Picture a politically complex series touching on imperialism, classism and racism, featuring giant robots, big explosions, qt3.14 waifus of royal descent, love polytopes, and an overpowered protagonist. This is the Code Geass that Aldnoah.Zero tries to imitate, with varying success. Despite its big name production staff, visuals, and soundtrack, it is panned on MyAnimeList like it’s the second coming of Twilight : New Moon. Is it justified, or are anime reviewers subhumans ?
I can definitely say Aldnoah.Zero leaves an impression, as it has a distinct atmosphere and style, and it stays consistent in delivering it. It is nostalgic and vaguely hinting of angst and drama. Multiple factors contribute to it, but alas it often isn’t the writing.
I think the problems with its writing aren’t as gigantic as people have made them out to be. The extremely angry reviews are more indicative of disappointment than sheer suck. I think it sets up things pretty nicely ; the unique society of Mars, capturing the mystique of royalty, hinting at a complex web of developments.
Unfortunately, the hints remain as hints. It could be worse ; in Final Fantasy XIII, the plot and dialogue you imagine if you don’t understand what is being being said is more exciting than the actual plot and dialogue. In Aldnoah.Zero, the complexities are hinted at and not shown. This, I suppose, is a fine attitude to take in a different genre — perhaps horror — but not here. Instead, it comes across as laziness.
Emblematic of this laziness is Lemrina, the half-sister of Asseylum, who says she has a sad backstory which we never explore, with very complicated feelings about her sister which barely explore, with a disability — likely some kind of leg muscle dystrophy — which we never explore. She dominates the plot of the second season, but she appears out of nowhere, not even hinted at in the first season, all so we can have a stupid doppelgänger drama.
It even has all the hallmarks of lazy writing that I learned to love in the last season of Game of Thrones. Before it sucked, GOT would build up these awesome verbal confrontations between characters, then it would deliver them, consistently, and they would be as awesome as you pictured them to be or better. After, the same characters would be shown entering the same room and about to have an awesome conversation, and then nothing would happen.
Aldnoah.Zero does the same fucking thing. The dysfunctional way Lemrina thinks about her sister is in full display, but when the two finally meet, we never get to see it. Inaho and Slaine could have so many interesting conversations, built up as two mostly compatible people but with ideological differences, but the opportunities to have them interact are always cut short. It’s like someone wanted the Charles Xavier vs Magneto dynamic but made everyone involved incapable of communication, so we can only surmise the amazing things said and never experience them for ourselves. What’s the point of making art if that’s the attitude you’re approaching it with ?
Frankly, everyone in this series is piss-poor at communication. Even for drama, it is a poor excuse, but to pay off it needs to be resolved. And to do that at least one person must communicate. By the end of the second season, miscommunication dominates the series so thoroughly, there’s even a casual interplanetary war bruh because we can’t communicate bruh. Maybe you could frame Slaine’s devolution into an angsty edgelord who values status and pride over the stability of the solar system in a way that’s believable and satisfying. But when all his problems could be solved with ten minutes of therapy and a wet hole, and especially when he flip flops and has a change of heart thrice in the last 10 minutes of your show, I’m sorry, but I have trouble taking that arc seriously.
It is disappointing because there is solid backstory to Slaine and there are so many interesting things one could do with him. Indeed, many interesting things are almost done with him, then quickly discarded. The most powerful and hard-hitting scenes of Aldnoah.Zero usually involve Slaine. Do you see where I’m coming from with the « disappointment » angle ? The nuggets of awesome aren’t hard to find in Aldnoah.Zero, the problem is they are tossed in a river instead of made into jewelry.
I don’t want to get too hung up on realism, but there are some part of Aldnoah.Zero that just don’t make sense. People make assassination attempts against Asseylum and they are immediately forgiven, and Inaho is the only reason the Deucalion is capable of flight, yet he’s in the frontlines with a bright red mech begging to be shot down. It makes its characters look like complete idiots. There is no point in showing me the characters play chess to prove they are smart when I have irrefutable evidence they are dunces.
You might have noticed the series has two protagonists ; there is also Inaho. He is a classic case of the overpowered protagonist, basically he is a military, piloting, physics, medical, and software genius. What makes him unique is that he’s stoic to an extent you’re led to believe there’s something wrong with him, like maybe his parents beat him over the head too much with the TV remote while he was watching The Lion King. I must admit it is far more interesting than the typical loudmouth overpowered protagonist, perhaps because he is so awkward sometimes that you can’t help but wonder whether the writers want to imply there is something wrong with him. Hint : they don’t. It’s one more of those discarded nuggets.
What makes him egregious is that he has no competition in-universe. To the extent he struggles to beat an opponent, it’s because they have far superior equipment that gives them a almost unfair advantage. Anything anyone does in the series, he can do better, and the only reason he doesn’t do everything is that there’s only so many hours in a day. This is taken up to 11 in the second season when Inaho gets a cybernetic eye that doubles as neural network and he basically turns into a superhero. If these implants are so comically effective, why isn’t everyone in the army using them ? It is foreshadowed there are consequences to overuse, but when those play out, nothing permanently debilitating happens, so what gives ? More nuggets to the slaughter.
Japan is undoubtedly obsessed with high school settings, and they can be hit or miss. Aldnoah.Zero is a huge miss, as it serves little purpose besides the opening arc. I quickly forgot that the characters are students ; actually, as it went on, I forgot about the characters that weren’t the protagonists. It’s like the entire solar system revolves around the interpersonal drama of 4 angsty teenagers. I understand there are going to be creative liberties in every work of fiction, but Aldnoah.Zero specifically sets itself out to be a multi-faction political affair but in the end it ends up the same old bullshit.
It becomes a regular problem that characters are introduced and then discarded, often in the same episode. The very first Martian mech that Inaho has to overcome, it’s a multi-episode affair and a memorable experience. Even with his gimmick exposed, he is a dangerous opponent because of his battle training and equipment. Later on, the mechs are reduced to their gimmicks and are gone as soon as Inaho figures them out, which is nanoseconds. Near the end, they’re destroyed three apiece in order to give Inaho any kind of trouble. It’s hard for me to take them seriously when supposedly expert soldiers are one-dimensional pushovers.
You may argue that the series is forced to take shortcuts because of its length, as it is a « mere » 48 episodes. May I remind you that Neon Genesis Evangelion is 26, Madoka is 12, and Gundam 00 is 50, all of which achieve more with their time. Aldnoah.Zero is padded where it shouldn’t be, hence its inability to show all that it needs to. It refuses to go over its allotted time, or to trim or skip openings and endings in order to fit more material ; hell, its ending is longer than it needs to be in the first place.
I believe this decision is why it has trouble with its pacing, and its pacing is why it has trouble with exploring its own lore and character interactions. Like, when even the fighting scenes between your presumably cool mechs are rushed, I think it’s safe to admit you’ve done fucked up. If you are going to play it this way, at least be honest with yourself and aim for a longer series ; you could fill maybe a dozen or two more episodes given this pacing philosophy.
Despite its disappointing developments, I find the second season more enjoyable than the first, precisely because more time is spent exploring the dynamics of the Martian feudal society and the knights, which were very interesting but felt glossed over in the first season. Earth forces, on the other hand, don’t receive the same treatment ; there have been huge developments compared to our world, like a global army, and its organisation and dynamics aren’t shown much until the very last episodes of both seasons.
Aldnoah.Zero has a problem with endings. The first season ends with most of the main characters dying, which is shocking and only mildly cathartic as an ending. This is undone in the beginning of the second season, with all of the characters somehow surviving bullets to the face. Okay my dude. Whatever shock it managed to communicate is undone and presented under the worst light when it’s shown like this. Granted, I didn’t want any of the characters to die, because then there wouldn’t be any interesting characters left to root for, but it was not a good look.
At least you can sort of see the climax of the first season approaching. In the second season, the characters have to announce that it’s the « final battle » several times because there’s no way you would have expected it to be otherwise ; it makes sense in retrospect, but while watching it, it doesn’t have the air of « finale » in it, if you catch my drift. They also have to announce there is risk of death, which you wouldn’t know because few if any recurring characters die. Aldnoah.Zero wants you to understand it’s a serious series with serious themes and serious wars, but it doesn’t treat them that way at all, except for the final episode when dicks are out and ready for impromptu cynicism.
I am very disappointed in how the series ends overall. A primary driving factor for the series, emotionally, is the love polytope between Slaine, Inaho, Asseylum, and Lemrina. It is flavoured by the fact that they’re different races and castes, so the relationships between them mean something political, not just teenage bullshit. I would have loved for there to be more, but when a series ends up being four characters, you don’t have much to work with. That arc, which I would argue is the very core of Aldnoah.Zero, and the opening theme seems to agree, is resolved by crushing Lemrina’s hopes and dreams into nothing, marrying Asseylum off with a rando introduced in the last 3 or so episodes, and leaving Slaine and Inaho all by themselves to live melancholic and bittersweet lives.
The same series that shows that racism can be overcome by a pretty speech, that wars are decided by gifted 15-year-olds, that nobody dies unless the plot wants them to, that all you need to win is smarts and a large harem, that buys into romantic ideals about love transcending barriers, about philosopher kings and enlightened monarchs, doesn’t then get to shit in our mouths to be « bittersweet » and « realistic » because ha ha how could we be so naïve as to believe that any of them would get shipped and end up happy. Don’t you know that Aldnoah.Zero is a serious series with serious themes ? Silly pleb.
The ending doesn’t feel fulfilling in the slightest. In-universe, over the course of 2 years, you see the characters having peaked and it’s all downhill from here. The only future we have left to imagine for them is as old drunks, pondering the uselessness of war, all the wasted human potential, and the loved ones they never get to see because it isn’t politically expedient. What the fuck kind of message is that ? If this is the future I have to hope for, Kim Nukem better start nuking us real quick cause I wanna die in a war ; at least I’ll get some glory out of it and not just wage cuckoldry in a dead end office job, plus I get to participate in the ending of the World War trilogy franchise. Just fuck yourself lol.
I don’t have a problem with mixed or even bad endings. You can have a series where evil wins in the end, but at least there is catharsis and you can walk away from the series with a sense of completion. When the ending hinges on ass-pulls introduced in the very tail end of your series, it isn’t cathartic at all. The matter is made worse with the presentation ; you have Inaho and Slaine staring at each other as foreshadowed in the opening theme in inverse power positions compared to the season 1 finale, then you have a jump cut (seriously !) to years later so you can see what happened to Earth’s society and the 4 characters you gave a shit about. Come on dude. Like I know you want to take me anally, but at least do me the courtesy of some fucking lube.
It really is regrettable that it all ends like that, because the characters are really enjoyable, and so are their interactions, whenever the series remembers to have them. Before Inaho is reduced to a caricature of a stoic and Slaine of an edgelord ; before Asseylum is left snoozing for 20 episodes and when Lemrina is locked in a room ; before the crew of the Deucalion is reduced to a hollow mob blindly following Lord Inaho’s commands, it is genuinely enjoyable watching them interact. They are well designed, and they are unique, and they have their own voices. It’s just that we don’t get to hear these voices enough and it feels like someone is rushing through the motions.
Final Verdict : 7/10. Aldnoah.Zero is definitely an above average series. The characters resonated with me and I loved watching it and looking forward to watching it. However, it has some critical failings in its structure and plot ensuring it can’t reach the ranks of greatness. It really is unfortunate, as it has the potential to be a 9 or a 10 with just a bit more effort, which would also translate to more commercial success, as more of its characters would be enjoyable and thus marketable. Alas, that version of Aldnoah.Zero will only live in our hearts… and our fanfics.
Bonus meme : improving upon Aldnoah.Zero
Negative criticism is easy. Any retard can call you a retard. Constructive criticism is where it’s at, and going forward I want all my long form reviews to have this section, because positivity is intellectual and I am nothing if not 200 IQ.
First it needs more time. Trimming the ending theme by a minute is one extra episode per season. Internal trimming of padding scenes could save a minute to five per episode depending on how aggressive it is. Let’s say we average out at two minutes, so that’s two extra episodes, total of three per season. Opening theme is 30 seconds too long, which is half an episode per season, total 3.5. Opening and closing can be cut completely in very important episodes, giving you a few more minutes to hammer a message home. Finally you can actually lengthen important episodes slightly, like season finales. In total let’s say that adds up to 4 extra episodes’ worth of content per season, 8 in total, which is a fuckton.
First, I think a lot more time needs to be spent world-building Mars. This should give context on the situation on Mars and possible a subplots taking place in Mars. A flashback should work wonders. Overall this should make the emperor and his son more relevant and enjoyable, plus give some moral justification for the war. Every scene with the emperor hits like a truck, especially in the penultimate episode. More of that please.
Several characters need more juice. Lemrina and the orbital knights come to mind. We should know more about their backgrounds and their ideals. There are 37 knights, which are too many to explore in a 48 episode series, but there should be 2 or 3 more who are particularly fleshed out in addition to what we got, plus 4 to 12 who who get a tiny amount of wiggle room that nonetheless makes them more enjoyable.
Several scenes can achieve multiple things at once. It’s considered a meme that in anime you can have two giant robots battling it out as the characters have a deep argument on the state of society and the nature of self, but it’s an effective and enjoyable way to make the most of the limited time and budget that you have. I understand it isn’t realistic. Realism is for incels ; real Chads want art that is good because it is strategically unrealistic.
Earth’s military structure and politics need to be fleshed out more, as do the members of the Deucalion. You can kill two birds with one stone by having more people with deeper ties to these institutions on board. Inaho’s classmates and family need to be reworked or changed entirely into more interesting and relevant people. This also needs to extend to the way they fight, so that not all of them pilot identical mechs with identical strategies. The war is shown to be decided by the elite crew of the Deucalion, so it makes sense if its crew are all piloting elite custom mechs as well.
Less time needs to be spent on nondescript locations, like an unending sea or up in the air. This gives you the opportunity to make the world feel lived in and approachable through just background art. The few times we see people hanging around in the desert doing their thing, it’s a great change of pace and there should be more of that. With more variety, different military strategies can be explored.
Several fighting scenes need to be expanded, especially near the end of the series. Aldnoah.Zero isn’t a huge offender, but these scenes also need to be as uninterrupted as possible for maximum impact. I don’t need a cut to everyone’s faces for commentary after every move, like I’m watching an episode of Yu-Gi-Oh ! or Pokémon. You aren’t a 300 episode long anime and you don’t have time for this.
Inaho and Slaine need to interact more. Lemrina and Asseylum need to interact more. Inaho and Lemrina ought to interact full stop because I don’t think they met at all. Asseylum needs to wake up sooner, or snooze in the first place, and drop the stupid fucking amnesia angle.
Inaho’s stoicism is very extreme and in needs to be called out and mellowed as a form of character development. This alone would silence the criticisms people have of his character, and a mental health subplot might even make him the fan favourite character. For that matter, he must also participate in the high-drama scenes as a non-stoic, so that Slaine isn’t hogging all the spotlight, and then the series can be more balanced.
There need to be more prisoners of war. Mech pilots are more comparable to airplane pilots than infantry, so it would make sense that fewer of them sit in their mechs waiting to explode and die. POWs were explored in a fraction of an episode in the second season, and it made for some kick-ass interactions. We should have had more of those, on both sides. That way, the character building spent on orbital knights isn’t wasted by them getting killed.
The soundtrack is great, but it needs more than one motif to carry it through. The art is also great, but it needs to take more liberties with its camera angles, since closed environments are often repeated and it feels lazy. For that matter, please let the characters get out more so that you don’t repeat the environments so fucking much.
Drop the cybernetic enhancement subplot, because it never made any sense. On the technology side, explore the nature of Aldnoah more and maybe give us some lore on the ancient civilisation that birthed it. This doesn’t need to be resolved, just enough to give it more of an air of mystery and woo, X-Files style. It would be interesting seeing its effects on medical technology.
The buildup to the climax needs to be more effective, and the season finales need to make more sense. You should probably not shoot everybody to death at the end of the first season. Slaine’s descent into evildom needs to be rationalised better if it is preserved at all ; the increased world building should make that easier. The ending needs to have an actual ending. Since the intent is ending on a positive note, I think it would be satisfying having an idealistic and happy ending that Slaine and Inaho collaborate (perhaps conspire) towards, united by their mutual dedication to their waifu and peace, disobeying their respective anti-waifu and pro-war governments. I think it would be a great character arc for the stoic and pragmatic Inaho to participate into something so mushy and high-minded, tapping onto that « disappointed idealist » angle. The capitalism to Slaine’s feudalism so to speak.
The logistics of this are another subject, and indeed perhaps it can’t fit in the extra time we have created, in which case a couple extra episodes might be needed to tie it all up. Animation is notoriously expensive and I best not opine on things I don’t know about. Nevertheless, these tie up my suggestions and I’ll see you fellow paedophiles in another review.