Wednesday 26 September 2018

Anime REVIEW: Gundam Build Divers

Gundam Build Divers
Gundam Build Divers is available in streaming form on Crunchyroll and Youtube 

Sometimes there's no shame in shameless consumerism, and with Gundam Build Fighters both Bandai and Sunrise seemingly found the perfect formula for creating a Mobile Suit Gundam entry that's thoroughly enjoyable despite being primarily created to shift boxes and boxes of gunpla. Following the sequel series Gundam Build Fighters Try in 2015 this specific subset of the franchise went pretty quiet other than a few OVA-style specials here and there, but in 2018 it came back in full force under the new name of Gundam Build Divers. The game may be a little different, but it's still business as always when it comes to building customised Gundams and battling them across a series chock-full of franchise references and homages. But does it manage to capture the same magic as the original Build Fighters?

The days of Gunpla Battle are over, and now Gundam fans test their custom built Mobile Suits across the Virtual Reality Massive Multiplayer Online game "Gunpla Battle Nexus Online". After being inspired by the victory of current GBN champion Kyoya Kujo, 14-year old Riku Mikami and his best friend Yukio Hidaka decide to follow in his footsteps and form their own "Force" in the game. On their first visit they encounter the mysterious girl Sarah, and are later joined by fellow classmate Momoka Yashiro and veteran gunpla builder Koichi Nanase. Together they name their force the "Build Divers".

Their adventures in the GBN world lead them to numerous battles and challenges, as well as investigating the illegal "Break Decals" being used across the system. But when Sarah's identity is revealed, the Build Divers find themselves up against both users across the world but also the very champions that they idolised.

The trouble about the transition from Gundam Build Fighters' "bring the model kit to life" style of battle to the new MMO system is that Gundam Build Divers immediately suffers from considerably lower stakes. Whereas previously every gunpla battle came with the very real risk of the characters' model being bashed and broken beyond repair, here the gunpla are simply scanned into the system and any damage is simply temporary. For as dumb as Gundam Build Fighters' story could often be, this little touch was something that helped keep the show somewhat relatable - after all, if you spent endless hours on your own custom Suit would you want to see it destroyed? Build Divers' world might be a more comforting and reassuring one, but not one you can get invested in quite as easily.

So instead Build Divers has to mainly rely on its characters, which wouldn't be such a bad thing if the Build Divers weren't the most decidedly average bunch of players you could get in a game where it seems users can pretty much take any form they desire. In a world where side characters are full anthropomorphised animals its disappointing to see the show take such a safe route with its core Force - all of whom are predominately humanoid other than a few flourishes here and there. Riku is about as bland a protagonist as you can get (and very little more can be said for the other Build Divers either), while Sarah is fun but does little to break outside the highly generic "mysterious cute girl" mould shows like this have previously set. None of them are particularly offensive, but there really isn't any especially defining personality traits to latch on with any of them. It's a pity that the supporting cast are actually far stronger, as not only do they all differ wildly when it comes to character design but their different battle tactics and overall standing within the game make for far diverse exchanges.

But for all the complaints about the show's low-stakes, the action itself certainly isn't bad. If there's one thing Sunrise know how to do by now it's how to animate a good Gundam fight, and Build Divers definitely has plenty of those on offer. The use of the 00 Gundam as the show's primary suit means Trans AM usage is in full-force, providing a range of hi-speed battles on top of the usual array of land-based, sky-based and space battles. An episode in the latter half of the series is even dedicated to a one on one arena-based fight, which works as a breath of fresh air amongst all the wider-scale battles the show thrives on.

However a turning point comes about midway through the series, when it's revealed that Build Divers hasn't actually forgotten about its Build Fighters legacy - evolving from it is actually part of the plot. These arguments about low-stakes battles and a lack of thrills are genuinely put forward by one of the characters, and all of sudden you feel somewhat being uncomfortable being a detractor of the show when its painting these complaints of that of being of a toxic fan who doesn't like change. Either way this revelation leads into the very best Build Divers has to offer, as the two viewpoints are challenged and then brought together through a mutual love of gunpla.

This mid-season climax gives way to a much stronger second half that kicks off with some fantastic Gundam fanservice and character-driven stories, but even that eventually gives way to a main story that falls victim to perhaps the biggest pitfall any show about an MMO could stumble down. A revelation that is a scientific marvel and just about one of the biggest breakthroughs a video game could produce is immediately attempted to be destroyed, simply because its very existence is a threat to the game's servers and "could end GBN as we know it". Shows like this always require some suspension of belief but when characters react in such a blindingly stupid way, its impossible to react in a way other than to just point out that it's just a damn game. Even the players' blind adherence to the games' ruleset in this time of crisis just comes off as ridiculous, and really takes you out of what is otherwise a pretty interesting storyline.

Finally things also play out a little differently when it comes to the wider Gundam references. While these shows have never lived on how just how specific the references and homages were, but it feels like Build Divers is much less occupied with being direct and leaves it more to suit variants and background cameos. Rather than have a character specially mention a character or plot point from a show itself Build Divers instead populates its world with scenery and avatars from all across Gundam's 39-year history. This makes overall enjoyment of the show much less reliant in how much you can get from it, and instead offers rewatch value to diehards hoping to catch each and every Easter egg. As usual the sheer breadth of the references is staggering, ranging all the way from the most obvious to the unbelievably obscure. I don't consider myself a Gundam expert to any degree so certainly didn't catch them all, but rest assured there's plenty here if you're more familiar with the franchise.

As usual the show's reworked Mobile Suits vary greatly in terms of just how extensive the modifications are, but it's immediately nice to see shows like Gundam AGE and G Gundam get a bit more of a rep than they did in Build Fighters. Suits like the Gundam 00 Diver/Sky and AGEII Magnum are all well and good, but Build Divers really shines where it leans into the more comical or abstract designs. Of the lead Mobile Suits the Momokapool is the runaway star of the show - a simple yet memorable design that somehow manages to be badass even when its playing the comic relief role. Between Ayu's RX-Zeromaru and the wildly ridiculous Super Shock Gundam (a five-piece combiner of classic suits) the show has plenty to boast about on the SD side of things, proving that they're a side of Gundam modelling that certainly shouldn't be scoffed at.

Gundam Build Divers is a show that definitely has its heart in the right place, but between the bland lead characters, low-stakes first half and then overly dumb second half even its moments of greatness get muddied in a sea of averageness. Long-time Gundam fans will undoubtedly want to keep watching to catch all the references and there's no real reason that this can't work as an entry point to the franchise much in the same way Build Fighters did, but even when it's being its most commercial Gundam has done far better.

1 comment:

Artriven said...

To be honest I actually like this show better than build fighters try, because at least the main character is also a gunpla fanboy and knew some of gundam history