January 11, 2014

Log Horizon is the MMO Anime We Wanted All Along

Log Horizon - Living Myth
Move over, Legend of the Galactic Heroes -- there's a new LOGH in town!

While 2012's Sword Art Online may have had a head start in capitalizing on the novelty of the "OMG we're trapped in an MMORPG!" concept, a number of its early followers ended up feeling betrayed. What seemed in the first few episodes to be an adorable tribute to the tropes of the genre quickly degenerated into curiously unfaithful and out-of-touch game rules, a ho-hum plot hinged on contrived gimmicks, and a forced, cringe-inducing "romance" in the second act that left us all feeling icky. The titular virtual world that originally captivated viewers was swapped out for a less compelling placeholder in a cruel bait-and-switch, and in the series' upcoming season the fantasy MMO genre seems to be done away with altogether.

As if the cosmos saw fit to correct such injustice, the anime powers that be have bestowed unto us a vindicating follow-up, Log Horizon. It's not a perfect specimen itself, but damned if it doesn't deliver exactly what it promises -- and it does so gloriously. With the first half of the season aired, it's shaping up to be an unapologetic lark, especially for gamers.

Log Horizon
Kitties, griffons, cute ninja girls, and fireball-hurling sorcerers. What more could you ask for?

The first episode wastes no time in setting up the premise -- the immensely popular online fantasy game Elder Tale is no longer a game, but an inescapable reality. We're kept completely in the dark about the how and why of it, particularly as it is established that the game wasn't a Matrix-esque VR simulation but a standard mouse-and-keyboard affair. We also never catch a glimpse of the real world before this incident, and the swiftness with which the characters accept their sudden (and assumedly horrifying) entrapment is off-putting. Everyone just kind of rolls with it, and the show seems to hold the pretense that the viewer will too, perhaps to its detriment. Then again, if you wanted to see a bunch of traumatized people moping about how terrible it is to be stuck in a game world, you came to the wrong show. This isn't a series to take too seriously, and if you can suspend your disbelief a bit, it really is a lot of fun.

Interestingly, this isn't a game of life-and-death. Being defeated by a monster or another player simply means being re-spawned back at one's home city, which for some reason the show still plays up like it's such a dreadful thing. It's hard to get a sense of exactly what the stakes are, at first, but eventually the implications of this are expounded on as a scourge of malevolent "player killers" essentially hold the weak hostage within starting zones.

Log Horizon - Naotsugu
The ever-elusive Tank.

The greatest aspect of this show is its steadfast loyalty to portraying the mechanics and rules of its world in gaming terms. If you have any experience with MMORPGs, or RPGs in general, Log Horizon is sure to delight. Action scenes are drenched in strategic chatter about HP and MP, aggro, ability cast times, and cooldowns. Everyone has a designated class, with signature offensive and defensive skills, alligned pretty much exactly how you would expect in World of Warcraft or any of its ilk. They aren't just superficial name drops, either -- battle scenes demonstrate an impressive consistency, with victories earned through teamwork and mastery of familiar MMO tactics like crowd control, tanking, and healing.

Log Horizon - Nyanta duel
You know its an RPG when...

Main protagonist Shiroe, an Enchanter, will hold enemies in place by summoning thorny vines, put enemies to sleep temporarily, and buff the offensive power of allies. Naotsugu, a burly Guardian, defends the group by forcing targets to focus on him, lest they suffer the wrath of a devastating counterattack. Direct damage and reconaissance is handled by Akatsuki, a lithe Assassin specializing in tracking and precise stealth attacks. Watching combat play out is sheer joy for an MMO aficionado, part hilarious homage and part genuine thrill. If you enjoy the rigorous detail and descriptive play-by-play of the fight scenes in Naruto, but can do without the drawn-out flashbacks and snail-like pacing of every move, this series is worth watching for the action alone.

The MMORPG theme doesn't stop at the fights, either. The story is driven by all kinds of familiar gaming staples like NPCs, quests, dungeons, summonable mounts, and crafting professions. One of the more prominent and interesting subplots is about the secrets of successful cooking, which really goes a long way to making the world and its rules seem deep and consistent. Everything in this show feels like a part of a greater whole, all having a place in adding to the atmosphere and economy.

Log Horizon - Nyanta
My vote for Time's Purr-son of the Year.

Speaking of cooking, let me just gush for a moment about the show's master chef and all-around best character ever, Nyanta. He's a cat man (one of a handful of races in the "game" of Elder Tale), an agile swashbuckler, and often ends his sentences with "desu nya" (a Japanese "meow" pun, because the guy is really into role-playing his character well). Regrettably, most of the other characters in Log Horizon are rather flat, with not much depth as of this point in the story. The author of the original novel, Mamare Touno, must have known Nyanta would be a fan favourite, because this guy seems like he got some extra attention and nuance. He's knowledgeable, well-mannered, disciplined, patient, nostalgic, perceptive, and has a strong sense of honour. We don't have much insight into his former life, but he is immediately likable and adds another feather to the show's cap.

Log Horizon - Akatsuki
Naotsugu's obsession with panties and boobs is more "genuine MMO banter" than I'd like to admit.

Of course, at its core, Log Horizon is silly. You just can't write a show about an MMO world turned real without a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humour and self-aware parody. As cool as it is that the show is so authentic about its video game subject matter, it's also kind of a running gag. LH could be criticized for leaning on this gimmick too heavily, as there is little here to enjoy for anime fans who aren't into the "gamey" aspect of it. There's also a lot of cliché anime slapstick thrown around, which only serves to highlight the "one trick pony" nature of some characters. Again, this isn't a problem per se, as long as you keep your expectations in check. This is a lighthearted MMORPG-themed anime, made for fans of the genre, and as such it is highly enjoyable thus far. My only concern is that when it inevitably comes time for the earth-shattering reveals in the second half of the season, the emotional investment may not be there to enhance the impact.

Log Horizon

As of now, though, I have to recommend this series to anyone who finds the premise appealing. It absolutely triumphs in portraying an online game world come to life, and savvy viewers will relish the attention to detail Log Horizon puts into realizing its setting. Frankly, it runs circles around Sword Art Online in a contest of authenticity, and it will be enticing to see if it can maintain that lead while bolstering the character development and plot as the season's second half airs over the coming weeks.

Log Horizon can be viewed on Crunchyroll.

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