“Trapped in the game.” It’s nothing new, Tron did it; and then there’s the ever-popular .hack series. However, with the recent boosts in VR tech (I’m looking at you Oculus Rift) the scenario has sprung up quite frequently in popular media. This includes, of course, anime. While many of these titles feature a hero/heroine being whisked to another world while in the process of gaming, some of them stand out among the crowd as unique, and there is a difference between “being transported to another world” and “being trapped in a game.” Most of these series did originate from light novels, so the animated feature can differ from the source material. This article will more or less be a comparison between my top 3 favorite “video game anime” series and why you should give each one a chance. Please note: I was a hardcore MMO player and then a casual MMO player, so I am fairly well-versed in these matters. I’m not including .hack and other older shows because this article is only about the most recent series. Again, this is why you should watch all three, and not which is better. So, to get this party started, I will begin with Overlord.
Overlord begins with our hero, Momonga a max-level mage, playing his favorite fantasy Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online (VRMMO) game. The servers are to be shut down, and Momonga decides he is going to stay logged in until they do. However, the serves don’t shut off as expected, rather Momonga finds himself in a world eerily similar to the one in his game. Without spoiling too much, I will say that he begins to gather information about his world using the help of his former-NPC minions, who make up the rest of the main cast, as well as his political and negotiation skills with the inhabitants of the world. The difference that sets this anime apart from the others is that our hero, Momonga, is probably better described as a villain. The series is currently ongoing–and only a handful of episodes in–but this unique trait drew me to it. The title of the anime itself ominously denounces his master role in the world he now inhabits. Will he continue down the path of conquest? Or will he take the road-well-traveled and be a benevolent hero like our other titles? Who knows… anime hasn’t gotten that far yet. However, there is some fanservice here and there, and it’s fairly apparent that our Overlord will be the love-target of many a female character. In addition, he will occasionally display traits that could only be described as “generic anime protagonist childishness,” such as freaking out at a girl’s comment or being speechless when confronted with, well, fanservice. Although perhaps that accurately portrays how an young gamer might react in those given scenarios. The audio quality is pretty good, and the soundtrack fits the show. The opening song is perfect. Not dubbed (yet) but the Japanese cast is experienced and the characters feel believable. To be honest, the biggest attraction is Momonga himself. For me, he is exactly how my brother would react if he suddenly became his in-game character. I think Momonga fits a villainous niche that most stories avoid. Nonetheless, I enjoyed what I’ve seen so far, and it manages to bring in the aspect of the MMO quite nicely, despite no longer being a game. Speaking of no longer being a game, that brings me to our next title on my list: Log Horizon. Log Horizon, like our previous entry, begins with our protagonist Shiroe in the world of his game. However, Elder Tale (the MMO he plays) is not a VRMMO, so he is immediately astounded as he sees everything for the first time in his own eyes. He initially has trouble walking, because his avatar is a different size than his real body. But he soon comes to his senses and meets up with his long-time companion Naotsugu. Naotsugu and Shiroe then contemplate on how they are in the game, suddenly realizing that there just was an update which must have transported them inside the game. The anime then progresses in large spans of time to a point maybe a month into this incident. It is revealed that players are bored and have stopped playing the game altogether. Unlike our previous entry, Overlord, this anime takes a while to going. Things like skills and combat work almost the same as the game, except that you must now physically cook or attack in order to do stuff, rather than just press buttons. Without spoiling too much beyond the first episode, I will say that most of this anime is about how gamers adapt to a world in which they are no longer gamers, but rather citizens of a fantasy realm. The unique part of this anime is how much little detail it gives into each of our hero’s actions. Shiroe is consistently narrating each and every action he and his team take. However, that is his role as a Strategist (he doesn’t really fight, but commands his allies to victory). It can get a little tiresome when by the 15th episode Shiroe is still explaining how his already-explained skill works. If you are familiar with MMOs already, a lot of this explanation will be unnecessary, and even at times it can contradict itself. Nonetheless, it’s a great feature for anime fans who may not know how MMO mechanics work.
This anime gets most of its hype from its political and economical features. Simply put, Shiroe understands how economics and politics work, and basically no one else does. Shiroe is able to manipulate others into doing what he wants, which doesn’t always make him seem like the good guy. Some stuff he does seems to serve no purpose other than to just be mean, which puts an interesting spin on his character (is he really a hero?). One unique feature is that there is almost no consequence for dying. While other animes have “oh no I might die!” This anime’s conflict is “oh no I might have to respawn and walk back!” I’m not joking, they literally say that. Despite the main casts’ immortality, the anime does manage to convey a decent plot with a fair bit of conflict; which is rather refreshing from death being the biggest problem. Now, onto the reason I really enjoy this anime: Crusty. Crusty is the leader of DDD, an elite guild, and a key player in the politics of the world. He is charismatic, mature, and deviates greatly from the “generic anime protagonist” norm; probably because he’s a side-character. The main plot is basically divided among three stories: Shiroe and his friends circumventing boredom by underhandedly taking over the city, Crusty and his friends working their way into the realm’s political system (and its princess *wink*), and a bunch of low-level players learning how to play MMOs. Each “arc” intertwines with the others, and creates a fluid and memorable story.The diverse cast gives everyone something to enjoy; granted the first several episodes, when Shiroe is the main protagonist and there is no conflict, can put off a lot of viewers. It picks up very nicely later on.
If there was one flaw everyone could agree on, it’s the show’s overuse of slapstick comedy and the harem trope. There is a genuine romance between some characters, but Shiroe quickly becomes the center of his very own loli harem. Despite the anime introducing another character as the “harem guy being constantly followed by attractive girls,” Shiroe still manages to capture the hearts of many a lady. And, as a personal offense to me, the stale slapstick. By the second time you are introduced to Naotsugu, he is instantly rendered as the “useless slapstick character.” He only serves to make perverted comments, and then be hit. This severely detracts from any amount of deep meaning for his character. And perhaps yet another character which turns out to be one-dimensional, Akatsuki. While at first she may seem like an interesting character, she quickly falls in love with Shiroe because he gave her a rare item, and whenever they run into problems with combat, she employs her overpowered skill–Assassinate–to instantly kill whoever threatens them. She is basically Mikasa Ackerman from Attack on Titan, but like, loli. Although almost all the characters fit into a very cookie-cutter pallet (except for you, Rundelhous Code), I really do enjoy this show a lot, but I can’t spoil most of this anime’s juicy secrets. When I look back at what I watched as a whole, it stood out as something unique, that made me think about how I would adapt to a fantasy world. Taken one at a time each episode can be tedious and slow with terrible pacing and sense of progression, but as a whole this anime shines. Most of the conflict may be childish and mundane, and it does lose a lot of its appeal once you know what’s coming; but at least it has the courage to try something different. A mediocre English dub means reading subs most of the time, however the music selection is good, and it has probably one of the best openings I have heard.
If you want a feel-good tale about a bunch of different characters living their life in a fantasy world, you’ll enjoy this. The tropes aren’t enough of a turnoff to not recommend this anime. And the political and economical conflict is pleasantly surprising and fresh. I can’t say anything about Season 2, because even my hardcore Log Horizon friends said it was a stain on the series, but I will probably get around to watching it. I have yet to watch an anime and not enjoyed at least half of it. But, now I’ll get into a title I’m sure you’ve all expected: Sword Art Online.
I’ll get this out of the way now, I have been a longtime fan of SAO, and actually made the effort to read the books and manga. So I will try to keep this as unbiased as possible, although I may end up being more nit picky because I know the series so well. SAO begins, like our other two installments, with the hero playing the game. The biggest difference between this anime and the other two, however, is that our hero, Kirito, is given a clear goal from episode one. There is also a heavy risk placed immediately on the players of Sword Art Online (which is the game they play as well as the title of the anime), if you die in the game, the VR headset fries your brain and you die in real life. Woah, talk about sprinting right out of the gate. This climactic scene takes place at the end of the first episode and is part of the reason why this anime did so well. The placement of key events only serve to enhance this anime’s plot progression, and it’s clear Kirito is our main hero. However, he is not as one-dimensional as some previously mentioned characters from another anime. His real-life past and current living situation influence how he interacts with other people in the game. In fact, he embodies many of those gamers who play MMOs as a form of escape from reality, which is why many viewers (including me) can identify with him. He is a skilled fighter, but also very knowledgeable about politics and how other players think. He goes so far as to ostracize himself in order to bring the rest of the players together. His knowledge and skill is not without training, he was one of the rare beta players who got a chance to play SAO in its early stages, and he spent most of the beta period within the game. Because of this he plays the game “solo,” which kind of contradicts the entire point of an MMO. But hey, I played MMOs solo at first, and I was damn good. Except when I died, i just respawned. I won’t spoil too much of the plot, because like any good story it has its twists and surprises.
The anime itself has many features that constantly remind you it is a game, from the players’ inventory to how monsters are fought. Remember when I said “trapped in a game” and “being transported to a different world” were different? This is the difference, the .hack of these 3, if you will. While Overlord and Log Horizon both have our protagonist whisked away to a fantasy land, SAO has our hero in a game, and it makes damn sure we know he still has a real body outside of the game. This is the unique feature that sold SAO for me. The anime jumps back and forth between reality and virtual reality, it makes the viewer question what reality truly is. Almost every other title (including the ones I listed above) have the players 100% absorbed into the new world, whereas SAO shows the viewer that, yes Kirito is still connected to his real body in our reality and both are the same person. The anime does eventually get into what makes reality real, and why MMOs can absorb some people. Some players even begin to accept SAO as their new life. It even goes so far as to define the difference between a person and their online persona (avatar), which is some serious psychological stuff. The action and art style is very pleasant and makes each episode worth while, even if the plot doesn’t progress much. The audio quality is amazing, the music fits each and every scene; and the English dub is very well done. This is one of those animes that you can watch again and again.
Now, for the things I did not like. At its source material, Sword Art Online is an action, MMO, romance story. Yes, romance. While I did find the relationship between Kirito and our other protagonist, Asuna, to be very satisfying; the fact that the anime is basically a harem gives it negative points. Pretty much all the female characters fall for Kirito. Asuna I can deal with, because she’s known him since the beginning of the game and they cross paths a lot. The rest of them (I am talking about you Silica) should just not be around. I wholeheartedly think that if this anime had cut down on the extra female characters, and given the other male characters more presence, this anime could have been perfect. Again, in the original story Asuna is Kirito’s only love interest (well, except for the other one that well *spoiler spoiler spoiler*). There is actually a very small amount of (sexual) fanservice, despite the majority of the cast being cute girls. Although in terms of action fanservice, this anime delivers. If you enjoy watching the main character outmaneuver and defeat his opponents (except for one) then you will enjoy this show. I know it’s usually considered a negative, but I think the action fanservice is well done. This anime is also very serious, only some comedy here or there breaks up the tension, so for the most part viewers will be gripping their seats. There are some strategically placed jokes that build on each other (no slapstick every 5 minutes like Log Horizon). You can argue that Kirito is just overpowered wish fulfillment, but the first time I watched this anime I was genuinely surprised by how it turned out. I honestly didn’t see him as guaranteed to win. For anyone who had the ending spoiled for you–for anything as a matter of fact–I remove my hat in solemn silence.
As an interesting note, I have only talked about the first 12 episodes. That’s actually only half of the anime! Here’s where probably most of the criticism for SAO begins. Because, you see, the SAO arc of SAO ends on episode 12–just between you and me, if that had been the end of the anime it would have won an award or some shit. Episode 13 and beyond take place in another game called Alfheim Online, a Nordic fairy themed game. While ALO may be more fun than SAO, it loses out a lot without the entire “death in the game means death irl” motif. The end of the SAO arc has our Kirito resolve conflict and get together with Asuna, while Asuna herself becomes a badass heroine who saves Kirito. However, in ALO she becomes a damsel in distress, and Kirito the hero who must challenge the game in order to save her and finally put an end to the nightmare that is Sword Art Online. This is all well and good except that for all of the character that Asuna was built into, she doesn’t get to do anything the entire anime. Granted, she doesn’t “devolve” as a character as other people may think. She fights back against her oppressors and doesn’t take shit from the villain. In my book that means that she is still a good character. The choices make the character, not the situation. That being said, if I were to give the SAO part of SAO an 8/10, I’d have to give ALO like a 4. And if I were to include the things it left out from the source material, a 3. It does have one of my favorite characters, Leafa, and her interesting backstory and character development (I think this half of the anime was supposed to be about her, not Kirito). But the original book had ALO going into the politics of gender in video games and how some games highly favor the fairer sex (white knights, you know who you are), and inversely about how some games highly favor male players. There was a lot of interesting dialogue that was lost in the anime. Overall the ALO arc is decently entertaining, and it definitely filled a different niche than the original arc. But without the epic mystery as to why SAO exists, and without the death penalty, ALO just loses the climactic flavor that made Sword Art Online so good. Did I say there was a mystery in SAO? Hm… I wonder about that…
Sword Art Online does have a second season, aptly titled SAO II. I won’t get into it as I didn’t watch Log Horizon season 2 and Overlord doesn’t have much to go off of yet. All I’ll say is that if you like First Person Shooters and the climactic action and subtle mystery of the original Sword Art Online arc, then you will love Gun Gale Online.
Let’s do a final breakdown of the three shows I just talked about. Overlord features a unique protagonist which is accompanied by interesting characters as he conquers his new world for his own selfish reasons. Log Horizon features a subtle protagonist who uses his wit and friends to overtake his new world to spread happiness. Sword Art Online features a heroic hero who uses his skill and significant other to free his world from terror. All three of these shows share very similar qualities. And indeed, many of them overlap when it comes to characters, themes, MMO references, and more. If you are looking for a gritty take on surviving the MMO world, watch SAO. If you want to adapt and flourish in a new environment you are unaccustomed to, try Log Horizon. If you just feel like outsmarting everyone, and overpowering those you can’t, try Overlord.
Please remember that the views expressed in this article are my personal opinions and, as such, you are free to disagree. If you have something you really need to point out, let us know in the comments section. I’d like to end by saying I really enjoyed all of these shows and I think anyone that likes one, will like the other two. I don’t think there’s such a thing as “best” and “worst,” each pertains to a different niche.
***WARNING! FANBOY IMMINENT!***
And just to end on a SAO-fanboy note, don’t give so much hate to Sword Art Online just because it garnished a large following. It’s actually now more popular to hate it than it is to like it (or at least in my community it is). So if you don’t want to watch it because it is “over hyped,” I suggest you actually see for yourself. Same goes for any and all anime. And also, if you really like a particular show, I suggest reading the source material (if applicable), because that may give you a different perspective altogether. But yeah… SAO wasn’t great enough to make me stand in line for 8 damn hours to get a poster (I just really identify with the main character). I will leave that to the real fanboys.