Overlord is another in a line of “stuck in a video-game” fantasy anime that utilizes over-powered characters. While it certainly frees the show up to potentially explore other ideas or themes in depth, they opted instead for the sandbox and toyed around with several ideas. Unfortunately, this show is unable to counteract the drawbacks of its selected genres and ends up being overwhelmingly unimpressive.
Purpose: Not Really Good
Shows that use the “stuck in a video game” setting are often indistinguishable from ones that have a pure fantasy setting unless there is a powerful purpose driving that choice. If there isn’t a clear purpose, like in Overlord, it becomes a vague excuse for things to happen, which can come in several flavors – a drive to survive/adapt, a drive to get back home, or to thrive/become a member of the new world.
Similarly, settings that utilize the “over-powered character” come with substantial drawbacks. Unless there is a particular point to having a character over powered, it can rob the story of any proper drama, cleverness, or point. For example, an over-powered character doesn’t need to be “smart,” they can just obliterate everything. Even in instances they are being smart, what was the point?
In Overlord, the two are combined, which creates essentially a sandbox for exploration. Instead of picking a single theme, they appeared to experiment with several. While the sandbox didn’t exactly render the anime useless, without a unified theme, Overlord leaves the question – “what was the point?”
Utilizing over-powered characters can create an opportunity to focus on the characters themselves, since there is no real external threat. In this particular setting, the idea would be – you’re way too powerful for the current setting, what do you do – who are you? Unfortunately, even though the anime makes a small point of trying to make NPCs break from their mold, they never manage to succeed. All of the characters are more or less the same as when they started. While that could be forgivable if the point was a character study for the main character (such as the effects of too much power or settling into the role as overlord), Overlord only tentatively touched on the concept. The main character was dragged along for the ride and only really “settled” into the role outside of the camera. We saw neither growth nor real “corruption” of the main character.
That said, we don’t necessarily need to see growth if there were some evolution of understanding for the viewer. Once again, it was only lightly touched upon about the complex settings and back-stories that were given to the main NPCs and it could have even been a backwards exploration into who the original creators were. We don’t get much of that either, unfortunately.
When you take a step back, there’s shockingly little shown or explained about the world at all. While this makes it a decent blank slate to do whatever contrivance or convenience helps push things along, if the world does not act or move on its own, it’s up to the main characters to make things happen. Looking at all of the events that happen in Overlord, this is clearly the case – all other actors do things in response to the main character. In other words, the world revolves around him. While that’s a funny idea, given the title, it means that the world completely lacks depth.
With respect to this particular setting, one of the key defining points of shows with the stuck in a game theme – are the characters in a game or are they in some fantasy world that is based upon/seems a lot like the game? This is actually a really important question since it affects how things develop in the world. Overlord chose to ride that line, which muddled things more than it helped. This only really becomes relevant in how several things work, like items and magic. For example, “Tiers” of magic are touched upon in such a narrow way, that the viewer only really gets a vague sense of power. This could have been purposeful, since it limits their need to explain relative strengths of characters or kinds of power. It’s enough that they’re all too powerful – they break the “game”.
Plot: Not Really Good
The plot is the aspect of the show that really suffered from the lack of purpose. The whole plot can be summed up in the idea that the main character settles into his role. This is a rather short plot trajectory in itself, although it’s possible that the parallel main plot is for the viewer to like the main character less by the end. Unfortunately, there are lots of half-finished subplots lying around, hinting at more and there’s a lot of plots that simply go in circles without really going anywhere. This ends up muddying the waters, and makes the plot a bit of a mess.
The storytelling was also victimized by the lack of purpose and ended up going into fragments of stories, without a clear reason why. For example, substantial time was given to humanizing several characters, only for them to not really be mentioned again (and not necessarily because they died). Those sequences only make sense if you’re supposed to empathize with the characters and, consequently, dislike what other characters are doing to them. Yet, out of sight, out of mind. This lends itself to a rather simplistic sort of storytelling that you’d find in action-heavy genres. Sure, some neat stuff happened, but without any real challenge or threat, one-hit KOs (even flashy ones) don’t really lend themselves to a enthralling story, since they lack tension or drama.
We can only guess that they’re going for a very slow burn, given that 39 episodes have completed. Given the room they had to tell a story, it unfortunately seemed a little on the slow side. In this case, it’s very likely because they devoted a lot of time to unnecessary characters or events that had shockingly little place in the show.
NOTES: If you liked the themes in Overlord, you might like to try:
One Punch Man (Very Good), which has a much stronger take on the “over-powered” character theme. Although it’s a little bit of a parody series, there’s plenty of action to be had.
Log Horizon (Very Good), is another stuck in a game series, although it chooses to focus on the idea of creating a society in the game. It has a much stronger focus on the world itself and how the characters interact with the new world.
Gate: And So They Fought (Very Good), combines a bit of the over-powered character themes with a fantasy setting (and a bit of harem). This is another series that is world-focused and is much stronger in its handling of the world – or the setting’s reaction to these over-powered characters.