Review: No Game No Life Zero

After the cliffhanger of an ending that No Game No Life left us on, fans were clamoring for a second season or some sort of continuation of the anime… but as more time passed by, the more hopeless we became.

But then, suddenly, there was the announcement of the movie, No Game No Life Zero. We were excited to delve back into this world, to see more of the characters we got to learn and become attached to… but then we learned it was a prequel, with most of the main characters not being there.

I still kept some hope for this movie, though. And when it was announced it would be playing in theaters here in the US, I was excited to hear it’d be playing near where I live! So on the night of October 5, my friend and I made it to the theater, about 45 minutes before the show was to start. We got the tickets we preordered, grabbed some food, and made our way to the theater… and no one else was there.

An Introduction

Taking place 6000 years before the events of the TV anime, we see a world of Disboard that looks very different from the vibrant, colorful one we’ve been introduced to.

Instead, at this time, Disboard is locked into a full-on war between three of the most powerful races of the world – the warbeasts, the elves, and the Flügel – with a god backing each of them. There’s no games, no 10 pledges… just battles and destruction. In the middle of the frontlines of this war lives the human race, who were pushed to near extinction due to the major super-magical battles these greater races had. Only a single colony (of maybe 100 people tops) remains.

This colony is led by a man named Riku, who’s cold, calculating, and just wants to keep humanity alive. He spends his time investigating, searching for information among giant destroyed ruins – and trying to not be killed by anything menacing while doing so. Meanwhile, the remainder of the colony lives in an underground cave system, with dwellings, walls, and other amenities simply thrown together.

Upset over his latest mission where one of his teammates was killed, Riku decides to head out to the ruins of an old elven capital alone to gather some information about their battle plans. While there, however, he ends up spotted by a lone Ex Machina soldier (Ex Machina being another race of this world, a hivemind cyborg-type thing). This soldier, however, isn’t connected to the rest of her “cluster”, and instead she has her own goal: to understand the human heart.

Thus, with this strange Ex Machina girl in tow (who ends up with the name Schwi) Riku tries to figure out if he can do anything about this war to end it… or at the very least, keep humanity safe.

The Plot and Characters

I’m… not going to pull any punches here.

Unfortunately, with any film, you never quite know walking into it if it really is worth your money or not. Critic reviews and Rotten Tomatoes scores definitely help to steer you away from the real stinkers, but I don’t know how much those really existed for this anime film, which was only shown nationwide for two (non-consecutive) days. To be fair, I probably should’ve at least attempted to look, because I do feel this movie wasn’t worth my money.

I’ll begin by talking about the fact that this film rather failed with explaining or providing much tension.

It’s definitely more a story about Riku and Schwi, rather than a story about the colony or humanity as a whole. For a bit-under-2-hours movie, that’s understandable, since I think a larger scope like that would cause the plot and pacing to buckle under pressure. However… there really isn’t much to Riku and Schwi. After we get some time to learn about Riku, we’re introduced to Schwi, and there’s some fun moments of the two of them together trying to figure each other out. However, after that… not much happens.

As the film continues on from the two of them starting to get used to each other (and a few suggestive scenes which are the only times you’ll see fanservice in the entire film), we really don’t see any factor or element that arrives to provide tension or urgency; although there’s definitely an assumed idea that there’s danger due to them being in a war zone, we never see humanity actually become threatened or what kind of foes they’re put up against. The film continues to focus on the relationship of Riku and Schwi, and on Riku’s continued desire to keep humanity alive, although it fails to delve deep enough into either of those to really get invested in them. Riku develops a master plan partway through the movie (which amuses me because some of the ideas in it, one would think he’d already be striving for), but we don’t have most of it explained to us until just about when the main operation is about to happen – something that would’ve been okay if the film didn’t also show him performing actions and setting up for this master plan; at first thought, we’re just being shown random scenes without much explanation or that don’t seem to tie into anything.

Honestly, this film does touch multiple topics, but doesn’t really describe much about any of them. There’s talk about weapons of mass destruction, some mystical artifact that appears after a display of total power, and a discussion about some human village or something. But it only just touches them, enough to say “hey, this exists, but we’re not going to say anything more” … but it left me feeling like the film was just throwing words and concepts around, rather than teasing into a deeper world than they can show. One weapon of mass destruction, for example, is first displayed and hinted at when Riku and Schwi meet, and they did a decent job of setting it up to appear to play a bigger role into the latter portion of the movie. However, ultimately, it only kind of does, and next to nothing else is said or shown about it after that one scene (there is a single other scene later where it’s discussed at length but the info we get out of it ends up being pointless). There’s other such weapons too, but they never get brought up until the film decides “oh yeah, I guess they have some too or something”.

Altogether, this brings us to the climax, which as a whole was very clichéd – from the events leading up to it, to the tension happening during it, to what happens as a result of it. However, it does have this film’s one cool action scene (actually, I think it’s the only action scene this movie has), featuring one of the few characters that recur from the TV anime. There’s a lot of big, fancy explosions as the characters fly around and do big, powerful moves and what-not… but the enjoyment was brought down by the aforementioned clichés; we knew exactly how things were going to turn out. I really wish I could delve into details, but I don’t want to give spoilers for those who really care about being spoiled for this film.

Instead, let’s pivot towards the characters.

Riku and Schwi’s story is basically the “teaching a robot to love” type thing, except executed poorly. Excepting the few scenes towards the beginning of the film, we really don’t see the two of them forging a bond or anything like that; all of a sudden, though, we’re given this big, romantic scene that’s supposed to be emotional and dramatic and whatever as Riku proposes to Schwi… the scene felt like it went on for far too long. These are characters we really haven’t had any time to make a connection with or become invested to. Its impact was further undermined by Schwi confessing something to Riku, and despite how actually terrible this thing she confessed is: 1) None of the other characters, including Riku, had ever mentioned this event before or after this point, nor did it seem to weigh on them much at all. 2) Riku immediately forgives her for it, casting it aside without another thought, despite how much one would think it’d affect him. All in all, this scene just made me wonder “why? Why are we watching this?” My friend actually got up and left the theater during this scene, she was so bored.

The only other characters I’ll mention are Couronne and Tet. Couronne is actually the far ancestor of Steph, something you can kind of quickly tell due to the hair color. Unlike Steph, though, Couronne is given a bit more respect as a character, although she’s definitely displayed as being a bit strang. She acts as an older sister to Riku (and to much of the colony in general), and for her being what she is… she’s okay. Provides some comic relief moments, can do the serious stuff when needed, all in all okay. The other I’ll mention is Tet, the god of games who also reappears from the TV anime; I won’t talk much about him, but he is an invisible presence throughout a lot of the film – although, again, I feel the film failed to capitalize on what it could do with him.

Finally and ultimately, though, I do wonder, “why did this film even get made?” Sure, I suppose it does answer some questions and set up a bit of the premise and world that Sora and Shiro find themselves in during the TV anime… but I felt the TV anime did a fine enough job explaining that, and the open questions that this film went to answer honestly were kind of okay just being left unanswered. If anything, it felt like this film just raised more questions, due to its failure of explaining things, than it actually answered. I just… don’t really see the point of this, like at all. Is there really some major bigger reason why this story was brought up in the grand scheme of things, or did the author really feel like this needed explaining? (This film comes directly from volume 6 of the light novel, and these questions definitely apply to that too.) Given all the complaints I have above, I just really wonder if this really was a story that was itching to be told. And I also wonder (and hope) that there’s even more content in the light novel that was cut from the film, that more explains things that desperately needed an explanation.

As a fan of the original TV anime, there really wasn’t much anything in this film that even attempted to scratch the same itches the TV anime did. The only comedy and lightheartedness was in the beginning of the film, and there’s a big focus on romance and marriage rather than on games and outwitting opponents. In fact, we really don’t see many opponents (as previously mentioned), and the only game that is ever mentioned throughout the whole thing is chess – and we don’t even see a full chess game played! There’s next to no fanservice, there’s like no references to other shows, and Riku isn’t nearly as riveting nor charismatic as Sora is. Just everything about this film really doesn’t seem to appeal to fans in my mind.

All in all, do I really have anything positive to say about this film at all? Like, Couronne was… okay, and the climax’s action scene was… kind of cool, but is that really it? I honestly sitting here wondering what positive things I can say about the characters and plot, and not much really comes to mind. There’s some really tiny moments, I suppose, but they’re so small that it isn’t worth the effort to mention, and most all of them occur in the (relatively) more enjoyable beginning part of the movie. Honestly, I really don’t have much positive to say. This just was a waste of my money and a waste of my time.

The Atmosphere

Gone are the bright greens, blues, and weird mixes of colors that made up Disboard during the TV anime.

Instead, we’re greeted with reds, browns, and other murky colors that paints a picture of a war-torn land before games became the biggest rule. The colors are still relatively bright, although it definitely felt more muted and darkened than the TV anime. There are other colors that appear as well, such as some greens and more natural tones while in the elven areas, and light blues while Riku and Schwi were in some weird ice area, but it’s going to be mostly red and browns you’ll see on screen. Gone as well are the red outlines, which is probably okay. Honestly, I’d bet that if you put images from the TV anime and this film side by side and showed them to people unfamiliar with both, those people would think they’re from two separate shows.

All in all, the art design and animation are definitely pretty good, as you’d hope them to be for a film. The TV anime also had rather good quality over its run, and the same applies here. However, there doesn’t really seem to be much of a visual or animation improvement over the TV anime, excepting maybe how the action scenes are done, and the detail of the backgrounds. I kind of like watching anime films for seeing how more visually impressive they can be, but this one really didn’t seem like much of a cut above. A bit disappointing, sadly, but it’s okay; it’s still pretty good quality.

I will say, though, I did rather like the rocks that gave off light while in contact with water. The film offered literally no explanation about them at all (which isn’t surprising), but they really intrigued me.

The sound design, however, was pretty awesome. There was a sound effect used for a magical beam attack that sliced the land from the left side of the screen to the right side, and it sounded really cool because it also “vwoomed” from the left side of the theater to another. Of course, theaters have a surround sound system, that’s part of what makes the experience special, but still, moments like that won’t stop me from going “wow”. Equally as cool was how the effects were done for the voice of the gods in the film; it’s a bit hard to explain off the top of my head, but the effects used definitely made them sound like large, booming creatures with no parallel, which is pretty much what they are.

The background music, I don’t remember much of, as is common for me. There was a lot less of a focus on the electronic sounds that made up the TV anime’s soundtrack, as your more standard orchestra sounds were brought in instead. For what they do, they serve their purpose well enough (although that super-long stupid marriage scene in the middle had some overdramatic emotional music); it would’ve been kind of cooler, though, if they stayed with more of the electronic sounds – maybe something a bit like Attack on Titan’s soundtrack?

The ending theme is “There is a Reason”, sung by Ai Kayano. It’s… decent. I really don’t have much to say about it. The ending credits are relatively uninteresting visually, and the only after-credits scene was just short clips of that stupid marriage scene.

I watched the movie with the Japanese voices and subtitles (because I wouldn’t be able to do the October 8th showing, and I watched the TV anime in subs anyway). Frankly, if my friend hadn’t told me that Riku, Schwi, and Couronne had the same voice actors as Sora, Shiro, and Steph (respectively), I wouldn’t have been able to guess otherwise. She said it was supposed to draw a parallel between the two characters each actor voiced, but honestly, I didn’t really see it. For what the voice acting was, it was… okay. As Riku, Yoshitsugu Matsuoka had a long monologue partway through the movie where he listed off all of his friends who died, and that came across as rather weird-sounding (especially since a lot of them were Western-sounding names). Otherwise, he did a pretty alright job as Riku. Ai Kayano played Schwi, and there were definitely some moments that bothered me (such as when Schwi was going through different inflections in the beginning of the film); again, though, it was okay. Yukari Tamura actually sounded kind of cool doing her role as the primary Flügel character.

Conclusion / TL;DR

Any positive things I have to say about the film in the audio department is definitely outweighed by the many issues I have with the lack of tension or… really anything to keep me interested. The characters aren’t that interesting, there’s clichés all over the place, and things are casually thrown out and never explained well. I really wonder why this story even exists; in the scheme of how things went in the TV anime, the answers this film gives are for questions that were perfectly okay without them.

I don’t like being the type of person to say nothing but negative things about a show or film, or any piece of media I consume. I’m not like Zero Punctuation. I like focusing on the positives, the things I enjoy… but this film really has nothing for me here. Somewhat to my surprise, this film definitely has some fans online, but if you ask me, this isn’t something to bother watching.

Rating: Terrible
Recommendation: Don’t Watch
+++ some really nice audio effects, cool light rocks, Yukari Tamura
— seriously wonder why this film even exists, long marriage scene in the middle, raises more questions than answers

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