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 worthy blockbuster, but not without significant shortcomings.
The anime centers around the Blank siblings - Sora and Shiro: brother and sister, two shut-in NEETs on Earth, but certain victors in a new absurdist world, whose ambitions and exploits, leave their adversaries confounded and awed at the same damn time. Ostensibly, the pair could be written off as a simple gary stu/mary sue pairing. By technicality they are, but they’re far from boring or cliche characters like many that fit that designation due to how the series presents their NEET qualities. Both brother and sister come off as legitimately fun leads, with flashy traits that resemble iconic characters from other well-known anime, novels, or games without feeling like standard self-inserts.
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 the entirely of the seasons’ 276 minute runtime can be neatly categorized into 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. This 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, which itself is offputting for those who have anathema to the common isekai mainstays of "wish fulfillment" and "fanservice" while indiscriminately associating these to inherently tasteless anime without a second thought. This line of logic downplays not only downplays the consistent insanity of the action, but also the nuance of the overarching premise behind the parodical, ludicrous nature of the series.
There is a certain poetic justice captured by NGNL in its portrayal of how NEETs and hikikomori, who Japanese society would deem outcasts or losers regardless of their gaming talent, become monarchs, harem ringleaders, and ultimately winners. Much of NGNL’s charm is more readily appreciated by seasoned otaku, who embrace, and even long for, the taboos that could potentially come with an isekai power trip. After all, it’s a show for them. There are many NEET isekai series, some tone-deaf edgefests and others indiscernible carbon copies of each other, but NGNL separates itself with minutae that captures the essence of what it means to be a NEET. The jokes, including the hypersexual ones, border on gut-wrenchingly hilarious for them and uncomfortable for almost everyone else. The chemistry between cast members generates at least a few memorable one-liners and interactions every episode. The constant stream of clever allusions ranging from Skyrim to Laputa to Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei to ICO are bound to elicit grins when noticed.
Despite being an underdog story about NEETs in disguise, but from the beginning it’s evident that all Blank does is win (no DJ Khaled) in this new world - because after all, to beat a RPG you gotta win against every boss. Thus the goal of the series develops into a making the viewer hooked on HOW they win each and every game. While there are brilliant highs, towards the end of the season, 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. Nonetheless, 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, unsurprisingly the only character who can keep up with the Blank siblings' 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 fucking simple children's word game - all while laughing (hysterically, I might add) at the sheer preposterousness of it all. Blank’s other challengers haven’t had the same spark as Jibril (who, in classic RPG fashion, later becomes 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. Much of the direct characterization throughout these first twelve episodes of NGNL suffers from ubiquitous lack of meaningful development. To an extent, this was to be be expected due to the nature of the series, but some of the attempted subplots fall flat because of this.
Steph is the most prominent contributor, because she serves as a foil for Sora and Shiro and should be an easiest character to relate to on a basic level (basically she's a fucking normie). However, 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 worst. Her inner back-and-forth of whether to trust Sora as a leader or not was painfully half-baked, contrived, and thoughtless. Moreover, 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 NGNL's 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 usually badass, composed personalities become useless and complete wrecks when they’re away from each other.
This tendency to just throw schizoid personality traits out there and hope they stick is the most telling sign that thus far, NGNL has abandoned even barebones exposition. Random behavior is dismissed with the notion that every character acts with some form of inherent spontaneity instead of possessing a fluid train of thought. These developmental aspects are double-edged swords that inject off the wall personality to the series that adds to the fantasy, while also hinder the viewer from taking NGNL's actual narrative or the aforementioned subplots too seriously. We’re left in the dark about relationships, individual vulnerabilities, and motivations. By consequence, a lot of the details dull the quality for this individual season but set up for reveals and more backstory later on.
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 picturesque, eccentric, and effervescent 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 truly massive in every sense of the word. Seriously, the setup has every indication that this world-building could lead to a inordinately expansive and nuanced universe, much like other long-running light novel series such as Index, Spice and Wolf, or Mondaiji (similar premise also withstanding). Sora and Shiro are bent on challenging god, and you have every reason to believe they will. Still, it's disappointing 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 cliffhanger materializing from thin air. Zero fucking warning on that, by the way. 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 ostentatiously fun/bizzare show that’s probably not for everyone if they just don’t get the gratification/fanservice/always winning/self-parody/otaku power fantasy stuff. still, mostly it’s functionally a prologue and maybe the first few bosses of this bigger NGNL rpg that sets the script for following seasons/volumes so don't expect it to have any real juicy plot meat if you know what I'm sayin because it's served up undercooked here. but i can’t say this enough: the shiratori game with Jibril was fucking awesome.