Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 10--The Dogs of War

 "Only a dog is loyal."

The Dogs of War is the twenty-third episode of Exo-Squad. Torres is sent to work with Earth Resistance to capture a Neo Mega. The presence of Megas on Earth does not sit well with General Shiva, and he resists following the advice of his aide Lucullus. Despite a trap laid by the Megas and tension between Chicago Resistance Commander Eve Hanley and Rita Torres, the mission succeeds. As punishment, Shiva is removed from command of Earth and Livia put in his place.

What Works: Everything about this episode works. The writing is clever, the directing is excellent, it advances the plot, and it puts the spotlight on two lesser heroes. Examples of the writing--Torres: "I don't question orders, I just follow them." Cut to Lucullus, admonishing Shiva: "Surely you're not questioning Phaeton's orders."

The Eve/Torres tension strikes the right balance. Torres is abrasive, but she's used to being in charge. Here, she's more of an adviser and she settles into the role badly. It's not overdone, it strikes exactly the right note.

I like the dog imagery that frequently recurs. Dogs howl when they can hear the Neo Megas secret communication. Phaeton compares the loyalty of his troops unfavorably to dogs. And, here's a subtle one... homeless humans eating dogfood from a can. Didn't pick up on that one the first time you watched the episode, did you?

The resistance drop site feels pretty real to me. Throw out some trash, pick up some trash. Very cold war.

The human slaves look like skilled technical workers. Given that they're off to engage in some kind of top-secret biological project, that makes sense. (Though, come the reveal of that project, there are no humans anywhere to be seen.) I like the imagery of folks in chains, though at least one of them has enough freedom to engage in a Resistance intelligence drop.

The fight at the end is a good one. The Resistance has mined the tunnels, but it barely slows down the Neos. (We also get our first glimpse of the Neo's techhead J.J. in action.) In the end, it's Napier showing up at the Neo's rear which allows them to escape. He also remains the resident bad-ass of the show, going hand-to-hand with a light Neo e-frame and coming out ahead. Did I mention he wasn't in a frame at the time? Yeah, he's that hard.

The Neo Sapiens, too, get a good chance to shine this episode. The Neo Megas are front and center. Lucullus is amazing. The actor nails it, this guy is every smarmy little kid who's much smarter than you and knows it that you ever went to school with. His arrogance puts Algernon's to shame. His every suggestion is a good one, and Sulla only gets captured because Shiva ignores his quite sensible advice to wait for the leader of the Resistance.

Shiva gets to shine too. He feels his authority slipping away and resists, even to his own detriment. I love the shot of him stomping his four-toed feet. "I'll squash them like the insects they are." Great directing here. He slinks away after getting relived of command, but you just know his story isn't finished yet.

Phaeton has moved his flag to Earth for reasons unknown. He's obviously deteriorating physically. We get the first signs that he's deteriorating mentally as well. He definitely seems off his game here, trusting the Neo Megas, putting seemingly unearned faith in Livia.

Livia begins her rise to prominence. Though we haven't seen her (outside of what was probably an animation error) since early season one, here she is promoted to commanding General of all Earth Forces. She seems to enjoy taunting Shiva. It's difficult to tell if she's genuinely concerned for Phaeton, or if she's merely trying to secure her own position.

Praetorius also shows up, and this time gets enough screen time to establish both his bonafides and personality. He created the Neo Megas, now he has a new project.

What Doesn't: Ummm... I'd have liked an explanation for why Phaeton's on Earth now. He was on Mars for all of season 1 and at least through episode 5 of this season. And Livia does seem to come out of nowhere. Still, minor complaints, all told.

Watch For: Lots of hints in this episode. Praetorius, concerned about Phaeton, asks, "how long has he been like this? Is it Auto Muta--" only to be accused of treason by Livia. He's been sent to set up a lab in Antarctica. (The Resistance is keen to disrupt the supply movements going to his lab, but doesn't because Torres insists the Neo Mega mission has priority.) And, of course, the idea that Lucullus and Gracchus might be plotting against Phaeton will be explored.

Overall: Terrific episode. This is everything the show strives to be. It's especially welcome after the disappointment that was Inner Dark. And the next one, which takes place concurrently, is equally strong.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 9--Inner Dark

"Exo-Fleet spent a fortune teaching you how to fight. Learning how to walk away from a fight, well, that's something you have to pick up on your own." 

Inner Dark is the twenty-second episode of Exo-Squad. The sabotage of a ship being constructed in orbit around Chaos reveals cracks in the Exo-Fleet/Pirate alliance. Encouraged by Barca, Hollis takes advantage of a weapons demonstration to attempt to assassinate Simbacca. Though Able Squad gives chase, Hollis flees to the Renegade Clans. Barca tries to use this to eliminate Able Squad, sending them into an ambush, but thanks in part to a change in heart on the part of Hollis, the squad is able to steal a massive ship from the Renegades. Professor Algernon saves Simbacca's life and the alliance is secure.

What works: Chaos was introduced at the end of the Pirate Alliance arc, and needed some exploration. For better or for worse, this episode is it. We won't see Chaos again until the final episode of the series. Much of that comes from visual cues. We can see that it's a world with at least three major surface cities. There seem to be underground cities as well, which makes sense on a world with minimal sunlight and probably little in the way of atmosphere. Let's look at some locations:

Exo-Fleet Headquarters.Looks like surface buildings, perhaps on one of those sprawls of lights we see in the opening establishing shot of the episode. We also see that Chaos has (at least) two moons.

The city that Hollis flees to looks fairly small, more like a town really. It's underground, connected by underground caverns to where the weapons test was done.

The bar where Marsh and Takagi search for Hollis looks pretty typical. Folks drinking (amino acids? Or are they still on hard liquor?), folks playing pool, folks flirting. What did stand out to me was the one-armed bartender. He seems particularly hostile to Exo-Troopers, even by Pirate standards. I wonder exactly how he lost that arm...

We've also got a good number of Pirate incidentals. I like the pair in a shoving match that gets interrupted by the chase. There's also a cute Pirate in pink holding a rifle who scatters during the chase, only to show up again a bit later in the bar.

Moving on, I enjoy all of Algernon's appearances. This one is no different. (Though see below.) What works best is the casual hubris he exhibits when trying to cure Simbacca. "And if [your theory] isn't correct?" "That never occurred to me."

What doesn't: Unfortunately, more about this episode doesn't work than does.  Kicking things off, let's go back to that weapon's test. Each member of Able Squad has had their mech equipped with a unique upgrade. None of these will ever be used outside of the squad. Also, it can't have been THAT long since the fleet got to Chaos, so Algernon did all this in, at most, 3 months. That's a lot of time for 7 different technological upgrades. It all feels more cartoony than we're used to. For the sake of completion, here are the upgrades.

Marsala and Nara get their mech equipped with a pirate cloaking system. This upgrade gets used quite a bit in the series, as it's got good dramatic potential both in and out of battle.

Kaz gets himself a holographic decoy. Unclear if it shows up on radar of if it's purely visual. This one gets used only occasionally, if memory serves.

Alex's frame gets a sophisticated electronic jamming system. Unlike the others, Alex will eventually get ANOTHER upgrade to his frame, one that plays a bigger role in the plot.

Weston gets an arcing electrical weapon called Chain Lightning. This is another one that's basically only useful in combat, so it only gets a little play in the series.

Torres gets herself an anime-style battering ram fist. Defintiely the goofiest of all the upgrades, though I suppose it's in keeping with her really awesome laser sword.

Bronsky gets himself some cluster bombs. This one feels the least like an upgrade. If he'd just shot this thing off, I wouldn't have felt like I needed an explanation.

Saving the best for last, J.T. gets himself a weapon called Solar Flare, some kind of plasma shooting out in all directions with him untouched at the epicenter. This one gets used a lot, and is definitely cool.

Hollis flat-out attempted an assassination, and yet Simbacca gives him a pass at Marsh's insistence. That's not just out of character for him, it's downright silly. Perhaps if they'd exiled him to the Exo Fleet instead... but no, Simbacca should have probably struck him down where he stood. The lack of consequences doesn't work for me at all.

The Resolute II is introduced this episode, and I'm sorry to say that doesn't really work for me either. WHY were the Renegade Clans building what is clearly an Exo-Carrier, when Pirates don't have e-frames. Why is it in Exo-Fleet and not Pirate colors? For that matter, why are they building a ship at all? It seems clear that this is an underground political group, not a group that's likely to wage a space battle with Simbacca for control of the Clans. Much like the special powers introduced above, this feels like a marketing-driven decision.

Speaking of, the Renegade Clans could have been cool, at least in theory, but in practice their aims are unclear. The fact that we never see them again also undercuts their effectiveness as antagonists. It seems like there would be enough animosity towards the fleet that you don't need a separate faction for this episode to work. Again, it's probably the necessity of introducing the Resolute II that forced their inclusion.

Watch for: Remember that ginormous Pirate that ambushed Marsh and DeLeon back in The Embassy? He shows up with the group getting a tour, though he doesn't seem quite so large this time.

Overall: Definitely one of the weakest episodes to date. Dramatically, we needed to see Chaos to make it believable, but it doesn't seem like the producers had a clear vision for what life is like here. (Contrast to Mars, or Venus, or Tethys, and the mediocre world building becomes readily apparent.) Couple this with the toy-driven need to introduce a new good-guy ship and tech, and you've got an episode that suffers.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 8--Dragon's Rock

"When I joined the Exo-Fleet, this is what I wanted to see... the stars from space. But now I'd give anything to watch the sunrise on Venus."

Dragon's Rock is the twenty-first episode of Exo-Squad, and takes place directly following The Last Man and Mindset. The two wings of Able Squad meet up and have a simple mission, drop supplies to the resistance on Venus. Things go awry when Burns and Bronsky get captured to be part of Draconis' secret slave labor. He's building a fortress in case Phaeton tries to replace him with a Neo Mega. The captives manage to get out a signal and Able Squad rides to the rescue.

What Works: Easily the most interesting bit of the episode is the machinations of Draconis. He knows about the Neo Megas and he's terrified. Should he be? We'll find out. Capturing Terrans and keeping them off-the-books is a rather elegant solution to that issue though. (I love his second in command grumbling that "they eat too much," because remember Neo Sapiens have more efficient digestive systems than Homo Sapiens.) He's right to be cautious, we learn that General Drusis of Ceres was executed for (presumably) allowing the secret of the Neo Megas to get out.

He's got a cool-ass shuttle, too! I've long been a fan of the ship designs in this universe, and this one is no exception. I rather like that he uses the standard Neo Sapien purple and yellow to achieve the effect.

The Trail of Tears imagery is powerful, though logically I have a hard time imagining that Draconis would find all those folks to round up and move. It looks like it stretches from horizon to horizon. Perhaps he's just moving most of them from some other city, and Burns & Bronsky are just the stragglers?

Nara's crush on Marsala gets a bit of exploration, though this is a Marsala-lite episode. Marsala snaps at Takagi when the latter takes issue with the way the former is coping with the loss of two teammates. Marsala's approach is cold and rational, but, though "I do not express my feelings the way you do, that does not mean I feel less." Well said. Nara also hallucinates Bronsky as Marsala when she collapses due to dehydration and sunstroke. And, of course, they share a moment bonding over the Venutian sunrise.

This is the the first episode where Bronsky is, more or less, front and center. For the most part, he works well. He's still lazy, and a slob, and the worst pilot in the squad. (Note that he crashes the cargo ship, not due to enemy action, but due to weather.) But he's got a big heart and a strong back and he throws both into the cause.

And, of course, we can't have a Venus episode with James Burns as well. He looks awful! Which is a little odd, considering the timing. (See below.)

There are some nice example of tech in this episode. We finally see the Neo Sapien colored version of Hollis' frame.

We get another nice shot of a Pirate vessel de-cloaking to take on e-frames right at the start of the episode.

There's a really nice effect when Nara uses her spotlight to explore the abandoned resistance camp. I also enjoy that Nara busts out her ground support e-frame again, for the second and (I believe) only time in the series.

Finally, the little aftermath pan where we see the devastation wrought by Able Squad on Draconis' secret loyalists was very well done. Usually it's the good guys we see licking their wounds. This will start to change.

What Doesn't: The timing is a bit off. JT and Marsala drop off the Earth resistance while the rest of the gang (minus Nara, who was missing) engages the Neos on Ceres. Then they immediately link up (now with Nara coming over from the Arnhem.) Presumably James was dropped off simultaneously, but now they've got more supplies for Venus? That doesn't quite feel right. Also, James looks like he's been doing slave labor for a lot longer than a few days. Possibly, the Ceres mission was just a separate mission that took place weeks if not months later than Mind Set, but it's suspicious that JT and Marsala were on the same class of Pirate vessel that we saw them on in that episode.

Bronsky shoots off the legs of a Neo Frame with a hand-held rifle, then commandeers it. It's a little goofy, and it's not in keeping with the relative firepower of hand weapons and eframes as has been established up until now, as recently as Mindset.

Watch For: Draconis' schemes and fears will continue to play a part in the story in a big way. We'll also get more payoff for the Venutian sunrise imagery.

Bio: Nara, again. Now it's really feeling like padding, though at least it's an appropriate character. Bronsky would have been a better choice, though of course there are 39 episodes this season and perhaps a dozen bios.

Overall: A good character-based story. The quibbles about the timing are just that, quibbles, and they wouldn't be an issue at all if not for the ambitious attempt to tie this episode to the last two more tightly than absolutely necessary. The plotting of Draconis feels like a story advancement, and the impact of having Neo Megas in the mix continues to drive the story. A solid entry to the overall story.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Cortex Bundle: Neo Megas

A couple years back, I posted a Cortex bundle for players who wished to play a Neo Sapien. With the introduction of Neo Megas to the universe (as of my reviews), I thought I'd take a stab at them. Neo Megas are Neo Sapiens evolved to the next level. Brilliant scientists one and all, they take normal Neo Sapien intellect, amp it up to eleven, and layer on the capability of creative thought. 

Neo Mega Bundle: D20 cost  


Photographic Memory: D8 (Neo Megas have extraordinary recall of anything ever experienced.)

Enhanced Communication: D4 (Neo Megas can communicate ultrasonically with each other, though in theory this could be jammed or intercepted.)

Intuitive Leaps: D4 (Unlike Neo Sapiens, Neo Megas are capable of, and indeed excel at, lateral thinking.)

Metabolic Control: D4 (Neo Megas have conscious control over their metabolic systems, allowing them to drastically reduce their oxygen requirements or even convincingly fake death for a time.)

Head for Numbers: D6 (Even more so than Neo Sapiens, Neo Megas easily understand complex technical matters.)

Simple needs: D2 (Like Neo Sapiens, Neo Megas can survive on comparably few calories, and can digest almost anything organic to achieve those calories.)

Enhanced Manipulation: D2 (Neo Megas have three opposable fingers on each hand, as well as prehensile toes. Add to tests where fine motor coordination is paramount.)

Longevity: D2 (Like Neo Sapiens, Neo Megas can live, and be vital, for approximately twice as long as Homo Sapiens.)

Enhanced Senses: D4 (Like Neo Sapiens, Neo Megas see very well in low-light conditions and have exceptional hearing.) 

Always Awake: D6 (Like Neo Sapiens, Neo Megas don't need sleep.)

Lightning Reflexes: D2 (Like Neo Sapiens, Neo Megas have extraordinary reflexes.)
Hardy Constitution: D2 (Like Neo Sapiens, Neo Megas are preternaturally resistant to chemicals and disease, though their smaller frames makes them not quite as robust.)

Natural Athlete: D2 (Like Neo Sapiens, Neo Megas are at the apex of human physical capabilities, though they aren't quite as adept.)


Arrogant: D6 (Neo Megas are the apex of humanity, and they aren't good at hiding this knowledge. Subtract D6 from social tests where such an attitude is a hindrance, i.e. most of them.)

Vulnerability - Trauma: D6 (Like Neo Sapiens, Neo Megas who suffer sever physical trauma, such as the loss of more than half of their life points, are at risk for contracting Auto Mutation Syndrome, a degenerative and inevitably fatal disease. They must make a hard endurance check or contract the illness.)

Memorable: D4 (In addition to being seven feet tall and blue, all Neo Megas have a unique geometric tattoo prominently on their forehead, often vaguely reminiscent of the Greek letter omega.)

Animal Enmity: D4 (Animals can sense that Neo Megas, like Neo Sapiens, are unnatural creatures.)

Sterile: D4 (Like Neo Spaiens, Neo Megas cannot reproduce normally, divorcing them from the cycle of life and denying them any form of familial relationship.)

Overconfident: D4 (As the preeminent lifeform in the solar system, Neo Megas can have a tendency to underestimate their opposition.)

This is a costly bundle, as Neo Megas represent a potent brand of villiany. To offset the rather pricey bundle, most of them have Prejudice (D4) Terrans and Prejudice (D4) Neo Sapiens. Again, heroic PCs are unlikely to have those particular complications, though Duty and Infamy are good choices.

Note: The Neo Mega bundle is even more powerful than the already impressive Neo Sapien bundle. In truth, they had little in the way of physical weaknesses and few of the intellectual limitations their larger fore-bearers suffered from. They trade down slightly physically but the intellectual gains more than make up for it. I'd recommend limiting Neo Megas to NPCs for all but the most mature and experience players. They do, however, make excellent villains.

Once I get to The Perfect Warrior, expect a similar bundle for Neo Lords. (Though, while Neo Megas are borderline tolerable for experienced players, Neo Lords are simply too powerful to be anything but NPCs.) I don't intend to stat out individual Neo Warrior types.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 7--The Last Man

"Neo sapiens were an improvement upon mankind. Neo megas are man perfected. We are new force in the universe." 

The Last Man is the twentieth episode of Exo-Squad. Occuring at approximately the same time as Mind Set, it introduces Charlie-Five Platoon, the Jump Troopers under the command of Captain Avery Butler. He, Captain Colleen O'Reilly, Sergeant Ramon Longfeather, and Corporal Vince Pellegrino are the representative members, though many other members (each with their own unique suit of armor) are present. They attempt a diversionary thrust at Ceres, a seemingly unimportant Neo outpost, only to suffer massive casualties in a seemingly too-elaborate trap. The reason for this is the presence of a very special Neo brood center, creating the next step in Neo Sapien evolution, the Neo Megas. Standing slightly smaller than their Neo Sapien cousins, these three-fingered Neo Megas are more intelligent than normal Neo Sapiens and capable of creative thought. One is captured during the battle and fakes his own death, though he perishes while attempting to escape the withdrawing Exo-Fleet forces.

Random jump trooper.
What works: The (re)introduction of the Jump Troopers works well. While it would have been really nice to see some hints of these guys in early S1, it's good to see another side of the fleet than the fighter pilots. These guys, the boots-on-the-ground forces, come across as tough, capable, and a little more serious than the members of Able Squad. That's probably fair for infantry versus the air support, though in the 22nd century environment there has obviously been considerable blurring of the lines between the two roles. It's nice that we get different armor not just for our four main characters, but for all of the different members.

Since this episode almost serves as a new pilot, let's look at who we've got:

Captain Butler is probably the weakest new character. He suffers a bit from leader-itus. He comes across as no-nonsense, competent... and that's about it. We never really see his human side. I do like that he starts off his missions with the rallying cry, "any heroes on board?" "No, sir!" "Good! The only heroes I ever saw weren't breathing." That's probably the best bit of insight into him as a man that we see.

Lieutenant O'Reilly easily gets the most characterization of any jump trooper. Her main contribution is her realization that the Neos have cracked the jump-comm system, and so she'd devised her own. She plays well with Weston, the other techie chick in the series, and indeed we've seen them working together in O'Reilly's first cameo back on the GRAF shield. It's clear that the writers enjoy her, we'll see quite a bit more of her in the future.

Sergeant Longfeather barely registers as a character. If he didn't get an action figure, I don't think I'd have noticed him in this episode at all. He gets quite a few lines and even breaks up a fight between Pelligrino and Bronsky, but somehow barely gets a chance to shine. I do like that the guy is a freaking mountain, though. His best characterization was probably his arm-wrestling after the battle, though even then O'Reilly steals the show.

Corporal Pelligrino gets strong characterization as well. His big thing is his rivalry with the e-frame pilots. Again, this is the kind of thing Exo-Squad does exceedingly well. Even among good guys, there's tension and conflict. (Bad guys, too, have rivalry, but that doesn't feel quite as innovative.)  I love Bronsky's quick, savage punch when pushed too far, and that Pelligrino quickly gains the upper hand. I wouldn't go hand-to-hand with a jump trooper if I was an e-frame jock.

The other big thing this episode introduces is the Neo Megas. Having established a new status quo with the end of the Pirate Alliance plotline, the writers are quick to shake things up. It makes sense that the Neos would attempt to close the creativity gap they have with terrans, and that they'd turn to genetics to do so. The two Neo Megas we see in this episode are smarmy, brilliant, and immediately make you want to strangle them. Well done.

We also continue the tradition of Neo Sapien generals dressing in their own unique style. We meet General Drusus, who makes the monumental blunder of using the Neo Megas as front-line combat troops. He'll pay for that.

Drusus has a brief argument with the as-yet-unnamed Praetorius, the Neo Sapien genetics minister. He's one of my favorite minor characters, so it's nice to see him here.

The Neo Mega's murder of the Med Tech is some delightfully creepy imagery.

DeLeon macking on O'Reilly was a nice bit of characterization for him. We've seen him flirt with Weston before, maybe he's got a thing for brainy ladies.

About two-thirds of this episode take place on Ceres, the largest asteroid in the solar system. I enjoy that the series continues to tour around the actual local real-estate of space. I also like the reasoning for the attack, to divert the Neo's attention to Mars and away from Winfield's real target. (We'll find out what that is in a few episodes.)

Weston busts out some pretty bad-ass moves versus the Neo Mega. That he then got the better of her does a good job of showcasing just how tough these little (7 foot tall) critters are.

What doesn't: The title of the episode, doesn't seem to work on either a literal or literary level. There's no clear last man in the episode, and the Mary Shelly novel features a post-apocalyptic world devastated by plague. No clear connection.

Where's Nara? This episode is taking place while J.T. and Marsala work with the resistance on Earth, so Nara really should be in command of Able Squad. Minor quibble, but there it is.

O'Reilly using the old comm to communicate misinformation was clever. Her blowing up her own chip seemed rather melodramatic.

The final scene in the airlock didn't quite work for me. Weston throwing a wrench against the escaping air strained credulity for me. Also, one would think that there would be a few failsafe mechanisms in place. I get that the writers wanted the Neo Megas to remain a mystery and didn't want the Exo-Fleet to have a body to autopsy, but it's a bit clumsy how they achieved it.

Watch for:  Neo Tanks make their first appearance. They'll show up several times in the future, and will play an important role in the final storyarc. (They're also damn cool, and would have made a great toy.)

Neo Megas won't be the only instance of Neo Sapiens tinkering with their own genetic make-up to attempt to gain advantage in the war.

We see the Phaeton command-style e-frame used for the first time by someone other than him. That won't happen too often, though it will occasionally occur. I rather enjoy that, as having a unique frame doesn't really seem cost-effective and the Neos are eminently logical.

By the by, this is the first episode without any J.T. Marsh in it. No other character has been in every episode to date besides him, so now it's official that no-one will be in every episode. I rather like that.

Bio: Appropriately enough, Colleen O'Reilly. Since we barely know her, it's somewhat effective, though I can't help but think that the time would have been better used in the episode itself. Four cards in, I'm starting to think that I'm just not a fan of the idea in general. Interestingly enough, there will be ANOTHER version of this bio that features new animation depicting the graduation scene described here, which is kind of a nice value add.

Overall: Basically a solid episode. It needs to accomplish quite a few things and manages to do it all well.