Alright, I’ll be real here. I owe an apology and a warning beforehand to everyone who did enjoy this show, but in the end, this is simply my honest opinion about a show I invested a bit too much hope and expectations in when it first aired back in May 2017.
As someone who has followed the Yugioh franchise ever since I was in middle school, I can honestly say, without a shred of reconsideration, that this Yugioh installment was perhaps the most disappointing, if not the worst, installment out of all the anime series up to date, and probably one of the most underwhelming anime series in general that I watched up to date.
(P.S. THERE WILL BE A FEW SPOILERS.)
So exactly what is this show? Well, Yu-Gi-Oh! VRAINS, or simply known as VRAINS, is the fifth spin-off series of the Yugioh franchise, and actually the ninth overall. It was made as a means to introduce, familiarize, and promote the then-new Link Summoning format to the countless anime followers. Initially directed by Masahiro Hosoda for the first 13 episodes, the director role was abruptly switched to Katsuya Ayano for episode 14 and onward. It is animated by Studio Gallop, whom are well known for their role in nearly all the other Yugioh series, and directed Shin Yoshida, another all-too-familiar face in this trading card game franchise.
The anime series takes place in an alternate timeline/universe in an urban setting called Den City, where virtual reality space, under the official name of LINK VRAINS, is a commodity and normality for the people. In this VR space, users can customize their avatars and participate in Duels against each other, so from the get-go, the show is basically the Sword Art Online version of Duel Monsters. The story follows a young man named Yusaku Fujiki, who goes under the alias and avatar of “Playmaker” and gets involved in the underlying conflict and revelations of LINK VRAINS, and in the process, meets and teams up with an extremely peculiar self-aware artificial intelligence program, whom he then calls Ai. The show’s theme is to “Take a step forward, and try!”, on the assertion that kids should try things out instead of just giving up easily after the first try due to feeling overwhelmed by the challenge ahead.
This’ll be rather long. However, considering the sudden change of directors early on in the show, I should’ve known where this story’s direction was headed right then and there. Even the apparent supervising of Katsuya’s directing by Tatsuo Satou, who’s directed shows like Martian Successor Nadesico and Lord of Vanadis, wasn’t enough, apparently.
The initial premises of VRAINS are pretty much fairly similar to the likes of the aforementioned Sword Art Online series (though more so the Alicization arcs) and other virtual reality MMO shows like the Hack series, Accel World, and King’s Avatar. The aforementioned shows have a collective focus on both the virtual and real world, drawing the link between the two realities. The settings initially get interesting as the show goes along with all the revelations regarding the underlying forces and events going on that was supposed to ultimately add more structure to the story. However, as the series progresses, the show proceeds to ignore certain aspects of the story that should’ve been made more relevant.
For example, Dueling in LINK VRAINS has two options: Speed Dueling or Master Dueling, and being similar to the Action Duels in Yugioh Arc-V, Dueling in LINK VRAINS is supposed to bring the high risk of physical and/or psychological harm to individuals, which doesn’t exclude the possibility of death. That aspect is quite similar to the dangers during the Aincrad and Alicization arc of Sword Art Online, though to a rather limited extent. Because of this, nearly every single Duel featured in the show should feel like actual high stakes made; however, there was little consequence from this important plot element, as the show pretty much drags and brings most of the attention to the main conflict of each arcs. As a result, the feeling of high stakes from just Dueling in VR, even on Speed Duels where the players are literally surfboarding on “data currents” several meters, just seems nonprevalent, and any brushes with danger don’t actually result in severe or long-lasting consequences, anyways.
VRAINS also seems to be on one hell of a short end in terms of worldbuilding. While Yugioh shows aren’t exactly the best in worldbuilding compared to most other popular anime franchises, VRAINS seems to try way too hard in terms of trying to establish and explain its settings, as opposed to naturally letting the worldbuilding conduct itself with the story narrative. Instead of utilizing the freedom to dive further into other notable plot elements that would help give a better siegeway from Point A to Point B, VRAINS devotes nearly all the focus on the current conflict at hand, only briefly mentioning major key terms here and there. There is no further diving into how and why LINK VRAINS was made. There’s not enough explained context on the hi-tech aspects of the world. There is no in-depth exploration and explanation on other terms and plot elements like Data Storm, Storm Access, Link Sense, The Deleted, and the company SOL Technologies as well as the androids produced by them. We end up being left asking and resorting to assumptions a lot more often than not, which is not really a good thing most of the time.
The lack of explanations, as well as the questionable writing of the characters, makes the storytelling feels quite soulless and rather pretentious, as with each arc, it tries too hard to set up the conflict without properly building it up or fleshing out other important plot elements more. The separate arcs themselves are rather rinse-and-repeat, where it always just ends up with the main protagonist having to deal with the main threat himself while tossing practically every other character to the sidelines. While the setups in Yugioh 5Ds and VRAINS are not that much different (considering Shin Yoshida being responsible for the series composition of both shows), the former functions extremely well because it was able to establish other aspects and characters in the shows that are not immediately tied to the main conflict at hand, thus allowing for a far superior buildup. VRAINS does not really give itself such a padding because the roles of characters not named Yusaku / Playmaker are part of some self-contained subplots that actually don’t contribute anything beyond an overly sappy backstory and a halfhearted reason to be involved in the main plot in the first place.
Two additional things I should add. First off, the story also seems to feel extremely dragged out due to how it handles the action and dialogue. Like seriously, there is SO MUCH tedious dialogue and exposition in the middle of nearly all the Duels. Turns can feel like they last forever, and dialogue and attempts at emotional impact get rather pretentious like it’s some soap arena. Why must a show from a franchise I really loved...become a soap opera and somehow feel boring, broken, and dragged out all at the same time? Second and lastly, the lighthearted comedy misses A LOT. It felts half-hearted, awkward, and out-of-place. The characters initiating the humor feel like they’re trying way too hard to be funny and be a running gag. While I’m kinda forced to get used to Ai’s cases, other characters like the derp-ass Banjo Kazooie pair (okay, it’s just two people whose avatars are a frigging frog and a pigeon...lul) and Naoki are practically insufferable.
ANIMATION AND SOUND: 5/10 and 4/10
There’s nothing particularly special about the animation and soundtracks overall, but not necessarily bad, either. The 3D designs for the Monsters are quite alright, and the new Summon animation designs for Synchro and Xyz Summoning are pretty cool. The 2D animation can range from adequate to subpar depending on the episode, as each one is usually animated by a different individual or group. The characters designs are average and there’s not much to really divulge into beyond the typical Yugioh character design tropes (aka funky-ass hairdos).
The soundtracks in this show feel like they’re trying way too hard to be grandiose overall. This is likely due to the entire story itself being rather underwhelming in terms of the showcasing. As a result, you get this out-of-place trumpet-filled instrumentals in otherwise very underwhelming scenes. Like honestly, the OST from the Hack series would’ve better fit this show in all honesty. The lone great soundtrack was Yusaku’s theme, as it does come in timely fashion during the more climactic parts of the show. Otherwise, it’s only really good by itself. The voice acting is rather subpar, as it feels like the characters are trying too hard to be sound serious most of the time. There is no strong sense of flexibility and variety in the voices to where it would feel more natural as the characters interact with one another or express emotions during the melodrama parts. As a result, the sound aesthetics feel very disjointed.
I can’t really call these guys characters. They’re more like husks. There was so much groundwork in their backstories and ongoing subplots to where the cast members could’ve turned out as great characters. However, the development feels extremely hollow and not genuine, and ends up tossed to the side, anyways, as the characters other than Yusaku and Ai get tossed aside like fodder. What’s really sad is that every following arc tries to build back up these characters, but it ends up forced, contrived, pretentious, and unnatural. They might as well be just robots, as their composition ends up extremely dry and half-baked. I’m pretty sure the story would’ve went on fine without introducing them in the first place.
Yusaku as a character is extremely bland and tasteless. He is basically an epitome of a Gary Stu protagonist. He has not been put in a position of genuine struggle or hardship. He doesn’t really have any case of natural character development. His so-called ties with the other characters don’t even qualify as “bonds and friendship”. His initial goal for revenge becomes non-relevant in the end. The only thing he’s good at is sounding “cool” while Dueling.
Revolver, the main rival, could’ve potentially been one of the better ygo main rivals if he had more prominent roles in the following story arcs after the first one with the Hanoi Project. There isn’t even a good old final duel between him and Mister Gary Stu MC. Ai, being the secondary protagonist, didn’t have a particularly interesting role other than being that wisecracking jerk of a partner for Yusaku, so when his role switches to an antagonistic one near the end, it felt extremely disjointed, as the setup for it was not a very well drawn-out one.
Being a rather devoted Yugioh fan, I can understand the production value issues the show encountered throughout its entire airings, to where it had around four recap episodes early on (hence why I temporarily called it V-RECAPS at one point). However, due to the overall showcasing I got, I can’t exactly overlook how much it affected the series, and at the same time, it doesn’t give me enough reason to have the benefit of the doubt. I got bored by most of the duels, with the exception of the most climactic moments during the final “boss battles”. Even then, such moments are rather temporary and do not really quell out my overall boredom. I genuinely did try to find enough interest in the plot to at least if there would be any sort of good payoff in terms of story, cause I was starting to give up on the characters’ development halfway through the show. At best, the show is more like a low-value time-killer when I don’t have much else to do and watch at that moment in the day. Trying to get hyped for every episode like I did back when I watched the likes of 5Ds and Arc-V was out of the question, due to practically all the other aforementioned reasons.
VRAINS tried to be something amazing, it tried to be mature, it tried to be unique from the other spinoffs, but it just didn’t have the adequate content, depth, storywriting, and characters to even make it halfway there. Even if you’re a Yugioh fan, I honestly cannot recommend this show, and even FAR less so if you’re not even a fan of the entire franchise in general. If anything, you’re better off watching the original DM series (NOT the season 0 series, screw that one), 5Ds, and Arc V...heck, even Zexal, with all its issues, was still far more entertaining and sophisticated in terms of story and characters. VRAINS is a prime example of absolutely wasted potential, and an extremely mediocre show that otherwise gets excessively high praise by its fanbases. Again, I really apologize if I offended anyone who did love the show, cause honestly, I wanted to love this show, too. But in the end, the numerous shortcomings and flaws did in this farce of a series, and I was left with nothing except to reminisce what could’ve been.