Today I am reviewing what might be the most popular anime I’ll watch all year. With a viewership mirroring the nature of the genre it’s based on, you would have to be living under the shadow of a flying fortress if you haven’t at least heard of Sword Art Online.
Title: Sword Art Online
Original airing: Jul 8, 2012 to Dec 23, 2012
Studio: A-1 Pictures
Duration: 23 mins per episode
Genres: Shounen, Action/Adventure, Fantasy, Gaming, Romance
Source: Sword Art Online light novel by Reki Kawahara
Where I watched: Netflix (English subtitle and dub available)
Brief Synopsis and First Impressions:
In the year 2022, virtual reality has progressed by leaps and bounds, and a massive online role-playing game called Sword Art Online (SAO) is launched. With the aid of “NerveGear” technology, players can control their avatars within the game using nothing but their own thoughts.
Kazuto Kirigaya, nicknamed “Kirito,” is among the lucky few enthusiasts who get their hands on the first shipment of the game. He logs in to find himself, with ten-thousand others, in the scenic and elaborate world of Aincrad, one full of fantastic medieval weapons and gruesome monsters. However, in a cruel turn of events, the players soon realize they cannot log out; the game’s creator has trapped them in his new world until they complete all one hundred levels of the game.
The premise was instantly attractive to me for reasons that you might be able to guess. You see, my otaku tendencies were never limited just to anime. Like so many young adults, there was a period of time when I was deeply engrossed in a MMORPG. My particular poison was World of Warcraft. There is something inherently fun in immersing yourself in a game like this, where your every action has the potential to effect the world and players around you.
An anime that encompasses a MMO premise is interesting enough to get me to start watching, but I eagerly started this one because it raises the stakes by holding all the players hostage. While I was certainly a latecomer to this series, I had very little prior knowledge of it and was excited about what it could offer.
As well known as Sword Art Online was (and still is), I was prepared to see a wide variety of opinions about it. When I decided to watch (and inevitably review) it, I had no idea how polarized this “absolutely love it, ignore the haters” or “SAO is awful and anyone who thinks otherwise seriously needs to rethink their life choices” battle between anime fans was. Throughout the review, I’ll try to address some of the criticisms I have seen popping up and offer my two cents.
Sword Art Online follows two main arcs, consecutively. To avoid confusion, I am going to discuss the story arcs below separately. While the story does follow through as one cohesive narrative, the two arcs act almost like two different stories as they involve a few different characters, a different world, and seemingly different objectives.
Arc 1: Sword Art Online (SAO)
Sword Art Online is centered around a fictional MMORPG video game (conveniently titled Sword Art Online). The young protagonist of this series, Kazuto Kirigaya (disguising his real name to use as an in-game handle: ‘Kirito’), like so many others of his time, eagerly jumps at this breakthrough virtual reality experience. SAO allows players to enter a virtual world made up of weapons, monsters, and bosses where their experience is entirely first person. The goal of the game isn’t anything revolutionary: make some allies, beat a paltry 100 levels, and finally, taste the sweet victory that comes with wasting (er, devoting) a massive amount of hours to conquering a game. What is different is the means of access: a special headset called the NerveGear that connects a player’s brainwaves and allows them to play using nothing but their thoughts.
In the beginning, all seems well. It’s a nice set up for a happy adventure (with a small side of distress) anime but the twist is unveiled very early as players soon realize that they cannot log out of the game. It isn’t that they are so engrossed in the game that they can’t possibly tear themselves away from their headsets and bother with living life. They literally cannot log out, leaving their real life bodies more or less comatose. The game’s creator, Akihiko Kayaba, reveals this to the 10,000 people currently playing in dramatic fashion. What’s worse, he warns that if the player dies in game, it’s game over in the real world as well. Where’s that extra-life hack when you need it?
The only way for anyone to log out, as explained by Kayaba, is to reach the game’s 100th level and defeat the boss. Some players truly struggle with the plight they find themselves in, but not our young hero. Kirito has the incredible advantage of being much stronger than the other players, having been a beta tester for the game. This also means that he is familiar with the layout and mechanics of SAO as well. Though he prefers to play alone, Kirito quickly realizes his growing role in literally saving the players’ lives. He isn’t alone for long; inevitable alliances and partnerships see him crossing paths with Asuna, another high level player, who lulls him out of his solitary nature.
This first arc follows the characters over the course of two years. Covering 14 episodes, you can already expect the series to do a lot of time skipping. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but SAO manages to make these skips feel very disorienting. As I didn’t watch more than a single episode at a time until near the end, there were several times when I felt like I might have accidentally skipped one. This was primarily because of the episodic way in which the story was told. The main thread of beating the game is ever present, but about half the the episodes are spent on side adventures. While this would have been a good opportunity for world building, these episodes reveal very little new information to the viewer and don’t offer much more than a distraction.
Two years is a long time to spend on anything, and with the players living it out in real time, they soon fall into societal norms that mirror everyday life. There are towns, businesses, criminals, and relationships. I am glad to see that the series didn’t neglect to explore the authenticity of ones thoughts and actions in the virtual world. There are no big shocks with regard to the characters’ real identities, so if some of you are worried, don’t be. Asuna doesn’t turn out to be a 40 year old man, but the characters do spend some time trying to understand whether the things they feel, and the people they feel them for, are real. Being stuck in the game as they are, many of the characters applied their real life morals to their game lives; others took advantage of the lawless nature of the game environment to prey upon other players, going to far as to let their morals slip because “it’s just a game”.
With little option but to make some sort of existence for themselves or quite the game (and, accordingly, their lives), some people start to become comfortable with the game world. This is remarked upon a few times, and inevitably the characters are reminded that the game still needs to be won. The ramp-up after the initial slowness is quick, and the conclusion is even moreso. While I can applaud the series for not being predictable in this regard, the ending felt too contrived for my liking. With some questions also left unanswered, the viewer is left wondering about the fate of everyone involved. Of course, the story isn’t over yet…
Arc 2: Alfheim Online (ALO)
Following the events of SAO, Kirito learns that roughly 300 players have become trapped in a second MMORPG called Alfheim Online. The theme of this game you ask? Fairies; fluttering wings and all. The game also features a small allusion to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Titania is still mad at Oberon here). Being the hero everyone knows him to be, Kirito flies in to the rescue. In SAO, Kirito could leverage his advanced skills and high level character to dominate the game. Unfortunately for him, we’re not in SAO anymore! In ALO, Kirito is basically a noob, having no prior knowledge of the game, a low skill level, and none of the equipment he spent two years gathering. His goal is to find the creator of ALO, Nobuyuki Sugo, and save all the other players in his spare time (sound familiar?). So, what can viewers expect from this new arc? More battles, new characters, and fairies. Still, there are some refreshing differences this time around. Death is not permanent, with only a re-spawn timer and a loss of magic power as a penalty. This leads to the introduction of an actual PVP system, giving Kirito and the other players another challenge to contend with.
In this arc, Kirito is also no longer forced to remain logged in. This gives the viewer a chance to see the differences between the game character Kirito and the real life Kazuto, who has trouble adjusting to normal life again after living two years in fantasy. There is a good deal of drama that arises from matters related to this, not the least of which is his responsibility toward his family. While he isn’t stuck in the game this time, Kazuto is still compelled to play for a similar, but much more personal reason; so don’t worry about missing out on the fantasy role-playing elements. If I sound vague, it’s only because saying much more would spoil the story. There is a lot to deal with, with various levels of shock factor, which is best left for the series to show.
The pacing problems that riddled the first arc are all but eliminated here, as the story’s timeline is vastly shorter; spanning 11 episodes. The scale and ‘epic feel’ of this arc is likewise less pronounced than it is in SAO. This has become a point of contention even between viewers who like the show, disputing that the series started strong and finished lame, or vice versa. There is still a lot of content despite the reduced timeline. Battles are more frantic, emotions are more raw, and viewers can understand the characters’ sense of urgency far better with the way this arc is crafted.
The main male protagonist of SAO is Kazuto Kirigaya. He is better recognized by his avatar name Kirito – the Black Swordsman. As I listed in the story section, Kirito was a beta tester for SAO. When the game is launched, he has the advantage of being stronger than the other players and knows the mechanics of the game. While he is recognized as being key in helping players beat the game, and save their lives, some players label him a “beater” (beta-tester/cheater). Most of the time Kirito is depicted as level-headed and intelligent, but his aggressive side emerges during intense battles.
Kitiro’s status as the main character see him overcoming numerous challenges, quickly identifying himself as an exceptionally strong player. Critics of SAO use this characterization to denounce him as a Gary/Marty Stu. After all, Kirito is a video game whiz kid and easily stands out as a skillful player. He is able to beat even the most difficult game bosses, figure out ways around seemingly impossible problems, and resolve dangerous crises, all mostly by himself. His personality flaws are few, as he is depicted as a kind, giving person who will risk his life without hesitation for others, often gaining their devoted admiration. Now, to play devil’s advocate, Kirito’s real life traits are much more on the average side. Kirito himself comments in game that his apparent strength isn’t real. Outside of the game, Kazuto appears to be an introvert. He has few friends and doesn’t seem to mesh well with real life (could he be an otaku?!). While this isn’t a weakness by any means, it does give weight to the idea that Kirito isn’t perfect either. If I have to answer as to whether he’s a Gary/Marty Stu or not? Yeah, pretty much. If you go into this series with that in mind though, you may find yourself less bothered by it.
Asuna Yuuki is one of the players trapped along with Kirito inside SAO. In the beginning, she is shown to be determined, intelligent, and fearless. By leveling up and growing stronger, Asuna is able to take on the role of the top guild’s vice captain. Being one of the few players that can come close to Kirito’s level of skill, there are a few cases when she even ends up saving his life in a fight. Though she meets Kirito early in the series, she decides to stay in a group, while he continues to fight on as a solo player. Later on, Asuna becomes one of a very small handful of people Kirito trusts to fight alongside him when he realizes he can’t win on his own. Viewers are given the impression time and again that the pair are strongest when they work together.
Initially I was intrigued by Asuna’s character. It is refreshing when female characters are portrayed as strong, brave, and capable of protecting themselves. Critics claim that Asuna eventually falls victim to a “damsel in distress” archetype that far too many anime series depict. Do I agree? Sort of. During the ALO arc, Asuna is held captive and Kirito (predictably) comes to the rescue, fulfilling the heroic male protagonist role. Without spoiling anything, I will argue that Asuna’s actions directly instigate her own rescue. I can absolutely agree that she fell victim to this tired trope (one word: bird cage. Okay, that was two), and that the treatment of her character was appalling at times. She did need to be rescued, but did Asuna handle it like an intelligent woman who didn’t just sit around and wait to be saved? She certainly did.
Leafa (avatar name) first appears in the ALO game as a Sylph (Sylvein Fairy) race. In the midst of being attacked by a hunting squad, Kirito comes to the rescue, despite having joined the game as another rival race: Spriggan (Shadow Fairy). As a good will gesture, Leafa agrees to help Kirito on his journey to find the World Tree in Alne. As typical with Gary Stu characters, Leafa develops a crush on Kirito along the way. Her newfound feelings for him present a challenge, though, that extends much further than Kirito’s fixation over Asuna. While she has the potential of being a good character, her storyline doesn’t explore much outside of her interactions with Kirito. This is an unfortunate result of how heavily his story dominates this series, but she isn’t the only victim in this regard.
SAO has an overwhelming amount of supporting characters in both arcs; the majority of which have little lasting impact on the overall plot. They seemingly appear and disappear for no significant reason outside of the episode that features them. Without taking the time to flesh out these characters, or at the very least give them some sort of memorable traits, they become easily forgotten.
The series’ villains present another shortcoming, as seen by how much hate they receive on various anime threads. Critics discredit these bad guys as inflated archetypes that also manage to fall flat at the same time. Kayaba, who brashly announces himself as the villain in SAO, has horribly unclear motives and is indiscriminately antagonistic. ALO’s villain, on the other hand, has a disturbing but bizarre rivalry with Kirito. Viewers will certainly understand Kirito’s hatred for him, but his actions and attitudes are often excessive to the point of straining believability.
As an A-1 Pictures work, SAO maintains the studio’s reputation for great animation. The series takes place almost entirely within a fantasy world; offering many opportunities for varied settings, color schemes, and special effects. While especially detailed and scenery heavy backgrounds are used sparingly, they serve to highlight a scene in a way that makes it memorable. This leads to some of the more iconic representations of the series that stick out in viewers’ minds. Sunlight and weather effects are enhanced by CGI, but never to a point where they become overbearing or distracting, helping instead to accent the scene and set the proper mood.
Character designs are a big part of any anime, as their appearance gives an immediate impression of their role, skill, and importance. Taking place in an MMO, it’s nice to see so many different styles featured. Independent characters like Kirito have a unique look, combining their choice of equipment with a personal sense of style. Other characters, particularly guild members, have a more uniform look which instantly identifies them as part of a larger group. Asuna’s appearance is a mix of the two, showing elements of her ‘Knights of the Blood Oath’ guild with unique weaponry and detailing in her clothing. This helps viewers identify her as a more noteworthy character as compared to her guild mates.
Action heavy as this series is, it’s important that movement and effects are top notch. Though the action scenes are fluid for the most part, this is the one area where the animation fell slightly behind. There is really nothing truly disappointing in how fights were portrayed, but the rapid nature of these scenes cause many of them to appear choppy. ‘Follow through’ for attacks are often highlighted more than the attack itself to show its impact; it’s an effective method in static drawings but detracts from some of the flair of animation. Flashy effects also sometimes mask the actual action taking place.
With these small issues aside, there are many effects that greatly help with the series’ immersion. As everything within the game world is computer generated, items take on a digital effect when they are created or destroyed. Even wounds initially appear as virtual damage before materializing into the appearance of a cut. This leads to some things like blood to be nonexistent, as there is no physical need for it in a world where your health is measured in hit points (but somehow tears work?). Shields and magical barriers shatter in spectacular fashion when they’re broken through, and all the effects that the viewer sees look (rightfully) like they comes from a graphics engine rather than actual combat.
Looking back at the series, there was a lot of work that went into it that would have fallen short if not for good sound work as well. SAO does an admirable job with this, delivering consistently well crafted music and sound effects throughout and boasting one of the most well known anime openings.
Crossing Field is fun to listen to, starting with a slightly synthesized tone to hint toward the game environment before vocals and instrumentals pick up. It fits the fantasy setting well, and has enough energy to get a viewer excited to watch the series. The rest of the OPs/EDs are very pop like, with the second pair being slower in keeping with the tone of the show’s later arc. I really enjoyed Overfly as a song due its soft instrumentals, melodic tones, and Luna Haruna’s impressive vocals. It conveys feelings of freedom and longing, and thus works well as one particular character’s theme.
There is a large number of BGMs used in this series, but the one that stood out to me most was Swordland. It gives off a sense of the epic scope of the series and serves a nice heroic theme for a RPG. Fight scenes and large gatherings are accompanied by dramatic instrumentals and intense drums beats; several giving off a militaristic feel. More tranquil moments make effective use of pianos and strings, and feel very appropriate for a high fantasy setting.
Sound effects were another very nice feature in this anime, with a lot of attention given toward making the fight scenes sound authentic. Movement and sword clashes were done well (as well as can be when sword strikes come faster than you can see them), and the magical effects throughout the series were unique. Going back to what I said about staying true to a game like environment, the persistent alarm when a player’s health gets low and various other ‘UI’ sound effects were very reminiscent of a video game, adding nicely to the effect that the graphics tried to convey.
As with the opinions of the masses, when taken as a whole, my enjoyment of this series is mixed. Not having seen a good action-oriented series since Attack on Titan, I certainly got my fair share of fights and intense swordplay from SAO. Action was animated well for the most part, and I enjoyed how the series consistently made the game world appear as just that. What was lacking for me, unfortunately, was a cohesive plot or well thought out direction behind it all.
The series spent some time exploring the line between fantasy and reality, and how being in the virtual world for such a long time affected the psychology of the players. Though we saw many glimpses of this throughout the series, the first arc of SAO hardly provides any thought provoking ideas on these psychological themes. The only seems to serve as the backdrop of a confusing and ultimately unpolished quest to beat the game. The second arc is a little better in this regard, as the viewer is taken back and forth between the ALO game and reality many times. I liked how the show explored the idea of using virtual reality games as a heightened form of escapism – but one that will still disappoint a player if they suffer the same pitfalls that they do in real life.
The show still makes some unfortunate choices in the second arc. Perhaps feeling that the philosophical aspect of the premise wasn’t enough, the series throws in a bunch of girls to look pretty and fawn over the main character. While Leafa’s choice of character model does say some interesting things about her real life persona, the blatant fanservice associated with her and other characters is disappointing; as it distracts from what the show should have been focusing on. At least in Phantom World they tried to be funny about it. Sometimes.
Summary and Recommendations
Sword Art Online tries to appeal to a wide target audience, so there is a lot to gripe over as different people prefer some themes over others. This strategy does have some payoff, though, as there are a lot of things to enjoy (depending on your level of patience and/or maturity).
Like Myriad Colors Phantom World, the show is animated quite beautifully and has some dazzling effects that even cynical viewers are sure to enjoy. There are some CGI effects used, but a lot of the “game graphics” are of the same style as the animation, so they flow smoothly with the characters. The characters themselves look mostly unique, and have a wide variety of styles that you would expect to see in a treasure filled MMORPG.
Kirito presents a challenge for viewers that hate overpowered characters, but it’s possible to enjoy this show if viewers focus on his struggle to protect everyone around him by effectively taking on the game by himself. He does consistently act heroically, and even though his characterization makes him seem invincible at times, there are a few moments where you may find yourself on the edge of your seat trying to see how he’ll manage to overcome the challenge in front of him.
The romance angle in this series is another plus point for those who enjoy that sort of genre. It lacks a lot of nuance or complication, but that is something of a rarity in anime and thus has its own charm. Its development might be a little contrived and the speed at which it progresses is disorienting. The series itself moves quickly at the time this develops, so that is likely a factor as well. Still, there is something to be said about the relationship that develops between Kirito and Asuna, and how devoted he becomes toward her, and she to him (on more than a few levels).
The plot is where this series seems to suffer the most, as it feels horribly rushed in some places and needlessly drags on in others. A lot of detail is left out for the sake of blazing through two years of events in half a season, which inevitably makes for a strained experience while watching. Though I haven’t read the light novel, I have read claims that a lot of material has been brushed over for the sake of fitting into a two season anime. It is supposedly rather good and won a few awards, but as this is a review of the anime, not the novel, you’re on your own for that one!
Watch if you:
Love fantasy video games
Like watching a hero overcome all odds
Enjoy straightforward romance plots
Liked other A-1 animation works
Don’t watch if you:
Can’t stand Gary Stu characters
Hate poor treatment of female characters
Are annoyed by arbitrary/contrived plots
Are a child*
*Ugh. I almost forgot. There is plenty in this series that isn’t proper for all ages, but that second arc is most definitely not for children. Aside from the very raw emotion and cringe inducing content, the visuals are something which should only be sensibly viewed.
Good animation, nice music, and interesting concept material bring points to this series where a rough first arc and some poor character work drag it down. My overall score is 3.5 out of 5 Kiritos.
I mentioned earlier that I would have liked to see the exploration of game vs reality take more of the spotlight, but as an action/adventure I can’t say I’m surprised that it took a backseat to the fighting. I believe this series would have been better if the characters were fleshed out a bit more, even if it didn’t feature as much philosophy or symbolism as I would have liked.
My biggest issues with the series, though, have everything to do with how unimaginative the writing of Kirito was. As traumatic an experience as SAO was supposed to be for all the players, the existence of a Sword Art Online II series means that Kirito likely never associates the NerveGear or VRMMOs with anything bad; if he did, he wouldn’t keep playing. When every problem he comes across is resolved by inane exploitation or deus ex machina (literally in the machine this time), what can we expect him to really ever learn?
It’s a shame that I have to once again suggest expectations to be lowered, because it shouldn’t have been so hard to make the hero a little more realistic in this series. There were 10,000 other players in the first arc and plenty of characters in the second that could have had more of an impact and make up for his shortcomings. Was the narrative stronger because it decided to focus on one of them so heavily? I don’t think so, but I can’t say for sure. In any case, in order to enjoy SAO you do have to accept that nothing significant is going to happen without Kirito’s involvement. Watch the series for his strong dedication toward the people he cares about, not for strong character development or well thought out story plot.