Monday, August 31, 2015

Other Media Review: Log Horizon

    I don't have a Down the Stacks review prepared this week, so instead I'm starting a "substitution" series where I'll review anything that isn't books but I feel like stating my opinion about.  This "Other Media Review" will be about an anime series I recently watched: Log Horizon.

    Log Horizon is the third anime/ Japanese franchise I’ve seen take on the idea of adventures taking place in an MMORPG that blur the line between reality and the virtual.  The first is .hack, which spans multiple series across all kinds of media, including animation and video games, and includes such elements of people being unable to log out of the game or being harmed in the real world by things within the game World.  .hack seemed interesting on the surface, but none of the series I checked out managed to hold my interest for very long due to being too talky.
The second series is Sword Art Online, which I’ve previously reviewed.  To summarize, SAO’s potential was ruined by ridiculous pacing, poor characters, and a severe lack of focus in the storytelling goals (unless that focus was simple power fantasy).
Log Horizon is, in many ways, the superior successor over SAO to the .hack franchise.  It takes the mechanics and plot of “trapped in a virtual MMO” to new levels above what .hack established, with great attention paid to both setting and characters.

    To summarize the premise of Log Horizon: the series takes place within the world of an MMORPG called “Elder Tales,” a vast world purposely modeled after Earth, but at half-scale, with a typical fantasy overlay.  Elder Tales is played across the world, and each server corresponds to one region of the world.  LH centers on the land of Yamato, housing the game’s Japan servers, and more specifically the player hub-town of Akihabara.  Elder Tales has millions of players world-wide, and Akihabara has a population numbering in the tens of thousands.  Log Horizon opens on our main character, Shirou, awakening in Akihabara with the realization that this time he’s not playing the game, but has been transported into the world of Elder Tales itself.  He soon runs into a couple of friends – Akatsuki and Naostugu – and after comparing notes they determine that this mysterious “Apocalypse” coincided with the release of an expansion to Elder Tales, and only those people who were logged on when the expansion launched were transported, and they can’t log out.  The story that emerges from this set-up is surprisingly more focused on the players adjusting to their new world than on attempting to return to reality.

     The similarities of Log Horizon’s premise to the first season of Sword Art Online are as clear as the differences that make LH the superior story.  Both stories have the long-term goal of escaping from the world of a game and look at the society that emerges among players in the meantime, but where SAO leaps around sporadically to show only the “important” developments, LH takes its time to show us just how the world works and the steps Shirou and company need to take to learn and master those mechanics.  The result is that LH tells us a complete story where each sub-plot flows smoothly and logically into the next and all the characters we meet get time to showcase their varied and multifaceted personalities.  In contrast, SAO was ultimately just about showing off how powerful - and how much of a game-breaking cheater - the main character Kirito was.  Log Horizon also takes the time to explore its game world and mechanics and how the Apocalypse has changed both.  Log Horizon also does away with SAO’s “die in the game, die in real life” conflict – players will respawn if they’re killed – which forced the author of the original light novel into finding less common and more interesting ways to keep the conflict stakes high.  Tellingly, despite the respawn guarantee that exists in Elder Tales, Log Horizon treats Player Killing more seriously than SAO ever did (namely that Shirou takes steps to establish meaningful punishments for chronic PKers and similar bad eggs).
The main character of Log Horizon, Shirou, is not the typical warrior-type hero.  His in-game class is the Enchanter, a support-type magic user that cannot do well alone in combat, and he has a sub-class of Scribe, both classes befitting his personality.  Shirou is a master strategist who was well-known in the Elder Tales community even before the Apocalypse, earning nicknames such as “the villain behind glasses.”  Shirou’s mannerisms and methods would easily mark him as an evil mastermind if his goals weren’t so noble, and this fact is remarked on by other characters and occasionally played up for laughs.  When not masterminding the blacklisting of Player Killer and extortionist guilds or using a burger stand to kickstart efforts to bring some order to Akihabara’s Adventurer population, Shirou splits his time between researching the Elder Tales world and learning how to relax and goof off with his friends.  One of the most amusing things about Shirou is that he has habit of adjusting his glasses whenever he shows off just how fiendishly clever he’s about to be, and the gesture gets picked up by other characters when they come up with clever ideas, including people that don’t wear glasses in the first place.

     Due to its emphasis on teamwork and coordination (in contrast to SAO’s Kirito avoiding most people) Log Horizon has a lot of characters who move in an out of focus depending on the needs of the current arc.  Characters like Akatsuki and Naotsugu see more screen time when actual combat is needed, while others come into focus when the conflict is diplomatic or social in nature.  Nobody is ever completely sidelined, however.  For instance, Akatsuki always follows Shirou around as part of her self-appointed role as his ninja guardian, and Naotsugu runs a training camp for lower-leveled players while Shirou is taking part in a diplomatic conference with between Akihabara’s Adventurers and the local NPC leaders.  When Akatsuki and Naotsugu share the same scene, they can often be counted on to provide some comic relief with bickering and Akatsuki preemptively punishing Naotsugu for perverted statements.

      There are over a dozen other characters worth mentioning, but I’ll just give you my “best of” list.  First there’s Nyanta, another of Shirou’s pre-Apocalypse friends who plays a Swashbuckler Cat-person and has a voice like Morgan Freeman.  Nyanta is the “cool old gentleman” type, deadly in combat but in his prime element dispensing advice and complimentary commentary from the side.  Nothing seems to faze him.  Next is Minori, one of the five “newbie” characters the show uses to organically teach the viewer the basics of Elder Tales battle, parties, and skill systems (since Shirou and company are already at the level cap and experts of their respective builds).  Minori is a Shrine Maiden, a mage class partway between Healer and Support, and she wants to follow in Shirou’s footsteps as a strategist.  She works alongside her twin brother Tohya, a Samuari, Isuzu the bard, Serara the shy Druid healer with an obvious crush on Nyanta, and Rundelhaus Cord the hammy but reliable Sorcerer.  These five have a wonderful dynamic within their party and also interact well with their more experienced mentors.  Outside the Log Horizon guild itself, there’s Maryelle, the guildmaster of Crescent Moon Alliance who Shirou helps out and works alongside from day one.  Maryelle is bubbly and prone to funny bouts of extreme tantruming when she grows bored of too much paperwork.  A lot of the social events in Akihabara can be traced back to Maryelle seeking an excuse to do something fun.  Assisting Maryelle, and sometimes strong-arming her into doing her job, is Henrietta.  Henrietta is usually straightlaced and responsible – a good partner for Shirou for behind-the-scenes work, but she has oen weakness: she finds Akatsuki unbearably adorable and will force the ninja girl to wear pretty outfits or let Henrietta stroke her hair like a doll.
 A major conflict the LH characters have to confront is the realization that the NPCs – or People of the Land – have become sentient with complete political societies that the Player-character Adventurers have suddenly intruded upon in new ways.  The very presence of “NPC” characters in Log Horizon gives its world a greater sense of reality compared to the game worlds of Sword Art Online.

     There are a lot of little touches that make Log Horizon’s characters fun to watch no matter what the situation.  One such detail is the expressions of total bliss whenever someone eats good food.  I don’t think I ever seen characters act so appreciative of food so consistently in a show that wasn’t all about food.  The reason for this behavior is that for the first few episodes, the Adventurers struggle with the fact that the food they create through their HUD menus always comes out looking delicious but tastes like unseasoned rice crackers, and attempting to cook food normally turns it into disgusting, burnt purple goo.  That all changes once Shirou meets up with Nyanta and the cat-man reveals that if somebody with enough levels in the Chef subclass – like himself – cooks food normally, it actually comes out with proper flavors.  Compared to the flavorless menu-generated food, normal food is like heaven to the Adventurers, and even the People of Land consider it an improvement.

     One of the big criticisms I leveled at Sword Art Online was that it failed to provide a good balance between action-adventure plots and slice-of-life world-building.  Log Horizon succeeds where SAO failed because it blends the action into the world smoothly.  Fights with monsters and other players are considered just one of many important aspects of existing in the Elder Tales world post-Apocalypse, and every major battle that occurs has a solid reason and build-up behind it.  The fight choreography is beautiful in all respects and backed by appropriate music and sound effects, and no one character ever dominates the spotlight.  Shirou makes a big deal out of teamwork and strategy in his exposition to the audience and Minori and the action scenes show the value of his philosophy.  The other kind of battles that take place – battles of wit and diplomacy – manage to just as intense as the actual fighting thanks to the visuals, music, and especially the writing.  Every problem that Shirou and company need to talk and manipulate their way through is explained in clear and interest-holding language.  You will care about what’s going on in every moment of Log Horizon, and the payoff will always satisfy you.

    That is why Log Horizon is worth your time and money instead of Sword Art Online.

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