Despite what many users and critics would have you believe, I advise anyone interested by the prospect of the series give it a chance before writing it off entirely. In fact, I was planning on doing just that after reading a few of the reviews posted by members on here. I started watching anime on a fan level at the very start of this past Fall 2013 season, and like many was dragged in by the momentum of Attack on Titan. A coworker tried to get me to watch SAO and I kinda feigned interest and said I’d get around to it. I had already made up my mind not to watch the series because of the criticism it’s received. A few months later (or last week for me) a few friends attempted to get me to watch the show, and so I started. And watched some more. I downed the entire first season in a week, and I can honestly admit happily that I enjoyed it much more than I hated it. It seems as though there are two types of people who review here: the guys who think everything is awesome, and the guys that’ll nitpick each episode for inconsistencies. It seems the more popular a show gets the more it needs to be scrutinized. If this were merely some underground fan favorite I doubt people would take it as seriously. I’m going to try and be the in-between guy who chooses to stay unbiased, and will review the series for all it’s merits and all it’s downfalls, and I’ll stay away from determining whether it’s worth the praise it receives or not. That being said this first season was FAR from perfect, but I’ve yet to watch a perfect television series. And seriously, at the end of the day, this is a cartoon. If you’ve yet to see the season, spoilers follow.
Part 1: Aincrad Saga
The year is 2022. Ten thousand individuals login to the just released VRMMORPG (virtual reality massively multiplayer online role playing game) Sword Art Online, and then the worst possible scenario for anyone with a fear of virtual reality becomes their new reality: they can no longer logout. Nor can they remove their Nervegear helmets, or else the system will kill them. And worse yet, if they die in the game, they die in reality. Their goal is to reach the 100th floor and after defeating the endgame boss, they can all be set free. 2 years later and 40% of the players have lost their virtual and literal lives.
I will admit that I am an avid fan of MMO’s and love the idea of just leveling up your character, getting him stronger and stronger ad infinitum. There was a time where I was more than addicted to World of Warcraft. Had a character that had a play time of over two months! But SAO is a very different beast. The approach of having 100 floors was interesting and new. It felt like a classic game with 100 stages, but stuffed into a futuristic MMO. But I had two problems with this setup. 1) The show never explained how big each floor was. You just assumed each floor had special stuff only located there, like towns and forests, and lakes… And 2) they skipped so much of the game within the first few episodes of the show. This was particularly upsetting to me, because I’m all about the linear storytelling going on from battle to battle. I eat up all that filler stuff. Instead they skipped from the boss of the first floor to two years later when they’re on floor 74… What?! I understand the purpose of this however, and that’s because the story they wanted to tell took place primarily at that last month that SAO was still active. I feel they really could’ve delved deeper into the lore of the world instead of focusing so much on character woes. This saga should have lasted the entire 25 episode run so as to iron out certain potential plot holes and encourage character development with some of the tertiary characters. Another strange case about this MMO is the lack of character class. An RPG without magic?!?
I’m surprised that so many were upset by the love story that blossomed between Kirito and Asuna. It felt extremely natural and I felt they spent an appropriate amount of time on their tale. It didn’t fall short for me. Much of what they as characters were experiencing by the second year was surprisingly relatable. Although the primary objective was to free themselves from Aincrad, they had become so accustomed to living in this world that they considered it more real than reality itself. It’s only natural then to find yourself in love with another that you party with on a daily basis. I found their relationship occasionally very touching to be honest, and was fully invested. I wasn’t a huge fan however of their “daughter” Yui. That was a plot point I just could not stand.
I was constantly amazed at Kirito’s blatantly overpowered stats. I was sure that it would become old soon, but the more it was showcased the more I digged it. The mysterious way in which he was given the special ability to dual wield… Excellent. Knowing in retrospect that it was actually just the GM granting him special rights simply to spice things up a bit and have a bit of fun is amusing, and a satisfying reason in my opinion. From the beginning I didn’t consider the GM a villain, because it didn’t seem as if he had much of a motive other than the fact that he could just do it. It struck me more so as the work of an eccentric visionary, who’s bored and lonely. When Kirito lost that duel, due to what appeared to be a glitch or hack in the system, I thought for sure it must be the GM or someone in cahoots with him. I’m surprised it took so long to realize it.
That last battle was interesting to say the very least. I can understand why many didn’t care for it. The way I see it is that these guys are stuck in this virtual world for two years, getting brain-fed data constantly. After that long you’d expect there to begin to be strange anomalies when the game interferes with heightened levels of emotions. Yes, “the power of love” strikes again, but I think it’s more than that. I think it’s the will to beat the system, and nobody had more will than Kirito. I’m surprised this was one of the first moments where glitches were realized on screen. You’d expect them to be just slightly more commonplace. And as to why they weren’t dead at the end… Well the GM congratulated them on jointly beating the game. Enough said really.
Part 2: Fairy Dance Saga
An RPG with magic!!! Finally. But now it’s full of fairies… Interesting. The premise of the second half of the season begins with Kirito waking up, but somehow Asuna didn’t. We find out that somewhere near 300 players from SAO didn’t make it out for whatever reason. And worse yet, some creepy dude wants to marry Asuna while she’s in a coma! Kirito soon finds out there is a new VRMMORPG called Alfheim out and he gets a tip that Asuna is trapped inside this world. He goes in, gets the unknowing help of his busty step-sister, and attempts a rescue mission.
As an MMO, Alfheim feels far more organic than Sword Art Online did. Perhaps it was the ability to log off. Perhaps it was the racial choices and magic capabilities. I’m not sure. But because it felt more organic didn’t necessarily mean the show benefitted from it. Where my issue with the first half of the season was that they sped through over a year and a half of story, this second half of the season takes place in, what, 3 days? The tone becomes drastically different, and in many ways it feels like a completely different show. This threw me off balance quite a bit. I liked the idea, but not the execution and I’m sure others felt the same. If this is the true source of people hating the series then I can’t argue with you there. It angered me too. But I didn’t let it affect my view of the overall arc too much.
The stakes are far different in this half of the series. In the first half the big issues were not being able to log out, and if you die you die. But in this half you CAN log out AND you get to respawn. You just lose all your gear (or something?). This wasn’t fully explained, or maybe I missed it. Instead the real stake only existed for Kirito and Asuna. She was trapped by some horny maniac, and he was determined to save her before she got married off. Because the story didn’t have enough breathing room it all felt more unrealistic despite the more realistic game. Again, this could have been fleshed out far better over a full season.
One thing I really did like was that Kirito’s stats carried over into this game from SAO. Basically he was the best before he even began. Makes sense he’d be far stronger than the strongest player in this game due to the fact that Alfheim had only been going strong for about a year. And you know what, despite not liking Yui’s character in the first half of the season, she was ridiculously cute throughout the second half. Seriously. She slept in his pocket.
The second half of the series, although inherently not as violent, had far more fan service, and weird sexual stuff all around. I don’t consider Sugu’s strange love for her adoptive brother to be incestual, but it’s definitely… strange. Regardless, although the subject matter was out there, it felt organic and natural, and the resolution with the real world confrontation was probably the most emotional scene the anime offered. You couldn’t help but feel bad for her. And yet she still aided him in his flight to victory. (See what I did there?)
The rape scene was particularly unsettling, and I didn’t care for a second of it. I hope that’s what the creators of the series intended because that’s how it came across for me personally, and hopefully for other viewers. It was disgusting. But that’s when the original GM intervened, becoming the god in the machine, allowing Kirito admin access, and the ability to beat the system. Perhaps I’m a sap, but I’m not used to watching stuff with happy endings. The season was given a nice ending.
Part 3: Sword Art Online Extra Edition & beyond
I won’t get too caught up in the Extra Edition synopsis, because there’s not all that much to it seeing as how it’s mostly a synopsis of the entire first season with swimsuits in-between clips. But if it tells me anything, it’s that the first and second half of the season were two very different storiess, with many differing strengths and weaknesses. It may not be a popular opinion, but I do believe it would be a far stronger series if the two arcs were each given a full 25 episode season. I’m sure that would lead to criticism of filler episodes, but if it would make the series a stronger one in the long run, I’m all for it. And it wouldn’t feel like such a weird switch right there in the middle of the story.
I was very confused with the resolution of the world seed. Essentially everyone has access to this world seed, so everyone can make their own world with their own rules? I don’t see how that’s a good thing, seeing as how the first two worlds were run by madmen. And there was an interesting tease to the future of the series. But hopefully they explain better in season 2, which was snazzily introduced earlier yesterday. The Phantom Bullet saga eh? I hope this one gets a full run of episodes as well. Space out the story a little bit. In conclusion. It’s a flawed series, but it’s by no means unwatchable or bad.