Sword Art Online was a light novel series written by Kawahara Reki. It was adapted into an anime by A-1 Pictures, the same studio that brought us Valkyria Chronicles, Kuroshitsuji and Shin Sekai Yori. It’s also proven to be a pretty divisive series, some people loving it others hating it. My friends who have seen it are pretty evenly split on the matter. So, as you can probably imagine, I’ve heard a few arguments about it. Which side is more accurate?
Our story opens with the release of a highly anticipated virtual reality game, the titular Sword Art Online. Our protagonist, Kirigaya Kazuto (player name Kirito) is one of ten thousand players to log in. He has an advantage having been one of the beta testers. That’s when things get serious. The game’s creator, Kayaba Akihiko, traps all of the players inside the game with no way to log out. To make matters worse, their nerve gear devices will cause their deaths if forcibly removed by someone in the real word and if they die in the game, they will die in reality. The only way to return to the real world is to beat all 100 floors of SAO.
In all fairness, that premise is really promising and could have been really interesting. The problem is that the execution is shoddy. Kayaba has no real motivation. You eventually do learn why he did it, but his actions don’t logically follow from it. There is absolutely no reason that, with the motivation given, he should trap players in the game or kill them. The minor villains are just as bad. Apparently, in this game of life and death with only ten thousand players, there are enough sociopaths to form a PKing guild. It, frankly, doesn’t ring true in the slightest. Even the biggest jerks out there would be far more likely to cooperate with other players if only to save themselves, than to try and murder them.
The series also suffers from major time skips. I get that there are a lot of floors to go through, but if there was nothing interesting to do with the vast majority of their progress, why would you set the upper limit that high? The vast majority of the time skips just serve as a lazy plot device to avoid having actual character development. Instead they show something happen, skip ahead to something else and character relationships have changed however the story needed them to. They don’t have to explain it because several months passed. The attempts at drama also suffer as a result. There are several cases where they’ll introduce a character, kill them off at the end of the episode, treat it as a dramatic event and then never mention them again. Seriously, if you want us to care about a character you have to actually develop them as a character or make their death matter in some way. Then we have the “romance” aspects. Our two leads have basically no chemistry and girls seem to flock to our protagonist for no real reason. I get the impression that Kawahara just wanted to incorporate harem elements.
As I said the execution is pretty shabby, until the second arc. In the second arc we get a new villain with actual motivations and the story also gets much, much worse. They introduce Kirito’s sister as a major character and she has an incestuous crush on him. Did I mention that this is the same studio behind the second series of the repulsive OreImo? Okay, so she’s really just his first cousin who he was raised with as siblings, that doesn’t make it any less disgusting. Seriously, either of those would make this a really gross turn in its own right why would combining the two make it somehow okay? Our action girl heroine is also reduced to being a damsel in distress. The series uses that fact to introduce creepy non-consensual sexual stuff, which it doesn’t even come close to handling well.
The characters in this are mostly just dull. They fit a basic trope and never move out of it. Asuna is your typical action girl. The various supporting characters are pretty much non-characters who are defined by one or two traits, which is a pretty serious issue when they try to make one of their deaths dramatic. Our major antagonists are the generic villain with vague motivations and the obvious sociopath, who somehow avoids detection. Kirito is your stock dumb nice guy protagonist. His stupidity can get annoying, though. This is a guy who seriously tries to argue that sacrificing the re-spawning NPCs in order to advance is wrong. Sugu is probably the worst with her major defining characteristic being that she wants to romance her own brother.
The art is mostly pretty good. It has some really creative aspects and the online world is portrayed in a pretty dynamic way. The fight scenes flow pretty well too. The biggest problem with the art is the propensity towards fan-service. This series seriously has gratuitous fan-service shots of a girl who isn’t even in High school, including a bathing scene, a random shot that puts the focus on her bum and a scene of her in her undergarments. The whole objectifying women to provide fan-service aspect is bad enough when the character in question is a grown woman, but when she’s a recent Middle School graduate it just gets into really despicable territory.
The acting in this isn’t very good. The lines tend to be either exaggerated or listless. There are a few good acting moments, but they’re few and far between. They got some good actors, they just didn’t give them anything to work with. The music is the best part of the series. It isn’t anything special, but it’s okay.
The Ho-yay factor is a 2/10. There’s one scene where Klein offhandedly says that Kirito is his type but they never do anything with it. They don’t even clarify whether it was serious or a jest on Klein’s part.
Sword Art Online is a classic example of a good premise being decimated by the execution, which goes from slipshod in the first arc to unpleasant and downright nasty in the second. The characters are one-dimensional and the acting conveys that. All in all it’s a series that starts out pretty mediocre and takes a very sharp downward spiral. My final rating is going to be a 2/10. Next week, Shingeki no Kyojin.