(No major spoilers)
Season 1: B+
A group of friends are in modern-day Tokyo when almost the entire population suddenly vanishes. Either the people have disappeared or the friends have been transported to some kind of alternate reality. The friends share the empty city with a small number of other people who are in the same boat; these survivors soon discover that they are conscripted players in a serious of lethal, brutal, and often sadistic games.
During the day the city is completely without power and the players must scavenge supplies and shelter from the empty stores. Every night large billboards light up and direct players to one of several game arenas. Game instructions are read aloud by a dispassionate robot voice and major game events are announced by the same voice.
If a player refuses to play a game then a laser shoots out of the sky and instantly kills them. If a player tries to leave a game arena or break the game rules then a laser kills them. Some games are filled with deadly traps, some require players to kill others to survive, and in some the losing team is killed once the game is over.
As an example, the first game puts the players in a room and presents them with a choice of two exit doorways with no clear difference between them. Players going through the wrong doorway get space-lasered. Players going through the correct doorway are faced with the same choice again - and again, and again. Players must either make a choice at random or try to discover some sort of clue or pattern.
Each game is unique and interesting. Some challenges are more physical, others more mental, and others more psychological. It's a bit like Survivor crossed with Hunger Games.
The drama is instantly gripping and visceral because one wrong move could be deadly, and the show kills off enough major characters to keep the tension high. The fact that the games are moderated by emotionless AI just adds to the creepy, nightmarish feel of the dystopian hellworld.
What really sealed the deal for me to continue watching was that the main character has a heroic core and has appropriate emotional reactions to the horror of what he's experiencing and participating in.
I do have two big gripes with Season 1.
First, the show really bungles the character of the heroine / love interest. Half the time she's a total badass and half the time she's a helpless bystander or victim; whatever the script needs her to be in the moment.
Second, there are a number of over-the-top action sequences that spoil the otherwise realistic feel of the show. Like the amateur driver of a city transit bus does a hard 90º turn by slamming on the brakes and spinning the wheel! Nope, nope, ain't buyin' it.
Still, Season 1 builds to an epic and very satisfying finale. A number of additional characters and concepts get seeded in throughout the eight episodes that become pivotal elements in the end and we get a glimpse behind the curtain at what's really going on. Very compelling, fairly tight, very well done story progression.
Season 2: C-
Season 2 the show changes up Season 1's winning formula and the result is a net negative:
- Various aspects of Season 2 are long-winded and/or pretentious, per the following points.
- In Season 1 there was 1 game per episode. In Season 2 most games stretch out across two or even three episodes (out of eight!) and so each episode has a lazy cliffhanger ending of players just being in the middle of a game.
- The rules about how frequently players need to participate in a game totally go out the window and characters seem to just wander around freely. Those rules were an integral part of Season 1 and added a lot of tension.
- The characters are suddenly waxing philosophic and they spend a lot of time monologuing their mediocre internal dialog aloud, things along the lines of ~"I'm going to survive, no matter what", "I won't be weak any longer", and "Only by playing the games do we discover what it truly means to be alive" (all paraphrased).
- A particularly corny moment was when it looks like the good guy team has lost against the enemy team - which happens literally every time - and the cliffhanger ending has the good guys saying ~"Why bother continuing to try? We've lost. Might as well give up and accept death." (paraphrased). Well guess what? Minor spoiler: at the beginning of the next episode they decide to keep trying even if it looks almost hopeless.
- Whenever enemy players lose a team game they are far too glib about it. For some reason they don't get space-lasered until they've had a chance to philosophize about their fate and how they're totally cool with it.
- There is way too much moody filler: characters walking in desolate areas, characters sitting and looking pensive, meaningful glances back and forth and back and forth, etc. It's fine in small doses but they lean on it hard. By the end of the show I got pretty good at skipping ahead like 30 seconds at a time to skip all the boring stuff.
- The main guy and his love interest spend literally the entire two seasons being infatuated with each other but also being awkward and shy and never willing to make a move. In a setting where each day could realistically be their last it just makes zero sense not to take it to the next level. Way more frustrating than cute.
- In the Season 2 finale the show does explain what's really going on and wraps everything up, but the ending sucks! It's pretty absurd and a lot of things about the story just don't add up in that context. I feel like it's one of those situations where the writer or writers (probably of the original manga) looked at all the excellent fan theories about what was really going on and decided to make the big reveal be something different just to be contrary.
Season 1 is definitely worth watching. If you watch it then you'll want to watch Season 2, which is disappointing. My overall rating: C+.