In my last review, I criticised Baka and Test for not being ambitious enough. In contrast, Broken Blade seems to have almost the opposite problem – it’s stuffed to overflowing with ideas, all interesting, some of which are executed on excellently and others of which falter along the way. Yet the richness and diversity of the themes which permeate the show, along with some really great action, make it a highly entertaining watch.
Before we get to the heart of the review, it’s worth clarifying exactly what Broken Blade is. What we’ve got here, in a format increasingly uncommon in the modern day, is a six episode Original Video Animation, or OVA. Each episode clocks in at around 50 minutes, longer than any TV episode but still shorter than a full length movie. In these 5 hours we’re introduced to the world of Krisna, a world where people are empowered to control and manipulate quartz, in a limited form of what they call ‘magic’. Quartz control is vital to every aspect of a society where things like the internal combustion engine seem not to exist, with magic powering everything from daily runabouts to the massive combat robots known as ‘Golems’ that serve as this world’s primary military force.
Into this intriguing mythology Broken Blade throws a grim war story, with the neighbouring highly militarised country of Athens launching an invasion of Krisna on a jumped up pretext, with their real intention being to plunder it’s rich quartz reserves. It’s into this maelstrom that our main character, Rygart Arrow, is introduced. Rygart, as is common for mecha show protagonists, is a unique person, but in a satisfying spin on the formula, it’s for something he can’t do. Rygart is what is known as an ‘un-sorcerer’ – a one in a million person born without the ability to use magic. As a result, he’s been treated as a second class citizen for much of his life, and ekes out a living on a farm with his similarly afflicted younger brother. Destiny calls however, when his old schoolfriends Hodr and Sigyn, who are now the King and Queen of Krisna, recruit him to them to help investigate a mysterious, non-quartz based Golem. However, unbeknownst to Rygart their mutual old friend Zess is heading up the Athenian invasion…
As you can tell, Broken Blade immediately throws you in at the deep end, with a complex, multilayered plot about war and soldiers, nationalism, love and the morality of killing. It’s perhaps a little surprising then that the story takes a while to get going, with the first two episodes slow paced, and a little difficult to get into. There’s a decent blend of light action, some character moments and a bit of political hand wringing, but genuine standouts seem thin on the ground. Rygart as a character is a little flat – he’s pretty much your classic reluctant hero who gradually comes around, and Hodr is painted as a decent man who cares about his people, but there’s precious little else to define him. The one plot point that’s seeded that does work well is the clear mutual attraction between Rygart and Sigyn, along with the increasing hints that her marriage to Hodr is a loveless one for them both. It adds a nice degree of depth and a mature friction between the power trio.
The plot picks up speed from episode 3 onwards however and from then on it’s compelling drama as the stakes become higher and some entertaining new arrivals pop in, most notably the smoothly psychopathic Girghe and the polite yet barbarous Athenian General Borcuse, who acts as the big bad for the final half of the series. It’s clear however that the show suffers a little from its compacted runtime – some subplots are resolved surprisingly quickly, while others (such as Sigyn’s attempt to befriend young captive Cleo, whose defining characteristic seems to be her breasts) never really get off the ground and seem to be filler more than anything else. Lack of resolution is also something of an issue. Zess disappears about halfway through the show, removing one of the more intriguing villains, and pops up again in a brief cameo at the end that seems to be an obvious sequel hook. Indeed, while there’s a definite ending, a multitude of plot points are left hanging (unsurprising given the source manga is still ongoing) and as a result it can feel a little anticlimactic.
Things that definitely aren’t anticlimactic are the art and animation, which are excellent throughout. Character design is solid but perhaps the weakest point, with Rygart in particular being a touch on the generic side, though all of the cast benefit from skilled facial and body animation. The art design is nothing short of fantastic, and displays an impressive level of detail in all regards. With most of the series taking place in a deserted wasteland, boredom might be expected but some inspired landscape design reminiscent of Monument Valley means that the battlegrounds remain both distinctive and realistic. Mech design meanwhile is top-notch, with the robots being sharply drawn, distinctively designed and easy to distinguish from each other. Battle scenes in the initial couple of episodes are well choreographed but can feel a little limited by static animation, but as the show goes on (and presumably more budget was allocated) the fights become nothing short of epic, whirling frenzies of motion and violence. Battle damage is another high point, with the mechs looking convincingly battered and beaten up, while the shattering quartz all over the place adds a very stylish and distinct visual element.
The soundtrack is a bombastic affair, well suited to the action taking place on-screen and with a fondness for epic choral vocal arrangements, particularly in the gorgeous opening theme ‘Fate’ by Kokia. Dub wise we have the option of original Japanese or Sentai Filmworks’ English track, which is competent but largely uninspiring. I was not a fan of a Greg Ayres’ peppy rendition of Rygart, which sounds like it belongs in a sassy super robot show rather than a serious drama such as this. Extras are limited to a (nevertheless appreciated) clean opener, but MVM’s transfer is sharp and clean and I’m delighted to see a blu-ray option available, which really should benefit the superior artistry on show.
Overall, Broken Blade is an excellent release, telling an interesting, mature story of war and loyalty and supplementing it with some fantastic and brutal robot battling action. It isn’t perfect – there are lapses in the quality of the writing, and some slow moments which don’t help the overall composition of the series, particularly near the beginning – but it’s a fine, ambitious piece of work which should be commended for looking amazing and having brains and guts to back that beauty up.