The first episode of Arknights: Prelude to Dawn absolutely shook me with its slick direction, ambitious cinematic vision, and gritty storytelling. I’d never played a single minute of the Arknights mobile game and had no idea what to expect, but after just one episode, I was ready to call it the most artistically successful gacha game adaptation ever.
The allure wears off after the first few episodes, however. The villains start coming off as cartoonish, and a meandering plotline bogs down the second half. Although the general plot and vibe of the setting get across quite clearly, most of the characters beyond Amiya and Misha ultimately come off as underdeveloped by the end. The end result is still an anime that punches well above its weight, but it’s not necessarily a must-watch for non-players.
To be fair, Arknights was always going to have some trouble finding its footing outside the mobile gaming niche. One of its most divisive elements is the sheer contrast between its goofy animal girl character designs and the grim post-apocalyptic war story it’s trying to tell. For what it’s worth, I think the character designs are a big appeal. There’s a consistency to their designs, and their clothing blends in well with the overall aesthetic. There’s also something to be said for a script that takes itself seriously, not allowing any fourth-wall-breaking humor to slip through. If no one in the story is batting an eyelid at how the characters look, why should you?
Another potentially off-putting factor is the point-of-view character, called the Doctor. They’re a character of ambiguous gender, a characteristic deftly portrayed through Yuki Kaida‘s excellent voice acting. The story opens with the Doctor discovering they’re an amnesiac, allowing Amiya to provide exposition on the setting without disrupting the narrative flow. Apparently, the Doctor’s role is central to the overall plot, but it’s not exactly evident in the anime so far. Even after 10 episodes, the Doctor mostly comes across as a passive character to whom Amiya explains things instead of actively participating in the events. That kind of character might work well enough in a video game context, but they sorely lack screen presence for an anime.
Despite those obvious game-like elements, however, the story holds up surprisingly well as an anime. The core plot, which revolves around a society torn apart by natural disasters and a mysterious illness, is genuinely compelling. Amiya’s empathy and hopeful attitude lends an emotional core to what could easily be a miserable kind of story. Although there are a few too many proper nouns for my liking, the setting is immersive and well-developed, with areas like Chernobog and Lungmen having their own unique vibe.
The production values add a lot to the appeal. The storyboarding and direction are strikingly confident; the anime uses letterboxing consistently to give off a film-like atmosphere. Even when the animation becomes stiff in later episodes and the emphasis shifts from action to dialogue-heavy scenes, the character art always remains sharp. The immaculate background art and polished compositing work throughout the anime mean that there’s never a frame in Arknights: Prelude to Dawn that actively looks bad. It’s a strong showing for young director Yuki Watanabe and Yostar Pictures; the latter has been producing flashy anime cutscenes and promo videos for Yostar games, but this anime proves that it has the chops to handle TV shows too.
While far from perfect, Arknights: Prelude to Dawn is a strong example of a mobile game anime adaptation. Both its source material and its animation team are evidently a cut above the crowd. The anime still suffers from the limitations of its format, but that doesn’t stop it from being a perfectly entertaining anime in its own right. If you’re a fan of the game or just curious about the Arknights franchise in general, this is definitely worth a look.