Japanese Title: Sword Art Online
Related: Sword Art Online 2 (sequel)
Sword Art Offline (spin-off)
Similar: Log Horizon
Watched in: Japanese & English
Length: 25 episodes
- Strong concept.
- Nice music.
- Hacking protagonist.
- Twitchy story structure.
- World lacks creativity.
- Abandons strong concept before long.
- An ending that would make Bleach pitch a tent.
- Poor exposition for vague rules in the game.
A long time ago, I watched .hack//Sign, the story of a player trapped in an MMO – cool premise – but the execution resulted in a dull disappointment. Over a decade later, I hear of Sword Art Online, a similar premise with a greater focus on action, and I was thrilled. This could be the anime I desired. Heh, how wrong was I?
Ten thousand players manage to get into the first fully immersive virtual reality MMO at launch; however, the game master traps them inside with no escape until someone clears all hundred floors. The problem? Death in the game means death in real life.
And that’s about as far as SAO gets before the quality declines. The first few episodes are decent despite the bland exposition on the game’s mechanics – an early warning. Each episode seems to bring a new fault to light. First, it’s the mechanics, then it’s the timeskips, where months pass between episodes, skipping over important events, – SAO seems desperate to reach the end – and then it’s the protagonist, Kirito. Within four episodes, thousands have died, the top guild has cleared half the floors, and Kirito is level seventy-eight. We never see how he accomplishes this feat, a feat they swore was impossible a couple of episodes ago. Instead, we have to endure some new character, usually a girl, fawning over how amazing Kirito is before either they die off or we never see them again. The cycle repeats several times. The character dynamics never go full harem, as nothing really happens with these girls, but it is pathetic.
Where is the drama and politics of the world? Everyone faces death, yet after a few episodes, this feels like a bunch of kids at a LAN party – and one of them is a hacker.
I swear to you, Kirito is a hacker. There is no other explanation for how he gains power and has so many abilities. Kirito is just another Goku pulling shit out of his arse, deus ex machina after deus ex machina when convenient. The action is filled with false tension, as it quickly becomes apparent that Kirito will hack his way to victory each time – not before someone dies first, of course. It would make too much sense for Kirito to open with his winning abilities, wouldn’t it? There’s overpowered and then there’s Kirito.
Let’s say you don’t mind an OP character (I have received dozens of such recommendation requests before), is SAO still worth it? No. Kirito is only one of a dozen problems. Not far into the series, a romance plot takes over, which is decent for itself, but comes at the cost of the main plot – the writer had not the skill to weave both. Go a few episodes further, they reach a ‘new game mode,’ shall we call it, and it is terrible. The death IRL mechanic is gone, the plot devolves into mindless action – even less engaging than before – and the new characters provide nothing of value. They rushed for this? The first part wasn’t irredeemable. I cannot fathom why they didn’t extend the first part to flesh out the characters and events. Maybe while they’re at it, show us from where Kirito gets all these super-secret-special-awesome abilities. Kirito also has these melodrama monologues that have nothing to do with anything, but at this point, it’s the least of SAO’s problems.
The ending is lame. A reset to all stats? Really? This is worse than Bleach’s power resets.
As an MMO fan, another irksome fault is the lack of an MMO feel. I had hopes at the start when they made the G.I.R.L. joke (Guy In Real Life). Alas, we don’t get much more than that. Yes, they have dungeons, bosses, equipment, levels, NPCs, yet they don’t feel as they would in a game, even a VR one. SAO seems constructed for a shounen demographic first, art second (ironic, considering the title). And how did no one make a “Can I have your stuff?” joke when someone dies?
With such a furore surrounding this anime, I expected something good, not the greatest, mind you, but certainly better than this. Look, Sword Art Online starts well, gradually decreases in quality, and I like several side characters and how the romance has progression to it; however, with the advent of the new game mode, the quality tanks to atrocious levels. The disappointment hurts.
Art – Medium
Good, clean art; however, most establishing shots, such as when entering a new town, are complete stills – frozen characters with interchangeable faces. An overall lack of creativity to world design and abilities; little in Sword Art Online is visually memorable. This is a game where they could have had anything they wanted – anything! Pick any MMO today (one that doesn’t suck) and it boasts greater creativity.
Sound – Medium
Good acting in both languages – a matter of preference. The music is likely the strongest aspect, which sounds fitting for a fantasy MMO.
Story – Very Low
Sword Art Online is the story of a writer with a great idea he had no idea how to execute and who favoured his protagonist too much. Disappointing.
Overall Quality – Low
Recommendation: Not worth your time unless you have a desire for mindless entertainment. I cannot think of an anime that squandered its premise more than Sword Art Online – that honour used to belong to .hack//Sign, interestingly enough.
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