Title: Sword Art Online
Genre: Action, Anime, Fantasy, Game, Romance, Adventure
Aired: Jul 8, 2012 to Dec 23, 2012
Remember how this blog is actually Confession 101? Here’s another confession: I used to be hopelessly addicted to MMORPGs. For those of us not video game savvy, MMORPG stands for Massive Multiplayer Online Role Play Game. Essentially it involves playing a video game with thousands of people online, and simultaneously watching your real social life go down the drain (but in a strangely satisfying way). Sadly, I spent much of my time during high school engrossed in online gaming. So, when I was surveying Hulu in a fit of boredom, this premise immediately caught my eye.
Sword Art Online is a Japanese anime show formed around a fantastic premise: What would you do if Video Games suddenly became real?
On launch day, thousands of video game enthusiasts wait in nerdy lines to pick up their copies of the video game Sword Art Online, the newest Virtual Reality MMORPG. With the new technology of the Nerve Gear, a helmet that allows the gamer to control their virtual body and actually live the game, gamers are able to fully immerse themselves in the game world. Initially, everything goes as planned. The battles are as entertaining and the world as engrossing as it was expected to be. There’s only one problem: the players can’t find the log out button. Thousands of people are now trapped inside a game where in-game death suddenly means real-life death, and the only way out of it is to clear the 100 levels of the game.
Sword Art Online starts off fantastically, and manages to snowball its way downhill from there. For the most part, it can be summed up in one phrase: missed opportunity. SAO continually set up things, plot-wise, but failed to follow through when the plot most needed to payoff. To be fair, I haven’t read the Light Novels that the series is based on, but I feel that it should stand on its own. I also admit a particular amount of bias as a gamer, but I’ll try to be as objective as possible in this review.
SAO has an initially decent plotline that is continually hurt by side stories that are at best amusing, and at worst, a complete derailment of the tension that was set up in the premise. The first three episodes are strong and heart-wrenching, though slightly rushed. At this point in the story, I was still excited about the series. High stakes, and a wonderful job setting up the sacrifice and suffering necessary to bring the game to an end. It showed a lot of promise, and while jumpy, the episodes stayed coherent enough in spite of the vast skips of time involved.
The following chunk of the story focused on insignificant characters that I still fail to see the purpose of after finishing the series. It’s almost if the series couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be lighthearted, or to continue with the dark stakes that were set up in the beginning. In spite of these useless side plots, the first season wraps up neatly enough.
That being said, this is not a show you can watch if you plan on thinking too much about it. Major details are ignored or explained away, and the series is consistently guilty of Deus Ex Machina, which resolves both the major first and second season conflict.
I hesitate to even get into the plot issues that the second season has. With the major stakes of the first season reduced, and the charm of the first world gone, the second season has little to offer. It spiraled quickly into a useless foray of bad characters, a cliche damsel in distress quest, and overall stupidity that was at times hard to watch. The end payoff, while sweet, lacked resonance and depth. I just could not get myself to care about anything in this season. The stakes were gone, and I was only watching for the payoff of a happy ending, which the first season glossed over in favor of a sequel-bait ending.
The main issue that this plot suffers is a lack of focus. Do we focus on useless girls (which the main character attracts with no trouble— aren’t gamer girls supposed to be rare?), or the psychological trauma of being trapped in a game for years on end? There were glimpses of greatness in some of these episodes— the effect of constant war on young people, how our impulses in the gaming world affect our real-life personalities, if online romance can ever transfer to real life, learning to live wherever life may be— but this greatness was fleeting, and the series failed to deliver on these deeper themes.
The second half failed to even set up any of these themes, and consistently managed to toss the basic rules of story out the window for the sake of even more useless trips to garner women for the male protagonist— a useless gesture, since he happens to be in this particular game to save the (chickified) female protagonist. But I digress.
First Season: (7/10)
Second Season: (3/10)
Sword Art Online follows Kirito, an average school-aged gamer who played the Beta test version of the game before it was released to the general public. Characterization-wise, the story manages to do little with Kirito. While he does change slightly over time, going from a lone-wolf type character to one who (kind of?) depends on others, he remains mostly static over the course of the story. By the end of the 25 episodes, the most I can gather about this character is that he is good at video games, somewhat brave, and a gamer-girl magnet. Further explorations into character depth were tossed aside to show useless interaction with his hoard of gamer girls that don’t happen to be the love interest. Again, his character showed flashes of what it could have been, but the show left that alone in favor of developing characters that were both introduced and done away with in one episode.
Asuna, the female protagonist, enjoyed a grand entrance as a strong-willed character, refusing to succumb to death in such dire circumstances. Her character hinted at a backstory, and why she was so desperate to leave the game for real life. Unfortunately, this characterization did not last. While her interaction with Kirito improved the character department of the series, this romance also served to turn her once strong character into the target love interest, dumping her strength in favor of weakness to serve the romantic plot. In some cases this would be considered character development, but in time it becomes evident that Asuna is only strong when the plot needs her to be. Her character development in the second half is completely ruined as she is reduced to the Damsel in Distress role.
In the romance category, I don’t feel that this show deserves so much hate. The two main characters have a lot of chemistry together, and manage to pull the show through its ‘every-female-in-game-is-attracted-to-male-protagonist’ syndrome. The romance is rushed, but for a four episode set-up, I find that it does quite nicely. It is believable, albeit cheesy, and Asuna’s character foil for Kirito manages to make him a much more interesting character than he is alone.
The supporting cast is varied and interesting, although I could have done without several of the ‘girl-of-the-episode’ cast members, who only managed to detract from the characters that did matter. While the character development was not completely awful, this is a category that SAO once again managed to disappoint in.
First Season: (6/10)
Second Season: (4/10)
The music is fantastic, immediately drawing the viewer in with themes reminiscent of RPG music. The soundtrack is varied, managing to shine through in horror as well as happier episodes. The most notable of all is the battle music and variations of this theme, which I never tired of hearing.
Frankly, the music is so phenomenal that it managed to carry me through weaker parts of the plotting and character development. It was that good. The opening sequence song, while typical J-Pop, was dynamic and engrossing, and I definitely missed it when that season was over. If nothing else, I’m glad I watched this series for the music. Dynamic and heartfelt all at once, it is almost worth watching the anime for alone.
Music Score: (10/10)
All negativity aside, there are a few things SAO does really well. The animation is not OVA caliber, and it certainly won’t win any awards for consistency, but it was still a joy to watch. Of particular note are the action scenes. Whatever criticism people might have for SAO, this show knew how to animate action sequences. They are an explosion of color and light mixed in with dynamic, beautiful shots of the featured characters. The animation remains fluid instead of jarring at these points, lending itself to easy viewing (unlike the shaky-cam effect that is so popular in movies right now— I almost got carsick at the Hunger Games midnight showing).
The background scenes are beautiful as well, and most of the best scenery owes itself to the game-like setting where this story is based. It shows an attention to detail, as, nerdy as video games are, MMOs often have gorgeous scenery, and SAO did not gloss over this detail.
Little stylistic details like HP (Hit Point) bars, menus, and a slightly digitalized first person view at times remind the viewer of the game setting without bashing them over the head with gamer details and jargon. Overall, very enjoyable to watch.
Animation Score: (8.5/10)
While SAO managed to drop the ball in many categories, I did find myself enjoying this anime. The glimpses of what this series could have been were sometimes painful, but for the first season these glimpses were enough to carry the story.
There were consistency issues. Pacing issues. Major character issues. And yet somehow it is still enjoyable to watch. It might be my previous experience with MMOs, because it is definitely nostalgic to listen to so many gamer terms and tactics tossed about.
Sword Art Online is not an amazing series. But it isn’t horrible either. If you can manage to watch it without a particularly critical eye, you will probably enjoy it, particularly if you are a gamer. However, its flaws prevent it from absolutely soaring and knocking its phenomenal theme and premise out of the park, which is a shame.
Overall, an average anime with a phenomenal premise that manages to ruin itself with a second season. My recommendation? Watch the first season, but don’t bother with the second. If lack of resolution kills you, it’s almost better to YouTube certain scenes than suffer through the awful second half. Disappointing, but still entertaining.
Final Score: (7/10)