Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Aldnoah.Zero Episodes 1-12 Streaming
In 1972, humanity uncovered a hypergate to Mars hidden on the Moon. Upon entering the hypergate, the mysterious power of Aldnoah was discovered, empowering the astronauts and prompting a war between Mars and Earth that ended only with the destruction of the Moon itself. Years later, the Vers Empire of Mars and the terrans of Earth enjoy an uneasy peace, one that the Martian Princess Asseylum hopes to solidify through her own goodwill efforts. But after her peacemaking efforts end in tragedy, her attempts end up serving as a catalyst for a new war between Earth and Mars, with a wide cast of Terrans and Martians caught in the balance.
At first glance, Aldnoah.Zero looks like a show brimming with potential. Its first few episodes barrel out the gate, establishing a complex world and a broad cast of characters. Its drama has scale, its cast has a wide variety of motives, and its first conflicts are dynamic and smartly articulated. This isn't a great surprise - Aldnoah.Zero's first three episodes are written by Gen Urobuchi, the writer of recent hits like Madoka Magica and Psycho-Pass, and they demonstrate Aldnoah.Zero at its absolute best.
The first thing these strong episodes do is firmly establish Aldnoah's broad cast of characters. Inaho, the schoolboy-turned-soldier, whose blank face hides either an inability to express his emotions or an actual lack of them. Marito, the former soldier who hides in liquor from a past he can't confront. Rayet, the daughter of a spy who no longer knows what side she's on. Slaine, the boy whose loyalty extends only to the Martian princess - and Asseylum herself, the princess who seeks peace in an impossible conflict. The larger dynamics of the Terran-Martian conflict are illustrated in very broad strokes, but they allow for these characters to push against each other in a variety of compelling ways. Stakes are raised, alliances are formed and broken, and our young heroes all slowly get to know one another while also occasionally trying to kill each other.
That “war drama centered on a loss of innocence” narrative is only half of the story, though. While Aldnoah.Zero is clearly trying to be a self-serious meditation on war on the one hand, it's equally invested in being an immediately engaging, fist pump-ready show about giant robots. Aldnoah.Zero follows something similar to the Code Geass model, where the excitement is less in “let's watch these two big robots fight” and more in “how will our protagonist solve this robot-based puzzle?” Inaho and his allies are always fighting against absurd odds - the show's “Martian energy” conceit means that while they are generally operating robots designed to lift heavy boxes and maybe shoot some rifle rounds, their enemies are using robots that have powers like energy swords, flying arms, or body-covering shields that incinerate anything they touch. The fun comes in seeing how Inaho bridges this arms gap through trickery. The first antagonist provides the show's best example of this - when facing an opponent whose robot seems to vaporize anything it comes in contact with, he uses a set of deductions regarding how it must actually see the outside world to corner it in a river, discover its data-entry points, and dismantle it. There's a real satisfaction in this dynamic - it's always fun to see the little guy beat the big guy, and watching a clever plan unfold is satisfying all on its own.
Unfortunately, Aldnoah.Zero experiences a significant momentum drop after those opening episodes. While the early material quickly establishes and then pushes through a series of narrative status quos, by the time it reaches the second big fight, it's arrived at a kind of narrative stasis. The central cast of Inaho and his friends spend a great deal of the show's central episodes simply pushing through enemy robots piloted by antagonists with no real personality - the show descends from fast-paced drama to monster-of-the-week robot show. This wouldn't be such a problem if the fights themselves were particularly engaging, but the show also never again matches the cleverness of the first battle's resolution. Instead, the frustratingly invincible protagonist Inaho generally just monologues a solution right as he executes it.
Aldnoah.Zero's characters suffer similarly through these middle episodes. Characters like Inaho, Slaine, and Marito are quickly established as having diverse motives - but from there, their individual scenes tend to just repeat the same character-establishing bits. They don't grow, or at least not in significant ways - only Slaine and possibly Rayet experience fundamental shifts throughout this period, and when it comes to a character like Inaho himself, it seems like the audience is expected to do the work of fleshing out his personality themselves.
In addition to this dramatic slowdown in the middle act, Aldnoah.Zero also suffers something of a tonal problem. The two shows it wants to be - heavy war drama and fun robot battler - aren't the most comfortable bedfellows, and that which promotes one often damages the other. The central problem is likely Inaho himself, who drains most fights of dramatic tension simply by being far too good at solving everything. There's little actual tension in the fights, since it's always obvious Inaho will triumph. This clashing of tones is actually most evident in the show's musical score - composed by Hiroyuki Sawano of Attack on Titan and Kill la Kill fame, the music is generally engaging, but is often too upbeat and energetic to fit the assumed gravitas of the scenes it's matching. The show's “it's go time” song in particular comes off as hugely inappropriate for the dramatic high points it's generally applied to. And the premier songs are overused enough that they often draw too much attention to themselves.
Fortunately, Aldnoah.Zero's third act manages to regain some of the drama of its opening. Character arcs begin to move again, game-changing dramatic events take place, and the stakes are actually raised. The show even begins to attach some thematic weight to the plight of the Martians, taking steps towards truly earning the large-scale drama it clearly wants to represent. The first season's ending is “controversial” at best and “an absurd, glorious, self-destructive mess” at worst, but it's certainly engaging either way. In the end, the show's narrative weaknesses can't undercut the fact that it's overall a fairly fun ride.
On the aesthetic front, Aldnoah.Zero has a crisp, engaging visual style. Its character designs are unusual for a war drama (designed by Takako Shimura, the creator of Wandering Son), but work well, giving the show a distinct visual personality. There are a number of gorgeous single shots, and the animation is consistent throughout. And the CG robots don't seem particularly out-of-place here - there's little disruptive clashing between them and traditionally animated visual elements, and the fights between them are cleanly articulated. Aldnoah isn't visually remarkable, but it's certainly a polished-looking show.
Overall, Aldnoah.Zero ends largely as it began - a show that looks to be full of potential. Its various pieces brush awkwardly against each other, and it wastes far too much time in both its character journeys and overall narrative, but it more or less holds itself together. It's likely not a show many people will legitimately love, but it's a show most people probably wouldn't regret watching. It's reasonable entertainment.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Starts strong and ends dramatically; the puzzle-solving style of conflict is engaging when executed well; a generally polished production.
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