Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A special look at - the alliance (part two) & the horde (part three)

Once again welcome to Ramses Reviews. I finally decided to finish my look at the factions. The original intent was for this to be two separate posts, one for each faction. However, the more I wrote, the more it became clear how much the problems of the two factions were intertwined.

The Empire of Stormwind
But first, a story of personal taste. I've said before that, of the two factions, my favorite is the horde. However, I was recently also asked my favorite race. It was actually a rather tough question for me, since I like almost every race in the game. In the end, it was actually humanity that won out, because I really dig the seven kingdoms.

Okay, bit weird to have your favorite race not in your favorite faction, but perfectly possible. Either you really dislike the other alliance races, or have all the horde races in really high regard. Then I thought what my second favorite race was; the night elves. Third; the dwarves. Fourth; the draenei. And yet, the alliance still isn't my favorite faction. The hell is the deal with that?

Well, I kinda touched upon it in my first look at the alliance, but I don't think I gave it enough emphasis. The idea behind the alliance is that they're separate nations, banding together to stand against outsiders who could overwhelm the individual nations. Their leadership and militaries coordinate together, with a very open sharing of information. In the highest level of government, this means coordination and trust between kings and generals. On the lower levels, it means that the nations of the alliance share information that could strengthen each others' armies.

At least, that was the intent when the alliance was formed back in warcraft II (though you can argue it goes back all the way to the conjurers in warcraft I). Nations remain separate entities, even as they strengthen and defend each other. It's a noble affair, though it brings with it the inherent problems of trust, either with ineffectiveness coming from nations not trusting each other (Gilneas pretty much being an in-name-only member of the alliance) or their trust being betrayed (Alterac selling out the alliance in the hopes the horde will spare them).

So, we can basically boil the alliance down to two things: “Independent nations” and “united against common enemies”. The former is why I'm a lot less hard on the night elves joining the alliance than the forsaken joining the horde. Sure, they're equally different from the factions they're joining, but with the alliance, a big part of the appeal is to see very diverse nations stand side-by-side.

However, the problem lies with the second one. There is no common enemy that the alliance is forming a united front against. Each of the various nations is busy fighting unrelated stuff. Stormwind is dealing with the defias rebellion, the dark horde, the black dragonflight and itself. The night elves are busy with the corruption overtaking their lands and the dark forces that would ally with it. The dwarves and the gnomes are the only ones who have common enemies, dealing with the troggs that were freed with the opening of Uldaman and the Dark Iron Dwarves.

And well, there you basically have the problem. The alliance is defined by nations uniting against common enemies. They are not doing so. For the entirety of Vanilla, the alliance did not exist. They were just some relatively friendly nations. Okay, that's a slight hyperbole. There is actually a single location where the alliance did exist, and I mentioned it in part 1 as well. I just don't think I did justice to the sheer insanity of the idea that the alliance only acted as an alliance in this one single place: Alterac Valley.

Think about that. The dwarven lands being infested by underground monstrosities, with the entire gnomish capital being lost and their population nearly driven to extinction? No action. The night elf lands being corrupted from the inside-out and tainted monstrosities taking over most of it? No action. The entire human kingdom of Stormwind falling apart as orcs overrun the east, bandits overrun the west and start on the center, and the south is abandoned to hordes of undead? No action. A territorial misunderstanding in a remote, strategically-uninteresting corner of the world? Full support! Humans, dwarves and night elves must stand together to help these archaeologist invade and wipe out the frostwolf clan, for surely there is no greater threat than reclusive primitives that misunderstood the intention of explorers. Surely, there is no cause greater than exterminating an entire clan in the name of dwarven imperialism? Not even the alliance can do this alone, for the cenarion circle must also forsake its neutrality and send an arch-druid. Truly, there is no greater threat to the natural world, no greater aberration to the natural order than... SHAMANISM! Because lord knows that the horde doesn't use shamanism anywhere else.

To be fair, it's not like the other battlegrounds made any sense either. Warsong Gulch requires Thrall to be acting completely out of character and everyone to overlook every single other source of wood ever. Arathi Basin has the forsaken invading Stromgarde territory because they need the resources there, despite the fact that it's at the other side of the continent from where they operate. I'm entirely willing to entertain the idea that the original vanilla battlegrounds were just the developers trolling the lore fans. I actually kinda prefer it over the idea that they were genuinely trying.

Anyway, back to the point I was originally making; After warcraft III, blizzard had no real solid plan what to go for with the direction of the factions, and both are kinda left meandering for both vanilla and TBC. As much as I hate to say it, Wrath of the Lich King really was the first expansion to legitimately give the alliance a well-defined role again, even if that role was a terrible, terrible idea.

You can argue that TBC was a little better than vanilla. It did indeed add one more quest hub, Honor Hold, where there was a sense that the nations of the alliance were actually, you know, allied. Still, it was too little, too late, with the rest of the continent again being all about the various nations doing their own unrelated stuff before being forgotten in favor of the naaru.

I honestly don't get why the writers seem to have so much trouble with writing the alliance. I realize I'm only talking as a backseat driver here, but it really seems like it wouldn't be so hard. Pick a main enemy, pick a few randomly selected alliance armies (remember, nations can have more than one army. It's a good opportunity to establish some variety within a single nation), have representatives from these armies stand in a single room to plan strategies, give the armies bases in zones that seem the most thematically appropriate (don't be afraid to have two different armies near each other, or even building their bases side-by-side), have them assault nearby bases of the main enemy and have multiple armies working together whenever appropriate. Frankly, it's not exactly a complicated formula. And yet, it never seems to occur. Instead, the alliance either acts like a bunch of non-allied, but friendly nations, or like the stormwindian empire of stormwind, serving stormwind for the glory of stormwind.

And yeah, the alliance in Wrath of the Lich King becomes the latter. Both in- and out-of-universe, it's rather disturbing. Apparently, the idea behind the radical shift in direction was that they were planning to introduce some sort of Thrall-like figure for the alliance in the form of Varian. And completely missed the mark. That's something that actually happens surprisingly often with Thrall. The basic idea is understandable. The horde had a focal figure in the form of Thrall, who was able to speak for the entirety of the horde. So they wanted a focal figure for the alliance, who could do the same.

Thing is, they kinda got things in reverse. Thrall can't speak for the horde because he is its leader. Just because you have formal leadership of a faction doesn't mean you can accurately represent all of it. Thrall is a leader, because he has learned to speak for the horde. Thrall is very much a diplomatic character, and is always portrayed as having a large circle of friends and advisors. Thrall can speak for the tauren, because Thrall has spent enough time with Cairne and Muln to actually know what the tauren would want. Thrall can speak for the darkspear, because Vol'jin is one of his closest friends and he knows what he'd want. Thrall can speak for the orcs, because he keeps enough of an eye and ear on his people to know what they actually want. You'll notice that you never see Thrall speak for the blood elves or forsaken, because, get this, he's not close enough to them to speak for them.

Varian is written in the exact opposite way. He doesn't need advisors or input from other nations to lead the alliance, because, as leader of the alliance, he naturally knows best how to lead it. Whenever Varian has a problem with leadership, it can only be because of outside influence by dark forces. Without leadership from the Wrynn bloodline, all the lands under his domain fall into chaos. Only if the Wrynn were allowed to lead again could those lands be restored. Even the divine forces of the universe make it clear that Varian, or others of his bloodline, should be in charge.

Now let's talk on real life writing and philosophy from the late middle ages. Back then, it was a common claim that royal families had been selected by God himself to serve as leaders of men. Because of being blessed by God, they were naturally better rulers and it was only right that they lorded over the lower classes, who didn't possess the natural ability to lead. Without the leadership of the king, the land would fall apart into barbarism and anarchy.

Anyone else seeing a weird parallel here?

Yeah, Varian is basically a straight import from the late medieval era, though I doubt it was deliberate on part of the writers. I'm guessing they were trying to use some of the 'true king' tropes popular in fantasy, and used them with such a lack of irony and thought that it just happened to resemble six hundred year old propaganda. It's absolutely amazing how the writers somehow skipped centuries upon centuries of developments in society, morality, philosophy and literature. I'd be impressed if it wasn't for the fact I meant I had to deal with stormwindian empire of stormwind overtaking my favorite races.

Actually, that's being a little unfair. Despite appearances, the empire has surprisingly little to do with stormwind. Sure, they're led by Stormwind's king, carry the stormwind flag, see stormwind as their capital and use Stormwind architecture. However, there is a bit more to the nation of Stormwind than that. I actually feel a bit sorry for how I talked about Stormwind in previous reviews. Oh, it's still the most boring faction in the game by a long shot. But that's only when you look at the kingdom as a whole.

You see, Stormwind does have a surprising number of interesting sub-factions. I'm personally quite fond of the people's militia, a group of westfall farmers who've been abandoned by the kingdom in their struggle against the defias, and who've formed their own military. In addition to the militia, you've also got the Night Watch, which struggles against the horrors of Duskwood, the stormwind marshals, lawkeepers who have to keep the kingdom safe from outside threats now that the army is abroad, and SI:7, the rather shady Stormwind Intelligence agency. Even the stormwind gryphon masters seem to be their own organization, with special uniforms and their own flag, though I don't think we ever got any elaboration on them.

The thing is though, none of these factions show up again. Oh sure, sometimes it looks like they get focus again, like when the people's militia turned up as the westfall brigade in Northrend, or when SI:7 formed the alliance vanguard in Pandaria. But really, it's only the names that re-appear, not what made those factions interesting. The Westfall Brigade is no different from any other generic alliance force in Northrend, and SI:7 is now a multi-national generic rogue organization, rather king-loyal internal security for Stormwind.

So, obviously, we're gonna need to differentiate. The generic Stormwind-themed alliance forces as commanded by Varian Wrynn shall now be known as the Wrynn Empire. It's a term I'm going to need for the next segment.

Alliance Races
One thing most fans of Warcraft can agree on is that the alliance really hasn't had a good record with the newly added races. The night elves have been turned into pale imitations of the glory that made them so popular. The draenei were essentially forgotten after their expansion, and even there, most of the focus was on non-alliance draenei. The worgen are the worst off, as they might as well not exist after their starting zone and Silverpine. Many fans will tell you this is because blizzard is trying to fit a square peg in a round hole with these races. That they (especially night elves and worgen) are just not good matches for the alliance.

Honestly, I have to disagree. In my opinion, the night elves, the draenei and the worgen were all perfect new races for the alliance. Sure, they don't really fit the artistic style, culture or armies of the other alliance races. But that should be a good thing. I want to see siege tanks and ancient protectors march into battle side-by-side. I want to see warriors clad in crystalline armor hold the line as savage berserker packs charge in from behind them. That's the entire point of the alliance being an alliance; nations that are different in style banding together for a common cause.

And that's why I think the three races are such good fits for the alliance. Sure, night elf society is pretty much the exact opposite of dwarven society. But nobody is asking them to mingle, just work together. The nations having vastly differing histories and looks is what makes them capable of standing as an independent force within the coalition known as the alliance. There is a good reason that World of Warcraft gave the dwarves and gnomes much more distinction.

However, while these races fit perfectly into the alliance, capable of standing alongside Stormwind, Ironforge and Gnomeregan as equals, they don't fit at all into the Wrynn Empire. Hell, neither do aforementioned Stormwind, Ironforge and Gnomeregan. See, there's the big difference between the alliance and the wrynn empire.

In the alliance, all nations are powerful, independent entities, working together only at the highest levels. This originates all the way back in Warcraft II. The horde was a mass of clans that followed a roughly similar culture. Sure, one clan would chew bones, and one would ride dragons, but the overall framework for the various orcish clans was the same. Even the non-orcish members of the horde were absorbed into these clans.

The alliance however, consisted of independent kingdoms. There was no overall authority, not even really any indication of an overlapping culture. Even the church of the holy light, the closest thing to a thread connecting the seven kingdoms, was treated more like an independent power than a thing to bond over. The contrast is the starkest when looking at the non-human members of the alliance, which maintained their own kingdoms and vastly different cultures. Basically, it's like the immigration debate. Horde is integration, alliance is multi-cultural.

Warcraft III continued this trend. The different factions in the alliance all got different building styles and a lot of the time, you faced only one or two kingdoms at once. Contrast this again with the horde, which had jungle trolls, wyverns and tauren forming a single traveling army under leadership of Thrall in RoC, and form another single unified army along with ogres in TFT.

However, the alliance is not the same as the Wrynn Empire. In the Wrynn empire, there is absolutely no room for races with their own history and culture, because it means that they have different views of the world. An ancient race that stands as guardians of nature? Theocratic planet-hoppers who have been driven to near-extinction time and time again? Cursed Man-wolves? These are not going to hold the same views as your average medieval warrior-king. To have them in the same alliance means that Varian Wrynn is going to have to communicate, negotiate, and occasionally even compromise.

Obviously, we can't have that. It would mean that the alliance was actually about an alliance, rather than Lord Wrynn's personal empire. So, we got increasingly weak excuses to keep these races subservient. Elune revealed that it was her divine will that the night elves follow Varian, offering no real reason. Goldrinn also made Varian his champion, despite him never doing anything that would make him appeal to Goldrinn. Velen suddenly had visions that Anduin Wrynn would be the one leading the army of light, so his support was for the Wrynn family. And the worgen just kinda dissipated into the human and night elf populaces, because they had no religious leader that could suddenly have a vision proclaiming the Wrynns to the best thing ever.

All the hordes
It's been my observation that blizzard really didn't want to move the franchise forward anymore after The Frozen Throne. What they wanted to do was revisit the glories of previous events, and explore completely new peoples and environments. They actually do the latter really well, giving us a lot of interesting new societies. The centaur, the qiraji, the ethereals, the arakkoa, the magnataur, the stone lords, the jinyu and the pandaren are all great additions to the warcraft universe (okay, some were already there in warcraft III, but they didn't really get history and society until they appeared in WoW).

However, it's the former that's causing problems. Now I love warcraft's past stories. Warcraft II gave us epic global warfare, ToD finally showed us the world that's been talked about since the first game, Warcraft III gave us powerful personal stories and TFT explored the darker sides of the universe. But here's the key aspect: World of Warcraft isn't any of those games. It doesn't take place during any of those games. Even if it wanted, it couldn't replicate what made those games good, because it has vastly different gameplay. And there's nothing wrong with that. World of Warcraft isn't any of those games. It takes place in the future, in a time where the outcomes of all those beloved events can be seen and explored.

But no. Instead, all future developments are turned into weak attempts to imitate the past, or are ignored entirely. We've already seen it with the alliance as a whole. Barely acknowledge to exist until Wrath of the Lich King, where the entire faction was now defined by an attempt to combine Anduin Lothar and Thrall in a single character.

Unlike the alliance, the horde got assigned identity from the past right from the start of WoW. However, the problem was that they couldn't just pick a single identity. Instead, the horde has been stuck between four different directions, all of which are throwbacks to earlier games.

1) The Monster Horde (Warcraft I). This horde is a dark force of monstrosities, alien and chaotic. The Monster Horde relies little on technology or tactics, instead preferring to rely on pure, dumb strength. This is subverted only by a rare few individuals. It is through these rare individuals, whether they be warlocks, warlords or infiltrators, that the dumb hordes become a true threat to the planet.

This is the only version of the horde under which the inclusion of the forsaken makes sense, and it shows up in a few quests in Cataclysm as well, like the battle for Northwatch and large parts of the Twilight Highlands.

2) The War Machine Horde (Warcraft II: ToD). Like the Monster Horde, the War Machine Horde is a dark force that will overwhelm the planet. Unlike the Monster Horde, it will do this not through mindless violence, but through large-scale industrialization. For this version of the horde, everything is a resource to be consumed. Massive industries consume wood, metal and oil at an unprecedented rate, spewing forth weaponry, fleets and siege machines. Dark magic is fed into young children, turning defenseless infants into fully capable warriors. Not even the dead are safe, with removed souls, corpses and stolen magic being used to craft the elite core of death knights.

This version of the horde is what became dominant in Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria, exemplified by the goblins joining and doing what they did to Azshara. The orcs and undead also joined in on the fun, shifting from mundane armies with iconic magic (shamans and mind-control respectively) to armies that are heavily technology-oriented. No longer is the orc an honorable warrior or a monstrous brute. He is but a cog in the war machine.

3) The Rebel Horde (Lord of the Clans, of Blood and Honor, Warcraft III tutorial). This is a bit of a weird one, and I debated whether I should include it at all. It didn't star prominently in any games, and was more of a reaction to a short-term situation than an overall theme. But the more I thought about it, the more it fit. Because while the rebel horde existed only shortly in canon, it did have a big impact on how people viewed the horde.

The rebel horde was the horde formed during Lord of the Clans and persisted until the orcs took off for Kalimdor. It was a time when the orcs were trying to be honorable warriors, but still struggling with the sins of their past. They wanted to be left alone and return to their old culture, but they couldn't do so with their people still in chains. It was a sympathetic struggle, though one could definitely argue the morality of it.

This version of the horde really struck a note with fans and producers. I suspect it's because everybody loves the underdog, and the orcs were definitely in that role. They were a small bunch of rebels, hiding in the hills, trying to free their people, fighting against a massive continents-spanning alliance that, while not actively malicious, certainly didn't give a damn about the wants and needs of the orcs. It was a great situation, and one that I wish the series had explored a little more. I'd have loved it if the battlegrounds were actually old battles from this era, with neither side in the right (“We're freeing all orcs, no matter what horrid acts they committed!” “Each and every orc should be held accountable for the actions of the horde, regardless of what they themselves did!”), nor in the wrong (“Our people are born in captivity and die in captivity. We cannot abide the systematic repression of our people!” “These people endangered our entire world. We cannot sit by and let them do this again!”)

The problem comes when trying to recapture this glory. You see, to recapture this, you need to have the horde as persecuted underdogs. And the other directions make this impossible. The Monster Horde can be a persecuted underdog, but they're all evil, so it's not like that makes them sympathetic. The War Machine Horde has more room for moral individuals, but is by definition not an underdog. Finally, the Settler Horde just wants to tend to their homeland. It's hard to make them a persecuted party without turning the other side into very obvious villains, which the writers (for very good reasons) weren't willing to do.

And to be fair, the official stance has never been one of the horde being persecuted victims. But it does pop its ugly head on occasion, with some isolated quests and developers. I've already mentioned aggresionitis hominum in my look at the lost isles, but it pops up with other races as well. The idea that the forsaken got their name because they were forsaken by their former comrades is a common one as well, adding a sense of persecution as a central theme, despite that being based on absolutely nothing in canon

4) The Settler Horde (Warcraft III). During Warcraft III, the orcs and trolls traveled west to Kalimdor, finding lands left unclaimed (or at least, left unclaimed by anyone we're supposed to care about). While life still isn't easy, the members of the horde now finally have a place to call their own. The horde is family, and together, they will secure a future.

The main purpose of the Settler Horde is to tame these new lands. From the barren wastes of Durotar, to the grand plains of Mulgore, to the monster-infested jungles of the Echo Isles, to the plagued wastes of Tirisfal to the darkened woods of Quel'thalas. These lands are hostile and deadly, but through the horde's strength, perseverance, strong sense of personal identity and bond with the land, they shall be tamed.

Now, I personally prefer the settler version of the horde, both because I just think it's an awesome concept, and because it's what the series left off on in The Frozen Throne. However, while I would have definitely disliked the series going back to the old rebel or war machine hordes, I could probably get over it, as long as it was well-executed.

Obviously, that's not what happened. Instead, the horde of World of Warcraft tries to be all four hordes at once, and fails utterly because the four are utterly incompatible. “We will tame this land through our connection to the natural world! Now go help the monstrous undead create a horrid plague, while we try to claim a land that's easier to tame!” “The alliance settlers on Kalimdor are threatening our way of life! Quickly, start aiding the alliance settlers on Kalimdor!” “The forsaken have a strong sense of individuality. That is why they all uniformly chose to serve the same person” “We serve the will of the elements. Now go help our newest members: people who enslave the elements.”

And mind you, that was all stuff from before Cataclysm, back when the fact that the developers couldn't agree which direction to take with the horde was still hidden in the background. It's only after we started hearing the developers talk about Garrosh in such conflicted ways that it became apparent that, no, the writers really weren't going anywhere with all the contradictory stuff, like we'd assumed. Say what you want about the horridness of the alliance becoming the Wrynn Empire, but at least we knew what was going on most of the time.

Races, hordes and intersections
I wish I had the time and the patience to go into the sheer amount of contradicting, dropped and minimized story directions for the horde. Once you start paying attention to that sort of stuff you'll quickly become overwhelmed. Remember how much it was set up that the tauren were going to the mentor figures for the horde? Or how important individuality was for the forsaken? Or how the entire blood elf race was traveling to outland? Or how the orcs were switching to a theocratic society? Or how the jungle trolls...

...actually, never mind about the jungle trolls. They never really had anything approaching an actual direction, did they? I guess you could count the whole “casting off eviler traditions” from the RPG and the warcraft encyclopedia, but that was never really treated as an ongoing process.

While we're talking about specific races for a moment, let's address the blood elves, because they're a very good example of multiple styles of horde clashing. The blood elves had a long development process to get them to fit into the horde. What did they become? Fel-crazed, murderous anarchists, who will not only reject, but outright attack any spiritual authority, will corrupt and exploit the land and have three-quarters of their history retconned to make them have always been completely evil of their own volition. Basically, they were turned into perfect members of the war machine horde.

Luckily, before TBC rolled around, someone actually seems to have realized that they didn't get around to turning the rest of the horde into monsters yet, so having this version of the blood elves be tolerated in the horde would make as much sense as having the forsaken be tolerated in the horde. And that would just be silly.

So, the blood elves received a pretty major re-tool before the release of TBC. Pretty much the entire RPG was thrown out the window, with the history from TFT largely restored. Usage of fel magic was seriously wound back, with most of the population not knowing of it and instead relying on mundane sources of arcane magic. And the blood knights got themselves a rather poorly executed redemption story, which was coupled with the entire blood elf race now getting holy energy pumping through their veins.

Which becomes a problem again in Cataclysm, because the blood elves from TBC have absolutely no business staying in Garrosh' horde. Like the orcs and the tauren, the blood elves were set up to be primarily concerned with their own homeland, which they have regained. The scourge's hold on the region has been broken, the mana addiction resolved, the internal politics cooled down and even Zul'aman has been thoroughly weakened. The fact that the blood elves stayed with the horde through WotLK is already questionable enough, but supporting a war whose only purpose is to kill alliance and get the orcs more wood? That makes no sense.

Neither do any of the other internal politics of the horde. It's again because of the different directions thing. The writers want the horde to be several things at once, when those things are obviously incompatible. To make it happen anyway, we need to completely ignore several aspects of the setting. Orcish honor and different tauren tribes? These things cannot be explained in a way that makes sense when you haven't decided on a direction for the horde.

Which is why I was so surprised when they were.

A happy beginning... I hope.
To my utter and eternal amazement, after Cataclysm had driven me away from the franchise, I was pulled back in. I'm not going to act like Mists of Pandaria was a flawless expansion, because it wasn't. But it was the first expansion where it really felt the writing was pulling together to at least make for a cohesive experience. I know some people are going to vehemently disagree with me, but for me, MoP was the first expansion that truly felt like it belonged as a sequel to warcraft II and III. It wasn't an amazing sequel or anything, but it actually managed to tap into what made warcraft warcraft.

And yes, this is also true for the portrayal of the factions. The horde finally settles into a single role, that of the War Machine, though with enough elements of the Settler Horde shining through (and eventually, taking over) that I wouldn't call it derailment. The orcs of Garrosh' horde, no matter what else you may say of them, do have a sense of honor. Nazgrim, who the player hangs out with for most of the expansion, is the most obvious. However, even the obvious villain orcs, like Malkorok and Ishi, are shown to be driven by honor. I don't agree with all aspects of the portrayal of orcs, but it at least felt like these things could be happening in the same, consistent universe as earlier events.

The same goes for the other races of the horde. The tauren actually start acting like their own nation, with its own interests to uphold. Dezco is in Pandaria for his own mission, and Baine is not just going to blindly follow Garrosh. Speaking of Dezco, we finally get some acknowledgment of tribal identities through the dawnchaser tribe and the tribe-specific units seen in the TCG. The trolls, for the first time, get some actual direction for their race, as laid out in 'shadows of the horde', and are also finally allowed to react to Garrosh' actions in a rational way. The goblins finally get a consistent feel for their level of technology, rather than wildly fluctuating between useless and deus ex machina, as it did previously. Blood elves get a good show on the isle of thunder and in the siege of Orgrimmar, finally giving the non-magister parts of their race an opportunity to show their worth.

The alliance doesn't quite get the same degree of improvement the horde did. 5.0 was spent trying once again to turn the alliance into the story of the Wrynn's, to the point where the main reason for the alliance being in Pandaria is getting back Anduin. However, the further the expansion progressed, the more they actually seemed to realize what the alliance is supposed to be. The various nations actually start acting like independent entities, pursuing their own interests with their own forces. Dalaran and Ironforge get stories about their own internal politics, while unnamed night elf nation has its own campaigns on Pandaria and gets some acknowledgment of the internal developments that were skipped over almost entirely in Cataclysm.

When the forces do work together, it's no longer at the cost of their identity either, as you can see in 5.1 and 5.4. The alliance forces are no longer the homogenous masses seen at Wintergarde, Highbank and the SI:7 team. Instead, every nation brings its own specialties to the field, strengthening the whole and looking damn spiffy while they're at it. Unless they're worgen or pandaren.

Regardless, it's a big improvement on both sides of the coin. Warlords of Draenor, at least the parts of it that we've been shown, seems to continue the trend in a big way. You can count me among those that are once again excited about the future of the franchise.

That doesn't mean I'll stop snarking it though. See you all next time.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Galactik Football - part II

And we return to Magical French Space Soccer, also known as Galactik Football. Good news first: the animation of the second half is a tremendous improvement over the first half, the voice actors have improved a lot (now they're just pretty bad instead of terrible), the writing shifts from enjoyably bad to enjoyably okay, the characters are all acting sympathetic, the magical time travelling soccer fairies no longer appear and we've got a soundtrack so epic that the part they sampled from John Williams (the star wars guy) didn't sound out of place. While my enjoyment of the first half of this show was more out of bemusement at how ludicrous it was, the second half is actually genuinely decent.

Yes, I can genuinely enjoy a kids' show that can be accurately described as Magical Space Soccer. Just because I'm a critical reviewer doesn't mean I don't enjoy silly stuff. If I'm being embarrassingly honest, I don't think my taste has actually changed all that much since I was ten years old. Hell, the very reason I started doing these reviews (which are so far outside my normal genre it's not even funny) was because I found an old notebook in which I made notes about the shows I watched (yes, I was one dorky little kid. Another thing that hasn't changed). A lot of what I said in the last review, and a lot of what I'll say in this review, actually comes from that notebook. Always good to have the target audience chime in on the subject, I suppose.

So what does the target audience have to say about this arc? “Only D'Jok matters to the plot. I like him, but the others need to be in the plot too!” While not very eloquently put, the little dumbass makes a good point here. There's two main plots in this arc. The first is how D'Jok gets his ego over-inflated, and has to overcome that, becoming a true star. The second is about Blaylock's plan to plunge the entire galaxy into a new war, with Professor Ninja-Pirate trying to stop him and D'Jok and Sinedd used as pawns. The rest aren't connected to the greater plot at all, do they do have their own stuff going on. Well, except Ahito and Thran. Not that they had all that much going on for them in the first half either. Thran especially. I don't think we ever even saw his parents react to his playing, something we got for all other parents.

Wait, we have two sons? Why didn't anyone tell me!?”
Okay, time for the actual story. While the preliminaries have taken us all over the galaxy, the final arc of the story takes place in genesis stadium. Basically, think the citadel from mass effect: utterly massive multi-racial space station that acts as the political center of the galaxy. While that's certainly not unique to mass effect, one gets the feeling that it was what the background artists were thinking of, because a lot of the background art really reminds me of the mass effect games. Well, the backgrounds and the hard light blue/orange computer screens. And the breath. And the fact that there's a jungle team, an all-female blue-skinned team, a team where the players have metal skin, a team of short green men with an odd number of eyes, a team that plays in full-body suits, a big brutish team and a black-and-white colored team with glowing eyes created by a human villain with odd eyes who uses a hexagon as the logo of his organization. Plus, the fact that the third season will introduce a mass relay network.

Alright, which one of you guys added a 'make entire universe revolve around space soccer' option to the catalyst? Was it you, Frank? Not cool, dude, not cool.”
Before this, the players had never really been treated as celebrities. Their hometown was a small community, the riker and shadows planets weren't exactly welcoming and the pirates had better things to do than get giddy over a third-rate soccer team. However, now they've made it to the final 16 and are on a space station devoted entirely to soccer. To quote Dame Simbai: “If you'd saved the galaxy, you'd be able to walk the streets in more peace than you do here.”

Dammit, I knew I shouldn't have picked the 'space soccer' ending!”
It's especially hard on D'Jok, since he's regarded as the star player. As in real life soccer, it's the guys making the goals that get almost all the credit (only having to share it with the guys who stand in front of the goal, who get a distant second place), so now he's suddenly regarded as a big-time celebrity. And, as you expect, it goes to his head and he becomes a bit of an arrogant douche. The other players are affected as well, which is not helped by how much the odds are in their favor for their first match against the wambas.

In a slight defiance of cliché, it's not just the arrogance that gets to them though. If it had just been that, they'd probably still have had an easy time. No, it's also the pressure. Y'see, Genesis Stadium is really, really big.

Looking at the real life salt lake stadium, and comparing it with this, I'd have to guess that this monstrosity of a stadium fits about a million people. Couple that with the fact that the soccer field floats in mid-air and has a translucent floor, and you've got the ultimate panic attack combination of heights, performing in public and agoraphobia. I'd probably turn into a sobbing wreck the second I stepped on the field.

Because they aren't used to the pressure, the first half is a disaster. Aarch giving a speech helps them through the second half, but with D'Jok still off his game and everyone collapsing from exhaustion, it's tight. They only win through epic Tia ninja manuevre, in which she suddenly drops in from the sky before the keeper can grab the ball, flips over him with the ball between her feet, and kicks it into the goal. Glorious.

But it does kinda remind me of something. Tia was the first person to develop the breath after the metaflux went boom. As such, we've seen her using the flux in every single match in the series. And, quite frankly, she's never improved. For that matter, none of the other kids have become any better after first developing their fluxes either.

Let's share a little secret here. At its heart, galactik football is a shonen series. That's a term used for japanese series aimed at pubescent boys. You've probably seen a few of them as a kid: think Dragon Ball Z, Digimon, Pokemon, Shaman King, B-Daman, Medabots, Yu-Gi-Oh or, if you're a young whippersnapper, Bakugan. The story structure of all these shows is pretty much the same:
-Introduce a weird concept, around which your world revolves.
-No matter how silly, make that concept look awesome.
-If it's not mystical in and of itself, add a mystical element.
-Escalate the concept

It's the escalation step that is so central to its appeal. While the awesome concept is what grabs the attention, the constant additions to the concept keep them hooked. Would any kid have kept watching digimon if they'd stop introducing new evolutions? Maybe a handful, but it sure as hell wouldn't be a franchise that's lasted sixteen years.

And the more I watch Galactik Football, the more it's obvious that the writers just don't get this very basic principle of their genre. The first half of the series was already pretty bad regarding this. There was no build-up and almost never any pay-off to characters first developing the flux, making it feel more like narrative accident rather than the central drive of the show. New tricks were seen occasionally, but were used only once and then forgotten about.

The second half is worse. At least the first half, due to its nature as a first half, had to introduce the concept and slowly build on it. Characters needed to develop the flux at some point, and new teams had to be introduced because there were none before. The second half keeps the characters at exactly the same skill and strength they were at the end of the first half, and introduces only a single new team, which is much weaker than those we saw before. Escalation is the entire point of the damn genre. This is like horror movie writers forgetting to put in scary stuff. I'd say this is the biggest case of a writer missing the point of his genre I've ever seen, but I've seen the other two seasons (where the writers respectively forget the magical part of magical space soccer, and somehow manage to screw up the concept of animation).

While we're not talking about story-relevant anyway, let's quickly get out of the way what the other characters are doing this arc. Micro-Ice has a sub-plot with him falling in love with the hotel manager's daughter, probably because she is the only person in the world with a more annoying voice than him. Because he's awkward around girls, he's getting some coaching by Mei. In return, he helps her stand up to her mother, whose pushing her way too hard with getting advertisement deals. Mei also gets in a relation with D'Jok.

Tia finds Rocket's mother and re-unites the two. Rocket is a bit miffed that he had a mother that he didn't know existed. Apparently, people just abandoned Norata left and right after the great disaster on Akillian, with his wife leaving him and her child to pursue an acting career on Genesis, vowing to return (but never doing so). Norata was just the slightest bit miffed that he had to explain to his son that his own mom just dumped him, so instead, he pretended like she had died. However, by the end of the show, Norata and his wife are back together and Rocket makes up with Tia. You may say that this disproves what I said about him and Aarch. Until you realize that he only gets with Tia because Aarch told him to.

It's actually a shame that the character stuff of the others takes such a backstage, because it's actually surprisingly well-written, especially when compared to the first half. In the first half, only Tia and Thran were really enjoyable as main characters. The others were annoying gits, except Rocket, who was just creepy. In this half though, they all actually feel like a bunch of nice kids, with enjoyable and believable interactions. Writers of forced teen drama, take notes; This is how you make me not want to strangle your characters with a garrote. Well, except for Micro-Ice, but even he's gotten a lot better. It's just that I want to end him before season three.

Now, there's been a lot of stuff I've been skipping over in this review, because this series seriously has way too many characters. One of the most notable of the things I skipped over was Warren and the Lightnings. The lightnings are one of the favorites for the cup this year, and the snow kids have been shown as idolizing them since the first episode. The most idolized of the lightnings is star striker Warren, the greatest star in magical space soccer, who's been mentioned throughout the series as someone the snow kids absolutely love and fear one day having to play against. D'Jok's poster of warren in particular is a common sight throughout the series.

Now, it's finally time to play against the lightnings. With the snow kids already having beaten the shadows, the other favorites, before, this match is regarded by most in-universe as the most important in this cup, 'the finale before the finale'. Unfortunately for the Snow Kids, D'Jok is at the absolute height of ego here, and it's rather apparent that it's going to muck up the match. The Snow Kids are going to need a miracle to pull through this.

Enter Warren. It's never exactly made clear how, but Warren has heard of D'Jok's ego problems and his here to talk to him about it. While D'Jok has always admired Warren, and wanted to be like him, it seems he got a bit of a wrong impression of the guy over the television. Warren is not a glory-hound. He's calm and dignified, not caring for his image, and does what he does out of a genuine love for the sport. We'd actually seen some hints of this in Warren's television appearances, where he seems to care little for the theatrics of the television production, and more for actual genuine analysis.

I actually really like Warren as a character. He's got the dignity and calmness of a seasoned veteran, without letting the perception of him go to his head. While he rarely smiles, he never seems unhappy because of it, and he knows that it's good to poke a bit of fun as yourself from time to time. He even draws a funny little moustache on D'Jok's poster of him, explaining that while he has lost his ego, he kept his pride, and D'Jok should do the same. Despite being an opponent, Warren loves the sport and wants to be able to play on equal terms, so he has come to D'Jok to prevent him from making the same mistakes Warren did when he was D'jock's age.

It's a very rare event in the series that a soccer match is just a match, both teams playing equally. Usually, there's some personality problem or missing person holding back the snow kids, or the opponents are playing nastily or stuff like that. That's not the case here though, with two teams that genuinely respect each other playing at full capabilities. I think the only time that happened before was in the second match against the pirates, which was skipped over for all but the last few minutes. Likewise, this match will not be focused upon by the story, though at least more of it gets shown (which is good, because it's pretty awesome).

Instead, we're focusing on professor Ninja-Pirate and his motley crew of terrorists. Remember back in the first half that Clamp was kidnapped and replaced with a double? Ninja-Pirate is now breaking into the headquarters of Blaylock, using the match as a distraction to get the original Clamp back. Like in real life, important sport matches take priority over everything with most men, meaning a lot of the guards are actually watching the match rather than doing their job.

While the pirates manage to get out Clamp, the match is almost over, and it turns out that they need to go back to get Clamp an antidote. Luckily for Clamp, the Snow Kids have been using a defensive strategy, and both teams have been unable to score, meaning they get some extra time with penalty shoots (for those not acquainted with soccer, that means that players from both teams take turns taking shots at the opponents goal from a set distance, with none but the keeper in the way. The person with the most points at the end of this wins). For some odd reason, no one but Warren uses the flux during the penalties. Despite that, he misses, meaning the snow kids won the match. There's a really nice scene between D'Jok and Warren after the match, cap-stoning the former's character growth and the latter's cool old guy status.

This is also the point where the pirates storyline and the snow kids storyline start running together. All of the Snow Kids are known to have been born shortly after the disaster that drove Akillian into an ice age. As a resulted, they have all been infected with the metaflux, which caused that disaster. The Breath never actually came back. Instead, the Snow Kids have all been tapping into the metaflux. However, the metaflux is actually very, very unhealthy for humans, and their health has been degrading ever since they started using it. To save their lives, real Clamp is going to have to extract the metaflux from them. However, that means they lose their magical soccer powers.

Of course, this entire explanation does raise two questions. First; if the characters were using the metaflux rather than the breath all along, how come the flux society was able to detect their usage of the flux back in the first few episodes? The metaflux is undetectable, which is what set the entire plot of the series in motion. Second; What about Tia? She's been using the flux years upon years longer than the other kids, who are starting to develop serious health problems after only a few weeks. How come she isn't long-dead?

Also, now that you know that a portion of the children on your home planet are infected with a deadly chemical, are you going to warn...

They chose not to play soccer, therefore their lives are forfeit!”
Of course.

Because this series is slightly saner than most other examples of its genre, the characters actually all uniformly choose their lives are more important than the magical space soccer, so they get the metaflux extracted. Naturally, this results in their next match being hilariously one-sided, with the techno-droids, technoid's team, absolutely rolling over them. The lack of the flux is actually really well-handled, with the players instinctively trying to use the stuff they usually do with the flux, but utterly failing at it. It's surprisingly satisfying to see our heroes ground into the dirt by soulless machinery.

Of course, because of the kind of show this is, this only lasts until half-time, with all the snow-kids discovering the flux during the second half. Even as a kid, that struck me as ridiculously convenient. Both me and young me would have preferred if the powers had been recovered over time. Half the team is largely irrelevant anyway, so you could do the rest of the kids developing the breath over the course of training after this match, just to have it feel slightly less forced.

Since the players got their asses kicked during the first half, that means a counter ass-kicking of even greater proportions is necessary in the second half to get the snow kids back in the lead again. By the end of the match, you start to wonder how these mechanical buffoons made it to the semi-finals to begin with. Though, given what the next seasons show us, the reason is probably that there is only four non-incompetent teams (shadows, rikers, lightnings, snow kids) in this entire league, and the techno-droids didn't have to play any of them.

Now, the series starts grinding its final gears. Blaylock knows that D'Jok is Ninja-Pirate's son and uses that to his advantage, first threatening D'Jok to capture Ninja-Pirate, and then threatening Ninja-Pirate to get D'Jok to do what he wants. Specifically, he wants D'Jok to try and get his team to lose in the cup finales. Why does the arch-villain care for the outcome of a silly soccer tournament? Well, that has to do with Sinedd.

Remember how I mentioned all the way in the beginning that flux used to be wielded as a weapon? Well, that era of intergalactic warfare was actually quite recent. It's never exactly dated down, but it likely only ended somewhere between 25 and 29 years ago, within Sinedd's lifetime. His parents were among the untold billions of victims. Sinedd may play the game now, but he is all too aware that the existence of flux still poses a danger. Blaylock has approached Sinedd, claiming that a new war was brewing beneath the surface of galactic politics. And Sinedd is the only one who can stop it, but only if his team wins the galactik football cup.

The galactik football cup is not just some measly trophy you put in a closet. It's a large, technological miracle, designed to absorb a bit of flux from a member of the winning team, and travel across the stars, shining the flux of the winning team across a multitude of planets. Blaylock has designed a small device which would push the cup into overdrive, absorbing every single drop of flux present in Genesis Stadium. Since space soccer is so popular, nearly every single flux user in the galaxy would be present in the stadium for the finale, thus losing his powers and making a new war impossible.

Of course, Sinedd doesn't have the entire picture. Using samples the fake Clamp took from the Snowkids, Blaylock has created a new stable metaflux, allowing him to create new flux users as he pleases. When Sinedd depowers all the natural flux users, Blaylock's artificial flux users would be completely unopposed.

When this plan was revealed, it really took me by surprise. This really is a great plan, which works perfectly in the rules of the setting. Having the flux wars taking place relatively recently was a very good idea, since it gives a bit of a sense of darkness to the setting, and it makes you re-evaluate a lot of things from earlier in the series. Was the pollution of the riker and shadows planets the result of damage sustained during the wars? When Warren said he didn't want D'Jok to make the same mistakes he did in his youth, was it mistakes he made during the war, rather than during his soccer career? Is Aarch obsessing over soccer a way of dealing with the war, seeing the sport as the alternative to the wars that must have lasted most of his life? It's all certainly possible, though we never really do get a good idea of what happened in the war.

Sinedd has gotten a lot more rounded as a character in the final leg of the series, giving him motivation, tragedy and even a bit of a sense of honor. Sure, he's still a jerkass that will use dirty tricks, but he's doing it to prove he is the best. Back on Akillian, D'Jok was the one player that was better than Sinedd. Sinedd can't really let that stand. However, he knows that D'Jok is being blackmailed into playing poorly in the finale, and after that, neither of them will have flux anymore. He won't ever be able to prove to D'Jok that he is the better player in an actual match. So, instead, Sinedd challenges D'Jok to a one on one duel in Genesis Stadium, which takes place in the episode appropriately titled 'the duel'.

Now, I have mentioned before that the animation on this show is pretty damn low-budget. The 2d animation used outside matches looks at least ten years out of date, and the 3d animation is just as bad, though the editing and cinematography do a really nice job of hiding that. 'The Duel' is different though. For starters, every single other match consists of recycled animations for like, 90% of screentime. The Duel? Tons of new animation. For once, having characters improve on their usage of the flux isn't limited by needing to recycle animations. Despite the duel only lasting a few minutes of screentime, D'Jok displays countless new tricks. The music can't have been cheap either, with a full orchestral score that is in-sync with the animation, and includes a sample of John Williams' 'duel of the fates' and another sample I recognize, but can't place exactly. The entire duel sequence is such a massive, massive shift in production values that the most likely explanation is that someone made a typo on the budget.

That, or the writers cared more about D'Jok than any other aspect of the story, but that'd just be ridiculous, right? Okay, no, that is actually the likely explanation. While I really like this episode a lot, I do feel like making it might have been a mistake in the long run. Particularly, splurging their low animation budget on tricks for D'jock. Had they instead spread it around a little bit, they could have given each of the snow kids a new trick with the flux in the second half of the series, giving an actual sense of growth to the characters.

The duel is very, very close. Sinedd takes the lead initially, mostly because D'Jok really isn't into this. He only came to try and get information on the capture of his father out of Sinedd. It's only when Sinedd's arrogance starts pushing on his nerves that D'Jok gives it his all. Actually, technically, he gives it more than his all, since he's doing things that seem to be impossible. Most notably, he's using the flux to fly. Normally, the breath only enhances your jumps to awesome degrees, but that's very clearly not the case here, as D'jok hangs in mid-air before swooping upwards again.

Sadly, the duel is cut short pretty early into the match, as Sinedd becomes overwhelmed by the smog addiction, like what happened with Aarch back in the day. Sinedd seems to be handling it slightly better than Aarch did, but it still looks to be pretty damn painful. Ouch. You got my sympathies, sympathetic-villain-man.

With the duel over, the time for the final match approaches. Like with the lightnings match, there are two plots going on simultaneously. The first, obviously, is the finale itself. The second is the quest to rescue professor ninja-pirate. Maia, D'Jok's space gipsy hippie adoptive mother now knows that ninja-pirate is D'Jok's father and has a vision of where he is being held; in a slowly shrinking bubble inside the giant water tanks of Genesis Stadium. While D'jok doesn't want Maia to tell anyone about this, fearing it may endanger his father's life, Maia apparently doesn't give a damn about that, and tells Clamp, who in turn tells Aarch and the Pirates.

What a coincidence! I went for the plan that might result in my adoptive son's biological father being killed, meaning I will not have any competition as a parental figure.”
Another part of the series that I haven't really touched on is that Blaylock is also betraying his superiors at technoid. Duke Maddox, the supreme boss of the organization, does actually favor soccer over war. His funding of the metaflux research was actually meant simply to give his soccer robots a bit of a sorely-needed edge. Dame Simbai has managed to negotiate an alliance with him, meaning that The Pirates and Technoid are now teaming up to save Ninja-Pirate and defeat Blaylock.

While the idea of a joint robot/terrorist army may sound quite awesome, the problem is that the series is animated on a budget of three cents and a shoe-string. And most of that went into making the 3d action scenes. As a result, the 2d animation is extremely low-grade, and any 'action' scene becomes pretty damn dull. Not that the animation is the only problem in that regard. The directing for the action is pretty damn bad as well, sucking out any tension. Also, for some reason, Maddox is only bringing two robots. Probably because the budget couldn't support any more moving people on-screen, but it's still very silly. Even more because they actually complain they lack the man-power to search all the reservoirs.

The soccer action is a lot better, though, for the finale, it's still a bit underwhelming. Guys, we've seen this match. In fact, we've seen it twice. There has been no indication that either the Snow Kids or the Shadows have improved in any way since they last played. As a result, this entire thing is just a rehash.

By the time of the second half, Aarch has had a talk with D'jok, and knows about the entire ordeal. He still wants D'jok to play to win (because Aarch is a goddamn maniac), but he knows he can't really force D'jok, instead having the rest of the team play without him. Like when they lacked Micro-Ice, it's going surprisingly well, and had the Shadows not made a goal before this strategy was adopted, the match would have become a draw. However, in the last few minutes in the second half, one of the Shadows does a slide-kick against Rocket, giving the Snow Kids a free kick.

Hey, remember what happened last time Akillian got a free kick against the Shadows in an important match? That's right; the apocalypse. Every Akillian in the audience is now having traumatic flashbacks. Not helping is the fact that the announcer is using the exact same lines that the announcer used during the free kick in that match. You might argue dramatic irony, until you remember that the announcer is actually from Akillian, and is thus deliberately trolling her people. Not that the Snow Kids, who are apparently deliberately copying the movements of their predecessors, are any better. Hell, apparently the station itself and the laws of physics are in on the joke, as it suddenly begins snowing, with the field freezing.

Now, the explanation for this? During the fire-fight between the two technoid robots and the four Blaylock robots, one of the water reservoirs was hit, with the station dumping all the water outside. On contact with space, the water freezes, becoming an expanding block of ice that begins covering more and more of genesis stadium. Now, two obvious comments. First, physics says this shouldn't be happening. Water exposed to space boils first due to the lack of pressure. It's only when the water is all turned into a gaseous state that it freezes (or, technically, desubliminates, which is like freezing, but with gasses), meaning you get an expanding cloud of tiny ice particles. Large amounts of water simply don't freeze all that fast in outer space, due to space having a very, very, very, extremely, ridiculously, hilariously, very low particle density.

But that's weird obscure stellar physics only a complete geek would know. Young me didn't know that, but he did bring up something else: If the ice is on the outside of the station, why is it snowing inside? As a general rule, space ships tend to be built to not suck in things from the outside, since, y'know, there are no things outside to be sucked in (and the few things there are, you really don't want to).

The weirdest thing is that this entire sequence doesn't even affect anything. The only thing the freezing does is break communications between the coaches and the field, meaning Rocket can't hear Aarch tell him to not let D'jok take the shot.

Rocket! You must take this shot! You must eliminate what is holding your fellow player back! You must purge him of all connections outside soccer. I order you, KILL HIS FATHER!”
However, it seems like Aarch's beliefs have rubbed off on his players, as D'jok makes the goal anyway. Luckily for Pirate-Ninja, he has already been saved by his compatriots. I can only imagine the awkward conversation that's gonna follow when he heard that his son was willing to have him killed for the sake of a soccer match though.

With the score tied by the end of the second half, it means it's time for the golden goal rule to go in effect. Because having the finale be determined by penalty shots would be really anti-climactic, the teams will instead play normally until a single goal is made, which will determine the winner. Sounds like it could be really tense, right?

Well, no. Instead, this is the most hilariously one-sided match seen in the entire series. It's like the shadows players aren't even on the field. The only reason this match lasts more than a few seconds is that the laws of probability apparently thought physics had a good idea with its trolling and started to get in on the fun. Every single member of the snow kids gets to make a shot at the goal, and somehow almost all of them hit the goalframe. Even Ahito gets in on it, leaving his goal far behind as he jumps across the field. This would be the act of an insane madman in any other scenario, but, like I said, it's like the Shadows aren't even there.

Though I'll admit, that looks like it's really fun.
The only ones who don't hit the frame on their shot are Tia and Mei, who hit the keeper instead. Remember how I said the concept of the series doesn't really work because the characters don't develop their powers? Well, they actually pull out a few new tricks in these last few minutes. So, they do develop their powers, but only when it's not necessary.

However, Mei is a clever girl, for she has realized it's impossible to make the shot without hitting either the keeper or the goalpost. Weighing her options, she aims for the keeper, shooting so ridiculously hard that the keeper is forced back into the goal along with the ball. Victory!

The remaining plots quickly get resolved. Pirate-Ninja and Blaylock, who is trying to escape with the metaflux, fight in a high place. To the shock of everyone who has never seen a high-altitude fight in fiction, Blaylock is thrown off the edge, plummeting to his doom (only to reveal he survived in the stinger). Blaylock's second hand man talks down Sinedd before he can try to make a run for the cup and attach the device anyway, in return getting himself a reduced sentence. Happy endings for everyone!

Conclusions and afterthoughts
As a show about soccer that involves both magic and aliens, there is no way this show would have failed to find an audience, at least among European kids. Success of this show is more indicative of it finding an appealing, mostly unspoiled niche, not of actual quality. This doesn't have to mean the show had to be bad of course. Even if you're the first wide-spread entry in your niche, you can put thought and deliberation into it. This show... I'll be fair and say it tried before I say it failed. Let's pull out a few good points.

First, the universe seen here is actually quite vibrant. Members of a single alien race are not simply cookie-cutter copies of one another, but are a very varied bunch. They actually put a surprising amount of work into making sure the races have a wide variety of body-types and aren't stuck in a single personality. Compared to its peers, even the ones I really like, the variety and vibrancy in the setting make it feel much more natural.

And yeah, I used the word natural to describe a story that revolves entirely around magical space soccer. Again, compare this to the shonen shows this is trying to emulate. In shows like Beyblade, B-daman, Yu-gi-oh! or Medabots, the entire world in which the setting of the show takes place revolves around the show's game. In Digimon and Dragon Ball Z, there is some acknowledgment of an outside world that doesn't give a damn about the central concept of the show, but we never really get to see it unless it's being blow up. Galactik Football, at the very least, acknowledges that space soccer is just a game. Even among the important characters, there's plenty who don't really care all that much about the sport. I've poked fun at Aarch's over-obsession, but his over-obsession really wouldn't be anything out of the ordinary in any of these other shows. There's no ancient legends about magical space soccer, there's no universal power behind magical space soccer, there's no fundamental good and evil involved in magical space soccer. It's just a game and it's mostly treated as such.

This naturalness also applies to the characters. Despite them actually being professional space soccer players, they have lives outside of that. Not everything they do and want is related to space soccer. Even Rocket and D'jock, who are easily the most soccer-obsessed people on the team, are relatively mild if you compare them to the protagonists from other franchises. It's especially notable when you look at the villainous plan. Blaylock is only a very casual fan of space soccer, and it had absolutely nothing to do with his villainous plan unless it was absolutely necessary. He wasn't going to inject the metaflux into himself so he could play in the soccer finale. He's leaving that to someone who actually plays soccer for a living, and is instead sticking to what he knows.

Also helping the setting is that it has well-established locations. Especially in the first half, there's a lot of good establishing shots that show us cool locations throughout the galaxy. The home village of the Snowkids on Akillian is actually built on a massive snowy slope that has built up against the ruins of two massive ruined skyscrapers. The home planet of the wambas is a cool tree-planet (as in, a planet that's literally a giant tree) with the various branches of that tree forming vast jungles. The home planet of the shadows is actually a beautiful, inhospitable asteroid belt with massive crystals everywhere. The pirates' base is also in an asteroid belt, but much differently, with the pirates having large hidden bases within the various asteroids which are built so they can quickly be evacuated. I'd honestly love it if we ever got a galactik football game that just left out the soccer and let us explore these various worlds. An RPG set during the flux wars, maybe?

And with that, I'm switching to the failure part. You see, while I do actually genuinely like the setting, probably a lot more than the in-show presentation warrants, that's all background stuff. It's only by the end of the series that there is a little integration of story and backstory with Sinedd's connection to the flux wars. Beyond that, the vast majority of the screentime is devoted to either the snowkids, with either teen drama or soccer taking the focus, the pirates, whose entire plot revolves around a conflict that never quite gets explained to us, and, oddly enough, the parents of the snowkids, who get a surprising amount of screentime.

Which brings us to another thing; Holy hells, is this series bloated beyond hell. Having a series focus on no less than seven characters is already a bit of a stretch, but it can still be done well. I remind myself of the original Digimon series, which also started with seven main characters, and, even as I take another look now that I'm older, managed to handle them quite well. However, I'm not quite sure you can really call the seven snow-kids the main characters. With the exception of D'jock and Rocket, the snow-kids all have less impact on the plot, even on an episode-by-episode basis, than Aarch, Clamp, Norata or Ninja-Pirate. Hell, they have less impact than many of the minor characters.

And there's a lot, and I do mean a lot of these minor characters. It gets to the point where the minor characters form small cliques of their own. You've got Sonny Blackbones' clique, with his three assistants Corso, Benett and Artie. You've got the flux society clique, with Dame Simbai, Brim Simbra and Brim Balarius. You've got the 'hanging out in a bar, watching soccer on tv' clique, which consists of Micro-Ice's mom (whom the wiki informs me is named Mana-Ice, but I'm pretty sure the wiki is inaccurate as hell), Ahito and Thran's parents, Maia, the crime-lord from the first episode and his two henchmen. You've got the newscaster clique, consisting of Callie Mystic and Barry Land. Any and all of these cliques can and do get appearances in any given episode. There's the coach clique, which in addition to Aarch, has Artegor and Adium. Now, there is nothing wrong with any of these guys in a vacuum, except maybe the crime-lord. It's just that there are so goddamn many of them, and they pop up all throughout the entire series and, with the exception of Sonny's group, end up having no relevance to the actual stories. Guys, we're here for the magical space soccer and to see Professor Pirate-Ninja playing James Bond. Try to actually focus on that.

And then there is the matter of animation and voice acting. I'll admit it's a bit shallow on my part, but these do affect my opinion of the writing to a large degree. However, with Galactik Football, the quality of the animation didn't affect my opinion as much as I expected it to. In the 2d stuff, the animation is dreadful, sure, but the good art-work on the backgrounds and interesting character designs make it at least tolerable to sit through. It's only in scenes that are supposed to be all about action that the animation really becomes deficient to the story.

The 3d animation ends up actually being surprisingly good. Don't get me wrong, on a technical level, it is pretty damn bad. But that's why we don't equate technical level with actual level. The cinematography on the 3d scenes is brilliant, among the best I have ever seen. No, really. Through the usage of unconventional angles, montages and good integration of the music, it manages to turn sub-par animation about a silly game in something that's actually really tense most of the time. One really clever touch in the series is that the opponents very rarely talk. They are not to be seen as just an enemy team of sports-players. They are to be seen as ominous and powerful, monsters rather than equals. When they do produce sounds, it sounds wrong and out of place. The red tigers have these weird, almost psychedelic sound effects. The rikers have maniacal mechanical laughter coming from thin air. The cyclops (a team I didn't mention before because the snow kids didn't play against them) produce animal-like guttural sounds. The shadows have dark bestial roars. And the technoid robots don't say anything at all. Only the wambas, the pirates, the lightnings and Sinedd get the humanization that speech brings with it.

Though, in the case of Sinedd, I'm not sure that was a good thing. Seriously, what were they thinking with the voice? What were they thinking with any of the voices? Of all the major and minor characters in the series, only Tia and Benett have acceptable voice acting. Why only them? Because they're the only ones who speak in their own, natural accents. Their voice actors are british, and their characters thus speak with a british accent. All other voice actors are irish, and yet none of their characters have an irish accent. It's especially hilarious with Artie, whose voice actor tries so, so hard at a brooklyn accent. It's adorable. Despite my loathing of Micro-Ice's voice, I'd actually argue that Sinedd's is the most problematic though. Making him sound like a squirrel entering puberty was not the best choice for a villain, especially if he's supposed to be older than the main characters.

Actually, that reminds me of something that moves us into the 'complaining about specific plot points' territory. Specifically, I think it might have been a better idea to turn Sinedd into two characters. The Sinedd that joined the snow kids was a teenage bully, whose playing skills were honestly not that impressive. The idea that the Shadows, the favorites for the cup with a full team already at their disposal, took on a second-rate nobody who hadn't even played a full match is silly. The idea that they made that second-rate nobody, who had never even scored a single goal in a formal game, their star striker even more so. Hell, it doesn't work just because of age. The sinedd we see on Akillian seems to still be a teenager. Indeed, the reason they're called the snowkids is that they're kids from a snowy planet. That means Sinedd is seventeen at most. However, his parents died during the flux wars. Galactik Football only started after the flux wars, the cup is held once every four years, and there were at least two cups before the disaster on Akillian sixteen years ago. That means that Sinedd is at least twenty-four years old. These timelines are not compatible.

Though it's not like he's the only one with problems in his storyline. Tia, Micro-Ice, Thran and Ahito all felt like the series could have seriously benefited from their stories getting an extension. Tia is the obvious first one, and I mentioned the disappointment that was her story in my review. Thran was established early on as being close friends with Clamp, even working on some of the technology he created. It would have been good to see him have more of a connection with the plot of the replaced Clamp. Micro-Ice has this big connection to the pirates as well, so it would be nice to see that developed a bit more, maybe have him actually take a bigger role in their story. And Ahito? Well, I'll be frank, it would be nice to see him actually have a story. Semi-sleeping goalie may be awesome, but he doesn't exactly have a lot to do.

So, final thoughts on the story. I certainly like the idea behind it, and it had a lot of potential. However, the series never really managed to have an overall arc. The flux development gets too little focus for it to be about that. The pirates story only gets occasional focus until the last three matches, so it's not about that. The character arcs are all too short and relatively disconnected for it to be about that. In the end, the series pretty much ended up just being a vehicle for cool-looking space soccer matches. There is nothing wrong with that, but the show definitely could have been more. Still, it's my favourite ending to mass effect.

Next season: How the hell do these writers miss the point of their franchise?