Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jan 23rd 2009
Ral Ω Grad
Ral is a typical rambunctious 15-year-old, except for one big difference: inside him lurks a dragon named Grad, a "Shadow" that has fused with Ral's soul. After spending most of his youth imprisoned in total darkness, Ral is now on a quest to kill Opsquria, the evil sorceress responsible for Ral's unhappy childhood (as well as the sufferings of an entire continent). However, Ral's gung-ho nature gets him in trouble when he's pulled right into a Shadow's trap! Thankfully he's got some fellow adventurers willing to rescue him—but that's not the end of Ral's problems, as there's a flashy swordsman out there who's also out to get Opsquria. A fierce rivalry quickly develops, but an even greater rift may be forming between Ral and his friends when disagreements arise over whether to go after the enemy or save a child ...
We can thank Ral Ω Grad for quickly getting out of formulaic monster-of-the-week mode—no more vanquishing random beasts and adding new main characters, because Ral pretty much has a full RPG party now—but if this is how the series is transitioning into the main storyline, it doesn't inspire a whole lot of confidence. There's still plenty of gorgeous art to drool over, as long as Takeshi Obata keeps doing what he's doing, but the story itself isn't building up excitement the way one would expect when business gets serious. Instead it's just another string of fights and predicaments, but with less rigorous organization (and sadly, fewer boob jokes). What else can be done when even a hotly contested duel and a rip-roaring jailbreak lack the spark of adventure?
The first escapade in this volume can't really be faulted for falling flat—it's a carryover from the previous installment, and basically just puts the endcap on Ral's toughest predicament yet. But maybe the abrupt end to that arc ("Oh hey, here's a bunch of passing adventurers with enough firepower to save Ral's sorry ass!") is a warning sign of things to come. The next obstacle in Ral's quest is once again disposed of in unsatisfying fashion, as flashy swordsman Ganette comes rushing in (for the second time in a row!) with some "I'm not trying to help you, but I'm helping you anyway" spiel. Sorry, but that seems more like a bad plot quirk that pops up when there's no other way to save the hero. Even more unsatisfying is a sub-arc where Ral's teammate Sunsu trains to get stronger—for about one panel on one page.
And really, Ral's dealings with other characters are emblematic of what the series is doing wrong—the training session with Sunsu is too short, his attempted separation from mentor Miss Mio fails to strike an emotional chord, and the argument about whether to save Sunsu's sister or go after Opsquria fizzles out when The Power Of Friendship™ kicks in. If the characters aren't presented convincingly, then how can one feel any excitement for the adventures they're getting into? It's a shame, because the second half of this volume sounds fantastic in theory: Ral faces off against Ganette in an intense David-and-Goliath duel, but like everything else, it ends too quickly yet again. Then everyone goes rushing to break open a men's prison (they'll need some manpower to beat Opsquria's goons), which happens with wonderfully speedy pacing—but only because the prison break ends up being way too easy and doesn't offer enough thrills.
Despite all these story shortcomings, at least Takeshi Obata is always up to the task of blowing everyone away with stunning fantasy artwork. His intense attention to detail is everywhere to be found, from the rich forest backgrounds as Ral and company journey through the wilderness, to wildly elaborate character designs, to even wilder-looking monsters. Naturally, it's in the dramatic pauses and wide-open panels where this style works best—the more time and space there is to appreciate this level of craftsmanship, the better. One would expect the action scenes to be equally impressive—certainly, Ganette's sword-slashing and Ral's dragon-summoning bring new vivacity to some oft-repeated fantasy themes—but they fall victim to the very elementary manga mistake of being hard to read. Perhaps Obata's talent is so overwhelming, he's forgotten that drawing fewer lines can often work to a scene's advantage.
With such distinctive artwork on the page, another visual issue becomes readily obvious: the sound effects just don't work if you convert them directly into English. Action scenes in particular are hampered by the very conspicuous "WHOOSH" and "DOOOOM" effects where kana characters would probably have fit more smoothly. Fortunately, dialogue is handled more effectively—there's plenty of manly posturing and taunting in this volume and it carries right over into the translated text. Although there are moments where the characters get a bit too talkative, this is balanced by a fair share of pure action scenes. If anything, the biggest language barrier in this series is simply memorizing all those weird made-up fantasy names.
For fans of fantasy tales (and dragons in particular), Ral Ω Grad would normally be the ideal prescription—but this volume falls short in trying to ramp up the story to the next level. Ral doesn't even get to unleash Grad's spectacular powers until late in this volume, because he's too busy getting bailed out by a passing swordsman ... twice in a row. If this is going to be a dragon-centric series, the dragon has to get in on the action! Instead it's a sequence of awkward starts and stops as key confrontations get cut short and various character developments fail to achieve sufficient depth. Oh well, if nothing else, at least there's a visually unique fantasy world to get lost in—but magic-and-monsters eye candy is nothing but empty calories if there's not enough story substance pulling everything together.
Overall : C
Story : D
Art : B+
+ Whether in the thick of battle or exploring the woods, the detailed artwork keeps this series visually impressive.
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