Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Episodes 13-25 Streaming
Having squared things—more or less—in Akihabara, Shiroe and his new Round Table allies turn to dealing with Elder Tale's unknown quantity: the People of the Land. At the invitation of the League of Freedom Cities Eastal, they head to the Palace of Eternal Ice to feel out the situation. Which turns out to be far more complicated than they'd hoped. As Shiroe picks the brain of an untrustworthy mage and Crusty sort-of befriends pretty Princess Lenessia, they learn of a wave of goblin activity that threatens to destroy the whole kingdom. To everyone's surprise, Lenessia volunteers to travel to Akihabara and ask the Adventurer populace for help in an all-out war with the demihuman hordes. Later, Marielle decides to stage a festival—a complicated task further complicated by a mysterious outside plot.
It's Log Horizon's way to swim against the genre current, though without making a big production of it. Even amidst the heroics of the Goblin War, the series isn't terribly interested in grandstanding, ego-stoking action. Its emphasis is on teamwork and camaraderie, and when it breaks out the armies and grand powers the showboating is kept to a minimum, with more attention paid to strategy and logistics and one eye always trained firmly on the big picture. That's the nature of following Shiroe—he isn't a butt-kicking hero type; he's a planner and a supporter: not really a scheming villain but comfortable in that role if it helps achieve his ends. His story is a story of stratagems: of manipulating and negotiating and orchestrating, not of slaying or brawling.
So the best parts of this latter half have little to do with fighting goblin generals and fending off dire wolves. Though of course it has its share of that too. But no, the best of these episodes deal with the delicate diplomatic dance of the Adventurer cohort in the court of the People of the Land. Or with the organizing and policing of Marielle's big festival. Or with Shiroe putting his newfound knowledge of the world's natural laws to use, devising a brand-new form of magic with profound potential consequences. The show peaks when Shiroe and his allies destroy the machinations of a scummy merchant-prince, or when Shiroe schemes up a clever platform for Lenessia to make her appeal to the Akihabaran masses. The latter is probably this half's highlight, a very funny plan in which Shiroe uses his knowledge of Akihabara's Adventurers—remember, behind their ruffian facades lay otaku hearts—to give the Princess an unbeatable edge.
Don't mistake Shiroe for a Lelouch-styled schemer however. He doesn't see people as pawns, but as partners. He is the planner and organizer, but his partners are just as important: for their skills, their input, and their ability to work together and improvise when things get bad. Which is partly why the show has the strange, warm allure that it does. Horizon's as much about social structures and coordinated actions as about personal drama, but it sees those structures and actions as the product of individuals. Even bit players and supporting types have well-defined personalities and their own evolving relationships. The guy who handles permits and supplies for the festival is full of goofy charm and quick merchant cunning. The idiot mage and novice bard in a group of apprentice adventurers have a sweet blossoming romance. It isn't exactly John Steinbeck, but the characters do coalesce into a sprawling, colorful ensemble the likes of which are seldom seen this side of Infinite Ryvius.
And you never know who in that ensemble is going to rise up and alter the face of the series. You wonder why the show insists on following that idiot mage and his apprentice comrades, until suddenly they've become the emotional lynchpin of the epic, complicated Goblin War. The sparkly, uber princess-y Princess Lenessia you figure will be arm candy, but instead she turns out to be a revolutionary force: a charmingly lazy and cynical girl with no control (or knowledge) of her natural leadership abilities, eventually ending up at the head of an Adventurer army and permanently altering relations between the native population and the trapped gamers. (Just try keeping your heart hardened during her Akihabara speech. T'ain't possible.)
As that's happening, the show is also busy expanding its, um, horizons: scraping away at Elder Tale's video game surface to reveal the more complex and worrying fantasy world beneath. The adventurers learn they aren't as invulnerable as they think; Shiroe uncovers a lot of disturbing history; respawning enemies start to coordinate in very un-game-like ways. And then there are the People of the Land (the show's NPCs). It's to the series' everlasting credit that the People turn out to be fully active and at times messy and contradictory players in the fate of their world. They have their plans, their relations and personalities, and the color and sprawl and depth of personality to match the "human" ensemble. Under their influence, what first seemed like a solipsistic game-made-real conceit—the indestructible Adventurers transported bodily into a world populated by disposable virtual people—becomes something much more complex and interesting: a population of what are essentially demigods having to make their way in a world owned and run by a weaker but still willful native populace.
If this half of Horizon has a lethal weakness, it's its lack of confidence in its own strengths. It occasionally contorts itself, and its characters, to deliver crowd-pleasing tripe that its more unconventional stretches trounce on every relevant level. The action-clogged parts of the Goblin War, for instance, are distinctly out of place and more than a little perfunctory, their only real purpose to complicate Crusty's relationship with Lenessia. Far worse, however, is the show's final arc, in which Shiroe gets mixed up in a lot of terrible romantic-comedy nonsense involving Crescent Moon sub-commander Henrietta, teen protégé Minori, and faithful shinobi Akatsuki. From the girls-fight-over-who-feeds-the-guy date scene to Shiroe's clueless romantic bumbling, it is pure, uncut, exquisitely stupid torture. Seeing decisive, dedicatedly professional Akatsuki act all blushy and lovelorn is particularly nauseating. It thankfully is superseded by Shiroe's proxy struggle with the scummy merchant-prince, but it still leaves a lasting scar.
The series' visuals also count as a weakness. Artistically, the Elder Tale world is unimpressive: generically fantasy-ish and little else. The action is flashy—with lots of splashy magical effects and a clearly beefed-up budget compared to the remainder of the series—but still full of shortcuts and hampered by pedestrian orchestration and lame-o monster designs. Animation overall is purely functional, with occasional dips into the subpar range—mostly thanks to a lax attitude towards quality control.
As for the all-important character designs, they vary—both from person to person and from scene to scene. Mostly though they're pretty unimaginative, and unimaginatively animated. Akatsuki is adorable, and Shiroe sometimes delightful—mostly when his glasses grow opaque and his evil grin takes over; the show is great at making glasses seem like the coolest fashion accessory of all time—but again quality control rears its ugly head: One character carries a hilariously bad drawing of Shiroe around, and in medium and long shots, he sometimes looks exactly like that drawing. Other characters fare equally poorly in such shots.
The series' BGM is also vaguely fantasy-ish and also pretty nondescript. It's plinking away most of the time, and most of the time you don't notice at all. The opening number, in contrast, is an embarrassingly addictive rock-rap romp that—with the nicely timed visuals—does a remarkable job of getting you worked up before each episode.
Log Horizon's strategy early on was easy. It wasn't to be compelling so much as welcoming; it wasn't to be good, but good enough. That changed with the first half's Crescent Burger scheme, and while there's nothing here on par with the fast-food-fuelled genius of that little plot, and even though the show overall is kind of shaggy and rough around the edges, there's enough intelligence, humanity, and quiet iconoclasm on display here to officially graduate Horizon from "good enough" to plain old good. Bring on season two!
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : C+
Art : C
Music : C+
+ Delivers interesting world-building revelations and a nice sprawling ensemble while spurning big heroics (and sometimes action in general) in favor of more unconventional thrills; the People of the Land.
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