by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 5 of
Infinite Dendrogram ?
I'm sensing some further mission drift in Ray's supposed quest to track down the player killer who offed him and extract revenge. Last episode ended with him getting temporarily cursed with some adorable puppy ears (and revealing that he hates animal-themed headwear as a side-effect, no idea how he feels about his bear-cosplaying brother then). The goofy detours continue straight off of that this episode, as the opening minutes see him going clothes-shopping with his friends, buying items in gacha, and most importantly, suffering through several pratfalls for our amusement. The game of Infinite Dendrogram is one whose possibilities lend themselves to getting constantly-sidetracked as in so many real MMOs, and this show never seemed great at maintaining focus to begin with. But when the comic timing of Ray repeatedly getting owned throughout the first few minutes of this episode is the most on-point anything in this series has been, it's hard for me to complain.
I can't overstate how much tighter the entertainment quotient for Dendrogram feels this week. The full-bore comedy at Ray's expense does lighten up after those opening minutes, but they're a wonder of sharply-timed gags and an uptick in the apparent personalities of the characters delivering them. It starts with a demonstration of Marie's surprising artistic skills, and culminates with a cutaway gag of Ray checking the game's wiki to figure out why he can't ride his new horse. That's the kind of irreverence a series going over this kind of well-worn path needs to adopt if it wants to keep us on our toes. It's great because it doesn't have to over-explain the inconvenience Ray's landed in: Having to jump through an overt series of hoops in pursuit of being able to use a singular skill or piece of equipment is a classically inconvenient gaming situation. That the storyline for this episode just drops that thread within moments of building up to it reinforces its commitment for the time to screwing around, but like, in a fun way.
I perhaps make this come across as more screwball than it actually is throughout, as even as it finally finds its comedy legs, Infinite Dendrogram makes plenty of time for more straightforward adventuring in this episode. It's still tempered with that comical lightness though, like a new addition to the cast failing to get his weapon out and being beaten up by generic thugs offscreen. That'd be Hugo, and I was actually kind of anticipating his arrival in the series, since the intro indicated he was a mecha-pilot. It turns out to be a pretty neat demonstration of the technicalities of that job system Dendrogram is so proud of itself for detailing: Hugo's stats all remain pretty much baseline despite his high level, as his rideable robot is the one with all the points and powers he uses to fight. Again, the show doesn't dwell on that detail here, simply letting the mecha mechanics speak for themselves.
Hugo himself starts out as kind of an odd duck of a character, seemingly like an overconfident white knight down to calling women ‘Milady’ and palling around with his vertically-challenged partner Cyco who abruptly accuses Ray of being a lolicon (which the subs render as ‘loli-lover’, but I can still hear the dialogue, Funimation!). It mostly fits with the burst of comic energy the show has found this episode and lord knows I'm all too happy to watch Ray get clowned on, but it's not the strongest material, and combined with the infodumping of a rescue quest causes the middle of this episode to sag a bit. The thing is, that all turns out to be in service of actually setting up more major revelations about Hugo, another aspect of this entry I have to give the show credit for!
Towards the end of the episode, while facing down a giant boss-monster who chows down on severed children's heads as a snack so you know he's bad, we get these multiple allusions to Hugo's skill and him being unsure about wanting to use it outside the most dire of circumstances. It all leads to some declarative resolutions from him and a climactic turnaround, and I couldn't help but find it funny that they were trotting out this kind of pivotal character work for a guy we'd known for all of fifteen minutes. But first of all, it at least made him more immediately-interesting than a constant blank-slate like Rook, and second, this last-minute development actually made cleverly-written use of the details we'd been given about Hugo in his scant screentime! The surprises about Cyco being his embryo, and he himself being the Maiden-Master he was nebulously telling Ray about might have been annoyingly obvious foreshadowing if they were drawn out, but here those quick-hit mini plot-twists were paced to just the right place. The result is, just for this one little character story we've been following for a short time in Dendrogram, everything in it actually clicks for once.
It is also here to set up some concepts driving Ray's background and character evolution, such as it were, which is admittedly a lot more standardized. The idea goes that the super-special Maiden-Masters in fact draw their power from recognizing the too-real humanity the tians have been saddled with, treating Infinite Dendrogram as more than a game! It's a more mechanically-tangible spin on the Strong Sense of Justice that's powered so many anime heroes, and with Ray making a point of that belief and the effect it could have on players, only calls into question again why we haven't heard more people express that in-story. But with that concept really out in the open now, and the good will built up by this episode, perhaps I can give it the benefit of the doubt to really dig in and analyze it a little later on. Besides that, I was too busy being impressed by the plot twist of Ray ending this episode getting owned again, but in a much more serious manner. Full circle!
Infinite Dendrogram is currently streaming on Funimation.
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