Where many video game isekai are focused on overpowered protagonists, some spend their time focusing on their characters.

Otome Gēmu no Hametsu Furagu Shika Nai Akuyaku Reijō ni Tensei Shite Shimatta is one such isekai.

I Reincarnated Into an Otome Game as a Villainess With Only Destruction Flags, better known as My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom is quite possibly my favourite anime of the year thus far, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that the light novel is also pretty good.

The basic premise of the show is that our protagonist, a seventeen year old high school girl, dies when hit by a car (Truck-kun strikes again) and wakes up in the world of her favourite otome game (a romance visual novel). This would all be fine and dandy if not for the fact that she had reincarnated as the game’s villain, Catarina Claes, who, regardless of how the game is played, always gets a bad ending – usually in the form of exile or death.
Catarina, fortunately has two saving graces; the first being that she is deeply familiar with the game, the second being that she gets a headstart, as she reincarnates as a child, where the game’s story takes place in the character’s teens. So she uses her knowledge of all the ‘Doom Flags’, story moments and triggers which would put her on the path to exile or death, to avoid… well, her exile or death.

How does she go about this? By not being a villain.
She takes the time to get to know each of the game’s characters as children, befriending them and solving their problems in an effort to avoid her ultimate demise.

Reactive Protagonists are usually not the best protagonists, as they just go where the wind blows and never really seem to make any of their own decisions; after reading the show’s premise, I was convinced Catarina would be one such reactive protagonist, as the idea of avoiding death when it could come from anywhere led me to believe. But she’s proactive in what she does, in how she behaves and prepares for looming threats.
Early on, she’s worried about her impending exile, so she learns to farm and care for crops, over time this becomes a genuine hobby; as she meets each of the game’s characters, she takes the time to focus on them individually, getting to know them in the process; whenever she sees one of her ‘Doom Flags’ coming, she’ll react by being proactive, making decisions and taking actions ahead of time. This veritable ‘cat and mouse’ dynamic Catarina has with the world she’s in is certainly enough cause for comedy.

I’ve never particularly been a fan of romantic comedies, I tend to avoid them in all their forms but My Next Life as a Villainess might change that, at least where anime is concerned. Many of the characters could do with some fleshing out when you really think about it, that said, the show is only twelve episodes and each episode is less than twenty-five minutes long, it does phenomenally well with the time it’s got; normally I’d be completely turned off of an anime like this but, the while premise alone was enough to draw me in, I stuck around for the dialogue and character dynamics.

Now, a paragraph ago there was a certain word, one that just about dominates anime as a medium; seemingly, every second or third anime out there comes with this tag attached to it; ‘harem’.

Usually in anime, a harem will constitute a person (usually a teenage boy) who is friends with a fair number of girls (his classmates, more often than not), all these girls will, for some inexplicable reason, fall in love with him, want to get with him, get married, have seven children and live happily ever after.
Many harem anime are much like the one I just described; they’re little more than escapist fantasy designed to titillate the ever lonesome otaku, placing a number of, shall we say, ‘well-designed’ characters around a single character who is specifically written to be as relatable as possible to as many people as possible (often leaving said character bland and, ironically, entirely unrelatable to everyone), these anime will then take all these characters and put them in situations where their personalities either clash or work well together, either way, chaos ensues… but this is where things can get particularly egregious.
The genre always features an undertone of one of two things; either ‘horny’ or ‘romance’ (some shows mix these), most harem anime pick the former, with romance less existing and more just being implicit. This is where the problem arises as not everyone is looking for the horny; ideally, a harem anime would feature enough ‘fan service’ to appeal to the spikier viewers, but dial it back enough so as to not turn off the viewers who aren’t looking for that kind of content.
Then comes the second problem the genre faces; do you prefer waifus or husbandos? You’re gonna have to pick, because there aren’t that many shows that feature both.

Now this isn’t to say that there aren’t shows out there worth watching, the harem-concept is ripe for fantastic storytelling; it can feature diverse, appealing, well-written characters, it can be used to tell emotionally impactful love stories, sometimes the chemistry is actually there; its just a shame then, that the majority of the genre doesn’t feature these amazing things.

But then there’s Villainess.

In her attempts to avoid dying, Catarina unwittingly changed each of the characters, they are no longer the same as they were in the game; these changes can be attributed directly to her.

In the game, some of the would-be husbandos grew to be sadists or playboys, while the would-be waifus were seemingly emotionally cut-off – the idea being that the ray of sunshine that is the game’s protagonist, Maria Campbell, thaws their icy hearts and gets them to come out of their shells.
But through Catarina’s actions, avoiding her Doom Flags and solving each of their problems in the process, the characters grow up differently to their in-game selves – they’re happy, they’re decidedly not sadistic, they don’t suffer from sibling-related superiority complexes, they’re more socially outgoing and confident in themselves. Also: they all love Catarina.
It doesn’t take all that long for Maria to fall for Catarina either; as Maria is a commoner born with Light Magic, something only nobles should have, rumours abound as to her parentage, and she is often bullied by her noble-born classmates (in the game, Catarina was one of these bullies), but in this new timeline Catarina stands up for her on multiple occasions, even visiting her house while out on an excursion.

What’s funny is that Catarina doesn’t realise these major changes have saved her, the distinct lack of sadists or Catarina-based villainy means she’s safe (for the most part), but because she doesn’t realise this, she starts trying to get the characters to fall in love with each other, because in her mind, the success of their relationships will save her from a bad ending (as in the game, Catarina is the one to ruin most of the relationships). And it is because she’s so busy trying to set them all up with one another that she fails to notice their love for her.

Now many shows would either handwave the love-rivals as simply being friends or they would have them play off of one another, each trying to get one over on the other; but Villainess does something somewhere off to the side (its definitely not in between the two aforementioned ‘choices’); the characters openly talk about their being love-rivals (Catarina just never seems to hear these discussions), and they will occasionally try to get ahead of one another.
They seemingly understand that all is fair in love and war.

My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom caught me off guard, the concept caught my attention but I honestly wasn’t expecting much, that said, a second season has been confirmed for 2021 and I absolutely cannot wait to see it.