The Winter 2016 Anime Preview Guide
Phantasy Star Online 2 The Animation
How would you rate episode 1 of
Phantasy Star Online 2: The Animation ?
Community score: 2.7
What is this?
Phantasy Star Online 2 is the hottest sensation to sweep Seiga Academy! It's the MMO that brings everyone together, both on campus and in the dorms, but new student Itsuki Tachibana didn't get the memo. He considers himself a "handyman" when it comes to afterschool activities. He's a jack of all trades but master of none, the kind of guy so average that the most amazing girl in school (Izumi Rina, student council president, valedictorian, sports star, and all around class legend) would never stoop to look his way. All of that changes when Izumi invites Itsuki out of the blue to become student council vice president. He might be just the right kind of fresh blood their club's been missing, but if he wants to help them unite the student body, he's got to learn how to play Phantasy Star Online 2. Itsuki's massively multiplayer online adventure starts today! Phantasy Star Online 2: The Animation is an original work based on the game franchise and can be found streaming on Crunchyroll, Saturdays at 1:00 AM EST.
How was the first episode?
Phantasy Star Online 2 earns the distinct honor of being the most blatant advertisement masking itself as entertainment I've ever sat through. This is indeed an honor in a medium of entertainment that is regularly trying to hawk manga volumes, idol CDs, and video games to its audience. The fact that it's an obvious video game tie-in is not an excuse for this uninspired, regurgitated dribble. ufotable's oft-delayed God Eater anime series was lauded for its technical merits and writing. PSO2 has put what appears to be actual game footage into its show not once, but three times. Its students attend “Seiga Academy” which was a parody in Hi-sCool! Seha Girls but is totally straight-faced here. The academy's central garden area has a fountain that creates water in the shape of Sonic the Hedgehog's face. This is only the opening to a giant, blatant marketing ploy.
Itsuki, the most generic protagonist this season has to offer, talks with his equally generic-looking friends and briefly ogles the unremarkable looking (but seemingly perfect) student council president. His red-headed generic friend gives him a tongue lashing for not playing Phantasy Star Online 2, something all the cool and hip kids are doing. He warns him that failure to get with the times and give Sega his hard-earned money will ensure that Itsuki becomes a social outcast. The student council president then makes Itsuki join the council as vice president to fill a vacancy, because it's necessary to move the plot forward. His one and only job will be to play Phantasy Star Online 2 and report on it so that the apparently out-of-touch school staff gain a better understanding of the student body's “social habits.” Itsuki agrees, because Sega needs to put more game footage into this episode to really sell their space-fantasy RPG.
Itsuki logs in and starts his adventure in PSO2, but he plays the game in windowed mode because he's a weirdo. The episode then jumps between 3DCG and 2D animation without any attempt to make it look attractive. Game NPCs, possibly ripped from the actual game, dance in the background while Itsuki gets his bearings. He joins a world event, and the show switches again between inept cel-shaded CG and 2D animation, while Itsuki attempts to fight the not-so-inspired enemy “Darkers.” In the background, a blonde elf with a tiny chicken mascot stares ominously. The episode jumps to the next day with Itsuki handing in his video game report for the best unintentional joke. The student council president warns him to never, and she means never, let PSO2 ruin Itsuki's grades. Unmistakably portentous music plays as she gazes out a window.
I'm not convinced that this entire show isn't some kind of joke. This is by far the laziest attempt to pull in new gamers I've ever seen. It's obviously nothing more than an anime made with an advertising budget, and the staff fails to even make PSO2 look exciting. It's even funnier that this anime was licensed stateside, but the game isn't even available in North America.
Phantasy Star Online 2: The Animation opens with a scene from what I initially assumed was an actual PlayStation 2 game, in some kind of quirky tip of the hat to the show's source material. But then the scene just kept going, and the CG never started looking any better, and I slowly realized this was actually the show we were watching.
Things don't really improve from that terrible first impression. The episode jumps directly from that awkward CG-fest into an opening song that actually reuses some of the intro footage, and the actual show's traditionally animated visuals are as bland as they come. There's little personality in the character designs, the backgrounds lack both beauty and personality (outside of the fact that this advertisement/show's high school, “Seiga,” has a Sonic-shaped lake), and there isn't much animation to speak of. Basically every element of this production comes across as a “just doing the minimum” affair.
And that makes sense, given the subject matter. Phantasy Star Online 2: The Animation definitely isn't one of those shows that attempts to turn their videogame source material into a truly compelling narrative (like 2014's surprisingly solid Rage of Bahamut Genesis). Instead, PSO2 is a show where the game it's selling exists within the show itself. Characters here all play PSO2, because, in the words of one character, “if you're not playing online games in this day and age, you're going to get left behind.” Main character Itsuki Tachibana doesn't have anything particularly unique about him, and so he's selected by the student council to play PSO2 for vague “understanding the school's social network” reasons and then report back to them. And after learning this, the show straight-up goes through Itsuki reading the game lore and moving through character creation, ending with him learning how to switch between sword and gun mode on his in-game weapon. As far as anime advertisements go, PSO2: The Animation is at least pretty unique in how bald-faced it is about its intentions. We're here to sell videogames, and videogames we will sell.
Even as a direct advertisement, I can't say PSO2: The Animation really sells me on PSO2: Not The Animation. If PSO2 had a compelling story, I assume this show would actually be telling it - instead, this meta-structure seems to imply the best reason to play the game is because it's a decent social experience as far as MMOs go. For a game, I could see the appeal of that. As an anime, it's a little ridiculous that this even exists. PSO2: The Animation is ugly in its visuals, in its storytelling, and in its unapologetically commercial goals. It's weird to say, but I expect more from my advertisements than this.
Rating: It's a 1.5 until you finally spend some money ingame, then it's like a 2 I guess but that's 5000 Meseta
Well, this show requires some context, doesn't it? The first thing that probably bears mentioning about Phantasy Star Online 2: The Animation is that this isn't really a TV show, it's a commercial (say what you will about the nonexistent line between those two things, but it helps us to compartmentalize them still). You'll recognize that right away because the characters are depicted as real teens who, just like you, don't know yet just how badly you want to give money to SEGA. They don't have any problems that weren't:
- Created by the lack of Phantasy Star Online 2 in their lives
- Solved by downloading the Phantasy Star Online 2 client and creating an account
For most people, this is not the backbone of a relatable narrative, because it was never made clear to us just how much Phantasy Star Online 2 can improve our lives. According to Phantasy Star Online 2: The Animation, playing Phantasy Star Online 2 will:
- Make me more popular with my friends and colleagues who already enjoy playing this incredible game
- Utilize my real-world skills in fun fantasy environments, meaning my personality translates into meaningful talents that my team can rely on
Concerned that only losers play video games? Don't worry – the beautiful Izumi, Seiga academy's superstar valedictorian who is literally good at absolutely everything and represents the very best this school has to offer, is also obsessed with Phantasy Star Online 2! Why, if the school's literal avatar of hard work and success can piss all her time away on an MMO treadmill, then how come YOU aren't doing it yet? And let's not rule out a chance at romance while we're at it, eh fellas?
Are you a first-time player who's never dabbled in the amazing world of free-to-play massively multiplayer online games? Phantasy Star Online 2: The Animation even takes time to reassure you that while the character creation screen seems complex, all you have to do is press the ‘randomize’ button and an avatar that looks just like you will pop up. You'll be taking down dragons in no time at all! Why are you just sitting there? DROP WHAT YOU'RE DOING AND DOWNLOAD THE GAME CLIENT!
This is a show that describes exciting in-game abilities and events to you using marketing speak and then presents that as important, plot-advancing dialogue. That is how absurd this is. It's true that most late night anime are generally produced as commercials for other media - games, toys, novels, manga, whatever - but as someone who watches a lot of this stuff, I have the basic expectation that you cover up your blatant marketing with a decent enough story to distract me from the fact that I'm currently being sold something. If I notice too much that it's a commercial, you lose me, and I suspect a whole lot of other people who aren't particularly open to the feeling that they're being aggressively brainwashed into wanting something. We're supposed to be having fun here - I didn't sign up for your Phantasy Star Online 2 investment seminar. I mean, maybe I would, but present that as an investment opportunity, don't try and trick me into watching bad anime.
To sum up, Phantasy Star Online 2: The Animation is the anime equivalent of The Mattel and Mars Bar Quick Energy Chocobot Hour. If you find that hilarious, like I do, then watch this episode, howl with laughter at all the completely unconcealed, totally cynical advertising this thing features, shut it off when you've had your fun and forget about it. If you can get that much entertainment out of this without giving Sega a dime in return, then I think you win that transaction.
Hey, don't you just love infomercials? Half an hour of content specifically designed to sell something? I know I don't, and that's why this episode ultimately failed for me. There is no hard and fast rule that a TV anime based on a game can't be good, but sadly Phantasy Star Online 2 is the perfect example of why these adaptations don't always work: it has too much game exposition, places a ludicrous amount of importance on the game's place in the world, and generally feels like a how-to guide, or at least a tease, to get more people to play.
To compound all of this, it deals in a fair amount of rather tired plot devices. Itsuki is that guy who doesn't join a club but just helps everyone else's clubs out. He's not particularly remarkable but somehow catches the eye of the most sought-after girl in school, Rina in this case, who travels with a pack of admirers/bodyguards and heads the student council. In terms of the game itself in the show, it uses the trick of making it look like the characters are actually in the game (a la SAO) when we know it's a PSP or computer game with no VR capabilities. That's actually a trope whose use I understand even as I don't particularly care for it – this would be one boring episode if we were just watching Itsuki crouch over his keyboard. If the rest of the episode was less of a shill, I doubt this even would have bothered me.
PSO2's true fault lies in its uninspired combination of advertising and very basic action anime tropes. None of the characters appear the least bit interesting at this point, apart from Rina's use of a hulking male avatar in order to help Itsuki without his knowing, and something about the student council being tasked with reporting on students' PS02 use to the school administration feels both creepy and wrong. Not just that they're putting such importance on the game, although that's weird, but that such monitoring is happening. I recognize this as analogous to keeping tabs on students' social media, which is also a contentious issue in some (American) school districts and that it is likely not viewed the same way in the Japanese school system, but it still sits a little wrong with me. In any event, Phantasy Star Online 2's introductory episode left me distinctly unimpressed with its plot, execution, and melange of 3D and 2D animation. I think I'd rather play the game.
Review: Phantasy Star Online 2 is an actual MMO produced by SEGA, but it is one that I have not played. Hence this review is entirely based on how it functions as a stand-alone project.
Unlike most anime game adaptations, PSO2 does not make the characters actually part of the game's setting. Instead the series looks like it is going to be about “real-world” people who play the game. Given that the intent of making an anime adaptation of a game is typically to get viewers involved enough in the setting to want to play the game, that is a very curious approach. Even more curious is that one of the main plot threads posited by the first episode is that Itsuki's experiences with the game are meant to be an evaluation of whether or not the game is too much of a distraction to be allowed on campus. Perhaps the creative staff is angling for some kind of underlying social commentary about playing MMOs, and indeed, the president did suggest that the justification for having Itsuki do it was as part of the social scene at the school. That gives the series at least a little more ambition than other game adaptations, but so far that seems like an awkward fit.
Also weighting the series down is that both the in-game and real-word aspects independently seem very generic. The Student Council President being Little Miss Perfect is such a tired stereotype at this point that it really only works as a joke anymore. Hopefully why she has taken such a strong interest in Joe Ordinary, a student whose only noteworthy trait is that he is competent (but no better than that) at everything, will be explained better in future episodes, as the rationale presented so far is so thin that this is in danger of sliding into the Harem Zone. Though the game world scenes are loaded with flashy CG action, nothing about it feels all that special, either; in fact, stuff like this makes me appreciate the unique design flavors of any of the world settings in the Sword Art Online franchise all the more.
The one redeeming feature so far is the closer, which should be checked out even if you cannot be bothered to sit through the rest of the episode. It features chick-like bird creatures doing an idol group-styled dance with an armored suit character copying the moves in the corner of the screen. Much more than an average level of effort went into its creation, and unfortunately that's the only part of the series that I can say that about. There is at least some potential for the series to go in some interesting directions, but it is going to have to prove more involving in future episodes than the first episode is.
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