Arknights: Prelude to Dawn

Well guys, I was going to watch Bocchi the Rock as a palate cleanser after suffering through Madoka Magica, but unfortunately that show still hasn’t finished airing quite yet; I believe the last episode is scheduled to come out on Christmas day if I’m remembering correctly. Dunno about the rest of you, but I know what I’m binge watching for the holidays! More to the point, since Bocchi the Rock is still not complete, I had to find something else to watch in the meantime, and boy howdy the Arknights anime adaptation decided to finish up just in time for me to use it as an excuse to talk about Arknights itself, which I may or may not have spent a not insignificant amount of time on. If you have no idea what Arknights is, it’s one in a long list of numerous mobile Chinese gacha games like the easily recognizable Genshin Impact, Azur Lane, Girls Frontline, or even Tower of Fantasy for god’s sake, there’s plenty more than just those but you get the idea. Now, unlike most gacha games in existence, I’ve actually played a pretty solid amount of Arknights. Why, you ask? Mostly out of curiousity; if you know me at all, you’re well aware that I despise the predatory business models of gacha games and western loot box gambling simulators like Fifa or Madden (not to mention the mobile gaming marketplace as a whole which has been a fucking blight upon the video game industry since the moment of its inception). Some would argue that freemium games like Arknights have to make their money somehow, and while I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that, I think that the free-to-play business model in-and-of itself is often a significantly worse prospect than that of an upfront fee—at least, for the consumer. The mobile gaming marketplace is a fucking cesspit, which is what ultimately drives companies to monetize their games this way on that particular platform (to say nothing of the various freemium games available on other platforms); if you want to compete, you have no choice but to contribute to making the problem worse. Arknights is no different, and the crying shame of it all is that there is actually a solid tower defense game underlying its tacked-on and criminally slow progression system; it’s a game where the problem you have to buy the solution for at an absolutely unreasonable price point dominates the entire experience to the point of tedium, forcing anybody unwilling to empty their bank accounts to grind for months on end in order to meaningfully progress—something I can say from experience, I might add, since I engaged in that grind daily for several months before finally quitting. I kept playing despite the insane length that experience has been padded to for the sake of trying to appreciate the genuinely entertaining parts of the game buried beneath hundreds upon hundreds of hours of endless auto-battling and tedious grind. At its best, the game is very polished, visually appealing, has an excellent soundtrack, boasts enjoyable, unique tower defense mechanics and—more to the point—a relatively interesting narrative. I think positives like those are what makes these kinds of business models and progression systems easy for a lot of people to buy into—honestly, I don’t necessarily always have an issue with the question of whether or not it’s ethical to insert gambling into video games as long as those games are strictly being marketed towards adults. The problem here specifically isn’t the moral quandary of whether or not you should prey on gambling addicts or the lonely waifu-obsessed crowd in order to make money, but the fact that in order to insert those gambling elements into the game, the game itself had its original vision butchered and twisted into something it was never meant to be. In an alternate universe where Arknights was the game its developers likely wanted to make (assuming they have so much as a shred of integrity)—a story driven, well-designed, tightly-paced and expertly directed experience that could be beaten in a reasonable amount of time, sold at a reasonable price point—I’d probably love it! But unfortunately, games like the one we actually got are what corporate greed ultimately results in. “But wait”, I can already hear you asking, “what relevance does any of this have for the game’s anime adaptation?” Well, Arknights is a game where as a general rule, the storytelling suffers primarily because of its slow pace and poor presentation. When I say “presentation”, you probably think I’m talking about just the visual novel-esque approach they decided to take, but that’s only a part of it. Sure, I think visual novels are often slow, boring games without mechanical or literary depth and in general I don’t think the genre is a very good narrative medium, but even disregarding my own personal bias against the genre, it’s still possible to tell an engaging story within it—Doki Doki Literature Club is a great example, and yes I’m going to praise DDLC, sue me. The issue with Arknights is the storytelling medium they chose is made significantly worse by the fact that it’s incredibly slow, breaking up the gameplay and annoying the shit out of you (to the point where you will be sitting there reading in silence for like 20 minutes before and after every single mission), none of the choices you make have any bearing on the story whatsoever, and none of the key emotional moments within the narrative have impact—the actual quality of the writing isn’t necessarily terrible, but there was simply no effort put towards trying to lead the player on any sort-of emotional coaster. The boring, uninspiring visual presentation and poor direction are both a huge blow when considering the rest of the game outside of those “cutscenes” is drawn in a cutesy-looking chibi aesthetic. Sure, it’s not terrible, but it is very underwhelming and unimpressive looking. You get no real sense of what the world is like, the music doesn’t really enhance the narrative experience at all, and it feels like I’m watching the story unfold from the perspective of a floating camera without emotional attachment to anything or anyone. So when I saw that an anime adaptation of Arknights was announced, I was pretty interested in whether or not they could take their story and make it more compelling by taking advantage of their opportunity to tell it the way it was originally supposed to be told, all shitty gacha mechanics, technical limitations and bloated padding aside. Arknights: Prelude to Dawn (otherwise known by its Japanese title of “Arknights: Reimei Zensou”) is a faithful retelling of Arknights up to a specific point within its rather long-winded narrative—which, I might add, is also notorious for having a slow start and only picking up after several chapters. Despite that though, the team behind Prelude to Dawn actually do an impressive job of taking that slow, anemic opening and making it genuinely engaging. The animation and artwork are excellent, sound design is spot-on, the music is fantastic, the direction is great, and in general the show looks and sounds polished as hell. When you take the writing of Arknights and apply it to a narrative medium where it can actually work with strong visual and auditorial presentation, it’s actually pretty solid! It’s often somber, tense, and suspenseful, focusing on the grim realities of warfare and the general theme that men rarely see their own actions as being unjustified. With that said, it’s still far from being a literary masterpiece and there are numerous reasons as to why that is. Firstly, Prelude to Dawn is plain and simply too short—with only eight 24-minute long episodes, the story manages to get up to the ending of chapter 3 in the game which is a non-resolution and ultimately ends up being a cliffhanger for the second season (which they’ve already announced, if you were curious). When you break it down, I think the fact that Prelude to Dawn is trying to follow its original source material too closely ultimately ends up being the cause of all its problems—they didn’t have enough episodes to tell a complete story and even if they did, the source material they’re pulling from is too long-winded while somehow still being incomplete, suffering from the curse of many an ongoing video game story where it’s being maliciously, eternally elongated and the dead horse beaten into oblivion because it’s still making the developer boatloads of money *cough*World of Warcraft*cough*. Though for some reason this remains a surprisingly contentious point of argument, good stories end. On the other hand, stories like this one feel the need to keep going just because their audience wants more, becoming a villain long after their chance to die with dignity has passed. In general when I watch anything, I always make sure to watch a season after it has completely finished airing because I want to sit down and experience a complete story from start to finish; any individual season of any show should have a satisfying resolution, and if it doesn’t, that’s a serious problem regardless of whether or not the following season has already been announced, period—it’d be like if the first book in a series was boring as shit or had a god-awful ending and the excuse from the writer was “Don’t worry, the next book will be good!”. Now, do I think the writers for Arknights have necessarily lost passion for their work, or that they’re keeping the game’s narrative alive on life-support? No, I don’t think so, but I do think that’s where the game is inevitably headed assuming that it remains popular for the foreseeable future. Regardless of whether or not the writers have lost passion for the project, the fact remains that it’s incomplete and is being delivered to its player base piece by piece over an unreasonable length of time, all for the sake of keeping people playing. That’s also not even taking into account the game’s various side-stories and events, the existence of which is essentially punishing anyone new to the game by forcing them to wait for time-sensitive reruns of those same events in order to experience the complete story—for god’s sake, the best storytelling in the whole game is locked behind a limited time event called Code of Brawl that I only had the chance to actually play because I was grinding every single day for months, and it was one of the few events I bothered to read cover-to-cover before I eventually started skipping dialogue because I just wanted to play the fucking missions! What that means for Prelude to Dawn is that unless they want to start animating every single side story in chronological order with any kind-of relevance to the main plot, the viewer is missing out on significant chunks of the narrative which I think is honestly a damn shame—Code of Brawl in particular works as well as it does because of how complete and self-contained it is, but we’ll never see it animated, especially when considering how much its tone clashes with that of the main story and overall setting it was born from. That’s another major issue—the tone. For the most part Prelude to Dawn tries to be dark, somber and focus on mature themes like blind solidarity, the perceived morality of extremism, the individual tragedies that play out on both sides of large scale conflicts, etc. But annoyingly, it can’t help but constantly try to lighten the mood and insert silly anime nonsense, which totally contradicts the serious nature of the story and pulls you out! I don’t want to see “cool” characters like Franka, Liskarm or Exusiai spouting one-liners while mowing down Reunion soldiers with shit-eating grins plastered onto their faces because that does a disservice to what Prelude to Dawn is supposed to be going for! Part of the reason as to why this is an issue has to do with the fact that Arknights is a gacha game—or, more specifically, a “waifu” game. Because the developers are attempting to appeal to the broadest possible audience they can, their wide cast of characters all have to try and appeal to numerous different tastes, giving specific players a reason to spend money gambling for a chance at the girls they find personally appealing. Unfortunately, while wacky characters like Exusiai have their place in other, less serious stories like Code of Brawl, they stick out like a sore thumb in the main story where for some reason they have a spotlight shined on them because, what, they’re a fan favorite? Speaking of fan-favorites, tons and tons of other characters in Arknights are completely irrelevant to the story, so if you happen to be someone like me whose favorite character is some random 3-star unit with absolutely no appearances anywhere in any of the main or side story content, have fun never seeing them animated here. Speaking of over-the-top characters, the villains are another of Prelude to Dawn’s weaknesses—some of them are okay like Skullshatterer (and no that’s not the name of my OC that’s an actual character from Arknights), but others like Mephisto are comically evil and difficult to take seriously at all. In a show focusing on the central theme that nobody in war is really right or wrong and innocent people on both sides will die fighting for what they choose to believe is righteous, comic villains are just about the last thing I would expect or want to see. It makes it more difficult to suspend your disbelief and buy the idea that Reunion is mostly comprised of woefully misguided but still inherently good people desperately latching onto any sort-of hope they can find when those same people listen to the long-winded monologues of their obviously evil superiors who couldn’t give less of a shit whether they live or die—who the hell is gonna sit there listening to their boss talk about using them as a disposable pawn and think “Yeah, I’ll let myself be sacrificed purely for the sake of entertaining this guy’s sick game”? It’s really disappointing whenever the show does a poor job of trying to humanize Reunion and instead portrays them as being faceless baddies, especially because it makes some of the emotional moments and major character deaths later on less impactful—which, by the way, is also heavily influenced by the fact that for some reason, they decided they wanted to keep things PG and make all of the violence totally cartoonish and clean despite the fact people are being gunned down, blown up, impaled and sliced open. I’m not saying they needed to go over-the-top and spill blood and guts everywhere, but the seriousness of what’s actually happening during the action sequences where people are getting gunned the fuck down is lost on me to a significant degree when they don’t even bother to spill so much as a drop of blood, confusing you when later on Misha remarks to Skullshatterer about how “Rhodes Island never killed anyone” despite the fact we’ve watched them kill dozens upon dozens of people in cold blood, it’s like in Yakuza when Kiryu shoots somebody in the fucking face and then the game is like “yeah never killed anybody by the way” except there it can actually be forgiven because Yakuza toes the line between being serious and ridiculous so masterfully. Why is it that the specific deaths of major characters matter and inflict trauma, yet the numerous deaths of everybody else slaughtered in the wake of Rhodes Island are inconsequential? Why bother trying to maintain this thin veneer of benevolent non-violence when Prelude to Dawn is supposed to be a gritty war story akin to Iron-Blooded Orphans? In the end, the vast majority of these issues stem from the original source material and it ends up taking away from the story in a big way. I know I’m being ruthlessly critical, but honestly Prelude to Dawn is far from terrible. The opening 3 episodes are actually excellent, very engaging and I really enjoyed them despite the problems the show has. I liked the angle they were going for, they did a great job of making the viewer emotionally attached to the struggle Rhodes Island is going through during the opening, and I think they did a particularly good job of making the Doctor (essentially your self-insert in the game itself) into a legitimately interesting character, at least initially. Whereas in the game the Doctor is just a blank slate made for the sake of being your substitute, here in the opening they actually take the concept of his character and make it interesting even when divorced from the idea that he’s supposed to represent someone else; struggling to comprehend the bizarre, hopeless situation he’s been thrust into and ultimately forced to radically accept his newfound position of importance. That said, it’s unfortunate when later on the Doctor ends up being sidelined and not really focused on; despite what you might think, the Doctor is really not the protagonist of the story. Instead, we end up with Amiya as the protagonist, and to be honest while her character is portrayed reasonably well, I really wish they had instead focused more on the Doctor and really leaned into the idea of playing out his internal struggles, as opposed to the ever-present plot point of Amiya’s idealism being challenged over and over especially considering that particular theme ties into the so-called “veneer of benevolent non-violence” I alluded to earlier, making the whole thing more difficult for the viewer to believe. Overall, the show has a fantastic opening half—albeit with some issues—and a kind-of weak, boring latter half with an unfortunate cliffhanger ending leaving you unsatisfied with no real sense of finality, trying to worm its way out of being bad by weaseling in an announcement for the second season, hoping that will quell the audience’s unrest. Some might argue “well if you were unsatisfied by the ending, why don’t you just play the game” to which I would say two things: anime adaptations are not supposed to be fucking advertisements, and for the numerous reasons I’ve already listed, trying to actually play through the entire story of Arknights would be an unreasonable time investment. Before I start complaining again though, some other positives; I really appreciate that they genuinely tried to make the show feel unique, even with its opening and ending songs. It stands out as being something new and different and I really do appreciate what they were trying to go for and the clear respect the people responsible for adapting the original game had for its setting, its characters and its story (don’t ask me what the hell the singer is supposed to be saying in the ending song though, I think it’s meant to be English but it could be anything). After suffering through shit like Tokyo Ghoul, the extended moments of calm and quiet were very much appreciated and help to make things genuinely impactful and emotional. One of my absolute favorite parts of the whole show was at the tail end of the opening midway through episode 3 where Ace and Guard manage to survive after staying behind to cover the Doctor’s retreat, and Guard is forced to confront the deaths of his comrades that he was unable to prevent; the voice actor puts on an absolutely amazing performance, making the scene feel genuinely believable, so much so that it actually choked me up a bit! I really appreciated how good of a job they did taking the game’s setting and making really cool setpieces and artwork out of it, letting you see the world of Terra realized in an immersive way where you can genuinely drink it all in (the Rhodes Island base in particular was very cool to see fully realized). Some of the direction is genuinely brilliant and really effective, the whole thing is impressively faithful to the original while still managing to do its own thing and improve upon a lot of the source material’s negative aspects, and overall I think it’s pretty solid but being held back by the game that it was born from in a major way, preventing it from being anything more. There are some things I think they could definitely improve upon even when considering what the source material is and why this show exists to begin with, but at the end of the day it really doesn’t matter—all that matters is what we got, which while enjoyable is noticeably flawed. If you’re totally unaware of what Arknights is even about by the way since I neglected to mention it up till now, essentially it’s a dystopian sci-fi taking place in a world called Terra centered around the exploits of an organization known as Rhodes Island. In Terra, there’s an incurable infection called Oripathy caused by a mineral called Originium capable of assimilating with organic matter, causing infected people to eventually crystallize and die. Rhodes Island is part pharmaceutical company providing treatment to the infected, and part paramilitary organization fighting to try and create a better world where the infected can live peacefully without being discriminated against. You can essentially think of them as a non-violent infected rights organization, whereas the Reunion Movement is a violent extremist infected rights organization they end up fighting against, which is the general gist of the story. If that sounds interesting to you, I’d say Prelude to Dawn is worth giving a try despite its flaws and if you do happen to play the game you will probably enjoy it, but as you can probably tell I have my fair share of issues with the show; it’s kind-of difficult for me to make any sort-of easy recommendation for or against it, so watch at your own risk. For once I’m not writing this at ungodly hours of the day, so imma go grab something to eat and chill out, take it easy my fellow gamers.

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