The first arc of Yu-Gi-Oh! VRAINS has come to a close at its 12th episode (with the 13th episode serving as a filler recap episode) covering only five duels so far.
In case you are not following the Yu-Gi-Oh! anime, Yu-Gi-Oh! VRAINS is the sixth era since Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters. And in case you do follow the anime but do not follow the Official Card Game (OCG) or the Trading Card Game (TCG), then things might be confusing for you.
Similar to Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D’s, Yu-Gi-Oh! ZEXAL, and Yu-Gi-Oh! ARC-V, VRAINS introduces a new summoning mechanic in the form of Link Summoning. Unlike ARC-V where its new summoning mechanic (Pendulum Summoning) was discovered only in the first episode and you start learning about Pendulum Monsters alongside the protagonist, Vrains kicks off with Link Summoning already a common strategy utilized by duelists. What is problematic here is that Link Summoning is not a simple addition to the already complicated game that is Yu-Gi-Oh!. While it is true that 5D’s and ZEXAL both began their stories without thoroughly explaining in detail how Synchro Summoning and Xyz Summoning works respectively, both summoning mechanics are quite easy to learn. For Synchro Summoning, you just add the Levels of a Tuner and a non-Tuner to match the Level of the Synchro Monster you are trying to summon. For Xyz Summoning, you just stack monsters of the same Level to summon an Xyz Monster with the same Rank. (Of course these are very simple explanations to these summoning mechanics and it would take a much longer article to explain the complexities of Synchro Summoning and Xyz Summoning.)
Link Summoning is a bit easier to do compared to other summoning mechanics due to it having less constraints on the Materials needed for the summon, but its inclusion in the game also meant the inclusion of the Extra Monster Zones and Link Arrows that affect gameplay based on how cards are placed in the Field, and that’s where things get complicated. For a crash course on what changed in the game rules, watch this video (and in case you also were not aware of the rule changes in the ARC-V era, you might also want to look that up):
Done watching? Still trying to let that sink in? Whether you are a fan of these rule changes or not, Yu-Gi-Oh! VRAINS expects the viewers to already know these things to fully understand what is happening in a duel. Another problematic thing about these new rules, as far as the anime goes, is the importance of card placement. It gets difficult to keep track of where each monster is placed during a duel. However, the anime does try to alleviate this by giving glimpses of the entire Field from time to time similar to what has already been done in past eras of the Yu-Gi-Oh! anime.
What’s more is that there are two kinds of dueling introduced at the beginning of the anime (similar to 5D’s) in the form of Speed Duels and Master Duels. Speed Duels have rules similar to the mobile app Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links (three Main Monster Zones, three Spell/Trap Zones, etc.) combined with the new rulings mentioned earlier and is similar to Turbo Duels in that duelists use hover boards known as D-Boards. Master Duels follow most of the rules of the real life card game with some exceptions such as all players start with 4000 Life Points. We have yet to see more Master Duels because four of the five duels featured in the anime so far have been Speed Duels that pretty much served as character introductions instead of duels that actually determined the fate of the world.
Another thing to notice is that Link Monsters seem to not be in the forefront of the anime. Duel Monsters had an emphasis on the Egyptian God Cards so one could say (even though this is a stretch) that Duel Monsters had an emphasis on Tribute Summoning. The latter seasons of Yu-Gi-Oh! GX brought focus on Fusion Summoning with an entire arc revolving around the card “Super Polymerization”. 5D’s had the plot-important Signer Dragons which are all Synchro Monsters. ZEXAL revolved around the Numbers which are all Xyz Monsters. The entire story of ARC-V was built on top of the world being split into four dimensions and the mysterious creation of the Pendulum Monsters. Finally, VRAINS does not focus much on Link Monsters, but rather on the newly introduced Monster Type known as the Cyberse (many of which are Link Monsters anyway). However, considering how we can only speculate from the first arc of VRAINS, probably Link Monsters will be prevalent later on.
The Cyberse-type monsters are hinted to be from the world known as, well, Cyberse. The Cyberse world is hinted to be created by an artificial intelligence known as Ignis, who happens to be the “partner” of the protagonist, Yūsaku Fujiki (similar to the roles of the nameless Pharaoh to Yugi, Winged Kuriboh and later Yubel to Judai, the Crimson Dragon to Yusei, Astral to Yuma, and Yuya’s dimensional counterparts to Yuya himself).
Aside from artificial intelligence and all this Cyberse weirdness, VRAINS also features the virtual reality world known as LINK VRAINS (Link Virtual Reality Artificial Intelligence Network System) that is quite similar to how the virtual reality in Sword Art Online works where one assumes an avatar and a gamertag. The inclusion of this virtual world explores much of what this anime has to offer such as Charisma Duelists (that can be easily explained by saying they are pretty much idol duelists), assuming secret identities, and cyber terrorism. When comparing VRAINS to Sword Art Online, one could assume that there might be a moral dilemma where the protagonist might question his true identity, if he likes to live more on the virtual reality more than the real world. However, as far as the first twelve episodes go, that is not the case. The dilemma is more on a superhero kind of secret identity where Yūsaku is just an ordinary high school student, but is fighting a cyber terrorist group when he assumes the name Playmaker and alters his appearance within LINK VRAINS.
LINK VRAINS also makes the fantasy of the story more believable. Whenever something “magical” happens, it is no longer because of ancient Egyptian magic, Duel Monster spirits, the Nazca Lines, some otherworldly aliens, some alternate universe shenanigans, or whatever. Most of the things that happen within Link Vrains are caused by programming. However, this has its drawbacks, such as most duelists using virtual decks instead of real cards, making the iconic duel disk not matter much within the virtual reality.
As mentioned earlier, the first twelve episodes of VRAINS only featured five duels. In fact, the first episode itself did not feature a duel at all, which is very uncharacteristic of card game anime in general. Some might see this as something good because it can be seen as the anime treats itself seriously, that plot can advance without resolving a problem with a card game. Some might see this as sacrilegious because what is a card game anime without cards battling it out with each other anyway? The anime teases a lot about its plot with how ambiguous Yūsaku’s past is and how he is a very serious and cold protagonist bent on revenge, compared to how all the other protagonists before him have dueled for the sake of their friends one way or another.
An important thing that fans are wary of is the question of whether other summoning methods of the past will be featured in Vrains. 5D’s featured some Fusion Summons and no Ritual Summons at all. ZEXAL featured a total of one Fusions Summon, one Ritual Summon, and no Synchro Summons at all. ARC-V included all of the summoning methods since it is important in its plot revolving around dimensions that are based on summoning methods. With the new rulings and the involvement of Link Monsters to how other summoning methods work, it is likely that VRAINS will also include other summoning methods as well. However, a case against this would be the image of a Master Duel Field shown one episode that does not include the Pendulum Zones, hinting that Pendulum Monsters might not be featured in the series. In a montage in the first episode however, an Xyz Monster was shown by the name of (trigger warning for folks who despise the Yu-Gi-Oh! metagame) “Zoodiac Hammerkong” hinting that Xyz Monsters exist in the timeline of VRAINS. But a similar thing happened in the first episode of ZEXAL where a Tuner Monster (“Dark Tuner Nightmare Hand”) was shown in a montage, teasing the existence of Synchro Summoning but never really delivered. The same thing happened with a cameo of the Ritual Monster “Lycanthrope” in 5D’s.
As far as VRAINS stands right now, it is definitely worth watching. It is hard to gauge if it is good or not since as history can tell, any Yu-Gi-Oh! anime has its high points and low points, but this first arc definitely tells the beginning of an interesting story but also teases much to keep you hanging. Like what has been done in the past, it puts grandiose world-ending plots on top of the absurdity of dueling using cards and it somehow works and keeps things interesting. Only this time it is LINK VRAINS and not the whole world that is in trouble. It feels very different but for some reason also similar to its predecessors in that light, and isn’t that what we have always liked about Yu-Gi-Oh!?