Accel World started off with a serious bang. It couldn’t quite continue that bang through the entire 24 episodes, but it was certainly something to watch.
Accel adheres to a standard shonen formula. Initially, Haruyuki, our protagonist, is more or less a loser, besides the fact that he is pretty good at video games. He is quickly thrust into a virtual world, an act-or-die realm of shifting allegiances, furious battles, and complex history. If you've watched any anime or read any manga, you'll know that this is extremely typical stuff. It relies on this pattern to generate tension and interest, and, therefore, is stuck in that pattern, which ultimately hurts more than helps the show as a whole.
Accel has an excellent setting, premise, and a sharp, vibrant take in the science fiction realm of fiction. It pulls no punches. The plot is hard and fast, drawing the viewer in quickly. We learn about the virtual world and Haru’s growing role within it, and without pause for breath, he immediately works to start furthering his goals. It focuses on themes of friendship and teamwork while at the same time transcending them. It can be very dark, but has uplifting moments of equal magnitude. The sci-fi elements are excellent, including both the amenities of a high-tech world fifty years into a future like Ghost in the Shell and the virtual reality of .Hack. There is a depth of personality and mood that sets it apart from your run-of-the-mill shonen, and the twists and turns will keep you on your toes.
It can’t get away from the chains it made for itself, and that keeps it from getting a higher score. It put it at 7.3 for this reason. A flat 7 would go to a shonen worth watching. I’d give a 7.5 to an anime that pushed hard on the walls of its genre. Accel World sits awkwardly between those two limits. It really wants to break out of its shell, but doesn't quite make it.
I am also unsympathetic for the two episodes near the middle of the series; the show jarringly shifts from a climactic moment for what came off as near-filler. It was so horribly dissapointing that I almost dropped the series entirely. Pacing issues really set Accel back.
A few years ago, I would have given this anime an 8 for animation, but the bar has been raised. Accel has pretty action scenes, but character designs are simple and you can tell which episodes were low-budget; they saved the big bucks for the big moments. You’ll enjoy the most brutal fights and the awesome explosions, but the normal parts in-between are bland.
Accel loses points here for Haruyuki’s design. I know this is a topic of debate, but we can have a relatively weak protagonist without turning him into a pinball pig. It was distracting and awkward, especially when every other character had normal proportions.
I did not enjoy Haruyuki’s voice. When he wasn't whining 'Chiyu!' or 'senpai!', he was crying, and it grated. The opening and closing themes were solid, if a tad generic. Fast-paced action and dialogue scenes both had interesting what was appropriate to get the job done well.
This was an extremely hard portion to judge. Some characters are excellent; others, not so much.
My biggest beef lies with Haruyuki. He’s lowballed in the self-esteem category. Time and again he proves that he’s a fighter. He proves he’s got what it takes. And still, he winds up crying in the feeble position once an episode. Every time Kuroyukihime, his lover and leader, so much as patted him on the head, he was moved to tears. He is the target of affections from women that had no business giving him so much of a shred of respect, because he has no respect for himself. It was too exaggerated for me to believe; he was a rollercoaster of emotional extremes, becoming whatever the moment demanded he be.
Kuroyukihime herself is excellent, but she, too, has a low self-esteem streak that I found out of character. On top of that, she’s in love with our protagonist for no reason. This is explored, somewhat, which itself it a huge plus, but a satisfactory reason for their love is never revealed. Haruyuki certainly has his potential as a burst linker (i.e., virtual warrior), but he’s chronically pathetic in every other conceivable category. No matter how I look at it, I can’t justify her side of the relationship, and that costs serious points.
I think the best character was Takumu, Haru’s best friend. His struggle to place himself within the triangle of himself, Haru, and Chiyu was extremely well-acted. He was mature, intelligent, and was forced to confront and deal with his own personal demons with incisive precision. I was rooting for him more than Haruyuki.
The bottom line is that Accel falls into what has become a pattern in shonen. A weak character doesn’t have to be a loser. A weak character doesn’t have to be physically weak. There are problems beyond the social issues that plague high school students. There are fertile fields beyond the anime stock characters. The show's unwillingness to seek higher ground and stick to its cliches holds it back.
While Accel has its flaws, the total package is one to be reckoned with; action and shonen fans will not be disappointed. It has an entertaining (if plot-holed) romantic thread that lends depth. The setting, filled with science fiction tidbits such as modified brains, direct mental links, and a real-world overlaid with electronic features is chock-full of imagination and personality. It was definitely worth watching.
One could say that the series nears the epitome of its genre. That is its strength, and its weakness. An action flick can only go so far. Despite an admirable run to be more, it remains only moderately successful.