Review: Sword Art Online

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I’ll admit that I only first started watching Sword Art Online because so many of the kids I’m teaching here in Japan were into it. Sure, I had viewed the trailer with mild curiosity, but for whatever reason it just didn’t seem all that appealing at the time. In the end, after several earnest recommendations from junior high school students and fellow anime fans alike, I caved and gave it a go. And despite much of the negative attention this series has garnered, I’m really, really glad I did.

The premise has been explored before, albeit in different ways, in other productions both anime and live-action such as hack//Sign, Gamer, and The Matrix. It’s the year 2022 and virtual reality games, in which the player can control and experience their own in-game characters with their minds, are commonplace. However, when players buy into the latest and greatest of these games, the fantasy MMORPG Sword Art Online, they find themselves unable to log out. Trapped inside SAO by the game’s creator, players are told that in order to free themselves they must reach the 100th floor of the game’s tower and defeat the final boss. However, should their character die, the player will also die in the real world. The anime follows our main character Kirito as he attempts to survive and win the game over the course of two years.

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I have to give it to the creators of the story – they know how to bring out the most tension without resorting to too much melodrama. When people die, it typically doesn’t take several minutes of drawn-out speeches or dearest friends falling to their knees and screaming tearful farewells. By the same token, the fight scenes of the series don’t muck about – no episode-long glaring competitions between foes or extended periods of grunting and totally ineffectual attack moves à la Dragon Ball Z or Naruto, thank god. This is no doubt greatly helped by the fact that in the world of SAO, magic can’t really be used for fighting. You can use special items but if you want to kill something (or someone), you have to do it with an actual weapon. Combined with some striking visuals – the artwork is nice and clean, and the animation is fairly smooth – this is definitely a point which works in the anime’s favour.

I also have to commend the music of the series. Not that this should be surprising with Kajiura Yuki behind the scenes – the woman can do no wrong. I particularly like ‘The First Town’, ‘March Down’, and ‘Swordland’ insert songs. However, the opening and ending themes are also very enjoyable, and everything a strong fantasy anime should be: catchy and easy on the ears but with a light rock flavour. The first OP is probably the best of these – ‘Crossing Field’ by LiSA (who anime fans may recognise as the voice behind the second-generation vocals of Girls Dead Monster in Angel Beats!).

For once I seem to be in agreement with the masses when I say that the two main problems I have are mostly to do with the later episodes of the show. This is in large part due to a major switch in environment, from the world of SAO to the real world along with a different virtual one, Alfheim Online. Unlike in SAO, the players aren’t trapped there and if you die in ALO then it doesn’t really matter – you take a forced break and then restart. And just like that, a huge chunk of the excellent tension that characterised the first half of the series is gone. On the one hand I congratulate the writer of Sword Art Online for taking a risk and choosing not to rely solely on the virtual world of SAO to tell the story. On the other hand, SAO is simply the far better setting. In comparison, ALO is a watered-down version in which some of the best characters from earlier are gone and where magic plays a far greater role. Not that I have anything against the use of magic in the fantasy genre, but random spell chanting has never made for an especially exiting watch, and Sword Art Online is no exception.

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This is actually a minor gripe next to my complaints regarding Asuna. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike her character… it’s just that it could have been utilised so much better. In the first half of the series she’s a total badass – every bit as strong and smart as Kirito, possibly even more so in her own way. Then she falls in love with him and it all goes downhill almost immediately: cue random emotional outbursts, some poor decision making and occasional flat-out stupidity. Sure, people sometimes do silly things for love but in this case, it’s as though Asuna’s character has been completely rewritten. I also completely fail to see how loving anybody so much that they’d be willing to commit suicide if it meant they couldn’t be together could in any way be considered a good or desirable trait. That’s called being unhealthily attached, and I wouldn’t touch someone like that with a 10-foot barge pole. (Also, Asuna can get in line – Sachi, Silica, Lisbeth and Suguha all apparently want a piece of that sword action too.)

Regardless, I could have overlooked these issues if in the second half of the series Asuna hadn’t turned from sword-wielding warrior to damsel in distress faster than you can say tentacle rape, complete with human-sized bird cage and harem outfit (because her would-be husband really is just that cartoonishly fiendish). And that’s it from Asuna for about 10 episodes – she sits and looks molestable and occasionally gets visits by a groping mad scientist cliché. Oh, and does actually come close to getting tentacle-raped the one time she does briefly manage to escape on her own, while Kirito rushes around elsewhere trying desperately to save her. Not the most intelligent storyline to go for, and even less so after our main characters have settled firmly into their overly obvious Good/Evil stereotypes.

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This might make it sound as though the second half of the anime has no redeeming features, or that I didn’t enjoy said second half at all – neither of which are true. Whether it’s the first or the second story arc, Sword Art Online is a solid series with a lot to offer. It’s pacing is consistently good throughout, there’s a surprisingly large amount of realism to be seen as far as the MMO settings and rules are concerned, and it gets bonus points for not getting too heavy on the fanservice.* Best of all, it offers up something original to an already interesting concept. Personally, I find what it has to say about the psychology and sociology of virtual realities to be particularly engrossing.

In short, while its flaws might stop Sword Art Online from being completely groundbreaking or sophisticated, I can honestly say that the series as a whole is both enjoyable and addictive. Its blend of action/adventure and romance against a science-fantasy backdrop means there should be something here for everyone, and I especially recommend it to anyone looking for a new take on gaming or to viewers with a vested interest in the fantasy genre. If there’s ever another season of this (certainly possible, given that as of this writing, the anime covers only the first four of the thirteen light novels it’s based upon), I would happily watch it.

*Poor Sugu cops most of that, presumably so that Asuna can continue to embody the pure maiden archetype.

Question of the post: Did you like Sword Art Online, and would you watch a second season if there was one? If SAO actually existed as a game (and there was no risk of being trapped there for a couple of years), would you want to play it?

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38 thoughts on “Review: Sword Art Online

  1. There will almost certainly be a second season – the Light Novel is on it’s 13th volume, the whole SAO Arc is being rewritten in a reboot called Progressive (which aims to go through Kirito’s time in SAO, floor by floor), and it’s BD Sales were extremely high. In-fact, I won’t be surprised if it gets several more seasons, and even a FMA Brotherhood style reboot where Progressive is animated all over again, over the next decade.

    Though I suggest you pick up the Light Novel, and make comparisons with the anime. I think it’ll be an interesting experience, and I think you’d probably start to see why some western fans think that the anime doesn’t do a good job of capturing some characterization, because so much of it is dependent on character PoV.

    Personally, I think that LN authors tend to either flop, or gradually improve. SAO’s best works are yet to come, from the anime viewers perspective, and the characters are still going through development in the LNs. I consider Mother’s Rosario, the 7th volume to be one of the high points of SAO’s author’s writing, myself.

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    • My main interest is and always has been anime, so I have comparatively little interest in reading the light novels. From what little I know about them, I can certainly see why some fans were upset about the anime adaptation – that said, I firmly believe that any anime (or TV show, or movie, etc.) should be able to stand on its own without the need to rely on its original medium in order to succeed. Since I did indeed very much enjoy the SAO anime and had no problem following the story without the additional information of the light novels to aid me, I’m inclined to think that the anime was actually a fairly good adaptation. Like you, I also believe there will be at least one more season of the SAO anime considering how well the first season did in terms of sales, so I’m eagerly looking forward to that.

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      • that said, I firmly believe that any anime (or TV show, or movie, etc.) should be able to stand on its own without the need to rely on its original medium in order to succeed.

        YES! Absofragginglutely. This was another annoying element – I found that there were a number of gaps and fans were saying “it’s all explained in the novels, isn’t that cool”. Well, no, it wasn’t cool and it is one of the reasons I marked SAO down when I finished watching it.

        To answer your questions of the post: I probably wouldn’t watch a second season, and I’m really not enough of a gamer to be interested in playing a game like that. 🙂

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        • I completely agree with your first comment.
          Not so much the second though. Whether the SAO was better or worse than the light novels is up for debate, but since I didn’t read the light novels and probably never will, it’s not a debate I particularly care about having. However, I think the SAO anime worked pretty well as a stand-alone production. There was never any time where I was confused about the story because of a lack of information, and while I’ll be the first to say that the anime was by no means perfect, I still enjoyed it as an overall series. There may have been many fans saying “it’s all explained in the novels, isn’t that cool”, but I wasn’t one of them.

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  2. I watched all of Harem, er, Sword Art Online but ended up ranting about the Deedlit syndrome being applied to Asuna.

    Asuna was a character only when it was convenient to Kirito’s story. Anytime it wasn’t convenient, Asuna became a plot coupon instead of a character. I also found the harem elements in the second half to be quite annoying.

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  3. I’m enjoying the series, having started watching it recently. I agree that it balances character, tragedy, hope, and action quite well.

    I look forward to seeing where things will go. So far, I have to say I would watch a season 2 if it were ever released.

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    • You’ll have to let me know if your opinion changes when you get to the second half. That’s where a lot of fans got upset (and for some very valid reasons), although an an overall level, the second half didn’t put me off enough so that I didn’t enjoy the whole thing. I’d therefore also happily watch a second season if/when one is released.

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      • Since I have a basic idea of how things change and why, I’m looking forward to seeing it. I’ll have to get back with you once I do see those episodes,but, right now, I don’t think I’ll have a huge problem with it.

        I do think the base premise is a strong one and could use more development than 13 episodes allows.

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  4. Maybe the problem with SAO was the fact that it wanted to serve everyone. From action fantasy to romance tentacles. It wanted to make sure that it would pleasing for everybody that it lost track of itself. The concept was very good, especially in the beginning. But it ruined the story with cliché elements.

    As I said before I liked the concept and this would be great as a game. It wouldn’t suprise me if this would be possible in the coming 20 years. Technology for ‘neurolinking’ or ‘neurogaming’ whatever you want to call it, are steady in development. While the Oculus Rift has no real link to your neuro network, it still is a harbinger for new technology.

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    • That could indeed be the case. Of course, I don’t think there’s any one anime that could suit absolutely everyone. Even without the cliche elements, SAO would still have failed to appeal to every single audience member.

      I also think that the technology will one day make it possible for games like SAO to actually exist in some form. We’re still a while away I think, but it’s far from an impossible reality.

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  5. I dug this anime a whole lot, though I agree that it has its share of problems. While I didn’t find the transition into the new mmo as jarring as a lot of people seem to have, I did think the ending of the second season (and I won’t spoil anything) didn’t spend enough time with what was ultimately achieved as I would’ve liked. The character focus in the last few episodes seemed odd to me.
    They made the battles actually matter though, which alleviated a lot of my fear going into it, and as I’ve read that the Manga continues the story well past where the second season left the anime, I would be all for a continuation.

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  6. Great post! I too thought the first half was all right. I found it fun if not great, and the concept was good. The second half, I didn’t enjoy that much. I didn’t especially hate it, I was more frustrated with what was going on. One of the main reasons why the second half didn’t sit well with me was that I didn’t care about the characters anymore. Partly because the risk was removed, but mostly becuase onii-chan-obsessed sisters are way overused and I’m sick and tired of them. And also I thought the idea of some dude marrying a comotose girl was ridiculous. Overall as a series I would say pretty average.
    If there was a second series, I don’t think I’d watch it at first. Maybe wait and see if people say it’s any good.

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    • While the second half of the series had far more problems than the first, there was nothing so terrible there that it destroyed my overall enjoyment of the show – if/when there’s a second season, I’ll be eagerly watching it. You’re right when you say the second half was too much a victim of overused character devices though. and I too grew frustrated with the comparative lack of sophistication.
      I have to say though, even more frustrating is the number of people who proclaim SAO to be the worst anime in existence. Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but if anyone honestly believes SAO to literally be the worst anime title they’ve seen, then they clearly haven’t watched all that much.

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      • Agree. There are many anime out there that SAO clearly surpasses, but to hear some people talk about SAO you would think it’s the devil incarnate. Probably part of it is how popular it is despite its obvious flaws. And also it’s fun to rage about things 😉

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        • Not gonna lie, it is indeed fun to rage sometimes. I also do get why people are more inclined to rage when something is incredibly popular – it’s like people are somehow skipping over its flaws, so to make up for it you have to be at least 10 times as vehement about them. This is a little how I feel about Attack on Titan sometimes. Still, I’d like to think I maintain at least some objective rationality before I start raging. Clearly many SAO viewers had trouble with that.

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  7. I’ll begin from the end – I loved Sword Art Online, enough so that I not only gave it a 9.7/10, but used its post to basically describe how one falls in love 🙂

    I’ll definitely watch SAO when it gets a second season, GunGale Online, which is the next arc, is actually quite well done, and has some really good moments, and many awesome combat scenes as well. Alas, Asuna is still going to remain on the sidelines, until Mother Rosario, which I wonder if they’ll do in the show or as OVA/movie, where she’s the main character.

    I do agree, Asuna was a real badass, and then they “Froze” her, and turned her into a damsel in distress. I personally don’t think her personality “undergone a major shift” in book 1, but that pressure added up, and she finally felt like she could show some vulnerability in this crazy world. Also, like Kirito, I believe she’s a “determinator” and uses her emotions to fuel her resolve, and that’s why she put herself on the front lines. Sure, I agree with you on the Romeo and Juliet moment, but it’s a moment. The 2nd arc, though it’s not an excuse, was written quite a bit after the first, so I guess he sort of didn’t know how to bring back to life the world he created, what to do with it (he wrote the first episode’s material, then everything after Kirito and Asuna hook up, basically. All the side-stories were written later).

    The fights not being endless – well, Kirito needs to win quickly to show us how cool he is. I wanted to say that not being an endless shounen, they don’t have time to waste on endless combat, since they have material to cover – Attack on Titan may say otherwise, but the difference is AoT doesn’t have enough material for season 2 for a year more, even with all the foot-dragging that’s been going on, and well, they actually cut a whole segment out of the ALO arc, just so you’ll know, and there’s already enough material out for about 3-4 more seasons for SAO, right now – so they didn’t have to pad stuff.

    The animation was amazing, IMO. The music was also great, and my favourite track is actually one not in the OST, which is what plays when Kirito takes on the guardians of the world-tree. Other than that, a mixture of “In Your Past” and “At Our Parting” can make me choke up a bit when I hear them in a quiet environment.

    Finally, to me, the best way to describe players of online games, even if not trapped in them, is still Devin Greyson’s masterful comic mini-series User, under the Vertigo imprint, from 2001.

    So, future material for SAO is all but guaranteed with how well it’s done, and trust me, for the most part, it’s better than ALO by a good margin.

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    • Cheers for your comment. Yes, I too think a second anime season of SAO is pretty likely judging by how popular the first was, as well as the fact that there seems more than enough material there to make it without the need for filler padding, which I hate.

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  8. I really liked SAO, and would definitely watch a second season. Every time I see the covers of the light novels I’m curious about what might happen next. I think there are still so many things the author can explore about various MMORPG worlds. I suppose the big question on my mind would be what happens between Asuna and Kirito as it looks like they already got their happy ending, but I’m sure the author can add a few twists. I’d definitely love to play a MMORPG like SAO. I’d say it’s a fantasy I’ve had since finding out about virtual reality and its possibilities. One of the things I really liked about the show was how the author suggested a different kind of community is being formed in these worlds. Though people never meet directly, in the end with a bit of trust and openness I’m sure the relationships experienced online can be just as fulfilling as those in real life (not sure my mom would agree though). Thanks again for another enjoyable article!

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    • I’m hoping that if/when there is a second season of the SAO anime, it focuses less on the Kirito/Asuna relationship and more on the fantasy action & adventure aspect of the show. I don’t mind the couple, but it’d be nice to just let it be while the rest of the action plays out around it rather than being the main aspect.

      “One of the things I really liked about the show was how the author suggested a different kind of community is being formed in these worlds.”

      This was a big draw of the series for me as well, and one which I think has only been explored to a certain extent within other shows that focus on gaming. SAO really took it to the next level, and I think in a relatively realistic way.

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  9. I think the premise was greatly wasted with this anime. I recall the first 2-3 episodes being really interesting (I had played MMOs and the like before) and had enjoyed similar concepts like The Matrix. The first half was pretty enjoyable, despite its flaws. I still strongly dislike how they handled the time skips. The romance was pretty crap too, in my opinion. But when it got to all the harem shit and the ALO arc in general everything went downhill, and is the reason I would regard this as one of the worst series I’ve seen.

    Would I watch a second season? Well, I’m a little torn here. I despise the main characters (unlikable Gary Sue, yay) and seeing any more of the series would just bring back horrific visions of ALO. However, I’ve heard a lot of good things about Gun Gale (the next LN in the series, so I assume this would be the next to get an adaptation). I just don’t know whether or not what I’ve heard can be trusted, and if it can be whether or not I’d watch a second season.

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    • If SAO is truly one of the worst anime you’ve ever seen, I have to assume you either haven’t watched a lot of bad anime or else you just haven’t watched much anime at all. I can certainly see that SAO has its flaws, and I don’t blame people for not liking it, or even for hating it. I don’t think it merits a ‘worst anime ever’ though – technically speaking, it’s production values are too good for that, and it also tells a competent story, even if it’s a story that some people weren’t fans of.

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      • Yeah, it has very high production values. I can’t deny that. Perhaps I’m a little harsh on it due to the (what I think) undeserved popularity and how the fanbase act towards it. Either that, or because I expected the high production to be accompanied by good writing and characters.

        I tend to avoid bad anime, besides seasonal stuff that ends up being bad (how I regret picking up SnK in Spring), so maybe the disappointment factor came in after it had been so eagerly recommended to me? I did actually write a paragraph in my Steins;Gate post about how hype/expectations and such can negatively affect my view on a series.

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        • I know what you mean about undeserved popularity. There are shows where I’m probably harsher than I should be for that same reason (including SnK), although especially over the last couple of years, I’ve been trying really hard to keep in mind that I’m simply not the intended demographic. What’s popular in Japan isn’t necessarily going to be something that I like or that I believe is a high quality anime, at least partially because anime is aimed towards the home audience. And though I might live in Japan, I know I’ll never be a real part of that audience.

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  10. Yay! Your SAO post! 🙂

    I guess I’m not really observant but I didn’t realize the second arc was part of the first season. It just felt so different to me, and there was such an obvious break from the first half that I just assumed (plus I sat down and watched in all in one sitting). I have to say I’m torn about SAO. I really loved the first half. I thought it was entertaining and touching. Neither of the leads bothered me because I attributed any of their less than desirable character qualities to the life-or-death duress situation they were in (lack of personality in Kirito or Asuna’s emotional break down for instance).

    I agree with the totally overused “worst anime ever” label being thrown around when it comes to this series. Clearly these people haven’t seen a lot of bad anime! That’s why I think, I was so into the first half–it caused me to emotionally invest in the characters.

    The second half was atrocious in my opinion. I would label it a below average anime at best if I saw it as a stand alone, and the fact that it came on the heels of the first part made it doubly disappointing. Asuna is not even the same character, for no believable reason. If there is a second season, I will probably check it out though in the hopes that they resurrect the magic of the beginning half. We’ll see.

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    • Yeah, neither of the leads particularly bothered me either – Asuna mostly made me upset in the second half because of those very abrupt changes to her character, as you mentioned. It just didn’t seem very consistent based on what we knew about her from the first half of the series. She essentially becomes a different person, and for no good reason that I could ascertain. But yeah, regardless of how disappointing that second half was, I don’t think the show anywhere near qualifies for ‘worst anime ever’. However, I see that label shoved around a lot, especially when it comes to extremely popular or well-known anime such as SAO.

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  13. SAO is like David Beckham. Soccer fans begun to resent his celebrity and initial overratedness that they overcompensate and begun unfairly hard on him and saw my redeeming value to the point he became *underrated*.

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  14. i loved SAO as Well as attack on titan prolly my two most favorite animes

    i understand people have there own views but idk i like it because the main character is not a big titty baby its a straight badass from the beginning

    yes the second part of the season was a little dull but i still enjoyed it

    dont mean to sound a little gay but i enjoyed the romance in my opinion you always have to have a little romance in an anime

    im not an expert on anime maybe you guys can give me some good choices

    ive seen spirited away and howls moving castle and origin the one with all the plant people and stuff but maybe you guys can give me better animes i dont like jumping into an anime that already has 3000 episodes

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    • I personally don’t mind romance in an anime if it’s well-written, but I usually don’t like straight romance as a whole genre – it’s just not my cup of tea.

      I can recommend you some anime if you like, but what sort of anime are you looking for? Bloody action, sweet romance, fantasy, sci-fi?

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        • Alright. For steampunk action/adventure, I always recommend Last Exile (the original series, not so much the sequel). For a fantasy show with some action and a little romance, try giving Angel Beats a shot. As for sci-fi, I recommend Gankutsuou and Psycho-Pass. The former has a really interesting art style which may take some getting used to but is a fantastic series, and the latter is more of a dystopian sci-fi with a dark and gritty atmosphere.

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