Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Puzzle & Dragons X
BD+DVD - Part 3
It's time for the Battle Cup, the annual test of Dragon Caller skill! Ace and Charo are ready to participate, and to their delight, they're reunited with Tiger, who is also taking part. The boys are all grouped into Class C, the lowest of the three, with Garnet and Star John in Class B and Lance in Class A. If any of them can claim class victory, they'll get to fight the winners of the other classes in a decisive battle. Does Ace stand a chance? And why has Jest suddenly changed the rules to favor dragonoids? This is looking like it might not be just a simple tournament after all.
The tournament arc is a staple of the shounen adventure story, and in many cases it can take tens of episodes as the hero fights his way from the bottom to the top, often contending with a variety of fierce opponents, not all of whom are strictly honest. If you're not a fan of the convention, the fact that this set of episodes of Puzzle & Dragons X is heading into one may make you a bit leery. However, with the aplomb its shown right along, the series doesn't drag this out: the entirety of the Battle Cup Arc is contained within these twelve episodes (barring the aftermath), making it among the neatest of shounen tournaments.
We knew at the end of part two of the series that things were gearing up for this decisive showdown. I say “decisive” not so much because the competition itself is so important, but rather because there are outside actors who are using this to determine the future of their pet theories and projects. Chief among these is Jest, the Ancient of Light and one of Lance's backers. Jest has, with varying degrees of subtlety, been proclaiming that dragonoids are the superior race and make better Dragon Callers, sneering at humans and their (in his eyes) meager skills. He very rarely takes into account that many human Dragon Callers are just starting out; to Jest, any lack of ability is directly attributable to humans' inferior skills and genetic makeup. He hedges these opinions by saying that he believes that there will come a time in the near future when Dragon Callers will have to do battle with sinister forces, but it seems clear that he's merely blinded by his own racism. That's doubly confirmed when he, as the Ancient in charge of the Battle Cup, declares that the technique Soul Brave will no longer be banned.
Vaguely silly name aside, Soul Brave is a skill that allows Dragon Callers to merge their spirits with those of their monsters and to use the monsters' powers to attack physically, rather than standing back and having the monsters do all of the actual fighting. Given that the dragonoids are actually physically stronger and sturdier than the humans, that sounds like a recipe for disaster, and that's not even taking into account that Soul Brave itself takes a toll on the body. As with everything else, Jest claims that this is a technique that will be needed for future defense, but seeing Ace towards the end of the set, as well as the unholy glee on Jest's creepy face and his utter disregard for Ace's wellbeing, we have to wonder.
As metaphors go, Jest's disdain for humans makes for a pretty good one for the elementary school set. Puzzle & Dragons X has consistently been that children's show that makes for entertaining viewing even if you're an adult, and part of that, as we can also see with the 2018 GeGeGe no Kitarō reboot, is because it doesn't talk down to its intended audience. While people rarely call Jest out on his racism overtly, they do consistently point out that he's being a jerk (albeit not in so many words), and that combined with Ace and Charo's likability and the way other dragonoid characters interact with humans makes the point that Jest's words and actions are inappropriate in a way that kids can figure out for themselves without it being spoon fed to them. Likewise this set of episodes does a good job of letting us know just why some of the Ancients have been concerned about Ace's relationship with Tamazo, because some of the scenes from the final episode on the set are pretty scary if you've been paying attention to Ace as a character.
Despite this being a battle arc, there isn't a whole lot of actual animated fighting. What's there is good, but mostly this is a lot of posing and audience reaction scenes. While this does keep the level of violence relatively low, it feels like it was done more for the point of emphasizing Ace's (d)evolution in the final fight and for Soul Brave in general. Character designs for this time are getting decently creative for the other Dragon Callers, ranging from Kroell, who looks like he escaped from a 90s metal band, to Charo's bland mom, who lets her inner sports mom rage in contrast to her design. Star John, who may be being set up to be one of the Big Bads (along with Morgan), of course still has one of the more interesting designs, because you know that anyone who skinned Ryo-Ohki and decided to wear her as their hair must be bad news. Additionally, Devi's cross-on gives him what looks like Barbie's Hells Angels Dream Bike while Lance's has an impressive codpiece, designs that may be more for the parents watching with their kids than the kids themselves.
Star John's return also gives the series a chance to emphasize what makes him a bad guy. It isn't just that he's a twit in general who doesn't necessarily play fair, it's that he doesn't respect his monsters or have any sort of feelings for them. Ace, we're reminded, does care for his, and he does show them love and respect. They're his friends and teammates, not his tools, and that's what really gives him the edge over his fellow Dragon Callers.
Puzzle & Dragons X continues to rise above its match-three game roots, telling an engaging story without talking down to its audience. The decision not to drag the tournament arc out beyond the next episode is a good one, and this is a tight story arc that seems to foreshadow bigger plot developments to come. Don't be fooled by its marketing as a kiddy show or its mobile game roots – Puzzle & Dragons continues to be a fun adventure series that knows how to tell its story.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Doesn't talk down to viewers, tight plotting for the tournament arc
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