A review of the second Sword Art Online anime series
Some way into this second series of Sword Art Online I found myself thinking that it was quite brave. Taking the clown-shoed silliness of the first series and slowing everything down, focusing on characters and setting, seemed like an odd decision. Like so many other aspects of Sword Art Online II though, I was disappointed. It’s not being brave, just invoking standard shounen-esque time wasting. Meaning if you watched the series as it aired you will have spent several weeks watching wunderkind Kirito and newcomer Sinon sit in a virtual cave in the middle of a virtual desert.
Imagine a character that is part Jesus Christ and part James Dean and you get the idea
I shouldn’t really have expected anything else really. I liked the simplicity of the first series’ bifurcated storyline in a schlocky, intelligence-lite way, but the spark of that first storyline - trapped in a virtual world, die here and you die for real - was gone. Alfheim, the fairy filled fantasy funfair that occupied the second half of that series and is now the staple MMO for the core cast, was bright and cheerful but lacked the tangibility of Aincrad. It’s disheartening then that this second series kicks off by plunging Kirito into the grimy, gunmetal grey world of Gun Gale Online.
Read other peoples’ reviews of Log Horizon and a pattern emerges, whereby your enjoyment of the series seems predicated on your level of involvement with MMORPGs and by how much you want an anime series to capture the feelings they invoke. So on the one hand you have those who have played since the heady pioneering days of Ultima Online and Everquest and have moved past the day to day minutiae of MMO activities with an elevated focus on community and meta aspects to the experience. On the other, you have those who seek the thrill of loot, of building one’s character, min-maxing and optimising and savouring the Pavlovian new-level ping.
that knowing sense of daftness when a samurai takes down a boar ten times his size, or when a griffin tries to eat Naotsugu’s head
Log Horizon contains characters from that entire spectrum but as a series, favours the former over the latter. The concept of characters becoming trapped within an MMO is definitely not unique but its approach to telling a story within that structure is. Perhaps most crucially though is that the series seems to understand which core tenets of MMOs make a good story rather than doing the opposite trying to apply a story to an MMO.
There will always be something enticing about the portrayal of MMOs within anime. Like .hack//sign before it, Sword Art Online tickles the fancy of those who revel in finding the glitches, the rare objects, the dark and hidden zones of online worlds that subvert the otherwise strongly governed rules and are all but untouched by the masses. For the first half of the series at least, again like .hack//sign, the pesky outside world cannot interfere, for the players of SAO are locked into Aincard by a nefarious programmer. Reach the 100th level and escape the game, if you die you die for real, if you try and take off the gear used to access the game, you die.
Three simple rules, ten thousand players, starting pistol... Go. From there protagonist Kirito, a beta tester and all-round MMO connoisseur, is able to single-handedly charge through what would otherwise take squads, groups, even whole guilds to defeat. A lovely bit of wish-fulfilment intimating that by relying on solitary skill rather communal co-operation a single person is able to succeed and thrive.
I have decided, perhaps foolishly, to start playing an MMO - Aion. If one were to ask the reason for me deciding this, I could not give a single answer. I can quantify my reasoning, but not give a single definitive motive.
To backtrack, I don't usually play MMO's: I haven't played one extensively since Ultima Online back when 28.8 modems were considered cutting edge. I have dabbled only once since, joining the first iteration of Guild Wars, an NCSoft cost-to-buy but free-to-play system that was bought for playing with my significant other of the time; suffice to say neither of us took to it and that experiment ended with a little fanfare. I did hear of Aion when it was released in Korea at the tail end of 2008, although at the time it blended in with the general background noise of the Korean gaming scene of which MMO's play a large part.
I capitulated and purchased the Collector's Edition that had been beckoning to me, siren-like, on Steam
I think one of the aspects which swayed me into at least trying Aion was the aesthetics. Despite my ordinary avoidance of superficiality, I am by nature drawn to pretty things, a severe character flaw I'm sure. So it had crested the first hurdle in getting my attention. The second draw was the pleasant buzz surrounding it, anime and game blogs alike weren't exactly haemorrhaging praise but there was a decent undercurrent to the otherwise acerbic MMO discussion. Partnered with the looks came the lore, typical high-fantasy fare with a generous sprinkling of ethereal names that only just manages to be convincing of when it was conceived: moments before it was decided to be an MMO. And then there was the marketing: