With its complex magic system, excellent setting, and entertaining adventures, The Irregular at Magic High School is an anime I very much wanted to like. Unfortunately, it has several major problems in how it is constructed that hurt the anime overall.
Good: A Futuristic World of Magic and Adventure
The Irregular at Magic High School is set in our future, a future where magic is just another science. Magic users are often engineers and researchers; but their most important role is a military one — magic users are the WMDs of the future. Like having a collection of nukes in the Cold War, having strong magic users deters other nations from invading your own. Thus, high schools for magicians are of paramount importance as they quite literally train the protectors of the future.
It is in this setting that we find Tatsuya and Miyuki Shiba, a brother and sister who have gotten into the most prestigious magical high school in Japan. But their school days are far from normal as they have to deal with everything from terrorist strikes to intermural school magic tournaments which, surprisingly, can alter the very political structure of Japan.
Honestly, there is a good adventure to be had in The Irregular at Magic High School. There are tons of exciting moments and the world it creates is both well thought out and interesting. It also has a cast of diverse characters with distinct personalities. In other words, when looked at based on story and characterization alone, it's pretty darn enjoyable.
Bad: As If Told by a Four-Year-Old
Unfortunately, it is how the story is told that is the problem. We, the viewers, are pretty much just thrown into a world with a complex magic system with little overall explanation. We are never really given a baseline of how magic works and are instead told how specific things work only when they become vital information for the continuation of the plot.
Thus, it often feels like the rules of the world are being made up on the fly. There is almost no foreshadowing and information is rarely — if ever — doled out before the episode in which it becomes important. In practice, this means that the story must make a sudden stop every once in a while for the new concept to be explained.
Of course, these exposition dumps might not be too terrible if we weren't often taught the rules of the world mere moments before Tatsuya breaks those very rules. By not having the magical rules come up organically in the story, the times when Tatsuya does the impossible are robbed of much of the "cool" factor the anime is aiming for. After all, as you barely have any time to digest the magical rule information to begin with, it is hard to be surprised when something you only just learned is impossible is, in fact, possible.
Moreover, Tatsuya does the impossible so often in The Irregular at Magic High School that it more than stretches the bounds of believability. It almost feels like watching a kid playing make believe as he makes up superpower after superpower to combat any and all problems. In the case of Tatsuya, it seems that he can do pretty much anything so there is rarely a sense of danger even when he's in a supposedly dire situation.
Bad: Tons of Exposition... That Explains Nothing
Even worse, when new magical rules and/or technology are introduced, the explanation is not only delivered with technical jargon, but also with fictional technical jargon — i.e., concepts are explained using other unexplained technical magic terms from The Irregular at Magic High School. Thus, much like Final Fantasy XIII, The Irregular at Magic High School suffers from a serious case of proper-noun-itis. As a result, it's difficult to figure out how things work despite the vast amount of time spent explaining how things work.
Even the CAD, the single most important item in the anime, is explained poorly. I vaguely know what it is — i.e., that it allows people to cast spells — but am not sure how. It is clearly somewhat like a computerized wand or spell book but, despite the lengthy explanation on how it works, I am still confused by it and its basic operation. For example, why do some people need to press buttons to activate it when others seemingly just use their minds? Also does the CAD decide what spells you can cast or is that an innate thing in the magic user? And while I know I could look up this information on a wiki, you shouldn't need a wiki to understand the most basic aspects of an anime — especially one that purports to explain all this in the show itself.
Random Thoughts: A Psychopathic Main Character
As we learn early on, Tatsuya is incapable of feeling emotion — other than those directly pertaining to his sister, anyway. This means that, much like a psychopath, Tatsuya is faking the emotions he displays on a day-to-day basis. Every supportive grin or annoyed look that crosses his face is not actually something he feels, but rather the emotion he chooses to show to get what he wants from other people. In fact, his friends are hardly that. They are just the people around him that he acts kindly toward because they can be used in some way to further his goals — even if that goal is nothing more than to blend in at school. He shares no real connection with anyone in the story except Miyuki.
His lack of emotion also means he feels no grief or remorse at killing people — and certainly no guilt. There is simply no emotional component when it comes to his taking a life — or even thousands of them.
When you take all this into account, Tatsuya is kind of terrifying. He is a remorseless killer who has no real moral compass. The only "real" person in his life is Miyuki, as he has no emotional connection to anyone else. He may be the hero of the story, but he's also a dangerous monster.
Perhaps with a different director or screenwriter The Irregular at Magic High School could have proved to be a great anime. The characters, story, and the various mysteries therein are captivating but the way in which the story is told neuters a lot of the possible emotional impact. Moreover, for a show with so much exposition, it does a terrible job at explaining even the most basic rules of its magical world. If you're willing to dig into the supplementary materials, be that the original novels or various wikis, you'll probably be able to enjoy this anime. If not, expect to be more than a little confused.