Arknights, my gacha of choice when it comes to hiring lizard ladies with magic rock cancer, returns to the anime world with Perish in Frost. In terms of continuity, this second leg of the adaptation is direct and unsurprising, and that’s a good thing. The story picks up where Prelude to Dawn ended, covering the next bundle of chapters in the game’s main narrative, and the team animating it under director Yuki Watanabe remains the same. This means we get another slickly produced tale of guerilla urban warfare that, this time around, benefits from both experience and stronger source material. My take, which seems to align with the consensus I’ve seen from other players, is that Arknights‘s story doesn’t really pick up until midway through the first major arc—and that’s exactly what this season covers! The only inarguable downgrade is that FrostNova is a much worse antagonist codename than Skullshatterer. Nevertheless, while it also doesn’t escape all the trappings that held back its first season, Perish in Frost still shakes out to be a more confident and complex installment.
Since this show is primarily made for the fans, let me first approach it as a fan. It’s been a few years since I played through the chapters that these episodes adapt, so I’m only basing this on the broad strokes left behind in my brain, but the anime satisfies my memories of it. A major criticism of Arknights the game is the often clumsy and asymmetric way it balances its story segments against the tower defense sections. An anime, naturally, doesn’t have this problem, and the streamlined presentation behooves the overall narrative. Major components like FrostNova’s determination, Mephisto and Faust’s relationship, Patriot’s appearance, Mon3tr’s descent, and Amiya’s and Ch’en’s parallel professional/emotional turmoil all benefit from striking scene composition and great performances. I especially loved hearing industry veteran Banjou Ginga infuse tremendous weight into the stilted speech of the warrior veteran Patriot. My favorite scene is a quiet one shared between the Doctor, FrostNova, and a handful of spicy hard candies. These are small moments, but they exemplify the adaptation’s flair for the cinematic.
The material becomes more ambitious, too. The first season focused on the player character, the amnesiac tactician known as the Doctor, and the actual protagonist and bunny-eared leader of Rhodes Island, Amiya. These chapters reintroduce dragonkin Ch’en as a co-protagonist. As the leader of Lungmen’s law enforcement, she combats the terrorist Reunion forces while also wrestling internally with her role in the conflict. She’s a louder and harsher presence than our other heroes, and that’s a nice dynamic to bring into a story as frequently dour as Arknights. Her verbal sparring with Swire is fun to watch, and her buddy cop schtick with Hoshiguma is pleasantly familiar. While Amiya and the Doctor tend to feel more reactive, Ch’en is full-boar proactive at all times. That doesn’t always work out for her, but that’s what makes her a compelling character to follow.
The additional Lungmen storylines also reveal a narrative more willing to poke at the thematic nettles wrapped around its central conflict. Characters finally voice out loud the absurdity inherent in Rhodes Island’s battles with Reunion. A pharmaceutical organization that provides sanctuary and treatment for the Infected has, through its contracts and its ambitions, become a primary oppositional force against a resistance movement made up of the disenfranchised Infected. The politics of oppression are as prominent as Amiya’s ears. The prejudice against the Infected stems from the personal, as seen in GreyThroat’s attitude, to the systemic, as seen in the battle-torn slums the Infected are segregated to. Most horrifically, Ch’en’s breaking point comes when she confirms that her boss/father figure arranged a purge of all Infected under the guise of quelling the Reunion rebellion. That’s straight out of the genocide playbook, and it’s a sign of Arknights‘ willingness to provoke and disturb.
However, whether Arknights has the narrative fortitude to follow through on that thematic gumption is another story. This season does a better job than the first of depicting the Reunion grunts as more than just faceless enemies, but it still plays things pretty safe. For instance, the ceasefire with the Yeti Squadron is as frictionless and cliché as they come, down to both sides promising to share a drink once the battle is over. Elsewhere, Mephisto provides a blatant metaphor for the broader conflict when his Arts turn the Infected soldiers into zombies stripped of their identities and autonomy. Their righteous anger becomes a tool of violence that doesn’t distinguish between friend and foe. They become naught but grist for the war machine’s mill. I like this bleakness, but I wish it had a more thoughtful resolution than a cat with a chainsaw. Similarly, while I appreciate Faust’s contributions to the overall tragedy, it would be nice if Mephisto had more shades to him between “cartoon villain” and “catatonic husk.”
Arknights‘ proclivity for obtuseness also becomes a compounding problem as the narrative continues to insert new characters, factions, and concepts into the narrative. Familiarity with the game helps me contextualize a lot, but I can imagine an anime-only audience losing track of some threads or wondering why they should even care. In some respects, this is a strength too. Arknights‘ worldbuilding is constant and massive, and I like stories where we see only a small slice of conflict while much larger power struggles gestate behind the curtain. A lot of thought and work goes into the setting. But Arknights falls short of balancing the grandiosity of its world against basic storytelling fundamentals. It spends time arranging its pieces that would be better spent getting the audience to connect with those pieces. While there are isolated moments of levity and warmth, the writing tends to be dry and functional. The action scenes don’t help much, either. I like the handful of tactics-forward examples (which resonate nicely with the game’s genre), but some fights fly by without fanfare, while others drag the story’s momentum to a crawl.
Like the Doctor, however, this adaptation achieves a strategic victory by playing to its strengths, namely mood and atmosphere. What the anime lacks in kinetic energy, it more than makes up for with a carefully constructed somberness that hones the awfulness and inescapability of its tragedies. The background art draws beauty out of cracked asphalt and crumbling concrete. The storyboards focus on the interiorities of the people in frame. While sometimes ridiculous, the character designs still cohere into a unifying and distinct aesthetic (I love every operator with an oversized jacket). The anime wields its music effectively as well. The soundtrack doesn’t stand out independently, but the show has a great ear for when to use it and when silence is more appropriate. The opening and ending songs are both bops, and FrostNova’s lullaby bookends her arc eerily and beautifully.
In short, Perish in Frost won’t leave Arknights fans cold. It’s still a pricklier sell to viewers who aren’t suffering from Oripathy, but it’s a worthy successor to the first season, and it supports this adaptation’s seat in the echelon of gacha tie-ins with artistic merit.