Tag Archives: Tragedy

An event shakes the character’s world apart. Often coupled with Melancholy, but not mutually inclusive.

Castlevania Season 2 – Review

Related: Castlevania Season 1

Castlevania Season 3 (TBR)

Similar: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

Hellsing Ultimate

Berserk

 

Watched in: English & Japanese

Genre: Fantasy Action Horror

Length: 8 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Improves upon the strong first season.
  • Vampire political intrigue.
  • New characters.
  • Oozes atmosphere.

Negatives:

  • No Church.
  • Ends too quickly.

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We last left Trevor Belmont and his companions in the search for the means to find Dracula’s castle and slay the master of the keep. I left Castlevania with a positive impression though uncertain of whether it could hold up beyond what was, essentially, the opening to a series. Much to my surprise, yet again, Castlevania is superior to what I had anticipated by way of an interesting narrative focus.

Season 2 opens in the past with the arrest of Lisa (Dracula’s wife) by the Church for the “witchcraft” of medicine. While this is a retread, it gives us more detail and makes for a chilling first scene when you know what happens to everyone for ignoring her warning.

After this, we jump to Dracula’s war room, where his strongest vampires from across the kingdom have gathered to plot humanity’s annihilation. However – and this is where the brilliance started – he selects two humans as his generals to lead the scourge, much to the disgust of some vampires, especially one of the Vikings. Beyond their deep-seated loathing for humanity and their tactical ability, these two have the only clear heads in the army not driven by bloodthirst.

Now, at this point, it’s just a good idea (and I’ve harped on often enough about the importance of execution over ideas in past reviews). The brilliance comes in the backstory of these characters, contrasted against the vampires, and their actions going forward. They are simultaneously committing some of the most heinous atrocities against humanity while conveying sympathy. One of the two, Isaac, is Dracula’s Forgemaster. He doesn’t forge weapons, however. His speciality is bringing the dead to life, often forged into demons of great power, though he has equal inclination to revive a fallen puppy as a companion. Makes for an interesting ability.

The appointment of these two as generals leads to much unease among the vampires, many playing politics to gain power or favour with Dracula. There are whispers among the ranks about Dracula’s soundness of mind after the loss of his wife. How will vampires feed if he wipes out all humans? Carmilla the vampire queen of many legends is particularly sly and sharp of tongue. I relish the political drama she brings to the court. I did not expect politics, of all things, to be such a significant portion of the narrative and so well executed.

I haven’t talked much of Trevor and his two companions so far because they aren’t the focus this season. They have enough to do for the eight episodes as they return to Trevor’s home for blessed weapons and a means to access the castle, but the focus is truly in Dracula’s camp. It’s a bold risk to shift from the protagonist. It works. Sure, we could have more of the trio in addition to all screen time with the opposition, but that would go into overtime.

Castlevania Season 2 isn’t all blood, politics, and goodness, unfortunately. The end feels too quick. For seven episodes, we have methodical build up packed with social and political dynamics, feeding us juicy backstory and character motivations until we reach the final episode where, suddenly, so much of it wraps up with too many questions and possibilities remaining unexplored. It needs more. It gives the impression that they didn’t know episode 8 would be the last until they started work on it, realising they needed to close several threads.

I want more – more vampire society, more politics, and more lore (and bring the Church back! Tap that potential). I am grateful to know a third season is on the way. Even so, they could have gone deeper with Dracula’s arc in particular.

Still, I am far from disappointed with Castlevania Season 2. The action is as gory as before (you see someone decapitated by hanging from a bladed noose), the orchestral soundtrack is a perfect match to the atmosphere, and the acting is still quality, now with more accents from the corners of Dracula’s kingdom.

I love that this outdid the first season.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch it. Castlevania Season 2 improves upon the first season in almost every way and now goes far enough into the story to warrant investment. If season 3 is any better, I’ll have to consider a Very High rating.

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Ga-Rei-Zero – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Ga-Rei: Zero

 

Similar: Canaan

Blood+

Elfen Lied

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Supernatural Action

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Music is rather good.

Negatives:

  • Lacks weight.
  • Fails at connecting us to characters.
  • Meaningless yuri bait.
  • Narrative doesn’t resonate.

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Ga-Rei-Zero is the prequel anime to the manga Ga-Rei, following the tale of Kagura and the fate that forced her to fight her sister Yomi. They are agents of the Supernatural Disaster Countermeasures Division (SDCD) to slay monsters.

I love a good tragedy, especially one that pits ally against ally before the end. The key to a tragic tale, such as this one, is to make the audience care about the characters and their relationship before they must kill each other. This is especially true when you know events are going to turn for the worse and you’re pleading for them to stay allies, stay happy, but nothing you say can change the inevitable. So tragic. So good!

I’m sad to say that Ga-Rei-Zero doesn’t succeed in that respect. These girls are too boring, too clichéd to care an ounce about. The have the typical dynamic of yuri bait anime, with one as the strong katana girl, the other as timid and weak. To be fair, as a slight defence of Yomi, the generic katana girl type wasn’t as oversaturated at time of release in 2008.

These foster sisters have no development. Their relationship grows by way of fan service for character “building” – naked baths with boobs squished against the other’s back, making out randomly, and other yuri bait that is incongruous to the tone they try to convey. Emotional development comes in the form of staring off into space accompanied by a slow pan. That’s another problem. The cinematography is so boring. Every composition is stock standard with a slow pan. Moving manga, as they call it. There’s no detail, no art to anything in the visuals.

The writing is similar, though it’s not so bad that makes it to the ranks of Vampire Knight. It’s just so dull, without any creativity. And the exposition. The first time these girls meet, Yomi dumps the full backstory for Kagura, her father, and herself. Wow! If you told me they made Ga-Rei-Zero by plugging parameters into an anime-creating AI to generate a series, I’d believe you.

The world building lacks artistry. The powers are vague, they try mixing things up with new weapons, such as a gun sword and combat wheelchair, but there’s no cohesion to any of these. (That AI theory is sounding more plausible by the minute.)

Ga-Rei-Zero also needs better narrative resonance – the tying up of a story from start to finish. It opens with an SDCD squad called to fight monsters and dying, followed by the reveal of Yomi as the evil sister to Kagura. They went for a “flashforward” opening, wherein we see an event later in the story with dramatic implications before we rewind back to the start in happier times. Flashforwards elicit one question: “What happened to make things go so wrong?” The mistake they made was having such a long flashforward. They didn’t need to introduce the SDCD. We could get to that later. All we needed to know is the following: monsters are attacking, led by protagonist’s sister, and the good guys are fighting back. The relevant information is in the last few minutes of episode 2 – first episode isn’t needed.

What this does is set the wrong expectations. For the entire series, we are wondering when the SDCD will become a major part of the narrative. It would be as if you opened an Avengers movie on a team fight, but 20 minutes in, you focus solely on Captain America for the rest of the narrative. The longer it goes, the more the audience expects and questions why the rest of the Avengers haven’t joined. If you’d called the film Captain America and had a cameo scene featuring the Avengers at some point in act one, then the expectation isn’t there. It’s all about that initial presentation. I suspect they started this way to have a ton of gore and death immediately, which can be effective shock value, but rings hollow when superfluous.

One defence of this you’ll here is that Ga-Rei-Zero is a prequel to the manga and that the narrative will resonate if you finish the story. But we aren’t here for a manga. Furthermore, it was a simple fix. Cut episodes 1 and 2 save for the last few minutes and play that before the opening credits.

Even if you ignore this poor opening, you can feel that lack of synergy between elements of the series. For instance, the theme of the battle against monsters doesn’t complement the conflict theme between Kagura and Yomi except in the one case where Kagura has to kill a mind-controlled civilian she liked. Good theming has the sub-plots/conflicts support the main theme.

Then we have Yomi’s engagement to the heir of another important family. It doesn’t contribute much, nor does it lend to the theme. Once again, that AI thought, “Every story has a romance, therefore I must put one in.”

What I dislike most about Ga-Rei-Zero is how Yomi’s turn to evil happens. She doesn’t descend into evil like in Gungrave or fall to greed as seen in Madoka Magica. No poor decisions, no character conflict, no slow creeping corruption that seduces her. Nope, mind control does it. The ultimate sin with a tragedy like this is to have an ally turn foe by anything other than their own choices and actions.

All of this dullness and lack of synergy results in a boring anime. There is far worse out there – Ga-Rei-Zero isn’t that bad – but let’s just say that I have more fun with worse anime than this.

Art – Very Low

The CG is hideous for the special vision that allows agents to see spectres and the monsters look even worse. It doesn’t even justify the CG with complex animation. On top of that, the cinematography, character designs, and environments have no creativity whatsoever.

Sound – Low

The music and acting are quite good, but the script has no weight to it, dragging down everything around it. Also, the music doesn’t sync with the action as it should, often going too long as if they have to play the entire track.

Story – Low

Two sisters that slay monsters must eventually fight each other. The story doesn’t do enough to create an emotional connection to the characters for us to care about their fates.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Skip it. Ga-Rei-Zero is one of those anime that only select fans will remember as the years go by.

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

Positive: None

Negative:

No Development

Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju

 

Similar: March Comes in Like a Lion

Millennium Actress

Aoi Bungaku

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Historical Drama

Length: 25 episodes (2 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • The Rakugo acting.
  • Strong drama and characters.
  • Alignment of art, tone, and theme.

Negatives:

  • Full performances each episode isn’t necessary.

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Rakugo is a traditional Japanese style of storytelling, a mix of stand-up comedy and one-man theatre. The performer stays knelt on a cushion and depicts several characters in conversation, using only a fan and cloth as props. If you’ve ever recounted a story to friends, imitating multiple people by slightly changing your voice and shifting your head back and forth, you will have an idea of Rakugo. The stories are comical in nature, though a performer does like to throw in an occasional drama to throw off the audience.

Steeped in tradition and inflexible, Rakugo is a dying art form in the face of modern entertainment such as television. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is the story of Rakugo – how it used to be and how it struggles to keep up with the times, as told across two generations. It starts in the modern day with former yakuza member Kyoji released from prison, aspiring to perform Rakugo and turn his life around. He goes to the revered Yakumo, who had performed at the prison during Kyoji’s incarceration. The young man’s enthusiasm triggers a flood of memories in Yakumo. We flash back to his days as an apprentice and the rivalry he had with Sukeroku.

This is a classic talent versus hard work type of career story. Yakumo is the perfectionist – dedicated and hardworking despite his crippled leg. Sukeroku is his opposite – gifted, lazy, freestyling, and charismatic enough to hold the audience in his every word. I like these types of rivalries. However, the trap I often see writers fall into is showing too much favouritism to one over the other. Some will unrealistically depict natural talent as the sole ingredient to be the best, when that is obviously untrue (lazy writing, as it doesn’t take effort to show why the character is so accomplished). On the other hand, stories with hardworking protagonists will discard the power of innate talent, ignoring how much of an advantage it gives in the early and middle stages of mastery.

Rakugo strikes the perfect balance. Talent goes as far as it should and hard work accomplishes what is realistically possible. Furthermore, it depicts the cost of dedication and the trap of talent. Neither character is free of sacrifice for their approach to the art.

At first, these characters weren’t of particular interest, but they grew on my over time when I got to see how they lived and the conflict they dealt with. Yakumo puts the career, the dream above all else. I appreciate characters with conviction to be the best and not take opportunities for granted, as I have mentioned elsewhere. But what sells it is the cost that comes with this mind set. I cannot stand it when there are no consequences, no matter how noble the aspirations. Writers sometimes forget that accomplishments cost time, time that is no longer available to spend on other part of life, such as friends or hobbies.

It starts slow, though by the end of season one, it had me hooked to the drama. Season two spotlights the next generation of Rakugo storytellers with Kyoji as the lead, which, while still a good season, isn’t really necessary. The first ends in a strong place, so don’t feel compelled to watch season two for completion’s sake if already satisfied.

Enough about the characters, let’s talk of the art itself, of Rakugo. The performances are fantastic. The first episode has a complete Rakugo act on stage about a thief stealing from a conman, who is making a claim for stolen property that doesn’t exist with the police. It’s a gripping performance – not just in anime, but also by the voice actor, Tomokazu Seki. This scene will let you know if Rakugo is for you.

By contrast, episode two shows us a bad performance and it is striking. The lines fall flat, the delivery has no emotion, and no one laughs at the routine. You feel just like the audience watching this – bored. And it is perfect. A good actor intentionally acting badly is a challenging feat.

My favourite detail in the performances is the cinematography, the show don’t tell of how the scenes are shot. When a performer is making everyone laugh, the audience in the palm of his hand, we see close ups of his neck beaded with sweat, arm straining to hold the pose, and his eye twitching on the verge of losing the act at any moment. We learn so much by seeing so little. If this were a shounen anime, we would cut away to another character, the background darkened as we go into his head for a dramatic monologue explaining everything about the performance, accompanied by a shocked expression one would expect from hearing that your mother was the villain the entire time. Had Rakugo been done that way, I would have given up paying attention.

The one fault of the Rakugo, as great as these performances are, is the insistence on a full routine each episode, which for the most part don’t contribute to the story outside of key moments. It would be equivalent to showing every minute of every game in a sports anime. Because of their nature, each episode is like attending the theatre yourself and you don’t want to go to the theatre 25 times in a day. As such, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju isn’t a show for binge watchers. My recommendation is to do an episode or two a day at most for maximum enjoyment.

Art – High

The characters have delightfully expressive faces that allow for vibrancy in the performances, yet without turning into a cartoony art style. I like the attention to backgrounds and textures.

Sound – Very High

All of the major actors in Rakugo are excellent, as they need to be for performances that require a dozen different voices alternating on the fly. The actors must have had a blast with these roles that didn’t just have the one voice throughout.

Story – High

Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju chronicles the art of Rakugo across generations and the artists it inhabited. This methodical anime weaves art and drama that draws in the audience to satisfying results.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Try it, I urge you. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju has limited appeal, as evidenced by its niche success. However, give it a try – an episode is all you need – for you are missing out otherwise.

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

Positive:

Deep NarrativeStellar Voice ActingStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

Future Diary – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Mirai Nikki

 

Similar: Deadman Wonderland

Death Note

Another

Eden of the East

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Psychological Supernatural Action Horror Thriller

Length: 26 episodes, 1 OVA

 

Positives:

  • Interesting premise.

Negatives:

  • No smart characters.
  • Alliance flip-flopping.
  • Inconsistent powers.
  • Yuno’s obsessiveness is weak.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Everyone knows of Mirai Nikki, or Future Diary in English, if not by name then by the yandere character of Yuno and her repeated pronouncements of “Yuki”. What I didn’t know, despite having heard of this series in 2011, was the premise of Future Diary. I always thought it was about an obsessive girl (Yuno) trying to kill the guy she loved. There is far more to the story than that, though not necessarily to its benefit.

Yuki has a cellphone diary that tells him the future, forewarning him of the many possible eventualities from his competitors in the battle royale. However, it doesn’t reveal his future unless tied to someone else. He teams up with his stalker Yuno, who also possesses a “future diary”, except hers only reports on Yuki’s status every ten minutes. When paired with his diary, it makes her the perfect guardian in this battle. What is the prize for victory? Godhood.

I was disappointed when they introduced the battle royale angle. I had hoped for a smaller scale story with the duo avoiding one fatality after the other, delaying the inevitable, akin to The Time Machine and Steins;Gate. The battle royale turned this into generic shounen horror, pointless ecchi included. Not that it couldn’t have succeeded, but the writer evidently could not handle the complexity of a story with so many possible outcomes and 12 time altering powers to track. Each diary is different and creates a 12-pointed rock-paper-scissors game.

Juggling all of these elements is Future Diary’s greatest failing. For one, the diaries for each character conveniently don’t forewarn of something or don’t function as they should when the plot needs a character to die. Comparing to the similar Death Note, the rules there are set and don’t waver, which makes it all the smarter when one player outsmarts the other. Bending the rules when convenient makes the audience lose trust in the author.

This also extends to the inherent supernatural abilities of some characters. A character can have the strength to break out of a bind one moment, and then be rendered useless the next in a similar situation. I’m not even sure if they are meant to have superpowers, but some characters defy human boundaries of ability.

Future Diary also has an overreliance on crazy over smarts. None of these contestants are smart. Instead, just about everyone is “lol I’m a crazy psycho, aren’t I interesting?” There’s little variety in the showdowns against the various competitors, lasting 2-3 episodes a kill, and it makes much of it feel like padding. Future Diary is like taking the Batman versus Joker story but with 11 different Jokers and one of them is on Batman’s side (sort of). The more copies of “the psycho” you include, the more it dilutes the strength of the individual. I thought that the battle royale direction would be about producing a variety of opponents with some clever trick to besting them. The only real difference between them is their diary’s ability, which even then isn’t that varied.

Then we have the allegiance switching every other episode. “You know these two allies? Let’s have them fight each other next episode.” “But, sir, that doesn’t make sen—” “Who cares – it will surprise the audience!” It reminds me of Pirates of the Caribbean 3, where Jack Sparrow and company flip-flopped allegiances every few minutes because the producers heard the audience liked Jack’s triple cross in the first movie. Future Diary does the same to generate dumb conflict.

Lastly, we come to the main couple, the one thing that gave Future Diary any popularity. Yuno’s obsession with Yuki doesn’t work for me. I don’t buy into her reason for being so possessive of him, even once the story provides an explanation later on. The best psychotic characters, as unhinged as they are, have a well-defined reason for their behaviour that we can understand, from their perspective, without agreeing with them. Yuno is just psychotic because that’s what the story needed.

And Yuki? You won’t remember him before the series is over.

I was rather bored with Future Diary for the most part. It doesn’t have that quality reminiscent of bad horror, where you can enjoy the silliness of the violence regardless of story quality (a bad story likely enhances the experience). The deaths needed to be more ridiculous like in Another, an anime that I didn’t find great either but had advantage of over the top deaths. It’s strange that Future Diary, so full of psychos, has such tame kills. I guess being generic shounen horror will do that to you.

Art – Medium

The visuals are rather good, though needs more atmosphere for this type of series. Scenes don’t feel as frightening as they should as a result.

Sound – Low

The Japanese and English acting is roughly the same. English Yuno is less annoying, but you may want her more psychotic Japanese counterpart. Regardless of language track, the writing sucks.

Story – Low

A boy with a mobile phone that tells the future enters a battle royale against others with similar devices, as a psycho chick protects him against everything except herself. Future Diary’s good idea crumbles under bad writing, incoherent storytelling, and shallow characters.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Skip it. Future Diary is too much of a mess for me to recommend and the deaths aren’t inventive or ridiculous enough to enjoy with friends.

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

Positive: None

Negative:

Incoherent

Full Metal Panic! Invisible Victory – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Full Metal Panic! Invisible Victory

 

Related: Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid (prequel)

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Mecha Action

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Fight choreography.
  • Sagara’s emotional arc.

Negatives:

  • Main villain still hasn’t done anything.
  • Dull second act.
  • CG scenes are noticeable.

(Request an anime for review here.)

The original Full Metal Panic concluded without need for a sequel, followed by the pure comedy spin-off Fumoffu, until Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid reopened the story a few years later with the introduction of new villain Leonard, brother to Tessa, young captain of the anti-terrorist Mithril organisation. TSR took a darker tone as it pushed Sargent Sagara of Mithril to the edge in a satisfying conflict. However, Leonard evaded capture and it seemed the franchise would stop there, leaving us in limbo for 13 years.

Full Metal Panic is a franchise I never expected to see more of (please, Twelve Kingdoms, please come back). After a few years of silence, the finality of the situation sets in and there’s no point wasting hope anymore.

So, it’s back! And what a letdown it is.

Full Metal Panic: Invisible Victory isn’t bad – in fact, it’s rather decent, when seen from a distance. Sadly, we return to that old enemy of art, disappointment, the worst enemy, perhaps only second to that other evil called boring. As a continuation of the series, Invisible Victory brings so little to the table.

It picks up shortly after TSR, with Mithril in conflict against Amalgam, Leonard’s organisation, as it launches an attack on Mithril HQ. The start is strong with a series of high stakes conflicts and added tension by being much closer to home than usual. Sagara’s work has caught up with his personal life.

Leonard points out that Sagara has killed over 100 people so far, yet pretends to live life as though he isn’t a killer. Sagara’s reaction to this fact reflected against him is perfect. I love this wrinkle to his arc. It is ripe with conflict opportunities and consequences that could cost him everything. For instance, while dragging Chidori out of harm’s way from Amalgam, he uses a grenade to destroy a pursuing robot, but injures a passing student in the process. Sagara coldly abandons the kid against Chidori’s protests.

The problem with the story is what happens next.

A few episodes in after a devastating attack, we find Sagara on his own in a foreign land partaking in mech pit fights. For two episodes, we have no idea what he’s doing and it takes too long to get to the point, unengaging all the while. Furthermore, it introduces us to an entirely new cast of characters, none of which are memorable and at the expense of the core cast, who don’t do much this series. FMP did this before in season one with the four-part arc in Helmajistan, Sagara’s home country, to stop the sale of a nuke. The difference there was three fold. One: it didn’t waste our time wondering why he was there, away from the regular team. Two: the new characters were interesting for their short stay. Three: it was four episodes and not the focus of the season. To see that scenario imitated in Invisible Victory and done without excitement is disappointing. Some may argue that I shouldn’t compare it so much to the old, that this should be judged on its own. That’s not how direct sequels work, especially if one were to watch all seasons in succession now without the 13-year gap.

The most irritating fact of IV is how little it matters by the end. Leonard, who was the only incomplete thread from TSR, is still at large after having done little to nothing yet again. We are on the hook yet again to wait for another season, of which we have no confirmation.

One final aspect I must touch on is the use of CG for mechs and vehicles. It is undeniably rushed. FMP has used CG on occasion successfully – one of the few series to manage it. So to see Invisible Victory look worse than The Second Raid from thirteen years ago is baffling. It’s particularly noticeable when switching from a 2D close-up, detailed with battle wear, dents, and minor plays on light and shadow, to a CG long shot where the mechs no longer have detail. The models are too smooth, too clean. I understand why they resorted to CG. IV has a lot of mecha action, which would take time and effort to animate, and these fights have excellent choreography. The action is fast, fluid, and to the point. Sagara executes his opponents with the efficiency befitting his reputation. One skirmish in the suburbs between Sagara and several enemy mechs is particularly good.

I understand why. Yet, other series have managed to deliver a better product in similar situations – Studio Trigger regularly puts out great animation and Production I.G. often nails the CG used for vehicles in its titles. Full Metal Panic isn’t some small, untested franchise that can’t risk a larger budget. Why did this go to Xebec, a quick-and-cheap studio? It feels as though whoever was in charge didn’t care enough about the series, as if he had this forced upon him and just wanted it done, out of the way.

Full Metal Panic: Invisible Victory is a wasted opportunity above all else. The good elements of Sagara’s emotional arc, the fight choreography, and moments of surprising grit pale under the weight of disappointment.

Art – Medium

Looks fine, outside of the CG during action scenes.

Sound – High

The voice acting and music is still strong. Go with the original Japanese like in past seasons.

Story – Medium

Sagara’s story continues as the enemy attacks and takes Chidori. With little progress made in the plot and a dull second act, Invisible Victory doesn’t carry the momentum of its predecessor.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For Full Metal Panic fans only. You will feel lost if you haven’t seen the other series, though I highly recommend starting this franchise. Invisible Victory wasn’t worth the wait, however.

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