Episode 1 -| Review Score – 4/5
Episode 2 -| Review Score – 4/5
Episode 3 -| Review Score – 4/5
Episode 4 -| Review Score – 4/5
Episode 5 -| Review Score – 3.5/5
Episode 6 -| Review Score – 3.5/5
Episode 7 -| Review Score – 4/5
Episode 8 -| Review Score – 3.5/5
Alice In Borderland feels like a colourful, vibrant patchwork of different shows and films. There’s elements of 28 Days Later, Sword Art Online, The Purge, Saw and even live-action animes here too.
On paper, this feels like a recipe for disaster as different influences pull in all directions, threatening to tear at the seams. In reality, Alice In Borderland is a robust, well-written, surprisingly decent sci-fi treat that’s well worth its weight in gold.
The premise is simple and revolves around the hook of a group of kids stuck inside a weird alternate-reality world. Deadly games of life and death are played in exchange for playing cards, which are referred to as visas in this twisted dystopian world.
The numbers on each card correspond to the number of days you have left to live. The more cards you collect, the more days you can survive. With a possible game-master pulling the strings, kids are killed off in quick succession for either expired visas or by dying inside the games. And the kill-count is extremely high.
Stepping into this unforgiving world are three life-long friends, computer kid Arisu, his ladies-man friend Karube and tag-along Chota. Together, they step into this world and immediately realize their lives are at stake. The first episode serves up a delightful starter; a palette cleanser designed to get accustomed to the games and the world in general.
Across the rest of the season we’re introduced to another protagonist, Usagi. A competent climber and clearly intelligent, she eventually teams up with Arisu and the others to try and escape this nightmarish world. Each episode essentially works to showcase a different game, with a structured episodic feel interwoven around a serialized story about the world and its mysteries hidden within.
Toward the middle portion of episodes, the series draws influence from 28 Days Later and sees our survivors banding together to face a greater threat than they ever imagined. I won’t spoil what that is here but suffice to say the second half slows slightly to show the real horror is humanity itself when faced with these desperate choices.
Everything eventually spills over in a spectacular, bloody penultimate episode before a very dramatic climax ends things with a cliffhanger ready for a second season which – as of the time of writing – has not been renewed.
What’s particularly great about Alice In Borderland though is just how ruthless this show actually is. Main characters are killed off, numerous supporting players come and go while through it all the games steadily become more intense and deadly. This combination leads to some seriously dramatic moments, including one where Arisu and the others are forced to outrun a threat to make it onboard a bus.
Another time, the kids are stuck in a deadly game of tag across an apartment complex with a safe room hidden somewhere within the numerous floors. Unfortunately, the taggers are armed with machine guns and hunt their prey mercilessly. These games all feel unique and play on video-game inspired challenges in a way that feels very real and very dangerous.
Some of the reason Alice In Borderland works as well as it does comes from the sound design. Pockets of silence are perfectly juxtaposed against more pulsating, adrenaline-soaked anthems and this balance feeds into the larger story and world-building in a big way.
This continues right the way through the show too and hats off to the audio team, they’ve really done a fantastic job with this one. For obvious reasons, it’s recommended not to watch the dubbed version of this as the original Japanese is far more authentic.
If there’s one part of the show that slips up, it’s the characterization for the supporting characters. Because of how quickly players come and go in this series, it’s very difficult to grow attached to anyone outside a couple of main protagonists The show creators seem to realize this too and throughout the different episodes, numerous flashbacks show us the troubled past these men and women have faced. It’s a nice idea in theory but the execution is a little disappointing given we never quite get attached to anyone.
The one stand-out from this rabble of flashes comes from Kunai, who has an absolutely fascinating past and a really solid redemptive arc across the episodes she stars in. I won’t spoil what the twist is surrounding her character but suffice to say it’s a big point toward inclusivity and a great example of how to portray strong characters in the right way.
The 8 episodes are incredibly addictive though and no doubt you’ll probably find yourself blasting through this in a couple of evenings. The action is fast-paced and the various different influences behind this creation bleed through an air of nostalgia. The cliffhanger ending is a little disappointing though and hopefully we don’t have to wait too long to find out if this has been renewed.
All in all though, Alice In Borderland is a welcome surprise to end the year with and certainly one of the better sci-fi series of 2020.