Having watched Sword Art Online and found it fairly decent, I thought I'd check out Reki's other series... and boy was I not disappointed. In fact, I find myself liking Accel World more than Sword Art Online... even despite the fact that SAO uses Yuki Kajura's music which I immensely adore. But if you liked SAO, you'll probably like Accel World, too. How does it stack up?
First, some backstory and synopsis: It is 2047, and everyone has a wearable, personal computer around their neck called a Neuro Linker (hereafter referred to as NL) It wirelessly interfaces with their brain, giving them an augmented reality view of the world, like super Google Glasses. Haruyuki Arita is a short, fat kid who is bullied at school. One day, he gains access to a secret program for his NL, called "Brain Burst" that speeds up his thought processes a 1000x, enabling him to view the world as if time had stopped, allowing him plenty of time to think through any situation and observe it from different angles. This is called the "Accelerated World" in reference to the series title, but it is the tip of the iceberg... it's also a means for kids to particpate in a virtual fighting game, for the power to continue accelerating.
I love this series for two big reasons... #1. The risk they took in making the protagonist non-typical; you just don't tend to see pudgy kids as main heroes in anime, and he gets quite a bit of fan hate for that. But to anyone who has been bullied as a kid or teen because of their body, will really be able to empathize and understand where he is coming from. He's got issues for a reason; he's not some normal, athletic kid who is emo just because the plot requires him to be. And #2: the way they showcase and handle the social aspects of the technology of the Neuro Linker. I've also been fascinated by how technology can change society, and they don't shy away from the implications of it, exploring it in various ways. With the advent of Google Glasses, we can see that the future of Neuro Linkers isn't that far off, so this is a glimpse into our own future as well.
With that out of the way, onto the specifics! Just a warning that there will be minor spoilers in this, but I will try to keep it relatively spoiler-free.
It's hard to say what is the strongest part of this series is, but the story and the characters tie it for me. The story itself builds very well, the progression of events making sense. We have, in a sense, two new worlds to explore: the "normal" world where the technology of the Neuro Linker has changed society and social norms. And the "Accelerated World" where kids have carved out their own society, complete with it's own rules (along with the harcoded rules of Brain Burst itself). How these two worlds interact, forms the basis for the story, and every story arc showcases a new way in which the Accelerated World has changed the normal world (and vice versa). What happens in one world, affects the other, mostly in the attitudes of the characters.
Never once was I not entertained, and while there were slow points here and there, overall it flowed decently good. Well, there was a couple of episodes near the end, when it it breaks away from the action at a particular twist to showcase two episodes of what was happening to this other character, which was maddening because I wanted to see how the initial plot progressed. But ultimately, even that diversion was important and served to keep me watching until the end.
My only real complaint, is that due to two worlds we have to learn about, and all their details, we can get fairly exposition heavy at times. Not often, but a couple of times, especially early on, where character motivations and world mechanics are explained. But as the series goes on and you get a handle on the situation, it gets a bit less confusing.
The first half of the series has 2 or 3 arcs, but the last half of the series is one longer arc. For some people, they might have a problem with the antagonist in that second arc, as well as how long it lasts. As for the former, one main complaint is that his backstory isn't really explored until near the end, leaving him feeling like a one-dimensional caricature until then. All I can say is that his character later does make sense, and he does get some meaningful depth and explanation if you stick with it. And for the latter, it can feel a bit drawn out, as if you could tell they were trying to finish out 24 episodes. But it ends strongly enough and satisfactory enough that it is worth the trip.
Not as clean and crisp as SAO or later offerings, but still fairly decent, given that it is only a year old series now. The action is handled fairly well, fast when it needs to be, and slow when it is important. Having watched a lot of anime, I've become fairly proficient at seeing where a series cut corners to save on animation costs (since action scenes cost more than still scenes). Not once was I left with the impression they skimped on purpose.
I'm not generally a person who pays much heed to sound. After watching a series, I'd be hard-pressed to recognize music from it, other than the openers. Well, with the exception of Yuki Kajura's music, of which I am in love with, heh. Usually the best compliment I can give a series, is that the music and sound effects didn't detract from the narrative. While Accel World didn't have Yuki's touch, it did come across fairly strongly and really stood out as adding to the experience of what was happening on-screen. It was never out of place, but only served to underscore the importance of a fight, or of a conversation where lofty ideals were being declared. And the heart-wrenching moments that made me tear up a bit. Without the specific music choices, those scenes would have had far less impact on me.
The other strong suite of this series, and if I had to say which was stronger between story and characters, I might almost say characters. As I mentioned above, this is primarily because of Haruyuki, who is a non-typical protagonist. 99% of anime feature a thin or average looking antagonist, and chunkier characters are left to secondary or minor roles. So I felt this was a novel and brave approach. And it didn't feel like they were doing this just to be different, either; as I mentioned above, Haru's feelings and attitudes because of his character type, play an important direct role in how his story plays out. You can feel his fear and self-loathing at his helplessness. Anyone who was a nerd or an undesireable in middle or high school, will instantly relate. Haru feels real, because he is real. And while a character that is consistently emo or whiny (ala Shinji or Madoka) can be grating or annoying, Haru never really is. He actually grows as a character throughout the series. His problems don't instantly disappear with the advent of the Brain Burst program, nor does he quickly lose his weaknesses. He does keep trying to step up and make himself better, even when he doesn't always succeed. Brain Burst, and people believing in him, give him the strength to keep stepping forward, showing qualities that make Haru a true hero.
Of course, there are more characters, which I should discuss. Chiyuri and Takumu are Haru's two childhood friends, as well as girlfriend/boyfriend at the series start. Their relationship with each other, and with Haru, play importantly into the plot of all three. Accel World could have been a harem - and indeed, there are plenty of women who end up friendly with Haru - but never once does it really develop into that. There is a bit of romantic subplot and love triangle (or square?), but it fits nicely into the background as a way to flesh out the characters, and not as a sole reason for them to exist. See, other anime series? You can have guys and girls as good friends, without turning it into a harem. Chiyuri wants to maintain the friendship between the three, although she feels some conflict about her feelings for both. Takumu and Haru are friends, and obviously value that friendship, but it is also obvious there is a subtle strain present over Takumu and Chiyuri's relationship. Both have their own issues, and both grow substantially over the course of the series.
Of course, I should discuss the other important main character, and Haru's main romantic interest, Kuroyukihime. That's not her real name, but a nickname that literally means Black Snow Princess. We don't actually get her real name (so far), although it is implied that Haru was told. He still calls her "Senpai" though, since she is one year older than him and he is still working out his own feelings of inadequacy. She is the one who gives him Brain Burst, and it is her backstory that sets the wheels of this anime into motion. For reasons that are explained, she is a high level "Burst Linker," the name for someone who fights in the Accelerated World, although she has been hiding from it for a couple of years. I like her character, because while she seems calm and collected and incredibly smart (born from years of existence in accelerated time), she can also lose her cool. She recognizes this, though, and it forms the basis for her relationship with Haru. What drives her, isn't what drives most typical anime women. I'm glad to see that not only is she a badass, but she is a human badass, with flaws and qualities that should be apparent to any gamer; particularly any female gamer.
There are quite a few other supporting characters who also have their moments to shine, getting varying degrees of development, too. Even characters that you wouldn't expect to see get development, end up with some. I think one of the more amusing characters, is the maid who uses gamerspeak in real life, saying things like "NP" and "GG" (for No Problem and Good Game). Reki is a gamer, and it comes out in his works, heh.
The main complaint I'd have in this area, is that the relationship between Haru and Snow Black can seem a bit disjointed. First in that it might seem to progress too quick (mostly on her side), and that it slows down dramatically after a certain point. While studying the the series and the various aspects can lead to reasons to why this is, I do feel the show didn't do quite enough to actually show or explain it well enough. Some of the main reasons which lead to Snow Black's feelings, are that she is mentally much older due to time spent in the Accelerated World, and the life-or-death situation she is forced into early on. Also, what drives her as a person, and thus what she is attracted to, really are different than most women. I've seen the complaints about Haru being simple otaku fan-fulfillment, and while I can understand that sentiment, I don't fully buy it. There is much more to Accel World when you take in the larger context of what the Accelerated World means. Haru still has to earn it, and he knows he has to earn it. Working past his inferiority complex is a goal of his, to stand on equal footing. While others would simply accept another person as an equal, Snow Black knows you can't force someone to feel like an equal; you can only reach your hand out to a human being, and wait for them to take it.
It's really hard for me to give any series a perfect score; I usually find something within it to complain about, even if it is fairly small. Accel World suffers most for not having the best animation and sound that I've seen from some offerings, so I guess I unfairly knock it a tiny bit for that. Also, the physical design for Haru almost seems a bit too dramatic and caricature like, as he is almost comedically short compared to everyone else. Several times, what are supposed to be touching or otherwise awesome moments, make you laugh in ways that should make you feel bad you're laughing because it is a short fat kid in the scene.
The story and characters are what really drive this anime, though. And while it seems kinda silly to say that, it is true. The only main negatives are that Haru himself is drawn a bit differently than everyone else, and that there is currently only one season. The main overall goal of the series isn't reached, which leaves you hoping they do a second season. There is more than enough light novel material to do so now, so my hope is that they do. Don't get me wrong; the 24th episode ends on a fairly good note. The story arc is wrapped up nicely, and several disparate character arcs are resolved by the end. You are just left with a sense that the adventure will continue. But my fear is that fan hate over Haru, might leave this series as one that is more unpopular than most, despite the fact that I feel this world is more expertly well-designed than Sword Art Online (which we can presume *will* get a second season).
Having said that, there are some fan translations on the net of the light novels, so if you do want to continue exploring Accel World, there is room for you to do so.
Overall, I feel Accel World is more than worth checking out. While I advocate checking out Sword Art Online simply for the fact that it is a series that everyone is watching, and thus you should check it out to be on the same page as everyone else even if you don't end up liking it... I recommend checking out this series mainly because there are unique concepts here that will provoke thought. It is worth exploring if a non-standard protagonist can work, or whether the anime world can only really handle generic thin emo-for-no-reason protagonists. And also to see a glimpse into our own technological future with the augmented reality of Neuro Linkers, and the new social rules they will add to our lives. I won't proclaim that Accel World is the best thing out there, and I will fully admit that I give greater praise to it because it hit several of my personal tastes. But at the least, I think most everyone will find it at least a decent series, and thus time well spent.
Check it out, and let me know what you think in the comments!