If you've been anyplace that holds anime discussions these past six months, there is no doubt that you've come across this dividing topic; Sword Art Online or Log Horizon? I'll admit I was also pulled into this fray a couple of months back before I finished either show's first season. Now that I have watched the first 25 episodes of both series, and with both having confirmed second seasons coming later in the year, I've decided to give the two of them a closer look. Before I get started, though, I do want to say that I really like both shows, so keep in mind that if I say anything bad about either series, it is me pointing out flaws I found in series I liked, and not just wanton bashing. And obviously, a few minor spoilers will be used, so be warned.
Sword Art Online actually has two settings, because the first season takes place across two different games; the titular Sword Art Online, and ALfheim Online. Sword Art's setting is a floating castle-like structure called Aincrad, while ALfheim's setting is based around the World Tree, a massive spiraling tree that you can't see the top of.
Log Horizon takes place inside the game Elder Tale. The setting of Elder Tale is a half-scale model of Earth, but with an overgrown plant life look, not that different from The Last of Us, for example.
Edge: Sword Art Online. Both Sword Art Online and ALfheim Online are gorgeous looking worlds that I would love to play in if they were real games. Mind you Log Horizon's world still looks pretty, but it is the kind of stuff we've seen before.
Sadly there isn't much world building going on in Sword Art Online. Both of the games look pretty, but we barely get any of the lore or backstory to either game. They may be gorgeous settings, but they also feel kind of shallow.
World building is the name of the game in Log Horizon. The People of the Land NPCs have an extensive belief system and history that extends to before the players even started playing the game.
Edge: Log Horizon. While Sword Art has the better looking settings, Log Horizon has the better world building. I want to play in Sword Art's worlds, but I want to experience Log Horizon's.
Sword Art Online has some pretty high quality animation, filled with fluid and dynamic motions, and several little detailed effects. This animation truly shines during Sword Art's many fight scenes, making these fights some of the best I have seen in anime.
Log Horizon, however, doesn't have some of the best animation around. While there isn't a whole lot of errors, the animation can look pretty stiff at times, and unlike Sword Art, Log Horizon's animation actually takes away from its fight scenes, because they aren't as grandiose as they should be, considering how important some of these fights are.
Edge: Sword Art Online. It isn't even close, it is rather clear which of these two series had the bigger animation budget. That isn't to say Log Horizon is bad to look at, it just looks decidedly cheaper than Sword Art Online does.
Sword Art Online features some really, really good character designs. They are just very visually pleasing. The problem I have is there is it lacks a tiny bit of variety. There are just too many characters that vaguely look like each other. This is alleviated a bit in ALfheim Online, due to the multiple fairy races everyone plays as, but it is still there. Don't get me wrong, I like what I see, I just wish things weren't so....uniform.
Log Horizon, on the other hand, has no shortage of variety, and as such has a wide range of unique characters. I have yet to almost confuse any of the characters, because it lacks that uniformity. Everyone's look is affected by both their race and class, in addition to things like hair style and facial features.
Edge: Log Horizon. It just has such a colorful cast of unique looking characters that Sword Art can't replicate. Even with two different games, Sword Art can't match the uniqueness and variety of Log Horizon's designs.
Sword Art Online has an amazing soundtrack, easily one of the best I have heard in my entire time as an anime fan. The crown jewel of this soundtrack, though, is without a doubt its main theme. Whenever this song played, I got chills down my spine, and knew awesome things were about to happen.
Log Horizon is no slouch when it comes to music, either. It's music fits and enhances each scene as well, there just isn't that one song that really sticks with me.
Edge: Sword Art Online. Only barely, though. For the most part the two soundtracks are an equal match for my tastes. It is Sword Art's memorable main theme that gives it the edge in music.
Kirito may seem like the typical shonen hero using his awesome skills and his strong willpower to save those he cares about, but you have to consider where he is coming from. Before playing Sword Art Online, he was a rather reclusive gamer. After he started playing, he was more than willing to help others, and even joined a guild. But after everyone in that guild died, he returned to being a loner for a while and refused to join another guild. Yeah he's kind of a cookie cutter shonen lead, but at least he's acting this way with a purpose, he doesn't want to be alone.
Shiroe is a bit of a loner who doesn't mind helping other players, but refuses to join guilds. The primary reason for this is he came to the realization that most of the guilds that wanted him didn't want him for who he was, but rather to use his high talent for strategy. Shiroe's class isn't one that specializes in fighting solo, but rather supporting other players, so he typically comes up with the plan and then sits in the back ranks to enact his plans. However, he has a major flaw in that he can only effectively plan things that he can see every aspect of, anything with an unpredictable element sends him for a loop. Shiroe's talent for making complex plans has earned him an unfortunate nickname, though. Other players who only know of his reputation, call him the Villain in Glasses.
Edge: Log Horizon. I just feel that Shiroe is a deeper and more complex character than Kirito. Plus it is rare to see a main character who is supporting strategist rather than a front line fighter.
Asuna starts out as a rather strong character. A female fighter more than capable of holding her own. and even surpasses the majority of the other characters in her skills. The unfortunate problem is things go....downhill after she falls in love with Kirito. The once strong fighter is rather quick to throw on an apron to cook and clean for Kirito and even becomes rather accepting of the idea of living the rest of their lives in Sword Art Online. And then we get to ALfheim Online where she's the personal prisoner of the ALfheim Online arc's villain, and is more or less reduced to being Kirito's trophy, his goal to obtain.
Akatsuki also starts out as a rather strong character. A female assassin who was being used as the primary enemy slayer by Shiroe early on, as the series progressed and there was less and less physical fighting and more fighting with words, Akatsuki is literally pushed into the shadows as she spends the bulk of the second half spying on other characters for Shiroe. She is also quite literally reduced to a joke character, as most of her screen time becomes dedicated to using her for comedy.
Edge: Draw. Both shows do a horrific job with their primary female characters. And it is rather disturbing how they both start off as competent fighters, and then their roles get reduced and more demeaning as their respective shows progress. I'm honestly really disappointed in how both of these characters were treated.....
Klein is best described as Kirito's best bro. Kirito spends the first episode teaching Klein how to properly play the game, and throughout the arc, the two of them interact and fight bosses together. He doesn't really do much in the ALfheim Online arc, though.
Naotsugu is a long time friend of Shiroe, even being a member of the not-officially-a-guild-but-did-everything-a-guild-does group that Shiroe was part of. As a tanking class, he was a cornerstone member early in the show, but as the show progresses, he just....kind of stands around.
Edge: Draw. Both of these guys are rather heavily used early on, and then significantly see their roles reduced.
Leafa becomes Kirito's guide and mentor of sorts in the ALfheim Online arc. She eventually falls in love with Kirito, but he can't return her feelings for more than one reason.
Minori is a support class user like Shiroe. She idolizes him and eventually under his tutelage is taught tactics and how to manage a party. While rough at first, she is soon able to competently command a group of other young players with striking efficiency.
Edge: Log Horizon. Minori is actually one of Log Horizon's breakout characters, in my opinion.
Egil is, to my knowledge, the only black person in Sword Art Online. A man in his late twenties, he is a merchant who runs a rather successful shop, but is no pushover when it comes to fighting.
Nyanta is a swashbuckling chef who happens to be a catperson. He is a capable fighter, and an excellent cook. He gives sage advice to anyone who needs to hear it.
Edge: Log Horizon. I like Egil, he's one of my favorite Sword Art characters, but Nyanta just trumps him in every aspect. Nyanta looks more badass when fighting with his twin rapiers, Nyanta is much more important to his show as his cooking ability is essentially the thing that gets the main crux of the series rolling, and to top it all of, he's voiced by Alucard from Hellsing.
There honestly isn't that much of an extended cast in Sword Art Online, as a good chunk of side characters end up dying off, and they just don't focus much on the side characters in the ALfheim Online arc, so what little extra characters there are aren't really that developed.
There is probably too many extra characters in Log Horizon. We are talking a massive cast here. From the remaining members of the Log Horizon guild I haven't talked about to the members of other guilds like the Crescent Moon Alliance, or even the People of the Land characters.
Edge: Log Horizon. It is just no contest here, really. Log Horizon simply has a vastly larger cast, and many of them are great characters in their own right. They have so many characters that the show might as well have two main casts.
Sword Art Online, through its two arcs, covers a little over two years. Obviously with only 25 episodes, that means there were some time skips. The big problem is, these time skips mostly happened during the first arc, and happened between almost each episode for the first seven or eight episodes. So essentially you have two years covered in 8 episodes.
Log Horizon only has covered what seems like a few months. Definitely not years like Sword Art did, at least.
Edge: Log Horizon. The slower pace of Log Horizon allows for more character development for everyone, and it allows for the story to have more time to build up. Sword Art Online, however, feels rushed at times, and of course because the plot progresses so damn fast, the characters don't get a whole lot of time to properly develop. Sword Art's pacing issues are the root cause for pretty much every major complaint I have with the show.
Just about the only thing the fast pace of Sword Art Online did help the writing with was it helped up the sense of urgency. The players wanted out of the game, and wanted out of the game as fast as possible in the first arc. In the second arc, I could easily sense Kirito's desperation to save Asuna. Make no mistake, when this show was on point with the pace and writing being in sync, it was a tense and urgent experience.
There is almost no sense of urgency in Log Horizon. The players for the most part did want to leave, but they weren't trying to leave at the breakneck speed as the players in Sword Art Online. They just kind of settle into a new way of life while trying to figure out exactly how to get out.
Edge: Sword Art Online. Log Horizon's lack of urgency has actually made a sizable number of people think that the players aren't willing to leave Elder Tale. They do, they just don't make it that apparent.
Sword Art Online is about a group of gamers being trapped in a new MMO by the game's creator. If you die in this game, you die in real life. The only way to escape is to clear all of the levels in the game and defeat the final boss.
Elder Tale is the most popular MMO in the world. On the day the game's latest expansion pack is released, hundreds of thousands of players are somehow pulled into the game itself. The players don't die for real if they die, but they still have to pay a price for death. As they try to find their way out, the players must start a new society within the game and must learn to coexist with the game's NPCs, who are now living, breathing people.
Edge: Log Horizon. There is nothing wrong with the premise to Sword Art's story. It is just, this kind of story never really holds up to repeated viewings for me. Once you know who lives and who dies, it takes away all of the tension. The idea of having to create a new society and dealing with politics is just more interesting to me. Especially when you consider that a sizable number of the Elder Tale players are more than likely antisocial people.
When I first chimed in with my opinion in the Sword Art Online vs. Log Horizon debate, I was all Log Horizon. However, at the time I was right in the middle of Log Horizon's best parts, and I had just gotten through with the first 8 episodes of Sword Art, so my opinion was a bit swayed at the time because I was still experiencing Sword Art's constant time skips. Now that I am finished with both shows' first seasons I can give my definitive answer to this. Sword Art Online or Log Horizon? To quote an oft used meme, why not both? After really thinking about it, I think the two series complement each other, as they both excel in areas the other is lacking in.
Sword Art has gorgeous settings but crap world building. Log Horizon has a generic setting, but excellent world building. Sword Art has amazing action scenes, animation, and a great sense of urgency, but a rushed pace and a limited cast of severely underdeveloped characters. Log Horizon has stifled animation and action scenes and a lax sense of urgency, but a really good pace and an extensive cast of characters, some of whom are really well developed. To sum it up in as short of a way as I can, Sword Art Online has vastly superior production values, but Log Horizon has better writing.
As of now I enjoy both shows equally for different reasons, and it is for these different reasons that I eagerly await Sword Art Online's next season in the Summer and Log Horizon's in the Fall.
Thanks for taking the time to read this long ass article, and like always, please feel free to discuss this article or just the subject matter as a whole in the comments below.