Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 Review – More of the Same, But Better.

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 is a side-scrolling platformer released for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. The sequel to 2018’s Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, this Castlevania-throwback experience features new characters, stages, and even 2-player co-op. Having recently beaten the game’s Final Chapter, I’ll briefly discuss the best and not-so-best parts of ArtPlay and IntiCreates’ latest title.

For anyone wondering, Koji Igarashi‘s studio, ArtPlay, developed the spiritual successor to Castlevania, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Inti Creates, known for Mega Man Zero and Gunvolt, developed the 8-bit Curse of the Moon titles. While they feature similar characters and settings, Curse of the Moon’s storyline spins off from Ritual of the Night’s. Thus, the two are not interetwined.

While I find CotM 2 to be quite an improvement over the first game, I think it still clings to some of the previous title’s fundamental flaws. For one, I don’t really need an excuse to replay a game just for a few different gimmicks. If I want to replay the game, i would rather do it on my own terms instead of being cheesed into unlocking the true ending. That aside, however, its presentation offers a stellar job with boss battles, levels, and gameplay.

Story

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 follows the plot of the first title. However, Zangetsu is now accompanied by new companions. These include Dominique, the exorcist from Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, a sniper named Robert, and a mech-piloting corgi named Hachi.

The story’s straightforward narrative involves going to a castle and slaying the demons to save the world. However, it takes some interesting twists within the game’s replay formula. Each one follows an ending, a new chapter, and an opening. Each of these chapters also affects the lineup of your party.

While little changes regarding the level designs, the final boss will be altered in both Chapter 2 and the Final Chapter. There are four different chapters and the final one features the true ending. Additionally, some of the dialogue among party members ends up rather humorous. Between that and the cutscenes that play between chapters, it becomes a bit more worth replaying the chapters with a slight change of pace.

Audiovisual

Much like its predecessor, Bloodstained follows the classic NES Castlevania aesthetic. The 8-bit title features an array of gorgeous colors and boss animations. Similar to Shovel Knight, the game presents various levels, bosses, and design choices far surpassing the NES’ own capabilities.

The chiptune music provides a selection of fast-paced music fitting for a Castlevania-esque title. I found the tunes to be catchy and at times quite engaging, such as The Demon’s Crown. I was also quite fond of the boss theme.

Gameplay

The 2D action gameplay features platforming, the ability to switch between multiple characters, and exploring non-linear stages. This means you can choose different paths to clear the stage depending on the characters you have available. Additionally, each character has their own playstyle.

Unfortunately, I was not at all fond of using Robert. While he served to be a sniper with long-range capabilities, he had no way of protecting himself up close. He felt woefully out of place in this game since his mechanics made clearing stages or bosses extremely difficult if not impossible.

Another slight issue I had was with Zangetsu. He gains a more powerful sword later in the game which gives him vertical slashe and multi-strikes. After Chapter 2, however, if the player didn’t hunt down the secret sword, they would lose it to the basic Zanmatou in the EX Episode. I feel downgrading abilities from a player is a big no-no.

Bloodstained also once again goes the route of “beat game and replay” ad nauseam. They try to write a different chapter of the tale but you’re really just repeating the game again with a slightly different roster in the 2nd chapter or the CotM 1 cast in the EX Chapter. By the final chapter, you have everyone, albeit briefly, to collect parts to reach the final level. But you’re just doing the same stages over again.

The developers would benefit greatly from creating more new stages to go with each stage rather than force the player to do the same game four times to get the final ending. Sonic Heroes is one example of a game that makes the player replay the exact same game, with slight differences, just to get the best ending.

Final Thoughts

I will admit that I greatly enjoyed the co-op in this title. The 2-player co-op allows players to jump in and exit anytime. While it’s limited to offline play, it still offers players to work together to defeat bosses or even access hidden areas.

Another good part was the difficulty level. The Veteran difficulty was tough as nails. Casual Mode offers its own challenge as the stage layout and enemies don’t change. After Episode 2, I switched to Casual Mode because I didn’t feel any need to play the same game again. I just wanted to finish the story. Furthermore, the bosses just become HP sponges on later chapters and it’s no longer enjoyable to fight them and mimic the same pattern each time.

Bloodstained does a great job of presenting a classic 2D platforming experience. However, it still relies heavily on gimmicks like forced replay or unbalanced characters in a side-scroller. Even compared to Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, it was at least possible to solo the game with Trevor, Sypha, Grant, or Alucard.

Despite these mild shortcomings, Circle of the Moon 2 is well-worth the purchase. Even if it’s just one playthrough, you’ll surely find an enjoyable challenge and experience through the title. If you’re missing classic 2D Castlevania action or just enjoyed the first Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon title, it’s recommended giving it a try. I found the level designs to be vastly improved and more varied than the first Curse of the Moon title.

Whether you decide to continue with the replay chapters or not is up to you. However, I recommend at least playing through it once to all classic gaming fans who seek a real challenge.

Verdict: 8/10

Persona 5 Royal Review

Persona 5 Royal is a Japanese RPG developed and released by Atlus, in 2020, for PlayStation 4. Being a re-release of 2017’s Persona 5, Royal features new features, storylines, quality-of-life improvements, and characters. This improved version of the game echoes Atlus’ previous re-releases in the series: Persona 3 FES (2008) and Persona 4 Golden (2012).

In Persona 5 Royal, you’ll play as the leader of the Phantom Thieves. This group of vigilantes becomes known for erasing the distorted desires of villainous beings. As you live your daily life in the outskirts of Shibuya, Japan, you’ll hang out with friends, enter dungeons, and even play mini-games. The social link-building, well-paced gameplay, and epic music will surely charm fans of the genre.

When I played Persona 5 back in 2018, it introduced me to an immense world. I’ve never played something so stylish, so polished, and yet, so long. Spending over 100 hours, I found it to be one of the greatest games I ever played and finally understood the hype surrounding it. This past year, I’ve beaten both Persona 3 FES and Persona 4 Golden and admit they’re easily as engaging as Persona 5. With that said, I knew it was time to return to Shibuya for another round with Royal.

If you want to view a quick list of updates and additions in Royal, check out the list here.

Story

Persona 5 Royal features the high school transfer student, Ren Amamiya, trying to live life after being convicted of assault. Sentenced to probation he now attends Shujin Academy as an exchange student. Living at Cafe Leblanc, he must spend a year away from home while trying to manage school and his life as the Phantom Thieves.

What I love about Persona 5’s story is its ability to touch on real-life social issues. Your first villain is a teacher/coach who commits sexual abuse against female students while bullying the students on his volleyball team. You’ll fight plenty of demons, shadows, and other mythological beings. But Persona 5 does a handy job of exposing the worst of society by reforming them and changing their hearts. Of course, it’s with plenty of humorous moments along with being dead serious.

What makes Persona 5 Royal’s story especially interesting is its gray morality. The Phantom Thieves become a hot debate in society as to whether their actions are righteous or illegal. It becomes even more complicated thanks to the third semester. If you unlock the right conditions, the third semester’s story will open up. This will bring you to an even grayer area on whether it is alright to rob people of their escapism in order to pursue happiness.

Character Design

Persona 5 offers a colorful cast of appealing characters. Engaging in their social links allows you to develop your relationship and help them solve their life problems. You can even enter romantic relationships with them. The game’s writing brings the player close to the characters with such clever writing as to immerse them in the story. Their pain is your pain.

I love the character design just for how well-animated the characters are. I’m especially fond of Morgana for your being the occasionally smart-assed, sensitive cat friend. Amidst the heroes, villains, and those in-between, you’re bound to find characters you bond with. Also note that, even with as much dialogue in the game, the game cleverly paces it with strong writing.

I should also mention that one particular character received outstanding character development. While their story expired late into the original Persona 5, the 3rd semester brought forth their inner, true self in the grandest way possible. It turned a character I strongly disliked and spun a complete 180 on them in the best conceivable way.

Aesthetics

Persona 5 features gorgeous animations and visuals. It offers a robust, stylish, UI, smooth battle transitions, and feels wonderfully polished in every possible way. Persona 5 Royal now offers 4K support for PS4 Pro as well. The battle animations, anime cutscenes, and portraits breathe life into the game.

Persona 5 Royal_20200308234501

Persona 5 Royal also boasts an exceptional soundtrack. Jazz, rock, and J-Pop all meld together perfectly. Shoji Meguro also composed for Persona 3 and Persona 4 and now brings a more smooth jazz style to P5. Honestly, this could be the greatest soundtrack I have ever heard.

Gameplay

The turn-based Persona gameplay continues its traditions here. You can attack, cast spells, gun down your enemies, and even hold them up. What I love about Royal includes some of the new improvements. You no longer need ammo for your guns, you can unleash powerful Technical attacks, and it features the new Showtime abilities which are both powerful and incredibly flashy. These become your finisher attacks that occur during a desperate situation and work to even the odds in your favor.

Persona 5 Royal rewards players who pursue building their social links. It’s incredibly beneficial to boost them with party members and NPCs alike. Whether it’s to add to your battle repertoire or so party members can shield you from lethal attacks, this game rewards the notion that you go out of your way to care about your allies.

The calendar system progression offers you a set amount of days to complete all your tasks. Knowing which social links to manage becomes entirely up to you. In fact, you choose how to spend every day of your life. Whether you want to boost a social link or boost a social skill, you can talk to allies, eat at restaurants, or even invite them to mini-games. The level of variety in this game offers you a bevy of fun activities with the dialogue that goes with it.

Also, while Persona has a history with randomly generated dungeons, Persona 5 added Palaces. These feel more like your traditional dungeons which feature puzzle-solving elements. As Phantom Thieves, you’ll also engage in stealth gameplay while you hide from and ambush Shadows.

Mementos, the randomly generated dungeon, also features a complete overhaul. In addition to new songs playing at deeper levels, you meet a new character – Jose – who shows up as a merchant. You’ll collect flowers and stamps in order to buy items and boost your EXP, Money, or Item Gain in Mementos. This alone makes it a major step up from the previous release’s Mementos.

Value

Persona 5 Royal is important for the JRPG fan, the Persona newcomer, and even the Persona 5 fan. Newer fans will certainly appreciate one of the greatest JRPGs out there while veteran Persona 5 fans can unearth dozens of hours of new content. Royal features a full-on story expansion that offers new social links, mini-games, activities, unlockables, and an entire third semester.

This comes along with various improvements to battle gameplay, exploration, and the abilities you gain. To be honest, I found Persona 5 to already be a near-perfect game. Doing the unthinkable is to polish it and add more to a game I already valued so highly.

If I had to say I had any gripes with Persona 5 Royal, it’s that it can admittedly become too easy. Even if you download the DLC Personas in the Velvet Room, that alone is not enough to break the player. You’ll still need to be on your toes so you don’t get one-shotted or ambushed.

However, strategic management of social links will allow you to gain these high-level Personas sooner. Meanwhile, your continued support of your allies, especially NPC social links, will grant you abilities that will significantly boost you against powerful enemies. By the time I finished the third palace, I was playing on Merciless difficulty and died only a small handful of times.

Despite this, Persona 5 Royal offers a level of flexibility that can enable players to become godlike or even balance their challenge. While you can, in fact, become quite broken partially due to DLC Personas, it’s entirely up to you whether you choose to or not. Even then, you will surely face challenging bosses and need to keep your guard up from enemies who can KO your protagonist in a fell swoop.

Final Thoughts

I cannot say enough good things about Persona 5 Royal. It might be quite possibly the greatest JRPG, if not the greatest game, I have ever played. The 172 hours I spent immersing myself in this experience is among the greatest I’ve ever enjoyed in a game. I’ve played countless hours of other JRPGs, including Persona 3 and 4, and I’m not sure if anything will ever be possible to top this.

Nothing feels quite as immersive as getting to live as your character, indulge in social links, and invite them to play darts or pool while boosting your stats along with them. Everything you do grants incentive and rewards the player. This includes anything from building social links to implementing battle strategies. The gorgeous, shiny graphics, the beautiful soundtrack that accompanies you, and your daily life brings immense levels of world-building within your little corner of Tokyo.

Overall, this is a must-play for any RPG fan including, again, those who played the original Persona 5. The amount of content far surpasses the price tag while the quality improvements raise the bar to the highest possible standard. With that being said, I hope you will enjoy this game as much as I did.

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Review Plus: River City Girls.

Welcome to our first edition of Review Plus!

You will find our review shortly after the introduction. In addition to our review of the game, you will find useful tidbits of information covering River City Girls. Plus, this review will address the beat ’em up genre and the direction it’s moving in.

River City Girls is a 2D beat ’em up developed by WayForward. Known for the Shantae series, WayForward adapted the River City Ransom (NES) title which is known as the Kunio-Kun series in Japan. Featuring animated cutscenes by Studio Trigger, River City Girls features classic 2D pixel artwork along with anime transitions for the opening, boss fights, and endings. In addition, you will find part of the story told through manga-like cutscenes.

Despite its good intentions, I believe River City Girls falls short of its potential. While it features incredibly strong brawler action, a few issues hamper an otherwise decent revival of the 2D beat ’em up genre. However, the classic style gameplay remains both the focal point and the game’s strongest suit.

Story

The game starts off with Misako and Kyoko receiving a mysterious text that their boyfriends have been kidnapped. Contrary to the stories of games, like Double Dragon, the premise of the story reverses the role.

Perhaps the most pressing part of the story comes from the game’s ending. It turns the entire plot on its head in a surprising way and emphasizes the girls’ true role. I give major props to WayForward for this one.

Misako and Kyoko play foil to each other throughout the game. These single-track-minded women just want an excuse to throwdown. Despite their idiocy, you can’t help but feel charmed by their tenacity.

Unfortunately, I did not find much of the story and dialogue to be amazing. Aside from a little bit of witty banter, I found it to be cringeworthy. While much of the boss dialogue feels like wasted banter, one particular character, Godai, seriously bothered me.

Your resident creeper-stalker feeds you information while trying to get into your good graces. Even without Godai, much of the dialogue in cutscenes felt like forced humor. I honestly wanted to skip most of it but didn’t want to leave out any possible useful information.

For better or for worse, River City Girls maintains a cast of wacky characters.

Visuals

One of the high points of River City Girls comes from the artwork. The character designs and backdrops feature well-drawn details. I’m especially particular about the shop designs. Several shops have their own art of the girls shopping while a different shopkeeper takes their order.

River City Girls features 2D sprite artwork somewhat reminiscent of the 16-bit era. However, I’ve seen this style before used in multiple indie games which it honestly feels more like than a mainstream title. While WayForward tends to use a more cartoonish art style for their flagship series, Shantae, this reminds me more of games like Katana Zero.

Katana Zero (2019)

What I strongly dislike, however, is how small the text is on the menu. The menu is displayed on the character’s smartphone. However, I had to come up to my 52″ HDTV just to check inputs or side-quests that I could not read from my usual sitting position.

Unfortunately, I also ran into multiple frame-drops throughout the game. They didn’t prevail literally the entire game but were noticeable when they did. Even after a year’s release, I’m surprised WayForward still has not patched them out.

Audio

You’ll feel a solid amount of satisfaction breaking your fists on enemies and crashing weapons over their heads. However, I found some sound effects lacking. I don’t get why an enemy slamming a hammer on concrete produces no sound. On the other hand, bashing enemies feels satisfying as you might expect and keeps you wanting more.

Despite middling feelings on the sound effects, most of my enjoyment came from the music. Much of it was catchy and, along with a number of sound effects, featured 8-bit cues you would hear in the NES River City Ransom. Several of the vocal sounds featured some catchy beats you would enjoy while fighting.

Gameplay

This game presents its beat ’em up gameplay in a manner that says the genre never even left. It feels so seamless to beat down enemies with combos, throws, stomps, and weapon attacks. Despite this, however, the game will not count your combos.

One of my favorite parts of gameplay was the ability to recruit enemies to join you. If they surrendered, you could grab them and enlist them as summons. Similarly to Marvel vs. Capcom, they would hop in, use their signature attack, pose, and hop out. You would not be able to use them for a set time.

My problem came from the inconsistency of combos, however. This isn’t Tekken, but you will maximize your damage by juggling your enemies. Unfortunately, your timing must change based on enemy types. This threw me off multiple times.

Gameplay Issues

Another problem I had came from how invincibility frames work. Congratulations to the developer for not giving the characters invincibility frames while using throw moves. It makes them useless when you’re getting pounded in the back of the head. From my experience with other games in the genre, this is a big no-no.

Also, I had a moderate issue with the equips. The Frilled Bra and Frilly Bottom might be the only useful accessories I used. Everything else gives around a 5% increase or a 5% chance to activate. These passives were so useless that you could easily get through the game without using them. I wouldn’t bother buying them and would save your money for the Dojo or healing items instead.

Unlike other beat ’em ups, this also features an RPG system where you equip gear, level up, and can use items to heal. For anyone who remembers Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game, this is where these elements came from. The Scott Pilgrim game paid massive homage to River City Ransom and used many of the mechanics as well.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game (2010)

Let me also mention this game is full of load times transitioning between each screen. If it was another large area, I could understand that. But I feel they put no effort into good transitioning for a 2D game released in 2019. This will likely annoy you especially if you’re making trips back to shops to pick up items or new moves.

Co-op

This game is best experienced with a friend. However, not everyone is big into beat ’em ups. If you’re flying solo, you might have a harder time with it than others. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for others to play with, this game does not feature online co-op.

However, for a 2019 brawler, this feels woefully outdated. Multiple games of its genre, released in the last decade, feature online co-op. Even the recently released Streets of Rage 4 features online co-op. I do not understand why WayForward opted not to release a feature such a basic option in a multiplayer game released today.

Extras

This game encourages a level of exploration. Unlike the stage-by-stage games prevalent within the genre, the River City titles have you moving through destinations in multiple directions. You can also find statues of Sabu and destroy them. Completing the quest of destruction unlocks the true hidden final boss fight.

Additionally, you can unlock New Game Plus. Doing so not only lets you carry over your gear from the first playthrough but you can also unlock two characters. Riki and Kunio, the main characters of River City Ransom, become available.

However, this will otherwise not change much regarding the game itself. The only other incentive is a cat side-quest that unlocks infinite SP. Keep in mind, however, that Riki and Kunio are only a glorified palette swap. Nothing about the story changes as the sequences are still voiced by the girls.

The Future of the Genre

River City Girls was the first game in which I recall to pave the way forward for brawlers in the current generation. Previously, WayForward released Double Dragon Neon for PS3 and Xbox 360. Plus, Double Dragon IV came out to a lukewarm response. WayForward’s advertisement at least shined a light on a bright and colorful attempt to bring attention to the new game.

One year after its release, we now have Streets of Rage 4. Sega’s shining star beat ’em up series came back after a 25-year hiatus. Furthermore, even Raw Thrills released an arcade-exclusive TMNT title that pays homage to Konami’s titles of the past.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2018)

2D beat ’em ups feel largely obscured by their 3D evolution. Modern games include Platinum Games’ Astral Chain or Sega’s Yakuza series. It’s hard to find the interest generated in beat ’em ups in an era without the 90s interest of arcade games. However, the demand for the genre remains real and strong enough for developers to take notice. The genre is not dead and, with this momentum, might become a mainstay for the decade once more.

Also, the creator of Scott Pilgrim noted that Ubisoft, developers of the game, reached out to him.

Final Thoughts

Overall, River City Girls excels in combat despite several flaws hampering both gameplay and story alike. I found it hard to put down as I was pummeling enemies, bosses, and even cars. It even served a heavy enough challenge for me to retry bosses several times over.

However, its addition of annoying dialogue, incredibly short length for a game released in 2019, and a few bothersome issues to gameplay made me want to end the game once I was over halfway through.

While it was cool back in Double Dragon to have enemies that looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 80s. No, it is not funny today to have these same enemies that make “Ahnold” noises with Terminator references.

WayForward’s cheap humor stems from the Shantae series which is hit-or-miss. They could do without forcing comedy and that alone would boost the grade. If you want a better, cute beat ’em up based on anime aesthetics, you could always go with Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds.

Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds (2013)

However, if you’re after a beat ’em up and you don’t mind the cheesy dialogue and voice acting, then go right for it. Even then, it features undeniable charm from the character designs. It’s at least 8 hours of fun enemy-bashing and button-mashing.

To summarize, I recommend it for enthusiasts of the genre or those seeking to play some couch co-op action with a friend or a loved one. You’ll enjoy the music, the cutscenes, and the retro homages. It’s easy to pick up and play. However, I don’t think it qualifies as being a game for everyone.

In this era, there are scarcely any releases you will find in the genre besides re-releases of classics. If you passed up River City Girls, you wouldn’t miss much more than some solid aesthetics for an otherwise alright game in the genre. Depending on the systems you own, you could download classics like Double Dragon II, Streets of Rage 2, or even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time. If you want a modern release still available on current systems, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds would surely endear you.

However, if you like beat ’em up action, then these issues might not stop you from trying a decent brawler. I recommend it to enthusiasts of the genre but I wouldn’t expect it to be anything impressive outside of the aesthetics and your standard brawler fanfare. Despite this, it should still entertain you for a few hours. While it’s not a bad game, it could truly be better.

Score: 6.5/10

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Madoka Magica, Bravely Default, and the Relationship Between the Two.

Puella Magi: Madoka Magica is an anime, written by Gen Urobuchi, which was developed by studio Shaft in 2011. This dark, enchanting tale told of teenage girls who were lured into becoming magical girls once tempted by fate. Their dark struggles became gruesome as they realized that they were being used.

Meanwhile, when Square-Enix and Silicon Studio developed the Japanese RPG, Bravely Default, in 2014, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the two. While I beat Bravely Default before I watched Madoka, the similarities became more noticeable the further I watched the latter. For fans of either, check out what makes these two similar below.

Be wary of spoilers for both series.

Airy and Kyubey

Art by Adeshark. Please visit the author’s page here.

In Madoka, Kyubey, the small, cat-like mascot talks to the girls. He entices them to become magical girls in order to grant their wishes. Later, his purpose is revealed as a soul-harvester. Revealing Kyubey as the antagonist was a shocking turn for many as few would expect the cute mascot to be capable of evil.

Similarly, in Bravely Default, Airy, the small cryst-fairy guides the party towards rejuvenating the crystals. However, I caught her one-track mindedness to be suspicious during the Fire Crystal arc. I noticed Airy became more obsessed with the crystals than rescuing a young child from a mine.

True to my suspicions, late in the game, she’s revealed to be the true antagonist. She’s the cause of mass genocide and serves the demon lord, Ouroboros, to break his seal and set him upon the world. Despite this, they wrote Airy cleverly in as a supporting character while subtly hinting she could be your enemy.

Both of these characters are revealed as traitors despite their unsuspecting appearances. Few people expected either of them to be powerful, malevolent forces. Only when you learn the truth does it become too late to turn back the clock.

Witches and Ba’als

The witches in Bravely were oddly-shapen monsters trapped in labyrinths. These were later revealed to be the corrupted souls of former magical girls. Their labyrinths spawned from a twisted cognition of reality.

Similarly, the Ba’als (known as Nemesis in Bravely Default) were corrupted, twisted memories. These were later identified as Ba’als which came from the moon in the sequel, Bravely Second. Unlike the witches, these came from the corrupted dreams spawned by a major character.

In both cases, these powerful creatures are fought within a twisted dimension from reality. You can see a semblance of real life within the scenery. But the colorful, blotter-art dimensions and macabre enemies bring together similarities.

Time-Traveling Savior

Both Madoka and Bravely feature a time-traveler, clad in black, to prevent the worst from happening. In Madoka, Homura Akemi was Kyubey’s victim. Her time ability allowed her to go back to try and save Madoka, time and time again, while failing with each attempt. Despite originally being depicted as the antagonist, the story later showcased Homura as Madoka’s friend.

Likewise, Alternis Dim, the Dark Knight, battles the party to stop them from achieving from their goal. The party member, Ringabel, is later revealed to have been Alternis Dim from another universe. Much like Homura, he is also a victim of the aforementioned antagonist. As Alternis, his personality was changed and he lost his memory.

Interestingly enough, both focal characters of the stories are fated to die. Madoka becomes a Magical Girl while Agnes becomes the Vestal of Wind. Both would fall victim to their respective antagonists.

Notable Points

While the first two and a half episodes felt pretty droning and typical moe cuteness, the end of Episode 3 caught me completely off guard. It was dark, gruesome, and changed the tone of the entire series.

Likewise, Bravely Default did this several times. Several of the Asterisk arcs, such as Summoner Mephilia’s, took an incredibly dark turn. Bravely Default starts off as a fairly typical JRPG but ends up shocking the player on multiple occasions.

One lovable thing about the Bravely series is its amount of references and homages to other series. The Enopu Mushroom, for instance, even features a lore description that references the Super Mario series. The crystals themselves also reference Square-Enix’s headline series, Final Fantasy.

It isn’t far-fetched to say that Bravely Default took notable cues out of anime. The game was even composed by REVO, who composed the openings for Attack on Titan and Sailor Moon Crystal. Moreover, Bravely Second also features an arc where a character saved his young son’s life by sealing his soul inside a suit of armor. This serves as a nod to the anime and manga Fullmetal Alchemist.

Final Thoughts

If you enjoyed Bravely Default, I strongly suggest playing Bravely Second and Octopath Traveler which were also made by the same developers. Furthermore, Bravely Default II comes out for Switch supposedly later this year. Keep an eye out on our site for the latest updates on Square-Enix’s and Team Asano‘s next JRPG.

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What Are You Playing? – 8/17/20

Welcome to the newest column for All Cool Things. I’m starting a new column blog where I discuss what I’m clearing off my backlog every week! If you find something you’re playing on our list, we would love to hear your thoughts.

Without further adieu…

Tekken 7

I’m no pro at Tekken. I love the character design, music, and gameplay. But I’ve never really played it competitively.

However, I live in a part of Georgia that plays it heavily. It’s one of our top 3 fighting games along with Street Fighter V and Dragon Ball FighterZ. I managed to host a 10-player tournament once but I didn’t compete in it.

Despite that, I’m on a Trophy run right now. I hate admitting that I play a fighting game casually. But I’m trying to finish collecting Trophies. I’ve done all the single-player mode achievements. The 3 Special Battles one was detestably long and random.

The only Trophies I have left are the 1 Ranked Match, 10 Ranked Matches, and win a tournament battle. I main Miguel and he’s the only one I play. I’m vaguely familiar with his style yet I haven’t even incorporated Savage Stance into it yet. Despite being new to the competitive meta, I’ve already managed to send one ragequitter packing.

Did I mention I met Katsuhiro Harada, creator of Tekken, at Final Round 2016?

Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir

Even though it came out in 2007 for PS2, I always wanted to play this game. I loved Vanillaware’s Dragon’s Crown for PS3. Ever since I played Dragon’s Crown, I’ve become a huge fan of George Kamitami’s work.

Right now I’m still only on the Valkyrie story. I love hearing all the familiar voices from the games I recently played. It might be because both Persona and Odin Sphere are developed and published by Atlus that these games share voice actors.

This game still looks beautiful as heck. Even with the remastered visuals, though, I can still tell this is a PS2 title by the mouth movement animations. That’s not a bad thing by any means.

Moreover, I can tell how much Odin Sphere influenced Dust: An Elysian Tail which is one of my favorite indie games. The hand-drawn style and 2D beat ’em up gameplay both showcase similarities between the two.

Once I beat Odin Sphere, I plan to jump onto Muramasa Rebirth for PS Vita. I had the Wii version but sold it shortly after I played it. But now I can try the definitive version of Muramasa before Atlus’ next game, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim comes out.

On that note, it makes me wish Princess Crown got localized.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

As always, I’m playing Smash. I don’t get how I can’t let this game go. Even though everyone hates online mode – and rightfully so – I can’t seem to stop logging onto Elite Smash, play a few rounds, and call it a day.

Who I’m currently playing as online.

Despite everyone’s online complaints, Nintendo did manage to patch the game’s online. However, this was honestly too vague to decipher what they meant by patching the online experience. We know it isn’t rollback netcode. But at the least, Nintendo also said they would continue patching the game’s online mode.

Fire Emblem Heroes

Did you know I enjoy gacha? Yeah, only this one and maybe a little bit of Dr. Mario World. Even as gorgeous as the Final Fantasy gacha titles look, I’m not allowing myself to get hooked on another one. That especially goes for spending any money on them.

I’m so far behind that I haven’t played much since the latest update. I’m probably missing out on a ton of orbs. Unfortunately, not only is the Pirate banner the only one that interests me, but I haven’t landed a solid 5-star in weeks now.

It’s demoralizing to the point I hardly care. Moreover, none of them give you the 40 summons + 1 free one. Why even introduce this feature if you’re not going to implement it every month? Good thing I didn’t subscribe to Feh Pass.

…Although I admit that my lazy self could also use those continuous auto-battle features. Not to mention I’ve been tempted to buy those beautiful Resplendent units.

Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise

Finally, after beating Persona 5 Royal, I’m ready to commit to another long game. I haven’t touched a Yakuza title since Yakuza Kiwami 2. I plan on beating this one before I move onto Judgment. Then I’ll start Yakuza Remastered Collection afterward.

I love Fist of the North Star. I finished the anime series before FotNS2. Yakuza is filled with references to the series so it doesn’t surprise me that RGG Studios would want to adapt Fist of the North Star into a game.

I’m only past the intro but it’s fun so far. It’s standard Yakuza side-quests and beat ’em up action with tons of violence. Plus I’m using the Kiryu skin. Interesting fact, Kiryu’s Japanese voice actor is also Kenshiro’s. It fits perfectly all things considered.

Well, that’s a wrap for my play log this week. Maybe one day I’ll finally get back to Dragon Quest IV. I would like to play the rest of the series.

In the meantime, what are you playing this week? Reply with your games in the comments below.

Retro Runback: Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is a 2D side-scrolling Metroidvania title. Developed by Konami and released in 2003, this title was produced by Koji Igarashi (IGA) who was renowned for the 1997 hit, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Featuring the artistic talent of Ayami Kojima, and music by Michiru Yamane, this title brought the Symphony team together for another experience on Game Boy Advance.

With that being said, I recently beat Aria of Sorrow for over the dozenth time. As my favorite Game Boy Advance game, I wanted to go back and play it to see how well it’s aged. In today’s era, IGA released Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, the spiritual successor to his Castlevania titles. Therefore, I figured I would return to celebrate one of his best works and see how it stacks up with his latest endeavor.

Story

Aria of Sorrow takes place in 2035 and is set decades after the final defeat of Dracula in 1999. When college student Soma Cruz vanishes from the Hakuba Shrine, he appears at the entrance of Dracula’s Castle. Caught in a solar eclipse, he is greeted by his childhood friend, Mina, and the mysterious Genya Arikado. The latter brought Soma to the castle to discover the truth behind his soul-stealing powers.

The title introduces several characters which include both friendly and hostile faces. Perhaps the most pressing thing about Aria is that it is not your traditional “end Dracula’s reign” game. In fact, Aria of Sorrow may have perhaps the biggest twist in the series’ history.

Aria of Sorrow brings together the new protagonist, Soma, Yoko Belnades, a descendant of Sypha Belnades from Castlevania III, the Belmonts, and Dracula’s son, Alucard, together to help stop Dracula’s evil once more. As Soma, you will venture through the castle in order to uncover the truth behind your powers. Plus Aria of Sorrow features multiple endings including a particularly engaging Bad Ending. For a 2D Metroidvania title, it features an astounding plot.

Audiovisual

Konami released Aria of Sorrow mere months after Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance. While the latter featured bright, colorful visuals, Konami sacrificed the audio quality. While Harmony of Dissonance had wonderful melodies, composed by Yamane, it could only handle playing 8-bit chiptune music. Aria of Sorrow managed to not only feature gorgeous visuals but did so without downscaling the sound quality.

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (2002)

In Aria of Sorrow, the animations stand out wonderfully. Soma’s coat animates well with his movements while enemies engage him with various attacks. Plus the Soul system offers creative animations for each of your abilities.

Perhaps the excel point of Aria’s visuals include its gorgeous background decor. Each area wonderfully separates itself from the others and looks beautiful, majestic, and gothic. You will certainly appreciate the background pseudo-lighting effects as well.

If you enjoy strong gaming soundtracks, Aria of Sorrow delivers in spades. Michiru Yamane’s soundtrack stands strong to include “Castle Corridor,” “Heart of Fire,” and features subtle remixes of “Cross Your Heart” and “Bloody Tears.” One of my favorites includes “You’re Not Alone” which plays near the game’s ending.

Gameplay

Aria of Sorrow follows the side-scrolling Metroidvania formula set forth by its predecessors. The game encourages you to explore as you fill in your map, break hidden walls, and gain abilities to open up new areas. You can double-jump, transform, slide, and even fly as a Bat.

Combat involves hacking and slashing while equipping new weapons. You can use swords, lances, knuckles, and even firearms. Despite setting itself apart with the use of Guns, the long-range weapons feel remarkably apropos.

Perhaps the most pressing and significant part of the gameplay involves the Souls mechanic. As Soma wields the Power of Dominance, he can absorb the soul of any enemy he defeats. Similar to the Persona series, each soul comes with different abilities. You can equip up to three at a time to configure various combinations.

Between the souls and weapons, players can use a variety of combinations to play in their own style. This mechanic opened up the door to the Glyph system used in Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia as well as the Shards used in Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.

Extras

After beating Aria of Sorrow, you unlock Boss Rush Mode, Hard Mode, New Game+, and Julius Mode. Boss Rush mode lets you fight against all of the bosses in the game. Clearing within various time limits grants you powerful weapons, such as Excalibur and Positron Rifle.

Unlocking Hard Mode allows you to play with or without a new file if you so choose. New Game Plus will carry over all except a few souls to your next playthrough. Players seeking a challenge can also input NOUSE and NOSOUL to restrict the use of items and souls, respectively. Furthermore, New Game Plus also allows players to discover new weapons not seen in the first playthrough. Clearing the map 100% also features extra dialogue in the ending.

Finally, Julius Mode continues the tradition of unlocking a character to play through the game as them. In this case, players can use Julius Belmont who uses MP for sub-weapons. Julius comes armed with the Vampire Killer whip, a super jump, and a teleport-dash that resembles Akuma’s from Street Fighter. He’s fun to play and quite powerful. Unfortunately, as per tradition with IGA’s extra character modes, I wish they added dialogue to move the story forward.

How does it fare today?

Koji Igarashi released Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night in 2019. The side-scrolling Metroidvania title featured the spiritual successor to his Castlevania titles. When Konami underwent their worst years, and rebooted Castlevania as Lords of Shadow, IGA left to form his own studio, ArtPlay.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night (2019)

Bloodstained offers much of the charm you could expect from Castlevania. It features similar gameplay and progression. The side-scrolling gameplay and exploration, and epic boss battles feature series’ hallmarks. Plus it even recently added Zangetsu Mode which echoes the second character mode of IGAvanias.

However, I don’t think its visual polish ever got better than a lighting upgrade before its release. Even in HD, the game looked fairly standard to me. Despite a visual facelift prior to release, I still never found myself impressed with Bloodstained’s visuals as much as I did with Aria of Sorrow’s sprite work.

Plus some parts of the game weren’t properly utilized. If you needed to swim underwater, you found the ability through progression in Aria. Bloodstained makes you kill a random water enemy to gain the swimming ability and I feel that was one of the pacing issues I had with it.

However, I do recommend Bloodstained for any Metroidvania fan. Anyone wanting a callback to IGA’s best games will find plenty of love and polish in Bloodstained. Overall, though, while Aria of Sorrow is one of best IGA’s games, Bloodstained does well on its own as a Metroidvania side-scroller.

Final Thoughts

My only gripe with Aria of Sorrow is that it’s a bit short. To this date, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is still the longest game largely thanks to the Inverted Castle. Moreover, it was developed on the PlayStation which held more memory than the GBA. Despite this, Aria of Sorrow is a clean, polished adventure from start to finish. Plus, Aria of Sorrow rewards players with an incentive to beat the game more than once.

The Soul System remains one of the best gameplay mechanics ever introduced. I love being able to combine and customize which abilities I can use. Projectiles, support skills, and passive abilities were all organized easily and user-friendly.

The variety also gave life to endless combinations and I enjoyed getting to pick and choose what to use. Plus the weapon system went a step above Symphony of the Night’s. Greatswords were much larger and the weapons offered much more variety.

Overall, Aria of Sorrow just felt like a nice, complete package. It was a polished, near-perfect little game that I’ve come back to for over 15 years. It’s my favorite title on the Game Boy Advance and one I recommend today. However, with the exception of the Wii U eShop release, Aria of Sorrow was never released outside of the Game Boy Advance. Despite this, I highly recommend Aria of Sorrow. If you enjoy side-scrollers and Metroidvanias, track this game down. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I do.

How the SEGA 32X Could Have Saved the Saturn, and to a Greater Extent, SEGA’s Hardware Business

(Originally Posted April 21, 2019)

First off, I’d like to say that I would love it if folks from SEGA of Japan and North America could see this article.  I have been a SEGA fanboy ever since the Genesis was released in North America.  When I got my Genesis and Power Base Converter that Christmas, it was one of the most magical moments ever.  I had only owned an Atari 7800 before that, and the Genesis assaulted my senses and imagination.  Because of SEGA, to this day Mario, Link, and Samus mean nothing to be.  My home experience was a slightly scaled down arcade experience rather than the small screen made for home platforms.  Thank you, SEGA, for making my bedroom an arcade room.

Oh, and I am not a programmer.  Nor am I someone that works with computer hardware, professionally.  If I suppose or think that something could be done in this article and it cannot, please be kind.  This is more of a “love letter” to SEGA and what it meant to me a long time ago.

 

A lot of gamers think that the launch and support of the SEGA 32X was in the top three of SEGA’s mistakes that killed off their hardware business.  I think that how they handled the 32X was.  I think the 32X had great potential, and it’s success did not have to be exclusive to it’s big brother, the Saturn.  As some of you know, the 32X was SEGA of America’s baby.  The Genesis was still a hot success when talk of 32 Bit systems started, and SEGA of America saw it as a means to capitalise on both.  However, SEGA OF Japan wanted a truly next generation machine, and seemed to do everything in it’s power to make the Saturn as seperate and standalone from the 32X as fiscally possible.  However, the success of both the 32X and Saturn could have depended on cooperation rather than pissing contests and inhouse competition.

 

 

Really, the 32X wasn’t that bad!  Have you even played one?

 

First off, if what I heard was correct, one of the reasons that the Saturn had a RAM/Cartridge slot was the success and love of the Genesis/Mega Drive.  Is there any reason that they didn’t make the Saturn backwards compatible with the Genesis/Mega Drive?  True to both the legacy of SEGA and Atari, the Saturn’s sound chip was the main processor of it’s past generation machine.  This helped with the library of their machines because it meant an easy means for their new machines to play games from their predecessors.  The hardware was there.  All SEGA would have needed was to make the cartridge port the same as the Genesis/Mega Drive.  

How cool would that have been to play Streets of Rage 2 on the Saturn?  I’m not even sure if Genesis/Mega Drive backwards compatibility would have meant backwards compatibility with Sega CD, but I’m sure that was something might have been able to have been worked out.  The hardware power was definitely there, but that’s not even that important.  The important thing is that the Saturn would have been physcially compatible with the 32X.  I know, that probably sounds blasphemous to some of you, but keep an open mind and follow me for a few more minutes. 

The SEGA Saturn was already a superior machine to the PlayStation.  The only thing that the PlayStation had on the Saturn was an easier chipset design specifically made for a home console,  and better and easier transparency technology.  The Saturn’s progaming and chipset has been misunderstood and cursed with erroneous lore for decades.  It’s 3D prowess was believed weaker than PlayStation’s because programmers lazily made straight copied ports of PlayStation’s games, completely ignoring the power of the multiple chips sets in the Saturn, which were not just slapped together without thought, but was directly influenced by SEGA’s prolific legacy as an arcade giant. 

Yes, arcade machines’ motherboards used multiple chips to maximise power, efficiency, and performance.  The Saturn and Genesis/Mega Drive were actually at home heirs to that legacy.  Multple processors to lighten processing loads, plus the cartridge slot that made increases in RAM and a second direct access to the processors made for gaming experiences  far beyond that of the PlayStation.  If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the videos  below that compares PlayStation games with Saturn games that were built from the ground up, rather than being ported over.

(Video by VCDECIDE)

Notice the many objects on the field and how much more deail is in this.

While the PlayStation did have transparency effects, the Saturn has more

to offer visually and does it’s best to replicate the transparencies.

 

 

(Video by VCDECIDE)

Again in the video you can see how the Saturn is able to handle more

sprites and overall information at a time.

 

 

(Video by VCDECIDE)

The final example is Dead or Alive or DOA as the game and

the series has also come to be known.  The difference between

the Saturn and PlayStation was so profound that the creators,

Team Ninja felt that the Saturn was not only superior, but

was “the definitive version.”

 

 

Now imagine if that Saturn with the RAM/cartridge port shaped like a Genesis/Mega Drive was able to take advantage of the added power of the 32X.  Can you imagine how much more slack could be taken off of Saturn’s chipsets if yet two more Hitachi 32 Bit RISC, a VDP, and a 32X VDP were pumping out power? Not only woiuld the Saturn get more parallel processing power, but an addition of 4 Meg of RAM from the 32X. Of course, this would have required forethought in the production of the Saturn to have the interface outlets possible There is no doubt in my my mind that a Saturn 32X would be able to play a decently passable version of Virtua Fighter 3, not to mention decent versions of any other SEGA Model 2 arcade games.  Saturn + 32X + 4 Meg RAM cart > PlayStation. In fact, it might have even given the PS2 the same surprising competition that the SNES gave the 32X in graphics.

 

 

(Video by Top Hat Gaming Man)

Top Hat Gaming Man researched and found an attachment that might have been in the

works to give the SEGA Saturn that extra UMPH! that could have KOed the PlayStation

right out the box!  ‘Look familiar..?

 

 

(Video by Michael’s Retro Game Reviews)

In Michael’s Retro Game Reviews Channel, Michael uncovered that SEGA

almost released a Saturn version of Virtua Fighter 3.  it was speculated that

it might be possible with the latest development packs.  However, this was

more likely to be possible because of an add-on with technology from

Lockheed/Martin.  ‘Sound familiar, again?  Could this have been the 64X?

Do both of these technologies get inspiration from the 32X?

 

 

Now instead of being sold for $20 a pop in clearance bins, 32X machines would have been a hotly sought after accessory in the 90’s rather than a cult object of interest in today’s retro gaming world.  Who knows?  SEGA might have actually had to have made more, as well as Saturns.  Maybe it would have pushed back the timeline in video game generations, increasing the quality of all gaming consoles to come.

But for this to have been possible, like I said, it would have required cooperation between SEGA of American and Japan.  It would have required SEGA of Japan to see all of the possibilities of the 32X and all of it’s strengths suggested by SEGA of America.  If that failed, then SEGA of America could have also embraced the other side’s suggestion of the Saturn, and sought to find a way that 32X could have played support for it’s big brother, as well.  In the end while both sides failed, it ultimately falls upon the shoulders of SEGA of Japan to take the lion’s share of blame.  They were the ultimate authority, and should have been more open and mature about the rivalry, especially since thier bottom line is ultimately the international bottom line of SEGA.

So what do you think?  Did what I say make any sense?  Do you think the tweeks I suggested to the Saturn’s hardware and design were reasonable?  Would a 32X charged Saturn have made that much of a difference?  Comment below on that.  Share to perpetuate the debate.

I cannot think of all of the sources of information I have for this article.  Like I said, it is sort of a “love letter” to SEGA and the Saturn.  I can tell you the places that I do get my information from when I need it, and chances are that they are responsible to a great deal of what I do know and allowed me to write this article.

 

Thanks to The Top Hat Gaming Man and Sega Lord X.  Their YouTube channels are constants in my retro-love, and I don’t miss any episodes.

There are also a couple of Facebook groups that I am in that help tremendously when I have questions in real time:  Sega Saturn Collectors of America and The PS Junkyard (Planet Saturn Junkyard).

Thanks also to David Lee and Ke Kona, fellow members in many of my Facebook groups and hosts of SEGA SATURN, SHIRO Podcast.

All of you have helped grow my knowledge and obsession with SEGA.

‘See you next timie.

-HEREITCPRIME

Mother Monster’s First Collaboration with Ariana Grande “Rain On Me” Is a Beauty of a Banger!

“I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive, rain on me.”

Fewer statements better encompass the overall sentiment of 2020 better than this one. 

“This is about an analog of tears being the rain. And you know what it’s also a metaphor for, is the amount of drinking that I was doing to numb myself. I’d rather be dry.” Lady Gaga explained via Vulture

In Lady Gaga’s second single from her sixth studio album Chromatica, she gifts us with her first ever collaboration with pop princess Ariana Grande. The team up, in their twinsies fetish wear, elicit a sentiment that while they both share powerhouse pipes in the same genre of music, that is where their similarities end as they each have unique expressions of their musical personas. Together they demonstrate through their complimentary/contrasting vocalizations and personal style attributes that not only is there room for more than one fierce femme in the pop game, they would rather be pop sisters rather than rivals. 

Musically the song is soft and upbeat, a contrast to the stormy lighting and set design of the music video. Yet Gaga/Grande conjure color in naughty neon pinks, lusty pastel lavenders, combining a sexy fusion of leather and latex punk with “pretty girl” fashion. By the end of the video Gaga/Grande appear as doppelgängers reminiscent of characters from the HBO series Euphoria, cool gals from the neighborhood that know how to get into dance clubs with fake ids, sexy outfits, lots of eyeliner and molly.

While many fans have been long awaiting a return to the avante garde Gaga we saw in the Fame Monster and Born This Way era (especially after the stripped down rawness of Joanne) Rain On Me is probably a bit more “mainstream music for the masses” than some would prefer. However considering Chromatica comes after a four year long hiatus between albums, returning with easy to digest, feel good tracks -is a smart move towards a sustainable comeback.

One must always remember when it comes to Gaga that while her sound passes as mainstream her intentions have always been to subvert the industry from within. Lady Gaga is a Queer, hard femme and judging by the esthetic choices in Stupid Love and Rain On Me she clearly doesn’t want you to forget it. Punk, leather and fetishwear all have their intersections in the queer community’s efforts to subvert gender norms and Gaga/Grande standing side by side as the hard and soft sides of the same femininity coin, owning their sexuality while defying expectations, certainly deliver subversion successfully. Futuristic fun was a fabulous choice in regards to makeup and hair styling, as Gaga/Grande’s flawless faces were BEAT to the gawds while they flipped and swished inches upon inches of rain slicked, gorgeous hair, stylishly serving dirty pop glamour. 

Despite the somberness within the song’s message, the video invokes jubilation in its choreography, laden with some of Gaga’s (a former gogo dancer) signature moves. From arms waving over head and jumping up and down, to pelvic thrusting and hip grinding, watching Grande dance á la Gaga, was more adorable than any of us could have imagined. Clearly Chromatica is a place of great diversity as we see a broad spectrum of back up dancers in Rain on Me, just as we did in Stupid Love. It is almost as if the storyline of Chromatica is that of a planet within the universe Gaga presented us with in the Born This Way video, as a continuation of the narrative (pertaining to unconditional acceptance and radical self love despite societal hardships) she started with it nearly a decade ago.

Back to the song itself, while some might find the repetition basic and blatantly reminiscent of Stupid Love, it gives both tracks a “song stuck in your head” quality that all hit songs have. In the case of Rain On Me, that repetition represents a mantra, a thought for meditation to recenter yourself and breathe. That’s what this song is, a reminder that no matter how difficult life is right now -if you are alive to learn and grow through it- you are winning.

This makes a truly powerful statement alongside a few others that resonate deeply to a millennial (born the same year as Gaga) like myself. In the  opening verse: 

“I didn’t ask for a free ride

I only asked you to show me a real good time

I never asked for the rainfall

At least I showed up, you showed me nothing at all”

There is a sense that the stereotype of the ‘entitled millennial’ is being confronted here with the sentiment of our generation’s reality; we were told we could accomplish anything if we just pulled ourselves up by the bootstraps and worked hard enough (while being held to the highest expectations) regardless of being abandoned to fix a broken world left behind by our predecessors with no support. While Gaga has been able to break through using the Boomer method, this feels like an acknowledgement of how challenging it is for the rest of us to do so as well.

Then we get to Ariana Grande’s verse which brings up some intriguing implications:

“Livin’ in a world where no one’s innocent

Oh, but at least we try, mmm

Gotta live my truth, not keep it bottled in

So I don’t lose my mind, baby, yeah

These words really evoke an admission of being complicit in the systems of oppression that we are all guilty of perpetuating and the struggle to freely express yourself in a world of “cancel culture”. What makes this verse especially poignant being sung by Grande is the fact that the singer’s career has endured ongoing contention since her striking transformation after the cancellation of her Nickelodeon series “Sam & Cat” and the debut of her first studio album “Yours Truly”. Many critics of Grande have accused her of being a “Blackfish”, or a white woman profiting off her racial ambiguity, exploiting  the “exotic” appearance of minorities who regularly face discrimination. Though Grande has repeatedly refuted these claims, not all fans have been swayed by her responses. Perhaps this verse is meant to serve as a reminder to leave room for her humanity along with our own as we all make mistakes on the path to finding our identity.

Regardless of how one might feel about the controversial careers both artists have held, ultimately this song with its accompanying music video is a showcase of the endurance these two women have acquired to maintain successful careers while navigating the pain of heartbreak, tragedy and loss in both of their lives along with the beauty that comes from releasing those tears while dancing joyously in the cleansing rain. 

About the author

Guilty Pleasures: Divas of YouTube

I’ve actually lived half a life that if I wanted to learn about the latest music, I go to YouTube, Vevo, or Vimeo.  ‘The other half before, I would go to MTV, VH-1, or BET.  This isn’t one of those “yesteryears articles,” so don’t worry.  You’ll be spared of any stories.  I thought I’d talk about some of the ladies of YouTube that I’ve been occupying my time with, lately.. .If you haven’t heard of them, you might be glad you just did.  Each one of them are very unique, even amongst themselves, so I think you’ll be entertained by my choices  These are my Guilty PleasuresDivas of YouTube.

Yeah…I know. You try to find a better word for “woman who musically vocalises or stylises well.”

 

Lion Babe

“We wanted there to be a certain duality, like there is with Blondie, with me as the frontwoman, you might think I’m Lion Babe, but it’s like, no, we’re Lion Babe. We liked that. It’s about embracing your uniqueness and rocking it.” – Jillian Hervey  to Billbard magaine

Well, it worked!  Lion Babe is actually the duo of Jillian Hervey and Lucas Goodman, and I thought it was a diva that liked to show off her handsome boyfriend in her videos. Jillian Hervey is the singer/dancer combo we have all come to know and love in entertainment, and Lucas Goodman is a producer. I think that he plays guitar and some other instruments, as well as handling sound quality, but there is not very much written about him.

As a style, I would describe them 2 parts Erykah Bahu, 1 part Beyoncé at her funkiest, and a big pat of Doja Cat for thickening and smoothness.

Atmosphere-wise, Goodman does not stick out like “The Other Guy from Wham!” and have you wondering “WTF is he doing here!?” He’s more like “The Other Guy from PM Dawn.” You think, “Okay, I don’t mind. Just be good and don’t get in the way of the real talent.  (I’m kidding.  Hervey is very vocal that Goodman is the full other half of Lion Babe.)

Lion Babe has some visually appealing videos that compliment the music, well. Lion Babe has worked with Moe Moks, Disclosure, and Childish Gambino.

For trivia sake, you may want to know that Jillian Hervey is the daughter of Ramn Hervey II and former Miss America, Vanessa Williams. She is also the niece of actor Chris Williams and great-great-great-granddaughter of William A. Fields, a former USAmerican slave that was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives during Reconstruction.

 

Brooke Candy

“I have been kicked out of my home for being gay.  I felt that.”  –Brooke Candy

Brooke Candy is a straight up succubus that found YouTube and said, “Bet! I’ll never go hungry for souls and sex again!” Background-wise, Brooke Candy is a rapper/singer, songwriter, fashion stylist, and director from LA.

Her father is Tom Candy, a former CFO for Huslter. In fact, Larry Flynt was even in one of her videos. (Then WTF did she get thrown out the house for being gay!!? I guess you can be as sleazy as you want in the Candy Household.  Just don’t be gay…)

I think that musically speaking, she is probably still trying to fine tune her exact sound. She screams, “Brooke Candy is in The House looking to fuck!” That’s about it, for the most part.

She is one of those entertainers whom’s music is sometimes hard to separate from her videos because she puts so much into the imagery and story of the video, itself.

Some of her music is like that of many of the nasty girls of rap’s, but with a good helping of Lady Gaga and Lords of Acid. However, she is not above pop tunes like “Volcano” or “Paper or Plastic.” Brooke Candy even performs jazzy and happy songs like “Nasty,” and flat out sings ballads in songs like “Living Out Loud” and “Freak Like Me.”

If I could sit down with Brooke Candy, I’d love to get her drunk and have her tell me the real stories behind each and every one of her tattoos.

 

Zheani

“You said you fucking picked me, cos I looked like your daughter, sixteen.  You’re ‘disgusting paedophile cunt!  ‘Hope you’re glad that I’m finally gushing!” – Zheani, The Question

Zheani, also known as Zheani Sparkes, is an Australian rapper that received a lot of press and social media attention and from her controversy with Die Antwoord.

According to Zheani, she was a fan that was contacted, groomed, and then lured to South Africa to meet Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones), where he gave her drugs, alcohol, and performed strange sexual and mental acts both with and against her will at times. This was a part of his conditioning to make her a convenient human sex object.

According to Die Antwoord, Zheani has been called everything from a former girlfriend, a fan, an employee, and even a satanic prostitute looking to come up. Ninja said he had her flown to see him, but felt “catfished” when she arrived. Even though he was displeased with her, he had sex with her, became friends, and even hired her.

I’m not going to get into the controversy anymore. I felt that I had to touch on it for her background. As for the rest of it, much of the money she got for her career she got as investments from crowdfunding and what she might call “creative marketing.”

I think this is a shirt is actually merch from her site.

What can I say about Zheani’s style? Zheani sort of reminds me of an anime pixie with an angel’s voice, and a sailor’s vocabulary. She likes to sing and rap about having a good time and screams about the bad ones…but it ALL sounds great! Of course when she vocalises about lighter and happier things, the melodies of the music fit; it’s almost two different great styles.  However, I think she really shines when she’s angry or excitable, like in “Powder Tuff” and “The Question.”

Zheani was good enough to put her whole EP, “The Line,” on YouTube with filtered background images of her.  In fact she has many playlists on her YouTube channel.

 

Snow Tha Product

“Yo soy primero, no nunca creo en el last.  I don’t need a record label, I already got my fans.” –Snow Tha Product on Snow Tha Product Quotes Facebook, December 23, 2018

I get the feeling that her name is more telling than people realise, in the fact that the personality is somewhat of a product. When I look at the total package of Snow Tha Product, I get the feeling that she and several individuals sat down to think of the best YouTube personality that she could become…and that is the brilliance of who she really is.

While I do not believe that Claudia Alexandra Feliciano, the person, and Snow Tha Product, the entertainment personality are 100% the same, I do believe that Claudia Feliciano is a scrappy spirit with some street in her, and one of the laws of the street is that if you are a hustler, then have your hustle game on point; be the best you can be and to see all the angles.

I think that Snow Tha Product is the epitome of certain facets in Claudia Feliciano, so where there may be some exaggeration, there are still no true lies. Snow Tha Product is a product based on a true story: A Mexican-American bilingual, bisexual rapper that still loves to party and mix it up.

Snow Tha Product is just as entertaining and addicting to listen to when she spits English or Spanish. She’s sexy. She’s bold. She’s even cute when she wants to be. (not nearly as often as I wish she was, BUT…that could be a part of her charm that just isn’t meant for me)

Trivia: I believe that she is a mother of one son (about 11 years old), and said she wanted to be a social worker when she was growing up.

 

Ashnikko

“pooping is honestly the best part of my day I swear to god” – Ashnikko on Twitter, September 29, 2019

I think Ashnikko, Ashton Nicole Casey, is how a lot of non-Millenials see Millenials.

We are all products of our times, in some aspects. They try to mold us by their rules. ‘What’s acceptable for race, sexual, sex, professional, as well as so many other relations. As we grow up, we push, ignore, and create our own norms. The distance we travel and the morals that we establish, much to the dismay to the ones that came before us, become the new times that contribute to, and judge the new future.

I’m sorry, I tend to wax didactic. ‘Back to Ashnikko. None of the artists that I’ve mentioned in this article can really fit in a box. No style of anything should really be absolutely uniform or predictable. Ashnikko practices this concept very well. She raps. She sings, but what is her style? That’s hard to explain, because not only would Ashnikko not be able to exist 20 years ago, (Such fusions of styles and images would be far too unfamiliar and incompatible.) but her style is understood without words, as her image is almost cliché…for the times.  (Am I the only one that could see her dating Oliver Tree for a second, only to have him stalking her for the rest of her life?)

Ashnikko is a sign of the times. She is an avatar. She is Hip Hop with a Punk aesthetic, an weeaboo frame, a digital coating, and creamy inside that has a slightly more refined and aged taste than you would expect. Oh, and she smells female. She smells extremely female, which of course attracts other females. This seems to give her some amount of pride as well, despite not really trying for any male attention, except as a target for her rage for being mentally inferior. (“Stupid”)

Ashnikko: She’s NOW! Try some! You just might like her!

 

Jessi

“I don’t have to fake it. Real recognise real. They already know.” –Jessi, “Who Dat B

Ho, ho, ho! I had to write about this lady! She is the antithesis of many of the other ladies on this list! She is from the East, heavily dipped in music and culture from the West, and her love is serious! ‘Don’t understand? Just how Zheani surrounds herself in otaku kawaii in “LULU,” Ashnikko is portrayed in “Tantrum,” and Snow Tha Product gets down in her kigurumis in “NoWhere To Go,” Jessi immerses herself in the Hip Hop culture…However, Jessi can argue that Hip Hop IS her culture, and her claim to it is legitimate in almost every way. Let me explain…

Jessi was bourne Jessica Hyun-ju Ho, and as you might have guessed, is a Korean-American rapper/singer and songwriter. In fact, Jessi was bourne in New York, raised in New Jersey, and moved to South Korea when she was 15…Yeah, she was pretty much USAmerican when she moved.

I don’t know how attitudes are in South Korea, but I heard that North Koreans have a serious problem with Korean-Americans, and that would-be idols have suffered for it in the past.

Just like her Western counterparts that adopted music and culture from their opposite hemispheres, Jessi is attracted to the more flashy and attractive attributes of that music and culture.

Jessi is Gucci. Jessi is Cristal. Jessi is Ciroc. Jessi is Hennessy. I’m surprised there isn’t a project with Jessi and Lil’ Wayne somewhere. (Somebody get Weezy on the phone!)

 

Whitney Tai

“It’s been difficult releasing music, but I remind myself that everything made in love must permeate and keep us bonded together in strength.”  –Whitney Tai, April 13, 2020

I have been enjoying this woman’s music for some time, now.  I have listened to her music break through the mold of time and trend, and become something truly timeless.  Even songs like “To Be Loved” seem to have matured and evolved, when listen to, in recent performancesWhitney Tai sings with heart, soul, feeling,  and true talent, separating her from a sea of synth and autotune in her own atoll of sonic beauty.

If this was 4,000 years ago, Whitney Tai would be sunning herself in shallow waters luring mariners into the foamy depths with her beauty and song.

Whitney Tai is a true balladier.  Her style poetically and organically swims in pop, jazz, rock, tech/synth, and even country when the desire arises.  Whitney Tai’s music has no boundaries of stone; only of sensibility.

The 1905

While Whitney Tai definitely deserves the lion’s share of credit for her growth, she has worked with many people along the way, including an inner circle of similarly talented musicians and professionals in the biz.  Men like Tim Janssens, aka Sunfreakz, and Andrew Kingsley have worked with her for years on many occasions, forming a perfect synergy both on stage and in the recording studio.

In fact, Whitney Tai and Andrew Kingsley also have their own group, that like Lion Babe, is a full partnership in music, completely different from Whitney Tai in feel and style:  The 1905

Whitney Tai dropped her latest LP, “Apogee,” a couple of weeks ago.  Her single, “Surrender” is enjoying rotation on some impressive playlists at the moment, and is receiving great reviews from critics and fans of music everywhere. Her single, “Righteous,” comes out May 12, 2020.

 

Conclusion

These are some of my ladies of YouTube. There were quite a few others that I enjoyed to some degree, yet didn’t quite find them entertaining enough to feature in this article. I even contemplated making this a two or three part article, but in the end, I just wan’t feeling them enough. If you want to check them out, feel free:  Alice Chater, Nitty Scott, Bebe Rexha, AleXa, SoRi, Ängie, Qveen Herby, and Kerli.

Some of them like Alice Chater and Bebe Rexha sound somewhat dated and ordinary, while acts like AleXa, Ängie, and Qveen Herby should probably work well on paper, but also seem ordinary. I guess at one time, they would have been a little edgy, but you can’t just say “pussy” and expect be shocking anymore. You also can’t depend on trendy directing in a cool music videos to carry a song, either.

The one honourable mention that I wanted to be on this list was SoRi, but there just wasn’t enough recent stuff from her released. From what I understand, she had some small amount of success about 5 years ago, and she is in the middle of her comeback, but two songs are not enough to get a good idea of her.

I should say that I was impressed by what was out there, and both songs and videos were very different from each other. This speaks to me of hopes that her style is very versatile and that there will be different sides to her as an entertainer.

So what do you think? After you get a chance to check out some hyperlinks and listen to some songs for yourself, please come back and and share your opinions. Share and start some discussions. We would love to hear what you think.