Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Senki Zesshō Symphogear GX (Episodes 1-13 Streaming)
The earth has been saved from Fine and Dr. Ver, but wouldn't you know it, turns out someone else is also bent on its destruction. As Hibiki and her friends attempt to enjoy five consecutive minutes of free time, they are violently interrupted by the arrival of Carol, an alchemist with mysterious powers and a serious grudge against the world in general. Hibiki has handled resurrected goddesses and mad scientists, but how will she do against her first opponent that wears a silly wizard hat? With personal issues and new foes aplenty, Symphogear returns to justice-punch evil right in its stupid face.
Symphogear has always been a very silly show, one resolutely dedicated to dramatic absurdity and one-upmanship. In its second season, the show doubled down on its premise by emphasizing everything Symphogear and discarding everything not Symphogear. What tatters of a plot the first season contained were cast aside in lieu of constant, narratively incoherent battles between Gear users. Symphogear's second season was a dramatic and storytelling mess, but it knew exactly what it wanted to be.
In the show's third season, Symphogear makes the bold play of going in the opposite direction, and attaching to itself such strange and exotic luxuries as “a coherent narrative” and “character arcs that make sense.” Symphogear doesn't just try to be Symphogear this time - it also wants to tell an actual story, and possibly build towards something greater than its component parts. This means I can actually describe the story, which is something of a change of pace.
Having saved the world from destruction due to Ver's moon-based personal paradise scheme, Hibiki and her friends find themselves challenged by a new foe - Carol, a young-looking “alchemist” who's actually been nursing a grudge for hundreds of years. Carol's father was burned at the stake for his alchemical knowledge, and now Carol is determined to find all the knowledge of the world… by dissecting it and examining its component parts. Carol is aided in her plan by the Autoscorers, a group of artificial homunculi themed after both elements and dance styles, and opposed by the now expanded crew of six heroic Symphogear users, who all have their own baggage to deal with.
Symphogear GX mixes up the consistent battles between Symphogears and Autoscorers with a host of personal dramas affecting all its heroes. The overarching theme here is “daddy issues” - in addition to Carol's unhappy memories of her father, both Hibiki and Tsubasa are forced to reconcile with bad dads this season. At its best, this increased focus on character arcs can actually result in some graceful bits of thematic storytelling, or contrasting character issues. For example, the ways both Hibiki and Carol use their memories as alternate kinds of “strength” in battle actually works as a pretty sharp reflection on the nature of traumatic memories, and the various ways we come to terms with unhappy family lives. Symphogear has always been an “emotional breakthrough equals battle powerup” kind of show, but ideas like finding strength in a broken family relationship while still acknowledging its faults demonstrate far more nuance than the show's usual fare.
Unfortunately, both the execution and general substance of many of these additions don't really hold up to scrutiny. A lot of the threads this season hangs on feel undercooked, with arcs like Chris feeling insecure about her relationship with her underclassmen seemingly existing just to give her something to worry about. And the show's overall handling of deadbeat fathers is, well, often about as sensitive as you'd expect from a show that opens with three girls surfing on rockets into a crashing spaceship. Because it sometimes attempts to lean on stories that aren't strong enough to carry emotional weight, portions of this season tend to drag more than Symphogear G ever did.
Fortunately, some of the show's other additions do help counterbalance this narrative bloat. Carol's Autoscorers in particular reflect nearly all of this season's good ideas. The dolls' visual designs are bold and compelling, a strength echoed by the flashy new suits all the characters received. And their inhuman motions, unsettling parodies of various dance styles, demonstrate both the show's strong battle animation and its welcome return to the body horror of the first season. Their limbs jerk and smiles stretch to uncomfortable rictus states, while the Symphogear users for their part end up being forced to harness berserker-level strength by literally stabbing themselves to power up. Symphogear isn't particularly good at human drama, but it can really nail the creepy horror end of superpowered battles.
The fights with the Autoscorers are solid, but many of the other battles here can feel less interesting. The Noise regain some prominence this season, which returns the issues of the first season to the fore - because they're just fodder for attacks, there's no back-and-forth or interesting tactical questions when the girls lay into them. And the last battles against Carol feel almost DBZ-esque in their repetitive beam spam and lack of any dramatic focus. Retreading many of the beats of the first and second season finales left me suffering some real symphatigue by the end of this one.
Aside from the nice additions the Autoscorers bring, Symphogear's aesthetics remain relatively stable. The music is a mix of mild electronic tracks, guitars, and choral songs, and everyone has a couple new battle songs to try out (though Crunchyroll unfortunately doesn't translate all of these). The animation feels about on par with the second season, while the backgrounds have largely returned to the first season's strong level of personality. Overall, Symphogear's third season definitely suffers from repetition in places, and also relies on new ideas it can't quite back up, but if you enjoyed the previous two go-rounds, you'll probably have a fine time with this one. Hibiki can still punch stuff up pretty good.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : B
+ Maintains Symphogear's usual wacky fights and energy; the Autoscorers offer some compelling ideas both old and new
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