'Tower Of God' Review: Crunchyroll's Gorgeous New Original Anime Has Plenty Of Potential

When Crunchyroll rolled out the red carpet for its first-ever slate of original animes, Tower of God was the series that immediately caught my eye. Its striking animation style — like hand-drawn sketches or charcoal drawings brought to vibrant life — sets it apart from most other animes out there, and certainly from the uncanny 3D-animated titles that Netflix has been churning out. Which is good, considering the plot of the first episode of this fantasy-adventure series is pretty slim.

There's not much warning before you're thrust right into the world of Tower of God. The new original anime from Crunchyroll — a longtime anime streaming website that is finally starting to break into the competitive streaming wars — Tower of God doesn't bother with world-building or lengthy character introductions, despite the abundance of both that appear to lurk beneath the surface. The story instead unfurls episode by episode, as more characters and more mysteries are introduced the further the guileless protagonist Bam, a young boy on a quest to find his best friend, ascends the titular tower.

Based on the South Korean webtoon of the same name, Tower of God is set in a mysterious giant structure called The Tower, which is made up of hundreds of levels that each host a different wide-open environment. A magic element called "Shinsu" flows throughout the Tower, which is ruled by the residents of the top levels. The lower-level residents are left to battle their way up each level of the tower, each of which is as massive and large as a continent. But you know as little about the rules of this world as Bam, a young boy who has lost all memory of his past. After his only friend Rachel enters the Tower to "see the stars," Bam desperately races after her and finds himself battling mythic monsters and fellow "residents" to make his way to the top.

This reviewer only received the first two episodes of the series, and can only speak in detail about the first, but already The Tower of God shows a lot of potential. I only say potential because the first episode was so light on explanation that a few minutes in, I was wondering if I had missed something. Many anime fantasy series of this scope spend its first half hour setting up its premise, with a build-up that can almost be more complex than the episodic adventures that would follow. Or you will get a contemporary protagonist who plays the perfect audience surrogate to which everything can be explained in lengthy exposition dumps.

In Tower of God, we get something more akin to the latter, as Bam is an amnesiac who has only known life with Rachel underneath the Tower, and several characters pop up to cheerfully explain to him the rules. But they only reveal to him the bare minimum, lining up his next task, and nothing else. It's refreshing not to be dumped with exposition right away — barring a warmly illustrated piece of mythic narration at the beginning of the episode introducing the tale of "Rachel, the girl who wanted to see the stars" — but frustratingly obscure. It struck me that this style of storytelling, along with the narrow story structure makes Tower of God more akin to a video game than a rich fantasy tale. You have your NPCs, who dole out bits and pieces of information, and you have your different levels that each present different challenges and quests. But there are pieces of intriguing character and world-building that make Tower of God intriguing enough to stick with.

The first person that Bam meets upon forcing his way into the Tower is Header, a Guardian of the First Floor and caretaker of the Tower who deems Bam worthy of ascending — if he passes his first test. A solemn, fantastical figure who looks like a Digimon crossed with an anthropomorphic rabbit, Header cuts a fascinating figure — perversely enjoying toying with Bam, and clearly knowing more than he lets on. The test that he grants Bam is a death match with a giant eel monster, which a passing princess of the Tower, Yuri, protests against. Taking a liking to Bam, Yuri lends him her special sword Black March, which helps him pass the test. But just as soon as we meet these characters, they're out of the picture, as Bam quickly gets beamed up to the next level — an open grassy world where the contestants engage in a bloody battle royale.

Bam is kind of a blank page of a protagonist, with no defining characteristics except for his desperate search for Rachel. We get little of their childhood together too, only shown their first meeting in a quick flashback that barely builds out their world. While I had the sinking feeling that Bam's lack of a personality was even more indicative that Tower of God is little more than a stylish video game, I'm willing to give the series the benefit of the doubt if only because eye-catching animation style is so spectacularly artful. The art style pays homage to webtoon artist Lee Jong-hui's style, but its soft lines and bright, hard colors give Tower of God a wonderfully messy, homemade look — like pop art animation by way of Ralph Bakshi. The series draws attention to the contrast between its 2D character designs and 3D backgrounds and objects, adding an extra layer of artifice to the swirling elements in Header's staff or the too-bright textures of the sunlight. The combination adds to the mythic feeling of the series, and the promise of more to the series than just a glorified video game.


Tower of God is streaming on Crunchyroll.