The first season of Aldnoah.Zero took the mecha anime formula of Gundam and turned it on its head -- giving the super powerful mecha to the villains and leaving the heroes with vastly inferior mecha. The second season continues using this inverted formula but also focuses on one man's tragic fall from grace.
This review contains massive spoilers for both the first and second seasons of Aldnoah.Zero. For a non-spoiler look at the series, check out our review of the first season.
Aldnoah.Zero's first season ended with one of the most shocking cliffhangers in recent history -- two of the three main characters were shot in the head (and apparently dead) with the third a broken and defeated man. However, things turn out to be not as bad as we were led to believe.
Early in the second season, it is revealed that both Inaho and Princess Asseylum survived their wounds -- though Asseylum is in a coma and Inaho lost an eye. With these revelations, the story returns to its status quo by showing the continuing war between Earth and Mars.
This is not a bad thing, however. Much of what makes Aldnoah.Zero so enjoyable is its plot structure. In nearly every episode, an enemy mecha appears that, at first glance, seems unstoppable with its nearly magical powers. Inaho and his companions are forced to battle it in their vastly inferior mecha but win because of their planning -- thus outthinking their opponents. It is an anime that is set up much like a mystery novel. The resolution is a given -- the detective will solve the case and Inaho's squad will take out the enemy mecha, respectively. The fun comes from seeing how the heroes do this.
While the first season was the story of Inaho, Asseylum, and Slaine, the second season is Slaine's story more than anyone else's. The development of Inaho and Asseylum was basically finished in the first season. Thus in the second season, the two are relatively predictable in how each acts.
This is a massive (yet understandable) change from the first season where he wanted nothing more than to serve and protect Asseylum. Now, however, he literally has her locked in a cage, and is changing the world in ways she would object to -- namely, warring with Earth. What's even more interesting is his purported end game. After eliminating all resistance on Earth, he claims his plan is to give all his power to Asseylum, should she awaken, and let her rule. Of course, as we begin to see once she comes out of her coma, this claim is more than a bit suspect.
Inaho's character serves to mirror Slaine's over the course of the series. While Inaho also gathers a sizable amount of power, it comes from the loyalty of friends instead of the manipulation of enemies and allies alike. Moreover, while Slaine is fighting to protect himself while using Asseylum as an excuse, Inaho is truly working toward what Asseylum would want.
At the end of the story, we see the key difference between the two: their views on power. Slaine fights to keep his power until the end. And even after recognising all is lost, he decides to fight Inaho one last time out of a sense of jealousy and revenge.
Despite winning the battle, Inaho does not kill Slaine -- even as the scene mirrors the first season cliffhanger where Slaine shot Inhaho in the head. Instead, Inaho follows Asseylum's wishes and keeps Slaine alive (though this may be far more torturous in Slaine's eyes than a quick death). Moreover, after the war is over, Inaho gladly gives up both his power and his chance at a romantic happy ending -- removing the computer from his eye socket and accepting Asseylum's political marriage to another man.
The new character of Lemrina, the bastard half-sister of Asseylum, is interesting as well since her personality falls somewhere in between that of Slaine and Inaho. Like Slaine in the first season, all she wants is to be of use to the one she loves -- in her case, Slaine. However, she is also filled with jealousy towards her favoured half-sister to the point of nearly killing Asseylum on several occasions. Yet, she is able to give up her jealousy toward her sister -- though she is still more than willing to be as manipulative as Slaine when it comes to getting her heart's desire.
Unfortunately, the supporting cast gets only the smallest bits of character development -- receiving either an abrupt resolution or no resolution to their respective character arcs. Yuki suddenly becomes able to accept her brother (Inaho) being on the front lines while Lt. Marito overcomes both his PTSD and alcoholism with little explanation. Rayet, on the other hand, never comes to terms with her hatred of the Martians for killing her father and Inko never confesses her feelings to Inaho. It's a shame that all these interesting character arcs set up in the first season were simply abandoned or hand-waved away.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of Aldnoah.Zero's second season is its anticlimax. Earth forces are approaching the Martian base on the moon while the Martian forces are launching a genocidal attack on. Everything is set for a climatic battle. Then, Asseylum pulls off a bloodless coup in which she seizes the title of Empress, declares her forthcoming marriage to a powerful, respected Martian noble, and orders all forces to stand-down while peace talks begin. In very short order, Slaine loses his entire power base -- leaving only himself and those fanatically loyal to him to continue a now hopeless battle.
As far as action climaxes go, it is a letdown (as there is little in the way of action or stakes). However, it is extremely smart and logical storytelling that is perfectly in tune with Asseylum's character -- which in turn makes for a satisfying ending.
Aldnoah.Zero is an anime built around inverting the traditional mecha anime formula. The enemies have the "Gundams" instead of the heroes, the big climatic battle never happens, and the main couple never gets together. Woven through this is the story of one man's corruption and fall -- how he takes all that was once dear to him and perverts it to protect himself from his own inadequacies. It's not what you'd expect from your standard mecha anime -- and that's what makes it so engrossing to watch.
Aldnoah.Zero aired on Tokyo MX in Japan. It is currently available for free and with English subtitles on Crunchyroll.