*SPOILERS: Don’t read this if you don’t like being spoiled.*
Last week, after being shown 2 choppy minutes of this show from a friend’s tablet, I decided to marathon Sword Art Online, an anime that apparently was mega-hyped, but flopped, and has turned into one of those anime where you either love it or despise it.
Where do I fall? Somewhere in the middle. Let me explain:
Sword Art Online has an incredible premise. Kazuto Kirigaya, a reserved boy, buys a VMMORPG (Virtual MMORPG) called Sword Art Online, the first of its kind. Upon logging in, he quickly finds out something disturbing: the Log Out feature is gone, and soon the thousands of people whom had logged in find out that this game is a death trap: those who die in the game die in real life. It’s a very powerful way to expose the age-old question of virtual reality vs reality.
So, we have an amazing premise. How’s it executed?
Not terribly, just…okay.
Let me preface this by saying that this anime suffers from the same thing that Legend of Korra did: it’s too short.
The first episode is fairly straightforward; Kirito and everyone inside of the game Sword Art Online (which the anime is named after) is trapped.
Next episode is two months later. By the time the 13th episode roles around, it’s been 2 years. And by the later half of the episodes, they beat the game. There are # of episodes in Sword Art Online. In fact, the second half doesn’t even take place in Sword Art Online. It takes place in an entirely new game.
So, now that the preface is out of the way, let’s get to the plot.
The second episode involves the first floor being beaten, and introducing the other main character of the series, Asuna. Here we see something that is actually a nice plot point throughout the series: beta testers vs non beta testers. Because the game has become a game of life or death, beta testers gain an unfair advantage. Kirito decides, after another beta tester dies, to stop any future feuds and establish himself as a “beta tester of beta testers”, grouping the rest of the beta testers into the same group as the new players and declaring himself above all of them, convincing those that he is not only a beta tester, but a cheater, thus giving birth to the term “beater”, which only he is branded. This title stays with Kirito throughout the first half of the show, allowing for some interesting interactions with other characters despite being one of the strongest players in the game.
The next few episodes are small side-tracks involving other characters, and even a very important event involving Kirito and his first guild are only one episode long, meaning there’s no time to really develop the characters naturally. Instead, time skips are utilized heavily and make character progression seem unrealistic.
After these side episodes come to an end, the anime begins to focus on Kirito and Asuna, whom eventually fall in love in the short time span of 4-5 episodes, which translates to months of skipped time. It gets to the point where they spend two episodes focusing on their two week honeymoon, which I think is okay except it takes precious time away from the rest of the characters. I have gripes with the honeymoon itself, but what I want to focus on is that, the next two episodes are the last two episodes of them in Sword Art Online. 2-episode, 2 week honeymoon goes directly to them beating the game. That’s too fast.
The second part involves another killer premise. Kiritio and Asuna live through the game, but something’s wrong: Asuna hasn’t woken up yet. Here we see a continuation of the real world vs virtual world premise, building upon that with a “hero saves the princess” twist. Kirito decides to dive into another game to save Asuna and let her finally come back to the real world. Indeed, the premise is explained when Kirito tells new character Leafa (secretly Kirito’s cousin, Suguhara) that the virtual world is his reality until Asuna wakes up.
But, because this part is even shorter than the last, it suffers. The way they travel through the new game, Alfheim Online, is fine. It makes sense that Kiriot only explores a little bit of the world since he has a goal. The problem lies in character development.
Suguhara, Kirito’s cousin, has believed that she and Kirito were brother and sister for a long time (Kirito found out the truth at age 10). Kirito distanced himself from her because of that, and after he comes back from Sword Art Online he decides to fix their distanced relationship. What he never knew is that Suguhara has been in love with him for a long time, and this sudden closeness he’s showing her is killing him, especially since she knows that he’s madly in love with Asuna.
I actually enjoy this premise because it’s explored pretty well. Suguhara actually starts playing Alfheim Online to see what about it Kirito enjoys so much, but I think there could’ve been a “I want to get away from the real world” reason hidden under that. Anyway, we find out that Leafa is Suguhara, but she has no idea that Kirito is her cousin, Kazuto, and falls in love with virtual avatar Kirito to avoid the pain of being in love with Kazuto.
Too bad she falls in love with him too fast.
At a climactic point in the show, Kirito speaks the name of the person he’s been looking for, Asuna, and Leafa suddenly realizes the cold truth – Kirito is Kazuto. Unable to handle this realization, she leaves, and there is a verbal confrontation between the two as Suguhara actually confesses, which I thought was an awesome scene. She eventually comes to and helps Kazuto save Asuna, and the two lovers finally reunite in the real world after a really silly final battle.
I’m going to put this out there now: the show could’ve used one, even two 22-24 episode seasons to get through the game and beat it, and then a mini 12-14 episode series for the second part. It’s just too short to really develop anything well.
Despite all this, the premises were strong enough for me to keep watching, and the show has some golden moments where they real get it right. Really, the direction the show goes is great, but it just suffers from horrible pacing.
The animation and art are great. It’s got that fantasy world feel, but with a hint of an MMO, which is really cool to see. All the flashy, crazy stuff you’d see in other action anime where the world is full of magic looks more believable because the real world is there, without effects, and then you have the virtual world, complete with all those cools effects, and I thought that was really cool. I don’t think there was ever some weird animation that bugged me; it was enjoyable the whole way through.
The music was actually pretty good, but nothing too memorable save for the openings and endings, which I thought were good. One of them was good enough for me to find and download, so I have to give credit there, but the music used during the episodes weren’t nearly as memorable. Still, they definitely added to the scenes when used.
Despite the flaws of the plot, some of the characters were a little fleshed out. Kirito, in particular, was nice because he started out a cool guy and stayed that way. You usually don’t see that in a main character. It’s too bad that he changes too quickly when he has to during the plot, because he could’ve had an awesome character arc. Asuna, too, since she’s pretty much a female Kirito but changes a bit a couple times, especially during their honeymoon. The other characters were a little fleshed out, but none of them changed too much to really notice, and the antagonists were, well, lame. It’s a shame because there’s so much potential.
Still, they were engaging enough for me to keep watching, and I’m a sucker for romance in any medium so I’m a little biased there. I still didn’t enjoy the honeymoon.
Sword Art Online is by no means a bad anime. I found it to be very enjoyable (even the second part). It just irks me that there’s such a good set up in both parts, and immediately all that potential is wasted. This anime could have easily become one of my top 5 anime had it had more seasons to expand the adventure through Sword Art Online. I understand that there could be any number of reasons this anime was produced the way it was, but I still can’t help but wish that the potential this anime has could be unleashed.
Plot Direction: 5/10
Final Score: 6/10