Japan, it is an invaluable resource. Not only is the shipping incredibly fast, the prices are significantly better compared to actual stores. Amazon Japan is usually my baseline when I am comparing in-store prices. The only negative comment that can be made about this site is that it is not the cheapest option available. With that said, it makes up for the price differential with shipping speed and overall seller reliability.

 

  1. Yahoo Auctions Japan – This site is far and away the cheapest option I have personally come across when it comes to buying figures. For the most part, the accounts are private sellers and as a result, the prices are below average. With that said, there are a few notable drawbacks to using Yahoo Auctions. It can be a lot more difficult to set up an account when compared to Amazon, mainly due to the lack of English options available. Furthermore, new accounts are heavily prejudiced against. When I was first starting out, my bid was withdrawn by the seller two different times because he or she didn’t trust my account. It can be said Yahoo Auctions Japan protects the seller more than the buyer. It being an auction site, you also have to deal with the fact you are never guaranteed an item unless you utilize the “Buy It Now” button from some listings. Unlike Ebay, the listing does not automatically end when time expires depending on whether or not there was a recent bid. If a bidding war develops in the closing minutes, more time will be added to the auction until one party eventually succumbs to the price. With all that said, if you can be willing to look past the flaws with the cheaper prices in mind, this will be your best option in that regard.

Persona 5: Goes Above its Status as a Game

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Persona 5 is a very, very good game. It is incredibly polished in so many respects ranging from the music to the level design. There is little doubt that Persona 5 is well made and a lot of thought went into its conception. However, Persona 5 also does something that is being talked about a whole lot less. It has the capability to go above its status as a game. It sucks you into its world and at the same time, it addresses key issues that are facing Japanese society. It is important that western audiences be more aware of this as they may see similar parallels in their own countries.

The North American version released during the first week of April, which just so happens to coincide with one of the more important parts of the Japanese calendar. In Japan, the fiscal year begins in April, and so does the school year. As an English teacher in this country, April can be a stressful time with new students, new coworkers, and the uncertainty that is present with new beginnings. All of these factors, combined with some other issues that had happened earlier in the year, made me feel extremely depressed. It was difficult to concentrate on anything, and I was losing focus across the board. I was anxiously awaiting the release of Persona, but at the time, I wasn’t entirely positive that I would be able to fully embrace the experience. I was absolutely wrong, and I am grateful that was the case.

Persona 5 has a strong start with its in media res opening, and it does a tremendous of job of making you invested and inclined to see how the party reaches that point. Beyond the opening, this game creates a city life that you want to explore and be a part of on a day-to-day basis. What pushes this concept the most, are the bonds you forge with other characters. Since Persona 3, the social link system, which has been renamed to confidants in Persona 5, has been the crux of the game. As you spend time with characters over the course of this lengthy adventure, you become attached to their thought processes and individual story lines. This is amplified even further with your party members because not only can you spend time with them outside of class and combat, they fight shadows alongside you and experience the highs and lows of the story with you as well. They are all imperfect in one or way or the other, but that just makes them even more endearing. By the game’s end, I was very mush attached to most of them, and I just didn’t want to see the story finally end. It’s bitter sweet finishing a game that means a lot to you. Persona 5 helped me deal with a lot of stress, and knowing the end was near this past weekend, made me in some respects, reluctant to finish the game. However, everything must come to an end, and I think back fondly on the wide range of emotions Persona 5 was able to invoke in me over the course of the hundred hours I put into the game.

Persona manages to distinguish itself from other franchises because it is distinctly Japanese. In the case of Persona 5, the game uses its Japanese elements to highlight many of the problems that exist in society at large. From the beginning, the protagonist, code named as Joker, is sent to Tokyo because he was accused of a crime in his home town. He is not treated well by anyone, and is viewed as a troubled youth by both his caretaker and those at school. He is constantly warned to not get into any trouble. As you traverse Tokyo, you will constantly hear rumblings about the troublemaker that transferred to Shujin Academy, and Joker is clearly viewed as a threat by most people. It might seem incredibly strange to most foreign players that so many people seem to care about some random student with a bad reputation. While Persona 5 might be exaggerating the extent of everyone’s awareness, Joker is the embodiment of not conforming to societal standards. In Japan, individuality is not a cultural norm in any way. People are expected to simply fit in. It is never about the individual, as it is about the group. Japanese people operate as part of a cog of a larger machine. Making a name for one’s self, as viewed by American standards, is not a part of the culture in Japan. Students are encouraged to fit in with everyone else with uniforms and hair color being strictly enforced. When someone comes along, like Joker, that doesn’t fit in and is 100% viewed as an outsider, it can create an echo chamber that is difficult to break away from. Joker’s status at the beginning of the game is a not so subtle way of highlighting the group dynamics at play in Japan.

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Perhaps the most obvious example of clear wrongdoing in the opening hours of the game is the verbal and sexual abuse exhibited by the PE teacher, Kamoshida. I think the most alarming part of this storyline for western audiences, is the way in which most adults turn a blind eye to his wrongdoing. In Japan, there is a strong desire to save face so to speak in front of others. It is very important to maintain a public image. There is also a desire to never cause trouble in any way, even when one party is obviously in the wrong. For example, if an employer were to treat any employee poorly, more times than not, the employee would silently endure the treatment rather than speak up for him or herself. This is quite clearly paralleled with Ann’s friend, Shiho. Shiho is one of the recipients of Kamoshida’s abuse, and it nearly pushes her to suicide. She chooses to punish herself rather than punish the perpetrator because you are expected to deal with your own problems in a way that doesn’t alter the public image. In relation to this, it also addresses the topic of teen suicide. Suicide is very much a problem in Japan, usually due to the intense pressure pushed onto employees by their employers. However it absolutely affects students as well. Japanese students are pushed to succeed. While this is far more of a problem in Korea, there are clear expectations that a student should not only participate in many club activities, but should also devote significant time to study. There is a huge buildup to university entrance exams. Exams in general are very important in Asian countries. Success is directly tied to test scores, and if you don’t do well, students may feel as if their entire future will be adversely affected. Ann struggling with her friend’s actions and being unable to support her when she needed it the most, is one of those examples where as the player, you become attached to your party members because these situations are very relatable.

By and large Persona 5 tackles many different societal problems, but the one issue that is most systemic and the one that needs to be addressed the most is the relationship between an employer and employee that is explored when you traverse Okumura’s palace. Okumura is the CEO of a fast food burger chain and had developed a reputation for treating his employees poorly. When you go into his palace, you see many robot enemies, which reflect how he views his workers. Within the dungeon, it is stated that overtime is expected and break time is to be severely limited. Near the end of the palace, the robots become so accustomed to abuse, they become brainwashed into strict loyalty. This extends to the boss fight with Okumura, where he doesn’t actually attempt to fight you and instead uses the workers as a meat shield to dispose of the party. For me, this dungeon was the most alarming example of a societal problem in Japan because I feel it is the most rampant and most directly connected to other problems. Japanese employees are overworked. These employees will often work unpaid overtime, and will stay at work far beyond their allotted time. In Japanese, the word karoshi translates to death by overwork. In October 2016, 11% of companies in Japanese reported having full-time employees working over eighty hours of overtime a month. Thus far, the Japanese government has only made lukewarm attempts to curb the problem. It will often prove difficult for Japanese people to have lives outside of work because they spend so many hours per week at their jobs. Persona 5 tries to talk about this issue, and by doing so it makes more people aware. It is an issue that is important for other countries to be aware of because there is doubt Japan can or will rectify the issue without external pressure. I appreciate Persona 5 as more than a game because of what it is trying to do through its medium. As games become more complex, they become more willing to tackle serious subject matter and that bodes well for the industry’s future. As indicated by the sales, the interest in Persona is certainly there. I can only hope games like Persona 5 urge people to ask more questions and challenge the status quo.

Persona 5 is more than a game to me. It is a medium through which its creators are trying to share a message with their fans. It wants you to think about Japanese society, in both a negative and positive way. It wants to challenge you on any preconceived ideas you may already have concerning Japan. At the same time, it wants you to be invested with the characters and settings. It is in these two regards that I think Persona 5 manages to separate itself from other Game of the Year contenders. If you’re on the fence about Persona 5, or if you are new to the series, give this game a shot. While other games released this year are deserving of your attention, Persona 5 is an experience that will help you think beyond the scope of the game and that is important as video games continue to evolve.

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Observations about Japanese Anime Fandom

If you live in a western country and are an avid fan of anime, you may not fully understand how this hobby is embraced in Japan. To be honest, I don’t fully understand either, but after having lived in this country for almost two years now, I can share some observations I have made regarding this topic.

  1. In general, the typical Japanese fan is similar to the typical western fan.

If you like watching anime, but you don’t consider yourself an individual who would be willing to spend income on extra purchases such as figures, CDs, DVDs, and other various merchandise, then you are similar to the average person who enjoys watching anime in Japan. Japanese people don’t often share their hobbies, so it can be difficult to gauge whether there is any interest or not. When I lived in the States, people usually didn’t broadcast their love for anime and that is also the case in Japan. It is something people enjoy in their free time beyond the judgment of others. This brings us to our next point.

  1. Anime is viewed by some as not being socially acceptable, even in Japan.

Normal Japanese life is very similar to that in the West. I go to work every day, I come home and I engage in my hobbies. I had a very similar routine in the States. Japanese adults are over worked and usually have very little free time for hobbies. Liking and engaging with anime is something that is seen as childish, a situation I experienced more often in the States however. Some view an overzealous love for anime as an extension of working less. If you watch many different shows, then you are most likely not contributing in another area (which is assumed to be the workforce).

  1. The anime industry is driven by a core group of otaku.

Anime merchandise is far and away the biggest contributor to the success of a particular series. DVDs and Blu-rays are unreasonably priced, but if a show is popular enough, this core group of otaku will make the purchases. Figure sales are a significant contributing factor to sales and whether or not a series will continue in the future. While figure prices have increased overall over the past five to seven years, they are more reasonable than the DVD prices. The demographic driving these sales usually consists of young adult and middle aged men who work and without families, find themselves having disposable income. Marriage is on the decline in Japan, and without a family to support, it is easier to convince yourself to splurge on anime related purchases.

  1. Often times, there is a divide between manga and anime fans.

Just as is the case in western countries, people do in fact watch both anime and read manga. However, I have noticed in Japan fans are more often divided into one camp or the other. People, who enjoy reading manga, will usually stick to that medium. Given the long hours and the popularity of public transport in Japan, it is a lot easier for the average fan to read manga than it is to watch anime. I have noticed that there is a surprising amount of computer illiteracy in Japan, and watching anime is confined to the television. Given the unusual airing times of most shows aimed for adults, it can be difficult to follow along on a week-to-week basis.

  1. If you are interested in collecting merchandise, being a western fan in Japan is great.

I am sure many of you have been to conventions and paid witness to the insane markup most vendors will have for all types of Japanese goods. The reality is that merchandise in Japan is usually inexpensive. The biggest contrast is figures. Figures are notoriously expensive, even from online vendors in the States. Since coming here, I have become an avid collector of figures because of the hobby’s accessibility and ease. If I want to buy something in person, I would almost always have to go to a convention in the States. In Japan, it is significantly easier to find stores selling figures in some capacity. The accessibility of the hobby is great to see firsthand. Furthermore, having a Japanese address is an absolute godsend. The shipping is not only unbelievably fast from online vendors, the shipping fee is usually no more than 500 yen ($5). If I bought a figure from an online Japanese vendor in the States, the shipping cost would increase the total amount of the purchase by a large margin. In the end, I am avoiding both the markup and high shipping cost. This adds up quickly over time and becomes an incentive.

These are my takeaways after two years. I wanted to share some insights into Japanese fandom, and if there is interest in this type of writing, I will continue it in the future.

Kurisu and Okabe: The True Highlight of Steins;Gate

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For a long, long time, Steins;Gate has far and away been my favorite anime. Up until recently, I had never revisited the show on a second viewing, but obviously remembered it very fondly. While I am more aware of its flaws having watched it again, I am also confident in the strength of the relationship between the two main characters: Rintarou Okabe and Kurisu Makise. When two characters are able to interact well and at a believable level, the rest of the show comes together more and other characters are able to come into the limelight because the foundation is so strong.

At its heart, Steins;Gate is a romance show. In general, anime is plagued by generic plotlines and characters. Okabe and Kurisu stand in stark contrast to this by playing off each other very well with incredible banter and subdued feelings. In other shows, there can be a build-up when it comes to the introduction of the main female lead. This is especially apparent in harem shows. Steins;Gate does have harem elements in it, especially considering the source material is a visual novel. However in Steins;Gate, both Kurisu and Okabe are introduced in the first episode. In fact, the initial introduction between the two is ultimately the entire crux of the story. It is important for the show that the two characters are introduced right away because it gives itself enough time to explore the relationship. With only twenty-four episodes and other plotlines to consider, Steins;Gate does itself a huge service by having Okabe interact with Kurisu at the beginning. The way in which he reacts to her stabbing gives the viewer the impression she is important. The time travel element to the show is set off by this reaction. The show combines the romance and time travel elements together through a simple text and you may not even realize the two elements are being put together so well until much later. In this way, the show doesn’t beat you over the head with its thematic elements, and because it resides underneath the surface, the romance between Okabe and Kurisu becomes this ever evolving mechanism in of itself that not only drives the story forward, but grabs hold of your emotions as well.

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What needs to be highlighted is the way in which the romance develops. Yes, it is important that enough time be given to the two main characters, but there are small interactions sprinkled throughout that build up, and have a satisfying conclusion as the show concludes. At almost every point in the story, Okabe is dealing with a problem that is either connected to Kurisu or only tangentially so. The problems range from the severe implications of changing the past to something simpler such as the anger of the landlord. In the beginning, Steins;Gate adopts a problem of the week type set-up contained within each individual episode. Okabe is navigating the implications of the D-mails he and his friends send to the past and early on, each one involves a different member of the overall cast. Kurisu is present along the way. Okabe consults with Kurisu often. She is his sounding board. This dynamic is also present in most real life relationships. It is difficult to notice that the relationship evolves organically through every small exchange. While the show may only take place over the course of three weeks, that time frame is much longer for Okabe. In fact, it develops through many different iterations of the same person. Interestingly enough, events usually occur the same way every time Okabe travels to the past. While one may argue that this is the result of fate playing a role in the story, it can also be argued that it is a result of how the two perceive and respond to each other. Okabe enacts the persona of a fictional character and never calls Kurisu by her real name. She comes to expect these staples, and they give all iterations of her, a frame of reference. This evolution reaches its climax near the end in a very poignant episode where the two characters spend the entire time talking with one another and reaching the painstaking decision that Kurisu must die in order to save another.

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It can be easy to overlook all the interactions between the two because they don’t amount to much as they are happening. However in episode twenty-two, Okabe throws away the persona he has been using to cover his insecurities and puts his heart on the line when he finally confesses his feelings to Kurisu. He admits to her that he is in love and asks her about her feelings regarding their relationship. She tells him to close his eyes, and as his heart is laid bare, she leans up for a kiss. For me, this single moment is the highlight of the show because it is the culmination of their relationship. It is the realization that this is truly a love story, in an incredibly believable way. Real relationships take time and patience. They spend a lot of time with one another, and Okabe relies on no other person over the course of the show more than he does with Kurisu. He affectionately calls her his assistant and she playfully refutes this assertion. However, this nickname is endearing because it is indicative of how he truly feels, even if Okabe is not aware of it himself. When you look at the small moments as self-contained stories, they don’t feel important. When you look at the small moments as pieces of a bigger puzzle that lead up to the kiss you can understand their significance. As they tease each other and work together to comprehend something bigger than either of them, they bond. Kurisu eventually opens up to Okabe about her family struggles and that is arguably the first time she is vulnerable. He is unable to do that in return until the moments leading up to their embrace. To Okabe, his second identity is too important. He needs it to function and interact with other people. He is never quite able to let it go with Mayuri, the little sister figure in the show. With his lover, the person that matters the most, he lets it go, and as a result their relationship reaches a very satisfying climax and shows just how strong the two leads are when they are able to interact in meaningful ways.

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Steins;Gate is arguably one of the greatest time travel stories ever told, which means a lot considering its medium. Despite that, the romance story that is intertwined with the scientific side is the true gem to be found. Kurisu and Okabe interact in many different ways throughout the course of the show. They build a foundation and comradery with one another that climaxes with a vulnerable kiss between the two. The relationship is the focus of the show and Okabe’s care towards the other characters is more believable as an extension of his feelings for Kurisu. Steins;Gate was released six years ago at a different time in my life. It resonated with me then as a captivating story involving time travel. Now, it resonates with me as an engaging story between two close friends that become lovers because yet again I am at a different point in my life. No matter your circumstances, any person can find something to appreciate in Steins;Gate. It is a show that will stand the test of time, no pun intended.

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Episode 116 (Hunter x Hunter) – One of the Greats

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Every so often an episode comes along that stands out above the rest and highlights all the thematic elements a show has been trying to achieve. From the very beginning, Hunter x Hunter tries to turn normal Shonen conventions on their heads. There is also a slow build-up when it comes to characterization, something that takes over one hundred episodes to be fully realized. Hunter x Hunter takes an in-depth look at its protagonist, Gon, throughout the various arcs. It plays around with the idea that a protagonist can make decisions that are not morally sound. When all of the thematic elements come together in this episode, it packs an emotional punch that keeps the audience invested in the immediate and future aftermath.

The relationship between Gon and Killua is the crux of Hunter x Hunter. Though various characters come and go throughout the different arcs, the two constants that remain are Gon and Killua. When we are first introduced to Killua, it is made abundantly clear he is plagued by a dark past that involved murder and torture as he carried out his duties as an assassin. Initially, he thinks in very black and white terms. However, as his friendship with Gon continues to grow, Killua slowly begins to change. He isn’t quite as quick to jump to the most drastic conclusion and he is able to keep his emotions in check more and more. The beauty of his development is that it is not something that Hunter x Hunter beats you over the head with episode to episode. It is something that happens gradually, and when events reach a boiling point in episode 116, I couldn’t help but think back to all the small moments that showcased this without even realizing it at the time.

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Standing as a stark contrast to Killua is Gon, the protagonist of Hunter x Hunter. Gon’s cheerful nature and carefree attitude have a positive effect on Killua. Seeing Gon handle specific situations from a natural curiosity and stubbornness allow Killua to question the ideology that has been instilled in him by his family. The most interesting aspect of the Hunter x Hunter universe is the fact there are no true good or bad guys. The Hunter Association is an organization where its members simply serve their own best interests. Gon certainly represents, or comes closest, to what we as viewers would normally associate with a morally fair hero. It is all too common in anime to see characters that refuse to kill, akin to Batman’s beliefs. You will find no such idea in Hunter x Hunter. Gon’s driving motivation is shared by no one else. He simply wants to become stronger. He thirsts for battle, and often times makes reckless decisions in chasing the thrill. It is this desire to battle other individuals that creates sticky situations. In a show like Bleach, the main character actively fights in order to protect others. Gon never quite understands this motivation. Gon can be considered selfish, and there is nothing wrong with that in of itself. However, when it stays unchecked for as long as it does, it can fuel more troublesome ideas, such as revenge.

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During the beginning of the Chimera Ant Arc, we are introduced to a character by the name of Kite, someone the 2011 adaptation intentionally omits up until this point. Gon is constantly seeking his father, and Kite is the most direct connection he finds up until that point in time. In fact, Kite informs Gon that he did in fact meet his father and when told he can provide information as to his father’s whereabouts, Gon declines the offer. To Gon, goals should be obtained through one’s own strength whereas Killua longs to tackle obstacles as a team. As a result of their initial meeting, Gon and Kite form a strong connection with one another, and Gon considers him to be a friend. When Kite, Gon, and Killua are confronted with an enemy far above their strength, Kite pleads with the boys to run away as fast as possible. Gon’s stubbornness prevents him from leaving and is ready to try and fight the enemy before him. Killua, sensing the impending conflict, knocks him unconscious and they flee together. This event plays a large role in the events that unfold through the remainder of the arc. This results in Kite’s death and mistreatment of his corpse and acts as Gon’s motivation for the rest of the arc, revenge masked by a thinly veiled desire to save Kite. Perhaps he is unable to admit it to himself, but Gon cannot bring himself to believe that Kite is actually dead.

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In episode 116, Gon confronts the Chimera Ant responsible for Kite’s demise, Pitou. The confrontation is building up over the entire arc, and a fierce battle is expected between the two. However, Gon and Killua meet an unlikely scenario where Pitou is healing and protecting another individual. This is a direct contrast to Pitou’s earlier behavior, and Gon is unable to understand the situation. As he meets the person responsible, Gon is consumed with rage and anger. He wants nothing more to hurt this creature. Behind him, Killua is analyzing the situation and feels some sympathy for not only Pitou, but the girl it is protecting as well. As he finally confronts Pitou, Gon has no person towards whom he can finally unleash his anger. There is ultimately no bad guy that exists simply to be bad. Unable to simply free himself from his revenge, Gon becomes more and more unstable. Killua always framed the confrontation as one they would tackle together. Killua thinks in terms of “we.” Gon thinks in terms of himself and in doing so, he accuses Killua of not caring about Kite when Killua tries to convince him to not act rashly. This confrontation is the final splinter in their once seemingly unbreakable friendship. On some level, Killua realizes that both of them cannot act as they once did. They are different people. Episode 116 works so well because it is filled with so much tension and yet not a single punch is thrown. As Gon sits down at the end and camera pans away behind him, we see that Killua is gone and his absence signals the end of the relationship as they once knew it. They must know both act differently and treat their friendship differently moving forward. Gon has turned into a different person, and it is one of the biggest question marks surrounding Hunter x Hunter.

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Episode 116 is master class in how it explores conflict resolution between two separate pairs of individuals. Gon and Killua fail to realize that in confronting Pitou over Kite’s demise, they are actually confronting one another. Their changed viewpoints are in contrast with one another. They can no longer approach situations as a pair, and Gon is becoming more and more of a solo act. Shonen manga and anime are defined by their clear emphasis on friendship and overcoming hurdles with the help of others. In the later parts of the 2011 adaptation, this is disregarded. When Gon first departs from his home, he tackles the Hunter Exam with the friends he made along the way, but as they all seek their own fulfillment, that quickly fades away. This is just one of the ways Hunter x Hunter turns the tropes in a different direction. Hunter x Hunter is one of the best, and so is episode 116. It feels like an inevitable culmination of all the thematic elements up until that point, and being able to create such interesting conflict and exploring several themes at the same time is the true sign of excellence.

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Final Fantasy XV: Chapter 13 Sets a Bad Example

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Final Fantasy XV`s troubled development history is an overused narrative. However it is difficult to ignore it given the structure and rushed nature of the latter half of the game. Final Fantasy XV utilizes an open-ended world for the first eight chapters of the game, but this comes to a screeching halt in Chapter 9 when the party travels to Altissia. After this point, the game becomes incredibly linear in nature. This all comes to a head in Chapter 13 where the terrible design choices and questionable narrative rear their ugly heads.

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There is an interesting comparison to be had between Final Fantasy XIII and XV. Upon its release, XIII was heavily criticized for its linear nature and lack of towns and overworld. It opened up somewhat much later in the game, but at that point the damage was done. Final Fantasy XV has the opposite problem. The game is very open-ended from the onset. Beginning with Chapter 3, the entire map opens up. There are many sidequests to complete and many secrets to find. The game then abandons this concept altogether, and it gives the impression the latter half of the game was incredibly rushed. The narrative in particular feels disjointed with characters dying off screen and being mourned without much of a stake behind any specific death. The back story behind Final Fantasy XV’s world is difficult to fully comprehend, and the motivations behind some of the characters are confusing at best. In the end, Noctis is the hero who must save the world, but the agency behind his tale is lacking, and characters place a lot of faith in him without a lot of evidence to support their strong conviction.

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Perhaps the linear design could be forgiven if there were some wrinkles added into the gameplay formula at this juncture. That never happens. The battle system remains the same throughout and if anything, the environments become even less interesting the more you progress in the game. There is one notable encounter in Chapter 9 that is memorable, but outside of that Noctis and company traverse very little from that point onwards. In fact, the majority of the time past Chapter 9 is spent running around train cars while inner turmoil in the party begins to take root. This stark contrast between two portions of the game doesn’t happen very often. When a drastic change occurs, there are usually extenuating circumstances at play that relate to the change. Without knowing the behind the scenes situation behind the game’s development, fans can only speculate. Speculation points in the direction of pressure being put on the development team to finish the game as soon as possible. Regardless of the actual decision, the end product speaks for itself.

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Chapter 13 is the biggest indicator of the poor direction Final Fantasy XV headed in its later stages. Some games fall into a trap where certain gameplay elements are forced onto the player without being introduced or used prior to that point. The most common example of this phenomenon is stealth segments. In Chapter 13, not only does Noctis become isolated without his companions, he loses access to his weapons and spells. The only means of combat at his disposal is a ring that casts death on enemies. The two biggest downsides are that it drains mana and takes a long time to cast. Noctis is completely vulnerable when using the ring and the enemies become increasingly dangerous as he progresses through the game’s longest story dungeon. That’s right. The game’s longest story dungeon features a distinct lack of combat, something that Final Fantasy XV heavily emphasized up until that point. To make matters worse, more difficult monsters are introduced and as a result, remaining hidden is heavily encouraged. Very few design choices make me more frustrated than a game forcing me to use stealth when it has clearly not been used at any point in the past. The dungeon itself has some interesting lore pertaining to it, but the environment is bland and boring. It consists of running down interconnected hallways, slowly unlocking access to further levels with keycards you discover along the way. Square-Enix has promised to take a look at Chapter 13 with a future update to the game. I truly hope it fixes many of the issues plaguing it. With that said, Chapter 13 is not the sole problem. The entire second half of the game needs to be looked at, but at this point, for those of us that have already completed the game, I believe the best we can hope for is DLC that fleshes out the story more and keeps me invested with the characters.

There were parts of Final Fantasy XV I liked a whole bunch. The soundtrack in particular was incredibly well done, and many of the battle tracks stand out. However, with a game that has been anticipated for so many years, the flaws cannot be ignored. The latter half of the game abandons the open world structure and it suffers greatly from it. The story is a mess and there is a distinct lack of explanation. At different points, it felt as if events were simply happening without a proper segue. Chapter 13 is the best example of the game’s many problems working against it. Several design choices such as a focus on less combat hurt this section of the game and make it tedious at best. I do think Final Fantasy is headed in the right direction, but I also believe a simpler story could work in the next game’s favor. Final Fantasy could return to form in the future, but only time will tell.

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Scum’s Wish – The Name of the Game is Self-Interest

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The romance genre in anime is often plagued by common tropes. Stemming from the way relationships are approached in Japanese culture, characters will often avoid talking about their feelings and interest in another person. Encounters with the opposite sex are usually awkward and rely far too much on comedic interaction. Very few anime have been able to delve into how relationships realistically operate and Scum’s Wish does it in a way that is both difficult to watch and captivating at the same time.

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Hanabi Yasuraoka is the heroine of Kuzu no Honkai, or Scum’s Wish. She is a junior in high school and in the show’s opening moments she ponders whether unrequited love should be idealized as much as it is. She doesn’t believe so, and many of her thoughts and feelings are a stark contrast against those you would see in a show playing by the numbers. In the first episode we learn that Hanabi is in love with her much older childhood friend, Narumi, and has been for quite some time. She affectionately refers to him as “brother.” He sees her as nothing more than a younger sister figure and she pines for him on a daily basis. She fantasizes about acting on her feelings, but she knows the likelihood of Narumi reciprocating is low. To further complicate matters, her brother is smitten with another woman. Being a new teacher at Hanabi’s school, Narumi developed a crush on the new music teacher by the name of Akane Minagawa. At the same time, Hanabi has a boyfriend by the name of Mugi Awaya. Mugi has been in love with Akane and much like Hanabi’s feelings; they are unrequited and sealed away. Hanabi and Mugi decide it would be mutually beneficial for them to use each other as replacements, and try to seek validation through each other. This relationship is the first indicator that the various relationships showcased in the first four episodes will routinely show characters using each other and being brutally honest to the point no one’s feelings are spared, and this dynamic is refreshing to see in the romance genre.

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With only four episodes having been released, it is difficult to get a sense of the full picture, but I truly believe this show will be one I remember for quite some time. Any time a show deviates from the norm, I find myself drawn to it more and more. White Album 2 functioned in a similar way with characters treating each other poorly for the sake of pursuing a romantic interest. It begs the question; do actual people ultimately act in the case of self-interest? Scum’s Wish certainly thinks so. What is important to note is that unlike the comedic hijinks of other anime, this show has incredibly realistic intimate moments between the characters. I have never seen a show treat sexual encounters with such maturity, while simultaneously including the scenes to show the selfishness of the characters. In one particular scene, Hanabi lies in Mugi’s bed with him as he has an erection. He tries to put an end to it before anything actually happens between them, but Hanabi encourages it. He shows her how to touch him and he is able to get off this way. In the process, he thinks about the person he truly loves and ruins Hanabi’s outfit as well. It is very clear that their relationship is a physical release for Mugi, whereas for Hanabi it is more of an emotional crutch. As an audience member, I got the sense that Hanabi was being used more than Mugi. At one point Hanabi tells him that she wants to try to fall in love with him. She is hurting an incredible amount. Mugi responds to this admission with silence. That is not the response of a person that is willing to meet halfway. This is not to paint Mugi as some type of villain, but as a person who acts in self-interest.

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“There’s nothing more revolting than the affection of someone you’re completely disinterested in.”Hanabi’s relationship with her friend, Sanae Ebatto, or Ecchan as Hanabi calls her, is also particularly interesting. The sticking point is that she has feelings for Hanabi. Similarly to how Hanabi feels seeing her brother with another woman, Ecchan feels much the same way about the relationship between Hanabi and Mugi. The relationship becomes complicated when Hanabi invites her to her home for a sleepover and shares the same bed with Ecchan. As they stare at each other in bed, Ecchan takes her completely by surprise and decides to act on her feelings. She impulsively kisses her, and Hanabi is unable to act or say anything to her in return. I would argue that Ecchan selfishly pushes her feelings onto Hanabi by forcibly kissing her. There is a fine line between a confession and an unwanted kiss. In other circumstances, it would be considered sexual harassment. Prior to this incident, Hanabi received the confession of a boy she wasn’t interested in, and she thought receiving the affection of someone she was not interested in was completely revolting. With Ecchan, she thinks back on this and has to re-examine it because they are close friends and she realizes that it isn’t black and white. Days later she runs into her friend again, and being in a distraught state, she relies on her, fully knowing that Ecchan still has feelings for her. They proceed to share the same bed together, and Hanabi is unable to resist her friend’s advances. Ecchan knows this and uses her inability to turn her down to her advantage. She touches Hanabi and Hanabi acknowledges that this feels good and in turn Ecchan is elated because she is pleasuring the one person she cares about the most. This interaction is so interesting because it is difficult to determine who is being used more, but I get the sense that Ecchan is headed down a path of disaster. Hanabi never acknowledges romantic feelings for her friend, and this relationship evolves to a point where it mirrors the one between Hanabi and Mugi. Hanabi is receiving a sexual release and Ecchan feels emotionally fulfilled doing this to her friend. It is incredibly selfish of Ecchan to act on this considering Hanabi’s vulnerable state, and disliking the way characters handle these situations is the main reason I love the show so much. It is so easy to relate to their feelings, and Hanabi in particular doesn’t shy away from serious subject matter.

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Akane Minagawa is Hanabi’s primary foil in Scum’s Wish. She goes to a restaurant with Mugi and they both see Akane with a younger man, who is clearly interested in her. Filled with anger for the two men in her life, Hanabi confronts her. She denies having any romantic involvement with the man, but based on the smell of cigarettes and the fact she is wearing the same clothes as the day before, Hanabi knows better. Akane tells her to meet her in the music room after school because she wants to crush her spirit by having her witness her brother’s confession. In an eye opening scene later on, Akane fully admits that she knew what she was doing and derives great pleasure from feeling wanted. She is clearly the most despicable character in a show filled with selfishness. Akane takes the self-interest angle to the utmost extreme. She hates the look of helplessness some women will show in moments of weakness. Avoiding that at all costs is important to her. To achieve that, she needs to maintain the feeling of superiority over others. The most telling scene regarding her character is when she lies down in bed with the younger man. She asks him if he is still dating some girl, and after he responds that they are no longer dating, her interest completely vanishes. To Akane, a man only has value if he is desired by other women. She states that Narumi, Hanabi’s brother, isn’t even her type. However, Hanabi desires him and that is why he has significance in Akane’s eyes. Ms. Minagawa believes that she and Hanabi are cut from the same cloth and it is only a matter of time until she turns her into someone who plays around with others’ emotions with no regard to their feelings. This seems to be the lingering question moving forward. Will Hanabi retain some concept of caring about others or will her experiences jade her further to the point where she is beyond redemption?

I knew after episode one I would love Kuzu no Honkai. It is a sorely needed show given current anime trends. It bucks the norm to show a bunch of characters all acting in self-interest and all dealing with unrequited love. Scum’s Wish shows the realistic, dark side to unrequited love. It pushes characters to extremes sometimes and edges them towards fantasizing and immediate gratification. The show lets you know from the onset this won’t turn into a harem series filled with standard comedic tropes. Instead, it will routinely make you uncomfortable and if that is something you can appreciate, I think Scum’s Wish will be considered one of the best once it has finished its run by the end of March. If realistic feelings and sexual encounters are something that pique your interest, simply give the first episode a try and let the industry know we want more of this type of show going forward.

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Pokemon Sun: A Departure from the Norm

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Pokemon GO caught not only the entire gaming world by surprise last year; it grabbed the attention of people everywhere. The success of this mobile app played a large role in the success of Pokemon Sun and Moon this past November, which became the fastest selling titles in the Pokemon series’ long history. Interestingly enough, where Pokemon GO relied heavily on nostalgia, Pokemon Sun and Moon took the series in a new direction. It threw away many of the conventions the series relied heavily upon, and it came out better for it.

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Pokemon Sun moves to a new location known as Alola, which is meant to be a nod to Hawaii. As a matter of fact, characters will often greet each other with, “Alola!” This new series of islands is a welcoming sight for fans of Pokemon because it oozes with good vibes eliciting strong associations with vacation and new beginnings. The game utilizes outdoor beach wear to bring the island aesthetic to life and the various locations seen throughout the islands such as beaches, mountains, and volcanoes play into this portrayal as well. It feels warm and inviting strolling across different environments during the day-time cycle as the sun beams all around and the water shines with a certain gleam. Pokemon Sun is also about the welcoming yet curious mood it tries to drive home.

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With the move to a new location, also comes the removal of long time hassles. For the first time, Pokemon Sun does away with HM moves. In their place, you can call specific Pokemon with a single button press and these specially designated Pokemon will perform the task for you, whether it is flying, surfing, or a new function added to the game. Perhaps more surprisingly, Pokemon Sun does away with gym battles. In their place are something known as trials. Across each island, trials can be undertaken and they are different challenges that must be completed. One trial tasks you with answering audio cue questions while a different trial asks you to spot the difference. All the trials are varied and usually feature a Totem Pokemon at the end. This Totem Pokemon is stronger than normal, and will typically call for help, which is one of the gameplay additions. When a Pokemon is low on health or the battle has been a prolonged one, the wild Pokemon can call for help which will summon either the same Pokemon or an entirely different one to its side. You must then defeat both to emerge victorious. However, Pokemon can call for help an unlimited number of times if the battle is an extended affair. This mechanic adds an extra layer of difficulty to Pokemon Sun and it is welcomed, considering the series’ lack of difficulty in the past.

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Pokemon Sun is a difficult game. It feels strange saying those words, but they ring true. Not only are the Totem Pokemon fights difficult, the battles with the island leaders, known as Kahunas, are also challenges. With the past titles, I rarely if ever blacked out or used health recovery items. In Pokemon Sun, these items often bailed me out during tense encounters. The Kahuna fights specifically will not only test the capability of your entire team, they can also exploit a glaring weakness if you do not have coverage against a certain typing. The ultimate test as usual, is the Elite Four at the game’s conclusion. This iteration of the Elite Four is arguably the strongest to date. When I first challenged them, I quickly realized that my team was ill prepared for the grueling fights and better than average strategy used by the AI. It felt refreshing actually dying again. The increased difficulty kept me engaged in the game, and it makes me excited about the series going forward.

If there was an aspect that could be pinpointed as to where Pokemon Sun falters, it would be the story. Pokemon games in general have never been known for their stories. They usually consist of collecting badges, defeating the current Team Rocket iteration, and then defeating the Elite Four and becoming the Champion. With the new location and quality of life changes, I remained hopeful that the story may be different as well. I soon learned that was not the case, and Pokemon Sun relies heavily upon many of the same story beats as previous games. There are some new wrinkles with new character types and changing how the rival operates, but they are not enough to save the story. It may seem unfair to criticize a game so reliant upon its gameplay mechanics for its story, but the developers chose to include one so it must be discussed. Going forward, the Pokemon series could really benefit from taking the story in a completely new direction. There is some optimism behind this happening given the other changes done across the board, but it is a difficult task creating a narrative that will appeal to both adults and children.

The Pokemon games were reaching fatigue levels similar to those of Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed. After the lackluster reception of X and Y, Pokemon took a year off and the extra development time paid off. Pokemon Sun takes the games in a new direction with a more light hearted location. Alola invites players to bask in their surroundings and enjoy the challenges as they come. Not only does the game have a new aesthetic, it changes key gameplay features such as the removal of HMs, and the game is starkly better as a result. While Pokemon Sun falters with its story, it more than makes up for it with its challenging battles. Pokemon Sun does a lot more right than it does wrong, and moving forward Pokemon has a bright future inside and outside of Alola.

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