Understanding Limits: How NOT to Summon a Demon Lord vs Overlord

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I really hate Overlord.  When I was watching it weekly I might have given it like a 5-6/10, though the final battle with Shaltear (yes I only watched season 1 though I’ve a smattering of fight clips from later seasons since) was a huge disappointment.  That said every time I even think about the show since then my hatred has built and built to the point when I can say it’s probably a 1 for me personally by now.  And while before this point I could point out what I saw as the flaws just fine I had some trouble connecting with the appeal of a show like Overlord at all, until a I saw How NOT to Summon a Demon Lord (henceforth Demon Lord because that title is a pain in the ass to type over and over).

I would describe Demon Lord as perfectly passable.  It’s like a 5-6/10, and very ok across the board.  If not for the fact this is an abysmal anime season I probably would not have watched it but now that I have I think I can really pick apart how I think Overlord fails at capturing the appeal it ostensibly is going for.  In case you haven’t seen it Demon Lord features a similarly OP demonic main character, who happens to be a spellcaster, stuck in a world resembling a game he played, where everyone else seems severely under-leveled.  On the face of it Demon and Overlord are practically the same show but their minor differences make a world difference in how much I enjoyed one over the other.

Barring the obvious differences in art style between the shows and the appearance of the two leads, the biggest difference is that Ains from Overlord has the Dungeon of Nazareck and Diablo from Demon Lord doesn’t.

Ains arrives amongst allies and servants who he can order to do things on his behalf while he investigates the world or gets into fights.  In and of itself this is not a problem and a story written from such a scenario is totally workable.  The problem is that all the demons of Nazareck are themselves overpowered in the world of Overlord.  In season 1 and in most of the clips I’ve seen of later seasons the demons of Nazareck are curb stomping all of their opponents, with the only notable exception being the bug maid vs Evil Eye (if memory serves).  This is not to say I’m not missing a battle or two where they fight more difficult opponents but ultimately the issue is that not only is Ains op all of his allies are op too so there is never any tension in any of the battles.  Moreover it seems like an incredibly hamfisted level of overkill in the writing department.  What’s the point of having an OP protagonist trying to unravel the mystery of his situation if he could just command his 15-20 servants to do it all for him?  It’s like making a team of 15-20 Madara Uchiha’s from Naruto and saying “yeah people will like that!” – like wtf?  It’s fucking BORING because none of the main characters are ever in any danger and world itself is not challenging.

Even more annoying there is no reason given at all (in season 1 at least please correct me if they explain later) as to why the world of Overlord is so weak in comparison to Ains.  Here’s a completely inconsequential example that encapsulates my issues perfectly.  Early in season 1 Ains (in disguise) has to give away one of his potions.  As far as I know this is not a potion he made, it’s just a basic potion from the game.  However it’s considered pure and is better than the potions everyone else is using.  Can you believe it? Even a basic potion in Ains’ possession, which he never even has to use, is better than the potions of the world he inhabits.  That’s the unbelievable level of overkill the writer goes to in making sure Ains is the top dog, even his potions are better than everyone else’s and he doesn’t even use them.  I know this is such a minor thing but it speaks to my main issue with Overlord.  It doesn’t know when to stop.  It doesn’t know how to set any kind of limit for itself, any restrictions which might inject ANY tension into it whatsoever.  It just makes Ains and his goons the best in every way possible and shows you how they steamroll this world set on baby levels of easy mode.  And somehow it works for people, I sincerely don’t get it, but then again I don’t get why anyone would like Superman and this has most of the same problems as Superman.

By comparison Diablo is brought into a world where he seems all but invincible but he doesn’t have a gang of overpowered buddies.  He has a pair of girls who fit into the normal range of characters levels for the vast majority of adventurers in the world Demon Lord takes place in.  His companions can and do get beaten in fights and struggle against superior foes anytime Diablo is unable to confront the threat himself.  There is actual tension because Diablo really only has like 4 or 5 people he can count on in this world and all of them have a very real chance of dying in the event he isn’t there to protect them, and he can’t be with all of them 24/7.  Moreover there are a few opponents who are more of a threat to Diablo than anyone in Overlord was a threat to one of Ains’ battle maids.  The Force Hydra, the Governor of Faltra, Krebskulm and even the Paladin are foes of a high enough level that they can at least damage Diablo, and a few even give them a run for his money or force him to the point exhaustion.

Which brings me to another point, not only do none of the native creatures or characters of Overlords world ever damage Ains, (again not that I’ve seen do correct me if I’m wrong) but even when he has to get serious to fight Shaltear there’s no negative effects at all.  Diablo meanwhile not only can be seen taking damage on rare occasions but he can exhaust himself, which leaves him practically bedridden the next day.  And while by most show’s standards this is barely a limit at all it is at least a limit – Ains not only doesn’t seem to have limits he actively is granted the means to ignore any limits he might otherwise have.  He can become a warrior good enough to steamroll this world despite the fact he’s a sorcerer.  And he has fucking gatcha items which allow him to equip the best melee weapons and armors without penalty and he doesn’t appear to suffer from using most or all of his mana if he ever even does.

Jumping back to the world being too weak, unlike Overlord, Demon Lord has an actual explanation as to why the world is so weak.  Namely that the lack of respawns has caused all the adventurers to be much more conservative so not only are their levels lower, they have far less experience with the skills they have.  Whereas Diablo played aggressively because it was a game, so he is high leveled and experienced with his skills.  But even with this explanation in place Demon Lord still makes room for a few major enemies who are high leveled.  And unlike Overlord Diablo’s potions aren’t inherently better than the potions of this world.

Where this difference in the relative power levels becomes most important is in Diablo’s companions.  Whereas Ains almost never has to worry about his servants because personality-wise they all praise him to high heaven and want to suck his dick, Diablo’s companions are total strangers to him and only bound to him by a slave collar that he won’t use on them.  These fragile bonds are important because Diablo’s human self has been betrayed in the past and struggles with connecting to people.  And of equal importance is that Ains’ companions are rarely in any danger, whereas Diablo’s are in danger all the time – or would be in the event he isn’t there.  This goes double for Rem who is the vessel sealing Krebskulm and is targeted by some humans and monsters because of this, and Shera who is a runaway princess being pursued by her countrymen and brother.  Between this combination of legitimate vulnerability, character backstories that imply significant struggles and the trials which arise in the present because of their pasts, I found the supporting cast much more likable in Demon Lord.  They were people I could sympathize with and in turn it made me like Diable more as he fought past his strong mistrust of people to support the few companions he has as much as he was able.  The demons of Nazareck meanwhile were all totally insufferable because of their boners for Ains coupled with their borderline invincibility.  There was nothing there to invest me in them and so they all fall flat.

Put simply where I think Overlord fails is in setting limits for itself.  I can understand the appeal of wanting to watch an OP hero crushing powerful enemies with ease and being an all around badass.  But where I think Demon Lord manages to strike this target with ease I feel Overlord overcompensates and goes too far.  When everyone and everything thing associated with Ains, even his basic potions for fuck’s sake, are better than the everything in the world around them it’s a clear case of overdoing it.  Fuck, just laying it out like that makes Overlord sound like a Mel Brooks-esque parody of shows like Demon Lord, but Overlord lacks the self-awareness and humor to be such a parody.  Instead it’s just a basic power fantasy taken to such an extreme degree in every detail that’s it unbearably frustrating just to think about, let alone watch.

All that said I do want to say sorry to Overlord fans if they feel like I’m attacking them.  That’s not my intent, I believe anyone can like anything and it doesn’t reflect badly on them.  This is just one more case where a popular show emerges and I can’t stand it.  Thanks for reading, see you in the next one.

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Understanding the MMO Revisited: Log Horizon VS Overlord

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My very first blog was a brief discussion about how SAO, Log Horizon and Overlord used the mechanics of MMO’s well or poorly in their respective stories.  Looking back on it now I think it was wholly inadequate, and with “log horizon vs overlord” searches being the most frequent hit to that post, I’ve decided to revamp my work and bring it up to snuff.  I won’t address SAO here because I’ve covered it extensively.  There will be spoilers ahead, you’ve been warned.

Log Horizon is undoubtedly better than Overlord in every conceivable way unless you want a mindless power fantasy, in which case you should be asking yourself what appeals to you more, being Kirito or being an OP skeleton guy with a bunch of demon followers.  Whatever games mechanics Overlord has in play are mostly thrown out the window because Ains can use magic to essentially change his class.  He can’t use special warrior skills, so this spell would be ok if he was made more vulnerable by doing it, but given how weak everything is in the world around him it hardly matters what debuffs he gives himself by temporarily going warrior.  And he can still use magic when in warrior form anyway so he would only suffer losing the special stats of mage gear, which again hardly matters because the world he’s in is too weak for him.  He can even use pay-to-win items to wield the strongest types of melee weapons in the game, something that would totally break a real game’s balance and should logically be restricted, but restrictions are something this particular show wants to do away with.  Overlord doesn’t care about being a good story, about crafting a good setting or placing limitations on it’s protagonist, it wants to provide the viewer the fantasy of getting to play as the Lich King, with a bunch of powerful demon servants, stomping the world.  And you know what, if that’s really what you want then I guess I can’t blame you.  It can be fun to feel like the big unstoppable bad guy instead of the flawless, invincible hero.   However in achieving this fantasy Overlord threw out a potentially interesting setting and narrative, and those things matter quite a bit more to me.

Log Horizon therefore is a more or less a heaven-sent miracle in comparison.  Log Horizon is an order of magnitude above Overlord, and most anime in general.  For now let’s just talk game mechanics.  Game mechanics are integral to Log Horizon’s story, and they’re very well thought out.  Low level players get EXP boosts, classes play a clear role and no one can just jump classes to avoid their limitations like in Overlord.  This is extra important for the main guy, Shiroe, because his class is a support class.  Shiroe can’t just overpower his foes, he constantly has to be thinking ahead, using distractions, buffs and debuffs to bring easy victory to his party.  While Shiroe can appear just as invincible as Ains, it’s shown that he struggles against some foes and it’s suggested that the rug can, and probably will, be pulled out from under him later down the line.  Shiroe’s also a member of a group, Debauchery Tea Party, and he’s likely one of the least powerful members of the group in terms of pure strength even if his strategic abilities are top notch within the group.  Whereas Ains was seemingly alone as a player in a game universe of NPCs given life, Shiroe is just one of 30ish nigh-legendary players and the end of the second season suggests that with the group leader far away, the rest of the group may clash in an upcoming season.  Additionally, the final episode season 1 introduces Nureha, an enemy who is either on par with Shiroe or very nearly so, who demonstrates the same kind of understanding of the game world’s mechanics and who runs what is arguably the most powerful guild in the world, Plant Hwyaden.   All this is to say that Shiro is not wish fulfillment and the world and story intends on treating him like an actual person with actual limitations and even gives him powerful enemies to contend with to boot, all of which I’m very much on board with.

In addition to well defined class roles and a strong emphasis on party play, crafting and other professional or subclass skills that appear in most MMOs play an important role in Log Horizon’s world. Various forms of crafting, from cooking to engineering are both present and well explained.  The cooking skill in particular was vital because up until it’s value was discovered everyone was auto-making tasteless meals and being miserable because of them.  And in learning about how subclass skills mattered and how they could be applied, characters were able to create items and spells not available in the normal game.  This sparks huge revolutions later down the line as Shiroe converts NPCs into adventurers, Nureha makes an unbreakable disguise spell, some of the Round Table members make a steamship and Plant Hwyaden creates portable cathedrals to let players revive anywhere.

Speaking of revival, it’s one of the other things that sets Log Horizon apart froms other MMO contemporaries.  In SAO, people die when they are killed, in the game.  In Overlord it’s uncertain what exactly would happen if Ains died though considering that he seems to have literally become his character he would likely perish forever.  The result is that both stories have to feature invincible protagonists because death is final and it would spell the end of their stories.  By comparison a lot of the biggest moral questions raised by Log Horizon are dependent on the fact that the players don’t die, and it’s not afraid to kill all of it’s most powerful players over the course of it’s run.  This is made all the more impressive when it becomes know that death in the game causes the vanquished to lose memories of real world.  And it’s made even more impressive in season two when the players who weren’t stereotypical otaku go insane trying to escape back to real world.  And you can hardly blame them because if you have a marriage coming up or a family that are no doubt worried about, it makes sense that you’d want to get out of the game and unlike SAO there’s no clear way out.  To its credit Overlord also features no clear way out, though it has yet to do much of note with that story detail.

All of the last few paragraphs are there to say that Log Horizon pays a lot of attention to detail, and uses the details of settings phenomenally to create a plethora of subplots or expand the main narrative.  Hell the game is even evolving as the players get to know it, like how Shiroe’s alt account enters the game, a spam bot is given an avatar, we see continents outside of Japan, flavor text starts to manifest as actual events, and of course the appearance of the Traveler aka Genius Monster class.  Log Horizon has already given us a large, richly detailed  world, and it looks like it will only get bigger.  And I didn’t even talk about the lore, with it’s totally new classification of spells and theories as to why demi-human monsters like Goblins became violent monsters, the lore is awesome.  And if all of this wasn’t enough, Log Horizon puts a ton of effort in characters and character development.

One of the biggest criticisms of Log Horizon season 2 is that was really slow and we spent too much time with the kids.  I agree that Log Horizon season 2 is slower and than season 1 but I think that’s entirely intentional and it doesn’t make the show boring at all.  Log Horizon has always been a headier kind of show and a lot of season 1 was about improving life in Akibahara so that players were secure and could focus on solving the big problems like “how do we get home?”.  As of Season 2 players are mostly secure and there’s little left to do beyond solving the greatest mystery in the story (which obviously won’t be resolved quickly because that would be boring), there’s hardly any immediate goals and what few exist have no clear path or resolution, with everyone’s primary needs provided for, and only mysteries left to unravel, the whole world of Log Horizon sort of stalls into a semi-rigid status quo, much like the real world.  And to fill the gaps left by a narrative that went from driven to directionless, Log Horizon season 2 put more emphasis on character development.  I think the introduction of the people who go insane trying to get home was probably best development among the player base at large, but Akatsuki had a good arc too.  Akatsuki has generally struggled with being in love with Shiroe, she’s best at straightforward violence whereas he’s mostly a schemer, she struggles to keep up with his plans, she has other girls to contend with, and she thinks she’s not quite worthy of him because she’s not as good at the game as he and the other Debauchery Tea Party Members are.  In response she obsesses herself with getting stronger and learning a Teaching and while it can seem frustrating watching episodes of Akatsuki struggling furiously and going nowhere, that is the fucking point.

Whereas in season 1 the main characters, had concrete, easily understood goals to achieve after a few episodes of aimless exploring, season 2 is about how people struggle with being adrift without any clear goal ahead of them.  For some that means going crazy, for others it means throwing in a lot of aimless effort to get some kind of result, and for a few it means striving for new big goals or getting ready to start a war.  And in the end Akatsuki gets her Teaching and gains a lot of her wavering confidence back.  William makes this awesome speech to inspire his raid group and the raid group clears the dungeon they kept losing to.  And the kids gain a lot resolve after seeing older players destroy the world around them as they go insane.  Season 2 is about the frustration of being stuck in limbo but ultimately overcoming it to face the next challenge.  Is it slow and maybe a little frustrating to watch?  Sure, that conveys what the character’s are experiencing.  Does it make Log Horizon season 2 bad?  Not at all, I was just as engaged as I was during season 1 and I will defend it with all the fury of a random blogger on the internet.

Ultimately what I hope you all take away from this is that Log Horizon is fucking amazing and you should go watch it if you haven’t done so already.  Log Horizon gets a bad rap for looking ugly and being slow but it far outclasses SAO and Overlord on every literary front and it’s by far the best example of a “trapped in a MMO” story done well.  Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it, I’ll see you in the next one.

Understanding the MMO: SAO, Log Horizon & Overlord

With the massive success of Sword Art Online a few years ago, it’s hardly surprising that other creative individuals saw promise in the “trapped in an MMO” setting.  However as several shows with MMO settings have come out, long after the .Hack franchise kicked it all off, there is a clear divide between them.  There are many ways to separate the three titular series but the one which I find most useful is how well the creators appear to understand and use the MMO setting in their stories.  So let’s compare starting with SAO.

Even if I limit my analysis of Sword Art Online’s understanding of MMOs to just Aincrad, the world of the most popular and well received arc of the show thus far, there are plenty of problems to go around.  Perhaps most blatant, the game lacks mechanics.  The only mechanics that are ever mentioned is the basic use of skills, Sword Skills, shared inventory for married couples and Switching.  The basic skill usage in Aincrad resembles that of an Elder Scrolls game as opposed to an MMO, there are no classes and you level up whatever skills and weapons you use.  The fact that there are no classes might seem like no big deal, but think about how raids and boss fights work.  Group combat in MMOs is centered around knowing the strengths and weaknesses of all the classes in your party and understanding how well the classes interplay with each other.  But if there are no classes everyone just charges ahead swords swinging and the fight devolves into a confused mess.  Switching also seems like less of a mechanic and more just a simple tactic.  All we ever see it do is have one teammate knock aside an enemy’s weapon  so their friend can hit said enemy.  If there was some kind of clear targeting system then Switching makes sense as a mechanic but because there are no classes and no aggro as far as I can tell, the Switching just plays out as a simple 2v1 fighting strategy not a real mechanic.  Even though the other 2 mechanics are fine, the fact that the game has so few mechanics already counts against it for a number of reasons.  It’s hard to believe in an MMO setting if the MMO has no mechanics to mark it out as such.  Another issue in a similar vein is how there are so few competent players in Aincrad.  MMOs are not my cup of tea when it comes to gaming but even I learned my way around pretty quickly.  In Aincrad, people are dying in droves throughout the series, when if you think about it, they should only be dying in isolated events such as traps, instances of poor decision making and boss fights.  I simply don’t buy into an MMO where everyone outside of 3-4 guilds and Kirito are totally incompetent at a game when their lives are on the line.  I’m not saying nobody should die, but the staggering number of deaths and the regularity with which they occur is nothing short of absurd.  The final issue that really proves to me SAO doesn’t get MMOs is Kirito himself.  Kirito out-levels everyone in the game and is able to overpower everyone in the game.  Why?  He spends a lot of time on floors well below his level, fights almost exclusively solo and by his own admission he is leveling inefficiently.  So why is he better than everyone?  Well because he’s the main character obviously.  But in the logic of the story’s universe there is no reason why he should be as strong as he is, in fact he should by rights be weaker than dedicated front-liners like Asuna.  But he isn’t because the story is so Kirito-centric, and frankly the fact that the story is heavily focused on a single player in a big MMO sort of reflects the author’s lack of understanding as to what an MMO’s strength’s are.  Which is where Log Horizon comes in.

Log Horizon does understand MMOs, and it makes this fact apparent at every turn.  The game has clear-cut classes and sub-classes.  Respawns, experience and other major gameplay elements are central to the story.  The entire narrative is inextricably linked to the MMO mechanics that the world is built on and functions around.  But even more impressive is the series’ understanding of the gaming population.  We have characters like Akatsuki and Tetra who played against their gender, hardcore role-players like Nyanta and players who take advantage of the situation to be dicks like Demikas and the Hamelin guild.  But in direct opposition to SAO, Log Horizon is a show where basically everyone matters in one way or another.  The cast of important characters is staggering in its size.  Likewise, even though Shiroe is Log Horizon’s most important character he is only ever more important/powerful than any given individual, not everybody combined.  Kirito on the other hand does far more by himself than literally everyone else in the game, which isn’t how MMOs work, its much more reflective of an Elder Scrolls game where our lone hero becomes Archmage, Grand Champion, and Hero of Kvatch, and so.  Another thing we see in Log Horizon that is mostly absent from SAO is gamers and their attitudes towards gear.  In SAO all guild members dressed the same and rarely did anyone get new gear.  In Log Horizon you have new players cheering over their first raid drops and veteran players who keep special raid gear stored away for the only toughest fights while they move about everyday in solid but worse gear.  These sort of things are what actual gamers do and the fact that SAO had almost none of this does it no favors.  I could go on and on about all the things Log Horizon gets right but I think you guys get the idea.  This is a series that truly understands all aspects of MMOs and had the fortune to be created by someone who knew how to use that understanding to its fullest potential.

So now we look to the future with Overlord and perhaps surprisingly I think it is a bright one.  At the time of this writing, post episode 4, the series leans much more on the Log Horizon side of spectrum.  True it focuses on a single player but in this case it actually makes sense to do so, because this is a game whose servers went down at the beginning, not a major hit everyone wanted to play.  It makes sense for almost no one to be playing a game that is shutting down.  Also if the Opening is anything to go by I think we will meet other human players soon.  As for the MMO mechanics, they are in abundance.  For example in episode 2 Momonga, our titular overlord, can’t equip swords because he is a sorcerer.  He has to summon special armor to wield weapons effectively.  The NPCs’ behavior is dictated by the text of the people who created them back when the world was just a game, though it seems as though our characters have been transported to world that is actually different from the game but clearly related in some way.  Perhaps most interesting, Momonga still retains his human mind and conscience but his perception of the world is twisted because he has taken on the traits of his undead avatar.  It may be too early to tell but based on the information we have so far there is a clear and consistent understanding of MMO mechanics at work in the storytelling.  Now there are some more distinctly SAO type traits to the show like a focus on a single character, a bunch of chicks all going for the same guy and a MC that leans toward overpowered.  But in each case there are at least plausible reasons as to why, which is why I can buy into the world and story that Overlord is presenting me.  I’m also a pretty big fan of having a Lich and a bunch of demons as our main characters, that’s a nice little touch.  I have pretty high hopes for Overlord and based on what it’s done so far I feel reasonably confident that my hopes are not misplaced.  Overlord may not be the next Log Horizon, but at least it is looking to be a solid showing for the up and coming “trapped in an MMO” sub-genre.

Thank you for reading.  I hope you enjoyed it and that you will enjoy further posts to come.