Narratives concerning journeys to another realm through supernatural means, which occasionally involve gateways of sorts, are fancifully termed portal fantasies, instances of which are abundant across mythology and adventure fiction. In the context of manga, the subgenre is known as Isekai, and has gained immense popularity in recent years thanks to the LitRPG Sword Art Online, a series that combined sci-fi elements of virtual reality with a high fantasy setting to produce a unique experience. The popularity attained by Sword Art Online resulted in writers trying to replicate the success by following the narrative as a blueprint, and the South Korean web novel/manhwa Solo Leveling, created by Chugong, is one of numerous such entries.
Solo Leveling has quickly built a strong fanbase among readers thanks to strikingly good artwork, a simplistic, no-nonsense storyline combined with well-crafted action sequences, and tons of fan service elements. Reasonably, as the anime adaptation of Manhwa entered the production stage, it became one of the most anticipated titles to be released this year. After going through the first three episodes, it seems that A-1 Pictures’ anime adaptation of the source material has lived up to the expectations of the fans and has presented an interesting enough premise to reel in a newer audience as well.
Who Are The Hunters?
The pilot episode of Solo Leveling promptly introduces viewers to its world, which is set in an alternate reality infested by malevolent magical beasts. As the story goes, ten years prior to the in-universe present, mysterious portals started appearing across the globe, connecting the physical realm to a fantasy dimension. Strange magic beasts were able to trespass into the dimension, whose attacks wreaked havoc in the physical realm as they were invulnerable to any form of human weaponry.
Around the same time, special magical abilities awakened within a portion of human populace that allowed them to take on the magic beasts in combat. These humans, known as ‘Hunters’, differed variously in their strength level and abilities and were ranked accordingly. S-ranked hunters are the strongest bunch, followed by A, B, C, D, and lastly, E-ranked hunters. In general, hunters are forever affixed to their strength level, which means there is no way to increase one’s rank by gaining more abilities in any way.
Various corporations employ hunters in order to offer protection to humanity against the magic beasts, and in order to do so, a group of hunters is sent through portals to raid the dungeons located in the other dimension. Each dungeon has its own designated threat level in the form of a dungeon boss and its lackeys, eliminating which allows the portal to be closed. After getting killed, magic beasts turn into essence stones and mana crystals, which can be used to forge stronger magical weaponry or can be sold to gain a higher profit.
Viewers are introduced to Sung Jin-Woo, the protagonist of the series—an extremely weak E-ranked hunter who barely manages to survive the low-ranked raids he takes part in due to his lack of abilities and strength. However, responsibilities towards his family have compelled him to risk his life time and again, as ever since the emergence of the portals, his family has gone through a pretty rough patch. Right after his father went missing, Sung’s mother fell ill after suffering from a unique disease that might have been related to mystical occurrences around the world, leaving him as the sole breadwinner of the family and guardian of his sister, Jinah. Therefore, despite several difficulties and physical and mental scars sustained during raids, a humble, selfless Jinwoo continues to undertake raid missions in order to provide for and take care of his family.
What Did Jinwoo And His Team Find In The Additional Dungeon?
As Jinwoo ventures on a new raid mission, viewers are also introduced to his fellow B-ranked Hunter friend Lee Joohee, a mild-mannered, sensitive girl who possesses healing abilities and cares for Jinwoo’s well-being. Under the guidance of a C-ranked veteran hunter named Song Chiyul, Jinwoo, Lee, and a team of other hunters decide to raid a D-ranked dungeon.
During the raid, Jinwoo manages to gain his first essence stone, and although the team is able to clear out the entirety of the dungeon by killing all the magic beasts, an additional, interconnected dungeon pathway is seen to be located nearby. Team leader Song and a few other members keen on earning big express their willingness to raid it, while the other half of the team are opposed to the idea. They decide to put it to a vote, Jinwoo’s vote turns out to be the decider, and the concerns for his family implores him to vote in favor of the raid.
Following the additional dungeon path, the team enters through a gate and arrives inside an enormous hall, which is seen to be decorated with gigantic statues. A plaque containing certain commandments to worship a god is seen inside the hall, and just as it is read, the door of the hall closes on its own. Realizing that they have been trapped, some of the members start panicking, and one of them decides to rush towards the door—a mistake that proves to be fatal as he is promptly butchered by two of the gigantic statues.
In their effort to flee, another member bites the dust, and a frightened Jinwoo estimates the threat levels in the hall to be A or even S, meaning there is no way they can muscle their way out of this situation. The central, largest statue is presumed to be the god mentioned in the commandments, and Jinwoo contemplates whether worshipping it might give them a chance to survive. Despite lacking in skills and strength, Jinwoo had honed good observational skills and quick thinking as survival necessities, using which he manages to let himself and other members follow the first two commandments: ‘revere’ and ‘praise’ the god, and as a result, a handful of the members are able to survive. Lee gets traumatized by the vicious brutality of the deaths of her team members, and after over-exerting herself to heal Jinwoo, she becomes unable to move.
What New Abilities Were Gained By Jinwoo?
While following the last commandment of showing their ‘faith’ to the god, the door to the hall is shown to be open, and the majority of the remaining survivors flee in panic. Another problematic situation arises as, after a seven-day period, every unsealed dungeon goes through a ‘Dungeon Break’—when magic beasts from the other dimension are able to enter the real world. Which means if the team isn’t able to return and warn people, a horrible massacre is awaiting them upon the emergence of these monstrosities. Realizing the fact that someone needs to be at the altar to complete the final commandment to ensure their survival, Jinwoo decides to stay behind, and upon his request, Team Leader Song escapes the place, taking Lee along with him.
Remaining as the last member at the altar, Jinwoo contemplates his life choices and ponders about his family, all the while getting brutalized, dismembered, and maimed by the statues. As the final commandment is fulfilled, before the deathblow is delivered, a virtual screen appears in front of Jinwoo, which resembles a gaming screen tab and signifies the completion of a secret quest. The screen offers Jinwoo a chance to become a “Player,” which Jinwoo accepts, and the screen fades to black.
Three days later, Jinwoo wakes up in a hospital and is surprised to see himself totally unscathed. He is interrogated by members of the Hunter Association Surveillance, who inform him that, following the survivors’ account, they had managed to find Jinwoo, but there were no such statues or halls located in the additional dungeon. They wonder whether Jinwoo has undergone a ‘Second Awakening,’ which happens when some of the Hunters inexplicably acquire a boost in their power level, but testing out Jinwoo’s poor mana levels, they presume that not to be the case. After taking their leave, one of the surveillance team members, Woo, informs Go, the chairman of the Hunter Association, about their findings.
The focus momentarily shifts to a top Hunter corporation known as the Hunters Guild, where GuildMaster Choi instructs their strongest S-ranked member, Cha Hae-In, to help newly recruited lower-ranked Hunters in training missions. On the other hand, the virtual screen continues to appear in front of Jinwoo and gradually offers him means to level up and increase his strength and abilities by performing several training exercises and daily tasks. It turns out that only Jinwoo is able to access and see the virtual log, and by fulfilling its daily quests, he gradually increases his strength levels. Lee is relieved after learning about Jinwoo’s recovery and is surprised to see him up and running despite sustaining life-threatening injuries during the previous raid.
While completing daily quests, Jinwoo accesses a special key as a reward, which opens an ‘instance dungeon’ near a subway station, following which he is able to encounter a bunch of goblin-like beasts and kill them. As the third episode comes to a close, he is seen facing the dungeon boss—an enhanced wolf-like beast—a threat that he has seemingly never dared to combat before on his own. With the first three episodes, Solo Leveling amps up the expectations of the viewers by offering a glimpse into its intricate world-building and by also raising several questions regarding the causality of in-universe elements. It seems like completing the mysterious secret quest of worshipping the godhead has allowed Jinwoo to tap into a mystical source, which might or might not be related to the designer of the verse. However, such seemingly advantageous occurrences occasionally entail several caveats as well, which might be the primary focus of the upcoming fourth episode of Solo Leveling.