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Friday, 29 March 2013 00:00
Sword Art Online took the trapped-in-a-game idea and made it a little more real by adding a mechanism to genuinely kill its players. Not to be outdone, BTOOOM! goes one step further by faithfully recreating its gameworld in real life - and by making its 'players' a group of people who have been determined as being worthy of death...

Ryouta Sakamoto enjoys nothing more than playing online game BTOOOM!, where the objective is to blow your opponents away using a variety of BIMs - different types of bombs. He's the strongest and most respected player in the game - but while it's great fun to play online, Ryouta wakes one day to find himself on a deserted island with only a supply of BIMs for company. He's been drawn into a real version of the game - and his fellow "players", now playing for their lives, aren't about to cut him any slack.

BTOOOM! the video game is something of a half-way house between a first-person shooter, and Bomberman: the players have only a limited supply of explosives (there are several types in the game, but you start off with access to just one type), and a radar / motion tracker facility that helps you track your opponents, but that also gives away your own position whenever you use it. Proper tactical use of your radar, and knowing the strenghts and weaknesses of the particular BIM type you're using, are key to 'winning' the game. Online, it's a huge hit - but the version that Sakamoto has found himself airdropped into is very real, and televised for the benefit of a very small, select audience.

All the players have been nominated by someone close to them: Sakamoto by his mother, who grew tired of his shut-in ways and general abusive approach towards her; lead female Himiko by her friends, who blame her for leaving them to their fate when they were raped by men she'd introduced them to. Perhaps some shades of Hell Girl there, as while some characters we meet are genuine bastards and deserve their fate, other reasons for nomination border on the trivial, or are cases of laying blame where it really doesn't deserve to be laid.

When I first read about the series, I got the impression of a show that would focus heavily on the gameplay side of things - plenty of action, plenty of gore, maybe some moments of tension while the players played hide-and-seek. That would've been enjoyable, if rather forgettable after a while. Colour me surprised, then, when I discovered that while the series had all those aspects covered, and that for the most part the battle sequences played out really well (the ability of some people to survive any sort of blast notwithstanding), it really wasn't where to focus was. Instead, BTOOOM! at least tries to be a character-driven series, taking the time to introduce a good number of players beyond the core ones, explaining why they've been nominated and giving them some time in the spotlight. The downside to this is that, with most of the players being truly deserving of their nominations, it's easy to quickly get sick of seeing the darker side of human nature writ large in them all, episode after episode. "Hurry up and die" was a common thought - and with Sakamoto being the sort of player who does all he can to avoid killing his opponents, once he realises he has no stomach for it, I rarely got my wish.

The one good aspect of the character side was the relationship between Sakamoto and Himiko - strangers in real life, but very well-connected to each other in BTOOOM!'s online world, there's a thread that follows their growing feelings for each other through the game that's decent viewing. It makes a few mis-steps along the way, when Sakamoto lets the darker side of his nature slip out here and there, but for the most part they're actually quite sweet together and come to rely on each other more and more as the series progresses. I enjoyed watching that develop.

On balance, though, I can't help but feeling that the series should have picked one aspect or the other to concentrate on, instead of splitting its time between characters and combat - it feels disjointed as it is. It's also an incomplete story - the series ends at a fairly natural break point, but there's a lot that's set up over the course of this season that is just left hanging, and with no news of a second season as yet you'd need to grab the manga to see what happens next. Great if you have the time and money to get it (there is an English-language release in progress), but I don't.

Some nice ideas and plenty of promise, then, but BTOOOM! is ultimately let down by its execution. I was hoping it would be the Highschool of the Dead of the Autumn season - it certainly had all the ingredients to be - but it doesn't manage to pull it off and ends up being disjointed and ultimately rather forgettable.

Rating - ****