A friend of mine first recommended Overlord to me as "like Sword Art Online, but from the bad guy's perspective." I was familiar with the concept; eight years ago, a video game of the same name cast the player as a Sauron lookalike reclaiming his dark kingdom. This show has essentially the same premise.
The main character is an avid player of a virtual reality MMORPG, Yggdrasil. After staying logged in past the server shutdown, he wakes up in the body of his avatar...which just happens to be an elder lich that lives in an impenetrable fortress. Momonga, or Ainz Ooal Gown as he rebrands himself, decides to conquer the game world. Perhaps he will find other players who are trapped like him...and besides, it beats real life. Though the broad strokes of the story are nothing new to anyone who has played a video game with good and evil options, there's nothing quite like Overlord on the air right now. With fierce rock themes by OxT and MYTH&ROID, a colorful cast of villainous characters, and plenty of action, it's definitely not to be missed.
The adventures of Ainz Ooal Gown started life as a series of web novels in 2010, written by Kugane Maruyama. Two years later it was acquired by Enterbrain and expanded into light novel format, with additional characters and plot. The light novel series currently comprises nine volumes, with illustrations by so-bin. The manga adaptation debuted in Comp Ace magazine in November 2014; the anime, produced by Madhouse (Death Note, Parasyte, One-Punch Man), premiered in July 2015 for a run of 13 episodes, likely based on the first three books. Many of the voice actors in the anime first appeared in two drama CDs that shipped with volumes 4 and 6, including Satoshi Hino (Momonga/Ainz), Yumi Hara (Albedo), and Sumire Uesaka (Shalltear Bloodfallen).
It's easy to wonder how interesting Overlord could possibly be, given that Momonga/Lord Gown rules an impenetrable fortress, the Great Tomb of Nazarick, as the strongest being in his world. But even though Gown is an insanely powerful lich, he's no Mary Sue. The story is very much a fish out of water tale, and Gown is forced to put his knowledge and skills to the test to adapt to his new existence. The magic and monsters of the Yggdrasil MMO remain largely the same, but the world has changed around Gown's fortress: supernatural techniques such as "Wild Magic" and "Martial Arts" are foreign to him, as is the geographic and political layout of the land. In the game, nothing could threaten our protagonist, but that may not be the case in this new world.
There's a clash of civilization and culture at work here, and much of the appeal comes from the diversity of the character design. On one hand, the new world is a vibrant medieval setting, full of magic, monsters, and adventurers seeking their fortune. On the other, Lord Gown's faction is a motley clash of styles and tastes; much like any large online game, these characters range from the serious to the silly. One of Gown's guardians is a formidable insect warrior right out of a tabletop RPG; another is a red-and-black-clad, gothic lolita-style vampire; six more are a squad of sexy battle maids. Each character is a unique reflection of the personality of its creator, and now that these NPCs have come to life, these unlikely allies bounce off each other with hilarious intensity. It's also worth noting that Gown's guildmates are revered as gods by the denizens of Nazarick—all the funnier given that some of them had MMO-player joke names like "Touch Me."
It's fun to see Gown's forces in action against the outmatched forces of humanity, and their interactions with each other and the world keep their constant victories from eroding the viewer's interest. The show is all about these two worlds colliding, and much of the drama and conflict comes from figuring out what's changed from Yggdrasil and what hasn't. As Gown finds out, anything he did in the game is woven into the laws of this new world—even programming his succubus lieutenant to be in love with him as a joke turned real. As a result, Gown is just as lost as we are at times, which makes it all the funnier when his subordinates mistake his cluelessness for careful planning.
Yet beneath the culture shock and bickering is a genuine, beating, dark heart. Although Lord Gown's guild is evil-aligned, it was created to protect players of inhuman characters who were unfairly discriminated against. Once shunned as monsters, these players embraced the evil identity thrust upon them by the Yggdrasil community and forged the mightiest alliance the game had ever seen: a brotherhood of darkness built on companionship and cooperation. Gown is thus torn between two identities: his lingering humanity inclines him toward mercy upon innocents in need, but as befits his emotionless, newly undead self, he can be utterly ruthless when the situation calls for it. Gown switches effortlessly from protector of the weak to harbinger of doom, and his internal monologue keeps one riveted the whole time as he wrestles with his conscience.
Ultimately, following the journey of Ainz Ooal Gown is a little like playing through a new game. Initially he faces low-level challenges, starting strong and becoming stronger as he learns more about the world. As the threats ramp up and Gown starts to attract attention, he may find that there's someone out there just as powerful as he is...but if things turn sour, he might not get to respawn this time around.
The following anime have two things in common with Overlord: a cast of larger-than-life characters and a mysterious setting for them to explore. Fans of these shows might want to check this one out (and vice versa):
Another friend of mine says he recommended this to troll me, and at a glance I can definitely see why. Like Overlord, this show is full of characters who make zero sense out of context: there's a retired pilot who wears a bear costume at all times, as well as a set of at least 20 clones of one girl. Oh, and humans photosynthesize now. But it's set hundreds of years in the future, and a lot has happened to the human race in that time—things like the destruction of Earth and the near extinction of the species, all at the hands of a mindless alien force known as the Gauna. Think of it as Attack on Titan in space (and, you know, paced well). Be warned, however: the humans are the polar opposite of Lord Gown in terms of power. Things get pretty tense, but what we lack in strength we make up for in perseverance and ingenuity.
Also, the opening themes are impossible not to rave along to. Prepare your glowsticks.
Still want to see characters completely out of their element? Gate is the show for you! This one is also about worlds colliding, and as in Overlord it's pretty clear who's stronger. A portal to a magical realm right out of a fantasy novel opens in the middle of Tokyo's Ginza district, spilling forth an army of medieval warriors and monsters. While initially taken by surprise, the Japanese Self-Defense Force beats back the technologically inferior enemy and takes the fight to them. (Spoiler alert: the side with helicopters wins.) The story follows a resourceful army reservist thrust from his day job into the middle of the war. Along the way he meets a mystical race of forest elves, a warlike princess coincidentally named Piña Co Lada...and a red-and-black-clad, gothic lolita-style priestess. You just know all these light novel authors go to the same parties.
3. Tokyo Ghoul
Though Tokyo Ghoul takes place in a real city, to protagonist Kaneki Ken it has become irreversibly foreign. Although Overlord is billed as dark fantasy, it doesn't come close to the depths of madness that Kaneki finds himself in. Though half human and half ghoul, he is exposed to horror and hate on both sides—and while some of that violence is born from genuine ugliness, more often than not it's a result of fear, despair, conviction, and even love. Just as Lord Gown and his guildmates embraced their inhumanity to survive and thrive, so do ghouls and ghoul hunters retreat into their darkest, hardest selves to get by in a world that's darker and harder. Lord Gown must choose his way, but he does so in a position of power. Give Tokyo Ghoul a whirl, and you'll see how people are forced to choose when their power is ripped away.
We're nearing the end of Overlord, and Ainz Ooal Gown still has a long way to go. He's effortlessly brushed aside armies, saved the innocent, and destroyed the not-so-innocent. He's already made some friends and allies among the human population of the new world, and one can't help but imagine what will happen once he starts attracting more powerful attention. There's little doubt that in the last three episodes, our villain will have to become the greater of two evils.