Finding titles targeted at very specific niches - - that’s part of the beauty of wading through all this anime, isn’t it? Coming across material that’s too extreme or too obscure or too whatever for the banal mass audience. What comes with that, though, is the very likely prospect of you, the viewer, being excluded from the narrow boundaries of that niche.
And those boundaries can be set by such arbitrary things, you know? Like the fact that you, the viewer, haven’t happened to play any games in a J-RPG series that’s only be sporadically imported to America.
The game series in question here is Namco’s TALES, and this direct-to-video feature’s intended rather squarely for fans who are already pretty well familiar with the mythos. It spends a scant amount of time at the start, expositing on how this fantasy world revolves around the ethereal substance of Air (or maybe it was “Aeyr?” It’s supposed to be different from the stuff we breathe in.) Then, it gets into a good and thrilling chase involving a knight’s guard and wolves that nicely evokes PRINCESS MONONOKE. Nobody’s given a proper introduction, but it look you’re in store for a lean fantasy adventure that plays it concise with the world-building.
Then… the altercation with the wolves concludes with an awesome “Air” spell being cast by… this redhead who’s never really introduced. She throws a concentric neon borealis up into the sky, and it weirdly recalls the nearly identical spectacles on display in EUREKA SEVEN AO and STREET FIGHTER X TEKKEN’s Pandora levels (why is that particular sight in the zeitgeist, right now?) After this point, the promising opener quickly starts sliding into material that seems unmistakably feels like a supplementary feature on some TALES Game of the Year Edition. Or like a TALES fanfic.
The prospect of an anime based on a fantasy RPG - - from ADVENT CHILDREN to DRAGON AGE to LODOSS WAR - - has become a glumly reliable red flag. Hear that pitch in the premise and you know exactly how much enjoyment you’re in store for.
People throw around that familiar criticism, “Watching this as fun as watching somebody else play a video game!” pretty freely whilst trying to slam flicks leaning too heavy on bawdy action and visual flair. Well, here's a title quite literally designed to recreate the gaming experience. Though, in addition to missing that all-too-important ingredient of interactivity, it's also not too interested in the sort of non-stop action you normally expect out of a vidya game. Instead, you're party to the sort of tedious, way-too-comprehensive branching conversations that make up so much of an RPG's playtime.
Honestly, I don’t want to slag on FIRST STRIKE too much. It wasn’t awful so much as just… there. I got the sense that it would’ve been perfectly agreeable way to kill a couple hours if only I’d already played the games. Is that a failing of this production’s? Maybe not, depending on how specific an audience they were aiming for. All I know is that I could appreciate the craft up to a point, and then had to just throw my arms up and say, “Well, this just isn’t for me,” with a greater certainty than usually comes with the utterance of that phrase.
This had something to do with two knights in this Air/Aeyr order having a sort-of friendly rivalry, and their captain being a morally ambivalent traitor... and somebody inheriting a blue wolf dog that smokes a pipe because it's cute. I'm going to fess up to checking out of the plot pretty early on and also confess to finally giving into the temptation of watching this on double-speed because, well, it felt like I didn’t actually miss much for doing so.
I won't pull this last punch. The movie has sluggish pacing that was balanced out pretty evenly by the 2X fast-forward. Seriously, if the chimmunk voices weren’t a telltale giveaway, you’d have no idea that the movie was running faster. Even during the sporadic fights, it felt like 10 frames were used when only maybe two would've been enough. In that respect, it's actually just like a game that provides 60 hours of gameplay when 10 might've been enough.
And maybe that's precisely the point?