Sword Art Online
In the year 2022, the virtual reality game Sword Art Online is released. Using a Nerve Gear, players can control their characters using their own minds, and experience the world of Aincrad as if it were real. Unfortunately, it becomes all too real when the creator of the game locks everyone out of the real world by hijacking all the Nerve Gear devices so that if you die in the game, you will die in real life. Only by clearing the 100th floor and defeating the final boss can the players win their freedom.
This is hardly the first virtual reality MMO based series to come out - one only has to look at the very beginning of the main review list here at THEM Anime to spot what many cite to be an obvious spiritual predecessor (.hack//SIGN). That series ultimately succumbed to numerous internal issues, worst of all the perception of being a "talking heads" series with few action scenes and mildly interesting characters, and plot twists that often rarely made sense. If anything, the whole idea of VR seems to have sunk without trace in the real world, making .hack seem quaint and antiquated within a decade. And besides, who wants to watch other people play a video game?
Sword Art Online is categorically not .hack - after all, instead of one person stuck permanently in-game, we've got thousands, and if you die in-game, you die, period, never mind the psychological effects on you if you actually make it through. Reki Kawahara deserves some plaudits for being smart enough to think this whole initial scenario through - omitted from the TV series for several episodes but noted in the novel is the minor but very important detail that all of the players have been hooked up to life-support equipment, though I imagine the strain on the Japanese health care system must have been insane. And if anything, instead of the glacial pace of .hack, Sword Art Online often comes at you like a raging torrent, with a few episodes devoted to multiple action scenes. It's clear they actually threw something of a budget at this, and it shows, but it's a shame the writing doesn't always keep up (clearly an artifact of compressing four light novel volumes into 25 episodes). The inclusion of side-stories in early chronological order explains Kirito's behavior, but they are particularly compressed and rather poorly integrated into what is otherwise a serviceable first-half narrative.
That being said, the idea of this being a "death-game" is really secondary after the initial setup episodes, as most of what we really get is the budding romance between Kirito and Asuna, both of whom discover that while the world they are trapped in may be virtual, the experiences, friendships, and, ultimately, love that they experience are all very real. There's nothing wrong with this - Kirito and Asuna are my favorite anime couple in the last few years because there's refreshingly very little indecision or ambiguity to how they feel about one another, especially when you see the fine details of body language. Once established, there's nothing that will break these two apart, which is a huge disappointment to the various and sundry other girls who fall for way-too-nice-guy Kirito during the course of this series (which sort of turns into a bit of a running gag).
Oh, and yes - the whole "guys playing girls in MMOs" thing is completely deconstructed in the very first episode, for better or worse.
Folks here for the action will not entirely be disappointed - it seems like Sword Art Online is constantly in the process of trying to do itself in ridiculously awesome fantasy action sequences. While the backdrops look gorgeous (Aincrad looks great), and the setups are great, the actual character animation doesn't always keep up 100% with flash frames and quick pans here and there (thanks to A-1 being more of a character-series studio). It's almost a shame that there aren't Nerve Gears available to play this game yourself (minus, of course, the obvious peril of getting your brain fried if you die in-game). In another seeming callback to .hack, we have Yuki Kajiura for the soundtrack - nowhere near as distinctive as before, but still solid.
So clearly we are not looking at a five star rating here: there's a few things that strongly detract from the show - certainly enough to keep it from being one of the all time greats. For starters, the pacing is often WAY too fast, leaving out important details from the novels or only mentioning them far later than relevant (like the one I mentioned above about the hospitalization of the players). Some of the conflict resolutions do come off as being arbitrary and contrived ... and then there's the whole matter of the second arc, which almost amounts to a second season, but one that is unfortunately far less psychological and therefore less interesting, and also shoves in what is undoubtedly the stupidest attempt at a love triangle that I've seen in years. (Even if I liked the third wheel as a character otherwise.) There's also some really unwanted fan service with damsel-in-distress Asuna (ARGH!) in the second half that pretty much hammers home how stupid and frankly inferior the Big Bad is in that arc. Sadly, the best way to sidestep the seeming logic flaws of the anime is to read the novels which better explain what's going on (and they cannot and should not be taken as part of the show), which is what makes this a potentially polarizing experience, especially given the heated discussions undoubtedly occurring on the Internet about this show.
That being said, Sword Art Online remains an often fascinating, entertaining experience for fans of sci-fi-fantasy action, and Kirito and Asuna are utterly adorable together. It's doesn't quite live up to its initial premise, and it's hardly an evolutionary leap for anime as a whole, but it's nevertheless solid, likable, and enjoyable.
UPDATE: After taking some time to reevaluate this franchise, the biggest flaws of the series really come home to roost. One of the biggest problems is the characterization of the female characters as largely subservient to Kirito, creating what is effectively a completely unnecessary (and really, unwanted) harem scenario, and this is increasingly problematic and detracts from enjoyment of the series, particularly in the second arc (what the writers do with Asuna is particularly dismaying). As there are really no other major male characters, this seems to be a conscious choice on the part of the creators, and one that just feels more and more regrettable the more it is discussed and examined. The girls - not even Asuna - are never really allowed to be Kirito's equal, nor even allowed to be a serious threat (in themselves) to the main antagonists.
Overall, there are a host of good ideas, marred by a strange and unfortunate adhesion to otaku-bait tropes that give us an protagonist who is inexplicably overpowered and charismatic, surrounded by subservient and submissive women who by all accounts *should* be strong and independent, except for a lack of writers willing or able to write them that way.
Well animated, exciting, and pretty to watch, but a real missed opportunity.
Seemingly smart concept with flawed execution. If one were to take Sword Art Online as two seasons, the first was four-star territory, and the second a two-star. — Carlos/Giancarla Ross
Recommended Audience: While several characters die, the deaths are shown in the context of the video game. That being said, the real-world ramifications of the video-game character deaths lend more psychological impact to the action. There is one act of real-life violence in the second half of the series, with some blood. There is also a somewhat high amount of fan service, somewhat less tastefully done in the second arc. There is also one implied (offscreen) adult scene between teenaged characters, though there is no actual nudity during the course of the series. Teens and above.
Version(s) Viewed: crunchyroll.com stream, Japanese with English subtitles
Review Status: Full (25/25)
Sword Art Online © 2012 Reki Kawahara / ASCII Media Works / SAO Project
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