Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jul 30th 2014
No Game, No Life
Episodes 1-12 Streaming
Siblings Sora and Shiro are consumed by gaming. They'll play anything. Video games, RPGs, chess, cards, rock-paper-scissors—it doesn't matter. And they will win. Little sister Shiro is the genius, an 11-year-old prodigy who can calculate anything, out-think everyone, and strategize like the bastard offspring of Einstein and Robert E. Lee. Big bro Sora is the devious one. He can cheat like there's no tomorrow, and like any good con-man is a master of using his opponents' psychology against them. Together they are known as “Blank,” an unbeatable unit that has carved a bloody swath through the online gaming world. One day the pair takes out a particularly tough opponent at online chess. An opponent, it turns out, who's a god. As a reward, the god, Tet, transports the pair to Disboard—a world where everything is determined by games. A world that is, for Sora and Shiro at least, paradise.
No Game begins with unpromise in its premise. The alternate-world aspect serves up tired savior fantasies. The game-made-real aspect offers the naked wish-fulfillment of virtual expertise that translates into real-world herohood (thank you Last Starfighter). The nature of the show guarantees a rigid game-esque structure. And on that foundation is built a veritable layer cake of things that should, really, make you itch all over.
Together Shiro and Sora are a classic over-powered hero. On Disboard the pair is basically indestructible. They're expert gamers who between them have no weaknesses, in a world where violence is divinely forbidden and everything is run on games. They're always three steps ahead; always smarter, slipperier, more ruthless than their foes. Add in their disdain for inferior gamers and Sora's habit of getting on his moral high horse (as well as Sora and Shiro's pseudo-incestuous attachment) and you have main characters that should be damned hard to get behind.
Adding more itches, the show uses the power differential between Blank and their first ally, sweet-natured but hapless human princess Steph, in some rather unsavory ways. The pair are always abusing and enslaving Steph, who can do nothing to protect herself. On top of that add a festering layer of romantic comedy. Boob-grabbing snafus. Bathing snafus. Love potion (sort of) snafus. And, yes, a harem. For some reason everyone that Blank defeats and adds to its roster of allies is a cute girl embodying a distinct physical and/or personality fetish. Interesting how that happens.
It's a house of horrors, no mistake. Rare is the episode that passes without something that makes you cringe, at least temporarily. And some things—especially Sora and Shiro's treatment of Steph—leave a sour taste that won't scrub out, no matter how the show tries.
And yet, for all that, No Game has a way of blunting its worst instincts, of undercutting its bad turns with humor and, yes, honest-to-goodness feeling that makes even its bumpiest stretches surprisingly enjoyable. The Steph-humiliation is mitigated by some great gags—Shiro spends a couple of episodes with Steph's unfairly-won undergarments strapped casually to her cute little head—as well as a growing sense of Shiro and Sora's regard for her. The scene where the two use a phrase previously used to disparage Steph and her grandfather (the former king, widely thought a fool), neatly reversing its implications, is a heart-tugger for sure. Similarly, Sora's habit of getting on that high horse is made tolerable, if not fun, by the gags and unexpected reactions that come along to knock him off of it. The one where he makes his target bawl, which turns him instantly into the villain, destroying his lovely self-righteous speech, is particularly satisfying.
The harem blow is softened by Sora's disinterest in romance, and by a cast of girls with enough entertaining little kinks that they never quite achieve full harem oblivion. The uninhibited angel character is a WMD who gets drooling happy at the prospect of learning. Steph is terminally naïve and terrible at games but also a master politician. They add fun new vectors to the game-battles. They throw left-field gags at trite and over-serious scenes, knocking them amusingly askew (or completely off the wall). They win us over.
As for Sora and Shiro, they are over-powered, but they aren't wholly caught up in the vogue for eye-rollingly perfect heroes. They're lazy, antisocial, phobic saviors whose motivations are pretty much all selfish. They have amusingly awful living habits—even as kings they live in a dank dungeon, littered with games and junk, staying up all night. They're so codependent that if separated they become gibbering apologetic wrecks. They're dorky and free-spirited as well as evilly smart and deviously manipulative. They're deadly serious about winning, take visible delight in crushing their enemies, and yet never forget that priority one is fun. They are, kind of, in their own way, good company.
Not everything bland or annoying or downright unpleasant about the show is perfectly neutralized of course. But at the very least the show's silly cast, omnipresent sense of fun, and little blasts of quality keep the tiresome and irritating in it from getting in the way.
Of what, you ask? Why the games of course. For all No Game's comedic riffing and rom-com dabbling, the games are its reason for being. Most are small: Sora turning rock-paper-scissors into a convoluted con, say. But the real games, the reason we tune in, are the big set-pieces. The ones that last episodes, determine fates, and let the show's imagination run slobberingly amok. These are all intensely cerebral, steeped in trickery and strategy, the move and counter-move beginning well before the game itself (Sora and Shiro's motto is "a game is won before it starts"). Shiro and Sora being cheater-busters—they fight cheaters on the cheaters' terms and win—they always start at a disadvantage and must, through wit and wile, claw their way to victory.
Other than that, though, each one is as different as ants and storks. Which is what makes them such fun. It's never a question of whether Shiro and Sora will win, but how—how they'll take the rules of the game and the nature of the their opponents and forge it into fist-pumping victory. There's a game of living chess against a magic-empowered cheater. A galaxy-destroying(!) game of shiritori with a god-killing weapon. An Othello match that rewrites reality. A full-immersion first-person shooter/love simulation game (don't ask) against superpowered, cheatcode-armed warbeasts. Each is satisfyingly unique, spectacularly over-the-top, and unexpected (and unexpectedly exciting) in its resolution. Also, they tend to be hilarious (the way Sora wins the chess game is pricelessly weird).
Director Atsuko Ishizuka's approach to No Game will be an acquired taste for most. The series is absolutely gorgeous, but drenched in supersaturated colors and disorienting animated textures that can be off-putting. It's such a hazy riot of colors, comic exaggeration, and odd camera angles that it's basically impossible to objectively judge the quality of its animation, and even at times its art. You can only kick back and let the waves of sparking energy and retina-blistering imagery carry you along, assaulting you along the way with skull-splitting cuteness and rat-a-tat gags.
The games are the only time when the show's visual prowess is absolutely undeniable, breaking through the colors and the comic energy with pure, visceral motion. The shiritori game is a jaw-dropping spectacle, a blur of fan-service and gonzo insanity that is eventually overtaken by an apocalyptic showdown. The video game is a two-episode action set piece in which team Blank chases and is chased by a pint-sized terror, blasting their way up, down, through, and over buildings, all the while pulling off impossible feats of marksmanship and acrobatics. The freefall midair shootout that ends the chase is a display of fluidity and timing so impressive that even alone it would mark Ishizuka as a director to watch.
Ishizuka uses music sparingly. When used, it is often with a wink: to parody itself or play humorous counterpoint to the visuals. It will swell ironically, and then be cut short at the gag payoff. It's nice enough to listen to, if not especially arresting, but kept to a pretty strict supporting role. Flawed work but fun. Like the show itself.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : B
+ The games; amusing cast and consistent sense of fun smooth over a lot of bumps; is a visual marvel.
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