Solo Leveling took the first place spot in our most anticipated Winter 2024 anime poll with 9.67% of the vote—and for good reason. The webtoon of the same name is one of the most popular across multiple languages. Even more, the anime was originally scheduled to premiere in 2023, meaning there has been ample time for audiences to stay excited about the anime. This series also arrives at the heels of other popular anime adaptations of webnovels, webcomics, and webtoons such as Noblesse, God of High School, Why Raeliana Ended Up at the Duke’s Mansion, and Tower of God. All of these brought something relatively unique to the table, especially for anime fans who were relatively unfamiliar with Korean source material. Most relevant to Solo Leveling are the action-oriented titles which brough entertaining combat, enticing stories, and interesting characters all over the course of just a few years.
My immediate impression of Solo Leveling is that the element it will shine most in is its execution. The overarching premises of the series are not anything too unique; fans of anime like GATE will recognize the “one day a portal opened up and monsters came out” element and anyone who has seen Log Horizon, Sword Art Online (whose animation production was also by A-1 Pictures), or any dungeon-crawler will recognize some settings and combat. But Solo Leveling takes a relatively common concept and presents it in a way that was surprisingly compelling. The incredible art (by DUBU, who passed away in 2022) within the webcomic is enhanced by animation, giving life and motion to moments of impact and movement. Voice acting is superb, perfectly communicating a variety of emotions from comfort to absolute agony and despair. Where the two-episode premiere was weakest (and where I imagine a lot of early criticism of Solo Leveling will focus) is its pacing.
Without getting into spoiler territory, the first two episodes move with a pace that is much more concerned with establishing the world of the story and its characters than kicking off the major action. That setup is incredibly important and it helps immediately separate Solo Leveling from other series with very similar overarching fantasy premises, but I think the anime should have found a way to tease a sort of flash forward early on before into the story. This is something the webtoon does with Episode 0 (webcomics refer to chapters as episodes), followed by the the next ~4 episodes which the first episode of the anime adapts, and the proceeding 6 episodes which the second episode of the anime adapts. The premiere version of Solo Leveling combines both episodes 1 and 2. The review will be divided into a section for each episode so any spoilers for each are isolated.
The first episode of the Solo Leveling anime was very much dedicated to setup and worldbuilding, something I personally enjoyed but something that someone expecting immediate, constant action may be a bit annoyed by. The episode opens in media res three years prior to the start of the story, with hunters of various ranks and skill levels fighting off monsters. These early scenes serve two purposes. One, they establish some facts about the Solo Leveling universe: there exist people (hunters) who fight monsters and both hunters and monsters have ranks of strength assigned to them. In addition, conventional weaponry is ineffective against these monsters; military vehicles are on the outskirts of fights that use swords, unable to offer any assistance, indicating this is somewhat new to the world. I compared this series to GATE in my mind so this detail stuck out to me; a lot of series where monsters enter the real world involve pitting conventional weaponry against fantasy weapons.
The second purpose of this early scene (at least to me) was to give the audience a taste of what was to come. Notably, these immediate scenes aren’t the Episode 0 flash forward I described above, but a different combat sequence entirely. What this one communicated was that Solo Leveling‘s animation toolkit includes hand-to-hand combat, brightly colored magic, non-CGI movement for monsters, and copious amounts of blood. The art style and animation are good, but not wildly incredible. It may simply seem that way in comparison to the art of the webcomic, which is genuinely outstanding, but this initial combat scene left me wanting a bit more from what I saw, especially since it was the first thing I saw.
The middle section of the episode does some more useful (if early) worldbuilding. S rank hunters are discussed and a narrator explains the history behind the portals that opened up around the world ten years ago. These ranks are fixed for each person; once your power awakens it never becomes any stronger by any means. We learn that defeating monsters grants hunters items and crystals that, in addition to being used to create stronger weapons (which is the only way to “increase” your strength), can be used as a 100% green source of electricity. This section paints a nice layer of realism onto pure fantasy. People who have obligations to their family (or their landlord) work as hunters in the same way others work any other job. The main character Jinwoo Sung is E-rank and widely considered the weakest of all hunters ever.
The episode wraps up with Jinwoo’s party clearing out monsters in a D-rank dungeon and discovering a hidden bonus area which they vote to explore. Unsurprisingly, this choice was a horrible one and this secret room contains monstrous enemies that instakill some of the party’s strongest members. While this section gave Jinwoo’s voice actor Taito Ban the opportunity to deliver some well-voiced emotional lines, it also felt like an odd place to end a premiere. The episode ends in a way that makes you want to watch more, but immediately. I personally think the build-up is worth it, but I imagine it may be a dissuading factor to some. Overall, I rate the episode moderately high in general, but only moderately as a premiere. I felt lucky to not have to wait to immediately watch the second episode, and I imagine I’d have felt like I wasn’t given enough if I were watching it normally.
I really enjoyed Solo Leveling episode 2, and that’s part of my slight frustration toward episode 1. Episode 2 is pretty much wholly focused on the bonus boss room. From start to finish, it powerfully communicates that every character on screen is fearing their imminent death. They’d just seen multiple people get insta-killed (something which is unheard of in dungeons), obliterated by lasers, and quite literally sliced in half. Ethereal singing fills the background as loud stomps from murderous statues get closer and closer. Blood is everywhere and over half of the group is mercilessly killed within moments by what is very much an A if not S-rank threat. It quickly becomes clear, however, both to Jinwoo and the audience, that the room is not killing people indiscriminately. A stone tablet within the room gives three commandments: “First revere God. Second, praise God. Third, prove your faith to God.” These become clues in a death game. Unlike some mysteries, where the means of thinking of an answer aren’t shown to the viewer, we see exactly what these characters see and have the exact same opportunity to think of a way to survive. This is precisely why it’s so entertaining and enthralling to watch Jinwoo, the weakest in the group, interpret these clues and find a route to survival.
His dutiful benevolence fits the characterization of him we’ve gotten thus far, which is a hard-working person who endeavors to make money to support his sister and mother despite being the weakest of all hunters. This is juxtaposed with the primal survival instincts that most of the rest of the group demonstrates. They flail like animals in a cage and search for some means of escape, either dying trying or running away when possible. After the first two commandments are “passed,” the remaining members of the group are placed in a cruel game wherein they must demonstrate their faith by standing together in the middle of the room and staring at the killer statues in order to prevent them from moving. However, the door is opened during this section, with it closing a bit whenever someone succumbs to fear and escapes the room by leaving the middle. When too many people have fled to have enough people to keep the statues from moving, Jinwoo ends up staying behind, critically injured, while allowing others to escape.
It is at this moment that his entire demeanor flips. As he’s confronted with the reality of his death, he finally lets himself drop the kind personality. He curses the people who ran and used their lives and families as excuses, citing his own perfectly valid reasons for running. Unlike a typical shonen or action hero, who valiantly sacrifices themselves, he’s pissed off, and Taito Ban once again delivers a fantastic performance of existential frustration. This is someone who risked his life every day just to make money for his family, treats those around him well, and is rewarded with agony, something I’m sure a lot of people can relate to. The episode ends with him unlocking the conditions for a secret mission, one which undoubtedly kickstarts the beginning of him becoming more powerful and breaking the preconceived rules about one’s rank being set in Solo Leveling. I very much enjoyed this episode. It could not have been as good as it was without the foundation set by the first episode, but I can’t help but wish the quality were consistent across both.
Excitement to Come With Solo Leveling
As I mentioned earlier on, this isn’t the kind of premiere that hits you out of the gate with sakuga moments, pristine art, and detailed animation that makes you concerned about working conditions. It doesn’t start fast. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t start strong. While I think this premiere is much better enjoyed as two episodes than one, I think this is the kind of series that will build with time and bring more and more action. I haven’t personally read the webcomic beyond what the premiere adapted, but even without that foreknowledge I can sense the potential of the story and understand why it’s been so tremendously popular. The issues I have with pacing are somewhat impossible to have once a series has its setup done and really gets going. And with that out of the way, what’s left is sure to be one of the best this season.
Solo Leveling will stream on Crunchyroll from January 6 with new episodes airing weekly. The eighth volume of the comic, published in English by Yen Press, comes out on January 21. You can also read it on Tappytoon.
© Solo Leveling Animation Partners