Sword Art Online anime review

Sword Art Online anime review
In the near future, a Virtual Reality Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (VRMMORPG) called Sword Art Online has been released where players control their avatars with their bodies using a piece of technology called Nerve Gear. One day, players discover they cannot log out, as the game creator is holding them captive unless they reach the 100th floor of the game's tower and defeat the final boss. However, if they die in the game, they die in real life. Their struggle for survival starts now...

This is hardly the first virtual reality MMO based series to come out - one only has to look at the very beginning of the main review list here at THEM Anime to spot what many cite to be an obvious spiritual predecessor (.hack//SIGN). That series ultimately succumbed to numerous internal issues, worst of all the perception of being a "talking heads" series with few action scenes and mildly interesting characters, and plot twists that often rarely made sense. If anything, the whole idea of VR seems to have sunk without trace in the real world, making .hack seem quaint and antiquated within a decade. And besides, who wants to watch other people play a video game?

Sword Art Online is categorically not .hack - after all, instead of one person stuck permanently in-game, we've got thousands, and if you die in-game, you die, period, never mind the psychological effects on you if you actually make it through. Reki Kawahara deserves some plaudits for being smart enough to think this whole initial scenario through - omitted from the TV series for several episodes but noted in the novel is the minor but very important detail that all of the players have been hooked up to life-support equipment, though I imagine the strain on the Japanese health care system must have been insane. And if anything, instead of the glacial pace of .hack, Sword Art Online often comes at you like a raging torrent, with a few episodes devoted to multiple action scenes. It's clear they actually threw something of a budget at this, and it shows, but it's a shame the writing doesn't always keep up (clearly an artifact of compressing four light novel volumes into 25 episodes). The inclusion of side-stories in early chronological order explains Kirito's behavior, but they are particularly compressed and rather poorly integrated into what is otherwise a serviceable first-half narrative.

That being said, the idea of this being a "death-game" is really secondary after the initial setup episodes, as most of what we really get is the budding romance between Kirito and Asuna, both of whom discover that while the world they are trapped in may be virtual, the experiences, friendships, and, ultimately, love that they experience are all very real. There's nothing wrong with this - Kirito and Asuna are my favorite anime couple in the last few years because there's refreshingly very little indecision or ambiguity to how they feel about one another, especially when you see the fine details of body language. Once established, there's nothing that will break these two apart, which is a huge disappointment to the various and sundry other girls who fall for way-too-nice-guy Kirito during the course of this series (which sort of turns into a bit of a running gag).

Oh, and yes - the whole "fake girls in MMOs" thing is completely deconstructed in the very first episode, so Kirito won't be in for a rude surprise if/when they get out of Aincrad. Phew!

Folks here for the action will not entirely be disappointed - it seems like Sword Art Online is constantly in the process of trying to do itself in ridiculously awesome fantasy action sequences. While the backdrops look gorgeous (Aincrad looks great), and the setups are great, the actual character animation doesn't always keep up 100% with flash frames and quick pans here and there (thanks to A-1 being more of a character-series studio). It's almost a shame that there aren't Nerve Gears available to play this game yourself (minus, of course, the obvious peril of getting your brain fried if you die in-game). In another seeming callback to .hack, we have Yuki Kajiura for the soundtrack - nowhere near as distinctive as before, but still solid.

So clearly we are not looking at a five star rating here: there's a few things that strongly detract from the show - never enough for it to approach average, but certainly enough to keep it from being one of the all time greats. For starters, the pacing is often WAY too fast, leaving out important details from the novels or only mentioning them far later than relevant (like the one I mentioned above about the hospitalization of the players). Some of the conflict resolutions do come off as being arbitrary and contrived ... and then there's the whole matter of the second arc, which almost amounts to a second season, but one that is unfortunately far less psychological and therefore less interesting, and also shoves in what is undoubtedly the stupidest attempt at a love triangle that I've seen in years. (Even if I liked the third wheel as a character otherwise.) There's also some really unwanted fan service with damsel-in-distress Asuna (ARGH!) in the second half that pretty much hammers home how stupid and frankly inferior the Big Bad is in that arc. Sadly, the best way to sidestep the seeming logic flaws of the anime is to read the novels which better explain what's going on (and they cannot and should not be taken as part of the show), which is what makes this a potentially polarizing experience, especially given the heated discussions undoubtedly occurring on the Internet about this show.

That being said, Sword Art Online remains an often fascinating, highly entertaining experience for fans of sci-fi-fantasy action, and Kirito and Asuna are utterly adorable together. It's doesn't quite live up to its initial premise, and it's hardly an evolutionary leap for anime as a whole, but it's nevertheless solid, likable, and enjoyable.


Better than review, is a Trailer video of: Sword Art Online. Watch it now:
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