Record of Lodoss War (Collector's Series) Review
If Kindred: The Embraced is the most direct TV repackaging of a White Wolf role-playing game, then the most obvious animé homage to the famous Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) universe must be Record of Lodoss War (Lodoss-tou Senki).
This comes as little surprise considering the show's history. Originally conceived as a tabletop RPG in the mid-80s by Group SNE, one of its members (Ryo Mizuno) later adapted the game's epic storyline into a series of novels, which the Japanese publishing house of Kadokawa-Shoten began printing in 1988. The popular response to the books was so pronounced that Kadokawa decided to undertake an animated version in 1990.
Because at that time the novels were still being written, there was a great deal of fan speculation as to how the animé version would compare with the canon. In the end the 13-part OAV [original animated video] series only managed to incorporate the plot covered in the first book (taking the form of the first eight episodes), then designed a modified chain of events to allow the show to have dramatic closure. The benefit here is that Record of Lodoss War stands well on its own as a series; the drawback is that the last few episodes take the story in a slightly different direction than the original text did.
Nonetheless, this series has gone on to achieve deserved fame both in Japan and abroad because of the quality of the story, its likeable (if stereotypical) characters, and the fact that nothing quite like it has been done before or since. That is to say, although animated fantasy is a staple worldwide, Record of Lodoss War was the first Japanese production to sidestep Eastern fantasy mythos in favour of Western-style knights, dragons, warlocks, and so on... while at the same time pursuing a truly epic saga (the history covered by the novels spans 15 years of turmoil). About the only other long-running animé series that took up the mantle of a D&D-style universe is Slayers, but as that one was meant to be a comedy more than anything else, it's like comparing apples and oranges.
Anyway, enough production background. What's the lowdown? The show is set on the 'accursed isle' of Lodoss, a large section of land that was severed from the main continent during an apocalyptic battle between the goddesses of creation (Marfa) and destruction (Kardis). This whole 'isle' thing gets a bit confusing until you realise that Lodoss is more of a sub-continent, and has a normal-sized island called Marmo off of its own coast. In fact, if it weren't for Marmo, Lodoss would probably be a pretty nice place... but I'm getting ahead of myself.
In the intervening thousands of years, a lot has happened – no, seriously... try here for a full history – but the skinny is that about 30 years prior to the start of the series, a band of six legendary heroes united to save Lodoss from a massive invasion staged by the Demon King of Marmo. After defeating him and his armies, each of the six pursued a different end. King Fahn went back to rule Valis, the Holy Kingdom of Light. Lord Beld claimed all of Marmo for his own, but the evil inherent in that place turned him down a dark path. The priestess Neese founded the Temple of Marfa. The wizard Wort sequestered himself away to study magic. The dwarf king Frepe returned to his homeland. And the sorceress Karla vanished mysteriously. (As you do.)
Unsurprisingly, all of these people (with the exception of Frepe) turn out to be major players in the events chronicled in the 13 OAVs... but because your average D&D game starts players off at a low level, we are introduced to a new set of characters without as much experience, all of whom conveniently meet early on and form the core party on which the entire story hinges. By far the most green of these 'new recruits' is Parn, an impulsive guy in his late teens who has inherited his father's sword and armour and dreams of becoming a knight, despite his lack of any formal training. Fortunately he has someone to look after him in the form of his old friend Etoh, a level-headed cleric who has just returned from studying magical healing at the Temple of Marfa. As it happens, the (proficient) village mage, Slayn, is willing to join up with them, and as his mate Ghim the dwarf (no Tolkien sniggers, please) is visiting at the time, he tags along as well. But Equity rules clearly state that if you have a dwarf, you need an elf as well, so we're soon hooking up with the she-elf Deedlit (who looks young, but is 160). And for a while it looks like that's going to be it... but what kind of Dungeons & Dragons party would it be without the obligatory thief? So they manage to pick up the old rogue Woodchuck rotting away in some nation's dungeon, and they're all set for adventure!
Setting aside the silly names for the moment, the plot these six get drawn into concerns another impending invasion of Lodoss by Marmo, this time lead by the 'Dark Emperor' Beld. Our heroes of course are fighting on the side of right, which means entering into the service of King Fahn against the demonic hordes. Meanwhile, Ghim's on an important side-quest to locate Leylia, the missing daughter of the priestess Neese, who in her own way turns out to be key to the whole power balance between good and evil. Seems the antics of Beld and his cronies are dangerously close to awaking Kardis (who slumbers beneath Marmo), and it's not as if each of Beld's 'allies' doesn't have an agenda of his own.
I'll provide some quick episode synopses below, but as it's very hard to cover this series in depth without giving away major spoilers, they will be a little on the lean side. Gomen.
1: "Prologue to the Legend"
Not really a prologue in the traditional sense... more of a 'mesologue'. Basically, to avoid a slow start and get the audience interested right away, the writers give us an episode from the middle of the actual plot arc, where our party of adventurers is already assembled and trying to track down the sage Wort for advice. It's handled a bit sloppily, but it does have a dragon in it if that's your thing.
2: "Blazing Departure"
If you prefer a cleaner narrative flow, start with this episode – the actual beginning. We see Ghim promising Neese that he'll find Leylia at all costs. We see Parn the peasant, before he's donned his dad's duds. We also get to see Parn, Etoh, and Slayn's home village under attack by goblins that really have no business coming out in such numbers. (Shadows of Marmo, etc.)
3: "The Black Knight"
After linking up with Deedlit, the lads get into a spot of bother with a kobold horde and are only narrowly rescued by a recon team of soldiers out of Myce, who assume they are spies and lock them up back at the castle. (Don't worry; this is just a plot device to get the thief Woodchuck in the party.) In the meantime, the real enemies of Myce (and all of Lodoss, for that matter) are about to launch their attack, so we get a quick introduction to Beld's henchman, Ashram... as well as the mysterious sorceress Karla.
4: "The Grey Witch"
Seeking aid against the invading forces, Parn and pals head for the kingdom of Valis in order to warn King Fahn. Inconveniently, the quickest way there is through the Forest of No Return (a nice holiday destination, no doubt).
5: "The Desert King"
About the time our heroes finally make it to Valis, so does Kashue, king of the desert realm of Flaim. Though tempted with promises of power by Karla, he ends up holding counsel with King Fahn and they decide to send Parn & Company out to find Wort and secure better information. (Thus the events depicted in Episode 1.)
6: "The Sword of the Dark Emperor"
Carrying on some indeterminate point after the action in Episode 1, Team Parn picks up an awful lot of backstory from Wort... including some interesting facts about Karla (like that she's been around for half a millennium already). The six hurry back to Valis to inform Fahn of this, and Parn finally gets to be a knight just in time for a major set-to with the armies of Beld, led by Ashram.
7: "The War of Heroes"
Your basic 'all-out battle rages' episode. On one side are what's left of Kashue's battalions, supported by Fahn's army... and on the other, more demonic creatures than you can shake a stick at, led by Ashram. Beld and Fahn decide to get in a little personal swordplay, but it's not entirely clear whether either can be the victor in this contest...
8: "Requiem for Warriors"
There's a limit to what I can say about this instalment, as it's a spoiler minefield. Suffice it to say that our heroes leave the field of battle to confront Karla in her stronghold.
9: "The Sceptre of Domination"
Wagnard, Beld's sorcerer/advisor, counsels Ashram to obtain the fabled Sceptre of Domination in order to assure Marmo's victory over all of Lodoss. One small snag, though... this mystical artefact is guarded by Shooting Star, one of the five ancient dragons of Lodoss charged with protecting such sacred relics.
10: "The Demon Dragon of Fire Dragon Mountain"
Kashue's forces intercept Ashram's in the deeps of Fire Dragon Mountain, and the two opposing forces have to survive not only each other but an irate Shooting Star as well. Bit of a toss-up who'll win, actually.
11: "The Wizard's Ambition"
Things get dicey for our heroes. Not only has Wagnard revealed himself as a betrayer (ooh, big surprise) who hopes to resurrect Kardis and wreak destruction across Lodoss, but his Dark Elf cronies have managed to kidnap Deedlit too.
12: "Final Battle! Marmo, the Dark Island"
While Wagnard prepares Deedlit for the obligatory ritual sacrifice, Parn and crew race to stop him, but find the way unsurprisingly strewn with many obstacles.
13: "Lodoss, the Burning Continent"
The deeper motivations behind all of Karla's recent manoeuvring become clear as the series moves to conclude the 'final battle' sequence. Overall, a satisfying and self-consistent ending to this show.
For clarity's sake, I'll point out that this review is of the recent (2002) re-release of Record of Lodoss War by CPM (part of the company's ongoing 'Collector's Series') – not the older 1998 boxset licensed by Image Entertainment. As such, it probably won't shock anyone to learn that the video on this 2-disc set is reputed to be vastly superior to that on the previous Western release of the series... after all, Central Park Media (U.S. Manga) has made a habit lately of sending all of their video masters to a DVNR facility for digital restoration.
Although – never having seen the 1998 boxset – I can't personally compare the two, I will say that the picture quality on this release does look reasonably decent for a 12 year-old series, despite some very obvious flaws which are almost certainly present in the masters themselves. There thankfully doesn't appear to be much dust in the print, but (even after careful encoding onto dual-layer discs) minor rainbowing pops up throughout the show, the usual jaggies are present during certain camera pans and scene changes, and there's even the very rare instance of macroblocking now and then in black backgrounds. Nothing seriously detrimental to your viewing pleasure, luckily. About the only ubiquitous flaw is a faint background grain throughout.
Addressing the topic of the animation itself, there's good and bad to report. On one hand, the character designs are very distinctive, the show uses a rich and varied palette of colours, and the drawing style will definitely inspire nostalgia in long-time animé fans. On the down side, this series had a very limited budget with which to knock out 13 episodes, and this shows in the great number of static pans used throughout. It's not so much that you'll actually find it frustrating, however, and fortunately the animators didn't hold back when they had a genuine action scene to animate. But do expect to see a lot of tableau scene shots with movement limited to lips, etc.
An appreciated bonus is that not only are the subtitles very easy-to-read, but Central Park Media has been good enough to leave the original Japanese opening and closing segments intact, rather than use overlays or hard-subbing to convert them to English.
The audio quality on this disc is comparable to that of the video, but with no noticeable problems. That is to say, both the original Japanese and the English dub are clean, clear Dolby Digital Stereo mixes with no dropouts. They are unlikely to knock your socks off, though... I didn't notice any stereo separation to speak of, as all the sound (not just the dialogue) seems to be very tightly focused on the centre channel. Nor is there a lot of bass punch (even in heavy battle sequences), but I find there rarely is on stereo tracks, so this isn't exactly a big issue.
The one place where Record of Lodoss War's audio really shines, however, is the soundtrack itself. The individual themes composed for specific characters and events, various bits of atmospheric music, and the main (opening titles) theme itself are all very different from the usual ear-candy adorning animé. Gone are the standard J-pop ballads and bouncy/happy lyrics, replaced by music that was obviously composed to complement the show's setting. You'll hear hints of Wagner, Vivaldi, and Bach as you progress through the series... although nothing quite so obviously cribbed. Still, it's a really nice change of pace and fits the 'medieval fantasy' universe perfectly.
The menus on these two discs are straightforward and easily-navigable, and (almost without exception) nicely-animated with some of the show's theme music playing in the background. As is pretty standard for CPM discs, the main menu has a 'default to play' behaviour set, so if you haven't made your selection by the time the fixed animation concludes, it doesn't replay but instead cues the first episode on the disc. Rather vexingly, it seems that for once that the same setting has also been applied to both the scene selection and the 'sneak peeks' menus, where usually these can be trusted to wait indefinitely for you to choose something. Otherwise, there are no problems with these menus; fast access times and good transitions are the norm.
I rarely feel the need to say much about the packaging on DVDs, but Central Park Media has done some particularly nice work on this release. The two discs are housed in a tri-fold construction whose facing covers are illustrated with gorgeous, text-free artwork depicting a final confrontation between Beld (and the fire dragon, Shooting Star) and Fahn (and the golden dragon, Mycen). The back cover conveniently provides a listing of the chapter breaks for every episode on both discs, while inside the gatefold is a sleeve with printed production and cast credits that holds a 20-page booklet featuring samples of CPM's own line of Record of Lodoss War manga. Finally, all of this is securely protected by a heavy cardboard slipcase done in the same deep burgundy colour and showing off a great cover art pose with Parn and Deedlit.
The real extras are all contained on the second DVD, and include 'Cast a Spell', 'Record of Lodoss War Comics', 'Japanese Promotional Tape', 'Japanese Cast at a Fan Convention', 'Art Gallery', 'Meet the Heroes', some DVD-ROM content, and the usual CPM advert for the 'Big Apple Animé Fest'.
'Cast a Spell' is a bit of an odd special feature in that it offers quick access to five brief video clips from the series, each centred around magic cast by Slayn, Etoh, or Deedlit. Although an interesting idea, the fact that these clips tend to end really abruptly (before the effects of the spell in question have even concluded) makes them more of a curiosity than anything else. Much more useful is the similar 'Meet the Heroes' section, which offers not only video clips of but also quick character summaries for all six of the lead protagonists. Also nice is the 'Art Gallery', featuring a generous collection of well over 100 images of varying sizes.
The other extras are a bit more basic. 'Japanese Cast at a Fan Convention' is a five minute long piece recorded in June of 1990, during the build-up of excitement to the Japanese release of Record of Lodoss War. It features random soundbites from fans in the crowd and a few mini-interviews from the cast. The 'Japanese Promotional Tape' runs six minutes in length and will give you a laugh care of its cheesy and overenthusiastic English narration. The 'Record of Lodoss War Comics' is more of an advert for CPM's line of RoLW manga, but give you a good idea of the product.
Finally, the DVD-ROM content includes all of the images from the above 'Art Gallery', plus the complete English scripts for all 13 episodes of the series, full credits for the production staff and voice actors, and some Web links. Also, both discs feature the same set of previews of other Central Park Media DVDs: Harlock Saga, Maetel Legend, Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight, Legend of the Dragon Kings, and Legend of Himiko.
Record of Lodoss War is one of the most-recognised fantasy titles in all of animé, and this DVD release does it justice; if you fancy a good Dungeons & Dragons style tale, you should find it entertaining. Although the show's picture and sound naturally cannot compete with the crispness found in modern titles, there is nothing here that will prevent you from enjoying this series.