Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Season 1 BD/DVD
Aoba Suzukaze has just graduated from high school, but she's ready to take on the world! Hired as a new concept artist for the game company Eagle Jump, she soon learns she'll be working on Fairies Story 3, the third installment in the franchise that first inspired her love of videogames. She'll even be working under Ko Yagami, the character designer for the original Fairies Story! The daily grind at a game studio is rough, but Aoba is determined to do her best, and help contribute to the stories that meant so much to her. And hey, even hardworking game devs need a tea break now and again.
The animation studio Dogakobo have built a sturdy reputation over the years predicated on two central qualities: their regularly top-shelf character animation, and their clear preference for slice of life shows, and warm comedies in general. From Yuruyuri to Love Lab to Three Leaves, Three Colors to Monthly Girls Nozaki-kun, Dogakobo's consistent stable of creators regularly pull off polished productions in a relatively specific genre space, celebrating the fond friendships of various social cliques. Of course, all of those shows are focused on high schoolers, who naturally lend themselves to stories about new friendships and childish group dynamics. So what happens when Dogakobo tackle a work all about an active game studio and its staff of working adults?
Well, pretty much the same thing. New Game! is originally a Manga Time Kirara manga, whose pages generally house works like K-On! and Hidamari Sketch, and New Game! follows pretty faithfully in the style of those properties. If you're looking for a somewhat sharp-edged drama that actually interrogates the reality of the videogame industry, or even a softened but still relatively realistic expose like Shirobako, you'll probably be disappointed by New Game! This show falls pretty squarely within Dogakobo's general slice of life wheelhouse, and as far as those shows go, New Game! is a fine example of the form.
The show begins by introducing us to Aoba Suzukaze, a diminutive eighteen-year-old who, in spite of looking like she's just entering middle school, is embarking on her first day as a working adult. Aoba's new employers are Eagle Jump, the game studio responsible for creating Fairies Story, the game that initially inspired Aoba's passion. Aoba is quickly introduced to her new supervisors, art director Rin Toyama and character designer Ko Yagami, along with a gaggle of new coworkers to populate her cubicle cluster. And so Aoba begins her journey, working from the basics of 3D modeling through designing her own NPCs through seeing fans appreciate her efforts in action.
New Game!'s “narrative” basically just follows the final six months of the production of Fairies Story 3, letting production benchmarks facilitate episodic conceits like “the episode where we all have to crunch through the weekend” and “the episode where we visit the Tokyo Game Show.” This loose structure offers ample room for New Game!'s actual priorities: offering goofy skits and endearing bonding between its various characters, as they grump about work and get to know each other and generally make charming fools of themselves. New Game! falls pretty far on the “atmospheric and gentle” end of the comedy spectrum - many of its jokes are too mild for much comic impact, but they successfully develop a pleasant rapport between the various leads. The focus here is on enjoying a peaceful afternoon with good friends, with priorities like comic sharpness, character depth, or narrative momentum all falling secondary to that goal.
Of course, the fact that New Game! takes place in a game design studio does shift the usual slice of life dynamic a bit. New Game! is elevated through its consistent small reflections on game design specifically and massive professional projects generally, mining both jokes and insight out of reflections on stuff like the frustration of debugging, the importance of respecting what your players value, and the satisfaction of seeing your work move out into the world. Aoba genuinely and convincingly grows as an employee and designer over the course of this season, and the persistency of Fairies Story 3's various design qualities lets the audience feel invested in her work as well. Seeing Aoba move from failing to create one convincing background character to watching a character she designed pop up in the Fairies Story 3 trailer is a very satisfying journey.
New Game!'s setting also results in some less welcome twists on the genre formula. Though Aoba's own journey is a rewarding one, New Game!'s persistently plucky, can-do tone occasionally grates harshly against the brutal reality of crunch in the game industry. Most slice of life shows have the privilege of not really being “about” anything beyond the joy of friendship, but New Game!'s consistent downplaying of the exploitative and downright lethal nature of crunch, framing constant lost nights and weekends as “just part of the job,” felt almost sinister. Glamorizing self-destructive loyalty to a company obviously isn't a problem unique to New Game!, but it came up often enough here, and felt incongruous enough given the show's general tone, that it somewhat dimmed my overall experience.
Aside from that, most of my issues with New Game! were complaints you could toss at a great number of slice of life shows, complaints that seem more reflective of my own subgenre preferences than genuine faults of the production. I felt the jokes were often a bit too mild, obvious, or overly prolonged to be all that funny, but shows in this space often prefer unspiced comedy. I though the show's framing of many character relationships felt so dedicated to setting up romantic pairings that it undercut those characters' believability as people in a general sense, but that too is something you often see throughout “in a world where men only appear during crowd sequences”-genre slice of life, and may be considered more feature than bug. New Game! is hamstrung as a character drama in ways that may actually bolster its appeal as a slice of life, meaning your reaction to its material will very heavily depend on your own appreciation for this genre space.
Aesthetically, New Game! definitely doesn't stand among the most impressive Dogakobo productions, but it's still got a fair amount of the lively character acting that tends to make their works stand out. The overall art design is soft and expressive, matching the show's tone perfectly, and I appreciated the regular inclusion of Fairies Story 3 production materials. The music also matches the show's material quite well, generally sticking to unobtrusive electronic melodies, but often matching its tempo to the on-screen jokes in the manner of Nichijou or Love Live! My biggest art design complaint would likely be the show's obsession with Ko's butt. Regular fanservice is one thing, but it was kind of frustrating to see basically all of the show's most fluid cuts of animation dedicated to things like Aoba putting on a bra or Ko adjusting her panties. That predatory camera focus, combined with the show's extreme focus on “this scene could be read romantically” tension, made genuinely believing in these characters' feelings a lot harder than in many similar shows.
New Game! comes in a standard slipcase and bluray case, housing the show on bluray and DVD. There are no physical extras, and on-disc extras are limited to the requisite clean opening and closing, along with a few trailers and the English dub. That dub is very reasonable on the whole, and is confidently led by Megan Shipman's alternately chipper, befuddled, and utterly overwhelmed take on Aoba. Shipman's Aoba is a very natural match for the character, and a mix of solid performances by the secondary characters and a generally naturalistic adaptive script do an excellent job of preserving the genial tone of the original. The only real points of divergence are on characters whose original anime archetypes don't naturally lend themselves to English voice acting - Hifumi is much more vocally expressive in English, for example, while Nenechi doesn't have the same childlike, tripping-over-her-own-words tone as in Madoka Asahina's take. But those shifts felt like natural, almost necessary concessions to the unrealistic nature of the original archetypes, and the dub on the whole is a very fine take.
Overall, New Game! feels like a show that wants to have it both ways and only sometimes succeeds. Setting a slice of life at a game design studio allows New Game! access to many strains of conflict denied to other shows, and the show mines satisfying drama and comedy out of exploring those opportunities. However, the show's continued adherence to the tonal and structural assumptions of more traditional slice of life shows means it often feels too unreal to invest in, the choice of setting raising expectations in terms of content and characterization that New Game! isn't really designed to meet. I believe there is great dramatic potential at the junction of slice of life and workplace character drama, as demonstrated through great works like Shirobako and Planetes. New Game!'s loyalty to slice of life genre assumptions holds it back from that class, but I enjoyed my time at Eagle Jump, and would be happy to visit again.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Lots of solid low-key gags and slice-of-life moments, presents an intriguing and lighthearted look into the game design process
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