Have you ever watched the adaptation of a video game you love and been disappointed by how poorly it translated to anime? That without a controller in your hand or interactive gameplay, everything you loved about it flattens out into mediocrity? Maybe you're a fan of the Persona series, or Danganronpa, or Phoenix Wright, and found the linearity and noninteractivity of TV just fails to capture the magic of those games. The Ones Within feels a lot like one of those disappointing adaptations, but without even having an interesting game for us to have played first.
Undoubtedly, part of my disappointment with The Ones Within stemmed from the fact that it lifted elements wholesale from games like Danganronpa and Zero Escape, two of my favorite game series of all time, but as less-interesting facsimiles. Mr. Paca, the alpaca-headed, suit-clad host of 13th Avenue, is clearly inspired by the cuddly-yet-terrifying Monokuma, and more than a couple of the high-stakes puzzles the streamers are forced to do resemble the kind of escape games that Zero Escape is known for.
At times like this, I must examine my own biases: is The Ones Within truly a bad show, or am I just mad it wasn't what I wanted it to be? It's much more lighthearted than the concept, “a group of young adults are kidnapped and forced to participate in real-life versions of video games,” would generally promise, with a lot of focus on the characters interacting and goofy slapstick. Mr. Paca isn't nearly as vulgar or threatening as Monokuma, and the games they play are just as often silly and low-stakes as they are frightening and dangerous. Is that a failing of the show, or a failing of my own expectations? Regardless of the answer to that question, I've come to the conclusion that The Ones Within just isn't very good.
The greatest and most overarching issue is the wildly shifting tone that precludes any of the overarching sense of tension or creeping dread that a story about kidnapped young adults playing fundamentally dangerous games should have. It's hard to maintain tension when their tasks go from a nearly-deadly game of Kokkuri-san (the Japanese equivalent to Ouija boards) to a childrearing simulation where they must help their afro-wearing panda schoolgirl daughter date the idol of her all-girls' school. Comic relief is one thing, but the threatening atmosphere dissipates almost the moment they finish the more potentially deadly games.
The characters rarely seem particularly concerned with getting home, either. There are a few references to their streaming numbers early on – Yuzu notes that they shot up when she flirted with Karin in the bath – but beyond that, they receive hardly a passing thought. These characters are professional streamers, a career that requires being hyper-aware of views and how to increase them. Considering their freedom rides on how many people are watching them, you'd think they'd be making a more active effort to increase their view count.
But then again, that would require the characters thinking and acting like people, which would be asking too much of The Ones Within, which comes from the “give everyone a sad backstory and hope that distracts the viewers from their lack of personality” school of character writing. Take, for example, the closest thing to a main character the show has: Akatsuki Iride, who is an obvious imitation of Danganronpa's Makoto Naegi. Like Naegi, he is optimistic and highly empathetic, which is an “unexpected” strength in a game where he's ostensibly fighting for his life. Unlike Naegi, who had to consciously fight not to succumb to his fear and despair in order to seek out a way to break the system, Akatsuki is content to drift through his life with a smile, without ever showing any sign of internal conflict beyond, “I wonder if this threatening thing will be friends with me?”
The rest of the cast operates along much the same lines, barring the occasional sob story about a dead sibling or neglectful parents. Spare me your tragic backgrounds, they will not interest me unless a character is compelling and multifaceted in other ways, with personalities beyond “shy and meek” or “yells a lot.” When the characters are so flat, it's hard to feel engaged in their supposed camaraderie. It's just not fun to watch them interact, especially since most of the comedy is just people yelling at each other. If it's loud, it must be funny, right?
The voice actors in both languages seem to do their best, but it's not like they have much to work with. I found the English track much more grating, but that may have been because, since Funimation doesn't make it an option to have both the dub and subtitles on at the same time, I had to actually listen to them instead of tuning them out and falling back on reading the subtitles.
For all its glaring flaws, the show does have some visual panache from time to time. The character designs are gimmicky, especially the boys, but they're easy enough to tell apart. The animation is mediocre, but can pull out some interesting visual tricks at times. In fact, the show is at its best when it's actually trying to be creepy, and there are episodes that would work as standalone horror shorts, including Akatsuki's run-in with the ghost in the first episode. I truly wish the show, and presumably the manga it's based on, had leaned more into the horror aesthetic, because those are the only parts where its atmosphere even comes close to compensating for its subpar script.
To add insult to injury, after twelve episodes of poor pacing, artificial character writing, and a complete lack of tension, The Ones Within closes on a complete non-ending. The last few minutes, which tie up no loose ends and offer no conclusion of any kind, drive home just what a complete waste of time the show was. I figured the extra OAV episode that Funimation included may offer some answers, but no, it was just the same kind of unfunny faffing about that made up the worst episodes of the show.
There's nothing about The Ones Within that makes it worth watching. It's a poorly-written Danganronpa imitator that completely fails to understand what makes the game series so wildly successful even while trying to copy it. It never tries to stand on its own merits, which are few and far between. It is, in a word, bad.