Knights of Sidonia (Vol. 1) Review

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Knights of Sidonia is a science fiction comic created by manga artist Tsutomu Nihei (the chap responsible for Biomega, Abara and NOiSE.) The series takes place in the year 3394, which makes me feel rather old. Anyone remember the days when futuristic tales took place in 2000 A.D? It’s 2015 and I am still awaiting the advent of flying automobiles and teleporters. Anyway, as the title suggests, this manga is set aboard the star ship Sidonia that is venturing through the cosmos seeking out a new home world for the human race. Earth is sadly no longer habitable after mankind had a run in with a hostile alien race known as the Gauna.

OVERVIEW

This opening volume in the Knights of Sidonia saga follows the exploits of a young chap named Nagate Tanikaze. Nagate has spent most of his life loafing about in the recesses of the Sidonia’s sub-decks, where he spends his days learning how to pilot mechs on a virtual reality simulator. His daily routine is forever changed when he decides to venture out of his quarters to grab some rice. The hunt for tasty Uncle Bens goes awry when the Sidonia’s security personnel apprehend Nagate just as he is in the middle of raiding the ship’s larder. Nagate is subsequently whisked off to the ship’s upper levels where most of the crew reside.

As punishment for his thieving ways Nagate is assigned to the Guardian fleet, where he is expected to utilise his robot piloting skills to protect the Sidonia from assaults by the nightmarish Gauna. Despite the setup, the book only has a few pages dedicated to interstellar dogfights between the Sidonia forces and their gigantic extra-terrestrial nemesis. Volume one’s focus is mainly on covering how Nagate adapts from a hermit existence to co-habiting with other people. The transition from loner to crewmate isn’t a smooth one though, especially given the Sidonia’s unique composition. Unlike Nagate, who is a regular human, the Sidonia’s roster is composed of numerous clones, hermaphrodites and an articulate teddy blessed with a cybernetic arm.

VERDICT

My rating for Knight of Sidonia’s inaugural volume is a three out of five. Tsutomu Nihei has succeeded in fabricating a unique universe that has me keen to check out volume two. In particular I am interested to learn more about how the Sidonia’s society functions and the origins of the mysterious Gauna. Aside from the world building I was also impressed by Nihei’s artwork. The design of the characters, mechs, residential quarters and the alien adversaries all caught my eye. The Gauna resemble space faring foetuses complete with deadly tendrils. Anyone who is easily unsettled may want to avoid reading KOS at bedtime, because those creatures are a nightmare waiting to happen.

I can’t give the book a higher score though because none of the characters have made an impression on me. Nagate works well as a vessel that readers can latch onto to learn how the Sidonia operates, but I can’t say that I much cared for his personality. The gag of how he is perpetually hungry, aboard a ship were most of the crew gain nourishment via photosynthesis, gets so tiresome that I rather enjoyed the moments when the protagonist gets battered by unfriendly colleagues. The tone of the book is also a little uneven. There are moments when the narrative is grisly and dark whilst at other times the story gets downright silly with slapstick comedy or fan service scenes displaying nipple shots and girls in their underwear. Well I assume they are girls. With so many genderless clones running about I fear that hooking up aboard the Sidonia is rife with danger, just like flirting in lady boy saturated Thailand.

Review of Criminal Girls: Invite Only

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Lucifer isn’t the bad guy most people portray him to be. If popular opinion is to be believed Lord Satan will do anything to coerce victims into parting with their souls. Not so in Criminal Girls: Invite Only available to buy for the PlayStation Vita. In this NISA published Japanese role-playing game a group of seven girls have been banished to Hell for leading sinful lives. Instead of being condemned to an eternal fiery damnation the party of gals are given the opportunity to save themselves by participating in the underworld’s Redemption Programme. What does the scheme involve? Perhaps performing community service to repent for their misdeeds? Nah, this is an RPG from Japan after all. To return back to the mortal plain the Criminal Girls will have to battle through various dungeons, populated by monstrous convicts, in addition to playing a kinky mini-game.

OVERVIEW

At first glance Criminal Girls appears to be your typical JRPG. Gameplay consists of ambling through mazes seeking the exit that will lead to the level’s next floor. Your party of heroines each specializes in a particular role, which will become relevant whenever a random encounter is triggered. Kisaragi is the rogue who can pilfer items from foes in addition to poisoning them. Ran is the tank who protects her comrades by taunting enemies and performing defensive manoeuvres. In battle Sako focuses on melee combat whilst her sister Yuko mends the party with healing skills. If magic is what you need then Alice the spell caster has you covered along with card shark Shin. My favourite lady is the damage-dealing samurai named Tomoe… partially because she is endowed with big boobies.

Were Criminals Girls differs from other games in the genre is the manner in which encounters play out. The turn-based battles only permit a sole girl to perform an action per round of combat. The commands you can issue are limited even further to whatever action the girls suggest for that particular turn (possibly because teenage girls are not known for following orders.) I imagine that this system may frustrate some players, but I rather enjoyed it as it forces you to adapt to any given situation rather than spamming your most powerful attacks ad nauseam. The combat mechanics will also give you a better appreciation for all the characters, as it will require tactical switching between fighters rather than depending on a core squad of four girls.

The actions the Criminal Girls propose in combat are restricted to whatever skills they have learnt. New abilities can be taught by spending the CM, earned from killing monsters, on participation in the title’s controversial Motivation Mini-Game. In order to “stimulate” the girls into acquiring new powers the player is required to use the handheld’s touchscreen to whip, electrocute, water board, tickle and massage the ladies in a bonus game that reminds me a little of Monster Monpiece’s infamous rubbing segments. Although the game carries an eighteen-age rating and contains no nudity (only suggestive poses) NIS America have decided to censor the motivation game for the western release. The moaning sound effects have been removed and portions of the screen are concealed behind pink fog. Oh man, what a tease.

VERDICT

My rating for Criminal Girls: Invite Only is five stars. Perhaps I am being a tad generous with my assessment, but I feel the game deserves some slack to counter the plethora of negative reviews I have read online. I feel that the title unjustifiably gets a bad rap due to the motivational mini-game. If people feel that strongly against torture then fair enough, but where were these critics when GTA V was getting universal acclaim? If you overlook the mini-game, which is only a small portion of the Criminal Girls experience, you’ll find that there’s a solid RPG ready to be enjoyed. Graphically it may not be a tour de force, as it’s an enhanced PSP port, but I thought that the chibi character designs looked cute. In terms of gameplay I estimate that it took me around seventy hours to earn all the trophies on offer, which is tremendous value for money.

My only complaint with the release is my usual bugbear – needless censorship. The cuts subjected to the European and US versions ultimately accomplish nothing. Naysayers who accuse the game of being sexist will not be appeased by NIS America’s token gesture whilst on the flip side buyers, who were looking forward to fondling anime girls, will feel nothing but disappointment at having to make do with a watered down product. I hear that some gamers are boycotting Criminal Girls to voice their discontent, which is a terrible shame. Although I sympathise with their sentiments I would like to caution that poor sales will only harm the chances of future niche games getting localised. Candyfloss fog and the absence of passionate moans is a small price to pay to get this top-notch dungeon crawler in our territory.

Review of One Piece: Episode of Alabasta

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One Piece: Episode of Alabasta is the eighth animated movie based on Eiichiro Oda’s popular manga series. The film sees rubber man Luffy journey to the desert kingdom of Alabasta, which is presently suffering from a mysterious drought. As always Luffy is joined by his crew of Straw Hat pirates whose roster includes a shape shifting reindeer, a flirtatious chef who literally kicks ass and a bandana wearing blade master who fights with a sword lodged between his teeth. This eighth feature film sees the Straw Hats tackle a nasty chap named Crocodile who is plotting to plunge the region into civil war. Hurry up Luffy! Defeat Crocodile and make it “snappy.”

OVERVIEW

If the above-mentioned synopsis sounds familiar it should because Episode of Alabasta is a retelling of the Alabasta story arc, which has previously been covered in the One Piece anime series. It’s disappointing to see the animators squander a movie budget on re-treading old ground and the decision is all the more perplexing when you realize that the Alabasta saga ran for almost forty episodes. Condensing so much material into a ninety-minute flick simply doesn’t work, with the end result feeling like a disjointed series of clips. Although the filler saturated One Piece series could certainly benefit from the services of a good editor, exorcising so much content is going from one extreme to another.

Things get hilariously bad when characters that have previously not been introduced randomly appear onscreen. One such example has the Straw Hats travelling across Alabasta’s sandy dunes atop a gigantic crab. The oversized crustacean is lending them aid as he is the acquaintance of a camel that is travelling with the group. Who is this camel I speak of? He’s a comic relief character that featured in the series, but up till that point he was completely absent from the movie adaptation. Anyone watching the film with no prior knowledge of the source material will be left scratching their heads… if they weren’t already at the prospect of how a desert animal and sea creature could be friends.

Perhaps the biggest travesty of all is that the show’s exciting action has been butchered in order to squeeze the narrative into a ninety-minute feature. For me, the highlight of the Alabasta story was seeing the Straw Hats take on Crocodile’s henchmen. Each of the antagonist’s lackeys has a special ability that the heroes have to overcome. It was cool seeing the good guys suss out their opponents’ weaknesses in order to turn the tide of battle. Alas most of that is missing from this movie as the action scenes jump straight into the middle of a fight. We see the Straw Hats battered and bruised, with no idea of how they sustained their injuries, before another time skip takes us to the end of the duel. It’s more anticlimactic than a WWE pay per view.

VERDICT

My rating for One Piece: Episode of Alabasta is a one out of five. I honestly have no idea why this movie exists. Who is the target audience for this film? One Piece fans would surely prefer to re-watch the series over settling for this abridged flop. Perhaps the idea was to give viewers unfamiliar with One Piece the opportunity to dip their toes with something that isn’t a huge time sink? If so Episode of Alabasta fails because the choppy storytelling will leave anyone unacquainted with the franchise totally confused. There’s little to recommend here unless you like watching Luffy yell terrible dialogue at a Sandman clone. Don’t bother buying this Blu Ray. If you really must watch this movie then (Straw Hat) pirate it instead.

Review of HuniePop

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Valentine’s Day is upon us and if you are a single guy, such as myself, the date means absolutely nothing to you – other than reinforcing the fact that women don’t find overweight bald guys to be particularly attractive. Rejection by the fairer sex can make this romantic season a lonely time, but fear not because here comes HuniePop to the rescue. If flesh and blood females refuse to interact with you (other than spraying you with pepper spray) why not try smooching virtual ones instead in this Kickstarter funded dating sim? Hurrah to Kickstarter for making this project possible. Previously the site has been used for other worthy causes, such as donating over $55,000 to someone who needed cash to cook up some potato salad.

OVERVIEW

HuniePop sees players take control of a dorky guy (or lesbian) who is hopeless when it comes to flirting – clearly the developers know who their target audience is. The game begins at a bar where the player stumbles upon a seductive pixie named Kyu. After witnessing your pathetic chat up techniques first hand, Kyu decides to take you under her (fairy) wing and coach you in the ways of courting ladies. With the stage set it is time to go out and bed eight of the town’s most eligible bachelorettes, which include an Asian teacher, an ageing porn star and a Hispanic single mom. Once you have those notches under your belt you can move onto some more unorthodox targets, such as a blue skinned alien and a perky cat girl.

What’s unique about HuniePop is that the success of your dates depends on your prowess at a Bejewel like match 3 puzzle game. Basically, in the HuniePop universe, you can be George Clooney’s suave equal – providing that you are a dab hand at Candy Crush. The aim of the game is to hit the target score, within a certain number of turns, by swapping the position of symbols to form chains of three or more like coloured blocks. In addition to the point earning cubes there are also hearts (that award point multipliers) bells (that give you an extra turn) drops (that allow you to use gifts) and broken hearts (watch out for those as they deplete your score.) Wow, who knew that dates required so much strategy? This sounds like an awful lot of work. Can’t I just hire a prostitute instead?

GAMEPLAY

It’s no mystery that most girls are shameless gold diggers, which explains why so many hideous millionaires have supermodel wives. No surprise then, that in order to succeed in HuniePop budding Casanovas are required to amass substantial quantities of Munie and Hunie. Munie is the game’s currency and is used to purchase gifts, buy snacks for your digital girlfriend and alcohol (because we all know that the best way of getting into someone’s pants is via the wonders of intoxication.) Oddly enough Munie is accrued by going out on dates, which is far from realistic. Trust me, I have plenty of friends who have filed for bankruptcy after trying to woo a lass through extravagant dinners and concerts.

Hunie, on the other hand, is used to level up your character’s attributes and is earned by asking classy questions such as what is your date’s age, weight and bust size. I’m sure if I were to be so blunt in real life I would get a cheek-reddening slap, but thankfully HuniePop’s harem doesn’t seem to mind your rudeness in the slightest. Making Hunie also demands that you respond correctly to your date’s queries so be sure to pay close attention to what she says. If you are the type of bloke who just stares at cleavage and says “uh ah” as your partner prattles on you’ll miss out on precious Hunie generating opportunities.

VERDICT

Although I am certain to receive much ridicule for this opinion, I am awarding HuniePop five stars. Even if the game’s premise isn’t your cup of tea the puzzle aspects are fun, which probably explains why Bejeweled is such a colossal hit. Getting one hundred percent on this game equated to thirty hours of entertainment, which is tremendous value for money considering the title’s meagre asking price. Although dating sims are normally associated with Japanese creators I must commend the title’s Western developer for delivering a very polished product.

The voice acting is solid, even if some of the dialogue is cheesy, and the artwork is above average compared to other independently produced visual novels. Perverts are sure to get a kick out of the raunchy photos awarded for successfully completing the copulation mini-game (just be aware that bypassing Steam’s censorship requires downloading a small patch.) Sadly with the game completed I am now back to feeling lonely on February 14th. Guess I will have to spend the day on Chat Roulette hitting on random strangers.

Review of Nekopara (Vol. 1)

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If you are craving a warm beverage and a light snack cafes cannot be beat. It must however be said that the catering establishments in my town are rather dull when compared to their Japanese counterparts. Over in the land of the rising sun there are maid cafes (where patrons are attended to by cute servants) and even cat cafes (where kitty lovers can pet a feline whilst enjoying their cuppa.) Now what would happen if we combined those two things together? We’d get Nekopara of course – a PC visual novel set in a cafe that is staffed by maids who happen to be cat girls. Excuse my geyser strength nosebleed, but it appears that I am suffering from a bad case of fetish overload.

OVERVIEW

Nekopara takes place in an alternate Japan where human beings live side by side with a race of humanoid cat girls. The female moggies in question are kept as pets and in some cases have been known to get romantically involved with their owners (so you can get a pussy in more ways than one by visiting a pet store.) Dating your pet isn’t as weird as it may sound because the aforementioned cat girls possess both the intellect and appearance of a regular lady (well aside from them sporting kitty ears and a tail.) Hmmm, is it just me or does the idea of keeping a person as a pet seem wrong? Not to mention that cat girls are forbidden from leaving their homes unaccompanied, unless they pass a “bell test” which forces graduates to wear a flea collar. Gripes, I haven’t seen so much female discrimination since that time I visited the Middle East.

Moving back on topic, Nekopara stars a young pastry chef who has left home to pursue his dream of opening up a bakery (not quite as exciting as wanting to become a fireman, but whatever.) On the eve of opening his bread selling store the protagonist discovers that Chocola and Vanilla (the cat girls he raised when he was a young lad) have moved into his new place by craftily squeezing themselves into a package that was delivered to his current address. Initially our hero wants the pair to return home, but he soon changes his tune when he discovers how demanding it can be to run a fledgling business. Chocola and Vanilla are employed as maids to assist with chores and to attract customers with their adorable good looks. What a masterstroke! Where else can you find staff that is willing to work for a cheap can of Whiskers?

VERDICT

When I first loaded up Nekopara I was gobsmacked by the title’s production values. It blows the other visual novels, I have purchased off Steam, right out of the water. The graphics are vastly superior to other titles sold on Valve’s digital service (many of which do not originate from Japan and are in fact drawn by subpar western artists mimicking the anime aesthetic style.) Instead of relying solely on still pictures, to tell its tale, Nekopara’s characters are animated and the whole game is fully voiced. That’s most impressive when you consider that the game’s asking price is a darn sight cheaper than other Japanese visual novels on the market. The adult games found on the MangaGamer website for example are far more expensive… um or so I am told.

In terms of gameplay this is a pure visual novel so you can earn all the Steam achievements on offer simply by reading. There are no branching paths that alter the outcome of the story and interactivity is limited to tapping the keyboard, which commands the onscreen characters to jump. What does the random leaping accomplish? Very little, aside from excessive jiggling if you happen to crank up the breast-bouncing meter to maximum… and before anyone asks, no I am not making that up. Story wise I found Nekopara’s chapters to be a cute and funny series of skits covering the opening of the cafe, Chocola and Vanilla’s efforts to pass the bell exam and the main character interacting with his little sister who seems to be up for some inappropriate incest.

My rating for Nekopara is five stars. It was an entertaining read for the few hours it lasted me and I have to commend the translators on doing a superb job localising the title. Unlike the vast majority of visual novels I have read, Nekopara is free of grammatical errors. It is also devoid of smut as the Steam edition is an all ages version of the original game. Perverts lusting after some hot cat girl loving, which occurs whenever Chocola and Vanilla are in heat, will have to buy the novel from another store. Although Steam has no qualms about selling violent games they will not tolerate sex in their gaming library. Well if you are a niche Japanese game. Mass Effect and The Witcher can be bought from Steam so I guess the rules don’t apply to bigger companies who can grease Gabe Newell’s chubby palms.

Review of Kill la Kill (Box One)

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From the creative minds that brought us Gurren Lagann comes Kill la Kill – a series I have been dying to watch ever since I checked out the premier episode at London Comic Con a couple of years ago. That convention was the event where Manga Entertainment announced that they would be releasing the third Evangelion movie. Two years on and we are still waiting for a DVD release of that particular film, partially due to the pedantic demands of the Japanese licence holder. Have it your way Studio Khara. If fans cannot pay to watch the feature in a timely manner don’t complain when they then resort to using “cheaper” alternative methods.

OVERVIEW

Kill la Kill stars a high school student named Ryuko Matoi, who is on a quest to uncover the identity of her father’s killer. The search sees her transfer over to Honnouji Academy, which is ruled by a student council president who answers to the name of Satsuki Kiryuin. Satsuki’s totalitarian reign over the campus is so strict that it makes Robert Mugabe’s administration look like a liberal democracy. Kiryuin rewards her faithful followers with lavish accommodation and superpower granting Goku uniforms, whilst everyone else is forced to live a life of poverty out in the slums. When Ryuko and Satsuki eventually butt heads, the student council president lets slip that she may know who murdered Matoi’s pop. In order to get her to spill the beans Ryuko will however have to get past a horde of school clubs that are protecting the academy’s female dictator.

The nine episodes contained in this first box set have Ryuko taking on Satsuki’s minions with the aid of an oversized scissor blade, which she uses to shred the strength enhancing Goku uniforms worn by her opponents. Over the course of the two DVDs, viewers will witness Ryuko squaring off against the captains of the school’s boxing and tennis clubs before entering a Dragon Ball-esque fighting tournament that will pit her against Satsuki’s closest confidants – The Elite Four. Dragon Ball isn’t the only show that Kill la Kill draws inspiration from. Much like the classic Mazinger Z, Kill la Kill sees its protagonist battling the bad guys with an invention created by a deceased relative. Instead of inheriting a giant robot, Ryuko instead uses a blood-sucking sailor uniform that embarrassingly shows off a lot of skin. Perhaps if Sailor Moon donned Ryuko’s Senketsu more boys would have watched that cartoon when they were growing up.

VERDICT

I have no hesitation in awarding Kill la Kill five stars, as it is one of the best animes released in recent years. The over the top battles are a blast to watch and I found myself consistently chuckling at the cartoon’s visual gags. The show’s soundtrack is simply superb and although the artwork isn’t the sharpest thing you will ever see, I would still argue that the visuals are pleasing on the eye thanks to a good use of colour, captions that pop out from the screen and fast paced action. I can’t name a character I disliked from the cast, with my personal favourite being Ryuko’s best friend Mako Mankanshoku. I normally find hyperactive sidekicks to be annoying, but Mako won me over with her comical motivational monologues.

Anyone who dismisses Kill la Kill as a mindless action show couldn’t be more mistaken, as the story surrounding Ryuko’s departed parent is surprisingly gripping. The scriptwriters also had the sense to mix things up saving the series from following a predictable “Ryuko fights a baddie of the week” schedule. Episode four for example has the heroine tackling an obstacle course in order to avoid expulsion. From this set episode seven, which sees Ryuko starting up a Fight Club, is my personal highlight. Titled “A Loser I Can’t Hate” it tells a rather poignant tale of how power corrupts. Despite all my praise Kill la Kill sadly remains the best anime I do not own. Anime Limited is demanding £45 for this Collector’s Set, which is too dear for this penniless reviewer. If I am doing the math right, buying this one season series will set me back an outrageous £135. Hopefully it gets discounted in the future, or else I will be forced to rely on legal sites like Daisuki to watch it online for free.

Review of Rail Wars

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Rail Wars is a twelve episode anime series based on the light novels penned by author Takumi Toyoda. The show, which finished airing back in September 2014, is set in a fictional Japan where the national railway service has avoided privatization. I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not because Japan’s trains are supposedly more reliable than their UK counterparts (although that’s not saying much, as commuters of the Greater Anglia line will attest to.) Perhaps if the Fat Controller didn’t stuff his pie hole all day England’s rail links wouldn’t be plagued with so many delays. Come on Thomas sort it out!

OVERVIEW

The series follows the exploits of Naoto Takayama, an aspiring train driver who has recently completed his training at the Japanese National Railway academy. Instead of landing a dream job piloting locomotives, Naoto has been assigned to the Fourth Guard Squad who are responsible for station security. The position has him working with a trigger-happy redhead, an intelligent yet clumsy buxom babe and a dimwit blessed with the strength of the Hulk. Together, over the course of the show’s dozen episodes, the ragtag team take on purse-snatchers, foil terrorist attacks and protect various dignitaries who have opted to travel via public transport.

If I had to compare Rail Wars to another cartoon I would liken it to Burn Up Excess or Daphne in the Brilliant Blue. It’s essentially a fan service action show, that doesn’t treat itself too seriously, revolving around a team made up of members who specialize in a particular field. Aoi Sakurai is the crack shot tsundere who likes to use excessive force against lawbreakers. Haruka Komi looks like an airhead, but she is in fact an excellent student who excels at speed-reading. She has a knack for cutely tripping over things, possibly because maintaining your balance on a moving train is tricky (or because she is rather top heavy if you catch my drift.)

Moving onto the male members of the team, Naoto is the squad leader and your typical anime protagonist. He has a bland personality and no distinguishing features – aside from the ability to unintentionally attract every female character he meets. In the real world his colleague Sho Iwazumi would be more popular with the ladies (thanks to his bulging biceps) but alas his screen time is severely limited. Aside from a few quips poking fun at his ravenous appetite, he only seems to be part of the cast because the Fourth Guard Squad is surprisingly weedy for a group tasked with combating undesirables. For all intents and purposes Sho is the muscle that clobbers the bad guys.

VERDICT

Every anime season has a couple of shows that everyone raves about and a few flops that will contend for worst series of the year. Rail Wars is neither of those. I would best describe it as an adequate light novel adaptation that is mildly entertaining, but six months from now you’ll be hard pressed to remember anything about it. Aside from some locomotive trivia the only thing that stands out about the show would have to be its shameless fan service. Yes, this is one of those animes were the ladies suffer wardrobe malfunctions and fabrics turn translucent whenever a girl gets soaked. It should go without saying that one of the Fourth Squad’s missions takes place at the beach, where the dress code is strictly bikinis.

My rating for Rail Wars is a three out of five. I found it to be an enjoyable episodic show that delivers some chuckles and light action moments. Visually speaking, the character designs are decent although the CG used to render the trains could have been better. I have been informed that the show is peppered with animation mistakes, although the only thing I spotted was a substantial dip in artwork quality during episode eleven. I think the series would have been better had the latter episodes not been “derailed” by harem hijinks. I was okay with the predictable Naoto/Haruka/Sakurai love triangle, but things got out of hand when Naoto ends up being pursued by his boss, a chum from high school, a pop idol and even royalty. The light novel source material is still ongoing so the romance angle remains unresolved by the time episode twelve concludes. One could say that Rail Wars started out well, but by the end it runs out of steam.