Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Galactik Football - part II

And we return to Magical French Space Soccer, also known as Galactik Football. Good news first: the animation of the second half is a tremendous improvement over the first half, the voice actors have improved a lot (now they're just pretty bad instead of terrible), the writing shifts from enjoyably bad to enjoyably okay, the characters are all acting sympathetic, the magical time travelling soccer fairies no longer appear and we've got a soundtrack so epic that the part they sampled from John Williams (the star wars guy) didn't sound out of place. While my enjoyment of the first half of this show was more out of bemusement at how ludicrous it was, the second half is actually genuinely decent.

Yes, I can genuinely enjoy a kids' show that can be accurately described as Magical Space Soccer. Just because I'm a critical reviewer doesn't mean I don't enjoy silly stuff. If I'm being embarrassingly honest, I don't think my taste has actually changed all that much since I was ten years old. Hell, the very reason I started doing these reviews (which are so far outside my normal genre it's not even funny) was because I found an old notebook in which I made notes about the shows I watched (yes, I was one dorky little kid. Another thing that hasn't changed). A lot of what I said in the last review, and a lot of what I'll say in this review, actually comes from that notebook. Always good to have the target audience chime in on the subject, I suppose.

So what does the target audience have to say about this arc? “Only D'Jok matters to the plot. I like him, but the others need to be in the plot too!” While not very eloquently put, the little dumbass makes a good point here. There's two main plots in this arc. The first is how D'Jok gets his ego over-inflated, and has to overcome that, becoming a true star. The second is about Blaylock's plan to plunge the entire galaxy into a new war, with Professor Ninja-Pirate trying to stop him and D'Jok and Sinedd used as pawns. The rest aren't connected to the greater plot at all, do they do have their own stuff going on. Well, except Ahito and Thran. Not that they had all that much going on for them in the first half either. Thran especially. I don't think we ever even saw his parents react to his playing, something we got for all other parents.

Wait, we have two sons? Why didn't anyone tell me!?”
Okay, time for the actual story. While the preliminaries have taken us all over the galaxy, the final arc of the story takes place in genesis stadium. Basically, think the citadel from mass effect: utterly massive multi-racial space station that acts as the political center of the galaxy. While that's certainly not unique to mass effect, one gets the feeling that it was what the background artists were thinking of, because a lot of the background art really reminds me of the mass effect games. Well, the backgrounds and the hard light blue/orange computer screens. And the breath. And the fact that there's a jungle team, an all-female blue-skinned team, a team where the players have metal skin, a team of short green men with an odd number of eyes, a team that plays in full-body suits, a big brutish team and a black-and-white colored team with glowing eyes created by a human villain with odd eyes who uses a hexagon as the logo of his organization. Plus, the fact that the third season will introduce a mass relay network.

Alright, which one of you guys added a 'make entire universe revolve around space soccer' option to the catalyst? Was it you, Frank? Not cool, dude, not cool.”
Before this, the players had never really been treated as celebrities. Their hometown was a small community, the riker and shadows planets weren't exactly welcoming and the pirates had better things to do than get giddy over a third-rate soccer team. However, now they've made it to the final 16 and are on a space station devoted entirely to soccer. To quote Dame Simbai: “If you'd saved the galaxy, you'd be able to walk the streets in more peace than you do here.”

Dammit, I knew I shouldn't have picked the 'space soccer' ending!”
It's especially hard on D'Jok, since he's regarded as the star player. As in real life soccer, it's the guys making the goals that get almost all the credit (only having to share it with the guys who stand in front of the goal, who get a distant second place), so now he's suddenly regarded as a big-time celebrity. And, as you expect, it goes to his head and he becomes a bit of an arrogant douche. The other players are affected as well, which is not helped by how much the odds are in their favor for their first match against the wambas.

In a slight defiance of cliché, it's not just the arrogance that gets to them though. If it had just been that, they'd probably still have had an easy time. No, it's also the pressure. Y'see, Genesis Stadium is really, really big.

Looking at the real life salt lake stadium, and comparing it with this, I'd have to guess that this monstrosity of a stadium fits about a million people. Couple that with the fact that the soccer field floats in mid-air and has a translucent floor, and you've got the ultimate panic attack combination of heights, performing in public and agoraphobia. I'd probably turn into a sobbing wreck the second I stepped on the field.

Because they aren't used to the pressure, the first half is a disaster. Aarch giving a speech helps them through the second half, but with D'Jok still off his game and everyone collapsing from exhaustion, it's tight. They only win through epic Tia ninja manuevre, in which she suddenly drops in from the sky before the keeper can grab the ball, flips over him with the ball between her feet, and kicks it into the goal. Glorious.

But it does kinda remind me of something. Tia was the first person to develop the breath after the metaflux went boom. As such, we've seen her using the flux in every single match in the series. And, quite frankly, she's never improved. For that matter, none of the other kids have become any better after first developing their fluxes either.

Let's share a little secret here. At its heart, galactik football is a shonen series. That's a term used for japanese series aimed at pubescent boys. You've probably seen a few of them as a kid: think Dragon Ball Z, Digimon, Pokemon, Shaman King, B-Daman, Medabots, Yu-Gi-Oh or, if you're a young whippersnapper, Bakugan. The story structure of all these shows is pretty much the same:
-Introduce a weird concept, around which your world revolves.
-No matter how silly, make that concept look awesome.
-If it's not mystical in and of itself, add a mystical element.
-Escalate the concept

It's the escalation step that is so central to its appeal. While the awesome concept is what grabs the attention, the constant additions to the concept keep them hooked. Would any kid have kept watching digimon if they'd stop introducing new evolutions? Maybe a handful, but it sure as hell wouldn't be a franchise that's lasted sixteen years.

And the more I watch Galactik Football, the more it's obvious that the writers just don't get this very basic principle of their genre. The first half of the series was already pretty bad regarding this. There was no build-up and almost never any pay-off to characters first developing the flux, making it feel more like narrative accident rather than the central drive of the show. New tricks were seen occasionally, but were used only once and then forgotten about.

The second half is worse. At least the first half, due to its nature as a first half, had to introduce the concept and slowly build on it. Characters needed to develop the flux at some point, and new teams had to be introduced because there were none before. The second half keeps the characters at exactly the same skill and strength they were at the end of the first half, and introduces only a single new team, which is much weaker than those we saw before. Escalation is the entire point of the damn genre. This is like horror movie writers forgetting to put in scary stuff. I'd say this is the biggest case of a writer missing the point of his genre I've ever seen, but I've seen the other two seasons (where the writers respectively forget the magical part of magical space soccer, and somehow manage to screw up the concept of animation).

While we're not talking about story-relevant anyway, let's quickly get out of the way what the other characters are doing this arc. Micro-Ice has a sub-plot with him falling in love with the hotel manager's daughter, probably because she is the only person in the world with a more annoying voice than him. Because he's awkward around girls, he's getting some coaching by Mei. In return, he helps her stand up to her mother, whose pushing her way too hard with getting advertisement deals. Mei also gets in a relation with D'Jok.

Tia finds Rocket's mother and re-unites the two. Rocket is a bit miffed that he had a mother that he didn't know existed. Apparently, people just abandoned Norata left and right after the great disaster on Akillian, with his wife leaving him and her child to pursue an acting career on Genesis, vowing to return (but never doing so). Norata was just the slightest bit miffed that he had to explain to his son that his own mom just dumped him, so instead, he pretended like she had died. However, by the end of the show, Norata and his wife are back together and Rocket makes up with Tia. You may say that this disproves what I said about him and Aarch. Until you realize that he only gets with Tia because Aarch told him to.

It's actually a shame that the character stuff of the others takes such a backstage, because it's actually surprisingly well-written, especially when compared to the first half. In the first half, only Tia and Thran were really enjoyable as main characters. The others were annoying gits, except Rocket, who was just creepy. In this half though, they all actually feel like a bunch of nice kids, with enjoyable and believable interactions. Writers of forced teen drama, take notes; This is how you make me not want to strangle your characters with a garrote. Well, except for Micro-Ice, but even he's gotten a lot better. It's just that I want to end him before season three.

Now, there's been a lot of stuff I've been skipping over in this review, because this series seriously has way too many characters. One of the most notable of the things I skipped over was Warren and the Lightnings. The lightnings are one of the favorites for the cup this year, and the snow kids have been shown as idolizing them since the first episode. The most idolized of the lightnings is star striker Warren, the greatest star in magical space soccer, who's been mentioned throughout the series as someone the snow kids absolutely love and fear one day having to play against. D'Jok's poster of warren in particular is a common sight throughout the series.

Now, it's finally time to play against the lightnings. With the snow kids already having beaten the shadows, the other favorites, before, this match is regarded by most in-universe as the most important in this cup, 'the finale before the finale'. Unfortunately for the Snow Kids, D'Jok is at the absolute height of ego here, and it's rather apparent that it's going to muck up the match. The Snow Kids are going to need a miracle to pull through this.

Enter Warren. It's never exactly made clear how, but Warren has heard of D'Jok's ego problems and his here to talk to him about it. While D'Jok has always admired Warren, and wanted to be like him, it seems he got a bit of a wrong impression of the guy over the television. Warren is not a glory-hound. He's calm and dignified, not caring for his image, and does what he does out of a genuine love for the sport. We'd actually seen some hints of this in Warren's television appearances, where he seems to care little for the theatrics of the television production, and more for actual genuine analysis.

I actually really like Warren as a character. He's got the dignity and calmness of a seasoned veteran, without letting the perception of him go to his head. While he rarely smiles, he never seems unhappy because of it, and he knows that it's good to poke a bit of fun as yourself from time to time. He even draws a funny little moustache on D'Jok's poster of him, explaining that while he has lost his ego, he kept his pride, and D'Jok should do the same. Despite being an opponent, Warren loves the sport and wants to be able to play on equal terms, so he has come to D'Jok to prevent him from making the same mistakes Warren did when he was D'jock's age.

It's a very rare event in the series that a soccer match is just a match, both teams playing equally. Usually, there's some personality problem or missing person holding back the snow kids, or the opponents are playing nastily or stuff like that. That's not the case here though, with two teams that genuinely respect each other playing at full capabilities. I think the only time that happened before was in the second match against the pirates, which was skipped over for all but the last few minutes. Likewise, this match will not be focused upon by the story, though at least more of it gets shown (which is good, because it's pretty awesome).

Instead, we're focusing on professor Ninja-Pirate and his motley crew of terrorists. Remember back in the first half that Clamp was kidnapped and replaced with a double? Ninja-Pirate is now breaking into the headquarters of Blaylock, using the match as a distraction to get the original Clamp back. Like in real life, important sport matches take priority over everything with most men, meaning a lot of the guards are actually watching the match rather than doing their job.

While the pirates manage to get out Clamp, the match is almost over, and it turns out that they need to go back to get Clamp an antidote. Luckily for Clamp, the Snow Kids have been using a defensive strategy, and both teams have been unable to score, meaning they get some extra time with penalty shoots (for those not acquainted with soccer, that means that players from both teams take turns taking shots at the opponents goal from a set distance, with none but the keeper in the way. The person with the most points at the end of this wins). For some odd reason, no one but Warren uses the flux during the penalties. Despite that, he misses, meaning the snow kids won the match. There's a really nice scene between D'Jok and Warren after the match, cap-stoning the former's character growth and the latter's cool old guy status.

This is also the point where the pirates storyline and the snow kids storyline start running together. All of the Snow Kids are known to have been born shortly after the disaster that drove Akillian into an ice age. As a resulted, they have all been infected with the metaflux, which caused that disaster. The Breath never actually came back. Instead, the Snow Kids have all been tapping into the metaflux. However, the metaflux is actually very, very unhealthy for humans, and their health has been degrading ever since they started using it. To save their lives, real Clamp is going to have to extract the metaflux from them. However, that means they lose their magical soccer powers.

Of course, this entire explanation does raise two questions. First; if the characters were using the metaflux rather than the breath all along, how come the flux society was able to detect their usage of the flux back in the first few episodes? The metaflux is undetectable, which is what set the entire plot of the series in motion. Second; What about Tia? She's been using the flux years upon years longer than the other kids, who are starting to develop serious health problems after only a few weeks. How come she isn't long-dead?

Also, now that you know that a portion of the children on your home planet are infected with a deadly chemical, are you going to warn...

They chose not to play soccer, therefore their lives are forfeit!”
Of course.

Because this series is slightly saner than most other examples of its genre, the characters actually all uniformly choose their lives are more important than the magical space soccer, so they get the metaflux extracted. Naturally, this results in their next match being hilariously one-sided, with the techno-droids, technoid's team, absolutely rolling over them. The lack of the flux is actually really well-handled, with the players instinctively trying to use the stuff they usually do with the flux, but utterly failing at it. It's surprisingly satisfying to see our heroes ground into the dirt by soulless machinery.

Of course, because of the kind of show this is, this only lasts until half-time, with all the snow-kids discovering the flux during the second half. Even as a kid, that struck me as ridiculously convenient. Both me and young me would have preferred if the powers had been recovered over time. Half the team is largely irrelevant anyway, so you could do the rest of the kids developing the breath over the course of training after this match, just to have it feel slightly less forced.

Since the players got their asses kicked during the first half, that means a counter ass-kicking of even greater proportions is necessary in the second half to get the snow kids back in the lead again. By the end of the match, you start to wonder how these mechanical buffoons made it to the semi-finals to begin with. Though, given what the next seasons show us, the reason is probably that there is only four non-incompetent teams (shadows, rikers, lightnings, snow kids) in this entire league, and the techno-droids didn't have to play any of them.

Now, the series starts grinding its final gears. Blaylock knows that D'Jok is Ninja-Pirate's son and uses that to his advantage, first threatening D'Jok to capture Ninja-Pirate, and then threatening Ninja-Pirate to get D'Jok to do what he wants. Specifically, he wants D'Jok to try and get his team to lose in the cup finales. Why does the arch-villain care for the outcome of a silly soccer tournament? Well, that has to do with Sinedd.

Remember how I mentioned all the way in the beginning that flux used to be wielded as a weapon? Well, that era of intergalactic warfare was actually quite recent. It's never exactly dated down, but it likely only ended somewhere between 25 and 29 years ago, within Sinedd's lifetime. His parents were among the untold billions of victims. Sinedd may play the game now, but he is all too aware that the existence of flux still poses a danger. Blaylock has approached Sinedd, claiming that a new war was brewing beneath the surface of galactic politics. And Sinedd is the only one who can stop it, but only if his team wins the galactik football cup.

The galactik football cup is not just some measly trophy you put in a closet. It's a large, technological miracle, designed to absorb a bit of flux from a member of the winning team, and travel across the stars, shining the flux of the winning team across a multitude of planets. Blaylock has designed a small device which would push the cup into overdrive, absorbing every single drop of flux present in Genesis Stadium. Since space soccer is so popular, nearly every single flux user in the galaxy would be present in the stadium for the finale, thus losing his powers and making a new war impossible.

Of course, Sinedd doesn't have the entire picture. Using samples the fake Clamp took from the Snowkids, Blaylock has created a new stable metaflux, allowing him to create new flux users as he pleases. When Sinedd depowers all the natural flux users, Blaylock's artificial flux users would be completely unopposed.

When this plan was revealed, it really took me by surprise. This really is a great plan, which works perfectly in the rules of the setting. Having the flux wars taking place relatively recently was a very good idea, since it gives a bit of a sense of darkness to the setting, and it makes you re-evaluate a lot of things from earlier in the series. Was the pollution of the riker and shadows planets the result of damage sustained during the wars? When Warren said he didn't want D'Jok to make the same mistakes he did in his youth, was it mistakes he made during the war, rather than during his soccer career? Is Aarch obsessing over soccer a way of dealing with the war, seeing the sport as the alternative to the wars that must have lasted most of his life? It's all certainly possible, though we never really do get a good idea of what happened in the war.

Sinedd has gotten a lot more rounded as a character in the final leg of the series, giving him motivation, tragedy and even a bit of a sense of honor. Sure, he's still a jerkass that will use dirty tricks, but he's doing it to prove he is the best. Back on Akillian, D'Jok was the one player that was better than Sinedd. Sinedd can't really let that stand. However, he knows that D'Jok is being blackmailed into playing poorly in the finale, and after that, neither of them will have flux anymore. He won't ever be able to prove to D'Jok that he is the better player in an actual match. So, instead, Sinedd challenges D'Jok to a one on one duel in Genesis Stadium, which takes place in the episode appropriately titled 'the duel'.

Now, I have mentioned before that the animation on this show is pretty damn low-budget. The 2d animation used outside matches looks at least ten years out of date, and the 3d animation is just as bad, though the editing and cinematography do a really nice job of hiding that. 'The Duel' is different though. For starters, every single other match consists of recycled animations for like, 90% of screentime. The Duel? Tons of new animation. For once, having characters improve on their usage of the flux isn't limited by needing to recycle animations. Despite the duel only lasting a few minutes of screentime, D'Jok displays countless new tricks. The music can't have been cheap either, with a full orchestral score that is in-sync with the animation, and includes a sample of John Williams' 'duel of the fates' and another sample I recognize, but can't place exactly. The entire duel sequence is such a massive, massive shift in production values that the most likely explanation is that someone made a typo on the budget.

That, or the writers cared more about D'Jok than any other aspect of the story, but that'd just be ridiculous, right? Okay, no, that is actually the likely explanation. While I really like this episode a lot, I do feel like making it might have been a mistake in the long run. Particularly, splurging their low animation budget on tricks for D'jock. Had they instead spread it around a little bit, they could have given each of the snow kids a new trick with the flux in the second half of the series, giving an actual sense of growth to the characters.

The duel is very, very close. Sinedd takes the lead initially, mostly because D'Jok really isn't into this. He only came to try and get information on the capture of his father out of Sinedd. It's only when Sinedd's arrogance starts pushing on his nerves that D'Jok gives it his all. Actually, technically, he gives it more than his all, since he's doing things that seem to be impossible. Most notably, he's using the flux to fly. Normally, the breath only enhances your jumps to awesome degrees, but that's very clearly not the case here, as D'jok hangs in mid-air before swooping upwards again.

Sadly, the duel is cut short pretty early into the match, as Sinedd becomes overwhelmed by the smog addiction, like what happened with Aarch back in the day. Sinedd seems to be handling it slightly better than Aarch did, but it still looks to be pretty damn painful. Ouch. You got my sympathies, sympathetic-villain-man.

With the duel over, the time for the final match approaches. Like with the lightnings match, there are two plots going on simultaneously. The first, obviously, is the finale itself. The second is the quest to rescue professor ninja-pirate. Maia, D'Jok's space gipsy hippie adoptive mother now knows that ninja-pirate is D'Jok's father and has a vision of where he is being held; in a slowly shrinking bubble inside the giant water tanks of Genesis Stadium. While D'jok doesn't want Maia to tell anyone about this, fearing it may endanger his father's life, Maia apparently doesn't give a damn about that, and tells Clamp, who in turn tells Aarch and the Pirates.

What a coincidence! I went for the plan that might result in my adoptive son's biological father being killed, meaning I will not have any competition as a parental figure.”
Another part of the series that I haven't really touched on is that Blaylock is also betraying his superiors at technoid. Duke Maddox, the supreme boss of the organization, does actually favor soccer over war. His funding of the metaflux research was actually meant simply to give his soccer robots a bit of a sorely-needed edge. Dame Simbai has managed to negotiate an alliance with him, meaning that The Pirates and Technoid are now teaming up to save Ninja-Pirate and defeat Blaylock.

While the idea of a joint robot/terrorist army may sound quite awesome, the problem is that the series is animated on a budget of three cents and a shoe-string. And most of that went into making the 3d action scenes. As a result, the 2d animation is extremely low-grade, and any 'action' scene becomes pretty damn dull. Not that the animation is the only problem in that regard. The directing for the action is pretty damn bad as well, sucking out any tension. Also, for some reason, Maddox is only bringing two robots. Probably because the budget couldn't support any more moving people on-screen, but it's still very silly. Even more because they actually complain they lack the man-power to search all the reservoirs.

The soccer action is a lot better, though, for the finale, it's still a bit underwhelming. Guys, we've seen this match. In fact, we've seen it twice. There has been no indication that either the Snow Kids or the Shadows have improved in any way since they last played. As a result, this entire thing is just a rehash.

By the time of the second half, Aarch has had a talk with D'jok, and knows about the entire ordeal. He still wants D'jok to play to win (because Aarch is a goddamn maniac), but he knows he can't really force D'jok, instead having the rest of the team play without him. Like when they lacked Micro-Ice, it's going surprisingly well, and had the Shadows not made a goal before this strategy was adopted, the match would have become a draw. However, in the last few minutes in the second half, one of the Shadows does a slide-kick against Rocket, giving the Snow Kids a free kick.

Hey, remember what happened last time Akillian got a free kick against the Shadows in an important match? That's right; the apocalypse. Every Akillian in the audience is now having traumatic flashbacks. Not helping is the fact that the announcer is using the exact same lines that the announcer used during the free kick in that match. You might argue dramatic irony, until you remember that the announcer is actually from Akillian, and is thus deliberately trolling her people. Not that the Snow Kids, who are apparently deliberately copying the movements of their predecessors, are any better. Hell, apparently the station itself and the laws of physics are in on the joke, as it suddenly begins snowing, with the field freezing.

Now, the explanation for this? During the fire-fight between the two technoid robots and the four Blaylock robots, one of the water reservoirs was hit, with the station dumping all the water outside. On contact with space, the water freezes, becoming an expanding block of ice that begins covering more and more of genesis stadium. Now, two obvious comments. First, physics says this shouldn't be happening. Water exposed to space boils first due to the lack of pressure. It's only when the water is all turned into a gaseous state that it freezes (or, technically, desubliminates, which is like freezing, but with gasses), meaning you get an expanding cloud of tiny ice particles. Large amounts of water simply don't freeze all that fast in outer space, due to space having a very, very, very, extremely, ridiculously, hilariously, very low particle density.

But that's weird obscure stellar physics only a complete geek would know. Young me didn't know that, but he did bring up something else: If the ice is on the outside of the station, why is it snowing inside? As a general rule, space ships tend to be built to not suck in things from the outside, since, y'know, there are no things outside to be sucked in (and the few things there are, you really don't want to).

The weirdest thing is that this entire sequence doesn't even affect anything. The only thing the freezing does is break communications between the coaches and the field, meaning Rocket can't hear Aarch tell him to not let D'jok take the shot.

Rocket! You must take this shot! You must eliminate what is holding your fellow player back! You must purge him of all connections outside soccer. I order you, KILL HIS FATHER!”
However, it seems like Aarch's beliefs have rubbed off on his players, as D'jok makes the goal anyway. Luckily for Pirate-Ninja, he has already been saved by his compatriots. I can only imagine the awkward conversation that's gonna follow when he heard that his son was willing to have him killed for the sake of a soccer match though.

With the score tied by the end of the second half, it means it's time for the golden goal rule to go in effect. Because having the finale be determined by penalty shots would be really anti-climactic, the teams will instead play normally until a single goal is made, which will determine the winner. Sounds like it could be really tense, right?

Well, no. Instead, this is the most hilariously one-sided match seen in the entire series. It's like the shadows players aren't even on the field. The only reason this match lasts more than a few seconds is that the laws of probability apparently thought physics had a good idea with its trolling and started to get in on the fun. Every single member of the snow kids gets to make a shot at the goal, and somehow almost all of them hit the goalframe. Even Ahito gets in on it, leaving his goal far behind as he jumps across the field. This would be the act of an insane madman in any other scenario, but, like I said, it's like the Shadows aren't even there.

Though I'll admit, that looks like it's really fun.
The only ones who don't hit the frame on their shot are Tia and Mei, who hit the keeper instead. Remember how I said the concept of the series doesn't really work because the characters don't develop their powers? Well, they actually pull out a few new tricks in these last few minutes. So, they do develop their powers, but only when it's not necessary.

However, Mei is a clever girl, for she has realized it's impossible to make the shot without hitting either the keeper or the goalpost. Weighing her options, she aims for the keeper, shooting so ridiculously hard that the keeper is forced back into the goal along with the ball. Victory!

The remaining plots quickly get resolved. Pirate-Ninja and Blaylock, who is trying to escape with the metaflux, fight in a high place. To the shock of everyone who has never seen a high-altitude fight in fiction, Blaylock is thrown off the edge, plummeting to his doom (only to reveal he survived in the stinger). Blaylock's second hand man talks down Sinedd before he can try to make a run for the cup and attach the device anyway, in return getting himself a reduced sentence. Happy endings for everyone!

Conclusions and afterthoughts
As a show about soccer that involves both magic and aliens, there is no way this show would have failed to find an audience, at least among European kids. Success of this show is more indicative of it finding an appealing, mostly unspoiled niche, not of actual quality. This doesn't have to mean the show had to be bad of course. Even if you're the first wide-spread entry in your niche, you can put thought and deliberation into it. This show... I'll be fair and say it tried before I say it failed. Let's pull out a few good points.

First, the universe seen here is actually quite vibrant. Members of a single alien race are not simply cookie-cutter copies of one another, but are a very varied bunch. They actually put a surprising amount of work into making sure the races have a wide variety of body-types and aren't stuck in a single personality. Compared to its peers, even the ones I really like, the variety and vibrancy in the setting make it feel much more natural.

And yeah, I used the word natural to describe a story that revolves entirely around magical space soccer. Again, compare this to the shonen shows this is trying to emulate. In shows like Beyblade, B-daman, Yu-gi-oh! or Medabots, the entire world in which the setting of the show takes place revolves around the show's game. In Digimon and Dragon Ball Z, there is some acknowledgment of an outside world that doesn't give a damn about the central concept of the show, but we never really get to see it unless it's being blow up. Galactik Football, at the very least, acknowledges that space soccer is just a game. Even among the important characters, there's plenty who don't really care all that much about the sport. I've poked fun at Aarch's over-obsession, but his over-obsession really wouldn't be anything out of the ordinary in any of these other shows. There's no ancient legends about magical space soccer, there's no universal power behind magical space soccer, there's no fundamental good and evil involved in magical space soccer. It's just a game and it's mostly treated as such.

This naturalness also applies to the characters. Despite them actually being professional space soccer players, they have lives outside of that. Not everything they do and want is related to space soccer. Even Rocket and D'jock, who are easily the most soccer-obsessed people on the team, are relatively mild if you compare them to the protagonists from other franchises. It's especially notable when you look at the villainous plan. Blaylock is only a very casual fan of space soccer, and it had absolutely nothing to do with his villainous plan unless it was absolutely necessary. He wasn't going to inject the metaflux into himself so he could play in the soccer finale. He's leaving that to someone who actually plays soccer for a living, and is instead sticking to what he knows.

Also helping the setting is that it has well-established locations. Especially in the first half, there's a lot of good establishing shots that show us cool locations throughout the galaxy. The home village of the Snowkids on Akillian is actually built on a massive snowy slope that has built up against the ruins of two massive ruined skyscrapers. The home planet of the wambas is a cool tree-planet (as in, a planet that's literally a giant tree) with the various branches of that tree forming vast jungles. The home planet of the shadows is actually a beautiful, inhospitable asteroid belt with massive crystals everywhere. The pirates' base is also in an asteroid belt, but much differently, with the pirates having large hidden bases within the various asteroids which are built so they can quickly be evacuated. I'd honestly love it if we ever got a galactik football game that just left out the soccer and let us explore these various worlds. An RPG set during the flux wars, maybe?

And with that, I'm switching to the failure part. You see, while I do actually genuinely like the setting, probably a lot more than the in-show presentation warrants, that's all background stuff. It's only by the end of the series that there is a little integration of story and backstory with Sinedd's connection to the flux wars. Beyond that, the vast majority of the screentime is devoted to either the snowkids, with either teen drama or soccer taking the focus, the pirates, whose entire plot revolves around a conflict that never quite gets explained to us, and, oddly enough, the parents of the snowkids, who get a surprising amount of screentime.

Which brings us to another thing; Holy hells, is this series bloated beyond hell. Having a series focus on no less than seven characters is already a bit of a stretch, but it can still be done well. I remind myself of the original Digimon series, which also started with seven main characters, and, even as I take another look now that I'm older, managed to handle them quite well. However, I'm not quite sure you can really call the seven snow-kids the main characters. With the exception of D'jock and Rocket, the snow-kids all have less impact on the plot, even on an episode-by-episode basis, than Aarch, Clamp, Norata or Ninja-Pirate. Hell, they have less impact than many of the minor characters.

And there's a lot, and I do mean a lot of these minor characters. It gets to the point where the minor characters form small cliques of their own. You've got Sonny Blackbones' clique, with his three assistants Corso, Benett and Artie. You've got the flux society clique, with Dame Simbai, Brim Simbra and Brim Balarius. You've got the 'hanging out in a bar, watching soccer on tv' clique, which consists of Micro-Ice's mom (whom the wiki informs me is named Mana-Ice, but I'm pretty sure the wiki is inaccurate as hell), Ahito and Thran's parents, Maia, the crime-lord from the first episode and his two henchmen. You've got the newscaster clique, consisting of Callie Mystic and Barry Land. Any and all of these cliques can and do get appearances in any given episode. There's the coach clique, which in addition to Aarch, has Artegor and Adium. Now, there is nothing wrong with any of these guys in a vacuum, except maybe the crime-lord. It's just that there are so goddamn many of them, and they pop up all throughout the entire series and, with the exception of Sonny's group, end up having no relevance to the actual stories. Guys, we're here for the magical space soccer and to see Professor Pirate-Ninja playing James Bond. Try to actually focus on that.

And then there is the matter of animation and voice acting. I'll admit it's a bit shallow on my part, but these do affect my opinion of the writing to a large degree. However, with Galactik Football, the quality of the animation didn't affect my opinion as much as I expected it to. In the 2d stuff, the animation is dreadful, sure, but the good art-work on the backgrounds and interesting character designs make it at least tolerable to sit through. It's only in scenes that are supposed to be all about action that the animation really becomes deficient to the story.

The 3d animation ends up actually being surprisingly good. Don't get me wrong, on a technical level, it is pretty damn bad. But that's why we don't equate technical level with actual level. The cinematography on the 3d scenes is brilliant, among the best I have ever seen. No, really. Through the usage of unconventional angles, montages and good integration of the music, it manages to turn sub-par animation about a silly game in something that's actually really tense most of the time. One really clever touch in the series is that the opponents very rarely talk. They are not to be seen as just an enemy team of sports-players. They are to be seen as ominous and powerful, monsters rather than equals. When they do produce sounds, it sounds wrong and out of place. The red tigers have these weird, almost psychedelic sound effects. The rikers have maniacal mechanical laughter coming from thin air. The cyclops (a team I didn't mention before because the snow kids didn't play against them) produce animal-like guttural sounds. The shadows have dark bestial roars. And the technoid robots don't say anything at all. Only the wambas, the pirates, the lightnings and Sinedd get the humanization that speech brings with it.

Though, in the case of Sinedd, I'm not sure that was a good thing. Seriously, what were they thinking with the voice? What were they thinking with any of the voices? Of all the major and minor characters in the series, only Tia and Benett have acceptable voice acting. Why only them? Because they're the only ones who speak in their own, natural accents. Their voice actors are british, and their characters thus speak with a british accent. All other voice actors are irish, and yet none of their characters have an irish accent. It's especially hilarious with Artie, whose voice actor tries so, so hard at a brooklyn accent. It's adorable. Despite my loathing of Micro-Ice's voice, I'd actually argue that Sinedd's is the most problematic though. Making him sound like a squirrel entering puberty was not the best choice for a villain, especially if he's supposed to be older than the main characters.

Actually, that reminds me of something that moves us into the 'complaining about specific plot points' territory. Specifically, I think it might have been a better idea to turn Sinedd into two characters. The Sinedd that joined the snow kids was a teenage bully, whose playing skills were honestly not that impressive. The idea that the Shadows, the favorites for the cup with a full team already at their disposal, took on a second-rate nobody who hadn't even played a full match is silly. The idea that they made that second-rate nobody, who had never even scored a single goal in a formal game, their star striker even more so. Hell, it doesn't work just because of age. The sinedd we see on Akillian seems to still be a teenager. Indeed, the reason they're called the snowkids is that they're kids from a snowy planet. That means Sinedd is seventeen at most. However, his parents died during the flux wars. Galactik Football only started after the flux wars, the cup is held once every four years, and there were at least two cups before the disaster on Akillian sixteen years ago. That means that Sinedd is at least twenty-four years old. These timelines are not compatible.

Though it's not like he's the only one with problems in his storyline. Tia, Micro-Ice, Thran and Ahito all felt like the series could have seriously benefited from their stories getting an extension. Tia is the obvious first one, and I mentioned the disappointment that was her story in my review. Thran was established early on as being close friends with Clamp, even working on some of the technology he created. It would have been good to see him have more of a connection with the plot of the replaced Clamp. Micro-Ice has this big connection to the pirates as well, so it would be nice to see that developed a bit more, maybe have him actually take a bigger role in their story. And Ahito? Well, I'll be frank, it would be nice to see him actually have a story. Semi-sleeping goalie may be awesome, but he doesn't exactly have a lot to do.

So, final thoughts on the story. I certainly like the idea behind it, and it had a lot of potential. However, the series never really managed to have an overall arc. The flux development gets too little focus for it to be about that. The pirates story only gets occasional focus until the last three matches, so it's not about that. The character arcs are all too short and relatively disconnected for it to be about that. In the end, the series pretty much ended up just being a vehicle for cool-looking space soccer matches. There is nothing wrong with that, but the show definitely could have been more. Still, it's my favourite ending to mass effect.

Next season: How the hell do these writers miss the point of their franchise?

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

World of Warcraft - Cataclysm - Mount Hyjal

And welcome once again to Ramses Reviews, this time featuring another good ol' warcraft review. Specifically, we're going to be taking a look at Mount Hyjal, crown jewel of the night elf civilization, and the site of the most legendary battle in the franchise.

The Summit of Hyjal
Before we talk about the zone, let's take a minute to talk about zone design. Some zones are designed to feel like an environment. The great plains of the barrens, the forests of Elwynn, the giant cave that is Deepholm. These zones give the player a wide-open space to move around in as he wishes, giving the feeling of a large and free world. Other zones are designed linearly, rather than wide-open, with only a few limited paths available to the player. If done well, this gives the zone a feeling of escalation, turning it into a single grand adventure as the true scope and shape of the zone slowly becomes clear. Icecrown, Storm Peaks and Blade's Edge Mountains are examples of this being done well. If done poorly, like in vanilla stonetalon, it will feel arbitrary and restricting, with long underdeveloped 'corridors' connecting unfulfilling globules of concentrated content. Mount Hyjal, sadly, fits into the latter category.

Whenever I enter this zone, I don't see an environment. I just see 'location designed for quests X through Y'. Even before I started over-analyzing video games, these kind of zones always took me out of my immersion. Which is a real damn shame, because the environment they created for mount hyjal is quite beautiful.

Sure, it's not the most breathtaking sight in the world, but it works at being this pretty, sorta fairy-ish environment, and it has this definite air of enchantment over everything. Which works really well to contrast it against the domains touched by the invading fire elementals.

Clean and crisp contrast. Good work, art team. Well, I think. I'll admit that I'm not exactly up to date with how blizzard organizes its design teams, so I'm not sure whether art asset design and zone design are two teams, or one. Because I do have some issues with the zone design.

Back in The Burning Crusade, we got our first look at Mount Hyjal in a Cavern of Time instance called The Battle of Mount Hyjal. While it wasn't exactly a good raid lorewise (really scaling down the scope of the battle, removing furbolg, goblin and dark trolls, badly translating the mechanics from that mission, not translating the NPCs well, etc.), it did give us a preview of what the zone looked like. Mount Hyjal copies most of the landscape design from the raid (which in turn took it from the unreleased Mount Hyjal zone that was supposed to be in vanilla), so there is a direct translation from that version to this one.

And yet, there are a lot of things missing from the zone, despite the situation being almost exactly the same. The alliance and horde military encampments, the largest of their kind seen in world of warcraft to date, are gone. Sure, they got destroyed in the battle of mount hyjal, but there is literally not a single trace left of them. I could kinda buy that, what with druidic magic absorbing the ruins or something. However, in their place, there are now suddenly ancient night elf shrines and holdings. Where the hell were they during the battle and how did they survive it? Actually, that's a question that I'm going to be asking a lot throughout the review.

Aside from that, there is also the issue of the night elf base. In the Battle of Mount Hyjal instance, the designers were clearly just winging it by this point, as it was far smaller than the alliance and horde bases, with large tracts of undeveloped land. Still, there was some evidence that the night elves had bothered fortifying, with a handful of buildings, ancients and iconic night elf units (minus keepers of the grove, faerie drakes, hippogryphs, chimaeras, treants, owls, etc, since, as I said, the designers were obviously just winging it by this point).

In the Mount Hyjal zone though, there's not even that. In the ten years since the battle of mount hyjal, knowing demons and arcane-addicted idiots drool at the very thought of the well of eternity, the night elves have rebuilt none of the defenses except a single token hunter's hall, located on the side furthest from the entrance. There are no towers, no glaive throwers, no druid trees, not even any ancients. The weak point of the entire planet, left completely undefended. Even better, the night elves did apparently construct some new fortifications... they're just further down the mountain, where they'd be little use even if they weren't already on fire. Throughout this zone, it's going to be hilarious just how completely incompetent the defense here is.

Luckily for the defenders, the attackers are even worse. In the introduction to this zone, we're carried in by Aronus, a green drake. Apparently, Deathwing's minions have started their assault on mount hyjal, and are trying to summon Ragnaros. By the time Aronus actually gets you to the zone though, the new fortifications I mentioned have already been destroyed, and Deathwing himself has arrived, completing the summoning ritual and calling forth Ragnaros.

Yes, Deathwing and Ragnaros, together, attacking mount hyjal! How can the defenders of mount hyjal possibly survive this? By doing absolutely nothing. Yup, Deathwing just flies away from the completely undefended Mount Hyjal for no reason, and Ragnaros will spend the entire zone doing absolutely nothing except for a single quest where the player confronts him. That's some brilliant writing right there.

Actually, the phrase "does absolutely nothing except for a single quest" is another one that's going to be showing up in this review a lot. For example, when you have seen this, Aronus carries you to the top of Mount Hyjal, where you report to Ysera, the green dragon aspect. Ysera is one of the most powerful creatures on Azeroth, as well as being the ruler of the emerald dream and having an entire army of dragonkin at her command. She will do absolutely nothing herself, serving only to give you quests.

Further down the mountain, we meet Malfurion, the first and most powerful of the night elf druids, who has recently started merging with his animal spirits. He is currently a contender for most powerful mortal on Azeroth. He will also do absolutely nothing, except for a single quest.

Instead, everything is left up the player. Sure, it usually is, but most zones at the very least pretend to have other people doing things. This zone doesn't give a damn about that. It's not exactly subtle about it either. Ysera outright says that while she's busy wasting time (okay, seeking answers from the emerald dream, which is pretty much the same thing), you're going to have to be one to defend the world tree. Mind you, this is the very first quest in the zone. She's really just dumping responsibility on the first guy she sees and running home.

Okay, so it's the players job to do everything. Job one: defend the world tree from the attacking lava elementals and twilight's hammer spies. Naturally, being weak and disorganized, the elementals have reached the summit of Mount Hyjal and are laying siege to the world tree itself. Having spent the last ten thousand years of history preparing to defend this tree, the night elves naturally aren't capable of fielding anything more than a bunch of guys with hammers.

But what about the other allies of nature, you ask? Well, Ysera is in the tree, and the green dragonflight is present, but they're not actually bothering defending the tree because of reasons. The faerie drakes are also present. It's around this time that we got a very crude and poorly executed retcon that the faerie drakes, chimaeras and mountain giants seen in warcraft III only joined with the night elf forces to help defend mount hyjal (despite, y'know, faerie drakes and mountain giants only being added in the expansion that took place after the battle there, and chimaeras never being shown as possessing any more than animal intelligence). However, since that retcon was done in this expansion, you'd think that that would mean we'd actually get to see those guys defend mount hyjal, like their entire purpose in the previous game has now been revealed to be, right?

HAH! Dream on, little reader. The mountain giants are sitting this battle out, chilling around in Azshara and Winterspring. Chimaeras are as ignored a species as ever. The only ones present are faerie drakes, because they actually live on the mountain. So they'd have to help, right? Well, only if you bribe them with candy, and then only to help find a single guy. Thanks for nothing there, you little freaks of nature.

So, the player, without any help from the so-called guardians of Hyjal, saves the well of eternity, and therefore, the world (though, given that the twilight's hammer was so incompetent that they never thought of approaching the well from the three undefended sides, I'm not sure the world was in much danger to begin with). Huzzah, medals for the player and on to the next... what do you mean, we've only done four quests? Man, am I even slower than usual today.

Fact is, the guardians of hyjal aren't just incompetent enough to have let enemy elementals within ten feet of the I WIN button, they are so incompement that they failed to do anything anywhere on the mountain and they desperately need the player to go solve EVERYTHING. I mean, that usually is the case to some degree, but here it's just ridiculous. Every single threat is too much for the people here to handle. We're no longer adventurers. We're a one man army that apparently surpasses the night elf empire, the green dragonflight and the cenarion circle at the same time. Yeah, this zone is pretty much the killing blow for the dignity of the warcraft III night elf faction.

Let's do a quick contrast with the battle for Wintergarde in the last expansion to demonstrate what I mean. There, the scourge fortress of Naxxramas assaulted the alliance base of Wintergarde, raising a massive army of undead from the old catacombs beneath the city. The entire lower half of the city has already been lost to the undead by the time the player arrives. Now, the situation in wintergarde and on hyjal is roughly the same for most of the questing, though the latter is obviously more large-scale. Yet, Wintergarde was one of the most memorable battles in the game, and Mount Hyjal is hilariously silly. What did the former do right that the latter do wrong?

1. Wintergarde is an actual siegeIn Wintergarde, the defenders were behind thick fortress walls, entrances thoroughly guarded. This fortress served as a large safe haven, giving the defenders a place to store troops, supplies, siege weapons, prisoners, etc. In addition, it gave the defenders some wiggle room. Had the scourge broken through the outer perimeter, the defenders could have tried to drive the invaders back, set up a new defense perimeter slightly further into the fortress, or even retreated into the buildings themselves. Had the player not shown up, the defenders may not have been able to achieve victory, but they would have held out for quite a while.
In Mount Hyjal on the other hand, there are no defensive fortifications whatsoever. No towers, no real fortress-like structures and certainly no walls. I may have mocked the fact that the only thing defending the world tree was a single hunter's hall, but that's actually one of the largest and most elaborate defensive structures in the zone. What does the average night elf base look like?

That's right, it's a bunch of ruins surrounded by pretty flowers. That's seriously what you're going for? These bases have no room for retreat, manuevring, no place to store resources or extra soldiers. The second the enemy breaks through your line, that's it. There is no sense that the guys here could have hanged on for even a few hours had the player not arrived.

2. Wintergarde was an organized battle
In Wintergarde, there was a clear sense of direction for the ongoing fight. A handful of guards held the defensive perimeter. Small strike teams infiltrated the enemy compound with specific tasks. Other soldiers were held back inside the base, resting, preparing for an attack, etc. Smiths were forging weapons, generals were forging plans, a few individuals pursued other plans of their own. This didn't just go for the alliance base either, as the scourge did the same thing in their own base.
In Hyjal, everybody is either fighting for their lives, or doing absolutely nothing. There are no soldiers back in the base because, well, you see the entirety of the base in the picture above. Every single soldier is on the battlefield. Had this been an actual fight, it should have been over in a manner of minutes. Commanders do exist (you see malfurion and some random tauren in the picture above), but they don't do anything. Malfurion isn't making plans, he isn't observing the enemy, he isn't giving orders. He's just standing there, probably wishing he'd brought a book to pass the time. Strike teams have the same problem. They're there, but they aren't actually doing anything, except for maybe one or two guards. The majority of the team just stands there dead-eyed and slack-jawed, without any greater purpose in the world than serving as a quest dispenser.

3. The twilight's hammer are no scourge
The scourge and the twilight's hammer are both forces based around the usage of dark magics, occultism and the service of rather poorly developed dark lords. However, what differentiates the scourge from the twilight's hammer is that the former is also a war machine. Massive mines and forges churning out an endless stream of horrid, cursed weaponry. Great fortresses dotting the landscape, armies of thousands of soldiers ready to strike. Siege weaponry and massive flesh giants shattering walls as the please. Subservient states offering the service of their best and brightest. Massive flying fortresses to carry the undead hordes into battle. Even if you removed all the advantages undeath gave the scourge, they could still have matched the alliance and horde in battle by virtue of being a true army.
The twilight's hammer on the other hand, are a cult. They are deadly sorcerors and assassins, aided in battle by creatures summoned from beyond this world. They are very much not an army. As such, it's kinda silly that they keep trying to act as if they're an army.
And that's if you buy into what the twilight's hammer were supposed to be. What they actually are (even before cataclysm) is saturday morning cartoon villains. Every time we see them, they've come up with a different crazy plot that will totally win them the day and which, after we beat them, will never be used again. They've got poorly defined motivations, a bunch of anonymous mooks that have no reason existing and are in no way to be taken seriously as a villain. The only thing they're missing is the memorable characters, meaning that they don't even have the only good part of being saturday morning cartoon villains down. Suddenly having that silly villain waltz over a supposedly well-organized and serious army without any of their usual crazy schemes is just wrong.

Okay, the battles are pretty bad. How about the story? Well, it's kinda lazy. Ysera sends you to a few different night elf bases spread across the mountainside to help out with the trouble. The first is Malfurion's 'base', where his 'army' is fighting with Baron Geddon (seen previously in the Molten Core)'s 'army'. Of course, neither Malfurion nor Geddon do anything except for a single quest. In a demonstration of the saturday morning cartoon principles employed by the twilight's hammer, they've bonded armies of small elementals together into a few massive ones, to act as super-heavy troops that counter the night elf ancients. It's a cool idea, which makes a lot of sense in a twilight army. Of course, that means we never see them again. Seriously guys, what the hell happened in-between the last expansion and this one? There, you had plot threads, even small and obscure ones, that spanned the entire continent.

The player also helps out Alysra of the green dragonflight, who is apparently commanding the green dragonflight forces here. Which amazes me, because there are no green dragons other then her present. It's really weird; both the faction description and the zone make a big deal about how the guardians of hyjal is the united force of the cenarion circle and the emerald dragonflight, but that dragonflight is almost completely absent from the zone itself. Where are the flights of drakes? The armies of drakonids and dragonkin? The great armies of the emerald dream? Nowhere, because that would be conductive to the setting and story.

It turns out that the armies of the twilight's hammer aren't out to defeat the night elf army here at all, but are trying to retrieve Fandral Staghelm, the old arch druid of the night elves who went a little evil in the Stormrage novel. Considering that they only want Fandral Staghelm to help their armies reach the world tree, and the only thing standing between them and the world tree is that one night elf army, this makes absolutely no sense, but whatever.

So, the player goes to help out the wardens. Now, you may be noticing that this plot structure of going past all the leaders and assisting them is basically the same as the part of Deepholm with the stone lords, which I really liked. So why am I being so harsh on it here? Well, in Deepholm, we actually got to know the stone lords and how their factions worked and differed from one another. The characters had different personalities, had you go on different adventures, and gave you a bit of an insight in different aspects of earth elemental culture. Basically, it was your chance to get to acclimated to the actual world of warcraft. In Mount Hyjal on the other hand, the quests focus entirely on fighting the twilight's hammer, and it doesn't even really develop them. We don't get any insight into the world and we don't get any insight into the characters. Which, considering we've been waiting for ages to get see more of the wardens, the green dragonflight and all the other factions we encounter in this zone, is more than a little frustrating.

The Return
After escorting Fandral to Alysra, who takes him to the emerald dream, we return to Ysera, who gives us our next set of instructions. Apparently, the ancient guardians are returning. Now, let's be fair. The idea that the dead ancient guardians were simply banished back to the emerald dream on death and could, in time, return to Azeroth is one that has been seeded for a very long time. On the other hand, considering that this plot has been seeded for several years by this point, are you sure you want to waste it on a single zone in an expansion that is in no way related to the ancient guardians or the emerald dream? Especially if you don't have anything for those guardians to do? Any of these beings should have been able to single-handedly turn the battle, yet they never do anything, except for a single quest. You could cut the ancient guardians out of the plot pretty much entirely, and all you'd need to to do is replace their single-quest appearance by some artifact of theirs. Given that the ancient guardians went toe-to-toe with the strongest of the legion, and they're now facing some fire elementals that don't appear to be particularly strong, that would make a lot more sense storywise as well.

Plus, the explanation for how they're coming back is weak and a bit inconsistent. Ysera says that she learned that they're coming back because the barrier between dimensions was weakened, but that doesn't make any sense. It was the barrier between the elemental realm and the material plane that was weakened. Of course, this would support my long-standing theory that the emerald dream is the elemental plane of life, but even then it doesn't make sense. There never was any real barrier between the emerald dream and the material plane, at least not in the same sense as with the elemental plane. People hop back between the emerald dream and Azeroth (also, somehow, outland) all the time. There's no less than four wide-open gates between the planes, green dragons have the ability to freely shift between them and druids can just drop into a coma any given time they want to walk through the dream. Most importantly, the living ancient guardians are able to freely travel between the emerald dream and the material plane, so the problem clearly isn't getting from one plane to the other.

In addition, the resurrections themselves are all wildly different from one another, and don't really seem to fit Ysera's explanation. The first is Goldrinn, the wolf ancient that empowered Varian. He's technically already been resurrected, with the twilight hammer summoning a corrupted version of him called lycanthoth. First of all, that name is awesome. Second, this entire principle of corrupted ancients is never really explained, and they don't really seem as impressive in battle as you'd think. The player simply beats up his corrupted worgen (which only appear here, because, again, the twilight's hammer are saturday morning cartoon villains and can't have any influence of their plans extend beyond a single episode), and then lycanthoth himself, goldrinn being reborn immediately afterwards. He slaps his followers (which includes a lot of non-gilnean humans and two orcs, making me feel like I missed a bit of lore. Aren't these guys druids?) free and proceeds to do absolutely nothing for the rest of the zone until the player calls for him by the end. Again, what's the point of rezzing the guy?

After Goldrinn, it's Aviana's turn. Since the twilight's hammer can't repeat their plot because of reasons, it's instead about some weird prophecy, with Aviana being reborn in egg form. However, the twilight hammer steals the egg and the player has to get it back with the help of the druids of the talon. Wait, weren't those guys mentioned as dissolved in TBC? Ah well, the entire "merging all druid orders into one" thing was stupid anyway. At least these quests are kinda tied to the druids of the talon and aviana, so they aren't as bad as the other examples (plus, we get the memorable personality of Thisalee Crow), but you still don't really get a feel for what the druids of the talon are and how they tie into the world. Plus, the druids still don't do anything (not even a badly executed perpetual battle) until you call for them. Hell, the quest actually points out that they refuse to do it by themselves. They're really completely helpless without you. With the egg secure, Aviana is reborn... and will proceed to do absolutely nothing until you call for her.

During this time, the player also makes two brief excursions into the elemental plane. To be precise, the firelands. As plots for two of their episodes, the hammer cultists have started breeding evil fire buzzards and forging evil cursed weaponry in the firelands, and the player uses their portal to access the facilities and destroy them. And, just to repeat myself until I get boring, we never see either of these again. Actually a bit of a shame. Evil Fire Buzzards have the potential to be iconic.

After that, we move on to the shrine of aessina. The story here briefly stops making sense. The shrine of Aessina is further down the mountain than the shrine of Goldrinn, lying on the same path to the top. We know that the twilight's hammer armies used that path, since the shrine of goldrinn was overrun, and twilight supply slaves (who are all orcs and jungle trolls for some reason) carry supplies from there to the battle near the top. However, when you are sent to the shrine of aessina, everyone acts as if the twilight and fire armies have only just reached the shrine. The entire shrine is still intact (and has hilariously inadequate as a base as any other), with everyone concerned about the newly arrived elementals.

Actually, forget the twilight's hammer. Where the hell was this shrine back during the battle of mount hyjal? It's in the same spot as the alliance base was in that raid. You'd think that'd deserve at least a little mention. At least, the shrine of Goldrinn was abandoned during that time period, so it'd make some sense that it didn't have any effect. In addition, where the hell was Aessina during the battle of Mount Hyjal anyway? She not only survived the war of the ancients, but we've also been given every indication that she's been active in night elf territory since, multiple shrines dedicated to her, and even a new species in the form of the grell. The same goes for Tortolla, who's slightly further down the mountain, and who we help out after ridding the world of the nasty fire elementals near the shrine of aessina and saving the cute widdle cwitters.

Like with Goldrinn earlier, the twilight's hammer is making a dark copy of Tortolla. However, like you see when a saturday morning cartoon villain finally reuses a plot, all the details have changed. Unlike Goldrinn, Tortolla was never dead, so they haven't actually resurrected a false version or whatever the hell backstory of Lycanthoth was supposed to be, but they're instead draining Tortolla (considering all he resisted during the war of the ancients, I'm not quite sure how they actually managed to capture him though). His dark counterpart, Nemesis (also a cool name, though a bit generic) is also notably a lot more powerful. You aren't actually able to defeat him when you first see him, instead you first free Tortolla. With help of Tortie's adorable little turtle babies, you chase Nemesis into the firelands and slay him, restoring Tortolla to full strength.

Aessina has also come to Mount Hyjal by now, casting a spell to restore a lot of the damage caused by the fire elementals. The spell is actually really cool with Aessina giving an awesome speech that really taps into the power and mystery that is supposed to be linked to the ancient guardians, yet is absent from the rest of the zone. Very impressive. Though it does make me wonder about Aessina's exact position in the pantheon of the ancient guardians, since she seems to place herself above them. If the emerald dream is the elemental realm of life, would that make her its lord? I'm not saying yes, I'm just saying it makes perfect sense.

Infiltrating the Twilight's Ha... wait
What do you mean the ancient guardians segment is already over? Okay, Cenarius and Malorne get resurrected later on, but what about the rest? Where are Ursoc and Ursol? Agamaggan? Omen? All the unnamed ones? Where are the other druid orders?

Well, the answer to that all comes back to the single big problem of the zone: Mount Hyjal contains an entire expansion's worth of story. The thing it is trying to do is basically too big for an entire zone. The story here is basically the culmination of the long vigil, a gathering of all the guardians of mount hyjal both past and present to not only ward off an attack from the firelands, but to launch a devestating attack into the realm of the firelord himself and end his threat for good. The problem is that there's simply too many defenders of hyjal. You've got all the different ancient guardians, the druid orders, the sentinels, the wardens, the dryads, the keepers of the grove, the priestesses of elune, the furbolg, all the different types of ancients, the stone giants and three (bronze, red, green) of the dragonflights. And, frankly, that's being a bit stingy. Freyr, the blue dragonflight, the worgen, the grell and the nymphs of northrend should probably be included as well. Remember, this isn't like in warcraft III, where the world tree was attacked while most of its guardians were still sleeping. This is the night elves primed and ready for war, expecting an attack, without any emerald nightmare preventing people from coming to their aid. There is no reason for anyone not to be here.

However, you simply can't fit all those people in a single zone. I've mocked the hilariously tiny and inadequate night elf bases throughout this review, but had they been adequately sized, there simply wouldn't have been enough room left for any questing content. Even with the sub-minimal (not a word I get to use very often) amount of factions present, military bases as tiny ruins and quests shoved into an extra-dimensional realm, the zone design still gets cramped at times (though that isn't helped by the designers not utilizing the various nooks and crannies of the zone). Even if this concept had had an entire expansion devoted to it, you'd probably still have to make some painful choices about what to put in. A single zone in an expansion that's not related to this? Yeah, that's not going to work out. However, even if we were to accept that, it doesn't excuse things like this:

That's the night elf army facing the fire elemental legions near the shrine of Aessina. All of it. You sure you don't wanna stick some dryads in there, designers? Some ancients? Maybe another sentinel or forty? Because this is kinda pathetic.

And there's another thing. We're spending this entire zone helping out local leaders. We've helped out the watchers, the wardens, the druids of the talon, the cenarion forces under Malfurion, the emerald dragonflight and the cults of Aessina, Malorne and Goldrinn. Shouldn't we have an army following us as we progress? I'm almost wondering if the original plan was to do that in phasing, since the army actually does seem to be written into the plot. We weaken the twilight's hammer army near the top of the mountain, and destroy the bases that are providing them with supplies. This should allow Malfurion's forces to push all the way down the mountain... until they are stopped at the shrine of Aessina in the exact spot that pathetic lonely saber-rider is occupying in the picture above. There, they would be in a stalemate with the fire elemental armies, the player preventing the hammer from summoning Pero'tharn, who would be able to break that stalemate. Still, the fire elemental armies keep pouring forth, so the cenarion armies can't advance. However, the player goes further down the mountain and strikes at the flamewake, preventing the hammer from fully empowering Nemesis and giving Aessina the power to perform her super-cure miracle, which drives out the fire elementals and allows the cenarion armies to advance. And where would they end up?

That's right, the next area with a hilariously tiny night elf detachment. There, the army would be stopped by the twilight's hammer forces at the scorched plain, the remnants of the original night elf base that was destroyed before we even got here. The player assists the remaining wardens (who have nothing to do with the watcher wardens, but appear to be a cenarion counterpart to the sentinels. At least, that's my guess. It would be nice if the zone occasionally stated its own lore), turning the battle there in their favor. After that, the player goes into the firelands for a few quests to deal with Nemesis, which would give the army a nice chance to finish off the remaining twilight forces in the scorched plain off-screen.

You not only wouldn't need to alter a single quest in any way for this to work, but a lot of the quests would actually make more sense if there was an advancing night elf army. Why are people acting like the enemy armies at the shrine of Aessina are a new thing? Because the fire elemental armies there only came to counter the newly arrived cenarion forces. Why are the twilights holding back their armies while summoning Pero'tharn and empowering Nemesis? Because there is an army in their way and they need that extra little bit to push through it. Most importantly, you spend the final leg of the zone securing a leader to lead the army, which is kinda silly if there is no army.

Infiltrating the Twilight's Hammer
You return to Ysera, who says that there is only one person on the planet who has shown himself able to lead an army of mortals and demi-gods alike. A general of ten thousand years, whose experiences date back to the war of the ancients. SHANDRIS FEATHERMOON! Nah, just kidding, that would allow a female character to act independently. Instead, it's Jarod Shadowsong, which makes no sense. Okay, yeah, he led the night elf/ancient armies during the war of the ancients, but a few things have changed since then:
1. Jarod deliberately faded into the background to allow the new night elf government to take full control of its people. He doesn't want to lead the army, and instead left that duty to the sentinels.
2. While Jarod was the perfect neutral commander during the war of the ancients, that wasn't the case afterwards. In particular, he grew disenfranchised with the druids, who he thought were more concerned with the forests than with their own people (which is actually pretty damn accurate). This actually went so far that he went on a self-imposed exile that lasted several thousand years. Now he's suddenly decided as the perfect guy to lead the exact same people who caused him to abandon his society altogether.
3. The army here is nothing like in the war of the ancients. There, the defending armies were actually divided between multiple groups that had trouble working together. The tauren, the earthen, the night elf rebels, the ancient guardians. Their leadership was divided, and the only person in a position to lead them as a united force was Jarod. However, here, the forces are already united. The night elves and the tauren are a completely integrated army, having dedicated themselves to following the teachings of the ancient guardians and Ysera. There is no need for a leader that unites the disparate groups, because there are none.
4. Jarod Shadowsong hasn't led a battle in ten thousand years. The guy was pretty much done with fighting by the end of the war of the ancients, and has only served as a civil administrator since. After ten thousand years, there is a good chance he's more than a little rusty, and he has no experience with modern threats.

What makes it even sillier is that Jarod Shadowsong isn't even available. He's been kidnapped by the twilight's hammer. Apparently, they also thought only Jarod could lead the defense against them... which is why they thought only Malfurion could lead the defense against them in Darkshore? Yeah, that plot point is pretty much dropped entirely. Also, I'm a bit confused about how they got their hands on Jarod. Last we saw, he was the commander of the new watchers in Darnassus (which of course aren't seen in this expansion at all). That's not exactly an easy place for the twilight's hammer to infiltrate.

To get Jarod back, the player has to infiltrate the twilight's hammer. When I first saw this, I was very excited, because it would mean we finally get to learn more about the hammer. What drives an individual to want to annihilate everything. How its armies are organized. What its philosophies are. How its people live.

Unfortunately, this isn't Mists of Pandaria, so we don't actually learn that. We get almost no insight on the nature and motivations of the twilights hammer. Most of the questline is instead devoted to silliness, though thankfully not to the same painful degree as Uldum. The few aspects that we do learn don't seem to make much sense in the greater scheme of things either. For example, if twilight training is so brutal that only a handful of recruits make it to even the lowest rungs, where does their massive army come from? The members of the hammer don't really seem to be all-hating or nihilistic either, so I don't get why they wanna blow up the planet.

However, we do finally learn a single interesting thing about the twilight's hammer, and one that makes sense to boot. Namely, there is something of a divide between all the new-fangled modern cultists, and the old guard of ogres. Good idea, and one that makes sense considering how much the hammer changed in a short period of time. It's also one of the few ideas that's consistent throughout the expansion, with ogres almost always having bases or roles of their own. Though I do have to wonder why this old guard solely consists of ogres, and not some of the old orc members as well. Still, considering the rest of the expansion, that's a minor issue.

Eventually, the player manages to incite a war between the ogres and non-ogres, which you use as cover to take back Jarod, taking him to a nearby portal into the emerald dream. We finally get some dragonflight presence, with Ysera and three drakes opening the portal to let Cenarius through. You, riding one of the drakes (which reminds me, the guardians of hyjal rep really should have a green drake mount), hold off the twilight's hammer long enough for old mossy-locks to be summoned. With Cenarius on their side, the rest of the cenarion army follows. Yes, I said army.

Not exactly anything to write home about (seriously, where's the diversity?), but at least it's a start.

Or it would have been, had the army actually done anything. No, instead they just sit on that one island, until the one quest where you call for them. Also, you may notice that the ancient guardians, except Cenarius, aren't on the island. Apparently, they're doing their own thing (which, as far as I've been able to figure out, means that they're doing nothing until you call for them). What exactly was the point of getting Shadowsong to lead the armies again?

And it's finally time for the all the one quests where you call for the people who don't do anything. The cenarion armies and Goldrinn help you take down Azralon the Gatekeeper, the gatekeeper of the large portal to the firelands found here. And no, I don't mean they help you with the assault ot reach Azralon. They only help you fight the single NPC. The entire rest of the twilight army is left up to the player. And, of course, the one time the army does something, Jarod Shadowsong doesn't even show up. Really glad we wasted twenty quests on saving you. It's not like every single other aspect of the zone could have used more development or anything. Aviana and Aronus help you against Desperonia, the first viable broodmother in the twilight dragonflight. Tortolla helps you against King Moltron, monarch of the magma giants. And Aessina and Ysera can apparently just suck it, since they don't get to do anything. Again, there is this weird thing about the female characters not doing anything. Even Aviana didn't engage in the fighting, just hovering nearby which caused some nasty affect that aggravated damage.

We go through the final flamegate in the zone, to confront Ragnaros in the firelands, alongside Cenarius, Hamuul and Malfurion. It's actually a really well-executed battle, with cool voice acting and interesting mechanics and it's very satisfying to face a raid boss alongside some of the strongest characters in WoW, finally killing that bastard for good.

Wait, what? What do you mean we've driven him back to the firelands? This is the firelands. He dies here, he dies foreve... what do you mean this isn't the firelands? I've been through these flamegates before. They lead to the firelands. That's why they're called flamegates. The first one was used to access a place called the firelands forgeworks, the second to access a place called the firelands hatchery and in the third one, the guy at the entrance explicitly said that we're in the firelands. This place looks no difference from any of those. If anything, it looks a little more flamey.

Apparently, either the encounter design team, or the environment design team missed a memo in this regard. Remember, the opening of the quest had Deathwing summon Ragnaros into our world. It was what raised the stakes. The fact that we went through a flamegate to fight Ragnaros didn't make any sense in the first place. We should have fought him in the big Azeroth-based fire fortress. The fact that such a blatant error made it into the game is just saddening, especially since it's supposed to be the big climax of the zone.

General Thoughts
We've already covered the central problem of the zone, but I do have another observation to make; As you may have noticed, this is a fairly self-contained story. Ragnaros' forces don't show up in an organized fashion anywhere else in the expansion and the way the Twilight's Hammer is active in this zone outright contradicts the story for the Twilight Highlands. It's like this zone is from an entirely different expansion, awkwardly shoved into Cataclysm and having one of its main villains replaced by the twilight's hammer. And it's not like this is the only zone with that problem.

Deepholm revolved around the shattered worldstone, which could have been done by any villain (especially since all the material before this hinted that Deathwing was in Grim Batol, not Deepholm). Al'akir barely appeared in Uldum, the conflict between the Ramkahen and the Neferset predated the coming of Deathwing and the Harrison Jones storyline would actually make more sense if Schnottz was only working for himself. Kezan and the Lost Isles weren't even supposed to feature Deathwing in the original plans, and the cataclysm really didn't end up being that significant to Gilneas (had there been no earthquakes, the forsaken would probably still have driven the gilneans off to Stormglen). Vashj'ir, which we haven't looked at yet, has a story so insignificant to the overall expansion that they didn't even bother finishing it. Only the Twilight Highlands will end up fitting into the expansion. The others simply don't belong in it. They're from three or four entirely different ones. Just for funzies, I threw in my own example of such an expansion in the addendum.

It's not just the fact that the zones are unrelated that gives it that feeling though. It's also that most zones feel like they're continuations of something. In Vashj'ir, the zone seems to assume that we would already know why the earthen ring was there, despite us never getting such an explanation in-game. Last time we saw Thrall before Deepholm, he was stuck on an island without a ship and leading a small squadron of orcs. Now he's suddenly the leader of the earthen ring, and standing on a bunch of isolated rocks with nobundo and that tauren guy we never remember. Did we miss anything in-between? Mount Hyjal is probably the worst in this regard, with about a dozen moments where I just feel like I've somehow skipped over a piece of lore.

Finally, there's the ending. Cataclysm, especially the horde-alliance war, seems to be built around not having a sequel. By the end of the expansion, there are no major threats left active on the planet. Everybody in the horde wants Garrosh gone, everybody outside the horde wants Garrosh and Sylvanas gone and Thrall has nothing stopping him from just going back and taking the mantle of warchief again (with crazy world shaman powers, four dragonflights, the tauren and the jungle trolls on his side if anyone raises a fuss). And really, do you think he's going to be kind against the people who developed weaponry to exterminate everyone, used the cataclysm to commit untold amounts of slaughter and poisoned the land? Especially since he's besties with the druids and the faction that allied with those slaughtered folks now? Yeah, from all appearances, this expansion should end with Thrall getting back his throne, the forsaken getting labeled as 'not our problem' by the rest of the horde, Thrall and Furion doing their healing ritual on the world tree and the wailing caverns, and all the factions in the world becoming one happy alliance. Except the forsaken of course.

Really, most of the problems of cataclysm make a lot more sense if you assume it was the last expansion of WoW. Getting rid of Deathwing, the infinite dragonflight, the elemental lords and doing the war of the ancients in a single expansion? Well, players always wanted to participate in those fights, and this is the last chance we could do it. Same goes for seeing Uldum, Mount Hyjal and the Elemental Realms. Perfect set-up for a long-term peace? Means we're free to do a timeskip for the next installment of warcraft. Quest design that's inconsistent, sloppy and buggy? Hell, it's our last expansion, let's just play around with the system. I could almost respect Cataclysm as the last expansion to world of warcraft.

Of course, Cataclysm isn't the last expansion, so what the hell were they thinking?

Addendum 1
The nightmare of the depths
The defenders of Azeroth have been victorious over the mighty Lich King, though the cost has been great. Tens of thousands of soldiers lie dead on the battlefields of Northrend, and relations between the horde and the alliance have been shattered. However, from the depths of the ocean rises a new threat. Azshara has used the distractions of the legion and the scourge to strengthen her hold over the south seas, and now turns her eyes towards the rest of the world.
Level limit raised to 85
New races:
Goblins – With their power over the oceans, the naga have struck against the goblin homeland of Kezan, using dark magics to make mount Kajaro erupt. Only a handfull of goblin enclaves survive, spread over the south seas. Seeking protection against their ancient trading rivals, Kul Tiras, these goblins have joined the horde, lending their technological and alchemical mastery to its war machine.
Merfolk – The human kingdom of Kul Tiras' mighty navies were among the first targets of Queen Azshara, as she sent endless armies of her serpent-men to crush the kingdom. The humans, outnumbered and cornered, turned to the ancient titan machinery found beneath their island kingdom, allowing them to transform into the long-extinct merfolk. Now, they have joined the alliance, seeking to better understand their new form with the aid of the explorers' league and to take the fight to the naga.
As both of these races join the alliance and the horde during the events of The Burning Crusade, several new questgivers have been added to earliers quest hubs.
New zones:
Bilgewater Harbor (1-6): Phased version of Kezan, used as the goblin starting zone. Note: takes place near the beginning of the Burning Crusade.
Lost Isles (7-12): Fleeing from Kezan, one troupe of goblins crashes into uncharted isles. Natives, naga and a tirasian expedition beset them, and internal conflict drives them apart. However, with help from the player and the orcish warchief, they are able to overcome this, and establish a new city for themselves. Note: takes place near the beginning of The Burning Crusade.
Boralus (1-6): Phased version of Kul Tiras, used as the merfolk starting zone. Note: takes place near the beginning of The Burning Crusade.
Kul Tiras (7-15): The newly reborn merfolk, yet to gain control over their transformation, have sent messengers to call for the aid of the alliance. Until that help can arrive, the tirasians are forced to fight a desperate battle for survival, the player at the front lines. When help from Soutshore and Menethil Harbor arrives, the assembled alliance armies manage to retake Boralus from the attacking Naga, restoring the tirasian capital and using the recaptured titan machine to give the new merfolk control over their transformation (which, yes, is a blatant copout to have the tails work with mounts). Note: takes place near the beginning of The Burning Crusade.
The Undermine (80-82): While the surface of Kezan has been turned to ash, foul magics protected the undermine. Here, the naga have enslaved goblin alchemists, using them to perform twisted experiments on their kin. The cenarion circle and the earthen ring, sensing the nagas' defilement of nature, both send expeditions to stop them. They are later joined by the goblins, aided by forsaken, and the gnomes, aided by draenei, the former seeking to free their remaining brethren and recover the alchemical formulas of the tinkers' union, the latter seeking to steal goblin technology and smite the demons summoned by goblin warlocks to serve as expendable soldiers and cheap labors.
Vashj'ir (80-82): As the human and orc fleets clash over the isle of Balor, the naga ambush them from below, dragging their ships into the depths. It is up to the player and a small group of other survivors to free their people from the ocean floor and stop the naga plans.
The Broken Isles (81-83): As the threat of the naga becomes clear, both the horde and the alliance seek more information on the nature of the threat. Jaina Proudmoore and Grand Magister Rommath both launch expeditions to investigate the ancient library of Izal-Shurah, hoping to uncover the secrets of the highborne. The night elves have a presence in this zone as well, looking to retake their ancient city. The forsaken seek to recruit the undead remnants of the stormreaver, twilight's hammer and blackrock clans.
Tel Abim (82-84): An old tirasian colony, famed for its banana export. Having stolen several titan devices during their raid on Boralus, the naga started experimenting with these on the people of Tel Abim, hoping to turn them into an army of loyal merfolk. Tirasians seek to free their oppressed kin and recover the stolen titan artifacts, in which they are aided by the explorers' league. The goblins and orcs of the horde are trying to take the island for themselves, because of its tactical and material value.
Plunder Isle (83-84): Plunder Isle is the home of the southsea freebooters, legendary pirates whose fleets are feared accross the face of the planet. Now, their home lies under siege from the naga, and the freebooters seek the aid of mercenaries. Treasure, fame and even territory awaits those who choose to aid the freebooters.
Zandalar (84-85): The isle of Zandalar is torn in a civil war. While the majority of the race still serves king Rastakhan, a small cult of naga worshippers has taken to forcibly transforming zandalari in naga-like creatures themselves. With their island slowly falling to this curse, two more hidden zandalari cults have called on outside aid. The traditionalists, who seek a return to more tribal ways, have called upon the help of the darkspear trolls of the horde. The luminists, an old cult of moonshippers that started among the dark trolls, have called upon the night elves of the alliance.
The Maelstrom (83-85): Their new undersea fleets prepared, the horde and the alliance turn their eye towards Nazjatar itself. A temporary cease-fire in place, both forces seek to destroy the dark queen of the naga and shatter her remaining strongholds. The alliance arrives by means of a gnomish submarine fleet, with merfolk and druids of the flipper acting as vanguards. The horde arrives by means of giant turtles, with goblin divers and tauren wavebinders acting as the vanguards.
Tomb of Sargeras: In this ancient highborne vault lies the shattered body of Sargeras, killed by Aegwynn when he tried to enter this world through an avatar. Horrors, both ancient and recent, stalk these forgotten halls, feeding on the energies of any who dare enter. However, the tomb is also a place of untold treasures. And it seems that the naga have gotten that impression as well.
Palace of Rastakhan: The naga worshippers have made their final push, infiltrating the palace of Rastakhan himself. It is up to the traditionalists, the luminists and their allies to stop nagified zandalari.
The Abyssal Maw (4.1): Queen Azshara and her forces invade the abyssal maw, looking to enslave great Neptulon himself. It is up to the players to fight their way through the elemental plane of water and stop Azshara's forces.
Nyalotha (4.2): With the horde and the alliance lying waste to her armies, Azshara turns to darker and darker secrets, opening the ancient tomb of Nyalotha to unleash its horrors on the alliance and horde forces.

Heart of Nazjatar (4.3): Finally, the players move against Nazjatar, hoping to end the reign of the dark queen Azshara forever