Tomodachi Game is the only high-stakes games anime airing this season and although originally promising with an interesting premise of a difficult psychological game, it did not exactly deliver. Fans of the genre (which is commonly known as battle royale, after the 1999 book by Koushun Takami) know how difficult it is to find a good story and how often the series that seem exciting end up falling flat, and unfortunately, Tomodachi Game has a similar problem.
The titles in this genre generally fall into two categories – really good and exciting, with a captivating plot that makes you keep watching regardless of what is happening, and the really terrible ones that will also keep you watching just to see how bad the dumpster fire can get. Every few seasons we get one of each. Sadly, Tomodachi Game falls somewhere in the middle – it is simply mediocre and that is what hurts the most. Manga readers have been hyping up the story and eagerly awaiting the adaptation and the bar was set high for anime-only viewers. So, where did it go wrong?
Before we begin, do keep in mind that there will be spoilers from the first 7 episodes of the anime, but without any manga content. This is also mainly about the plot issues because the animation in the stories that lean towards psychological thrillers is truly less important. Tomodachi Game anime does make good use of interesting angles and color choices that complement the characters’ struggles, but ultimately there is nothing flashy or too amazing about it.
Tomodachi Game – The Premise
The core premise is not unique, as pretty much all content in this genre is similar. A group of 5 high-school students gets dragged into a game designed to clear their debt. What debt you may ask? Well the players themselves are not sure, but what we do know right away is that someone stole the money the two of them were in charge of. To give a better insight into the story, here is our main group:
- Yuichi Katagiri – an analytical high-schooler who values friends above else. Grew up poor, which is relevant because he is among the first to get suspected of stealing and signing up for the game.
- Shiho Sawaragi – a class representative with a strong sense of justice. Has a crush on Yuichi
- Tenji Mikasa – the voice of reason within the group. Also a class representative
- Yutori Kokorogi – a quiet, shy girl who joined the group to avoid getting bullied. Also has a crush on Yuichi
- Makoto Shibe – a complete airhead who speaks whatever is on his mind. He has no regard for other people’s feelings, not because he is mean but because he simply doesn’t think. Has a crush on Shiho
High schoolers in high-stakes games are nothing new in this genre. The original Battle Royale novel had them playing a literal murder game and many titles that came after were quite similar. From Btooom, Sword Art Online, and Kakegurui to Darwin’s Game and even some less fortunate examples like King’s Game and Magical Girl Site, the teenage protagonists were usually the way to go. They are relatable to the target audience which generally consists of teens and young adults (not to mention the demographic of the magazines the source material is usually published in). But, this is where one of the biggest issues with Tomodachi Game’s plot is. While it does a good job of portraying teenagers with emotions, it fails at making them feel realistic and relatable. Each one of them has a secret, and while some are simple, others are very dark and it feels weird trying to squeeze that much life experience into a high-schooler.
Secrets and Explanations
One thing that Tomodachi Game does well is revealing the characters’ secrets – which is good as that is its main selling point. But the way it goes about it is just… not satisfying. We don’t really suspect anything until the shoe drops and it’s a part of the charm for sure. But it somehow fails at using that momentum properly and we are stuck with boring episodes filled with nothing but petty arguments and overdrawn explanations.
The way Tomodachi Game introduces the players is that the main characters are all one close happy chosen family, but it soon becomes obvious that they are not too attached to each other. Combine this with the secrets they have and you have a somewhat interesting bunch. While we get glimpses into their internal monologue, we usually don’t know what they are up to or what it is that they have done. This is fine and it works perfectly well for the most part. It helps keep the story going and it makes it more fun because we do not know what to expect.
But, the issue with this is Yuichi and his “I outsmarted everyone” schemes that are quite common. Yes, he is the cool main character and he will put a stop to this evil game (although it is not clear what happens if they just refuse to pay the debt) but do we really need a 5-10 minute explanation of his actions every 3 episodes? The game masters are amazed and go into full exposition mode, helping convey all the things that we may have missed. The issue is, for most viewers this is the first time they even see a hint of what is happening. Of course, some smaller details may be indicators but in the long run, it just ends up being an info dump without much meaning other than making (usually) Yuichi look cool.
In the second half, Tenji’s motivation becomes clearer and we actually get more sense of what is happening with the game. But at that moment we are also dragged away from Yuichi and we don’t understand what he is up to or what goes on in his head anymore. The constant “who is the traitor” game gets tiring as in the end, it does not matter because Yuichi will always find an excuse through the power of friendship.
Ultimately, there is no action in the story and constant secrets are only interesting if the viewer is interested in them. A trap most shows in the genre of the high-stakes games fall into is the excessive gore and violence, but Tomodachi Game has the opposite issue. It is simply unmotivating to watch at times since it offers little in terms of captivating shock value. It does not miss the weirdly placed (tame) fan service angles and questions about female characters’ underwear – but even that is a smaller issue when compared to the boring plot that couldn’t be significantly shaken up until the kiss.
Can Tomodachi Game Get Better?
Now that we are 7 episodes in, the groundwork has been set. The outline of the story is present and its main strength is one character – Yuichi. As far as male protagonists in this genre go, Yuichi does not fit the usual mold. He is not whiny and he is not lost while trying to save everyone. He is a potential psychopath with a goal known only to him. It appears that he cares for his friends, but does he really? It could be a way to save face and pave the road for his success,
Not knowing what to expect from Yuichi has been the most fun aspect of this anime so far (even with the extensive overexplaining). Assuming his backstory doesn’t turn out to be something incredibly stupid or misrepresented he has the potential the actually shine and break the stereotypical “is nice and always gets saved by someone else” trope. The rest of the cast falls flat, minus maybe Shiho (assuming she does have a deep dark secret as Tenji implies).
The addition of new characters might help the pacing a little. The first two games have been quite slow and frankly boring at times because it was difficult to buy into the characters’ personal drama. However, now that the group is split we will be able to see more of Yuichi’s schemes and hopefully, fewer explanations about them as he faces off against actual enemies. Having a mysterious character who slowly gets introduced to the audience is one of the best aspects of this series and something that should be used to the fullest, especially when it is the protagonist.
The Curse of the High Stakes Games Genre
The curse of the genre is looming above Tomodachi Game right now. The issue with it lies in the fact that is quite tiresome to watch at times, which is a no-go when watching games like these. Can it pull through and deliver a strong second half that the manga readers have been hyping up? We will gladly take the dark and the edgy, and mix them with fairly annoying and sometimes despicable characters because, in the end, that is where the beauty of this genre is. How well the anime will execute it remains to be seen.
Tomodachi Game is streaming on Crunchyroll every week.
© Mikoto Yamaguchi, Yuki Sato, Kodansha / “Tomodachi Game” Production Committee