Reviewby Theron Martin,
In a future where people are increasingly spending time in The Wired for entertainment or to escape their dissatisfaction with life in the real world, elite hacker group Steppen Wolf decides to pull one last job before retirement. When it goes bust, leaving one team member dead, ace hacker Tohru finds himself in the employ of FLAK, a government organization dedicated to Wired security. While such forced employment does allow him to hunt down his friend's killer, it also brings him into contact (and sometimes conflict) with corporate group VSS and terrorist group Fe Tao. More strangely, Tohru also encounters a mysterious girl who pops up wherever she wants in The Wired despite any security barriers, manipulates things that one shouldn't be able to manipulate, and insists on calling Tohru “Big Brother.” Could the girl Ren somehow be connected to stories about a ghost on the Wired and the deadly threat reported to accompany the ghost's appearances?
The biggest fault with Baldr Force EXE is not among the ones it initially looks like it might have: at four half-hour OVA episodes, it is too short by at least half. Despite a shaky start and giving an early impression that it is merely ripping off every other cyberpunk anime series ever made, it quickly starts to gel into its own entity and throw out some surprisingly good and involving content. The limitation of the time frame cramp the plot, however, forcing events to progress unnaturally quickly and denying it key background, setting, and character development that could have elevated it into the range of a great sci-fi anime. As is, it still fares pretty well.
Conceptually, this series breaks little new ground. People using virtual reality to escape a crappy real life, a being who seems to exist only in the virtual sphere, a seemingly malevolent virtual force which has deleterious effects on the physical bodies of those jacked in, and experiments done on children to enhance their future capabilities are all recurrent themes in both live-action and animated sci fi media; veteran anime fans will not be able to help drawing at least some parallels to the .hack// franchise and Serial Experiment Lain, amongst many others. In fact, the series' only new approaches are to give the material a more decided (albeit inconsistent) horror edge and work mecha into the cyberspace equation by having the professional and terrorist Divers encased within mecha-like Simulacrums when “diving.” Combined with some interesting potential character developments and dynamics and occasional intense drama, the series shows a lot of potential.
Unfortunately the time constraint of having only a bit under two hours to tell the story limits what the series is able to achieve. Some crucial plot points are brought up without ever being fully explained, many of the side characters that show the potential to be interesting do not have enough screen time to fully develop, and the lingering consequences of one of the darkest and heaviest scenes in the series are not allowed to play out satisfactorily. Most prominently, the plotting starts rushing events along beginning around the end of episode 2 and continuing through most of episode 3. Events just progress too fast, with Tohru changing allegiances twice within the span of just a few minutes and the trigger for the climatic confrontations of the final episode developing too quickly to achieve its full impact. Episode 4 feels more balanced, although it suffers a bit from character's hackneyed and ill-supported descent into madness. (Another character, however, is appropriately crazy from the start.)
While not necessarily a problem, the graphic content may be an issue for some. The cover and interior DVD art may not suggest it, but the title is rated TV-MA for good reason. Multiple heads literally explode in detailed fashion before the opener even begins to roll on the first episode, and several other scenes throughout the anime get rather bloody. The nudity shown in the opener is misleading, as only one other scene throughout the four episodes shows even near-nude fan service. Some may find the climatic scene a bit unsettling, but the edgiest content is reserved for a virtual rape scene in episode 2 that will make even the most laconic fans sit up and take notice. Its VR nature does not mitigate how ugly and disturbing that scene looks and feels, as there is nothing fan service-ish about it. Thanks to the time crunch the writing wastes a golden opportunity by not exploring its consequences a bit further. (The victimized character seems a little too quickly composed in the immediate aftermath.)
The nature of what happens to various characters in the series also brings up one whopping big issue: why does a society which so heavily uses VR environments not have better safety protocols? One would think that something as simple as the equivalent of a surge protector would prevent most of the brain-exploding incidents that occur, and organizations advanced enough to put their Divers in mecha-like simulacrums should surely have some better way to protect its Divers from other fatal backlash effects.
Visually, the series delivers some nice CG effects and mecha animation, especially in action scenes, although the flat-footed mecha designs leave a lot to be desired. Although not overwhelmingly cute, Ren has enough of that “I'm a cute and vulnerable girl” thing going for her to make her appealing, especially a bow in her hair that seems intentionally designed to vaguely resemble rabbit ears. Other character designs and animation are done well enough but do not particularly impress. Overall, the production values of this Satelight effort are not significantly higher than one of the better TV series, especially compared some of its other recent top-notch efforts.
The first three episodes feature an up-tempo but otherwise very pedestrian electronica-themed opener, while the far better closer “undelete,” which is backed by interesting fantasy visuals, provides the true musical highlight. Most of the rest of the soundtrack is also heavily rooted in electronica and techno themes, especially early on, although more symphonic numbers infused with piano come in later to enhance key dramatic moments. They generally work better.
Funimation's English dub mostly consists of the usual suspects for their mature-leaning titles, including the likes of Carrie Savage, Jason Liebrecht, Colleen Clinkenbeard, and Christopher Bevins. No significant fault can be found in any of the casting decisions or performances, which are, at worst, on par with the originals. The English script, which sometimes alters the wording enough to have characters saying notably different things when compared to the subtitles, actually may correct one problem with the subtitles: what the English script calls “Leviathan,” the subtitles much more clumsily try to call “Revaia-san.” This interpretation is understandable, given how “th” sounds tend to meld into “s” sounds in many other languages, but it's clearly not right given the context.
Extras are limited to interior cover art on the DVD case and clean opener and closer and a series preview on the disk.
Despite its problems and cramped storytelling, Baldr Force EXE offers enough bouts of quality to be worth a look. Regrettably it shows much more potential than it actually has time to capitalize upon.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B-
+ Surprisingly strong content, has a lot of potential.
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