Akemi's Anime World

Akemi’s Anime Blog AAW Blog

Rose of Versailles Second Impression

About halfway through (just getting warmed up with the Revolution), and a few more thoughts:

The heavily embellished art is interesting. Some of it is classic shoujo extreme—swirls of roses, closeups of conflicting character faces superimposed on each other, flashy stills. Others are more symbolic—little reveries with characters symbolically getting stabbed artistically, laughing maniacally, or running away in tears right in the middle of a scene that doesn’t break continuity, making it clear that it’s in their head. And still more are somewhat 70s-ish raw artistry—shots that are covered by a torrent of blood, multi-panel repeated images (it goes absolutely berserk with Marie Antoinette’s big give-in to her court rival), and some just plain abstract backgrounds of swirling colors on occasion. Some are so overblown or old-fashioned it’s funny, some are actually surprisingly effective.

The use of light and color in a more literal sense (for example, gold-washed scenes at sunset) is memorable—definitely some good artistic design going on, and makes the overall somewhat garish old-school coloring much less noticeable on average, since it’s balanced out with artistically extreme coloring. Use of shadow is also pretty good for the era.

The court drama is growing on me. Still very petty, but then it repeatedly contrasts that with the miserable peasantry really giving a pretty good idea why the revolution ended up happening. It’s still somewhat sympathetic to the nobility without giving much reason for it other than a general “they’re people, too,” but the contrast is interesting, and seems to be going somewhere with Oscar’s increasing distaste for the rich and titled despite being one of them.

It finally got to some outright same-gender potential romance after 15 episodes, which is amusingly restrained given that in actual history Marie Antoinette was plagued by rumors of being a lesbian for most of her public life. Even more ironic that those public accusations aren’t mentioned at all until another half-dozen episodes later (though they do actually use the word “lesbian” which is more than can be said of a lot of yuri-themed stuff, plus an “in the manner of Lesbos” comment for some added historical flavor).  As for Oscar (the only one being more than just accused), she’s got one girl (and a few nameless courtiers) infatuated with her, but doesn’t even seem to register—I’d say straight as an arrow except for one scene where she’s (I assume unwittingly) totally putting the moves on.  She’s a bit of a cipher, however—maybe more going on upstairs than obvious.

Oscar remains an interesting character; likably manly, pretty restrained though occasionally loses it in particularly injust situations, and has a very, very low-key thing going with Andre—mostly “just friends” despite some obvious interest. The “I’m a woman living as a man’s man out of duty” angle is toned way down after the first few episodes, also—she’s pretty straightforward just a soldier doing her job with very little personal life after that, at least thus far.  Totally a wimp, too—the French Revolution isn’t her fault, but her inability to point out the obvious because she’s just too nice isn’t helping.

On that cipher note, the one big flaw in the characterization is that the series has a tendency to have people (particularly Oscar) be very observant with subtle goings-on when it’s important to the plot, and then completely oblivious the rest of the time.  I’m left wondering if Oscar is dense with flashes of brilliance of if the writing is just uneven.

Speaking of the cipher thing, that’s my biggest complaint with the art, actually—the character expressions often just plain don’t match up with what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. Particularly Oscar and even Andre, rather than having exaggerated emotional responses, frequently have sort of smug half-smiles even when they’re saying something serious. At first it made me think of them as kind of weird, but after a while I realized it’s just some serious disconnect in the artwork—the voice acting matches the plot fine, and is surprisingly good all around (Oscar in particular sounds powerful but still somewhat feminine—reminds me of Aya Hisakawa’s spectacular performance as Youko in 12 Kingdoms three decades later). The character animation is otherwise not particularly bad for the era—somewhat stiff, but there are a few above-average bits as well. The music is similarly out of synch with the plot; some scenes that are, so far as I can tell, intended to be taken as showing the nobility as out of touch are paired with overblown pretty music that makes it seem like the soundtrack is idealizing the wealthy lifestyle and the people living it much more than the series actually does.

A better soundtrack and character animators actually paying attention to what the characters are doing would really have helped a lot.

On the plus side, the rest of the character animation seems to have improved somewhat after maybe 20 episodes.

Historically, at least as far as Wikipedia can be trusted, it’s relatively accurate when it comes to general goings on. Obviously some villainous plots have been added, and Oscar of course didn’t exist and so a lot of what she’s involved in is fiction, but the most major villains and significant characters are proving to be ones with at least some historical accuracy.

Final thought:  It’s not a big deal, but there are a few blatant continuity flubs that are kind of amusing if you notice. Oscar gets stabbed, very clearly, in the back… then in the next episode it’s discussed at length how her arm is injured.  Earlier, they go into a one-room flat at street level, then jump out of the back window… which is a 3-story drop into a river.  Theoretically that could be possible, but I doubt it.

Overall, though, enjoying it more than I expected to.  It will be very interesting to see where it goes once the Revolution gets in full swing.

Valkyria Chronicles: Great Game, Great Anime

I’m going to do a full review of this once I’ve finished it, but I’ve been playing through slowly with friends, and figured I wanted to make some notes along the way.

If you asked me what the best anime I’d seen recently was, Valkyria Chronicles would be in the running. “But wait,” I hear, “that’s a video game, not anime.”

True, and not. Yes, it’s a PS3 game, but one of the only two legitimate complaints I’ve heard about it happens to make it good anime. Essentially the game is set up thusly: In each of the roghly 18 chapters you watch a series of a few medium-to-long cinematic scenes that lay out the story. You spend some time fine-tuning your squad of conscripts and their gear, then enter a battle; these can take over an hour to complete (and that’s if you don’t lose several times due to poor planning or strategy), and are large, creative, and not even slightly repetitive. Then you watch the next series of cinematics showing the aftermath of the battle and the lead up to the next.

People complain about there being too much talking; I say you get a half hour of quality anime between your strategy sessions. In fact (and I tested this on Akemi, who wasn’t interested in the game part) you can go back and watch through the cinematics in order and it plays like about a decent TV-season’s worth of war drama, just without most of the action scenes (which would be the battles you’re playing). You won’t have quite the attachment to the characters, but they’re still interesting and likable.

The cinematics themselves are split between “big” scenes, which are fully acted out visually and scored appropriately, and the “talking” scenes, which are closer to an illustrated radio drama—they’re fully voiced, but the game waits for you to hit a button after each bit of dialogue and there’s only a headshot of the character talking and emoting. The radio parts are actually plenty interesting even by themselves; the fully acted scenes just kick it up a notch in the visual department. They also include the only time I can think of in a game where what is effectively a boss fight is shown in a cinematic and I had no complaints at all (in the game’s defense, it is a “cool” fight, not a strategic one, and wouldn’t have worked in the strategy setup anyway).
The visuals are just plain gorgeous; the game uses a rendering engine that looks like hand-drawn lineart with pencil coloring and watercolor backgrounds, and it is so good that for the most part any still from the game would pass for hand-drawn if you didn’t look closely. It looks just as good in motion—like quality hand-drawn-style animation. The gameplay portions use exactly the same engine and style, so there’s no transition at all between the two. The only things that I can even count as flaws are a few annoying clipping issues during the game itself and maybe (maybe) that the insides of the characters’ mouths can look a little too detailed in the cinematics. If you’re paying attention and nitpicking.

Bottom line is, it’s flat-out, no-holds-barred beautiful.

The acting in Japanese is uniformly good and well-cast. The English is a lot more spotty; the writing isn’t too bad, but the acting is uneven and I didn’t like some of the casting in as much as I listened to. On the fortunate side, it’s easy to switch to Japanese dialogue, and that switches everything, including character voices during the action sections. On the down side, it feels a little like an afterthought, in that the subtitles are transcriptions of the English dialogue, which differs significantly in the details from the Japanese, and there are no subtitles at all for the comments the characters make during battles (none of which are important to the plot, but they’re colorful and provide most of the personality of the dozens of characters in the squad who don’t have roles in the central plot).

As far as the game portions go, also all kinds of fun. The battles play out as an interesting combination of real-time-strategy and not-real-time strategy; each side takes a turn during which they can spend their supply of command points to move their units or issue stat-boosting orders. You have all the time you want to think, and once you’ve selected a unit to move you have live control of them. They can move a set distance and fire once per action (if they have the ammo), and you can take as long as you want to do this… but if they’re within range of enemy units, they WILL return fire. Meaning that when you’re in the thick of it you need to move fast and stay under cover. Likewise, if you position your units appropriately you can make it deadly for the enemy to approach even on your turn. Thankfully, once you enter “firing” mode, you can take all the time you want to aim (enemies “pause”), so you can rush in and then carefully pick your target; to me, this was the perfect balance of action and “take your time” strategy.

There are dozens of characters with colorful personalities to put in your squad (every one visually unique and with their own voice and written backstory), and for once it makes sense why they’re a random group of misfits—Gallia has universal conscription, and you’re in charge of a militia group of whoever you get, not the professional army (who you have something of an antagonistic relationship with, in fact). As the war drags on you get closer and closer to the bottom of the barrel. Some of them have useful talents, as well as varying degrees of negative traits. This makes for an interesting choice because there are people who just plain aren’t cut out to fight—one pacifist, for example, who can’t act after she shoots an enemy soldier. You aren’t likely to use these characters (some will in fact thank you if you don’t), and it makes sense that you wouldn’t, but you can, if you feel like it.

The variety of personalities to chose from makes every battle and slot filled unique, and since the characters level up as classes there’s no penalty for swapping your squad around to have fun or bring in people with specialized traits for a particular mission. It’s also interesting in that if somebody gets taken out during a battle and you fail to get a medic to them in a few turns, they’re dead, permanently. It’s not game-breaking, since there are still plenty of other characters to chose from, but you’ve likely become attached enough to that character as an individual that you won’t want to lose them.

There’s also the fact that some of the character traits are just plain awesome—for example Jane the flower shop girl who, it turns out, likes killing people; she’s scary and extremely effective on the front lines. Or an angel-faced engineer with a masochistic streak who gets more effective once he’s been injured. Reading their backstories and seeing the in-game effects of these (what they do in terms of game mechanics is spelled out relatively clearly) is a significant part of the fun, and makes the standard optimization grind a lot more interesting and colorful than it usually would be. Incidentally, these effects can kick in in all sorts of situations during a battle, encouraging you to put characters in situations appropriate to their strengths or weaknesses.

The game also has a huge amount of backstory in the way of written text on history, countries, culture, hardware, etc; none of it is necessary to follow the plot or enjoy the game, but if you like the setting it’s there to enjoy.

Oh, and it even has a nice mechanic built in if you end up in need of more experience or money than you’ve gained; there are “skirmishes” unlocked along the way that are essentially simplified versions of past battles that you can play as many times as you like (once you’ve won a major battle, you can’t go back to it without reverting to a previous save); this lets you hone your skills, build up experience and research funds (your rewards for good performance on the battlefield), and also try to get that scenario “just right” for an A ranking, which can be quite challenging (grinding out a victory is relatively easy; winning quickly and efficiently can be quite difficult).

As a game there is really only one minus, if you don’t consider the lengthy plot scenes to be a negative: The AI can be funky. It’s not usually outright stupid, but it will occasionally make obvious mistakes or do things that don’t make much sense, and while it can give you a welcome edge in the sometimes vicious battles where you’re badly outnumbered and outgunned, it’s a little unsatisfying. Other times, weirdly, it can be brutally effective.

I’m a few missions from the end now, and I have to say this is easily among the most all-around satisfying games I’ve played in recent memory. It’s moderately challenging and not at all frustrating—if you’re careful and plan well, you can probably hammer out a victory in any of the missions on the first try. It’s fun, it’s dramatic, it grabs you from a story standpoint, it’s full of likable characters, and the gameplay is as solid as the top-quality anime-style cinematic sequences.

Really, it’s just plain good stuff. If you’re even slightly into strategy games, or alternately want to watch a neat anime show about an alternate WWII Europe with just a touch of magic (actually, more accurately, magic-like abilities), this is the game to play.

Rose of Versailles First Impression

Rose of Versailles, for those unfamiliar, is a classic shoujo manga and anime series from the mid-’70s.  Actually, it’s pretty much the classic shoujo series from that era, if not ever—kinda defined the genre.  Akemi (the real person, not the site mascot), like a whole lot of people, was a big fan.  When I asked her if there was anything she wanted to see, that was the answer I got, so…

A few episodes in, and I can see the appeal.  The story takes place shortly before the French Revolution, and centers on Oscar, a girl who, on account of a very disappointed father with one too many girls born, slapped his daughter with the unconventional name and spent her youth training her in swordfighting and generally manly arts.  Everyone is quite aware that Oscar is a she, and though (even knowing this) a lot of ladies are smitten by her, I’m told she’s pretty straight.  She’s also brusque, manly, and a little on the violent side, which makes for an interesting character; she’s got a rather cheerful male retainer/sidekick who’s the obvious love-interest, though their relationship is pretty man-to-man thus far.

Anyway, Oscar, being a skilled swords(wo)man, quickly gets picked to lead the guards in charge of protecting the young Marie Antoinette, an Austrian who’s just been married off to the crown prince of France as part of a peace deal.  Historical fiction, obviously, though I assume the general politics, historical flow, and at least some of the principle figures are real people (Oscar, of course, isn’t).  Wikipedia will be helping me not learn a completely confused version of French history at some point here, I sense.

So the history is interesting, the characters are thus far broad but also pretty interesting (Marie Antoinette is established thus far as nice enough but a complete ditz, which sort of lines up with what little I know about reality), acting is expectedly broad but the casting is interesting.  And, the first episode features a knock-down-drag-out fistfight between Oscar and her potential love interest.  That right there was enough to keep me interested in where it’s going.

Otherwise raging shoujo, for both good and bad.  Art is ’70s-style but decent (typically detailed eyes, which are the best part); heavy on the abstract backgrounds, and sparkles everywhere, offset by some not-bad backgrounds and a bit of nice architecture.  Also some passably dark settings for something from the garish era of coloring.  Character animation is of course pretty stiff, but not awful.  The faces are mostly above-average in expressiveness for the era, which is good, although Oscar seems to have only two expressions:  Studly and angry, and studly and slightly smug, though the latter doesn’t seem to match very well with what she’s saying or doing—seems more like “she’ll look coolest with this expression” than anything.

Subtle, it’s not.  Villains are obvious within about a second and a half, and the social “battles” (amounts thus far to Marie slighting the king’s mistress pointedly) are far more overkill than the swordfights—dramatic freeze-frames, musical flourishes, plenty of internal-monologue scheming and screaming.  That music in general is somewhere between overblown and outright ridiculous—not a strong point, and when you add in the somewhat harsh audio from way back it’s kinda grating.

The court battle isn’t particularly holding my attention—seems hugely petty, and frankly I can see why you’d have a revolution brewing even if everybody else wasn’t starving or oppressed.  Oscar wants nothing to do with it, so I maintain hope that she’s going to pull things back in a more interesting direction.  (And it’s not that I only find swordfights dramatic or something, I just don’t much care for petty social bickering between characters I dislike on all sides.)

Only other comment so far is that all the characters start out at about 14.  While I assume this is to have Oscar be the same age as Marie Antoinette, who by necessity would be that age when she was married off to France, she and her sidekick look, act, and sound at least 20.  Again, it’s hard shoujo, so I’ll just let that slide, and at least the royals act their age (both the young crown price and bride and the more interesting looking older ones).  Oh, on that note, there are a lot of older folks, and surprisingly enough a lot of them aren’t ridiculously skinny (Oscar, of course, is); the Austrian Empress is downright big-boned.

Of course, everybody is going to die tragically by the end.  The genre demands it, although anything set a few years before the French Revolution and starring a bunch of French nobles is pretty much guaranteed to end badly for those involved.

Closing non sequitur:  The second episode left me absolutely unable to resist the urge to blurt out an Austin Powers, “It’s a man, baby!” reference.  (Not because of Oscar, there’s a cross-dressing saboteur.)