The Winter 2020 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Infinite Dendrogram ?
What is this?
Infinite Dendrogram is based on a light novel. It's available streaming on Funimation, Thursdays at 10 am EST.
How was the first episode?
If you kidnapped some poor soul who had never even heard of a light novel or a virtual-reality game, and then spent weeks with them in a locked room, drilling every last tired trope and lazy cliché that has emerged in the industry over the last decade or so, and then demanded that person write their own VRMMO light novel based solely on the half-recollected deluge of information you just shoved into their brains, Infinite Dendrogram might just be the end result of their labor. Here is a show that could serve as the poster child of inoffensive blandness, being a hodgepodge of imagery and ideas that other, better anime have been trading in for years now. The story of Ray Starling's adventures in the titular RPG phenomenon contains not one iota of originality or raw creativity, save perhaps for a single saving grace: The main character's brother, Shu, wears a ridiculous bear costume, adds bear onomatopoeia to everything he says, and wields a giant Gatling gun as a weapon. That, I will admit, is pretty entertaining.
The rest, though? Not so much. Ray is a bore of a protagonist – his milquetoast catchphrase is “That leaves a bad taste in my mouth!” – and the world of Infinite Dendrogram is the same generic fantasy MMO setting we've seen a thousand times before. The only two hooks the show has to offer feel awfully tame and halfhearted, too. The first is that all of the NPCs in the game can be permanently killed, which only matters because they all are apparently operating at human levels of artificial intelligence. Why the single greatest technological achievement of the century would be delegated to a back-of-the-box feature for a VR game is beyond me, but there you go. The other key twist to the game is the Embryo, the unfortunately named guardian spirit that functions both as their hero's weapon and their living companion. Ray comes to find that his Embryo is a pretty lady named Nemesis, and she helps him kill some giant bugs and save the NPCs he set out to save. That's about all there is to it, as far as the premiere goes.
The art and animation is totally fine, and Machine-Gun Brother Bear gives the episode at least a hint of a personality, but Infinite Dendrogram remains infinitely disposable. I would only recommend it to die- hard fans of the genre, because if you've even half paid attention to any one of the countless video- game flavored light novel anime that have come out in recent years, then you already have a rundown of everything this particular iteration has to offer.
Clocking in as the season's second VRMMO-centered production, Infinite Dendrogram plays the subgenre far straighter than the farcical BOFURI. In fact, I'm not really sure it's possible to “play it straight” any more rigidly than this - in basically all respects, Infinite Dendrogram is an entirely flavorless genre exercise.
Isekai and VRMMO shows have a tendency to all be extremely similar to each other, with the fantasy of simply existing in a videogame apparently serving as enough fuel to inspire a whole wave of creatively impoverished productions. Most of Infinite Dendrogram's premiere proceeds in the way all of these productions tend to: the majority of its running time is wasted on videogame exposition, there are extended sequences of “wow, I'm in a fantasy world” that echo every other show in the genre, and the generic protagonist is ultimately revealed to have an extra-special power. That power is one of Dendrogram's two defining characteristics (along with permadeath for NPCs), and you can probably guess how it ends: while most people's signature power is some kind of weapon, or hero Reiji's is, of course, a cute girl.
In visual terms, Dendrogram falls pretty far below the average. The extended fight with a bunch of centipedes that concluded this episode revealed that Dendrogram can't really handle action scenes; there was basically no animation to speak of, just a bunch of still objects sliding past each other. The overall art design is similarly disappointing, with the world of Dendrogram offering no sights you haven't seen before in Sword Art Online or its many, many derivatives. On the whole, while Infinite Dendrogram was not so terrible in any specific way that I'd actively discourage watching it, it also does nothing to rise above the inherently dubious template version of modern anime's most overrepresented and under-inspired genre. An easy skip.
Are we reaching a saturation point on stories about playing VRMMORPGs? This new offering, which is based on an already-extensive light novel series, suggests that we might be. Its big problem – and possible fatal flaw – is that its first episode does almost nothing to make the series stand out from the pack.
I say “almost” because the episode does, at least, provide a small mystery hook. Though Reiji's brother doesn't acknowledge it right away, something is presumably different than the norm about Reiji's Embryo. What, exactly, the norm for them is doesn't get established here (and that is a significant fault), but Reiji's brother does not seem to have anything that can turn into human form and Nemesis's power seems stupidly out of scale for Reiji being a newbie. The other NPC also seems to recognize something different about her, and she has the kind of arrogance which suggests something greater than the norm. The question then becomes why Reiji got something that special. Was it random chance, the nature of his request, the quest that he was on, or his mindset? There are already 11 novels published for this series, so this is unquestionably connected to something bigger. But the first episode gives no hint about what that bigger thing might be.
Other than that, the first episode is hard to get excited about. Beyond stressing “infinite possibilities,” its only distinguishing point seems to be that all of the NPCs (called tians) are full AIs capable of more independent action than the norm. Beyond the initial set-up, little to nothing about the mechanics is elaborated upon, and the only other difference seems to be that quests are circumstantially-based rather than level-based. This might have some interesting consequences down the road (any longtime gamer knows that untiered quests can sometimes be more trouble than they're worth), but on its own it's not enough of a difference so far.
The technical merits for the series are absolutely nothing special so far, though I will admit that the notion of someone in a bear costume wielding a minigun is rather amusing. Neither is the music at all memorable. Director Tomoki Kobayashi has been very successful at handling other fantasy projects in the past (Tears to Tiara, Utawarerumono), so the potential for something good to develop is still there, but at the moment this show pales in comparison to BOFURI (its closest competitor this season) on raw entertainment value.
As a fan of the original light novels (which I really need to get back to), I had high hopes for the anime adaptation of Infinite Dendrogram. This isn't perfect, but it certainly does do a good job of capturing a lot of what makes the books so engaging, sharing some traits with Log Horizon in the way the NPCs are treated and opening up the possibility for an interesting discussion of what, precisely, “real” means when it comes down to it. Mostly this is done by the fact that in the VRMMO Infinite Dendrogram, non-player characters (known as tians) are just as unique as the player characters, if not more so, because while players can revive in-game after twenty-four hours (which is the equivalent of seventy-two hours in game time), once an NPC is dead, they're gone forever. For them, the game world IS the real world, much as we see in Log Horizon once it becomes “real” for everyone, and with players knowing that from the get-go, that shapes the way both Ray as a character and we as viewers are primed to react to game events.
We see this almost immediately when Ray bumps into Liliana, a knight desperately looking for her sister Milianne. She's so human that Ray doesn't even realize that she's an NPC until a quest box pops up; when he finds his brother Shu (who's been playing for a while), Shu explains that quests are more organically triggered by player interactions with the world and the tians rather than being given by, for example, an NPC with a question mark of the appropriate color over their head. He also explains to Ray that if Ray ignores this quest, Milianne will likely die – and not be revived for someone else to save. As introductions to gameplay go, this is pretty intense, and Ray, like many others, I'd imagine, can't bring himself to abandon the quest, or rather, the girl.
This sets the stage for upcoming playstyle conflicts to unfold. While Shu, in his inexplicable bear costume, clearly plays like Ray (the episode does a great job of showing that they're brothers by the ways they think and interact), there will almost certainly be people for whom it really is just a game, and the tians mere NPCs who aren't “real” by virtue of the fact that they're digitally generated. That gives this story the potential to be a statement on the isekai genre as well, since Ray may feel like he's visiting another world, but in reality he isn't – he's just putting on a VR headset and logging in. While his unusual type of Embryo, a Maiden Arms named Nemesis, is neat, that potential for genre commentary is what's really interesting here, and watching Ray think about it and interact with it is a draw. (Although he does need to stop saying things leave a bad taste in his mouth.)
Well, that and the potential for seeing a guy in a bear suit with a machine gun blow up giant centipedes. Either way, I'll definitely be watching (and reading) more.
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