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Friday, 01 October 2010 00:00

Baldr Force EXE

Time for one more trip into the Wired. No, it's not a spin-off of Serial Experiments Lain, but a video-game spin-off with a large helping of blood and violence. Who knew that network hacking could be so dangerous...

1 - First Contact
Toru Souma is a former member of Steppenwolf, a hacking group that takes on jobs within the Wired, a global computer network. He's come to the attention of FLAK, a military unit that also operates in the Wired - they've detected him trying to hack into their systems, and while that would normally carry a hefty jail term, they're prepared to offer him a bargain: join FLAK himself, and they'll not bring charges. They need his talent, you see, to deal with some problems they've detected inside the Wired - but with Souma believing that FLAK were responsible for the death of one of his closest friends, he's reluctant to play ball, but the opportunity isn't one that he's given a chance to say "no" to. Besides, it'll give him a chance to take revenge on whoever killed Yuuya, and so Souma's career in the military begins - and he soon realises that to FLAK, the Wired is no game...


2 - Again
Mystery #1: who was the girl that Souma found inside his closed area? She seemed to recognize him before she ran off, but he has no idea who she is. Mystery #2: Just what is Shidou up to? The platoon's quietest member certainly seems to be up to something, but what? With joint training exercises with the VSS crews beginning, there's little time for him to think of such things, though. The exercise pits Souma against his former Steppenwolf team-mate Tsukina, who's joined VSS - a decision that Souma takes personally, but Tsukina's in just the sort of mood to show Souma who's boss. Later, Souma has another encounter with the mystery girl. Her name's Ren, and this time she's feeling a little more sociable...

SoumaNo fun here

3 - Truth
Souma recognises the powered-up form of Shidou's simulacrum as the one that killed Yuuya, and in a rage attacks her. So much for being there to save her. Before he can do any lasting damage, though, two things happen to get in his way: Ren appears before him, begging him to stop, and in the outside world FLAK's director takes steps to halt the First Platoon's operations - and so Souma and Shidou are forced to logout of the Wired, with Shidou arrested and the rest of the platoon placed under house arrest. That leaves Souma wondering what to do next - but while he's thinking, Tsukina pays him a visit, telling him that there's something she needs to show him. VSS have been investigating the rumours of the "Wired Ghost", an online entity that kills anyone who sees it. They identified the Ghost as an avatar they call Invy - and that Souma knows better as Ren...


4 - Rebuilt
Ren's reaction to finding out that her real-world body truly is dead is surprising - for an online entity she's got a lot of influence on the outside world, and her reaction leaves the VSS labs almost in ruins. The squad sent into the Wired to capture her also meets with a quick end, as she's driven over the edge of sanity. Even the car that Souma tries to use to esacpe from the labs comes under her control, thanks to its network connection, while inside the Wire her influence begins to spread rapidly, causing the destruction of any online areas she touches - and the deaths of those within them. Her subconscious is running wild, and the only person who may be able to stop her is Souma...


There has been a steady stream of "virtual world" shows over recent years - the aforementioned Lain, the .hack shows, Zegapain, and now Baldr Force EXE. It's a spin-off of the Baldr Force EXE videogames, which were released on a number of platforms between 2003 and 2006 - although as far as I'm aware, none of these games have ever reached the UK. Don't let that bother you, though - the story here doesn't seem to rely on prior knowledge.

The problem I have to get around with all virtual reality games is that I'm enough of a techie to know what the limits of VR worlds are or may be - if a show isn't expecting me to take it too seriously (Zegapain) or only "breaks the rules" for one or two aspects (.hack, albeit in a fairly big way) then I can live with it. Where the online world becomes every bit as "real" as the real world, though, my suspension of disbelief breaks down a little, and that's where Baldr Force has its first issue. What happens in the Wired can have some brutal real-world consequences - heads will explode - while characters are able to do things in the Wired that, personally, I'd make damned sure were designed out of the equipment. But that's just me, and there is a more human side to the story that makes its failings in the believeability stakes forgiveable.

The story itself won't win any awards for originality, either - I recently finished watching E's Otherwise and, ignoring the virtual world element, there are quite a few similarities between the tales of Souma & Ren and Kai & Hikaru, with the basic idea probably having been used many more other times. The way it's presented here is fairly well-done, though - an OVA budget seems to have been lavishly spent to create a series that looks good, makes good use of its setting to setup some impressive action scenes, and manages to be fairly entertaining throughout. Just don't ask why no-one ever seems to think of using the "off" switch when things get nasty.

But enough of that. Action - check. Visual gloss - check. Characters - are okay as far as they go, but don't get developed as much as I would have liked, mostly due to lack of time. There's simply too much else going on for the characters to really get a chance to shine - which is a shame, as there are some good possible storylines that could have been followed if time permitted. As it is, we're left looking at the possibilities and at stories that got started but never really settled. You do get enough information to get a rough feel for everyone, though, and for a four-episode series that's good enough.

Overall, I have to say that Baldr Force EXE surprised me - I'm usually very sceptical about game-to-anime conversions, and I'd been sitting on this series for a while before begrudgingly sitting down to watch it. Finding that it wasn't half bad was a huge bonus - hell, I'd like to see more of these characters - and just goes to prove that there are still surprises out there. As I said, it's not going to win on originality, but there's plenty else here to make it wothwhile checking out.

Rating - ***

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