US Distributor: FUNimation
Production Studio: David Production
Was this provided by the publisher? Yes
More Info: Anime News Network

Level E Boxart 001 - 20151214Level E is the sort of series where, if I saw it in the stores, I’d likely pass it by without a second glance. The cover art and most promotional images, which depict a naked, pseudo-realistic blonde bishonen in front of a generic space background, gave me the expectation of a space opera at best, and a gory sci-fi horror show at worst.

Subverting expectations, though, is a key element of comedy.

Level E sets itself up like the gory sci-fi horror I was dreading, with horrific alien creatures, several mentions of casual murder, and dead bodies, right up until the punchline in episode 3. The show repeated this gimmick in episode 4, going so far as to change its animation style to further affect the horror vibe.

Make no mistake. Level E is a comedy, and a clever one at that. At least, it is at first.

The first four story arcs, which fill the show’s first nine episodes, work well in toying with the audience’s expectations, setting up joke after joke by leading the viewer on. The series builds an oppressive atmosphere, threatening to unleash untold horrors at every turn, for example the dead body introduced in episode 2, only to dial back the tension with a gag, which as we find out at the end of the episode (spoiler alert) isn’t dead at all.

Level E 001 - 20151214Despite its strong start, though, Level E begins to fall apart, as the series runs out of steam by the final four episodes. The first four arcs are generally episodic. They introduce new characters and premises, with the only connective tissue being alien Prince Baka. It’s only at episode 10 that the casts of these stand-alone stories come together, which exposes the most glaring weakness of Level E as a whole.

Once these characters started showing up again, I began to wish for more of them instead of the Prince. Frankly speaking, I couldn’t help but wonder if Level E would have worked better if the show focused on them, or at least maintained the anthology format that worked so well in the earlier episodes.

Level E 005 - 20151214As a character, Prince Baka is an unlikeable troll, who exists only to torment others. He was an ideal antagonist in the episodic stories, as there was no guarantee that the rest of the characters would return alive. This allowed a very real tension to be built which, in turn, meant that the jokes would hit harder as a result. Once the characters from these tales began to reappear, any attempts at building an oppressive atmosphere were doomed to fall flat.

In particular, episode 11, where the characters from the first arc reappear, fell particularly flat. The stakes seemed  incredibly high in the first arc, which tells a tale of potential galactic war and the possibility of the Prince being sacrificed to appease an alien race. In comparison, this episode’s story of being trapped in the head of a nervous baseball player and having to play baseball to escape just felt like filler. The tension was nonexistent, and the episode’s ending seemed to come out of nowhere. Once the final two episodes, which heavily feature Prince Baka, we’re more looking the jerk to get what’s coming to him than we are hoping he’ll find a way out of his predicament.

Level E 002 - 20151214Despite its shortcomings in storytelling, though, Level E manages to excel on a technical level. The series maintains a strong visual style, with a distinct style and a playful sense of creativity that’s not afraid to challenge the norms set by the franchise. Episode 4, in particular, was beautiful, as it adopted more of a hardcore horror style to ratchet up the tension.

On the flip side, the music was the very definition of “average.” Background music and incidental themes were performed well and helped set the mood, though they were largely forgettable. The opening and closing were passable, at best. The English dub, while not a marvel of acting, was decently acted across the board.

FUNimation’s Blu-Ray release of Level E features commentary on episodes 7 and 13, clean opening and closing videos, an interview Prince Baka actor Vic Mignogna, and the typical smattering of trailers.

Level E is a perfect example of wasted potential. While the series started with a bang, it was unable to maintain its energy and momentum through its 13-episode run. Still, I’m glad that I had the chance to check it out. I’m also glad that the series ended up being much more than the cover suggested and, let’s be honest, it could have been far worse.