Despite its initial success as a sleeper hit way back in 2013, Log Horizon appears to have been on a consistent downward trend in quality even since the start of season 2, and while I don't think any of its entries are outright bad, I would tend to agree with the notion that the quality is slowly slipping away with each passing entry, so let's take a deeper look into what happened to this anime to cause such a drop-off.
While many fans might point to the animation as the most notable difference between season 1 and what came after, and we'll definitely get to that later in this video, to me it's the delivery of plot and exposition that I find to be the much more important divergence, and this can be broken down into two main aspects: pacing and visual variety.
In regards to the first point, the pacing at which exposition and plot information are delivered is notably different depending on which season you're watching. In season 1, these moments usually aren't entirely continuous. Time is given within each conversation for tangential discussions, clarifications, or even just brief pauses and moments of silence that make up different aspects of natural conversation. Occasionally it even cuts away from the conversation entirely to something different just to divvy out the information at a slower pace, and so there's more time for the important information to be processed accurately. On the other hand, exposition moments in seasons 2 and 3 are typically delivered in large chunks of mostly unbroken explanations, and so there's no time for that information to be fully comprehended before more, equally important information follows it.
The visual presentation of this information is also markedly different between seasons. In season 1, most exposition dumps are accompanied by a variety of visual aids to help better understand what is being discussed. Whether it be a map overlay or a mental simulation of two characters' inner monologues interacting with each other, season 1 always seems to have just the right visual trick to aid in explaining whatever exposition or plot detail is being doled out. Even the general framing of each shot and the ways in which the camera moves go a long way in making sure that each piece of information has the proper visual accompaniment.
Meanwhile, seasons 2 and 3 have panning shots...and...MORE panning shots...and still shots, more still shots, more panning shots. You get the idea. Seasons 2 and 3 have significantly fewer ways of conveying information in ways that don't resort to just stating the information over mostly static medium shots and close-up shots. It might seem counterintuitive to think that MORE visual information helps to digest the narrative information better, but I think it has less to do with the amount of visual information and more so the amount of visual variety. Staring at nothing but stills and panning shots for minutes on end lulls your brain into a less active state, and so you're less likely to remember the important points from the barrage of exposition they throw at you during these moments, and while there are a few examples of visual creativity here and there, this lack of variety has been a consistent problem ever since season 2 began.
If you want a solid example of how starkly different exposition is conveyed in this series, I suggest rewatching the Round Table discussions in episode 12 of season 1 and then compare it to pretty much any expository conversation in seasons 2 and 3. There's so much visual and linguistic variety in these early discussions that it almost feels like an entirely different show. Even the enormous World Fraction speech in episode 14 has a strong enough rhythm and visual accompaniment to make this insane amount of information easily digestible to the viewer, especially in comparison to the stagnant and overstuffed exposition dumps in later seasons.
That being said, season 3 in particular has its own set of specific problems, mainly in regards to how certain plot elements are set up and the motivations surrounding them. The introduction of Rayneshia's marriage proposal comes to mind as the first instance of something desperately needing to be restructured. Rayneshia's mother approaches her about a third of the way through the first episode and informs her that she'll be married off to a lord from Westlande, and the scene immediately following this is one where Rayneshia's maid tells her to do what she thinks is best for herself, but this scene drags on for much longer than it needs to and the music playing over it feels like something that would play over the resolution to this conflict rather than the start of it, and so, cinematically speaking, the anime is telling us the problem is being resolved here, even though it gets dragged out for another two episodes. It just feels kind of jarring to have these two scenes right next to each other when the problem has just been introduced, and had this scene been pushed back closer to the actual resolution, then it would've felt much less confusing.
Then there's the more central conflict of this season: the breaking of the Round Table and Eins' push for a stronger central government in Akiba. As explained by Eins himself, the main reasons for his actions are the lack of motivation for Adventurers to find purpose in this world they've become trapped in, and the Round Table's inability to solve this issue with the limited powers it has, thus forcing him to invest in a more powerful government in the form of a dukedom granted by nobles from Westlande.
The problem here is that the issue of Adventurer employment hasn't really been presented as something that needs significant attention. With all the other conflicts that have popped up in the show so far, this particular issue is often swept to the side and given almost zero focus in terms of screen time or dedicated dialogue. As a result, it doesn't really carry any weight for the viewer, and certainly not enough to break Akiba's main governing body over. Had this issue been woven into other conflicts in a way that presents it as something that needs to be addressed immediately, then I might have actually cared about it, but as it stands it feels like it comes out of nowhere in terms of plot relevance.
The issue is further compounded by some notable contrivances that artificially amplify the conflict. When asked for further funding on this project, Eins turns to Karashin, the master of one of the top merchant guilds, who proceeds to explain away why he can't give any assistance by basically saying that he's hiding most of his guild's disposable income in a shell company in a different kingdom, and the snide and seedy way he delivers this information feels kind of out of character for him. Yes he is shrewd and cunning in how he runs his guild, but here he's being deliberately antagonistic towards Eins in a manner that he's never displayed prior to this moment.
Rounding off the disappointment that comes with this arc is its eventual resolution, one that could have been satisfying, but ends up mostly falling flat. Shiroe and Eins decide that they should allow everyone in Akiba to vote on whether they stick with the Round Table or allow Eins to create a formal dukedom, with the caveat that you only need to be in Akiba on election day in order to cast a vote. While Eins appears to have a massive lead with the People of the Land, who outnumber Adventurers by about 3:1, Shiroe clinches a victory by opening the transport gate at the last second to bus in Adventurers from Susukino, and then further secures his favor with the People of the Land by announcing that the Sage of Mirror Lake and the Kunie Clan will provide guidance for how the Round Table should govern Akiba.
As a result of this surprise turnaround, Eins withdraws from the election entirely, and while his reasoning for doing so, which is to avoid conflict with other kingdoms now that the gates are open, does make sense, it feels like more of a technicality and isn't quite as gratifying as him actually losing the election. However, it's the aftermath of the election that really irks me, mainly in that there is no aftermath. Aside from Eins leaving Akiba, we don't see any significant change to how Akiba is being run. No scenes where Shiroe is consulting with the Kunie Clan or the Sage. No plans being rolled out for how to deal with the problem that caused this election in the first place. It just moves right into Krusty's zany adventures on the China server, and so this whole thing felt kinda pointless.
This leads into an issue that isn't necessarily the worst problem with Log Horizon, but is definitely something that consistently worsens with time. As of the end of season 3, Log Horizon has continued to amass a series of overarching conflicts that seem to have no resolution in sight whatsoever. Plant Hwyaden is still a pressing enemy that needs to be addressed. Crusty still hasn't returned from the China server. Geniuses continue to create issues for Akiba. They still can't establish communication with the Moon. Many adventurers still lack motivation to do anything. They still don't know how to return to the real world. More and more conflicts are continuously added to the ongoing story without being resolved, and it creates a sensation that the story is just spinning its wheels. The smaller, arc-based conflicts like the breaking of the Round Table and the Akiba raid are still nice, but their self-contained nature fails to address the issues that were already in place, and so the story starts to stagnate.
Now it's not like this season is completely bad. On the contrary, I found the Akiba Raid in the second half of the season to be fairly engaging for the most part. It feels a bit more character-focused and so there's not too much exposition to be crammed down our throats, it digs back into the manipulation of game mechanics with how Eirenus manipulates the Teacher System, which was completely missing from the election arc by the way, and the climax reaches an emotional high note that I haven't felt since the gamer speech in season 2. This mostly feels like a return to what Log Horizon felt like in the beginning and might've even been a great finale for this entry.
But it ain't perfect. The introduction of the Mofur sisters still brings in that unparsable exposition drop, though it's thankfully much less necessary to this particular arc. A certain middle schooler seems doomed to undergo the same character arc of becoming a better leader who isn't dependent on Shiroe for the third time in a row, and it doesn't really resolve this by the end so you can add that to the pile of unresolved conflicts. There is definitely some merit to this arc, but it's buried by all the narrative problems that have been plaguing this series since the start of season 2.
And that's to say nothing of the production quality, which is to say that the consistency of the animation has taken a bit of a nosedive. However, to say that animation quality has decreased across the board would be a huge oversimplification of what's actually happening here. For example, seasons 2 and 3 have far and away more sakuga and well-crafted action cuts than season 1. Of course, most Log Horizon fans would tell you that action is not one of the main appeals of the series, and therein lies part of the problem. Putting more focus on action animation isn't necessarily wrong in general, but when that isn't the main appeal of your series and the non-action animation ends up suffering heavily, then it might not be the best course of action, even more so considering that Log Horizon wasn't an amazing-looking show to begin with.
The go-to answer for why this occurred is the studio switch, with the project moving from Satelight to Studio DEEN, and while it's easy to see this and call it a day, I do feel an obligation to be more specific about it, as Deen is very much capable of making great anime depending on the staff involved. In regards to Log Horizon, while the core writers and storyboard artists stayed relatively the same, it was with the animation staff and individual episode directors that the change was obvious. That's not to say that it is directly the fault of these new artists. The core issue could be pretty much anything from lack of cohesion amongst the creative staff to simply not having a healthy schedule, which seems to be an unnervingly common occurrence amongst other anime from this season, and I think it's something that's definitely worth taking a deeper look at rather than just point to a studio name and call it a day. Personally speaking, my theory lies with the change in episode directors, as they would be the ones who are more hands-on with the creative decisions in each individual episode, which also relates back to my first point about how plot and exposition are conveyed, but again this is simple speculation on my part.
In any case, while I don't think the later seasons of Log Horizon are an overall bad experience, they still fall noticeably short of season 1, and considering that this will probably be the last we ever see of the series in anime form since all of the story save for one mostly-unfinished light novel has been adapted, it's kind of sad to think that this series will never get a chance to fully redeem itself. It is very disappointing, but at least we got to enjoy the ride while the fun lasted.