by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 4 of
Infinite Dendrogram ?
If I can hand it to Infinite Dendrogram anything this week, it's that it does deliver after that last full episode of time killing. We pretty much jump straight into our heroes dealing with that goblin attack we saw at the end of the previous episode, with a full multi-stage battle here standing in stark contrast to what felt like a deliberate avoidance of excitement earlier. That means this is ostensibly the most focused episode of the show yet, and probably the most exciting. That's still by Infinite Dendrogram's own standards though, as I unfortunately found most of what went on in this one barely above-average at best.
My issues here begin and end with how interested Dendrogram seems to think I am in the mechanics of its MMORPG combat. Large portions of this battle, especially once the big boss ogre comes out for Ray to fight, are overlaid with dialogue exhaustively crunching the numbers behind HP, status effects, counter strength and the like. As with other elements of the show, it feels like the story trying to wow us with the technical aspects of how everything in this made-up game system totally works, even as it would be plenty engrossing to watch Ray take on the enemy without the play-by-play. It's the old running 'Show, Don't Tell' issue, as depicting Ray taking damage and then being healed from it should be enough for solid direction to allow us to follow the fight. But instead we get this extra layer of spreadsheets narrated over it.
Ironically, it actually threw me out of some investment I had in the action, as the overt numerics they made it known this battle was based on made it come across less like a character-building test of will for someone working to grow as a warrior. On a basic level I get that it's supposed to speak to experienced RPG players and the way they handle such wars of health-point attrition (I know I've been there myself a couple times) but that's just another point in favor of the argument that the show should trust us to get it. Further, the adherence to ‘realistic’ game numbers and mechanics ends up going out the window at the behest of story dramatics anyway, as both Ray and Rook see their Embryos getting relevant level-ups just in the nick of time. There's a frustrating lack of harmonizing of the game and anime elements in Infinite Dendrogram, even though all I'd asked of it to begin with was to tell an interesting story.
That's a lot of griping about the show's choice in presentation, so let me sidetrack a bit to acknowledge that there was plenty in this big fight I liked. Marie's earlier admission that her experience-boosting Journalist abilities left her unable to directly fight had me question how she would actually participate, and was delighted to discover the answer: By smashing healing potions into Ray's face from a distance! That's a great gag that implicitly takes advantage of the way items like this must function in a game, a good example of letting us get that idea as entertainment. Similarly, even though they were a bizarre non-sequitur of a joke last episode, seeing Rook's monster-charming ‘Pimp’ abilities in action worked as a demonstration of something I've definitely been questioning all week (this isn't Interspecies Reviewers, though I still have to wonder about the intimacy of Rook ‘charming’ the Roc bird at the end). There's also some cool visual flourishes, despite the show's modest animation, like the eyes popping out of the ogre's shoulders after it's been beheaded. And I like that, overpowered protagonist though he's meant to be, Ray makes some statements that gesture in the direction of him appreciating the teamwork he's engaging with in his party.
Sadly, that doesn't really last through the whole fight and is one of a few points of contention I have with how this resolves. I already mentioned the convenient power-up Nemesis obtains: That's also greeted by the show stopping mid-battle so her and Ray can discuss its amazing mechanics before we've had a chance to see it in action even a little (also, at least on my stream, Nemesis's explanation of how her halberd form's big ability worked went un-subtitled, thanks Funimation). And then this whole final chunk of the battle passes by with Ray staring down the ogre entirely on his own, no longer even acknowledging any continued outside efforts of his teammates. It makes that previous part feel like mere lip-service in hindsight, cutting as we do after this to another mystery-man going on about how special and one-in-a-million Ray and Nemesis's powers are.
Infinite Dendrogram also attempts to articulate elements of its other big idea this week, with a quick cool-down moment of Ray musing on the tians they weren't able to save in the attack. Both he and the mystery-man make allusions to the question of 'Is this really a game?', and more than any spoilers about the true nature of the virtual world, I think that's a point they could explore regardless. In this case, the understanding Ray seems to be coming to is one I've agreed with from the word go: That it's just a bit messed-up to create an entire race of free-willed sentient AIs that can think, feel pain, and die permanently just to populate a game world people play for fun. Ray's already made it his pointed resolution to protect people that way, but it's astounding there's been no other explorations in this story's universe of the bizarre ethical quandary such an accomplishment represents. The show spends just a minute or two on this where it spent half the episode on Ray narrating how he was rationing his HP. That's a demonstration of the kinds of storytelling priorities that make Infinite Dendrogram keep falling into the ‘just okay’ pile for me.
Infinite Dendrogram is currently streaming on Funimation.
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