Elfin cat-girl Fam (voiced by Hekiru Shina) and her human companion Ihrlie (Michiko Neya) are a couple of bickering Ruin Explorers, trying to make a living by salvaging lost relics from an ancient time when magic ruled the world. Although Ihrlie is a powerful sorceress, because of a curse from her disgruntled master, every time she casts a spell she turns into a mouse. To undo the curse Ihrlie and Fam seek the so-called Ultimate Power that is sealed by three relics they must find. Their quest brings them into conflict with rodent-phobic magic-user Rasha (Rica Matsumoto), her brash ally the warrior Migel (Koichi Yamadera) along with unscrupulous merchant Gulf (Chikao Otsuka) and his snickering, Muttley-like dog Gil (Kenichi Ogata). Fate brings the feuding adventurers together with the dashing Lyle (Hikaru Midorikawa), a noble prince also seeking the Ultimate Power to avenge his fallen kingdom. Eventually the heroes band together against the dark cleric Rugodorull (Iemasa Kayumi).
Based on Kuniko Tanaka's Dungeons and Dragons-style fantasy adventure serialized in the RPG magazine Hobby Japan, Ruin Explorers: Fam & Ihrlie came out the same year as Slayers (1995), a tonally similar slapstick sword and sorcery romp. Yet whereas Slayers became a bonafide multi-media phenomenon siring five movies, Ruin Explorers languished in relative obscurity despite being marginally superior. With its neon colours, slick character designs but limited animation the four-part serial encapsulates several of the more inane aspects of direct-to-video anime in the Nineties. Fam is the hyper-manic, bubble-headed nymphet, Ihrlie the leggy, statuesque but surly badass (although she has a reason to be surly). They are klutzy, bickering heroines that muddle into one mess after another between jutting their breasts and/or butts at the camera in a manner that is less compelling when you are not fourteen.
However, the perky characters share an engaging dynamic, the gags are sporadically funny and the animators gradually piece together an interesting plot that functions as both parody and rip-roaring adventure. Prolific Takeshi Mori directed a lot of SF and fantasy anime by numbers in the Nineties but also genuine gems like breakneck girls-with-guns crime thriller Gunsmith Cats (1995) and the delightful spoof mockumentary Otaku no Video (1991). Here he tells a generic but still solid story in four fairly well-balanced parts including a pleasing arc wherein friendship prompts six selfish characters to grow more altruistic. Despite their name-in-the-title status Fam and Ihrlie are merely part of an ensemble. Everyone gets their own cool moment including a surprisingly touching scene towards the finale where the amusingly self-aggrandizing Miguel lays his life on the line to save his team.
Certainly the constant cat-fights and fawning over handsome Prince Lyle represent one of the more tiresome tropes in anime. However, Ruin Explorers: Fam & Ihrlie also pieces together a back-story that adds texture to its plot, showcasing an angst-ridden hero full of survivor's guilt and a character whose burning need to protect his people turns him into a monster. Mori devotes the entire third episode to having the characters hone their fighting skills in preparation for the final battle which allows for some well-scripted interaction. While the fantasy set-pieces are fairly modest compared with true landmarks of sword and sorcery anime like Record of the Lodoss War (1990) or The Vision of Escaflowne (1996), Masamichi Amano's soaring orchestral score goes a surprisingly long way towards weaving an epic flavour. The serial also sports a superior English dub where the voice cast truly get into the spirit of the piece. Our heroines sound less like seasoned adventurers than a couple of giggly schoolgirls on a camping holiday. Which depending on your attitude to this admittedly niche sub-genre forms either a flaw or a key part of its appeal.