A prequel movie to one of the most popular Tales of games to have ever come out of Japan, Tales of Vesperia The First Strike promises to be an engaging prequel telling the story of a younger Yuri Lowell. Alas, plot and character inconsistencies (with the Xbox 360 version of the game) prevent this movie from being anything more than slightly enjoyble.
Tales of Vesperia, the game that is, was a rather fun experience and, even though it had an incredibly flawed story, still managed to be enjoyable in spite of that. As a game, it had quite a few strengths, including fun combat (as expected of Tales), and a memorable cast of characters, particularly Rita Mordio, a personal favourite of mine. However, unless necessary, I won’t let how I feel about that particular character have an effect on this review.
Instead, I’d like to bring your attention to another character, Yuri Lowell. Yuri, at least in the game, was an interesting and arguably refreshing Tales main lead. Unlike previous male leads such as Lloyd Irving or Luke Fon Fabre, Yuri was not just some young boy thrust into an adventure. He was cocky, confident and competent too. He was not just a naive young boy, he was established as being aware of the corruption that existed within both his society and the knights that he once idolised. Because of this, it’s easy to see why such a refreshing protagonist for a Tales game became so popular amongst the fanbase.
Frankly speaking, First Strike managed to totally undermine Yuri’s character – and Flynn’s for that matter too. Yuri, in the game, was an interesting, well defined character who had great reasons for hating the knights and the way they operated – I can tell you right now that First Strike’s portrayal of him most definitely isn’t that Yuri Lowell. Instead, Yuri comes across as bratty, slightly childish and his reasoning for leaving the knights is impulsive, because he could not stand dealing with authority figures. I’m aware that this was meant to be a younger Yuri (although, frustratingly, the movie never states explicitly when it’s set), but the clear contrast in character makes it incredibly difficult to accept – there isn’t even a moment in the movie when Yuri’s ideals are shaped. That said, there are small flashes of what Yuri eventually becomes, such as when he ends up fighting the monsters that attack the village, or the barfight scene, which is the closest thing that we get to Yuri’s game incarnation.
The movie also managed to undermine Yuri and Flynn’s relationship too. Far from being childhood friends turned friendly rivals, the movie depicted them as bitterly hostile towards each other, and nearly every single encounter ended with them arguing or fighting in some way – it made me seriously wonder how they became so buddy-buddy later on. Yuri and Flynn’s relationship was always the one relationship in the game that was sadly never explored as much as I would have liked, but even when they ended up fighting each other in the game, there was never this much hostility between them – there were always moments that conveyed the underlying friendship between the two of them; fights they ended up getting into were merely due to circumstance. There was respect in the relationship; they cared about one another.
It also frustrated me that the movie never really explained how they patched up their differences – rather than it happening naturally, it happened for the convenience of the plot, meaning that the development (if you can call it that, seeing as it was never really there) comes across as incredibly forced – there wasn’t even a gimmicky montage to show that they’re all of a sudden the best of friends. It’s something that just happened and no proper explanation was given.
The movie actually had a solid idea behind it: focusing on younger, more impulsive versions of Yuri and Flynn; establishing their relationship, making it clear why it was that the two ended up on opposite paths but were still able to maintain their friendship in spite of that.
With this in mind, I should have liked the movie a lot more than I did. I didn’t however, and there is a very good reason for that – that First Strike was essentially pointless. It failed to set up any potentiallly meaningful conflicts that would become more relevant in the game, it failed to hint at any upcoming story threads and it did a poor job of developing Yuri and Flynn. My inital thoughts going into this movie were that I would have a better understanding of Yuri’s hatred for the knights, why he chose to leave them, why Flynn decided to stay because he believed that he could change the knights by using the system. Yet by the end of the movie, I had none of that.
However, the thing that frustrated me most about First Strike was its ending. I didn’t dislike the ending because it was open-ended (which seems to be a common criticism of the movie). It is, but it makes sense as to why, the game is supposed to follow directly on after all. I dislike it because the reasoning behind Yuri leaving the knights was incredibly stupid, especially considering that, in the movie, he never really had a good reason to do so. Keep in mind, the reason why Yuri left the knights, according to the game at least, was because he couldn’t stand the injustice and corruption running rampant throughout, so he left. The people in Yuri’s squadron in the movie weren’t just good people, they essentially embodied everything that Yuri saw as the ideal knight. Granted, the movie tried to suggest other reasons as to why he left, but they weren’t substantial enough to hold water. It contradicted everything that Yuri said when he left the knights and begged the question: why leave if your knight squadron is everything that you wanted it to be?
If there were any positive things to say about the story in First Strike, it’s that the story does at least show how Yuri met Repede (who, I should add, looks incredibly adorable as a little puppy). It also introduced Hisca and Chastel, two characters who, sadly, were not in the Xbox 360 version of the game. Considering their relevancy in the movie, it’s a shame audiences without access to the upgraded, Japanese PS3 release won’t be able to experience their future interactions with Flynn and Yuri.
Animation wise, First Strike is handled by Production I.G, who also did the anime cut-scenes for the game, which means that a comparable standard is used here. In short, Vesperia looks decent – the anime scenes in the game were never really that spectacular and there really weren’t any standout moments of animation here – there were some cool uses of CG in the movie; characters look good upon close ups and the action scenes do look good, and also serve as a reminder that Yuri is actually an awesome fighter, even without the usage of Blastia.
Sadly, when the camera pulls away from the characters, the quality seems to drop – there was one moment in particular that the characters just completely lost their faces even though there was dialogue going on, but aside from this, First Strike does what it needs to do in the animation department.
I could tell pretty much straight away that Akira Senju had had some involvement in the music of the movie. I’ve had enough experience on Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood to know his orchestral style – it does sound good, but it’s not really anything mindblowing, it also seems somewhat out of place too. Sadly, there’s no inclusion of any of the battle themes from the game, which is a shame because I was always a fan of Vesperia’s music, and I think it’s a bit of a missed opportunity that they didn’t opt to include the music from the game – or at least remix it a bit. At least Ring a Bell managed to make it into the movie, as I don’t think I’d be able to forgive the soundtrack, were it not for its inclusion.
The irrelevance of the plot events and undermining of the characters really hampered my enjoyment of the movie. Although it had its moments with cool action scenes, they never felt like they were ever contributing to the bigger picture. At least I managed to get some enjoyment out of simply hearing Troy Baker and Sam Riegel reprising some of their best roles, but it was limited enjoyment considering how badly they managed to butcher Rita’s voice.
A prequel is supposed to set up the successive events of the main series, and I really thought that’s what First Strike would do. I thought it would go into detail as to why Yuri hates the Knights so much, talk about his relationship with Flynn, and why he decided to be a vigilante rather than follow the system.
But it didn’t, and I am left feeling really angry and annoyed at how irrelevant it was to the story of Vesperia as a whole.