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Sword Art Online [Anime] Review

Posted on January 6, 2013 AT 03:12pm

Sword Art Online (SAO) is an anime adaption of a light novel series of the same name, written by Reki Kawahara. I was originally turned on to this interesting anime by my younger brother. He doesn’t usually recommend animes to me, so I figured it had to be worth checking out, and I’m more then glad I took his suggestion.

First of all, this review can’t be written without mentioning the widely popular cult anime franchise, .hack//sign, which uses similar concepts to SAO. Personally, I preferred SAO and found .hack to be on the boring side, but that’s not the point. Both series are based on the concept of virtual reality, wherein VR games have evolved to the point where players put on headgear and become fully immersed in the game.

SAO takes place in the year 2022 and centers around the VR hardware called “Nerve Gear” and one of the first games designed to take full advantage of the gear’s capabilities, Sword Art Online, a Virtual Reality MMORPG. Prior to the start of the series, SAO was in beta for an unmentioned amount of time using 1000 beta players. The series begins with the game launching to the public and only 10000 copies were produced, all bought out in seconds online and then picked up at the stores on launch day. This gives us a total of 11k players to begin with. Remember that. All players log into the game for the first time and start fooling around, but it doesn’t take long for them to try and log out only to discover the log out option has been removed from the game’s menu.

Suddenly, all players are teleported the game’s start town main plaza, where they meet the game’s creator and primary programmer, Kayaba Akihiko, who explains the log out bug is not a bug. He goes on to say that if the players die in the game, a kill switch in the Nerve Gear is activated that sends microwaves into the player’s brain, killing them. In other words, die in the game, you die in real life. He also then adds that if someone outside attempts to remove the Nerve Gear from a player, the same kill switch is activated, killing the player. Essentially, all 11k players are being held hostage in this wonderful virtual world. Kayaba then proclaims that if the players want to escape, they must clear all 100 floors of the game’s Aincrad Castle. Each floor has a dungeon with a boss. To clear the floor they must beat the dungeon’s boss, then all other players will be permitted to the next floor. Simple. And so the games begin, psychological trauma included.

The story centers around Kazuto Kirigaya, who goes by the screen name “Kirito”. Kirto was one of the 1000 beta testers and claims to have made it to the highest floors of all the beta testers, this causes many players to say he’s a “cheater” because he “beat” most of the game already, which earns him notoriety as a “beater”. My mind went straight to the gutter after that little comment. Kirto quickly becomes among the highest leveled players in the game, and is also seen as the most skilled swordsman out of all the 11k players. He is shown as being kind and fiercely protective of his friends, and more then willing to cut down any who get in his way. Kirto spends a majority of his time as a solo player, however he does join a guild a one point, but unfortunately, they all die in a tragic dungeon trap, which traumatizes him for a long time. This adds quite a bit to his character, and really makes him seem more like a lost soldier. At one point, Kirto meets a damsel in distress. He decides to help her because she reminds him of his sister, but after all that is said and done, we never see him give a damn about his loving sister until the second half of the series, where she ends becoming a major character. Eventually Kirto meets a female character called Asuna, and then things really get going for his development.

Asuna Yūki, or just Asuna as she is referred to for almost the entire series, actually first meets Kirto about a month after SAO begins. The two decide to form a party in order to aid a larger force of players to take down the game’s first major floor boss. They work well together, and end up landing the finishing blows on the  boss. It is after this fight that Kirito first earns his notoriety and decides to continue on as a solo act, but before leaving Floor 1, he dissolves his party with Asuna, telling her she’ll become strong one day and she should join a powerful guild. She more then takes that advice to heart, because when we see her again after about a year has passed, she is shown to be the Vice-Commander of the game’s most powerful guild, the Knights of the Blood Oath, and not only that… she really doesn’t like Kirito. While preparing for battle against Floor 67′s boss the two argue to the point where Kirito almost leaves the front lines. Sometime later the two are stuck together again, more or less on accident and while visiting a town, see a person murdered.

Towns and cities are “Safe Zones” where player killing is supposed to be impossible because HP bars are coded to not lower within them. Kirito and Asuna decide to investigate the murder, and over the course of the investigation they set aside their personality traits and really warm up to each other. Later, they form a temporary party and explore a higher floor’s dungeon. After accidentally discovering the boss and eventually defeating it, they fall in love and eventually get married in the virtual world. Now honestly, I wasn’t entirely on board with that. Two characters who hate each other and then fall in love is a little bit cliched. Kirito and Asuna’s love is admittedly developed pretty well, given their circumstances, but for that point in the series, it didn’t seem entirely necessary. Now, in part 2, that love this is completely necessary, because it’s central to the overall plot, so I suppose for that have worked, they still needed to fall in love in part 1, no matter how stupidly cliched it was.

I suppose I should also discuss another cliche in the series, Kirito’s sister, Suguha, or as Kirito calls her, “Sugu”. Sugu is more involved with the 2nd part of the series. Supposedly she’s in grade school, but she looks a hell of lot more developed then any grade school girl I’ve ever seen. In the real world, she ends up falling in love with Kirito, because as it turns out they’re really cousins, not siblings. So somehow being cousins makes such feelings less redneck and perfectly okay. Her heart is broken because she realizes Kirito really does love Asuna, which does make sense. They did spend a few years fighting for each other’s lives after all. She gets over it and decides to fall for the virtual version of Kirito, unaware that he’s her brother. After deducing that truth, her heart is broken again. It’s amazing that she doesn’t give up and just move the hell on, but if she did that, we wouldn’t much of an anime cliche to drive the plot forward.

But, the 2 different plots in the series were almost like night and day. In part 1, as was already explained, the initial 11k players are being held hostage in a deadly game and the only means of escape is for someone to beat the game. That on its own would have made for an excellent series, that is of course, if that was what the series actually focused on. Part 1 of SAO doesn’t do that. A majority of the series is spent on side stories and minor plots that only build up the characters, but the overall plot is barely even looked at. The series claims there’s 100 bosses to fight, each more terrifying the next, and yet we only actually see 5 of these magnificent fights, one of which was an optional boss and most of that fight was cut out. The distinct 2nd half o the series takes place a few months after the events of the first half. I’d rather not spoil anything, but it involves a separate VRMMORPG. In the 2nd half we learn more about Kirtio’s sister and a bit out his life outside the virtual world. The 2nd half concentrates a lot more on sticking to the story then the first half did, which I found to be much more engaging. There’s also fewer major characters in the 2nd half, and all characters with their respective side stories end up playing major parts in the plot as a whole, something that didn’t happen in the first half of the series.

Something I really enjoyed about this series was its exploration of human relationships, both in and out of the virtual world. While in the game, the characters experience things like death, sadness, happiness, hunger, all things that are normally only felt in the real world. At one point, Asuna even says most players have accepted the fact that they may never escape and have began to live their lives as if the virtual SAO world was the real and only world. Kirito also notices this change. He explains that the persona seen online is often different from the one seen in reality, however when trapped in the online world, the two personae can blend together. Later, he says that one thing he learned from his time trapped in SAO was that no matter which persona you see, it’s still the same person and that one should just accept it. He uses this reasoning to explain why he was able to fall in love with Asuna in the virtual SAO world, and still continue to lover her once he left.

Overall, I loved this series as a whole. It is more then worth watching, especially if you’re a fan of .hack, and the Matrix trilogy. The exploration of human relationships, what virtual reality games will do for us even if it all goes horribly wrong and the beautiful characters, teen love and all, made for a great series and I have my fingers crossed they make a sequel series that covers the remaining arcs from the light novels. I would also like to mention that at time of writing, this series is only available in subtitles.

Summary: Excellent series that is an awesome take on the virtual reality MMO anime genre.

  • The Good: Kirito kicks ass, but doesn’t always abuse his power. It made things much more enjoyable.
  • The Bad: First half the series concentrated more on side-plots and minor characters that had little to do with the main story.
  • The Ugly: N/A

 Score: 8.9

James Conrad is a Pokemon fanboy, lover of the arts and is forever broke.
Tweets: @JRCnrd

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