If you enjoy your video games as much as I do, you someday hope to experience a time when full virtual reality technology exists, and instead of just playing video games, you get to live in them. In Sword Art Online, this technology exists thanks to the amazing “nerve gear” gaming system, which puts the user into a “dive” where their consciousness is transported to the game world. The premise is pretty great, and grabbed my attention right away. When everything goes wrong with the new game titled “Sword Art Online” and the players find themselves trapped inside the game, unable to escape unless they beat the game, I was looking forward to each new episode to see what would happen next. Unfortunately for Sword Art Online though, it does what many great role-playing games can tend to do, and forgets about the amazing story it was building and decides to lead you to side quest after side quest when instead you want to go back to the main plot. Even though the side quests are just as enjoyable to play (or in this case, watch), they don’t let the characters develop or let the plot progress at a good pace, which kind of sucks some of the overall enjoyment out of a series after you finish it. Sure it was good while you were going through it, but when everything is said and done and you look back on it, you realize how much more of the main story you wanted to see and how shallow the story actually was.
The first half of the story follows the ever so amazing Kazuto Kirigaya, otherwise known by his online username Kirito. With the launch of a new Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (that is a mouthful), known as Sword Art Online, players rush to experience this brand new game. What they do not realize is that the game creator, who is also the creator of the nerve gear, has disabled the ability to log out of the game, leaving all the players consciousness trapped within the game. To complicate matters, if anyone were to have the nerve gear tampered with or if anyone were to try an remove the nerve gear from the players, a short microwave burst would be sent from the helmet, killing the person instantly. Also, death in the game results in the same penalty, ones own life. If the player ever want to return home and escape this twisted game they need to reach the 100th floor of the game by defeating the boss of each floor. As soon as the final boss is defeated, everyone will be able to finally log out of the game.
The story brings this dark undertone to an otherwise light hearted fantasy world. To die in the game means certain death, which is a very scary thought when it comes to video games where death is treated as a simple mistake that is easily fixed with the reload of a previous checkpoint or a respawn. Unfortunately, Sword Art Online hardly ever touches this theme of loss. Instead, the story kind of pushes this theme aside to go full steam ahead with the goal of reaching the 100th floor! That is, until the story gets sidetracked by what I can only describe as sidequests to the main story. I would like to let you believe that this rarely happens, and that there must be some important reason as to why the anime focuses on these side stories instead of actually progressing the plot, but I would be lying. Entire episodes are dedicated to these filler stories, which range from what is basically a fetch quest to gather materials for a new sword with a random chick to a relaxing vacation in a cabin. Sure these side stories introduced new characters who show up from time to time in the future, but the honestly didn’t need to spend so much time following them. Especially when the anime skips entire months of the story in order to fit everything in.
The story has certain moments that really stick with you as you watch it and as you move on, and they usually go back to the theme of loss and how death in the game means death in real life. During these scenes, the impact of the loss of a character is truly felt, and you get to see how it affects the remaining characters afterwards as they realize that they have just lost another person. Strong bonds between people are created and shattered in an instant, and you are left realizing how traumatizing and depressing this world actually is. These moments impacted me pretty strongly on an emotional level, and the easily depressed and emotional folks (such as myself) may find these scenes a bit hard to watch, if not leave you in a depressing mood. Although these scenes were not the most entertaining to watch, these parts of the story are what really grabbed me.
When you reach the second half of the show about half way through, the entire plot is basically changed to something completely different from the first half of the show. Honestly, this is also one of the most controversial parts of the show, as many fans thought that the first arc of the show was all it needed, and the second half only diminishes the quality of the story that the first half was trying to tell. Without going into heavy spoiler territory, basically there is no longer some crazy death penalty that the characters have to worry about, and instead the story turns into what is essentially a Super Mario game, trying to rescue a princess in a castle. In my personal opinion, I thought it would have been much better to end it off at the end of the first half of the story, and to have focused more on the world of Sword Art Online and the events that take place there. If you ever decide to watch this anime, you will probably understand why once you witness the conclusion of the first arc.
That being said though, I did enjoy the second half of the show. Although it lost its heavier themes and moments, the show still had the same sense of a urgency found in the first half, where a goal needed to be reached at all costs. The action scenes are still pretty good, and the love interests are still there for those who love watching Kirito get into these weird half relationships.
The characters of Sword Art Online are pretty much what you would expect from a Shonen anime. Kirito fits the role of unbeatable hero, and his ability to become insanely overpowered is unmatched by any other character. The story tries to explain why Kirito is so powerful in the beginning by letting you know that he was a Beta tester for Sword Art Online before it launched, so he is able to get all the good quests and level up faster than everybody else. For some reason though, all of the other Beta testers are unable to even come close to Kirito’s power level, even though he goes through the entire game as a solo player. There are even parts of the show where he completely breaks the game and performs actions that strait up shouldn’t be possible, as if his willpower alone could override the games code to let him do the impossible. In the second half of the show he is a complete newbie to the game and yet is still able to destroy everybody, even when he basically has no idea what he is at.
Asuna takes the place of the lead female protagonist, and although starts off alright as a character, she is later left on the side lines so that we get to see more Kirito, and his countless internet girlfriends. Being introduced as a new player who has some serious bad ass points already, she had potential to become a powerful character in the game and a well developed character with hardships of her own. Instead, she just becomes Kirito’s girlfriend who is pretty much completely useless compared to her boyfriend. In the game she is one of the highest ranking officials of the games most powerful clan, but the show never lets us see this side of her. Instead she is about just as generic as the other characters in the show and is left behind to watch Kirito save the day. What could have been a very cool and powerful female lead turns into a cardboard cutout of a typical Tsundere character who is completely useless without her boyfriend around to back her up.
Earlier I mentioned Kirito’s internet girlfriends, which make up about 90% of the characters in this show. For a guy who has spent his entire life playing video games and being a shut-in, he sure knows how to pick up chicks. There is not much to talk about these characters other than the fact that they are pretty generic in personality and they seemed to only serve the purpose of flushing out the cast so that Sword Art Online actually feels like an MMO instead of a game in which only Kirito exists in. Each character ends up falling for Kirito for some reason or another, and continue to follow him around later on in the show as his own personal harem. Even his cousin ends up falling in love with him, which brings a whole new level of uncomfortable scenes and cringe worthy moments to the show.
If there is one thing that Sword Art Online does right throughout the entire series it would have to be the presentation. The soundtrack by Yuki Kajiura is stellar, and it really brings out the intensity of the battles and action scenes. The first opening theme, “Crossing Field” by LiSA, was probably the stand out theme used in the series. It has a certain epic feel to it, where the song starts off rather slow and generic sounding, but than suddenly breaks out into this awesome song. The second opening song, “Innocence” by Eir Aoi, is also quite good and pleasing to hear. As for the ending themes, they both are quite good to listen to as well, and they end off each episode perfectly with some relaxing music to help unwind after each episode. They are not as memorable as the openings, but still a treat to listen to.
The animation is top notch as well, and there is not much to say here. There was not a single moment where the I was generally displeased with the quality of the animation or the art style, as it was pretty amazing throughout the entire show. The animation shines during the action scenes, where animation perfectly captures the fast paced movements of the characters, and it really made you pumped up as you watched it unfold.
Although I felt Sword Art Online dropped the ball on how it handled its own story, and failed to reach the full potential shown in the early episodes and the ending of the first story arc, I ended up somewhat enjoying Sword Art Online. Even though I realized the flaws in the plot and characters, I was just drawn in each episode to see what would happen next in these fantastic virtual worlds. I did lose interest at certain points during the story, mainly when nothing was really happening plot wise and Kirito started doing random side tasks and met a new female character to impress.
Sword Art Online starts off with a really great story to tell, but it loses its way somewhere along the road and it never truly reaches the full potential. With the ending of the first story arc, I was honestly pretty shocked at the conclusion the story had taken, but I was also somewhat pleased with the outcome as I felt it really showed the impact of this game world had on our main characters. When the second story arc starts up though, it kind of forgets about everything that made the first arc really enjoyable to watch and just continues the story like it didn’t matter. It still has that “fantasy mmo” feel to it, but it is clearly not the same.
The overall ending to the show was also pretty good and tied things up nicely, leaving room for fans to want to watch future seasons or for someone to just drop off here and still feel like they got a complete story. My overall feelings of the show are somewhere in the middle of “enjoyable” and “why did I watch this”, making it a tough call as to how I felt about the series as a whole. If I were to use just one word to describe how I felt about it, I would use either “medium” or “mediocre” as it just wasn’t a show that I would really ever sing the praises of, but at the same time I don’t feel like it was all that bad either.
Final Score: 5/ 10
Recommendation: Try It
If You Liked It, Also Try:
No Game No Life: Similarly, the main protagonist is unbeatable. The story revolves around the fact that the protagonist is unbeatable at games though, and it has some exciting games to showcase.
Log Horizon: Characters are trapped in an MMO, a plot that should sound familiar. I haven't actually watched all of it yet, but from what I have seen I think it is a safe choice for those looking for another take on the "trapped in a fantasy mmo" story.