E-class hunter Jinwoo Sung is the weakest of them all. Looked down on by everyone, he has no money, no abilities to speak of, and no other job prospects. So when his party finds a hidden dungeon, he's determined to use this chance to change his life for the better... but the opportunity he finds is a bit different from what he had in mind!
Source: Yen Press
PrefaceSolo Leveling is the most eagerly anticipated anime of Winter 2024, mostly because it faced minimal competition from new releases. Hype aside, it still got eclipsed by the ongoing success of Frieren from the previous season and it is a fairly standard power fantasy that got fervently praised by fans of the web comic. As is usually the case with fans they want you to believe it’s some subversive masterpiece, although it does nothing that its predecessors haven’t already explored, often with superior execution. Furthermore, its glaringly apparent flaws provide plenty of reasons for the average watcher to disengage.1) It’s needlessly padded outSomething everyone who seeks a good power fantasy will notice early on, is that it doesn’t begin as one. It takes its time in establishing the setting and the rules and the major characters before becoming a power fantasy after 4 episodes. This deliberate pacing may prove off-putting to audiences desiring immediate gratification through seeing the protagonist doing cool stuff right from the start (think of One Punch Man for example). Also, despite the slow buildup the show falters in establishing the basics of its premise.- The setting is an augmented version of our mundane reality, infused with isekai portals and superhuman abilities. It doesn’t differ in the slightest despite a decade of constant monster invasions and people walking around with the ability to demolish concrete walls. Beyond the superficial addition of a hunter association, it doesn’t reflect any substantive shifts in geopolitics, the global economy, or societal norms. It’s lazily made and doesn’t deserve any time in elaborating how it functions.- The mechanics governing videogame powers and superhuman abilities, along with the hierarchical ranking system, are conveyed with no nuance. They are the most basic representation of an MMO or a D&D player’s handbook, which might have been cool to follow in the early 2000s along with other titles doing the same such as .hack and Gantz, but now it’s ever-present in our pop culture. It became understandable through mere osmosis and there is little reason to explain its most basic features.- The characters are as one-dimensional as they get. They are all defined by a singular character trait, such as the hunters only caring about hunting, or the protagonist’s sister being a worrying sister. They have no life outside of the single idea the author bothered to have when he conceived them, so once again they don’t deserve any elaboration. Then the director opens his own can of worms and persists in interrupting action sequences to afford glimpses into the inconsequential activities of minor characters somewhere far away, thus needlessly diluting the narrative focus.2) Its explanations work against itThe series’ sluggish pacing works against it, and the more it tries to explain its world and powers the more it exacerbates the shortcomings of its world-building and power system. It would be a more satisfying viewing experience if no explanations were given and more screen time was allocated to the action scenes. You know, the main appeal of the show? The revelation that hunters must personally finance their equipment and they undertake perilous dungeon delves merely to pay the bills (it’s literally mentioned on the intro song), can make you wonder why would low-ranking hunters, such as the protagonist in the beginning of the show, persist in risking their lives when more lucrative and less hazardous employment opportunities exist. Flipping burgers or gathering trash would earn them more money and there would be no risk.3) The action is constantly interruptedThe best parts of the show are, as you can imagine, the dungeon battles. They have all the pulse-pounding action and captivating moments anyone would be watching such a show for. Regrettably, these highlights are marred by constant interruptions just to explain new mechanics or to show us inconsequential characters in faraway locations, thus ruining whatever hype you might be experiencing at that moment. They are also filled with a lot of questionable moments, such as the complete lack of safety protocols that result in an unacceptably high casualty rate. They just deploy a bunch of people, completely unprotected and unmonitored, thus it’s very easy for anyone to die because he does something risky or, even worse, to kill his fellow hunters and run away with their gear and loot without anyone questioning what actually happened.4) The videogame terminology works against itThe infusion of videogame terminology can cater to gamers, yet unwittingly creates a jarring dissonance for everyone else. Having statistic screens with levels and numbers and abilities may lend a certain allure within the confines of a virtual world, but when applied on the real-world such elements become a detriment. The reason we need statistic screens in videogames is because we can see and hear, but we don’t experience pain, emotions, or hunger as we do in reality. That is why numerical indicators for health, emotional state, and fatigue serve a vital purpose. However, when we are in the real world these metrics become redundant since we do feel pain, emotions, and hunger. Such videogame mechanics make sense in, let’s say, Sword Art Online, but not in Solo Leveling. It’s why the protagonist’s incessant monitoring of his health bar or fatigue gauge was making me eye-roll. It underscored his detachment from his own bodily sensations, as if he had no idea if he was tired or not. Also, being heavily injured is simply more natural than saying ‘My hit points are down to 18%’.5) The protagonist lacks agencyBeyond its superficial appeal, the videogame aesthetics employed in Solo Leveling also strip the protagonist of free will and agency. His actions are dictated by the videogame system, rendering him a mere pawn in its machinations. Choices presented by the system are illusory at best, since they simply ask him if he accepts to do something or be severely punished. Do your daily quests or get chased around by monsters! Complete this special quest, or die! Your health is down, so buy potions! There’s nothing to actually choose in any of that. By extension, the protagonist’s accomplishments feel staged and unearned, since he would have never done anything without the enforcement of the system.6) Character development is sudden and artificialAny changes to the protagonist’s personality are artificial for a similar reason, since they too are imposed by the system rather than arising organically from within. They are also fairly sudden, which comes off as extra jarring when the pacing is overall glacial. The protagonist literary becomes a different person in an instant, then the animators go as far as changing his facial structure completely, the voice actor speaks with an entirely different tone, and then the viewer is expected to be fine with it. How about no, since it was both artificial and sudden?7) Moral dilemmas are hollowAny attempts at moral dilemma also ring hollow, such as a scene where the protagonist has to choose between killing people or dying himself. There is no real choice, especially when the people he had to kill were already about to kill him. Furthermore, said people were portrayed as one-dimensional evil bad guys, made to be hated. At one point their eyes glow red and have sadistic smiles in case you couldn’t tell how evil they are. Their leader’s name was Sucks Dong, in case you weren’t given enough reasons to hate this guy. The writer wasn’t even trying to make these guys redeemable, yet he expected the viewer to consider this a life-changing moment. If you portray people as monsters that deserve to be killed, there is nothing to consider and therefore no real dilemma.8 ) The protagonist is not an underdog but a cheaterDown to it, the protagonist was designed to be a blank slate for gamers to project themselves onto, but this inherent lack of agency detracts from his appeal, rendering him a bland archetype devoid of genuine depth or charisma. Undoubtedly, there is an audience for bland-looking self-inserts who get constantly betrayed by society and then get constantly more powerful so they can extract their revenge. The main issue with this bland-looking self-insert in specific is that he is not an underdog or a victim as many fans like to portray him as.- He is the only one who can level up in this show, so you can’t call him something that can’t apply to anyone else.- He is not a victim when the hunter association allowed him to be a hunter and all his teammates (including the ones who wanted to kill him) were very welcoming. Nobody denied him the chance to participate or to prove his worth through his accomplishments.- In reality he is a cheater, since he doesn’t tell anyone how he gets stronger and he has several unfair advantages over everyone else. No other hunter is given a life-saving full recovery in the middle of the battle, or the option to buy potions as he is dying. It’s not the system giving him the chance to get stronger. It’s the system being rigged so he will be the only one who gets favored by it, thus becoming stronger while everyone else is kept in the dark (and dies because of it).9) Grinding and training are fillerThe portrayal of training within the series serves as further evidence of its narrative inconsistencies. There is a portion of anime fans who get motivated by seeing characters training and getting stronger, as if they are gym rats. This show in particular should have the opposite effect, since training sequences in Solo Leveling lack significance. The protagonist’s exclusive access to leveling renders the efforts of secondary characters futile. Gym rat scenes, intended to evoke motivation and empowerment, not only contradict the in-story rules but also come off as useless filler. Even if it wasn’t so, training scenes in general are looked down upon by most fans of power fantasies. They tend to find them boring and they skip them, aiming to get to the outcome right away for that sweet dopamine fix. That is why most power fantasies begin with the protagonist being the most powerful since the very beginning. Nobody cares to see him grind. They want to see him being awesome. In this regard Solo Leveling fails spectacularly by not delivering on the genre’s expectations.ConclusionSolo Leveling is nothing special when it comes to power fantasies. Its badly implemented videogame tropes, coupled with intrusive interruptions to its action sequences, diminish its overall impact. Furthermore the nonsensical claims of the webcomic fans are just icing on the cake of how blatantly obvious the seasonal hype over this nothingburger series is, during a season with no real competition. And even then it still pales in comparison to Frieren, a cozy slice of life about an elf gmilf. Solo Leveling is not unlike anything we’ve seen before, it’s not the best power fantasy, it’s not the best webcomic, and it doesn’t have the best written characters in human history. It’s junk food, a forgettable time-waster at best, gassed up by people who don’t read or don’t care about quality writing and just want to self-insert into a cheater who uses the most generic videogame mechanics imaginable.
While lacking substance, Solo Leveling's greatest strength is its fight scenes. Everything else feels very low in strength in comparison. With the main character just randomly becoming a completely different person, mixed with cool fight scenes, it makes for a decent action anime, but not much else aside from that. Starting out with what I like most, is honestly just the fight scenes. They're so colorful and well-animated that they're probably some of the best fight scenes I've watched. However, what I don't like about the anime, is just how lacking it feels with everything else, especially characters. However, my friend really likes the manwha, so I decided to keep watching so I could talk about it with him. Jinwoo Sung starts out as a weak guy, yet he's fighting to help out his mother. After his traumatizing experience of almost dying with that weird looking statue, he gets the ability to level up. Up until this point I didn't really have any issues with the anime. I wasn't necessarily super into it, but I'd start taking more of an issue with it after this point. Because as he levels up, we see a bit of him getting stronger, but it feels like all of a sudden he's this completely different, strong guy. He looks and acts completely different, and it feels way too sudden. It's as if he's a completely different person, which didn't make any sense to me since he was still acting like his normal self after the incident, yet now that he's started training he's this completely different person. He goes from this guy who's shown to sort of be soft and weak, yet all of a sudden he's this cold and tough guy. Usually I think there would be a lot of character development that would lead to this point, yet this all happened in such a short amount of time. That's my main issue with the anime. Also his jawline scares me, it could cut through a cutting board. My next issue with the anime is once again, Jinwoo Sung, as I feel as if the anime didn't really give me anything to like about him or feel attatched to his character. We see him go through these battles, but through all these, there's nothing that made me feel any sort of care for his character. Maybe later in the story as it shows more of his character there will be moments where it makes the viewer care for him, but I feel like there should have been moments like that before the trauma scene where he almost dies, because I feel like the scene would matter a lot more, and even his training scenes, if there was more of an emotional sort of connection to the character. As for the good things, as I said earlier, I think the fight scenes were really cool along with the monsters. The animation is really pretty throughout the fight scenes, and I like the color scheme all of them have. Along with this I really like the opening and ending song, especially the ending song/animation, it has a unique look to it. I can definately see how people would like Solo Leveling. My friend likes it and I'm sure he has good reasons for liking it a lot. As for the video game system, it's good and bad. I think it's a cool system and it's better then Sword Art Online, yet at the same time I feel as if it works against the anime. Because it makes the leveling up feel sort of forced, which makes the character feel more lacking, as he's not working as much for his own motivation but because he's being dictated by the gaming sort of system. I think this is a decent battle anime, but in my opinion, it's not much aside from that. I'm going to keep watching because my friend likes the manwha, but I don't necessarily recommend it unless you're looking for an anime that's mostly just packed with cool fight scenes. I can see how people would like it, but this wasn't something that caught my attention at all.
Story [4/10] I usually stick to reviewing completed anime, however, sometimes, I'm in need of the catharsis reviewing and getting my feelings out there can offer, and this is one of those times. I will include some spoilers about the general direction of the show up until episode 7, which is the latest episode out, but I won't spoil anything that I think would diminish the viewing experience. Solo Leveling fits into what I'd call the "OP MC" genre, but it's also a zero-to-hero story, following a character who takes the "zero" to the extreme and is nicknamed "The Weakest Hunter in Mankind". The story is very similar to World Trigger, except replace the sci-fi with fantasy, in that organisations recruit warriors to fight against alien enemies invading Earth through portals. In Solo Leveling, hunters are born with a kind of mana that allows them to fight, and fighters are ranked based on their level of mana from S-E. Dungeons are assessed by organisations and given a rating from S-E based on the mana the dungeon emanates. An economy has formed around the looting of dungeons, and hunters form groups to take on dungeons, and split the loot. Our protagonist, Jinwoo Sung, is a rank E hunter, and he's particularly weak even then, and he risks his life in low-rank dungeons which offer little reward. Loot is often split based on contribution, and since Jinwoo is so weak, he barely makes anything. In the first episode, Jinwoo enters what should be a low-rank dungeon, but an unexpected pathway leads to circumstances that present Jinwoo with an opportunity. He acquires the ability to "level up", by following a game-like system with a quest system, offering exp and other rewards which allow him to increase his power. Hence his zero-to-hero journey begins. The premise is simple and fun, however, there was an opportunity for the world to be fleshed out and better thought-out. Instead, the world of Solo Leveling feels like a convenience to create this underdog story. The economy of hunting doesn't make any sense, and it especially doesn't make sense that Jinwoo is risking his life to make pittance, in what can essentially be described as a dead-end job. There's no way to increase your "mana", so he's stuck at E-rank, where he makes little. We're just told he has no other options, because he has to support his sick mother and send his younger sister off to college. His sister and ostensibly his mother seem fine with this arrangement, which is absolutely insane. From what we know, Jinwoo's occupation is extremely dangerous, death seems like only a matter of time and he's being paid nothing, in what seems like an advanced economy. Jinwoo has to be the most rootable underdog possible so don't question it. I'm personally a big fan of OP MC anime when done right, and in particular, I want the protagonist to have earned his abilities in some fashion. That might've been the life of hard work that occurred before the anime began, or it might be earned in this zero-to-hero fashion. However, in Solo Leveling, Jinwoo exposes himself to incredible risk, for extremely contrived reasons, making illogical decisions just to create action. His established motivation of providing for his family is solved immediately by gaining the ability to level up. He can just leisurely level up and easily clear dungeons to make a stable living and provide for his family. This outcome is guaranteed with patience. It's so extremely contrived for Jinwoo's reasoning continues to be to take staggering risks to provide for his family , when we know the risks are completely unnecessary. Whenever he talks about where to put his stats, I keep wishing he'd put some extra stats in intelligence to spare me his foolish decision-makng. It's kind of the equivalent of a guy who knows he could easily reach his goals in the stock market risk-free, but decides to 10x leverage anyway, and the drama is that he could blow up his account with the slightest mistake. "How about don't leverage then?" is a question you're not supposed to ask. The game "system" is interesting, because failure to complete quests can include consequences such as death, which essentially makes Jinwoo a slave. Powerless to disobey the commands given to him through quests, but I doubt this will be explored deeply, because almost all plot points so far are just conveniences. I suspect "I have to do X because the system will kill me otherwise" will mostly just be a convenient writing trick to justify whatever writing and being a convenient way to absolve Jinwoo of responsibility for what he does. Which he won't even need because the story will never write him into any kind of real moral ambiguity. Animation [8/10] Average rating seems to correlate very highly with production quality, and so how does a shit story with terrible characters do well? Well, obviously the animation must be sweet, and it is. Sound [6.5/10] The tracks so far have been great, and my opinion is likely to change as the anime continues, but I've got a problem with Jinwoo's VA. He goes absolutely wild over almost anything, and his dialogue is generally just nonsensical justifications for his risky behaviour. Screaming things about how he's not afraid of perilous danger because he's faced even more perilous danger before, or how he's going to prove himself or whatever. None of which makes sense because he's basically hit the jackpot and is guaranteed to be extremely powerful. It can be over-the-top and silly. Characters [2.5/10] Solo Leveling has very few noteworthy characters, we exclusively follow Jinwoo, and he has no friends or partner, just his sister, who is utterly oblivious to anything hunter-related, and is an airhead who just talks about random crap. Jinwoo undergoes a change while leveling up, and becomes considerably more likeable as a result, but it's hard to overlook how poorly written he is. I've gone over the reasons why already. Overall [5.5/10] Despite my scathing remarks, as a fan of shounen, I will definitely keep watching. If you turn your brain off and just enjoy the spectacle, it's fun.
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