During my time on Earth, I have seen the evolution of the magical girl genre. It started with Magical Witch Sally, where she was just a normal magic-using girl, using her powers to help everyday people with everyday things. Sailor Moon changed the formula, by adding power-up sequences and flashy attacks. Also action and a storyline that progressed, instead of being stand alone episodes. And then came Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, which upped the bar even further, by showcasing super-massive attacks, flying around in the sky dogfighting, and very shonen-esque battles. Each series has changed the way a magical girl show can work, turning it closer and closer into a shonen affair. I can't say whether this is good or bad (it depends on what you want out of the genre), but overall I like this trend, as I like to see girls kicking as much ass as the boys, and having the powers to back it up.
It was with this mindset that I checked out Symphogear. It was recommended to me by a friend, who told me that the girls are are super-powered and kick a lot of butt. And, on one level, the action and powers are fairly good. The first two episodes really draw you in.. and then it all goes to shit. This is difficult to explain without spoilers, so this review will have some spoilers. Not that there isn't much to spoil here, since it is cliche and trope ridden to an incredible degree.
With that said, let's jump in.
Hibiki is attending a concert of two pop idols, when the "Noise" attack. Essentially, seemingly mindless creatures that kill humans just via touch. The two pop idols promptly sing songs that transform them into the super heroes they are. This initial sequence brings up the first two of what are many plot holes. How long have the Noise been attacking humans? Only two girls have the power to stop them? And no one knows that two pop idols are really super-powered? What does the rest of the world do when the Noise attacks? You'd think a better cover for being a super hero, would NOT be a super popular pop idol.
And one of the girls, Kanade, decides that.. after slaughtering tons of Noise easily and effortlessly (while the noise are busily slaughtering tons of people), decides to sing her ultimate song to kill all the noise... to save just one person, Hibiki. Why? Sure, saving a life is important, but what about everyone else that was slaughtered? Shouldn't you have sung this song before? Or I guess everyone else is out of luck, then? You were killing the Noise easily before; surely you didn't even need to do this song to save Hibiki. Indeed, as the series goes on, you see that Symphogear-users can mow down Noise with barely a sweat, which dramatically cheapens Kanade's sacrifice.
The entire series is like this; introducing plot points and then forgetting them, which ends up causing incongruities, inconsistencies, and plot holes aplenty. It's as if there was no real planning on this, except for people going, "I think it would be cool if we do this..." Like 9-year-old boys writing a story. Even the overall direction and tone vacillates dramatically. It starts out fairly dramatic and impressive (visually), with well-done animation and a dramatic death. But then the series quickly turns into almost a parody of itself, with ridiculous ideas and notions thrown all over the place, as if they were deliberately trying to include every cliche they could. It almost feels like they were going for a Gurren Lagann kind of "ridiculousness leads to POWAH!" but it fails miserably. Gurren Lagann's whole shtick was based around that and tied into the plot; in Symphogear, it just serves to remove any dramatic tension the series has.
The best example to showcase this, is to spoil one of the show's biggest things. In the very first scenes, we see a girl (Miku) go to a graveyard in the rain, to cry over the death of her friend, Hibiki. Then it is revealed that takes place in the future, so we are essentially told that Hibiki is going to die. The whole sequence where Miku gets on a bus and breaks down crying in the grave is very moving. At the end of the series, it appears as if Hibiki is dead, as the organization can't find them... but immediately after that grave scene, Hibiki shows up just fine and it turns out she was just in secret meetings, so couldn't tell anyone. The problem is that Miku knows about the organization, and has already proven that she can sign an NDA and keep her mouth shut about them. So why did she need to be told that Hibiki was dead? What point did it serve? It doesn't serve any point... except to make the viewer think the show was going to be way more dramatic than it ended up being.
As I said, it really feels like the whole show was made by kids going "Wouldn't it be cool if we opened by showing that the main character was going to die?" And then later, "Wouldn't it be cool if the main character actually survived because she's awesome?" They forget what came before, or how anyone else watching it would feel. It only makes sense in their own minds.
The best thing about Symphogear is the animation. The designs look pretty good, and the fights are decent. The biggest drawback, is that everytime someone uses a special attack, the screen freezes to show you the attack name. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. This breaks the pace of a fight and really takes you out of it. Think of it like you are sitting there, watching Bruce Lee fight a bad guy. And your friend keeps pausing the action at the good parts. Gets annoying, eh?
Standard fare, mostly, but what sets this anime apart is that each of the girl's has their own character song... that they sing while fighting. Since this whole anime is song-based, it makes sense in the story at large that they better they sing, the more "in-tune" they are with their Symphogear. And for the most part, the songs are decent, but they repeated over and over and over and over. If they were really good, it might not be too bad, but I didn't like any of them, and I tend to like J-pop. When you realize that this anime was made by a composer, then you understand it was made to sell songs. So they will jam them at you over and over and hope they catch on. If you like them, good. If not, it is another thing that will annoy you during the otherwise decent fights.
The other weak link in this, as they do the stupidiest things. I mentioned Kanade before, who decides to sacrifice herself for no explainable reason, just to save one person. Screw the dozens that were dying around her, or the fact that she's strong enough to kill the Noise without sacrificing herself. Later on, characters like the Commander, showcases just how ridiculous things are, since he is shown to be a master of martial arts power like you'd find in DBZ (breaking large boulders with his hand and cratering the ground with a punch). He is shown to be able to overpower and outfight Symphogear users easily (this leads into a stupid point in the second season, where he bemoans that they don't have anyone else to send into a fight, while he sits in his comfy chair).
The characters also get dramatic for no real reason, which then segues into more ridiculous over-the-top concepts. As I said above, the series tends to try and be dramatic... only to change into silly ridiculous territory a moment later. This robs the characters of any sort of dramatic feeling, especially when they follow all the cliches so closely, you know how things are going to end up.
I suppose that, overall, your enjoyment of this series will depend on what you can tolerate in an anime. If you like fights and accept that the plot and characters are ridiculous and over-the-top, then you might like this. If like all the old cliches wrapped into one, then you might like this. If you like generic j-pop songs repeated over and over, then you might like this.
But, if you like your shows to have a coherent plot with reasonably intelligent characters and as few cliches as possible, then don't watch, because you won't like this. It's passable, it's mediocre, it's probably average for anime, which is why I am giving it a little less than 5. Had they kept up the drama and tone from the first episode, and kept the plot reasonable and real, this series could have been so much more. But in the end, it's bumbling, stumbling nature causes more harm then good.