At first I was going to write a proper review of the film but then as I was planning it out I realized what I wanted to say didn’t really fit with the structure of what a review should conform to as I saw it. Instead I’m going to be looking back at this film in a less formalized and more relaxed Q&A fashion as if I were describing the film to a friend. As I feel its the best way for both an outsider and a fan to judge the strengths and weakness of the film as well as it’s place within the entire Tales of Vesperia canon. That being said you’ll most certainly know my feelings on the film by the end and my personal recommendation.
What is it? First things first what is Tales of Vesperia: The First Strike. Well simply put its the prequel to the Xbox 360 game Tales of Vesperia from the long running Tales of franchise however more specifically its actually the prequel to the Japanese exclusive PS3 version of the game which featured heavy tie ins with various members o the cast. That being said missing out on the PS3 version doesn’t actually influence ones enjoyment of the movie what so ever as much of the tie in content is secondary to the story anyways.
This is because it fills in much of the plot gaps from the game. That being the back story of the games protagonist Yuri Lowell and his long time friend/rival (hey its an anime what do you expect) Flynn Scifo. As they appeared in the game one could easily tell they had a long history it’s just that the history (especially Flynn’s) was shrouded in mystery and conspicuously never really elaborated on except a few gruffs “I don’t want to talk about it” from Yuri over the course of the game. In short The First Strike is designed as a prequel for fans who already know the source material from the game and are interested in spending more time with its characters.
How is the Story? In a word... basic but enjoyable. In the pantheon of great anime movies it’s not there, but that being said its still eminently enjoyable. The issue as I see it is that the films story is held back by its very intent and premise. The story is basic because its not the central promise of the film as everyone who has played the games knows the outcome; the tension the possibility of tragedy that drives good story is notably absent from The First Strike for most of the cast. The driving force of the movie is and always will be further understanding the characters of Yuri and Flynn as two halves of a single whole. When taken as a character study and with the knowledge from the game its a very interesting look at these two very different but complementary characters. Really the story is competent in the fact there exists the building blocks of a good one it just never really breaks through and stands on its own two feet. All that being said its an enjoyable heroic fantasy romp with jokes the land and despite my criticisms a story that is accessible to those not familiar with the game.
You keep talking about these characters. Why is that? Again simply put they are the story and they are the reason anyone should have for watching the film. Also when I say “They” of course I mean the stars of the film Yuri and Flynn. Ably voiced by their respective English Voice actors from the game as characters they stand out. Even without prior knowledge the two of them are clearly the stars of the movie and accordingly recieve the most development and scream time. While their relationship of a slacker with a heart of gold and uptight do gooder who wants to prove himself is as cliched as they come it still resonates and mostly works for the betterment of the film. Furthermore a puppy version of Repede the awesome dog/mascot from the game is featured and without any doubt he is great I mean just look how adorable he is.
That being said Yuri and Flynn (and Repede) are not the only characters they just seem that way as everyone else kinda just blends in with one notable exception. This seems just due to the movie format of limited time from characters we don’t already know. There is the stereotypical angry red headed twins who can only be told apart by their cup size (yes that joke and all it entails for their personalities makes an appearance...), there is the uncultured but generally good guild boss leader, the cultured librarian, and the gruff my capable Knight Commander. As I said above he remains the exception for some reason I felt drawn to him and was invested in the character just because of how competent and good a man he seems to be. Now while the Voice Acting for the two leads was quite good due to their experience with the characters the voice acting for the rest was forgettable mostly due to the licencing company. As the film was licensed and dubbed by Funimation you have many of their notables playing their stock voices, it fits but if you’re a fan of Funimation as it can be tiring. In short its a workman like dub that is competent but hardly inspired.
One last thing on characters. There is a cameo appearance for quite a few characters that joins your party in the game. That being said in most cases they’re so minor as to be superfluous, I won’t tell you who but the majority of one party members screen time is dominated by them being so drunk they don’t even speak I’ll let you guess who, however if you’ve played the game you can almost assuredly get it in one try. Okay I’m actually being a little hard here Rita’s appearance in the film was quite entertaining even if voiced by another actor (who did an admirable job).
It’s an anime how is the animation? Here we came out ahead the animation is crisp and the visuals are quite nice. Production I.G. who did the animation for the film and in game cut scenes really did put some effort into this. From the standards of a simple anime its gorgeous by the standards of an anime film it more then holds up. Especially worth pointing out are the colour pallet that changes with the tone of the film as the film grows darker the infusions of grey and black become more and more pronounced. Once scene in particular uses this interesting design choice after an especially bloody scene. Regardless of the scene though the animation is vibrant, sharp, and crisp showing a level of quality one doesn’t normally see in your run of the mill game adaptation film showing how much care actually went into the production. One thing of note though is I watched the film on BluRay so the visual fidelity and crispness of the lines may suffer depending on the video format one watches it on.
Moving away from the pure art direction. The technical merits of the film are evident in the battles scenes. As each scenes conveys its unique circumstances and threats quite well in superbly animated and fluid battles that are truly a feast for the eyes. Unlike many anime where the quality dips and takes one out of the moment this does not happen in The First Strike and is all the better for it. In short from an anime fans perspective The First Strike is a vibrant and gorgeous display of technical achievement that is very easy to be admired even as the film grows longer in the tooth by the day.
So really when it comes right down to it what are you saying? Well simply put despite its flaws its a competent and at times very fun fantasy adventure. While it is undeniable a viewer who had played the game it was based on would get more out of the experience its also a surprisingly inviting anime film for those new to the game. Furthermore unlike basically all Tales of adaptations the film is gorgeous due to it being the only one to get the treatment of film rather then OVA’s and full length anime. This allows it to dodge the most common game to anime pitfalls that plague most adaptions.
That being said it does have some noticeable flaws that need to be addressed and the biggest is pacing in that the film can really take a while to build and even when it does it finds strange ways to slow down. There is also a second ending that is somehow both easily seen coming and totally out of the blue and seems to exist for the sole purpose of wrapping up some narrative arcs from earlier in the film. However those flaws are relatively minor gripes in an otherwise solid if not spectacular film.
In the end if I seem harsh on the film its because Tales of Vesperia is just so good and The First Strike unfortunately doesn’t reach its highs for a variety of reason I have set out and that is kinda disappointing to a fan such as myself. However that does not mean its not enjoyable its actually a good action adventure story that just happens to work into a games story. Also as a companion to the game the film works very well with numerous winks and hat tips to the source that many fans would enjoy but doesn’t actually take away from the enjoyment of the crowd if one is not in on the joke, what I’m getting at is the film isn’t like a pair of obnoxious friends who save all the fun for themselves with their in jokes. The film can be enjoyed by anyone due to its inviting atmosphere but without any doubt it’ll be best enjoyed by fans of the game. In short if you wish to watch Tales of Vesperia: The Last Strike play Tales of Vesperia first it’ll really enhance you understanding and enjoyment of the film and hey its an amazing game but don’t feel limited by that either if you really want to check out the film there are worse ways to spend a couple hours of your time certainly. As always thanks for reading and sound off in the comments.
(For the record I watched the Funimation Bluray of the English dub from their Bluray/DVD combo pack - there is no special features worth mentioning)