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Valkyria Chronicles Post-viewing Notes

Boy did they screw this show up.

It had a somewhat shaky start, but was looking pretty good around the midpoint, during the liberation of Fouzen. Different from the game’s plot, but the ways in which it fleshed out things with Zakka and Rosie was a strong point. Turns out that was pretty much the strong point. Everything from there until the final two episodes is a rapid slide downhill into angst-overkill, uncomfortably slow pacing, overblown histrionics, and weak characterization for pretty much everybody but Faldio. Oh, and a complete lack of action outside the wicked (yet wickedly spoiler-riffic) second-season intro. The last two episodes do finally pull it together somewhat on all fronts, but it’s too little too late.

It’s telling—and saddening—that there are exactly four specific things that the anime did better, or at least as well as, the game’s plot sections. It’s tragic that the game is between somewhat and vastly superior in pretty much every other detail and general metric of quality storytelling—narrative flow, pacing, dramatic tension, character development, action, logic, emotional impact, twists, and “big” scenes around which a plot is built. When you take into account that the game is, by definition, broken up by hour-long strategy/action gameplay portions and much of the plot consists of dialogue with character headshots, nothing more, it’s both impressive how good the game’s story was and how badly the anime flubbed an adaptation of it. Really, when an illustrated radio drama of the same material is kicking your butt in terms of dramatic quality, you’re doing something very, very wrong.

The good areas were: The final denouement of Maximillian and fate of Faldio were cleaner and more logical in the anime (that was really the only flaw in the game’s last few chapters—it worked dramatically in concept, but felt contrived). There was some cool stuff with the tank in the very early episodes. Faldio’s character, and the romantic angle with Alicia, is more fleshed out. And the liberation of Fouzen had some interesting additional angles between Zakka and Rosie.

I suppose if you want to be generous you could also say that Jager and Selveria get some additional fleshing out, though both of their characters stopped making much sense late in the story and of course Jager never actually does anything but look cool in the anime (also, what’s with the random shot of Jager wandering by in the epilogue?).

Everything else is a laundry list of what not to do, particularly since there’s such a clear example of how the exact same material should have been done. There’s the whole Alicia/Welkin romantic tension thing—it spends way too long dragging the angst out (nearly the entire second season), and when things finally do come together for them it’s got nowhere near the impact of some of the beautifully romantic—and emotionally potent, not to mention visually beautiful to boot—scenes late in the game.

Character-wise, there’s Welkin, who goes from a quirky but capable commander who pulls miracles out of dark situations with a combination of clever strategy and crazy plans in the game (and early part of the anime) to a bland foil for Faldio who really doesn’t do much of anything for half the series, nor give any indication why people would be so willing to follow him unwaveringly. Alicia is better, but also sort of a slave to the plot late in the anime, in comparison to the much less overblown, but also more engaging, treatment of her newfound abilities in the game’s story. Adding in that the game is hamstrung somewhat by the need to keep her at a reasonable power level for gameplay purposes and it’s particularly glaring how much worse the anime feels in contrast. Selvaria is better, but even her characterization sort of falls apart, in comparison to the much more sharp construction of the tragedy of her fate in the game.

Or how about the failure to build drama. By not taking the time to elaborate on the history of Gallia and the Darksen Calamity, the eventual reveal relative to reality-versus-history-books doesn’t have anywhere near the impact it could have. Same for the reveal with Alicia—it was already hinting blatantly at that early on and the second-season intro completely blows it, whereas the game did a very good job of keeping its cards close to its chest, in particular putting the revealing bits out-of-sequence so you only saw them after the reveal.  From “Ooh, surprising.” and “Clever way of laying out the story segments.” to complete dramatic giveaway.

Same goes for the aftermath of her transformation—the angst is drawn out so long you stop caring. In fact, despite you only hearing about it in the game, there’s more impact when she talks about how some people are worshipping her as a god and others are afraid of her than the anime manages in several episodes of hammering it in. (Of course, since they almost completely failed to set up the quasi-religion surrounding the Valkyria in the anime, they didn’t exactly have the option…)

Even the handling of Isara’s sudden death seemed less abrupt and wrenching, though I’ll admit that might have been because I knew it was coming. The aftermath initially started out looking like an interesting version of coping for Welkin, but went on too long and then stumbled at the end with unnecessary histrionics. (Honestly—crumpling in a heap sobbing is more dramatically effective than slightly-overacted screaming.) Worse was that it had set up Welkin’s deadness as a contrast to his usual cheerful demeanor, except after that point he continues to act rather similar—which is to say boring—for the remainder of the series.

Then there’s the total lack of action for the entire second season. Yes, it’s drama, but it’s also a war. Frankly, after the first half-dozen episodes (where there’s some nifty tank combat), there’s almost nothing at all until very late when there’s some superpowered Valkyrian fighting and one bit with Faldio doing some actual battle strategy. “War” sequences consist of people crouching behind cover talking, and occasionally firing some shots at inspecific targets… and there are barely any of those. Honestly, it’s based on a strategy game—you could at least make the effort to have the tiny amounts of combat in a war story look a bit more realistic. There’s a serious lack of any sense of competence in the battles, and way too much emphasis on anime-cliche screaming. The last couple episodes finally equip people with some more appropriate weapons and let them do a little real combat, but even there it’s on the awkward side. No tanks to be found anywhere, either, which was sad since the animators obviously knew how to do that right.

Most glaring on the action front was the big fight between the two Valkyrians—the game’s short cinematic was flat-out spectacular (heck, it’s what would be a boss fight, except you’re just watching instead of playing… and it’s so cool I didn’t mind), particularly the character animation of the barely-conscious Alicia staggering out onto the battlefield. That was a fantastic moment in the game, from the sense that Alicia really is just barely able to stay on her feet to the short-but-awesome fight that follows. The anime tries to do something similar, and while it’s not bad, it’s also not anywhere near as memorable. Well, that, and that the second-season intro was by far the best action scene in the entire series—it goes and gets you primed for something it never even considers delivering on (nor does anything even close to the scene depicted ever happen).

And if you want singular images, everything from the drawbridge battle, to the big kiss, to the bittersweet romantic moment shared in Bruhl, to the spectacular rescue at the end tying Isara back into things was just plain far better in the game’s version. The only one the anime didn’t flub was the attack of the Marmota on the Gallian capital, which they had the good sense to pull almost directly from the game. Oh, and the epilogue was drastically better in the game.

Other frustrations: They picked an odd set of specific characters to be the core Squad 7 members—Edy and Homer, I understand, but what is 12-year-old shock trooper Aisha—one of the few borderline-silly characters in the game, and the closest thing it even has to a “moe”-type— doing in there? Not to mention the background buzz-cut guy who’s so forgettable I can’t even remember his name. But what really doesn’t make sense is that, despite having 26 episodes with plenty of extra time—the whole second season seemed to drag—they offer essentially zero backstory or side-stories for any of them. Heck, you learn more about their personalities and backstory from the single page of descriptive text and their random comments during battles that the game provides than the anime bothers with. Even an episode of 5-minute vignettes about how each got into the militia would have been an improvement. (I’m also moderately enraged that Jane never shows up—heck, even in-joke character Vyse gets a cameo.)

The bottom line is you could take the major plot sequences of the game, string them together and edit it down to 26 half-hour episodes, and it’d have been better in almost every way but amount (not quality) of character animation than a medium-budget 2-season anime adaptation. Disappointing to put it mildly.

Two Symbolic Takes on WWII

You want a cracked idea for a series, try this: A history lesson about WWII with each country represented by a cute stereotypical character acting out metaphorically actual events in gooey-eyed, pastel-colored comic form. That’s Hetalia Axis Powers. As if it weren’t cracked enough, make every episode 5 minutes long and the central character the ineffective little Italia (presumably the title comes from the combination of “heta”—to suck at—and “Italia”). Given, Italy was about the lamest partner in an evil empire ever, so that’s pretty funny. Oh, and of course it’s made by not only one of the losers, but by a country rather unambiguously on the wrong side of the whole thing.

The whole thing sort of breaks my mind, but at 5 minutes a pop I can take it in small doses, and the number of brutal pot-shots at pretty much everyone involved are truly impressive. (Including Japan—oh, man, is there a low blow about their skill at “miniaturizing things.”) I’m mostly curious where they’re going to go once they get into the meat of it—currently it’s mostly backstory of European history as seen through the filter of “Poor little Italia getting kicked around by Austria—he just likes food and women.”

Now, contrast this with Valkyria Chronicles, which tells an entirely different re-envisioning of WWII from the perspective of basically Switzerland, if Switzerland were Lithuania and had a lot of oil. Valkyria Chronicles doesn’t portray either the Empire (Axis stand-in, though they’re geographically more Russia) or Federation (Allies) particularly favorably, though in general there is a distain for corrupt leadership in every country involved, including the good guys’. What’s interesting about it is that it does address the genocide head-on; the Darcsens stand in for Jews, and are strongly discriminated against for historical reasons by nearly everyone, including many of the main characters, though Gallia isn’t as overtly genocidal as the Empire. Both the game and anime have done a reasonably good job at portraying baseless racial discrimination in a country where, though not unheard of, that isn’t something understood on nearly as visceral a level as in many less-homogenous places.

As for the anime adaptation, I just passed the midpoint of the two seasons and it seems to have found its footing and be getting progressively stronger. As it has progressed the deviations from the storyline of the game have gotten larger, and because it’s had time to build its own path (or maybe just because I’ve gotten used to it) they seem to be fitting together better. The racial aspects—particularly Rosie’s discrimination—also seem to be a little more central and are noticeably stronger in terms of emotional punch compared to early episodes. I’d say overall it seems to have gotten more comfortable with mature themes, tossing in some significantly stronger material than the relatively innocent early episodes. The drama in general seems to be working better now, though the focus on the romantic aspect—or, really, a much stronger focus on the competition between Welkin and Faldio—has been a little heavy in terms of balance.

The one thing that has disappointed me is the lack of action. The story has enough substance to stand without much, but for a war story there’s an awful lot of talking and down time. What action there is has been a little disappointing as well—being based on a strategy game, I was hoping for a little more realism and sense of space in the battles than there is. Also, everybody just has carbines most of the time—Largo has used his antitank lance maybe once. This is particularly disappointing given how spectacularly they handled the tank combat—on the handful of occasions the Edelweis has gotten to strut its stuff it has an amazing sense of speed and mass. Welkin hasn’t gotten quite as many crazy nature-geek moments as I was looking for, either—Faldio seems to be doing more, though in a way I suppose that’s leaving more room for Welkin to develop as a leader.

On that not note, Isara—Darksen mechanic and adopted little sister to hero Welkin—is the only substantive character change that bothered me; she has a quiet but blunt way of dealing with people in the game that came across very well, giving her a unique character and making it understandable why she didn’t get along well with people. In the anime the blunt aspect of her personality has been toned down, leaving her just quiet and forthright; still interesting, but not as distinctive, and it leaves more of the burden of people not working well with her on outright prejudice. On the positive side, she’s gotten a low-key romantic sub-plot with a new character added for the anime (basically to replace the mechanic in the game, who didn’t do much until later on).

Oh, by the way, do NOT watch the opening of the second season if you haven’t already played through the game.  It is much better than the first season opening—great visuals and a decent song—but it is one GIGANTIC spoiler. Hugely disappointing, since they’ve otherwise been very good about keeping one of the two big reveals under wraps, and especially given how punchy and exciting the teaser/intro of the game was without giving much away.  The outro is also less weird and incongruent, so that’s also good.  Apparently no Jane, though.  How can you stick in 12-year-old shock trooper Aisha and leave out Jane?!

Valkyria Chronicles Downloadable Content: The Edy Detachment

Still working on a proper Valkyria Chronicles game review (the anime is holding things together reasonably well as of the 6th episode, if never particularly wowing, either).  In the mean time I’ve just finished playing through two of the downloadable content items available for it, and wanted to toss up some notes for those thinking about buying.

The first of them, the Edy Detachment, will set you back US$4.99 in the PS3 online store, and adds a single mission to play through, with multiple potential ends.  The set-up is pretty simple; you have a preselected squad of some of the most humorous Squad 7 members dropped in the middle of a heap of Imperial troops and tanks.  Goal 1 is to survive three rounds of chaos without any of the Imperials setting foot in your base area, followed by a rescue that requires you to get Edy to the far end of the map while having the remaining members hold down the fort.

In terms of mechanics, you’ve got a group of 7th level characters on a daytime version of the Veggie Incident map, and a lot of enemies.  Enemy reinforcements arrive at the beginning of every round, just in case you were getting delusions of clearing the entire map (or walking away from your base).  Why might you want to leave the base?  Because it’s getting rained on by mortar fire.

Between that and the two tanks in immediate range, the map starts out brutal and will have you scampering about trying not to get mortared while desperately trying to keep a wayward scout from setting foot in your base.  Certainly challenging and full of danger, and combined with the motley crew you have to work with, it has a different enough flavor from any of the main game missions to make it memorable.

From the plot end, it takes things in a humorous direction, and it’s even more fun to see a set of characters other than the main plot’s core interact and get some speaking lines.  You’ve got a colorful crew: Hothead self-appointed leader Edy, Jann the huge, girly-man lancer, Suzie the pacifist scout (remember, she sometimes just can’t bring herself to actually shoot), the angelic, fragile, masochistic engineer Homer, and deadpan straight-woman sniper Marina.  The one switch-up is a new character:  A driven Darksen shocktrooper named Lynne who joined up after the events of the Marberry Shore (timeline-wise, this presumably takes place shortly afterward).

The section opens with the amusing group bickering in the framed-head-cutscene style (there are, sadly, no full-body sequences), proceeds through combat with a few bits of dramatic back-and-forth between the characters and enemy, and wraps up with a second cutscene that varies in length and content depending on how well you finish.  A C rank gets you something quick and funny, B a much longer, somewhat touching scene, and an A rewards you with something rather hilarious (I won’t give away what, but it’s the most over-the-top bit of humor in the entire game and I’d say worth the trouble of finishing in 4 rounds).

It also does include the full dialogue in both Japanese and English, sticking with whichever you have set.  I was very glad to see this, since I played through with the Japanese dialogue, and the acting on these characters is colorful and solid (I didn’t listen to the English version).  On the down side, the text of the dialogue, as in the game proper, matches the English script, which means it differs significantly from the Japanese in a few spots.

In all, the character interaction is fun, funny, definitely a change of pace, and I thoroughly enjoyed the selectively more humorous spotlight on a different set of characters in the game.

So that leaves the question of whether it’s worth five bucks.  Frankly, for most people, probably not.  The mission itself, even with the second part, is short—maybe a half-dozen rounds long, much of which will be spent jogging back and forth in your base to avoid those big, scary mortar circles.  The plot is a lot of fun, but again there isn’t even a fully-animated visual section.  Substantive dialogue from a different set of characters is a definite selling point (half of the appeal of the game, after all, is the involved story), but that brings me to the most frustrating part of all:  Lynne, so far as I can tell, does not get added to the squad in the main game.  (Somebody please correct me if I’m wrong.) This seems like a rather glaring oversight, particularly since the 2nd downloadable story nugget does add something.

Bottom line is, I thoroughly enjoyed it while it lasted, but for 1/10 the price of the whole game it’s pretty lean on material and doesn’t even give any bonus goodies.  The same can not be said for the other two, which I will cover later.

[On a peripherally related rant, I like (and by like, I mean the opposite) how Sony sets prices like $4.99 in the PS3 store, but only lets you add money in $5 chunks.  So you save a penny, except it's stranded in your account.  Unless, I suppose, you buy 100 items, at which point you've got a buck extra.  At least Nintendo uses nice, round numbers.]