Review: The Dragon Prince, Season 3

After a drawn-out journey to the border of Xadia over the first two seasons, the third season of The Dragon Prince sprints to its final destination and the culmination of the plot so far. If your concern was that the show was going too slow, I guess this addresses that. But the relatively breakneck pace packs way too much into these nine episodes. And while the fantasy genre is constantly in dialogue with itself, too much of the big story moments are reliant upon fantasy tropes. In one example, and I hope this avoids spoilers too much for anyone who hasn’t watched yet, an important and charismatic character from earlier episodes does not appear at all until a last-minute cavalry charge at the final battle that feels straight out of The Lord of the Rings. That final battle is all too brief, but this show has always been more concerned with adventure and interpersonal relationships than violent spectacle.

The series ends with a moment suggesting that there will be a continuation, either in a future season or the long-discussed video game. I would have ultimately preferred the slower pace of the earlier seasons, with the promise of a more fulfilling final climax in a fourth season.

Still, the animation is the best yet, the show remains hard-hitting with its complicated morality and depiction of dark themes, and the charming cast of characters continues to meet new allies and enemies of all sorts. This show offers some of the most imaginative fantasy out there, even while drawing deep from what has come before. And it remains as committed to exhibiting one of the most diverse fantasy settings ever. Yes, there are fantasy races and creatures, many depicted in new ways or entirely original to the show. Yet more significantly, the show portrays people of different human races and ethnicities, across a spectrum of gender and sexuality, and with a range of abilities. Disability is only an element of a character in this setting, not a hated impediment or a sign of weakness or villainy. And this season has a great homosexual relationship that is important to the plot for reasons other than the nature of the relationship. For the display of diversity in programming aimed primarily at kids and young adults, that’s just delightful.

It may have rushed its big climax, but The Dragon Prince isn’t out of ideas yet and remains a joy to watch. Now, maybe it will be free to go in some really weird directions…

Review: The Dragon Prince, Season 2

I liked the first season of The Dragon Prince. I had my qualms, mostly with the animation, but I liked the story and the characters, I was intrigued by the lore and setting, and I was excited to see more. The second season delivers. In truth, it’s an improvement on the first in just about every way.

One of the most impressive feats of the second season is that it makes the first season feel worthwhile and fundamental. The first ended with the dragon prince hatching from its egg, the core party of adventurers still far from their objective and with danger in close pursuit. Yet while the adventure may have progressed only a little, the characters have grown a lot. This is a story about the characters and their relationships and growth in particular. Sure, the core party of Callum, Ezran, and Rayla is central to this, but every character, whether hero or villain, is allowed a character journey and clear (though sometimes complex) motivations. Even the villains are operating from perspectives that you can understand, though you will hopefully disagree with them. The central antagonist, the king’s former adviser, Viren, twisted by years of dark magic and trapped into ever-more-desperate decisions in an effort to retain power, is still ultimately acting out of a misguided effort to protect his kingdom (though, grotesquely, not his former king and best friend’s children).

What I’m trying to say is that, even though the adventure plot had not advanced very far by the beginning of season two, the first season still felt like necessary viewing. It was a true first chapter, not just a prologue, and the inciting events and early steps on that adventure helped to define the characters and direct their motivations and passions. Ezran and Callum end up greatly changed by the experiences of season two, but they were already on that path thanks to the first season. And their close former friends, now enemies, and children of Viren, Claudia and Soren, are on especially interesting paths. Everyone is freed from the chains of perceived destiny, and now the young cast of key players, protagonist and antagonist, is left to make their own decisions about their fates. (By the way, when I told my wife what I believed Callum’s fate would be, she pointed out that his master-them-all potential path would be rather like that of the Avatar in The Last Airbender. Fair enough!)

The series also grew in depth, providing quite a bit of backstory at a well-timed moment that helped cement the state of the world, how it got there, and how even such a seemingly good and just king could be led down a path of darkness and violence.

The lore dripped out this season provides a gradual accumulation upon the stratum of the first season. The story continues to grow in tandem with and in benefit from that lore. It’s getting more complicated, but I’m rather enjoying the magic system of the world in particular, and I’m very interested to learn more about the figure in Viren’s mirror, who just so happens to seem a master of many of the schools of arcane art.

The show outdid itself in diversity. While it still seems to be a predominantly white world, there are still a variety of people of color populating all roles in the world, and the show has close to an equal balance of male and female characters, especially in speaking roles. Also, of the five human kingdoms, one is run by an incredibly clever young girl who is the orphaned daughter of two heroic queens. The homosexual relationship is presented explicitly, without comment, just as part of the story. Families separated by death or divorce are also central to the story. Beyond the deaf, and still badass, General Amaya, there are other characters living full lives with disabilities (there’s even a blind sea captain, and while he’s sort of a joke character in many ways, his capability as a sailor is never questioned, and his ability to man the ship blind is not even a subject of discussion–it’s just accepted). None of this is vital to the narrative, but none of it hurts anything either. The Dragon Prince truly shows how easy it can be to increase diverse representations of humanity. It is a great counter-example against anyone who claims that the inclusion of diverse characters is “forced.” This fantasy world is diverse, that’s just the way it is, it’s not a story about that, let’s move on. That’s great, and I’m sure it’s meaningful to many viewers to see themselves represented in some way on screen.

Finally, the animation seems greatly improved. The show still looks beautiful from moment to moment, but now the movements between actually look smooth. There were a couple times where a jerk of a hand or a walk seemed robotic, but for the most part things looked great in high action moments and in quiet character scenes.

Season two ends on a cliffhanger and with many threads left dangling. I’m excited to see season three!

Closing the Book on Little Dragons Cafe

I did not write a blog post on Sunday because I was on a mission for much of that day. My mission, unfortunately, was to finish Little Dragons Café. While I have a feeling of relief at having finally closed the chapter on this game, I’m mostly disappointed by what could have been and frustrated with the tedious grind of the final third of the story. (If you haven’t already, please check out my initial charmed reaction to the early sections of the game and my reflection on my eventual disillusionment.)

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I was actually engaged for a good portion of the game. Even when I didn’t want to care for some of the characters, either because they start out as such unrepentant jerks or because they seemed like simple anime stereotypes at first glance, I ultimately found almost everyone who came through the cafe doors to be endearing. I loved Billy, Ipanema, and Luccola, and I loved the playful, teasing, sometimes mean yet ultimately loving dynamic between them. Poncho the cowardly child warrior is adorable and incredibly sweet once you get his whole story. Celis has a great arc, moving beyond her witch-supremacist, anti-human bigotry. Huey’s hilarious and energetic; Chou Chou, despite being a pop idol, deals with a lot of guilt and insecurity in the wake of achieving stardom when her other companions did not; Ginji is a badass master thief questioning his life choices. The runaway Rosetta was somewhat annoying to me, but her story had a nice resolution that left her in a better place after forcing her to reconsider past events–in fact, most characters are left in a better place after being forced to reconsider past events, typically through the combination of compassionate prodding by the cafe staff and one really good meal.

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But the final few characters were unappealing to me. Miere is a famed fortune teller whose fortunes are all obviously garbage. She believes the world’s ending. The most amusing and interesting thing about her is that she has supreme confidence in her fortune-telling ability because she predicted when she was young that all her predictions would be true. Miere doesn’t really have a resolution, though; she never really recognizes her flaws. She just decides that maybe she can change fate with enough good luck, and she decides to continue her fortune-telling. Lanche is a child vampire, a trope that’s been done to death and is always a little disturbing to me; rather than focus on how disturbing it is to be stuck as a child forever, her story is about coming to terms with her pre-vampire memories. In this way, Lanche is just like Maurice, a ghost from earlier in the story who must come to terms with the memories of his own departed past life. I didn’t like Maurice (his main character trait is being annoying), so to see the character type return didn’t improve things for me. And it meant that we’d had a ghost, a werewolf, and a vampire show up. Finally, Dr. Zeff is a mad scientist who must be convinced of the value of his own humanity, and of humankind in general; in this way, he’s just a freakish and grumpy repeat of Celis’s arc.

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I’ve talked about the characters a lot, and even the weaker, redundant character stories toward the end of the game will probably stick with me for a while. In a way, each character story was like an episode or small arc in an anime, representing side adventures that are only loosely connected to the larger story. That larger story never really built to anything here. For all the talk of draconic bloodlines, the game fizzles out in the end. The final chapter, in which you now have a fully matured dragon that can take you all about the island, is an incredibly boring series of fetch quests.

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The failings of the plot are really on display by the last section. Your journal tells you how to trigger plot developments, but it’s frustrating that the plot can only be advanced one day at a time, basically by being in the right place at the right time (augmented only by the collection of a recipe and preparation of a special dish for each of the visiting characters). By the end of the game, with my cafe reputation maxed out and all my attention on concluding the story, the plot was still advanced at a slow trickle. The story advice was basically a perpetual recommendation to go to sleep. I quickly gave up on the cafe entirely at the end, choosing to just sleep as soon as the day’s cinematic or island scavenger hunt concluded.

It’s not as though I really cared about the cafe by the end. You never really get much better at what you’re doing. Your staff doesn’t improve. Despite the magical growth of the inn, the cafe itself stays small and cramped. The controls remain frustrating (in all things, the controls remained frustrating, with substantial lag for tasks like flying or jumping). Your success and increased reputation is just marked by more customers, such that if you stay to help the staff, you can devote the entire day to the most tedious of grinding as you hop between taking orders, serving, and cleaning up. There’s very little strategy to it all; there’s no true management. You just hop in and develop a system for yourself and hope that you don’t have to interrupt your coworkers’ slacking all too much. In the final third of the game, my time in the cafe was a mind-numbing repetition of the thought cycle, Take Order – Place Order – Serve. It worked for me, and on days that I was there for the majority of the time, the customer base would often be satisfied or happy. On days I helped a little, customers would often be okay. If I skipped out entirely, to focus on the other mind-crushing reality of ingredient gathering, I’d often get reports that the customers were outright disappointed.

And I should emphasize that ingredient gathering never gets better or more interesting. You remain a perpetual forager. I developed a routine of hitting up spots that most consistently yielded needed ingredients, hoping for a good randomized production. Occasionally disrupting the routine to check for any newly washed-up recipe boxes was hardly all that refreshing.

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By the time my dragon was fully mature, I knew most of the areas with debris that couldn’t be destroyed earlier. I knew the one tall section on the mountain that I still couldn’t fly to. And I knew the one bridge I still couldn’t cross. I tried to do all the things I couldn’t do earlier, and it took me about a day in-game (I still couldn’t cross that final bridge). I had this powerful dragon with this amazing ability to engage in high-soaring flight, and there was very little for me to do with it.

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Closing out the game at the very end was anticlimactic. There was a lot of speechifying about the power of friendship and love–although there was still a lot of dry humor, with Billy in particular really lampshading the campy tropes and ridiculous coincidences used to reach an ending. The credits rolled (with game stills that reemphasized the canonical dragon of the game to be red, in contrast to my adorable blue boy). A handful of lovely storybook images showed the revival of the mother. Then you’re dumped back in the game with the ability to change the dragon at will between its sizes, by way of some new recipes. I tried the final bridge once more, and I still wasn’t allowed to cross it. I was burnt out on the cafe and the ingredient collection. I’d explored everything–well, if not everything, all that I wanted to see. There were presumably lots more recipes to gather (especially by way of combining dragon forms to get to tiny hiding holes in far-out places) and to then practice, but there was no driving reason to engage with any of that. I cannot foresee any reason to return to the game now. And while I mostly liked the story, I know that its final third is simply not worth revisiting again, and the rest is probably best just left as fond memories.

As I prepared to write this review, I tried to look into the mystery of the final bridge. Best theory seems to be that this bridge just symbolizes the mainland where everyone comes from to eat at the cafe. Given that the island across the bridge seems fairly small and the world around the island is mostly covered in water, this purely aesthetic insertion is mostly annoying to me and felt misleading. It’s the promise of more where there is none. That’s the whole game, really: the promise of more, and the failure to deliver.

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It turns out, I discovered, that the game probably feels emptier than it should be precisely because it is: many elements that would have given a fuller experience were cut. Lead designer Yasuhiro Wada told IGN that about seventy percent of what he had originally planned for the game was cut from the final version, adding that “there are parts that were cut out that feel like a waste to cut out from the game.” Those features include much greater customization of your cafe, your protagonist, and your dragon (including, it would seem, features that would have allowed the dragon to specialize in certain activities, which certainly would have made it more useful to me); a fuller experience for the cooking rhythm game; and additional characters and plot points. That last one really sticks with me: the story feels incomplete and rushed toward the end as-is. Wada wants a sequel that incorporates many of the above elements (and presumably even more); as much as I was disappointed by this game, I’d love to see a follow-up that more fully delivered on its potential.

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Hey, if nothing else, the return to the dragon-pal simulator got me in the mood for more dragon-pal fantasy, and The Dragon Prince Season Two is right around the corner!

The Legends of Zelda: A Case for Broadening the Lore

Having played Breath of the Wild and now Hyrule Warriors in the past year (review on Warriors should be up later this week), I’ve been thinking about how Nintendo has been making serious efforts to reinvent The Legend of Zelda.

Breath of the Wild is a beautiful evolution in the storied franchise, providing a true open world with lots of exploration and experimentation. For what it’s worth, it’s the first main Zelda game that I ever really got into, despite trying to play many previous titles.

On the flip side, Hyrule Warriors is on its face a weird divergence from other Zelda games: a hack-and-slash medieval war game with sprawling, button-mashing battles on closed maps. But it works. (Nintendo seems to be licensing its titles out more and more for bizarre crossover projects we wouldn’t otherwise expect to see; besides this combination of Zelda and Dynasty Warriors from Koei Tecmo, there was Pokemon Conquest, the combination of Pokemon and strategy RPG Nobunaga’s Ambition that was also from Koei Tecmo, and there will soon be Starlink: Battle for Atlas, an open-world, starfighter-simulator, toys-to-life game published by Ubisoft with an apparently robust implementation of the Star Fox team for the upcoming Switch version).

Both BOTW and Warriors emphasize lore over story. BOTW offers a minimalist story, and Warriors offers an overly convoluted yet half-baked story. Both thrive instead on setting and mythos. Both tie into the larger narratives of reincarnation and heroic destiny. Both offer a rich cast of characters old and new–in fact, Warriors thrives on a heavy collection of characters in its roster, with many more to unlock.

Zelda game is increasingly defined by its characters and lore over a very particular type of action-RPG, puzzle-solving experience. Neither BOTW or Warriors exactly represents that traditional model of game, but both feel very much like Zelda games because of their use of easily recognizable visuals, characters, mythology, themes, music, and sounds. At this point, Zelda feels bigger than the story of Link and Zelda. It’s a whole sprawling, multidimensional universe.

We’ve seen that explored a little bit in the lovely Legend of Zelda coffee table books from Dark Horse (the Goddess Collection trilogy of Hyrule HistoriaArt & Artifacts, and the Encyclopedia). I’d like to see more of it.

One thing in particular that would be great is a Legend of Zelda tabletop RPG. Let’s step back from Link, Zelda, and Ganon for a moment. Obviously there’s that massive cycle of reincarnation resulting in grand conflicts between the forces of good and evil every so many generations, but in between there’s still day-to-day conflict. There are various kingdoms and political alliances that shift from game setting to setting, and there are a variety of potential races to pull from–for example, Hylians, Gerudo, Gorons, Zora, Sheikah, Rito, Koroks, Fairies, and so on. Different “eras” in the timeline offer radically different geologies, cultures, and environments. You have the bleak and post-apocalyptic setting of the original game, the swashbuckling and island-hopping setting of Wind Waker, the industrialist world of Spirit Tracks, or the more standard medieval-influenced themes found in most of the games. And there is a vast array of monsters that range from riffs on classic D&D opponents to truly bizarre creatures.

Frankly, even without its own separate rule system (and surely over-priced sourcebooks), I imagine that it would be easy enough to develop a homebrew Zelda setting using any one of dozens of different existing games. It seems like D&DPathfinderBlue Rose, and 7th Sea could all make for happy homes to different legends of Zelda. (Hell, D&D and Pathfinder in particular sport such robust bestiaries that it’d be easy to slap on a slightly different aesthetic and lore to many of the races to have ready-made counterparts for the Zeldaverse, with little to no required creation or alteration of monster stats.)

Even if you felt that the franchise should stay solely focused on the Triforce and its incarnated heroes and villains, I say there’s still a rich vein to mine outside of the video games, in the form of television, film, and literature. There have been manga adaptations of many of the games, and there was of course the ridiculous television series from 1989, but it’s a rich property that could be developed further. Heck, even if you stuck with pure adaptations, it’s not hard to transplant the episodic, arc-based, melodramatic game plots into television format. With the popularity of Game of Thrones, and the ongoing appeal of animated fantasy series like Avatar: The Last AirbenderAdventure Time, and The Dragon Prince, it’s somewhat surprising that there have been no serious attempts to convert the games to a contemporary television show.

Perhaps the concern is that any show creators would be adapting a series with an essentially silent hero. It would be wrong to go in the direction of an over-talkative protagonist like in the existing Zelda series, but that seems more a case of over-correction and a weird product of the late eighties. Link doesn’t need to be purely silent. BOTW, at least, does have plenty of dialogue from Link–even if it’s only text-based. But given that I’ve been most intrigued by Link’s allies over Link himself, I wouldn’t mind a companion-based show where Link speaks very little or not at all. Furthermore, I think General Amaya in The Dragon Prince shows that a deaf hero can work after all.

All of the above comes from my place as a Zelda “fan.” I’m not really one at all. To the extent that I am, I’ve come to the franchise very late. I’d tried to play Zelda games before, but there seems to have been something very formative about playing the SNES or N64 games as children for so many Zelda fans that I just missed out on. I found titles like Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword to be tedious, overly linear, and sort of boring. I’m not tied into the fandom at all. But I’m suddenly finding a wealth of interest in the franchise, and while I’ve happened to luck into two very nonstandard Zelda games that I’ve enjoyed quite a bit, it’s really been learning more about the setting and lore that has given me a place to root myself. It should hardly be a surprise, then, that I’d be happy to see opportunities for the lore to grow–with or without another main title game.

Review: The Dragon Prince, Season 1

The Dragon Prince is good, but…

The new series by Aaron Ehasz and Justin Richmond is a fun family fantasy adventure. Its core cast is young, children and teenagers, and they navigate a world of weary adults who have often left principle behind, making hard sacrifices. The youngsters band together from diverse backgrounds to attempt a quest that will hopefully restore peace and harmony to a war-torn world. If that basic premise reminds you of Avatar: The Last Airbender, well, Ehasz was head writer and a co-producer on that show.

Another obvious Avatar crossover is Jack De Sena, voice actor for Sokka in Avatar as well as Callum, the “step-prince” and aspiring mage who is one of the three protagonists in The Dragon Prince. Callum is joined by his younger brother, Ezran (voiced by Sasha Rojen), the heir to the throne of their kingdom; Ezran’s pet “glow toad” named Bait; and Rayla (Paula Burrows), a Moonshadow Elf would-be assassin who decides to help the brothers when she learns that the egg of the deceased Dragon King was not destroyed.

Okay, that description sounds overly complicated. There’s a lot of lore, and a fair amount of plot, that’s dropped in the first few episodes–especially in the opening exposition of the very first episode. But it’s easy to pick up, and after the initially heavy dumps of information, we’re more gradually dropped little glimmers of the larger world. More attention is focused on developing and deepening the characters, with side adventures often bringing out more of the characters’ backgrounds and deeply held fears and beliefs with (refreshingly) emotionally honest dialogue that is sure to remind the viewer of Avatar. I’m not going to further info-dump here, though; if you choose to watch, you’ll get more than enough of that.

I’ve seen many comparisons to Game of Thrones, and while those comparisons are certainly relevant, I felt that the most salient reference point for The Dragon Prince is Dungeons & Dragons. The way they talk about spells, the formation of a party, the main quest interrupted by a slew of side quests, the medieval-light fantasy setting–even the emphasis on elves, dragons, and magical artifacts–seem drawn from D&D. And the setting is rather diverse, with a balance of male and female characters, a mixture of people of various skin tones within the same human kingdom and without comment, and an incredibly badass deaf warrior woman who is quite proficient in ASL (General Amaya, commander of the border guard and aunt of Callum and Ezran). D&D has similarly made a push to demonstrate and encourage greater inclusive diversity starting with the 5th Edition (maybe not always successfully).

So all of the above is good. If I were to talk about the show one-on-one with another new fan or a potential viewer, I’d focus on the great cast of characters, the witty dialogue, the pacing, the setting, the lore…But I’d also have to discuss the animation. I’m actually a fan of the character models and art, and the show often uses beautifully vibrant color, but the animation just seemed awful to me. Characters move in janky fits and starts. Slower, character-focused scenes can seem blocky and stilted. The action pieces look…better, fluid and dynamic, but there’s still a sort of retro-anime vibe. I don’t know if I just adapted or if the animation genuinely got better over the nine episodes of the first season, but by the end I was substantially less bothered. Nonetheless, for at least the first third, the animation style is very jarring and distracting.

I’m not an animation snob, and it’s weird for me to emphasize animation as such a critical weakness, but it was truly that disorienting. I hope that any future seasons will have a more streamlined look.

And I definitely hope there are future seasons! In almost every other way, I loved the show (other, minor points of criticism: watching concurrently with Adventure Time, it’s hard not to observe the bloat in even relatively short half-hour episodes, and the heavy-to-the-point-of-parody Scottish accents for the Moonshadow elves were sometimes grating). This series certainly deserves more. It ends mid-arc, and it would be disappointing not to see the plot more fully developed, or to never see more of the elaborate fantasy world planted here.

With reservation about the animation quality, I nonetheless would recommend this to any and all fantasy fans in general or Avatar and D&D fans in particular.

Some of the Shows

This is a shorter post, and the last of all the things. I don’t have any movies to discuss, and my recent TV history has been relatively light.

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I’ve been following along with the Clone Wars rewatch on StarWars.com in intermittent bursts. Behind again, on pace again, behind again. It is a fun way to rewatch, and the pace isn’t too slow, but as I inevitably get behind, it’s also not impossible to catch up on easily enough when I have the time.

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My wife and I have also been making a dedicated effort to watch Adventure Time from start to finish. I got into Adventure Time fairly late–during a prolonged period of hospitalizations, I would pass the time with daytime television and quickly discovered Adventure Time and Steven Universe to be quirky, clever, and heartfelt. We watched the first season or two on Netflix a couple years back, but that’s all Netflix had. We got Hulu in the past year, and we’ve only recently decided to focus on watching these shows from start to finish. We started with Adventure Time (now mid-season 4), and we plan to go to Steven Universe once we finish. Just a random, related recommendation: Bee and PuppyCat. Another cute, quirky animated show full of heart and weird sci-fantasy. It was fun to see screenings of this series at Gen Con in the past, and that leads me to believe that it must have a fairly sizable following, but I don’t hear this show pop up in conversations often enough. It deserves more attention.

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Lastly, I’ve started The Dragon Prince, the new Netflix animated series helmed by Aaron Ehasz (co-executive producer, head writer, and director on Avatar: The Last Airbender). This is a show that I’ll want to write a full review for after finishing the nine episodes of season one. But I can already say that the dialogue, voice acting, plot, and humor are great, and I like the artwork (especially colors and character models), but the animation is very bothersome. Everything seems to be running at a reduced frame rate, and it’s irksome to watch characters twitching across each scene, always moving too fast but animating too slow. Hopefully that will improve some–if not by the end of this season, then with later seasons.

And with that, I’ve completed my report on all the things, for now.