Talk to that pretty girl sitting over there and potentially face rejection or sit here and knock out a few more levels of this video game?...if this is a question you often ask yourself, then boy do I have a show for you. Gaming takes on real-world consequences in The World God Only Knows which proves to be a sly take on the harem subgenre of anime. It bothers to set up a fairly interesting premise and is moderately successful whenever it actually manages to stay on point (which isn't often enough).
Keima Katsuragi is known as the God of Conquests because he has a way with women. Alright, that may be overstating the matter. He has a way with virtual women. You see, he is an expert when it comes to playing dating sims. These video games allow the teenager to take on a wide variety of digital beauties and woo them by mashing furiously on his controller's keypad. When he's playing, he knows exactly what needs to be said and done to conquer the cold pixelated hearts of every female character he encounters. Sadly, he hasn't had much of a chance to apply his skills to real flesh-and-blood girls. His gaming life is so rich and fulfilling that he has lost all interest in the world around him.
All this changes when a perky demon named Elsie enters Keima's life. Since hell has been having trouble keeping its souls under lock and key, she has been sent to earth to capture the ones that have escaped. These rogue souls have taken up residence in the hearts of lonely, conflicted girls and the only way to evict them is to fill the girls' hearts with love. This is where Keima enters the picture. When Elsie approaches him to assist in this mission, she has no idea that his expertise doesn't extend to real girls. With some coaxing (and an exploding collar around his neck if he refuses), Keima agrees to apply everything he has learned to decidedly three-dimensional women.
Even though this particular sort of anime isn't necessarily my cup of tea (what? no robots or rogue samurai?!!...harrumph), I gave this show a fair shot and was pleasantly surprised by the early episodes. It's easy to split up the 12 episodes contained in the first season into 3 cycles of 4 episodes each. Each cycle starts with Keima helping one or two girls rid themselves of the demons squatting in their hearts. The final episode of each cycle is a nutty non sequitur that allows the writers to take off on strange tangents that are only loosely connected to our central tale.
As one can imagine, when a show follows such a strict pattern it runs the risk of feeling repetitive and episodic. This is definitely true here since all the 'dating' episodes tend to have a similar dynamic. Elsie identifies a girl with a demon in her heart; Keima antagonizes the girl to suss out her insecurities; girl overcomes said insecurities; Keima kisses girl thus evicting the demon in her heart while simultaneously erasing any memory she may have of Keima. Yeah, don't gloss over that last part. Every time a girl is 'freed' from a demon, her memory is erased effectively allowing the show to hit the reset button. Keima never has to worry about his previous conquests finding out about his current one, thus allowing him to carry on with impunity.
Since the show follows such a predictable template, it is gratifying to see that some energy has gone into developing the female protagonist of each arc. They are handled with sensitivity and given more to do than just be fan service fodder (which there is surprisingly very little of in the show considering the subject matter). Each girl has a unique issue she is trying to overcome, ranging from the athlete who doubts her physical abilities to the awkward librarian who never speaks up because she is painfully shy. Their concerns often have a basis in reality which helps ground what could have easily turned into extended flights of fancy.
To be fair, not every girl comes out smelling like roses. An entire 3 episode arc is dedicated to the whiny antics of a pop idol who feels invisible when she isn't recognized. The pathetic nature of her problem coupled with her interminable pop songs, help to torpedo the entire midsection of the season. The show recovers a bit with the librarian arc but then falls flat on its face with a wasted finale. Rather than ending on a high note, the show closes with an episode-long gag about Keima's dedication to his craft. Why play 1 dating sim at a time when he can enter God of Conquest mode and play 6 or more simultaneously? As a filler episode this would be frustrating and boring. As a season finale, it's downright infuriating.
I suspect I'll be in the minority about this but I just don't get the appeal of Keima's character. He is surly, cocky and manipulative...on a good day. While he would function perfectly as a non-essential background character, I had trouble identifying with him as the lead that I should be rooting for. At least Elsie is bubbly and sympathetic, even though her clumsy antics seem silly and clichéd. She helps balance Keima out during the first part of the season but becomes increasingly marginalized as we enter the second half.
The most consistent aspect of the show is the sense of humor on display. The writers take a meta approach to the world of gaming and the obsessions that gamers pursue to the nth degree. They get just as much mileage from poking fun at clichés as they do from the clichés themselves. This tactic doesn't always work (as evidenced by that abysmal finale) but it does indicate a sharpness of focus. With that said, I'm walking away with mixed emotions on the show itself. I actively loathed a third of the episodes presented here and took issue with the slow pacing of others. A second season of the The World God Only Knows already exists but I don't think I need to know about it.