Review for Accel World: Part 1
On recent occasion, I have taken the opportunity to make my dislike of RPG anime adaptations known, as I feel that it’s just not a genre that works all that well as a straight out narrative. Btooom! somehow managed to buck that trend, but shows like .hack have never appealed to me, and I really felt this particular genre hit a nadir with this year’s Sword Art Online. Apparently I’m in the minority on this one, as a second season of Sword Art Online is incoming. You’d think that would instantly put me off the idea of watching Accel World, as it’s ostensibly set in the same narrative universe as SAO. But adapting stories from the same source doesn’t always mean the same results.
I’ve never been tempted to watch Lost Universe, its reviews have put the fear of God into me, but that’s apparently set in the same universe as the superlative Slayers franchise. Chaos;Head was a dismal waste of disc space, Steins;Gate, one of the best sci-fi series of recent years. Angelic Layer is a rather dull robot tournament anime, Chobits, a sweet romantic comedy. Speaking of CLAMP, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle and xxxHolic are two sides of the same story, the latter is stylish and cool, the former dull and lifeless. Just recently I reviewed Fate Zero, what might be the best anime released in the UK this year, which is a prequel to Fate/Stay Night, one of the most forgettable shows of 2005. So that Accel World shares a universe with Sword Art Online is no deterrent. That it’s another virtual reality real world/game world Matrix style mash-up did give me pause until I saw the show’s protagonist. Accel World’s hero is the short pudgy introverted kid in school that everyone picks on. He’s not sexy, he’s not stylish, he’s not cool, and he doesn’t have the frame to throw around any heroic poses. He’s a background character, comic relief at best. Only in this show, he’s the hero. That’s enough to grab my attention.
A glorious future world has arrived, where the lines between the real world and the online world have vanished. Children are implanted with neurolink technology at birth, the invention of quantum computing has revolutionised the way people communicate, and immersion can vary from total disconnection all the way to a full escape to a virtual reality. The day to day life of a school student is a compromise, with virtual computing and internet access always at their fingertips, the real world overlaid with data to enhance communication.
Even still, some things never change, and for Haruyuki Arita, short, pudgy, and non-descript, his school life is one of being picked on and bullied. His escape is to full virtual reality videogames where his avatar is lightning fast and highly skilled, wholly unlike his real world existence. Even his best friends when growing up, Taku and Chiyu wound up as a couple, leaving him feeling even more isolated, suffering from an inferiority complex. When the bullying gets too intense, he’s surprisingly offered salvation by the school’s most popular girl, Kuroyukihime. She offers to install a program called Brain Burst onto his neurolinker, software that accelerates the mental processes over 1000 times faster than in the real world. That’s enough to effectively pause the world during a crisis situation and come up with a strategy to deal with it. If Haru thought he was fast at VR games before, that’s nothing compared to his skill level now. But there’s more to Brain Burst than just the ultimate caffeine rush. Haru finds himself playing a game where lives are at stake, and he learns that he never really knew his friends.
The first twelve episodes of Accel World are presented across two discs from MVM. The show will also be available to buy on Blu-ray.
Accel World gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic native PAL transfer on these DVDs. It’s a Sunrise animation that makes the most of the DVD format. The only flaws might be a smidge of shimmer on fine detail, but otherwise the animation looks excellent, also up-scaling well to large panel displays. The only way to improve on this would be by Blu-ray, and thankfully that is an option for this release. The characters are pretty generic for anime, but likeable and memorable enough. That’s with the exception of Haru, who in terms of character design is an SD character living in a normal world, half the height and twice the width of anyone else, and comparatively lacking in facial characteristics. The animation is smooth and detailed, the world design of the future is intricate and expressive, and when the full-on Accel World take focus, the animators’ imaginations can run riot in terms of character design and expressive CGI.
Accel World gets DD 2.0 Stereo English and Japanese audio, with optional translated subtitles (white font) and a signs only track. The default on these Hanabee authored discs is Japanese with English subtitles. I went with the Japanese audio as always, and was pretty happy with the experience, with the cast well suited to their characters, albeit with a couple of very stereotypical archetypes (Yellow Radio being one). The English dub is pretty much standard for anime, flows well and is watchable enough. I felt it was something of a missed opportunity though, given the absence of lip-flaps when characters are communicating via cable link, or in their Brain Burst avatar form. You could have broken away from the usual anime dub style and tried something a little more naturalistic.
I noticed in episode 6, some of the on screen Japanese text lacked captions.
Just simple static menus for Accel World. The extras are on disc 2, and amount to the textless credit sequences as usual. You can also check out trailers for other Hanabee titles, including La Storia della Arcana Famiglia, Little Busters, Kokoro Connect, Girls und Panzer, and From the New World, and all except Little Busters are MVM licenses too.
It’s still a show about a videogame, escapism within escapism, and it still isn’t my genre of choice. But, I certainly found Accel World to be a lot more approachable than the fan favourite Sword Art Online. For one thing, it doesn’t approach the crass and nasty depths of the more renowned show, and another thing is that the pacing and structure of the show is a lot more believable. The key element here is the ‘Accel’ in the title. This online VR battle game uses advanced tech to accelerate the users’ thought processes and reactions online, so that mere seconds may pass in the real world, while hours pass online. The whole distraction element of Sword Art Online, where I was left wondering what was happening to the players in the real world, while they were trapped for years online never happens here.
The thing about Accel World that I was interested in was the unconventional protagonist. Unlike the usual anime heroes, Haruyuki is short, pudgy, and possessing of an inferiority complex so extreme that he tries to deny any good fortune or friendship that comes his way, as he feels that he just doesn’t deserve it. He may not be athletic or all that co-ordinated in the real world, but the one talent he does have is at online games, where he has speed and reflexes that are pretty much unrivalled. But he still only uses the virtual world to escape from the real. So far, so interesting. But it’s when he’s noticed by Kuroyukihime that things begin to change in his life. She sees his online skills, and realises that she can use him in the underground Brain Burst game. But, she also falls head over heels for him. We have the hottest, most popular girl in school falling in love with the school nobody, wish fulfilment by proxy for this show’s male otaku demographic audience. It’s a cold shower of unreality that washes away any lingering interest in whether this show would differ from the norm because of the way its protagonist is written.
What remains is a pretty entertaining and likeable action adventure, with appealing characters and a little bit of drama leavened by a nice helping of humour. Where Accel World excels is in the way that it constructs its future world of online gaming, establishing a coherent set of rules in the way the technology works and how people interact with it. Everyone is implanted with a neural link to the Net at birth, and can communicate and log on wirelessly. A cute aspect of this is direct linking, connecting to each other via cable to communicate privately. This takes on an intimate and personal air, one that is ascribed to lovers. So when Kuroyukihime insists on communicating with Haru that way, the intimation is obvious.
Haruyuki turns out to be something of an anime hero of the classic vein, one who seems normal enough (or less than normal in this case), but possessing hidden strengths, and in the end destined for greatness. When it comes to playing Brain Burst, Haruyuki is indeed a cut above the others, possessing an ability that no other player does. We follow his journey with Kuroyukihime as he learns about the Brain Burst world and how to play the game, as well as learning of Kuroyukihime’s past with the game, and what her ambitions are. She wants to complete the game, get to level 10, but everyone else in the game is content at staying at level 9 and maintaining the status quo. Losing means losing the Brain Burst software forever, and being able to accelerate your thoughts is an advantage that no one wants to be without.
With Haruyuki and his abilities, as well as his loyalty towards a person who for the first time actually noticed him, even more, liked him, she aims to shift the balance of power, get to level 10, complete the game and learn the real reason behind Brain Burst. On the way, Haruyuki has to deal with the other players, including someone who’s sneakily trying to sabotage Kuroyukihime from inside the school. At first it seems like his childhood best friend Chiyu is responsible, but the truth is even more unsettling. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that playing Brain Burst online has consequences in the real world, especially when it comes to a former bully humiliated by Haruyuki’s new abilities, and the game takes on a level of seriousness beyond that of a simple videogame.
It also becomes clear that this is a very complex and dangerous bit of software when there appears what seems like an NPC character that can possess and alter the personalities of players. There are seven kings in the game at level 9 who try and maintain the status quo. Kuroyukihime is the Black King, and she’s been ‘in hiding’ following her betrayal of the previous Red King. The new Red King, Scarlet Rain comes to Haruyuki in the real world, inveigling her way into his life to get his help with this NPC, Chrome Disaster, who has possessed her friend Cherry Rook. It turns out to be a trap, another King has decided to play the game and get to level 10, and aims to do so by betraying the Red King. But he hasn’t counted on Haruyuki and his friends being there. It’s the climactic battle that takes us to the halfway point in the series, and leaves on something of a tantalising cliff-hanger.
Accel World is fun, watchable with likeable characters and an interesting and well constructed story. But it doesn’t stray too far from the usual anime conventions, and for me its premise of an online virtual reality game as the setting for the story is unlikely to appeal. I have to say that of all such shows that I have seen so far, .hack and Sword Art Online, Accel World is the most enjoyable, and I’m certainly interested in seeing how the story concludes. The presentation on these DVDs is impressive, making the most of the show’s imaginative visuals and energetic action sequences. Naturally if you are capable, the Blu-ray should be the preferred option.