Home > Episode Reviews, First Impressions > Phi Brain: Kami no Puzzle Episodes 1 and 2 – Riddle Me This

Phi Brain: Kami no Puzzle Episodes 1 and 2 – Riddle Me This

I’ve talked some about Sunrise before, as the primary purveyor of original (not based on a manga or light novel series) anime. Other studios take existing works and adapt them to the screen; Sunrise starts with the animation and then, if the show takes off, makes manga series after the fact. It means they make some really daring, innovative, intriguing stuff. It also means that if they make a flop, you won’t be able to know for sure without watching it.

Phi Brain is one of three new Sunrise shows debuting this season, which I think is a record for them. It’s the most genre bending of the three: it’s not really classifiable as a comedy, or a drama, or an action show. It’s not even an anime anime. Wikipedia calls it an “adventure” show, which is probably as close a descriptor as we are going to get. But I think there is one immediate way to place this series on the map in terms of a recognizable genre. Phi Brain, stripped down to its core, is Yu-Gi-Oh, only with puzzles instead of card games.

Even if I accepted puzzle solving is a worldwide phenomenon, I'd like to think that even a world where that is the case wouldn't take people like this guy seriously. Of course, given the character designs, ridiculous appearances seem like a normal feature of this world, too

Now, my only knowledge of Yu-Gi-Oh comes from the abridged series, but here’s the basics: a guy in high school with weird hair is a great player of a collectable card game, which for some reason is the game of choice the world over. He eventually starts playing for greater and greater stakes, as he learns more about the game’s ancient origins. He also has an artifact containing the spirit of an Egyptian pharaoh, who occasionally possesses him in order to win a particularly difficult game.

Phi-Brain, meanwhile, postulates a world where everyone is aware of giant puzzle games, which master puzzle solvers compete to solve. Just about everyone who is anyone wants to be in the puzzle club at high school, and tracks the exploits of famous puzzle solvers. The greatest puzzle games, called Philosopher’s Puzzles, are put on by a shadowy organization named POG (Puzzle of God), which claims a heritage back to antiquity. And the protagonist, Kaito Daimon, picks up an ancient artifact at the end of the first episode that amplifies his puzzle solving ability, giving him the equivelent of a giant “I win” button to press whenever the plot requires it. Any of this sound familiar?

The armband also changes the color of one of Kaito's eyes when it activates. Sunrise seems to be fond of that

So yeah, it’s pretty ridiculous at first glance. Look a bit longer, and it’s still silly. But if you’re willing to accept the absurdity of the premise and just roll with it, there’s some enjoyment to be had. That starts with the fact that this show, unlike Yu-Gi-Oh, isn’t just a marketing gimmick created to milk some other cash cow; that means the animation quality is much higher. The character designs might be a bit kiddiefied, but the dialogue is reasonably solid and the puzzles themselves have some thought put into them. According to Anime News Network, they even have someone on staff responsible for the puzzle design.

Correspondingly, the most frustrating aspect of the show is that it rarely gives the audience enough time to figure out the nature of its puzzle, or enough clues to figure out even the method of solving it. The show drastically improves on this score in the second episode, but the premiere has Kaito solve the main puzzle of the episode without giving any explanation on how he knew where to start. He just “has an instinct” that pans out.

There's also the massive coincidence that Kaito's school is run by people with connections to POG, and that one of the organization's senior grand poobahs is a childhood friend

Without the audience being able to track what’s going on, there’s a certain loss of buy-in. With Kaito being given a cheat device (it’s said only to enhance his innate ability, but call a spade a spade), it seems like his gift is more a writer’s artifice than something integral to his character. His female sidekick Nonoha Itou, with an eidetic memory and natural athletic gifts, seems far better utilized by the writers than Kaito himself is.

Maybe that will change as the cast fills out. The second episode introduces a rival master puzzler, who announces his presence in the most bombastic way possible, but there’s something to how their rivalry is presented which is unexpectedly clever. And it’s worth giving Phi-Brain credit for making the show’s requisite female lead actually useful and intelligent, rather than a useless bit of set decoration (another way this show is better than Yu-Gi-Oh). Sunrise does have a good track record with strong female characters, which is a rarity these days.

Gyamon Sakanoue introduces himself with what seems like a remarkably childish form of taunting, but it's actually a carefully crafted challenge to Kaito. The two might get off on the wrong foot, but they speak the same language—here, quite literally

So, as I watch the series, internally I’m marking off all the things that can go wrong with it. But I have to admit that the second episode is a great improvement on the first. I also have to admit that while it’s not what I would call a good show, particularly in light of some of the gems we’ve had this season, it’s not an actively bad one either. It’s certainly heads and shoulders over Yu-Gi-Oh.

Even if it stays on the “good” side of the ledger, though, it will remain an acquired taste. How much you will enjoy the series will probably depend on how much you can maintain suspension of disbelief. Does the idea of “Solvers” being tasked by POG’s “Givers” to solve fiendishly difficult puzzles, with great rewards for success but with death as the penalty for failure, seem too over the top? Does the idea that POG is doing this all to find a “Solver” worthy of facing the “Divine Puzzle,” a puzzle which predates the organization seem too outlandish? You won’t get much out of the series if it does.

No one seems to care that people can get killed solving puzzles. POG does some internal policing to make sure the Givers aren't cheating, but only after the fact. And would the police really care that Solvers took on the challenge willingly?

Since veteran anime watchers are used to outlandish, over the top plot concepts, however, I can’t dismiss the show out of hand. Ancient conspiracies are all the rage these days, so that might be a selling point for some watchers; it might seem odd for high schoolers to risk their life on something so trivial, but high school kids in anime face death all the time. Phi-Brain is never going to be in the running for best show of the season, but I could see it reaching the B-tier of being reasonably entertaining, as long as you can get into it.

That’s a fairly big caveat, of course, but hopefully this review will help you puzzle out if Phi-Brain is a show that’s worth your time to check out. Ultimately, that’s a riddle you’ll have to answer yourself.

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