In recent years video games, be they console or PC based, have moved to the forefront of popular entertainment. One of the upshots of this trend has been the a marked increase in the number of adaptations and spinoffs that can be found in manga and anime (and that's without including the doujin market). The major problem though, is that studios, production companies and storytellers are doing nothing more than recycling an existing concept, and while the adaptation may actually be pretty decent in some cases (Tears to Tiara for example), more often than not one is served a big plate of mediocrity (I'm looking at you Ragnarok et al).
However, while outright adaptations are rife, prequels and sequels to games are actually quite rare, and it's here where Tales of Vesperia ~The First Strike~ separates itself from the horde.
The story takes place a few years prior to the game and follows two of it's main characters, Yuri and Flynn, during their early careers as knights of the empire in the town of Shizontania. Unfortunately the town isn't as safe as it used to be, and their captain, Niren Fedrock, suspects greater forces are at work.
One of the criticisms that people may throw at this movie is the fact that it is very open ended, however given that this is nothing more than a prequel to the game, the reason for this is understandable. The story itself is pretty straightforward, with a remarkable lack of convolution that can sometimes appear in game adaptations and spinoffs. The main advantage of this is the fact that it is easier to tie the events in the movie to those in the game, however the downside is that the plot lacks a degree of depth that simply can't be hidden, which is often the reason why such terrible plot convolutions occur in thefirst place.
Thankfully first time director Kamei Kanta and writer Yoshida Reiko have kept things simple and direct, and because of this Tales of Vesperia actually manages to become interesting to a degree, enough to at least enjoy the movie and maybe consider buying the game (more on this in a bit). The one thing that most surprised me though, is how very different the feel and tone is from the game, and while both have lighter and darker moments throughout their respective stories, there is a certain brevity inherent in the movie that the game lacks, partly due to the RPG nature of the latter, and partly because of the need to wrap the story up within 110 minutes.
Many people will be familiar with the work of Production I.G. and it's nice to see that they've maintained their standards in terms of art and animation.
Maintained though, not bettered.
Overall the show is well put together, with some nicely detailed backgrounds and atmospheric settings thrown into the mix. The characters are modelled along the lines used for the original game for the most part, with the two leads and sundry other characters who appear in both looking pretty much the same. It should be noted though, that there are a number of characters who only appear in the movie (for example, the twin female knights Shastele and Hisuka Aiheap), a fact which may confuse some fans of the game. Be that as it may, in terms of design the movie is pretty solid, however that is as far as it goes because of the design limitations placed upon it by the source material.
One thing I should point is that this movie is far more graphic in its depiction of violence than the game, and doesn't shy away from some of the more greusome occurences which have only really been shown in a very sanitised manner within the Tales series thus far.
As for the animation, while the majority of the film runs very well there are some scenes where things just feel off kilter. This unfortuantely occurs in several scenes which involve CG animation of some sort, and while the problem isn't large enough to warrant major criticism, it is noticeable so it bears mentioning.
The sound quality is very good throughout the movie, especially when it comes to choreography. The music is, for the most part, absent from proceedings, however this serves to enhance its effect when it is used. The choice of tracks is also well thought out, and while there is a degree of genericism about those used for dramatic or action scenes, overall the quality of the pieces adds to the scenes.
One point I should mention about the music is the surprising, and pleasing, choice of theme song. Like the original game, the Tales of Vesperia movie has "Ring a Bell" by Bonnie Pink as the title track, a fact which may please fans of the game.
In terms of acting, this film has a big plus in that the characters of Yuri, Flynn, Estellise, Rita and Raven are played by the actors and actressses who took on the roles for the game. This factor adds to the sense of continuity that is needed in any direct prequel or sequel, especially as the seiyuu in the other, movie specific roles are equally as comfortable with their lines as their more experienced colleagues. That doesn't mean there's hamming it up, but for those most part the acting is pretty natural and flowing.
The biggest problem with Tales of Vesperia is the characters. Because this is both a movie and a prequel to a larger story, there is little in the way of major development. That said, the two lead characters do grow to a degree, and anyone who has played the game will no doubt find the additional information about them pleasing. However, those who have had neither the opportunity or inclination to play the game will probably find there is a distinct lack in this department.
That's not to say that the characters are bad though. As a stand alone movie they work fairly well, however the open ended nature of the tale leaves one feeling that more could have been done with the time. In essence, the fact that this is a prequel, something which in terms of plot content is an advantage, becomes a flaw when considering the the characters as they an "unfinished" quality about them comethe end of the film.
Be that as it may, I found that I actually enjoyed the movie, however I should point out that I have completed the game, so for me the additional story was a bonus. Unfortunately, it's all too possible that many viewers will find this less of an enjoyable experience, mainly because the story is open ended. If one were to be very harsh, then it's possible to consider the movie as nothing more than a glorified advert for the game. This seems an unfair criticism to me as while there is a clear message to play the game should one wish to complete the tale, the story is original enough to warrant a degree of separation.
The major plus point though, is the fact that the effort has been made to enhance the game's storyline instead of regurgitating it. That said, making a prequel or sequel doesn't always work in terms of content (Advent Children - looks awesome, and that's pretty much it), so it's nice to see that the main aspects of the tale have only lightly been covered, and that the focus is more about showing where the lead characters came from.
On the whole, Tales of Vesperia ~The First Strike~ is one of those movies that you can't fully appreciate unless you know the full story, and that's its biggest flaw. People don't really want to be burdened with having to complete a game that they may not even be interested in just to find out what happens next, which plays a major part in whether one can enjoy this movie or not. The more rlaxed viewer may not be overly concerned with the lack of a true ending, and the movie does have a good degree of entertainment value in its own right, but in all honesty, this is one for fans of the game and the Tales franchise.
Whatever the opinion though, this movie deserves some credit for being not only a prequel, but an original tale, as it could very well have been just another adaptation.