The rise of the popularity of movies like The Hunger Games sparked an entire wave of imitators, ranging from Minecraft mods to the entire battle royale genre of video games (Fortnite, PUBG, and even CoD’s latest offering). Each one tries to add a little spice to the soup, but the core idea is much the same: good luck, last man/team standing wins. Darwin’s Game offers a fairly similar experience, with the advantages of modern society and a little bit of voodoo are mixed in for good measure. But much like the inundated isekai genre, simply changing it up is no longer enough; you have to really stand out. Did Darwin’s Game do enough?
Darwin’s Game seems to dance right along the line between average and good. There are moments where it feels like the most generic “morally upright citizen vs the corrupt masses,” and other times where it genuinely almost surprises. The results can typically can be described as “fine, but hardly compelling.” Let me explain.
The basic concept is simple enough: Much like Fight Club, you aren’t allowed to discuss Darwin’s Game with people who aren’t currently playing. You can play by accepting an invite from another Darwin’s Game user. When you accept the invite, you are granted one special evolution (I assume the reason for “Darwin”), and that evolution is meant to help you in the game. That evolution can be anything from the ability to manipulate certain objects to a pseudo-future prediction (think X-men style mutants). There seems to be a yet unexplained trait in the user that influences the evolution.
Once you’re in the game, it’s basically a duel to the top. There are player events, clan duels, and individual duels. These duels are somehow obfuscated from the rest of the world, so they can take place basically any time and anywhere. You win by killing your opponent or running out the duel timer. There are a few other little mechanics, but that’s the gist. And, because this is the future, there’s even an underground gambling ring associated with the games where society’s most affluent come together to win and lose big on the outcomes.
Like I said, not bad, but not great.
Darwin’s Game‘s biggest issues don’t actually stem from the premise. Even with something as seemingly cookie-cutter as this, a cast of standout characters can really save the day. After all, we’re hoping to relate to the people more than we are wanting to simply watch mindless violence. Unfortunately, the characters are pretty hit or miss.
While it’s true that I put “diverse personalities” as a positive trait of the show, the fact that they’re all very different from one another is only interesting for so long. Unfortunately, while diverse, they don’t bring a ton of depth to the table. Minus a couple of exceptional moments, they’re simply a cast of characters who are (mostly inexplicably) drawn to the main protagonist.
Even the villain suffers from this. While it is true that the show hints at a sort of shadow villain who is keeping the games alive, the obvious antagonist that must be defeated is really just a power hungry maniac. There is no reason for his bloodlust. He simply has a powerful sigil (mutation) and therefore can kill quickly and easily. And he enjoys it. And he’s very loud about it. That’s it. I’m a firm believer that the back story of the antagonist needs just as much attention as the protagonist to help sell the illusion, and Darwin’s Game makes zero effort.
Compound this with an absolutely momentum killing event in the middle of it all, and you have a recipe for mediocrity. Now, Darwin’s Game only aired with eleven initial episodes, so they’re already one to two episodes shy of most seasons. They had a lot of world building to accomplish (and a ton of cast to add) in those eleven episodes.
Six of those eleven episodes focus on a single event. And if I’m being honest, it’s not like the event is particularly clever or amazing. It’s a treasure hunt that takes place in a small area of Tokyo. And if that wasn’t enough, the first episode after the event is a huge time-skip, after which we breeze through training and alliance building that doesn’t even really come to fruition in the end game (by which I mean the new alliances don’t really take part in the finale). The pacing is absolutely maddening. I haven’t read the source material (which I believe is a manga), but I can’t help but wonder if they really butchered the delivery trying to fit so much into a single short season.
The result is much like I described in the summary card. This all feels like the intro to what we’re actually meant to watch. It feels like one (very very) long pilot, except we don’t get to actually watch the rest of the show.
Ultimately, I’m disappointed. Like I said, I haven’t read the source material, but I can’t help but feel like fans were slighted in the anime adaptation by a studio who can’t or didn’t care to do it justice, instead happy to deliver “enough.” The characters had potential. The concept really had potential. There’s obviously a lot more story to tell, but I can confidently say I’m not really interested in pursuing it further. This one definitely falls under the “watch at your own risk, and be prepared to sludge through it” category.