Flynn Scifo (Sam Regal/Mamoru Miyano) and Yuri Lowell (Troy Baker/Kousuke Toriumi) are young Imperial Knights, sent on a mission to protect the citizens of Shizontania. The knights use a magical energy known as Aer converted to ‘blastia’ to power their weapons – but the Aer in this region has become corrupted, transforming the creatures of the forest into ravening monsters. Under the command of veteran Captain Fedrok, Yuri and Flynn (rivals since childhood) must put aside their differences and defend the remaining inhabitants. They are aided by red-haired twin members of the knights Chastel and Hisca (the young women use a more benign version of ‘blastia’ to shield and heal.)
At a first glance, Tales of Vesperia (2009) looks like yet another generic fantasy-by-numbers, game-derived piece of cynical spinoffery. And to enhance that suspicion we find: steeds that resemble a cross between horses and giant birds; a dodgy guild, teeming with lowlifes and colourful rogues; and a mysterious, cranky wizard/inventor who is the only one able to devise a magical/scientific item that may come to the rescue when all else is lost. But, if you can get past the rather clichéd story set-up, you’ll be pleasantly surprised – as I was – by the way Reiko Yoshida’s screenplay and Kanta Kamei’s unfussy direction have resulted in a watchable, enjoyable film. They achieve this by – after delivering an exciting action opening – allowing time for the audience to get to know the protagonists and relate to them. Flynn has a tragic backstory which is gradually revealed as the film progresses, increasing our sympathy for a character that initially comes across as way too uptight and over-conscientious when compared with his room-mate, the laid-back Yuri. But the figure who dominates the action is the pipe-smoking, hard-bitten Captain Nyren Fedrok (one of Christopher R. Sabat’s best performances to date.) The dogs are also very watchable, especially stocky puppy Repede whom Yuri has to take charge of.
The backgrounds, depicting a European-flavoured fantasy world, are attractively drawn but I had some difficulties relating to the rather bland, generic character designs at first. Fortunately, thanks to the well-written screenplay and script, and convincing performances from both Japanese and English dub voice actors, these concerns became less important as the tension increased and the characters’ dilemmas became more engrossing. But to enjoy this film, you have to sit back and accept it for what it is: a relatively predictable fantasy saga in which the two young (male) protagonists must overcome their own personal hang-ups if they’re to stand a chance of saving the people they’re fighting to protect. The girls don’t get much of a role to play in the action. Nevertheless, because it’s well written and the action well paced, it’s possible to sit back and enjoy the RPG-style perils Yuri and Flynn encounter. And the film is brave enough not to offer a generically predictable happy ending, setting up the possibility of sequels (presumably based on the more familiar storylines of the game.)
As I haven’t played the Vesperia RPGs, all the characters and the world they inhabit was unfamiliar to me – and, thankfully, unlike some other games-based anime, this didn’t affect my watching experience (even though I could tell that certain briefly glimpsed cameo players including likable rogue Raven, pink-haired Estellise, and eccentric young genius inventor Rita Mordio must play a much more significant role in the larger world of the game itself.) And after doing a little research, it seems I wouldn’t be far off the mark in calling The First Strike a prequel to the main story of the RPG.
Music is by Akira Senju (best known for his stirring score for FMA Brotherhood) and does all the right things at the right times, delivering medieval-flavoured melodies around the tavern but pulling out all the stops when accompanying the battle scenes. Another nudge to aficionados of the RPG is the use of the game’s theme song ‘Ring a Bell’ by Bonnie Pink as the final credits roll and we get glimpses of – I’m guessing – what becomes of the main characters afterwards.
All in all, Tales of Vesperia – The First Strike makes for an enjoyable watch but not much more.
This review was of the Blu-ray version – and I have to report that the film looks great in HD. Basic extras include (many!) Japanese and US trailers.