How do a bunch of side characters react to waking up in a video game?

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Title: Log Horizon: The West Wind Brigade
Genre: Fantasy, Action
Publisher:  Kadokawa Corporation (JP), Yen Press (US)
Creators: Mamare Touno (Original Story), Koyuki (Artist), Kazuhiro Hara (Character Design)
Translator: Taylor Engel
Original Release Date: January 26, 2016, April 26, 2016, July 26, 2016

With a setting as broad as Log Horizon’s it seems like a story designed to have spin-offs. But of course you don’t want to scare off your audience by going too far away from the main story, or by bringing in a completely new cast of characters, so Log Horizon does neither of these things. As readers may have guessed from the title, this particular spin-off follows the West Wind Brigade guild who crops up a few times in the main series.

One reason why the WWB gets mentioned in the main series is because it’s an unusual guild. It’s a combat guild, which would eventually earn it a place at Akiba’s Round Table, but it’s quite small and almost 100% female. It’s not all girls because it is a bastion of strong women who support each other or something inspiring like that. No, the guild has a reputation (which has even made it to the real world strategy websites) of being a “harem” of girls who all have crushes on the guild leader Soujirou.

Soujirou is surprisingly similar to the lead in Mamare Touno’s previous series, Maoyu’s Hero. Both of them are bishounen young men who accidentally charm nearly every woman they meet, are ridiculously over-powered in combat, and are skilled enough in tactics but are woefully lost when it comes to larger, world-shaping strategies and plans. Even though both Soujirou and Hero are quick to admit this fault and realize that it is a problem, their stories are happy to say “Don’t worry about it, that’s not your role, you don’t need to change!” This means that they both toe the line between a real character and a Gary Stu constantly, which deliberate or not can become frustrating. In both cases this means that the story puts a surprising amount of pressure on the [female] side characters to make up for the slack and round out the cast, but so far WWB falls short in that department as well.

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These first three volumes cover the first arc of The West Wind Brigade which corresponds with roughly the first light novel. Unsurprisingly, the story follows the familiar beats for “characters realize they have become trapped in a game” as Soujirou and other WWB guild members wake up in Akiba. Characters flip out, some test the rules, and by the end of this arc everyone has found a way to mentally cope with the situation, one way or another. Unless you’re Soujirou that is; he’s bouncy and excited from the very first second and moreso than any other character in the story. The side characters do cheer up and everyone becomes more familiar with the updated set of rules for their wold, but the fact that it’s always Soujirou who works things out first and generally sets the tone really doesn’t flesh him out more as a character, which also makes the other characters a bit flatter. Even if the title of this series is The West Wind Brigade it really feels more like “the Soujirou Story,”; the background characters even blame him for the rise in player killing (PKing) so there’s really no part of the story that doesn’t involve around him!

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Speaking of PKing, this manga also feels slightly darker than both the light novels and the anime adaptation. It touches on the same events that the original work does (namely, a rise in PKs, players realizing that the guard system in towns does not activate if you sexually harass someone, and the guilds that entrap newbie players) but this incarnation almost seems to delight in showing how seedy Elder Tales could become. Again, some of this execution seems designed to play back into Soujirou’s characterization: he can do his best to deal with small incidents but overall Soujirou just doesn’t have the right ideas for how to change society. That’s why this series is ultimately a little disappointing so far; despite having the room to do so it doesn’t strike out on  its own as far as it could, and the third volume ultimately ends with Shiroe starting his plan to ultimately establish the Round Table. As an established Log Horizon fan I do look forward to seeing the meeting between Shiroe and Soujirou from Soujirou’s point of view, but I wonder how well this series would manage to keep a new fan’s attention. The world-building is solid so there’s no reason why someone couldn’t start the Log Horizon franchise here, but it’s a more generic, less satisfying place to start.