It started out a bit weak, but I soon really got into it. Interesting plot, fun world and lots of likeable characters. Excellent!
It's another "players trapped in a MMORPG" (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) anime series, like Sword Art Online. The two shows often get compared, because they're both very successful and near-contemporaries, but they're by no means the only examples of this genre. Some are from the 1980s. Dot Hack is an anime precursor, but there's also Tron and Neuromancer. Personally, though, I think a far more important point of comparison is Maoyu.
Every series like this will be defined by its game rules. Here these include:
(a) a level cap. You can't spend years training up your character to superhuman combat proficiency, which in itself immediately rules out having a Kirito character. The standard maximum level is 90 and it's quite common for someone to have maxed out before the series even starts.
(b) player regeneration. If you die, you're just resurrected at a cathedral. This means the stories can't be based around life-or-death jeopardy, which instead pushes the series down a more cerebral route.
(c) fundamental differences between heroes and NPCs (i.e. Non-Player Characters, aka. the People of the Land). The former are game players who go on quests, can't be permanently killed and have heroic strength and magical abilities. The latter are ordinary people who don't have superpowers, die when killed and regard the heroes as a race of immigrant supermen. Furthermore, there are also cultural differences. The players are like you and me. They're from 21st century America, Japan, etc. However they're stuck in a medieval fantasy world with feudalism, aristocracy and so on.
Of course it's a light novel adaptation. (It's covering volumes 1-5 of the series, so on average that's five episodes a book.) Like Sword Art Online and indeed hundreds of other light novel series, this means we'll have a socially withdrawn but secretly super-powerful male hero who's going to become the object of romantic affection of multiple girls. He's called Shiroe. Supporting him will be various girls. Ep.1 gave me a bad feeling with a dim-witted buxom blonde who likes hurling herself at everyone, for instance. There will also be a goofy, faintly perverted best friend whose main function is traditionally to be the non-threatening Second Bloke and hence hopefully make the harem angle slightly less obvious.
That's the template, anyway. However this show quickly departs from that to tell more interesting stories, with the harem angle being quite mild and only introduced in a minor fashion late in the series.
The thing that makes a difference is that the original novels are by Mamare Touno, who also wrote Maoyu (i.e. Maoyuu Maou Yuusha). I liked that show too. It's about medieval economics, but more entertainingly and on a grander scale than in Spice and Wolf. To my happy surprise, this show is doing something similar. The status quo in ep.1 is basically what you'd expect from a computer game. You're an adventurer with a sword. Food? The computer menu will auto-generate it for you, although it hasn't been programmed to generate taste. A house? You're an adventurer, so who cares? Money? You can earn it from quests but you don't really need it, since this was set up to be a game about killing goblins, not building a capitalist economy. Think about this for a moment and you'll realise this means a lawless society of highly skilled fighters who didn't ask to be here, but enjoy violence and have nothing to do all day but cause trouble.
Shiroe sees this as a problem. Result: this isn't a series about fighting. There is some of that, of course, sometimes on the level of a national disaster. However most of this show's fight scenes involve youngsters with little experience, often in controlled conditions as part of a training camp.
Instead it's about rebuilding civilisation. Establish a society with laws. You'll have to con and blackmail your peers into agreeing with you, but it'll be worth it. Find creative uses for your in-game abilities. Discover ways in which being able to write is more useful than being a swordsman. Give people new ways of earning money, if only for the sake of giving them something to do that doesn't involve bloodshed.
This is cool. I loved it. It also makes the show quite flexible in its storytelling, since it's capable of doing a massive goblin war alongside character-based comedy stories (e.g. organising a festival) and understated romances. This world's rules are quite interesting. There's history here about which I want to know more, for which I'll need to read the novels and/or watch Season Two. It also means that Shiroe's awesomeness is a bit more subtle than "I'm really good at fighting". He's okay at that, as it happens, but nothing special. His profession is Enchanter (subclass: Scribe), which means he's a bit useless on his own and only becomes useful when he's part of a group. He casts spells to support people stronger than himself. This is a major theme of the series. "Being strong on your own is meaningless. It takes working with others to really get things done."
Instead Shiroe's real superpower is the ability to think about things. He can plan out a fight. He can guess what his opponent might be going to do next. He's probably studied economics and/or sociology. Of course he's applying these principles to a fictional world with bespoke magical rules, but they're basically sound and would be just as true in the real world too. (Just like Maoyu!) Furthermore he doesn't even become the leader of his city, but just an important council member. He also has a problem with wanting to avoid the limelight and social interaction in general.
I like the rest of the cast too. The harem thing is inoffensive, since only two girls will end up being serious about Shiroe and one of those is only about thirteen years old. (The others are both throwaways, one from someone whose main target is someone else and the other being a villain.) Mamare Touno prefers One True Pairings, for what it's worth. Much of the cast gets discreetly paired off in "I bet they'll end up together" couples-to-be, for now only with amusing repartee and chemistry rather than anything explicitly romantic. Lenessia thinks Crusty is a mind-reading fiend, albeit quite a convenient one. Isuzu thinks Rundelhaus is an idiot (which he is) and keeps imagining him as a golden retriever.
My favourite characters in the show are female. I love the way that this is a fantasy series that's not about invincible heroes, but instead the opposite. I really admired Minori, for instance, who's one of the children and initially has a struggle even to make herself speak up. She hero-worships Shiroe, but furthermore she's close to being as clever as him. She's much less experienced, but she's working (hard) on that. However Lenessia is even more awesome, precisely because she's powerless and out of her depth. Lenessia will make you cheer. "I'm cowardly, lazy and little more than a decoration who can't think."
It's an intelligent show. It's thinking about the social implications of a fantasy game world. If it finds a loophole in its rules that makes you go "hang on, everyone's bloody lucky Shiroe isn't an exploitative would-be dictator", then the show will be aware of that too. It's also ethically aware, so for instance the training dungeon contains undead rather than creatures that would die when killed. (That said, though, monsters respawn too.)
There are some little things I wasn't wild about, generally during the very early episodes when it wasn't yet clear what direction the show would be going in. Shiroe's Glasses-Pushing For Emphasis irritated me for a while, although eventually the show starts taking the mickey. (This reaches its height when Marielle joins in and does it too, even though she's not wearing glasses.) You want to tell him to get his spectacles fixed. Tighten the screws. I also had little patience with Akatsuki's habit of doing something violent to Naotsugu when he's about to say something sexist, then afterwards asking Shiroe for permission to do the thing she's just done.
Not to be confused with Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere, which as it happens is also on my DVD shelf.
It's great. It's funny, entertaining and charming. I'm fond of its cast. It has exciting fantasy battles, yet also a season finale in which a character can be genuinely and truly awesome with her ability to correct errors in receipts and paperwork. It's a bit like Maoyu, but with more excitement, more adventure and a broader appeal for general audiences. Looking forward to Season Two!