From the moment I finished the first episode of Sword Art Online all promises of a good show flew out the window. Some problems became immediately clear to me and it first episode failed to capture my attention in any way. Yet, at the same time I stuck with it, hoping it would improve, and in some respect it kinda did. Not enough for me to call it or consider it a good show, but nothing I would consider bad in general either. For all it’s problems it always kept me entertain whenever it did something good or bad. The ideas it had were interesting even if not executed properly most of the time. It’s simply a well produced show that tells a story poorly, but in a very entertaining way.
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.
Good: Solid Production Values
A-1 Picture is a studio that I just acknowledge exist. This studio hasn’t made anything that I liked or hated wholeheartedly. However, when it comes to their production values they are consistently solid including the very colorful Sword Art Online. Character designs are simplistic and the locations are diverse. A-1 Pictures take advantage to show off snowy mountains, grassy fields, ancient dungeons, and many more to their advantage. Colors are simple and plain because lightning is rarely a factor to how a scene will look. Don’t expect much shading from this show, let alone gradient. In movement the animation is smooth from beginning to end without any noticeable issues.
One of my two complaints about the animation is Sword Art Online misses depths of perspective. Everything in the show looks flat, making what little use of 3D there is stick out. Another complaint is the action scenes are very weak. The choreography for all of them are simple which would have been fine, but whenever a spell or a weapon makes an impact on a person there is little visual flair or particles effect to add to the action. It’s similar to lighting up a firework and waiting for the true spectacle to occur, but it never comes because it’s a dud. I should add that the first opening intro is very misleading in representing Asuna as an strong component character who is as skilled as Kirito. In the first opening intro it shows Asuna and Kirito beating “The Gleam Eyes” while in the actual show it doesn’t happen. It’s almost as if A-1 Pictures acknowledge in their own way “Yeah, this character sucks. Sorry”.
All the music in the anime is a good fit with the show. In particular the closing song “Overfly” by Luna Haruna perfectly fits the romance side of the series. Of course that could be due to the second outro being more visually creative giving bits of the character relationship in pictures where the first outro is just camera panning down two characters doing nothing. The opening themes aren’t impressive. “Crossing Field” sung by LiSA sounds phoned in (especially if compared to Oath and Sign) and Air Eoi “Innocence” is passable. Any piece of music that isn’t the opening or closing themes fits with the show. It’s never distracting, but at the same time hardly noticeable as it never fuels audience’s emotion to create a powerful scene. It simply works in the show.
Voice acting is good, though not a single performance stands out regardless if you see it in Japanese or English. Both versions have a different take on how the voice actors portray the characters. The English dub cast are (mostly) subtle in their delivery, but in Japanese there’s more emotion driven into the performances. If you have to choose, I would recommend seeing it in its original Japanese language if only because the animation doesn’t deliver spectacles worth your attention.
Mixed: Mixture of good ideas that fail to live up to potential
Sword Art Online first arc (episode 1 – 14) suffers from rush pacing. It’s damaging to the point that on episode 13 it finally decides to address a major plot hole established in the pilot episode regarding how the players’ bodies are kept in a stable condition in the real world. If it takes that long to address a gaping plot hole there’s less chances whatever the material tries to tackle will come out better. For example, Asuna is introduced as a player who is on or close to the same skill level as Kirito holding her own in a fight in episode two. That quickly changes when Asuna is pushed to the sideline and given little to do afterwards. Usually involving cooking, cleaning, and needing to be saved. Another drawback to the pacing is skipping around time. You frequently skip months in the story with the anime usually relying on generalizing events than actually showing. Like how did Asuna obtain a high ranking position in the “Knights of the Blood” made further questionable when seeing her contribution when working alongside Kirito.
When out of focus episodes will go off track from the main story. These side stories flesh out the world by showing how the game mechanics work, but all at the cost of being filler. On the other hand, these side stories do keep the story unpredictable, even if the outcome never changes. Some other positive points about the first arc is there is risks of losing inside “Sword Art Online”. Not anything the main cast will suffer because Kirito’s overpowered, but it is established and touched upon in key scenes. While not as explored as the subject of death, it does bring up the mindset of different kind of players. Showing some diversity to offset the goody two shoes the story focuses on. Another positive is the romance doesn’t end with two characters becoming boyfriend and girlfriend. It shows two characters as a couple and runs with it for awhile. Although the downside being the couple aren’t interesting as stand alone characters let alone when they become a couple.
If there’s one thing that can’t be overlooked is how often it contradicts itself. It’s more than willing to break its own rules to make its protagonist come across as being awesome. For example, Kirito said himself it’s much better to be in a guild, but in Episode 8 single handily defeats one of the toughest bosses by himself. This also applies to gamers in the show who don’t know how to play the games. In Episode 2, it’s established to take place an entire month after the first episode and gamers still don’t know how to play the game. Either leading to speculation that most players of SAO are idiots or don’t bother to learn how play the game knowing their lives depending on it.
Now due to the course of the anime I encourage you to avoid the next two paragraphs to avoid spoilers. I won’t go into specifics, but just the mere mention of it will spoil “Sword Art Online” Aincrad Arc (Episode 1 – 14).
Episodes 15 – 25 make up the Fairy Dance Arc that takes place in Alfheim Online. A noticeable improvement is the pacing is slower. Allowing more of the story to unfold in real time instead of generalizing important events in exposition. However, some issues in the Aincard Arc carry over to the Fairy Dance Arc. Asuna character receives another downgrade and becomes a plot device to move the story forward. Sadly, that’s all of Asuna contributions in the Fairy Dance Arc. It also does away with the consequence of death that the first arc got across. Stakes are smaller and the scope of what it tackles is smaller. Plus going from a setting that has dragons, ghosts, and Santa Claus gets replaced by a setting filled with Fairies. There’s no competition, which arc has the more interesting setting. It might sound like a downgrade, but it improves in one area with it counts.
Since the story becomes more personal there’s no filler in the arc. Everything done is to move the story forward. It still suffers from the same problem of giving supporting characters little to do, but it is not as noticeable since an entire episode won’t be dedicated to helping out a random character who won’t make another appearance. Then there’s Suguha whose characterization is better handled. From her introduction as an important character we see her progress from her conflict from beginning to end. Unfortunately, there’s never a love triangle that arises from her involvement. Just like every other female in the show, Suguha has to rely on Kirito to do everything in the end.
Mixed: Likeable, but bland characters
Kirigaya Kazuto or Kirito as he commonly referred by is a bland protagonist. Kirito is overpowered to the point that if there is an ever moment of conflict, he’ll make sure to eliminate it. Every battle and every dungeon Kitiro goes in, there is never any doubt about his survival. Even without the “He’s the protagonist, of course he won’t die” invisible tag attached to his character. Diminishing any worthwhile investment since he easily overcomes any obstacles including boss fights. The worst aspect about this trait is the audience doesn’t even get to see Kirito become stronger. If it was another genre of gaming, it would make sense…except Kirito play games specifically designed for multiple people to play together. Yet, somehow with his lone wolf attitude Kirito is able to get to a higher level than any other player that play in a group. Anyone who plays an MMO will tell you how difficult it can be to level up, especially if you’re a solo player. What’s most questionable about him is the way he thinks. For some reason he keeps how strong he is to himself, despite the fact if he played at his full abilities he can prevent more people from dying. His actions are equally harmful to the people trapped in SAO as a antagonist.
Another (lack of) trait is Kirito suffers little eternal conflict that gets explored. At one point the show explains why Kirito is into gaming, but doesn’t expand on it. Instead of adding on Kirito accepting the game he’s trap in as real life. It’s left as an interesting, unexplored characteristic of his character. Everything always seems to work his way sometimes without his involvement in the solution. This kind of character or wish fulfillment can be done correctly. For example, in Persona 3 you take control of a seemingly perfect character (that you could name him/her whatever you want) with a status of the chosen one. Much like Kirito, Persona 3’s Protagonists builds his/her stats until he/she is perfect at everything. The difference with Kirito is his backstory is never a focus at any point in the series. Whereas Persona 3’s Protagonists backstory is given fleshing them out. No longer are the characters simply overpowered, but developed characters that blend with the cast. From beginning to end Kirito remains static with no major difference from where he begins to where he ends up.
Asuna serves as Kirito love interest. She could have been a good character, but beyond episode two the series does everything it can to lessen her importance. Instead of being an equally strong character like Kirito she eventually becomes reliant on Kirito like virtually every female character in the anime. What makes Asuna case different is how she was introduced as an equally skilled player which is not the direction the story took her in. This introduction makes her the most disappointing in the cast especially with what’s done with her in the second half. Another significant female character is Yui whose an AI or little girl ex-machina. Her contributions are similar to Asuna in which she becomes a plot device to move the story forward in the second half, but early on is involved in a side story about family. To get it out of the way it was rather heartless, but at least it contribute to the main story and one of few times character development of Asuna and Kirito as a couple works.
The last significant female character is Kirigaya Suguha. Despite not appearing in the show as much as the series main love interest Suguha gets better character development. Suguha is a sympathetic character all due circumstances from her placement in the story. Her feelings in a situation are rely to the audience properly to understand where she’s coming from. Making her conflict in her feelings for Kirito that she never thought about much. She doesn’t know if her love for Kirito is right or wrong due to circumstances she’s not entirely sure played a part to influence how she feels. Like the other female characters she does end up falling for Kirito, but unlike the rest of female cast Suguha feelings has some depths. As a character she grows in the story for the better not taking steps backwards.
Male supporting characters won’t be as reliant on Kirito since an entire episode is never dedicated to Kirito helping out another male character on a dangerous quest. The most he does for a follow male is teaching them how to play, despite the person spending tons on money to get the equipment to play the game and having waited three days in line to get it. If it’s a male other than Kirito they’ll spend most of their time off screen. This rule changes if the male happens to be an adult than chances increases they’ll be evil. Most of the adversaries Kirito fight against are mostly male, which in itself becomes tedious. Although, that last sentence should be filed under personal pet peeves instead of a flaw in the show.
Personal Enjoyment: Surprisingly, I was never bored
Well you did just read a couple of paragraphs of me favoring the second arc of “Sword Art Online” over the first. Just because I prefer one arc over the other doesn’t mean “Sword Art Online” quality will change. It’s story is never consistent in quality, but it is always entertaining. Whenever there is a bad scene in “Sword Art Online” I find it entertaining. From Kirito gaining the very stupid and non insulting nickname of “Beater”, any scene involving those useless teleportation crystals, and seeing Nicholas The Renegade (Santa Claus) being a few stand out. Thankfully not everything in the series was poorly thought out as there are actually good scenes in “Sword Art Online” I liked. The ending in Episode 14 titled “The End of the World” was satisfying even if the outcome of it was completely due to deus ex machina. Another being episodes 22 & 23 where the scenes between Leefa and Kirito that made me realize I actually cared what happens.
(Likely) Possible Complaints:
Everything I listed
The main character is Kirito
Everything that isn’t on the technical side if you loathe the story and characters
How popular it is (this one’s superficial)
This review if you absolutely hate it or absolutely love it
Production Values (Sound, Animation, etc.): 3/3
Personal Enjoyment (Yes, my enjoyment is worth the least amount points): 1/1
When I got to the final episode of Sword Art Online and sat through the closing credits with still images my thoughts on the show were immediately clear. It’s not something I would call a good show with a story that has good ideas that get squandered by poor execution and characters that receive little character development or get pushed to the sideline after a single episode. However, it was consistently entertaining and always had my interest no matter how it turned out. There’s is one thing that is for certain regardless where you stand on Sword Art Online quality. It’ll leave one strong impression on the viewer before and after it ends.