This post is to commemorate the upcoming new seasons of two MMO-based anime. I revisit the grand debate which seems to have died out on the Internet: SAO vs. Log Horizon. Which of these anime is better?
Now, I know I am quite biased, but for this post, I try to remain impartial and assess the two objectively.
First, let’s get the basics out of the way. Both anime are about a group of players who are stuck in an MMORPG and cannot log out. Their consciousness are locked in the game, while their physical bodies remain in the real world. Frightened and confused, the players try to make the best of their situation and survive the game.
That’s pretty much the basic premise for both anime, getting stuck in a game.
Let’s review both anime from the story.
The story of SAO revolves around the protagonist Kirigaya “Kirito” Kazuto, a computer geek and a Beta Tester of a Virtual Reality MMORPG known as “Sword Art Online”. On the first day of the game’s Open Beta, players are trapped within the game and only by beating the entire game can they return to the real world. If they die in-game, be it by suicide or death in general, their brains will be fried by the NervGear on their heads. Equipped with the knowledge of a Beta Tester, Kirito navigates through the early stages of the game with ease and emerges as one of the top players.
Log Horizon revolves around a group of protagonists, but centered on Shiroe, an Enchanter and a strategist. One day, he logs into the game Elder Tale and is mysteriously trapped inside, along with other players. He begins contacting his friends, Naotsugu, a Knight and Akatsuki, an Assassin, and starts seeking answers as to why they are trapped in the game. By working together and concocting elaborate plans, Shiroe slowly comes closer to the truth.
The difference in the plot execution can be seen from the nature of the two characters. In this case, Kirito is a solo player, therefore the plot is executed in favor of Kirito. This explains why most of the time, all we see is Kirito developing relationships with (coincidentally?) cute girls and showing off his superior abilities. This is further strengthened by the fact that Kirito is a Swordsman in terms of Class. In most MMOs, a Swordsman is capable of holding his own in both PvP and PvE. Also, Kirito is also reluctant to join any Guilds and party with anyone else. This behavior is the typical “lone wolf” in MMORPGs. So, SAO executes the plot in the view of a generic solo player.
Compare that to Shiroe. In the first episode, he did not run off alone despite having much experience in the game. He instead decided to contact friends and comprehend the situation. This is suited towards Shiroe’s Class, as he is an Enchanter, a support type. To be effective, he needs to be around other people. This explains why most of Log Horizon’s episodes consist of Shiroe gathering and collaborating with people to reach the ultimate objective. This behavior is the typical “support player” mentality in MMORPGs. Log Horizon is more oriented to the “Multiplayer” element MMORPG.
Now, which did it better?
The answer would be Log Horizon. Log Horizon executes the MMORPG theme and the “trapped inside a game” theme better. While it is true that in SAO the players move together towards clearing floors to reach the top, none of that really matters because Kirito is the one hogging the spotlight. This puts the entire anime off-course. Based on the basic premise, we would have expected to see people either working together or killing each other to reach the top floors, or at least people acting at least like they’re playing an MMORPG. Instead, the story focuses on a love story between Kirito and Asuna, which is steering away from the basic premise. We see little of the other characters’ contributions to actually clearing the floors.
On the other hand, Log Horizon shows how players gradually come to accept their condition and then strive towards logging out. Shiroe does not hog the spotlight, instead he shares the spotlight with a plethora of other characters, characters which he works together with to uncover the truth behind their imprisonment in Elder Tale. We can actually see how the characters work together with their equals and also NPCs in reaching their goal. Heck, they even play out their “roles”. The merchants actually sell stuff, the crafters actually make stuff that benefits themselves and others, while the fighters actually clear monsters and do security.
1 point to Log Horizon.
Now, let’s see the two anime from their depth.
Since both carry the theme of MMORPGs and being a major fan of the genre, I at least expected to hear some exposition on the lore or game mechanics.
The point goes to Log Horizon, again. Sorry SAO.
Log Horizon intricately elaborates the game’s mechanics through exposition, to the point that characters sometimes monologue about the game’s intricate mechanics and dump a truckload of information in only 5 minutes of monologue. By doing that, Log Horizon helps viewers understand how the game works and engages the viewers by making them think about the game. And it also shows that the anime does really understand the MMORPG genre as a whole. Like how trade commences, how battles are planned, and how to circumvent game limitations (more elegant than “hacking”) to suit one’s needs.
Less can be said about SAO. SAO provides very little elaboration on how the game works besides from perma-death and boss attack patterns. Instead, SAO tends to just touch the basics of the MMORPG genre, such as parties, guilds, and hacking and slashing to defeat monsters while ignoring the intricate elements that Aincrad has to offer. The only episode which covered game mechanics was “Murder in the Area”, when a player faked a murder. For example, how does one unlock Secret Skills? How do they travel from one place to another? Do they walk everywhere or is there a special Warp skill?
Log Horizon 2, SAO zero.
Now, let’s talk about graphics, since that seems so important.
This time, SAO takes the point. SAO has some of the best graphics I’ve ever seen, from the landscape to the character designs. The world of Aincrad is vivid and high-definition, and so is the world of Alfheim. Both have verdant plains, ominous dungeons, and Alfheim also has a beautiful subterranean lake and city.
Log Horizon on the other hand, had pretty standard graphics. The cities are lush ruins and while the griffins are awesome and the Crystal Palace too, Log Horizon’s character designs were just slightly above standard.
Log Horizon 2, SAO 1.
Let’s talk about characters now.
Here, Log Horizon clearly takes the point.
The characters in Log Horizon were colorful and alive. They all had different characteristics, based on their chosen jobs mixed in with their real-life personalities. The number of characters is also staggering. The side characters have their own role and actually contribute (though sometimes minimally) to the progressing of the storyline. Like the Merchant Guild plays a major role during the Libra Festival and the Fighter Guilds act like security guards and front-line raiders during raids. They are all connected to the protagonist in one way or another, making them unforgettable characters.
Not only are the players alive, but the NPCs are too. I have always wondered how NPCs would act if I were to interact with them on a human-level, and Log Horizon gives us just that. NPCs have feelings, have motives, and even a political system! There’s also the interaction between player and NPC, and my favorite love story of the series, the love between Lenessia and Crusty, a knight and a princess. So touching.
SAO, on the other hand, lacks in comparison. The only characters in the spotlight long enough are Kirito, Asuna, and Suguha. Other characters, like Lizbet and Scilica and even Kirito’s male friends, Klein and Egil, are given very little screen time and serve little purpose to Kirito.
Kirito is portrayed (again, from the individualistic perspective that SAO builds on) as the ultimate gamer. He has the knowledge, the luck, and the skills to be the best in any game. This makes the character seem to be nothing more than teenage wish-fulfillment. This, added with the fact that he is insanely overpowered even by anime standards, makes Kirito a really bland character.
However, what really wrecked SAO’s characters was the stunning beauty that is Asuna. Originally an independent, powerful woman capable of handling her own self, she is reduced to the type of woman who becomes dependent on a man just after a few battles. While her sword skills remain peerless, as the story undergoes transition from Aincrad to Alfheim, we see that Asuna’s character gets nerfed even more, reducing her to a powerless damsel in distress. If only she decided to stand by Kirito as comrades, or even rivals, that would have been better.
So, Log Horizon 3, SAO 1.
Now, the final element (because an even number won’t cut it).
Which anime made me want to continue watching week after week? Which anime had me cursing at the top of my voice whenever it transits to the ED song? Which anime had me constantly on edge, making me check nyaa.se every day?
The point goes to Log Horizon.
I enjoyed every episode of Log Horizon. The interesting characters, the deep exploration and exposition on reshaping the world, the funny tidbits here and there, and the various romantic relationships made my weeks with Log Horizon really enjoyable. The best part? Log Horizon successfully integrated MMORPG elements with anime. The episodes are well-connected to each other, with arc transitions clearly signposted, making for a fluidly flowing story.
SAO, on the other hand… I was excited for only the first two episodes. And it was just that. The third episode lowered my excitement levels drastically, and the fourth, and the fifth… it came to me that watching SAO started to become a chore. The episodes varied greatly in pace thanks to the use of extreme time-jumps. The only thing keeping me going was Scilica and the sweet sound of LiSa singing “Crossing Field”.
Log Horizon: 4
Winner: Log Horizon
Log Horizon does do a better job based on the same basic premise. Now, I’m not one to judge a person’s personal taste. Some like Log, some like SAO. Hey, it’s your call, okay? But when you think about it, Log Horizon does excel in some areas where SAO failed.
This is because SAO and Log Horizon take on the basic premise from two different perspectives, and it is also why Log Horizon appealed to me.
You see, SAO is individualistic in nature, while Log Horizon is more social. SAO glorifies achievements of the individual (Kirito) and strives to set that individual at the top. In doing that, however, SAO abandoned the “Multiplayer” in MMORPG and sacrificed what could have been epic battles with Kirito playing house with Asuna (and having virtual sex). Log Horizon on the other hand, appeals to those who understand the “Multiplayer” in MMORPG. Log Horizon glorifies teamwork and cooperation and strives to depict those values above individuality. In Log Horizon, almost everyone is a member of a Guild or a community that works together to survive in the database, database. Shiroe himself is a support character, an Enchanter. That’s not something you see every day in anime.
So, there you have it. See you in the Database in season 2! Of course, I’ll be watching SAO just because I hope to see Scilica, even though there’s a really slim chance.