Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 20--The Dream War

"Once, I was commanding general of all Earth forces. Now I am a zookeeper."

The Dream War is the thirty-third episode of Exo-Squad, the mid-point of the Neo Warrior storyline. Picking up right where we left off, Tyree's forces along with Marsh, Marsala, and Napier are holed up in Parliament House in Canberra. They make a break for it, but are quickly forced back inside after taking heavy losses. Even the arrival of most of Able Squad isn't enough to turn the tide. Meanwhile, DeLeon and Weston are a hundred kliks away trying to get his bird in the air when they are beset by Neo Lizards. They total Weston's frame and they retreat on DeLeon's, only to have it sputter out after cresting some mountains. Fearing, correctly, that they might be pursued, they take his fusion pack and continue on foot, linking up with an aboriginal tribe. After experiencing prophetic dreams, they wake to discover the tribe is under attack, and with their fusion pack manage to finally defeat the lizards. Meanwhile, resigned to their fate, Marsala suggests attempting to at least save Napier using his e-frame's stealth abilities. The attempt begins as the episode ends.

What Works: Despite an odd episode structure (basically Canberra material bookending Maggie and Alec trekking through the Australian outback) this episode manages to basically hold together. The Australian mysticism manages to engage without being too corny. The use of cave paintings of Neo Sapiens, as well as Neo Lizards pursuing two troopers, is slightly hokey but also kinda cool. And I love Maggie's dream...

The Neo Warriors are freaking terrifying. We meet a new one, the Neo Rhino. I absolutely love the POV shot of one charging Torres. Even our unflappable sergeant gets, well, flapped (then flipped onto her back) by one of them. We also get another dose of Neo Crabs emerging from the water for just long enough to drag under hapless resistance fighters. The writers certainly have a strong understanding of how to touch upon visceral fears. (But, see below)

Weston and DeLeon kiss, paying off some of the gentle flirting we've seen between them. Their relationship will continue to play a role over the course of the series. It's subtle, we're hardly in the melodramatic territory of a Robotech here, but probably more realistic in many ways.

It's a subtle thing, but we see, twice, that Alec's e-frame has a busted Cyberlink, with him needing to manually connect and disconnect. I love that level of attention to detail.

The relentless nature of the Neo Lizards, "they weren't bred to give up," comes across rather well. The scenes of them, hours later, retracing Maggie and Alec's steps is well done.

And, in the Canberra plotline, I like Marsh quipping that Napier will return "like MacArthur." This is, of course, a reference to General MacArthur's escape from, and subsequent liberation of, the Philippians from the Japanese occupying forces. It's also rather nice that Tyree has come around so completely. No one is quite as fanatical as a convert.

What Doesn't: The Neo Warriors still feel overpowered, especially the acid. Twice, we see Neo Lizards spray acid and hit a machine somewhere on the periphery, only for the machine to subsequently smoke and spark and sputter out. They also still seem to be more-or-less immune to blaster fire, which I still have a really hard time buying.

Nitpick... why is Takagi wearing his helmet? They never wear helmets? Not a huge deal, but definitely a visual inconsistency, and there's no plot reason for it.

Watch For:  During Weston's prophetic dream, she experiences an explosion, "bigger than anything before." It's just a few frames of animation, but she's dreaming of a map of the solar system, and the explosion originates at Mars. This is some key foreshadowing right here. They pass it off as presaging the fusion pack explosion in the caves, but it'll be much, much, MUCH bigger.

Danny Boregard mentions a brother, George, who joined the resistance. It's Tyree's right hand man.

Shiva's dissatisfaction will play into the next episode as well.

Bio: It's Marsh this time, with some new animation. Nothing too special, but there's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of Nara in a new e-frame. Slight spoiler I suppose, though not nearly as bad as Simbacca and the Resolute II.

Overall: A step up from last time. Putting the main plot on hold for most of the episode to follow Weston and DeLeon is a risky choice, but it pays off. Their plot didn't need a full episode, but did need the 15 or so minutes it got. Meanwhile, the tension in Parliament House keeps getting raised. The episode starts with the resistance and a couple of troopers trapped, and it ends the same way, only with half the resistance dead and most of Able Squad stuck, many without their birds. Looking forward to the resolution.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 19--Warrior Brood

 "Nobody tells Nick Tyree what to do in his own country!"

Warrior Brood is the thirty-second episode of Exo-Squad, and kicks off the Australian arc of the series. When Nick Tyree (remember him) disobeys orders and liberates Australia, Napier and Able Squad show up to try to cajole him into retreating to the mountains before the Australian resistance is wiped out by the inevitable counter-attack. He refuses, and Phaeton's response is swift, brutal, and unexpected--he unleashes nigh-unstoppable Neo Sapien / animal hybrids. Able Squad and the resistance fall back in the face of this onslaught. 

What Works: The initial series of attacks which liberates Australia are well done. You get the sense that Phaeton is stretched thin, and that Australia is a low priority. You also don't see any civilians anywhere on the continent, which has ominous overtones which don't really get explored. The tactics seem like the usual resistance strategies, luring forces into ambushes, striking from hiding places, utilizing whatever bootleg gear they can find.

It's cool to see what Praetorius has been up to since engineering the Neo Megas. Ever since Phaeton mentioned the secret base "in Antarctica" it's been a gun hanging on the wall. Neat to see it get fired. Also, from a directing standpoint nice transition from the Australian flag to the Southern Cross and then down to the base.

I also enjoy, as ever, the infighting between allies. This time it's the Ozzie resistance vs Napier and Able Squad, and they do indeed exchange fire. Nick Tyree is the stand-out character in this, naturally, taking it all very personally. When he declares Australia "his country" the meaning is intentionally ambiguous as to if he's saying it's where he's from, or if he's saying that it belongs to him, now. Even after Able Squad has beat his men, he still challenges Napier to fisticuffs.

There's an intentionally strange beat where a Neo Warrior, lizard variety, gets flummoxed by Marsala before getting shot by him. Given that these things don't seem to be particularly bright, it makes sense that their behavior would have some very simple, very basic parameters. I also like a new angle on the dilating Neo pupils, this time the slitted lizard eye.

Tyree's reaction upon seeing the Neo Sapien Warriors is pretty great. That's a lot of emotion in there for a 22 minute televised cartoon.

What Doesn't: Unfortunately, there are many things a bit off about the episode. From a big picture view, the Neo Warriors are over-powered. I could buy that they'd be a huge threat, but each version seems to be able to just shrug off blaster fire from e-frames with little permanent damage. That seems like too much for just mixing in Neo Sapien and Crab/Spider/Scorpion/Bat/Lizard DNA. Maybe the ones with shells, I could see, if they were ducking down. The writers definitely scale back on the invulnerability after this storyline, but by that point the damage is done and it just feels like a continuity hiccup.

Bronski's fear of spiders feels like it's being introduced late in the game. Moreover, there's no real payoff. As soon as he mentions his phobia we know where the story's going, and he fights a spider, and in the end he still hates spiders.

Nara getting left behind on the Cossack with Hollis is another strange choice. She's just been through the wringer, you'd think the writers would want to explore that a bit. I find it hard to believe they didn't bring a spare frame for her. Heck, she does have her own seldom-used mech! At least, to the show's credit, there's a line in there acknowledging her recent loss.

Nitpick time! Nick Tyree rips out the wires of his radio and gleefully declares that they've got "wiring problems." Really? With equipment scarce, he's gonna sabotage his gear so he can pretend not to have received orders?

Watch For: Hey, what's Creon (Draconis' aide) doing in Antarctica? Surely Phaeton would have put him to death, and he doesn't seem important enough to clone.

What's the deal with the little maintenance robot that wheels up to Takagi's Exo-Wing? Never seen one of those before. Almost maybe touching on the S1 dangling plot thread about sentient e-frames? Nah, probably just a designer who thought it would look cool. Still, odd choice.

Bronski winds up in the ocean with blue tentacles grappling him. Presumably a Neo-Warrior octopus, but we'll never see anything like it again, and we didn't see one in Praetorius' lab. I'd have loved to see a proper model-sheet style design for this guy show up somewhere, but I suspect none was ever made.

Bio: Colleen O'Reilly, again, but this time (as promised) with new animation telling the story Winfield is narrating. It works better when you can see what's going on. On the minus side, she's not in this episode at all, even as a cameo.

Overall: Decent, not great. It's nice to get some payoff for the earlier tension between Tyree and, well, everyone, as well as find out what's been going on way down south, but the threat is simultaneously too great and too nebulous. (The Ozzie resistance being antagonists means them all getting wiped out doesn't feel as tragic as it might otherwise.) Still, there are two more episodes to go, so there's every chance things might get better.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 18--Ultimatum

"Exo-Fleet can send 'em anywhere it wants, so long as Venus is kept pure. We're not inhuman!"

Ultimatum is the thirty-first episode of Exo-Squad, and wraps up the long-running Liberation of Venus arc in a not-particularly neat package. While visiting a recovering but badly wounded James Burns, Marsala is kidnapped by the Venutian resistance. They use him as a bargaining chip to try to get any and all Neo Sapiens in the Exo-Fleet rounded up and taken off Venus. When Nara confronts her brother, he admits to having suspicions as to who is involved and attempts to free Marsala on his own. His efforts are interrupted by Neo Sapien holdouts attempting to take the resistance caves for their own use, resulting in a three-way firefight between Able Squad, Neo elements, and the resistance. A dying James removes the unconscious Marsala, bringing him to safety before finally expiring himself.

What Works: Almost everything about this episode is terrific. This is the first major character death we've had since Captain Marcus, and James is a wholly sympathetic figure. Despite plenty of foreshadowing (his drive to get Draconis remains as strong as ever), it still manages to catch you by surprise because of how much development he continues to receive. Having him survive the Battle of Vesta but broken seems like a plot that could have been explored in the background of another dozen episodes.

James' determination burns brightly. He gets shot out of Marsala's e-frame twice and both times crawls back in. Kudos to the director for really making you feel how badly this guy gets hurt and keeps on going. It's an amazing force of will, and Michael Donovan nails the performance. I was familiar with his work as the character Ryouga in the Vis Ranma 1/2 anime dub, a similarly driven (if much less tragic) figure.

This is easily the most exploration of racism the show manages to deliver, and it's a show where this theme gets much attention paid (albeit through allegory.) Kruger's dialog strikes just the right balance of familiar and science-fiction and lunatic. "Venus must be cleansed of all Neo Sapiens once and for all. You can't trust any of the Sapes. Who knows what they're plotting in their programmed brains?" Delightfully, Marsala out-argues his captor when the ranting begins. "Go ahead, resort to violence, but it still won't make you right."

It's interesting to see that the Venutian resistance didn't really do well in the context of peace. Interesting and totally believable. These guys are used to being independent fighters, so the idea that they'd go rogue resonates. I love watching six of them attempting to dog-pile Marsala... unsuccessfully! We won't be seeing them again, presumably because they're all going to be locked up. It's a rather neat way to deal with the question of what happens to them after the war.

Marsala really shines this episode. He's articulate, caring, and heroic. Witness him picking up a live shell and tossing it back at the Neos; that's hardcore.

Those are the big-picture virtues of the episode, though there are also a surfeit of wonderful little touches. I love the design work this episode. One very minor character that I noticed was a Venutian resistance sympathizer who attempted to flood Nara out of the pipes under Vesta. She's so awkward, and yet it works.

Speaking of those pipes, there is a terrific bit of foreshadowing where you see a fountain sputter and die while Marsala surveys the ruined Venutian landscape. After Nara gets flooded out, we see the fountain come back to life, and you suddenly realize exactly how the Resistance got in and out of Vesta undetected.

The episode kicks off with J.T. having a nightmare about Noretti. Given just how creepy the last episode was, it's nice to see that he's having some trouble dealing.

Per my review of Sabotage, the Snake Tree is back. James promised Nara he'd meet her with Marsala at the tree and he delivers, even though it literally kills him to do so.

It's a tiny touch, but I love the design element of Nara hooking up her suit to activate a light. A subtle thing, to be sure, but the kind of element Exo-Squad excelled at that makes the tech feel real.

Oh, and speaking of small elements, Kroger meets his end by being crushed by debris from a Neo shooting at him... mere moments after attempting to crush Marsala's skull with a rock himself. Fitting irony, and I do love the symbolism of his aggression and rage getting stripped down to caveman levels.

What Doesn't: Little things here and there. I thought the nascent Neo resistance had been adequately dealt with last episode, and moreover thought the Neo attack at the end split the focus. I'd have been happier had this element not been included. And, strategically, I didn't buy that there was anything special about the caves to make them worth fighting over. I'd think the Neo resistance would want to dig into an uncontested spot and save their firepower for targets with a high pay-off.

Nara climbing into Takagi's Exo-Frame and his tone-deaf quip feel out of place in such a serious episode. I suppose if she'd had her own ground-support frame it'd have been too easy for her to catch James, but it took me out of the episode for a moment.

Watch For: James is gone but, unsurprisingly, his presence will continue to be felt, especially for Nara.

The shot of J.T. waking up from his nightmare will get recycled late in the series.

Bio: Alec DeLeon gets the treatment this episode. He's not particularly prominent, but they get major points for the all-new animation. The moon factors prominently into his bio, some (perhaps unintentional?) foreshadowing for the end of the season.

Overall: Terrific episode. A satisfying and logical conclusion to both James and the resistance that feels poised to push Nara's storyline further. Deals with deep themes (racism, soldiers without a war) without ever making them feel childish or cartoonish. Really strong stuff!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 17--Under the Skin

"I used to hate... the enemy... but not now. How do you fight without hate?"

Under the Skin is the thirtieth episode of Exo-Squad, and shifts us into the aftermath of the Liberation of Venus storyline. Phaeton has created a Neo Sapien clone of Alice Noretti, the trooper who died under Marsh's command during the Veil of Doom plotline. Her mission, to infiltrate Able Squad and assassinate Winfield. She arrives and attempts to integrate with the squad, which interrupts a nascent bit of flirtation between Marsh and O'Reilly. Marsala comes to suspect her, but too late. She takes a run at Winfield, only to decide to embrace her human identity and flee. As she makes her escape, O'Reilly shoots her dead.

What Works: This is an ambitious idea... perhaps too ambitious. A homo sapien looking clone with Neo Sapien organs under the skin is suitably creepy. (But see below.)

I love that, despite Venus being firmly in Exo-Fleet hands, there is still significant Neo Sapien resistance. The trooper that O'Reilly and Marsh chase after certainly is tough, fearlessly tossing a grenade at Marsh's e-frame despite the obvious advantage Marsh has in the combat. (But see below.)

There are a lot of great little bits of characterization and world building in this episode. J.T. seems especially philosophical, musing on two separate occasions about how the problem with Venus is no moon, and how much he enjoys the desert. There's also a casual throw-away line about how there aren't any dogs on Venus, not since the great famine. Think about it. (But see below.)

The writers certainly give plenty of hints to the characters (not the audience, they know immediately) that something is awry. Noretti doesn't sleep, but spends all night up with Marsala. She barely touches her food. A dog Bronsky finds barks only at her and Marsala. She dodges the medical exam that could restore her to flight status. (But, again, see below.)

The budding romance between O'Reilly and Marsh is a welcome element to a series that hasn't touched much on this kind of theme. Marsala and Burns have been circling each other like a moth to a flame, and Weston & Takagi had a brief bit of tension that flared up and then died down hard. Since this show does body language well, I rather enjoy the bit with J.T. helping Colleen out of the e-frame. She holds his arm while dismounting, then lowers it to her side... only to bring it back up to his arm when she realizes he's not letting go of her waist.

The mild jealousy she exhibits when she catches Marsh with Noretti also seems reasonable. She's not freaking out, just expressing some mild disapproval.

Noretti is good at deflecting J.T... almost too good, but it's enjoyable to watch so I'll give it a pass. When he brings up things she doesn't want to talk about, like the medical exam, she's quick to shift the conversation to "don't blame me, I'm a good pilot." Which naturally brings up his guilt.

After Noretti has her change of heart, she flees the scene in Marsala's e-frame. It's appropriate that O'Reilly is the one who gets to take her down, given all that's transpired.

What Doesn't: Unfortunately, quite a lot. Big-picture-wise, this is a big plotline to try to squeeze into 22 minutes. Noretti has to be reintroduced to the audience, the cloning needs to be explained, O'Reilly and Marsh begin their relationship, Noretti has to begin to have doubts, Winfield decides to uncharacteristically put himself in a combat zone, and then our climax. I can't help but think that this would have been a better sub-plot to run through several episodes, which would have solved many of the problems.

It's also an odd choice to clue the audience in right from the start. I hate to criticize for doing something differently than I would, but it does turn this from an exercise of "why is Noretti acting weird" to one of "when will our heroes figure it out?"

Many of the details seem off to me this episode. In order to have Noretti come to doubt her cause, the Exo-Fleet is uncharacteristically lenient towards the Neo Sapien resistance. Noretti goes out of her way to not fire on a fleeing soldier, putting herself at risk to pursue him and eventually incapacitating him with a shot to a tree branch. It's much more cartoon morality than the show usually manages, where the good guys mostly blow up their enemies when necessary without too many qualms. At least Butler calls her on it.

In a similar vein, and no doubt for similar reasons, the squad is awfully PC, with Nara correcting Noretti when she calls the Neo Sapiens 'Sapes.

Remember that great line about how there aren't any dogs on Venus? Well, about four minutes later, Bronsky finds a dog on Venus. Very awkward. I suspect that line was originally in the same scene with the dog (sort of a, "hey, you found a dog, I thought there weren't any" kinda thing) but got reshuffled around.

The way that Marsala outs her is problematic. The idea is introduced, after-the-fact, that e-frame computers need to be reconfigured from terran to Neo Sapien users. Marala's frame did not need to be reconfigured after Noretti used it, his proof. Casting aside the idea that maybe absolute proof wasn't needed, we've never seen this before, and Bronsky commandeered a Neo e-frame as recently as last episode. Also, if that's the case, one imagines that it'd be easy to lock e-frames to one species or the other. Very clumsy.

Winfield's trip down to the planet is awfully coincidentally timed. She's only been with the squad a couple of days, it seems, when down he comes.

I also have some issues with Neo Noretti. Since all they had was some DNA "recovered from the crash site" I'm skeptical that they'd be able to even identify the trooper, much less program her in a way that's even half-way convincingly Noretti. I don't see how Phaeton could possibly know that she had only been with the squad a short time... for all he knew, Noretti and someone else on the squad were lovers. It's a plan that seemed doomed to failure from the start, or needed better hand-waving.

Watch For: Noretti's picture goes back up in the frame at the end of the episode, a poignant moment. We'll continue to see it occasionally.

Livia again shows up, helping to cement her more important role in the second half of the series.

When Butler (again, deservedly) chews out O'Reilly for putting herself at risk to save a fleeing Neo Sapien combatant, Marsh intercedes and Butler aggressively pulls rank. This scene will get reprised towards the end of the run.

Overall: Great idea, poor execution. At least it moves the plot along and introduces the O'Reilly/Marsh relationship.