Anime takes place in all kinds of settings, from the cold and silent reaches of space to fantasy metropolises in which species of every variety rub shoulders and cut deals. Yet many of these worlds are little more than cardboard cutouts: they may have the right look, but there’s no depth beneath the surface.
World building is the process of creating a setting and fleshing it out in all the detail that it needs to be believable. Economics, geography, flora and fauna, and politics are only some of the most important considerations. Successful world building is even more important in isekai anime, since the show must successfully contrast the new world with the old. Here are some isekai that have built phenomenal worlds.
Updated November 23, 2022, by Levana Chester-Londt: Only the most effective worldbuilding will leave the audience feeling as if they have entered into Another World right alongside the protagonist, which was quite happily existing before the announced guest’s arrival (or is at the brink of destruction and in dire need of an intervention)!
Even the best character designs can often fall flat if the scenario’s setting isn’t given the respect it is due; while the reincarnation aspect of Isekai anime generally only lasts a few moments, the otherworldy adventures get much more attention in this popular genre. Political structures and magic systems can add a great deal to the success of worldbuilding, and should not be disregarded in this context.
13/13 Darwin’s Game
This video game Isekai exists in a world not that much different from reality, but because everything is dripping in dread (and often blood-soaked, too), it changes one’s perception entirely. Every building turns into a potential hideout or the safe house of a deadly threat; each alleyway transforms into a target practice site; a simple cellphone becomes a vital lifeline, possibly containing the only means of escape.
Enduring Darwin’s Game is not all that bad, as players are handsomely rewarded for any successful killing sprees, regardless of the fact that the murdered users never return to reality. Each unsuspecting (or occasionally, willing) participant gets blessed with an Isekai bonus called a Sigil, granting them superhuman talents perfectly adapted for survival or assassination.
12/13 KonoSuba: God’s Blessing On This Wonderful World!
When this NEET-in-denial gets the fright of his life and comes face to face with the Goddess, Aqua, he is not terribly keen on enduring round two of life and decides to drag the blue-haired girl along for the ride. In desperate need of some finances, the pair sign up to be adventurers in the Fantasy World and quickly realize it will take some effort (and some serious coin) to increase their skill sets.
After teaming up with some equally-useless quirky characters, Kazuma and his Harem battle against some of the strangest beasts imaginable, ranging from unicorn bunnies to flying cabbages (or lettuce heads in disguise) and much more. Great attention to detail is also applied to the unconventional feasts set before Kazuma and his gal pals (ones which viewers would struggle to find anywhere else)!
11/13 Parallel World Pharmacy
It’s easy for anime fans to get excited when the lead protagonist is reincarnated into a realm that has pre-established and intricate lore, as it adds significantly more depth to the alternative reality. With Panactheos arguably receiving the most praise from society, the various elemental Deities are fondly worshipped in the San Fleuve Empire, and as a reward, Divine Arts are handed out to their patrons (only to those of Noble blood, of course).
What is unique to Parallel World Pharmacy’s worldbuilding is how predominant Science is to the storyline (which also lines up with real-life facts and theories, to keep the boffins satisfied). Falma de Médiciss lands in this archaic kingdom with his bum in the butter but is thankfully using his extensive medical knowledge and powers of elemental manipulation to create life-changing medications for those in need.
10/13 I’m The Villainess, So I’m Taming The Final Boss
The recently reincarnated Aileen d’Autriche has to learn how to navigate her way through not one, but two separate societies within her Isekai nightmare, as humans and demons generally tend to steer clear of each other. As a Villainess who is destined to die, Aileen quickly makes an ally out of the Demon Lord, Claude and her shadow subsequently becomes a portal of sorts, where demonic creatures (usually of the adorable variety) can pop in and out at will.
The medieval-styled terrain is not the most unique set-up in the Isekai genre; however, the strong Otome element and assortments of mythological creatures, magic items, folklore, and political structures more than makes up for any lack of originality. The picturesque scenery perfectly encapsulates the feel of a classic dating-sim scenario, while the spooky woods are foreboding enough to encourage most travelers to avoid its depths.
9/13 That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime
Getting to experience the world as a Slime would make most things appear relatively amazing, and That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime is the perfect example of how simply changing the audience’s point of view can have a significant effect on the success of its worldbuilding. Combining the spiritual, demonic, and human realms is another fail-safe way to entertain fans while following the process of a Slime’s evolution in an RPG format creates enough intrigue to keep fans glued to their screens.
Reborn in the chaotic universe of Tensura World, created by the first of its kind, the Star-King Dragon Veldanava, Rimuru has to navigate through a complex landscape (and its equally multifaceted political system) while surviving increasingly more difficult tasks along the way. Interestingly enough, Tensura World gives the strong impression of only being a small element of the larger picture, suggesting that there is much more out there to explore!
History is a far deeper, more complex, and more confusing subject than most people give it credit for, and it’s not until history buffs begin to rattle off names, dates, and incidents that the scope of the subject begins to reveal itself. That’s one reason that most anime shy away from incorporating real people into their world building: it’s simply too complex. Drifters tackles this challenge head on.
A mixture of fantasy isekai and what-if biopic, this underrated isekai animeimagines many of history’s most fascinating figures thrown together and then forced to fight a war against one another. Coming from the creator of Hellsing Ultimate, Drifters has quality writing and a great aesthetic, but it’s the depth of its world building that’s the ultimate draw.
7/13 Ascendance Of A Bookworm
World building can be grand–and to an extent, it has to be, since it’s a whole world that’s being dealt with, after all–but it’s okay if the process starts small. One of the best world building techniques is to choose a single element of the world and then flesh it out until it is thoroughly believable, then use that element as the foundation for everything else.
In Ascendance of a Bookworm, the small thing is reading. The protagonist is a little girl beginning the long journey towards literacy, and while conquering a book may not be conquering a kingdom the way other isekai protagonists do, it provides the framework for some truly inventive world building.
6/13 Sword Art Online
It’s easy to downplay the accomplishments of Sword Art Online. The series seemed to work its way into every corner of geek culture, and overexposure grated on the nerves of some. Dismissing the series based on its popularity alone would be a mistake, however.
Sword Art Online has some of the best world building in isekai, and part of what makes it so great is its willingness to go beyond the limits of its fictional MMO. The sinister corporation and mysterious figures pulling the strings back on earth receive plenty of time and attention, letting the writers develop the politics, military activities, and logistics of two worlds at once. That the series manages to build two worlds side by side and intertwine their stories speaks for itself.
5/13 Now And Then, Here And There
Now and Then, Here and There isn’t one of the first anime most people mention when the greatest isekai are discussed, but when it comes to its world building, it should be. The desert world into which Shuu is flung as the result of his misguided attempt to rescue a strange girl is phenomenal.
Isekai heroics lose much of their meaning and excitement when the world in which they take place feels like every other, and the world of Now and Then, Here and There doesn’t. A wasteland boiling under the light of a red giant, the world of this anime is a detailed dystopia that unabashedly examines every awful consequence of the climate crisis and military supremacy it depicts. Its world is painful to look at but brilliantly conceived.
4/13 The Twelve Kingdoms
The Twelve Kingdoms is arguably one of the best isekai around when it comes to world building, and part of the reason is that it acts as if it’s a dozen worlds that must be built. Each of the titular kingdoms has a unique government and culture that separate them from the others. Unlike other anime which has nothing to show the viewer once they’ve become familiar with the central locale, The Twelve Kingdoms always has something else waiting behind the curtain.
Even anime that succeed at world building often struggle to make their worlds feel like places that people actually inhabit: they’re clever fantasy ideas and not much more. Every featured kingdoms feels like a place that actual people could inhabit, going about their daily lives, and that’s no small accomplishment. The Twelve Kingdoms is just long enough to do what it needs to.
3/13 Grimgar: Ashes And Illusions
Grimgar: Ashes And Illusions is about war, whereas most isekai are about battles. The difference may seem small, but it means everything when it comes to world building. The protagonists here aren’t the finest mages in their world, dueling other wizards for the chance at a shiny title. They’re soldiers: tired, confused, and basically mediocre people who are just doing their best to make it in difficult circumstances.
Grimgar is relatively brief, telling what story it has to tell and then calling it there. Whether one loves anime that can be binged in a day or those that run for hundreds of episodes, Grimgar can’t help but win fans over thanks to the loving attention it gives to its setting.
2/13 Log Horizon
World building can look many ways, but whatever the story, whatever the genre, one of its most important aspects is coherency. Every piece has to work together to make a unified whole. It all has to make sense together.
Log Horizon is an isekai anime about characters in an MMORPG, which puts it in good company with many other shows but doesn’t immediately set it apart. Rather than let this aspect of its setting diminish it, Log Horizon makes its MMO premise one of its greatest strengths. One would need several days and a couple of flowcharts to detail the many ways that Log Horizon succeeds at developing its world. Suffice it to say, this anime approaches the pinnacle of isekai world building.
Before Log Horizon, Sword Art Online, and a hundred imitators, there was .hack//Sign. The way that an anime approaches its lore says a lot about its talent for world building. .hack//Sign does more to develop a wide-reaching, interlocking, coherent system of lore than most anime can dream of.
Wavemaster Tsukasa and his adventures in The World go far beyond the ordinary: Chaos Gates, Root Towns, and dozens of other little pieces of jargon help build up a setting that feels like one could easily step inside it. Indeed, the world building was deep and cohesive enough that anime fans have been able to do just that, stepping into the world of .hack//Sign by way of its excellent video game adaptations.