Reviewby Theron Martin,
In the 21st century, humankind attempted to prepare for the future terraforming of Mars by sending algae and cockroaches to the planet. 500 years later, the first manned expedition to the planet discovered that the cockroaches had mutated into beefy humanoid forms called Terraformars, creatures powerful and hostile enough to wipe out the entirety of that expedition and most of the follow-up BUGS 2 mission, despite the next squad being empowered with genetic modification. 20 years later, a third mission is attempted, now that a disease with a 100% fatality rate – believed to be connected to the Terraformars – is ravaging the populace. Will this new crop of warriors and scientists be enough to combat the Terraformars, who have also continued to evolve?
Based on a manga by Yū Sasuga and Kenichi Tachibana, this 2014 series is essentially a classic alien bug hunt. There are some twists on the old formula: the “bugs” have become humanoid, mankind is partly responsible for their existence, and the humans fighting them are genetically modified with bug powers themselves. There are also intriguing possibilities presented by the bugs rapid evolution as they grow more intelligent from interacting with humans. However, these promising elements aren't enough to overcome a host of problems that weigh down the series' execution.
There are two near-fatal flaws here. The first and most readily apparent problem is that these roach guys aren't anywhere near as intimidating as they should be given the threat they pose. Their perpetually blank expressions convey no sense of menace; the series opens with a cage match against a bear that conveys much more malice and tension. This improves a little as the series progresses and the expedition members start encountering variations on the typical Terraformar that can match the expedition members trick-for-trick, but the problem never entirely goes away. The musical score is also more concerned with maintaining a perpetually foreboding atmosphere than giving the Terraformars musical cues that might lend them some onscreen personality.
The second major flaw involves the overall structure of the series, so it takes more time to manifest. The first episode introduces the series' premise and one of the main protagonists, while the second episode shows the trip to Mars and various characters interacting peacefully before everything goes to hell. After the group is broken up, the third episode splits its focus into the various disparate groups that result from the calamity. That's all well and good in theory, but the shift in focus is not handled well. The show spends time chronicling the backstories of various characters in each faction to greater extents than some of them deserve, through truly extensive use of flashbacks. I'm all for trying to humanize these inevitable victims, but it's easy to get carried away with this process in battle series (looking at you, Naruto and Bleach), and Terra Formars is no different – to make matters worse, it doesn't have dozens of extra episodes to absorb the blow. Even if each character in this enormous cast has a story to tell, this is an action-focused series that doesn't have the time or space to explore them all, resulting in a more fractured focus than Terra Formars can handle. The emphasis on Akari in the first episode also proves misleading, since he doesn't have a bigger role than anyone else in the squad after episode one.
In the end, we get little actual plot in these 13 episodes, much of which is more hinted at than played out for the audience. The suggestions that someone has fostered the Terraformars' growth in intelligence are intriguing, but they're never explored in much detail. Most of episodes 3-13 are alternating flashbacks and battle scenes where various characters show off their powers (or fail to). Several named characters quickly die in messy ways alongside nameless peons, and predicting who will and won't make it is an unreliable gamble. Don't expect anything to get resolved within this season either, as episode 13 ends without much sense of conclusion.
Several other problems also arise. The story remarkably assumes that little has changed in the world despite the series being set in the early 27th century. Most of the scenes on Earth could just as well have taken place in our modern day, with architectural, vehicle, and clothing styles having been updated little or not at all; even Japanese school uniforms are exactly the same. The geopolitical situation also doesn't seem to have changed, with characters still clearly defined as American, German, Russian, or Japanese. Granted, some national identities have historically survived for that many centuries, but there's still no reason why this series couldn't take place in the nearer future of our 21st century instead. It's some of the laziest futuristic world-building I've seen in an anime series. The routine ineptitude of the bulk of the squad's soldiers is also mind-boggling, like they were only trained to be cannon fodder despite the two previously failed missions. There's also the creepy animation of leering faces in the series' opening scene, which is only stylish in an off-putting way.
At least the series does have some graphic action working in its favor. Some scenes, like a bear chewing on Akari in episode one, can be disturbing, but most combat results in more ridiculous severed limbs/heads/torsos, detached eyeballs, holes in chests, and all manner of gore gloriously uncensored in this release. Despite their lack of intimidation factor, the staging of fight scenes against the Terraformars handles the series' limited animation well enough, and the CG work on Terraformar crowd shots is distinctly above-average. Human character designs are also a highlight, as the series features an array of male and female character designs with equal sex appeal, provided you prefer beefy men and full-figured women. (Don't expect much fanservice, though.)
The musical score might have missed some opportunities to enhance the menace of the Terraformars, but it goes for the gusto on atmosphere by using a predominately orchestrated soundtrack. Some episodes even use classical music, with much of the episodes focusing on Mr. Electric Eel featuring “Mars, God of War” From Gustave Holst's The Planets. (While it's a fitting choice for the series and episode, it still comes across as slightly overwrought. Other musical selections fare better.) The opener and closer, both by the same band, are suitable rock numbers, though the visuals accompanying the former are better.
Viz Media has provided a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack for this release. Its English dub, provided by Studiopolis, is serviceable but unspectacular, with some minor liberties taken on dialogue translations. The release also adds a heftier-than-normal set of extras, including an extensive gallery of concept and promotional art, clean opener, and clean versions of both the regular closer and two alternate versions, with an unusual feature being English and Romaji subtitle options for all of them. Nearly an hour of English interviews are also present, including three featuring key voice actors and a three-part set concerning the series' licensing and production.
Overall, the first season of Terra Formars somewhat salvages its missteps with unique production values and some strong action scenes, but it's still a deeply flawed action series. For those who enjoy the ride however, at least there's a second season: Terraformars Revenge.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Lots of graphic action, strong character designs, interesting music
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