Here we go, into the VRAINS! The sixth installment in the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise, VRAINS, takes place in a world seemingly dependent upon cyber technology and a parallel digital realm. Main character and programming wizard Yusaku (known as his alter-ego Playmaker in the digital world of VRAINS), while combating the hacker group Knights of Hanoi, encounters the AI program known as Ignis wanted by both Hanoi and data company SOL Technologies. From the first episode, it appears the two will form an alliance to battle Hanoi (and possibly SOL to an extent). What? No, this isn’t Digimon. Of course not. Don’t you see the cards? What do you mean there wasn’t a duel in the first episode? Oh, well, hahaha…..
Episode 1 primarily serves as an expository world-building info dump. The show spends so much time introducing characters and motives that I was honestly beginning to question if I was in fact watching a Yu-Gi-Oh! show. After all, it usually takes the franchise at least a dozen episodes to really start getting into plot in its series, but VRAINS appears to be trying to pull viewers in from the start. Hopefully this means we don’t have to sit through twenty-something episodes of Kattobingu or hippos.
Yusaku himself is a refreshing protagonist. He takes on Yusei’s more serious nature, but he’s characterized as being less bland (and less friendly) than our Neo Domino City denizen. Unlike Yuya, Yuma, and Judai, Yusaku uses dueling as a tool for fighting evil and does not actually enjoy dueling. (Yuya would go ballistic.) Not only does this make him a unique protagonist right off the bat but it also outlines a path for his growth. Unfortunately, that growth seems like it might be similar to Yuya’s force-fed “egao” (smiles) ideals, but we’ll see.
Besides Yusaku, the major players appear to be Zaizen, an important figure within SOL Technologies, the company in control of the data network, and Revolver, a leader within the Knights of Hanoi. Also important seem to be the Charisma Duelists Go and Aoi, but we really didn’t get to learn much about them yet. (No, I don’t know what Charisma Duelists are either.) The AI program Ignis seems to be this series’ version of Atem/Yubel/Astral/Yuto, as by the end of the episode, it’s more or less stuck with Yusaku indefinitely. Honestly I’m kind of worn-out on the “partner” concept, but there’s really nothing to be done about that except hope the writers can put some kind of spin on it. I am curious if it’s the one who’s been spying on Yusaku through all the cameras, which seems likely given that it witnessed Yusaku as Playmaker defeat a Knight of Hanoi. Yusaku’s eager classmate Naoki and his informant Soichi also appear to be primary characters who will at some point gain importance (or, you know, just be along for the ride like Gongenzaka and Sawatari in Arc-V). There’s still another character or two from the opening who have yet to appear, so we’re not quite done introducing our main cast just yet. Pretty much everyone is in their late teens or an adult like in 5D’s, a fact that will likely help the series take itself seriously in episodes to come instead of sidetracking with silly antics too often. So if you liked 5D’s but ZeXal and Arc-V fell kinda flat for you in their early tones, this is looking to be your jam.
On a sort of aside, are we really going to use the chess motif again? Zaizen talks to his superior Bishop, represented on a giant digital chess board by the roo-, I mean bishop. We spent so long in Arc-V watching Jean-Michel Roger move pieces around his chess board, and it ultimately seemed like a random character trait with no importance behind it. The pieces on the board never really amounted to anything. If VRAINS is going to recycle this motif, I hope it actually makes it meaningful.
VRAINS, in its animation and art styles, seems somewhat like a combination of 5D’s and ZeXal. It’s not as flashy or crisp as Arc-V, but it still maintains that sleek vividness present from ZeXal onward while maintaining a more grounded and somber color palette (if you ignore Yusaku’s hair, that is). Some character models and scenes are animated inconsistently, both in terms of the world around them and just their own movements (what was with that sequence of Yusaku jumping into the back of the truck? It was almost like slow-mo.). Naoki’s appearance and the way he moves both seem more fitting for a more comedic show as opposed to one with this kind of serious tone, and his facial animations just look really off-model at times. Please let him mesh better in the future. (And is there a reason why he looks like a recycled version of Teppei from Arc-V? Seriously, they look almost identical.)
One somewhat annoying thing is the fact that characters in the background were often static. Yusaku would be talking while randoms behind him failed to budge an inch, even though they appeared to be in the process of an action. This sort of low production quality in just the first episode is worrisome, as it could mean even more lazy designs down the road. I appreciate the one background guy who literally just walked all the way across the screen, though. At least the animators are trying in some places, though a more consistent effort would be appreciated.
I had a little difficulty identifying what was digital and what was not throughout the episode. When Hanoi launches its attack, people start getting deleted from the virtual world. I’m not entirely sure if that was just VRAINS or a more general digital setting. People were running in what I thought was the real world too. So. I have no idea. I guess what I want to know is if VRAINS is the only part of the virtual world, or if it is merely a subsection. I realize there was only so much info that could be fit into the first episode, so this should become clearer in future episodes.
Ignoring the fact that there was no real duel during this episode, VRAINS is off to a solid start, with characters and plot already being set in motion, which is rare for the franchise. The series needs to spend a little more time explaining how its world works, but that’s sure to come in future episodes. I’d recommend anyone looking for a more mature Yu-Gi-Oh! show akin to 5D’s check this out. Yu-Gi-Oh! shows are known to employ slow burn approaches (to the extreme), so the show is only going to keep getting better.