Since I mentioned Bofuri in the Friday Flotsam before last, I realized that I was due to give it a rundown. And since I’ve just come off of a re-watch over the past weekend (it’s very short: only twelve episodes in the first season), now seems the time.
Teenaged Kaede has never really played video games before, much less a state-of-the-art virtual-reality MMORPG like New World Online. But her best friend, Risa, is an enthusiastic gamer and insists on her buying it so that they can play together. Risa gets herself grounded just after they buy the game, but she urges Kaede to get a head start, resulting in her breaking into the game free of guidance. She picks the name ‘Maple’ for herself (simply the English translation of her own name) and, not quite understanding how games work and is anxious not to get hurt, she puts all her starting skill points into ‘vitality’ (defense) and selects the Great Shielder class. This results in her being slow as molasses, with feather-light attacks and a minuscule amount of health and magic, but also effectively invulnerable to normal damage.
As it turns out, the developers never thought of someone doing that (one of the running gags of the series is that New World Online is a pretty poorly designed game that is easy to exploit). Through a combination of her extreme durability and out-of-the-box thinking, Maple ends up stumbling her way into several more feats that raise her defense even higher. Then more. And more. By the time Risa (who takes the name Sally) is able to join the game, Maple’s become powerful enough to defeat hoards of other players in the first in-game event and has developed a growing fanbase on account of her unpredictable play style and cute, friendly personality.
From there it’s mostly just Maple and Sally exploring the game, fighting bosses, solving challenges, and making friends. All the while, Maple finds ever more ways to break the game and the developers (seen periodically as plushy avatars) scramble to keep up with her growing power set.
And, really, that’s it. It’s just two cute girls playing a video game, one of whom repeatedly stumbles into exploits and secrets that make her ever more unstoppable. The stakes are extremely low: everyone knows it’s a game and treats it as such, no one’s really mean or unpleasant outside of employing ruthless tactics during PvP events. There’s no villain to fight, no great problem to solve, nothing but a chance to have fun and make friends.
Personally, I’m okay with that. Sometimes you just want to kick back and enjoy the premise of a show without any real drama or heavy action. Besides which, the light-hearted and consequence-free tone presents a hilarious contrast with the downright savage tactics Maple and the others sometimes employ. The story never loses sight of the fact that these are just kids playing a game, which means that there’s no contradiction whatever between Maple magically paralyzing hoards of people before drowning them all in poison and being an adorably sweet girl who doesn’t have a malicious or vindictive bone in her body. It also leads to a lot of amusing gags, like how Mii, a skilled player who role-plays as a charismatic war-leader will sometimes break character and start crying like the immature teenager she really is when things go wrong.
(Most episodes also end with a shot of the game message boards as players – including Maple’s self-professed fan club, ‘The Guardians of Fort Maple’ – discuss Maple’s latest insanity. These require some rapid use of the pause button to read the subtitles – the show is dubbed, but the text is still all Japanese – but are usually well worth it: “I’m so glad I died early so I can watch this!”)
I have a great fondness for absurdly overpowered characters – when they’re done well. Maple is a solid example of how to make a character like that and have her still be fun to watch. Mostly this has to do with the aforementioned sweetness. She’s just a flat-out nice person, as well as being really cute, which means both that it’s really funny to watch her laying waste to whole armies and that we’re entirely in favor of her having the power to overcome any obstacles set in her way.
There’s also the fact that, janky mechanics and often ridiculous luck not withstanding, Maple’s success isn’t just accidental. She’s shown to be actually very intelligent and she excels at thinking of creative ways to use and combine her powers so as to make the most of them. Like, at one point she gets a magic turtle pet and the opportunity to select two new abilities. She selects two seemingly mundane powers that, when combined, allow her to ride on the turtle’s back as it flies through the sky, thus compensating for her abysmal walking speed. She then demonstrates the ability to create poisonous rain by wiping out a herd of in-game cattle.
(Oh, the name of Maple’s turtle? Syrup.)
And, despite Maple’s overwhelming power, the show nevertheless does manage to actually challenge her at several points. Like when she and Sally go up against a giant bird boss equipped with attacks that bypass defensive stats (and which, we later learn, was actually designed to be unbeatable) and just barely manage to win. Or at the end of the first season when she ends up fighting Payne – a veteran player many times her level and considered the best in the game – after she’s already used up most of her skills and with her teammates on the line.
(On the other hand, a giant kraken boss designed to be similarly invulnerable gets defeated in a hilariously anticlimactic, but perfectly logical fashion).
Sally, for her part, is a more conventional player than Maple (she opts for a speedy ‘Swashbuckler’ class with zero defense in deliberate contrast to Maple, and by the end of the series is nearly as feared by the other players as Maple is). She’s more aggressive and extroverted than the reserved Maple, presenting a pleasant contrast, especially since their easy-going interactions makes their friendship very charming. Sally’s also much more competitive and eager to engage in PvP, but she’s still a perfectly nice person, even if her raids on other players often end up taking on the tone of a horror movie. Which, again, is part of the fun.
Though I also like how, for all Sally’s skill and tough sportsgirl persona, she’s still reduced to a quivering wreck whenever there’s a ghost-themed level.
There’s also the fact that, though the gameplay of New World Online is an amusingly broken mess, the world has some pretty impressive locations. Most of it is fairly generic Medieval fantasy stuff, but there are some nicely fantastic landscapes and one or two hidden areas of striking, almost painterly beauty (like a secret sunset area full of sunflowers that’s perpetually kept at sunset hour). The monsters are likewise entertainingly creative.
Apart from Maple and Sally, I can’t say any of the other characters are especially memorable, but they’re pleasant enough company. Mii has some amusing dimensions, as note. Payne also turns out to be surprisingly likable in his easy-going behavior and good sportsmanship outside of the PvP battles. I also rather liked Marcus, one of Mii’s teammates: a ‘trapper’ class who is perpetually morose and dismissive of his own contributions to the team.
That’s kind of the sum total of the show; it isn’t brilliant or moving or gripping or anything, it’s just fun. Light, pleasant entertainment about good-natured characters playing a game together.
Honestly, I feel like some writers – myself included – sometimes forget that this sort of thing is even an option. Not every story needs real stakes, not every story needs tension or depth. Sometimes it’s enough to just take an amusing premise and try to do as many fun things with it as you can. I’m definitely looking forward to the second season.