Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (season four) – Review

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T. and I took a long break from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood once we got to the end of season three. While we really enjoyed the first two seasons, by the time the action moved to Fort Briggs it felt like things were getting more and more complicated, and – being unfamiliar with the manga – I worried that the show would end up losing its way and never resolve the central drama. Well, I’m glad to have given the fourth season a chance, because not only did it feel like a marked improvement on season three, but it moved the overarching story forward in a satisfying way and at a good old pace. I’m now excited to see how things wrap up in the fifth and final season.

This may sound strange, but one of the things that encouraged us to return to Brotherhood was the fact Netflix changed the way they listed the show from “64 episodes” to a proper season/episode listing. Knowing where you’re at in the narrative arc is quite important in long-form storytelling, and it really helped knowing we would be starting again at the beginning of the penultimate season: we had appopriate expectations for pacing, character development, and so on. Brotherhood’s third season had expanded the scope of the story considerably, so we were delighted (and, I must admit, surprised) to find that major mysteries were resolved quickly and in a satisfying way, and that the overall story was likewise allowed to make progress.

One of the good things about taking time to build a story and develop characters is that, if you do it right, the payoff can be epic, and make the whole wait worthwhile. The problem with this is that so many shows have failed to live up to their promise that audiences get burned out and lose faith in this kind of storytelling (this is known as the Chris Carter Effect, with reference to the X-Files; Lost is another good example). In contrast, Brotherhood’s fourth season is well-paced, and its lore manages to be both interesting and coherent, which is no mean feat.

If you’re not familiar with it, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a very well-regarded and successful anime adaptation of a manga, which follows the brothers Edward and Al Elric on their mission to recover their bodies after an experiment with alchemy went badly wrong. (Edward just lost a couple of limbs, but Al lost his entire body and now has to go about in an enormous suit of armour, which contains his soul.) They soon get pulled into a much larger conspiracy, and the show starts off dark in tone and quickly gets darker; but it also has a penchant for comedy, and some really heartwarming camaraderie as well. Confusingly, it’s actually the second anime adaptation of the manga, with the first being called simply Fullmetal Alchemist, without the subtitle. Brotherhood is widely regarded as being much better. The first “adaptation” was done before the original manga was finished – a bit like Game of Thrones!

Brotherhood has a strong central cast of characters and there is great chemistry between the likes of Edward, Al, and Winry, and Mustang and Hawkeye. It’s testament to the potential of long-form storytelling that, by season four, Brotherhood has put together a whole stable of lead characters, any one of whom could carry a lesser anime (Al in particular is a real hero); but there are half a dozen stand-out leads in this one show. Even the supporting cast of Homunculi and Chimeras get their chance to shine here, too. I think it helped our enjoyment that we decided to watch this season in the English dub, rather than in Japanese with English subtitles. Although I’ve always tried to watch anime series with the Japanese voice track (because it’s more “authentic”), I can’t understand the language, and in Brotherhood I get the impression the English voice script is different (and superior) to the English subtitles. You also benefit from some characterful performances from great voice actors like Caitlin Glass and Troy Baker.

Fingers crossed that season five will prove to be as entertaining and satisfying as Brotherhood’s fourth season. If so, it will definitely go down as one of my favourite anime series.

9/10

Castlevania (season one) – Review

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Castlevania fans have had a hard time in recent years, as the venerable game series has been left to gather dust by owner Konami. Thus news of a Netflix-produced animated series stoked excitement, particularly once it became clear the show was intended for “mature” audiences and would not hold back on blood and gore. Castlevania’s subject matter has tried-and-tested appeal, and the successful blueprint for atmospheric gothic anime has been well-established by films like Vampire Hunter D. What could possibly go wrong?

First impressions are promising: Castlevania looks really, really good. The characters and settings are well-designed and animated, and if the aesthetic is somewhat hackneyed, that can be forgiven considering that it’s paying homage not just to a game series but to an entire genre. That said, much of the season’s four episodes are set in a generic medieval town, which is a bit disappointing considering that most Castlevania games are set in some version or other of Dracula’s castle. Indeed, apart from the names of the characters, and Trevor Belmont’s whip, I didn’t find there was much here to distinguish this as a Castlevania series: if they changed the names it would have been a pretty generic anime horror.

Having announced a Castlevania ‘series’, I think a few eyebrows were raised when the show was released and it turned out to be four episodes long, clocking in at about 100 minutes total. That’s really more the length of a movie, and the ‘episodic’ structure felt a bit phony. In particular, episodes two and three naturally segue into each other, and the ending of episode two felt rather abrupt. More problematic is that the ‘season’ finishes in an unsatisfying way, as the ‘conclusion’ is anything but and just sets the stage for future episodes. Netflix has inevitably announced that Castlevania has been ‘renewed’ for a second season, but it all feels completely pre-planned, and fundamentally cynical. If there was ever any doubt about a second season (clue: there wasn’t), it wouldn’t have ended as it did. Netflix knew there would be a lot of hype about the show because of the name alone, so they served up a laughably short first ‘season’, enabling them to spread a wafer-thin story over twelve episodes, when one feature-length movie would have sufficed.

But what really condemns Castlevania is its awful script. Set in a fictionalized C15th Europe, Dracula’s human wife is burnt as a witch by evil Christians, so he decides to wipe out the local population in retaliation. The only person who can stop him is Trevor Belmont, a cynical young outcast aristocrat and the last surviving member of the vampire-hunting Belmont clan. Trevor is an unappealing lead, not motivated by anything other than alcohol, and constantly complaining about having to rescue ungrateful peasants. Most of the inhabitants of Wallachia are portrayed unsympathetically, either as cringing cowards or as perverts who have sex with farm animals. It’s a singularly charmless script, and one that’s devoid of any humour, wit or passion.

This is made even worse by the voice acting, which ranges from indifferent to downright awful. More than one character suffers from dreadful mumbling, to the point that we had to turn on the subtitles to follow what people were saying. It’s not limited to one character, which suggests it was a technical problem or a production decision; if the latter, god knows what they were trying to achieve. Belmont’s voice acting is infuriating, as he rushes through sentences, fails to enunciate his words properly, and tails off inaudibly. But the worst of all is the villainous Bishop of Gresit. I don’t know what they were trying to achieve with his voice, but it doesn’t work at all. You can barely make out what he’s saying half the time. Considering how much work goes into creating the visuals for something like this, it beggars belief that the audio would be so incompetently directed and edited.

It used to be the case that licensed video games were guaranteed to be terrible. Cynical publishers would acquire a well-known license and use it to market a crap game, relying on name recognition to get people to buy a shitty product. Here that dynamic is reversed. Visuals aside, Castlevania is a pathetically lazy, cynical and low-effort attempt by Netflix to use a well-regarded video game franchise to generate interest among a certain demographic. Don’t encourage them. Do yourself a favour, and give it a miss.

3/10

Blame! (film) – Review

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Maybe it’s just me, but I find Netflix’s rating system to be pretty useless. Lots of woeful content seems to inexplicably maintain a five-star rating, while really solid shows and movies get stuck with two or three stars. Blame! is the latest one to confuse me, the full-length anime movie debuting recently to a 2.5 star rating. I don’t know whether this is due to pissed-off hardcore fans, or low ratings from people who just hate anime, but I thought Blame! was pretty good.

Blame!: the movie is based on a 20-year-old manga, set in a (naturally) dystopian world dominated by a vast megastructure known as “The City”. The City was once controlled by technologically-advanced humans, but they eventually lost control, and humanity came to be viewed by the City as a disease which needed to be exterminated. The City therefore unleashed a variety of hi-tech entities, collectively known as The Safeguard, to wipe out the remaining humans (hints of The Terminator, then). With humans no longer in control, the City has expanded uncontrollably, and it’s hinted that the structure could have reached the size of a star. It’s an interesting concept with a great deal of potential, and Blame!’s setting is well brought to life by an impressive art style.

I’m a little surprised that they chose to make Blame! as a movie rather than a series, like fellow Netflix original Knights of Sidonia, as the scenario seems well-suited to the serial form. The movie’s plot covers the interaction between main character Killy, who is on an odyssey to find the “Net Terminal Gene” that could help regain control of the City, and a small community of humans known as the Electro-Fishers. The community is on the brink of starvation, and their immediate struggle to survive provides the kind of clear narrative hook needed for a film of this length. T. commented while we were watching it that Blame! does the same thing as Mad Max: Fury Road, using the silent loner character from a wider world to introduce a largely self-contained story. I found Killy to be a bit underdeveloped, but at least the supporting cast are varied; what’s more, characters you might expect to be completely useless actually end up contributing to the story, which kind of subverts your expectations. Blame! leaves you wanting to see more of its world, and I would certainly be interested in seeing a follow-up movie or, even better, anime series.

Visually, Blame! is really good, with solid animation and an appealing and coherent style. The art and animation reminded me a lot of Knights of Sidonia, and apparently they were made by the same people. I thought the sound effects were pretty good too, especially the satisfying clunkiness of the Electro-Fishers’ weapons and armour. The film’s main problem is probably its pacing: although it starts out very well – the opening sequences are breathtaking – its 106-minute run time is probably 15 minutes too long, and some sections could have been shortened or edited out. I found the repeated extreme close-ups of Killy to be somewhat naff, but fans of the source manga might be more tolerant of this.

Overall, then, Blame! is worth a watch for anime fans. It reminded me a lot of seeing Gantz: 0 a few months back – both times I went in knowing nothing about the source material, but was pleasantly surprised by the films and really enjoyed them. Here’s hoping we get to see more of Blame!’s unsettling world in the future.

7/10

Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE (Wii U) – Review

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Fire Emblem has been my favourite Nintendo franchise for years now. We bought a 3DS to play Fire Emblem Awakening, and we bought a Wii U this summer to play Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. During development the game was often referred to as Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem, suggesting it would be a mashup of these two wildly popular Japanese RPG franchises. In the end, as the hashtag suggests, Fire Emblem is more a flavour here than anything else: sure, there are Fire Emblem characters and gameplay devices, but don’t buy this game expecting anything like a standard Fire Emblem experience. Instead, what you’ll  get is much more akin to a Persona game (it was developed by Persona developer Atlus, after all, rather than Intelligent Systems). But don’t let that put you off. TMS #FE is one of the most enjoyable JRPGs in years, and I had an absolute blast playing it from start to finish.

I had actually never played a Shin Megami Tensei or Persona game before, so the mechanics and style of this game were something of a novelty to me. The first thing to note is the distinctive setting and storyline. TMS is an unashamed celebration of Japanese popular culture, and the main story sees you control a group of teen pop idols. In the UK that would be the worst thing ever, but what’s remarkable here is that the game manages to make the pop idols thoroughly likable. Not only that, but even their managers and trainers are, for the most part, pretty decent and entertaining people. It’s quite an achievement.

The main character is high-school student Itsuki Aoi. Itsuki can’t really sing or act but he certainly knows how to make friends and bring out the best in others. Itsuki is joined by several other aspiring musicians and actors who for the most part are well-written and pretty fun to hang out with. There’s only one real exception in the form of Barry, a former platinum-selling American Death Metal musician who gave up his career to become an Otaku and who is obsessed with little girls’ anime. Lame. Your troupe of artists (who, of course, don’t just sing but also act and model as well) get caught up in a sinister plot to destroy the world. Basically, demons (called ‘Mirages’) are invading our dimension in order to consume people’s ‘Performa’, which is the embodiment of confidence and the performing arts. Once people lose their Performa they become depressed, mope around, and eventually die. Much of the game revolves around returning people’s stolen Performa, which often involves some kind of minor fetch quest followed by a boss fight and some kind of awesome musical performance or comedy routine.

The writing in Tokyo Mirage Sessions is consistently excellent and often very funny. There are a welter of side quests, including several personal quests for each party member. These often put you in unusual situations, and generally revolve around using The Power of Friendship to inspire other people and help them reach their potential. It’s a well-worn trope in anime and Japanese RPGs, to be sure, but here it’s handled with a sincerity and vivacious panache that will win over all but the most hardened cynic. I also wondered about the subtext: ‘Mirages’, many of whom are actually video game characters, come to our world and prey on people’s potential, causing them to lose confidence in themselves and the wider world. How many of us have seen this happen to people we know (or even ourselves) when becoming a little too immersed in video games? However, Tokyo Mirage Sessions shows that it’s perfectly possible to create video games that inspire and bring wholesome joy, rather than sucking the life and/or money out of you. It stands in the best tradition of video games.

The game’s graphics are colourful and the characters are well-rendered and animated, and most of the environments are vibrant. The game’s dungeons do feature some very flat backgrounds, but then they are all set in inter-dimensional space. Nobody plays the Wii U expecting amazing graphics, but TMS does a great job with its art style and design. At first, when I saw T. playing it I thought the graphics looked somewhat primitive; but as soon as I started playing myself, I stopped worrying about that. It just sucks you in.

As well as the colourful and fresh visual style, TMS features a pretty amazing soundtrack. There’s plenty of J-Pop, as you would expect given the subject matter, but also a number of rock and electronica-inflected themes, and even some jazz. It’s surprisingly varied and a major part of the game’s attraction. There are several stand-out themes and some of them rank with the best RPG music I’ve heard in years. Only fitting for a game which revolves around the music industry.

There is a great deal of conversation and exposition, and Itsuki occasionally gets to make choices in the form of dialogue options and so on. This is mainly played for laughs though, as you can’t really change the direction of the plot. Most of the actual gameplay revolves around exploring several hub areas in Tokyo, before entering ‘Idolaspheres’ which serve as dungeons which you have to explore and where you fight semi-random encounters. You see generic ghostly creatures as you explore; Itsuki can whack them with his sword for an advantage before running into them to start an encounter. Fights are a turn-based affair where each character and enemy can attack during each round. You have a selection of physical and magical attacks, and by targeting enemy weaknesses you can trigger ‘Sessions’ which cause your party members to attack in turn, giving you free hits and building up combos. This way you can also build up your ‘special’ meter, which allows you to unleash devastating ‘Special Performances’, and you also eventually unlock Duo Arts where your party members attack in unison.

The combat strikes a great balance between strategy and spectacle, and it is pretty well-paced for the most part. Even on Normal difficulty your party members can easily die if the enemy targets their weaknesses, so you’re forced to plan and use your entire team. Your attacks, and especially special performances and duo arts, often look incredible and are a real pleasure to behold. Your teammates tend to be quite talkative in battle and the voice acting is really good. Even though it’s all in Japanese, and unfortunately none of the in-battle dialogue is subtitled, I still found myself enjoying some of the silly phrases spouted by Touma and the rest of the gang.

It can be very silly to see two teenage girls doing a song-and-dance routine in front of some weird monster in order to cause a huge amount of damage to it, but it’s always fun. Generally speaking, combat is not too difficult if you do all the side missions; there is one very challenging boss fight about halfway through the game, but once you unlock the gamut of special abilities combat is not too frustrating. This is relatively forgiving as JRPGs go. Unfortunately, although your party will eventually grow to well beyond the three-person limit you can have in combat at any one time, Itsuki always has to be in the party.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions sold very badly, which is no surprise I guess considering the low install base of the Wii U but still something of a shame. I’m aware there was some controversy over ‘censorship’ of its Western release, which saw the removal or adaptation of some more revealing outfits from the female characters. I’m opposed to censorship in general, but that said, I don’t think it can really be said to have detracted from the overall experience in this case. There’s no question that the pervier side of anime can put some people off engaging with it, so I don’t have a problem with pre-empting potential criticism in the hope of reaching a wider audience. Sensibilities about these things are different in Japan than they are in Europe and North America, and a couple of bikinis wouldn’t have added to this game. If anything, the lack of fanservice adds to the game’s whole positive and upbeat aesthetic.

Another criticism of Tokyo Mirage Sessions that has done the rounds is that the game is heavily based on ‘anime tropes’. This is true to an extent, but I suspect a lot of people dogpiling on internet forums about this simply have no idea what tropes are. Every production of popular culture is based around tropes, either from within that culture or borrowed from another one. Tropes can be adhered to or subverted, but they’re always there, and it’s completely fallacious to condemn an artwork merely because it ‘uses tropes’. That said, Tokyo Mirage Sessions sticks quite closely to some familiar anime and JRPG tropes, especially The Power of Friendship. But its execution is so good, and the experience of playing the game so damn positive, that it’s self-defeating as well as wrongheaded to avoid the game on this basis. This is a game that’s definitely a force for good in the world. Although I came expecting more Fire Emblem, I’m delighted to have been introduced to Atlus’s world of video games. TMS may have sold badly, but since finishing it I’ve bought at least half a dozen SMT and Persona games in preparation for the release of Persona 5 next year. Bring it on.

9/10

 

 

Sword Art Online (anime) – mid-term review

WARNING: moderate spoilers below.

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Asuna and Kirito make for an awesome battle couple. 

The first half of Sword Art Online’s 25 episodes includes some of the most enjoyable, memorable and entertaining anime I’ve seen. The VR world of Sword Art Online is very well-realized and the main characters, Kirito and Asuna, are likable, engaging and sympathetic. The early episodes feature some great individual storylines, lovely environments, and terrific fight scenes and boss designs. It’s a constant pleasure to see MMORPG mechanics and tropes reproduced so lovingly and in amusing ways, and to see the dynamics of player interaction portrayed on-screen.

SAO also manages to capture an uplifting energy, despite the setting, which is quite inspiring. In fact, Asuna explains this herself towards the end of SAO’s first half: it was Kirito’s positive attitude and ability to relax and find pleasure in the moment of living, even in terrible circumstances, that attracted her to him. At its best, the show does a great job of capturing a sense of joy and compassion that is often one of the hallmarks of the best anime.

I didn’t mind that several episodes were devoted to Kirito and Asuna’s “marriage” and honeymoon, even though it distracted us from the main storyline. It was a nice change of pace and really charming, and allowed for a couple of moving episodes about a young child seemingly lost in the game. It was quite welcome, as well, that they pulled the trigger on Kirito and Asuna’s relationship, in contrast to so many shows that beat around the bush (excuse the phrase) so much that you’re tired of the pairing before they finally get round to hooking up.

We were enjoying the show so much that the events of episode 14 came as a shock and actually were quite distressing. That probably sounds melodramatic, but the sudden and abrupt ending to the story arc felt massively premature and we weren’t emotionally prepared for it. They really should have done a better job of teasing what amounted to the end of the world (albeit a VR world) beforehand. Precisely because the world of SAO was so rich and deep, the fact it was suddenly obliterated was somewhat upsetting. I suppose I should stop being so sensitive, but it kind of sucks if you feel like you’re being punished for your emotional investment in something. Clearly the characters in SAO were being forced to stay there against their will–although some had found happiness and meaning through their relationships there, as Asuna explained–but I was enjoying the ride. Oh well. There are eleven more episodes for us to watch but my enthusiasm is well and truly sapped at this point, which feels like a shame.

As a flippant aside, it amused me to find out by episode 14 that Kirito is 16 years old, implying he was 14 when he started the game. No wonder he was so zen about spending his life inside SAO. How many 14 year olds would jump at the chance to fast forward a couple of years and spend the entire time playing video games? Bit different to those older players with wives, families, careers etc on the go.

It’s difficult to give a score to SAO, but here goes. I’ll forever have fond memories of the first 13 episodes, which rank among my favourite anime; but the abrupt ending to the arc felt wrong and premature. So for episodes 1-14 I’m settling on an eight.

8/10

Sword Art Online, season one – first impressions

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Looks like Kirito is gonna be a bit of a ladies man. 

Having just got to the end of Fullmetal Alchemist season three, we fancied a change of pace. Alchemist is great but kinda heavy going after a while. Three episodes in, and Sword Art Online feels like a breath of fresh air.

The setting is quite accessible: SAO is set in a Virtual Reality MMORPG where the creator has gone bonkers and is forcing all of the players to play ‘for reals’. They have to beat the game, or they die. If they lose all their health points, they die. If anyone tries to remove their headset in real life, they die. Get the idea? It’s a simple concept but quite effective and handled well. VR is a topical subject so it feels quite relevant, too.

The main character, Kirito, is engaging and likable, showing a certain flair for brooding–which is acceptable in the circumstances–but the show doesn’t dwell on this to excess. The tone is, on the whole, relatively upbeat if you take into account the nightmarish context the players find themselves in. It’s quite funny at times and I particularly enjoyed the animus directed against beta testers, blamed by some characters for not helping newer players. Once the true nature of the game was revealed all the beta players ran for the hills and tried to hoard experience and gold for themselves. Which is, when you think about it, almost certainly what would happen in reality.

The words ‘beta testers’ were conflated with the word ‘cheater’ to make the epithet ‘Beater’. It’s ludicrous, of course, but given the tone of the show and the context it was really quite amusing. It was also funny to see, after Kirito joined a low-level guild out of guilt to try and protect them, that these noobs were trying to force the least confident and able player among them (a vulnerable teenage girl, naturally) to act as their tank. It was odd and I don’t know whether there was a broader point being made, probably not. But anyway, it’s nice to be able to see these kind of mechanics being discussed in a TV show.

That touches on a broader point. Until relatively recently, video games were generally portrayed on TV as a) for kids or b) some kind of weird nerd fetish, and most of the people connected with them were weird by association. I remember as a child craving to see video games on TV, as a form of cultural validation; even television ads for new games felt like important recognition of the medium. Now video game culture is everywhere. I suppose it’s just a function of people who grew up with games starting to have jobs and families and stuff.

As befits its subject matter, this show feels seriously addictive and we could easily have blown through more than the three episodes we watched last night. As I understand it, though, there isn’t actually that much of the anime, and I’ve been told season two sucks. So we’ll try and pace ourselves. But we’ll probably have it finished by the end of the weekend.