Tag Archives: Tragedy

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

Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Kidou Senshi Gundam 0080: Pocket no Naka no Sensou

 

Related: Mobile Suit Gundam (prequel)

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Mecha Science Fiction Drama

Length: 6 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Moral greyness.
  • Great self-contained story with a satisfying end.
  • Quality animation without sacrificing visual detail.

Negatives:

  • Doesn’t start strong.

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If there are two things you can rely on with this franchise, it’s that a Gundam will be the centre of all attention and there will be an annoying kid. Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket manages to defy expectations by omitting the latter.

10-year-old Alfred lives on a neutral colony in space, where little much happens with the war between the Earth Federation and the Principality of Zeon rampaging in distant locations. Nevertheless, Alfred has a keen interest in the war, particularly in relation to the mobile suits. Excitement strikes when a skirmish bursts into the colony and a Zaku mobile suit crash lands in the woods nearby. Alfred befriends the pilot Bernie. In exchange for learning all about the war and mobile suits, Alfred provides local knowledge of the land to locate a secret Gundam developed by the Federation in the colony. What starts as a naïve child looking for adventure, will soon turn dire when destruction of the entire colony isn’t beyond reason if it means stopping the Gundam.

The first episode does little to capture your attention. The peaceful start focused on Alfred’s mundane life arguing with friends at school about mobile suits and playing light gun games at home isn’t interesting. It makes you wonder what the aim of the story is. No good stuff mentioned above starts until the final scene of the episode. Setting the scene and ordinary life is worthwhile before upheaval, but it didn’t need to take so long. And it isn’t until episode 3 when we near the mid-point that matters kick into gear and the tension has weight.

Bernie is part of cell embedded in the colony disguised as service workers while they search for the Gundam. It’s interesting how one can’t quite decide on whether they are villains looking to attack the colony, made more difficult by the fact that the Gundam’s pilot is a friend of Alfred’s (unbeknownst to anyone), or heroes acting in preemptive self-defence. This moral greyness is a large contributor to War in the Pocket’s engagement.

Gundam stood out at the time as a shounen anime by, apart from putting effort in the functionality of its mechs, enforcing consequences on its characters. Shounen of the era rarely had death. Whether it was through a dragon ball wish or returning from the dead without explanation, people rarely died. It was too violent for children. Gundam, on the other hand, knew that war had casualties and that a bullet to the head meant death. This realistic approach is well present in War in the Pocket and makes it satisfying. The conflict is meaningful because the consequences matter.

My greatest disappointment with this short series is the lack of screen time for the woman next door, Christina. It’s evident that as the pilot of the Gundam Bernie and Alfred are searching for, she is to generate conflict for the two. A crush/friend is one of the enemy, which will give them pause once unveiled. Because she doesn’t have much screen time, we don’t feel this moment of revelation as strongly as the writer intends. That said, this thread isn’t core to the story, so it doesn’t collapse the house.

The core is Bernie and Alfred. Like the greyness of the infiltration cel, Bernie and Alfred’s friendship also has nuance to it. Is Bernie truly friends with Alfred or just taking advantage of some dumb kid? This thread plays out well.

To top it off, Alfred isn’t annoying like the usual Gundam brats. Yes, he does start annoying, particularly when interacting with some girl at school, but kids are like that. Be around kids for a few hours and they are bound to do something annoying – you know, kids being kids (I used to teach them). What makes Gundam kids so insufferable is that they are never not annoying while also contributing nothing to the story. Alfred becomes endearing over time and proves his purpose in the story. And for that, this anime receives my praise.

War in the Pocket is an unrelated side story of the original Mobile Suit Gundam. Apart from the general war from the original, nothing really carries over to here. This is a short story apart from the main conflict of the Gundam universe, which one can enjoy without prior knowledge of the franchise. As such, I would recommend this series to those who have an interest in Gundam yet feel daunted by its scale (for a modern recommendation with easy access, look to Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin).

Art – High

War in the Pocket uses a more realistic art style to draw in an older audience. It succeeds in having quality animation throughout the series without sacrificing character and environmental detail.

Sound – Medium

The music is that classic old anime style. As for the acting, stick to the Japanese since the dub is so-so at best.

Story – High

A boy helps a mobile suit pilot uncover the secret of the Gundam project on his space colony. What starts as an unlikely pairing between a rather annoying mobile suit otaku and a pilot ends up as a satisfying Gundam short story.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Try it. For Gundam fans, this is an easy recommendation. For non-Gundam fans, War in the Pocket is ideal if you are looking for a taste of the franchise, as it requires no prior knowledge.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom

 

Related: Phantom The Animation (old OVA)

Similar: Black Lagoon

Canaan

Darker than Black

Jormungand

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Drama Thriller

Length: 26 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Suitably grim atmosphere.
  • Follows through with the brutality.

Negatives:

  • What is with act 3?
  • Too much expository dialogue.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Ever watch an anime that has something about it, something that makes you swear it’s great and yet, there is something equally wrong with it in every aspect that makes you swear it’s bad as well? Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom is one such anime.

Let’s start with the beginning. A Japanese man wakes up one day in a dingy room with no idea of how he got there or memory of who he is. Excellent start – we are straight into a moment of high conflict that generates many questions for the audience. Unfortunately, this man has to spell out all of these questions, as if the audience is too dumb to figure out the predicament he’s in. The monologue doesn’t stop. All the scene needed was to have him look around confused, not recognising himself in the mirror, and then just as it feels this is going for too long, the masked assassin woman attacks him and we’re off into tense action.

Less is more, as always.

The man soon learns that a mafia organisation called Inferno has kidnapped him and intends to brainwash him into another killing machine, an assassin like the masked woman. This is my kind of premise. My mind conjures up scenes of psychological torture, clever manipulation, and emotional tearing as the protagonist struggles to hold onto the scraps of his identity. And Phantom does deliver that, but not without a side dish of problems each time.

The way we learn of this premise is through an excess of expository dialogue similar to the man’s monologue, a recurring problem particularly in the first act. What makes it so blatant is the simplicity of the fix. Just cut it. There doesn’t need to be anything in its place. We can see what they’re doing to him by, oddly enough, seeing what they do to him.

This isn’t an anime for toddlers. Things don’t need to be spelt out like an instruction manual. Extra subtlety of character wouldn’t hurt either. When one of the brainwashing scientists doesn’t like how his superior treats him, he says as she walks off, “Such arrogance. How much longer do you think you will be giving me such orders?” Why did the writers have so little faith in the audience to read the air?

Let’s pause the negatives for a moment and focus on positives. I love the execution of the brainwashing, of how they train some guy to kill people for a living and become the assassin “Zwei” alongside the woman “Ein” (two and one in German, respectively). They don’t strap him down and force him to watch random images with his eyes held open. Instead, they make him believe that he made the choice to kill. “If you don’t kill this bad man first, he will kill you. You don’t want that, do you now?” So of course it was his choice. Right? Coupled with how they take advantage of his weakness for Ein, his change works well.

The other major point Phantom has in its favour is the follow through on its premise. For a story about assassins in the darkest corner of society, it delivers on the brutality. No one, no matter the age or level of innocence, is off limits from sudden murder. Too often, I see stories with brutal premises yet spineless executions. There’s no point starting a story about murder and bloody violence if one is going to water it down into this puddle cranberry juice.

Phantom isn’t all violence, however – explosive gunfights aren’t common, honestly. The story moves at a good clip and changes things before matters grow stale, though this doesn’t always succeed.

The second half introduces a little girl who doesn’t fit the series. She feels token, as if Phantom would fail without a small girl, for some reason. I get that they want to create a stronger connection by introducing someone that isn’t drained emotionally, someone normal, but she goes against the tone. It isn’t a major issue though, unlike the final act.

While I won’t spoil the details of act 3, don’t read further if you do intend to try Phantom, which I recommend, as it will infer spoilers.

Still reading? Alright.

Act 3 goes off the funking rails. This grim, psychological thriller turns into a high school drama, wacky high school OP included. I have never been so confused by a time skip before. One of the weirdest things I’ve seen in anime. It feels like a prank.

Furthermore, the [Bee] train never gets back on the rails properly once it explains everything. One scene has a character running through a hail of bullets, which goes against the rules established earlier. Before, even a few bullets meant death. Now, it strays into action cliché. The most annoying part of the final act is the use of the “friend sent to execute an ally, while the ally yells the friend’s name as they’re shot” trope not once, not twice, but thrice. We see the same trope three times in short sequence! At least the main characters’ story concludes well.

Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom is almost an anime I love. If you mention just the good parts, it’s the anime for me, but the problems are a hindrance. I’ve had my eye on it for years ever since it came in an ad flyer for a DVD I bought way back when. Though it isn’t as great as I had hoped for, it is certainly an interesting ride.

Art – Medium

Phantom has the most mature visual style of the studio Bee Train anime. The problem is that is still looks too similar to so many of these shows from the era that it can be difficult to differentiate. It could have used better cinematography to be visually stimulating – see Black Lagoon.

Sound – Medium

Japanese or English is fine – the Hollywood movie references such as “You talkin’ to me?” work better in English. I like the opening song.

Story – Medium

A man wakes up in an unknown location and without memory, unaware of what awaits him on the path to mould him into an assassin. Requiem for the Phantom has a solid layer of quality covered by another layer of mistakes holding it down. And that third act…

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Try it. They don’t really make anime like Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom anymore. If you are into the serious, methodical action with a focus on psychology, this could be for you.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

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.

(Request an anime for review here.)

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.

(Request an anime for review here.)

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