Sunday, September 8, 2019

REVIEW: The King's Avatar, Season 1 (donghua TV series)

The King's Avatar is a Chinese animated series (donghua) focused on fictional Chinese esports - based on what I've read, it might be more accurate to call it an online series rather than a TV series. It's currently available to watch legally and for free, with English subtitles, on Tencent Video's Youtube channel. Here's a nice link to the whole playlist.

I consulted the wiki for this series for pretty much all of the names. If the names I use in this post don't match up with Tencent's subtitling, that's why.


Ye Xiu is a 25-year-old professional esports player in China, possibly the best player in the history of the MMORPG Glory. The guy who manages his team, "Excellent Era," forces him to resign as both Excellent Era's team captain and as a professional Glory player for reasons (to me, it appeared as though he was being forced to resign because his team hadn't been doing well lately and the new guy they'd lined up was more receptive to whatever the corporate folks wanted - Wikipedia tells me he was forced to resign because he didn't want to participate in any corporate sponsorship deals).

Glory is Ye Xiu's life. He's been a pro for 9 years and has been playing the game for 10. What's more, he's spent all his money helping former pros over the years. The early esports scene was particularly exploitative, encouraging young gamers to sign terrible contracts that left them with nothing once they were unable to continue playing at a professional level. And now Ye Xiu has found himself in a similar situation. With no other options, he heads to the first Internet cafe he comes across and manages to get himself a job as a night supervisor, which has the added benefit of giving him access to good gaming computers and a place to sleep. Since he was forced to give up One Autumn Leaf, the avatar he'd had for 10 years, he now devotes himself to leveling up and properly equipping his new avatar, Lord Grim.

I binge-watched this over the course of two days, and I'm not quite sure why. The series is basically 90% flashy battles, 10% characters eating junk food and staring at computers while speculating about Lord Grim's identity.

I mean, the battles were pretty decent, and most of the character designs were attractive. And the show had some of the friendly (and not-so-friendly) rivalry that I enjoy in competitive sports/games series. And I really liked the way Ye Xiu, despite being a veteran player, didn't automatically dismiss newbies. He teamed up with regular newbies several times at the beginning of the series, and gradually built up a team composed of gifted newbies and friendly pros, doling out advice and encouragement to everyone who seemed like they'd be receptive to it. Not that he was all fluffy clouds and rainbows - he enjoyed occasional bouts of trash-talking his enemies and friendly rivals, and he beat (or, on rare occasions, tied with) everyone who tried to best him so effortlessly that one team actually decided to treat him as the tenth server's most deadly boss.

Unfortunately, this show fell into the "too-strong protagonist" trap: Ye Xiu was basically unbeatable. It was possible to occasionally sort of convince yourself that he might lose, but for the most part the battles were about how Ye Xiu would win, and not whether he'd win. Because of course he was going to win. He was God Ye Qiu, after all. And the "how" wasn't usually all that interesting - the series focused more on flashy effects and cool weapons, particularly Ye Xiu's Myriad Manifestation Umbrella weapon, than on clever strategies, although it did include a few of those.

Is there any game in existence that has a weapon like the Myriad Manifestation Umbrella? Because it seemed like one of those things that no game designer would include because of its potential to be game-breaking, even if crafting it required an insane amount of rare materials. It could morph into the weaponry of several separate classes, giving Lord Grim, whose class was Unspecified, the advantages of several classes at once.

Anyway, animation-wise this tended to look pretty good during battles, but the CG animation used for crowds and background characters stuck out like a sore thumb. Also, while I thought the character designs were attractive-looking, I had trouble telling some of the characters apart and/or remembering who they were. For a while, a combination of Yu Wenzhou and Wang Jiexi's similar eye color, calm and composed personalities, relatively similar hairstyles, and my terrible grasp of Chinese names meant that I kept confusing them for each other.

So, if Season 2 is made available with an English dub, do I plan to watch it? Yeah. I liked the direction that the series seemed to be taking at the end of Season 1, with Ye Xiu realizing that, on purpose or not, he was gradually assembling a team for himself in preparation for the eventual end of his forced retirement. Although keeping some of them would involve stealing them from their current teams. Contracts and personal loyalties and such might make that difficult.

Characters I'm hoping to see more of: Bao Rongxing (avatar: Steamed Bun Invasion) and Huang Shaotian (avatars: Troubling Rain, Flowing Tree). It's weird, because they're both technically the series' most annoying characters. Bao Rongxing is a brawler who'll happily run into a fight without any kind of plan at all. Huang Shaotian is best known for his habit of talking the ear off anyone he plays against and filling screens up with chat boxes. I think what I liked about them is that they both had clearly defined personalities. Their lack of subtlety was refreshing.

Characters with the potential to be interesting: Qiao Yifan (avatar: One Inch Ash) and Luo Ji (avatar: Concealed Light). I really liked the little bit of Qiao Yifan's story that was featured in Season 1, with Ye Xiu giving him advice that helped him unlock his true potential. And Luo Ji didn't get much screentime, but he seemed like an odd mixture of gifted battle analyst and complete newbie (clumsy, no idea of how to handle being in an actual battle).

Characters I wish I'd found more interesting: Ye Xiu, Su Mucheng (avatars: Dancing Rain, Cleansing Mist), and Tang Rou (avatar: Soft Mist). Ye Xiu, for obvious reasons - the series didn't give me a good enough peek into his thoughts and emotions to find him interesting. He was just God Ye Qiu. Su Mucheng and Tang Rou were some of the series' few female characters. While I appreciated that they weren't set up to be rivals for Ye Xiu's love (the series appeared to have zero romance, despite Su Mucheng and Ye Xiu's long history together and clear affection for each other), they seemed more like character types than people. Su Mucheng was the cheerful and supportive sister-type. Tang Rou was the cool beauty.

Now, off to go look at the other playlists on Tencent Video's Youtube channel. I spy English subtitles for Mo Dao Zu Shi and The Untamed, two Chinese shows that have been getting enough buzz to make it onto my radar despite my primary focus being on Japanese or Korean shows.

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