What’s it about? Akatsuki, a Let’s Play streamer who’s made a name for himself focusing on escape games, has been accepted to play a special game. Right after reading the email, he passes out and wakes up in an unfamiliar forest next to an unfamiliar girl. Soon, a man in a alpaca hat tells them and six others that they’ve all been pulled into a game called “The Ones Within: Genome,” and in order to leave, they must play together until they reach 100,000,000 viewers.
You know how a lot of really great narrative-based games have middling-to-bad anime adaptations? I’m talking about franchises like Ace Attorney, Danganronpa, Persona, and so on. Good gameplay and a story built around interactivity just don’t translate well to passive entertainment like TV. The Ones Within feels just like one of those adaptations, but it skipped the step of the fun game coming out first.
The central conceit – a group of teenage game streamers who have to take part in increasingly risky games – feels like something that Kotaro Uchikoshi, of Zero Escape and Girl in the Twilight fame, would have come up with. And honestly, I’d play the hell out of a version of this story helmed by Uchikoshi, because I love his storytelling. But the writing here just… isn’t very good.
The episode focuses on Akatsuki, a near-exact copy of Makoto Naegi from Danganronpa but even less interesting. He’s just so gosh-darn sweet and kind! He befriends a skyscraper-sized panda instead of fighting it! When a ghost tries to drag him to the afterlife with her to be his friend, he just promises to meet her when it’s his time! When everyone around him feels scared and threatened, he just accepts his situation with a smile! It would be one thing if he were trying to cover up his own fear and despair, but there’s no shades of that complexity. He’s just a golly-gee swell guy.
In fact, it would be nice if the stakes were set up more directly. The script aims for creeping dread but misses the mark wildly and zooms straight into mood whiplash. Mr. Paca mutters vaguely about playing as if their lives depend on it and looms in ominously lit rooms but then immediately starts joking about putting a ton of peppers in someone’s dinner as if it were a serious threat. Instead of allowing a persistent sense of wrongness to creep up, it tries the old “zig when the viewers are expecting you to zag” in a way that just doesn’t work.
Of course, the most annoying thing is that there are flashes of brilliance alongside the awkward pacing and writing. Among the weird visual effects and textures and layers, there’s some effective framing and usage of negative space. That is what creates the flashes of dread and fear, not Mr. Paca saying something sinister and then immediately undercutting it. He’s like a mix between Assassination Classroom’s Koro-sensei and Danganronpa’s Monokuma, but much less effective than either.
There is one moment when Mr. Paca is genuinely creepy: hitting on Himiko, one of the three (out of eight!) female streamers, best known for nurturing sim games. He gets up in her face and begs her to say his name in the soft, ASMR-style voice she uses on her streams, making her obviously uncomfortable, until someone else interrupts him by throwing something at him.
Actually, you know what? That’s probably what it’s like for a lot of female streamers meeting male fans. Points for accuracy, I guess?
But of the three female characters, it’s Karin, the horror game streamer, who gets the most screen time. She’s a classic tsundere, screaming and slapping Akatsuki when she wakes up to him about to check her pulse. (More points for accuracy – he tries shouting at her to wake her up, which is the first step in any emergency medical situation.) She’s annoyed when she gets stuck in a second challenge with him, which he volunteered for. Perhaps her annoyance will turn to… love? She doesn’t have a lot of blatant fan service around her, but she sure does spend a lot of time crossing her arms under her boobs and arching her back to stick her butt out.
I want to like The Ones Within. I do! It was one of the shows that really caught my attention in the leadup to the summer season. But after seeing the real thing, the only creeping dread I feel is the dread that the execution just won’t live up to its premise.