Saturday, August 31, 2019

Spectral Force Chronicle Divergence: Farewell, and Thanks for All the Hiyoko Bugs

From 1998 to 2005, video game company Idea Factory tried its hand at being a true multimedia company by releasing a baker's dozen of anime to help advertise its video game releases, most of which were literally nothing more than promotional OVAs that didn't tell a full story, of any sort... And nearly all of them aren't what anyone would exactly call "good". Back in 2013, I wrote reviews for six of the thirteen produced anime, followed by another five reviews across both 2017 & 2018. Among those, I've seen the ill-advised freshman effort of Spectral Force, the "much-too-soon" attempt at making a full-CG TV series with Run=Dim, the animated horrors of Gakuen Toshi Vara Noir (which in Japan is considered part of the "Yashigani Trilogy", alongside Lost Universe & Gundress), the apparent "worst of all time" in Mars of Destruction (spoiler: it's terrible, but not really "the worst"), and the lazy & seeming despondent final release of Rebirth Moon Divergence; throughout all this, Idea Factory truly showcased that it was "The Ed Wood of Anime". At the same time, though, not all of it was downright terrible, as there was the rather enjoyable introductory story of Generation of Chaos III & the legitimately good (if still beholden to the studio's quirks) & self-contained Kingdom of Chaos - Born to Kill. With only two more Idea Factory anime left to cover, on which side of the spectrum shall this next one fall?

Idea Factory was founded in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo back on October 26, 1994 (Happy Early 25th Anniversary, Idea Factory!) by Shingo Kuwana (a former Data East planner & designer for the Joe & Mac series' SNES entries) & Yoshiteru Sato (not an ex-Data East employee). Over the course of the next decade, the studio would find itself a bit of a niche with the IF Neverland franchise, which produced a wide variety of games (mostly RPGs, of some sort) that all took place in a shared timeline within the fantasy world of Neverland. While 1996's Spectral Tower is technically the first entry, it was 1997's Spectral Force, a spiritual successor to Sega Saturn cult-classic Dragon Force (& developed by a lot of the same staff), that truly marked the start of the first major storyline in the franchise, the First Neverland War. So, to celebrate the studio's 10th Anniversary, Idea Factory decided to return to that original story & show it in a new way. The end result was early 2005's Spectral Force Chronicle for the PlayStation 2, which acted as a "digest" retelling of the plot of Spectral Force 12, & Lovely Wickedness, but rather than the war simulator that the series was known for, it was instead a strategy/tactical RPG, similar to that of Tactics Ogre, Front Mission, or Super Robot Wars. It was also the only game from Idea Factory's partnership with Taiwanese studio XPEC Entertainment that did not see international release of some sort, with the others being 2003's Black Stone: Magic & Steel for the Xbox (Idea Factory's first international release; known as Ex-Chaser in Japan), 2004's Bakuen Kakusei: Neverland Senki Zero for the PS2 (released abroad only in Europe as Realm of the Dead), & 2006's Spectral Force 3: Innocent Rage for the Xbox 360 (which used the same engine as SF Chronicle).

To go with this 10th Anniversary strategy RPG, Idea Factory also produced an OVA that came out two months after the game, titled Spectral Force Chronicle Divergence, featuring animation by Wao World!, the same studio that produced the anime cutscenes used in the game. Unfortunately, the last "Divergence" OVA I covered, the one that went with fellow strategy RPG Rebirth Moon, was literally just the various cutscenes from the game, with nothing more than a static image & narration to link each one in chronological order. Is that simply the modus operandi of the short-lived "Divergence" OVAs? And if so, does this first one at least make more sense than the broken mess that was the final Idea Factory anime?

Magic Era 996. For nearly 1,000 years, Demon Lord Janus has ruled over the main continent of the fantastical world called Neverland, but a small trio of brave humans led by the young Chiffon manage to deliver a fatal blow to Janus one night using the Tenmaken, a sword capable of killing the gods themselves. Janus' youngest daughter, Hiro, sees this happen, and promises to lead the kingdom her father left behind. The death of Janus, however, marks the start of the Neverland War, as every country on the giant continent now wants to rule. Ladui from Epsilonia, one of the "Five Heroes", gets Chiffon on his side. Janus' disowned demon son Jadou summons a teenage girl from another world called "Earth", who becomes known as the magic user Little Snow & becomes the new ruler of Runeige. Meanwhile, Byard, the King of Vampires, leaves Hiro's side, leaving the young inheritor of Janus' will to find a way to fight with so little. Eventually, she finds aid in the island country of Muromachi, especially from a young warrior named Simba, who helps Hiro & her friends when Mugen, God of the Underworld, comes to Neverland, wanting to claim the continent as his own.

To get the major question out of the way, Spectral Force Chronicle Divergence is 100% just like Rebirth Moon Divergence in terms of the basic concept, so this is literally nothing more than a collection of every anime cutscene from the Spectral Force Chronicle video game, with a bit of text in front of an image of the main Neverland continent acting as a basic connective tissue between each. So, yes, the whole "Divergence" title is literally nothing more than marketing speak, and it looks like Matt Greenfield accidentally got it right when he thought that the Spectral Force OVA that ADV Films released back in 2003 was just a bunch of cutscenes spliced together... He just was wrong about which OVA called "Spectral Force" really did that. As I said in the Rebirth Moon review, as much fun as it can be to poke fun at how inept Idea Factory was at actually producing anime, often reaching Ed Wood-levels of incompetence, it is sad to see that, right when the company started hiring an actual animation studio to handle the animation itself, it pretty much just took the laziest route & simply compiled video game cutscenes into a faux-OVA that could be pressed onto a DVD, and that this is how Idea Factory ended its endeavor into anime.

That being said, I am happy to say that this first "Divergence" OVA actually works out well as a way to get a basic understanding of what happens in the plot of Spectral Force Chronicle; it's by no means a replacement for playing the game itself, but it works, if just barely. One thing working in this OVA's favor is the inclusion of Simba as a narrator, who helps explain what exactly is going on in certain scenes & explains the relevance of moments in others; this narration seems to also be in the PS2 game, but it winds up helping in this case, as well. Still, what makes this collection of cutscenes actually work, somewhat, as an OVA is that the cutscenes here both are generally long enough to properly tell the parts of the plot that they focus on, and most major characters are usually given some sort of establishment to make their moments stand out. Sure, some characters aren't given much, like Chiffon, Ladui, Simba's confidant Solty, or Hiro's bodyguard Sato, but the major players are actually given things to chew on; Solty, in particular, is indicated to possibly be a traitor to Simba in a short bit, but is never followed up on. Jadou's backstory, where he was raised with nothing but love from his mother & only became a killer due to humans treating him like a monster, is explained here, while Little Snow is properly established as a Japanese girl who was transported to Neverland, isekai-style, only to wind up accepting Neverland as her new home, and comes to love Jadou, even being willing to die alongside him, so that neither will be left alone in the afterlife. Yes, the IF Neverland franchise essentially went against what is now a standard isekai format by having the person who got teleported to a fantasy world fall in love with someone who's essentially a villain, only that this was first done in the late 90s, roughly two decades before isekai became popular.

Moving on, Hiro is, of course, the main focus here, and you do get the general idea behind her overall plot arc. She starts off hating humanity because of Chiffon killing her father & bringing about the war, but her own bodyguards/friends are humans (though Sato is instantly shown as being completely dedicated to Hiro's cause). Then she winds up finding out about her brother Jadou & having to face him in mortal combat on the field of battle (the OVA even shows a "what if" scenario, where Hiro spares Jadou). Finally, when things seem to be at their worst she has to find solace & friendship in the people of Muromachi, showing that some of humanity can be trusted, and that maybe it truly is their time to rule on their own (spoiler: humanity shows their own horrible hand, treating demons like how they were before, leading into a second continent-wide war ~30 years later). Throughout a large portion of the IF Neverland timeline following her time as lead, Hiro roams the land, usually acting as an ally to those who try to do the right thing. Of course, this is not excusing the form that this OVA takes, because there's still plenty of stuff that isn't properly explained in enough detail, and I was able to follow easier than others would, simply because I am already familiar with a number of the characters shown. Still, this is definitely leagues better than what Rebirth Moon's OVA wound up being, if only because the plot shown here actually makes a lick of sense; there are still tons of holes, but you can make out a general arc.

The animation directed by IF co-founder Yoshiteru Sato himself is pretty standard for the time, though I must admit they do look good for their original intended purpose, i.e. anime cutscenes in a PlayStation 2 video game; there were only five key animators, & seven in-betweeners. To be fair, the animation itself looks to have been supervised by Ryo Takahashi, a key animator who's still working on anime to this day (& not to be confused with the composer of the same name). Wao World! has never really been known as a visual powerhouse, but it's not a lackluster end product, by any means; it gives a fair idea of how an actual IF Neverland anime adaptation in the 00s would have looked. This is buoyed by Tatsunori Nakamura, a Yoyogi Animation Academy grad who worked for Idea Factory as a character designer from 1997 to 2014, working on titles like Rebirth Moon, Cross Edge, & many entries in IF Neverland's Spectral series, including the game this OVA was made from. Nakamura has a very striking & identifiable style, which when combined with an extremely wide range of designs allows Neverland to truly feel like an actual world, and Nakamura's style works extremely well with animation; unfortunately, Nakamura has never worked on anime, outside of what Idea Factory produced itself. The music by Idea Factory stalwart Kenji Kaneko is impossible to properly judge, as there isn't any of it to be found in this OVA, outside of a track that replaces the game's original OP theme, "Line of Destiny" by clair, for the intro; it works well enough as a war-related song. However, in true Ed Woodian fashion, Idea Factory chose a song that's only 37 seconds long, so it plays two & a half times during the entire OP sequence, and the song restarting is embarrassingly obvious to hear. As for the 5.5 minute-long(!) ending credits, we first hear an instrumental rendition of the original Spectral Force's OP theme, "Watashi no Yume no Yukue wo" by Ruiko Enoki (this version would literally be reused in the following year's crossover RPG, Chaos Wars), followed by Chronicle's own ED theme, "Suki Dake o Tsutaetakute" by Yuki Kitamura, which is a nice, soft ballad that works.

The voice cast for this OVA is the same as those in the game, which at this point had settled into a mostly consistent voice cast for all of the IF Neverland characters. Hiro is voiced by Yuko Miyamura (Asuka in Evangelion, Chun-Li in Street Fighter Alpha), who by this point had voiced the de facto mascot of the franchise for nearly a decade, so she obviously sounds like a natural fit. Jadou is performed by Hidehiko Kaneko (Musashi Miyamoto in Warriros Orochi), and for the little we hear of him here, he does a good job portraying the character as a good bit maniacal, though deep down is going through his own pain. Simba & the narration is done by Hideki Tasaka (Duero Mcfile in Vandread), and while we don't hear too much of him as Simba, he does a serviceable, if somewhat dry, performance narrating things. Little Snow is voiced by Akena Watanabe (Villeta Nu in Code Geass, Ibis Douglas in Super Robot Wars OG), and she does a nice job as the calm & welcoming outsider, though deep down she is willing to make hard decisions. The rest of the cast, who only make small vocal appearances, is made up of the likes of Tsuguo Mogami (Sato), Amika Takahashi (Plana, Hiro's older sister), Yoji Ueda (Solty), Shogo Nishihara (Chiffon), & Kazuhiko Nishimatsu (Byard).

Throughout all of these 12 Idea Factory anime that I've reviewed, you can find a general history behind them. At first, the studio tried to go full-bore, even if they weren't really at the level where they could actually deliver on those ideals; this is where the original Spectral Force OVA & Run=Dim (a full-on TV series!) fit in. After that, they kind of settled into simply sticking with making simple promotional OVAs, ones meant to help act as prologues to set up each respective game's plot; see: the Generation of Chaos OVAs, Vara Noir, Skelter+Heaven, & Steady x Study. The end results here varied wildly, ranging from some of the all-time worst to even one that was shockingly good with Kingdom of Chaos; amusingly, the good one was NOT a simple piece of promotion. Finally, there's the end of this endeavor, where Idea Factory worked with Wao World!, but in the end produced some of the laziest products of them all. That last category is where Spectral Force Chronicle Divergence fits in, but at least its strengths here in telling an understandable skeleton of a plot come from the game's "digest" format. This was a retelling of previously told plot, and in doing so resulted in the use of a narrator to help cutscenes flow better; this, in turn, allows the OVA to tell a story, if an extremely basic one. Overall, this OVA winds up being in the upper-middle range of Idea Factory anime, though it does feel like it only does so accidentally.

Still, this effectively marks the end of my ability to review Idea Factory's self-produced anime; it the end of an era. There is one last production remaining, 2001's Mamimune Mogacho TV series, but there are no rips to be found online at all, & the DVDs themselves (Volumes 1 & 4, in particular) aren't available for any sort of reasonable price. Naturally, I'd cover this anime should I ever get the chance, but I won't be going out of my way to hunt this show down.

RIP Idea Factory Anime (1998-2005)

Game © Idea Factory/XPEC Entertainment © Idea Factory 10th Anniversary Project
Anime © 2005 Idea Factory

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