Yes so, I’m going to do a little bit of comparison between Grimgar: Ashes and Illusions and the first season of Sword Art Online. You might ask, why do I compare these two in the first place? Well it’s because I can’t help but feel Grimgar is SAO done right. There are reasons for this and to me, the reason is because SAO has three promises that it gives us during the first three episodes which are the danger of its world, the potential deaths of party members and the skill progression. In all these regards, I think Grimgar managed to execute them better without any early promises.
Warning: Not so minor spoilers ahead
In SAO, there isn’t any danger. At least after episode 3. We know that Kirito will win every single fight there is. This isn’t a bad thing given that there are many other action anime that don’t really have any sense of danger but are still good. However, early in the series, SAO shows us that living in this new game world is supposed to be dangerous because the only way for the players to break free from the game is to finish all 100 levels. That means that they HAVE to fight increasingly strong foes along the way. They HAVE to risk their lives to save themselves. There WILL be people dying. SAO sets it up perfectly during the first 3 episodes, indirectly promises us with the feeling of danger that we are going to feel. But throughout the anime, it doesn’t really give us any feelings of danger… which sucks. The one and only time the series feels remotely dangerous is when all Kirito’s first party members died.
In Grimgar, everybody could die at any given fighting moment. Every fight feels important to the party. Every fight is a matter of life and death to the characters. Every single battle feels dangerous. The series repeatedly shows us that all the characters are weak and vulnerable from the first battle to the last. It’s a rare feeling to be honest. Most of the time when I watch an anime, I’d only ask, “How will the characters win” but while watching this Grimgar, I didn’t ask any question, I just HOPED that they’ll all survive. That’s how dangerous the world of Grimgar feels. I’m not surprised if any of the characters die in the light novel after the anime (I’m gonna read the light novel so to those who have read it, please don’t spoil me).
SAO promises too much on how Kirito’s party member’s deaths should have an impact on Kirito and the audience. The deaths really do have a big impact but only for a really short while and is forgotten right after. The series wants to be tragic, and it actually manages to be, but for some reason, for the rest of the series, it doesn’t even mention the tragedy anymore. It really frustrates me. I bought the anime’s promise and was so invested in the death of Kirito’s party members, wanting to mourn for them, remember them and cherish what little moments I had with them. I wanted the deaths to be significant to the world as a whole but specifically towards Kirito’s personalities. However, Kirito doesn’t do the same. In fact, no one does the same. Everyone just forgets about them… right after the anime tells us that their death is important and impactful. What’s more frustrating is that after returning to the real world, Kirito doesn’t even once mention about them let alone try to visit their families or graves. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
The Death in Grimgar is a lot more impactful towards the characters. It’s also very emotional. We feel that same feeling of lost that the characters feel. The series doesn’t even start itself as a dark and gritty series. Apart from the battles that the characters continuously lose, the series is actually very light-hearted. It doesn’t promise anything dark at all. This makes the death of Manato more shocking albeit having much foreshadowing in the earlier episodes. The audience as well as the characters are so distracted by the light-heartedness, we forgot that the world they are living in is actually very dangerous and dark. The realization comes at the same time. Now, some might say the death is a bit draggy because even in the last episode, the characters still dwell on the fact that Manato died. But I don’t see it that way. I see that while they moved on, they still don’t forget the event that happened that day. The moved on but they will never forget their precious time they had with Manato. The theme of moving on is depicted perfectly in this anime but it also conveys that we should cherish the good moments with our friends together and never forget about them no matter what.
This should be an obvious element in SAO since it’s based on MMORPG games which have a heavy skill progression mechanics. I don’t even like RPG games but when I see an anime about RPG games, of course I want to see how they develop their skills slowly from scratch, fighting weaker monsters and then slowly trying to kill the stronger ones as time goes by. SAO promises this early on too because the Kayaba Akihiko, the main villain of the first arc reveals himself the same day as the game launches. Meaning that none of the players has time to level themselves up early on and have a head start. With this in mind, questions started to pop in my head. How will they develop their skills when their lives are at risk? They can’t use trial and error like playing normal video games. They only have one try every time they face a monster. Do they strategize? Do they fight with more party members than anyone who has ever tried in any games? Do they form a battalion? But nope, the series throws out all those potential epic strategy fights and just let Kirito be a solo player. That’s still fine to me as long as it shows how he develops his skills. Obviously that’s not what happened.
Grimgar surprisingly has a very good skill progression. The characters are revealed to be the weakest of the weak, the leftovers that no one wants. It is shown perfectly even during the first fight of the anime, seconds into the first episode. The characters try so hard trying to kill one goblin, the weakest monster in Grimgar. It’s 6 versus 1 but they still lose. Arrows miss, spells not memorized completely, strategies not discussed, everything’s a mess. They start at the bottom of the bottom and slowly but surely climbs their way out. They train everyday and keep losing battles after battles before they can finally kill one goblin. They begin to strategize, mindful of each party member’s strengths and weaknesses. The learn new skills to further enhance their attacks and defences. They change and adapt their fighting styles and strategies when a party member is gone and a new one joins. Their skill growths are very smooth, up to pace and very believable. When they manage to kill much stronger monsters in the latter episodes, it’s believable because we know they worked their asses off to get there. I really like the skill progression in Grimgar and I especially like the character developments of the characters.
Grimgar is a great anime but it can’t be without some flaws of course. One thing that I don’t really get is why would the characters explore a more dangerous place? Why can’t they stay the same place and kill the same goblins over and over again? They live just fine with that. Like in the Cryrene Mine, why didn’t they just stay at the first level? I think the concept of more dangerous foes to forcefully face is more logical if it’s implemented in Sword Art Online given that the players have to beat all 100 floors.
Another thing is the fact that they don’t have any other choice except for being volunteer soldiers. If they quit becoming volunteer soldier, what is going to happen to them? Would they die? Be killed? The anime doesn’t really address it and expects us to just accept it as it is. While I did buy it, It didn’t stop me from not ignoring it. In SAO however, the problem could easily be dismissed. The first reason is they need to beat all 100 floors to break free from the game. Another reason is the fact that the game has NPCs. So the players can only be fighters in the game and can’t be anything else.
I think in general, SAO isn’t a bad anime at all. It’s better than most. What makes it disappointing to many people, including me is how much it promises us at the start only to not deliver any the rest of the series. Grimgar on the other hand doesn’t really promise anything, but deliver much more than what we thought they could deliver. Both are not perfect of course and I’m mostly comparing the positives of Grimgar with the negatives of SAO. But at the end of the day, I will still love Grimgar and I’ll always see it as SAO done right.