What happens when you take the principle foundation of Sword Art Online and lessen the examination on humanity in a digital to increase the game fluff that was on top of it? Log Horizon is what happens when you have someone who decides that he isn't good at writing compelling human psychological thrillers but decides instead to crank up his personal experiences of playing video games and RPGs as far as he can. Basically, Sword Art Online crossed with World of Warcaft.
In Log Horizon, Elder Tale is a long running MMO of 20 years that has a global community of players. One day though, everyone suddenly wakes up inside the game as their game avatar with no memory of what happened and just like Sword Art Online, they can't log out. This even is coined as The Apocalypse but unlike SAO however, no one is distressing over player death since everything that makes Elder Tale a game is still largely intact. Player death is largely inconsequential since all it does is penalize you experience and you respawn at the last cathedral you visited. Even though the lack of death separates its stakes from SAO, that doesn't mean everyone kicks back and relaxes. The biggest problem The Apocalypse concerns in Log Horizon is that the playerbase, known as adventurers, is either in anarchistic chaos or resigned apathy: war parties roam the land PKing everyone or enslaving NPCs known as People of the Land or players simply loaf around trapped in a game that acts essentially like purgatory.
In fact, this is largely the biggest difference between Log Horizon and SAO. SAO puts a big emphasis on the reality of death ironically being in the game, and how its a constant thought in everyone's minds. In Log Horizon however, the very fact that players are essentially immortal is the biggest concern for most people. Imagine receiving immortality yourself but being trapped within your room for what could be forever. Your games and Internet connection can only sustain you for so long. How long could you go before you'd just give up?
"It feels like my life has been poisoned! Oh, cause I'm actually poisoned ok."
Log Horizon centers around a player character known as Shiroe who primarily resides within Akihabara of the Japanese servers. Shiroe is the intellectual type who is one of the few enchanters in the world of Elder Tale, which is a support-based mage class. Being an enchanter also defines his quirks well as he has trouble with social interaction and has a past of naively helping everyone regardless of their honest intentions. The series follows Shiroe and his friends as he they try to make sense of their problem, first dealing with the domestic problems of an un-unified Akihabara, slowly expanding outward and dealing with problems throughout the land with various outside communities and People of the Land. Being a thinker rather than a fighter, Shiroe will also explore the mysteries of Elder Tale along with how and why the players of the game are seemingly trapped in this new world.
I've always loved imagining my own idea and design documents for my own complex RPG and Log Horizon seems to have that same dream. For better or worse, Log Horizon has a large system of game mechanics that fleshes out a whole RPG game that I feel is genuinely interesting to learn how it'd function as an actual game. Of course, this is also a very obvious problem with the show too. Every little thing must be explained for the sake of mainstream viewers. Sure, people like me can understand that a whistle that summons rare griffon mounts would be from a high level raid, but for the sake of people who don't play video games, the show takes the time to have a character have an internal monologue explaining how such a rare item could only be owned by high level players who participated in a specific raid.
These status boxes are recurring, fleeting visual effects but it keeps you rooted in the game's reality.
This can happen a lot for many of nitty gritty RPG mechanics and tropes such as a tank character using a skill that draws aggro or what place an NPC has in the overall quest structure. This can really hinder the pace and pad out episodes but at same time I think its a charming point for the show just so you can gush about how certain things are accurate to any RPG you've played. It's crazy to think in Western media and entertainment, we still get things like the Resident Evil movies, Doom, and Gamer (starring the blockbuster movie star Ludacris) where producers and writers are wracking their brains on converting the narrative of the source games to be both faithful and mainstream. Meanwhile, Log Horizon started life as light novel where it was undoubtedly authored by a person who has played games and most likely had input in how their creative work would translate to the animated medium. The end result is an enjoyable show that is very much well informed of what its portraying while attempting to an outside audience.
Log Horizon's main draw is the world crafting which somehow hits the satisfaction of seeing a world from a series you're watching and seeing a world as it would be as a video game. Its intriguing to see characters who play as guardians and how they behave in the world of Elder Tale as both apart of the story and as a hypothetical game. We meet one samurai character, Tohya, early in the series and we see how he acts as the tank of the group using skills that involve attacking enemies and provoking them for aggro. But I'm also interested in learning more on how other samurai characters act like Soujiro, leader of the West Wind Brigade guild. Plus within Elder Tale's class structure, samurai are one of three tank based classes, others being the guardian which specializes in shields and the monk which specializes in combos and evasion. A viewer like myself who's interested in the game world wants to see more of how the monk acts in a group scenario or what other skills a guardian like Naogotsu, one of the main characters, has. There are other gamey elements such as the functions of guilds, roaming monsters, and even instances and events!
Holy crap he actually said PUG! The author and producers know what they're talking about!
Another big part of the series is sticking through to see what the mystery of The Apocalypse is. While the consequences of The Apocalypse are only lightly explored at first, later on the depth of the mysteries behind The Apocalypse truly hooks you in. I shouldn't really spoil it but despite that particular arc not having very much action, the revelations about The Apocalypse alone kept me in on the commitment to watching Log Horizon.
Politics is also strangely a big part of the anime. In between stretches of combat is political tension and intrigue. At first this is from the inter-guild dynamic of the existing players of Akiba. But soon we deal with the unknown element of outside kingdoms who fear the mysterious origins and immortality of the adventurers. One long arc feels like a dangerous game of poker, with the two factions trying to glean as much information about the other without revealing too much about themselves. Information is as powerful as brute force after all in high powered peace talks.
And of course, character development and growth has a special place. After all, great series develop their character so that they aren't the same person they were when the series started. But that's doubly important since we're talking about an RPG. We all know that a defining trait of an RPG is growing your character to be different then when you began. Usually that means they're stronger but it can also mean a change in alignment or a change in beliefs.
There are promises of character growth beyond what can be found from researching its past as a light novel. Two characters are comparatively newer to the game then game veteran Shiro. The previously mentioned Tohya has a twin sister, Minori, and both are about level 25 compared to Shiroe and friends being at the level cap of 90. As far as the series has progressed, the twins have shown growth in combat and understanding of the game. A more tangible example is one dungeon the party completes and the treasure at the end is a pair of bracers that strengthen magic attacks. With only one mage in their party, Rundelhaus Code takes them with pride and the very next episode, we see him polishing them with reverence. If it stays somewhat on track with the source light novels, the characters will indeed receive new equipment and skills to reflect their growth as warriors and indubitably, they'll be wiser as people too.
If you've watched Sword Art Online, will you like Log Horizon? Its hard to say since SAO can hit several notes on your taste. SAO has some great action scenes in it, plus the usually serious tone was a good change of pace from your usual bubbly anime. Log Horizon has much less action per episode and has typical anime tropes and exaggeration. But then again, Log Horizon has a consistent mystery vibe going about it, a very fleshed out game world to latch onto. Plus its built on a premise that should last longer then SAO's premise, which should have ended at episode 13. If you're in the market for a new anime to watch, give Log Horizon a try as a potential wedge in the Venn Diagram between anime and games.