Review of Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse (Part One)

muvluv

Maybe it’s just me, but doesn’t the word Beta seem to be synonymous with trouble? Hot on the heels of the farcical Street Fighter 5 Beta, which was plagued with connectivity issues, we now get the BETA – a Martian race that loves to gobble up humans. The peckish extra terrestrials appear in Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse – a twenty-four-episode anime series that is presently available to buy in the UK courtesy of MVM Entertainment. Much like the Fate series, Muv-Luv began its life as an adult visual novel, which went on to garner mainstream popularity thanks to its smut free sequels. The question on everyone’s lips is, does this mech franchise rival Fate’s anime adaptations in terms of entertainment? Read on to find out.

OVERVIEW

After watching the first part of Muv-Luv: Total Eclipse (turn around, every now and then I get a little bit lonely) I have to say that the show’s pacing is all over the place. The DVD starts off lively enough with a couple of episodes introducing us to Yui Takamura – a teenage girl who is learning how to pilot mechs at a Japanese military academy. When Yui’s unit is dispatched to battle the invading BETA she soon learns why most recruits only have an average lifespan of eight minutes. Yui barely manages to escape from the encounter unscathed, but the same cannot be said of her comrades. The human forces are soundly beaten and devoured by their giant foes in a bloody opener that channels Attack on Titan.

One quick time skip later and a more mature Yui transfers to Yukon – an Alaskan base, which is researching anti-BETA armaments. It’s at this point in the series that the role of protagonist shifts from Yui to test pilot Yuuya Bridges, signalling a halt to the exciting action viewers had been treated to previously. Instead of life and death battles we now get training sequences and team building exercises at the beach (a convenient excuse to showcase the cast’s buxom ladies in revealing swimsuits.) Flimsy reasoning for showing skin aside, the team building exercises are probably necessary as the test pilots based at Yukon are constantly arguing with each other.

The two characters that feud the most are Yuuya and Yui. Given that the two frequently bicker, there is zero chance that their relationship will ever become romantic (sarcasm.) Yuuya’s grievances with his commanding officer may stem from the fact that he loathes the Japanese. Does he distain the Nippon nation because they refuse to release Evangelion 3.0 in the States? Nah, his feelings emanate from the fact that his Japanese father deserted his American mom back when he was a young lad.

Yuuya also quarrels with his teammate Tarisa Manandal. The diminutive pilot from Nepal reminds me of a Chihuahua, partly because of her stature and partly because she enjoys yapping at people. Despite her temperament Tarisa does care for her friends, leading to some classic tsundere moments. The remainder of Yuuya’s squadron consists of chummy Italian Valerio Giacosa (who speaks in a cheesy accent) and Stella Bremer (a stereotypical sexy blonde Swede.)

VERDICT

With the first dozen episodes under my belt, I am of the opinion that Muv-Luv is a decent (albeit unspectacular) mech show. The series starts on a compelling note, but begins to lose steam once its story shifts away from the visceral alien warfare seen in episode two. Thankfully things begin to heat up again towards the end of this DVD collection, when the prototype Yuuya is trialling is sent out on a mission to gather data from a real life combat situation.

From a visual point of view Muv-Luv is a bit of a mixed bag. In some scenes the animation is fluid, but other times the studio resorts to using shaky cam in front of still images. The character designs are fine, if not realistically proportioned, although sometimes they do go off model. Even though the series is devoid of the sexual elements found in the original Muv-Luv visual novel, there is still plenty of eye candy. The skin-tight flight suits emphasise the form of both the top-heavy girls and the blokes who all have perfect abs. Like with many other mech shows, CG is used to animate the clashes between the giant bots and their Martian opponents. The robots look fine, although the design of the BETAs could be better (or should that be BETTAR?) I think the creatures are inspired by H.R Giger’s Xenomorphs, as the BETA have eyeless craniums and a tongue designed for gripping prey.

It’s tough to accurately assess a series until you have seen it all the way through to the end. At this halfway point however I think Muv-Luv: Total Eclipse deserves three stars. Although the show is entertaining, I am hoping that the next instalment ups the ante. More gory action, akin to what we got in episode two, would be nice and I would also welcome some badly needed character development for the cast. I am also hoping that the mystery surrounding the Soviet pilots known as the Scarlet Twins gets a satisfactory payoff. Right now I would say that I like the series, but I don’t (Muv) Luv it.

Review of Love Live! School Idol Project (Season One)

lovelive

From watching anime it is pretty clear to see that Japanese high schools are far superior to their Western counterparts. The uniforms worn by female students are far cuter for a start and Japan’s pupils seem to have more pride for their educational institutes. Back when I was in comprehensive everyone in my class would have jubilantly celebrated any news revealing that our school was about to shut down. That’s in stark contrast to what you would see in Love Live: School Idol Project – a thirteen episode animated show coming to the UK courtesy of MVM Entertainment. The girls attending Otonokizaka Academy are distraught that their beloved school may cease to exist due to a lack of new applicants. Only through the power of song can they hope to save the academy from potential extinction.

OVERVIEW

When Honoka Kosaka learns of Otonokizaka’s imminent demise she does what any other red-blooded schoolgirl would do – start a pop band! Why I hear you ask? Well, the plan is that having a celebrity group attending the academy will tempt impressionable young ladies to enrol at the school. Not the greatest idea ever perhaps, but that’s Honoka for you. She is well known for doing what feels right, even if she doesn’t fully think things through. Honoka’s enthusiasm is all it takes to convince her more conservative buddies to join her up on the dance stage. The other members of the newly created girl band Muse are Honaka’s childhood friends Kotori Minami and Umi Sonoda. Kotori’s tailoring skills makes her the ideal candidate for designing the group’s outfits whilst Umi fills the position of sensible girl who easily gets embarrassed. For all intents and purposes she is Mio from K-On.

Anyone acquainted with Japan’s pop music scene will be well aware that an idol group made up of just three performers is a tad bit weeny. Take a look at AKB48 for example… that group has forty-eight members. I don’t think that your average football team has a roster that big! Anyway, with that in mind Honoka scours the first year student ranks for fresh talent. She eventually recruits Hanayo Koizumi and Rin Hoshizora to her cause. Hanayo is a meek bespectacled lass who has always dreamt of being a pop idol. Rin the spunky tomboy decides to tag along, as she is Hanayo’s best friend.

Not stopping there, Honoka pleads to Maki Nishikino and Eli Ayase for aid in her musical endeavours. Maki, who is an accomplished pianist, is headhunted for the role of song composer whilst student council president Eli could help in choreographing the group’s performances, as she has a background in ballet. Eli is strongly opposed to the idea however, given that she would rather attract new students to the school via academic means. Perhaps vice president Nozomi Tojo can convince Eli to change her mind? I’m sure she will, as the curvy VP is infamous for groping girls who do not submit to her whims.

VERDICT

I had a good time watching Love Live: School Idol Project, which was a pleasant surprise given that the series is clearly made just to sell spin-off comics, music CDs and rhythm video games (I hear the mobile app is enjoyable, even if the English translators have removed all yuri references from the title.) Like the pop tunes Muse performs, Love Live is light and fluffy fun. If you are looking for a realistic portrayal of an idol group’s rise to fame look elsewhere because the onus of the show is strictly on its comedy and assortment of cheery J-Pop jingles, which normally play at the tail end of each episode.

If you dislike overly depressing animes then Love Live is the series for you. The scriptwriters only make half-hearted attempts to inject drama to proceedings. Low concert attendances, poor weather scuppering rehearsals and members leaving the band all get positively resolved within a matter of minutes. Even senior student Nico Yazawa’s attempts to disband the group will fail to keep you in suspense for long. The opening credits spoil that she will eventually join the group faster than my pals spoil the ending of new movies on Facebook. Still who cares? Love Live works thanks to its affable cast and flashy dance sequences, which are brought to life through video game quality CG. Forget Top of the Pops, I’d rather see Muse top the anime DVD sales charts so more sweet idol shows get released in the UK.

FINAL RATING: FOUR STARS

Review of Stella Women’s Academy

stellac3

It doesn’t take much to come up with a premise for an anime series these days. Just add one part cute girls, mix in a random hobby of your choice and hey presto you have the recipe for a hit show. We’ve previously seen high school girls dabble in music, kendo and even tank warfare… so what’s next? I present to you Stella Women’s Academy: High School Division Class C3 – a thirteen episode animated series revolving around an all female airsoft club. Also known as Stella Jogakuin Koutou-ka C3-bu, in its native Japan, this anime adaption of Ikoma’s manga features plenty of chuckles, some gravity defying gunfights and an unexpected analysis into the self-destructive nature of people who suffer from social anxiety.

OVERVIEW

Stella Women’s Academy: HSDC3 begins with protagonist Yura Yamato enrolling at the show’s titular school. The shy teen is hoping that a fresh start at a new institution will mark an end to her solitary ways. Sadly for her a change in setting proves to be an ineffective remedy for her timid disposition. Yura ends her inaugural day at Stella friendless, as she is too bashful to chat with the academy’s other freshmen. Fortunately for Yura the school’s airsoft club is looking for fellow weirdoes to bolster their ranks. Through unsubtle coercion and the use of yummy cake (as bait) the C3 Club convinces Yura to enter their fold. All seems well at first with the club giving Yura some much needed companionship. As time passes however the sport’s competitive aspects begin to take a toll on the emotionally fragile girl.

Yura’s companions in the C3 Club are Sonora Kashima, Rento Kirishima, Karila Hatsuse, Honoka Mutsu and Yachiyo Hinata. Sonora is the club president and Yura’s roommate. She’s a pro when it comes to wielding replica firearms that spew out plastic pellets, but she doesn’t take airsoft too seriously. Unlike her rival Rin Haruna, Sonora plays airsoft purely for fun. Rin, who heads an airsoft club based in another school, on the other hand is extremely competitive and will do whatever it takes to triumph in competitions. An American soldier, who sadly perished in the line of duty, trained both girls in sharpshooting… in addition to coaching them on how to prepare the perfect rice ball.

Out of the other C3 members, Rento is by far the nicest. She always looks out for Yura’s wellbeing. I think she is so “sweet” because her parents bake cakes for a living. Karila is the club’s resident tomboy, which is rather amusing as her less masculine brother likes to cross dress as a girl. Honoka, the well-endowed bespectacled beauty, is the most academically gifted girl from the group. She takes managing the club’s finances extremely seriously. Last, but not least, is Yachiyo. She’s a loli sniper – so if you have a thing for tiny girls wielding big guns Yachiyo is your gal.

VERDICT

Stella Women’s Academy: High School Division Class C3 is a mildly entertaining anime that never quite manages to live up to its potential. Overall it is inferior to other “cute girls doing cute things” shows because I didn’t find its cast of characters to be particularly memorable. Using the series as an excuse to learn airsoft’s various rules was however interesting and I did enjoy the unrealistic gunfights, which shatter the laws of physics. Part of the reason why the matches are so fun to watch is because they are presented through Yura’s perspective. Her overactive imagination transforms the humdrum battles into epic military operations and exciting Wild West showdowns.

What distinguishes Stella Women’s Academy from other similar shows has to be the dark turn it takes during its latter half. Yura’s obsession with becoming the best airsoft player possible results in her sacrificing both friendships and her own health. Viewers who came into the series seeking a light-hearted K-On with guns will be put off by the story’s change in tone, but I personally found it to be riveting stuff. The direction the plot takes reminds me of other socially awkward people I know. In their case it was competitive online games instead of airsoft, but the parallels are uncanny. When lonely people find acceptance in a game it can take over their life. Understandable really, as it’s the only way they gain praise from others or feel any sense of worth.

If you are looking for a sports-centric girls show I would recommend Bamboo Blade or Girls Und Panzer over Stella Women’s Academy. Bamboo Blade is funnier whilst Girls Und Panzer does a better job of portraying its sport’s strategic elements. Stella Women’s Academy isn’t without merit though. I appreciate how towards the end it tried to do something different, even if it risked alienating its core audience in the process. In airsoft when a player is shot they need to concede defeat by yelling out “hit!” Is Stella Women’s Academy a hit? No, but it’s still worth watching providing that you can forgive it’s flaws.

FINAL RATING: THREE STARS

Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven (3DS) Review

lordofmagna

Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven is a strategy RPG available to buy in the UK through the Nintendo eShop. Although European players may bemoan that Lord of Magna didn’t get a physical release over here, unlike Japan and the U.S, in retrospect we should be grateful that the game ever saw the light of day. With developer Neverland Ltd going bust, midway during the game’s creation, publisher Marvelous AQL was forced to step in and finish off the project. Rest in peace Neverland. It’s sad to see a studio, which has been doing the rounds since the SNES era, vanish – particularly as they were the folks responsible for the popular RPG farming series Rune Factory.

OVERVIEW

Maiden Heaven’s protagonist is a friendly chap named Luchs. He’s an innkeeper by trade, but due to a tourist shortage Luchs supplements his income by mining for precious gemstones at a nearby cave. One day, whilst exploring the caverns in question, Luchs stumbles across an amnesiac faerie named Charlotte who is hibernating inside a giant crystal. Upon awakening from her slumber Charlotte accepts Luchs’ offer to temporarily work at his inn, as a maid, until whatever time she is able to recover her lost memories. The life of a hotelier/miner is not a tranquil one however. When hostile creatures begin to ravage the land Luchs is forced to set off on a quest to locate Charlotte’s six estranged sisters. Only by reuniting the seven faeries will Luchs have the power to save the region from strife… in addition to acquiring a cute workforce of girls that dress up in French maid outfits.

Gameplay wise, Lord of Magna’s battle system is reminiscent to the combat found in the Hyperdimension Neptunia series. The enemy forces and the player-controlled party (which consists of Luchs and three female companions) take it in turns to move around the map. How far a character can travel and the attack radius of their weapons is conveniently marked using a red indicator. There isn’t much strategy to proceedings other than trying to position your troops in such a way that they can whack the most foes possible (either directly or by smacking them into groups of other enemies.) Any character that can slay ten or more opponents in a single strike is rewarded with an extra turn. Vanquishing the opposition is also how Luchs earns crystals, which he can trade away to purchase items and new skills for his allies.

VERDICT

My rating for Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven is a three and a half out of five. The game lacks polish (which is no surprise given its turbulent development) but overall it is good fun to play. I do however wish that the creators would have mimicked the gameplay of something like Fire Emblem or Disgaea. The combat system we get, although novel, can get monotonous due to the durability of the enemy units. Slaying legions of peons with a single swipe of your blade is fun, but tackling the commanders is another matter entirely. Due to their deep health pools it takes numerous attacks to make the bosses yield, making the levels drag on for longer than they should. The best advice I can offer to impatient players, such as myself, is to reduce the opposition’s stamina by setting the game’s difficulty to easy.

Although the game’s combat could have been better I have no other complaints. Lord of Magna’s soundtrack is nice to listen to and the voice acting, although limited, is solid. On the visual front there are some brief anime cut scenes to enjoy and I dug the adorable in game graphics, which remind me a little of Harvest Moon. The game’s plot emulates what you would find in a harem show, but thankfully the story avoids the less savoury troupes associated with the genre. Luchs is a gentleman instead of a sleazy pervert and there is no tiresome squabbling between his potential love interests. The contest for Luchs’ heart is amicably determined by whom the player decides to date in between missions. For the record I picked Elfriede, the bespectacled tinkerer who speaks multiple languages. If I ever replay the story, via New Game Plus, I’ll try to court Diana – she’s a lady who talks to teddies and she also refuses to wear panties!

Review of Cross Ange

crossange

Cross Ange: Rondo of Angels and Dragons is a prime example of why viewers shouldn’t give up on an anime too early into its run. Back when the series originally premiered I was warned to steer clear of the show due to an unsavoury incident that occurs during the tail end of episode one. Thankfully I paid no heed to those words because after watching all twenty-five episodes I have to say that I rather enjoyed the series. The distasteful scene in question was much ado about nothing and shouldn’t discourage fans of shows like Code Geass from checking out this series. Seriously the similarities Cross Ange and Code Geass share are uncanny – they both feature slighted monarchs, political skulduggery, badass mech fights and even disabled sisters who are confined to wheelchairs.

OVERVIEW

The series begins in the capital city of the utopian Misurugi Empire. Thanks to the advent of mana, which allows citizens to use magic, social problems such as crime, war, pollution and hunger have all been eradicated. Life is swell unless you happen to be one of the poor souls born with a mutation that prevents you from harnessing mana. The populace fears these mana-deprived individuals, known as Norma, because their touch can disrupt the flow of mana. Any unfortunate Normas caught by the authorities are whisked off to a prison island named Arzenal where they are forced to battle inter-dimensional dragon invaders from another world. Incarceration due to a genetic defect is harsh, but hey it’s not all bad. Using a giant robot to beat up Spyro sounds like an exciting career.

Princess Angelise soon discovers that the kingdom’s laws apply to everyone regardless of their status (nothing at all like the real world where bankers and celebrities are exempt from following the rules.) During her baptism ceremony it is revealed that Ange is a Norma, earning her a one-way ticket to Arzenal. To make matters worse her heinous brother uses the revelation as an excuse to usurp the throne. The former king and queen are cruelly executed for having the gall to keep their daughter’s condition a secret from the general public. Will Ange be able to mimic the Count of Monte Cristo by escaping her island confinement and gaining vengeance on those that betrayed her? Perhaps, but first she will need to brush up on her mech piloting skills or she will end up as a flying lizard’s snack.

VERDICT

My rating for Cross Ange is four stars. As expected from a studio with the pedigree of Sunrise (they are the guys who gave us Gundam after all) the show is good fun to watch thanks to its exciting mech battles. The story isn’t half bad either. It’s much more than robots slaying dragons, although I can’t discuss the plot at length because it is all tied together by surprising revelations I would rather not spoil. Although the series has its share of dark moments, particularly early on, there is also plenty of comedy to add levity to proceedings. For the most part the gags work, although at times things can get too silly for my tastes. I’d probably award Cross Ange a better score if it had higher production values. I guess the budget went towards the CG robot designs because there are several instances were the animation quality dips. The artists are also guilty of recycling assets, particularly during the second opening sequence.

In terms of characters the series is blessed with a likable, predominately female, cast (explained by the fact that Normas are exclusively women.) The show’s only notable male is Ange’s love interest Tusk – a buffoonish freedom fighter that has a knack for “accidently” falling onto her crotch. Ange herself is a strong female protagonist, although I doubt feminists would see her as one given that she is often put into compromising positions for the sake of fan service. Anita Sarkeesian would not approve of Ange’s flight suit either, as it reveals more skin than your average bikini. If I had to liken Ange to another anime character it would be Satellizer el Bridget from Freezing. Both ladies are blonde beauties that are proficient at battling invaders. They are both also the victims of bullying, by unappreciative comrades, partly due to their uncompromising attitudes.

To finish off I would like to comment on the elephant in the room – namely how episode one finished. Was the shocking conclusion in question justified? Probably. Said incident, along with the other hardships Ange suffered, is what turned her from a pampered princess into a hardened ace pilot. A traumatic experience was also required to make audiences sympathize with the character, especially as Ange was initially presented as a spoilt rich girl. If something that extreme hadn’t befallen her there’s a possibility that viewers would think that she is simply getting what she deserved. Cross Ange is packed with lashings of ecchi that will put some people off and that is fair enough. If the first episode’s ending is your sole reason for avoiding the show I would however have to ask why? Is a one second physical examination really any worse than the gruesome slaughter seen in shows like the universally acclaimed Attack on Titan?

Review of Dust: An Elysian Tail

dustelysian

Although I don’t harbour any desires to don a bear suit anytime soon, I do seem to be in a bit of a furry mood lately. After completing the excellent Freedom Planet my gaming attention turned towards another indie title featuring anthropomorphic characters – Dust: An Elysian Tail. Originally an Xbox Live release, which has since been ported over to the PC and PS4, this 2D action adventure stars an amnesiac rōnin named Dust who is on a quest to save the Moonblood race from genocide. Aiding the woolly fencer on his travels are a sentient blade named Ahrah and Fidget the Nimbat (basically what you would get if you crossed a fairy with a fox girl.)

OVERVIEW

Dust: An Elysian Tail is essentially a Metroidvania game, which plays a lot like the superb Muramasa Rebirth. Much of your time will be spent hacking and slashing your way through legions of enemies with the occasional platform section making an appearance to test your leaping skills. As Dust journeys across the land he will acquire new abilities, such as the double jump and wall climb, which will permit him to reach previously inaccessible areas. Likewise, as the story advances, Fidget will learn a gamut of offensive spells that she can cast to assist her companion in combat. The sorcery at her disposal includes lightning to zap monsters, fireballs to toast hostiles and magic missiles to um… attack the darkness.

Role-playing fans will be pleased to learn that Elysian Tail’s gameplay includes some light RPG character customization. After slaying sufficient enemies Dust will level up allowing players to upgrade the hero’s attack power, defence, spell damage or health pool. Vanquishing opponents also earns you coinage that can be used for trading with local merchants and crafting materials, which can be used to assemble mightier gear. In terms of exploration the game can be as linear or expansive as you like. A convenient purple banner on the map points to the next location you need to visit in order to continue the plot, but you can ignore it in favour of completing optional side quests. Good Samaritans can help the troubled citizens of Falana with tasks that range from scouring subterranean caverns for missing ewes to retrieving a villager’s laundry. It’s a dirty job, but someone needs to do it.

VERDICT

I am pleased to report that Dust: An Elysian Tail is another fine example of an indie game that surpasses many a triple A release in terms of pure fun. The combat system is immensely satisfying thanks to its tactical parrying and the array of thrusts you can perform. In terms of stand out features the fluid animation, of the hand drawn graphics, is what struck me the most when the game first loaded up. It’s hard to believe that a lone guy is responsible for putting the whole game together. As someone who cannot draw a convincing stick man I can only marvel in awe at designer Dean Dodrill’s artistic talent. I couldn’t create something this beautiful in three lifetimes let alone the three years it took Dodrill to code the game.

There aren’t many things I disliked about Dust: An Elysian Tail aside from the final boss fight, which is reminiscent of the Star Wars III clash between Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker (complete with a lava rich backdrop.) It should have been an epic encounter but I found it tedious, as I loathe battles were you are obliged to whittle down an opponent’s life bar several times in row. Getting past the prolonged duel was however worth it for the tender finale that followed. Despite the adorable visuals Dust’s story is rather emotional in parts so I really appreciated the levity injected by Fidget’s comedic commentary. Thank goodness for diminutive sidekicks who are charming. I didn’t think such a thing was possible after putting up with Navi’s annoying antics in Ocarina of Time.

FINAL RATING: FOUR STARS