Tag Archives: Fantasy

Basically, Lord of the Rings, though it can also be in a modern setting.

Dota: Dragon’s Blood – does it know how to last hit?

Similar: Castlevania

Orphen

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

 

Watched in: English

Genre: Action Fantasy

Length: 8 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Quality production
  • Love the variety of accents
  • The elven goddess is a creepy and effective antagonist

Negatives:

  • Feels like it’s missing lore context if you aren’t familiar with the source

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Full disclosure, I know nothing about Dota 2 lore. This review comes from the perspective of someone who doesn’t play the game or read any related lore. I did play the original DotA mod a decent amount and watched a few tournaments, but to be honest, I didn’t know there was any lore to the game. A one paragraph profile per character, sure, though nothing more. As such, if you are a loremaster, your experience may vary.

For those even less familiar with the material than me, Dota 2 is the standalone sequel to the original DotA mod from Warcraft 3. The mod proved more popular than Warcraft 3 itself until game studio Valve hired key developers to make a complete game, independent of Warcraft and Blizzard. The worst business move Blizzard ever made was not capitalising on DotA and they’ve since shot themselves in the foot with their StarCraft 2 and abysmal Warcraft 3 Reforged modding policy. Valve just had to change a few character and item names to avoid direct reference to trademarks, though references are still in place – the burst fire mage Lina the Slayer, based on Lina Inverse from Slayers, is still in the game, for example. Dota 2 has gone on to reach massive heights with the largest prize pools in esports history with its world championships each year, The International.

Dota: Dragon’s Blood brings together a handful of characters from Dota 2’s large cast of “Heroes” for an adult fantasy adventure. The protagonist is Davion the Dragon Knight, who slays dragons for a living only to have the soul of an elder dragon merge with his body during a fight with a demon. He can now transform against his will into a human-dragon hybrid monster (think the Hulk). He soon joins forces with Mirana, “princess of nothing,” to stop this demon from claiming more dragon souls. Meanwhile, the elven mage Invoker plots against the elven goddess Selemene, whose sycophantic followers wreak genocide across elven lands.

The best thing I can say immediately about Dragon’s Blood – or any game to film tie-in – is its disregard for the source material’s gameplay. Unless it’s something like Wreck it Ralph where the game is the point of the story, trying to incorporate gameplay elements in a film/series is cringe inducing (see Uwe Boll films for reference). It finally feels like Hollywood is starting to grasp how to adapt games for screen. Then again, Sony’s upcoming offerings don’t look promising, so perhaps it’s only in the animation sector.

Speaking of animation, Studio Mir (The Legend of Korra) once again makes the art form a delight to behold. The action scenes are fluid and violent, even on the horror side at times. This isn’t a series for kids. The character designs are classic high fantasy and coming from a game that requires distinct silhouettes for visibility in combat, there is variety. On a world building level, again, classic fantasy except for the elves, who are far less noble than the stereotype. Love that most of them are Australian and the actors do a good job for non-natives. It matches their society better than the typical Oxford English. The world grabs me.

However, the characters are a little lacking and this is where I wonder if my unfamiliarity with the source has an effect. I have not looked into the lore since finishing the series either – want to keep my outsider’s perspective. After all, you shouldn’t need outside material to enjoy a good adaptation. Had I been well acquainted with Davion and Mirana beforehand, would they engage me? I’m not even certain if all notable characters in Dragon’s Blood are from the game. I assume so.

Mirana is supposed to be a princess of “nothing” and yet, I don’t have the impression of a princess nor do I feel the shadow of secrets from her backstory. She’s fine though not compelling. The same is true of Davion. His personality does make him entertaining – I’ll give him that.

The more interesting characters are the antagonists Selemene and the not-as-antagonistic Invoker. Selemene is the Goddess of the Moon but more akin to a goddess of lust and obsession, as she forces her followers to pledge undying love to her. She’s psychotic about this. You want a favour from her? You had better be ready to say you love her or off with your head. It sounds mundane on paper yet she is genuinely threatening. She has a much stronger presence than the main villain consuming dragon souls (I often forgot he was in the story). Against her we have Invoker, who is a sympathetic antagonist with a personal story that drives engagement. I want more of the elven subplot over the main plot.

In all, Dota: Dragon’s Blood is certainly good enough for a relative outsider to the franchise, like myself, to find reason to watch this anime. I am looking forward to the next season and that’s worth something. Riot Games has an animated series of its own on the way for their game League of Legends, which I am much more familiar with, so it will be interesting to see how that compares.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Try it. Even the Dota illiterate can enjoy this fantasy series.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Fluid Animation

Negative: None

Katanagatari – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Katanagatari

 

Similar: Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

Dororo

Mononoke

Samurai Jack

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Historical Action Adventure Romance

Length: 12 episodes (double length)

 

Positives:

  • Storybook art
  • Whimsical score
  • Fairy tale stories
  • Fun main duo

Negatives:

  • Drags at times

(Request an anime for review here.)

Katanagatari is a series of fairy tale-like stories about a woman collecting the twelve “Deviant Blades” across Edo-era Japan (unaffiliated with the Bakemonogatari series – “gatari” means “story” in Japanese, so “Sword Story” in this case). This is based on real events from history, where a Japanese ruler would declare a “sword hunt” to confiscate all swords possessed by those not native to his territory, believing it would prevent them having the means to overthrow him. Togame, strategist to the shogunate, employs the help of Shichika, current master of the Kyotouryuu style that fights barehanded and turns the body itself into a blade.

The storybook art style is immediately striking and the only selling point I needed to try this anime (several readers have since requested it). One may think it cartoonish or that this is a small children’s anime, but children would find Katanagatari unbearably dull in truth. This is for a slightly older audience and the style fits the tone.

Despite the action sounding title, dialogue is the dominant form of this anime. Each episode is double length to fit the story associated with each sword in a single uninterrupted session. While I like this idea, I don’t feel each episode justifies the extra screen time, as it does drag often for a mere 12 episodes. A variable episode length would be better – I wish all series would do this, just like the variable length of book chapters. It took me a long time to finish this series (to be fair, life keeps getting in the way too). I recommend one episode per session. However, outside of that, I can’t present any other barriers to finishing the series. Katanagatari is a good anime.

First, the main duo is tons of fun. Shichika is muscle over brains taken to an almost extreme. “I’m bad at thinking” – his words. He’s also oblivious to how to treat Togame, the woman he claims to love. He’s humorously embarrassing. By contrast, Togame is all brains and no brawn. She’s a proper lady of good upbringing, unlike this hick country fella. Yet she trips on first meeting him. She talks too much, too many big words, is carried away with her monologues, and assumes other people’s answers only to realise she misheard a minute later. A perfect contrast to Shichika.

The meeting of this art style, whimsical score, and mystical stories reminds of fairy tales, as mentioned earlier, for which you need the right mindset. Each episode is about confronting an owner of one of these swords. Naturally, they are reluctant to relinquish their powerful weapons, so a conflict ensues. Sometimes it’s a typical action scene, though often there’s more thought to it, like a moral quandary or a puzzle to solve – as seen in fairy tales.

For example, one wielder is the last swordsman in a fallen kingdom swallowed by sand. He sits in a room in the castle with his sword at the ready, capable of slashing faster than light at anyone who dares enter. If you think logically, this falls apart. How does he eat? Go to the bathroom? Why don’t they fire a cannon from outside behind him? Those aren’t questions for this type of story. In Little Red Riding Hood, you don’t worry about how the hell a wolf could ever pass for an old granny. Approach Katanagatari with that mindset and you will have a good time. I mean, one guy punches with his guns. Need I say more?

Why is it okay to ignore those questions here but not in, say, Sword Art Online 2, you may ask? No story can encompass everything, account for every possibility, or factor in every detail from reality. Would make for rather boring stories. Instead, stories choose what focus on and the style in which to deliver the message, the morality, the character study, the action – whatever. Weak stories will either execute this vision poorly or sometimes not account for something that within the logic of its world breaks the story. Sword Art Online is garbage for many reasons, but the sword versus guns problem is idiotic because if a sword is so effective and bullets are so slow, why would anyone ever choose a gun in competitive play? By the logic established within that world, no one would use a gun.

Thankfully, Katanagatari isn’t Sword Art Online.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch it. Katanagatari is unexpected in style and execution and I recommend it taken one episode per session. Cheerio!

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Stunning Art Quality

Negative: None

Castlevania – Full Series Review

Related: Castlevania Season 1 review (old)

Castlevania Season 2 review (old)

Similar: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

Hellsing Ultimate

Berserk

 

Watched in: English & Japanese

Genre: Action Fantasy Horror

Length: 32 episodes (4 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Vampire majesty
  • Faithful adaptation without getting bogged down by the source material
  • Brutally gothic in action and tone
  • Political intrigue amongst excellent villains
  • Great lore and magic

Negatives:

  • Give me more, please

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With the conclusion of the fourth season, Netflix’s Castlevania comes to a great end. Rather than do a review for the final season only, I thought I would go back and cover the full series in one place, give my overall thoughts on this triumph (no need to read the other reviews either).

My astonishment at the quality of a video game to film adaptation has been the greatest surprise throughout Castlevania’s run. I’m hoping this is the turning point where adaptations are things to look forward to rather than dread, similar to when comic books became good films more often than not. Superhero film fans are spoilt for choice these days. They don’t know of the Affleck Daredevil and Elektra days. Watching a good adaptation can sometimes make you forget the bad – the atrocious – such as Far Cry (anything by Uwe Boll, honestly), Dead or Alive, and the notorious Super Mario Bros. It’s hard to stress how weird it feels to see quality when the expectation is absolute ass.

For the newcomers, Castlevania is a long-running franchise of loosely connected games about a bloodline of vampire hunters from the Belmont family battling against creatures of the night, usually led by Dracula. The Netflix series roughly follows the third game, Dracula’s Curse, though pulls from several entries and brings much of its own material to the canvas. That last point is a key to Castlevania the animation’s success. Most adaptations fail because they don’t realise that gameplay comes first in [good] video games and trying to translate this to a cinematic only experience doesn’t work. There’s a reason the “princess is in another castle” trope is a common ailment of game stories (the recent God of War, for example), yet not often seen in film. Games use it to tack on another 5-hour gameplay world before, of course, the princess is again in another castle and you have another world to explore. It’s fine to want to be faithful to the source material, but there’s no point if it makes for a garbage film. Character, theme, tone, and style matter when adapting, not the gameplay mechanics or exact plot.

In terms of story, what makes Castlevania? Vampire hunters, vampires, monsters, magic, gothic, horror, religion, and labyrinthine castles. Your story isn’t a failure if your vampire hunter doesn’t jump and whip, jump and whip, jump and whip. It’s like those movies based on FPS games, where they think that because they have a scene in first person as a guy mows down fools with a gun, they’ve nailed it.

This series understands what makes for an engaging story in the world of Castlevania.

Enough preamble already, onto the review proper! This story opens on the meeting and courtship between the human Lisa and the vampire lord himself, Dracula. He teaches her science and medicine to help the local humans, which doesn’t please the Church, who see science as heathen magic and burn her at the stake. Dracula’s fury in response knows no equal and he unleashes a horde of demons upon the nation. Hell reigns.

Trevor Belmont, the last in his line of vampire hunters, drinks his way to the end of his days unmoved by the massacres nearby. A plea from some humans wakes him from his drunken haze and he finally does what he was born to do. He soon meets the magician Sypha.

Hearing this premise and knowing the video game origin, expectations are for little more than good guy fights series of bad guys to get to big bad guy in terms of story. However, Castlevania is so much more. In fact, there is enough material just amongst the villains to make a full series. Dracula’s court consists of vampires and humans, each with their own motivations and purpose in this story. Politics plays a larger part than action does in the conflict. They aren’t evil for the sake of evil. Dracula is the most powerful being on Earth, yet the death of his wife broke him. Isaac, one of Dracula’s Forgemasters (demon constructors), is waging a war against his own kind, whereas the other Forgemaster is a tad hesitant though no less involved. Some amongst the vampire “sisters” question their existence as vampires. Are they truly to rule for all eternity? Over everyone? The nuance to these villains (are they all villains?) particularly in later seasons had me glued to the screen.

A recurring problem in stories featuring secret societies of the supernatural is homogony within the society. The Underworld films (a guilty pleasure of mine), The Mortal Instruments, and Blade are but a few examples. How many stories have you seen where all the vampires (except maybe one) or werewolves or whatever supernatural race are the same? Where they have no lives saves for waiting around to drop from above in groups when someone walks down a back alley? They may as well be the clone troopers from Attack of the Clones for all the difference between them. This cliché stems from how people imagine other cultures. They see people in their own country are as varied as the plants and animals of the world, yet everyone in a distant country is one homogenous blob of whatever stereotype they know and not just as varied. Or the writers are just lazy. Of course, one story doesn’t have room for thousands of different personalities, but variety in what characters you do have goes a long way, even the villains.

On a hero front, Trevor’s “I’m so over this” attitude combined with his family duty makes for a fitting hero, a better choice than a typical “hero” in this gothic tale, and his chemistry with Sypha brings a touch of levity. Alucard is a more unusual character. Like his father, he’s powerful yet amongst the most mentally weak after having lived a sheltered life. I love the way he talks as well. His vocal mannerisms alone inform much of his experiences and mental state. And let’s not forget the charismatic has-been Saint Germain. What is he up to?

Even the minor characters are memorable, from the religious fanatics to the sentient demons. My only complaint with the characters is that we don’t get to see more of them. I could easily do with twice as many episodes of character interactions and vampire politics.

If action is more to your taste, Castlevania is excellent there as well. Apart from a few rough cuts, the animation is great and the action never feels generic. It’s always interesting to watch and improves with each season. Gory too, as it should be for a horror series. The massacre in episode one sets the tone perfectly.

Castlevania started as an animation to which I paid no attention. Now, I love it. It has a great start with four episodes as a proof of concept followed by a second season that brings the cast to strength, and then a third season elevates it to excellence with nuance before a final season delivers an explosive action finish. This is one of the best fantasy series I’ve seen in a long time. I can only hope future video game adaptations receive even half the care and effort as Castlevania has received.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: Watch it. Castlevania is a triumph of an adaptation and a fantasy series. I heartily recommend it.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Phenomenal VillainRiveting ActionStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Sayonara no Asa ni Yakusoku no Hana wo Kazarou

 

Similar: Wolf Children

Violet Evergarden

Mirai of the Future

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Drama Fantasy

Length: 1 hr. 55 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Beautiful to behold
  • Emotionally resonant main story
  • Great acting

Negatives:

  • Subplots are underbaked

(Request an anime for review here.)

Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms comes from Mari Okada, a veteran screenwriter of the industry, having adapted many manga to animation. She’s been involved in some anime I enjoy (Iron-Blooded Orphans, AnoHana, for example) and some I don’t think highly of (Vampire Knight chief amongst them). This is her first time directing. And what a promising debut it is.

Maquia, at its heart, is a story about motherhood and mortality. In this world reside the Iorph, an elf-like race that lives hundreds of years separate from the rest of the world. They pass the days weaving a magic cloth that records the totality of their memories as one endless history. Though Iorph live in peace, the world outside marches on with the unstoppable tide of progress and evolution. The royal family of the nearby Mezarte kingdom have long used the dragon-esque Renato as their symbol of power, but a disease has afflicted the creatures and it kills them one at a time. In search of a new symbol to prove their “divine” status, the king sends his soldiers to capture an Iorph and discover the secret to their long life – one will have to marry his son, if forced to.

The titular Maquia escapes the onslaught atop a sick Renato. As she flees into the outside world, she happens upon a camp of travellers, all slaughtered by bandits save for a lone baby. She pries the crying thing from her mother’s rigid fingers and sets her sole mission in life to protect this child at all costs. Her journey will take her into foreign lands of varied people, both good and bad, and there will be many challenges for someone so naïve of reality. However, she could have never anticipated her long life to be the greatest challenge of all.

I went into this film blind and I didn’t expect it to hit so hard. The main story of Maquia and her son is a beautiful one loaded with goodness and a pure heart. The question of what would happen if someone seemingly immortal had to raise a mortal in mortal society is a fascinating one. I love stories that explore the challenges of immortality. There is a hint of this in The Lord of the Rings, of course, and I recently saw the film The Age of Adeline about a woman who stops aging after an accident and must move house every decade to avoid anyone noticing. However, I’ve never seen one focus so wholeheartedly on the child of the immortal. They are usually a subplot. Maquia dedicates almost all attention to this emotional thread and it is a triumph. I won’t talk of it further. Experience it for yourself – the perfect Mother’s Day film as well.

Complementing the beautiful story are beautiful visuals. The film opens on the Iorph town in the mountains, a sparkling paradise of ivory towers, glittering pools, and greenery that lifts the spirits. It even does bloom correctly! The wider world has just as much detail and visual greatness to drink in. I love it all, from the design of the main city of Mezarte to the wrought wood interior of a village shop. Nothing feels lazy or cut short by the art department.

However, not all is great in the world of Maquia, for now I must talk of the subplots. I don’t think a single one succeeds. There are three subplots. The most important is that of the kidnapped Iorph woman forced to marry the human prince and bear his child. Then we have the Iorph man on a quest to rescue her. And lastly, there is the involvement of other nations in a war. All three threads are so underbaked that the viewer has to make so many assumptions and fill in so many gaps to make them interesting.

It feels as if there wasn’t enough screen time for everything, so cuts were made to preserve the main story. Of course, the main is most important, but if a subplot no longer fulfils its purpose, then it has to change or leave altogether.

The problems are most notable with the kidnapped Iorph. The king orders her kidnapping, marriage, and child bearing to add the Ioprh’s long life to his bloodline. That makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is just about everything else. First, the knight who leads the raid on the Iorph town. He orders the killing of anyone who resists – not a kind bone in his body – yet later scenes have him acting as if he cares for the woman. Did he fall in love with her at some point? If so, and you want us to care an iota, you need to show this transformation. How are we supposed to believe he goes from one of the most evil people in her life to someone that cares about her? Maybe that isn’t even the case and he’s the same as ever. Who knows? Maquia doesn’t show us enough to get answers.

Deeper in the same thread, I have more questions. Why doesn’t she escape when given the chance? She tries to explain that she can’t because of her daughter, but she’s never seen her and there’s no reason she can’t leave now and get her daughter out later. Will the king kill the daughter if the mother leaves? Maybe. There’s no indication of the sort because, again, there isn’t enough time in this thread. Why didn’t she escape before the birth when able? I keep waiting for it to go into detail, but nothing unfurls before the finale.

The Iorph lover’s subplot has too many spoilers to detail here, but it’s the same case of missing detail. We cut to these subplots in between extended sections of great main story content, with timeskips in each case, though the detail worsens the further we go. The problem isn’t confusion. None of these are hard to understand. They are just so listless, void of the emotion that permeates the main plot. A woman forced into marriage, separated from her own child; a man out to rescue his lover for decades – these stories should hit hard, just like the primary thread. They don’t. The contrast in narrative quality between the main and subplots is night and day.

All considered though, main story is most important and Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms executes that brilliantly, well enough to recommend itself despite any side issues. It is worth your time.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch it. Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms is a beautiful, heartfelt film I can recommend to anyone.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Extensive Character DevelopmentFluid AnimationStunning Art Quality

Negative: None

Utawarerumono – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Utawarerumono

 

Related: Utawarerumono: The False Faces (sequel)

Similar: Tears to Tiara

Vision of Escaflowne

Scrapped Princess

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Drama Fantasy Science Fiction

Length: 26 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Sounds good on paper, I guess?

Negatives:

  • Lazy fantasy
  • Packed with anime clichés
  • No interesting characters
  • Final act twist

(Request an anime for review here.)

Utawarerumono, an anime I remember most for the long title and whose review I’ve had in the bank waiting for completion since a year ago. Two? I don’t remember. Wait… Yep, file created January 2019. I am not keen to write this review because, simply, I am not keen on this anime. Frankly, it’s boring. The clichés are numerous, the fantasy is lazy, and no character grabs my attention. You know you’re in for a rough time when even the OP doesn’t have great art or animation.

This anime centres on a mysterious man found in the woods. He can’t remember his past, who he is, and he wears a mask that can’t come off. A local village of animal people take him in and call him Hakuoro, curious about his lack of a furry tail or ears. Whatever he was in the past, Hakuoro becomes a leader in this village and leads a revolution against the oppressive emperor.

The story isn’t immediately boring. I like a good revolution. The character designs scream laziness and their implementation are the first warning sign that little effort will go into anything. These villagers have animal tail and ears, yet are human in every other way, from behaviour to society. Their part-animal design is pointless. There’s also something I hate about Hakuoro’s one defining characteristic of wearing a mask all the time. Is try hard the phrase I’m looking for? I don’t know. Just lame. I can’t imagine anyone caring about the mystery of who’s under the mask.

Before long, the story shows similar flaws by dipping into every shounen cliché in the library. Honour at the risk of everyone’s lives, grandstanding, characters than can’t contribute on the battlefield because they aren’t main characters, and the skinny girl with a giant sword no one else can lift for some inexplicable reason are but a few examples. Some characters have supernatural abilities with no explanation of how or the limitations of said powers.

For an anime with significant time dedicated to battles in the uprising, the strategy isn’t clever. At all. Did any second thought go towards this? Don’t know.

On paper, this story sounds good – a man rises up to become emperor with the aid of a part-animal race, yet everything has such average execution and never goes beyond the obvious that it isn’t interesting. One leader is joyous and rearing to tell how he slaughtered the enemy one second, then becomes melancholic the next. That’s Utawarerumono’s attempt at conflict.

So bored am I with Utawarerumono that when the big act three twist reveals itself, I just sigh. The twist upends everything in the plot, which sounds like it should wake me up, but when elements prior offer no engagement, it’s hard to care. Also, I don’t like when this twist type is in the third act. Not to give too much away, though using such a twist so late tends to nullify much of the build-up and work put in by earlier acts. It benefits as a first act twist to invert the protagonist’s world and throw them into the unknown, or as the mid-point turn (if well foreshadowed) to shake things up. Using it late has an effect similar to an amnesia twist, just not as bad. Utawarerumono does make it worse by having an amnesiac protagonist. Ironically, I almost forget that detail.

I’m not sure why Utawarerumono is even on my list. I can’t remember.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: For specific fantasy anime fans only. Being a fantasy fan isn’t enough to enjoy Utawarerumono. You must also be a fan of specific anime fantasy clichés.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: None

Negative: 

Hollow World Building