Naika Reviews “Darkstalkers: OVA Collection”

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With Halloween around the corner, it’s time once again to chat about something spooky, and this time we’re going to go the Anime route.  Discotek’s release of the Darkstalkers OVA Collection has been bugging me for a month or so and I’ve finally snatched it.  Now back in the day, I was only able to see episodes 1 & 2, but the circle is now complete.  I finally viewed episodes 3 & 4 and I have to say that I’m surprised.  Now, when I say ‘surprised’, I can mean a LOT of things.  The word is generally used in a fairly positive connotation, but once again, I’m dancing around a bit.  The last time I viewed this OVA was in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, so I’m a bit older now but not that much wiser.  Therefore, when I say ‘surprised’, I mean that despite the lovely direction, animation, colors and backgrounds, Darkstalkers has surprising amounts of existential angst that make me a bit disappointed.  First however, let’s talk about the positives.

The animation is gorgeous here for Darkstalkers.  The colors pop out vibrantly and Discotek’s work in remastering all four episodes is amazing.  Felicia’s hair is as blue as can be and Morrigan???  Oh mah gawd!  Furthermore, the animation does not suffer as much as I thought it would aside from a few combat scenes featuring Phobos.  The first OVA shows off its animation studs the most since there’s a great deal of fighting and lurid movement from our characters, in particular Morrigan, Phobos, Felicia and Demitri.  There’s also amazing effects used for flashes, projectiles and explosions, making the fight scenes arcade SFX extravaganzas.  This awesome emphasis in movement slowly dissipates however, and it’s most obvious in episode 3.  Shuko Murase’s character designs are extremely fitting for this OVA, where simple faces and muscular structure is highly emphasized.  Moreover, the side and background characters are drawn with great care and realism.  Lastly, the overall art direction for these OVA episodes illustrate a very  interesting world where steam engines, medieval European villages, dynastic cities and televisions all exist in the same time.  All in all, Darkstalkers is visual OVA gold.

Where this set suffers from is a case of imbalance when it comes to its plot.  If we focus on the OVA’s Japanese name (Vampire Hunter: The Animated Series), we can probably assume that Donovan is the main character, but the very first episode doesn’t do a great job in establishing that.  Episode 1’s job is to paint the world that our Darkstalkers inhabit via three main plot threads:  1) Demitri and Morrigan’s ancestral feud over dominion of the Demon World. 2) Lei Lei and Lin Lin’s quest to save their mother’s soul and 3) Donovan’s journey with Anita while he comes to grips with his half -demon heritage.  Sprinkled in between are bits and pieces with Felicia and other characters like Zabel and Garron.  Lei Lei’s quest gets massive emphasis in episode 3, and while interesting, it derails the original thrust of the first 2 episodes and demonstrates that our heroes have feelings, but nobody cares about that for a gaming anime.  Furthermore, Donovan’s characterization is rocked by sudden emo spasms which he did NOT exhibit AT ALL in episode 1.  Donovan is introduced as the strong / stoic type who shows off his badassitude in episode 1. Although he does share his vulnerabilities to Bishamon in episode 2, he doesn’t allow his self-hatred to cripple him in the way it does in episode 4.

Donovan’s angst to me is what really brings Darkstalkers down.  It’s not that he shouldn’t have any, but it would have been better to present this early on in episode 1 so that he can overcome his issues throughout the series rather than having it be front-and-center for the very last episode.  Him overcoming this with a very tragic memory of his past is moving, but it just seems to make things inconsistent and unravels the conviction and self-awareness he portrayed in episode 1.  If story elements were reshuffled a bit with better balance between numerous characters, I’m sure Darkstalkers would’ve been a knockout.  Part of me feels as though 6 episodes would’ve worked better, but who knows what the budget for this was.

Visually, Darkstalkers is excellent.  However, it’s not consistent enough to deliver the excitement throughout 4 OVA episodes.  Furthermore, I expected a lot more combat animation from an arcade fighting game adaptation, but instead I got lots of emotional and existential moping.  To put it another way, too much focus was placed on well animated speech than on well animated action.  The last crisis / battle with Pyron saves things a bit, but even then we are not spared because once Donovan sheds his emo moment, he destroys Pyron with only ONE MOVE!  ONE MOVE!  HOW??????  Sure, the action that DOES happen in Darkstalkers is excellent stuff, but for a last battle like that, it was a total letdown.  I once said in my review of Urban Square that the OVA era of the 80s and 90s was great because it was no nonsense when it came to crazy action over long periods of time.  Maybe the source material made it a challenge, but for an awesome fighting game I was expecting a whole lot more.   In many ways, you have to think of the Darkstalkers OVA Collection like trick-or-treat candy.  The fun of it all is finally getting those goodies in your bag, but by the time you’ve finished eating you’re left with an upset stomach, aching teeth and adolescent, self-hating angst as you ask yourself “Why the hell did I eat so much?”

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