In the year 2022, virtual reality has progressed by leaps and bounds, and a massive online role-playing game called Sword Art Online (SAO) is launched. With the aid of "NerveGear" technology, players can control their avatars within the game using nothing but their own thoughts.
Kazuto Kirigaya, nicknamed "Kirito," is among the lucky few enthusiasts who get their hands on the first shipment of the game. He logs in to find himself, with ten-thousand others, in the scenic and elaborate world of Aincrad, one full of fantastic medieval weapons and gruesome monsters. However, in a cruel turn of events, the players soon realize they cannot log out; the game's creator has trapped them in his new world until they complete all one hundred levels of the game.
In order to escape Aincrad, Kirito will now have to interact and cooperate with his fellow players. Some are allies, while others are foes, like Asuna Yuuki, who commands the leading group attempting to escape from the ruthless game. To make matters worse, Sword Art Online is not all fun and games: if they die in Aincrad, they die in real life. Kirito must adapt to his new reality, fight for his survival, and hopefully break free from his virtual hell.
Since I've seen a plethora of scores of 10 for this show, I thought I'd write what I feel is a more realistic review for this show. Sword Art Online is more or less the equivalent of a fanfiction in it's writing and quality. Whether people want to overlook it or not is up to the individual, but I believe it fails at the fundamentals for writing a good story. This review will go into details as to my opinions on why I feel this way.
1) Story - This is first major problem is the show. Let's start from the
beginning shall we. The first arc consists of 14 episodes. The first 2 episodes are honestly pretty good and set up the plot of the show that should follow. You're introduced to the main characters and it shows mmo style of play. I mean with 2 episodes that are amazing, surely what follows will be more of the adventures of the main characters and these mmo boss fights...right? Wrong. What follows are 5 completely irrelevant side character episodes and unnecessary terrible time skips that ruin any sense of a story the first 2 episodes set up. So due to some illogical reason, we're now down to 7 episodes to tell the rest of this story. Still doable right? RIGHT? Wrong again. The series wastes another 2 1/2 episodes on pointless filler garbage. So there you have it over half of first part of the story has nothing to do with the overall plot. Well what about the other episodes you ask? The remaining "plot" episodes are filled with deus ex machina in its purest form. Even the finale of the first season makes absolutely no sense. This isn't a fantasy world, it's a freaking video game, you can't have miracles here. So that concludes my issues with season 1, which the majority of SAO fans consider to be the best part....Yeh you heard me, the 2nd part is even worse.
Without going into spoilers, the 2nd part of the series takes place in a different setting, with a mostly new cast aside from our main hero. This part of the series probably deserves the award for most unnecessary story in the history of anime. This arc is pretty much a mario game. Our hero must save the princess in the castle. Not really much to say about it. Oh yeh deus ex machina finale here too...oh and there's an incest subplot...for some reason. This concludes the plot section. I think I'm being pretty generous with a 4 here.
2) Art - The art is fantastic. Colorful characters, bosses (the few we see), and settings are all here. It's easily worth an 8.
3) Sound - Again fantastic. Nothing wrong with it at all. 8.
4)Characters - Here we go...This is easily the worst part of the series. I'll separate the main characters and lump together the not so main characters.
Kirito/Kazuto - The main character of this show is the epitome of the current definition of a "Gary Stu". He has no personality whatsoever. He is good at everything he tries for no reason. He's an amazing player, an super sleuth, a ladies man, and a master hacker. You name it, he can do it. There's no reason given for this other than he's just that good. Girls all love him, guys want to be him, and villains are jealous of him. He also solos MMO boss fights...yeh wrap your head around that one. Side note - I often see people claim they love this show because they're hardcore gamers. I have to say as an avid gamer myself I find this show to be insulting. Unless you've hacked or cheated , I don't understand why you're content with a character who does. Side note over.
Asuna - The main female lead/most blatant waifu character ever. Asuna is introduced as a strong player who can stand on her own with Kirito, that is for the first couple episodes. Once she reappears she barely does anything other than cook for Kirito. That's right, her ass stays in the kitchen, while Kirito does all the important stuff. In part 2 she does absolutely nothing...seriously. She again has no original personality...textbook Tsundere.
Yui - This character is terrible in all senses of the word. She's walking deus ex machina, nothing more. This character should be hated by any gamer, since she's a cheat device, who adds nothing to the story.
Villains (minor spoilers) - There are 2 major villains in this series and they're both terrible. The first one forgets his motives for doing everything in part 1 and the part 2 one is so comically evil he can't even be taken seriously.
Other Characters/ Who the hell cares - The female characters all want to have sex with Kirito and have no personality past this. The male characters don't get to do anything because Kirito hogs the show from everyone. That's really all there is to say about that.
Suguha - This is Kirito's sister. She honestly has layers and was a plus to the show in my opinion. I don't know why she's in this show, she doesn't belong in it...
So yeh, Gary Stu and Waifu - these characters are pathetic (1).
5) Enjoyment - Needless to say I didn't enjoy it. Poor show (3)
6) Overall - This show has so many fans, and I really don't know why. Its plot is rushed and terrible. Its characters so flat, it's almost funny...almost. Its romance is highly misogynistic and terribly developed. I felt insulted watching this, and don't understand how any could like this show. Even Gamers.
I don't really want to go into too much depth, but I'd like to give an overview of the series and give my opinions it. If you haven't noticed yet there are many negative reviews out there for this anime, and while many of them bring up some pretty fair points, I think some people are being a bit too harsh on it. Let me explain.
Yes it's a popular anime, yes it has flaws, no it's not perfect, but at the very least in my opinion it is enjoyable. The pacing is off, the beginning particularly feels rushed, there were moments where I thought
I skipped an episode because of the time skips which made it difficult to really connect with any of the characters in the beginning, and there were some less than stellar instances where it felt like the anime was trying to make me care but failing hard.
Some characters felt to be completely forgotten throughout most of this series too. For example in the beginning we are introduced to a character named Klein who is quickly pushed aside after the first episode and barely seen again and doesn't really make much of an impact at all on the story later on. This seems to happen a lot throughout this series where there might be some emotional moments where a character dies, or something dramatic happens but there is really no emotional impact from it, and the main character seems to not really care that much about it or it doesn't really effect anything significantly.
I really felt this series shined from around episodes 4-13 and I wish they would have kept with that pace instead of rushing an ending midway and throwing something new at us. The second half just felt completely unnecessary and forced.
Pushing the negative aside, I found the overall theme and atmosphere of the series to be great, and being an avid lover the MMORPG genre obviously a lot of things in this series appealed to me. I really enjoyed the idea of being stuck in a game that was impossible to escape from without winning and having real consequences, it really made everything much more dramatic and meaningful in the story. Sadly this quickly goes away midway through the plot.
If I had to pick two of the best things this anime did well for me it would probably be the animation and soundtrack. They both were really well done, and honestly without them being as good as they were this series would have gotten a much lower score from me, and when I say I really enjoyed the soundtrack I mean that I loved it, it was superb.
I think what it really comes down was just the fact that I enjoyed watching it. I can look at the flaws and pick the anime apart pretty easily, but those flaws never really stopped me from enjoying this anime.I really do feel though that it had a lot of potential to be a top tier series, it just made far too many mistakes. Looking at it objectively I simply cannot give this anime higher than a 7. It was good because I found it to be enjoyable, but it wasn't great or amazing.
At the end of the day I watch anime because I want something that will entertain me and keep me interested, and I feel that Sword Art Online did a good job at accomplishing that.
Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lived a brave young boy. He was the best swordsman in the land and the manliest man of all. He overcame countless trials with little effort and won the hearts of many fair maidens.
Yes, it's time for Sword Art Online, the origin of many angry rants.
The premise doesn't sound too bad. 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. Just think about it: this could be a tragic story of struggle
where death is behind every corner. A story of sacrifice and despair. A story of alliances and betrayal. A story of the struggle to retain humanity in front of impossible conditions.
...But why have any of that when you can have romance and harem?
That's right; the survival game is just for show. Don't expect deep interpersonal or political conflict. Don't expect psychology or moral dilemmas. Don't expect tactics or mind games. Actually, don't expect witty dialogue of any kind.
And that is the biggest problem with this show. It is bankrupt in substance. It's mostly just uninspired romance and harem, with a bit of action here and there. There isn't much thinking involved. A few plot holes I could forgive, but if the show isn't about anything worthwhile, there isn't much to do. What makes this problem all the more apparent is that the premise promises something entirely different than what it delivers. The show has thrown its hands up in the air and said, "We don't care." So why should the viewer?
It doesn't help that the show has grown infamous for glorifying its protagonist, who in the eyes of many has become the epitome of a Gary Stu. He can defeat anything, he can solve any problem, and he gets all the girls. It's almost like this show was meant to be a propaganda piece in his favor.
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. Anyway, these two episodes are pretty much the only decent ones, so savor them while you can.
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. But there is also optimism in the air; of course we can revive someone whose brain has been fried, right?
What follows is 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.
The girl called Asuna, who quickly becomes the token love interest for Kirito, has at least met him before, but 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 timeskips 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. You can probably imagine. At least now we're done with this show, right?
No, think again, that was only the good part. There are actually 11 more episodes left, and the journey takes us further downhill. We enter another game, this time without the death aspect. 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. At least know to quit while you're ahead. But no, they just had to drag this show through the mud to rip apart any shred of dignity it had left.
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 taking place onscreen. There are some new characters and even an ingame 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.
So now we're done, right? For now, yes, but there's still season 2 to look forward to.
This is technically part of the story category, but I really think it deserves its own section here. You see, the very foundations of the setting make no sense. People in Sword Art Online are too often acting like they are in a normal game, not in a life-and-death scenario.
For instance, why is there so much resentment towards beta testers who have greater knowledge of the game? This isn't a competition; the faster someone beats the game, the faster everyone gets out. And, similarly, why are beta testers reluctant to share information? Are they so worried about other people using their newfound abilities to kill them for no reason? Look, you can't have both a casual slice-of-life of MMO players and a grim death game at the same time. Pick one.
This casual attitude becomes more pronounced later on when it becomes obvious people are wasting tons of time with unproductive quests, romance, and just hanging around. Kirito himself spends time on seemingly useless sidequests, and Asuna spends time cooking for him. Come to think of it, why has Asuna wasted points on a useless skill like cooking in the first place? Are these people even trying?
And why are so many players dying when towns are safe zones? Are they stupidly rushing into high-level dungeons? I suppose so. You see, for a grim death game it sure is hard to die in SAO. Bosses won't respawn, so everyone can advance forward, even weak players. Going from town to town is also easy enough with teleport crystals. Well, okay, there is that problem of challenging people to a duel while asleep, but that can't take out so many.
There is no lack of critical resources because you can hang out in the safety of towns indefinitely. Sure, exp and money are limited because the regeneration of monsters is limited, which is strange game design itself, but they aren't necessary if you stay in town. At least, the show never implies that they are necessary. Oh, and for the record, I'm treating the show as self-contained and ignoring the source material.
So why do they die? I'd put my money on rushing stupidly into dungeons because we get to see one notable example.
Let's imagine you found yourself in the following situation. Before you and your guild are about to enter a high-level dungeon, you learn that one of them lied about his level. Knowing this, you realize you are underleveled and likely to end up dead, while avoiding death and warning the others would be as simple as staying in town.
What would you do? Would you
a) Record a message in advance, knowing that you wouldn't last long, or
b) Stay in town so that you wouldn't get killed in the first place?
A tricky one, I admit.
We are also introduced to groups of player killers. Sounds good until you realize this isn't a normal game. At least, I thought it wasn't, but it looks like some people didn't get the memo. In a situation like SAO, there should be no reason for these killings. This isn't Danganronpa, where the main point of the premise is that you can only escape by killing someone. This is a game where it makes the most sense to team up and beat the game. There is no prisoner's dilemma; cooperation is the best plan and any sensible person would go for it.
If you kill someone here, you only get some money and equipment. While it may help you beat the game a little faster, odds are that it will only hurt your chances of survival overall. Just off the top of my head, a few reasons:
1) If people start killing each other, it obviously increases the risk of dying yourself, both in retaliation and spontaneously.
2) Killing people reduces manpower needed for beating the game, and the distrust that follows will make it even slower. You could only kill useless low-level players, but they probably don't have much money or good equipment to begin with.
3) There is the chance that you will land murder charges if you escape from the game and officials find out.
Actually, does the equipment even help that much? Kirito seemingly uses the same equipment for long periods of time, yet he is practically invincible. On the other hand, he does say that equipment can be worth many levels, so did he get the best stuff for himself so fast? Is it strange game design or cheat codes? It's anyone's guess.
Of course, if you have little interest in beating the game, killing other players makes more sense, if only a little. I suppose getting more money can help you obtain some luxury items, but is it worth the risk? The implied reason is that they are killing people for laughs, but why did so many murderous psychopaths decide to log into this MMO on its opening day? Is this some kind of stab at gamers, saying that they are unable to distinguish between real violence and fake violence? Maybe, or the author forgot that this isn't a normal MMO. Again.
So is it a legit plan to stay in the virtual world for the rest of your life and give up on getting back to the real world? If so, it would explain a lot. While the range of pastimes in there is smaller than in the real world, maybe there is enough for some people.
The choice between staying in relative happiness in a virtual world and risking your life returning to the real world could have been an interesting one. Unfortunately, their bodies are deteriorating in real life, which makes the choice very one-sided. For some reason, Asuna has to point this out to Kirito because apparently the state of his real-world body had never occurred to him over the course of two years. Yeah, good job, Kirito, you sure were fast on the uptake. Lying down on the grass and having a carefree nap doesn't sound so smart anymore, eh?
Finally, why are virtual MMOs still legal after the SAO incident? Sure, the new hardware is supposedly safer, but the previous death trap must have equally passed through "strict" government examination, so who in their right mind would trust them? And even if we assume it is safe, since when has people's hysteria hinged on facts? People fear new technology even when it's harmless, let alone when a massive incident like this happens. There would be mass protests in the streets in favor of banning them.
You may have noticed that I have only mentioned three characters by name so far. For some other show, this might be because the cast is so vast that there is no time to go through them all, but here it's rather that 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.
I have barely touched on 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?
I'm seriously thinking that the show would have been a lot more tolerable if Kirito alone had been replaced by one of the side characters. It still wouldn't have been a masterpiece or anything, but at least the Gary Stu accusations could have been avoided.
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.
...Well, that was fast. Moving on.
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. And 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 raping a girl over millions in cash. Talk about priorities.
Come to think of it, 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... Wait, what?
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.
So this is where the money went. The backgrounds look nice but cheap fanservice scenes not so much.
Not too bad either. The soundtrack and opening and ending songs work pretty decently, and the voices are also alright.
Funnier than I was expecting but for the wrong reasons. There is something earnest about how the show is trying to portray escapism and human relationships, but it falls just short enough to create a dissonance.
Watch it to witness the writing yourself. But more importantly, by watching the show you can better understand the reviews or, better yet, write one yourself.
Once in a while, there comes along a title (be it movie, book or anime) that takes the audience by storm, sweeping numerous off their feat, leaving several with a bad aftertaste in their mouth and making a few pass the work off as ‘average’ or ‘mediocre’. Online communities, forums, chat rooms and every other nook and corner of the internet known to the man turn into arenas of debates, discussions, fanboyism/fangirlism and flaming. It’s apparent that when something is popular, it doesn’t always get to bath in praises. With the acclaim, comes a sheer amount of criticisms. Also, it goes without saying that
popularity doesn’t necessarily equate to quality.
Sword Art Online, abbreviated as SAO from this point on, is no exception.
SAO, the anime adaptation of a series of light novels of the same name by Kawahara Reki, has been the much talked about show of the Summer and Fall 2012 seasons, and taking into consideration the incredible hype surrounding it with reviews of mixed sorts, it’s likely to stay that way for quite some time. Keeping in mind the vogue of MMORPGs and the demand for something ‘captivating’, the team behind SAO attempts to bring an enticing work to the table by executing the intriguing premise of ‘players trapped in a VRMMORPG where death equates to death in real life and the only way out is to clear the game’. Unfortunately, SAO fails at many levels which is a shame because when the anime kicked off with the highly anticipated first episode, all seemed well and it gave the vibes of something truly worth spending your time on but then it does a flip and from this point, things go awry. And here we have it— one of the most controversial anime of the recent years.
Before proceeding with the review, let’s get one thing straight. I have not read the original source material— the light novels, that is. Hence, I’m not going to draw any comparison between that and the anime. With that out of the way, let’s keep the ball rolling.
SAO on the surface has a fairly interesting premise, no doubt, and it’s executed well to some extent or so did it initially seem. The very idea of a large number of people logged into a VRMMORPG with the intention of embarking on a virtual reality adventure but only to be struck with utter horror as they’re faced with the shocking truth of the game has been put into effect quite satisfactorily in the first episode. It’s pretty much what I’d call an excellent start. However, SAO effortlessly manages to send all my expectations and enthusiasm down the drain for it takes the show only an episode or two to reveal its true colours followed by the disappointment it has in store.
So, what goes wrong? Well, many things.
Following the Great Beginning, the first arc decides to take a detour and invests on a few episodes dealing with side stories in which our protagonist Kirito gets acquainted with one girl per episode and ends up rescuing her from a jam. This is precisely why I like referring to this bunch of side stories as ‘episodic harem’ wherein the primary heroine of the story and Kirito’s love interest Asuna is assumed to be constant and the other girls are variables. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, these side stories have very little to nothing to contribute to the series as a whole. Admittedly, they equip the viewers with some clever, little details here and there regarding how the game world works but they hardly have any bearing to the overall plot. The primary goal of these filler-like episodes appears to be that of giving our hero clad in black an opportunity to flaunt how much of a chick magnet he is and how he has it all that takes to be the coolest dude in this world made up of zillions of pixels. To boot, the characters (read: cute chicks) that appear in these episodes have absolutely no substantial role to play in the story later on. ‘Side’ characters indeed. And SAO knows how to effectively sideline them.
When the arc finally gets itself back on track, it’s only natural to hope that the show will now have something worthwhile to deliver. However, that isn’t the case. If anything, some severe cracks begin to appear as very soon the focus of SAO is the romance between the two leads which is, in one word, cheesy. At this point, opinions are divided. The romance aspect, for some, can be appealing while for others, it can be a major turn off especially if they don’t like the characters involved. It all comes down to personal preference. However, personal preferences aren’t a convincing excuse by any means to overlook the fact that the story, world building and everything else take a backseat for the sake of allowing the two leads to be lovey-dovey in the backdrop of gorgeous sceneries. When the arc does manage to divert its focus on to some ‘serious business’, things look good for a while but with a rather unimpressive ending, the first arc concludes on a pretty bad note in my book.
And then begins the second arc which, to be blunt, is a letdown again.
The second arc or the ALO arc is set within ALfheim Online, a VRMMORPG successor to SAO. Kirito logs in with a mission to rescue his wife (Asuna, duh) from the clutches of an archetypical antagonist who is a disgrace to all the villains in fiction we have come across so far. This arc showcases some really eye candy visuals but that’s pretty much its only redeeming point. It doesn’t have anything much going on except for a few climactic action sequences now and then with intense battle music playing in the background that last only for a while. Not to mention, there’s another girl added to Kirito’s harem.
And then the hilarity ensues.
The manner in which ALO is brought to a close is appalling to say the least and at the same laughable because it doesn’t hesitate to use the much notorious plot device dues ex machina, ruining whatever hopes there were for the final confrontation with the villain. The poor conclusion could be excused if it was handled more cleverly and convincingly but a blatant ass pull is by no means satisfactory. If anything, it only proves that the writer faced a dead end and was unable to think of anything better and creative, and expected the audience to swallow down whatever he could come up with, no matter how downright stupid it is.
Among all the other things, the most easily noticeable flaw without a doubt is the execution of the plot itself which is all over the place. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out after a couple of episodes that SAO suffers from poor pacing and inconsistency. It appears to be highly indecisive as to what exactly it wants to do and how to get it done. This is mostly evident in the first arc which is incredibly rushed at many parts. There’re timeskips and the next thing you realize is that the characters have already cleared quite a lot of floors while keeping us, the viewers, in the dark. This makes the plot disjointed, prevents any sort of correlation to the win-or-die situation that the characters have been put into and gives everything the feel of it being nothing more than a piece of cake. The struggle for survival and a sense of urgency are hardly felt even though the lives of the characters have been said to be literally at stake. The episodes dealing exclusively with the lead couple taking some time off for a ‘vacation’ and subsequently ending up building a virtual family can further make one wonder: Why are they so carefree when they’re supposed to chalk out plans to beat the game and make a quick escape? To put it in other words, the arc has a tendency to go off track. It lays down for itself one thing but ends up doing something else altogether. It’s uncertain as to whether to make itself come across as a story of survival set within a VRMMORPG or as a fluffy love story. In due course, it decides to juggle with both but doesn’t get either of them rightly done. Not to mention, when the situation demands it and the writer goes out of any creative ideas to move the story forward, the characters’ actions are made to contradict the established game mechanics and the only reasoning that’s provided for such miracles is ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way, and there’re times when true love and determination can overcome any obstacle in the game’.
Now, for those who look for substance in any given story, it’s almost a fact that no amount of fanservice, eye candies, self-insertion or guilty pleasure factors can possibly compensate for a substandard storytelling. Yet that’s what SAO tries to do. It brings in all the aforementioned elements to sugarcoat its sloppy writing. On the whole, there’re no sincere efforts made to incorporate details that would contribute in some way or the other to world building or characterization whatsoever.
While the poor quality of the writing is the key factor, the other aspect that contributes considerably to the mediocrity of the show is the characterization. Simply put, SAO’s characters are bland. Essentially, the show has its focus on only two characters: Kirito and Asuna. The others are just there; mere devices to move the story forward. And a few have nothing to contribute to the plot at all. For instance, the ones featuring in the side stories.
Let’s talk about the protagonist Kirito first.
An unsocial, reserved yet headstrong player who knows how to get things done his way and is determined to beat the game. That’s basically how Kirito is portrayed in the beginning. At this point, he seems like a good riddance from the generic wimpy male leads that have become so much of a commonplace in anime. A proficient main character who knows how to deal with things is something refreshing to witness once in a while. Unfortunately, the impressions didn’t last for long. In desperate attempts to make his character more ‘appealing’, Kirito is depicted as a ‘perfect’ being which leaves his character with little plausibility and much insipidity.
He’s a guy with a heart of gold.
He has an ‘ideal’ girlfriend/wife.
He’s admired by those around him.
He can ‘unintentionally’ make every other woman adore him, romantically or otherwise.
Thus, he serves as a mere self-insert character for wish-fulfilment and at the end of the day, there’s nothing ‘individualistic’ about him. Gary stu is probably what describes his character the best, and if paired with the Mary sue of the show, we get a lead couple that seems to have been cut out straight from a tacky romance fanfiction.
Yes, when I mentioned ‘Mary sue’, I was referring to Asuna.
Asuna as the female lead is as stereotyped as they come. Much like Kirito, her character is heavily idealized. She’s pretty, popular, kind, caring and every other man wants to have a piece of her. Oh, and did I mention her cooking skills that level up with each passing day? After all, her foremost duty is to cook for Kirito and show how much she cares for him. While initially she’s portrayed as a strong, independent female player with a tsundere-ish attitude, it doesn’t take her long to make a transition from that to a deplorable damsel in distress, requiring her knight in black robe to come to her rescue whenever she’s in a bind. Kirito fighting her guild leader to earn her some time for honeymooning is laughable to say the least. It soon becomes apparent that she doesn’t have much of a role other than serving as the love interest of the protagonist and being the object of fanservice now and then which might be successful in pleasing the male audience somehow but that alone can’t make up for her badly written character. In fact, the other female character the show cares to put the spotlight on also ends up becoming the target of fanservice but doesn’t have anything else going on for herself.
If you haven’t guessed it already, I’m talking about Kirito’s beloved imouto.
Throughout the first arc, the writer must have had been itching to include a love triangle in the story but couldn’t find a potential candidate to get the job done. As the first arc comes to a closure and the second arc begins, he grabs the opportunity, puts Asuna behind the bars (so that she’s not an interference in what he’s attempting to do) and introduces Suguha, Kirito’s cousin sister. The sole purpose of creating her character, it appears, is to make way for a generic love triangle and melodrama. Suguha loves her cousin but can’t do anything about it because he loves Asuna. That’s the bitter truth. Hence, she looks up to a certain someone she happens to befriend within ALO and hopes that he’d be able to sooth her aching heart. However, she gets trolled… badly. This, in turn, leads to more drama that’s somehow supposed to be heart wrenching but it isn’t.
The remaining cast consists of two antagonists, both failing to make any sort of impression though the one making his debut in the second arc can be a good comic relief at times, and a bunch of side characters that wouldn’t have had made any difference even if they hadn’t existed. The bottom line is, the characters of SAO are a half-baked lot devoid of any depth or development. They could’ve perhaps turned out to be interesting if they were more fleshed out but who cares about that as long as they appeal to the intended target audience?
Onto the technical aspects now.
In the department of visuals, A-1 Pictures does a pretty good job. Within the game, the vast tracts of greenery, the beautiful cities during the night, the castles… they’re all a pleasure to behold. The animation is also well-handled for the most part. Initially I wasn’t much pleased with the character designs but they gradually grew on me, and I personally find a few characters like Asuna, Heathcliff and Lisbeth to be very well designed.
The music is composed by one of the most renowned composers in the anime industry, Yuki Kajiura. While the soundtracks aren’t bad by any means, none of them stand out much except the one that plays during combat/intense scenes. In fact, that’s the only track that can be heard playing most of the time in the entire show. A few other tracks, though they aptly fit the scenes they’re played in, are easily forgettable. The same applies to the opening and ending themes. Nothing groundbreaking there. I’m a fan of almost all of Kajiura’s works and if compared to her previous works, SAO’s music is lacklustre to say the least and so much so that it’s hard to believe Kajiura is the composer to begin with.
To wrap up the review, SAO had the potential to be something good but that potential goes down the drain due to poorly executed plot and bland characterization. It starts off in a satisfactory manner but goes downhill thereafter. Nevertheless, it can be an entertaining ride if one keeps their expectations low and swallows down whatever it has to offer without questioning anything. One of the reasons why SAO has been a letdown is the anticipation the majority had for it prior to its airing but that’s justified since the light novel series from which the anime is adapted is one of the most popular ones out there.