Survival and death game anime have had a really poor run over the last few years. Adaptations of manga or games tend to end up quite superficial, with death flags galore and characters appearing one-dimensional. On the other hand, you get original series which fall into cliches, trip over themselves in convoluted plots or are just plain cringe. So I was surprised when I looked up Darwin’s Game and saw that it actually had decent reviews. Airing with the winter season 2020, audience’s reviews generally seemed to range from ‘it’s decent’ to ‘I’m obsessed’. It’s perhaps one of the few times I’ve seen a survival anime not be damned by viewers, so I knew I had to see what it was all about for myself. While I do try to keep my reviews as spoiler-free as possible, this one features some minor spoilers.
The series follows high schooler Sudo Kaname who downloads a strange app after receiving an invite link from his friend. The app, Darwin’s Game, appears like any other mobile game until a snake jumps out of the screen and bites Kaname. From that point, Kaname is thrown into a survival game where he must fight other players to the death all while hoping that he can one day escape.
Premise-wise the series does seem like a typical survival game plot. A rather clueless protagonist stumbles upon a death game where with the power of friendship and his own morals he refuses to bow down to the game master’s plans. And look, to be honest, there is quite a lot of that going on. But the series also added a really interesting layer to this rather basic plot through its Sigil system. Each player who joins Darwin’s Game is giving a sigil, which acts like a super power. A lot of the fun I had with this series was seeing how people used their powers, and how creative they were with it. It added a real ‘what are they gonna pull out of the hat next!?’ excitement to a series which could have been pretty bland.
The sigil system was complimented by a cast of very interesting side characters and antagonists (we’ll get to the protagonist later, he’s not included in this well-received group). While at the beginning the side characters seemed to be awkwardly mashed into a friendship, as the series progressed there was something truly satisfying seeing them work together so effectively and the enjoyable interactions between them. But these heroes were no match (character-wise) to the main antagonist, Wang. It’s very rare for me to be genuinely freaked out by an antagonist in a series, but there was something so chaotically cruel about Wang that really struck me. Every scene he was in he stole the show. Now, I know some people will say his character was beyond over the top, but that’s also what made him so much fun to watch. I was glued to the screen to see what insanity he would do next.
One point a lot of adaptations suffer from, not just survival genre ones, is how to pace the story. Unfortunately the first six to eight episodes of the series really felt like an extended introduction to the characters and premise. It was only around the end where things picked up and I was actually excited to see where the series would go.It’s hard to note this as a real critique of the series because without that ground work I’m sure the series would have felt very rushed and all over the place. But on the other hand, the series does spend a lot of time over-explaining and providing rather gimicky fan service (lookin at you end of episode 1). So perhaps what the series suffered most from was not using its very limited time effectively.
Now onto my actual critiques of the series and I will say these issues fall squarely at the feet of its protagonist. Looking at reviews of the series, many people complain about Kaname being ‘wimpy’ or about his refusal to kill others. I’m gonna give him a pass on these points. I’m sure if 99% of us were thrown into such a scenario we might be the same. But what irked me about Kaname was that he had no substance. From the first episode to now all I could tell you about him is that he’s a high school student who had some friends, and ticks all the personality boxes for typical protagonist. There’s nothing really outside this caricature to build on. Without at least some basic foundation to his character, it’s hard to differentiate him from the nameless cannon fodder that peppers the series. There’s no pay off to caring if Kaname lives or dies.
I suppose my issues with Kaname really came to a head around episodes 3-5. In these episodes we were introduced to a range of side characters. All of which were miles more interesting than Kaname. We learnt more about why people join Darwin’s Game, their history and goals. One character joins the game to avenge family members, another for the money earned in matches to pay hospital bills – how much more interesting is that than “oops guess I stumbled into this mess” for the hundredth time. How much more depth to a character and moral conflict can be explored than “no killing is bad”! It doesn’t even have to be named side characters, almost every other character that appears is more interesting than Kaname. In one episode a high school girl appears who has a fire sigil, she lasts all of ten seconds but she sparked an interest in me in those ten seconds that Kaname failed to over eleven episodes.
I will concede that during the last two episodes of the series, Kaname’s character does have some development. But let’s be honest, the pay off was nowhere near the worth the time it took to get there. Kaname was a plain breadstick in a buffet table of dynamic and interesting characters.
Overall, Darwin’s Game had a solid base for a great anime. With death game series a dime a dozen, the unique sigil system really made this show stand out. The cast of equally unique characters also made an interesting watch. But what really failed this series was its bland main character. Kaname’s journey was one I was never invested in. If he lived, if he died, if he suddenly turned green and could fly – I could not care less. Unfortunately, a series can only really be as good as it’s main driving force, and with Kaname it’s pretty mediocre. Darwin’s Game is a 6.5/10 from me.
If you’ve watched Darwin’s Game, let me know your thoughts of the show in the comments. If you haven’t let me know what survival / death game anime is your favourite!