Usually, when I pick a new anime to watch, I find something at random. Every so often, however, I'll hear a recommendation from somewhere and decide to follow it. That was the case with Overlord, a thirteen-episode series which I heard about from you guys here on this thread. On a whim, I decided to give it a whirl, even though I didn't really know anything about it except that it seemed popular here.
...thank you guys so, so much for that.
It's been quite some time since I've seen an anime that I liked as much as this one. Simply put, this show was excellent. It's rare for me (since I got streaming services) to watch a show more than once, but in this case I've gone back and watched parts of the show multiple times, just because I enjoyed it so much.
The premise of Overlord is that, a little over a century or so from now, there's an extremely popular "dive" (e.g. virtual) MMORPG that, after over a decade of popularity, is going off-line. One fellow, melancholy over losing his favorite game, decides to remain logged in until the shutdown...only to find that the world is still there after it happens, and that he's now become a part of it!
By itself, this may sound like it's no different than other shows that use the "MMORPG pulls players in" idea that underlies shows such as Sword Art Online or Log Horizon. However, there are three important differences that set Overlord apart:
1) Insofar as the protagonist (who is initially named Momonga, but changes his name to Ainz early on) is aware, he's the only person to have been brought over like this. Moreover, he's become his avatar, which is essentially a lich!
2) As a guild leader who was in his guild hall when the changeover occurred, he has his entire guild at his disposal. That is, all of the items, NPCs (who are fanatically loyal to him), and other resources that his guild - which among the pre-eminent ones at the time the game was shut down - are at his disposal from the beginning.
3) Outside of his guild, the world he's been brought into is not the world of the MMORPG. This is a different world, and its inhabitants, magic, and creatures are nowhere near as strong as what Ainz is used to from the original game. This means that he and his subordinates are essentially starting out as demigods from day one.
This backdrop sets the series, which is essentially the story of Ainz figuring out, not so much why this has happened (let alone do anything about it), but rather how to best approach the circumstances that he's found himself in. It's here that the series showcases its genius.
The reason Overlord works so well, at least in my opinion, is that it's a power-fantasy that manages to not feel gratuitous. This is actually rather hard to do, but the show adroitly manages to pull it off; rather than have its main character work very hard to eventually acquire great power (that's relegated to the backstory of his having played the MMORPG for years), the story instead has him start out with great power and then use it to work very hard.
That makes all the difference. Given that Ainz has the power to effortlessly devastate any opposition that this new world can throw at him, you'd think that this would be a fairly boring series. After all, if there's no real challenge, then it's just a show about some guy yawning as he curb-stomps opponent after opponent. But that's not what happens here. Instead, Ainz acts extremely cautiously; even when he picks up that he and his own are far stronger than anyone else, he refuses to take that for granted. This creates a sense that his victories, even when they're inevitable, are very well-earned.
To put it another way, this is the best kind of power-fantasy: one where the use of power (rather than the ends) is shown to justify its possession.
It also helps that the show is quite clearly influenced by D&D Third Edition with regards to its magic. Specifically, spells are divided into ten "tiers" (e.g. spell levels 0-9), there are metamagic effects (e.g. spells can be cast as "Maximized" or "Widened"), and there's even "super-tier" magic, which is said to be "more like a skill than a spell" (e.g. epic spellcasting). While I'm not sure that it was meant to be an easter egg per se, I couldn't help but think of it that way. To be clear, the show doesn't limit itself to D&D-style casting - it makes it its own, in terms of having spells and metamagic effects, etc., that are unique to it - but the parallels are too strong to ignore.
For all of my praise for the series, however, it does have its flaws. The major one being that the pacing in the last major arc of the series isn't able to accommodate the degree of exposition that it needs. This results in several things happening that don't quite make sense at first blush. The major ones that come to mind are:
Similarly, near the end of episode twelve, Ainz modifies a Widened wail of the banshee with a special skill of his, "The Goal of All Life is Death." Why he does this, and what that skill does, is never explained.
To be fair, these things do have explanations, you just have to look beyond the anime to find them.
What does that mean? Well, for those who don't know, Overlord is based on a series of novels. Some Googling should take you to a website where a translation team has been posting these novels in English, and if you're a fan of the anime then I strongly recommend that you do yourself a favor and go read them; they live up to the axiom of "the movie is good, the book is better." (Not to mention, that translation team has also translated the bonus materials, such as the audio dramas and the manga inserts with the Japanese disc releases.)
Currently, they've translated nine novels, which are all that have been released in Japan so far. They've announced that they won't be translating subsequent releases, however, due to the series receiving a domestic release in Spring/Summer of 2016, but what's there now is enough to make for some good, long reading (to put it in perspective, the anime covers the events of the first three novels; even if you've watched the show, I recommend reading those again to help get used to their pacing and pick up on some details overlooked in the anime).
Having said all of that, the anime still holds its own very well. Except for the issue I mentioned before, the series does a very good job of maintaining a level of excitement during its actions scenes, not in spite of knowing that Ainz and his subordinates are going to win, but because of it. They act cautiously enough that we end up rooting for them when they finally cut loose and destroy the opposition. Since the characters never become indulgent or unconcerned with what could happen, their successes still feel deserved.
Overall, Overlord was a great deal of fun, and I absolutely recommend it to anyone who thinks they may be even remotely interested in it.