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Before I start, I'd just like to clarify that I started this blog before I realised Halo-343 had written one himself. It’s not a response to it, it’s simply my own take on the situation.
Duel isn’t bad. You can say that about it. Unfortunately, that’s all you can say about it.
I went into Babysitter pretty much expecting it to turn out how it did – the ruins aren’t a problem for me, neither are the hairstyles or exaggerated movements – this is anime, it’s a visual style that we’re not used to seeing applied to Halo. What my biggest problems were, were largely dialogue-related – the sheer camp-ness of the Spartan taking the helmet off and revealing she’s a woman. The “you’re the only one who can do it” moment. The little conversation she has before she dies that could pretty much be copy-pasted from a fanfiction.
And that’s a bit like what it felt like to me. A fanfiction.
That isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. Fanfiction has brought us some absolutely terrific stories, and our own Dragonclaws and RelentlessRecuscant have written some truly great stuff on Halo Fanon, which I recommend anyone to go read if they can. But there’s a reason why they say “fanfiction ruins everything,” and that is because for every Dragonclaws or RR, there’s a dozen writers who spam the fanbase with their favourite pairings, or their Mary Sue characters, or do improbable and badly conceived crossovers with other series', or simply do absolutely terrible jobs with the writing.
That’s a little what it feels like. It has its upsides and its downsides, but for the most part, Babysitter was good. I got to see a Spartan kick a Brute’s ass handily, and I got to see a cool ODST insertion, a Prophet assassination, et cetera et cetera. But its offset by the dialogue from which, in my mind at least, it doesn't recover.
After that, I went into The Duel with…well, shall we say tempered expectations. But even they were nothing like what I ended up with.
Okay, if you haven’t seen the actual short yet and don’t want to be spoiled, this is the point where you should stop reading. This is just to provide context for the reader – the Arbiter, Fal 'Chavamee, is apparently a powerful, respected and influential leader of a Sangheili tribe, who refuses to accept the Great Journey and risks the death of his entire clan in his strive for honour, and the return of the Sangheili as a galactic power. Despite statements that it would focus on the Covenant's "early history", this must take place some time after 2142, since there’s at least one Unggoy present, and some pretty spectacular Mgalekgolo, and shows us how the rank would become reviled and disrespectable as it was in 2552. As punishment for refusing to join, the Prophets send Haka to kill the Arbiter’s wife, Han, who eventually forces the one of the tribal elders to behead her, assuring the elder of the tribe’s continued safety in the Covenant. In retribution, the Arbiter hunts Haka down, literally ploughing his way through an army of warriors of various species. Eventually, the two face off and impale each other with their blades.
Plot ends here.
My first complaint is a relatively minor one. The Sangheili in their civilian versions at first don’t seem to have mandibles. This is especially noticeable in Han, who just looks like she has a normal humanoid mouth. The mandibles are actually being kept together to form a traditional-lloking mouth, presumable to decrease the difficulty of animation, but the chin and cheeks still give away their mandibled nature. The mandibles still split apart, especially when the Arbiter discovers her corpse, but it’s visually disconcerting. When I saw the preview for the episode, I at first thought that these were Prophets during the Sangheili-San’Shyuum War in their prime, before the effects of a narrow gene pool set in. I was wrong. I suppose that’s more of a complaint about the art style than anything else – it’s not suggesting that female Sangheili lack mandibles in-canon, merely that this is a stylised representation. I can't say it's one I like, but its not a canon-breaking thing for me.
And then there’s a moment where, after he has decimated an entire army, a lone Grunt just runs past the Arbiter, shouting “he’s a demon” and gets beheaded for his efforts. I won’t go into just how stupid that comes off as.
There are some saving graces, and some pretty big ones. The choreography is impressive, and the fight scenes are visually stunning, with the Arbiter looking suitably impressive in his gold armour. The art style is also extremely well done, although the aforementioned mandible gripe lessens the effect somewhat, and I realise it probably won’t be everybody's cup of tea. The visual assortment of the Sangheili’s cultural trappings, showing stylised variants of Sangheili battle armour that differ significantly from the games, are also a plus – I’ve seen people complain vehemently about Haka in particular, but his armour is actually a pretty good fit for the Sangheili. I’m not sure what the deal is with the sound effects – did 343 Industries not have permission from bungie to use the actual in-game sounds? Regardless, the replacement sound effects we get acceptable - not outstanding, but acceptable. They aren’t what we’re used to, but they’re fine. And the musical track for the short is quite interesting, certainly eschewing traditional Halo tunes and bringing in some completely new themes that work well for the Sangheili.
But none of this is saved by the dialogue. There’s nothing actually wrong with the writing – but the execution leaves much to be desired. Han sounds a little simpering, taking her role as the demure wife of a general with great gusto. It all sounds a little…well, stereotypical. And Haka and the Prophet he obeys sound like stereotypical villains, complete with overly dramatic acting, unnecessary shouting and empty threats. The Prophet, in particular, is especially incongruous – the Prophets should be silken, soft, subtle in their menacing. If that’s my ideal of the Prophet of Truth, then the one in The Duel is more like Regret – loud, brash, and pretty open about the fact that he means the Arbiter harm. Haka himself gets little characterisation, but fills a role that later Arbiters would fill – that of the Prophet’s right-hand-man, doing his bidding with blind fervour. And he sounds like a typical crony. There’s no character to either of them – they come off as cut-and-paste villains. Though when Haka and Fal finally face off, there's what feels like thirty seconds of dramatic stare-at-each-other-while-drawing-our-blades, and then the actual fight is over in maybe two seconds. It just feels like, for timing's sake, it could have been condensed a little.
I have to wonder about the wisdom of the Legends series. Conceptually, they sound brilliant – glimpses at aspects of Halo lore we otherwise would have never seen. But why give us a glimpse at something that we’re not going to like? Short stories at least have the benefit of selection – you can choose which stories get accepted, and which authors get picked. But for animation, you pour money and time into a project – if it turns out badly, then something must be going very wrong in the process. I really hope that the other shorts turn out well – if they don’t, then 343 are going to face some pretty stiff resistance for anything else they try to introduce into Halo canon.
For the most part, though, The Duel is...acceptable. There are certainly worse things out there in anime that would scare anyone off the idea. It may not be academy award winning material, but at least its not friggin' Pokemon.