All flash, no substance. That's what I would say if I had to sum up my thoughts on Karneval.
Just looking at it - either the promotional artwork, the first few scenes of the anime, or the manga artwork - you can easily tell that it's pretty. Characters are drawn in pleasing ways and colours are bright and sharp. The animation of the series is also very well done - everything moves smoothly, action scenes are generally well directed, and CG is used to great effect. I have to admit, even the soundtrack is pretty solid.
That's the flash I mentioned. In terms of substance, this is where Karneval suffers.
Let's start with the plot. The story revolves a mysterious boy named Nai who encounters the thief, Gareki, and the defense organization, Circus, in his search for an even more mysterious man named Karoku. Through Circus, the two also get involved in fighting against a criminal organization by the name of Kafka.
It's quite straight forward, but for some reason, the anime goes through the motions of having a plot that's a lot more convoluted. For several episodes, antagonists seem to be plotting something or other, having to do with capturing Nai for whatever purpose, and in the meantime, Circus fights against human-like monstrosities; however, there is no direction or purpose for a long time. Random things just seem to happen inexplicably with no apparent end goal. Kafka as an organization doesn't even come to play until about the halfway point of the series, and even after the finale, I'm still uncertain just what Kafka's exact goals are.
I have a feeling the writers were going for the approach wherein there's a mystery and tidbits of information are gradually given to the audience to heighten the anticipation and excitement. However, as I said, the plot of Karneval is actually quite straight-forward when laid bare, so the added convolution and vagueness makes it feel too confusing for its own good. The worst of it is the whole search for Karoku. By the end of the series, he's even made a few appearances but we still have no idea who he is or why he's important.
To make matters worse is the issue of pacing. Karneval is 13 episodes long, which is relatively short when you have a plot involving mysterious organizations, plenty of action, and missing persons and lost identities to be found. This means that, ideally, every episode should count. However, Karenval squanders away good chunks of its time with having the cast go to parades, put on circus shows, or help a boy find a restaurant...or something.
Now, this might all be a little forgivable if the characters were interesting. All right, they look great and, initially, they all seem really cool, but remember how I said "All flash, no substance"? Yeah, that again.
As the story progresses and each character gets their screen time, I came to realize that there was literally nothing original about any of them. Nai is innocent and cute, but ultimately weak and a crybaby. Gareki is the "Jerk with a Heart of Gold", the guy that doesn't like getting close to people but actually cares for them deep down inside. Also, for being a main character, he doesn't actually do a whole lot, something he actually realizes by the end. Tsukumo is sometimes hailed as a strong female character, and yeah, she can fight, but ultimately she's an emotionless, detached girl who isn't all that interesting. Yogi stands in contrast to Tsukumo - he's cheerful and bright, which is a nice breath of fresh air, but later on in the series, his continued exuberance and idealism make him more of a man-child and I found myself wishing we could see a different aspect of him.
There are a number of other characters in the story, but they aren't given as much screen time as the main four and they, too, suffer from the same lack of depth and/or originality. It's really a shame because a number of them have the potential to grow into very interesting characters.
All in all, Karneval was a huge disappointment for me. Obviously, a lot of work and money was poured into this, but it was wasted on a cast of derived characters and a lacking plot.