Maybe the biggest problem with Robotics;Notes isn't with the show itself, but with its professed lineage. It's a sequel, sorta-kinda, to Steins;Gate, but only in the same sense of how the Final Fantasy games follow each other. Framing the show's ambitions that way might not have been wise: instead of seeing the ways Notes and Gate share both culture and nurture, we wind up iterating through all the ways Notes is only a good show instead of a great one.
But a good show is still a good show, and if you put any show up against something like Steins;Gate it's hard not to come up short — at least in my mind, since Gate is among the finer anime made in the past few years. Notes is better than the average, and by more than a little, but for all of its ambition and energy it feels simultaneously diffuse and overstuffed — a case of five pounds of plot and seven pounds of character in a two-pound bag of story.
Notes opens with something of a classic plot, anime or not: the Kids With Big School Club Ambitions. Rather than putting on a play, these kids want to make a giant robot — and the remarkable thing is, after several succesive years of club members coming and going, they've managed to cobble one together after all, just barely. The current club president Akiho Senomiya has prodded, cajoled, and exhorted the group to come ever so close to finishing a giant replica of "GunBuild-1", the mecha at the center of the (in-universe) anime Gunvarrel, but they're short of cash to cross the finish line. Their only hope is a cache of prize money courtesy of a robot combat tournament being held in a couple of weeks.
Winning that tournament requires two things they don't have, though: a working robot, and someone to drive it. The latter they do have, sort of, in the form of another club member, Akiho's friend Kaito Yashio, who spends most of his time playing "Kill Ballad", a robot-themed fighting game on his cellphone and is mostly in the club because it gives him someplace to hang out. He has an edge in the form of a curious bullet-time-like power that manifests under stress, where his reaction times speed up a dozenfold. Such elements hint all the more at how Notes has been derived from a game — not that this is a bad thing, but it nudges the storytelling that much more towards a predictable template where this power is used to overcome that difficulty.
Kaito and Akiho win the contest — no surprise there — and wind up drafting in their opponent, their normally dour and dismissive classmate Subaru Hidaka (appearing in the contest as the flamboyantly disguised "Mr. Pleiades"). Also added to the club are Junna Daitoku, the diminutive former karate club member, whose punches and kicks are motion-captured for the sake of the robot's fighting stances — and, sorta-kinda, Junna's grandfather, Doc, who runs the local robot-repair place, charges a premium for replacement parts, and has made a second career out of being grouchy and distant.
On top of, underneath, and between all of this, another series of plots begin to unfold — so many plots, in fact, that I began to feel like they were bleeding all the air out of the room. Kaito encounters a rogue program on his phone's augmented-reality app, which manifests as a cheery girl that only his phone can display and who points him towards a series of documents concealed around the countryside, each of which can only be unlocked by completing a certain geotagging assignment. The shut-in creator of Kill Ballad, a female otaku who come off as the filthy-minded little sister to Steins;Gate's Daru, enters the story as well, and reveals how her motives for creating the game closely mirror the way Akiho's personal quest was patterned after trying to live up to the example set by her sister. (And that's all before we find out about a conspiracy to use a solar flare to kill billions — the sort of thing that can only be stopped by a plucky bunch of kids with a giant robot, of course.)
Character-deepening tactics like this aren't bad ideas, but the show relies on them to such an extent that they stop feeling like the establishment of a consistent theme (transcend your past! embrace the future!), and more like a strategy the show falls back on to give its characters depths and resonances. Again, I don't think this is a bad idea by itself, but how it's played off in this show comes off as oddly mechanistic — the stuff that's supposed to be driving them comes off more like an after-the-fact explanation for their behaviors. When we find out Doc's grouchiness and reticence are due to a personal tragedy, something he Has To Overcome so he can Move Forward In Life, it makes him seem less like an individual character and more like a mere gear in the story's overall emotional strategy.
It's generally considered bad form to bash something for its origins, and I don't mean to bash on Notes for being derived from a game, since a good story can come from anywhere. But again, if the original material is followed slavishly in ways that just repeat its inherent flaws for the sake of its target audience, the source material hardly matters. Still, the fact that Notes is derived from a game means some of its story mechanics hew a little too closely at times to the checkpoint-reward or apply-skill-here paradigms that games use. Again, it hews close to being thematic — after all, Kaito's power is originally exposed through a game, and his in-universe quest is essentially a gamified process — but the story seems content to simply deploy such things as ingredients and not move much further than that. I couldn't help but think again of Steins;Gate, and how Okabe's "Reading Steiner" power started as a gimmick (and to some degree a character quirk), but pushed the story foward because of who Okabe was, and soon proved itself to be integral to the story as a whole. (I should note that the way both shows share a common universe is so tangential a connection it might as well not exist; it's essentially a marketing ploy.)
An emotional high, if not always a dramatic one
What does work in this show, though, is the way it depicts Kaito, Akiho, and the rest of the club inching towards their goals and savoring every victory along the way, big and small. The first iteration of their giant robot is barely able to walk, and a crowd that's gathered to see it happen is understandably let down. But this doesn't deter them: if anything, it only gives them all the more incentive to make the next iteration of their creation all the better. "Never stop improving" isn't just good engineering practice, but good life advice, too, and so by the time their robot is not only taking much bolder (and faster) steps, and even delivering knockout blows to an opposing robot of far greater sophistication, it's undeniably thrilling, not just because of what it's showing us but because of how it unfolds as much in the minds of its participants as it does in the real world. We share with them the joy of watching one's creations come to life, the agony of watching them fall or be destroyed, and the determination that they can be resurrected and be even better in the next incarnation. In moments like this, the show works well enough to throw all the moments it doesn't into even sharper relief.
So while it is hard to watch this show and not think of all the ways in which it falls short of its spiritual predecessor, it's also not hard at all to enjoy it for what it is, rather than what it might never have meant to be. It's just a shame it turned out to only be an okay-to-good show, instead of a great one.