Anyone who’s played tabletop or electronic fantasy RPGs long enough has undoubtedly had a situation come up where, through being underpowered and/or underprepared, they have faced a TPK (Total Party Kill) scenario. Most commonly these events happen with fledgling adventurers, and it’s not unusual for them to result from a Game Master playing seemingly-weak creatures with crafty efficiency. The first episode of this Fall 2018 series is an ode to that gaming experience. In fact, the whole series is one of the most blatant and thorough homages to the tabletop fantasy RPG experience that anime has seen since Record of Lodoss War, even down to dice rolling in the opening and being heard at the end of episodes. This doubtless contributed to it being one of the most popular new titles of the Fall 2018 season; one Crunchyroll graphic even showed it being their most-viewed new series in all 50 U.S. states and most of the rest of the Americas, which is a rare occurrence. And all of this happened despite the series’ first episode turning some viewers away because the goblins are shown being a pack of nasty little rapists.
In fact, that’s something which should be clearly understood up front: for better or worse, the series is a brutal look at the uglier side of adventuring, one which crosses a line not normally more than flirted with in fantasy RPGs. It even goes as far as making rape an integral part of goblin nature; the species doesn’t have its own females, so it uses girls from other races as its unwilling brood mares. In other words, what other fantasy titles merely threaten or imply, this one carries out. Only the first episode details explicit sexual violence, but victims of it pop up on a number of later occasions and it is threatened or strongly implied on other occasions. To its credit, the story does attempt to explore the trauma of a goblin rape survivor who has long been haunted by her experience, but that also constitutes some of the weakest and least convincing writing in the series.
Beyond that issue, the series is a full-blown exploration of the fantasy RPG experience, with a lean more towards tabletop than electronic RPGs. It doesn’t exactly use game mechanics but nods to them in all of the characters being named by role or class, set numbers of spells for each caster, and so forth. Its adventurer’s guild and quest ranking system will be familiar to anyone who has watched fantasy anime and/or read fantasy light novels and manga in recent years, and the monsters are pretty standard for fantasy RPGs, down even to the use of one of Dungeons and Dragons’ most famous monsters. (It is not officially named as a beholder, presumably to avoid copyright concerns.) Action scenes – and in particular Goblin Slayer’s many schemes – smack of the type of ingenuity that especially tabletop gamers strive for. The series also grounds itself in practical issues which sometimes get overlooked in gaming, such as how longer weapons can be a detriment in the close quarters of a cave or a weapon might get stuck in a corpse.
At the center of the series is the titular character, who in a curious twist is not the overall Hero of the setting – that’s a girl who pops up a few times in brief clips and never meets Goblin Slayer – but instead an upper-ranked adventurer with a narrowly-focused specialty. He’s the expert at what he does because he is dedicated, trained, and prepared rather than naturally powerful or talented, and he’s not infallible; he gets badly injured on multiple occasions. His single-minded obsessiveness drives him but also leaves him emotionally stunted, which is why the much more fragile and emotive young Priestess is the perfect companion for him. She provides the grounding that he needs on adventures and valuable support and back-up; surprisingly (and very refreshingly), she is also an active part of his tactics most of the time rather than just someone who has to be protected, so she is a combat asset to him as well. Eventually regularly joining them are a High Elf Archer (sometimes referred to as a ranger), a Dwarf Shaman, and a Lizard Priest. All are partly but not wholly slaves to their stereotypes, with the lizard mans’s affection for cheese being an amusing character quirk, but they are appreciable nonetheless. Surrounding them are a variety of other adventurers who get at least small degrees of attention, a Guild Girl who seems fond of Goblin Slayer, and unsubtly-named childhood friend Cow Girl, who keeps trying to reach out to Goblin Slayer.
The overall story does not feature a continuous plot. Instead it uses a variety of goblin-focused missions both to set up featured action scenes and provide framing for character development. In the process it delivers a mix of both the trials and tribulations of fledgling adventurers and the braggadocio of veterans. Overall, the story is somewhat of a two-way tutorial; others get schooled by Goblin Slayer on the ways and very real dangers of goblins, while Goblin Slayer is gradually brought to understand that he doesn’t have to be a loner in his mission. It’s not the most compelling writing but it does the job most of the time and occasionally has some strong moments.
Naturally the series also provides regular doses of action scenes. Though comparatively easy to kill, the goblins shown here are crafty and tenacious enough to be legitimate threats, especially in numbers. Because of that, Goblin Slayer and his companions rarely seem like they are breezing through fights, with many of the battles getting at least a bit hairy. The quality of the animation support for the fights varies; some provide good amounts of spectacle, while others depend heavily on shortcuts, but magic displays and other CG use are mostly integrated well beyond some awkward-looking blood sprays. Character designs stay on-model better than in most other fantasy series, even if they aren’t that excitingly different beyond Goblin Slayer’s iconic fully-equipped outfit. Copious graphic violence content is accompanied by fan service that which, though not a focal point, is still regularly present, with Cow Girl getting the bulk of such attention. Some of that can also get edgy, especially in the first episode.
The weakest side of the production is its musical score. It isn’t bad, and certainly has its moments, but its efforts to mix in some rock themes with the generally more symphonic sound can be an uncomfortable fit at times and the effectiveness of its sound can vary. Opener “Rightfully” is an odd mix of styles sung entirely in English; the goal may have been to create something which harkened to classic fantasy anime themes, but the sound comes off uneven. Its visuals impress more. Closer “Gin no Kisei” is a solid but also more generic-sounding J-rock number which is less memorable.
Funimation provides an English dub which almost entirely features newer vocal talent and/or actors who are, at best, second-tier in name recognition; major names will only be seen in bit parts. Perhaps because of this, the dub has a few places where deliveries aren’t the smoothest, but that is balanced out by several solid performances, particularly Josh Bangle as Lizard Priest and Malorie Rodak as High Elf Archer. Brad Hawkins‘ rendition of the title role takes some getting used to after hearing the deep, distinctively clipped delivery of original seiyuu Yuichiro Umehara, as he uses a raspier sound, but it works in the long run. The most interesting performance is Amanda Gish‘s take on Witch, whose original performance used a very languid cadence. The character just sounds odd in either language.
Extras on the Blu-Ray/DVD/digital combo pack release include clean opener and closer, an English audio commentary for episode 11 featuring a few key cast members, and a “Goblin Talk” special, a round table-style discussion featuring both cast and staff members. For the latter, they might have been better off including someone who actually was familiar with tabletop RPGs.
Judged as a fantasy title in general, Goblin Slayer has some rousing content and makes at least some effort towards serious character development but is not a particularly deep or involved story on the whole. It relies much more heavily on its gaming connection, but that aspect works well. Its potentially objectionable content means that it isn’t for everyone, but it does have merits beyond that.