Make no mistake, No Game No Life is built to be a blockbuster. Madhouse adapting "one of those" wildly successful isekai light novel series made sense considering their generally poor commercial performance as of late. And NGNL, a blitzkrieg of dastardly clever action and outrageous gags, as unsettling as it is original, certain delivers a blockbuster, but not without significant shortcomings.
The anime centers around Sora and Shiro: brother and sister, two certain victors in an absurdist world, whose ambitions and exploits, leave impressive opponents - and subsequently, you, the viewer - confounded and amazed at the same damn time. Ostensibly, the pair could be written off as a simple gary stu/mary sue pairing, and by definition they are but they’re far from boring or cliche characters outside of that designation. The elder brother and de-facto protagonist is Sora, is your typical unflappable badass dude - you know, the perceptive daredevil of a schemer, prone to dramatic outbursts and a notorious pervert with a penchant for almost every hentai fetish in the book. The sister is your typical kuudere white-haired loli genius whose fanbase began to explode even before she was introduced with a casual panty shot.
In the first episode, our pair of gaming prodigies are whisked into a new isekai world, Disboard, by its enigmatic God, Tet and by the fourth, they are the rulers of Elkia, the last kingdom of Imanity, the human race. NGNL hits the ground running and doesn’t let up for a second. The worldbuilding and plot development resembles the progression of an RPG: minor games precede major ones with interludes in between. Nearly all of the season’ 276 minutes can be categorized as plotting, games, or breaks in action - which generally involve harassing Steph or all the females taking baths while Sora sits back on the partition as hilarity ensues. The oversexualization and fanservice is responsible for some of the funniest moments of the season and serves to enhance the over-the-top, volatile energy of the show.
NGNL’s framework makes it easy to overstate the otaku and gamer escapism and gratification and downplay the consistent insanity of the action. There is a certain poetic justice that the anime portrays about how NEETs, who Japanese society would deem losers regardless of their gaming talent, become monarchs and harem ringleaders. Much of NGNL’s charm is more event to seasoned otaku - it’s a show FOR them. The jokes border on hilarious for them and uncomfortable for almost everyone else, and many of the clever allusions ranging from Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei to ICO, are noticed by them. Yes, it’s an underdog story in disguise, but from the beginning it’s evident that all Blank does is win (no DJ Khaled) in this otaku power fantasy - because after all, to beat a RPG you gotta win against every boss. Thus the goal of the series is evident: making the viewer hooked on HOW they win. While there are brilliant highs, towards the end of the reason, the state of the games have gotten to the point where the constant victory really does begin to dull the suspense to the point where the result of the final game itself came of as anticlimactic, bordering on deus ex machina. And it would be ingenuous to not expect gaps of logic, plot armor, and minor plot holes, but none of them are particularly questionable or bothersome enough to reduce the quality of the series at large. On the other side, the highlight is the sudden Shiratori game with Jibril, unsurpsingly the only character who can keep up with the Blank sibling’s craziness, where the intensity and cleverness of each response ratcheting up to another level. It was the first and only moment where it felt like our heroes could actually LOSE while we watch hydrogen bombs and stars explode because of a word game - an entire laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. Blank’s other challengers haven’t had the same spark as Jibril (who, in RPG fashion, is now an ally) - and it makes one think they really could use an equally insane foil or antagonist to bring out their best.
The substance of NGNL itself is its style, and it works wonders thanks to its burlesque tone. The balance is extreme, but not much of a departure from Imaishi and Masaaki-directed works. What makes NGNL is different is how specific it is, how every stratagem is explained and everything happens for a reason. Which is why for NGNL to truly connect on an emotional level, it has to specifically dedicate time towards making the viewer care about the characters and the world they find themselves in. It struggles in this regard. Steph is the most prominent contributor to this, because she is the most familiar and the easiest character to relate to. Her sobbing about her grandfather, the disgraced former king of who gambled his land away in hopes of future prosperity, is sappy at best and annoying at worse, and her inner back-and-forth of whether to trust Sora as a leader or not was painfully underdeveloped an thoughtless.
‘Underdeveloped’ is a word that could describe much of the direct characterization throughout the first twelve episodes. Random behavior dismissed with the notion that every character acts with is inherent spontaneity instead of possessing a fluid train of thought, by virtue of NGNL abandoning exposition for shock value, and depth for edge. It’s difficult to care too much about Izuna’s inner struggle about her sense of duty or Fiel’s bond to Kurami when they’re explored for a few scenes and pass by like a floating piece of debris in a hurricane. This can even apply to the series more compelling and fun characters: take Jibril for example, a deserved fan favorite who shifts between (literally) drooling over the prospect of gaining precious knowledge to reminiscing about the days where she could indulge in her psychopathic tendencies of slaughtering anyone in her way. Sora and Shiro themselves have a quirk where their personalities become useless and complete wrecks when they’re away from each other, and for what? There’s nothing beyond that. These developmental aspects are double-edged swords that inject the off-the-wall personality to the series while also hinder the viewer from taking it’s narrative seriously because we’re left in the dark about relationships, individual vulnerabilities, and motivations. By consequence, a lot of the details slightly dull the quality for for this individual season but yet up for reveals and more backstory later on (but not too much, because as I said before, it borders on self parody and doesn’t take it self too seriously).
Much of the worldbuilding and characterization itself is represented through the heightened sense of verticality, with rapidfire cut changes. This, along with Madhouse’s high-contrast neon color palette and quirky artwork distinguishes Disboard as one of the most beautiful, eccentric, and vivacious isekai settings I've ever seen animated. Often, right after heavy action sequences full of zooming movements and aerial shots, the cinematography shifts to juxtapose our larger-than-life characters to an even more larger-than-life world. This imbalance creates a lingering sense that the characters are small and caged, giving the viewers the sense that someone (remember Tet?) is constantly watching, and there is much much more to the game that is yet to come. Furthermore, the voice acting especially for Sora, Shiro, and Jibril is bonkers and felt incredibly fitting for their characters. The BGM itself isn’t a highlight, but it’s solid throughout - playful or intense when it needs to be, whereas Konomi Suzuki’s opening, This Game, with twinkling pianos and soaring vocals sets the mood, and I’m definitely going to try to learn (and fail) how to play it.
It’s undeniable that NGNL has the scope and potential to be huge. Sora and Shiro are bent on challenging god, and you have every reason to believe they will. Still, it's dissapoiting that the season peaked at episode six, the shiratori match with Jibril and by the twelfth episode, much of the novelty has already begun wearing off. Yet despite the minor speed bump, the sense that there is so much potential with the world of Disboard never fizzles out and we’re reminded of that with how the first season ends - with a fucking preposterous chliffhanger. With many more volumes to adapt, things can only get bigger; whether they get better has yet to be seen.
Edit: TL;DR: read the whole review pussy btw it’s a fun/bizzare show that’s probably not for everyone if they just don’t get the gratification/always winning/self-parody/otaku power fantasy stuff. still, mostly it’s a prologue and maybe the first few bosses of this bigger NGNL rpg that sets the script for following seasons/volumes. but i can’t say this enough: the shiratori game with Jibril was fucking awesome.