Fifteen years after Heaven’s Fall, a cataclysm that destroyed the Moon, relations between the Vers Empire on Mars and the United Earth are almost nonexistent. Princess Asseylum of Vers descends to Earth as a gesture of goodwill but is assassinated shortly after landing. Caught in the crossfires of the battle that ensues are Inaho Kaizuka and his classmates who must use their limited resources to help with the civilian evacuation. Meanwhile, among the Orbital Knights of Vers, Earth-born Slaine Troyard uncovers the conspiracy behind the princess’s assassination only to find her alive and in a very unlikely place. Some Spoilers Ahead.
Aldnoah.Zero takes the common archetypes of the Gundam franchise–teenaged mecha pilots, a military ship transporting civilians/refugees, indestructible giant mecha, and (my personal favorite) aristocracy in space–and makes them into something new with the help of the world building. This is not the year 2014 we know, though it shows as many similarities as it does differences. There are smartphones and internet and regular Japanese high schools, but there is also a hostile space empire literally hovering over everyone’s heads somewhere around the destroyed Moon. Therefore, it is plausible that the United Earth mandated military training for all high school students, which in turn informs why a group of teenagers can pilot a couple giant war machines and the military is totally okay with this.
In a really nice twist from the norm, the indestructible giant mecha are the bad guys. It challenges our main character Inaho to figure out his enemy’s weaknesses based on data from the present battle and think of a solution within a matter of minutes. This trend does get annoying after several successful attempts in a row; the show never shows Inaho failing to destroy an enemy. It also begs the question how the Earth forces are able to survive if everyone who isn’t a named character is killed within moments of a battle’s commencement.
Yet the characters make this show worth watching. Inaho’s lack of expression and analytical intelligence suggests a form of autism (though this is never confirmed by the narrative). Lieutenant Marito, one of the instructors at school, suffers from PTSD after surviving the one and only Versian attack on Earth’s surface during the Heaven’s Fall event. And Captain Magbaredge critiques her XO’s orders through thinly veiled dating advice, a move that makes me ship them harder than I ship anyone else on the show. (It’s puny because they command a battleship).
My favorite character, Slaine Troyard, is the son of a Terran scientist on Vers who becomes a servant to the Orbital Knights upon his father’s death. Slaine’s loyalties are to Princess Asseylum who saved his life when he first landed on Mars. His journey to find the people behind her assassination is the best arc in the whole show.
Aldnoah.Zero‘s high-octane storytelling slips in the second season. Set 18 months after the events of the first season, the atmosphere of the show changes; no longer is it an intriguing twist on common mecha tropes. Instead, the show adopts commonly seen scenarios from your everyday action show without the level of intrigue prominent in season one. Inaho becomes a savior character with the help of his bionic eye. Slaine, meanwhile, climbs the ranks of the Orbital Knights with no discernible endgame other than world domination. These two characters are pitted against each other as rivals but they lack history outside an episode in season one where they tentatively work together for five minutes before Inaho betrays Slaine. If they were given more opportunities to test the other’s trust before the betrayal, their rivalry would be more organic. As it stands, I have no idea how the hell Inaho learned Slaine’s name.
Finally, Princess Lemrina, the bastard sister of Princess Asseylum, is underutilized as a character capable of destructive amounts of manipulation. This is the most disappointing aspect of Aldnoah.Zero‘s second season. Few women characters are allied with the Orbital Knights, and the ones who are do not exploit the power given to them. Both Princess Lemrina and Princess Asseylum, despite being royalty, are naive in their worldviews. The majority of the men around them tell them what to do and what not to do. Most annoyingly, they listen even when it is obvious that they are being exploited for someone else’s personal gain. Fortunately, this only applies to the princesses of the Versian Empire. The other women characters, particularly the ones in the United Earth Forces, show more agency in their decisions.
Aldnoah.Zero is great when it’s mimicking the Gundam franchise but falls short when it breaks away to try its own thing. Yet it remains one of the better mecha shows released since 2010. I recommend it to viewers looking for fun action with minimal fanservice.