When watching a show with a ridiculous premise like Phi Brain, there’s always the temptation to play the realism card. Gosh, how could anyone design a massive underground labyrinth full of traps without eliciting attention? Hell, why would they? Doesn’t anyone have anything better to do? Well, never mind Phi Brain‘s realism. It’s silly for giant robots to fly through the air too, so it doesn’t really matter whether or not Phi Brain is plausible. Rather, the more pertinent question is whether or not the puzzle premise is satisfying. To answer that question, I think the first episode just misses the mark.
Mysteries are basically cinematic puzzles. Of course, your mileage may vary, but in my opinion, the best mysteries are the ones where the audience receives just enough clues and information to answer the pivotal question: “Whodunnit?” Certainly, mysteries where the “solution” comes from out of the blue can still be satisfying, but not from a problem-solving standpoint. These films can still have great cinematography, acting, dialogue, etc., but they’re certainly not fun to solve. Hell, they’re unsolvable.
With that said, Phi Brain sort of reminds me of Liar Game, a manga series most recently known for its live drama adaptation. Both stories feature a moody, rebellious guy who is insanely good at problem-solving and both stories feature a slightly naive girl. Hell, both stories even trick their main characters into signing a contract to play a deadly game. The live drama version of Liar Game blatantly rips off the puppet from Saw while Phi Brain has some cloaked dude wearing a steer’s skull — how satanic and sinister. I love how he still has flowing anime hair though.
There’s a very crucial difference, however, between the two stories. Liar Game is less literal about the puzzle premise, but, like a mystery, Liar Game‘s scenarios are solvable. Now, Phi Brain isn’t anywhere close to being as moody or overwrought as Liar Game — in fact, you could even commend Phi Brain for being light-hearted and kind of fun to watch — but for a puzzle-centric anime, there are no puzzles to solve. There are puzzles, but we don’t get the chance to participate. Instead, it seems as though we are meant to sit back and ooh and ahh over the genius of the main character.
Daimon Kaito, our resident boy hero, can solve puzzles by just looking at them. Well, that’s really cool and all, but what’s the fun in watching a puzzle-centric anime if I can’t follow along with the hero? How does he know that there’s something strange in one particular dead end of a massive labyrinth? According to Daimon, he doesn’t even know why. Well, golly. In the dangerous puzzle at the end of the episode, where failure will not just kill him but Nonoha as well, how does Daimon know which rope to pull? The answer is, well, he just does.
We never really get a good look at the rope puzzle. We only get random, chaotic shots of gears, pulleys and wooden knick knacks. For the moment, the puzzle frustrates even our hero but only for a moment. Daimon screams, cocks his head back, and suddenly, everything’s clear… for him, not us. Well, the audience doesn’t get to play along and I think that’s a shame. The animation seems decent. The premise sounds kind of fun if a little corny. The characters don’t seem unlikeable yet even if Daimon’s kind of generic. As a result, there’s potential here, but Phi Brain just misses the mark. What’s the point of a puzzle anime if I don’t actually get to solve the puzzles too?
I guess future episodes can rectify this problem, but the first impression is a bit of a letdown.