Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
1 - 12 Streaming
The kingdom of Hortensia was a peaceful enough place, ruled over by a kind king and his queen. Then the queen died, and in his efforts to bring her back, the king allowed himself to be taken in and corrupted by Pope Vall de Hebron, resulting in not only his death, but that of several of his strongest knights. Princess Marielle was rescued by Maurice Baudelaire and taken to his late brother's realm, where Marielle grew up as “Marius” beside Alfred Albert. Four years later, matters come to a head as Vall de Hebron's plans near fruition, and Marielle and Alfred assemble forces to rise up against him and to take back the kingdom of Hortensia.
Even if we ignore the fact that the final episode of Hortensia Saga is just screaming for a sequel, there's something mildly unsatisfying about the entire series. Mostly this is because it doesn't feel like a mere twelve-episode run was initially planned – the story takes an impressively long time to line up its key players and get the ball of revolution rolling. When it does eventually get to that point, the story speeds up to near unrecognizable levels, ruthlessly quashing its own world-and-character building for three hyper-speed episodes that bring us to a conclusion that, although at least partly foreshadowed from episode one in the opening theme, feels like a meager reward for the time invested. It's not a bad show, but it does come across as almost ambitiously mediocre.
The story, based on the game of the same name, is fairly standard sword-and-sorcery fare. The kingdom of Hortensia (a name which means “garden;” the backgrounds do bear this out) was doing well under its generally decent king until four-odd years prior to the main action of the series, when the queen died. The king, mad with grief, allowed himself to fall under the sway of Pope Vall de Hebron, a man whose name screams “I'm the villain!” Under Vall's guidance, the king attempted to resurrect his wife, which required him to draw on nebulous and nefarious powers. Needless to say, the whole thing backfired spectacularly, leaving the king and many of his best knights dead. One knight, Maurice, managed to spirit crown princess Marielle away from the castle, disguising her as a boy named Marius. In her absence, Vall made her younger brother Charlot his puppet king, and things just generally went downhill from there.
The main action of the series takes place when tensions in the kingdom and surrounding territories come to a head. It becomes increasingly clear to Maurice (and by extension to Marielle and Alfred, the young man she's been living with) that just hanging back is no longer an option, and the group begins to slowly assemble allies – mostly other people who lost loved ones on the day the king perished, but also those who have clearly suffered or had wrong done to them by the current ruler. As they travel Hortensia and environs, it becomes evident that a large part of the problem is that dark magics are at play: curses, passed off as “diseases” by Vall and his henchmen, are running rampant, poverty is on the rise, and the people have had about as much as they can take in both the literal and figurative senses. The time is right for Marielle to reveal who she is and to rise up and take back her kingdom.
Up until the final three episodes, the show mostly comes off just fine. Marielle and Alfred make for a good partnership, and him being unaware that she's a girl (a girl with a bit of a crush on him, naturally) adds a bit of emotional tension to the proceedings. More than their relationship, what's important is that they get a firm idea of what's going on in Hortensia, because a good understanding of that will be essential to taking out the corrupt pope. The almost travelogue style of the narrative really works here; although they continue to use the Albert family lands as their base, Alfred and Marielle (usually with Maurice and later Deflotte in tow) venture out as they hear reports of monsters, rebellions, or battles. They're methodical in how they approach each situation, playing to the strengths of each member of their party and generally coordinating their methods effectively. Marielle, even as Marius, is able to talk to, understand, and win the loyalty of the people they meet, which means that when she actually reveals who she really is, people are already on board with her becoming the new queen of Hortensia; they know her as a person, not a ruler, and therefore are able to make the choice to back her based not on her genetic heritage, but on her personality and methods. Yes, the fact that she's of royal blood helps, but ultimately that's not why they want to help put her on the throne, which is both a good way of showing us that she deserves to be queen and a nice bit of storytelling.
It's really those final three episodes where things really begin to fall apart as the story shifts into warp speed. In all fairness, there's a nagging feeling throughout the entire show that perhaps the pacing is too slow to wrap this up decently in twelve episodes. Alfred and Marielle's relationship never quite develops to a point that fully justifies her actions in the final episode (which is especially important given that her actions seem to be driven solely by her emotions, without a conscious effort), the gathering of allies feels like it's missing a few crucial steps, and the entire mess with the Magonians and Roy never gets the development it needs to make everything in the sorcery plotline come together. Add in that Deflotte and Nonoria are just sort of dropped at the last minute, and the finale of Hortensia Saga becomes incredibly messy.
Despite all of that, it still does feel impressively coherent for a show based on a mobile RPG, and it does feel like it tries to be a story in its own right; there aren't any (or at least many) moments that give off the impression that you're waiting for the chance to control the character or that feel like side quests. All of the character designs for the main cast are distinct as well, and if some come down hard on the side of odd, well, at least we can tell them all apart. There's also a nice selection of characters who don't feel like giant walking tropes. While Nonoria and Vall clearly aren't who I'm talking about with this, Marielle and Alfred both learn to be strong in believable ways and grow into the people they are by episode twelve fairly organically. No one is the boobs of the operation or the token hot guy; it feels like real effort was put in for much of the cast. The same can be said for the general quality of the production overall – characters remain on-model, CG battles are fairly well-integrated, and the backgrounds do justice to Hortensia's meaning. Likewise, with the exception of Nonoria (whose nails-on-a-chalkboard voice sent me racing for the volume control every single time), the vocal cast is fairly solid.
Hortensia Saga really could have used another cour to tell its story. The rush to reach the fight against Vall (and his inexplicable female transformation) tramples all over the work done by the first nine episodes, resulting in an ending that just doesn't feel satisfying. It's a shame, because while its start isn't amazing, it is good enough to make its end feel like a let-down, and that's never a feeling that you want your series to end on.
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C+
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : B-
+ Relatively promising start, first nine episodes work to build the story and characters.
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