I've been trying to review this series since it ended, but it's proven difficult because while I want to treat it as impartially as possible, there are a lot of factors that went into the decision-making of the series that make it hard to judge in just one way. I'm sure that that's true for a lot of series, but it's simply that I've been made all too aware about everything that had to do with this one. Being a huge fan of the first season doesn't help either.
This review may contain spoilers for the first season of Code Geass.
STORY - A lot has been revealed about the executive meddling and general "not as planned"-ness that affected R2. Suffice to say that the producers had to change many things around, not necessarily in ways they wanted, and this second season likely turned out very different from the way it was originally planned. Unfortunately, I can only talk about the final product, regardless of intentions; this has led me to feel as if I'm being unfair in any criticisms I make as far as story and character go. I guess I really have no choice in the end, but I think it's important to keep in mind that some of the more poorly executed points of this series likely resulted from the aforementioned.
Code Geass R2 starts one year after the "ending" of the first season and the first episode is the first of many that invokes feelings of deja vu. Neither Code Geass nor Code Geass R2 present many themes or storylines that haven't been covered before, but the plot does do a lot of evolving and changing between the seasons. The ex-prince that wants to destroy his homeland and discover the truth ends up leading the war to end all wars, a theme especially prominent in various Gundam series. But the series' greatest strength has always been its ability to tell the story in a new and interesting way, regardless of the barebones storyline. To that end, R2 doesn't quite live up to S1's standards -- indeed, it seems to borrow heavily on structuring and story framing that was successful in the first season. Beyond the first episode, several others seem to tie in thematically to their parallels in S1, such as Shirley-centric episode 12-14 and Geass-centric 15. A lot of sequels fall into the trap of trying to repeat previous successes, but for an always-planned sequel like R2, this fixation seemed a bit out of place, even if creators were forced to shift things around some.
Things are still interesting for the most part, but the change of course for the story (Lelouch's change of values and goals) felt somewhat choppy, and the mood changes a lot from episode to episode. S1 had its share of silliness and crack around Ashford Academy, but considering all the things that needed to be resolved in R2, I felt there were a few episodes that could have been better utilized. On the opposite end of the spectrum though, Sunrise seemed to occasionally throw 180's and give us episodes that were way out there in the left field: very WTF-inducing episodes. These episodes are what propel the story along the most, even if they often seemed abrupt in execution and occasionally anticlimactic. Despite this shaky progression, I do think that the story in R2 evolves all right enough. The supernatural elements that were kept in low profile in the first season get a little more attention... not enough to cover all the plotholes, but the final accumulation of events combines both the supernatural and the immediacy of war and revolution in a very interesting way.
The biggest complaint I have about R2's storytelling is that death is treated in an entirely unconvincing manner. Character death almost always felt arbitrary and contrived; Sunrise already has a pretty bad rap for bringing characters back from the dead, but the number of times they did this in series is just ridiculous. Major characters, minor characters -- regardless of whether or not their death would have been significant in the long run, they went crazy with it all over the place. Characters that should have died didn't. Characters that did die don't stay dead. You get pretty jaded after a while.
And yet, I'm actually very pleased with the ending of Code Geass R2. Even if none of the other episodes do, the last episode of R2 matches up to the last episode of S1. The drama is there; the storytelling is there. Everything is beautifully executed, and the ending is perfect in that it's open for interpretation, but it's very easy to draw a steadfast personal conclusion. Everyone can perceive an ending that makes them happy, and there's plenty of evidence both ways. Very clever, Sunrise -- at least you managed to do that part right.
CHARACTER - The character development in R2 is undoubtedly its greatest asset. Lelouch and Suzaku were both already complicated characters, but the situations they're forced through in this second season compound them much, much further. Their foilistic nature is emphasized again and again, and that delicious irony comes into play more than once (oh, I love irony). Idealistic Suzaku gets to play hardball through a seemingly endless string of seemingly cruel and heartless betrayals, and Lelouch the Machiavellist not only declares that "love is power," but takes it upon himself to fulfill the entire world's wishes. Once again, it's very easy to become emotionally involved with these characters. You're invested in them. You hate to love them, and you love to hate them. Their pain is real; their triumph is real. It's the greatest mark of good storytelling and character development when you feel like you can cheer and cry with the characters you're watching.
The sad part of it all is just that a lot of secondary characters in S1 that seemed to have great potential as far as character development get short-changed in R2. Kallen's backstory involving her brother is never explained, and while Ougi still got a fair share of screentime, it never felt like it was enough to explore the depths of his character. It was frustrating because I knew he was an interesting character with a complex train of thought, but I never got to see it. Instead, I was faced with some utterly unnecessary flirtation between Chiba and Toudou; I'm glad we can to explore relationship possibilities beyond the obvious cast, but come on. I hated Rolo's guts because he acted too stereotypically, and I never felt like there was any real thoughtfulness to his character. There could have been a lot more expansion there, not to mention Lelouch's relationships with Kallen and Shirley. Having a noncommittal harem is great for fan debate, but to some extent, I expect some serious content. All too often, it seemed like his feelings for those around him were based solely on the convenience of story. He would care about Shirley if it suited the plot, and he would remember Kallen when they had time to write her back into the script seven episodes later. I know he's a better character than that -- they just don't show it.
It's hard to explain without spoilers, but the irony of all the characters' roles at the end of the series is one of the things I love the most about the characters in this series. Everything is so fitting, so tragically fitting, and it's beautiful. I guess really appreciate the poetic justice of things.
ART & ANIMATION - The art and animation remain consistent in R2 as in S1. The Knightmare designs are great, though I sometimes wish flying units would lose the whole angel wings gig. Damocles didn't feel like a very inspired design either, but at that point in the story, its design was the least of my concerns. CLAMP's boys are their usual noodley selves, but I find their aesthetic pointless to critique or debate at this point. Everyone has their own opinion about them, and for the most part, that isn't going to change. I appreciate CLAMP's consistency anyway, though I always find it curious that they can make characters look so pleasing and elegant while blatantly ignoring every rule of anatomy. I'm sure that real men wouldn't look good all stretched out or with shoulders four times as wide as their hips. Curious indeed.
If there's one thing that's had to dispute though, it's the fact that CLAMP's facial designs allow for incredible expressiveness, especially when the emotion is sad. I absolutely adore just how stricken characters look when bad things happen to them -- sometimes, they look a little strange, outrageous and even sloppy (Lulu's shocked phone face, anyone?), but other times, the emotion is so strong that your heart just breaks for them. That such powerful art should accompany already powerful characters is great.
MUSIC - I didn't really care in one direction or another about R2's first OP/ED set, but I loved, loved, loved its second set. ALI PROJECT is usually a sure winner for me, here especially because I find their usual style very fitting to Code Geass. Edgy violins to capture that "high class" monarchy and shrill voices for the violence, drama, and anticipation. Perfect! I think I was coerced into liking FLOW's "WORLD END" because of gg's snarky captioning of a certain part of the lyrics (everything is fabulous~), but really, it's a great song that's also very fitting for the series, lyric-wise. R2's soundtrack is, naturally, similar to its first season counterpart -- both are mostly average with a few standout tracks, including some of the fight music and Britannian music (I love it when they use trumpets!). Hitomi's insert songs are, once again, very touching, emotional, and thoughtful -- I really like the haunting ambiance, and they're always used at very appropriate times. Geass's soundtrack isn't amazing, but I'd like to say that it's somewhere between good-average and great.
VOICE ACTING - As far as I know, the entire Japanese cast reprised their roles, which was excellent. I still love the insight you can gain by paying attention to how each character refers to himself, and it was interesting to see both Fukuyama and Sakurai handle Lelouch and Suzaku as they continued to develop as characters. The US dub airs this Sunday, but I imagine that most of the cast will remain the same, considering how quickly they've managed to dub it. I really do like how Lelouch and Suzaku's dub voices have turned out, not to mention Lloyd, but I still can't say the same for everyone else. (What the hell's up with Rakshata's voice??) Can't have 'um all, I guess. (Refer to my season one review for more details?)
OVERALL - Code Geass R2 had a lot of issues, enough that many people have gone on to call it a veritable trainwreck. I would disagree -- considering all the obstacles they were up again, I'd say Sunrise managed to pull off a pretty damn decent job. It wasn't a disaster. The story followed through. The characters were consistent. Yes, there are a good fistful of plotholes, but I think the most important stuff (character goals and resolution) pulled through very well in the end. The fact that the ending was beautiful really helped with that, and I'm sure I'm not the only one relieved by the fact that there are no plans to make a third, tag-on season. If you liked Code Geass, I would definitely recommend seeing this series through. It's worth it in the end. If you were skeptical about Code Geass to begin with, then you might not take as kindly to R2, but I'm telling you, that ending was beautiful.