By Andrew Osmond.
It’s been about two decades since the birth of MMORPGs – that’s Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, for anyone who doesn’t know. Hollywood has seen these monster Middle Earths both as a threat – they’re among the greatest media rivals to the movies – and as a property to exploit; witness last year’s divisive Warcraft film. Over in Japan, MMORPGs have inspired a whole anime sub-genre, with a Tron tendency to put players in gamelike worlds, led by Sword Art Online.
But there are loads of other ways to adapt MMORPGs to anime, and Overlord rings changes on the SAO template. First, it centres on just one character from our world, Momonga. We learn next to nothing about his non-fantasy life – just that he had no offline family or friends, and cared nothing for his job. Whereas most Sword Art Online-type shows have at least a glimpse of the boring “real” world, Overlord starts immersed in fantasy, and fantasy is where it stays.
Momonga is from the 22nd century, an age of DMMO-RPGs, or Dive Massively Multiplayer… You know. In-game players now are given a perfect illusion of being in their game-worlds, though we’re not told if this is through VR helmets, mind-expanding drugs or a calibrated bonk on the head. It doesn’t matter. The future tech is perfect, and the Warcraft of the 22nd century is Yggdrasil, in which our hero is one of the greatest players.
And he’s the bad guy, at least going by appearances. In the game, he appears as a skeleton, albeit a skeleton built like an American footballer, like He-Man’s Skeletor on steroids. In his heyday, Momonga was leader of a great online team or guild, which built an impregnable fortress called The Great Tomb of Nazarick. But now, after countless victories, Nazarick and Yggdrasil are about to be shut down. Momonga’s comrades have left him, departed to the limbo of real life. All Momonga can do is wait glumly as the last moments of the game tick away…
… and then, he’s still in the Tomb. He can’t log out. Even more weirdly, Nazarick’s large staff of NPCs – Non-Player Characters – are waiting for orders, and seem more alive than they should be. For example, just before zero hour, Momonga had whimsically changed the settings of a female NPC, Albedo, to specify she loved him; now she’s fanatically fixated on him! But she’s just one of Nazarick’s denizens, beside demons, vampires and an urbane butler who goes by the suspect name of Sebas Tian. And all of them are devoted to Momonga.
From this start, the series proceeds in two ways. Much of the fun is seeing how Momonga goes about wrangling his minions in the Tomb – though Momonga soon renames himself Ainz Ooal Gown, in honour of his old guild. Albedo is always fighting another girl, the vampiric Shalltear, for their master’s affections; they must be kept in order, while other characters need jobs that suit their status. The Great Tomb is a community in its own right, and Ainz (as we should call him) is its king and bony father.
And then there’s a huge mystery to explore. The landscape outside Nazarick has changed, as if the Tomb has been spirited from Yggdrasil to somewhere else. It’s a new world for a Dark Lord to investigate, perhaps to conquer, full of people to tremble at him. Why does this world function in ways similar to Yggdrasil? Should Ainz join in its conflicts, and on whose side? What will his choices reveal about Ainz himself?
The show switches between Ainz’s dealings with his non-human staff, and his progress in the strange new world, where many characters are “human.” In Azarick, his instinct is to treat his underlings – who he knew from his days in Yggdrasil – as people, for who he is responsible. In the outer world, Ainz tells himself the strangers he meets are tools, means to an end, pieces on a board. If his attitude seems inhuman, Ainz may not be human any more – his body certainly isn’t.
From the first couple of episodes, you might think Overlord is a comedy, focused on Ainz’s reactions to his servants in Nazarick. (There’s a moment when Ainz tests the new world’s parameters by using a willing Albedo to do something naughty – though not that naughty!) Once the world opens up, though, the tone varies much more.
There’s still plenty of humour: for example, a monster hunt starts like Princess Mononoke, but takes a very different turn when the beast is revealed. But there’s also lots of action, and some darker developments, occasionally even nodding towards Berserk. Like Ainz, it’s best if you don’t get too attached to the characters you meet.
Based on a light novel series by Kugane Maruyama, the elastic Overlord accommodates some magic flying mecha here, a fearsome warrior maid there (who shows off a novel cosplay combo: breastplate and frilly cap). A franchise in its own right, Overlord has spun off a manga series and two compilation films, while a second TV series is in the pipeline. But perhaps the real sign of success for an otherworld epic will be when it spins off an MMORPG of its own…
Overlord is released on UK Blu-ray by Funimation.