Reaper's Reviews: 'Sword Art Online'
Production: A-1 Pictures
Format: 25 episodes
Release: July 8, 2012 – December 23, 2012
Source: Light novel
I’ve been thinking about how should I begin this review, because let’s be honest, the chances that one hasn’t heard about Sword Art Online, or its extremely polarizing reception in the anime community, are incredibly low.
I first watched this series back when it aired, all the way back in late 2012, which was also the time where it was both the most watched anime at the time (and according to My Anime List, it is the third most popular series on the site) and the most talked about series in the anime community. I later rewatched the series once it got an English dub, and later rewatched it again for this review.
For most anime fans, and reviewers in particular, this is the definitive punching bag of the 2010s, and you honestly can’t go through on anime critic or personality that hasn’t used the series as an example for a terrible or a mediocre anime series. I’m pretty sure I also used Sword Art Online as an example, at least once. And if not, I’m sure I’ll use it in the future.
It is also credited as being the spark that boosted the popularity of both isekai and video game anime, which simply exploded since the initial end of SAO, and whether that is a good or a bad thing is the subject of another article, but I can’t deny that it is undoubtedly one of the most influential and important anime titles of the decade, whether anyone likes to admit this or not.
There is plenty to talk about, so without further delays, let’s discuss about the 2012 anime series produced by A-1 Pictures, directed by Tomohiko Itō, and based on the novels written by Reki Kawahara: Sword Art Online.
Story & Setting
In what have become more or less the template to most virtual video game anime since this particular series aired, Sword Art Online presents a scenario in which a large number of gamers get stuck in a hostile and dangerous video game where they have to fight for the lives if they wish to get out the vicious virtual environment.
The eponymous video game, which is a virtual reality MMO role-playing game, has just launched and the first ten thousand players who got their hands on SAO link themselves into the anticipated title. It proves to be a remarkable experience, with slick performance and a breathtaking world, but near the end of the first game everybody notices that it is impossible to log out from SAO.
It is here, in the final minutes of the first episode, where we learn that the game’s creator Kayaba Akihiko locked thousands of players on purpose. He then reveals that the only way out is to defeat all one hundred levels of the game, and dares everyone to try it, but mentions one critical aspect: you die in SAO, and the VR helmet that is linked to your body will fry your brains into crisps. Among the ten thousand players, one player called Kirito, who used to be a beta tester for SAO, decides to take on the challenge.
Now, this premise, this whole death game deal, is a genuinely interesting concept. The first episodes do an excellent job at establishing both the setting and the stakes involved; the sense of fear and grievance at the possibility of death, the desperation to find a way out, the mistrust against beta testers of the game and the impact of losing new-found friends in the harsh environment of SAO.
It’s often why those first three or four episodes of SAO are so highly regarded, because they set up the narrative and main characters wonderfully. But unfortunately it doesn’t stay this way for long, at least not in such a coherent and impactful way.
The first story arc of SAO, Aincrad, is overall a deeply flawed yet enjoyable romp to watch through. However, it suffers serious pacing and storytelling issues as a consequence of being crammed into 14 episodes while trying to be too many things at once.
The series sets up an epic quest to save all trapped players and return to the real world, but the plot never decides what it wants to be more: the aforementioned epic quest that follows the heroes conquering all levels of Aincrad, or a bunch of semi-episodic side stories with different genres and tones.
One moment you can have Kirito and his love interest Asuna busting a crucial boss monster on one of the higher levels, and the next thing you know it’s Kirito helping a younger player with resurrecting her dragon summon. Or another filler being Kirito and Asuna trying to solve a murder mystery.
Fillers and side stories are not inherently bad; when done right they help fleshing out both the characters and the setting, and can expand the grander narrative in a non-linear. But when a story only has a little more than a one-cour anime run to tell itself, you need to cut corners.
This ultimately leads to a narrative that is too incoherent and disjoint, crumbled into its own ambition and overconfidence. There are two years worth of storytelling in-universe, which is a lot of time to explore, but the series simply jumps back and forth in its timeline without ever realizing its full potential.
And there are a handful of plot points that just never really go anywhere, such as Kirito’s revelation to be a beta tester, or the existence of a vicious player-killing guild called Laughing Coffin. It’s thrown up in the air and appears to be important to the main plot… Only to be discarded the following episode.
At times it reminded me a lot of Angel Beats, which also boasted an incredibly ambitious setting and story, but its short running time kept the series from unlocking its own potential.
With all that said, the setting of Aincrad remains the series’ strongest asset. Untapped expansion notwithstanding, I was always awed while learning more about Aincrad’s different landscapes and mechanics. If this was a much longer series, I would have loved to explore each and every level, which appears to have its own fauna, flora, enemies and secrets, as well as resident players.
For all its flaws, the series portrays a rather intriguing concept of building a society in a game world, ranging from forming multiple guilds, to some players actually establishing businesses around the game world, to older players taking care of younger ones who had the misfortune of getting trapped. At the very least it was enjoyable and insightful to see how people took to being inside the virtual world, which gave it far more personality than what one would expect, even if some successor series have done this better.
The Aincrad arc eventually manages to at least get a rather decent finale, even though it falls to some deus ex machina points and is left with a few more questions than answers, including the main villain’s motives. On a whole, while it was more or less satisfying, Aincrad was finished too soon, leaving over two dozens of floors unfinished. But I still enjoyed the world of Sword Art Online a lot.
And then the Fairy Dance arc happened. If only the series stayed on Aincrad...
Without delving too much into spoiler territory, the Fairy Dance arc is where almost everything good about SAO collapses into dust and everything bad is amplified by a dozen times. It suffers from issues that both plagued the previous arc and contrasted other problems in Aincrad.
Perhaps the biggest issue with that part of the series is its general tone; the Fairy Dance arc takes itself too seriously, making for a jarring atmosphere now that there are barely any stakes involved. Okay, sure; maybe Asuna’s damsel in distress status is on the line, but the players of Alfheim Online - the setting of this arc - are almost all either high-school students or grown-up people who take the video game far too seriously to the point of forming factions and signing off treaties.
And it’s simply impossible to watch it with a straight face, because unlike Aincrad - where the idea of player alliances and dramatic tension could be forgiven due to the deadly nature of the game - in Alfheim it’s no better than a stereotypical depiction of nerds role-playing as overpowered and experienced characters.
It doesn’t help the fact that this arc just drags on for more than it deserves, with the remaining 11 episodes dedicated to it, while it doesn’t have that much of a drive for it. It is built on a romance that never felt genuine or competently written, and led by a villain who is both so generically evil and disgustingly perverted all while lacking an actual personality or build-up.
The one saving grace of this arc is its setting. Alfheim may not have the same psychological effect that Aincrad had, but it stands as even more unique and visually appealing as a game world with its intricate race system and Nordic theme, and while I bashed the arc earlier for taking itself so frustratingly serious, I can’t deny that the idea of in-game politics sound as much as interesting as it is laughably idiotic.
Finally, I guess that the series at least manages to complete its run better than most. It feels mostly satisfying, complete and without any cliffhangers to bog it down, so there’s that.
If there’s one thing about Sword Art Online that is more disappointing than its story, it’s the characters, their lack of development and generally mismanaged usage.
Probably the biggest example of this is with the main character himself; Kirito is the online nickname of a shut-in computer and video games geek, originally a beta tester for SAO. For the most part, he’s rather generic as far as protagonists go: he’s good-natured, brave, heroic, friendly and kind. And that’s… really about it as far as characterization goes.
While there are some moments when Kirito’s character hints that there is more to him than just a stock hero archetype, he is a fairly static character overall. Part of this comes from him being what is, to put it bluntly, a wish fulfillment character; he never changes or evolves due to the fact that almost everything simply goes how he wants, and even when something seems to go wrong, you can expect him making it work solely due to his status as a protagonist.
This subsequently bleeds into his personal relationships, especially with female characters. Over the course of the entire series, Kirito builds a harem consisting of a girl almost young enough to be considered a loli, a snarky tsundere, a well-endowed kimono-wearing fairy, a cat girl and even his own cousin. And that is without mentioning his primary love interest, Asuna.
Asuna is initially introduced as a rookie player who reveals herself to be a rather competent fighter, so much so that by her second appearance she is promoted to an officer in the game’s strongest guild. Unfortunately, by that time her exact role and importance are established; that is, being Kirito’s girlfriend (and in-game wife - yes, seriously) and the resident damsel in distress.
She eventually regresses to a mere plot device by the time the second arc kicks in, and I can swear that she is almost as static a character as Kirito is, if not more. She transforms into a meek, somber girl dependable on her Kirito, and it’s just painful to watch a character who originally had so much potential when she first appeared.
That doesn’t even touch on the romance between Kirito and Asuna. At its best it is a generic hook-up and at its worst a forced, badly-written relationship that doesn’t even manage to give the illusion of both characters having any depth, much less chemistry. It always goes according to plot rather than through organic interactions, and becomes even more painfully noticeable since the latter half of the series is built on their romance as a core motive.
The last character that has as much as importance or screentime as Kirito and Asuna, is a player called Leafa, a gamer with a beautiful blonde avatar who teams up with Kirito during his time with Alfheim. Unfortunately, like Asuna before her, Leafa’s role in the story is that of an attractive female companion with a crush on Kirito, and that leads to a bizarre love triangle that only bogs down the story even further.
And that really disappointed me, because as a person, Leafa is precious; she’s sweet and nice, but the script just ends up humiliating her more and more, not to mention that she too lacks a coherent or satisfying character arc.
Now the supporting cast is marginally better than any of the main protagonists, but they suffer from severe lack of screentime to truly shine on their own.
You have characters like Kirito’s first friend in SAO, Klein; the adorable “beast tamer” Sillica; Asuna’s blacksmith friend Lizbeth; the manly and fatherly Agil; and the mysterious girl Yue who gets adopted by Kirito and Asuna. Klein in particular is a very likable character due to his outgoing personality and brotherly care for Kirito.
But, as you know, for the most part they appear in one or two episodes and then get forgotten for the rest of the series. This is unbelievably frustrating because not only it reinforces my repeated complain that a lot of the narrative-related aspects of the series were a wasted potential, but also the fact that, if you’re already trying to add side stories and fillers to your story, then at least give more respect to your characters.
And to cap it off, the main villains of the series were outstandingly awful. Kayaba himself starts rather well with his declaration of SAO’s death mechanic, but his involvement comes in too little, too late and his motives remain ambiguous at best, annoyingly non-existent at worst. And don’t get me started on the second arc’s villain, who is one of the most generic and cliched antagonists that I’ve watched in a long time.
Animation & Art
If there’s one department where Sword Art Online exceeds any and all expectations, it’s the series’ vibrant art direction and fluid animation. At the time of the series’ original airing back in 2012, A-1 Pictures wasn’t the most well-known animation studio when it came to fluid and consistent animation, but Sword Art Online certainly made them one of the more prominent companies when it comes to high-quality action.
Every single action sequence is simply a treat for the eyes with flashy effects and complex movements. And it’s not only the animation itself, as the choreography of every fight is so damn slick, stylish, dynamic and clever in its execution, especially some fights in the second half of the show where aerial duels are a thing. Add dynamic shots and flexible camera movement to that and Sword Art Online is one slick action flick.
And among those action scenes, the highlights are the boss encounters, which, while few, are vivid, breathtaking clashes of raw strength with their outlandish designs and sheer scale. Some of them do employ some noticeable CGI models, but I personally feel like it simply adds an monstrous, alien feel to them, with a prime example being the Skull Reaper boss and its terrifying presentation.
Aside from the action, as I mentioned earlier, the art direction of the series nothing short of gorgeous. The world of Aincrad is made out of 100 floors, after all, and while we never see the majority of them, the ones that ARE seen include lavish grasslands, eerie forests, ominous mountains and even icy landscapes, all against the backdrop of photo-realistic skies, and that makes for one beautiful series.
Now, outside action scenes, the animation manages to be above average for the most part. It dips in quality from time to time, but that is to be expected and unless you’re overly critical, you won’t really notice that. Character designs are nothing extraordinary, but their mundane artstyle mixes well with their more distinguished attires.
I want to finish this section with a short discussion about the fanservice, because it is there. It’s not as much as in-your-face as some people claim it is, and overall it is a lot more tamed in execution in comparison to most shows, but at times it can be exhausting because there are scenes where it's painfully unnecessary. Also, becomes more obvious when you notice the female character designs.
And of course there is that infamous scene where Asuna has a very disturbing encounter with a bizarre creature... Which shouldn't have been included in the series.
Audio & Sound
For the most part, Sword Art Online’s soundtrack doesn’t stand out from other works composed by Yuki Kajiura. Like many of her more famous works such as Tsubasa, Madoka Magica and Fate/Zero, Kajiura’s soundtrack for Sword Art Online focuses on delivering an epic and bombastic execution through orchestral music, opera vocals and a haunting case of wailing.
And, you know, I can’t deny that the soundtrack has some truly beautiful pieces, but it simply lacks its own identity. I’m not sure if that’s a side-effect of Kajiura working on SAO so fast after completing the two aforementioned series, or Kajiura simply refusing to get out her comfort zone, but the soundtrack of SAO doesn’t have its own personality or feeling. It takes a lot of cues from Fate/Zero and to a lesser extent Pandora Hearts, but it doesn’t offer anything unique or fresh.
Probably the most well known track in the series is “Swordland” which serves as the main theme of the series, but even then I feel like it is better known because of the meme spawned out of its rather hilarious choir lyrics rather than on its own merits. And on a whole, while it gets remixed a lot like most main themes for anime, I personally find it to be among the weakest of Kajiura’s signature tracks for anime. Definitely below works such as “A Song of Storm and Fire” from Tsubasa.
Now, the opening themes are a different case altogether. Well, at least the first one, “Crossing Field” by Lisa; it is a very catchy J-pop with a really good sense of build-up that explodes once it hits the chorus. The second opening, “Innocence” by Eir Aoi, is decent as well, and I really like its initial melancholic tone, but I don’t think it matches “Crossing Field” in terms of excitement and sheer energy.
As with most two-cour anime, the series also has two ending themes in form of “Yume Sekai” by Haruka Tomatsu and "Overfly" by Luna Haruna. This time around, I found the second ending to be the more memorable song out of the two; both are lovely songs, but “Yume Sekai” doesn’t stand out from most somber, slow-moving endings songs. “Overfly”, however, is a spicier tune with a faster and more addicting melody.
Moving to the voice acting, the English dub is solid. Say what you want about Bryce Papenbrook but his job as Kirito is great, which is unsurprising given his knack for playing shounen protagonists, and I’d say that it is because of Papenbrook that Kirito is as tolerable as he is, because he simply adds a more sarcastic tone to the character.
And as for the female protagonists, Cherami Leigh as Asuna and Cassandra Morris as Leafa, who, like Bryce, are a big reason why I came to like the characters in spite of their severe mismanagement. Morris in particular undoubtedly nails it in her more dramatic scenes with Papenbrook.
And the supporting cast is also made of big-name actors, like Stephanie Sheh, Kirk Thornton, Patrick “Dio Brando” Seitz, Sarah Anne Williams and Christine Cabanos just to name a few. And that is without talking about folks such as Marc Diraison (Guts from 1997’s Berserk) or Erika Harlacher (Kurapika from 2011’s Hunter x Hunter).
Sword Art Online is a series bogged down by its weak, uninspired writing and thin characters, yet... I find it to be oddly enjoyable in spite of it. Even with its admittedly terrible script and inconsistent pacing, the vast, beautifully realized world of Sword Art Online and its appealing game-centered premise leave little wonder as to why it is such a popular series. However, a horrid second story arc is what truly drags the series down from a deeply flawed action flick to a mix bag of exciting set-pieces and exhausting melodrama, and Sword Art Online never manages to recover from that.
At the end of the day, Sword Art Online is somewhat of a mess. It boasts an interesting premise that at the time was - and in some ways, still is - a fresh idea, eye-popping visuals and high-octane action scenes all tied up by a gorgeous and immersive setting. But a lot of its appeal and technical achievements are severely undermined by a multitude of story issues such as lackluster writing, forced romantic elements, bland main characters, pacing and an unfitting tone, especially in the second half. It is enjoyable for what it is, and I loved watching it, flaws and all, but if anyone will ever want to pick up this series, keep your expectations as low as possible.
- Even if it went downhill later, the premise and early episodes were interesting and gripping
- Both Aincrad and Alfheim are fascinating and immersive settings that just scream for more exploration
- Gorgeous art direction and beautifully animated and choreographed action sequences
- First arc is hampered by rushed pacing, filler and indecision whether it wants to tell an overarching story or episodic narratives
- Second arc is a mess in almost every way
- Stock main characters with lack of distinctive personalities, especially Kirito
& the Ugly:
- The very fact someone thought it was a good idea to give the scientists behind Alfheim Online avatars in the forms of slugs with tentacles
As far as alternate recommendations go, I have a pair of good choices:
- Log Horizon - Dubbed the "anti-Sword Art Online" by the anime community, Log Horizon is more slow-paced in its storytelling, and prefers to focus on world-building rather than on high-speed octane. While it might not be as exciting or eye-popping as SAO, Log Horizon is the better-written series and I feel like it explores the concept of being stuck in a video game setting better than its counterpart.
- Overlord - Another isekai series whose main gimmick is a protagonist stuck in a virtual world, Overlord provides an entertaining take on the overpowered hero concept. Similar to Log Horizon, this series puts more emphasis on world-building than spectacle, and it has a slew of likable characters and captivating story arcs.
© 2019 Raziel Reaper