*Some spoilers may follow*
I went into this show with unrealistically high expectations, since I based them completely off of the mysterious key visual and the fact that I have yet to watch another magical girl anime that is true to its genre. (Kill La Kill doesn't count.)
It was only natural that I was disappointed by the first episode... and the next one... and the one after that. From a mostly flat protagonist whose dialogue mostly consists of "Huh?" and repeating things that other characters have just said to characters who get a single episode of development which is subsequently ignored, the show was almost a chore to watch and I was ready to give up on it and dismiss it as a disappointment.
That is, for the first eight episodes. That's when I was forcefully reminded that this show was made by Gainax, and that they may or may not have a little surprise or two up their sleeve.
In this case, they did, and I believe this show was saved by its lone male character, Minato.
Unlike the other main characters, Minato spends most of his screentime shrouded in mystery, and has conversations with Subaru (the aforementioned ditzy protagonist) that seemingly serve only to give her some kind of motivation. This is in stark contrast to his apparent role as the antagonist of the show, because when he is in his Mahou Shounen outfit, he is only focused on stopping the girls from collecting the fragments. It is in this manner that the first two-thirds of the show follows this pattern every episode:
* Character has some backstory
* Subaru has a conversation with Minato
* Fragment appears
* Girls chase the fragment, Minato tries and fails to stop them
* Girls collect the fragment, everyone is happy for the most part
(not necessarily in that order)
It came off as formulaic, even to me who has never watched a magical girl anime. But perhaps this was buildup to the last few episodes, where Minato's past (and possible affiliation with other characters) is revealed. And it is here that the show begins to deviate (for the better) from its cyclical first half, and the plot twists that followed showed a surprising amount of promise. An anime that can keep me guessing, especially after being predictable for the majority of its runtime, is one that proves that it has my attention.
Aesthetically, the the space scenes are among the standouts of this show. Not only are they scientifically accurate, but as a sucker for stargazing myself, they were striking, colorful, and very pleasing to look at. The opening is also a high point, and along with being incredibly catchy, it is my favorite opening this season. The ending is cute, but nothing special.
Other than Minato, there isn't much to say in the character department, design-wise and complexity-wise. It's pretty apparent that they were designed with moe in mind, but that's all there is to it. If there's anything to take away from them, it's that 12 episodes probably isn't enough to give each girl enough development to actually make them interesting and feasible. More often than not, I felt that they were just there to collect the fragments. That's not too far from the truth, but it left me wishing that they were a little less flat. This just goes to show how forgettable most of the character development was.
Despite all of my grievances, the show has enough interesting plot twists and high points to leave me feeling satisfied. It's far from the best show I've ever seen, or even seen this season, and it may prove to be forgettable, but it pleasantly surprised me. Maybe my complaints won't reflect in my overall score, or maybe I'm just giving it too much credit, but I liked it in the end, and that's all I can ask for. Who knew that a Mahou Shoujo anime would be saved by a Mahou Shounen?