Log Horizon (TV S1)

The MMORPG has been the subject of a lot of media now. Usually, it appears as a new version of the getting trapped in a fantasy world premise, and it's not hard to see why. We've been making these stories for a long time as fiction has become a more popular medium, and the idea of a massive virtual world populated by tons of people is ripe for possibilities. Sadly, the concept is rarely done well; the .Hack series is filled with messy entries in its massive continuity that are usually littered with poor pacing issues, while the current most popular title of the bunch, Sword Art Online, is nothing more than the usual male power fantasy garbage that still finds a way to work some sort of incest sub-plot. It even discards the original premise rather quickly. The MMO based series seemed doomed to mediocrity, at least until Log Horizon received its own anime adaptation back in Fall of last year, with another season on the way. It trades out the mess of tired clichés its contemporaries abuse for a fresh take that uses the mechanics of a game world to create a far more interesting mythology and story, mixing together politics and fantasy action in a satisfying package.

The premise of Log Horizon starts out similarly to many other series who've dabbled with being stuck in a videogame world; on a day referred to as the "Apocalypse," thousands of Elder Tale players suddenly disappeared from the world and found themselves in the land of the game. The rules of the game still applied; upon death, everyone revives back at a Cathedral, meaning none of the "adventurers" could never die for good. The result is that the world became filled with lazy adventurers and player killers, while powerful clans and guilds trap players within what was once a series of safe cities. Shiroe, a mage and a former member of a legendary group of players called the Tea Party (not to be confused with the Boston one or the crazy one in America), and his friends bring it upon themselves to try and improve the state of the world while working on finding a way to get back to the real world, discovering new rules and mechanics to the world as they progress. However, the plot becomes more complicated quickly as it becomes apparent that the NPCs, or people of the land, aren't stationary and scripted beings anymore; they're actually alive, as are the monsters of this world.

Log Horizon does have a few of the marks of the light novel genre, unfortunately. Shiore is made out as a power fantasy for the reader in many respects, with his ridiculous brilliance and desire to change the world as some sort of messiah. There's also a love triangle that rears its head towards the final few episodes that was only briefly hinted at before. However, everything else is so well handled and interesting that these problematic elements can easily be overlooked. Unlike many of its ilk, Log Horizon is much more interested in building its world and characters, and it does a great job of this while balancing a massive cast.

The way the Elder Tale world works is dependant entirely on videogame rules. All characters have hit points and die when they run out; however, adventures revive in cathedrals, while people of the land and monsters die for good. All moves have cool down times, and simple tasks require the proper sub-class to perform. For example, you need a chef sub-class to make food that actually tastes like food, but with the added issue of having to make it from your own hands and not relying on the menu all adventures can bring up. One has to apply themselves to truly use their talents properly, and they become more skilled the more they perform actions. Also, battles work like they would in an MMO, with characters moving in certain ways to activate attacks and having to work around cool down, buffs, targeting and other variables. Where as many other shows would treat this as some neat extra stuff, Log Horizon makes this the crutch of all the plot and drama.

Adventures become feared because of how fast they level up and their ability to revive from death. The apathy of the adventures preventing stable government from being made has to be taken care of through careful manipulation of newly discovered information on how the world works. Fights depend entirely on who can outsmart the other and use all the various mechanics of the system to their advantage. Breaking down corrupt guilds keeping young players captive as physical labor requires constant contact and using the rules of building ownership to restrict their powers. The list goes on and on with how the series uses these rules for every major development, and it works incredibly well. In fact, most of the story ignores the action that would be central to most series and instead works with the political structure of this world, mixed together with some espionage.

After the initial rescue of a young healer, the series stops from action bits to focus on Shiroe and friends trying to fix the domestic issues with the player characters. A long stretch of episodes is simply the slow reveal of a plan to make a governing council, which sounds boring on paper, but manages to remain thrilling through the slow reveal and the stakes of the young players in the abusive guild Shiroe is trying to take down at the same time. The following arc deals with the people of the land and has similar structure, even when war eventually reveals itself. The series gets where the interesting stuff lies is not in the swords and spells, but the drama of people trying to come to terms with a new reality and political skullduggery. It's like the thinking counterpart of SAO's more simplistic morality tale, and that works greatly to its advantage.

It helps the cast is strong. Shiroe is one of the most likable and interesting leads I've seen in a good while, even managing to give him some relatable flaws to balance out that insanely talented mind of his. Naotsugu and Akatsuki get the short end of the stick as the series goes on, but still manage to keep lively and silly personalities. Akatsuki is my second favorite character in the franchise, matched only by Rundel Haus Code. He is amazingly goofy and gets one of the best arcs in the season. The Crescent Moon Alliance is also filled with likable people, especially the leaders Henrietta and Marielle. I could go on and on about the wonderful cast, but I think I'll leave it at that I never met a single character in the cast that I hated. If I did hate someone, I was supposed to. Keeping much of the cast simple really helps keep things moving.

The animation is solid and constant, but it won't blow anyone away. The designs are also pretty simple fantasy fair, but manage to give everyone their own flair and personality from the start. The music fairs better, with some tracks you'd expect to hear in a fantasy game and a great use of strings. The opening deserves special mention, however, for being one of the most stupidly catchy things ever imagined. It's a rap/rock song about being trapped in a game world and it also seems to take shots at the various other franchises who have tried the same concept. It's the most amazing thing I've ever heard and it managed to outshine Watamote for the most bizarre opening of 2013. It's pretty amazing, despite the visuals that go with it being pretty standard. I think that sums up Log Horizon best, actually.

Where the show lacks in razzle dazzle, not to mention some character depth for most of it (that large cast comes with a price), it more than makes up for in content. It doesn't so much go in new territory as find a new angle on a tired genre and breathes new life into it. It's not anime of the year material, but it comes ridiculously close to it. There's just so much cool stuff here you normally don't see in series of its ilk, and it may be the first anime about videogames that understands how the thing that makes videogames, that being rule sets, can be used to make something far more interesting than the explosive action we normally get. Log Horizon is pretty damn book smart, and it benefits a whole lot because of it.


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