Let’s talk about Sword Art Online, the anime series based around a virtual MMO. The story is set up as follows; Ten thousand players of a virtual MMO are trapped in the game and forced to complete it to escape, except that death in the game leads to death in real life. an interesting story I know.
But let’s go through the categories.
The first two episodes are decent, building up the premise. We are introduced to the protagonist Kirito and the concept of the death game. Soon enough, we are told that a month has passed and two thousand players have died offscreen. …Wait, not even a short montage or anything? Apparently not. The third episode begins to show more serious problems. We are supposed to form an emotional bond to new characters in a few minutes, and we have to go through over-the-top angst over irrational actions. After this its followed by an abrupt leap to harem and romance antics. The next few episodes are about various girls suddenly falling for Kirito, often the same day they met him. This typically involves uncontrollable blushing, fanservice, and people acting Tsundere. You probably get the picture. It doesn’t help that many of these episodes have a very filler-esque feel to them. The main plot ‒ if you can call it such at this point ‒ takes a backseat in favor of these random new girls.
Here Kirito meets Asuna, who quickly becomes the token love interest for Kirito, however, there is still very little buildup to their relationship. Unless it took place offscreen. You see, another thing that becomes very noticeable is the pacing. There have been time-skips of months between episodes. This wouldn’t be a problem if these snapshots contained all the events that were critical to the story, but it’s obvious that the author has picked rather boring events out of all the possibilities. Why is it that thousands of people dying is covered in a few lines, while we have to sit through hours and hours of romance and harem? I hate to be beating a dead horse here, but it’s unavoidable because it comes up again in just about every episode.
By now, it has also become obvious to the viewer that Kirito is invincible to the point of tedium. He has a level higher than anyone, the best equipment, and a seemingly endless pool of abilities, but most importantly he always wins. There is sometimes false tension, sure, but you know he will survive anyway. You can only stomach so many clutch survivals before you start rolling your eyes. The rest of the story arc involves Kirito and Asuna hanging out in the countryside to spend their honeymoon. They even adopt a daughter to portray a typical happy family. The problem is that their relationship is really not that interesting. But “dem feels”! Nah, sorry. I have a heart of stone. This is followed by a sudden confrontation with the main villain, which Kirito wins because the power of love conquers all. And by that I mean the power of love conquers the programming of the game. Well, okay, maybe there was some “power of love” clause in the code somewhere. It wouldn’t surprise me at this point. Predictably enough, melodrama ensues. Tears, promises of love, etc. But the story is not over yet. there is actually eleven episodes left, taking part in the second half of the season. The journey to another game, this time without the death aspect. But before we get to the plot itself, even at a glance this idea brings up a few problems.
The harsh reality hits you faster than you can say “cashcow.” This second arc feels completely unnecessary. It has been tied into the original story with an overly convenient plot device for no apparent purpose other than stretching it further. It doesn’t help that there is no death anymore. While this makes the slice-of-life content more fitting, it also removes the established selling point of the show. The change is too abrupt, and the difference in tone is too jarring. If you want to make a slice-of-life of ordinary MMO players, do it from the start. Now, for the plot itself, and it isn’t pretty. We go straight to a Mario game, by which I mean saving a damsel in distress trapped in a cage. And that isn’t a metaphor; she is quite literally trapped in a cage. Add tentacles and incest to the plot, and you have a winning combination. The incest aspect is provided by Kirito’s sister Suguha, who also provides additional fanservice. At least now the pacing is less erratic and there is seemingly less development taking place offscreen. It’s just too bad that there is also very little meaningful progression taking place onscreen. There are some new characters and even an in-game war going on, but it’s all so irrelevant to the main story that it’s hard to maintain interest. Long story short, Kirito beats the second villain with the help of more deus ex machinas. There are also more tears, promises of love, etc.
You may have noticed that I have only mentioned three characters by name so far. For some other shows, this might be because the cast is so vast that there is no time to go through them all, but here there are very few characters worth mentioning. Kirito, and by extension Asuna and Suguha who are defined by Kirito’s character, hog practically all of the screentime. Everyone else gets thrown under the bus. Girls only exist to fall in love with Kirito, and males only exist to be inferior to him. The villains in particular only exist as fodder to the guy.
However, let’s talk a little bit about Kirito’s personality. Well, blame the show, not me; it should at least be willing to meet me halfway. We know very little about him, other than being invincible and inexplicably good with the ladies. Essentially, he is the manliest man on the planet. That’s pretty much all he is. Even his dialogue ends up pretty bland. There are no witty insights, no clever jokes, no skillful word games. Much of his dialogue consists of saying that the world is a virtual one, explaining game mechanics, wishing to save everyone, or loving someone forever. The sort of stuff you’d expect from a cardboard cutout hero in a situation like this.
It can be a facepalm-worthy experience to witness girl after girl falling for Kirito like nothing, often the same day they met him. The show endlessly drills into the viewer that he is the sexiest man alive… for some reason. I get that rescuing people can give you points in their eyes, but come on now. I can only assume there is a hidden manliness stat and his black jacket comes with a +999 boost. As far as his invincibility goes, the win streak by itself isn’t the biggest problem. The problem is that he always wins through brute strength. That is to say, his character skills and stats. There are no tactics worth mentioning, no psychology, no politics, no thinking whatsoever. He will just go out there and pull off his generic action hero stunts. Sure, developing those skills and stats may have required some tactical thinking. Maybe he has optimized his skill tree or has amazing grinding strats. In theory. We see no hints of it. It all happened offscreen and offscreen doesn’t count. I’m sorry, it just doesn’t. To add insult to injury, some of Kirito’s abilities are completely forgotten later on. I’m sure that health recovery thing would have come in handy any number of times. And when even his skills and stats aren’t enough, he is saved by plot armor at the last second. It’s also a mockery of MMOs in the sense that Kirito is able to solo raid bosses. And he is able to attain a level higher than anyone despite playing solo, supposedly because he doesn’t have to split the exp. His most unique ability is revealed to be… drumroll dual-wielding, which nobody else is allowed to do in this game. This doesn’t sound like any MMO I know of, or was the idea to portray a player with god-mode cheats on?
Then there’s Asuna, she is about as bland in personality as Kirito. She is also portrayed as fairly powerful for no substantial reason but of course, nothing compared to him. As time passes, her most notable trait becomes being a textbook Tsundere. In the second half, we have Suguha and as mentioned earlier, her main role is providing fanservice and a tacked-on incest subplot. It’s simply another element thrown into the plot for cheap shock value if anyone is still shocked by incest in anime nowadays.
The first villain barely appears, and his motivation for trapping the players is vague, to say the least. He basically did it out of personal interest. He wanted to create a virtual world where death has meaning like in the real one, but as for why he was interested in the idea, he forgot. Err, alright then. Moving on. The second villain is pathetic and a disgrace to antagonists everywhere, coming across as a cartoon villain who does evil things for the sake of being evil. The conflict here is portrayed as completely black-and-white, just in case, someone had sympathy for the guy, as unlikely as that is. His main focus is essentially raping a comatose girl. That is over obtaining tons of cash, presumably in the millions. If he had left the girl alone, he probably would have got away with it, so for all intents and purposes, he chose to rape a girl over millions in cash. Talk about priorities. It’s already ridiculous that the family of the comatose girl is planning to have her marry the guy. I mean, she is in a coma. As in unconscious, unable to state her own intentions, etc. Where are child protective services when you need them? Thankfully, the law disagrees, so they can’t apply for an official marriage. Instead, he’ll be adopted by her family as their son in spirit.. it’s a messed up situation. Furthermore, his sheer incompetence is mindboggling. He openly explains his evil plans and his security is practically at Dr. Evil level, up to entering a secret keycode in plain sight so that the prisoner can see. Thankfully the government and his company are equally incompetent and are not monitoring his research group closely despite its reliance on infamous technology used in SAO. Are these the same people who deemed the new tech safe? If so, I’d like a second opinion. I wouldn’t trust these people to operate Angry Birds, let alone a virtual MMO with potential health risks.
ANIMATION / ART:
The animation and art style is amazingly crisp and clean, definitely a triple-A anime. There’s not a single moment in which these characters look under detailed or ugly. Everything from the action within the fight scenes to the scenery, it’s all well done.
The music and soundtrack within the anime are stellar. It’s top-notch and befitting the scenes very well. Making epic scenes more epic and sad scenes more dramatic.
So, whilst yes, I did complain about the inconsistency of the story and the characters at times feeling one dimension, it’s a guilty pleasure. I personally, despite the flaws enjoyed the series, you just have to turn your brain off a little to enjoy it to the fullest.
In my opinion, it’s a 6/10. There are better anime out there, but despite this, it has a way of pulling you in. Regardless of the issues the series has, regardless of the one-dimensional characters. Sword Art Online is an enjoyable series, worth watching just… probably not a second or third time.
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