Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 33--The Art of War

"Bronski, your dumb plans are gonna get you some day. I only hope it's not today." 

 The Art of War is the forty-sixth episode of Exo-Squad, and the last character-focused one before the endgame. Bronski & Takagi are tasked with bringing explosives and a demolitions expert to the resistance, to blow up a new Neo base at an unknown location in northern Canada. The methodology, booby-trap some supplies headed that way. The monkey-wrench, General Livia is using the train to bring great artwork to Phaeton City, which greatly angers Phaeton and presents a dilemma to our heroes. They booby-trap the particle accelerator being shipped, steal the art, and then let the Neos blow the train to the bottom of the Bering Strait. Along the way, romance blossoms between Wolf & Eve Hanley.

What Works: I like the idea behind this episode, in theory. A little breather, check in on the resistance, give Bronski a chance to bond with someone. And the execution is basically solid. (But, see below.)

It *IS* nice to check in on the Resistance, especially absent Napier. (I like Napier, but he tends to dominate.) With him gone, Eve as leader of this cell works quite a bit better. Here you see all of their frames. Left to right: J.J. in a utility frame, Jinx in his firefighter frame, Tanaka in his samurai frame, Voodoo in an intelligence frame, and Picasso in the troop transport frame. Oh, and of course Even in the quite beat-up Aerial Attack e-frame that probably was once owned by Marsh.

J.J. and Picasso in particular get a chance to shine. J.J. again comes across as quite clever and a bit snarky. And how could one in good conscience do an art-themed episode and not feature an established graffiti artist named Picasso?

Eve and Wolf basically works. He's the working-class schlub, she's the cultured good-girl, but thrown together in war and sure, why not? The series never quite gets a home-run in its attempts to do romance, but I do appreciate the effort. Nice use of the aurora borealis.

Kaz and Wolf's friendship is firmly established by this point, and in many ways Kaz is now the alpha of the pair. They've come a long way from the first episode's "don't cramp my style, kid" with Wolf happily cheering Kaz on as the kid comes to his rescue yet again. "You're the man, Kaz," he unselfconciously cheers. I'd have liked the series to spend a little more time on Kaz. He always struck me as the most talented of the squad at flying, and I'd have liked to see that idea explored more. It's there, in the background, but could easily have made an episode or even a story arc.

The art in the episode is a nice idea. Could the resistance blow up irreplaceable bits of human culture? Yes, if they had to, but it's worth them taking risks to preserve some. And I rather like the Resistance taking a moment to stop and appreciate it, despite themselves. Note Takagi waiting forlornly for Bronski to return.

Livia gets more development this episode. Me thinks she came quite close to death with her little bit of initiative here. The fact that she didn't know how important this train was to Phaeton hints that he's keeping secrets from her; this will be confirmed in a few episodes. Phaeton's reaction, to have the artwork she diverted destroyed, speaks again to his deteriorating mental state. Why waste the resources if it's unimportant? He's becoming petty.

There are a host of nice details in this episode. Tiny, but well executed. I love the idea of a Bering Strait Bridge.

There's a moment when the Neo villain of the episode, a low-ranking officer named Sardis, lands and a Neo with a shoulder-mounted camera runs up to him. I love that attention to realism.

And speaking of attention to details, the series takes a few seconds to show Bronski & J.J. reverse the train in an abandoned uranium mine they're hiding in. Necessary? Probably not, but it doesn't slow down the episode and feels kinda neat, so why not?

What Doesn't: The fight at the beginning of the episode once again feels totally perfunctory. Yes, it gets their demolition specialist killed, but really, this mission could have been given to Wolf & Kaz and the episode would have proceeded just fine. I do like that Wolf's not able to prevail with 3:1 odds and needs Kaz's help.

Wolf's riding inside the shuttle, rather than providing an escort. Why? It's a very silly visual. And, sure enough, the shuttle is spotted and gets attacked, so he just has to launch and engage. Since e-frames are capable of re-entry, it felt like it just slowed down the episode.

Able Squad has an abysmal record at keeping fellow members of Exo-Fleet alive. This time it's Van Owen, their demo expert. It's starting to feel repetitive.

Watch For: There are a couple of the Thrax-style frames under Sardis' command. I don't think we've seen them used for generics before.

The relationship between Wolf and Eve will continue.

The Great Slave Lake (what a great place to choose!) facility the Resistance struck will be seen again, and will prove to be critically important.

Bio: Colleen O'Reilly, again, a character not in the episode, again. A repeat of the Bronski one would have been the ideal choice, or one for Takagi or Eve or the Resistance if one's inclined to be wishful.

Overall: Decent. There's basically nothing wrong with it. The strong points are strong, the weak points are unimportant. Despite this, there's something that I can't put my finger on that makes me not love this episode. It's not one I ever just pop in and rewatch, and after my analysis I can't really say why. Maybe it's just too late in the series for a character-themed episode. Perhaps if it was just slightly earlier in the series, it'd work better, Perhaps between The Perfect Warrior and The Price of Courage. (That'd give the Neos more time to repair the damage to the Great Slave Lake facility too, and create a nice little mini-trilogy checking in on the three big Neo Sapien generals.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 32--Dark River

"Do you know what life is? Life is a river, a dark river that flows inside us, changes us, then, in the end, it drowns us so new life will form."

Dark River is the forty-fifth episode of Exo-Squad. Seeking to find a weakness in the Neo Lord's genetic code, Marsala, Marsh, and Burns head to the Amazon jungle searching for Dr. Ketzer. They find more than they bargain for, when they discover that he and the natives have held out against the three-year-long Neo occupation through genetic engineering. Nara is exposed to the same mutagen Ketzer uses on himself, much to the squad's horror. An assault by Draconis, reduced to command of the Neo's Manaus garrison, gives Ketzer time to flee into the jungle, the mission a failure and Nara's future uncertain.

What Works: The basic premise  is solid. The Neo's have a new weapon, the fleet naturally wants to break it. I also like the idea that Algernon has no idea how to go about this. For once, he's not a master of every science, only physics and engineering. Which, to be fair, is still a massive portfolio, but cutting off biology still feels like playing fair. No doubt it's motivated by a desire to get Ketzer into the series, but I'll take what I can get. Which brings us to his choice, the top terrain geneticist...

Dr. Albrecht Ketzer. Note that Albrecht means bright or noble, Ketzer means heretic. Quite apt. He came to the rain forest to test the use of rare plants in gene therapy, and managed to stay underground when the Neos came. We quickly learn how. There are strong overtures of Conrad's Heart of Darkness here, with his exploitation / aid to the natives. The vocal performance is strong, befitting a character whom they no doubt intended to be important in season 3.

I especially love the slow reveal of Ketzer. Once again, the series realizes that too much too fast might lose the audience, and so we see him first in silhouette, then just his hand, before he finally boldly marches into Nara's presence.

The plant folks are pretty neat too. They do indeed seem stronger and more durable than ordinary humans, and given the environment it's easy to see how they might be a match for armed Neo Sapiens.
They seem to use a mix of primitive weapons and ultra-modern gear captured from their enemies. They certainly are no stranger to blasters, but also employ gourds, tripwires, blowguns and the like. It's an interesting mix. I rather like the brief debate on the morality of the transformation. "You've turned them into freaks, robbed them of their humanity!" "I've helped them to adapt, to improve!"

Nara gets something to do. It's clear the writers like the character, but it's also clear they didn't know quite what to do with her after the Venus arc. Giving her a mutagen is an interesting development. It is slightly hampered by not getting a ton of payoff this season. The writers play pretty fair with her exposure to mutagen, with her several times evidencing discomfort in her right arm before Ketzer's big reveal.

It's good to see Draconis again. True to his word, Phaeton dusted off another Draconis clone following his attempted coup at Venus. Now we learn where Phaeton stuck him, the ass end of Earth. "A clone of my talents should not be punished for the crimes of another Draconis," he grumbles. That's an interesting philosophical point. His temper is certainly intact.

He has an interesting relationship with his second, Medusa, who is apparently Livia's woman. She reports him as disloyal, and Livia sends a squad of Neo Lords to remove him from command. This isn't actually entirely fair to Draconis, who may grumble about a crappy command but is basically doing his duty to Phaeton. It does help establish Livia as her own character, and a dangerous one to boot.

The Marsala / Burns relationship takes another haltering step when Marsala offers Nara comfort. It's what's inside that matters, he says, not appearances. It's sweet, but Nara misses the subtext and loudly rebuffs him. "They matter to me!" Oops.

Marsh manages to stay very focused, despite clearly being uncomfortable with the "ally" (whose work he describes as "against the laws of nature") they're tasked to bring back. I like that, even during a battle with the Neos, he keeps his eye on the prize and has Marsala nap Ketzer rather than fight neos.

I like how much of the plant folk we get to see. From their very first shots, in battle with the squad, we catch snippets and glimpses. By the end, we actually see that they have civilians, women and children who don't seem to be involved in the fighting.

What Doesn't: The ending is a bit too abrupt for me, cutting back to a wide shot of the Amazon while Marsh screams for the just-escaped Ketzer. The first time around, I genuinely expected them to come back next episode right where this one left off. Even after they didn't, I was left wondering if I'd missed an episode, or perhaps the series was being aired slightly out of order. Nope, they just failed. The logic works, there's no reason to show the squad hunting for him and failing, but even still, an extra line of dialogue here or there might have clarified things.

The Neo attack at the beginning of the episode feels perfunctory.

Watch For: The tree Nara plants at James' grave will appear again. "Plants grow quickly, here on Venus," Nara says prophetically.

Medusa is among the many Neo Sapien geneticists Algernon scrolls through before getting to Ketzer. This is not an animation error; if it were, she'd be the same character model on the screen as in the episode. It makes a lot of sense for that to be her background, given that Ketzer is the only thing of strategic importance in the episode. I can also completely buy that the field of genetics is dominated by Neo Sapiens. Not only are they smarter, but it's going to be closer-to-home for them than for any terran.

Despite his (second) death, the series isn't done with Draconis yet. Having it accomplished at the hands of Neo Lords point to their continued importance in the series. Also note that, had they joined Draconis in his hunt rather than assassinate the not-particularly disloyal Draconis, there's an excellent chance they could have nabbed Ketzer, Marsh, and Marsala, three very valuable prizes.

Finally, of course, Nara's mutation and Ketzer's forces will continue to play a role in the series moving forward. But that hardly needs saying at this point, does it?

Bio: Marsala, again. He's in the episode, so that's something. I suppose Marsh, Burns, and Marsala all feel pretty tired by this point, so unless they wanted to make one for Draconis it's not a terrible choice for filler.

Overall: Strong. Very strong. It gives Nara something to do for the rest of the series, gives us another look at an interesting villain, and allows the good guys to fail for a change. Admittedly there was plenty of that early on, but this late in the game the Exo Fleet has been mostly steamrolling the opposition. That makes good logical sense, but the occasional reversal reminds us that it's a chaotic universe and nothing is certain.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 31--The Price of Courage

"You were the best of 'em, Shiva. Too bad you didn't serve a better cause."

The Price of Courage is the forty-fourth episode of Exo-Squad. A stand-alone offering, it propels the story aggressively towards the endgame. Shiva is summoned to Phaeton, not to be executed, as he surmised, but to be given command of the remains of the Neo spacefleet. He is to retake Venus, using a solar flare to approach without being detected. He lucks out, approaching when the Resolute II is shut down for maintenance and the bulk of the Exo-Fleet is on a diversionary run towards Earth. Nonetheless, Marsh and Simbacca mount a successful defense. The back of the Neo fleet is broken, opening the road to Earth. Shiva himself crashes on Venus and dies, despite the best efforts of the Exo-Scouts to get him to a doctor.

What Works: Damn near everything. This is about as perfect as a stand-alone episode of Exo-Squad gets. Let's start with Shiva. Only Exo-Squad could give us a character named for a god of death with a freaking pitchfork on his head and make him sympathetic. His journey from monster to sympathetic figure has been accomplished through remarkably few appearances. He was calculating and ruthless throughout, and used Terrans like Amanda Connor and Diana without remorse. But the Australia arc showed him to be compassionate to the men under his command. Now this episode shows him to be loyal to his cause; to a fault, perhaps, but loyal. He gives everything because he is, at heart, a soldier. Phaeton's excellent speech, recontextualized when juxtaposed with Shiva's unmarked grave, is a touching tribute.

Let's go to Phaeton. He's suitably megalomaniacal in this episode, sending his "best general" on an almost suicide-mission to buy himself more time. "To complete his work here on Earth," he ominously muses. But when it comes time to send off the troops, he's managed to dredge up his inspirational persona for a moment. "The blow you are about to strike will send the Terran rabble back to the cover of their Pirate hideouts. You will have your revenge for the Terrans' destruction of Mars. I will build a monument to your victory and inscribe your names in stone so that future broods will remember your courage!"

The one Neo who doesn't seem impressed by that speech, by the way, is Thrax. He's got command of a monitor, and gets tasked with following the Exo-Fleet on their diversionary run towards Earth. Once again, he survives.

Wotad, the Neo Lord assigned to Shiva, disagrees with Shiva's decision to ignore the Exo-Fleet and continue with the mission. He's pretty annoying, all told, declaring victory prematurely and questioning Shiva's commands. I don't think this is an accident, I think he's supposed to represent the bad side of the Neo Sapien Order. It's certainly satisfying to see him blown to bits.

Let's shift focus to the Exo-Fleet side of things. As mentioned, the Exo-Scouts make their final appearance (unless there's a cameo I'm forgetting) this episode. It's a nice coda for their storyline, and accomplished something important for the story; it sets up what the Exo-Fleet is fighting to protect. Venus isn't just tremendously important strategically, it's inhabited by real people. (All of the Venutian natives we knew are dead or imprisoned.) Their reintroduction is a tad awkward, but I love the moment that Torres gets serious and steps out of her frame to confront them. They all take a few steps back, propelled by her force of personality, a great moment. Finally, letting them find Shiva and get effected by his death is also an easy way to jerk at the tears of the audience. (And it works.)

I love Marsh and Simbacca, chillin' over a cup of coffee. "In this war, I have trusted men with my life. You, I would trust with my money." Oh, Simbacca, you old charmer. You're definitely the Josef Stalin of this story.

After Marsh gets command of the counter-attack, he concocts the best plan he can, trying to lure the Neo fleet with the inactive Resolute II and hitting them from the flanks. I love the doubt on his face as the casualties on his side rack up higher and higher. He trusts his plan, but clearly it takes willpower for him to stay the course.

And losses the Exo-Fleet took. We see tons of their smaller space ships fall to the Neo guns, and plenty of E-Frames destroyed as well. Basically, any e-frame not in Able Squad pretty much gets toasted. We haven't seen Exo-Fleet losses like this since the Battle for Venus. Overall, this is a parallel to the Battle of the Bulge, when the dying Nazi empire made a push for Antwerp and caught the Allies flat-footed. This is a much condensed version, but essentially the German forces did extremely well due to luck and audacity, but were stopped short of their goal while suffering devastating losses.

The battle itself is exciting, satisfying, and easy to follow. Shiva has called the Exo-Fleet's bluff and seems to be holding all the cards. He refuses to break formation, inflicting heavy losses on the smaller fleet defending Venus. Though most of the Exo-Frigates attacking his flank are destroyed, the survivors get close enough to launch a fusion torpedo attack that forces him to break formation to evade. During this window, Marsh uses the small fighters kept in reserve to get in among the Neo ships and tear them to ribbons. Even then, Shiva doesn't go down easily, trying for a last-ditch assault on the Resolute II by E-Frame after his ships are lost. It's tense and exciting till the end.

Shiva is shot down short of his goal and crashes on Venus. He survives, barely, but ultimately knows that "it is finished." (Not coincidentally, Jesus' last words too.) He's not just talking about his own life, but the viability of the empire he served. This was the last gamble, and the Neos lost. I love the parallel imagery of the partially obscured sun, used earlier by Phaeton, now again for Shiva's death.

What Doesn't: The Neo Fleet. As recently as Night of the Traitor it seemed pretty strong, and nothing has happened to it since then to weaken it. Now, can you hand-wave it and say that the losses inflicted when Mars blew up as well as their defeat at Venus left them on the back foot? I suppose so, but it would have been really nice to SEE the Neos Mars fleet get destroyed. At the very least, it could have been mentioned in dialogue.

Not awful, but it seems like they missed a trick by not allowing Shiva to blow up the Resolute II. It never does anything more in the series after this, and Shiva's dramatic "the die is cast" as he launches his rocket turns into a piddling little 'bang' when it hits nothing very vital looking. The Neo fleet would still be destroyed and the Exo-Fleet still largely intact, so the story would progress. Not strictly speaking a bad, but definitely an opportunity wasted.

Simbacca, the pragmatist, seems awfully upset at the prospect of losing Venus. Remember, this is the man who was fatalistically resigned to dying when Enceladus ("REMEMBER ENCELADUS!") fell, who stubbornly attacked an E-Frame with a piece of concrete attached to a pipe. I just don't see him having that much empathy. He'd live to fight another day or he wouldn't, but either way he'd have more dignity about it. Another victim of the second act cliffhanger effect.

A small thing. The Exo-Scouts start chucking rocks at Shiva when he's still alive. "Why," he asks, though if he's asking them or God is unclear. The cairn imagery is great, but it's unclear why they started when they did.

Watch for: Phaeton's Bunker is nearly completed. Work is still being done but the superstructure looks largely in place. It, needless to say, will be increasingly important to the plot as we approach the end.

The road to Earth is indeed open. This will inform every episode that comes after. Winfield now has clear skies everywhere in the solar system except Earth. You can bet he'll press that advantage.

There's a minor animation flub where two of the E-Frames that get destroyed in the battle are... Exo-Scout e-frames. Guess those models were lying around. 

Speaking of flubs, there's also one  where Algernon is in his original clothes on one side of a monitor and his new outfit on the other. Whoops!

Finally, Shiva's grave will make another appearance, albeit with a name inscribed which rather undercuts the irony of the episode.

Bio: Neo Warriors. This is the first (of two, I believe) bio narrated not by Winfield but by Phaeton. It's the only Bio not about a character. And it's the only full-body shot of a Neo Beetle we'll get to see. Though it would have been nice to do one connected to the episode. this is probably my favorite of all the Bios.

Overall: This is one of my all-time favorite episodes of the show, and probably my favorite of the stand-alone offerings. Once again, the positives are numerous and substantial, the negatives minor nits. Even the biggest problem, the sorry state of the Neo fleet, is more a problem with the episodes that have gone before than with this one. This is my go-to episode when I just feel like watching some Exo-Squad and don't feel like thinking about it too much. Great dialogue, great plot, great characterization, high stakes, realistic strategy... this one really does have it all.