What would you do if the game you were in became reality? No logout. No save system. No resurrections or respawns. What if dying in the game, meant that you died for real? This is the nightmare that 10,000 Sword Art Online gamers find themselves trapped in.
I recently watched A-1 Pictures 25-episode anime series, Sword Art Online or ‘SOA’. I’m here to give you the good, the bad and the ugly. This is one of those animes that has a LOT of hype surrounding it and I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about. Now I’m not going to lie, initially I was pretty impressed, but that gave way to disappointment as the series progressed, especially in the Second Season.
Originally written for a competition, but too long to be submitted, Sword Art Online began as a Japanese Light Novel series written by Reki Kawahara and illustrated by abec. The ongoing series has since lead to both anime and manga adaptations. And later this year, the franchise’s first video game (Sword Art Online: Infinity Moment) will launch.
Let me say, I LOVED the initial concept for this anime, as it had a lot of potential. And while I was worried that it would be too similar to .Hack, I can say that Sword Art Online follows a new path. SOA is initially set in the near-future, in the year 2022. Gaming has been taken to the next level and gamers can enjoy Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (VRMMORPGs). Players are immersed in the virtual world and control their avatars with their minds through the advanced technology known as ‘Nerve Gear’. The Nerve Gear is a helmet that acts as a virtual/bio link and stimulates the players five senses. Sword Art Online is the newest, hottest game to hit the market from the leading game creator, Akihiko Kayaba. Only 10,000 copies of this game were put on retail and were immediately sold out. So on its launch date, of course, everyone who managed to get a copy, logged in.
I’m going to summarize Season One episodes 1 and 2, and then get into my likes and dislikes and overall evaluation of the series.
PLEASE NOTE: The following summary of episodes 1 & 2 contains minor spoilers.
The first episode sets up the premise for the first season (episodes 1-14). We follow the series protagonist, Kirito, into the virtual world of ‘Aincrad’. Taking a walk through the starting town another character, Klein, picks him out of the crowd as someone who seems to know his way around. Kirito, admitting that he was one of the 1000 players who participated in the closed beta test for a month, agrees to show him the ropes. Kirito takes him outside of the town and teaches him how to charge and aim his attack to maximize its effectiveness and once he has the hang of it, Klein says he needs to log out to pick up the food he ordered, only—he can’t log out. Kirito tells him to look harder, and checks himself to see to his surprise that there really is no logout button. Chalking it down to a glitch, Kirito is pretty laid back about it, sure that the GM’s are fixing it as they speak. But it’s not long until the players are all ominously transported to the town square. Where confusion is rampant and an edge of panic is starting to spread through the gathered crowd. So when the sky turns red with system alerts and blood pours fourth, taking the shape of a giant cloaked figure whose face is unseen, everyone is properly terrified, and rightly so. The figure introduces himself as the game’s creator, Akihiko Kayaba. He then proceeds to very matter-of-factly inform them all that there is no glitch. He has intentionally removed the logout feature and that the only way to exit from the game is to clear the 100 floor tower and beat the game. Only, if you die in the game, you die for real too. The Nerve Gear will act as a microwave and scramble your brains. Oh, and the same thing happens if anyone outside of the game tries to remove the Nerve Gear from a player. News of this development is already spreading through real world media, as hundreds of players have already died as families tried to disconnect the helmets. As a parting gift to the players, he converts everyone’s avatars to their real life appearances, obtained during the Nerve Gear’s boot up scan. Which actually makes for a pretty funny moment, where guys playing girls (they exist in every MMO and I can only imagine how many more there would be when they actually get to experience a female body in the virtual flesh *wink* ) get exposed, standing about in a dress, and the guys who thought they were talking to a female player have a moment of horrified surprise at the gender revelations. As an MMO player, I thought this paid hilarious homage to the gaming culture. The humor is short lived, though, as Akihiko Kayaba vanishes and the crowd panics. Kirito asks Klein to come with him, to run ahead to the next town before the panicking crowd can deplete the limited resources and exp, but Klein declines and loyally stays to find his friends. Kirito leaves him behind, determined to get a head start and vowing to beat the game. At the end of the first month, 2000 players are dead and the first of one hundred floors has yet to be cleared.
The second episode is action packed, and introduces two more of the few recurring characters in the series; Agil, a recurring secondary character, and Asuna, the female lead. A group of players has gathered together to discuss an attempt at beating the first floor boss. Gathered by a charismatic player named Diabel, qho tells them that his party has discovered the first floor boss’ location. Parties are formed and only two players are left on their own, Kirito and a cloaked girl sitting on her own named Asuna. Agil is introduced when a boisterous player named Kibaou storms on stage and demands an apology from any beta players present, blaming them for leaving the new players behind in the beginning while they went ahead to loot and level, saving themselves. Agil comes on stage and puts Kibaou in his place by revealing that it was the beta testers feedback that compiled the guidebook that all the new players have been using to help them survive. The group breaks for the day, agreeing to rally for the dungeon run the following day. That night Kirito crosses paths with Asuna sitting on bench, and he shares some food with her. She tells him that she wants to go on this raid because she feels compelled to do something, rather than sit idly by. The next day, Diabel leads the group into the dungeon. This is the first action scene in the anime, and it’s a good one! Calling out strategy and directing the players, they quickly bring down the boss’ health. But when the HP (hit points/health points) bar hits the red, Diabel steps up to finish him. As he rushes in to attack, Kirito notices something is wrong, the weapon the boss has is different from the beta version, and the boss strikes Diabel down. Kirito rushes to him, where he realizes, Diabel was also a beta tester, and was trying to get the rare drop. But he also realizes, that instead of only taking care of himself, Diabel has been helping the new players. Diabel begs Kirito to save them and beat the boss. Backed by the parties, and fighting side by side with Asuna as they ‘switch’ in and out, alternating their attacks, Kirito brings down the boss. The elation of victory is short lived however, as Kibaou quickly pipes up, accusing Kirito of letting Diabel die, accusing him of withholding knowledge that would have saved Diabel, because he wanted the drop. Derision quickly ripples through the group. Fearing that this will lead to even more fighting between beta players and new players, Kirito puts on an arrogant façade and laughs at them. He tells them that he is nothing like the other beta players. That he is superior to them and has gathered a much more vast amount of intelligence on the game than they ever could. Kibaou brands Kirito a ‘beater’ a cross between a beta tester and a cheater. Smiling smugly, Kirito says he likes that and equips the rare item the boss dropped, a black trench coat and walks off. Asuna (who during the fight has her cloak destroyed and her appearance revealed aka she’s hot *wink* ), follows him, seeing through the façade. You can tell straight from this episode that these two will eventually become much closer. But for the time being, Kirito leaves on his own continuing his path as a solo player, after telling Asuna that she is really strong, and that if she finds a strong guild, she should join it.
My First Impression was that this was a brilliant, high stakes anime with well animated and choreographed action scenes. I thought that the representations of human behavior were extremely accurate and well done. And I was immensely enjoying the MMO tropes that were being thrown in both for authenticity and humor.
PACING: In Season One, pacing was great out of the gate, it really set the series up well. Immediate high stakes made it very engaging. However, after episode 2, the tempo drops off for a while before picking up again. But it does pick up again. There are a lot of time skips in this series, sometimes they’re effective at carrying the story forward and helping convey the sense of tedium that the trapped players may be feeling, but other times I felt it handicapped the depth of the story and potential character development. Season Two’s pacing for the most part, was very slow and didn’t really pick up towards the end (as with most aspects of Season Two).
Overall for Season One; I felt that the story developed quite well. I think it did an excellent job of portraying the different types of players in an MMO, and how those different types of players would respond to such a frightening situation, while at the same time, keeping the main plot moving forward. There were very few instances of what felt like ‘filler’ episodes, and they were mostly near the beginning of the season. I felt like the writers also did an excellent job of creating what felt like a war torn world and again, portraying how different types of individuals respond to and handle conflict. There were a couple of twists in the story (one in particular) that I felt were excellently executed. There was the odd moment however that it felt like the series couldn’t make up its mind about what kind of anime it was, and would clumsily try and appeal to various fetishes. Leaving certain moments feeling awkwardly out of place.
Season Two essentially sabotaged the series potential in my eyes. The weight, the urgency and the high stakes built up from the beginning of Season One, seems to dissipate into a frivolous bit of drivel. It had almost redeeming moments, and towards the end picked up a bit — but for me, the transition between Season One and Season Two was SO abrupt, I don’t think I really recovered from the disconnect. Unlike Season One, to me Season Two felt like a filler arc the majority of the time. I probably would have been more satisfied if I quit watching after the end of Season One. And where Season One had those awkward moments where the anime didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be, Season Two is like a train wreck built on that aspect. Towards the end it had a disturbing tendency to jump several maturity levels without much warning. (Don’t get me wrong, I like fan service, ecchi and what have you—but if that’s what I want to watch, then I would much rather pick a series that embraces that shamelessly, does it well, and doesn’t throw it in for no reason.)
I feel like I need to comment on what caused this disconnect, and that perhaps if I’d known, it wouldn’t have been so jolting, but it contains spoilers so be warned if you read this tidbit:
SPOILER ALERT: Only Season One (episode 1-14) is set in Sword Art Online and the world of Aincrad. Now, if you’ve read the light novels, then you probably went in knowing this. But if you’re new to the story of SOA and you fall in love with the first season (like I was and did), when it ends and Season Two picks up in a new and VASTLY different VRMMORPG, called ‘ALFheim Online’, you’re in for a shock. ALFheim Online, is a VRMMORPG in which players can experience what it’s like to fly — because most of the races have fairy wings. With the exception of the cat people race, who have flying mounts. Where SOA had no magic, magic plays a big part in the ALFheim world. The first season had some grit to it, but season two felt entirely too sparkly and frou frou. Having watched the whole series now, I feel that they could have taken much more time in SOA, and included more character development for the secondary and even some of the tertiary characters.
Which leads me to…
CHARACTERS and CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
Season One: I felt the development for the main characters, Kirito and Asuna, was well done and for the most part, progressed nicely. However, the supporting cast was largely neglected. There were only a few characters that had recurring appearances. Many of the characters introduced were only around for the duration of that one episode. I have mixed feelings about this — because on one hand, I feel that it lends to the authenticity of an MMO environment. If you play MMO’s than you know that you frequently meet other players or ‘randoms’ that you may talk to or even party with briefly that you don’t necessarily add to your friends list or ever see or play with again. But on the downside, it made it difficult to connect with or care about the characters at times. I have to wonder if that was a conscious decision, in an effort to help you feel the separation of Kirito and the other players.
Our protagonist Kirito, is a solo player, and rarely parties with anyone. He puts forth a façade of superiority and arrogance in an attempt to keep people at arms length. Largely out of the guilt he carries for decisions he made at the beginning of the series, like abandoning Klein, and because of the loss of several friends he’d made, for whose deaths he blames himself. He is afraid of being responsible for any more loss or hurt. But we see several examples through the series where despite his reputation for apathy and selfishness, he regularly helps others in need. Even his decision in episode 2, to allow himself to be vilified was for the well-being of the other players. His strong resolve and determination is only rivaled by his aforementioned guilt. Kirito is a prime example of a protagonist shouldering the burden of a hero complex. Kirito also has a very laid back nature. Despite his vow to defeat the game, he knows it’s important to take time to enjoy and appreciate the little things. Like laying on the grass and taking a nap in the sun on a beautiful day. It is his relationship with Asuna, that helps Kirito to begin letting others get close, and help him realize you can’t do everything on your own.
Our female protagonist Asuna, or ‘Lightning Flash’ Asuna as she gets known as throughout Aincrad, is a very serious and focused individual. She has a more serious nature and doesn’t have much time for fun. She begins the series thinking that every day that passes in Aincrad, is a day she’s lost in real world. Through the relationship she develops with Kirito, that begins to change and she loosens up a little. Following Kirito’s advice, Asuna joined a guild called the ‘Knights of the Blood Oath’ which quickly becomes known as the strongest guild in Aincrad. As a Vice Commander of the guild, an exceptionally skilled swordsman and as a very attractive young woman in heavily male populated world, Asuna gains a wide spread reputation something akin to celebrity status amongst the SOA players. Which leads to a lot of invitations and proposals. Asuna, for the most part is a great, strong female lead. However, her strength is undermined on several occasions and she is at times treated like an object.
I won’t comment too much on the antagonist, Akihiko Kayaba other than to say I think his concept is rather wonderful. I enjoyed the idea of this brilliant game creator, using this advanced technology to play God and become what would likely be the worst serial killer in existence. And while I fantasize about virtual reality, I believe that this anime highlights what could be a very plausible risk. To me, the abuse of power and technology that occurs in Season One (and in Season Two), is believable. Which is part of why I loved the concept of SOA so much.
As for the other characters that receive the most development, that would be Klein, Commander Heathcliff (the commander of the Knights of the Blood Oath), Agil, Liz and Yui. Sachi, Silica and Kuradeel deserve an honorary mention. And anyone else? Likely only appears once. Or has very little impact or importance.
… All right, that’s an exaggeration, but really, there isn’t a whole lot. What development there is very weak and if I’m honest, it feels like there were instances of regression rather than progression. ESPECIALLY in the case of Asuna, who is turned into a nearly helpless damsel in distress. Literally, her role in Season Two is to sit, locked in a gilded cage, waiting to be saved. She becomes a shell of what she was in season one, and is one of the many reasons that I disliked season two so terribly.
I found Kirito much less likable in Season Two, and I nearly spat my drink all over the monitor when he gets his avatar and then his sword in ALFheim, because he looks like someone took Zack/Cloud’s design from Final Fantasy VII/Crisis Core/Advent Children and put fairy wings on it. It made me cry on the inside.
I can’t really get into the character development of Season Two without spoiling things for Season One, but the new female protagonist standing in for Asuna is called Lyfa. Lyfa who is really dun dun dun… Sugu, Kirito’s (or as he’s called IRL, Kazuto) little sister. Err, make that cousin. Sugu has the hots for her Nii-chan Kazuto, and winds up falling in love with Kirito in ALFheim (not realizing they’re one in the same). Now I have to say right here… with all the media hype over Kirito beating SOA, how did his little sister/cousin not recognize his screen name? I say this, because Kirito and Lyfa get through the whole second season without realizing who one another is until the very end when Kirito starts yelling out Asuna’s name.
The antagonist for season two, Nobuyuki Sugō is a mediocre villain at best, riding on the coattails of Akihiko Kayaba’s brilliance. He is a creepy piece of scum. Stealing the game engine for Sword Art Online, Sugō creates ALFheim Online, and uses it to put himself upon the throne as Oberon, the Fairy King. He is responsible for Asuna not awaking after Kirito beat SOA. He is holding her consciousness captive in ALFheim, forcing her to play the role of Titania, the Queen of the fairies. While in real life, Sugō plots to wed Asuna’s unconscious body so that he can take RCT Progress Inc. (the corporation that became responsible for caring for the SOA servers after Kayaba’s company went under, and the corporation that owns ALFheim Online) over from Asuna’s father. I have to say, I had a hard time taking him serious in his Oberon avatar. He reminded me of a gender-bent Tinkerbell. For the most part, Sugō just seems pathetic. And at his creepiest moments, his expression was identical to Kuradeel’s from Season One.
The art and animation for Sword Art Online, is simply beautiful. I loved the art styles immensely, and I think the character designs for the first season were beautiful. Despite my dislike for the second season two, it also had some beautiful character design (excluding of course, bootleg fairy Cloud/Zack and the gender-bent Tinkerbell). The action sequences were wonderfully animated and felt very fluid. Especially the scenes where Asuna and Kirito fought together.
The series is set to the beautiful music of the talented Yuki Kajiura who has composed the OSTs for many animes including .Hack and Tsubasa Chronicles.
I would recommend Season One of Sword Art Online if you’re looking for an anime with great action and if you’re a fan of romance themes. While romance isn’t the main theme of SOA (at least in Season One), the relationship between Kirito and Asuna was rather enjoyable. I especially recommend season one if you’re a fan of MMO’s. The humor aimed at MMO players is particularly enjoyable and the many tropes they included was one of my favorite aspects of the series.