Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 16--Miracle

"Phaeton has chosen to rule through terror, but when everyone fears you, you must fear everyone."

Miracle is the twenty-ninth episode of Exo-Squad, continuing The Liberation of Venus arc. Mop-up operations on the ground are interrupted by the arrival of Phaeton's Neo Sapien fleet, flagged by the Olympus Mons II. Winfield has a plan to beat it, utilizing the Pirate fleet's cloaking ability to good effect, but when Barca sabotages the vessel things look desperate. Marsh takes a captured Neo Sapien shuttle and tricks his way on board Phaeton's vessel (by playing on Phaeton's mistrust of Draconis) and causes enough damage to allow the Resolute II to be repaired, and Winfield wins the engagement handily. Draconis betrays Phaeton, leaving him to die, only to discover that he's killed a clone. The original, looking significantly worse for wear, vows to have Draconis replaced.

The Good: A *LOT* happens this episode. Right from the beginning, we're shown scenes of the Neo Sapiens who have lost. I love how beat up they are, and how their attitudes seem to vary from despair to resignation to outright anger. It's nice that some of them are women, too.

Marsh and DeLeon interrogate the captives, asking for supply depots and fallback positions. Their premise is that victory is inevitable and that this info will save lives. That may be true, but the Neos stand fast (with a little bit of pressure from the more unyielding ones on the ones who look tempted to break,) which is a nice change of pace from heroic protagonists and weak-willed antagonists.

Nara's moment to shine is weeping over James getting shuttled off. It sounds and looks bad, with talk of him losing his arm and maybe his sight. That's pretty heavy stuff for a kids cartoon. And James has yet more trials left ahead of him.

Marsala seeks to physically comfort Nara, but again can't quite bring himself to do so. He fears rejection perhaps. I love his hand shaking, followed by a tentative extension of his fingers before he pulls back, unable to make the gesture.

Barca makes a brief but important appearance. He has apparently once again established contact with Phaeton, which feels reasonable after several months. The bomb he plants in the Resolute II's engines provide the main impetus for the story. It'll definitely be satisfying to see him finally get his.

Nice detail... there's a random couple of extras making out in front of where he planted the bomb. (Don't worry, they walk off giggling before the detonation. Even Exo-Squad isn't quite THAT cruel.) I love little touches like that; it makes the universe feel lived-in.

There is a beautiful panning shot of the Neo fleet that just seems to go on and on and on. Seriously, look at it. That's maybe 8, 9 screen shots composited together. It's not static either, some ships zoom past the camera, and engines flare up and die down.

That fleet is about to get hit by a Pirate / e-frame ambush. I've loved the cloaked docking bay launch sequences before, but this episode does it better than any before or since. (But see below.) Takagi joins them and we get a brief but exiting bit of e-frame vs capital ship battle. The Neo's don't seem to be launching e-frames, probably for economy of story telling, though that's a slight flaw. Still, definitely a good battle.

It's not enough, though, so it's a good thing Marsh is ready with a plan. With a captured shuttle Bronsky has found (his e-frame wrecked by Thrax) and Marsala in a Neo uniform, they manage to bluff their way onto the flagship. I love how they do it, by claiming to have info proving Draconis a traitor. It's the perfect ruse, and results in Draconis getting sidelined for most of Able Squad's incursion. (But see below.)

There are several hints the Phaeton clone isn't what he appears to be. In addition to his too-good health, he has a few odd lines which make sense in retrospect. He stresses the word "me" too hard when saying that Marsh won't defeat him, and then refers to Phaeton in the (apparently) third person. (But see below.) It's also a nice bit of playing with the audience expectations. When I first watched it, I genuinely thought they might have just flubbed which character model they were using for Phaeton. It's nice that everything was fully intentional.

It's great that, right after Draconis is apparently vindicated, he turns around and betrays the Phaeton clone. Good old Creon doesn't need specific orders to know what to do, he blasts Phaeton's guards as they try to board and leaves the (apparent) ruler of the Neo Sapien Order to go down with the ship. It's an excellent role-reversal.

Phaeton's appearance at the end of the episode is terrific. Bandaged up, wearing a cloak... he's deteriorated significantly further since last we saw him a few months back. (In The Dogs of War, for those keeping track.)

Draconis's facial expression when he sees Phaeton alive and well--uh, alive, anyway, is priceless. It only lasts a few frames but he looks totally stunned.

Finally, since I'm a huge fan, I'll point out that Algernon once again shines. This time he's fixing Barca's sabotage. "Spaceship repair is hardly my forte... though I suppose I am better at it than anyone else." I love the Pirate engineers assisting him.

The Bad: Some details just feel off this episode. Leaving DeLeon behind to guard the shuttle feels like an odd choice, given his computer expertise. Torres or Marsala would seem the better call.

The Phaeton/Marsh rematch is something of an anticlimax. Bronsky pulls him off Marsh, which worked well, but then Weston shoots him and he stalks off, sparking. For someone who was willing to shoot a shuttle of his own men for not fighting to the death, and a clone to boot, he gives up a little easy. Which brings us to...

Phaeton ordering Able Squad's shuttle destroyed, on the grounds that they should have fought till the end, feels cartoon villainous to me. I can see Draconis doing it, he's a butcher, but Phaeton has always striven for logical decisions. A shuttle from Venus full of e-frames or soldiers or officers or scientists could easily be more valuable with the fleet than needlessly sacrificing themselves in a lost battle.

After the impressive showing last week, the Olympus Mons II seems to be large, but still in-scale, with the other Neo ships. It's also about the same size, if not smaller, than the Resolute II.

There's an odd beat where Phaeton demands to know when they'll be in range, followed by a cut to the exterior of the ship and Draconis declaring them to be in range. Tiny detail, I know, but it feels odd. Given how tight the episode was, this feels like a pair of scenes that could have been condensed.

When the vessels towing the Resolute II away cut their lines, the Resolute seems to fall backwards. Even if they were towing it up out of Venus' gravity well, which isn't at all clear, the visual would be subtle at best.

Also, and this is a bigger deal because it's not a visual flub but a story one, Winfield is too fatalistic about the Resolute II going down. Sure, it'd be a blow, but there's no reason he'd have to go down with his ship. One imagines there are shuttles, and we know they have life pods.

The Neo whose frame Bronsky commandeers is shorter than he is! Oops! I do like Bronsky's heroism of running into the danger to help spring his squadmates.

It's a bit of a stretch to think that Phaeton would trust his own clone. What's stopping the clone from deciding that perhaps a healthy Phaeton would make a better leader?

Watch For: James and Thrax both have more story left in them. James' story will conclude soon, Thrax will disappear for awhile before returning to prominence. It's slightly contrived that Draconis has saved him, but at least they lampshade it by having Draconis acknowledge it. Thrax is being saved for a public execution to help Draconis secure his spot as the new ruler of the Neo Sapien Order. (Though, the guy who just lost his planet may have a weaker claim than Typhonus, who is doing just fine on Mars, thank you very much.)

It's hardly worth saying, but Phaeton's new look heralds bad things for him.

Winfield gets his old coloration for a few frames, speaking of using the wrong character model.

Bio: Marsala. Again. Since he's not especially prominent this episode, and we've seen it before, it doesn't work especially well.

Overall: Very strong episode, marred slightly by a few odd choices and visual gaffes. Venus is now solidly liberated, though the show will devote a couple of episodes to the aftermath, which is also a nice touch.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 15--Venus Rising

"No one makes you fire. It's a decision you make for yourself... and you have to live with it."

Venus Rising is the twenty-eighth episode of Exo-Squad, continuing The Liberation of Venus arc. The Neos are falling back all over Venus, with Draconis fighting a rear-guard action to enable as many of his troops to get into orbit as possible. When the resistance tracks him to Vesta, an open city, they attack anyway and get in over their heads. Able Squad comes to their rescue, but not before James Burns takes grievous injuries. Draconis recommissions Thrax and entrusts him with the destruction of Vesta, but Thrax disobeys orders and lets the city be, and is in turned allowed to leave when Takagi recognizes him. Draconis realizes he disobeyed, but is interrupted in his vengeance by the arrival of a very healthy looking Phaeton and an enormous warship.

What Works: Holy crud, this is a strong episode. A ton happens, both plot-wise and character-wise. Each member of Able Squad (except DeLeon) gets a nice moment or two. Takagi's confrontation with Thrax is great, but so is Nara's growing panic that her brother might be doing something stupid. I also love her facial expressions when she thinks Marsala is hanging James out to dry. Marsala gets to exhibit genuine concern for his partner's brother.

Bronsky's moment comes when he chooses to dog-fight Thrax, and gets handily outclassed. He also gets razzed by Takagi for firing on a friendly. Don't worry, he missed. It's nice to see the changing dynamic between these two. Before, Kaz looked up to Wolf. Now, Kaz has come to the realization that Bronsky is a bit of a goofball and not in the same league as himself as a pilot. Makes sense, it's been 2-2.5 years since the show started. Things change.

Weston gets to have a nice utility-frame to utility-frame battle. She also jokes with Torres about installing some new ammo in her frame, saying that it's guaranteed to blow SOMETHING up.

Torres, meanwhile, in addition to the ammo, gets to put resistance member Kroger in his place when he attempts to murder some surrendering Neo Sapiens. And J.T., who doesn't have a ton to do this episode, also gets to let some Neos go rather than gun them down. He's diligent about blowing up their materiel though.

James has been obsessed about Draconis for some time, and he finally gets his confrontation. Unfortunately for him, it ends disastrously, with his troops outmatched and himself outclassed. It's a nice subversion of the revenge trope, coming close enough to taste his goal but then having it snatched away. Draconis seems barely aware of his presence.

Oh, and let's not forget Draconis. He also does a perfunctory job rallying troops left behind in hopeless tactical positions as he does his best to salvage his command. Lots of great details, like his troops destroying computer files and codebooks. He knows he lost. He gets a shiny new e-frame this episode. It probably should have made it's debut last episode, but I won't complain. This one is based on a toy, and looks kind of awesome. The red and yellow color scheme, the spikes, everything about it just exudes menace. It's a much better fit for him than the bulky troop transport e-frame he'd previously been shown to pilot.

And, of course, Thrax. The guy who wouldn't shoot a downed pilot is trusted to blow up a city and, predictably, declines. It's a nice character beat, and sets Draconis up to be rightfully furious. Just look at that scowl when he realizes that Thrax has refused to blow up Vesta. (Draconis lied to him and told him that there was a timer on the hydrogen bombs, when in fact there was not.)

And, down to the minor stuff, I love that Winflield and the fleet are using their fleet to bombard the fixed Neo positions. Those forts look incredibly tough... but then when fire and death rain from the sky, they're a lot less impressive, aren't they. It's the nice kind of tactical detail that this show generally excels at.

What Doesn't: Not much. This episode is very well paced, but in the context of the show, perhaps The Liberation of Venus is accomplished a bit too quickly? Perhaps one more episode devoted to the war on the ground, before moving to space next go?

Watch For: Plenty to keep an eye open for. Kroger, who we've seen several times, really shines this episode, both visually and plot-wise. Keep an eye on him, he has a big role to play in the near future.

Speaking of, James crawls away from his smashed e-frame heavily favoring his left side. That'll pay off in spades in a few episodes. It's a rather pathetic visual, him crawling away from the wreckage. One really feels for Nara as she rushes to his side and begs for him to be ok.

Phaeton shows up at the end of the episode... looking surprisingly healthy. This is not an animation error, this is a plot point that we'll see pay off at the end of the next episode.

Draconis' shuttle, which has been prominent since Dragon's Rock, gets blown up by the resistance. It's a satisfying moment, though of course it all goes horribly wrong a few minutes later. Still, it was a fun prop, and it's nice to see it get a proper exit. Much more satisfying than having Draconis ride it to safety in orbit.

Finally, though this is obvious, the giant ship introduced at the end of the episode's coda is going to provide the big threat for the next episode, the space opera portion of the liberation of Venus. I love the directing, giving a real sense of scale. This thing dwarfs the normal Neo Sapien ships by several orders of magnitude. The change in focus technique (also used in the Thrax/Takagi redux confrontation) is especially effective.

Overall: Great episode. Character bits, action, heroes and villains on both sides of the conflict, generally reasonable tactics. That the victory comes at a price gives it so much more resonance than if the heroes had just breezed to a win. The Liberation of Venus is shaping up to be one of the more satisfying and emotional story beats the show has delivered yet, and that's saying something.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 14--Behind the Shield

"We're doing it, J.T. We're taking back Venus. We're taking back our homes."

Behind the Shield is the twenty-seventh episode of Exo-Squad. Able Squad scouts on Venus note the reactivation of the GRAF shield facility, and escape to report back when the Neo Mega advising Draconis demands he pulls back his enormous offensive. They've set a trap for the Exo-Fleet, showing them what they want to see while a second GRAF facility has been built into the dome at Vespa. Able Squad takes out the wrong base but realizes it in time to warn the fleet. Simbacca, in a pique of brilliance or idiocy, orders the fleet to cloak, and the GRAF targeting system is unable to lock on, enabling the liberation of Venus to commence.

What Works: Man, the Neo Megas are smarmy. It's easy to see why Draconis despises them so. Their trap is good; despite DeLeon's realization of what's going on, they would have gotten the bulk of the fleet had not cloaking provided a way through. 

It's tremendously satisfying when Draconis decides he's had enough and hurtles Sallust into Illeal. And they had it coming, certainly. There was no reason for them to leave Draconis in the dark as to the plan. (OK, that left the audience in the dark too, but there are other ways to accomplish that.) I rather like the contrast between Sallust's blustering ("Phaeton will not allow this!") and Illeal's whining ("No, Draconis, you need us! Mercy!") With these two, along with the five from The Greatest Fear, Draconis has now disposed of seven (presumably, all) of the Neo Megas on Venus. Butcher. He's easily the most brutal of Phaeton's major Generals.

Their plan, too, seemed pretty reasonable. Hiding a GRAF facility inside the large dome at Vespa seems like the kind of leap a Neo Mega would make. Seeing the civilian population run from the arcing electricity was a nice image.

The invasion of Venus commences! (But see below.) It's incredibly satisfying, after watching our heroes get kicked in the teeth for 20 or so episodes, to see them legitimately going on the offensive. 

There's a nice montage of the team getting ready for the mission. One moment in particular stands out, where J.T. just appreciates Venus for its innate beauty. Nice that the show can find time for that.

We also get a hint as to the timeline; Draconis complains that Exo-Fleet reconnaissance has been active in the area "for months." I think it's safe to assume some time between the Pirate Alliance plotline and the First Step / Dogs of War events, so we're probably encroaching on year 2.5 of the war.

What Doesn't: The liberation fleet seems, visually, to be composted entirely of entirely of Exo-Fleet type ships, as opposed to Pirate vessels. They really should be around 80% Pirate. 

In a similar vein, we've never seen Exo-Fleet ships cloak before. Now, it makes sense that that'd be the first upgrade you'd give to them, but it would have been nice to establish it. I don't think we see it too often again in the series either. Usually a cloaked ship is specifically flying Pirate colors.

Creon's armada of E-Frames, assembled to hunt down the spies (before Sallust calls them off) seems a little TOO huge to me. If the facility really was just a decoy, why would there be this many frames close by to summon? Minor nit, but still.

A bigger nit is that the Neos seem to have a large fleet defending the planet, a fleet which is nowhere to be seen when the Exo-Fleet arrives. Now, it makes sense that they'd probably choose not to engage, thinking the GRAF shield will handle the invaders. Still, I can't imagine that, once that plan failed, the Neos would let the Exo-Fleet have uncontested control of their orbit. 

Watch For: This is the last use of the GRAF shield in the series, though I can't complain, it had a good run. GRAF tech WILL show up one more time, though, this time in a civilian capacity. (As is so often the case with weapons of war.) 

Needless to say, the Liberation of Venus plotline has just begun and will continue to dominate the series for some time.

Overall: Much stronger episode than the last one. It does a good job of balancing a stand-alone plot with the greater story, as well as tying into the Neo Mega subthread that's been weaving in and out of the story ever since The Last Man. It ends on a note of unabashed optimism, a first for the series, and signals an important tone shift for the rest of the show. Exciting stuff.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 13--Flesh Crawls

"This may only be the beginning. Worse things than thatc reature may be waiting out there. Neo Sapien science created that--who knows what else they may be capable of?"

Flesh Crawls is the twenty-sixth episode of Exo-Squad, and marks the halfway point of the series. Hollis and a Pirate Destroyer come to Venus to transport mutagen and shape-shifting monster they think is a Neo Mega back to Chaos. Things quickly go awry, and DeLeon, Weston, Hollis, and the survivors of the monster's attack are forced to blow the ship to stop the creature's rampage.

What works:  This is a weak episode, but some parts of it work. The episode opens with a flashback to The First Step, from Thrax's point of view. He we see him get demoted by Draconis and manning a shuttle. Quite a fall from the ace who was second in command of a planet. (But see below). It's also a slick transition, to see him heading down to Venus and then Hollis use his sensor shadow to get down to the resistance and reconnaissance team.

It's good to catch up on Hollis, see how he's doing. I'm not going to ding them for the leniency Simbacca has shown him, that was already covered in Inner Dark. He gets his flirt on a bit with Nara, but Weston shoots him down fast. He's the second in command of the ship, and the show does a good job of showing him as a leader, in his element, taking command.

As for Weston, she seems to be bonding more with DeLeon. She's a good character, it's nice to see them focus on her a bit. I also love her sudden, savage punch when she thinks Hollis is a traitor.

I like that they kept the supposed Neo Mega sedated. Torres already surmised that they can communicate over long distances by unknown means. We don't really know if they've cracked exactly how yet, but sensible that they'd take no chances either way.

What Doesn't: This episode doesn't have much going for it. The DeLeon/Weston/others fight off a monster on a ship has been done before, quite recently. There's even a reprise of the airlock scene. Now, granted, using the magnet on the mutagen container is a better solution than the wrench, but it winds up feeling repetitive.

The fight scene between the squad and a Neo patrol was perfunctory and devoid of tension. That seems to be a bit of a pattern recently, probably a result of the format of the show. I do miss the first season, though, where every fight seemed to matter and the outcomes felt more in doubt.

Just a nitpick, but during Thrax's flashback, Draconis seems to chew him out from the Neo base on Mercury. It should, of course, be Venus. Another odd choice was that the flashback was mostly devoid of dialogue, which worked, but then the actual Takagi/Thrax interaction dialogue was used at that point in the scene. It felt like an odd choice.

DeLeon, intent on blowing the ship, retrieves his fusion pack... from his E-Frame dripping in mutagen. No special precautions are taken either. He'd just seen it turn the shape-shifter into a giant tentacled face monster from getting splashed by it, so this feels incautious to me. Surely there are other ways to blow the ship.

After DeLeon convinces Weston that Hollis is innocent, she has an odd line, "people don't just change into other people." For all that odd things had been happening on the ship, that line hardly felt earned.

Oh, and since we're on the subject, when the monster assumes DeLeon's form right after that line, it apparently forms a working cyberjack for the machine to connect to. I can just about buy forming clothes that look real out of flesh, but working electronics is where I draw the line.

Perhaps the episode's biggest sin is that it's simply unnecessary. It adds nothing to the ongoing narrative outside of a couple of character moments. Shapeshifting monsters were established last episode. The liberation of Venus plot isn't addressed. Basically nothing much happens.

Watch for: Probably the most important event, big-picture story-wise, is Thrax going to Venus and establishing a somewhat adversarial relationship with Draconis. That will pay off in the near future.

The Weston/DeLeon relationship will continue to grow.

Overall: Weak. You could have cut this episode and, with a couple of minor edits to the last one, nothing much would be lost. In fact, this is probably my least-favorite episode of the series.