Finally, we’ve reached the inner depths of Sae Niijima’s palace. Between its casino theming and “Whims of Fate”, it gave the perfect atmosphere for an Ocean’s Eleven-esque heist on a similar level of fantasy as the museum and bank heists of previous palaces. However, what made Sae’s special was both her association with Makoto as her older sister and the linkage between high stakes gambling and the criminal justice system that Sae is entrenched in. Although her repressed thoughts dwell on how her father’s death pushed her into the direction of resenting criminals and steering her towards prosecuting any of them that come across her desk, it’s the Phantom Thieves that have gotten under her skin.
After realizing that taking the high road offers no reward when pursuing a criminal organization takes more time when you can’t pin anything on them, she becomes hooked on the idea of rigging the system to benefit her and get a conviction. With the amount of times that the SIU Director and Akechi belittled and mocked her for not getting prompt results, the goading would manifest quickly into seeing the courtroom as a casino where the only way to win high stakes / high reward situations is through underhanded tactics like what we see in the palace’s games. And because of the fun fact we learn in this episode of the high probability of guilty verdicts in Japan, Sae’s success and failures end up cemented as a result of the efforts that she’s made to work herself to the bone to get results.
The anime did a decent job at showing a lot of this, albeit with some scenes sped up, changed, or removed. We weren’t able to see as much of Shadow Sae nor did we get the section in her boss battle where she cheats you out of rounds in the stage’s roulette board until you have a party member shoot a number to cheat back. There are also parts like the hunting game in the dark that are trimmed down. Still, the inclusions they make have a lot to offer for the characters such as all the funny faces Ryuuji and Ann make as the party gets duped by the palace’s games. Scenes they included with Makoto did much more to hammer on the struggle that she has with Sae’s change in personality and how far gone she went once she was given the Phantom Thieves investigation. They did more than the game did in showing her genuinely upset and crying over being pitted against her sister, and shows her confrontation with her CGI boss form as a personal battle to regain her older sister back. By the end of it, they did justice to showing how much Makoto placed on herself to save Sae’s well-being by removing the distortion that clouded her judgement. There were also some cute moments Makoto had in the palace like the time she tried to look excited when everyone else was cheering for Ren and some of the ship-teasing that happened when he tackled her out of harm’s way. I remember a scene like this happened in Futaba’s palace in the game, but having it appear in Sae’s casino has more thematic significance in showing Ren’s resolve as he shows concern for Makoto after realizing the challenging situation she’s in by fighting her sister.
Other than that, the episode was decent. The confidant’s function in improving Ren’s abilities in palaces is exemplified only through the interactions with confidants that don’t push their stories forward such as Iwai merely selling him model guns, Shinya lecturing him on his aim, Hifumi showing him tactical strategies, and Takemi offering her potions to him. It’s Toranosuke who gets the most development as Ren helps him in the lieu of a rough demonstration where he’s called by his notorious nickname “No Good Tora”. Shido making his appearance in the news as a force aiming break up the Diet and reform society to his liking makes Toranosuke’s appearance later on significant as well in that Tora’s pitch to bring power back to the youth and his admiration for the Phantom Thieves acts as fuel to shape exactly what Ren wants to get out of being the leader of the Phantom Thieves. There are also interesting twists in the tail-end with how we ended up seeing Sae’s treasure, something we only received vague hints of in the original game. There was also another surprise at the very end of the episode as Ren dodges gunfire from Akechi while he’s still escaping from the palace. The end scene could definitely hint towards the new twist that the anime had in mind since this is very new to those who have played the game. Perhaps we’ll get the answer very soon now that we’re heading closer and closer towards the home stretch of the story.