In 2010, the odd combination of blockbuster FPS Halo and Japanese animation, HALO Legends, was released. It sold well in its first couple weeks, but failed to make a major splash, probably because the work was mostly deemed interesting by only Halo and anime fans, which is adding another restriction to an already niche market (anime).
I went into the Halo Legend production with about as little knowledge about the Halo universe as possible, for someone firmly entrenched both in using the internet and playing video games. Other than a few multiplayer matches and a few campaign missions in the first Halo game back around when it came out, and a few Halo 2 multiplayer matches, I have literally no knowledge about Halo. I don’t know much of the story or lore, and can only name terms like The Flood and “omfgthatswordthingisdeadlyinHalo 2” while vaguely waving my hand as if I know more than I actually do. I figured, then, it might be nice to try to offer an outsiders view to the Halo Legends movies, and see if any of the seven short works, or the package in it's entirety, stand up on their own as quality anime productions.
Six production companies; Bones, Casio Entertainment, Production I.G., Studio 4°C, and Toei Animation all worked on Halo Legends, and the project as a whole was lead by the man behind the promising if inconsistent 2004 Appleseed CGI film.
The first work, “Origins,” is directed by Kedeki Futamura, best known perhaps for being a key animator of the film-noir segment “A Detective Story,” of The Animatrix, and the other Animatrix shorts, The Second Renaissance Part I, and II.
We are introduced to the AI, Cortana, a series standby; and game protagonist Master Chief. The environment, along with these two characters, has a quasi-western animation feel to them in the body proportions and colors, almost as if this could be shown on Adult Swim. Sadly, the detail in the animation is lacking as a whole in “Origins.” There were very few small objects or intricacies, just big shapes and sharp lines, over and over. It made the visuals feel a little cheap.
“Origins” works as a sort of introduction to the Halo universe, starting with an invasion 100,000 years ago by The Flood, your sort of standard slimy, buggy aliens that invade and consume everything in sight. It works in quickly setting up a tense situation as The Flood are shown to invade the home planet of the Forerunners, a highly advanced bipedal alien species, but while I am not huge on visuals, they are distracting here. The more you watch this, the more and more you realize that the animation is incredibly bland, uninspired, and simplistic. Even the music is mostly ripped straight from the games, lending more credence to a feeling of uninspired work here.
Futamura, as in his earlier short works, relies on very few characters and a simple narrative to get by (which is required for short narratives), but unlike the gorgeously atmospheric Animatrix works (particularly “A Detective Story“), “Origins” feels pedestrian in production values. Luckily, the first part of Origins itself does ramp up in urgency as we are introduced to the actual motivation and significance of the iconic Halos that the game universe is named after, and that does manage to create a fairly compelling scenario given the short time frame. It ends up being this new kind of twist on how life came to exist as we know it, in the universe, which is nice to see; all wrapped around a self-sacrifice on a monumental level. “Origins” effectively works as a solid and necessary precursor to the rest of Halo Legends by giving vital backstory. It’s not amazing, but it does the job.
The second part of “Origins” details the rise of human civilization, complete with average musings on the terror of war and the hope of humanity. It would have been interesting if it was the first to do this, but it’s not, and while the music and imagery of past human grievances can’t help but make you feel a little down, it’s still a very usual narrative device. From there, we are brought up to speed with the advent of human migration to new planets throughout the universe, and the war with The Covenant.
Hiroshi Yamazaki, director of Eden of the East, did the second short, “The Duel.” The Duel, unlike Origins, has an incredibly distinct watercolor-esque visual style to it. While the original feel of the animation is nice, it does tend to give a sense of muddied up visuals, making it hard to once again discern any actual intricate details. The Duel tells a much more personal story about an Arbiter rejecting The Covenant’s faith and theocracy.
However, the ability of this story to instill a sense of emotional investment is somewhat lacking. This may be a fault of the short runtime, combined with sort of corny speeches about honor, and lots of action that prevents narrative development. Much of the action is very Rambo-esque; i.e., one guy takes on a hundreds and wins, or, in a more ridiculous case, a bunch of guys and a tank, too. Rambo-esque fits indeed.
This segment largely misses the mark with its reliance on overused film techniques (cue over-dramatic death scene, complicit with flashbacks and vocal opera), distracting art, silly action sequences, and poorly developed story.
The third sequence, "Homecoming," was directed by Koji Sawai, who has a long line of anime credits, including significant work with several .hack productions, and was produced by Production I.G.
Homecoming tells two stories; one, Daisy, a Spartan 2 genetically enhanced soldier, like Master Chief, during a battle in the human and Covenant war, and two; her escape from the Spartan 2 program as a child. Her and numerous other young men and women attempt to escape from the programs out of hatred for the testing and augmentation, only to realize that they have, in the outside world, been replaced by clones, so that nobody would think they were missing.
What's kind of neat about the whole thing is the way it is told. Both Daisy's trials as a child and soldier take place in the exact same area, but as a child, she is fighting on a lush, green planet. As a soldier, it has been destroyed and tarnished by war. The narrative keeps switching between youth and soldier, as she often walks the exact same location as a soldier as she did when younger. Combined with her solid voice acting and sympathy, while still being tough as nails, Homecoming has a much more human feel to it than the previous two shorts. Of course, that may be because this one actually deals with humans this time around, but the emotional attachment that failed in The Duel is much better done here.
There is some, well, silliness to be had in a meeting between Daisy and her clone, and not in a cool humor type of way, and the story feels fairly predictable, but it has to be considered one of the high points of HALO Legends. It is dark, sad, and one of the most emotionally successful.
"Odd One Out" (directed by Daisuke Nishio, the director behind many-a Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z works) is a non-canonical parody of the Halo universe, starring a Spartan named 1337. Yes, 1337. I'm sure it seemed funnier at the time of creation than it is now. None of it really makes any sense, and it's not too funny, except when it seems to zing Dragon Ball more than Halo. I won't spend too much time on this one, and if you really want to, you can skip it. It's pretty simple stuff, and not as funny as it wishes to be.
"Prototype" is the fifth short. It is animated by Studio Bones and directed by both Tomoki Kyoda, who helped create noted works such as Evangelion 1.0, Ouran High School Host Club, and Darker Than Black. Yasushi Muraki, the other director, helped animate works such as Ghost in the Shell, and Cowboy Bebop: The Movie.
Prototype, much like Homecoming before it, largely takes place on a battlefield. Ghost, a sergeant with a reputation as being cold, remorseless, and unflinching, is tasked with destroying a top secret weapon before it falls into Covenant hands. Much of Ghost's background is told through other soldiers as they discuss him, and their chances of surviving as the facility holding the weapon is slowly overrun by Covenant forces.
This is very possibly the best work in terms of animation. Fluid combat, explosions and debris constantly rain down, colorful lasers and weaponry are used, and it all has a feel of well-produced to it.
Ghost reminisces about his persona tipping point, when a previous platoon of his was entirely killed in action, leaving him the only survivor. One woman, on her death bed, softly admonishes Ghost for his lack of emotion. Ghost uses this to motivate himself to make a critical choice that belays orders at the time, as the Covenant bare down on the facility.
While the character development is a little rushed and mostly told through voice over, it's somewhat understandable, given, once again, the limited time frame of the work. And you can't help but feel a sort of sense of familiarity when, in typical anime fashion, the prototype weapon is a giant mech suit.
Lucky for us, Prototype doesn't try to introduce heavy-handed melancholy nor does it overdo the reminiscing, and mostly sticks to the fact that it is a very heavy on the action short, as guns and weapons blaze and the prototype weapon is tested out and taken to the sky. And as the action ramps up, the solid animation becomes that much more impressive.
Ghost's decision towards the end of the short, also like Homecoming, helps create a sense of humanity here that the other works are missing; ironic, given Ghost being so criticized for not being human enough, and coincidental in that there are no genetically altered soldiers in this one. Prototype does in a couple minutes, emotionally, what some of the works, like The Duel, attempted to do over an entire episode, and that makes it easily comparable to Homecoming in quality, if not even a little better. As an aside, and with the acknowledgement that I haven't played much Halo, Prototype seemed to feature a lot of original music, and it was sorely needed at this point in time, considering how much the Halo theme had been used and overused and recycled.
"The Babysitter" is the sixth work, and right away, you might notice the lack of woman is any of the early scenes. This plays a crucial role later on, and is part of a story twist that is pretty lame, but I digress...
The Babysitter was directed by Toshiyuki Kanno, a relative unknown in the anime world, and one without the pedigree that some of the other HALO Legends directors have. The Babysitter follows a team of four Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, or Helljumpers, somewhat elite (but no genetically enhanced) soldiers, who are paired up with a Spartan 2 on a vital mission. The Helljumpers have a bit of jealousy and dislike of the Spartan 2 soldiers, one Helljumper in particular, but are tasked with following duty and being the backup to one on their mission, as they seek to take out a Covenant Prophet and collect data on unknown, non-Covenant, ancient alien ruins.
The Babysitter features some of the more colorful, enjoyable animation, and the simmering tension between the Helljumpers and the ever silent Spartan 2 creates an intriguing atmosphere.
Unfortunately, The Babysitter is also pray to one of the oldest tricks in the book, and one that you can see coming from a mile away. The Spartan 2 is a silent character, up until near the end of the episode, and the other troops make numerous forced and unnatural sounding references to the Spartan 2's assumed gender. I made a little note on this post when editing this review that as I watched The Babysitter, saying that if they do the old gender switcheroo trick, I will rip my hair out. I may not have ripped my hair out, but man, talk about unoriginal.
Having said all of that, such a paltry trick can't be a huge drag on a solid episode, mostly because it is paced well enough and does a decent job of creating believable character development in such a short time-frame, the predictability, not just of the gender issue, but of the episode as a whole, is a drawback, but overall The Babysitter continues to develop the over-arching themes of HALO Legends.
"The Package" is the 7th and final installment of the HALO Legends shorts. It is directed by Shinji Aramaki, who recently did the 2004 Appleseed film, and, in his fashion, The Package is a CGI animation.
We follow several Spartan 2 soldiers on a mission to acquire a package from a Covenant fleet, under the guidelines that if they take too long, everyone will be destroyed. Master Chief is one of the characters here, marking his first legitimate appearance since the very first short.
The Package features some full-scale and very lengthy space combat scenes. The CGI here serves it's purpose; I've been spoiled by Square Enix, but what is here is not bad. There's some intrigue in the battles; the Spartan 2s pilot ships where they sit on the outside, without an actual personal cover. Not sure how practical that is, but it looks kind of neat. Yeah, there are shields, but if those go down, there's no armor to speak of.
It feels, however, not very "Halo"-esque. The video games never really featured space combat as a central gameplay element, and while mixing it up isn't something to be ahsmaed to do, the fights feel a little flat because the voice acting is mediocre and the plot developments feel... rushed. The package is haphazardly "learned" to be on the flagship - all the other ships being decoys - and before you know it, the motley grew of Spartan 2s, none of which have any right to be surviving against such a vast fleet, no matter how special they are, are off on their way to the actual package. There's even a pretty ridiculous moment where one Spartan 2 ejects from her ship, only to 'land' on another, and promptly start using the turret. Uh, we are in space, right?
There's also a somewhat sloppy subplot detailing the Covenant's main commander at the battle being over-cocky, and challenging a subordinate to be a better Covenant member. These moments of dialogue derail the fast pace of the space combat.
Too bad that The Package only gets tougher to swallow from there, following in "The Duel" in that this is just seemingly impossible odds, and instead of creative ways the Spartan 2s overcome them, they just run forward guns blazing and everything in front of them dies; this is particularly evident once they land on the flagship.
There are some more Halo feeling moments at this point, including numerous first person camera shots of the Spartan 2 charge, complete with an HUD seemingly straight from the game. It's a neat if unoriginal idea.
And as the combat gets even more over-the-top and hard to watch, the slow-mo effect rears it's ugly head, abused frequently to demonstrate exactly how the Spartan 2 blew up six enemies, or shot them without looking, etc. At this point, the action has become more painful than exciting, and ridiculous to a fault.
But, not all is lost. There's a tantalizingly cryptic dialogue between Master Chief and the package, revealing his name and maybe, just maybe, hinting at a past that many of us want to know more of. But it's all over quickly, and we're thrust into what is, luckily, the most striking combat scene of this short; a one vs. one plasma sword duel. The simplicity of the surroundings and limited number of characters doesn't allow the over-the-top nature seen earlier in this episode to get in the way, and instead, we're left with a fairly exciting and well choreographed duel. But it's just too short. Indeed, the entire last few minutes of The Package is. We're whisked from conflict to resolution so fast there's little time to dwell on what happened. All of this makes this episode feel much more amateurish then some of the stronger ones, and in bad need of a supervisor who realized that there needs to be some sense of pacing and grounding.
HALO Legends ends up being a mixed bag if ever there was one. The final short left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. The high points of episodes like Homecoming and Prototype are contrasted by the low points of works like The Duel and Odd One Out. When the works succeed, they manage to do an admirable job in communicating the depressive state of warfare. There are many losses, some of them more effective than others, but the ability of such dire circumstances to bring out both the best and worst in humanity are on full display here. It's because of this that HALO Legends almost manages to work better as a large piece as a whole, rather than as various individual ones, commentating on war and humanity at large. It's too bad, then, that many of the works subjugate that in efforts of failed humor or poorly drawn up action. HALO Legends, on it's own, doesn't particularly stand-out, and it's debatable if a Halo fan will find the work more rewarding or less rewarding than someone like me, who is a bit unfamiliar with the games. It's not a bad collection, but it just doesn't really stand out from the pack either.
Individual Episode Scores:
- Origins: 5/10
- The Duel: 3/10
- Homecoming: 7/10
- Odd One Out: 2/10
- Prototype: 8/10
- The Babysitter: 6/10
- The Package: 4/10