by Theron Martin,

Exodus Guilty

Volume 1: Present

Exodus Guilty 1
Three stories intersect across time, all in some way involving a woman named Will. In the past, a village chieftan who is badly injured for refusing the call of God sends her adopted son on a quest to find Will, a girl known as the “Song of God.” In the devastated future, a usurper of the Royal Family puts the adopted daughter of a flower shop operator in a dangerous position, not only because of who she really is but because she holds the Key of Will, an item intensely sought after by the usurper. In the present, 18-year-old Kasumi Shindo poses as a student but is actually a top-rate (though unlicensed) professional treasure hunter, a career patterned off of his top-ranked mother. His current quest, to find the so-called “11th Commandment of Moses” and use it to find the mythical “Land of Fate,” leads him to the Southern European archeological dig of Reina Tachibana, whose family he once lived with. His efforts to explore and turn up clues are complicated by the presence of Ai, Reina's teenage sister and his arranged fiancée, and eventually by other treasure hunters, too, including one he knows quite well. But Will is in the picture here as well, as Kasumi will ultimately discover.
In Japan, interactive visual novels are one of the most common kinds of computer games, and it's not unusual for them to be made into anime series. They have never made much of a presence in the American market, but Hirameki International Group, a relatively new company, has established their AnimePlay line in an effort to change that. Exodus Guilty, a time-spanning DVD trilogy whose initial volume was released late in 2005, is amongst the first wave of such titles that they have imported and translated; others include the DVD games Dragonia, Phantom, and Day of Love, the PC game version of Ai Yori Aoshi, and the upcoming gothic horror PC game Animamundi. Hopefully the first volume of Exodus Guilty is not representative of the quality of the other releases or else this venture is not destined to be a successful one.

Exodus Guilty is broken into three parts, with each volume focusing on the story arc from one time period. In each case the story is told in a mostly first-person perspective with the viewer playing the role of the central hero of that story. The first volume focuses on the present, with the viewer taking the role of Kasumi, although it also includes lengthy set-ups for the past (where one plays the swordsman Ales) and future (where one plays the girl Sui) story arcs. Those set-ups help make this volume the longest of the three, taking up 9+ hours of the 20-hour total for the entire trilogy. Why exactly the series starts with the present arc is unclear, since the story's foundation is in the past arc, but this is a series where it's best just to “go with the flow” and not ask too many questions, as very little of the content so far would hold up under serious logical examination.

One should also understand up front that the “interactive” part of the label only applies in the most liberal sense of the definition. The choices the viewer gets to make in the story are both few and basic, with an hour or more of content sometimes passing between such choices. This is not like a dating sim or the “choose your own path” novelettes you might remember reading as a kid; there's only one storyline here and one possible outcome.

The main story in this volume has Kasumi, a worldly, mercenary, and highly-capable young stud with a sharp tongue, running around an island searching for clues and getting into soap opera-like romantic entanglements with three women: his 18-year-old arranged fiancée Ai, her older sister Reina (improbably a chief archeologist despite being only 27), and Argelech, a 24-year-old treasure hunter who he lived with for a while a couple of years in the past. Matters of the heart get complicated further for him when a fourth young woman, the “Song of God” Will from the past arc, shows up. Treasure hunting matters are complicated by his need to disguise his true intentions from Reina, who hates treasure hunters, and the later arrival on the scene of a ruthless and mysterious top-ranked treasure hunter known as Phantom. Also in the mix is Lihitel, the man sponsoring the dig, who has his own goals and motivations concerning what might be found in it.

Despite the intricacies suggested by this description, the present arc is actually a more straightforward story split about evenly between finding and piecing together clues and hashing out relationship issues. Because of that, the story does not move along very quickly and often gets bogged down in conversations that are needlessly lengthy, sometimes inane, and frequently repetitive, a problem it shares with the past and future arc intros. One gets the impression that the original writer(s) were stretching things to take up space under the guise of character development, since the whole thing could probably be shortened by 2 hours or more without significantly impacting the story. The details are also a bit silly, with the writing going out of its way to make a big deal about this professional world-wide Treasure Hunters Organization (T.H.O. for short), treasure hunting as an occupation, and the various gem ranks within it. Then there's this whole business about a God's Cane and Devil's Cane, some fantastic treasure-hunting gear, and the odd basic premise of there being an 11th Commandment, which takes a decidedly non-Christian/Jewish look at Moses. If you've seen the American movie National Treasure, it's about in that spirit.

Most of the novel plays out with the viewer looking at static backgrounds; the actual animation is limited to a few cut scenes and an icon moving around a map as the main character does. Most of the time that the hero is talking to other characters a large picture of that character appears in the foreground, although in a few scenes a third-person perspective is offered. Though occasionally alternate versions of characters appear which reflects injuries or changes in dress or expression, these pictures are also static, giving viewers the feeling that they are watching a talking picture book. The artistic quality of everything is about on par with a mid-to-late-'90s computer game, while the character design style is typical for anime and manga artistry. It's not a horrible artistic effort overall, but it isn't likely to impress anyone used to more recent anime series. Background music is so innocuous that it's not otherwise worth mentioning.

Although the novel's story has some inherent flaws, the production values in this release are an equally big problem. The cover artwork is excellent, and an extra DVD with numerous advertisements and still images, which is only properly usable on a PC, is included at a price equivalent to a typical anime DVD. Since the novel doesn't have a save feature, the story is broken into Chapters on a “Continue” menu so that viewers can easily flip ahead to wherever they stopped before. Unfortunately those are the highlights. The scene-setting comments, which are the only part dubbed into English, have one notable inaccuracy, and there are some glitches with the coordination between the Japanese vocals and English subtitles used for the rest of the volume. In one late scene the spoken dialogue doesn't match up at all with the written dialogue, and it's obvious enough that even someone who doesn't speak a word of Japanese can tell. In other places the spoken dialogue is mysteriously absent in a scene even though the subtitles continue, but this may be a flaw with the original rather than on Hirameki International's end.

The major problem, though, is with the subtitle translation, which looks like it was written by someone who either flunked high school English or isn't a native English speaker. The wording isn't bad but it is rife with innumerable spelling and grammatical errors (apostrophe use, or the lack thereof, is especially bad) and improper homophone usage (“there” instead of “their,” for instance). It also never gets straight when it should use “fiancée” instead of “fiancé.” These mistakes are so prevalent that it's rare for a scene to pass by without at least a couple of them. It's a completely unprofessional job which Hirameki International needs to get cleaned up for future releases if they want to be taken seriously.

While the concept of anime-styled interactive visual novels has potential, the first volume of Exodus Guilty is not a good choice for a first exposure to this relatively new (in the States) media format. Production merits need to improve and the fluffed-out, repetitive core storytelling lacks refinement. Still, watching it will fill up several hours if you have a lot of time to kill and won't cost you much to do so.
Overall (sub) : F
Story : D
Animation : D
Art : C
Music : C

+ Good cover art, several hours of story for a cheap price.
Over-written story, rampant errors in the subtitle translation.

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