Reviewby Theron Martin, Aug 5th 2014
Blade & Soul
episodes 1-13 streaming
In a fantasy setting where the Param Empire is the predominant power player, Alka is an independent assassin from the Clan of the Sword, a village renowned for producing efficient, skilled killers whose throat-slashing specialty make them terrors in stealth missions or straight-up fights. Alka learned her lessons on constraining her emotions a little too well, though, for she approaches everything dispassionately; even seeking vengeance for a master slain by agents of Param does not get a rise from her. But those potent agents who killed her master are also seeking her, for she bears a butterfly-shaped tattoo that somehow allows her to resist the power of Impurity, the dark energy that they can channel. Ultimately Alka and Jin Varrel, the ice-cold leader of the Impurity-empowered agents, are on a collision course, but along the way Alka must also deal with a busty bounty hunter who has Alka in her sites, the softly ruthless proprietress of a prominent inn, the sexy leader of a bandit gang, and the fact that ordinary people who associate with her for even a short while have a bad habit of winding up dead. And when the stoicism of someone who has repressed her emotions for so long starts to crack, the results are messy indeed.
Anime adaptations of fantasy RPGs and MMORPGs rarely come out smoothly because the producers are so intent on recreating the game world and mimicking its rules and structures that they neglect to actually tell a proper story, one that can function independent of the underlying game mechanics while still retaining the feel and flavor of the setting. That is not a problem for this 13 episode adaptation of the eponymous Korean fantasy MMORPG, details about which can be found here. Here directors Hiroshi Hamasaki (Texhnolyze, Steins;Gate) and Hiroshi Takeuchi (mostly an animation director) and script writer Atsuhiro Tomioka (Battle Spirits, Pokémon, Vandread) seem to have created a stand-alone story which merely uses the setting and a broad outline of the basic story premise instead of trying to embody them. As a result, the series can function just fine without any familiarity whatsoever with the game.
That the series does not closely ape its source's game mechanics is its biggest plus. The original MMORPG centers on Asian martial arts and Qing Gong and employs only a limited amount of what could be called magic; in the anime this most commonly takes the form of the dark energy known as Impurity. While the game supposedly has an emphasis on combo moves, this aspect is seamlessly integrated into the fighting styles shown in the series. The setting sports four different races and six different classes, although only two of the former – the diminutive, animal-eared Lyn and the hulking, ogrish Gon – are distinct and no effort is made to delineate the rest; yes, Alka is clearly an Assassin, but none of the other characters in the series can so easily be classified.
Because of that, the series has full flexibility to actually tell a story. For the most part it follows the trials and travails of Alka in her vague quest for revenge, while Jin Varrel and the Param Empire forces working with her have their own agenda against Alka. Three other women – the bounty hunter Hazuki, the “Proprietress” Karen, and the “Pleasure Gang” leader Loana – regularly interact with Alka in one capacity or another and somewhat have their own stories, although only Karen's (which dovetails most directly with Alka's past) is delved into in much detail. Its ultimate goal is to show that, no matter how much Alka represses her emotions, she cannot remain emotionally dead forever; the implication is that she misinterpreted training designed to restrain one's emotions and conscience while performing one's doing with being completely stoic, and that leaves her emotionally unequipped to handle the flood of guilt which overwhelms her when the dam within her eventually bursts. Meanwhile Jin Varrel is shown to be both more and less than what she initially appears to be, and while Hazuki and Loana are relatively straightforward characters, Karen is set up as a contrast to Alka: she also carefully controls her emotions but still clearly feels them, resulting in her having an underlying vicious side even though outwardly she is always pleasant and in control. (In other words, she stands as a model for what Alka's master probably intended for Alka.)
The approach that the series takes can eventually be a satisfying one, and indeed, the series is at its strongest in its second half when Alka is learning to deal with the consequences of her emotions upending her. The points the series tries to make though that stretch – most prominently, that seeking revenge typically does not lead to any positive end, and that few things can defeat even the mightiest warrior more thoroughly than overwhelming guilt – tend to be heavy-handed but not too detrimentally so. The mistake the writing makes is in taking too long to get to that point; Alka is such a Blank Slate through the first half of the series that she does not easily hold audience interest on her own, and indeed, the series has to rely heavily on the supporting cast and guest appearances to carry the story during that time. For an example of another fantasy series with a similar set-up, emphasis, and problems which ultimately handled this much better, see Claymore.
For all that it tries to have a meaty story, though, the biggest selling point of the series is that it features a cast of (mostly) gorgeous, full-figured adult women who constitute nearly all of the power players in the story; except for the Param Emperor and Alka's master, male characters in the story are usually just lackeys, stooges, or common folk. The difference between this title and something like, say, Queen's Blade is that while this one does not often pass up opportunities for female characters to flaunt their assets, it never has the laser-focus on fan service that the Queen's Blade franchise does and generally treats its women with more dignity. In fact, several of the women carry themselves with an elegance and grace which elevate them above base trashiness even when dressed or acting sexy. (Or at least this remains true until episode 13, which is a frivolous fan service-laden affair of the type that is normally included on physical releases as an OVA episode.) Sadly studio Gonzo's quality control is not always up to snuff to support these great designs or even the usually-solid designs of secondary characters, and the limited animation budget results in big shortcuts often being and a lack of smooth flow in key battle sequences. Still, with a strong set of background art, some nice color work, and CG enhancements that are not too onerous, when the artistry is at its best the series does look quite sharp. For potentially objectionable elements, no full nudity will be found here but graphic violence and bouncing bosoms are common.
The series also fares well on audio fronts. Japanese casting choices are excellent and fully deliver when given the chance to emote. A soundtrack which mixes fully orchestrated numbers with old-fashioned string and wind instrument sounds and some synthesized pieces occasionally sounds a little too much like video game background music but more commonly fully captures the grand cinematic feel that it aims for. Opener “Sayonara Usotsuki” deliver a solid, energetic pop sound, while closer “Rainbow” pairs a great song with lovely, intricately-animated visuals of Karen performing a CG-enhanced fan dance. (The detail on the footwork in particular is impressive to watch.)
While hardly a gem, in the end Blade & Soul turns out to be a better and stronger series than it initially showed much potential for. Character development that looked like it was going nowhere early on eventually does turn into something not only worthwhile but satisfying as well, so those who tough out the blander early episodes will be rewarded in the end.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Background art, closer, is not a slave to source game mechanics.
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