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.