Saturday, 21 January 2017

Perfect Effect PE-DX05 'Beast Muscle' Leonidas

Every so often, a Third Party release comes along that has my attention from the very first images. There's no real pattern to it, but there's frequently a connection to my earlier collecting habits.

One of the stranger examples is this - Perfect Effect's pre-Beast Wars reimagining of Lio Convoy. Granted, I'm a fan of the original, and I love the Collectors' Club's 2015 Membership Incentive version, but this is a version of the character who transforms into a robotic lion... which basically doesn't make sense in the context of Beast Wars... or, really, any TransFormers continuity.

But when has that stopped me buying something potentially awesome?

NB: This post has been sitting in my drafts for well over a year... Nothing unusual for me, in the grand scheme of things but, in this case, there's a very good reason...

When the shipping box first arrived at my office, I figured they'd used an oversized box and stuffed it full of paper or bubble wrap. I opened the shipping box thinking that the box inside would either fit into my backpack or, in extreme circumstances, the shopping bag I'd brought with me, but which was just a bit too small to accommodate the shipping box.

Well... I was wrong. The box inside - while sealed in bubble wrap - was huge as well. At about 36cm x 25cm x 12 cm (approx 14" x 10" x 4 3/4"), this is the Third Party equivalent of a Masterpiece package. The front features a beautiful watercolour-look painting of Leonidas posed with one of this swords, while the back includes a life-size image of Leonidas in robot mode, along with images of all his armaments. The sides feature CGI images of the robot, and the branding is big and bold on every side.

I'm not sure what I make of the 'Beast Muscle' title... but the box is good and sturdy - far more so than any other Perfect Effect product - with good use of spot UV varnishing.

Beast Mode:
I get the impression this robotic lion is based on Zoids, the wind-up beast robot series created by Tomy in the early 80s. Compared to the original Beast Wars II form of Lio Convoy, it's a lot more convincing as an animal, but still not quite right. For one thing, his forelegs are in entirely the wrong place, putting the shoulder joints behind the leg rather than inside it, and lower than the hip joint, giving him a tendency to look downward. It also has the same problem as just about every TransFormers toy that uses the robot's legs as the beast mode's legs: they're just too damned long. Even with the knee extended and hinged back on itself, the thigh can't come forward far enough to allow for a natural four-legged standing stance. I only realised after transforming him back to robot mode that there is an additional sliding joint, right at the ankle, to change the angle of his foot beyond what the ball joint alone allows, which would give him a slightly more natural looking big cat stance, but it really doesn't make a massive difference.

He looks generally quite skeletal because of the incredibly slim waist, something like a greyhound wearing a lion mask and muscle padding, but then, this is a robot, not an actual animal, so it's not as if it has a digestive system to accommodate. My only issue with the torso is the random 'boob flaps' hanging off the chest... aside from the feature they're designed to conceal/reveal on robot mode, I don't quite understand why they needed to be moved for beast mode. They don't clip into any particular position, so they're just another pair of very mobile parts hanging off the body.

The paintwork on this model is utterly beautiful. The die cast limb parts have a good, thick coating of white paint, the claws and mane are a stunning gold colour which stands out well against the white plastic. Small red details painted in on some of the little recessed areas dotted around the mane. On the face, the nose, 'whiskers' and under-eye areas are painted gunmetal, while the eyes themselves are red. There's a small, domed red 'jewel'/sensor/camera thing mounted in the central mane flap atop the head, just behind the silver 'tiara'/armour panel on his forehead, and the tiny - but very sharp - teeth appear to be chromed. Mechanical details are painted in throughout with silver, gunmetal and gold. Rounded holes and slits in the outer armour panels are painted black. Every bit of paintwork is precise and pristine, with the end result looking amazing.

Unlike Leo Convoy, his beast mode armaments are right out in the open, rather than concealed within his mane. Two guns can be mounted on the back on a pair of hinged struts, but they don't stay in place especially well as the connection is quite loose. They don't fall out under their own weight, but the slightest nudge will dislodge them. The barrels of these guns can be extended, though I neglected to pull them out in my photos below. The robot's swords mount as additional guns on the arms of the laser bow weapon, extending forward well past his head. These are just as wobbly as the chunkier guns, but only because the swords are die cast metal inside the sheaths, and they're mounted on the comparatively slender arms of a part that's plugged into the back, just behind the robot's neck, and clipped on loosely a short way below. The 'whip' is plugged into the underside of the buttflap, wrapping around several times before emerging as the beast's flexible - if rather delicate - laser blade-tipped tail. These weapons are cool and all, but I rather preferred Lio Convoy's missile launchers 'transforming' out of his mane. Even the Robot Masters version played it the same way, albeit much more simplistically.

The part I find really distracting is the beast's head sculpt. Granted, it's not meant to be a lion, as such, but it's certainly a leonine robot, and it has a 'mane' of golden flaps of indeterminate purpose. However, it seems to me that some of the white parts should have been painted gold to match the mane flaps, as the head seems to spread out too far, and the abundance of vent-like detailing on the sides of the head start to look like humanoid-type ears, as they're far more prominent than the dinky lion ears either side of his gunmetal tiara.The face itself is OK, but the mouth has a sculpted sneer/growl so that his teeth are visible even with the mouth closed. One very clever feature of the head is that the top jaw collapses into the head on a spring when the mouth is closed. Viewed from the side, another distraction is the fact that the head barely joins to the body - between the mane and the shoulders, there's a very conspicuous gap.

Leonidas comes packaged with a visor for the lion head but, like the one packaged with Motobot RC, the only thing holding it in place is friction... meaning it doesn't stay in place especially well. It looks great, but definitely more Zoids than TransFormers.

Robot Mode:
Leonidas comes packaged in robot mode, and looks beautiful right out of the box. His colourscheme harks back to Lio Convoy especially well despite some quite significant changes in the distribution of colour. The most noticeable change is in the chest, where he has Optimus Prime-style metallic blue 'boob windows' painted in, where Lio Convoy had blue mechanical detailing protruding on one side, with the Maximal insignia chromed on the other. The paintwork is absolutely immaculate - sharp and clean all over - albeit comparatively sparse on robot-specific additions.

His build is pretty strange, like a caricature of a bodybuilder, with an enormous shoulder span (even ignoring the lion head parts swung over each shoulder), a broad chest on a tiny waist, and massive thighs. Nevertheless, it works very well because he is a robot (I honestly don't get why these things have to have humanoid robot modes at all, as I quite like the more oddball designs that came out of the live action movies) and gives the impression that he was built for battle. He makes the original BWII Lio Convoy look positively pudgy. The waist is molded like body armour, with details like studs at the corners of the panels

Within the chest - concealed by the hinged-and-ball-jointed 'chest windows' (that Lio Convoy never had) and a small central flap - is a Matrix/Spark Crystal sort of detail. It's not removable, seeming to be part of the same piece that overhangs it, but it's yet another lovely detail in the model with clear, crisp paintwork to highlight it.

While he is replete with weapons, I found them all very fiddly - the 'Laser Bow' doesn't serve as mountings for his 'Dead Katana' sheath guns in robot mode, but getting it on and off his back almost feels like more trouble than it's worth. It looks OK in-hand, I'm just not sure it suits Leonidas and, while its white colouring helps it blend in as part of beast mode, it doesn't look quite right for the individual weapon mode. The new sword mountings, on his butt-flap, feel too far back to be entirely useful (surely pegs could have been added to his chunky thighs?) and it generally feels like far too much is happening on the butt-flap. That said, they're not so far back that he can't reach around and grab the hilts. The swords themselves are die cast metal, which seems like a strange choice given the other, flimsier parts that are made of plastic. They have quite impressive 'heft' for their size, without causing them to become unmanageable for his hands. His two very 'G1-cartoon Optimus Prime'-style laser gun mountings have an alarming tendency to fall off the butt-flat at the least provocation, and the guns themselves aren't exactly securely attached. However, they do subtly transform - switching upside down in the process - to allow Leonidas to wield them in robot mode. The whip (bizarrely described in some video reviews as a spear despite the clear labelling on the box) is so damned flimsy, I tried to avoid touching it wherever possible, and certainly didn't feel like trying to get it into his hands for posing, but the daggers at the tip are easy enough to attach and detach.

Weirdly, despite all these weapons, I still managed to feel slightly aggrieved that he doesn't feature any concealed weapons in his mane, like the BWII figure. Some people are never satisfied, I guess...

The head sculpt is quite fantastic - almost picking up on the 'knight' motif from Age of Extinction, and better proportioned than the real Lio Convoy's blocky noggin. It's sharp and angular, but unmistakably a Prime/Convoy. I half expected the gunmetal antennae to be mobile, like the original Beast Wars Optimus Primal, but they are fixed parts of his helmet. Most of the 'helmet' is painted in a stunning metallic blue, with the faceplate in silver and the eyes - strangely - painted red. Not sure why, when the original Lio Convoy followed the G1 toy's example and had yellow eyes but, then, the first Beast Wars Optimus Primal had red eyes... If I had a complaint about the head, it would be that it seems too narrow on such broad shoulders, and it's all so very straight - the box art has his antennae angling out, but the model has them dead straight up.

One issue I will note straight away is that, in attaching his tail to his butt-plate for the very first time, the final link snapped at the joint. The joint itself is intact, but the very end segment detached, as it connects to the joint by a ridiculously fine section of plastic. I can see why the 'ball' part was kept separate - to increase the range of motion offered by each joint - but for a structural part to be so delicate that it snaps as the segment is clipped into place, with very little force necessary, seems like a huge QC cock-up on such an expensive figure. And this was not unexpected by Perfect Effect, as they included four spare segments in the package... Sadly, the end piece, which only has a joint at one end, is not supplied as a spare, so fixing that was a case of popping out the broken section and carefully separating the joint from one of the spare segments to plug into it.

Worse still, when I first transformed him into beast mode, one of his mane pieces broke off while trying to clip it into the mane section that sits on the robot's left shoulder in robot mode. The piece in question is on a ball joint that's on the end of a slender, slightly twisted stalk, and the stalk broke right at the root.

Then, having received and fitted a replacement for that entire mane section (grateful thanks to TFs Express), the head came off as I tried to turn it on its upper ball joint - the joint itself being so tight, the stalk ended up twisting to the point of breakage. I'd accept that the mane breakage was as much my fault as it was a design flaw to have such a thin stalk on the joint in the first place... but if you're going to design a model with two ball joints on the neck, surely it's expected to be mobile? I asked about the possibility of a replacement, which I would have been happy to pay for, but it now seems highly unlikely that a new head and neck will turn up in the post... and even if they did, I've no idea how I'd actually go about fitting them.

These issues illustrate part of the problem with transforming Leonidas: because the instruction sheet is not much use, you'll likely spend so long finnagling the head and mane into place that something could break simply because there are so many separate, delicately jointed parts that make up the mane. While it feels as though it's made from good quality plastic there are lots of small and brittle parts, and the grey plastic does have some kind of fine metallic flake component, which surely can't help its resilience. This plastic is used not only for external parts, but for structural parts including the positively infamous abs/extension joints, the main parts of the feet, including the ball joint for the toes, and the collection of joints making up each shoulder. The rest of the transformation is almost insultingly simple - flip round the forearms, rotate the shoulders up, tug the legs down at the hip, bend the knee back, push the kneecap up, then bend the shin forward, and that's basically it - it's a very Beast Wars style transformation. There are also joints in the middle of the torso, to extend the lion's body slightly and allow it to be all twisty but, for the most part, they seem unnecessary and cause problems with articulation.

On which subject, I was really looking forward to taking about a billion photos of this model in various dramatic stances, showing off his weapons and generally looking awesome, but my first couple of experiences of moving parts on him - and the alarming creak of overly tight plastic joints - basically put me off trying to get too creative, and the breakages have made be downright paranoid. I also found that, while the hips are on good, solid ball joints connected directly to thigh swivels, the tops of the white parts of this upper thighs clash with his 'belt' (actually a hollow ring of plastic tagged onto his groin, so it really is like a belt!) seriously limiting your options. There's also the small fact that, while there's a lot of die cast metal in his legs to lower his centre of gravity, there's still quite a bit in the upper body too, and he has an alarming tendency to overbalance both forwards and backwards, so his feet have to be pretty firmly planted. The joints in his torso frequently move about unbidden (particularly the superfluous abs/extension joint) and his shoulders are incredibly stiff, to the point that they creak however they're moved. Even the mane is full of joints, despite being made up of plates that need not have been mobile, and several of them use ball joints rather than hinges, despite their range of motion being quite limited. Attempting to pose him becomes an exercise in sheer frustration, as moving one part of him tends to cause another to move out of place (the torso being the main problem) so, just as you get one bit right, the last part you posed suddenly isn't where you want it... and it ain't due to loose joints, just that the force required to move some outweighs the strength of others, including some of the ratchets. On the upside, it's reasonably easy to get him standing stably without the display stand, and the decent range of movement in his arms is supplemented by a wrist tilt which should be a mandatory feature on any sword-wielding robot.

The use of die cast metal is commendable in terms of durability and adding heft and weight to the model, but that added weight brings its own problems and the fact that it wasn't used for some critical structural parts seems foolish. Beast mode, despite having access to much the same selection of joints, just isn't as dynamic as you might hope... It can't move especially naturally, so getting decent walking pose out of it is next to impossible, and a proper, feline seated or 'ready to pounce' posture is basically out as well. And with so much die cast metal in there, it's only really stable with all four feet planted firmly on the ground, rendering the individually mobile toes a bit redundant. The lion's head is limited by being mounted on two separate - and off-centre - joints that never quite move like those of a neck, and leave quite a noticeable space between the head and the shoulders.

I've also found at least one other QC problem, eerily similar to an issue I had with one of PE's earlier efforts, Motobot RC, in that the red parts of one forearm seem to like to pop open. At first, I thought I might be able to separate them entirely, but they appear to have been screwed in to an extent, just not fully, and then the white plate was glued on over the top, apparently to cover the screw.

The bottom line is that, having paid over £100/$150 for a Masterpiece-sized Third Party interpretation of a character I really like (and it's actually a bargain, when you consider that Hasbro's UK release of MP-10 was £100 in Toys'R'Us) finding it to be so fiddly and fragile, so prone to breakage - the mane I'll put down to my own clumsiness, but the neck breakage was caused by a design flaw compounded by poor choice of materials - was a crushing blow.

It's interesting also that PE have seen fit to release a video on Facebook on how to properly move the (dark grey plastic) tail/whip section, since it's clearly caused a lot of people trouble. I can see them eventually releasing a video on how to properly transform the head/mane, since the instruction sheet is barely adequate.

Frankly, figures like this are why I don't trust YouTube video reviews where the reviewer has been provided a copy of the model for review purposes by one of the online retailers, rather than buying it themselves. There's one Leonidas review in particular where the reviewer (who shall remain nameless) describes the head as having "full 360° rotation", but demonstrates barely 10° of movement on camera... and, based on my own experience, that's likely because the joint is so tight, and made of such brittle material that the head would have sheared off on-camera had he tried to move it any more. Call me paranoid, but I expect he was briefed on that potential problem.

When I ordered this, full of enthusiasm, I'd hoped to be able to recommend it heartily... as it is, some months after the initial breakage, I had to fit a replacement part to the fiddly mane, then had another, more critical part break because the joint was just too tight. I was unable to obtain a replacement part for the head/neck breakage, which has somewhat dampened my enthusiasm, and goes some way to explaining why I've spent so long (close to a year and a half!) deciding whether or not to publish this.

Leonidas is potentially a great figure for display purposes, but don't expect to take it off the shelf especially often, either to transform it, change the pose, or to otherwise fiddle with it. Perfect Effect are excellent designers, but I feel they need to rein in the complexity a little and improve on their choice of materials. Anyone thinking of buying this should research it extensively before committing to purchase, particularly at the insane secondary market price it commands these days. It looks fantastic, but features some very brittle parts, and many people have reported breakages, particularly on pieces made of the dark grey plastic.

It's definitely not a bad Third Party transforming model, but it's certainly not a toy. Leonidas is one of the first Third Party efforts that I feel fully justifies its '16+' age rating because it requires careful, not to say precise handling. I own more than 20 Third Party figures, six of which are Perfect Effect, so I'm not incautious about handling Third Party products. Of all of these, though, I've had significant issues with only four... and three of those are PE. They, in particular, have a reputation for incredibly intricate engineering, but also for going overboard on that intricacy (for example, there's actually a section on the back of each thigh that tilts... and I have no idea why), to the detriment of a model and the experience of owning it. This could have been a better figure had a few key parts been less mobile or their joints made larger and stronger.

My headless Leonidas is now back in his box, sitting on the floor in one corner of my lounge, and looks set to stay there until I either chunk him away (which still seems like a waste) or come up something useful to do with him (which seems unlikely).

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