What’s it about? An operative known only as “Doctor” awakens with amnesia in the middle of a tense battlefield, in a world reportedly ravaged by an infectious, highly stigmatized disease called Oripathy. Some of the infected are forming terrorist groups and striking out against the societies that ostracize them, but others, like the operatives of Rhodes Island, seek justice and a cure for the sickness, and to protect the world from danger.
I have a cursory knowledge of Arknights from friends and loved ones who play it: it seems like a pretty neat strategy game with some interesting world-building and a fun variety of character designs, personalities, and backstories for its female characters. Aside from this second-hand wisdom of the series, though, this is essentially a newcomer’s review. So how does this first episode of the Arknights anime hold up, and does it hook a new viewer in?
While not the most gripping premiere in the world, it’s honestly not bad. It tosses the audience into the action, delicately peppering exposition throughout the episode rather than dropping it all on you at once and spending most of its runtime building a tense, stormy atmosphere punctuated by the occasional skirmish. Happily, it does not fall into the trap some mobile game adaptations do where they feel the need to introduce bucketloads of characters all at once, so that every player gets the chance to spot their personal favorite in the crowd. With a small ensemble in the backdrop, this premiere mostly focuses on Doctor, Amiya, and Dobermann, who make for a pretty interesting lineup even if they’re fairly archetypal at this early stage.
Doctor having amnesia is, of course, a convenient trick to make sure exposition happens while making diegetic sense (i.e., the audience is learning at the same time as this character, and the characters aren’t explaining stuff they all already know). It’s also a convenient way to build a protagonist (or, in the case of the original game, a player-character) who serves as a blank slate for the audience to project onto whilst simultaneously being a high-ranking, highly-skilled professional deeply embedded in the story’s world… and already deeply cared for by the bunny girl, to boot.
Time will tell, I think, how well this translates from game to television: a quiet, personality-void player-character tends to work better when the audience is inhabiting that character via gameplay, rather than watching them in a visual narrative. But look, right now, I’d rather take the competent and nearly-silent Doctor over some of the nasty little dudes some series ask their audiences to insert themselves into.
With regards to the other characters, Amiya and Dobermann already give us a nice—if simple—spectrum of characterization for the series’ leading ladies. Amiya is sweet as pie with a heroic streak, somehow in a leadership position despite seeming quite young and a bit naïve, and is the first (and most) friendly face Doctor sees upon waking up. Dobermann, by contrast, is a much more pragmatic, cool-headed, no-nonsense military type. Between the two of them, we even have a contrast in combat styles, with Amiya taking the more traditionally feminine “casting magic from far away” fighting style and Dobermann getting right up in everyone’s face with more brutal force.
The camera doesn’t leer over these ladies, and again, based on my cursory knowledge, I know they’ll soon be joined by a whole battalion of varied fighting women—so fingers crossed they all get their time to shine.
Now, the other big thing to discuss in this episode is the apparent key conflict, in which people with a highly stigmatized disease have banded together into a terrorist organization and are doing unspecified violence around the world. This group is contrasted against Rhodes Island, where people with the same disease are… well, not doing that, and fighting against these militant groups as well as trying to find a cure for the infection.
I admit, my hackles went up the moment Dobermann explained that the terrorist group started simply fighting for equality and fair treatment, but Took Things Too Far. There is a lot to unpack with this premise—too much for this review, especially since it remains to be seen how this plotline continues and resolves. Presenting a marginalized group as violent, faceless villains is certainly dicey narrative territory, that’s for sure. Especially when they’re compared against members of the same marginalized group who are presented as doing things The Right Way: being marginalized in a polite way, you see, upholding the status quo and never getting nasty or rude in their quest for equal and humane treatment.
There’s definitely room for Arknights to handle these ideas in a nuanced way, but there’s definitely room for Arknights to fumble them, too. Like I said, while conceptually this is a potential yellow flag, it’s too early to tell. I’d be interested to see what the eight-episode series covers, and interested to hear from commenters more familiar with the game on how this whole villain arc shakes out (and what it ends up saying, intentionally or unintentionally). In the meantime, I suppose this show does have a main cast of chronically ill heroes, which is… well, I’m not going to stamp this as “representation”, but it’s interesting!
Arknights: PRELUDE TO DAWN drops the audience into a tense, shadowy world and invites them along for the ride. While I imagine this will hold the biggest appeal to pre-existing fans of the game, this premiere does feel accessible to franchise newbies. It’s got potential to be pretty cool but it’s also got potential to be ideologically awkward. How will it all unfold? I have to say, I’m sort of intrigued.