In Short:

Strain: Strategic Armored Infantry is a 2006 sci-fi anime from Studio Fantasia that follows cadet Strain pilot Sara Werec as she pursues her older brother across the stars looking for answers after he betrays her. The show offers interesting takes on depression, determination, and mech-based space combat. It also makes novel use of the time dilation effects of faster than light travel as part of its core plot.

Though I enjoy the show and its themes a great deal, it is decidedly not in the top tier of anime. It simply does not reach any kind of “best of the best” status across plot, animation, sound, or music… though the battle theme is pretty good. There’s also an unfortunate fan service episode in episode 7 that can almost be entirely skipped.

Suggested Minimum Watch: 2 episodes. You need to see Sara before and after the attack on planet Grabera before making a decision on the series.

Full Review:

I first found Strain: Strategic Armored Infantry in my early days of anime. It was one of the first I watched during the earliest days of Funimation streaming, and it stuck with me all these years later.

The story starts with Sara Werec, a young girl who faces the prospect of never seeing her beloved older brother again. You see, her brother, Ralph, is a Reasoner: a pilot trained to fly large, mech-like space fighters called Strains. Ralph is being deployed to the front lines of humanity’s long running civil war several light years away and due to the effects of time dilation caused by faster than light travel, this means young Sara will grow up, grow old, and die before Ralph is able to return. In order to again see her brother, Sara makes a choice to follow in his footsteps and become a Strain pilot herself.

We catch up to Sara a few years later as she and her fellow cadet Reasoners are nearing graduation at their Strain pilot training academy. Sara, like her brother, has become one of the best of the best, and she can’t wait to head out to the front lines to finally meet up with him. Unfortunately, fate has other things in store for her. When Sara’s university on planet Grabera comes under attack by enemy forces, she and her friends board their Strains in order to push back the enemy. They do well at first, but then learn that Ralph and his advanced Strain are leading the enemy’s attack! After defeating nearby opposition, including Sara, Ralph breaks into a research facility to steal a strange girl being held there. He then departs leaving his battered younger sister behind traumatized and in need of answers.

Having lost her ability to pilot a Strain due to her brother’s attacks, Sara’s quest should be over, but her need for answers won’t let her quit. She changes her name and reenlists in the military in secret as a pilot in the much slower rank and file Gambee mech squadrons. Though she is deeply frustrated and deeply traumatized, Sara continues after her brother no matter the risks or abuses she faces along the way.

It’s Sara’s determination that really kept me with the show. She’s stuck piloting a machine that her Strain could run circles around and she has to keep her identity hidden unless she wants to face endless questions about her loyalty given the atrocities her brother committed. Perhaps even worse, her fellow rank and file pilots treat her terribly as she is relearning the ropes and pushing herself far too hard in order to reach the front lines as soon as possible. Sara’s now silent, determined attitude doesn’t win her any friends, either, but there is something oddly compelling about how she endures emotional and occasional physical abuse all without complaining or lashing out in return.

Eventually, Sara does find a way to pilot a Strain again, and it’s interesting to watch as she is encouraged back out of her trauma and depression. She has to learn to trust others again, all while still protecting her biggest, darkest secrets. That she continues to hide her true identity creates some nice moments of tension in later episodes. After all, her brother didn’t just betray her, he hurt a lot of people, and Sara is forced to deal with that fact eventually.

All of this might have come to nothing if we never leaned why Ralph did what he did, but we do learn his motivations. By the end of the show, Ralph’s own story is revealed and those facts place a new twist on his actions.

Unfortunately, as much as I like Sara and the emotional journey she’s forced down, she’s kinda the only character worth following. Ok… there’s Lottie, an ace Strain pilot almost as good as Sara who has her own story of sadness similar to Sara’s, and there’s Carris who gets a smidge of characterization late in the series, but really none of the other characters matter all that much. All the other minor characters might have their one differentiating trait… one is shy… another likes meat… but whatever. The show is just not given much to work with in terms of characters.

Animation wise, aside for forever being stuck at low DVD 480p resolution, Strain: Strategic Armored Infantry is… fine. The show has the occasional neat scene or neat bit of art, a city built within a hollowed out asteroid looks pretty cool, for instance, but for the most part there’s no big wow factor. Even the combat of the fast moving Strains and their battles with the clouds of numerous explosive robotic “tumors” is a bit bland and confusing. Sara and the other Strain pilots fight enemies that latch on and explode by… chopping them at close range with arm blades? Some of the crossing attack patterns are cool, but again, overall the combat seems like it needs another round of thought to be truly compelling.

The same rating of “ok, but a bit bland” goes for the character animations and backgrounds and even the show’s music. I would, however, like to give a little shout out to the show’s battle theme which actually has a bit of fun punch to it. Despite everything else, I did find myself getting a little pumped up whenever that theme kicked in.

All In All:

There are space anime with more compelling casts, better art, and more exciting action, but that doesn’t mean that Strain is not worth watching. Sara’s highs and lows are fairly compelling. The core story is actually kinda clever in the way it uses the sci-fi setting. The resolution is genuinely good. Just… watch out for episode 7, the out of place goofy fan service episode.

The story of Ralph Werec, his mission to save the research ship, and the crazy time dilation effects he experiences chasing the ship down are really cool. Because of the speed at which Ralph traveled, most of his story took place long after the events of the anime. He was then sent back in time to avenge the aliens he unknowingly killed.

6361 – Aliens first discovered
7003 – Ralph is deployed to save the research ship
7005 – Ralph defeats the remaining alien fighters, Sara is defeated by Ralph on Grabera
7012 – Sarah’s final battle against Ralph begins
7137 – Sarah defeats Ralph
7564 – Ralph get to research ship and is sent back in time – yes, long after the events of the anime!

It gets a little tricky. All the dates except the last one are listed in Ralph’s local time. The last one is in Sara’s and shows the full effects of Ralph’s faster than light travel. The research ship under attack sent a signal to the union forces who then had centuries to develop Strains and come to their rescue? Does it work? Do the timelines match up? I’m not actually totally sure!

Even so, I really like the time travel part of the plot. Even if the dates don’t align perfectly, the idea that time dilation could let you deploy piloting a fighter that was invented based on technology still on the ship you are being sent to save is pretty trippy. I applaud that cool bit of sci-fi!