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 in. 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 strange. 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’m 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

Review: No Game No Life

This show came out at a time where I was fully and completely invested in anime and being an anime fan, and I went out and grabbed nearly any current running show I could to try to fill my ever-hungry stomach with more. I had a number of shows I was watching this season. Some of which were totally forgotten (sorry, Nanana’s Buried Treasure!) and some stuck around and continued to be enjoyed today, like this show.

However, that was long ago (in my mind lol), and heck if I can recount much anything from that time. Prior to me watching the new prequel movie, No Game No Life Zero, I figured I’d revisit this series again to refresh my memory.

An Introduction

No Game No Life is another take on the “stuck in a video game world” genre of anime.

We meet siblings Sora and Shiro, who together form the unstoppable gaming duo, “Blank”. They spend all of their time sitting in their room, playing video games. In their eyes, the outside world isn’t worth their time to deal with; it’s complicated and its rules aren’t straightforward nor logical.

Then, suddenly, a mysterious message. A challenge to a game of chess. This game takes a ridiculously long time to complete, but like always, Blank wins the game. Impressed by their skills, the message’s sender offers to rebirth them into a new world, a world governed solely by games. The gaming duo accept.

Next thing they know, Sora and Shiro find themselves plummeting down towards an unfamiliar earth, while their correspondent – who ends up being this world’s One True God, Tet – lays down the rules for them. Specifically, 10 rules. All conflicts are resolved through games – one person challenges another to a game, each person offers something of equal value for betting, and the challenged party decides the game to play. There is no murder, no robbery, no crime… everything is done through games.

As for our protagonists, the unstoppable gaming duo, now stuck in this world without a seeable way out… they love it. Why would they ever want to leave?

The Plot and Characters

No Game No Life sets up a very interesting world, in large part due to the 10 pledges that every sentient race is expected to adhere to. In this world, there are 16 sentient races, ranked by magical ability. Rank 1, the most powerful race, is Old Deus – the race of gods. Rank 16, with absolutely no magic power at all, are humans – collectively called Imanity for some reason. As Sora and Shiro explore this new world, I as a viewer am too, which is pretty cool… but then their goals change. Nearly immediately, the gamer twins get enough of a grasp of what’s going on to start aiming for something else: to rise to the top of this world, even rivaling the One True God himself!

Frankly, that is what this show is really about: watching Sora and Shiro brain-battle their way through various games and somehow overcome them all. Add a dash of melodramatic speeches about weaknesses/strengths/faith, and a whole heaping of otaku-pandering fluff, and that’s pretty much this show. And for what it is, it’s pretty decent.

Every game and situation that Sora and Shiro get into, you’re fairly confident they’ll pull it off – a majority of the time, the duo themselves are confident too. Pretty much all of the games we come across are games we’ve seen in the real world, from chess to shiritori to even the simple coin flip – although most of them usually have a twist to them, such as the chess pieces having their own will and motivations. In all situations though, Sora (the older brother) knows how to use and bend the rules he’s given to make what he wants happen, such as turning said chess game into a 3-sided war, or causing his opponent to overthink a simple Rock-Paper-Scissors game. He has the wits, the resources, and the charisma to pull off pretty much whatever he wants to happen.

Which kind of makes me wonder about poor Shiro. Despite the duo and the show asserting multiple times that they’re an equal pair, Shiro only really seems to be needed in these games as “plan B”, in the rare times that Sora can’t do it all himself. Even during the one chance Shiro is given to come into her own, she spends most of her time trying to search for her brother.

That aside, though, these games really are fascinating to watch and experience, primarily just to see “how the heck they’ll pull this off” (which unfortunately doesn’t lend well to multiple viewings since you already faintly remember how they did it). Even when Sora and Shiro seem to have everything going against them, they somehow turn it all around. Their plans to outsmart the smart ones and outcraft the crafty ones are fascinating to behold.

However, this ends up only being a portion of the entire show.

The other half of No Game No Life is spent with a lot of fanservice and anime fan pandering. The show has no trouble showing off Shiro’s underwear multiple times, despite her being age 11. They knowingly devolves into fanservice scenes quite a bit, and as more characters are added on, the further along they push these scenes as well. This is further complicated by Sora playing the all-too-common trait of the desperate virgin – with Shiro being the one to reign him in when he goes off the rails. The fanservice scenes really don’t do much for me, and the amount of times I’ve seen girls’ underwear in this show honestly does make me a bit uncomfortable. However, I’ve pretty fully accepted that this is just one of the main pillars of this series; if you’re looking for a fanservice-free show, this is not the way to go.

This show also likes to make references. In fact, quite a bit of them. It amused me to come back to this series years after my first watch-through, now seeing all of the things that younger me didn’t even realize to be references. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Doraemon, Ace Attorney (this one actually really cracked me up because they did a remix of one of the Ace Attorney themes and one of the characters was a spot-on copy of the judge), and more. Even on this second watch-through, I’m sure there’s references that I still didn’t even get. You really don’t have to get these references to still get the show, as younger me can tell you, but they do add a tiny bit more enjoyment for fans.

So let’s round up this section talking about the supporting cast and the show’s pacing.

Stephanie Dola is the granddaughter of Imanity’s previous king, and honestly, she seems only here to fill this show’s weird definition of “comic relief”. Constantly, she’s portrayed as dumb and incapable. Sora and Shiro constantly belittle and ridicule her, and even the one scene where she displays herself to be fairly intelligent, she isn’t treated seriously. Even when they actually acknowledge her and thank her for something, it more feels like they’re doing it so they don’t lose their plaything rather than because they actually value her. It’s a bit of a shame, because she’d actually be an interesting character if everyone and everything didn’t have it out to make her seem so stupid. She has values, a goal, and drive, but she’s constantly trampled over except for the few times she’s needed for plot reasons.

Jibril is introduced halfway through the series; she’s a Flügel, the angel-like race ranked 6 with super magical abilities. Lacking the ability to be destructive in this game-dominated world, the Flügel all became obsessed with knowledge – thus, the main duo come across Jibril in Imanity’s library. Jibril has an air of self-importance about her, looking down on all lower-ranked races, but when you get past that, you see a fun personality of someone who can be aloof and strange, but yet also at times unnervingly deadly serious. She fits in surprisingly well with Sora and Shiro, and the show’s affection for fanservice. Frankly, she’s just fun to have on screen.

There’s other characters too, like Kurami, Fi, and Izuna… but, we don’t really see them quite as much. They are interesting characters, for sure, but my word count is already super long.

Lastly, the pacing… which is quite good. Each episode feels like something gets accomplished and progress was made. Each scene in this show lasts long enough to do what they need to do, and then finish. Things don’t linger around unnecessarily, nor does anything feel like they’re moving too fast to not be able to achieve their full effect. All in all, pretty well done.

Oop! Surprise final paragraph! Just like the show, which has a surprise final scene… if you’ve heard the term “Gainax ending” before, you may be disappointed to hear this applies here. After everything gets wrapped up well enough in the final episode, the post-credits scene just throws a wrench in it all. It honestly made me relatively upset when I first finished the series – it was the first anime show to do that to me! Unfortunately, with no announcement of an animated continuation of the main story at the time of writing, the only way you’ll be able to continue this sudden ending is by reading the original light novels.

The Atmosphere

No Game No Life is filled with color. Everything is colorful! And not just one or two or a few colors, oh no no no! There’s a lot of them and they’re all over the screen and you can’t escape them!

Seriously, I do love how bright and colorful this anime is. Not only are there colors, but there’s a lot of textures and details too. No Game No Life’s visual style is like no other, and it’s pretty cool! These visuals really did just make me want to explore this world so much more – a tad saddening, seeing how little of the whole world we really get to see. However, sometimes these bright colors actually do become a bit too much. The backgrounds overwhelm me too much that I can’t really even focus on what’s actually going on in the scene, and I have difficulties discerning the characters from the bright backdrop behind them. Fortunately, though, this only applies to a few scenes, but it’s still enough to warrant a mention.

The interesting visuals also lend itself to the character designs. The main cast all have these distinct shapes to them, although sometimes Shiro looks a bit aged up in the dramatic scenes of the final 2 episodes, amusingly enough. Excepting Sora wearing a T-shirt, an undershirt, and jeans, the whole cast have these flowing, fantasy-esque robes/dresses/outfits they don. The designs are distinct, but not ornate enough to just be too much (except maybe Steph’s dress).

The characters, a majority of the time, are all drawn with red outlines as well, rather than black. It honestly does contribute to the blending-into-the-background problem I mentioned a few paragraphs ago… but still, I respect and applaud shows that do this, because it really makes things look different. I do think having black outlines would just stand out a bit too much with the color-palooza going on in the backgrounds.

Animation-wise, No Game No Life also fares well. Motion flows really well, and the times 2D and 3D are put together really don’t even bother me at all because of all the colors. There aren’t any noticeable drops in quality.

So, let’s talk voice actors. I’d fathom a guess that over half of No Game No Life’s dialogue comes from Sora alone, so you’d hope that whoever voices him does a good job. On the Japanese side, you have Yoshitsugu Matsuoka – the same voice actor for Sword Art Online’s Kirito. And indeed, Mr. Matsuoka does a pretty outstanding job, being able to do all of Sora’s various expressions, and he even gives Sora this distinct voice that stands apart from other anime protagonists. It’s a bit deeper and gravel-y-ier, sounding like it comes more from the back of the throat. It’s cool. On the English side, we have Scott Gibbs. He doesn’t do a bad job, either, although it sounds more like a super-cool, slick action movie star than I’d expect Sora to be. Again, though, not a bad job, it’s an interesting take.

Shiro is handled by Ai Kayano on the Japanese side and Caitlynn French on the English side. Both sound pretty similar, and I honestly feel “meh” about both. Shiro is supposed to be the quiet, almost Yuki Nagato-like type, which I can kind of hear both voice actors going for.

I’ll also give mention to how Jibril’s introduction was done on the English side. Sora and Shiro first come across Jibril speaking in a manner comically unfitting her appearance, which throws them for a loop, but the subtitles failed to really convey this joke. On the English side, the lines were rewritten to sound like someone trying to sound cool and foreign by dropping random French/Spanish words, so they translated it over pretty decently. Just something small I wanted to mention and appreciate.

All in all, for the English dub, it’s of same quality as Sentai’s other dubs. That is to say, it’s pretty alright.

The show’s opening theme is “This Game”, sung by Konomi Suzuki. It’s fast-paced and energetic, with a piano accompaniment (with drums and guitar as well). The opening animation, in turn, is also rather fun, with people and things flying around and the show’s variety of colors on full display. I was actually surprised to have this song get stuck in my head after the fact, it didn’t seem like the type that would. The ending song is “Oracion”, sung by Ai Kayano, and I like how it goes from cold and sad sounding in the beginning to more energetic in the latter half; the ending animation does the same to match. I also recommend you watch the ending in full for episode 8, and also keep in mind that a few episodes have after-credits scenes.

For the show’s background music, it’s a lot of electronic music – some EDM and some more house/chill-like, although some other instruments and sounds do make their way in at times too; it’s distinctive and fits really well for the show. You’ll definitely figure out some tracks as the “explaining/monologuing song” and the “dramatic scenes song” and such, but still, it’s good stuff, and since this show is only 12 episodes, it’s not really long enough for any of them to really start to grate on you.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

No Game No Life is a fascinating ride. From the brightly colored visuals to the intense mental battles of the games to the large amount of fanservice content, this show does enough to stand on its own and make the experience fun. This being said, the fanservice can get a bit much, and the show’s handling of Steph is saddening, but the biggest issue is the cliffhanger ending at the very end.

I bet most of my review came off pretty positive though, if not neutral. I just had that much fun time with the show. Likewise, if you’re looking for something fun and that makes you wonder “how are they going to pull this one off?”, No Game No Life won’t fail to deliver. Just, uhhh… don’t say I didn’t warn you about the ending.

Rating: Great
Recommendation: Watch It
+++ fascinating to watch Sora/Shiro fight their way through the games, bright colors and red outlines, the various references
— the cliffhanger “Gainax ending”, Steph is constantly belittled and made fun of, Shiro feels a bit unneeded