Is Halo Legends Still Legendary?by Michael Basile,
With the release of the long-awaited Halo: Infinite, along with the 20th anniversary of the franchise, it's a pretty great time to be a Halo fan. As such, I think now would be the perfect moment to take a look back at Halo's often-overlooked venture into the realm of anime, that being the 8-episode anthology series Halo Legends.
Leading off the collection we have “Origins,” a two-part story detailing the history of the Halo world, as told by Cortana to a sleeping Master Chief, thus placing it sometime after the events of Halo 3. Part 1 deals with the Forerunners facing off against the Flood invasion and the initial firing of the Halo array. What keeps this otherwise straightforward lore recap from feeling like an audio textbook is the pacing with which this history is delivered. Core details given via voiceover are interspersed with either visual reiterations of said details or a series of action scenes to keep the audience engaged. It excels at capturing the angular aesthetic of Forerunner architecture, and the action scenes are decently animated, plus there are plenty of visual Easter eggs for astute Halo fans to latch on to, my personal favorite being the corruption of Mendicant Bias by the Flood.
That said, the overall art direction for this episode often feels a bit flat. I wouldn't say it completely lacks depth, but it certainly doesn't excel at it either. It also has a few issues with visual consistency in action scenes. Sometimes explosions are hyper detailed, while others are extremely abstract, and the visual confusion becomes a bit too jarring for a 10-minute runtime. It's difficult for me to say whether it's an interesting retelling of Halo lore in regards to the narration since this knowledge has been drilled into me hundreds of times over the years across different Halo mediums, but I can at least say that it is competent in its accuracy.
Part 2 covers everything from the repopulation of the galaxy up through the Chief's arrival at the Ark and has a slightly different bend to its narration that was only hinted at in Part 1, that being humanity's warlike nature. In the immortal words of Ulysses S. Grant, “War never changes. It is like winter, and winter is coming,” implying that war is a constant threat embedded in humanity's nature, and the constant loop of war to alliance to war again portrayed in this episode embodies this concept with a sort of tragic beauty. Even as Cortana finishes her speech, she concludes that the world will always need warriors like Master Chief because there will always be war, with the display of her imminent rampancy adding a visual stinger to this conclusion.
This episode also has a dramatically different art style than Part 1, this time leaning much more towards realism and more complex designs, which further complements the base thematic ideas that this episode is going for. It puts an intense focus on intricate mechanical details as it shows the progression of human technology, emphasizing how said technology has been a fundamental part of humanity's progress, as well as its continuous loopback towards corruption and war with its visceral depictions of destruction. The color direction further adds to the heavier tone of this episode, with the general aesthetic either leaning towards the monochromatic or just feeling generally washed-out, with only the iconic Halo soundtrack chiming in to counterbalance it with a brief adrenaline rush in the climax.
When I watched these two episodes as a teenager, I gravitated much more towards Part 1 because of the cool Forerunner lore and the unjust downfall of what seemed like a near-perfect civilization. As an adult, however, I find Part 2 much more compelling after dozens and dozens of rewatches. Yes it's the same “war never changes” theme you've heard a thousand times in other media and it basically yada-yadas the “modern” history of the Halo world, but the unique blend of military bombast and subtle tragedy that is prevalent not just in this episode, but in Halo as a whole, allows it to stand out from the crowd, and its concretely dour ending hits with much more impact than one that tries to throw in a vague sense of optimism at the 11th hour.
After this two-part introduction comes “The Duel,” a tale that reaches all the way back into ancient Covenant history, telling us how the role of Arbiter became one of shame and disgrace. This one takes quite a bit of liberty with its aesthetic, both visually and narratively, as it chooses to don the personality of classic samurai cinema. It follows a pretty standard story structure with a Covenant general, Fal, verbally rebelling against the Prophets by rejecting the concept of the Great Journey, much like classic samurai films in which a hero must follow what he thinks is right rather than bending to the whims of his clan or the Shogunate. Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot to characterize Fal outside of this conflict, and so he feels more like a vessel to move the plot forward rather than a character that we can empathize with, and the same can be said for most of the characters in this episode.
The visuals make some interesting choices as well with one of the most distinct art styles I've seen from an anime. The color palette and muddy outlines give it the appearance of being drawn with watercolor paint, and the extremes that the colors are taken to in different scenes work well in crafting a variety of tones. That said, there is a huge downside that comes with this aesthetic, in that the finer details become incredibly difficult to see, especially in the more dimly-lit shots, leading to a bit of confusion as to what a particular shot is trying to convey. The revamped character designs of the Sangheili don't sit well with me either, and its method of differentiating the “good” characters from the “bad” ones is simply to remove the more alien features from the good characters, with Fal's wife having a much flatter face and completely missing the iconic split jaw, making her look more like Voldemort than an alien species. I get that this is how they decided to make these characters look more empathetic, but it still falls kinda flat since the stark lack of characterization certainly isn't doing it any favors.
At the very least, this episode does have some pretty solid action scenes, in particular the massive battle in the middle where Fal faces off against an entire battalion of Covenant soldiers, where the use of intensive camerawork and plenty of slow-motion shots create a truly epic battle. Sadly, however, this is one of only a few bright spots in an otherwise hollow and messy episode. It reminds me a bit of the episode from Star Wars: Visions also titled “The Duel,” though in Visions's case the aesthetic is much more strongly executed, and the characters feel like much more than just the tropes that they embody.
If “The Duel” took a huge risk with its art style and produced mixed results, then the next episode, “Homecoming,” unfortunately took no risks at all and came out visually underwhelming across the board. This isn't much of a surprise considering it was helmed by Bee Train, whose output over the years has been consistently not good. Really the only positive comment I can give towards the visuals here is that it has some cool lighting and color choices during the first flashback sequence and some occasionally cinematic symbolism. Otherwise, the quality varies from passable to flat-out bad.
It's a shame that this episode is so visually unappealing because the story itself is pretty solid. It follows Daisy, a Spartan-II who escapes Dr. Halsey's research facility and attempts to find her way home. As far as I know, this was the first visual medium to show the negative aspects of the Spartan-II project and the coldness with which Dr. Halsey pursued her research, shortly followed by her appearance in Halo: Reach about half a year later and only previously conveyed in novelizations like The Fall of Reach. It shines a harsh light on the fact that the warriors we know as Spartans were once small children that were kidnapped by ONI and biologically augmented in order to become the perfect soldiers, and Daisy's rebellion against this project feels emotionally justified, though inevitably fruitless as Halsey has taken all manner of precautions in ensuring that this project would not fail nor be uncovered by the general public.
The life of a Spartan is not one of fame and glory. It is a tragedy, being stolen away at a young age and forced to dedicate your entire existence to the horrors of war, up until you draw your very last breath, and the way that Daisy tries to hold on to her old identity, visually represented by a teddy bear charm, makes her story all the more tragic. This is another one that I wasn't too keen on when I was younger, as I was so caught up in the hype of Halo's military machine, but it is nonetheless crucial in conveying the cold realities of the Halo world, and I've grown quite fond of it as of late despite its visual weaknesses.
Getting away from the gloom and doom for a bit, we have “Odd One Out,” a surprisingly comedic episode telling the story of Spartan 1337, yes that's actually his name, as he falls off a Pelican and has to find his way back. As such, the overall aesthetic takes on a much more cartoony appearance, with the character designs feeling vaguely similar to those of the original Dragon Ball, which makes sense since this episode was produced by Toei Animation. The exaggerated designs combined with 1337's brash and overconfident personality lend to some pretty strong punchlines and playful banter throughout, plus it's got some pretty great action chops supported by crisp animation and tight editing. Another big surprise was that, more than any other episode, this one makes the most of Halo's unique technologies in pragmatic, in-the-moment ways to amplify the fight scenes, such as opening a slipspace portal and then using an escape pod to smash something through it. It even has some clever ways of editing in information we don't actually see, like how the bubble shield is displayed prominently the first time 1337 uses it so that we only need a few frames of it the second time.
The Halo nerd is me does occasionally get a bit perturbed by the massive breaches in lore, but it's all in service of a compact and hilarious side story to express a tone that this franchise almost never touches on. I didn't think Halo could work as an outright comedy, but “Odd One Out” certainly proves otherwise.
And then we come to “Prototype,” my personal favorite from the bunch. It follows a sergeant known as Ghost as he attempts to enact the Cole Protocol at a secret weapons facility while also evacuating as many civilians and soldiers as possible by using a prototype mech suit to hold the Covenant at bay, and the character of Ghost himself serves as a representation of one of the cruelest aspects of war: loss of humanity. The reality of war, especially a borderline-genocidal war like the Human-Covenant War, is that survival and overcoming the enemy become absolutely paramount in the face of loss, driving soldiers to completely abandon their humanity for the sake of the mission. It is in Ghost confronting his loss of humanity that we see yet another tragedy of war play out, as we are shown in the opening scene that, on a previous assignment, he allowed his entire platoon to be wiped out in order to complete his mission. As the last of his soldiers dies in his arms, the crushing reality of this conflict hits full force, leaving Ghost as a lost soul desperately clinging to the last shreds of human feeling he has left. Admittedly it does beat the point into you pretty hard, but I find that to be part of its effectiveness at conveying the hollowness that the battlefield forces into you.
And this potent darkness is conveyed to an almost uncomfortable degree in the visuals. This episode might have the best animation from the whole bunch, which is not at all surprising since this was made by none other than Studio Bones, directed by Tomoki Kyoda of Eureka Seven fame and featuring the mechanical designs of industry legend Shinji Aramaki, known for his work on Wolf's Rain, Bubblegum Crisis, and Gasaraki. Gushing about the sheer quality of the animation would be interesting on its own, especially when it comes to the phenomenal aerial cinematography, but the aspect I find most interesting is that the action itself is the most violent and visceral from the series. Yes you still get that bit of hype from watching a Banshee explode midair, but the impact of each shot has a different feeling than something like “Odd One Out,” and the graphic nature of the destruction further amplifies the horrors of war. Ironically, the episode that I feel most embodies the strengths of Halo Legends is the one without a single Spartan in it, as it instead attempts to connect to us with a truly empathetic and bittersweet story of humanity.
After that comes “The Babysitter,” which was actually the first episode to premiere on Halo Waypoint before all the episodes were reordered for the home video release. It follows a squad of ODST and a Spartan as they attempt to assassinate a prophet, though, much like always, tensions remain stiff amongst the group. This is another element that was only touched on in novels before this series, but, in general, ODST often view Spartans as privileged children due to their preferential treatment and access to advanced technology, though in this episode that tension mostly comes from one character named O'Brian, who's upset that he was chosen as the Spartan's backup for the assassination role rather than being the lead himself. O'Brian certainly comes off a bit abrasive and childish for a good run of this episode, but the restless ponderance and unspoken words he carries with him after the mission's resolution speak much louder than any dialogue could.
Admittedly, this episode is fairly light on story and character, though in this instance I'm totally fine with that because, in its place, we get a tight, expertly-paced search and destroy mission that constantly keeps the tension at just the right level. This episode is also the best from the bunch at showing just how much of a difference there is between Spartans and regular soldiers. The Spartan towers over the others and displays feats of inhuman strength with an awesome serenity and quiet power, making this super soldier truly larger than life. The overall art direction and animation is also incredibly solid, with a preference for colors a bit on the muted side, yet still distinct enough to give certain elements the pop they need, and the action scenes are some of the best from this whole series, especially in the hand-to-hand encounters. Though I will admit that the “plot twist” doesn't quite hold up through a modern lens, this episode is still an amazing display of a “get in and get out” plot line that doesn't leave much unanswered and keeps me constantly engaged throughout.
Finally, we have “The Package,” in which Master Chief and a squad of other Spartans are tasked with securing a high-priority package from a Covenant carrier. Unfortunately, I would consider this to be one of the weakest stories from this anthology. Not because it's particularly bad, save for a short dialogue between the Chief and Halsey where they cram in as many lines from the games as possible and had my eyes rolling all the way back into my head. Rather, I consider it weak simply because it has the least to present outside of pure action. Character writing is practically nonexistent aside from a single Elite, with most dialogue being purely for the purpose of setting up fight scenes. This one's basically just a vehicle for massive action spectacles.
Granted, said action spectacles are pretty solid, with the full CG animation being provided by Casio Entertainment, a name which I've only seen once before in relation to anime as a production partner on Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. It certainly comes the closest in general aesthetic to that of the actual video games, and it excels at most of the action set pieces it creates, be it close quarters combat or a full-scale space assault. There are a few questionable choices here and there, such as copying the Spartan's HUD directly from the game for several shots or the…interesting choice of character design for Dr. Halsey, but in general it does a good job at crafting exciting and explosive action scenes.
While it does have its misses here and there, Halo Legends still stands as a solid anthology piece to further flesh out the Halo universe not through extra lore and worldbuilding, but through engaging character stories and exhilarating action spectacles. I've been a Halo fan for well over half my life at this point, and whether it's the pulse-pounding action adrenaline I get from mowing down waves of Grunts as a literal supersoldier, or the heartbreaking drama of humans trapped in a permanent state of war and struggle, I always find myself coming back to it for a good time, and with Halo Infinite being the first wholly positive debut for the franchise in over a decade, I feel confident that Halo will continue to be a franchise worth engaging in across all mediums of entertainment.
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