Record of Grancrest War is a light action fantasy series that transforms fairly quickly into a drama of nations. However, the overall execution has many weaknesses, meaning that the show doesn’t really stand out. Instead, it comes off as a somewhat bland series. Action genre fans may struggle with the slower “intrigue” portions and decline of pure action while the series marches on while nation drama fans will find it too shallow to be gripping.
Purpose: Not Really Good
In order to understand a bit of where they were going, we have to examine what Record of Grancrest War came from. It is an anime, based on a light novel that is a derivative of a series (“Record of Lodoss War”), that was, in turn, based on an RPG tabletop game, similar to DnD. Thus, at the beginning, we have more of a fantasy/action setup with mages, special powers, etc. These concepts, however, are never really explained and under-utilized throughout the story and, other than being a grand “catch ’em all” kind of thing, don’t really factor much into the story at all. It’s because of this shift that it gets into the drama of nations, where the earlier elements that were established are generally ignored or lightly touched on while the story focuses on the Lords and Ladies duking it out for supremacy. While this doesn’t necessarily detract from where the story was going, it really fails to bring the elements together in a cohesive fashion.
There’s a fairly sizable cast of characters, however, all of the arcs are relatively short since the characters aren’t challenged through the story other than as military obstacles to their view. This makes for a rather simplistic character trajectory – “I have an ideal” -> “You have a not-good ideal-> “You must be defeated.” While ideals and motivations become somewhat clearer as the story goes on, they don’t develop at all. Without true character development, the story becomes almost a contrivance where the good guy is pressing a relatively unchallenged ideal and doesn’t really have to address the consequences of that ideal. This is one of the largest character vulnerabilities of the whole series – their ideals are relatively unchallenged other than the threat of the character dying. One character refuses to serve a lord that has no ambition, but they never explain why – it’s just presented as a bad ideal that ends up having to die. While the ending slightly tries to challenge the main character’s ideal, it is mostly brushed off without much explanation.
While we do have magic, demons, and “crests” that grant powers the concepts aren’t really explained at all, so the viewer has to guess. Worse, in spite of having these “powers,” there’s no particular role they play (or any reason as to why or why not they are or aren’t used). This makes the world itself rather drab since it ends up being closer to a non-magical world, but with some magical keywords. That might have been fine, had they focused on the nature of the other lords/ladies or the tone of their respective countries. Unfortunately, that too was not really emphasized. Those elements could have added a tremendous amount of depth on the character field (nations as characters), which include respective ideals. Not to say that there weren’t fascinating attempts – a nation where at least the soliders (perhaps the upper-echelon?) were a harem for a queen or a nation where the soldiers put on masks and acted as though they were in a play. Those two alone could have been quite unique and interesting if developed, since that would also serve to challenge the main character’s ideas of what it means to rule.
The plot was definitely weaker than average and can be summed up as “catch ’em all” so that we can have world peace. Perhaps it was that the plot was too simplistic. Normally, a plot point involves a crucial situation that affects the story in some way – either for a character (a challenge to an ideal, a fight, a decision, etc) or for the viewer (understanding more of the situation, ideal, decisions, etc). What gives life to the plot is that the plot point actually changes something! Physical conflict as a standalone plot point typically advances the world or advances characters (sometimes both). In Record of Grancrest War, the plot point almost exclusively advanced the world and ignored the characters. Thus, the varied plots were >obstacle presents itself -> bad situation -> victory. Without the characters advancing much other than to gain or decrease in relative power (not entirely clear how that worked anyway), effectively the plot became moving pieces around on a game board.
Storytelling: Not Really Good
Since it wasn’t clear what the purpose was in the first place, the storytelling suffered. The action sequences didn’t really have enough action and the drama wasn’t really dramatic. There were substantial gaps in the storytelling since we were jumping around to different characters and situations. Things just happen and there isn’t really an explanation given as to why or how they are happening. The main character goes into battle at a severe disadvantage in one instance (more than one, really), but we don’t see the critical decision or reason why he wins, only that he does. Different countries at war, the last son of an oppressive ruler swearing allegiance because “he thought that oppression wasn’t the way of the future,” but we are never really shown that. This is a pretty big sin of storytelling – too much “telling” and not enough “showing.” It is understandable to a certain extent that, since there is a lot going on, some things must be told rather than shown. The problem was that the viewer wasn’t shown enough of the important things to flesh out the plot.
The main issue of the pacing perhaps was that they seemed to give equal time to scenes and situations that were not ultimately relevant while. This ended up stretching things out a bit and robbing other areas from a more dramatic pace. In some instances, this eliminated tension from the events since they didn’t dwell long enough.
Notes: If the concept of the show interested you, you may enjoy:
Heroic Legend of Arslan – a slightly stronger drama of nations series, somewhat less action-heavy but not overwhelmed by politics by any means.
Magi: Labrynth of Magic – More fantasy and somewhat more action-y, but with a stronger character focus. Ignore the “Kingdom of Magic” season that comes after.