[Warning: This review contains plot spoilers]
No Game No Life is an anime series that follow the adventures of two NEET gamer siblings (read: genius slackers) as they are transported to a foreign world called Disboard where murder and robbery is prohibited and where conflicts are resolved through playing games.
The pair consists of elder brother Sora (空) and younger sister Shiro (白），two genius-level individuals who together form Kuuhaku (空白), an entity in the gaming world that has gained a reputation for being unbeatable at every game. Of course, the games in Disboard are unlike any they’ve played before, primarily because the other races in the world (e.g. elves, demons, warbeasts, etc.) have a tendency to use magic to cheat their way to victory. As humans, or “imanity” as they are called in Disboard, Sora and Shiro possess no magic, so they must use their intellect and teamwork skills to win even the unfairest of games.
The premise sets this series up to be an epic underdog story full of mind games and ingenious tricks (a la Death Note or Code Geass), but it ultimately, and understandably, fails to deliver anything truly mind-blowing.
In Disboard, there are 16 races, each with their own unique characteristics and special skills. Throughout the 12-episode season, we get to see about 4 or 5 of these races, and from these races come a fairly small main cast consisting of 6 or 7 individuals. I’m happy to say, though, that this core cast is presented well. Everyone is fairly like-able and interesting, and the key protagonists all seem like they have the potential to be complex and multi-dimensional.
In particular, I want to draw attention to Stephanie Dola, the naive princess of the “imanity” kingdom. We first see Stephanie in a pub, playing and ultimately losing a game of poker. Almost immediately, it becomes evident that Stephanie is the “normal” character that we as the viewers are supposed to empathize with. She is the one who asks all the questions and who allows us to fully appreciate the tactics and strategies of the genius siblings. Usually in this kind of genre, characters like Steph eventually become the annoying and useless damsel-in-distress or the klutzy side character who accidentally ruins the masterful scheme of her teammates. However, it was a pleasant surprise that Steph did not fall into this cliche. In fact, I found that I could actually relate to her struggles.
It is gradually revealed in the first half of the series that Steph is actually a capable politician and very book-smart. We are told she graduated at the top of her class from the best university in the kingdom, and we see that she has been doing a good job of utilizing connections and executing political strategies to maintain stability and prevent an uprising. She simply lacks the street-smarts and keen intuition that makes for a good gambler. Her skills, despite being presented as the butt of a running joke in the series, make her 3-dimensional and relatable. Other main characters are also depicted in a similarly complex fashion, which makes for very interesting interactions overall.
Unfortunately, the characters were the strongest aspect of this series. The games themselves are, simply put, a disappointment. Don’t get me wrong. The rules of the games they play are very interesting. You have chess where the pieces actually have emotions; you have classics like blackjack and poker; and you have a virtual-reality fps shooter. I get excited at the start of each game when the rules are explained and again in the middle when their opponents’ advantages are revealed. “There’s no way they can win,” I think to myself.
Perhaps I’ve spoiled myself with deeply tactical and psychological anime like Death Note, but whenever I start to think that there’s no way the protagonists can turn the tables, I expect there to be a mind-blowing reveal when I’m inevitably proven wrong. Perhaps there’s a loophole in the rules I overlooked, or perhaps the main character still has a trick up his sleeves that was foreshadowed by a scene several episodes back. Unfortunately, the games in No Game, No Life have no such mind-blowing reveal. The writers definitely intended for the final reveals of each game to be mind-blowing, but to me (and I suspect to a lot of viewers out there), they seemed an awfully lot like dei ex machina.
Let’s take the chess match as an example, the one where the pieces had emotions. As the game was originally explained, it seemed as though the match was a fairly standard chess game, the only difference being the pieces could move extra spaces if the leader was charismatic or would refuse to move if they knew they were being used as sacrifices. When Sora makes his comeback in the match, it is accompanied by the several reveals: that the morale of the pieces could be improved via a motivational speech, that one could act out of turn, and that pieces could change alliances. Perhaps I might not have taken issue with any one of these reveals by itself, but together, they created chaos.
By the end of the game, I had no idea what the rules of the game were anymore. Likewise, with only a few exceptions, most of the other games in the series were resolved with a tactic that seemed to have been pulled from thin air. It seems almost as if the “tricks” used by the protagonists were decided on in the last minute, with little regard for whether they actually made sense or not in context.
Sound and Animation:
I grouped sound and animation together because in an anime that places an emphasis on games of wit and strategy, the aesthetics play second fiddle to the characters and storyline. In general, the art and music were both well done but not anything particularly awe-inspiring. They did not distract from the plot nor from the games, which in my book makes them successes.
Overall, this anime was pretty decent, but it had the potential to be so much better. The world was interesting and so were the characters in them. It was a good try, but it falls short where it actually counts. If there was just a little more foreshadowing, and if the games were just planned out a bit better, No Game, No Life could have been a masterpiece. Instead, it is just a step above mediocrity.
Overall Rating: 7/10