The original Tales of Vesperia, released in 2008 on the Xbox 360, was something of a break through for the current generation. In many ways one of the first big JRPGs to hit an HD console, Vesperia got a lot of things correct. Despite being the first HD Tales game, it has yet to be visually surpassed within its own series. The main character, Yuri, was also something of a revelation. At 21, he was one of the older Tales main characters and far more mature than most JRPG fans are probably used to.
It goes without saying then that I was excited to catch the animated prequel Tales of Vesperia: The First Strike. I wasn't expecting much beyond some ToV fanservice, but what I ended up finding was a fantastic edition to the Vesperia lore and a great stand alone film in its own right.
Follow me after the break as I ring my bell, loud and clear.
Tales of Vesperia: The First Strike(BD +DVD)
Tales of Vesperia: The First Strike takes place before the events of the Xbox 360 game, detailing Yuri's time spent in the Imperial Guard. Young and sporting a devil may care attitude, Yuri often disobeys orders in favor of following his heart. This greatly frustrated his childhood friend and roommate Flynn, who is a stickler for the rules. Deployed to a small town called Shizontania, the two men join a squad led by Niren Fedrok. Jovial and well loved by the people he fights to protect, Niren is a commanding officer who values the people directly in front of him rather than the orders of those above. One day, the forests surrounding the town begin to whither and monsters have been seen approaching the city more and more often. With the situation growing increasingly more dangerous and no support from the Empire, it's up to Yuri, Flynn and the rest of the Niren Corps to protect the people of Shizontania.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about The First Strike is how accessible it is to viewers who have never played Tales of Vesperia. Both Yuri and Flynn receive full arcs of development that get them to where they need to be by the start of the game. The film doesn't assume you know who either of these two men are and does an impressive job of defining their relationship and opposing views of the Imperial Guard. Estelle, Rita and Raven from Tales of Vesperia all make brief cameos but they're not intrusive, serving as painless fanservice for veterans of the game. The end credits are also a neat bit of fanservice that actually made me want to go back to my PS3 copy of Tales of Vesperia. The First Strike tells a simple but effective story, only really stumbling in its climactic battle which feels somewhat like an afterthought.
A few new characters are introduced into the lore as well but aren't quite as fleshed out as the two leads. Niren Fedrok is the most important of the bunch, directly effecting the growth of both Yuri and Flynn. It's his leadership and belief in the people that drive Yuri to eventually become the man he is in Tales of Vesperia. Similarly, Niren plants the seeds in Flynn that help him find a balance between obeying orders and following one's own heart.
Twin red heads Hisca and Chastel are also introduced into the canon but aren't utilized as much as I would have liked. Some of my favorite scenes in the film centered around their banter with the two male leads and I'm sad there wasn't more of it. These two characters are never mentioned in the original Tales of Vesperia, but they both make appearances in the updated PS3 version.
Tales of Vesperia: The First Strike is a great looking film. Kousuke Fujima's character designs shine through on the big screen, with the background art also providing plenty of eye candy. There are brief moments where the animation quality falters, but on the whole this is a consistently beautiful movie and not some rushed effort.
The English dub is extremely strong and I definitely recommend fans watch the film in both languages as you'll be getting a quality experience either way. Troy Baker and Sam Riegel reprise their roles as Yuri and Flynn respectively, though the rest of the ToV characters were unfortunately recast. The film isn't worse off for it, but it's important to note that they do sound different from what fans might be used to. Musical duties were handled by Akira Senju, who fans might remember as the composer for Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood. He brings an orchestral sound that really elevates the film in a way that veteran Tales series composer Motoi Sakuraba seems to struggle with these days.
Funimation's release of the film includes both the BD and DVD and a spattering of minor special features. In addition to the English dub, you'll find a bevy of trailers and promotional footage. On the whole, this is a pretty sparse release; I was disappointed by the lack of any kind of audio commentary.
Animated films and TV series based off of video game properties rarely do a good job of representing their source material. Either the production focuses too hard on the fanservice or it tells a story too unrelated for fans to identify with the characters and universe. The First Strike hits the sweet spot in that it dives into the past of two of the most beloved characters from the game, telling a smaller, more personal tale. In doing so, director Kanta Kamei and his crew have created a film that fans and non-fans alike can enjoy.
Pick this one up if you're a serious Tales of Vesperia fan or you just a dig a good fantasy romp.
8.0 - Great. A well executed film that defines its genre without resorting to cliches.
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