The Fall 2019 Anime Preview Guide
Phantasy Star Online 2: Episode Oracle
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Phantasy Star Online 2: Episode Oracle ?
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How was the first episode?
Phantasy Star Online 2's previous foray into an anime adaptation took the route of keeping the game an actual game and having the protagonist play it, a clear bid to up player numbers. Phantasy Star Online 2: Episode Oracle, on the other hand, straightforwardly adapts the game itself, taking the rather better tack of making it a science fiction story set in the game's world. Already this ups the watchability factor for non-players dramatically; it's much more interesting in general to experience an original story than to watch someone else play a game as far as I'm concerned. Unfortunately, the story being told isn't particularly interesting thus far, relying on a lot of hoary old tropes like a mysterious girl falling from the sky, an at least partially amnesiac hero, and visual anaphora like the women's armor leaving the entire chest area (you know, where the heart is) exposed.
It also feels a little too spot-on in terms of a game adaptation in a few places. The opening explanation about the three races sounds like someone reading the description of the different races available to the player, which makes the varying ear lengths of the newmans (think space elves) feel just a bit too much like an ad for customizable characters. The same goes for when Feisty Mauve Haired Girl kills the Native Beast on Naverius – her explanation again sounds like a tutorial for how to play the game. Fortunately once all of that is over things do smooth out in terms of storytelling, with the slaughter of Ash and Afin's entire unit and Ash demonstrating that he's definitely got some out-of-the-norm skills even he may not be aware of, but by that point we've lost about ten minutes of a twenty-three-minute episode.
There are a few story hooks that work rather better. Ash's power, which is clearly linked to whatever malevolent power summons the felspawn, has real potential, as it may also have a bearing on who he really is, why Xion left him at the orphanage as a child, and how he somehow missed the attack on their mutual homeship that Afin mentions. There's clearly someone besides (or alongside) Xion manipulating things behind the scenes, and that may help to make things more enticing once the actual plot is allowed to get going. While this is far from a thrilling first episode, it also may be that it was simply clumsily done, because a good old-fashioned space opera generally does take a bit of time to truly lift off. While I can't speak to fans of the game, science fiction fans who don't mind their armor unrealistic and like their weapons varied may want to give this a second episode. Otherwise, I think it's probably safe to steer clear.
I've watched most new anime releases for enough seasons now that I've more or less come to terms with the largely advertising-centered nature of many anime adaptations. To put it simply, there are a whole lot of anime whose driving purpose is to convey either “play this video game” or “congratulations, you have played that video game.” Narrative cohesion, or any sort of artistic statement, are secondary concerns relative to promoting a game property, and demonstrating all the fun qualities of that property. In light of that, critiquing shows like this can feel a little pointless; after all, we're essentially treating advertisements as if they were intended to be self-contained narratives, with all the misalignments of expectations that might imply.
All this is to say, Phantasy Star Online 2 isn't much of an anime. It essentially felt like a dramatic retelling of what likely serves as the first forty minutes or so of some Phantasy Star game arc, even including the part where you choose your character class and input your character details. There are mediocre CG monsters, and plenty of cliche anime beats, from the initial squad of newbies getting wiped out by monsters, to the magical girl of destiny appearing from the sky. One character dismissively tells the protagonist, “you're so weak and helpless, yet you think you can protect others,” and that protagonist is himself characterized as thinly as possible, because he's taking the place of the player avatar.
Phantasy Star Online's narrative proceeds like a set of, well, video game set pieces, and its visual execution isn't much better. The aforementioned CG monsters and janky animation mean none of this episode's fight scenes are particularly compelling, and though there are a couple of dynamic layouts, most of this episode's storyboards are strictly functional. The character designs feel true to the actual feeling of playing an MMO with a bunch of random strangers, meaning they're all overdesigned cybersuits with strange, goofy embellishments. Costumes like these are an understandable hook for a video game, where customization is an important feature, but that same video game-relevant strength also robs this show of any sort of coherent, believable character designs. All in all, Phantasy Star Online 2 serves as a reasonable advertisement for its source material, but I couldn't imagine watching this show for its own merits.
I'm not at all familiar with the game franchise that this series is connected to, so I looked at the first episode of this series strictly as a standalone project. Taken from that view, the first episode comes off as a mildly entertaining rehash of fantasy and sci-fi concepts which, in some cases, have been around for decades.
That this one has some kind of game connection would be obvious even if you didn't know about the existence of the rest of the franchise. It bears all of the telltale signs: elaborately-designed characters, impractical battle costumes, lots of colorful personalities to interact with, and classic devices like the girl drifting down from the sky who seems to know the protagonist but faints before she can elaborate. The basic, underdeveloped scenario also smacks of sci-fi RPGs. Elements of numerous older sci-fi titles also creep in; I couldn't help but think of Aliens when the Felspawn attacked the training team, so much so that I'm convinced that someone in the production team has to be a big fan of that movie. The scenario, meanwhile, shows inspiration for a number of previous sci-fi anime from the 2000s, and hey, it's even got the protagonist with the mysterious past too!
Yes, the story is every bit as trite as it sounds, but I was actually able to get into it a little. Quickly killing off some characters who looked like they might be regulars was a neat little early shock, and I was a little surprised that Ash opened up as quickly as he did; sullen types like him usually hold out longer. The action scenes aren't bad and the character, equipment, and monster designs have a certain degree of visual appeal to them. Most importantly, the events have just enough of a narrative sense to them that it doesn't feel like just watching a game play out (unlike at least one other series I could name which debuted on the same day). Granted, that's not a very high bar to reach for, but at least it's something. Overall, the series doesn't have enough going for it yet to dodge the designation of Generic Sci-Fi RPG Title A, but it can have entertainment value and is more watchable than some other titles that have come out this season.
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