Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 1 Episode 12--Betrayal

"I am a Neo sapien. Created by Terrans, feared by Terrans, abused by Terrans, but no more! My place is with Phaeton, and yours is in extinction."

The penultimate episode of season 1 of Exo-Squad is Betrayal. Marsala half-convinces Phaeton he's switched sides and effects the capture of his squad. Phaeton even uses a mind probe on Marsh but isn't 100% convinced, prompting Marsala to offer to execute his former squadmembers. This is the crux of his ruse, and once armed he and Able Squad secure Phaeton inside the Brood Center. Meanwhile, Winfield does his best to get his people extricated from the battle and orders the fleet to limp back to Io, though he allows Takagi and Weston a scout ship to attempt to retrieve their squad.

What Works: This is another powerhouse episode, with just about everything working together as a seamless whole. While most of the emotional weight of the episode (and hence my summary) is down on Mars, about half the episode takes place up in space where there's quite a lot of action to be had.

The show opens with a quiet panning shot, no music or fx, of a very damaged Exo Fleet vessel. Then it explodes and the music and battle fx start up and we realize that the Exo Fleet is still being hounded. It makes sense, Phaeton would press his advantage, and it affords the opportunity for some great space battles. But just the opening is beautifully done.

Phaeton directs the battle from Earth dispassionately. When four Exo-Troopers are reported captured, he inquires as to their rank. Discovering they're not officers, he casually orders them disposed of. (Though see below.)

Marsala is the true star of this episode. He plays Phaeton's ego perfectly, flattering without flattery. His impassioned speech to the apparently about-to-be executed members of Able Squad is so good that I feel compelled to reprint it in its entirety: "You Terrans have never seen your brood mates sold, beaten, mistreated, treated as cattle and worse. Created as slaves, but with a will to be free. Forced to work, to suffer, to die in horrible conditions for Terran greed. Denied even the right to speak up against such tyranny. This is what I've been through. Speak not to me of loyalty. I am a Neo sapien. Created by Terrans, feared by Terrans, abused by Terrans, but no more! My place is with Phaeton, and yours is in extinction." Then the quick wink and smirk he gives Nara after... just perfection. 

We see a little more of the first Neo Sapien Uprising. Phaeton was one of the lynchpins of the failure, getting captured (by a young Winfield) and forced to out the leadership, which included Marsala. This shared history gives additional weight to the Phaeton/Marsala dynamic. It might also explain Winfield's tendency towards over-reliance on e-frames, some mix of nostalgia and operational familiarity.  

The title is great because it works on multiple levels. Certainly, Marsala's apparent betrayal of his team is the obvious one. His betrayal of Phaeton at the end is another. But Phaeton, too, betrayed the rebellion fifty years ago.

The fight at in the Brood Center is another really well choreographed battle. Everything works, but I'm especially partial to JT rushing a guard and Torrez catching his flying weapon, and Nara's spinning kick wherein she appropriates a different guard's blaster.

I like that Phaeton, flattery aside, isn't easily convinced. First he trots out the mindscan, and even then he (correctly) observes that this only proves that Marsh BELIEVED Marsala a traitor.

Speaking of the mindscan, Noretti shows up again. JT is still feeling guilty about her demise. I also rather like the nightmarish vision of Marsala and Phaeton lurking in his subconscious.

Winfield taking over the Exo-Carrier Dominion from Captain Furlough was rather satisfying for the viewers. (But see below) Furlough is never seen again; in my head cannon, he's executed as the mutinous dog he is. As the apparent highest ranking mutineer left alive, that's only apropos.

What Doesn't: This episode has a number of animation errors, including Marsh sitting on an invisible mind probe and Phaeton's tattoo being partially missing.

Phaeton is apparently commanding the battle remotely from the Brood Center. It's odd that he's not out in space with his fleet, or at least in his Martian White House. Presumably he flew here to confront Marsala, though it's have been more logical to bring Marsala to him.

Winfield apparently lands on a ship, takes off again in an e-frame and rejoins the battle, and then commandeering Furlough's ship. It's an odd sequence of events, especially since we've never seen him in a 'Frame before or since. Though I'd have given it a pass if we'd ever gotten a proper toy of Winfield with this mech.

Speaking of, Winfield's a bit of a softie, huh? There's no way I'd have let two pilots go on what really seems to be a suicide mission after the losses he took.

Bronsky apparently gets shot in the gut, and yet moments later he's cannonballing a Neo off a catwalk. I guess he was wearing body armor? But why allow prisoners body armor.

I'm not quite sure I bought that Kaz allowing their scout ship to get shot and playing dead was a winning strategy. Since we'd seen that Phaeton was looking for officers to capture, that was a hell of a gamble. On the other hand, those Sloop-class vessels look really awesome. I'm guessing these are the equivalent of something like a PT boat. I'm also a bit unconvinced by the Kaz/Maggie kiss at the end.

Watch For: This whole episode is setting up the finale on Mars. There aren't a lot of seed sewn beyond the obvious ones. The Kaz/Maggie relationship will endure (a bit) beyond the season.

Overall: The show continues to be an outstanding example of what to do right. The pacing was terrific, the action pieces exciting, and the emotion very real. Characters emote through voice, face, and body language. The ship and mech designs are neat. The stakes keep getting ratcheted up. One more episode to go in this season!

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Complete AllSpark Almanac - 8 Page Preview! (Plus a Silly Little Contest)

Howdy! After a few weeks delay at the ports, The Complete AllSpark Almanac is just about to hit shelves, due out from Diamond outlets (like your local comicbook store) this Wednesday and a week or two after that from Amazon.com. It's time for our preview, but this left me with a conundrum. Do I showcase pages that people who have V1 and 2 (plus our fanclub material) have already seen? That seems pointless. Do I instead pull out the brand new or completely revised pages created for this book? That's problematic, because there are only about a dozen pages that fit the above characterization.

Then it hit me... there are numerous pages that aren't completely new but are a BIT new. New art, new context, new photos, integrated in with the existing material So, why not showcase them?

Then I thought, why not make it a game? The first person who replies in the comments who can correctly identify every difference will get a sketch card of the (pre-existing) character of their choice by Bill Forster. 8 pages, (at least) 8 differences. Go for it!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 1 Episode 11--The Brood

"Go back and tell Winfield to watch! Tell him Matthew Marcus knew how to die." 

The Brood is the eleventh episode of Exo-Squad, continuing the Into the Heart of Darkness episode. Marcus leads the fleet to Earth, on the way imploring those who resisted the mutiny to join him in the fight. Winfield gives his blessing, apparently going so far as to swear loyalty to his subordinate. The Neo Sapien Mars and Earth fleets attack simultaneously, allowing the fleet to be outflanked and destroyed. Marcus chooses to go down with the ship rather than leave his bridge. Meanwhile, the distraction of the decisive space engagement of the war gives Marsh's people enough breathing room to patch their Frames while DeLeon and Marsala locate the brood center. Marsala disables Alec and sounds the alarm, demanding to speak to Phaeton and warning of the plot to destroy the brood center.

What Works: Almost everything. Let's start with the visual storytelling. There are many clever touches this episode. Space battles can be hard to visualize, so the use of a splitscreen with different areas of space quickly visually communicates the idea that indeed the Exo Fleet is surrounded. 

Continuing with the storytelling, the battle quickly goes from bad to worse. The bridge on fire, falling debris, sparking wires all quickly and effectively tell you that the good guys aren't winning this one.

The fleet action provides a good excuse as to why Marsh is able to keep his people alive for as long as he does. It makes sense that the Neos would focus on the space fleet. This also means that the Exo Fleet had the potential for a brilliant diversion, inserting a squad to destroy a high-value target and then taking a run at another planet. 

The squad is understandable and justifiably tense. Nara and Bronsky bicker over a screwdriver while attempting to get their craft working again. It makes sense, JT only sees three options: attempt to flee and most likely get killed; hole up on Mars and most likely starve; go down in a blaze of glory. Unsurprisingly, they choose the latter. 

JT worked out Marcus' role in their predicament very quickly, for all the good it did him. I also like DeLeon's comms e-frame repeating "no such mission in progress" to him. It slightly bothered me how easily Marsh accepted Marcus' story, so him figuring it out quickly mitigates that. 

The brood chamber is a regular creepy science-fiction horror show, with fully-formed Neo Sapiens liquefied due to defective gene pairs, ominous vats, and more great visual storytelling. It helps sell the horror of Phaeton brewing up enough Neos to replace every terran in the solar system.

Marsala's betrayal of DeLeon (and, by extension, the squad) packed a whollup, pun intended. He's been a stalwart member of the team since the beginning, so this really feels like a WTF moment. Especially given how he behaved last episode about returing to Mars, you can accept at least the possibility of betrayal. I love that punch, and how Alec seems to hang in the air for half a beat too long. It lets you linger in the moment and share in Alex's stunned confusion.

Back to the fleet, Marcus' obsession and refusal to leave the bridge give depth to the character. Yes, he's an asshole, and yes, he's a traitor, but he tries desperately to go down swinging. He was doing what he thought best for humanity, even if he was tragically misguided. The confrontation with Takagi was powerful and a great ending for the character. (But see below.)

Maggie Weston sure is pretty. I love the closeup of her eyes. Normally Nara is kind of the cute one, but you get the sense that under her greasemonkey exterior Maggie is quite the looker. 

The show continues to use body language in ways that are dazzlingly effective for television animation. Winfield comforting Takagi and helping him come to try to make the best of a terrible situation is a nice, and subtle, character moment. Also see Maggie's reaction at Takagi, going from despair to surprise to joy in seconds. (And I love how Kaz misreades the situation and starts to get a little handsy. Like I said, she's a looker!)
What Doesn't: The title. The plight of Able Squad on Mars is firmly the B-plot of the episode. Last episode was more ambiguous, with the attention equally shared between the two plots. Plus, the word "abandoned" kind of works for the mutiny too, with Marcus figuratively abandoning Winfield and his strategy. 

This doesn't exactly NOT work, but the Neo Sapien spearcarrier that delivers the news of the Exo Fleet's sortie to Earth is rather... grandiose, no? With his distinctive markings and costume, you'd almost think there was a toy of him or something. In actuality, he doesn't even get a name. I suppose it was just a character designer having fun. Kinda neat.  

Winfield was too soft for my taste. I can't see him sending Takagi back to retrieve Marcus, especially given that the man has (Winfield believes) effectively murdered Able squad. 

The death of the Resolute 
Watch for: While Marcus is stubbornly refusing to call the retreat, he commands that if the Resolute is going down it's taking the Neo Sapien flagship with it. S2 will introduce the Olympus Mons II, so it would appear that he succeeded.

Phaeton continues to disrespect Typhonus, half-explaining himself while walking away from his own battle minister. 

Overall: It's no accident that there are so many more positives than negatives listed. This is a fantastic episode. It pays off almost a full season of character development for Marcus, subverts the season of development Marsala has received, and given more humanity to Takagi, Weston, and Winfield. The mutiny plotline is exciting and, combined with the brood chamber, chilling in its implications for the human race. (Had the show ended at S1, it would have implied a pretty darned bleak ending with only a faint glimmer of hope.) The brood plotline is still all setup, but combined with Marsala's betrayal promises to be an emotionally engaging one. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 1 Episode 10--Abandoned

"I know the only thing standing between Phaeton and his total subjugation of the human race is this fleet!" 

The tenth episode of Exo-Squad, kicking off the "Into the Heart of Darkness" storyline, is Abandoned. It's been three months since the GRAF shield was disabled, and Marcus is concerned (not unreasonably) that the Neos may get it operational again and their window for liberation will slam shut. Winfield judges that the fleet can't achieve victory in its present condition and won't commit it until it can. Marcus send Able Squad on a one-way mission to Mars, then stages a mutiny. He seizes control and commits the fleet to launch for Earth the next day. Meanwhile, Able Squad discovers supplies for a massive new brood of Neo Sapiens, potentially billions. With them already holding the upper hand militarily, Alex surmises that they're not soldiers, they're workers, and that the complete extermination of the human race can't be far behind.

What Works: The mutiny plotline is compelling. Yet again, humans prove to be their own worst enemy. I love the bit of Winfield trying to direct things, unaware that the officers on the bridge with him are already being held at gunpoint. That's focus.

The suicide mission Marcus sends the squad on happens to turn up a new Neo Sapien brood center. This smacks of coincidence, and yet... Phaeton is such an egomaniac that OF COURSE he'd build SOMETHING at Olympus Mons. I'm slightly skeptical that Marsh would buy Marcus' line of bull so readily, but Marcus IS Marsh's superior officer. I think I'll choose to accept it.

Marsh now has a picture of Alice Noretti in his e-frame. That's really a very nice little touch. 

Able Squad's battle over Mars is pretty tough. The gang seems to have a legitimately hard time penetrating Neo Sapien air space. The Neos on the ground even muse that for a single squad to attack the planet is suicide. Of course, our heroes win and with no casualties, so it's not THAT tough, but the show does a good job of selling us on the difficulty. E-frames are damaged and there's some genuine tension as they attempt to not get shot out of the sky.

So, too, is the fight in the brood chemical plant ("Storehouse 17", which implies that this is just the tip of the iceberg) no cakewalk. The squad pulls out all the stops to get in, blow it up, and get out. It's a great moment when they think they're home free and the ship that's supposed to take them home is gone.

Body language continues to be a strength of the series. Marcus recruits Furlough to his side by grousing about Winfield and assembling a rifle, glancing down furtively at the weapon at strategic points in the conversation.
The obligatory character moment for the episode is Marsala learning to play poker with the gang. As expected, he's a fast study. Though I find it absurd that he's never even heard the word "bluffing" before. This contrasts nicely when Marsala freaks out a bit over being back on Mars. Nara attempts to console him, saying she knows what it's like to come home "under these circumstances". He rejects her outreach. "Not these circumstances." It's nice continuity for her and nice character development for him.

I like the Majesty of Phaeton's "Martian Whitehouse." It's certainly an imposing structure

What Doesn't: This is a nit, but the Last Time segment spends a lot of time summarizing last episode when literally the only thing that's relevant to this episode is that the GRAF shield was disabled. A Previously showing the tension between Marcus and Winfield would have made more sense.

I know we're supposed to be rooting for Winfield here, but I actually don't think his strategy of digging in and repairing the fleet makes much sense as presented. The Neo Sapiens posses the industrial capacity of three worlds. In secret they were able to launch a fleet that, at the very least, rivaled the Exo Fleet. Surely, even a slave economy can be outputing more ships per month than Winfield could hope to patch up. Spending time building a base on Io doesn't seem like a wise investment of resources. Perhaps Winfield is digging in for the long haul, but we don't really know for sure.

The ship that delivers Able Squad to Mars is really funky looking!

Watch for: Alec puts the moves on Maggie Weston. While she's got a bit of thing with Takagi in her near future, Alec and Maggie will develop a deeper relationship in season 2.

In the more immediate future, we'll get some payoff about the two vows Marsala mentions to steel himself. 

We also see Phaeton physically assert his dominance over Typhonus. Typhonus won't stand for this treatment for very long.

Overall: Another very strong episode, both on its own and especially for what it portends. Obviously this one was mostly set-up, but the episode still offers a fair share of action and drama. The Marcus/Winfield tension is ratcheted to 11 and getting ready to pay off. Marsala's loyalties are, for the first time, genuinely called into question, albeit subtly. The Weston/Takagi relationship is about to start moving into interesting places. Great stuff!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 1 Episode 9--Sabotage

"I've seen people sell their souls for a crust of bread while they waited for Exo Fleet to help, while the Neos killed my family!"

The ninth episode of Exo-Squad, and the conclusion to the Veil of Doom plotline, is Sabotage. Nara finds the Venutian resistance at the Snake Tree, but they've gone to do their trade. She gives them what food she has and races to the rescue. The Neos had no intention of making good on the trade anyway, and the resistance escapes after a brief firefight. They capture Algernon and convince him to work with Exo-Fleet, in time to save the fleet from the fully armed and operational GRAF shield. The Neo fleet surrounding Venus is crushed, the civilians of Venus are evacuated, and the resistance gets enough food to keep them going for at least a little while.

What works: Venus feels like a real place. I like things like The Snake Tree and The Spires of Selene and Port Russell (GRAF shield location.)

Algernon continues to be a great character. I love his reason for defecting. "I offered my inventions to Exo Fleet, they said they were 'too expensive.'" I can totally buy that. He cares nothing for their "petty wars" and just wants to do his science, but after he's barred from his own lab even he can read the writing on the wall.

I rather like the visuals of the Neo Sapien stormtroopers. The bayonets affixed to their arms are neat, and the gas masks give them an ominously de-humanized (de-neoized?) look. They also imply that the Neos (or possibly the Exo Fleet) regularly use gas attacks, though this isn't a promise the series will deliver on. We've seen them before but they feature especially prominently in this episode. I had been hoping for action figures of them, possibly in the Jump Trooper line. There were canceled prototypes for Winfield (possibly young Winfield) and jetpack James Burns, so this wasn't an unreasonable hope. Alas, the toy line never really excelled.

Starving Venutions continue the trend of a very, very dark series. Sure, they're evacuated and/or fed in the end, but the visuals pull no punches with skin-and-bone kids with distended bellies. It makes one forgiving of a resistance willing to trade allies for food.

The show continues to educate. Marsh quotes Napoleon. "An army travels on its stomach."
The space battle is very cool. It's clear, both from dialog and from visuals, that this is actually a pretty minor skirmish. Still, the visuals are dynamic, and the tactical situation easy to follow. I especially like the ominous exchange between members of Able Squad, to the effect of "they're running!" "No, they're regrouping." "Then why aren't they attacking?" Why, that would be because of...

The GRAF shield. It's finally seen in its full glory here, crushing a couple of damaged Exo Frigates before Algernon corrupts the targeting system and wipes out the Neo Sapien Venutian Fleet. I love little touches like watching cans of food popping on the Resolute before the shield is redirected. Also, points to Draconis for being overly literal: "the Exo Fleet shall be crushed."

Marsh and DeLeon are STILL out of uniform, three episodes and running. That's some nicely consistent wardrobe there.

Finally, after getting outmaneuvered and outclassed for eight episodes, it's nice to see a big solid win for the forces of light. Algernon taken back to Exo Fleet, the Venutian civies evacuated, the Venutian resistance able to eat, a Neo Fleet wrecked, and GRAF taken out of commission.

What doesn't: Marcus continues to grate on me. "I thought YOU said Venus was lightly defended" he whines, and yet next episode he's spoiling for a fight. The character is just too broad for me.

Diana's storyline (and, indeed, Diana herself) ends here. She tries to grab Algernon and run, only to be captured and (presumably) executed. While this does push the plot forward, gives Algernon motivation to defect back to the side of humanity, it ultimately doesn't feel very satisfying. She earns a quasi-forgiveness from Marsh, but her main detractor DeLeon is silent on the issue. It feels like the writers had an interesting idea for a semi-understandable collaborator, but didn't quite know how to end it. Possibly a less noble ending might have played more real, or perhaps just a more ambiguous one.

Xenobius is a little too incompetent for my tastes. He seems genuinely unsure if he could even turn on the device. As Algernon quipped last episode, "I thought you alpha Neo Sapiens were supposed to be intelligent." Given that Neos are supposed to be smarter than Homos (snicker) anyway, the A-class should really be better than he is. (Alpha Neo Sapiens are an idea from the series bible that only ever gets flirted with, to my recollection.) Great emoting and body language for him, though.

This is a nit, but it appears that the episode ends with the Resolute unchallenged in orbit above Venus. It would have been nice for at least a perfunctory line of dialog explaining that they didn't have time to take advantage of this very strong tactical position. That or have them take a few potshots at Neo bases from orbit. The implication was that the Neo's control of space greatly facilitated their conquest of the Home Worlds. While I can easily imagine why that wouldn't be the case here, it'd have been nice to see it nodded to.

Watch for: Algernon and GRAF technology will both continue to play a role in S2, though we won't hear from them for the rest of S1. So will James and the Venutian resistance, though that's less of a surprise.

The lose of the Neo's Venutian space fleet will be important in S2 as well, though to my recollection that won't be spelled out.

Oh, and we will be seeing the Snake Tree one more time.

Overall: Basically a satisfying conclusion to a multi-episode arc. The emotional core of the happenings on Venus works. A few details don't, the biggest of which is the Diana plotline. It also continues the worldbuilding that makes this setting so compelling. By now we've got a pretty good idea of who Marsh, Burns, DeLeon, Marsala, and I suppose Bronsky are, and some decent hints as to the rest of Able Squad. Takagi and Weston will shine more in the next arc. I don't think we really get inside Torres' head until S2. And finally, this episode gives some real hope, a refreshing burst of optimism amid the bleakness that works surprisingly well.

Of course, the next arc takes that optimism and then stamps a four-toed boot on it! I'll be sticking around for it, naturally.