From the creator of last year's Maoyu — an anime among the best last year had to offer — Log Horizon is an anime that takes the idea of being trapped in an MMO and uses it to explore the implications of such a setting on the people involved and the world they are forced to inhabit. It's unfortunate that it took a few episodes to really get going.
Good — The Game Becomes Reality
Log Horizon is far from the first anime to be focused on the idea of being trapped in an MMORPG. However, while other series with similar setups (i.e., .hack//sign and Sword Art Online) have simply had their characters using some sort of VR system and unable to log out, Log Horizon adds an almost magical element to the setting.
In the story of Log Horizon, Elder Tale (the MMO they are trapped in) is a mouse and keyboard MMO like any we know of today — with no VR or brain interface included. Thus it is not that they are trapped playing the game, but rather that they have become one with their in-game avatars and have entered into the world of the game they were playing — or at least a world based on that game.
Good — Figuring Out the New Rules
At first the players believe that they are trapped in the Elder Tale game — after all, they are clearly inhabiting their respective characters with all the magic, weapons, and items that implies. But little by little it becomes apparent that this isn't exactly the case: monsters are in new locations; things are for sell that never were before; the portals that connect the world are broken.
Thus, much of the series is watching the main characters figure out how this world is like the Elder Tale they knew and how it isn't. But more than that, one of the most interesting parts of the anime is exploring the greater implications these changes have on the world and the people living there — be that the taste of food or the ability to buy a piece of property you'd like.
Good — Strangers in a Strange Land
But of course, the biggest change between the game world and the one the players are trapped in are the NPCs who — far from just dishing out quests and the same few sentences of flavour text — seem to be real, living, breathing people. This casts the players as an unstable element in the fantasy world they inhabit: They serve no king, have no long term goals, and are supernaturally strong compared to the average NPC inhabitant. Moreover, each player has his or her own 20-first century mind, packed to the brim with revolutionary technology that those in this medieval setting can't even hope to dream of. Simply put, the players are both the greatest resource and greatest threat to the NPCs and their way of life — and the NPCs know it.
Good — Building a Society
Unlike Sword Art Online, Log Horizon is not a death game anime. If you die in battle in Log Horizon, you simply respawn at the last city you visited. Thus, death holds no fear for the player. But more than that, it only takes killing a few monsters to earn enough for room and board.
Shiroe, the main lead of Log Horizon, realises early on the implications of having a population of smart, strong immortals with no goals or basic needs that have to be addressed. Thus, he sets about a plan to build a society from the ground up — to both control and give purpose to the players trapped in this new world. Watching as he does this by exploiting human nature and the new rules of this new world is another of the anime's strongest points.
Mixed — It Takes a While to Get Going
Unfortunately, before the anime gets down to exploring the rules of the world, the sociological impact of being trapped in a game world, or the affect of the players upon the world's native population, we have to suffer through a short "rescue mission" story arc. Now while this arc does serve to tell us, the viewers, more about the world, it only shows us the barest surface. Rather than the captivating thought experiments that come later, we are treated to little more than your standard fantasy adventure: the heroes go on a journey, face dangers, rescue the maiden in distress, and defeat the comically evil bad guy despite the overwhelming odds in his favour.
Mixed — The "Game Stuff" is the Most Boring Part
Every once in a while, the plot and intellectual exploration grinds to a sudden halt to explain the basics of how to play an MMORPG. Granted, it is necessary world-building information, but unfortunately, if you have ever played an MMO with any sort of dedication, these sections of the anime feel like sitting in on a first grade maths class. Everything they are expositing about is such common, basic knowledge that it is nearly mind numbing. Even the PVP fights and dungeon-crawling we witness are little more than an addendum to whichever MMO tenant has recently been mentioned.
That said, if you have no MMO experience, you will likely be grateful for these info dumps.
While the first few episodes of Log Horizon are a little cliché, what follows is well worth the wait. If you like sociological/economical thought experiments or are an MMO gamer, you will likely find yourself captivated by what Log Horizon has to offer. If, however, you are looking for fantasy-action akin to Sword Art Online, you won't find that here. Log Horizon is far more interested in building a world and exploring the implications of said world than in high-stakes fight scenes. And as the series heads into its second half, it looks like there is plenty more of this intellectual candy to come.
Log Horizon airs on NHK Educational in Japan. It can be watched for free with English subtitles on Crunchyroll.