The Fall 2023 anime season is kicking off and we’re here to tell you that there are already going to be a few standout, must-watch shows. However, they’re not just the returning, established anime fans might expect, as new series carve out stellar first impressions. In a world crammed full of VRMMORPG and Isekai tropes, will Shangri-La Frontier stand out above the chaff in our review of Episode 1?
Some of the Smartest Infusions of Game Mechanics With Anime Storytelling
Shangri-La Frontier aims to entertain and entice viewers as soon as possible by introducing you to a gamer protagonist who falls into a specific niche. Rakuro Hizutome is a gamer who enjoys the rapid influx of games but focuses his attention on completing the buggiest, trashiest games on the market.
Rakuro is jokingly referred to as a “freak” for his hobby but the anime is onto something here. Some of the most popular gaming YouTubers out there are those who play the worst games imaginable for the entertainment of their viewers. There’s also a genuine feeling of accomplishment in beating a broken, unplayable game. Think of somebody seeking out a copy of E.T. on Atari and wanting to complete it.
But this show doesn’t stop there. Instead of setting up shop at the in-universe trash game “Faeria Chronicle Online” or “Failia” as it’s nicknamed, Rakuro is given a chance to play a beloved modern game as a palate-cleanser. Instead of settling for enjoying a game so buggy it lets him kick the annoying NPC companion in the face (think Ashley Graham but she runs over pedestrians with her cart) Rakuro can enjoy a robust game. This comes in the form of Shangri-La Frontier, the eponymous series’ featured fictional game.
On the surface, it seems like another full-dive VRMMORPG like in Sword Art Online, but this time we see a veteran trash game player taking his particular spin on starting in this venerated hit. When he boots up this game, he is stunned by the absence of clipping through walls, poor hitboxes, and other common bugs, but has developed a unique amount of skill and finesse through playing these titles.
By choosing to sell off his gear in the character creation menu (fully animated, very entertaining to watch if you like AAA RPGs) Rakuro can afford better gear earlier on. He has tackled the buggiest, most infuriating games imaginable, and it has only served to expand his skill repertoire while also appreciating the joy of a good game.
This results in some of the smartest infusions of game mechanics with anime storytelling I’ve seen in a long time, possibly ever. It’s much more than the comical novelty of seeing modern games referenced in this episode, with just enough editing in the title on their posters to not technically cause copyright issues. But if you’re in it for a good easy laugh, keep your eyes peeled for “Comic Frontiers” and “Elder Ring”.
Shangri-La Frontier Doesn’t Overload Us With Main Characters in the First Episode
Shangri-La Frontier doesn’t overload us with the main characters in the first episode, focusing largely on Rakuro and what makes him operate. He’s funny, savvy with knowledge of what makes a good game, and more importantly what makes a terrible game still fun to play, and is always up to the challenge. This gains him a bizarre amount of respect, and the admiration of Rei Saiga, a demure fellow student at Rakuro’s school.
SLF also brilliantly illustrates Rakuro’s reasoning for why he creates his character in the game. It demonstrates his awareness of playing among others online, yet allowing himself to build a character from the ground up exactly as he plans. This is beyond his investment of some Stamina and a ton of Luck points, explaining that he chooses to forego cumbersome armor, sell it, and keep the money to get better weapons instead. Clad only in shorts, he wears a comical bird mask to conceal his face. He’s agile and prioritizes critical hits, and if he were less likable, you could reasonably call him a power gamer.
If you stick around for the full episode and the post-credits scene, you see some intriguing new characters soon to join the fray, namely Psyger-0. We’ll let you fill in the blanks on their identity, though.
A World That Feels Dynamic and Carefully Animated
Studio C2C outdid themselves in this show. While it certainly feels less like a classic anime or other animated feature with how scenes occasionally look rendered via CGI, it isn’t done excessively. The world inside and outside the game of Shangri-La Frontier is a world that feels dynamic and carefully animated.
The world pulls you in just as it does for Rakuro. Characters have an impressive range of motion making battle scenes exciting, especially with the anime’s kickass soundtrack. In a lot of ways, this is an anime worth following.
Killer Beats Help Keep Every Moment Entertaining in SLF
A good anime lives on in both its most iconic moments, and its beloved music. The first major impression Shangri-La Frontier gives is in the form of its opening theme, “Broken Games” by FZMZ, and it is a lethal banger. It also lays down the pulsing beats during a battle. But it knows when to pull back, having comedic xylophone tunes for lighter moments, and sweeping orchestral tracks for when Rakuro drinks in the scenery.
Much like the most wonderful modern game soundtracks, it doesn’t pull attention away from the anime. Killer beats help keep every moment entertaining in SLF. The music enhances the anime by using an infusion of multiple styles to fit the mood like something out of Xenoblade Chronicles 3.
Another Unique Home Run Based on a Manga by Kodansha
I’ll never allow myself to gloss over when an anime is adapted from Kodansha properties. Some of the most iconic anime ever made hail from this fantastic Japanese publisher, and naturally, Shangri-La Frontier is another unique homerun based on a manga by Kodansha. However, one neat aspect about this anime is that it was greenlit before the manga copies even took off with the public in 2020. It’s clear that this anime was seen to have great potential, and you know what? They’re right.
If you haven’t guessed, Shangri-La Frontier, with just Episode 1 in review, has taken an early spot as my Fall 2023 anime to beat. It’s hilarious, smart, well-animated, and has great music, all ingredients of a fantastic anime. While we have to see if the magic stays alive for Episode 2, this sits with Zom 100 and Oshi no Ko as one of the strongest first impressions an anime has made so far this year.
This review of Shangri-La Frontier Episode 1 was made using a screener provided by Crunchyroll. SLF premiered on Sunday, October 1, 2023, at 2:00 AM PT, and is available to stream on Crunchyroll.