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Tuesday, 20 November 2012 00:00

There's been a trend recently for gameworld-based shows, and Accel World is the one that seemed to kick it off. Haruyuki, who is not what you'd call a charming hunk, has caught the attention of school goddess Kuroyukihime (real name not provided), but her attentions come with a catch - his services in the Accelerated World, where battles between online avatars can reap real-world rewards...

The year is 2046. Haruyuki Arita is a young boy who finds himself on the lowest social rungs of his school. Ashamed of his miserable life, Haruyuki can only cope by indulging in virtual games. But that all changes when Kuroyukihime, the most popular girl in school, introduces him to a mysterious program called Brain Burst and a virtual reality called the Accel World. Finding that he has a talent for the virtual battles that Brain Burst's 'players' engage in - and more than a little overawed by being on the receiving end of Kuroyukihime's apparently genuine affections for him, Haru throws himself into the game with abandon. But all is not as it seems - Brain Burst's players each have their own reasons for being there, and some of them are quite willing to play dirty to get what they want from the game; while Haru finds that he can't keep real-world friends Taku and Chiyu from getting involved in his battles...

Engage Brain Burst, and you get a little time discontinuity to live in - hours or even days in the Accel World cover just minutes in the real world (accelerated, geddit?) so the participants can do some very interesting things in there, things that can impact the real world. Big test tomorrow? Spend an in-game week studying for it, and still have real-world time to go party with your friends while aceing the test. Under certain circumstances, you can even manipulate the real world - about to be run over by a car? Burst Link, slow down time, and pay a (high) portion of your in-game points to save your life. There are some rules, though: Each player can only pass the Brain Burst software to one other person (which creates a master / pupil heirarchy amongst the players); and if you run out of points, the software will force-uninstall, ending your involvement permanently. No respawn for you. Players are ranked, with the legend amongst the players being that Very Good Things will happen to the first player to reach level 10. Kuroyukihime is level 9 - but comes with a troubled past that means she now needs help from others to push any further.

I could go into a lot more detail about the game-world setup, but we could quite literally be here all day. Suffice to say: Kuroyukihime is beautiful, charming, powerful in her own way, and the very definition of a damsel in distress; Haruyuki is unattractive, socially inept, generally clueless about his own abilities, and very far from being the image of a knight in shining armour - and yet Kuroyukihime sees something in him that makes him worth making her protege, and our story begins. Bring in Taku, the school kendo champ who carries an air of perfection about him; and Chiyu, childhood friend of both Haru and Taku who's currently dating Taku but is clearly harbouring feelings for Haru, and we have our core cast.

Right. A lot of the appeal of Accel World comes from Kuroyukihime, I have to admit - between her character design and her general attitude, she's one of those characters that I could watch all day, regardless of how good or bad the show she's in is. There's always a certain air of mystery about her, maintained by the way that the show never fully explains what she's after in Brain Burst or what she sees in Haru beyond his in-game talents, and that just adds to her mystique. It's a huge contrast to Haru, who is her polar opposite in every way (his character design is even out of keeping with everyone else in the show, as a way of emphasising his physical shortcomings), and it's never easy to buy into the relationship between the two of them.

Fortunately, there's a good setting for them to work with. Brain Burst at its heart is a simple online fighting game - gain points for a win, lose points for a loss, spend points to upgrade abilities and buy your way to higher levels - which makes it easy to follow, and brings with it the fun of finding out each character's unique abilities. These are linked to their real-world personalities and personal traumas, which I won't go into here for spoiler reasons, but its a setup that makes sense and for the most part works very well - as long as you're not too picky about game mechanics.

The series is essentially split into two parts, opening with a lot of time being spent explaining the setup and gameworld, and fleshing out the main characters. This is when the series is at its best, between the interactions of the main group and the introduction of some entertaining side characters (Yuniko and her wonderful split personality is my personal favourite - one moment the stereotypical smitten imouto, the next mean enough to give any yandere girl a run for their money). The show doesn't get too carried away with machinations, focussing more on the simple things and just letting you enjoy the ride.

Unfortunately, that eventually gives way to a lengthy arc that sees Kuroyukihime head off to Okinawa for a school trip, leaving Haru to guard her territory - which is, of course, the perfect time for a game cheat to come and challenge him. The challenger is Seiji Nomi, who has to be in the running for one of the most unlikeable characters of recent years: completely self-obsessed, overcompensating horribly for perceived real-world slights, and capable of manipulating Haru and the others like he was playing a violin, he both provides a major challenge for Haru to deal with, and almost spoils the show through his overbearing attitude through the second half of the series. His arc is a real chore to get through at times, and isn't helped by there being a few twists and turns in the plot department that feel contrived and un-natural. It all makes sense in the end, but the trip to get there leaves a lot to be desired, and it does undermine the good work done earlier in the series.

"Undermine" isn't quite as bad as "destroy", though, and on balance there's a lot in Accel World to like, not least the decent action scenes and the reasonable amount of threat that the series manages to portray with them. As mentioned before, Kuroyukihime also goes a long way to balancing out the Bad Stuff by her simple presence. I had high hopes for the series when I started watching it, and while it didn't quite live op to them - almost entirely because of the Seiji arc - what's here is still very entertaining stuff. Well worth a look.

Rating - ****