Darwin's Game would have likely been a hard pass had I watched it week to week as it aired. It lacks any really strong characters, it has more internal dialogue than a Dune novel, and entertainment value is predicated entirely on the copious amount of R-rated violence. Even the plot (what little is on offer) is barely enough to make a weekly appointment to watch Darwin's Game. But now that the whole thing is available for binge-watching, it can be appreciated as nothing more than five hours of "turn-off-your-brain", throwaway entertainment.
Darwin's Game is a phone app that sucks users into a kill-or-be-killed battle royale on the streets of Tokyo. High schooler Kaname Sudo is invited to the app by a friend who is murdered brutally while in a one-on-one battle within the game. Upon joining, Sudo is bitten by a snake that comes out of his phone and infects him with a superpower because -- of course -- the app somehow grants superpowers to the people who join the deathgame. Sudo realizes that hundreds of people are on the app, making thousands of dollars through murdering each other, and there is no escape. Using his ability to make weapons appear in his hand, he begins his battle to start a clan, get revenge for fallen friends, and ultimately find out why this game was made and put an end to the whole violent charade.
Joining him is his out-of-nowhere girlfriend Shuka, who when defeated by Sudo suddenly decides he's the man of her dreams and engages in what can only be called an "anime relationship". Won't get too into it because it really doesn't play much of a role in the show except for a bit later on when another woman, for no real reason, is asking Sudo to marry her because he's strong. Darwin's Game is one of those shows where the women are extremely competent and among the best characters but also heavily exaggerated to appeal to the male viewer.
Other characters include a pair of young women, one of whom is an information broker who also happens to be good with a sniper rifle. The other is a sweet, shy girl who has the soul of her evil dead brother inside her because--sure? There's also a gun toting guy named Ryuuji who goes from Sudo's mortal enemy to his best friend.
Again, none of these characters are particularly fleshed out, and the aforementioned dual-souled brother/sister duo barely even get backstory. It makes it hard to care at all about the handful of dramatic character moments, many of which feel so cursory or obligatory that they're only there to as breather between long action sequences. That's not necessarily a bad thing though, as the simplicity and familiarity of the concept makes it kind of pointless to get too mired in reinventing the wheel.
Anime based around the idea of death games aren't super popular, but there are a few of them every year or so. You may be familiar with Battle Royale, which was the genesis of the genre in Japan at least (in America it could be seen in the classic of 20th century cinema The Running Man). And anime based on the idea of using apps for plot-related nonsense are, again, pretty frequent. With cell phone games being a huge market due to the commute-culture of Japan, it was inevitable that anime based around the idea of apps or even based on apps are popular fare.
Back to Darwin's Game though. The majority of the series revolves around a 24-hour minigame within Darwin's Game where players have to collect rings and solve a puzzle. The players can kill each other to take rings, or work cooperatively. This is where Sudo winds up meeting most of his team and growing more confident in his abilities, as well as faces off with the "big bad" of the season, the leader of a gang called the Eighths (who has the power to teleport around and chop people into pieces). The fact six or seven episodes are solely dedicated to this set-up helps the show in that it gives a central focus to the season as a whole -- meaning that I'm not left entirely dissatisfied when episode 11 ends in a cliffhanger that may be animated in the future or may require me to read the manga to tie up the loose ends. But the show is 11 episodes. From what I can glean from the manga, the anime barely scratches the surface and skips a lot to cram a complete arc into that allotted, seasonal length. That may be why characters feel so two-dimensional and the action so constant. It's like old Jackie Chan movies where the American versions would cut out any plot and character development in exchange for a crisp 80-minute runtime focusing on the action while just enough sinewy threads of plot to make the film barely make sense.
So having that focused plot of the minigame works to the advantage of making for a breakneck action series, but hinders in that hardly anything else happens. Again, I barely know who these characters I'm supposed to be cheering on are, let alone understand why this app exists or any other plot details. The fast pace makes me not care about that stuff while watching because I'm engaged regardless; but afterward I was scratching my head.
Darwin's Game gives you your action fix, complete with body parts flying, people saying very rude things to each other, and expenditures of ammo that would probably break an army's budget It's fun, even if it does offer way too much introspection way too often. There's a really good car chase near the end of the series and the final battle was pretty cool. As with most R-rated action anime, the gore is censored for television audiences so if you're into that sort of thing, you may have to wait for a Blu-ray copy before seeing the show in its intended state.
Charles Darwin said, "A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life."
I wasted five hours of time with Darwin's Game. But if the value of life is to have fun, then I guess I could have done worse.
FINAL RATING: 2/4