No Game, No Life Zero
by Paul Jensen,
This week, I learned that those generic plastic Blu-Ray cases are surprisingly resilient. My review copy of No Game, No Life Zero got absolutely pulverized in the mail, to the point where the case now looks like somebody tried really hard to karate chop it in half. To my surprise and delight, the disc still worked just fine. Score one for retail engineering. Welcome to Shelf Life.
Jump to this week's review:
No Game, No Life Zero
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Shelf Life Reviews
It's been around three years since I last reviewed a part of the No Game, No Life franchise. Now that the prequel film is coming out on disc in the US, it's time for a fresh visit to this game-themed parallel world.
This new story takes place thousands of years before the original, back before the world of Disboard was governed by rules that forced all conflicts to be resolved through games. Without that restriction in place, the world's rival races wage a constant, all-out war that threatens to completely destroy the planet. With neither magic nor advanced technology on their side, humans are left to scrape out a precarious subsistence by looting the ruins of other civilizations. Riku, the leader of a human colony, is at the end of his rope after a lifetime of sacrificing the few to save the many. On one of his many salvage missions, he meets Schwi, a mechanical being called an Ex Machina who has been cut off from her hive mind collective. Schwi wants to understand the concept of the human heart, and Riku wants access to her archive of technical data, so they form an alliance that eventually turns the world's balance of power upside-down.
One of the first things you'll notice about this movie is that its story takes a much darker tone than the original series. While it was possible to lose quite a lot through the games of Disboard, just about everything is a life-or-death matter in the world of Zero. Early scenes are keen to emphasize the desperate situation Riku's group is in, and that pressure never really eases up. Named characters are killed off or badly injured, homes are destroyed, and anything resembling a victory comes at a steep cost. It's genuinely gripping stuff, almost to the point of making some of the zanier moments of comic relief feel out of place. At multiple points, this movie delivers the emotional gut punch that I never quite felt from the TV series; even something as simple as having Riku recite the names of everyone who's died on his watch has a powerful impact. When the stakes are high and the losses are so tangible, it's easier to get caught up in the characters' struggles.
Speaking of the characters, Riku and Schwi make for an engaging lead duo. The film sets them up as spiritual predecessors, if not actually direct ancestors, to Sora and Shiro; their character designs have similar proportions, and they even have the same voice actors. Despite those similarities, though, they're actually fairly different in terms of their personalities and the dynamic between them. Where Sora saw Disboard as a perfect place for the Blank siblings, Riku has been so worn down by the sacrifices he's had to make that he wants nothing more to do with his world. Schwi gradually evolves from a cold and logical machine to a self-aware and emotional person, which is a bit of a departure from Shiro's more consistent personality. Most notably, the relationship between Riku and Schwi isn't nearly as set in stone as the sibling bond between Sora and Shiro. There's some believable hostility at the beginning, at least on Riku's side of the equation, but that eventually gives way to a caring partnership. The two of them also avoid the “Blank never loses” invincibility that plagued Sora and Shiro throughout the TV series. Riku and Schwi have to make some major sacrifices in pursuit of their goal, and it feels like they're on the verge of defeat more often than not. That credible possibility of failure makes the moments of triumph more meaningful, and even small or partial victories feel like they're worth celebrating.
If there's a loss to be lamented here, it's in the vastly different way No Game, No Life Zero approaches the theme of games. One of the TV series' most iconic elements was the bombastic spectacle of its gaming showdowns, and that falls by the wayside without the system of the ten pledges in place. The importance of games isn't completely lost, but it takes on a very different form here. The struggle to stop the war and save humanity becomes a kind of game in and of itself, played out according to the rules that Riku eventually sets for himself and his allies. He also continually plays chess matches against Schwi, even though he loses every time, and this dynamic echoes humanity's ongoing struggle against its vastly superior foes. Games are eventually the thing that saves humanity, and perhaps the entire world, by taking the place of warfare. This switch from fighting to playing was touched upon in the original series, but seeing that backstory actually play out raises it from a convenient excuse to make a show about games to a compelling tale in its own right.
Even if you prefer the original story and characters to what this prequel offers, there's no denying that No Game, No Life Zero looks amazing. In keeping with its darker tone, it's not quite the barrage of saturated colors that we got from the TV series, but the ruined world of the film is eye-catching in its own right. From the detailed backgrounds to the distinct mechanical designs of each race's weaponry, there's a lot to take in, and the animation quality is genuinely impressive. Both the Japanese and English audio tracks feature some strong performances, and it's fascinating to hear the returning cast members take on new or heavily revised roles. This release also includes a Spanish dub and subtitle track, which is something of a rarity these days. On-disc extras in this standard edition release include a making-of video for English dub, and there's a more expensive limited edition available.
If you're a big fan of the TV series, then No Game, No Life Zero might not be quite what you'd expect from a prequel film. It makes a lot of changes to the original formula, but I'd argue that they add up to a more compelling story. It also adds some significant context to the show's backstory, which makes it worth watching if you're curious about what the world of Disboard was like before gaming took over. If you found the TV series interesting but were annoyed by some of its habits, then this might be the story you were looking for all along. Personally, it's my favorite part of the franchise so far.
That wraps things up for this week. Thanks for reading, and remember to send those Shelf Obsessed entries to [email protected]!
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