I have made no secret of how much I have been enjoying Sword Art Online—going so far as to call it the smartest anime in years. When fellow Kotaku East writer Toshi Nakamura told me that there was another anime by the same author also about online games called Accel World, I began watching it as quickly as possible. But while it has a phenomenally well thought out concept and starts off incredibly strong, it is just one of those anime that falls apart in the second half.
The world of 2046 as portrayed in Accel World is perhaps the most realistic and well thought out version of the future I have ever seen. This is because it is centered around one world-changing invention: the Neuro Linker. The Neuro Linker is a personal computer that clips to your neck and overlays the computer screen over your field of vision. With it you can search the net, play online games, and call other people directly—talking virtual avatar to virtual avatar. Nearly from birth, everyone has one of these computers and it affects the very social structure of the world. Talking avatar to avatar is considered a common method of communication. On the other hand, cabling—i.e. connecting Neuro Linker to Neuro Linker directly with someone else sans the avatars—is considered one of the most intimate of actions as you not only talk mind to mind but also can access the other person's computer. It is the deep examination of the cultural impact of such a computer that makes Accel World so enjoyable.
The plot of Accel World centers around not only the Neuro Linkers but also a secret MMO fighting game called Brain Burst. What makes Brain Burst unique over the other MMOs seen in Accel World is that it offers a real-world reward: the ability to slow time to a near stop. By using the data of the nearly ubiquitous security cameras, the game creates a 3D model of the real world and puts it directly into your mind—stretching one second into sixteen minutes. Doing this takes one Burst Point—more of which can only be obtained by playing the game.
The genius of this series is the exploration of the implications behind such a game existing. Being able to stop time gives you the ability to win any fight and pass any test just by the sheer amount of time you get for planning your next move—and this is not even the only way to use burst points either. Of course, should you run out of points, the game uninstalls itself and can never be installed again. So what would you do to keep such power? How important would the game become to you, knowing that the only way to keep your power is to win? Would you go so far as to kill an unbeatable in-game rival in the real world to assure your safety?
Simply put, Accel World is the first thing I have ever seen that makes logging into an MMO seem not only exciting, but also a matter of life or death.
Many anime star the likeable loser—though like in 80's teen movies, all it takes is a simple
makeover to turn them into a stud. Not so in Accel World. The protagonist, Haruyuki, is short, fat, and the most bullied kid in school—so much so that his online avatar is a pig. Of course, in the online world, while still socially awkward, he's amazing. It is his online skill—and the fact that online, looks are meaningless—that gains him the love of the most popular girl in school. Even then, with a girlfriend and time-stopping powers, his change into a self confidant person is slow and gradual—as it should be.
Of course, Haruyuki being a likable character does little to change the fact that he is actually the main villain of the story—though not the big bad. That would be his girlfriend, "Princess Snow Black" (no one knows her real name). At level nine, she is one of the strongest players in the
game. However, to reach the level cap, she must defeat the other level nines in sudden death matches where the loser's game is uninstalled. While the other level nines want peace so everyone can play the game and enjoy its real-world benefits, she wants to hit level ten, meet the creator of the game, and perhaps end it for everyone—just to satisfy her curiosity.
So any way you look at it, the main characters are the villains, ruining other people's fun for their personal gain. But this does not make them bad people. In fact, while their goal is of the most selfish kind, it is also the goal the game was designed for. After all, games are meant to be beaten.
The first two story arcs in Accel World are great for the reasons I have stated above. The third story arc—which incidentally takes the entire second half of the series—is contrived at best, lazy
at worst. The entire arc revolves around a blackmail plot. The problem is that Snow Black has the real-world resources to easily fix any problems caused by the blackmailer and can beat him in the game without much effort should a fight be needed. Now of course it's noble to want to deal with the blackmail problem yourself and leave those you love out of it, but once life-long friendships are being ruined and expulsion from school is on the table, it's time to suck it up and call in the big guns.
Still, the story might have been okay if it had been just a few episodes long, but as it's half of the entire anime, it feels monotonous and entirely without suspense since it can so easily be fixed by a single phone call. With that said, the twist/explanation for one of the character's incredibly out-of-character actions was quite well done; so at least that ended the arc on a positive note.
The beginning of Accel World is amazing: the first five episodes might be one of the best world-building introductions in anime history. And it continues strong until the midway point—before spending its remaining time on a story arc that, while not totally irredeemable, pales in comparison to the first half. However, despite its shortcomings, the first thing I did after finishing the series was head out to my local game store to buy the new Accel World PS3 game (with OVA episode)—at eleven o'clock at night. I think that action really speaks for itself.
Accel World aired this summer on Tokyo MX in Japan. It is available with English subtitles on Viz Anime.